"For what it's worth, though, I am clean. I get tested every six months."
"And I'm on the pill."
That one seemed to startle him for a moment, but he recovered and nodded. "That's good."
He stared at her, regret etched on his face. Oh, no. Here it comes.
He did his best to let her down easy. "Mackenzie, I've been alone forever, it seems. I don't know what a relationship is, at least not a healthy one. I'm bankrupt here," he said, placing a fist over his heart. "I've got nothing to offer anyone. Not right now. Maybe not ever."
It hurt. More than it should, considering the short time she'd known him. In fact, the very real agony of his rejection took her totally by surprise. This was why coworkers should never sleep together. How in the hell was she supposed to face him after this, on a daily basis?
"I think you're wrong."
"Maybe. But I don't know where this can go, this attraction between us."
"You didn't have problem figuring that out a few minutes ago," she snapped. His expression shut down and she immediately regretted her words. She'd carelessly struck at the part of himself that he loathed the most, and she couldn't take it back.
He nodded. "I deserved that. Let's just leave it be for a while."
Like for the next century or so, she heard in his voice.
No one has ever done that before. Asked me to change into my panther. Embraced him. Accepted me.
And she'd ruined everything by pushing him too hard, too fast. This lonely man who didn't have a clue how to love, or accept love in return.
Miserable, she curled on her side, facing away from him. This time, he didn't hold her in his arms, comfort her like before. And her pride wouldn't allow her to beg.
When the cold light of dawn broke through the curtains, Mackenzie hadn't slept at all.
A banging noise had Kalen bolting upright in bed, scanning for the source. He didn't have long to wonder who was on the other side.
"Kalen? Mac?" Nick called. "Open up!"
"Jesus," he muttered. Swinging his legs over the side of the bed, he yelled back. "Just a minute!"
Mackenzie was already up, and came out of the bathroom dressed in her jeans and his T-shirt. They carefully avoided eye contact as Kalen pulled on his jeans, boots, and his duster. Christ, how had things fallen apart so fast? They'd made beautiful love, the likes of which Kalen had never hoped to experience in his lifetime. Normally, he hated physical contact-especially sex-but with Mackenzie, holding her close, being inside her . . .
God, it had been heaven. So different from having sex just to survive. And yeah, he'd been scared afterward, but what guy wouldn't be who'd walked in his shoes?
He was a complete novice when it came to relationships and he was only trying to be honest, not give her the total brush-off. But obviously she hadn't taken his words at face value-that he needed time.
And she'd given up without a fight, or even a single word of protest.
So maybe it was better this way. He didn't deserve someone as fine as Mackenzie anyhow.
Stalking to the door, he yanked it open to find Nick, Jax, Zan, and Ryon on the other side. The first two were scowling and the other two just looked tired.
"Tell me what the fuck happened," Nick growled. "We've been looking for you two all goddamned night long."
Jax leaned against the doorjamb. "We about had heart failure when we tracked the SUV to the Grizzly, only to find the tire slashed and the back panel clawed to hell, drops of blood on the ground, and Mac's car nowhere to be found."
"We were attacked," Kalen said, exhaustion hitting him hard. "Coming out of the Grizzly, by one of those things like you had in Block T before it died. I killed it, and disposed of the body. We tried to call on our way back, but the cell phone service was out."
"It was out on our end too, but that doesn't explain why you didn't just come home," Nick said, still pissy. Now he glanced between Kalen and Mackenzie, as the obvious suspicion dawned on his face.
"It's not what you're thinking," Kalen defended. "We were heading back when I sensed that there was another one, or something equally as bad, between us and the compound. Like it was waiting for us. So we turned around and headed for the motel, and I placed wards around the room so it couldn't locate us."
Nick studied him and Mackenzie for a long moment. Then he turned to his three men. "I need for you guys to wait in the SUV while I talk to these two alone."
The boss knew there was more to say. Stuff Kalen didn't want the rest of the team to know, yet. Nick waited until he'd moved inside and closed the door before speaking.
"Now tell me the rest."
"Someone is communicating with Mackenzie telepathically," Kalen said. "We don't know who or what he is-hell, he might not even be human. But he spoke to Mackenzie for the first time in the car, after she was scratched by that creature. He said I wouldn't be able to hide from him for long. Then she had a nightmare about him last night in which he urged her to join him."
"We don't know. But he said I would join him too, or else. That's the gist of it, that he wants her and me. In the dream, when she resisted, he attacked her."
"I have a feeling it's you he wants," Nick said. He swiped a hand down his face. "He's striking at you through her. Fuck."
Mackenzie sucked in a sharp breath. "No."
"That's what it seems like."
Nick sighed. "Let's head back. There isn't anything we can do here, and I'll feel better when we're all back at the compound. It's much safer there."
"Okay. Can I have a minute with her?"
That look returned. The one that communicated he knew what the minute was probably about. But he nodded. "I'll be in the SUV with the others."
"Thanks." Once Nick was gone, Kalen steeled himself, facing Mackenzie squarely. "I have something extremely important to give to you, and I need for you to wear it."
She frowned. "What is it?"
"This." Reaching for the clasp of the silver chain holding his Sorcerer's pentagram pendant, Kalen did the one thing he'd been warned never, ever to do.
He gave his protection to the woman who'd stolen his heart.
Moving behind her, he placed the pendant over hers, where it belonged, now and always. Then he fastened the chain and turned her to face him again.
"Your pendant? Kalen, I can't-"
"You can, and you will," he said softly. "This was a gift to me from my grandmother. A really special one. She-"
"Then I really can't accept this!"
"Listen to me," he said firmly. "I can't always be nearby, and this pendant will protect you."
She paused, still obviously not convinced she should take it. "How?"
"To make a long story short, it's ancient, and blessed. It will protect you from any evil in existence, trust me."
"But what about you?" she asked quietly.
"I'll be fine. The important thing to remember is to never, never take this off. Not to shower, or to work out. Not to party with Amy and Shannon. Not for any reason, ever."
"Promise me. Please." He took a deep breath. "Do this for me."
She stared at him for a minute before nodding. "All right. If it's that important to you, I won't take it off. You have my word."
Relief nearly buckled his knees. Mackenzie would be safe now. For the first time in his adult life, he cared about another person more than he cared about his own survival, and it felt good. Right. He couldn't save the world, especially from himself.
But he could save her.
He could ask for nothing more.
Stepping close, he gave her one last kiss. Cupped her face, and gazed into her blue eyes for a long moment.
"Kalen? Can't we-"
"Don't, honey. I can't be what you want, or need."
"I think you're wrong."
The laugh that escaped his throat was bitter. "I'm not. The sooner you realize that, you'll be much better off."
"Maybe someday you'll believe in yourself as much I believe in you."
To make her point, she reached out, buried both hands in his hair as she loved to do. The wonderful sensation reminded him of how she'd done that as he made love to her while he held her tight. How damned good it had felt, how right.
How the earth had fucking moved as he came inside her.
Now she took control, brought their mouths together, and it was every bit as fantastic as before. Their lips meshing, tongues dueling, tasting. He pulled her against his body, needing to draw her under his skin. Keep her there forever.
But he couldn't. Regretfully, he broke the kiss and pulled back. "I'm sorry," he rasped. "I can't do this."
"That kiss says you can. Someday."
Eventually he had to look away from the hope he saw flickering there.
From his own futile wish that he'd someday be a man worthy of her.
Opening the door, he led her out to the waiting Escalade, ushered her inside, and tossed her car keys to Ryon.
When the SUV pulled away, he didn't look back at the place where he'd lost his heart and soul.
It just hurt too fucking much.
Tired to the bone, and disheartened, Kalen took a long, hot shower. It erased her scent from his skin, but not the memory of making love to the most beautiful woman in the world.
The woman he'd let go.
Would it always feel as though he'd ripped off a limb? Like he was bleeding out all over the floor to become nothing more than a shell? How could she have so completely burrowed under his skin, into his heart?
Stepping from the shower, he toweled off and stared at himself in the mirror. It was odd to see a bare spot where the pentagram had rested for as long as he could remember. His grandmother had given it to him shortly after he'd come into his power as a Sorcerer, and had coached him. She'd been his biggest advocate, his cheerleader.
And then she'd been gone much too soon, leaving him alone in a world where nobody understood him, or gave a damn about him. He'd done so many things he was ashamed of, things his new brothers would find abhorrent if they knew.
That's why they could never know he'd been a filthy whore. And so much worse.
Before Alpha Pack.
He cared about them, couldn't lose them. No matter what he had to do. As if cued by his churning thoughts, a male voice slipped into his head.
"I knew you'd give your precious pendant to the doctor, to protect her from me." A low, amused laugh sounded in his head. "How far would you go, my pet, to make certain your lover remains safe?"
"As far as I need to," he rasped, fists clenched. "I'll do whatever it takes."
"That's what I wanted to hear, boy. You please me already."
Insidious. Seductive. He'd heard those words before, on so many lips. He'd never responded then as he did now-with a rush of dark pleasure. Like a designer drug injected directly into his vein. One he knew would eventually kill him.
But not before he rode the ecstasy to the end of the line.
Shaking himself from the fog of desire, Kalen walked from the bathroom into his bedroom and got dressed. Put on his armor and prepared to face the day, and his demons, without his pendant to shield him from the evil already working its way into his soul.
Outside, thunder rolled. A storm on the way.
When his storm arrived, he prayed he'd be ready. And that he'd have the courage to do what he must.
"Mackenzie," he said into the stillness of his room. "I'm so sorry."
Walking out, he told himself he wouldn't think of what might've been. If only he hadn't taken off the pendant, that one other time before.READ MORE >>