“Don’t what? Decorate my tree in peace?” The acerbic edge was back.

“I thought…” He shook his head, relieved. “What’s next, after the lights?”

“Ornaments. They’ll take a while. I’m going to get the kids to make one each.”

He jumped easily to the ground and picked up the last rope. Stringing that took far too little time though he tried to stretch it out. Tamsyn was waiting for him when he jumped down the second time. “Thanks.”

He fisted his hands to keep from stroking the delicate line of her profile. “You going to turn it on?”

“Not until it’s ready.” She shoved her own hands into the pockets of her jeans. “I better get inside. It’s chilly.”

He was one step from pulling her into a hug, would have done so for any other packmate who needed it—touch was the cornerstone of who they were. But if he touched Tamsyn, it wouldn’t stop at a simple hug. He’d take all of her, claim proprietary skin privileges from head to toe, spending extra time on every seductive feminine curve in between. His voice was leopard-rough when he asked, “What are you doing tomorrow?”

“Working with the kids on the ornaments. Going over some study papers.” She turned on her heel. “Good night, Nate.”

“No.” She gave him a tight smile. “But I’m also not a sucker for punishment. You might have had years to get used to resisting the full brunt of the mating heat, but I haven’t. So help me out and keep your distance.”

“KEEP MY DISTANCE.” NATE PACED ACROSS THE LENGTH OF his living room and back. “Keep my distance.” He was her mate—she belonged to him—and she’d told him to keep his distance.

Something growled deep in the forests that surrounded his home and he wondered which one of his pack was running under the moon. If he’d had to bet, he’d have said either Lucas or Vaughn, or maybe both. The two were still juveniles, but both had already seen death firsthand, been scarred by their losses. Now they waited to grow up so they could claim vengeance.

He would go with them when it was time to destroy the ShadowWalkers. The younger males would be fighting their demons, but he would be fighting for his mate’s right to be safe. Something dark and almost violent in him tightened at the thought of her, a sense of complete rightness filling his soul. She was his, wouldn’t ever be anyone else’s. The reminder calmed the visceral hunger of his beast.

He would never forget the moment when he’d realized what she was to him. Because of the disparity in their ages, they had had different friends, moved in different levels of the pack. But he had always known who she was, adored her in a way that was everything good—her laugh soothed the rough edges of his beast, her smile made him want to smile in turn.

On the night of her fifteenth birthday, she had hosted a small sleepover party at her parents’ home. He’d dropped in to wish her a happy birthday. It had been no fleeting impulse—he’d become used to swinging by to check if she was okay, especially during the times when her parents were out. As soon as she had opened the door, he’d felt the bond snap taut. The knowledge had been in her eyes, too, shocked and bright.

He’d touched her then, cupped her cheek with his hand. She had leaned into him, soft and welcoming and everything he had ever wanted. He’d known that, at that moment, he could ask anything of her and she’d give it to him. That was what had made him draw back. “Not until you’re ready,” he’d said, ending the contact.

It was a promise he refused to break.

Tamsyn thought he was being cruel. She hadn’t seen what he had with his parents. His mother had been too young, his father too demanding. Within a decade, they had destroyed each other and themselves. The idea of doing that to Tamsyn was his worst nightmare. Because he knew he was too much like his father—he would not be an easy man to mate with. He’d expect total devotion, demand complete sexual surrender, take absolute possession.

Tonight, his body hungered for her with a fury that was more animal than man. The cat had wanted her from the first. To the leopard, she’d smelled mature at fifteen, but the man had known she was nowhere near ready. Now…now he could have her—if he was willing to look into her eyes for the rest of his life and know he’d stolen what little freedom she could have had.

“No.” He would not do that to her. She might be frustrated and annoyed with him, but she’d forgive him. It was what mates did.

TAMSYN WAS NEVER GOING TO FORGIVE NATHAN FOR PUTTING her through this! “I can’t stand it!” Her skin was so sensitive even the sheets felt abrasive. The flesh between her legs was swollen with need and there was only one man she wanted to rub against, only one thing she wanted to do. Unfortunately, Nate didn’t want to play.

Why had he turned up tonight? To torture her? Her beast had become drunk on his scent, addicted to the proud masculine taste of him. It wanted more. So much more. Maybe that was why he’d come over—because his beast was starving, too? She snorted. More likely he’d come to tell her off for daring to turn her back on him this afternoon.

Nate was used to obedience. Particularly from her. As a fifteen-year-old, she’d taken everything he said as gospel. At sixteen, she’d given him the occasional moment of lip but had always accepted his decisions in the end. And he’d never let her down. He’d been her rock…especially after that dark day two years ago when she had failed to save Lucas’s father.

“Carlos wanted to die,” Nate had whispered in her ear, holding her tight as she sobbed over the loss. He’d still held her then. “He didn’t want to live without Shayla.”

It hadn’t taken away her sense of failure, but she’d understood. The bond between mates was beautiful, powerful. Separated mates could live without each other, but it hurt. As she knew too well. And she shouldn’t! Unlike those whose mates had been lost to death, Nate was alive but wouldn’t touch her.

That was so incredibly wrong. Changelings weren’t Psy. Touch was as necessary to them as food and air. Tamsyn thought nothing of hugging and kissing a fellow packmate who needed reassurance. That her mate wouldn’t even give her that…

“I don’t care,” she lied into the dark. “Hell, yes I do.” Shoving off the sheets and blankets, she slid off the bed and went to get a glass of water. Ice cold water. God, even her skin ached.

Filling up the glass, she took it and herself to the front window. Her plan—to distract herself by admiring her tree—disappeared the second she saw the leopard asleep on one of the branches. She couldn’t make out his markings but she already knew who it was. Nathan. The man wouldn’t take her as his mate in truth, but he thought he had the right to protect her? Damn him. Slamming down the glass, she was halfway to the door when she looked down at herself.

All she wore was an old football jersey. It was Nate’s. She’d stolen it from him in a blatant bit of thievery, needing his scent around her. But big as it was, it gaped over her full breasts and only hit her midthigh. Maybe she should change. And it was freezing outside.

Nate probably wouldn’t appreciate her walking around half-naked any—She slapped her forehead. “Tamsyn, sometimes you’re an idiot.” Of course he wouldn’t appreciate her walking around half-naked. The sight of so much skin might incite his beast, tempt it enough to overpower the man’s will.

SHOVING HER FEET INTO A PAIR OF FLUFFY SLIPPERS, SHE stamped outside and to the tree, knowing he’d have woken the second she opened the door. “Nathan, you get out of here right now!” She hugged her arms around herself, well aware the move plumped up her breasts, creating a deep cleavage.

The leopard growled at her, its green eyes dangerously bright.

“Don’t you growl at me,” she said and her breath turned the air to mist. “You don’t get to pick and choose which parts of the mating deal you want. It’s all or nothing. Go away! ”

He padded along the tree limb and leaped to the ground by her feet, a stunning creature she could stroke for hours. Then he butted at her legs, urging her inside the house.

The touch of his fur against her skin made her shiver. “I’m not leaving until you’re gone.” She’d meant to tease him, but already, her own leopard was scraping at the insides of her skin, so darkly needy it scared her.

He bared his teeth and gave a short, husky roar meant to snap her to attention. His eyes told her to get her little butt back inside or he’d do it for her. She hoped he would. Because if he shifted now, he’d be naked. Skin to skin contact at last. Her thighs trembled, but she somehow found the strength to stamp her foot and point away from her home. “Out! Leave!”

He began walking toward the house. She frowned, wondering what he was up to. He got to the door and looked over his shoulder. She wasn’t going to fall for that. Then he walked inside. Her eyes wide, she hotfooted it inside, closing the door behind her.

The leopard was sitting in front of the currently unlit laz-fire, the artificial heating system designed to resemble a live blaze—but one that had zero chance of getting out of control. He glanced at her, his eyes night-glow in the darkness.

“Good idea,” she said, half-frozen. Kicking off the furry slippers, she turned on the laz-fire. The flames shot to instantaneous life. “Brr.” Rubbing her hands together, she sat down beside Nathan. She couldn’t quite think straight but that was okay. Nate was in her house. He was here. And they were alone.

He butted at her hand with his head and she began to stroke him, her body warming up from the inside out. “What were you doing out there, Nate?”

He lay his head on her thigh and growled softly in response.

“It’s because my parents are gone, isn’t it?” She sighed and tried not to tremble at the proximity of him. He was so lethally beautiful, his body pure muscle under her strokes. “When are you going to accept that I’m a grown-up? Huh?”