Cian blinked. “I heard you wanted to be on the perimeter, away from Tammy.”

“I don’t recall asking for that particular favor .”

The other man winced at his tone. “You do make a point of avoiding her whenever she comes after you.” He frowned. “Though she seems to have stopped doing that lately.”

That observation made Nate’s incisors threaten to erupt. The leopard was not happy with Tamsyn right now. Neither was the man. They both wanted to bite. To dominate. To mark. “Switch me with Juanita.”

“You sure?” Cian scowled. “You’re not exactly in a good mood. Do you want to be around Tammy?”

It was an insult—as if he’d ever hurt her. “If I had wanted advice, I’d have asked for it. Switch.”

“Fine.” Cian threw up his hands. “I’ll tell Nita.”

“And mind your own damn business from now on.” Turning off the comm, he finished his coffee and headed out. He was hungry, but he figured Tammy would have something—she was the best cook in DarkRiver.

His new watch area was in the immediate vicinity of the Pack Circle and included Tammy’s home among a few others. On his first pass, it appeared she was still asleep, but he caught the sharp freshness of tea leaves on the second pass. Since he’d remained in human form, it was easy to walk up to her back door and knock.

He knew she had to have scented him, but she peered out suspiciously from the kitchen window before opening the door with a scowl. “What are you doing here?”

Okay, so she was still mad. His cock throbbed at the memory of the events that had led to their fight. He wanted to put his hands on the sweet curves of her bottom, crush her to him, and kiss the hell out of her bad mood.

“Good morning to you, too, sunshine,” he managed to say through the chokehold of desire. It was torture being near her, but that was infinitely better than the distance she’d maintained over the past few days.

“You’re just hungry.” She snorted and turned away, leaving the door open.

He walked in to find her at the counter, cutting slices of bread from what looked like a home-baked loaf. He forced himself to stand to the side instead of going behind her and bending down to draw in the lusciously feminine scent along the line of her throat. “Only bread today?”

She lifted the knife and pointed it in his direction. “Do you want to get fed or not?”

“I love bread.” He knew how to stroke his mate when she needed stroking. His mind immediately took the image and ran with it, ratcheting his hunger past explosive. “Why are you half-dressed?” She was wearing his old football shirt and those ridiculous pink fluffy slippers. Sexy and adorable. A killer combination.

“I was minding my own business in my own house. You’re the one who decided to intrude.” She slapped some butter onto a slice of bread and shoved it in his direction.

He decided not to ask for jam. “Bad night?”

“Nate,” she said very quietly, gripping the edge of the counter with her hands. “Did you come here to gloat?”

He put down the half-eaten piece of bread. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“You know exactly what I’m talking about!” She turned and poked at his chest with a sharp finger. “Look, I can make stupid, virginal Tammy Mahaire so hot she doesn’t know which way is up. I can leave her gasping for me and walk away as if it doesn’t matter!”

“Hey.” He grabbed at her hand, but she pulled away. “I didn’t mean anything like that. I didn’t have a good night’s sleep, either.”

“Oh, that makes it all right!” She threw up her arms. “We were both miserable. Whoop-de-frickin’-do!”

There was no missing the sarcasm. It dripped from every word. “What the hell is it with you lately?” He succeeded in trapping her against the counter.

“Nothing!” She shoved at him but he was far stronger. “Go away. Go away and leave me alone. Don’t you get that? How many times do I have to tell you?”

“You don’t get to do that—I’m your mate.”

She stopped fighting, her chest heaving. “No, Nate, like I told you before, you don’t get to pick and choose which parts of the mating bond you want to accept. As far as your treatment of me goes, I’m not your mate. I’m simply another young, uninteresting female.”

“I’m not. I’m sexually frustrated.” She narrowed her eyes. “But as we discussed last night, that can be easily fixed.”

He snapped. How could she possibly think to replace him with some mechanical object? Masculine pride, pure need, and raw heat made for a volatile combination. “Sex? That’s really what this is about?” He pushed harder into her, crushing the softness of her thighs under his.

Instead of backing off, she pushed into him. “Yes! Yes! Yes! Clear enough for you?”

“Fine.” Grabbing her waist, he lifted her onto the counter, spreading her knees wide in the same move. Something fell to the floor and shattered, but he didn’t give a shit. “You want to fuck, we’ll fuck.”

A hint of uncertainty moved over her face. “Nate—”

He closed his hand over the bare skin of her upper thigh. “You’re backing off? Don’t want me now that you’re faced with the reality?”

Her lower lip quivered. “Not like this,” she whispered. “Why are you being so mean?”

The protective male core of him couldn’t bear to see her looking so emotionally bruised, but they had to have this out. He couldn’t handle being pushed the way she’d been pushing him since her return from New York. “I’m trying to give you something—I’m trying to love you the only way I know how, and you’re rejecting it because you’re hot for sex?” That hurt him. Her freedom was the biggest gift he could give her. Some days, the cost it demanded threatened to drive him to murder.

“No, Nathan, no.” She cupped her face in his hands. “I just need you—all of you—so much that I’m going crazy. I need your laugh. I need your company. I need you to sleep beside me and I need you to wake when I wake. I need you with everything in me.”

“Then stop with the sex talk. It’s not you.”

Her hands dropped to his shoulders. “It’s not me?” A soft question.

“No. You’re warm and practical and loyal. You don’t go around flaunting yourself like a—” He caught himself before he said something unforgivable.

“Why don’t I finish it for you—like a bitch in heat—that’s what you were going to say, wasn’t it?”

“DAMN IT, TAMMY, DON’T LOOK LIKE THAT.” HE WAS THE one who cupped her face this time—her spine was straight, but she couldn’t hide the hurt in her eyes. “All this, the way you’ve been talking and dressing, it’s not anything normal for you and you know it.”

She looked at him through her lashes. “Yeah. Don’t know what I was thinking.”

His beast didn’t like the flatness in her tone. Reacting instinctively, he bent until their foreheads touched. “Come on, where’s my sweet Tammy?” He missed the woman who had become his closest friend over the years, the one with whom he could totally lower his guard. It was something he hadn’t been able to do since the day she’d started pushing at him. “Tamsyn?”

“I’m fine and I’m also late.” She gave him a shaky smile, then pressed her hands gently against his chest. “Some of the kids will be here soon to finish up their ornaments. I’d better get dressed. I’ll talk to you later, okay?”

“You sure you’re all right, baby?” His leopard was pacing inside his skull, growling that something was wrong.

“Just a headache. Lack of sleep, you know.” She shrugged, making the former point of contention a joke. When her lips curved upward in a deeper smile, the leopard relaxed.

“Yeah, I do.” Laughing, he helped her down from the counter, then lifted her over the mess of the broken jam jar on the floor. “Go get changed. I’ll clean this up and head out to continue my watch.”

“Here.” She reached out, picked up a muffin from a tin, and gave it to him. “I made them for the kids.”

He bit into it. “Good thing I got here first.”

TAMSYN LEFT THE ROOM TO THE SOUND OF NATE’S chuckle. The knives of pain inside her stabbed with brutal force, but she kept her composure until she heard him leave the house. Then she sat down on her bed and cried. The tears weren’t of frustration or simple hurt. They were the shattered cries of a broken heart.

Juanita had been wrong. The mating heat might have forced Nate into wanting her, but he didn’t actually see her as a sexual, desirable woman. He saw her as comfortable…practical. Warm, loyal Tamsyn. If the bond hadn’t thrown them together, he’d probably never have looked at her twice, not as a man looks at a woman.

She might have lain there for hours, but she couldn’t bear to disappoint the kids. So she got up and dressed. What she saw in the mirror simply reinforced her earlier conclusions. Dressed in a pair of old jeans and a thick white sweater, with her hair pulled back into a ponytail, she looked young and…ordinary.

She was no temptress. She was safe and sensible, the one that juveniles came to for help without judgment, and mature women for ideas about how to handle rambunctious infants. Even senior packmates didn’t blink at asking her advice on Pack issues. Because she was trusted, both for her steady temperament and for her loyal heart. None of which was bad. Only she didn’t want Nathan to see her as that—she wanted him to see her as she saw him. As a lover, a playmate in the most intimate of arenas.

But he didn’t. And that blow cut so deep, she could barely think.

Something registered in her consciousness. A second later, she picked up the high-pitched sounds of children’s voices. The healer in her took over—there was no time for self-pity. Wiping her eyes with the backs of her hands, she went to the bathroom and splashed cold water over her face. Then she used her healing abilities to get rid of the redness around her eyes.