"You don't hold a very high opinion of your man."
"Kalen is not my man," she snapped. "He couldn't have been more clear about that."
"Well, now it's not that simple, if it ever was." Melina sighed and suddenly looked tired, showing an uncharacteristic crack in her usual armor. "Give him a chance to come around."
The anger bled from Mac's body, leaving her drained. Disheartened. "Maybe I will, eventually. But first I have to figure out how I feel about having his-our-child."
Melina shocked her again by closing the distance and pulling her into a warm, comforting embrace. That's all it took for Mac's tears to break free and flow. Her chest felt like it had cracked apart and was bleeding everywhere. The smaller, birdlike woman was, at this moment, the stronger of the two of them.
* * *
Kalen stumbled out of bed and stood blearily in the middle of the room, trying to get his bearings. From the slant of the sunlight filtering through the blinds, it was late afternoon. Seemed like it should be midnight.
After the fucking stressful morning he'd been through, he'd gone down hard the second his body was sprawled facedown on his bed. Not even Mr. Evil Unseelie had been able to break through his mental exhaustion, if in fact he'd tried.
The radio silence made him uneasy. It wouldn't last long. The bastard was likely crouching in wait, a spider ready to inject his venom at the worst possible moment. God, he despised being the tool of an enemy he didn't have a clue how to fight.
Walking to the bathroom, he felt a thousand years old. After taking care of business, washing his hands and splashing his face to wake up, he headed out in search of dinner. He wasn't very hungry, but it wouldn't help his cause to hole up in his room, isolating himself from the guys. He'd promised them he'd fight Malik, and he meant to do just that.
A couple of minutes later, he walked into the dining room and glanced around. Most of the Pack was there, settled around several tables where the food was served family-style. Mackenzie was present too, sitting with Melina, Jax, his mate, Kira, and Sariel. He hesitated, uncertain, his body flushing with heat at the sight of his beautiful doc.
Not yours, Malik intoned, darkly pleased.
"There you are, you crazy fuck," he muttered under his breath, tensing. "Don't you have some kittens to drown or something?"
No response. Just a lingering touch of cold fingers brushing down his cheek, his neck, then squeezing his shoulder in warning, digging in to grind painfully into muscle and bone before releasing him. Kalen sucked in a breath at the realization that the touch had been absolutely physical. Despite the wards Kalen had placed on the Alpha Pack compound, the Unseelie could actually hurt him from a distance, if he chose. Or harm one of his friends. Goddamn him.
But not Mackenzie. Ever. He'd made sure of that.
Shaken, he took a seat across from Hammer, the team's quiet giant, and tried to relax. The big, bald man simply uttered a polite, "Hey, whatzup?" and went on shoveling in his dinner like he'd never get another meal.
Kalen's muscles began to uncoil. Unlike some of the others, Hammer never forced conversation, pointed out Kalen's failings, taunted him, or poked into his biz, and for those things alone he liked the guy. Since the man didn't really seem to be waiting for an answer, Kalen didn't give one. Instead, his gaze fell on the dish of lasagna in the center of the table and he willed down sudden nausea.
He loved lasagna. Usually. But today the lumpy red sauce looked like blood, the wavy noodles and ricotta cheese like brains and gray matter. Just like what his head would've resembled if Nick hadn't moved the muzzle of the gun. Swallowing down bile, he scooped a square onto his plate and grabbed a bread stick from the basket beside the main dish.
The first bite of the gooey ensemble went down with difficulty, but he gagged on the second. Putting his fork down, he pushed his plate away and resigned himself to nibbling on the bread.
He looked up to see Hammer studying him intensely, chewing his food. "Yeah, I'm good."
"That fuckin' creep screwin' around in your head again?"
"Not at the moment. I'm just wound a little tight."
"Understandable." Hammer didn't look like he much bought the simple explanation, but he nodded anyway. "Don't hesitate to ask for help, man. Do not try to deal with this on your own. We're a team. Remember that."
"And here I was just thinking how you never get into my business," he tried to joke.
"This doesn't count. What hurts one of us hurts all of us."
Like he'd needed the reminder. "I know," he said, his appetite now completely gone. He tossed the remains of the bread stick onto his plate. "Between the Pack and Malik, I'm not likely to forget, either."
"Hey, it ain't just you-we're all vulnerable to outside threats. That's why we work, train, and live as a unit. That's why we're in a remote building that's protected like a fuckin' fortress."
"And what if all that's not enough? What then?"
The other man eyed him in silence for a long moment. "It has to be."
But it wasn't. "I found out Malik can get to any of us, anytime he wants. Despite the wards I put on this place." Shame swamped him anew as he made his admission.
"What? How?" A twinge of alarm showed on Hammer's face before it disappeared.
"He touched me a few minutes ago." When the other man sat up straight and glanced around sharply, Kalen explained. "No, he's not here in body. But he projected some type of astral form of himself to me long enough to let me know he could get me whenever he wanted. Or anyone else, too."
"A warning," Hammer said in a low, pissed-off tone.
"It's a bluff. Has to be."
"Think about it. If Malik could actually do significant physical harm to you or anyone here, he would've done it already."
"Maybe," Kalen conceded. The idea gave him a bit of hope.
"And if he could, wouldn't he just go straight for Sariel, perhaps snatch you as a bonus? I'm thinking it's smoke up our asses, man. If the motherfucker was all that strong, he wouldn't need you, and he sure wouldn't be so bent on murdering his own son."
"Makes sense." God, he hoped Hammer was right.
"Something else just occurred to me." The big man rested his elbows on the table and eyed Kalen. "Can he hear us talking? Can he hear me, right now?"
"Shit," he breathed, stunned by the question. Scouring his brain for past contact with the Unseelie, the creature's taunts, he shook his head. "I don't think so. He only seems to react to my thoughts or when I speak to him directly, or he'll project himself into my head and mess with me out of the blue. He likes to prey on my emotions, but I've never gleaned any hint of him listening in on my actual conversations with others. If he could do that, I'm sure he'd be driving me crazy with it."
"You mean, sort of like when you're in the room with somebody who's on the phone, you can only hear their end of the conversation?"
"Exactly. For whatever reason, it seems Malik can only tune in to me."
"Interesting. That's something helpful, anyway. But while that's good, you'll need to work on being careful about your thoughts, or blocking them altogether. Imagine a wall or some crap between your mind and his. Whatever helps."
"I'll try." He didn't hold out much hope of it working, but it was worth a shot. "Is Nick having any luck tracking down 'Evan Kerrigan'?" That the Unseelie was walking among the unsuspecting public, posing as a wealthy entrepreneur, was a source of real fear for the team. Involving innocent humans in their battles was always a frightening prospect, to be avoided at all costs.
"Not yet. He and his contacts have to tread carefully so they don't raise his suspicions."
"I have a feeling he won't hide forever," Kalen speculated grimly. "If we don't get him under surveillance before he comes out to play, it's gonna be bad shit."
Hammer snorted. "A handful of us against an Unseelie king and his army of giant, rabid bats? No fuckin' problem-we got it handled."
Those "giant, rabid bats" being the Sluagh-fallen Seelie who'd given themselves to evil and lived to serve Malik. God, they were all going to get massacred. Unless Kalen could pull off a miracle.
There are no miracles, my boy. Only the path that you and I will forge together. Once you learn to embrace your power, accept me as your master, we'll rule the universe.
"You mean the dark side of my power," Kalen hissed. "I won't use it to hurt innocents."
You will, pet. You have no choice.
"Kalen?" Hammer leaned forward, looking worried. "Is it him?"
Feeling sick again, Kalen pushed from his seat. "I have to go. Thanks for the talk."
Without giving the other man a chance to reply, he strode for the door. In the hallway, he leaned his back against the wall, sucking in a lungful of air and releasing it slowly. Searching for calm.
"Are you okay?"
Mackenzie had followed him out, and she stood in front of him with her hands tucked in the pockets of her lab coat, blue eyes apprehensive. Christ, he didn't deserve the concern on her sweet face.
As he fumbled for an answer, he noted that her eyelids were reddened. A bit puffy. Her expression was strained, her body tense, and he immediately went on alert. "I've had better days, Doc. Now, same question back at you. What's wrong?"
Some emotion that might've been remorse, or sorrow, flashed across her features and was gone. "Seriously? What's right? See, I can be evasive, too."
There was an edge to her tone that was new for the normally happy, bubbly woman. His heart sank. "It's me," he said softly, moving from the wall to get closer, touch her cheek. "I put that look on your face. Baby, I'm so sorry-" She stepped back to avoid contact, and the action skewered his gut like a blade.
"No. You don't get to do that," she snapped. "You don't get to baby me and act like you give a damn. I'm not your problem, remember?"
The dagger in his gut twisted. "I never said you weren't my problem or that I didn't care. I didn't mean to imply I felt that way." Just the opposite, in fact.
She crossed her arms over her chest in a protective stance. "Seemed like it to me. Anyway, does that really change anything?"
He looked away, heart aching. "Maybe not. But either way, staying far away from me is the best thing for you to do right now."
"Why? Because of this Unseelie character, Malik? He's the one who tried to get into my head a few weeks ago and now he's after you, right?"
He snapped his gaze back to hers. "Where did you hear his name?"
She glared at him. "I keep my ears open. I have to if I want to find out anything important around here."
"What, you eavesdropped on our meeting earlier?" In answer, she merely arched a brow, her militant expression daring him to make something of it. He'd never seen her temper spike so fast-in fact, he hadn't even been aware she had one. And he didn't like being the focus of it. "Fine. Then you know what I'm up against."
"What we're all up against, not just you!"
"You're the second person today to remind me of that."
"Then you should start listening before your stubborn ass gets us all killed."
He blew out a breath in frustration. "Working with a team isn't as easy as you make it sound. Not for me. I've been alone for almost half my life, and experience has taught me the hard way that the only person I can count on is myself. I can't change that sort of conditioning overnight."