Leaves rustled to her left and she looked up to see Juanita step out. “Did you see my—ah, there it is.” Nita picked a slender black timepiece off the ground. “Took it off while we were sparring. That boy is dangerous when he gets going.”

Nodding, Tamsyn continued to put away her things. Nita was the last person she wanted to chat to, especially after the horrible realization she’d had that morning. Then the other woman went down on her haunches beside Tamsyn.

Her healer core came to the surface, consigning the sick ugliness of jealousy to one tiny corner. “Is something the matter?” She looked into that sensual, exotic face and no longer saw a rival, but a packmate who might need help.

“You could say that.” Dark eyes twinkled. “I’m wondering how to bring up Nate without putting my foot in it.”

TAMSYN FROZE.“WHAT ABOUT NATE?” SHE FORCED HERSELF to say.

“Look”—Juanita tapped a finger against her knee—“he’s a wonderful guy and we had some fun together—”

Tamsyn shut her bag and prepared to get up.

Juanita stopped her by holding onto her upper arm. “But that’s all it was. Fun. We were friends then and we’re friends now. Nothing more.”

“Okay. I have to go.” She was so hungry for Nate’s touch that even the idea of him with another woman bruised her raw.

Juanita didn’t release her. “You’re not listening, Tammy. I’m telling you that that man never looked at me with the kind of wild heat with which he looks at you. He never craved me, not like he craves you.”

Tamsyn stared at the other woman. “He left me,” she found herself saying. “I was all but offering myself to him on a silver platter and he left me. He doesn’t crave me.”

Juanita laughed. “The man wants you so much, he’s driving all the juveniles crazy. You know how sensitive they are to sexual hunger, and right now, Nate is a six-feet-plus shot of pure animal need. And he’s not interested in anyone but you.”

“But nothing.” Juanita stood and waited until Tamsyn, too, was up before continuing. “Don’t take this the wrong way but you’re young.”

How else could she take it? “I’m more mature than people years older.”

“Yes, you are. I wouldn’t hesitate to come to you for advice on a thousand things.” Juanita’s matter-of-fact words took the wind out of Tamsyn’s sails. “But there’s one area in which you are a babe in the woods.”

“Yep. You were one of the lucky ones—you found your mate early, but that came with a price.” Juanita didn’t need to spell it out. “So trust me when I tell you the man is dying for a taste of you.”

Tamsyn ached to believe. “He’s very good at hiding it.”

“Of course he is. He’s stubborn and he’s dominant. He wants to do this his way. It’s up to you to change his mind. Please do it before he drives everyone insane.”

Taking a deep breath, Tamsyn swallowed her pride and put her faith in the bonds of Pack. “You have experience. Teach me what I need to know.”

ADAY AFTER HE’D LEFT TAMMY SLEEPING BY THE FIRE, NATE returned from a meeting with Lachlan to find the area around her home crawling with children. Not all of them were exactly underage. “What are you doing?” he asked Cian, who was sitting on what looked like a bench and table set stolen from their alpha’s backyard.

The older man grinned. “Making Christmas decorations, what does it look like?” He returned to painting the small glass ball in his hand.

Cian scowled at him. “Because Tamsyn said I had to.”

“She’s less than half your age.”

“Have you tried to argue with her when she wants to get her own way?” Shaking his head, Cian returned to his task. “Besides, it’s kind of fun. And she’s got the juveniles interested in something other than raising hell, which makes our job easier.”

Now that Cian had mentioned it, Nate realized just how many of the older kids were present. Even arm-cast-laden Dorian appeared to be having fun. Nate watched as the boy bent down to help a five-year-old paint something on her globe. When she smiled, so did Dorian.

Turning his head, Nate found Lucas sitting with another group of young ones. Several cubs were trying to use his body as a climbing frame, but from the sharp grin on his face, he didn’t seem to be worried. He called out to someone else and Nate’s eyes followed his gaze to locate another unexpected addition to Tamsyn’s gathering. Vaughn. He was even worse a loner than Dorian. But there he was, patiently helping several of the three-year-olds.

“They’re happy,” a feminine voice said from beside him.

He looked down. “You did good.”

Astonishment was open on her face. “Oh.” A pause. “Thank you.”

He scowled. “What’s wrong with me complimenting you?”

“Nothing.” She shrugged, her breasts pushing out against the softness of her black cowl-neck sweater. “You just don’t do it much.”

He reached out to pinch a bit of her sweater with his fingertips. “What is this stuff?” It was so damn strokable he was having a hard time keeping himself from doing exactly that. Shaping his mate’s body with his palms seemed like the best idea he’d had all day.

“Angora blend.” She pulled away from his touch and took a step backward. “Do you want to paint an ornament? Or you can help the children.”

He didn’t like the distance she’d put between them. “What’s the matter with you?”

Something flickered in her eyes before her lashes lowered to screen her expression. “I’m living my own life. It’s what you want, right?” A small smile. “I’m finally beginning to appreciate what you’ve been trying to tell me.” With that, she went off to check up on a group of giggling teenage girls.

Nate wondered if he looked as sucker-punched as he felt. She’d pulled that stunt out of nowhere. All these months of fighting him, of demanding he accept their bond, and she was suddenly going to fall in line? Right. He’d believe that when he saw it. Tamsyn had called him every day from New York—she couldn’t shut him out if she tried.

Twelve hours of near-silence later, long after everyone else had left, he grit his teeth and handed her an ornament. “This is the last finished one.” Many had taken theirs home to complete.

“Thanks.” She hung it on her damn tree before jumping down from the branch on which she’d crouched. “I think it’ll look fabulous when it’s done, don’t you?” Without waiting for an answer, she turned to walk up the path to her door.

“Where are you going?” He barely kept the growl out of his voice.

She threw him a confused look. “It’s dark. I’m going to have a bath and dinner.”

He waited for the invitation to join her. It didn’t come. “Your parents aren’t back.”

“Oh, don’t worry.” A tight smile accompanied her words. “A few of my girlfriends are dropping by tonight.”

“Friends. Actually, do you mind not coming by at all?” she asked. “We can hardly talk girl-talk if we know you’re out here skulking.”

His temper wasn’t easily stoked. But it was smoking now. “Skulking?”

She gave him an airy wave. “You know what I mean. We’ll be fine. I even asked some of the other soldiers to swing past during their night watches. You should go do your own thing.” A few seconds later, her door shut behind her.

He didn’t move, rooted to the spot by pure disbelief. She’d told him to get lost. Nobody told him to get lost. Especially not his mate. He’d taken the first step up the path to her home when he felt someone walk out of the woods behind him. He turned to find Juanita. “What?” It was the leopard speaking.

“This is part of my night route.” She gave him a curious look. “What are you doing here?”

What kind of idiotic question was that? “Looking after my mate.”

Juanita scowled. “You’re on the eastern perimeter, Nate. If you wanted a change, you should’ve told Cian. We’ll have a gap there otherwise and you know we can’t afford to. Especially not with Solias King’s men sniffing around.”

He knew she was right. “Cian factors mates into the watch assignments.”

“Yeah, but you haven’t claimed Tammy. He probably thought you wanted some space from her—you’re getting more and more irritable.” Her tone was blunt. “Look, I’d take the eastern for you, but I’m pulling a double anyway and I’d prefer to stay close to home.”

There was nothing he could say to that. He was one of the most experienced soldiers in the pack, and as such, he had a job to do. “Don’t let anything happen to her.” It was half warning, half threat.

Juanita’s response was a raised eyebrow. “Tammy’s no cub. She can handle herself.”

TAMSYN PUT OUT THE SNACKS WITH TREMBLING HANDS. SHE couldn’t believe she’d “ignored” Nate all day. The act had stretched her nerves to screaming point, the compulsion to speak to him as powerful and as intrinsic as her heartbeat. She was obsessing over their parting words when the soft buzz of the doorbell sliced her thoughts in half.

Juanita grinned. “I told you it would work.”

“He’s furious.” She looked over the other woman’s shoulder, hoping to see Nate. “I thought he was going to march up here and demand I—”

“Precisely.” Juanita put her hands on her hips and shook her head. “He’s used to demanding something from you and getting it.”