|UNHACKABLE HEART: Cole -- Accept Assassination Assignment|
Tessa shrugged as if she did not care. “Bad guys always make the most money.”
Cole tipped her face so he could gage her green eyes. “And you do like danger, don’t you, Tessa.”
Her eyes dropped away from his when she answered. “That didn’t much sound like a question, Stone.”
Glenn lifted both arms in a gesture fraught with frustration. “See what strife is in the air since visiting the spirits in her house? See what energy they project? See how they still hold sway on her when she is this close?”
“Look at me,” Cole said quietly to her while wishing Glenn was not in the room.
She stepped back from his finger under her chin. “No thank you. I prefer invisibility.” She turned toward Glenn as if dismissing Cole.
If she thought Glenn would save her from giving Cole a direct answer, Glenn quickly shook his head. “No thank you. Whatever you are hiding, whatever your nefarious plans with the headhunting cracker, get out of Haven.”
Her pretty mouth dropped open with disbelief.
Cole lifted his finger to her chin again and gently shut her gaping mouth. He tipped her eyes to his once more. “Where did the idealist go, Tessa?”
She stared into his eyes this time. “Never get involved. Always finish a job. Kill or be killed. Isn’t that what you two trolls tried to hack into my head long ago?”
Glenn growled from his desk. “You can’t always walk away, woman. Continue down this path with your cracker friend . . . accept his assignment to become an assassin and you’ll get snuffed.”
She turned on her toes and walked out of the office, out of Haven, but Cole caught her arm and swung her around to face him. “Tessa, you need two things besides a sharp mind to survive in this business . . . your balls and your word. I’m not intimidated that you are female but have both. Cross the black hat headhunter and there is nowhere to hide anymore.”
Her lip curled. “I know I can’t trust him and he knows he can’t trust me. He’s no gentleman, but neither are you. Your survivor’s code, Stone, I learned it well and true a decade ago.”
Cole clenched his jaw. If he could go back in time, he would punch himself in the face for what he’d done to her.
She continued after placing a small soft hand over his on her upper arm. “Let go of me. You are not my friend, not my brother, not my boyfriend.”
He did release her, but he shook his head. “You come back to this area and your brain goes from brilliant to banana mush!” He swung one arm toward his motorcycle. Did she believe he allowed women to drive his bike everyday? “I may have been invisible to you, but I have protected you like you were my family for a decade now.”
She snorted. “My guardian angel? God has nothing to do with it now.”
“That’s because,” he growled, “Tessa, you are waltzing down a dark path with the devil!”
“What if the target is truly an evil man who should be assassinated? I know what I’m doing.”
He snorted this time. “Famous last words.” What had happened? They were getting along fine until thirty minutes ago.
“Women,” he huffed, deciding he would never fully understand them. This woman though, he knew she was no narc and not about to turn in the black hat headhunter looking for the perfect untraceable assassin to hack the hearts of political enemies. He knew she was no killer; she’d told him she didn’t work that way. Was she lying again, drawn back into the old web of deceit after visiting her spooky haunted house?
She had taken off walking down the block, hips swaying invitingly, but not in the direction of the hotel. A bar? He growled as Glenn stepped outside with him and nodded her direction. “Why is she doing this?”
Glenn cocked his hands on his hips. “I shouldn’t have tossed her out of Haven.”
“You want to keep the mafia out of your place of business. That’s not unreasonable, bro.”
“She’s not in line of sight. Do we follow her into the bar with a band?”
Cole exhaled harshly. “And have her pull us down with her to the consequences of a bad choice?” He paused, not sure he should voice his thoughts aloud. “She’s hungry.”
“Ah,” Glenn nodded. “As in breathless like she had been running when I called looking for you at the hotel?”
“Her car is dead. She’ll be drinking and dancing and needing a ride to the hotel.”
“Just go,” Glenn grumbled. “Stop trying to list logical reasons for it and go after her. Sometimes I think her life would have been vastly different if you would have gone after her face-to-face a decade ago.”
Cole sighed again. “And what about you?”
“I did. She told me to back off and leave her alone with her gun pointed at my heart.”
Glenn answered his ringing cell phone. He glanced at Cole. “The ghost hunters are at the hotel.” Glenn fished his truck keys from his pocket. “Are you going after her or what? You can’t change her, Cole. That’s up to the Big Man Upstairs.”
Cole strode off following her path to the bar blasting live music. The time was now. He knew it. He’d been patient, but he’d been told the time was now to step onto the same path with her. Maybe this was a test. Maybe he still had to pay out consequences, bad cosmic karma for his bad choices long ago. Maybe he had fallen hard for her and he wasn’t about to fall alone.
His mood as black as the night sky, Cole slid into a booth where he watched Tessa finish off one mixed drink as her old drug dealer friend bought her another. The man whispered in her ear and she laughed. The man probably wanted to get her stoned. Cole’s temper notched up a degree. He ordered a plain coke and glared at the undercover cop, a narc, seated at the bar. Great, two of her old players were here.
She tilted her head and chugged the mixed drink. Cole growled. She was out to get drunk! He thought about ordering something stronger than soda when she stepped out on the dance floor with the drug dealer. She’d quit smoking weed and preserved her neurons firing a long time ago. How hard would the devil tempt her?
When the music changed from fast-paced to a slow song, Tessa shook her head at the drug dealing player. She spotted Cole then and walked over to him. She slid into the booth beside him, not across from him. How hard would the devil tempt him?
He leaned against the wall in the booth. He notched one brow. “Why stop now?”
She leaned closer to him. “I don’t slow dance. Too intimate.”
“How many drinks have you had in the last thirty minutes?”
“Four. Maybe five.” She paused before her glazed green gaze captured his. “Still mad, Cole Stone? Don’t you want to kiss and make up?” She giggled, clearly inebriated, ravenous for something more sinful than food.
“Stop tempting me, Tessa. Stop trying to poison the honeypot.”
She smiled, twin dimples twinkling at him. “Maybe that’s my specialty.” She slid one soft hand over his on the table. She lifted her mouth, her whiskey drawl whispering into his ear. “Maybe I’m pretty sure I can get you naked and into my hotel bed before the night is done.”
Temptation slammed at his heart with a sledgehammer of desire. Still a tiny voice of reason nudged his brain before all the blood flooded to his loins. “I thought I wasn’t your friend, not your brother, not your boyfriend?”
“How about my lover?” she purred again. “There’s something about you, Cole, which I’ve never encountered with the male species.”
He slid his arm around her before sliding them both from the booth. “Let’s go.”
“To the hotel?” she laughed as he steadied her on their way out of the bar.
“To my home.”
She laughed again. “You’re joking?”
“No. I’m taking you away from here before you sink us both. You’re not interested in my love right now, Tessa. You’re just interested in sexual satisfaction.”
Cole hoped she could keep her balance on the bike when she swung onto the back. He didn’t have to ask her to slide her arms around him. By the time he reached the hotel, her multitasking hands had him feverishly crazy. She had him so worked up that he almost forgot to pull the cap low on his forehead to keep eye in the sky from capturing his facial features. If he didn’t watch out for both of them, her Russian mobster, the assassination headhunter, would track her down.
After retrieving her six laptops, Cole turned in both electronic keys to the hotel desk. He placed a quick call to Glenn, letting him know the ghost hunt would have to be done without her. In her current state, Glenn agreed, if she returned to that spooky house, the demon would follow her from here to the city.
She’d waited for him outside, unbelievable. He shook his head and slid her forward on the motorcycle seat so she sat in front of him. He’d wreck for sure if she kept multitasking with talented hands. She leaned against him, relaxed and drunk, asleep before they hit the interstate.
Cole sighed and opened the throttle. What would she say when she awoke in his house? In Virginia? This time, he’d fight for what he wanted. This time, he’d come after her. This time, he would sweep her off her feet before she knew what hit her.
Tessa awoke under a pillow trying to escape from a ray of bright white sunshine. She closed her eyes and rubbed her pounding temples and forehead. “Ugh.” Her stomach roiled in protest to the slightest movement. Mountains of cotton in her throat demanded liquid.
She pulled the pillow from her face and sat up. Not her hotel room! What had she done last night? She remembered the bar and groaned, remembered a drug dealer from the ancient past buying her a drink. Or five? She groaned again. She remembered spotting Cole in the bar. She wasn’t quite sure what had hit her. “God help me,” she muttered.
“He is,” came Cole’s smooth baritone from a computer across the room. He turned, jaw clean-shaven, black hair still wet with droplets of water which splashed down on his black t-shirt, so handsome she would have drooled if she had any spit left in her parched mouth. He handed her a glass of water while holding out two aspirin.
She swallowed the painkillers and downed the water while panic kicked at her breastbone. She glanced back at Cole. “Did we, um . . ..”
”Spit it out, Tessa. Did we have hot and steamy sex?”
“Uh, yeah. Did we?”
“You will never forget it when we do.” He sounded as cocky and confident as she recalled from the day before.
“Where are we?” She detected a tint of red creeping up his gorgeous face even over his dark toned skin. He did not answer her for so long, she asked, “Cole?”
“Okay,” she agreed, more confused than before. Did he move back to the rural lands? She thought he lived in the city.
“In Virginia. Falls Church.”
“Cole,” she growled and had to grab a hand over her forehead as the pounding increased with her heartbeat.
“You would rather,” he asked as one dark brow arched, “have awakened naked in a hotel room?”
This time a hot rush of fluid baked her cheeks. She seemed to remember her very busy hands as he was trying to drive his motorcycle.
“Not for your lack of trying, but you were ready for too fast and too much.”
Tessa stood and he pointed toward a connecting bathroom. She closed the door, uncaring if she had clean clothes or not, before she stepped under a steamy shower.
When she emerged much later, towel around her body and one around her head, Tessa found the bedroom empty. Her laptop bags, all six of them, waited upon his bed. She searched through the bags for clean but wrinkled clothes. Her emergency set.
The scent of frying bacon beckoned to her, so she followed it like a beacon to the kitchen. Cole looked far too dangerous to be domesticated. Just the same, he forked some bacon from the pan and dropped it onto a plate. “Hungry?” he asked. His navy eyes twinkled and he shot her with twin dimples as he flashed a bright smile. “For food?”
He looked hungry too, maybe not for bacon. The uncharacteristic heat flushed up her face again. Why did she feel like he had a map and she didn’t in this uncharted territory? She worked with mostly men in the past, not played with them in dangerous water. Was it only a hangover that gave her the uneasy feeling like she was freefalling off a cliff?
“It’s just me and you, Tessa. We will make it through this test and grow stronger for it. Then we’ll conquer the world.”
“Didn’t I walk away from you at Haven?”
“I came after you this time, babe.”
“I have unfinished business in northeastern Kentucky, Cole.”
“Glenn is taking care of that, landscaping it, hunting out the ghosts that haunt you. I’ll pay for the window I told him to break out to get into your house.” He pointed toward the bedroom beyond her shoulder. “You had the padlock key.”
She nearly choked on the bacon before she swallowed. “Quite frankly, I don’t know what to say. One town over from here is where I was headed in a week to test for the cyber CT team.” She shook her head. “I feel kinda off-balance.”
“Good,” he answered and then stuffed bacon in his mouth. He swallowed. “As long as I’m not falling alone.”
“Not like that. I’m attracted to you, I’ll admit it. Your gray matter and your body are to my liking. But I don’t want something old, something tainted from the past. I want something, someone, new with a fresh clean slate.”
Cole slid one large hand across her cheek, brushing back damp hair from her eyes. “Like the Russian mafia boss?”
“How do you know about him at all?”
“I keep pretty tight tabs on you, Tessa. Right or wrong, protecting what a part of me considers mine. I have a vested interest in you. And you, well you can find trouble in a dark night at the bottom of a deserted well on the other side of the globe.”
“There’s a cyberwar going on. He’s leading the revolution.”
He nodded, dark hair shaking a bit with the force. “I know. The next rung of the ladder in the war is about controlling medical implants in persons from the political power arena. Hack a heart; knock him dead with no trace and no trail to be found. Who would think to look at the deaths like an assassin’s target? Want to give me the list of names yet?”
“I don’t know what to do with you, Cole.” She threw her hands up in the air.
“See how easy it was, to be honest with me about us?”
“Us? You are certifiable! Do you need closure from cracking open my computer and my life a decade ago?”
“Could you sense me by only my digital footprint over the last decade?” He winked at her. “You think that’s common? That should tell you something, silly woman.” He leaned forward and brushed his lips over hers. “The good guy or the bad guy, you decide.”
“You are the bad guy,” she announced and pushed back from him.
“I was,” he agreed. “You made it clear to the law; sent them a message that you hated them. Stupid as it was, I liked that about you. Spitting on the tarnished badge, cyber guns firing dangerous digital packets, you knew who all the drug dealers were in your area as well as all the undercover narcs. It was a hell of a mess.”
Her heart flipped over once and her stomach mimicked the somersault when he followed her retreat, his slow step by step toward her. Her nerves jangled a full fledged red alert.
His deep voice smoothed over her rough edges. “And then there is your softer side. The sweet stuff oozing from your core. The stuff you hide away in a journal.”
She touched the lettering on his black shirt. “Veni. Vidi. Vici.” She glanced up into his blue eyes. “You did come. You did see. You did conquer.”
“Not yet, babe, but I will. Count on it.”
“I hate tragedies. I like happy endings. You are too much.”
“My will is stronger than yours, an unusual occurrence for you, I’m sure. I wasn’t paying attention when you pulled me in, Tessa, but I’m going for the brass ring this time. Do you think I achieve my objectives?”
She swallowed hard. Had she become this confident and powerful male’s goal? She groaned. Surely she hadn’t ever captured his flag?
“Don’t run from me, from this. It would hurt you less, Tessa, if you simply surrendered and fell. I’ll catch you. I promise you that. You don’t put much stock in promises, but I promise to change your point of view on that too. You wear me out, but you’ll end up in love with me instead of in misery.”
“What about Sammy? A lot of heavy baggage there.”
“Yes. The reason you think love and wife are four-letter curse words. You didn’t fire the gun that blasted out his brains; he did. You lived in the haunted house from hell. He made you miserable, kept you stoned, and tried to control you with a choke collar around your neck. I’m not him, baby.”
“You’re dangerous.” Had she said that aloud? She groaned again.
Navy eyes dropped behind his eyelids. “And I’m wounded if you think I’d raise my hand to hurt you.”
Reacting perhaps without wisdom, but out of genuine regard for this man, she hugged him. “Not like that.” She slid her arms up to his shoulders. She pulled him close as his arms slid around her lower back. She buried her lips in his hair near his ear. “To my heart.”
“There is one little problem, Tessa Kendall. I can’t go forward with you until we settle it.”
“The Russian mob? Who better to counterattack than one in the know?”
“That’s not the one. But what are you planning to do about the granddaddy of death, Medatron’s founder? Do you plan to throw out your gray hat and put on your black hat? Or will you work with me to set up the list of targets and defense strategies?”
Which will she choose?