Pasting on a smile, she walked down and opened the door. The kids’ bright and excited faces turned her faux smile real, but nothing could heal the open wound that was the jagged beat of her animal heart.

NATE SAW TAMSYN AGAIN THAT DAY, BUT IT WAS HOURS later and with several others as they sat around her kitchen table eating dinner. She’d chosen not to sit next to him, but he could understand why. The awareness between them had only gotten stronger since this morning, until he could scent nothing but the sensual promise of her. She was everything he had ever wanted—that smile, that acerbic wit she seemed to show him alone, and lord help him, that body—and she was his. No other man had the right to her.

His beast wanted to roar its claim, but he fought the impulse. He’d wait. He’d wait…but maybe not as long as he’d initially planned. He’d give her another six months of freedom at least, let her live some of her dreams. She could go roaming if she liked, explore a bit of the wild. It might be dangerous, but Tamsyn was smarter and more mature than most of the other young leopards. She’d be fine.

The cat in him didn’t like the idea, knew how badly it would hurt to be parted from her, but it had to be done. He never wanted her to turn to him—as his mother had turned to his father—and accuse him of stealing her life. That would destroy him. Because she was his life. The thought of crushing her spirit was his personal nightmare.

“Are you going to eat or do you plan on staring at Tammy the whole night?” Juanita passed him the potatoes.

“I can stare if I like.” It was his right.

Rolling her eyes, she called out to Tammy. “Hey, where’s that dress you were going to wear tonight?”

“You look fine to me.” Dressed in black slacks and a pale blue cardigan, she appeared soft and touchable. Strokable. Shit. His mind was going off track again. Before long, he’d start thinking about unbuttoning that cardigan and kissing his way—

“Great,” Juanita hissed, breaking into the taut eroticism of his newest daydream. “Tell your mate she looks fine.”

“What the hell’s wrong with that?” He took the peas she almost shoved into his chest. “She looks—” He cut himself off before he said what he wanted to say, which was “pretty enough to bite into.”

Juanita shot him a disgusted glance before turning her attention to the packmate on her other side. Ignoring her, Nate went back to the pleasurable task of watching Tamsyn. The beast bucked to taste her. Six months , he told it. Six more months and then you can have her. In every way. And over again.

BUT A BARE WEEK LATER, HIS HUNGER FOR HER HAD GOTTEN so bad that he had Cian reassign him to the perimeter. Tammy was no longer trying to flaunt herself at him—if anything, she seemed to be going to great lengths to give him space. Paradoxically, that only amplified the building pressure to mate, to touch and taste and claim. Without the control provided by the vivid scars of memory, he’d have given in a hundred times already.

Still, he couldn’t keep from going to her each morning, just to see her smile. “Hey, sweetheart, any muffins today?”

She gave him one, but there was no smile on her lips. “How’s the Solias King situation? Any decisions?”

“We’re planning to make a move in a few days.” He’d already told her what they intended to do—she was his mate, and more than that, she was damn sharp, an integral part of the steel backbone of the pack. “You want to come along? Be a nice run.” He wanted to feel her beside him, strong and hotly female.

The quick change in subject rattled him. He put down the food, belatedly aware of the bags under her eyes, the lack of light in her face. “We’ll get past it.”

“Not living so close.” She shook her head. “One of us has to leave.”

He’d thought about setting her free to roam, but now that it had come down to it, he found he couldn’t let her go. “Don’t make any impulsive decisions. It’ll die down.”

“No, it won’t. Don’t lie to me,” she snapped, folding her arms. “We’re experiencing the final stages of the mating dance and it’s going to keep getting worse, especially if our beasts continuously sense each other’s presence. I was thinking I should go to—”

“Just wait.” He fisted his hands to keep from touching her. “I’ll talk to some of the other mated pairs. Maybe there’s something we can do to lessen the impact.”

“I thought you wanted me to go out into the world?” Her voice was soft, her skin flushed with need. “Isn’t that why you keep pushing me away?”

STAY, HE’D SAID, BUT TAMSYN KNEW HE DIDN’T MEAN IT the way she needed him to mean it. The mating instinct urged him to protect her and so he wanted her in sight. It didn’t make him happy just to see her. Not like it made her heart bloom simply being in the same room as him.

If the mating urge died tomorrow, there would still be no other man for her. He was her one and only. But she wasn’t his. Her throat feeling as if she’d gotten a rock stuck in it, she left the parking garage in the city and crossed the street.

She’d promised the kids she’d get more lights for the tree, but now that she was here, she decided to pop into the bookstore, too. Nate liked reading. She knew exactly what to get him for Christmas. That thought made her want to cry again. Her nose grew stuffy with withheld tears as she strolled through the small and expensive hard-copy section. Most people bought the downloads, but she wanted to give Nate something he could hold, something that made him think of her.

Her choice was sold out, so she went to one of the consoles and ordered in another copy. That done, she picked up her other purchases and began to make her way to the exit.

That was when she saw her.

The Psy woman—a stranger with eyes of darkest brown and skin the same rich shade—was occupying a booth near the door. Dressed in a black pantsuit teamed with a white shirt, she appeared a serious business professional. But then again, all Psy seemed to wear variations on the same theme. Tamsyn had never seen one of the psychic race in any color, excepting white, that didn’t fall in the range from deep gray to brown/black.

On any other day, she would have kept walking. But today, she didn’t, her motive a mystery even to herself. “Excuse me,” she said, coming to a standstill near the woman.

The Psy looked up. “Did you want the terminal? I’ll be finished in approximately one minute.” She glanced over Tamsyn’s shoulder. “There are several others that appear free.”

“No, I don’t want the terminal.” Tamsyn looked at her, at her human-seeming eyes, her clear skin and shining fall of jet-black hair. There was nothing that marked this woman as different, as Psy, part of a race that had eliminated its emotions. “I wanted to ask you a question.”

The stranger considered her request for a second. “Why are you asking me?”

“I need to ask a Psy and you’re the only one here.”

“I can’t fault your logic.” She tapped her finger on the screen to complete her purchase, then turned to give Tamsyn her full attention. “Your question?”

“Do you ever cry?” It seemed imperative that she know the answer.

The Psy didn’t react to the oddness of the question—if she had, she wouldn’t be Psy. “Even those of my race have little to no control over certain physiological reactions. If, for example, a foreign object were to accidentally enter or touch my eye, that eye would certainly produce fluid in an attempt to excrete the intruding matter.”

Tamsyn frowned at the clinical description of such a wrenching, heartbreaking act. “No. I don’t mean that. I mean, do you cry ?”

The stranger looked at her for several long moments. “As you chose to approach a Psy, you must know the answer to that question. However, I’ll respond as I see no possible negative repercussions from doing so.” She picked up a slim electronic pad from the desk near the terminal. “No. We do not cry out of fear or sadness, anger, or rage. We do not feel, therefore, we do not shed tears.”

The Psy ran her gaze over Tamsyn’s face. “Judging from the redness of the blood vessels in your eyes and your stuffy nose, I believe I can say with certainty that crying is in no way a positive experience. Why would I miss it?”

“No. I meant…don’t you miss feeling?” Love and hope, joy and need.

“I can’t miss what I’ve never experienced,” the other woman said, as if that should have been self-evident. “My race chose to eradicate emotion for a reason. Those with emotions are weak. We’re not. It’s why the Psy rule this planet.” With that, she gave a curt nod and left.

Tamsyn stared after her, the words circling around and around in her head. Those with emotions are weak. She saw the reflection of her drawn, listless face in the terminal and found herself agreeing. For a frozen heartbeat, she wished she were like that Psy woman. Cool, controlled, focused. No attachments, no hopes, no dreams.

Her eyes, which had started to close, snapped open. “No,” she whispered fiercely. She would not, could not, live in a world where Nathan didn’t exist. He might make her cry as much as he made her laugh, but she couldn’t imagine waking up one day and having emptiness where he was.

She didn’t know much about how and why the Psy race had stopped feeling, but it had to have been a terrible thing that had driven them down this path. Her healer’s soul ached for them—for the love they would never touch, but she knew she couldn’t help them. Not when they barricaded themselves in their high-rises, their minds shut to the possibility of hope.

It’s why the Psy rule this planet.