"Malik?" Kalen nodded, and her blue eyes went steely. "He did that to shut you up, to stop you from telling me you went to see him last night, didn't he? That bastard! We're going to find a way to beat him, sweetie. You just hang on. Do you hear me?"
"Yeah." Christ, he hoped she was right.
And that was when he realized that the Unseelie wasn't in his head. That the awful dark thirst for blood and vengeance seemed to have lifted for the time being. "He's gone. I don't feel him anymore."
"For good?" At his look, her spark of enthusiasm vanished. "Of course not. That would be too easy."
"It's a ray of hope, anyway." However thin.
He was sure the reprieve now, and earlier in the car, had to do with the doc. He just had to figure out how, specifically. He mulled it over as his date pulled from the parking lot and onto the road, and for several minutes afterward. Until her sweet scent caught his attention as it had on the way to the restaurant.
Vanilla and roses. That was the tantalizing aroma making his senses tingle and his cock fill. In addition, the scent seemed deeper than before, richer somehow. His panther awakened, stretching, purring in joy at the familiar scent. The beast welcomed it and yearned to get close to the amazing presence of its mate once again.
Quickly he envisioned a wall of solid steel around him, desperately trying to seal his thoughts from Malik.
No. She couldn't be his mate. Could she? Why had that word popped into his head? How could he know for sure? He'd seen what had happened to Jax and Aric when they'd met their mates-they'd gotten sicker until it was either claim their mates or die. But that hadn't happened to Kalen. He felt completely fine-well, other than Malik's horrible influence.
Admittedly, as a Sorcerer he was different. So his panther might be wrong about the mate thing.
Inside, it growled in displeasure at the direction of his thoughts. Never had his other half been so vocal, so certain of what he wanted. His cat strained insistently, longing to shift, to rub his scent all over the woman, bite her, mark her for all to see. Kalen imagined doing just that, with his cock buried deep inside her warm, wet sheath. For the first time, instead of having to summon his panther, Kalen had to concentrate to hold him back.
The beast roared and he channeled his energy into soothing it. Imagining a pool of clear blue surrounded by a tropical oasis, he poured a stream of calming light over his cat until it subsided, curling up again with a huff of annoyance. Still not satisfied in its wants, but tame once more.
"You sure you're all right?" she asked.
He'd been off in his head again, and she'd been studying him the whole time. What did she see when she looked at him? A mess not worth keeping? He shifted uncomfortably. "I am now."
"Is that the first time that's happened?" She gestured to his face in general.
He nodded. "Yeah. Seems like he's got a trick or three up his sleeve to keep me in line."
"Are you going to talk to Nick about this and about last night?" Mackenzie asked softly.
"I'm going to try. And hope he doesn't shoot me for real."
"That's not funny."
"Wasn't meant to be."
"Do you want me to go with you to see him?"
Not having to face the boss alone was tempting. But the urge to protect her from the ugly reality of his situation was stronger-though it might be far too late. "I appreciate the moral support, but I'd better talk to him alone."
"Okay. Just know the offer stands."
"Thanks. That's more than I deserve from you."
"Oh, I don't know about that." A soft, secretive smile curved her lips.
A spark of light beamed through the gloom. "So you're not going to make me beg for another chance? You never did answer me, you know."
"No, I didn't," she agreed, sobering some. "To be honest, I'm not sure how to answer because I don't know where this sudden change of heart is coming from."
"It may seem like it's coming from nowhere to you, but it's not sudden for me," he admitted, gut churning. "I didn't want to walk away in the first place. I just . . . I know I'm about the worst thing that could ever happen to you, especially right now. But I can't stop wanting you."
The words came out raw, as if scraped with sandpaper. At least they were on the table, whatever she might decide. God, he was so afraid of the horror he could bring into her life. He was even more afraid of living his alone, with nothing but the temptation of evil for company.
"Wanting isn't the same as needing," she said softly. Her tone was contemplative rather than accusing. "Anyone can want something they don't need, or that isn't good for them."
He couldn't refute that, so he didn't try.
Mackenzie fell silent, brow furrowed in thought as she drove. Kalen wondered if she thought less of him because of his choice of wording, but what he knew about women and how their brains worked wouldn't fill the toes of his boots.
He'd been so lost in pondering the dilemma of the doc that it took him a few moments to realize she'd turned off the main highway and onto a dirt and gravel road that was little better than a path beaten out of the weeds.
"Um, where are we going?"
"Finally decide to just take me out and shoot me yourself? Save Nick the trouble?"
"You're awfully preoccupied with being shot."
Because I deserve it. "Not really. Just curious about where you're taking me."
With a quick smile, she guided the car down the path, until at last it ended at a grassy clearing. Nearby was a creek and beyond that, a stand of trees where the forest resumed on the other side. The spot was beautiful, serene, and he told her so.
"This is gorgeous. It looks real peaceful."
She shrugged, but appeared pleased that he liked it. "That's why I come here sometimes, just to think. I've even brought a small picnic for one a couple of times, complete with a bottle of wine."
That seemed sort of lonely and sad, but he could hardly cast stones in the loner department, so he kept his opinion to himself. "What about your friends I met at the bar? You haven't brought them out here?"
"Amy and Shannon? No, they're good friends, but this place is mine."
"But you brought me," he pointed out, puzzled. "Why me and not them?"
"Because it's the sort of place you share with somebody special," she said, fixing him with those pretty blue eyes.
"Oh." His throat threatened to close up nice and tight. "Nobody's ever called me that, except maybe Grandma." Of course, that hadn't been the same at all.
Reaching out, she cupped his cheek. He couldn't help but lean in to her touch as she stroked, his cat stretching and purring in contentment.
"You are special," she said quietly, eyes growing moist. "You're amazing, talented, smart, and caring. And oh yeah, drop-dead gorgeous, too. You should be told those things every day of your life, and I'm sorry no one has until now."
Before he could respond, she leaned toward him, lips pressing against his. The touch was electric, shooting a bolt of sheer bliss through every cell in his body. Her lips were soft, gentle, searching. He opened at her insistence, met her questing tongue with his own, tasted her sweetness.
There had been no kisses in his life. No joy until Mackenzie. He couldn't walk away again. He wasn't that strong.
When at last they broke apart, she gave him a soft smile. "How about we go for a walk?"
"Sounds good," he managed.
Getting out, they met at the front of the car and automatically joined hands. He let her lead them across the clearing and simply appreciated the scenery-mostly the woman at his side. Just her presence was a balm to his troubled soul and he realized that though he'd forgotten to check his mental shields against Malik in the last few minutes, all was still calm in his head. He had no doubt she was the reason.
At the opposite end of the clearing, under the shade of the trees, was a creek. It wasn't wide, just a few feet across, and as they approached he saw it wasn't more than shin-deep. "Great spot. I can see why you like to come here."
"Isn't it beautiful? I like to sit on that grassy spot under the trees and just listen to the water, the birds, whatever else is moving. Day music, I call it. The sounds are much different than at night."
His protective streak reared its head. "You don't come out here at night, I hope?"
"No, silly." She patted his chest. "I'm not that stupid."
"Of course not. I just want you to be safe." Well, that was the mother of all ironies, considering she was with probably the most dangerous person around.
"I am. Don't worry, I never venture into the forest at night alone, unlike your Pack brothers when they have to let their wolves loose. Come on."
Tugging at his hand, she led him to her preferred spot, which was spongy and comfortable. Putting his back to a tree, he pulled her to sit between his spread legs, her back to his front. After giving him a look of surprise, and a bit of pleasure, he thought, she settled in and relaxed against him. He absolutely loved her warmth against him, her body pliant and trusting in his arms.
"I take it we're playing hooky this afternoon?" he murmured in her ear, wrapping his arms around her middle.
"Mmm. For a little while, if that's all right with you."
"More than. I'm a play hooky kind of guy."
"Why doesn't that surprise me?"
He heard the teasing in her voice and began to nibble on the shell of her ear. "It shouldn't. You knew I was a bad boy when you threw in with me."
"Is that what I've done?" she asked, shivering lightly as he nipped her neck.
"God, I hope so."
Flicking his tongue, he tasted her skin, the salty sweetness of her essence. His cat growled, loving that, ready to play. His cock hardened, lengthening to press along her butt and the small of her back. There was no way she didn't notice, but she remained relaxed, her body language letting him know that she was very much on board with his attentions.
Encouraged, he let his fingers inch under the hem of her blouse. For a few moments he savored the smoothness of her skin under the pads of his fingers. Her waist was trim, her belly flat. He explored her insy and she giggled some, wiggling in his arms. Chuckling, he let his hands roam to the flimsy fabric of her bra and hesitated. When she merely arched her back in invitation, he grazed the nipples, plucked them through the material until they were hard, tight peaks.
"Oh," she groaned, reaching around to cup the back of his head. She buried her fingers in his hair.
"Do you need me, baby?"
That was all he needed to hear. Finding the front clasp of her bra, he deftly unhooked and parted the material. Her breasts spilled free and he sucked in a breath of appreciation as he let them fill his palms. Squeezing gently, he enjoyed her squirming against him and realized the mounds felt heavier, more full than they had been the one time they'd been together. But it could be his imagination.
"Spin around, baby."
He helped her maneuver so she sat straddling his lap, facing him. Before he could reach for her blouse, she stripped it off and tossed it aside, then slipped out of her bra. Her skin was creamy, flawless.
"You take my breath away," he said in a low voice. "You're so beautiful."
Bending, he tasted a dusky nipple, worried it carefully with his teeth. Moaning in pleasure, she buried her fingers in his hair and urged him on. He laved and suckled, first one nipple then the other, until she was writhing on his lap.
Reaching to the waist of her slacks, he hesitated and met her hungry gaze, asking silent permission. She nodded and he unbuttoned them, then helped her stand. Quickly, she shed her shoes, pants, and silky underwear. He stripped his shirt, boots, and jeans, then resumed his position on the grass, his erection pointed at the treetops.