Nick shook his head. "All right, everyone, show's over. Let's call it a day."
Kalen had never heard a better suggestion. As the group broke up, some of the guys clapped him on the back or gave him an encouraging word or two in a show of support. But none, he noted, actually stopped to really talk to him. To reach out.
Nobody ever had before. Why should now be any different?
Even Mac had left without speaking to him further. No reason she should've stayed after the way he'd spoken to her. Aric had been right and Kalen had been too angry to listen.
Now he was alone in the empty corridor, longing for companionship. He'd give almost anything for the joy of the easy friendships these guys shared. Not to mention a beautiful mate like Jax and Aric had found. It seemed those dreams were to remain forever out of his reach.
"Don't you have anything to say about that?" he asked Malik bitterly.
The bastard didn't respond, though. At that moment, he would've given anything for companionship, even the slimy Unseelie's, because then he wouldn't be so alone.
Which was, no doubt, exactly what Malik had planned.
And that was the most frightening thought of all.
Kalen tossed in his bed, twisting in tangled sheets.
The night was too hot, the room stifling. He'd lowered the thermostat in his quarters, but it hadn't helped. The cotton sheets clung to his overheated skin, sticky and miserable. For hours he'd fought for oblivion, but it remained elusive. He was restless.
"You're quite the detective," he said sarcastically to the damned Unseelie. "What do you care? And don't the Fae sleep, either?"
A deep sigh sounded from somewhere outside, in the shadows. I care more than you know, and I rarely require sleep. Come to me, boy. I want to show you something.
A chill slithered across Kalen's skin, despite the uncomfortable heat. The Unseelie sounded almost . . . friendly. Was this a new approach to try to worm his way into Kalen's confidence? "No, thanks. There's not anything you've got that I want to see."
You'll feel differently once you see it.
"Feeling sure about that, huh?"
What I'm certain of is that you're alone. That you're tired, so tired of walking through your existence with no one by your side who understands you.
"And you think you do?" Kalen asked tightly.
Yes. I know you better than you realize.
"What the hell does that mean?"
I'll show you. Come.
"Go to hell."
A darkly amused chuckle floated in the air. That's not exactly an effective threat. While you're straining your mind for a more original insult, get out of bed and join me. You have nothing to lose. Deep inside, you know I'm right.
The words filled him with despair. It didn't matter that he recognized the tactic the Unseelie was using-find the point of weakness in the prey and strike. Kalen's point of weakness also happened to be the truth.
He'd been alone and adrift since his grandmother died, not long after the day she'd given him the pendant. Ever since, he'd struggled to rise above the hatred, indifference, and ridicule thrown at him daily. It was hard to say which one hurt most.
With Kalen's grandmother no longer an obstacle, his father's abuse had worsened by leaps and bounds. Especially toward Kalen's mother. On that last, terrible night, Dave Black had started beating her for some small infraction, and the sight of her cowering under his blows, crying out, made something snap in Kalen's soul. He'd shifted into his panther form for the very first time and leaped onto his father, fully intending to rip out his throat. Only his mother's screams for him to stop spared the bastard his fate.
When Kalen had shifted back, his gratification at seeing dear old Dad's terror was brief. The bastard's fearful expression quickly morphed into outright, seething hatred. He ordered his son gone from the house immediately, and he was to take nothing with him.
Kalen's mother had remained silent, letting it happen. And his heart had broken.
That was his first experience with hatred. There'd been plenty of ridicule-Aric wasn't the first to call him a freak, to act like Kalen didn't deserve to breathe the same air as regular people. A recent run-in with a group of backwoods assholes at the Cross-eyed Grizzly came painfully to mind. And yeah, Mackenzie had witnessed that incident, too.
But now that he thought about it, the indifference might just be the worst. He thought of years of walking busy highways and lonely back roads. Everyone passing him by, no one caring where this drifter might be headed or what had brought him so low. Not one hand extended in welcome.
Until Nick Westfall had offered him a job with the Alpha Pack and a place to stay. Maybe-
Boy, don't get sentimental about the commander's gesture, Malik sneered. You know as well as I that the man would've shown you the door weeks ago if you hadn't been of use to his team. Deny it!
He couldn't, and misery swamped him anew. "I'm nothing but a tool to you, too. You're no different from Nick, if that's the argument you're going with."
I have something far greater to offer you, young Sorcerer. Something you long for badly that he can never give to you. Come and see, pet. Once you do, you'll be free to go if you wish.
"I don't believe you," he gritted. "You'll probably hold me prisoner or something."
No. I won't need to take such a drastic step.
Again, there was the ring of truth. Kalen was chilled, fear taking root deep in his soul. What could Malik possibly have that made him so confident Kalen would join him? What did Kalen want so badly that he'd give in to the darkness, as his grandmother had feared?
Acceptance, Malik said gently. And a place to belong.
Kalen's pulse beat hard in his throat. "You can't give me those things. You're evil, and you're lying."
I'm neither-merely misunderstood, like you. Let me prove it.
The temptation was too much. Kalen rose from the bed and dressed, hands shaking. He was glad Malik couldn't see them. After donning the jeans and T-shirt from earlier, he pulled on his boots and slipped from his quarters.
Moving as silently as possible, he made his way down the corridor to the compound's recreation room. Once there, he crossed to the door leading outside and soon found himself standing in the grassy area at the back of the building where the guys played football and other games to pass their free time.
Positive he'd escaped without being spotted, he strode for the edge of the forest. Once shielded from view by the cover of the trees and surrounding gloom, he took a deep breath and relaxed, calling his panther.
The beast responded with a glad roar at being free. It had been much too long. He hit the ground on all fours, lifted his nose to the air. The scents were much sharper in this form, the earth more pungent. Rich. He caught the scent of animals, too, small ones that would make tasty snacks, but he resisted the hunt. Tonight he had a different purpose.
His panther ran, exulting in stretching his limbs. In the simplicity of just being free. He'd often wondered if it might be better to live in this form forever, turning his back on humanity. It could be so easy.
Then again, perhaps not. The man inside craved acceptance, and unfortunately, Malik was right. He was curious to see what the male thought he had to offer. Even more puzzling, he sensed no imminent physical threat from the Unseelie. Why?
That question nagged him all during his run. He wasn't sure where he was going, but simply followed the pull that told him this was the right direction. The nearer he got to Malik, the stronger the force drawing him in.
He should've been alarmed once he passed beyond the boundaries of the wards he'd placed around the Pack compound, but he wasn't. For miles he ran, well into the Shoshone National Forest, far past where any hunter or camper would dare to venture.
At last he came to a clearing, and in that space stood a cabin nestled in the trees. Not a small, quaint one, either. The structure was made of logs, and a covered porch traversed the front and wrapped around both sides. The place was grand, like a hunting lodge a millionaire might own, which made sense. Malik was posing as the wealthy Evan Kerrigan.
Then again . . . the cabin was too far from civilization to be part of Malik's human cover. In fact, there was something different about this place. Something other. He became aware of a vibration along his nerve endings, sort of like a current, but one that caused him no discomfort. Immediately he identified the source-dark magic.
And it wasn't just coming from the cabin and surrounding area. No, this place was magic itself. A beautiful illusion created by a master of the dark arts, cloaked from all except those to whom Malik wished it known. He couldn't help but admire the skill involved in maintaining the facade.
But is it a facade if you can see and touch it, boy? I can disappear at will, so am I therefore not real?
Kalen shifted back to his human form, his clothes reappearing on his body. Quite a handy ability that none of the other guys possessed.
"I don't know. Why don't you vanish for good and we'll find out?" he muttered.
An amused laugh greeted Kalen's terse words, and a dark figure stepped onto the porch from inside. Backlit in the cabin's doorway, the man-or rather, the Unseelie disguised as a man-was very tall.
"Come inside, young Sorcerer," Malik said, gesturing him forward. "Let's have a nightcap to cure our insomnia."
The other male turned and went inside. Wary, Kalen followed him. Just because the Unseelie exuded a false sense of normalcy didn't mean Kalen was stupid. His years on the street had taught him that a friendly gesture always came with a catch.
And nothing about this creature was normal.
Mounting the porch steps, he trailed Malik into the cabin and took a surprised look around. Somehow he'd expected stark coldness and "evil" stamped on every surface. But the interior was the epitome of warm, rustic luxury. Dark leather furniture and plush throw rugs dotted the living space. A large stone fireplace graced most of the far wall, and an adjacent wall sported a walk-in wet bar.
"How civilized," he commented drily as Malik rounded the bar.
"Isn't it? And here you likely expected a dreary cave full of bats." The Unseelie reached for an expensive-looking bottle of Cognac and then removed two crystal highball glasses from the shelf. Smiling faintly, he poured them each a couple of inches of the liquor and then brought them both into the living area. He handed Kalen a glass. "Please, sit."
Kalen remained standing for a few beats longer, studying the creature who could pass for any human man. An exceptionally good-looking one. The form he'd taken as Evan Kerrigan was a few inches taller than Kalen's six or so feet, and he was well muscled without being ripped. Black hair dusted his shoulders and framed an angular face set with midnight blue eyes and a strong jaw. It was no wonder the creature had managed to seduce everyone who'd crossed his path.
He appeared to be anything but a monster.
There was an innate sexuality that radiated from the male's very pores. Although, despite the Unseelie's seductive approach, Kalen could honestly say he knew Malik's focus was not really directed at him in a sexual way-though he couldn't say how he knew-the bold scrutiny in the other's steady gaze unnerved him nonetheless.
"What are you so hot to show me?" Kalen asked, getting to the point.
"First I'd like to talk to you. Sit, please." Malik took a seat in a large wingback chair near the fireplace, stretching his long legs out in front of him and crossing them at the ankles. Casually sipping his Cognac, he presented the picture of cozy, urbane charm.
It couldn't last.
Slowly, Kalen lowered himself to the sofa across from the Unseelie and sniffed at the liquor. Reaching out with his magic, he could discern no spell placed on the drink. He took a sip and found it to be safe. But he knew better than to relax.