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."
"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.
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?"
"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.