And a strong hand caught her arm, steadying her.

"Whoa! Easy there," Nick said soothingly. "Come on, sit down." He helped her into one of the two guest chairs in front of her desk and took a seat beside her, patting her hand.

"Thanks. I didn't see you there." She took a few deep breaths, rubbing the tears from her tired eyes.

"I just got here, thought I'd sit down and wait for you. Better now?"

"I think so."

"Do I have to ask what-" He halted in midsentence, eyes widening. "Oh, Mac. Christ, don't tell me what I'm picking up is true."

"Depends on what you think it is," she hedged.

"Don't tell me you're pregnant with Kalen's baby," he said softly.

She swallowed hard. "Jeez, it's hard to keep a secret when you're living with a bunch of Psy-wolves."

Her attempt to joke fell flat. Nick's lips didn't so much as twitch. "Does Kalen know? I met with him yesterday and I didn't pick up on anything."

"If he knew, you would've been picking him up off the floor." She sniffled. "Things between us have been a roller-coaster ride, to say the least. No, the perfect time to drop the bombshell hasn't exactly presented itself."

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"Not to mention how scared you are for your baby, and that's getting in the way of telling him the truth."

She nodded miserably, trying not to cry again. "I know in my heart he would never intentionally harm our child."

"If he were in full control of himself."

"Yes."

"Are you feeling okay physically? Other than the dizzy spell, I mean."

"I'm fine, really. That was probably because I've just started having some morning sickness and can't keep a lot down. I'm not as nauseated later in the afternoons, though, so I'm eating a little better then."

"That's good." The silence stretched between them as the commander absorbed the import of this development. Finally, he met her gaze and said, "What's going on with you and Kalen doesn't make what I've come to ask of you any easier. Quite the opposite."

"Whatever it is, you know I'll help any way I can," she told him with some unease.

"I know, and I appreciate it. Thing is, Kalen needs a lot of help-"

"Ya think?" Embarrassed by the sarcastic outburst in front of her boss, she grimaced. "Sorry. That wasn't very professional of me."

He gave her an understanding half smile. "I'd say you're entitled to some angst where our Sorcerer is concerned. I want you to know I'm just as worried about you as I am about Kalen."

"Nick, I'm fine," she tried to reassure him. But he wasn't buying.

"Mac, I know why you left Dallas. And even though Kalen isn't a patient of yours, the possible repercussions to you are just as devastating. He's more troubled and volatile than anyone you've ever dealt with, even the man who attacked you years ago."

Why did the man always have to be so reasonable? "True. But I honestly don't believe Kalen will hurt me." She had to believe that.

"I hope you're right." He leaned forward, his expression earnest. "We know Kalen is standing on the edge of a cliff, and it's not going to take much more to send him over. He needs all of us to be there, showing our support, ready to yank him back, if he's going to survive."

"I can't disagree with that." She paused. "Did you hear what happened at breakfast?"

"About Ryon getting knocked out of his seat by one of his ghosts? I heard. And?" He waited for her to explain.

"It wasn't one of Ryon's spirits," she said. "Kalen created the thing as an illusion and scared the hell out of him for kicks."

"Damn, I was afraid of something like this happening." He gazed at her, troubled. "But I didn't pick up on it and neither did anyone else, as far as I know. How did you figure out what he'd done?"

"I felt his emotions. I read his intent through them."

His brows drew together. "And just how did you manage that when no one else could?"

"Because last night he claimed me as his Bondmate," she said with difficulty. Her face grew hot. "Without my permission."

"He did what? Jesus fucking Christ!" His laugh was completely devoid of humor as he shook his head. "I ought to shoot him now and put him out of everyone's misery."

She winced. "That might be a bit harsh. There were two of us getting hot and heavy, after all." At hearing her own words, she finally began to think that she might have been a little too hard on her lover. He had tried to explain, and she hadn't been willing to listen.

"I'm sorry, but in my old clan of born shifters, the penalty for claiming a Bondmate without consent is either banishment or death."

Never before had she heard him refer to his old life. She wondered where this clan was located and where they might be now. Whether anyone there missed him. But as curious as she might be, that was a line she didn't feel comfortable crossing with her boss, and they had a more immediate issue to discuss.

She brought the topic back to the purpose of his visit. "Well, you're not really going to shoot him or you wouldn't be here discussing our well-being with me. What do you think I should do?"

"He needs to talk with someone about his struggles, past and present," Nick said. "I know things aren't easy between the two of you right now, but he needs you."

"You think I should give him another chance."

"I think you should do what you know in your heart is right. I think his success in defeating Malik depends on his happiness with you."

"No pressure, huh?" Dammit! It was becoming very apparent he wasn't going to give up until she saw his point. Slumping in defeat, she nodded. "Okay. I'll try, but that's all I can promise."

"Noted." Visibly pleased, Nick stood. "Are you sure you're all right after that dizzy spell? Do you need me to call Melina in to take a look at you?"

"No, thanks. I'm all right now."

"Hmm." Which meant he'd probably do it anyway. "Well, take it easy and I'll see you later."

Giving Nick a halfhearted smile, she watched him walk out. And wasn't surprised when Melina hurried in less than a minute later.

"What the hell does he mean, you weren't going to tell me you've been dizzy?" she bitched.

Back to the exam room. And just think-only eight more months to go, give or take.

Yippee.

* * *

You won't be alone. We'll be there with you every step of the way.

But they couldn't follow through, no matter their good intentions, Kalen thought. The darkness inside him was taking root like a plant that had been dying of thirst for too long. He curled on his side and stared out the bedroom window at the deceptively bright day. At the lush forest beyond, beckoning his panther to go for a run. But even that small happiness had been taken away, unless he wanted to risk being drawn to Malik's lair again.

Idly, he gazed at his hand resting on the bed. Focusing on his panther, he allowed a tiny bit of a shift and one of his sharp claws grew from his index finger. A deadly weapon fit to skewer an enemy. Especially when he was one of them.

The claw would make a perfect razor blade.

Heart pounding, he placed the tip of the claw against the inside of his left wrist. Could he do it? Make a couple of deep gashes and simply wait until the pain was ended for good?

Nick's friendship, the Pack's support, even Mackenzie's love, were conditional. They would accept him as long as he didn't fuck up-which he did, frequently. He had nothing. No real home, a mate who didn't want him, and only an evil bastard who did. He would end up hurting everyone he'd never wanted to care about.

I will terminate you, Nick had said.

Why wait?

Then the memories of making love to Mackenzie stole into his thoughts unbidden. Of holding her close, skin to skin, just listening to her breathe. The bittersweet images gradually eased the turmoil in his mind. Calmed the desperation. Despite the heartbreak of the path he'd traveled to get to this point, he wasn't ready to give up.

Not yet. When and if he went down, his death had to have meaning. Purpose. Until then, he'd hang on. Another hour. One more day. The claw retracted and he started to relax.

Come to me, boy. I have a task for you.

He started at the damned Unseelie's voice in his head, though he'd been half-expecting the asshole to intrude in the wake of his last thoughts.

"I can't do that," he snapped to mask his fear. "It's the middle of the fucking day. Everyone will want to know where I'm going."

Don't play me for a fool. You're a Sorcerer. Simply cloak your passing and nobody will know.

Not necessarily true. He could think of one who might, but he carefully guarded that name.

"It's an unnecessary risk."

And a test. Don't try my patience. Just get your ass here.

Kalen's brow rose. A crack in the Unseelie's normally cool, persuasive facade? Interesting. Whatever Malik was up to, it was a matter of some urgency, and his curiosity got the better of him. "I'll be there. Are you at the cabin?"

No. Follow our bond, and you'll find me.

"Or I could just follow the stench."

Agony knifed through his head as swift punishment, there and gone so fast he barely had time to draw breath. The connection between them vanished, but his orders were clear. God, how he wished he could tear out the bastard's throat. One day soon, he promised himself.

But he was the only one who could get close enough to learn Malik's immediate plans for his so-called super-shifters. To help the Pack stop him. If only he could hold on.

Considering his options, walking through the busy compound, even cloaked, didn't sound like a great idea. Nick or one of the others might still pick up on his life force moving in their vicinity. Using his magic to translocate was one way to go, but was a method he seldom used. It required a lot of concentration and zapped his energy much too fast. But right now, it was the best way.

Closing his eyes, he let the room fall away. Concentrated on his breathing, finding his center. Then he opened his mind to the black thread of the bond connecting him to the Unseelie. It stretched past the boundaries of the compound, beyond the forest, over the miles almost into the town of Cody. What was Malik doing there?

No time to dwell on it. Gathering his magic, he focused his power. Directed it into breaking every particle of his body down to nothing more than mist-a dangerous transition should he lose his grasp on the power. He let his body begin the journey, felt himself travel through space. Faster and faster, following the dark thread to the end, to Malik.

As he reached his destination, his form once again became corporeal. His boots touched solid ground and he took a deep breath, swaying a little. Blinking the spots from his vision. "Shit, that jacks me up every time."

"Perhaps you should practice more."

Malik stood a few feet away, wearing his guise of Evan Kerrigan. He looked like any classy businessman out for a midday stroll, his dark hair smoothed back, sunshades perched on his angular face.

"What do you want?" Kalen said with barely concealed venom.

"So testy." He smirked. "Watch your tone with me, boy."

"Whatever." Glancing around, he frowned. "Why are we standing in the middle of a park? Where are we, exactly?"

"We're in a small town not far from Cody. The name doesn't matter. It's a quaint little place, don't you think?" he observed, waving a hand at the peaceful, sculpted slice of town.

Across the expanse of lawn, a couple walked a yellow Lab. A man jogged past them on the paved, winding path, doing a double take at the undoubtedly odd sight of a businessman and a guy dressed in Goth attire loitering in the park.