"I was attacked by a patient, in my office," she whispered. The memory still chilled her to the bone. "There was no warning. One moment we were having a nice conversation and he appeared fine, and the next he'd knocked me out of my chair, pinned me to the floor, and almost strangled me to death."
"My God," Kalen said hoarsely, eyes wide. "How did you manage to fight him off?"
"I didn't. I lost consciousness, and as I did, I believed I was dead. I thought of my dad and how grief-stricken he'd be to lose his only child, especially like that. Then I was gone. I woke up in the hospital and learned that my secretary had heard the commotion and run in to investigate. She and a couple of patients from the waiting room subdued the man and called for help."
"Jesus Christ." His face reflected the horror she had felt back then. "I can't imagine how terrible that must've been for you."
"It was. I never returned to private practice. Just the idea of being responsible for someone else's mental health, having all of that suppressed rage explode at me again . . . I couldn't deal with it, so I ran. Back to school to become a physician's assistant, and then my dad helped me get the plum assignment at the compound when it opened, just as you guessed."
He flushed. "I apologize. I didn't mean to imply you didn't deserve your position or that you had it easy. I was just being a dick."
"Yeah, you were. But I accept." She gave him a small smile, letting him know he was off the hook. Almost. "So, why were you being mean?"
"It's complicated," he said, gaze dropping to the table.
Just then the waitress returned with their food and set down the plates, giving Kalen a thorough once-over as she did. "Anything else I can do for you?"
Mac's blood pressure rose, anger simmering.
But he barely glanced at the woman, then shook his head and answered politely. "No, thanks."
Taking her cue, the waitress left to see about other customers. The tension in Mac drained as quickly as it had come after seeing the girl devour him with her eyes. Maybe it was ridiculous to be jealous of a man who'd rejected her, but Mac couldn't help how she felt. The way her hormones were starting to kick in, a certain Sorcerer was damned lucky he hadn't responded to the bimbo.
"Mackenzie? Hey, where'd you go?"
"Hmm? Oh, sorry. Just thinking."
"You. Gonna let me in on why you've been such a jerk to me lately?"
"Ouch." He winced. "I am sorry, for what it's worth."
"If the attitude is simply to keep me from stalking you or something, you can relax. I haven't been following you around begging you to change your mind, and I won't." Not that she didn't long to leave her pride in the dirt and do just that.
"I'm the one who should be begging for a second chance," he said quietly. "Are you gonna make me do that? Should I get on my knees?"
She stopped twirling her spaghetti and her heart lurched. "What?"
"I got scared and I ran from you. I've fucked up in so many ways, you can't imagine." Setting down his fork, he rested both elbows on the table, clenching his hands.
"Why should I believe you?" she asked, barely managing to keep her voice steady. What she wanted to do was grab him, drag his body across the table, and kiss him until he passed out from lack of oxygen. Common sense told her to use a bit more restraint.
"You shouldn't. I'm a horrible prospect, honey."
"Because of your past? You know I would never hold that against you. That's not who I am." She touched his hand. "You did what you had to do in order to survive."
"It's not the past I'm worried about." His expression was agonized. "I've done something I'm so afraid I can't take back. I'm up against a force I don't know if I can fight, much less win."
"I . . ." His inner struggle waged war on his face, and his eyes were bleak. "I went-" Suddenly he grabbed his head, grimacing in pain.
"Kalen, what's wrong?" she asked in a low voice, glancing around to make sure nobody else had noticed.
After a few quick, shallow breaths, he lowered his hands. His skin was pale and he looked shaken. "I can't tell you. He won't let me."
Fear washed through her like ice water. "Who? Malik?"
With apparent reluctance, he nodded. "Yes."
Beginning to connect the dots, she gripped the edge of the table. "This is the one who's giving you meaningful counsel, helping you feel empowered?" she asked in a low voice. At his miserable nod, the dread intensified. "What's this bullshit about him not letting you tell? What has he done to you?"
"I can't explain right now. I wish I could."
"Can't or won't?" Strained silence was her answer. "Is this the part where you ask me to trust you?"
"I can't ask anything of you, honey. But I'm hoping you do."
"Why should I?"
"Because without you-" With a sharp intake of breath, he stood abruptly, holding a hand under his nose. "Sorry. Be right back."
Mac stared after him as he retreated, presumably in the direction of the men's restroom. Slumping back in her seat, she let out a sigh and tried to calm her racing pulse. Malik was sinking his claws deeper into Kalen every day, and her Sorcerer was losing ground. This was bad. So very, very bad. Did Nick know how far the alliance had gotten between the two of them? He must have some idea. Would he follow through with his threat to execute Kalen? She couldn't bear thinking about that.
What had Kalen been about to say about why she should trust him, give him another chance? Two things she was almost certain of-Malik had stopped him. And if he had, the Unseelie must've had a good reason. That meant there was something specific the creep didn't want her to know.
Why not simply stop Kalen from being with her at all? Now that he had Kalen, perhaps Malik didn't consider her to be a big enough threat to warrant denying his new apprentice a bit of pleasure.
"That's just sick," she muttered, tracing the beads of moisture on her water glass.
Recalling the night she'd spent with Kalen a few weeks ago, when the horrible Unseelie had come to her in a nightmare and attempted to sway her to his side, haunted her a lot these days. Because now she understood that it had been a ruse to get the Sorcerer to part with his amulet, to give it to Mac for her protection.
Leaving him vulnerable to Malik's twisted desires.
Why Kalen? He couldn't be the only powerful magic user in the universe. Why did he, in particular, matter so much to the Unseelie? Mac didn't believe Malik's choice was random.
She shouldn't care about Kalen's problems after the way he'd dropped her and walked away. But his problems were the whole team's, and now hers as well.
Okay, if she was honest with herself, concern for the rest of the Pack wasn't the only reason she cared. If she was a lesser person-or maybe a smarter person-she might walk away from him. Leave him to his fate.
But he was the father of their child. The more she got to know him, the more clearly she could see the kind of man he could be-would be-when he finally found his center. His inner peace. The wonderful lover and friend he could be as well.
She remembered how passionately he'd made love to her. There had been no deception in his touch, only pure need. That night, the man who'd held her close had been a man born to love. A man who'd had so little of it given to him in his life.
Glancing up, she spotted him returning, his gait slow and easy, like his half smile when he saw her watching. A wave of fierce protectiveness took her breath away and she knew one thing-
She was going to be the woman to give this man the love he deserved.
And she'd pray like hell the Sorcerer didn't crush her trust in his fist.
* * *
Kalen hurried to the men's room and ducked inside, trying to stem the flow of blood running from his nose. His head hurt so goddamned bad, it was like an ice pick being stabbed right through his temple and into his brain.
Leaning over the sink, he turned on the water. His stomach lurched as he watched the blood swirl down the drain. Ironic that he could kill a dozen Sluagh and not bat an eyelash over the slimy gore, but a nosebleed made him queasy. Not that the stabbing in his head helped.
"Son of a bitch," he rasped. Cupping the running water, he splashed his face, rinsing until the liquid became clear. Gradually the spike driving through his skull withdrew, leaving him shaken. Tired. Bracing his palms on the counter, he sucked in deep breaths.
You will not tell your woman, my boy. Not until our plan is well in motion. She is too soft to understand what must be done and why.
"You and your damned world domination," he hissed, anger at himself boiling his blood. He should've been stronger. Put up more resistance against Malik's evil. "What have I sold my soul for, you bastard? Just so you can rule the world, murdering anyone who resists you?"
He received no answer. But he did hear a shuffle to his right, and when he glanced around, he almost groaned to see a man standing uncertainly in the doorway, eyeing him as though he'd lost his mind. Fuck.
"Sorry," Kalen muttered, heading for the exit. "Not feeling so good, ya know?"
The guy gave him a wan smile. "Hey, it happens."
Brushing past him, Kalen pushed out into the restaurant again, cursing the man's rotten timing. He probably thought Kalen was on drugs, or worse.
What do you care for the opinion of some weak human? Today he might sneer, but he is a lesser being. After we've taken control of the earth, he'll get on his knees and vow his allegiance to us both, or he'll die.
"Shut up," he said under his breath.
Don't forget how much you'll savor bringing low all of those who've done you grievous wrong in the past. Remember how your heart gladdened to see Billy suffer for his terrible transgressions, and know that the pleasure will be tenfold when justice is delivered by your own hand.
The hypnotic voice lulled him, the lust for power snaking through his groin. An image was thrust into his head of the redneck tormenting his family. Then getting his just desserts. Yeah, he'd make sure assholes like that never hurt anyone else. God, it would feel so good to wrap his hands around that fat neck and-
Someone gave him a gentle shake, and he realized that fingers were lightly gripping his arm. Blinking, he found himself staring into Mac's worried face. "I'm sorry, what?"
"Where did you go this time? I called your name twice."
Suddenly he saw that he was standing in the middle of the restaurant like a statue, a few feet from their table. Jesus, he must look like a crazy person to everyone there. He noted a handful of curious stares. Raising his voice a little, he gave a short laugh and said for the benefit of those nearby, "Did you? Must've zoned out. I was trying to remember if I left my cell phone in the bathroom." He made a show of patting his pockets. "I can't find-oh, wait. Here it is. Stupid, huh?"
Her expression told him she knew what he was doing, but she didn't pursue it with others in earshot. Taking his hand, she led him back to their table. "Do you want dessert?"
"Not unless you do. Whatever you want, honey."
"Nah, I'm good."
He needed out of there. The atmosphere was abruptly claustrophobic and he had to vamoose, now. Not away from Mackenzie, but out of the building. Waving over their waitress, he mustered polite calm and requested the bill. They waited in silence, eyeing each other until it came and he paid, temporarily avoiding the elephant in the room.
Outside, Mackenzie took his hand as they walked to the car. "Okay, tell me what happened in there. Why did you rush to the restroom?"