Deadlock

Southern Arcana, Book Three


Digital

January, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-60928-325-4

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Print

December, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-60928-346-9

Purchase Links

Deadlock

Abandoned by her wolf shifter father and raised by her human psychic mother, Carmen Mendoza can’t deny she’s different. She craves things most women shy away from–and she has a trail of shapeshifting ex-boyfriends to prove it.

Working at a clinic for supernatural creatures, she’s escaped the notice of her father’s legacy-obsessed family. Until they need a pawn in their bid for power. Snared by a vicious spell designed to wake her inner wolf, Carmen’s only hope is to trust the one man strong enough to soothe her darkest instincts.

Alec Jacobson was once the heir apparent to the wolves’ ruling elite, until he walked away to marry the woman he loved. She paid with her life. He lives as a rebel, a black-sheep alpha who protects the supernatural residents of New Orleans from the wolves’ barbaric class system. Too bad he can’t protect himself from his need for Carmen.

Yet staking his claim on his enemy’s niece will turn his city into a battleground. Unless he can find a way to stop breaking the rules–and start making them.

Warning: This book contains a renegade alpha wolf, a smart empathic doctor, very dirty sex with psychic safe-words, the occasional dominance game in and out of the bedroom, and a group of supernatural citizens ready to take on the corrupt leaders of their world.

Read an Excerpt


Chapter One
Alec wrenched himself out of the path of a flying fist and acknowledged, for the first time in his increasingly long life, that he might be getting old.

It didn’t help that his opponent was a young, strong wolf. Andrew might still be adjusting to the new power inside him, but Alec had no doubts where the man would stand once he’d acclimated to life as a shapeshifter. Age would give the boy experience. Training would give him confidence.

Alec’s days as the strongest wolf in New Orleans were numbered.

Instinct rebelled at the treacherous thought, and Alec threw a little something extra into his next swing, catching Andrew with a fast, brutal jab that landed on the younger man’s chin and snapped his head around. Alec pressed the advantage out of habit, spilling his opponent to the thick mats lining the dojo floor.

All right, maybe his years were numbered.

Andrew lay on his back and blew out a long breath before rolling to his knees. “That won’t happen again.” It sounded more like a promise than a boast or threat.

That won’t happen again. It was a promise Alec had heard plenty of times over the last six months, quiet and focused and always accomplished. He’d been told that surviving the transformation from human to wolf was like being born again, forced to navigate a body beyond one’s control and instincts that were anything but human. In his lifetime Alec had mentored a dozen transformed wolves, but none of them had been like Andrew.

He held out his hand. “You’re doing fine.”

The third person in the room laughed, her rich voice echoing off the mirrored walls. Zola was dark, dark skin and dark hair and gorgeous chocolate eyes, a dangerous woman who moved with a grace that never failed to put Alec’s instincts on high alert.

She prowled toward the center of the room as if she owned the place–which Alec supposed she did. The dojo was her home and her life, and though the rare shapeshifting cats in the area tended to be uninterested in the strict hierarchy under which the wolves thrived, she never passed up an opportunity to remind Alec that him being the top wolf in town didn’t mean much to a lion.

Like now. “You are not doing fine like you could be,” she declared. “Not if you are letting an old man like Alec beat you. You watch with your mind still, thinking too much. With humans, with other wolves like you, you can waste time thinking. Not with shapeshifters born. Alec does not think. Alec does not need to think, and so Alec wins.”

Andrew smiled a little. “Then I guess I need to learn how not to think.”

“Yes.” After a moment, Zola unbent enough to return Andrew’s smile. “You are good at learning. Alec can teach you to be a wolf, but soon he will be done. You will come to me, three days a week. My mate and I will teach you to fight like a lion.”

She didn’t wait for a response, as if she couldn’t imagine a person turning down an offer of private lessons. Instead she pivoted and deigned to catch Alec’s gaze. “I will be having a lesson in this room in one hour. You may stay until that time.”

Alec nodded his thanks and waited until she strode past him and reached the stairs before turning his attention back to Andrew. “I’d think pretty seriously about taking her up on those lessons. She doesn’t offer them often, and her man might be the only person in New Orleans more scary than she is.”

“I know. I’ve asked…before.” His eyes clouded for a moment, then he shook his head. “She turned me down flat. Guess I’m more interesting now.”

“Times are more interesting now.” Alec stretched slowly and could console himself, at least, with a lack of nagging aches. Damn impressive for a forty-four-year-old man who’d spent the last hour sparring with a man nearly two decades his junior. “If it helps, I don’t think it’s being a shifter that made the difference. Plenty of those get turned down too.”

“So I’ve heard.”

Not surprising. As far as Alec knew there was only one other person receiving Zola’s exclusive, private tutelage at the moment, and he was too old and too jaded to believe it was a coincidence that Zola had offered the same to Andrew. Not considering who that other student was.

Following that train of thought would lead to a headache and an emotional quagmire Alec had no intention of stepping into this afternoon. Instead he gestured to the middle of the floor. “Ready for another go?”

Andrew answered with a quick right and left. Neither punch landed, but too late Alec realized they were meant to distract him. The other man came in low, hit him in the solar plexus, and knocked him onto the edge of the mat. “Yep. Ready.”

Zola had one thing right–Andrew learned fast.

* * *
By the end of their practice, Andrew had dumped Alec on the floor twice, something that would have bruised Alec’s ego a little more if he hadn’t set the boy on his ass a round dozen times. He was extending his hand to help Andrew up from the latest fall when a creak on the stairs reminded him that he had very good reason to hustle them out of the room before Zola’s other private student showed up–the one person Andrew didn’t need to see.

Of course, the soft footsteps meant it was already too late. Even if he hadn’t recognized that too-familiar tread, he couldn’t miss the distinctive scent: hazelnut, vanilla and cinnamon, a combination that made his secretary–and therefore his office–smell like a bakery more often than not.

Alec dragged Andrew to his feet and turned in time to see Kat pause on the landing, her blue eyes widening a fraction before she hastily schooled her features. She lifted a hand and ran it through her hair in a newly acquired nervous gesture; the shorter, spiky haircut was just as recent, as were the wild streaks of color that made her look like she’d barely survived a fight with a set of finger-paints.

A lot had changed about Kat in the past year, but her gaze still snapped straight to Andrew whenever she walked into a room, even though nothing lay between them anymore but bruised feelings and broken hearts. Kat stared at him for one painful second and looked away. Andrew went tense, his usual unflappable reserve shaken.

It hurt, watching them hurt, so Alec cleared his throat and broke the tense silence. “Hey, Kat, you here for your lesson?”

“Yeah.” She stepped into the room and sidled to one side, keeping close to the mirrors, as if she needed the walls at her back. “Zola bumped me up from three to five times a week. Lucky me.”

“We’ll get out of your way.” Andrew tossed a towel over his shoulder and lifted his gym bag, pausing only to flash Kat a tight smile before heading down the stairs.

Her face closed off, and Alec hated it. Even more, he hated that some predatory instinct inside him whispered a warning every time her eyes went cold. Six months ago, he’d seen the proof of how dangerous Kat could be. He’d had to deal with the two mindless, drooling husks that had remained after she’d focused her rage and pain as a weapon and used her empathic gifts like a scythe.

She’d destroyed two powerful shapeshifters with a thought, and only knowing it had killed something inside her made it possible for Alec to check his wariness and treat her the same way he always had–like a hapless young woman too sweet for the big, bad supernatural world.

The fierce look in Kat’s eyes softened, leaving him wondering how much of his inner turmoil she could sense. She didn’t enlighten him, just smiled wearily and shrugged one shoulder. “It’s okay. He and Anna have been fucking like rabbits for months now, and I’m dating. I’ve got a date tonight. A hot, hot date, and if I go on enough of them I’m going to find someone else. Who the hell ends up with the first person they ever fell in love with, anyway?”

He had–for a while–and look how well it had gone. “Who’s your date with?”

“None of your business.”

“Jesus. You’re touchy.”

Kat dropped her gym bag and bent over to retrieve a handful of hair clips from it. “Yeah, because the overprotective assholes I work with keep abusing their private-investigator skills to terrorize my dates.”

Alec grinned, pleased to see some of her humor returning. “Everyone’s gotta have a hobby.”

“What the hell ever, Alec. Get lost. I don’t like getting humiliated in front of an audience.”

He obeyed, still smiling. Downstairs, he found Andrew talking quietly with Zola as she flipped through a leather-bound schedule.

The blond man’s tension hadn’t faded. If anything, he looked like he wanted to bolt from the building. “Mornings would be best, honestly.”

Mornings, which would presumably eliminate any chance of him running into Kat.

If Zola had drawn the same conclusion, she gave no indication. “For mornings, you will have to be arriving early. Before my beginners. Seven?”

“That’s fine. I’ll come in before work.”

“Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.”

“Got it. Thanks, Zola.” Andrew tugged on a T-shirt and avoided Alec’s gaze. “How’s Kat?”

“Got a hot date tonight.”

Alec had expected some sort of reaction, but clearly Andrew’s momentary lapse was past. He showed no emotion as he replied, “That’s nice.”

“Yeah.” Don’t poke him, don’t fucking do it. “She told me no one ends up with the first person they fall in love with.”

Andrew hesitated, then exhaled on a quiet sigh. “I know you think I’m doing the wrong thing by Kat, and I don’t blame you. But don’t you think you’ve smacked me around enough for one day?”

Guilt and annoyance and frustration formed a sickening knot in Alec’s gut, reminding him of all the reasons he did his best to avoid thinking overly long about Andrew and Kat. His instincts didn’t know which way to jump, who to blame and who to protect–probably because there was no answer.

Except Andrew had no one else who could understand, so Alec made an effort. “I know you’re doing your best, but I know the truth too. I saw you the day you rose from the ground as a new wolf, and you only needed one thing. You needed her, and needing her that hard, in the shape you were in…you had to let her go. One slip and she’d be dead, or you would be, because she’d turned your brain to pulp, and she’d never survive that.” He dragged in a breath. “I know all of it, Andrew, and I still want to kill you some days because you made that girl cry until her heart broke, and I couldn’t do a damn thing to stop it.”

Andrew stared at him for a long moment and nodded. He hefted his bag again and patted the counter in front of Zola. “I’ll see you Monday.”

Then he walked out.

Zola tilted her head to the side and regarded Alec from those darkly exotic eyes. “My English has been learned many places, from many people. It is not always…precise. But when I am arriving in New Orleans, I have heard one thing again and again, until I finally asked what these words mean.”

“Don’t suppose it was Mind your own business?

“Alec Jacobson is a jackass.”

Imprecise though her English might be, Zola had no trouble landing a verbal blow. Alec refused to give her the satisfaction of a reaction. “Nice to be popular.”

Zola shook her head. “Wolves have no subtlety. Why speak words that hurt without purpose?”

“He needed to know.”

“Even I am seeing that he knows. Only a fool would be thinking he doesn’t know.”

The woman was starting to get on his nerves. “Fine. I’m a fool.”

Zola smiled and walked from behind the counter. “No, you are maybe something else, something you want no one to make comments about. I am thinking you are a romantic. You want a happy ending for Andrew and Katherine?”

Once upon a time, it wouldn’t have been an insult. Once upon a time, he’d been young and stupid, had told his rich, snotty family to go fuck themselves and had married his one true love, a no-name human who had roused everything good and protective inside him. She’d made him a man, made him a lover, made him whole.

In return, his family had made her disappear. One night, one bullet…

Once upon a time, he’d thought the pain would fade with the passage of years and the comfort of his vicious revenge. He was a fool.

Andrew wasn’t, so he would do the one thing Alec hadn’t. He’d keep the woman he loved alive. Kat would heal from a broken heart, but she’d never survive a life chained to the violence of Andrew’s new world.

Zola had paused at the foot of the stairs, her eyebrows pulled together and an uncertain frown curving her lips. “Alec?”

The press of her sudden sympathy was unbearable. Alec snatched up his bag and strode toward the door. “I’m not interested in happy endings.” A lie, but only a little one. After all, his happy ending had died and forgotten to take him with it.

Chapter Two
Carmen picked up the last chart and rubbed her eyes. “I haven’t gotten used to Franklin’s handwriting yet.”

Tara, the clinic’s senior nurse, snorted. “Yours isn’t much better. You came from a hospital with electronic charting.” It wasn’t a question.

“Busted. Vanderbilt’s ER even has a computerized whiteboard.”

“You’re from Nashville?” Tara leaned one hip on the desk and eyed Carmen. “How do you like the Big Easy so far?”

“I love the city. I always have.” She was no stranger to New Orleans. Her best friend had already moved to Louisiana, and it was her recommendation that had led to Carmen’s decision to join Franklin Sinclaire’s small clinic.

Lily’s recommendation, and Carmen’s own heritage. The clinic served the public as well as the underground supernatural population of New Orleans, witches and shapeshifters and psychics who had no other place to turn to for help with their unique medical problems.

It was outside the realm of what she’d learned officially, but Franklin had proven a skilled teacher. After four short months, he apparently felt comfortable enough with her performance to leave her in charge of some of the day-to-day operations at the clinic.

A wave of intense and foreign curiosity washed over her. Carmen took a deep breath, methodically built the mental walls necessary to block out Tara’s emotions and smiled. “You were either a cat in a past life, or you have more questions for me.”

The woman blushed. “Is it that obvious?”

“Only to an empath.” Carmen’s phone chimed, and she checked the display to find a text message from her brother Miguel. See you @ 8. “Is it always this dead on Friday nights?”

“Don’t say that,” the younger woman warned as she gathered the completed charts and turned toward the tiny filing room behind the desk. “It draws them in like flies.”

And I thought people in the ER were superstitious. “My kid brother’s meeting me here in an hour. We’re having dinner.”

The petite blonde stuck her head out of the filing room. “Is he cute?”

“He’s young,” Carmen answered automatically. “Only twenty-one.”

“When you say ‘kid’, you’re not joking.”

“I was twelve when he was born.” Her phone chirped again, this time indicating an incoming call. “Speaking of brothers, there’s my other one.”

“Older?”

“Younger.” She grinned. “But only by a couple of years. He’s a firefighter in Charleston.”

Tara laughed. “Come to mama.”

The lobby door buzzed, and Carmen hit the button to ignore the call on her cell phone. If it was important, Julio would keep trying until she finally answered. For now, she had work to do.

That work happened to be a stuffy nose soon treated and dispatched. It was a far cry from the busy hustle to which Carmen was accustomed, but that was nice in its own way.

Tara winked as she handed Carmen a can of soda. “Calm before the storm. It’ll pick up later, but that’s the night shift’s problem.” The door buzzed again, and she snorted. “On the other hand, maybe people got a head start on the night.”

It was only Miguel. “Almost ready to go?”

Carmen couldn’t leave until her shift replacement showed up, ready to work, but she was more interested in the wave of nervous energy that had accompanied Miguel into the lobby. “Are you all right?”

“Sure.” He smiled, bright and brittle.

He was the worst liar she’d ever met. She didn’t bother to shield the thought from him, and his sudden look of guilty discomfort told her he’d caught it, loud and clear. Carmen let it drop. “Where are we going to eat?”

“I’m in the mood for steak. How about Besh?”

“That place in Harrah’s?” Carmen groaned. “I’m not dressed for it, and I don’t want to go all the way over there either. Can we pick up a pizza and take it to my place instead?”

The discomfort sharpened, and she realized she could not only see it on her brother’s face, but feel it as well. He looked away. “Car…”

If he didn’t want to alter his plans, it could only mean one thing. Carmen shivered. “Harrah’s. Who’s here, Dad or Uncle Cesar?”

He rubbed his face and leaned on the counter. “Both.”

“Both? That’s new.” They couldn’t be there for a visit, because neither of them gave a damn about her. “What do they want?”

“You didn’t answer their calls or letters, and they–”

“That’s why they’re here, not what they want.” She fought to keep her tone even. It wasn’t Miguel’s fault their father and uncle could still manipulate him, and did so at every opportunity.

“I don’t–” The denial rose but, to Miguel’s credit, he choked it back. “Shit, okay. They want to introduce you to some guy.”

A politically advantageous marriage, no doubt. “Tell them no, but thank you.”

“Carmen, just come to dinner. Then say no, if you want.”

Someone entered the lobby with enough roiling emotion to hit Carmen like a blow, and she bit her lip to hold back a pained moan. “Go sit, Miguel. I’ll be a while.”

He started to argue, then caught sight of the young woman who’d walked into the clinic. She was almost as tall as Carmen, with spiky short hair that bore nearly every color in the rainbow.

Her wide blue gaze darted around the room, skipping over Tara and only lingering for a heartbeat on Miguel before fixing on Carmen. “Franklin’s not here?”

“No, I’m sorry.” She eased around the counter, taking care not to move too quickly. The girl had a swollen lip, and one eye was red and puffy, like she’d been hit. “I’m Carmen. Come in the back and sit down.”

“It’s bad. It’s bad.” The girl tightened her grip on the strap of her bag until her knuckles turned white. “There’s a body. I mean, he’s not dead, but I didn’t know how long my stun gun could keep a shapeshifter down and I panicked and called Alec, and if Franklin’s not here to calm him down it’s going to be so bad. I should–I should go before he sees me…”

Tara held the cordless phone in her hand. “Should I call someone?”

The police or Franklin, the nurse could mean either–or both. “Not yet.” Carmen touched the girl’s shoulder and braced herself against the immediate jolt of emotion that ripped through her. “We can deal with your friend when he gets here. If not, I’ll page Franklin. He’ll hustle right over.”

The girl laughed, and it sounded hysterical. “No one can deal with Alec Jacobson when someone he cares about just got punched in the face.”

Carmen recognized the name. She was confident in her ability to handle almost anything, but a black-sheep alpha wolf with a questionable reputation might be beyond her. “All right. Tara, call Franklin. We’ll be in room three.”

The girl let Carmen lead her down the hall to the last examination room on the right. Franklin had laid out a lot of money to have the room warded specifically for psychic magic, and that could be important once the girl’s shock began to wear off. “What’s your name, honey?”

“Kat. Katherine. Katherine Gabriel. I–I have a file, I think. I need to go to the…” She trailed off as they stopped in front of the room, which she clearly recognized. “Yes. This one. You can tell I’m psychic?”

“So am I.” Carmen started to reach for a gown, but thought better of it. “I can’t tell what kind, but I can sense it.”

The confession seemed to settle her a little. “Empath. Me, I mean.” Her lips tugged down into a frown. “You are too, aren’t you? You feel…feely.”

“I guess I must.” She helped Kat onto the table and reached for the ophthalmoscope hanging on the wall. “I’m going to use a light to look in your eyes. It might be a little uncomfortable.”

“I’m okay. I got punched in the face a couple times. It’s all uphill from there, I guess.”

“That’s one way to look at it.” She started examining Kat, quickly but carefully, checking for lingering signs of trauma. “What happened?”

“I’m not sure. I–I was on a date. We walked out to where he’d parked his car, but I guess he’d locked his keys in it? So I was going to call someone I knew who could spring the lock, but then…” Her voice trailed off into uncertainty. “It happened so fast.”

“Someone attacked you?” Carmen prompted.

“Him. They attacked him first. My date.” Another pause. “I think. He turned his back on me and I got out my stun gun, but shifters move fast. He knocked me back into the car…” Kat lifted a hand and rubbed at the back of her head. “I don’t think it’s bleeding.”

“You hit your head?” The girl’s pupils were even and reacted well to light, but head injuries could be tricky. “What else do you remember?”

“I don’t remember where my date ended up.” Her fingers curled around the edge of the exam table. “I think he ran while I was trying to get the shapeshifter off me.”

She sounded so lost. Carmen spent a moment shoring up her mental defenses. “Kat, do you think there’s a chance that–”

Noise and voices in the hallway distracted her from her question. One belonged to Tara, raised and pitched in distress. “Look, you can’t go back there. You have to–”

The door slammed open.

Alec Jacobson–because it had to be him–was tall, solid and angry as hell. Not that Carmen could feel his emotions, not with the shielding on the room, but it didn’t take an empath to see the man was pissed. Dark eyes fixed on Kat as his jaw clenched under his neatly trimmed beard. “Katherine LeBlanc Gabriel, tell me the bastard’s name right now.”

Kat heaved a tortured sigh and gave Carmen a look that clearly said, I told you so.

Tara skidded to a halt behind him. “I tried to stop him.”

“It’s okay. I’ve got it.” Carmen rose to stand between the man and Kat, careful to keep her gaze steady but not challenging. “Out.”

“No.” He didn’t raise his voice. He didn’t have to, not when he could convey so much arrogant confidence in one word. “Katherine? The name.”

“Damn it, Alec, it wasn’t my date. And I didn’t ask the mugger for an introduction while I was tasering his ass, okay?”

Carmen took a deep breath. “You’re upsetting my patient. Please step out into the hallway. I’m not going to ask again.”

For the first time, the man looked away from Kat and fixed that piercing stare on Carmen. His gaze traced her face, as if he was looking for something in particular, and he frowned. “You’re the Mendoza girl.”

It wasn’t a question, but he seemed to be waiting for some sort of response regardless. “Dr. Mendoza. I notice you’re not moving yet.”

Kat’s voice came from behind her. “You’re wasting your time. He’s not going to–”

Alec took a step backwards, then a second, until he stood squarely in the hall.

“–whoa.”

Carmen turned to Kat. “Sit tight. I’ll be right back.” She could calm the man down, or at the very least distract him until Franklin arrived.

Except that, once she’d closed the door, she wasn’t quite sure what to do or say. She shoved her hands into the back pockets of her jeans and tried to smile. “Thank you. She’s had a rough night.”

Worry tightened his expression. “What happened?”

“She and her date were attacked. She’s shaken up, has some minor injuries and might have hit her head. But she’s mostly scared of what you might do.”

“No she’s not,” Alec replied, voice steady. “She’s scared I’m going to call her cousin, her cousin’s oh-so-scary little wife, my partner, my partner’s pissy alpha bitch girlfriend, and we’re going to form a posse and kill some folk. And to be fair, she should be.”

“All right,” Carmen conceded. “But that’s a hard thing to have on your conscience, so cut her some slack and hold off on calling together the mob, okay?”

Alec raised one eyebrow. “How much do you know about your family’s political activities?”

“About my family?” The question was so unexpected that all she could do for a moment was gape at him. “What could that possibly have to do with anything?”

“I didn’t mean–” He rubbed at his beard. “Shapeshifter politics, then. Wolves. Franklin told me you don’t get tangled up in the politics, but he never said if you knew the first thing about them.”

She wanted to ask him what the hell he’d been doing, talking to Franklin about her. Instead, she shrugged and tried not to get defensive. “Enough to recognize that there’s a big damn difference between shapeshifters and shapeshifter politics. What do you really want to know?”

“Do you know who John Wesley Peyton is?”

“He’s the Alpha. Has been for years.”

“Yeah.” Alec pointed at the room where Kat sat. “That girl’s overprotective cousin just married Peyton’s daughter. Unless you’re a witch who’s gonna magic those bruises off her face, the only way to stop mob action is for me to take care of it now. Fast.”

“Right. Where is her cousin?”

“Wyoming.”

“Then you’ve got a few hours.” Arguing was getting them nowhere. “Look, my priority is making sure Kat’s all right. Give me ten minutes to check her out, and I’ll ask her to talk to you. I promise.”

“Fine.” The corner of his mouth tugged up. “Better go let your nurse yell at me. Sinclaire gets pissy when I rile up his employees.”

The smile transformed his forbiddingly handsome face, and Carmen had to remind herself not to stare. “With good reason.” God, she sounded breathless. “Your reputation precedes you, Alec Jacobson.”

For some reason the words made him flinch. “So I’ve heard.”

She hadn’t meant it as an insult, but trying to explain would only make it worse. “I’m sorry.”

He waved it away. “Not your fault. I am a raging jackass. Comes with the gig.”

The casual words disguised real pain, and she had to take a step back before she reached out to comfort him. “Wait in the lobby. I’ll let you know how Kat is once I finish her exam.”

Alec pulled a battered cell phone from his pocket and turned away. “I’ve got a few calls to make anyway, but tell Kat I’m not going to call her cousin. Yet.”

“Sure.” His back was broad under the tight black T-shirt he wore, and his jeans were just worn enough to–

Carmen dragged her gaze away from his receding form. She was trembling a little from the effort of keeping up her emotional shields, so she turned and ducked quickly back into the room.

Kat was eyeing the door with obvious worry, and Carmen smiled. “Alec’s going to hold off on calling your cousin, but you’ll have to talk to him when we’re done here.”

Some of the tension bled out of her. “I don’t want them to worry. My cousin and his wife, I mean. His sister-in-law just had a baby, and they need to be up there with her, not down here pulling muggers apart.”

“I got the feeling there wouldn’t be much left by the time your cousin arrived.”

The girl’s lips pressed together. “Yes, Alec is good at cleaning up my messes. You’d think they’d stop acting like I’m helpless, though, since I’m the one who keeps leaving bodies on the ground.”

There was something hopeless and chilling in the words, and Carmen fought a shiver as she pulled on a pair of gloves. “I’m most worried about your head. If you smacked it on the car like you said, I mean.”

“It hurts.” Her fingers drifted up to her head again. “It aches. I think I smacked it pretty good.”

“If that’s true, you might need to go to the hospital, get a head CT.”

“No. No.” Both of Kat’s hands dropped to the edge of the exam table, as if she was expecting Carmen to pry her off and throw her out. “I have to stay in this room, especially if I have something wrong with my head. I can’t be outside the shields.”

Even if Carmen kept her at the clinic for observation, watching for complications to arise, there wasn’t much she’d be able to do about them. A hemorrhage would probably require surgical intervention, something beyond her capabilities on the best of days. Franklin might be able to handle it in a pinch, but not with the clinic facilities. “We can’t fix a brain bleed in this room, Kat.”

Kat’s stony expression didn’t waver. “The last time I got scared and lost control, I killed someone. I’m not going to a hospital full of people. If something happened, I wouldn’t care if I lived or not.”

She could have understood depression or hopelessness, but the sheer, steely resolve of the girl’s words scared the hell out of Carmen. “What if I knew someone–a psychic? A telepath who could come in here, peek in your head and tell me if anything seemed off?”

Silence, as Kat’s eyes narrowed. “What’s their name?”

Clearly, she didn’t trust that anyone Carmen could suggest would be someone she didn’t already know. “It’s my brother, Miguel. The guy in the lobby.”

Kat tilted her head, her icy chill thawing to curious interest. “So you’re an empath and he’s a telepath? It must have been strong in your family, for both of you to be psychic.”

She helped Kat peel her brightly colored cardigan down off her shoulders. “Think that’s impressive? My other brother, Julio? He’s the overachiever of the family. A precognitive and a shapeshifter.”

“Really? Is it reliable? Strong?”

“There aren’t many guys in his fire house who’ll–” Carmen sucked in a sharp breath as she caught sight of numerous contusions marring Kat’s arms. Only a few were fresh, and most carried the sickly yellow tinge of at least a week’s age. “How did you get these bruises?”

Kat blinked and looked down. “Oh, fuck. That’s why I wore the sweater. I swear, it’s not what it looks like.”

If she had a dollar for every time she’d heard that, she wouldn’t have to work. “Has someone been hurting you, Kat?” Carmen looked her dead in the eye as she asked. Not many people could prevaricate without hesitation.

“Well, yeah. But I’m paying her to.” Kat held up both arms and studied the bruises with something approaching pride. “Self-defense lessons. Have you ever heard of Zola? She’s a shapeshifter. A lion. And she can set Alec on his ass, though he won’t ever fight with her in front of anyone else. I think it stings his manly ego to get schooled by a girl.”

Carmen didn’t need empathy to see the truth in the girl’s words. “Okay. How many fingers am I holding up?”

“Uh, three? Are you going to have your brother look at my head?”

“It’s either that or a trip to the hospital for that CT we talked about.” Carmen eased up to sit beside Kat on the exam table. “Does it bother you, the thought of having someone you don’t know poking around in your head?”

“Not really. A lot less than the thought of having someone I do know poking around in there.” Kat smiled wanly. “It’s been a long year. I’ve had a few uncharitable thoughts, and I wouldn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. I know they’re doing their best.”

“It’d be reasonable, you know, if it bothered you. It would me, and most everyone else too.”

“That would make me a little bit of a hypocrite, wouldn’t it? I’m strong. Too strong to block out everything, unless I want to give myself a permanent migraine. People don’t get much privacy from me.”

She sounded sad, and Carmen didn’t blame her. Outside the warded confines of this room, she had to be beset on all sides by other people’s emotions. Everything they felt, Kat felt. It was a surprisingly lonely way to live, enough to drive a person insane. “I’m lucky. My abilities are low, midlevel at most, and I’ve had a lot of training. I can block pretty much anything, if I concentrate.”

“Yeah. I can’t.” Kat dropped her hands back to her lap, her fingers toying with the loose, flowing fabric of her long dress. “With great power comes a great need for jumbo bottles of Advil.”

“Then maybe you and Miguel have more in common than I thought.” Carmen peeled off her gloves as she slid off the table. “I’ll go get him, and maybe hold off your glowering friend for a few more minutes, hmm?”

“Thanks. I didn’t mean to cause so much trouble, but I panicked. I’m feeling better now, I swear.”

“You’re probably going to be fine. Humor me for a little while longer.”

Kat wrinkled her nose. “Humoring people is my part-time job.”

Halfway down the hall toward the lobby, Carmen heard Miguel laugh. “No, see… To hear my grandmother tell it, she never actually married Primo Ochoa before she ran off with my grandfather. And really, who can blame her for it? The Mendoza charm is legendary.”

“Uh-huh. Well, the current crop of Ochoa boys are famous for being the least charming bastards of their generation.” Alec sounded amused, as well. “Meanwhile, I hear your big brother just about caused a riot by laying a little Mendoza charm on the oldest Reed girl. Didn’t he get challenged over it?”

“Twice,” Carmen answered. “Set her brother and her cousin on their asses. Miguel, can you help me out for a minute?”

“Sure.” He shoved his cell phone in his pocket. “What is it?”

“Kat whacked her head, but she wants to avoid the hospital. She’s willing to let you take a look, make sure nothing’s scrambled.”

Alec frowned. “Does she need to go? If so, she’s going. Over my shoulder, if necessary.”

Deadly handsome or not, the man was infuriating. “Sit down, for Christ’s sake. No one’s going anywhere over anyone’s shoulder.”

His gaze tracked along as Miguel made his way down the hallway, but Alec gave in and dropped into a chair. “What’s he going to do?”

For a moment, she debated following her brother to make sure Kat was at ease while he did what he needed to do. But what she’d told the girl was true–she and Miguel probably had plenty in common, and not many people felt ill-at-ease with him.

She settled into a chair across from Alec’s. “He’s a telepath. It’s hard to explain exactly how he reads thoughts, but…suffice it to say, if she has head trauma from the attack, he’ll know.”

“Ah, yeah.” He inclined his head. “I forgot about the Mendoza psychics. Stupid of me.”

The words held recrimination, but it was directed at himself, and Carmen got the distinct impression that he prided himself on knowing all the facts of a situation, on exhaustively examining a situation for every possible outcome.

Except that wasn’t it, not exactly. It wasn’t a matter of taking pride in his own preparedness–it was a matter of necessity. “It bothers you when you think you’ve dropped the ball.”

His face closed off and his eyes narrowed. “Obviously I get that empaths can’t help picking shit up, but it’s rude to rub it in our faces.”

Something about the man turned her into a complete ass. “Psych rotation, not empathy, but you’re right. It was impolite. I’m sorry.”

Alec just shook his head and rubbed at his jaw. “Me too. I’m pissy. Shouldn’t be taking it out on you, but I’m at my wit’s end with that girl.”

Franklin had explained to her the unique nature of some of their cases, and how they couldn’t always be handled the way she was used to. Sometimes patient confidentiality had to be set aside.

Still, some things had been ingrained in Carmen, and she debated how much to share with Alec. Finally, she said, “Kat told me why she needs to stay in the warded room. About what happened the last time she had a meltdown.”

“She did, huh?” The words were flat, but a sliver of surprise wiggled past her shields. “She doesn’t talk about that much.”

Carmen braced her elbows on her knees and folded her hands together. “I got the feeling she doesn’t know many other empaths.”

“A few, but she’s…” He shrugged. “Have you ever heard of Callum Tyler? The British empath?”

“I have.” The man was highly gifted, highly trained–and very much in demand.

“He owed a friend of ours a favor, so he came here over the winter. Helped get her grounded, shielded, whatever psychics do.” His dry tone made it clear he hadn’t inquired too closely.

Tyler had a reputation for being effective in all but the worst of cases. “So why does she seem to think none of that matters, and more people are going to wind up dead if she steps out of that room?”

Alec looked away, presenting her with his hard profile. “He wasn’t impressed with her level of training, and he was too impressed with how strong she is. Guess that’s a dangerous combination. He’s coming back this summer for another round of lessons.”

So the man had chastised Kat’s friends and family, and Alec resented it. Carmen knew from experience how unhelpful blatant criticism could be, even when it was deserved. “I don’t have any answers. I wish I did.”

“I think she’s got control, but I don’t know how it works. Could a concussion make her lose it?”

“Maybe,” she admitted. “Can you stay with her tonight? Someone should.”

That earned her a snort of laughter. “Already called a friend. I can stick around until she shows up, but Kat’s better off with someone a little more…comforting.”

“Okay.” Carmen stood. “I’m going to go check on things. Miguel might need my help.”

“Can I come? I’ll keep my mouth shut.”

She figured that was as good as it got. “Sure.”

The door was slightly ajar, and Carmen knocked before pushing it open to find Kat and Miguel standing by the exam table. Kat had a pen in hand and was writing on Miguel’s outstretched palm, her lips curved up in a smile. “I’m pretty much done with my grad work for the semester. I took a term off from teaching labs, so I finished all my projects early.”

“Yeah? Great. I’ve got a couple of classes to finish up this spring, and then I’m done.”

Carmen cleared her throat. “How is she?”

“Fine, just fine. Jacobson can relax.” Miguel didn’t look away from Kat as he smiled and took the pen from her. “Give me a call.”

“I will. Or you call me when you’ve got some time. I know finals are coming up.”

“See you around, Kat.” He eased past Carmen and Alec and out the door.

The faintest hint of pink rose in Kat’s cheeks, and she studiously avoided Alec as she fiddled with the strap on her bag. “It’s not a thing. He just…gets it. Not being able to shut the psychic stuff off, I mean.”

Lying was useless, but Carmen managed to keep the censure out of her voice. “I admit I would have preferred he wait to ask you out until we were sure you weren’t suffering from an altered mental state.”

“He didn’t ask me out. I asked him for his number.” She shot Alec a defiant look. “If I wake up tomorrow and decide I’m not interested, I’ll screen my calls. I’m a big girl.”

Alec looked like he wanted to retort, but when he finally spoke, his voice came out mild. “I’m glad you’re feeling steadier, kiddo. I called Jackson and Mac. Mackenzie will be around to pick you up and take you back to their place as soon as the good doctor here’s ready to let you go. Hold off going out on any more dates until you get some sleep, would you?”

She could have sent Kat on right then, but Carmen laid a hand on her shoulder instead. “I’ll get you a cold pack for that eye, and I have a few more questions for you.”

Kat nodded. “You can go, Alec. I’m okay. Just promise me you and Jackson aren’t going to go track down my date and eat him.”

“Not going to track him down.”

“Or eat him.”

The corner of Alec’s mouth twitched. “Or eat him.”

Kat narrowed her eyes. “Fuck if I can tell if you’re telling the truth while I’m in this room. So go before I change my mind.”

“Will do.” Alec looked to Carmen. “You can keep her company until Mackenzie gets here?”

She was past due to leave. The night-shift doctor had probably already arrived and was hiding out in the lounge, drinking coffee. “I’ll stay with her until then.”

“Thanks. And I’ll see you”–he pointed at Kat, adopting a mock scowl–”no earlier than noon tomorrow. Take the morning off.”

Kat gave him a sloppy salute. “Yes, sir. Call me if you forget how to log into your email.”

With another of those odd, short laughs, Alec turned, his eyes catching Carmen’s for one moment. His stare was deep, intense, full of quick flashes of emotion she couldn’t begin to read, especially within the shields of the room. Though it was impossible to tell what prompted the odd darkness, he looked almost frustrated.

Almost.

There was a strange heat lurking in that inscrutable stare, one that left her fighting a hot blush. She opened and closed her mouth, suddenly unsure of what to say. “Good night.”

“Good night, Dr. Mendoza.” Then, with a small, enigmatic smile, he left, pulling the door closed behind him.

“Well,” Kat said without preamble. “He thinks you’re hot.”

The proclamation made Carmen’s stomach twist with nerves and something undeniably like anticipation. She ignored the words as well as the emotions and pulled an instant cold pack from the cabinet, activating it with a snap. “If the swelling in your eye doesn’t go down in a day or so, you’ll need to see an ophthalmologist.”

“An eye doctor, I’m guessing?”

“Right.” Carmen wrapped the pack and handed it to Kat. “You should be feeling more in control by the time that’s an issue. If it’s an issue.”

“Hey.” Kat closed her hand on Carmen’s before she could pull away. “I’m sorry. I’ve blurted out enough dumb crap by now to know when I crossed a line. I just thought… Well, you know. Women seem to think Alec’s hot shit. I didn’t think you’d be upset.”

Carmen couldn’t stop the laugh that bubbled up. “He is hot shit. And I’m not upset.” Not like Kat thought, not at all, but her past romantic entanglements were hardly an appropriate topic of conversation. “It’s fine.”

“Okay.” She looked a little dubious, but she released Carmen’s hand. “And don’t give your brother a hard time. I really did ask for his number. He was…refreshing. He was in here five whole minutes and didn’t once promise to find the asshole who’d punched me and kill him. Shapeshifter guys can be kinda exhausting.”

“Yeah, tell me about it.” Carmen was attracted to strong, dominant men. Shifters tended to fit the bill, but her relationships with them had a tendency to fail spectacularly, so she’d sworn off them entirely. That way, she didn’t have to spend weeks after every bad breakup cursing her own bad judgment, and she didn’t have to risk the sorts of matches her family might try to force her into.

She glanced at the door. She didn’t have a clue how Uncle Cesar felt about the Jacobson family, but if there was the slightest advantage to be gained, he’d probably jump at the chance to throw her at Alec.

Which only reinforced the fact that she had to stay far, far away from him.