“If you give up,” Sadie said, cupping Tamsyn’s cheeks with soft hands, “you’ll regret it for all the long, lonely years that follow. So will he. Nathan thinks he knows what he’s doing, but starving the bond will destroy both of you.”

“That’s for you to figure out.” Her mother smiled. “But I’ll give you a hint—he’s a man. Treat him like one.”

TWO HOURS LATER,TAMSYN STILL HADN’T A CLUE ABOUT what she was going to do. Frustrated in more ways than one, she stomped downstairs with the intention of finding something with which to take her mind off Nate. Maybe her mom was quilting and needed an assistant. But the house proved to be empty. Sadie had left a note tacked to the back of the front door.

Your father and I decided to go for a bit of a roam.

Translation: They were off feeding their animals’ need for the wild and who knew when they would be back. It could be days.

“Great,” she muttered, feeling sorry for herself. Trudging back into the living room, she had the beginnings of a good sulk going when she spied a box on the coffee table with her name on it.

Tammy, darling, I thought you might like to do these while things are quiet (and you’re sulking). We could do with some new ones. Love, Mom

Opening the box, she found it filled with homemade Christmas decorations. She smiled, unable to resist their magic. Every year until the horrible day when a bloody nightmare had forced her to step into the position of DarkRiver’s healer, she had made these with her family. There were silver cardboard angels and beads strung on fishing wire and beautifully detailed paper dolls. But what held her attention were the round glass ornaments.

Each was meticulously painted with scenes from fairy tale and legend. Most had been done by Tamsyn and her mother as they sat side by side for hours, her father content to “supervise.” She smiled. Every ornament held a memory of happiness, of love. Her hand found one decorated with the image of a running panther. She stilled.

Healing’s not just about bones and cuts, Tammy, sweetheart.

Tears pricked her eyes at the memory of Shayla’s patient voice. Lucas’s mother had been a black panther like her son. She had also been Tamsyn’s teacher, her friend—a friend whose advice and guidance Tamsyn missed desperately. But today, in this moment, it felt as if Shayla stood right beside her, telling her the truths she needed to hear.

This would be the second Christmas since the attack. No one had been in the mood to celebrate the first, but perhaps it was time to heal her family, her pack.

Even if she couldn’t heal herself.

Her eyes narrowed at the self-pitying thought. “Snap out of it,” she ordered herself. Sulking be damned—she would not let Nate’s idiocy ruin this Christmas for her. And she was going to make sure he knew it.

SOLIAS KING WAS A TP-PSY, A TELEPATH WITH A GRADIENT 8 ability. That meant he was strong enough to use mind control should he ever decide to. Solias had done so before—politics didn’t allow for such niceties as high moral principles.

His current plans, too, would have been far easier to implement had he been able to utilize his telepathic abilities to coerce and persuade. Unfortunately, changelings had rock-solid natural shields. He might be able to turn one of them—and that with considerable effort—but he couldn’t control the entire DarkRiver pack. “But it shouldn’t be necessary.”

“Nothing of note.” Solias turned. “Do you have the details?”

“Yes.” Kinshasa passed them over. Despite his youth, the eighteen-year-old was extremely efficient. Solias had made a good investment when he’d entered into a reproduction contract with the Gradient 7 Tp-Psy who was Kinshasa’s mother. Both Kinshasa and the second child from the contract were high Gradient minds, powerful in their respective abilities.

Kinshasa spoke from memory, his dark skin unlined. “The land in question is perfect for your needs. You can locate a small comm station and office there, then use it as a base for further expansion.”

“The leopard pack?” Solias didn’t trust Kinshasa—he trusted no one, blood relative or not. But the boy was undoubtedly good at research. “Will they pose a problem?”

“No,” Kinshasa said, his tone holding the cool emptiness of Silence. “DarkRiver is a small group with no real presence. If we were going up against the SnowDancer wolves, it would be a different story. They’re somewhat more aggressive.”

That was why Solias hadn’t looked into “acquiring” wolf land. “Begin preparations for development.” The leopards—animals shackled by the choke of emotion—were clearly no threat.

Solias nodded. “Forward me the details.” The Council was likely interested in the details of his political aspirations—power never changed hands without the Council’s approval. If Solias played his cards right, he might not only take over the leadership of San Francisco, he could rise to the Council itself.

The Councilors would appreciate his firm hand with the animals. And if it all ended with a few dead leopards thrown into the mix, so much the better.

HAVING HALF-FROZEN HIMSELF IN THE ICY CHILL OF THE waterfall, Nate finally hunted Tamsyn down well after sunset. It wasn’t that he didn’t know where she was. It was that he wasn’t sure he could face her without doing something stupid. Like yelling, “What the hell are you doing up there?”

Her eyes were night glow as she stood on a tree limb several dangerous feet off the ground, in human form. It would have been another matter if he’d found her there in leopard form. That was normal. The same couldn’t be said for a woman with a rope of Christmas lights slung over one shoulder. Now, that woman snorted and began to string the lights around and along the boughs above her head.

“Tamsyn, I swear to God,” he grit out, tracking her so he could catch her if she lost her footing, “if you make me come up there, you won’t be sitting without wincing for weeks.”

“You won’t lay a hand on me, Nathan Ryder,” she said. “That’s the problem, as I recall.”

She was right, of course. He’d rather cut off his hand than hurt her. “Fine.” Slicing out his claws, he prepared to scale the tree and drag her down to safety.

“Don’t you dare mess up my Christmas tree.”

He stopped. “Your what ?” The fir was so tall it seemed to touch the night clouds. Only a crazy woman would attempt to decorate this. But instead of asking if she’d lost her mind and chance getting his head bitten off, he decided to point out another fact. “It’s not Christmas for weeks.”

“It’s a big tree.” She continued walking along the branch as she strung the lights. “If you’re not going to leave, make yourself useful and string the other side. There are more lights at the bottom of the trunk. Don’t insult my cat by playing catcher.”

Knowing she was right about her leopard being agile enough to ensure she’d always land on her feet, he looked down, then wished he hadn’t. “Where did you get this many lights?” He picked up the heaviest rope, shoved it over one arm, and started climbing.

“People liked the idea of a giant Christmas tree.”

“It’ll draw Psy to the area like magnets.” The other race knew nothing of the pack’s network of lairs and aeries. It was a form of protection against the Psy hunger for power. “You want to announce our Pack Circle?”

“I’m not an idiot.” The words were blades. “The lights are special low-impact ones. They won’t even show to the top of the tree, much less put out a detectable heat signature.”

He wondered if insanity was catching. “I can’t believe I’m having this conversation with you. It’s ten o’clock at night.”

“Feel free to leave if it’s past your bedtime.”

The bite of sarcasm made him grin. His cat liked being near Tamsyn, no matter her mood. And he was animal enough to appreciate her claws—no leopard wanted a weak mate. “So, what are you planning to do for an encore? A parade of giant jack o’lanterns? Maybe we can use them to scare off the wolves?”

“Good idea.” He could hear her smirk. “Shouldn’t you be out doing important sentinel stuff?”

“I’m not officially a sentinel yet.” Though he was already being allocated most of Cian’s work as the other man concentrated on his role as advisor to Lachlan and trainer to Lucas. “I have the night off.”

“And you’re here? What, Juanita was busy?”

He let her hear the angry rumble of his growl. “Are you really accusing me of cheating?”

“Not possible to cheat on something that doesn’t exist.”

“Tamsyn,” he began, intending to tear into her. Then his beast suddenly realized something. “You’re still jealous of a relationship that was over years ago.” He couldn’t understand why, not when he’d made it plain that he’d been celibate since the mating bond snapped into being.

Silence for several minutes. “It hurts me to know a woman who’s been allowed full skin privileges with you—while I’m not even worth a simple kiss.”

He froze at the amount of pain in that single statement. “Don’t you ever compare yourself to any other woman,” he said, his beast raging at the mere idea. The instant he’d realized she’d been born for him, it had blinded him to anyone else.

He was certain he heard tears in her voice. It shook him. His strong, beautiful mate never cried. “Tammy, don’t.”