No response. The steady rhythm of his breathing told her he’d fallen asleep. She couldn’t bear to wake him. Tears pricked her eyes. If she shifted, they would both be cat and…No, she thought. She wouldn’t use the animals’ driving need against Nate.

It was the man who wanted to give her “freedom” and it was the man she had to convince. The animal already knew what was right. If only Nate’s human half hadn’t gotten in the way. Except, of course, she loved that part of him, too. Sighing, she stroked her fingers through his fur over and over.

It was a long while later when she curled up beside him and went to sleep.

NATE WAITED TO LIFT HIS HEAD UNTIL HE WAS ABSOLUTELY sure Tamsyn was fast asleep. The last hour had been both pain and pleasure, torture and redemption. The animal couldn’t understand why he didn’t claim her. One thought, a split-second shift into human form, and he could take her right there on the softness of the rug.

She was the most exquisite creature he had ever seen. A long, tall drink of woman. He could spend all night stroking his hand up and down the sleekness of her thighs—exposed by that jersey she’d stolen years ago.

He’d known, of course. It had given him pleasure to think of her covered in his scent. Since he hadn’t seen her wearing it around, he had guessed, had wanted , it to be her nightwear of choice. His claws dug into the rug as he shifted his attention to the proud thrust of her breasts. There was no question about it—Tamsyn was every inch a woman. And so heartbreakingly young.

No one would think to look at her that she’d been their healer for two years already. Oh, the few packs they had trusted after Shayla’s murder—packs with men and women seeded from DarkRiver—had sent senior healers to complete her education, but it was Tamsyn the pack looked to. She was their own and she was deeply trusted.

Because she had never let them down.

He remembered her at seventeen. Her mentor was dead and Shayla’s mate, Carlos, lay critically injured. Their son, Lucas, remained missing. Tammy had been so slender back then, a fragile reed he’d thought would snap under the weight of the dying sentinel’s wounds. But she hadn’t broken. Instead, she’d put every inch of her abilities into healing Carlos.

She hadn’t been able to save his life, but she had given him the strength to whisper his final words—ones that told them Lucas was still alive. Tammy had been completely drained by the effort to save Carlos, but when they had rescued a badly injured Lucas, she had somehow found impossibly more to give. And she’d kept doing it for weeks.

She had slept only when Nate forced her to, worried she’d collapse under the strain. Even then, she would crawl out of bed after a few hours at most. Finally, Nate had had to half-kidnap her. He’d held her in his lap and told her to sleep. And she had, curled up trustingly in his arms.

The girl who had been that slender reed was gone. She’d grown into a woman of courage and beauty, but one who had never been given the chance to be a juvenile. Leopards valued their freedom to roam—many left the pack and came back after spending time in the wild. He, too, had left DarkRiver for several years in his late teens. Tammy had never had that choice, her wings clipped at fifteen.

Backing away from the lush temptation of her, he dragged an afghan off the couch using his teeth and pulled it over her. It would’ve been easier in his human form, but he didn’t trust his willpower that much. One touch was all it would take. He’d crumble like so much dust.

He decided to keep watch over her from the outside.

TAMSYN WOKE UP WARM…AND ALONE.IT HURT. “I COULD hate you, Nathan.” Getting up, she hugged the afghan around herself and stared into the laz-fire. Her internal clock told her it was morning, sometime around six. Despite the fact that she’d done all she could to entice Nate, he hadn’t so much as kissed her.

Was she that disgusting to him?

A sob caught in her throat. It was the first time she’d considered that Nate’s recalcitrance might spring, not from his overwhelming protectiveness, but because he didn’t want to be tied to her. Her lower lip trembled. She hugged the afghan even tighter around her body in a vain effort to ward off hysteria.

Being unwanted by a mate was a nightmare beyond comprehension. Mating wasn’t marriage, wasn’t infatuation, wasn’t a connection you ever broke. She was tied to Nate on the level of her soul. More than that, she loved him. Some people said that there was no difference between the bond and love, but she knew there was. It was one thing to be compelled toward Nate, another to adore him like she did. She loved everything about him, from his strength to his laugh to his unashamed masculinity.

But what if, for Nate, the bond was simply a compulsion? One he couldn’t dissolve, but that he wouldn’t have chosen if he’d been given the choice? She was hardly a prize, she knew that, had always known it. Added to that, Nate was older, more experienced. Maybe he’d expected and wanted to find a mate who could match him, a woman who’d seen far more of the world than just their small corner of it.

In contrast, Tamsyn had always been tied to DarkRiver. That didn’t matter to her. She was a woman of home and hearth. It was the way of most healers. They liked to be near their people, their lands. Healers built permanent homes before most others, took in any who needed their help, and cherished those who were their own. The months in New York had almost torn out her heart, she’d been so homesick.

But Nate had roamed. He’d left the pack for years as a juvenile and come back a man, strong, loyal, and with wild horizons in his eyes. What did he see in hers? Home—calm, steady, enduring. But not very exciting. No wonder he didn’t want her!

Tamsyn had worked herself into quite a state, something that would’ve flabbergasted those who knew her, when the comm console chimed. It was the emergency code. She blinked and snapped to attention, the healer in her taking over. “Talk to me.”

Juanita’s face appeared onscreen. “Dorian broke his arm while we were sparring near the Circle. It’s pretty bad.”

“Don’t move him.” Turning off the screen, she got up, changed at the speed of light, grabbed her emergency supplies, and headed out.

The cold air cut across her cheeks as she ran. If Dorian hadn’t been so close by, she’d have taken a vehicle. But at this distance, her changeling speed was faster than the vehicle would have been on the rutted forest roads. The roads had been damaged on purpose. It was another line of defense, meant to bog down the unwary. DarkRiver was never going to be caught off-guard again.

She found Juanita crouched beside Dorian, who was sitting propped up against a tree. Though the woman looked concerned, Dorian’s face betrayed nothing. Barely into double digits, the boy was better at hiding his feelings than most adults. “What were you two doing to break that arm?” she asked, going down beside him.

Tamsyn didn’t berate the other woman for using such advanced techniques against a boy. They all knew Dorian was no child. He’d been born latent and had no ability to shift into leopard form. Perhaps it was something that might have been held against him had he not made it his mission to become so dangerous, no one would dare treat him as anything but another cat.

“A single break. Clean,” she told him. “You were lucky.”

Pure blue eyes looked into hers. “How long till I can use it?”

“As long as I say.” She put a pressure injector against his arm before he could object that he didn’t need the anesthetic. Then, using the portable deep-tissue viewer to double-check the conclusions of her healing gift, she set the break and encased it in a lightweight but durable cast. Dorian had normal changeling strength and healing capacity—he’d regain the use of his arm far sooner than a human or Psy would have in the same situation.

“Nita, can you give me a minute with Dorian?” She glanced at the beautiful woman.

Juanita nodded. “I have a perimeter watch to take over.”

“I’ll make sure he gets home.”

Dorian scowled as they talked about him but didn’t say anything until Juanita had disappeared into the trees. “What?”

Shaking her head at that stubborn male expression, Tamsyn moved to sit slightly behind him. Then she threw her arms around his neck and leaned down to press her cheek against his. “San-kyu, that’s the third level, isn’t it?” With the dominant males—or with the young ones who would one day be dominant—you had to tread carefully. Demanding would get her nothing from Dorian.

He softened a little. “Yep. I’m going for black next month.”

“Impressive. When I left for New York, you were still on the first level of brown.”

He let her tug him further into her embrace. Touch was at the heart of a healthy pack. It was what bound them together, what gave them their strength. Smiling, she raised her hand and began to brush her fingers through his incongruously silky blond hair as he lay against her.

“I’m going to be past Juanita’s level soon.” It was a small boast and it was perfectly normal. Whatever had happened to break his arm, it hadn’t bruised his pride too much.

She grinned. “Then who are you going to beat up?”

He actually smiled. “You want I should do Nate for you?”

It seemed the whole pack knew how things were between her and Nathan. “Brat.”

“Yeah, but you like me.”

Laughing, she pressed a kiss to his cheek before rising. He followed, his bones showing the promise of a height that would top hers by several inches at least. “Look after yourself, Dorian. If I see you one more time this year, I’m going to do something nasty like pull healer rank and ground you.”

“Like you wish you could ground Nate—maybe in your bedroom?”

Mischief in his grin, he backed away from her before turning to run off through the trees. She kept her smile hidden until he was gone. Then she bent down and began to gather up her supplies and equipment. She was pleased. Her medical training had come in very handy today. Otherwise she’d have used up healing energy to no useful purpose. What she did came from inside her—she had to conserve her strength for the worst injuries…as had happened with Carlos.