"You like Dixie."
"Yes." She smiled. "She's the baby of the family and so sweet, so gentle. She used to follow me around and hug me every day, as if - I like Dixie."
"Tanner and Sam run various parts of the farm. It's a huge operation. Samara - Sam's twin and older by a minute - organizes the business end of things. Ma and Pa Larkspur supervise everyone."
"They sound like a happy family." His eyes were cat bright when he glanced at her. "So why are you still stuck in that room, watching me tear Orrin apart?"
She should've known it wouldn't be that easy to escape the past. "I tried to get better. I pretended I was. But I never did and I don't know why." Though after her recent slew of medical tests, she could guess at some of it. "Where are you taking me?"
She watched the city retreat behind them. "Where?" she insisted.
Her heart stopped. "I thought you didn't take strangers there."
"I'm making an exception."
It almost made her want to smile. Except..."Don't. These people who are after me, they're probably the ones taking the kids. They could follow and hurt you and your pack."
He laughed and it was a deep masculine sound she felt in the innermost core of her body, a place no one had ever touched. "We're not some minor pack you can blink and miss. DarkRiver controls San Francisco and the surrounding areas. We're also allied to the wolves. No one enters our forests without our knowledge."
"These people are smart."
"Are you saying we animals aren't?"
"Don't pull that racial crap on me," she said, scowling. "Or I'll tell you what I really think of big cats who like to growl and bite."
Clay felt his lips curve despite himself. "Meow."
To his surprise, a sound that was almost a giggle escaped Talin's lips. "Idiot."
And that suddenly, she was his Tally again. Sweet, funny, and strong. So damn strong. The only human being who had ever stood up to him and won. "What happened to you, Tally?"
The laughter seeped out of the air. "I broke."
Talin noticed the flowers the second she entered the low-level aerie Clay called his lair. Outwardly, it appeared nothing more than a forgotten tree house lost in the spreading branches of a heavily leafed tree. Inside, it proved wide and clean, with a retractable ladder that led up into a second level invisible from the outside.
"There's a third level, too." His voice gave away nothing. "I built it so it could be isolated from the ground at a second's notice. You'll sleep up there."
"Oh." She couldn't get her mind off the beautiful, feminine flower arrangement. "Nice flowers."
It seemed to her that his expression softened a fraction when he looked that way. "From Faith. She said I needed color in this place."
Talin's fingernails dug into her palms as he named the woman who had been allowed to meddle in his lair - in the lair of a man she'd known as a boy who rarely let anyone close. Even now, flowers aside, the stark masculinity of the place was undeniable. Everything was in shades of earth, with only occasional splashes of forest green and white, from the rug on the floor to the large, flat cushions that seemed to function as Clay's version of sofas. It made sense, she thought. His leopard probably much preferred to curl up on the cushions.
The image of him in cat form made her fingers tingle in sensory memory. "You have visitors often?"
So, this Faith was special. Folding her arms, she watched him as he pulled down the ladder, stepped on the first rung, and threw her bag up to the second level. When he stepped back down, his expression was one of grim determination. "Now, tell me the truth."
Her stomach was suddenly full of a thousand butterflies. "The truth?"
His eyes turned so dark, they were close to black. "At first I thought it was because you'd grown up, but that's not it."
She swallowed. "What?" He couldn't know. How could he know?
"Your scent." He closed the distance between them, a graceful, dangerous predator with a mind like a blade. Tempered. Honed. "You smell wrong, Talin."
"How can I smell wrong?" Dread morphed into honest confusion. "I smell like me."
He moved around her to her back. She stood her ground, though irrational fear struck again. Memories of blood and - "Ouch!" She tugged her hair out of his grasp. "What do you think you're doing?"
"Snapping you out of panic."
Her answer stuck in her throat as she felt the heat of his breath whisper along the curve of her neck. He was no longer touching any part of her, but she couldn't move. Her body remembered his. He'd been the only one who had touched her in affection before the Larkspurs. But her adoptive family occupied a far different space in her heart than Clay. He was a deep, intrinsic part of her, a part she both feared and craved.
"You smell of woman, of fear, of you, but there's an ugliness below the surface, a badness."
Her soul curled into a tight self-protective ball. "I revolt you."
"No, it's not that kind of badness. It's just wrong, shouldn't be there." He put his hands on her hips. They were big. Heavy. "Scared, Tally?"
She fought her shiver. "You know I am." Her body might remember his warmth and protectiveness, but it also remembered his capacity for the most bloody violence.
His fingers pressed down a fraction before he released her. She waited for him to face her again. When he did, she found herself looking into eyes no longer the dark green of man but the paler gold-green of leopard.