His jaw clenched. "I'm not going to sit here and hide like a coward while the rest of the team is facing him and his junkyard dogs, getting hurt or worse."
"But what if he takes you over again and you fight against your friends instead of with them? What then?"
Nick would have to kill him. They both knew it and that knowledge hung in the air between them.
"Then I'll get what I have coming," he said, his expression grim. Determined. "But I like to think I'm stronger than Malik. That I can beat him."
"Can he hear you now?" The possibility made her nervous as hell.
Kalen paused, then shook his head. "He's not tuned in to me at the moment. I'm guessing he's busy with his plans."
"You think he knows exactly what you told Nick?"
He frowned. "I'm not sure. I do know that my bond with Malik physically punishes me for going against him. Whether he's aware when it happens is something I suppose I'll find out."
And not in a pleasant way. "Please, stay here," she begged. "We can't lose you."
Falling silent for a long moment, he studied her, an odd look on his face. "You said we."
"We, the team." Her heart pounded furiously against her sternum. "That's all I meant."
"Suddenly you care? I don't know why." He looked away, green eyes bleak. "I claimed you without asking you first. I'm a piece of shit who's brought you and everyone else nothing but trouble."
"That is not true," she hissed. "Yes, I was pissed. But I realized that I was too hard on you. I should've listened when you tried to explain."
"Nah, you did the right thing." He didn't quite manage to hide the bitterness in his tone. "After I finish this thing with Malik, I'll probably hit the road again."
Her stomach lurched. "You're not serious."
"Come on, Mackenzie," he said with a sad smile. "It's not like I'll ever fit in here with these guys. No matter how many nice words they say about sticking together and being there for me, name one person who'll be devastated to see me walk away."
"Me," she whispered.
"You'll forget about me, in time."
"No, I assure you I won't." God, you have no idea. But if she told him the truth right now, he'd think she was just using the baby as leverage to trap him. What a damned mess. "Please, don't decide anything right now. Just . . . give it a while."
His voice was soft, his suffering all too apparent. "So you're willing to forgive me? Give me another chance? 'Cause that's the only way I'll stay."
Instead of answering, she showed him. Leaning over, she placed a soft kiss on his sensual lips. A kiss that quickly became heated, searching. And Lord, was her Sorcerer good at it. She longed to crawl inside him and never come out. No other man had ever made her feel this way, and it was no mystery as to why. He'd been made for her and she for him.
They broke apart and she caressed his cheek. "It's better when we're together, isn't it? I mean, you seem more yourself, more here, when we're with each other and in sync."
He nodded. "No doubt about it. I don't know whether to attribute that to our mating or the pendant," he mused, fingering the silver disk around her neck.
"Perhaps it's a bit of both."
"Could be." He held up the hand with the IV still attached. "You going to undo me?"
"Under one condition." Reaching behind her neck, she unfastened the clasp and removed the necklace.
"What are you doing?" Alarm spiked his voice and etched itself on his face. "Put it back on!"
"This is my condition. You wear this to go help the team, or remain here." Mac put her fingers over his lips to shush him. "No. I'm not going to sit by and watch you fall back into his snare if I can help it."
"That protection is yours," he argued. "I can't go off knowing you're exposed."
"Honey, everyone is vulnerable to that creep. But those of us who remain at the compound have an advantage-the wards you put over the building and the surrounding forest. They're still in place, right?"
"Yes," he admitted reluctantly. "No creature, not even Malik, can get through my wards unless I allow it. He might still be able to get into your head and harass you, but since I strengthened the spell, he won't be able to physically breach the property."
"Well, there you are. So take the pendant and go kick some ass!"
He wanted to. The yearning to join them as a true equal was almost heartbreaking to witness. When would he ever believe in his own worth? What would it take for a man who'd never been worth anything to anyone except his grandmother? And now me.
Slowly, he reached out. The second his hand closed over the disk, he took a deep, shuddering breath. "Oh my God."
"What's wrong?" She studied him in concern.
"Nothing." At last, he smiled. "I'd worn this thing for years, and I'd already forgotten how powerful it is. It feels like the best vitamin shot ever invented."
"Really? It didn't affect me that way," she said thoughtfully. "I don't even notice it's gone, not in a magical sense."
"I'm glad, because if being without it affects you at all, I wouldn't take it, even for a few hours. And I'm giving it back the minute we return."
"I'm still worried about you going when you've barely recovered from the last round with that bastard."
"Don't be, sweetheart. I'll be back before you can blink, none the worse for wear. Now, what do ya say we get me unhooked?" He held out his hand.
Against her better judgment, Mac removed the IV needle and swabbed the site with alcohol. In truth, she couldn't have stopped him from leaving, but that didn't make her feel any better about the situation. When she was done, he pushed from the bed and stood unsteadily on his feet for a couple of moments. Then he straightened, waving a hand in front of himself and uttering a brief Latin phrase she couldn't quite catch.
His clothing appeared, his usual ensemble of black from head to toe, complete with his battered leather duster. The man looked completely badass, and good enough to eat. Later, with any luck.
Closing the short gap between them, he pulled her close against his hard, lean body. Nuzzled her hair, hands splayed on her back. Rubbing, comforting. "I'm going to be fine, and so are we. Together. If you want me."
"More than anything. Be careful, please."
Another kiss. This one long and drawn out, making her nipples pucker and the rest of her ache for his touch. For his cock to be buried inside, so deep she couldn't tell where one of them ended and the other began.
Her mate pulled back, gave her a wink.
And then he was gone.
* * *
Kalen appeared in the conference room, where the meeting to form a plan for intercepting the Sluagh was well under way. He retreated to a corner, making himself as unnoticeable as possible without actually cloaking his presence.
As he watched the proceedings, he couldn't believe how much better he felt already. It was as though the pendant had instantly washed all traces of Malik from his body. He suspected it was more like the blessed disk was protecting him from the effects rather than curing him, but he'd take what he could get for however long it lasted.
Nick paced at the head of the table, agitated. "No contact from Jax and Zander for the past twenty minutes. We give them five more. Then we head out."
"What about Malik's cover as Kerrigan?" Ryon asked. "Has anyone been able to pinpoint where 'Kerrigan' likes to hang out?"
"According to the employees at NewLife Technologies, Kerrigan continues to be a silent force behind their biological research," Nick said, letting the last word drip with sarcasm. "In other words, he's the man with the money, and they don't care who he is or where he is as long as the green keeps rolling in."
Aric spoke next. "What about other facilities where they're doing their nasty little experiments on humans and shifters? Any word on more locations?"
"None so far. With Dr. Bowman missing, and Chappell and Beryl dead, our leads on those have gone cold."
Rowan, Aric's mate, winced. She'd been the one to kill Orson Chappell, and Aric had taken out Beryl when the witch attacked both Rowan and Sariel. Maybe she felt a little guilty, though there was no need. "I suppose it's too much to hope for that we've already found and destroyed all the labs."
"I seriously doubt that," Nick said. "Wherever Dr. Bowman is, his heinous work continues. I don't think he's in it just for the money."
"He's not." Aric's eyes went cold. "Trust me, the motherfucker totally enjoys his work." He'd spent weeks under the crazy doctor's knife before Rowan and the team rescued him and Micah. They'd been fortunate to survive.
"If there are more labs, there might be more survivors like me," Micah put in quietly. All eyes swiveled to him and his gaze dropped to the floor-right about where his self-worth was located. One side of his face was like melted wax from the torture Bowman had inflicted on him, the other side unmarred, serving to remind him of the handsome man he'd never be again. He wasn't near healthy enough to go on their assignments yet, but the group had started including him in the meetings.
Mulling over Micah's speculation, part of Kalen hoped the other Pack members were dead, no longer suffering. The other part had witnessed a miracle when Micah was found and prayed for another one.
"If they're out there, we'll find them," Nick assured his newest member. Even though Micah had known the Pack since their days as Navy SEALs, he was new to Nick. Their commander was about to say something more when his cell phone blasted out George Thorogood's "Bad to the Bone," breaking the tension. Several of the guys snickered as their boss answered the call. "Whatcha got?"
After a brief exchange and a couple of questions, he ended the call and briefed them. "That was Jax. He said three Sluagh showed up and hid at the park while they were watching the east end of the town, obviously sent to keep an eye out for us since Kalen spilled the beans. Jax and Zan took them out."
"Just three?" Ryon asked. "Where are the rest?"
"Malik changed his plan, no doubt in hopes of avoiding us joining the fight, the cowardly bastard. The Unseelie is sending about a dozen Sluagh to the west end of town as we speak, where they're planning to attack the citizens. We need to move, now."
Chairs scraped on the carpet and a murmur of conversation ensued as the men began to file out, checking weapons and slapping each other on the back in support. Kalen was surprised when Micah stopped him.
"Be strong, man. If I can walk away from my hellhole, so can you." A half smile pulled at his ruined face. His brown eyes were glazed with whatever shit he was on to help him cope, and he was far too thin. But as fucked up as his life might be, here he was trying to reach out and reassure someone he didn't even know.
Kalen stood a bit taller and managed a smile. "Thanks, Micah. I'll remember that." Giving the man a nod, he headed after the group.
In the huge hangar that housed their land and air transportation, Nick led them to two of the sleek black SUVs for the trip. As the others loaded up, he turned to Kalen.
"I don't suppose it would do any good to order you to stay here?"
"Mackenzie already tried, so no. I'm in."
Nick's scrutiny fell on the pendant. "At least you had enough sense to accept protection."
"I didn't want to, but the doc wouldn't hear of me leaving without it."
"You need it more tonight. She'll be fine in the meantime, trust me."