The counselor had been right and though Talin had been unable to trust her enough to create a long-term relationship, the woman had helped her find her way out of that morass of pain. She had never felt as alone or as cold as she did - or had done - during sex. At no time had she ever experienced anything like this dark lick of heat inside of her.
Her face flushed, mortification temporarily wiping away everything else. She was aware of her br**sts swelling, her blood rushing to places it didn't normally caress with such primal heat. "No." She couldn't be falling victim to lust. Not for Clay.
He was repulsed by her.
The reminder threw ice water over her incipient feelings. She was glad. Thinking of Clay in that way scared her. Despite their years apart, despite how angry he was with her - and even despite her own inexplicable rage at him - she thought of him as her friend, the only friend she trusted without reservation. She didn't want to destroy that precious relationship. And sex destroyed everything and everyone once it got in the way.
She was willing to admit that her view of sex might be skewed, distorted by what had been done to her during childhood. But one truth was indisputable: lust never lasted. Then it was, "Adios and hope I never see you again." The rare relationships that survived were those like the Larkspurs had - warm, stable, friendly, without the overwhelming rush of lust. But that wasn't a viable option for her and Clay.
He was too intense, too deeply passionate. The woman who took him on would have to be fearless, with enough strength of will to withstand his autocratic nature and enough heart to love him no matter how dark his dreams. Her hands clenched so tight, she felt her nails cut into skin. The idea of Clay with another woman -
Biting off a curse, she pulled up the trapdoor and headed down.
Clay was on the second level, in the small kitchenette to the left. "Eat." He thrust a plate of food at her and pulled out a chair at the nearby table.
A second ago, she would've sworn her stomach was too twisted up to eat. But now, it rumbled. She took the seat. "Thanks." He had made her toast and eggs. Simple enough. Except for the muffin that accompanied it. Her appetite dulled. "Faith?" She picked up the offending piece of baking, barely able to stop herself from crushing it to a pulp.
He put down his own plate and grabbed a seat opposite her. "Tamsyn," he said, eyes cat-sharp. "She sneaks in here and leaves things in the cooler."
She couldn't stand the suspense. Stupid muffin. "Who is she?"
That cut off her simmering jealousy midstep. "And Faith?"
His lips curved a little and she suddenly felt very warm. "Careful, Tally. Your claws are showing."
"I'm human," she retorted, knowing she shouldn't be so happy at the sign of a thaw in his earlier mood, but she was. "The best I can do is grow my nails." She stared at her stubby nails. "And I'm not exactly good at that." He'd wait forever if he thought she would ask about Faith again. She shoved some eggs into her mouth.
Clay had already finished his toast and now took a sip of coffee. "Faith is Vaughn's mate," he said, looking at her over his cup. "Coffee?"
She let him pour her a cup, feeling silly. "Nathan and Vaughn are your friends?"
"Yes. So are Faith and Tammy."
It shook her. The Clay she'd known had been her only friend, and she had been his. But now he was part of a pack and she was an outsider. "I'm glad for you," she whispered, even as an ugly possessiveness bared its teeth inside of her. "It must be nice."
His response was a grunt. "Eat."
She ate, cleaning her plate far quicker than she would have believed possible when she first came downstairs. The muffin proved delicious. "Tamsyn's a good cook."
"How about you?"
Surprised by the question, she answered honestly. "Weird, but I like cooking. I used to do it with Pa Larkspur."
She smiled. "Don't be so chauvinistic. He's the best cook in the county. His baskets bring in more money than any others at the picnic auctions."
"Jesus. Baskets? Picnic? Just how country is the Nest?"
"Very." His horrified expression made her laugh. "Clay, you live in a tree. I don't think you should throw stones."
"I guess the corn would provide some cover when grown," he muttered. "Nowhere to climb or create a lair though. Not unless you build a house." He almost shuddered.
She'd never thought about the farm from a predator's point of view. "Well, yeah. But there is one thing you might like."
He raised an eyebrow.
"There are caves." She had spent a lot of time in them as a teenager, pushing away the love the Larkspurs tried to give her. She had never talked back, never created trouble at home. She'd simply disappeared to where they couldn't find her and she couldn't hurt them. "They're deep enough underground that it doesn't affect the farming operation, but the area's riddled with them."
A gleam of interest lit the dark green of his eyes. "They ever been mapped?"
"I didn't find any records when I researched them for a school project," she said, "but there have to be maps."
He laid his arm on the table. "Why?"
"Because" - she leaned forward - "I'm certain the caves are man-made. They're almost like proper tunnels in places."
Interest turned to intrigue, the forest green getting brighter. "Your town have a big changeling presence?"
Catching his line of thought, she shook her head. "A small horse clan, and an owl one - predatory but not particularly dominant. They always used to vote me in as captain when they split us into teams for gym class." And she was no superathlete.