Her eyes softened a fraction and some of the tenseness left her posture. "Life's been a bitch for you. I get that. But it hasn't exactly been a picnic for the other guys, either. Or me, for that matter."
"You?" He blinked at her. "Why? What do you mean?"
She gave a sad laugh and shook her head. "Did it ever occur to you to wonder why I gave up a lucrative private psychology practice to work out here, in the middle of nowhere, in a place that doesn't exist to the rest of the world?"
"Because your daddy-and our boss-the almighty General Jarrod Grant, hooked his baby up with a plum assignment?" The smartass comment did exactly what it was supposed to do.
It pissed her off.
"No, that isn't why, you jackass," she hissed, the fire back in those glittering blue eyes. "You know, if you'd wake the hell up and pay attention, you might learn a few things about the people who want to be your friends. I suggest you do that before it's too late."
"Yeah, everybody's got a shitload of great advice," he spat back. "And maybe I don't want or need any fucking friends."
"You know what? I'll talk to you when you're in the mood to act like an adult."
With a scathing look, she turned and walked briskly down the hall, putting distance between them as fast as she could. That's what he'd wanted. Right?
"Dammit. Mackenzie, wait!" he called, taking a step forward.
His path was blocked by a smirking, redheaded wolf shifter who had apparently seen too much of the exchange. "Way to go, Goth-boy. What'll you do for an encore? Twist the heads off her Barbie dolls?"
Of all the goddamned people to witness the scene with the doc, this guy was, hands down, the one he would've gone miles out of his way to avoid. He and Aric Savage hadn't gotten along since the night Kalen had met the Pack in the cemetery outside town. Kalen had been investigating a series of murders and was in the process of raising a corpse to get some information from it when he'd become aware of the shifters' presence. After a short but fierce battle, they'd gotten Kalen pinned and Jax had cheated by knocking him out.
After taking Kalen into the compound for questioning, the team had ascertained that Kalen was innocent. He learned that the Pack was looking into the same murders and that they were on the trail of Orson Chappell, the CEO of NewLife Technology. The man was using his scientists to conduct research on splicing human and shifter DNA, and he especially wanted shifters with Psy abilities like those in the Pack. Chappell and his men were murdering innocents in the process-thus the poor, mutilated bodies the local authorities had found.
But Chappell wasn't the Big Boss. To their shock, they'd discovered that Malik, masquerading as the wealthy Evan Kerrigan, was the real power behind the gruesome endeavor to create a breed of super-shifter soldier. He'd seduced the now-deceased Chappell and many others to do his bidding.
Just as he was now trying to seduce Kalen into joining him.
But that wasn't his most pressing problem right this second. He felt his lip curl as he glared at Aric. From day one, the Firestarter/Telekinetic had harassed and mocked him at every opportunity. How the asshole had managed to snag an intelligent, gorgeous mate like Rowan Chase-a former LAPD cop-was beyond Kalen's comprehension.
He tried to keep his voice even, but it betrayed his anger. "Fuck off, Aric. What goes on between me and Mackenzie is nobody's business, especially not yours."
"See, that's where you're wrong," the red wolf replied with a feral smile, clamping down firmly on Kalen's shoulder. "Mac is-"
"Get your hands off me."
Aric ignored his warning. "Mac is my friend. Everyone loves her, and none of us are going to stand by and watch you take a giant dump on her."
Kalen barely heard the words as Aric's face blurred. In an instant, memories assaulted him. Terrible ones, ghosts of other male hands in years gone by, many of them brutal. Taking what they wanted. And Kalen allowing the unwanted touches so he could put food in his empty, burning stomach.
Mackenzie was the only one who had that right. Her hands were like heaven.
"Don't touch me," he said hoarsely. Inside, his panther stirred, rumbled in anger.
He's the enemy, pet, Malik cajoled. Don't you see? He's done nothing but hurt you, laugh at you, just as all the others in the past have done. He would toss you back into the cold if he could. Do not give him your loyalty-he does not deserve it. Show him your power, boy! Do not accept this contempt from one so far beneath you! Show him what it means to fuck with a Sorcerer!
Aric's lips were moving, but it was Malik's words that resounded in his head. They held the ring of truth, and anger boiled into a barely concealed rage. Under his skin, overwhelming emotions writhed like snakes, grew, and exploded.
With a snarl, he brought up a forearm and broke the other man's hold, then shoved him backward. Taken by surprise, the red wolf was unprepared when Kalen flung out a hand, palm up, and shouted a spell in Latin, releasing a blue sphere of pure energy.
The blast hit Aric in the chest and blew him off his feet, slamming him into the far wall hard enough to crack the plaster. His face registered shock as the energy hummed, spreading to his torso and limbs, causing his entire body to shake before it dispersed altogether. The man dropped to his knees, but just briefly. His head snapped up and his lips peeled back to bare his lengthening fangs.
"You wanna play dirty, kitty-cat? I can do that."
As Aric pushed to his feet, Kalen half-expected him to shift into his wolf form. He wasn't prepared for the other man to fling his hand out, answering Kalen's challenge with a plume of fire that rocketed toward his face. A shriek echoed in the hallway that he identified as Mac's frightened voice just as he brought up his hand and pushed his power at the fire, driving it back at his nemesis.
The wolf switched tactics, and the fire vanished. Before Kalen could react, he felt his body rise, feet leaving the floor. The fucker was using his gift of telekinesis to fight back, and quite effectively. Kalen's body spun around to face away from the wolf, making it almost impossible to throw a spell at him. Then he was body-slammed into the wall, his entire right side taking the hit. Pain shot through his head and arm, and he both heard and felt a sickening snap.
"Ahhg!" Agony swept him, and he was slammed again.
"Like that, kitty?" Aric sneered. "How does that feel?"
"What the fuck is going on here?" Nick's voice bellowed. "Savage, put him the fuck down!"
"You're the boss."
Kalen was unceremoniously dropped. He crumpled to the floor, trying to breathe through the terrible pain. And, as his head slowly cleared of Malik's coercion, shame. What had he done?
Hands rolled him carefully to his back and he found himself blinking at Nick's worried face. The commander's gaze went to Kalen's right arm.
"Can you lift it? Wiggle your fingers?"
He tried, and a bolt of white-hot fire shot through his arm as a cry escaped his lips. "No."
Nick glared at Aric, who was standing off to the side, jaw clenched. "You broke his arm. You'd better have a good goddamned reason for attacking one of your own brothers."
"First, he ain't my brother. The others, yeah. But not that freak," he said with undisguised contempt.
This time, the agony hit Kalen in a completely different place, and he struggled not to let it show as the man went on.
"Second, I do have a good reason. He attacked me first."
Nick's gaze returned to Kalen. "Is this true?"
Apparently the PreCog couldn't "see" everything. Kalen swallowed hard. "Yes."
A small crowd had gathered, some of the other guys muttering, one giving a low whistle. To his mortification, Mac stood with the others, looking at him in horror. Obviously she'd witnessed the whole thing.
"Why?" the commander bit off.
Such a simple question.
"Because he wouldn't take his hands off me." Such a sad answer.
Immediately, Nick understood and the anger began to drain from his face. "Flashback?"
"Yeah," he whispered. The awful memories threatened to overtake him again. "All I felt was his hands and he wouldn't let me go and I remembered . . ." He couldn't finish. But he didn't have to.
Finally catching on, Aric swore. To Nick, he said, "I thought he was just being a dick, especially after how he'd just talked to Mac. I didn't know."
Whatever Nick might've said was forgotten for the moment as Zander Cole, the Pack's Healer, knelt beside Nick, forcing him to make room. "Damn, that's a bad break. Lucky for you, I can fix it right up." He sent Kalen an encouraging smile, which Kalen couldn't quite return.
"If you say so."
"I do. The bad news is I've got to realign the bone first or you're going to be all crooked. Ready?"
"Do your worst."
Lifting Kalen's arm, Zan gave him an apologetic look. Working quickly, he pulled the injured limb with all his strength, popping the severed ends back into place. Kalen yelled, dark spots dancing in front of his eyes. Nausea pushed bile into his throat and he nearly passed out. How he kept from either throwing up or losing consciousness was sheer luck.
When Zan's fingers wrapped over the place where the bone had broken the skin, Kalen panted, sweat trickling down his temples into his hair. Then warmth enveloped the point of the break, and the horrible, stabbing burn gradually lessened. The heat felt good, and soon the pain was gone. Checking out his arm, he saw that his skin was covered in drying blood from the break, but the arm was as good as new.
"Thanks, Z-man," he said, giving the guy a wan smile.
"No problem. Here." Pushing to his feet, he offered Kalen a hand up.
He took it and stood awkwardly, not making eye contact with anyone as he waited for Nick to deliver his judgment. It came swiftly.
"I get what happened here," the commander said in a low, stern tone. "It's no secret that you two, in addition to your own problems, have had issues with each other from day one. But I'm not a fucking kindergarten teacher and this isn't a playground for you two to beat the shit out of each other while you work out those issues. Is that clear?"
Kalen winced. "Yes, sir."
"Yeah," Aric drawled, earning him a hard stare from Nick. He cleared his throat. "I mean, yes, sir."
"Find some common ground and do it on your own time. I've got a Pack to run. I don't have time for this bullshit and neither does anyone else. If this happens again, you're both suspended. Indefinitely."
"What!" Aric shouted. "It wasn't my fault! He-"
"And now you know why," Nick enunciated. He was fast losing his trademark patience. "You know how to read your teammate's signals better than that, Aric. I know you do. You should have stopped and read his body language, and if you had, you'd have known something was wrong. Then you would have let him go like he asked and diffused the situation with a bit of compassion. You're a better Pack mate and brother than this."
Aric glanced to Rowan, found her lips tight with disapproval. His high cheekbones colored and he hung his head in shame. "You're right, Nicky. I'm sorry."
"It's not me you owe the apology."
He didn't want to speak to Kalen at all. Anyone could see that. It hurt more than Kalen wanted to admit. But the man closed the distance and nodded.
"I'm sorry, Sorcerer. I fucked up."
"What?" Aric's brow furrowed in confusion.
"You're always calling me Goth-boy, kitty, pretty boy, whatever. My name is Kalen," he said quietly.
"Right." Aric laughed without real humor. "Sure, Kalen, whatever."