The tightness in her chest eased. If Clay had told her to shut up..."Can I ask you some questions?"
"Auditioning me for your job? Sorry, Talin, I hold the power here."
The emotional taunt hurt more than any physical blow. They had always been equals - friends. "I want to know you again."
"All you need to know is that I'm even more deadly than I used to be." He moved far enough out of the shadows that she could see the unwelcoming planes of his face. "I'm the one who should be asking the questions - tell me, where did you go after they took me away?"
His words opened another floodgate of memory. A groggy Clay being hauled to his feet by black-garbed Enforcement officers, his hands locked behind his back with extra-strength cuffs. He hadn't resisted, had been unable to do so because of the drugs they had shot into him.
But his eyes had refused to close, had never left her own.
That was the color that drenched her memories of that day. Not the rich red of blood but the hot flame of incandescent green. Clay's eyes. She'd whimpered when they'd taken him away but his eyes had told her to be strong, that he'd return for her. And he had.
It was Talin who had dishonored their silent bargain, Talin who had been too broken to dare dance with a leopard. That failure haunted her every day of her life. "There was media attention after Orrin's death," she said, forcing herself past the sharp blade of loss. "I wasn't aware of it at the time, but I went back and researched it."
"They wanted to put me down. Like an animal."
"Yes." She dropped her arms and fisted her hands, unable to bear the thought of a world without Clay. "But the Child Protection Agency intervened. They were forced to after someone leaked the truth about Orrin...and what he'd been doing to me." Bile flooded her mouth but she fought it with strength nurtured by a sojourn through hell itself.
She couldn't erase the past, her eidetic memory a nightmare, but she had taught herself to think past the darkness. "It became a minor political issue and the authorities charged you with a lesser offense, put you in juvie until you turned eighteen."
"I was there. I know what happened to me," he said, sardonic. "I asked about you."
"I'm trying to tell you!" She squared her shoulders in the face of his dominating masculinity. "Stop pushing."
"Hell, I have all night. Take your time. I'm here for your convenience."
"Sarcasm doesn't suit you." He was too raw, too earthy, too of the wild.
"You don't know me."
No, she accepted with another starburst of pain, she didn't. She had given up all rights to him the day she'd let him believe that she'd been crushed to death in a car wreck. "Because of the media attention," she continued, "lots of people came forward with offers to adopt me."
"I know - it was in the papers."
She nodded. "My old social worker was fired after the media discovered he'd spent most of his work hours gambling." With the very lives he had been entrusted to protect. "The new guy - Zeke - had a little girl my age. He went above and beyond, personally vetted all the applicants."
Clay was silent but his eyes had gone cat, perilous in the extreme. And she remembered - it was Zeke who had lied to him about her death.
She met the eyes of the leopard who stood opposite her, afraid, bewildered, stupidly needy. Sometimes, it felt as if she'd been born needing Clay. "He placed me with the Larkspur family, deep in rural Iowa." The space, the endless fields of green, the constant supply of food, it had been a severe shock to her system. "You'd like it at the Nest - that's what the Larkspurs call the farm. Plenty of space to run, to play."
It seemed to her that his stance became a fraction less aggressive. "They were good to you?"
She nodded, biting down hard on her tongue before she could give in and beg him to go back to the way things had been before the day everything shattered. Orrin had split her lip, broken her ribs, but it was seeing Clay being hauled out the door that had destroyed her. "I was damaged, Clay." No getting around that. "I was damaged even before Orrin died. That just pushed me over some edge in my own mind. But the Larkspurs took me in, didn't judge me, tried to make me a part of the family. I suddenly had two older brothers, one older sister, and one younger sister."
"Sounds like too much to handle."
"For a while, it was." Overwhelmed by the loud, laughing family, she had curled up in corners and hidden. "Then one day, I realized I'd been there for a year and no one had hurt me. By the time you were released, I was twelve and functioning fairly well." Nightmares only once or twice a week, acting out at school less and less.
"So you decided to leave me in the past." A bitter laugh. "Why the hell not?"
"No. It wasn't like that." She reached out to him, dropping her hand in midtouch when he withdrew even deeper into the darkness. "I just - " How could she possibly explain the tortured confusion that had driven her? She'd known she wasn't yet strong enough to stand up to Clay, to face the horrors of the past, but she had worried for him, too.
"I stole four years of your freedom. I was determined not to be a burden on you for the rest of your life." Barely twelve years old and she'd known he would give up everything to keep her safe. "I didn't want to force you into bondage, into caring for me because I was too weak to care for myself. You'd already spent most of your life doing that for Isla." That fact had twisted the relationship between mother and child, turned it into that of caretaker and patient. The thought of Clay putting her into the same category had made Talin distraught. It still did.