"Since the creams don't make them disappear and I don't want to have laser surgery, I guess they are."
He almost relaxed, caught in the echoes of a past long gone. Oh, the power Talin had over him. She could make him crawl. The realization of his continued weakness for a woman who found the violent heart of him repulsive, turned his next words razor sharp. "Give me your key."
She took a wary step back. "It's stalled. I can - "
"Give me the f**king key or find another fool to help you."
"You didn't used to be like this." Big, haunted eyes, soft lips pressed together as if to withhold emotion. "Clay?"
He held out his hand. After a taut second, she put the flat computronic key on his palm. Most cars were keyed to the owner's print, but for that very reason, rental places gave out a preprogrammed key instead of spending half an hour coding in each new customer. It saved time, but it also let thieves steal the vehicles. Idiots. "Get in."
He stalked around the Jeep without another word and took the driver's seat. By the time she stopped sulking and jumped in, he had the vehicle running. He gave her only enough time to belt up before reversing, turning, and heading back the way she'd come.
The bar was on the outskirts of Napa, close to the massive forests that edged the area, forests that were a part of DarkRiver's territory. He headed toward the cool privacy of those trees, doing his best to ignore the spicy feminine scent of the woman who sat so close. Intriguing as that scent was, there was still something off about it, and it confused the leopard. But right then, he wasn't in any mood to analyze his reaction. He was running on pure adrenaline.
"Where are we going?" she asked ten minutes later as he drove them off-road and into the shadows of the huge firs that dominated the area. "Clay?"
He growled low in this throat, too damn pissed with her to care about being polite.
Talin felt the hairs on the back of her neck rise in primitive warning. Clay had always been less than civilized. Even trapped in the claustrophobic confines of the apartment complex where they had met, his animal fury contained beneath a veneer of quiet intensity, he had walked like a predator on the hunt. No one had ever dared bully Clay, not boys twice his age, not the aggressive gang-bangers who lived to terrorize, not even the ex-cons.
But that was then - his current behavior was something else. "Stop trying to scare me."
He actually snapped his teeth at her, making her jump in her seat. "I don't have to try. You're scared shitless anyway. I can smell your fear and it's a f**king insult."
She'd forgotten that aspect of his changeling abilities. For more than twenty years, she had lived among humans and nonpredatory changelings, deliberately increasing the space between her and Clay. But what had it gotten her? Here she was, right back at the start...having lost everything that ever mattered. "You said that the first time we met."
He had been this big, tall, dangerous boy and she'd been more than terrified of him. All her short life, people had hurt her, and he had seemed like exactly the kind of person who would. So she had kept her distance. But that day when she'd seen him fall and break his leg in the backyard of their complex - a junkyard, not a park - she hadn't been able to leave him to suffer alone.
So frightened that her teeth had threatened to chatter, she had walked out into the living room and to the phone. Orrin had been on the couch, passed out. Somehow, she'd managed to make a forbidden call outside - to the paramedics. Then, unlocking the door, she had run down to sit with Clay until help came. He hadn't been happy. Nine years to her precocious and fully verbal three, he'd been a creature of pure danger.
"You snarled at me to get lost and said you liked to crunch little girl bones." It was a trick of hers, this memory. She could remember everything from the moment of birth and sometimes before. It was how she'd learned to talk before others, to read before she could talk. "You said I smelled like soft, juicy, delicious prey."
"You still do."
The comment made her bristle in spite of her wariness. "Clay, stop it. You're being adolescent." He was also succeeding in ramping up her fear - did he even realize how intimidating he was? Big, incredibly strong, and so damn angry it almost felt like a blow when he turned his eyes on her.
"Why? I might as well get some fun out of this visit. Tormenting you will do."
She wondered if she'd made a mistake. The Clay she had known, he'd been wild, but he'd been on the side of the angels. She wasn't so sure about this man. He looked like pure predator, without honor or soul. But her too soft heart told her to keep pushing, that there was more to him than this incandescent rage. "You belong to the DarkRiver pack."
"Was that your father's pack?" Isla had been human. It was from his father that Clay had gained his shape-shifting abilities.
"All I know about my father is that he was a cat. Isla never told me anything else."
"I thought, maybe - "
"What? That she'd changed her mind, become sane on her deathbed?" His laugh was bitter. "She was probably mated to a cat and he died. I'm guessing she was fragile to begin with. Losing her mate broke her completely."
"But I thought you didn't know if they'd been married."
"Mated, not married. Hell of a difference." He turned down a pitch-black path, the fading evening light blocked out by the canopy. "I knew shit-all about my own race back then. Unless doctors intervene - and even then it's a crapshoot - leopard changelings aren't fertile except when mated or in a long-term stable relationship. No accidental pregnancies, no quickie marriages."