|UNHACKABLE HEART: Cole as Head Ghost|
Not too sure what foolishness prodded her, Tessa did want insight to this man. If he was so bold as to plant himself in front of her on her current path, then she did want to change some of the questions marks about him into something closer to maybes. Like maybe it would help her be less of a security freak all prickly about her privacy.
“Was the first you’d heard of me when my grandmother called the feds?”
He kicked the motorcycle into gear as she slid her arms around his waist. As she rode on the seat behind him, she could no longer deny the truth. She wanted to find out what she could about him and finally put him behind her.
He tilted his head to the side. “Stop thinking so much.”
“How do you know I’m thinking?”
He snorted. “I know you. You’re brilliant. You’re always thinking.”
She didn’t want to believe his lies. He too had threatened her, or so she took it at the time. Any reasonable person would believe warning her that she could run but she couldn’t hide sounded like a threat. Her husband had shouted those very words at her at the top of his lungs, but Sammy hadn’t left it open-ended. He’d made it crystal flipping clear he would hunt her down and kill her.
At Haven, Glenn had coffee waiting on them. “Hi, Tessa.”
Cole slapped one hand down on the counter. “What am I, invisible?”
The words tumbled out before she could debate the wisdom of it. “You are.”
He nodded graciously. “Thank you,” taking it as a compliment as she had intended. “Want me to show you how to blow over the digital waves to totally erase your trail too? You are pretty dang good at it, but I could show you a few other things to try.”
Totally ignoring Glenn for the moment, she leaned forward from the stool toward Cole. “How did you keep finding me over and over all these years?”
He shot her with a bright gleam of his white smile and dimples curved on either side of his full lips. “Want the nice answer? We think a great deal alike, cyber minds bumping into each other in forums, blogs, sometimes if you were really lonely . . . chat.”
She sipped her hot coffee. “That’s the nice answer? So what’s the not nice answer?”
His dark hair caught the low glow from the room of LCDs when he tilted his head. His navy gaze stared intently in her eyes. “Too much, too fast.”
“You said you’d answer all my questions in honesty.” She held up one hand stop-sign fashion in front of her face. “Why did I think I could even trust anything you say?” She turned toward Glenn. “Do you have anything stronger than coffee?”
Cole folded long fingers over her stop-sign hand signal. “I have about fifty pictures of this hand over the last decade. Just like that. Blocking the shot. Have you always hated having your picture taken so much, or only after all the web cams in your house?”
“Always. It got a little more intense is all.”
Glenn held his cell phone toward them and snapped a shot. “Ha ha, I’ve got one of you together.”
“Delete it,” Cole stated quietly.
Glenn laughed again. “See? He practically makes you sign a waiver to get his pic.”
“Let me see,” Tessa said, planning to delete it herself.
Glenn shook one finger at her. “Mine. Can you say that, pen tester?”
“Tessa, let your friend have your picture. Besides,” Cole grinned at Glenn, “hurry and send it to me.”
She shivered at the splinter in her mind, the devil in her, the messy masquerade for wounds that never healed. Her picture had been passed along from hacker to hacker long ago. She had passed it again and again to the same guy who trolled under many different aliases like she wouldn’t know it was him, trying to play with a player. Tessa cleared her throat, but the words still sounded a bit rusty to her own ears. “Keep it.”
“Wow,” Glenn nodded. “She’s growing right in front of our eyes.”
To show him how wrong he was, Tessa stuck out her tongue at him like she was three. “The first day long ago, when you fellas decided to invade my privacy for no other reason than it’s there and I wanted to guard it? A privacy hacktivist was born.”
Cole blew out a slow exhale. “Another easy way to find you, Tessa. Just look for trouble. You could find it blindfolded on the other side of the world buried in a tomb. You have a real knack for landing right in the midst of trouble.”
“So I’m a little overly curious. I like knowledge; it’s power.”
Cole snorted. “You’re a rebel who bucks the system. You’re my kind of trouble.”
Glenn swung one arm toward his office. “Let me show you the landscaping designs.”
Tessa followed Glenn to his desk, but instead of sitting in an armchair beside his desk, she stood behind his chair and shoulder-surfed. “Wow, Glenn! Can you really do that with landscaping? Make my spooky house look like an invitation of promise for the future?” At his nod, she laughed. “I might fall in love with you if you could do that!”
Glenn spun his chair around to face her. Blond brows arched. “Think so?”
Tessa stopped smiling. “I doubt it. I haven’t found a way to shutoff the firewall around my heart; it won’t shutdown. I’m a pen tester, so if I can’t find a way to tweak the rules, it’s not looking good for my heart to ever be anything but unhackable.”
She glanced at the beautiful, peaceful, promising pictures of her old house as the slideshow continued. “And I thought I might have to burn it before I left here.”
Cole dropped into the armchair next to the desk. “Not funny, Tessa. You can’t burn the truth out of your life. I thought you’d understand that by now.”
Glenn shrugged. “It wouldn’t work anyway. Years and a century past, blood and terror soaked the ground red out there where your house is. The land slurped the blood and human suffering, seeping down in the pores of the earth until it was steeped with evil trauma. Paranormal activity soaked into that rural house.”
Tessa frowned at Glenn, but Cole said, “I did some research on that area. There was another house not quite a mile from yours before you moved here. The owners had wanted no others to live there and to experience what was described as a haunting.”
She blinked, seeing the land he spoke of in her mind’s eye, the empty lot, whispers from people right after she’d moved out in the sticks, rumors of the old couple who did not pass their house onto their adult children but instead burned down a perfectly good house as requested in their will. “I remember going to the overgrown empty lot and digging up flowers every year. I always picked up uneasy vibes there, a strong feeling of being watched. I’d blast music in my ears so I didn’t hear whispers in the wind among the tall grass, miles from everyone and everything, dig, dig, digging with my shovel.”
Glenn hitched his thumb over his shoulder toward the tranquil landscaped slideshow. “So it’s a go?”
“Yes please. It’s spectacular, Glenn,” she assured him. “You have many gifts.”
“I hope it tears the place up enough to make sure the entities in that house are wide-screaming-awake. My fellow ghost hunting enthusiasts will be here anytime. They’ll setup the equipment during the day tomorrow so we all can go in there tomorrow night and chase out ghosts. I’m a good hunter, Tessa, don’t worry.”
Cole rolled to his feet. “I’m not too thrilled about it myself. Don’t look so spooked, babe.” He held out his hand, palm up, held his breath, and waited for her to take his hand. “Let’s go play.”
He wanted to see this woman by the shades of gray light from many LCDs as he had spent countless hours over her shoulder but no longer able to see her. He wanted to enjoy her in real-time and watch this very animated, yet very guarded woman. He wondered what she would do if he asked to see her in only candlelight?
She settled her soft small hand in his. “Sounds fun.”
Cole clenched his teeth to stop a groan from escaping. Although he walked with her out of the office, she stopped for another big cup of caffeine. She did want to play, cranking up.
“Ah.” she sighed long and loud. “Nectar of the gods.” She tipped up her large coffee.
Cole grinned as she moaned at her coffee. “Gonna have sex with it? No. Good; get over here.”
When she complied and sat beside him, Cole boldly slid one finger to catch the bottom of her black shirt. He lifted it a little, catching a glimpse of white skin and two dangling gem-encased guns hanging from her navel ring. “What’s on those USBs?”
She flicked his hand away like it was an annoying fly. “This and that.”
He laughed. “Your arsenal?”
He logged on and signed into a server back in his playground. She seemed to perk up, staring at his screen as his fingers flew. He initiated the test environment of monitoring a beating heart. “Hack it.”
She moved into his chair, almost shoved him aside. “Would you like me to send a joule of V-FIB or a slow sure ping to drain the pacemaker battery?”
He sat in the chair next to her and logged in from there. “I want you to counterattack.”
It was on, like that, matching offensive and defensive skills, pushing to hack and defend a beating heart.
“There; right there.” He captured a screenshot. “Scrape it. You left a smear of digital fingerprint.”
“It’s wicked,” she said, staring hard at his face like she could bore into his thoughts. Cole felt the ping, but she continued. “A talent to be sure, to be able to blow over the cyberdust erasing your digital footprints. Invisible. I know why you like it so much.”
“We’d be a good team, Tessa. Come with me to Virginia to test. I know you are planning to. Stay and I’ll help you until you are truly invisible.”
“Not Big Brother material,” she laughed. In the next instant, her fingers rested on his forearm. “How come you aren’t anymore?”
He exhaled. She was back to prodding the past. Maybe she really and truly didn’t remember the answer to that. He had talked to her openly right before he’d taken her down to protect her, to knock her out of the cyberwar. Since his friendship had been a nuclear blast of destruction in her life, would she be able to take his advice now? Once upon a time, she’d taken his advice like a venom-coated sugar cube.
He leaned closer to her ear. “You can run but you can’t hide.”
She crossed her arms over the word hacker on her chest but did not say a word as if his words did not stir up an old memory.
Cole reached to twist one of her red-gold curls around his index finger. “How could you forget, Tessa?”
She pointed her index finger at her forehead and lowered her thumb like she shot a gun. “Mental encryption.”
“So whoever can decrypt your mental code can unlock your heart without breaching that firewall you have around it?”
She leaned her mouth up toward his ear. “Are you talking to me like you know me again?”
“Oh but I do. I made sure to make friends with your friends in the city where you have hidden for several years, quiet and successful in your career. Still not invisible though.”
She looked spooked enough to try out her fight or flight instincts. “Something is wrong with you! If you still don’t have the good sense to clearly see that I am invisible . . . then I don’t know what to do with you, Cole Stone.”
“Forgive me for starters, Tessa.”
“Was that a request or a demand?”
“Both, babe. Right or wrong, shades of gray, once I had taken your journal from your computer, you stole my heart like you were the thief. I’d taken a bet from some other dudes in law enforcement, to take you down like a hired gun, and you could multitask with a state of the art precision, five things at once with equal fervor. Lies though, the perfect social engineer. I pushed you into the lies and began to drown in a pool of my own misery as I got to know you from your journal.”
“Slamming through a person’s private life, delving into what makes her mind move, never asking permission? So you were only a hired noble gun?” She scoffed and moved across the room to another computer.
Cole growled. Could he reverse-engineer the damage to her heart? He nodded toward Glenn before cocking his head her way. Glenn didn’t disappoint him, catching her up in IM immediately, inviting him into the conversation.
He joined the conversation.
Thor: Stop thinking.
Pixie: Y do u think I’m thinking? Maybe I’m not.
Thor: Ur default deny ruleset is so complex w/ algorithms & encryption, it’s giving me a headache just thinking about what u r thinking. U think 2 much.
Pixie: No such thing as that.
Flash: U’ve fallen & fallen, but when r u going to land? Don’t do this to yourself. We’re sorry.
Thor: Stop shoving me out of ur life like an unwelcome vacuum salesman.
Pixie: Maybe I’m not.
Cole sighed. She was lying. Oh but she was lying. And Outlaw Angel, the alias he had first known her as, didn’t debate with anyone.
He sent the link, so they all could wreak a little havoc on a kiddie porn network. Pixie waved her wand to send little glitches popping up and flittering around their server. Flash, so fast he’s like in fast-forward, he could come and go before most would know he was ever there. And he, as an alias Thor now, struck to take them down like a zap of lightning to their router.
Glenn laughed from the computer chair and Tessa did too; all of them feeling better after spreading around a little cyberwar to protect the innocent. Sometimes justice needed nudged along.
Tessa walked over to him. “Will you take me to the hotel now?” She wagged her finger at Glenn. “You too. We’ll boot up my laptops from there. I’m in the mood to shoot dudes in the head now.”
Cole shook his head at Glenn. “Ever play with her on her favorite game? She cheats.”
“I do not!” she denied. “I’m just a good player.” She cocked an air shotgun and pointed it at him. “Headshot,” she said in the same tone as a game. She pretended to shoot Glenn next. “Monster kill.”
Cole couldn’t wait to get her on the back of his bike. Being with her in real-time was doing something to his head for sure. But after she climbed on behind him, she didn’t put her hands on his waist.
“What gaming aliases would I know you as?”
“Now what fun would that be?”
“Cause I use a microphone and talk to the dudes on my team.”
“I know. It’s great to hear you, to hear your laughter. It does funny things to the pit of my gut. Hold on to me, Tessa,” he urged her before her arms slid around his waist.
He hated to take them such a short trip to the hotel. Along the way, she had her head tucked up over his shoulder, her face next to his. Cole used the trip to start listing off online aliases, his and then hers, hoping she would relax her guard as she got to know how often they had interacted in cyberspace, gaming where she did go to have fun.
After he escorted her to her room, he lifted one hand and walked next door to his room. The look of shock on her face was priceless. The weighted hotel door no sooner shut than he knocked on the connecting door. “Let me unravel who I am for you. I’m knocking, Tessa Kendall, on your backdoor.”
She didn’t appear overjoyed when she opened the door. “As opposed to brute forcing your way in?”
“Come on, woman. Do you think it a coincidence I came along behind you when your car broke down? I already knew you would cross my path again. If you would only do what you ask others to do, open your mind! Your last relationship was a total train wreck so now you hate all trains, think they will all derail.”
The corners of her lips turned down slightly and pain flashed in her green gaze.
He wanted to wrap his arms around her to comfort her. “It’s not a fluke of fate, Tessa. A decade ago, you stepped off the path God had set before you. You were on the wrong path and you knew it. But you stepped out of the light into the darkness, falling. A million times I’ve seen you get back up, when you had no reserves to battle online or offline. You float to the top, bobbing under sometimes, but I do know who you are under all your games and aliases.”
Her famous stop-sign hand shot out in front of her face.
“I was a first class jerk with a tarnished badge.”
She humphed like she could not agree more.
“After I snagged your journal,” he held one finger to her lips when she looked about ready to explode at that injustice. “I had already scared you, told you to lie about everything, but then I read your journal. I started seeing who you were before I told you to lie. Then you would tell no one the truth when I was trying to get you out of that house. I changed, Tessa, because I couldn’t live with the guilt of what I’d done to you.”
She turned her head away from his finger. “So this is like penance for you?”
“No. Not a hair shirt of atonement. God forgave me, but He did not take you out of my mind and my heart, as I asked Him to again and again. And I have tried, Tessa, to find another woman who affects me to the depths you do.”
He tapped his forehead and then over his heart. “Don’t you think it would be so much easier for both of us, if I had found another woman with whom I do not have a tainted cyber-past? Who did not have to know how very corrupted my badge had been with the misuse of governmental power?”
Instead of swaying her, she cocked her hands on her hips for a second and then in a blink she drew pretend dual pistols and shot him. “Okay. I forgive you kinda. Kinda not.” She blew out a breath and moved from the doorway to let him into her room.
When she sat on the bed free of six laptops, she rubbed one hand over her forehead. “Did you do it on purpose then? I don’t interact online much with folks I don’t know face-to-face. Why did I bump into you again and again over the last decade? Why did I know it was you? I knew your wickedly sharp mind, perhaps your black hat vibes . . . why, Cole, did I always have this uncanny feeling like you knew me and I knew you deep down inside where most folks don’t show others?”
Cole sat next to her. “That was the Big Man Upstairs, letting you know.”
Her pretty lips turned up, twin dimples winking at him. “That you were my guardian angel?” She cupped his cheek. “I don’t need your protection. I’m wicked sick, pretty slick, in security.”
“Yeah. Cocky too.”
“Yes. And you are highly skilled and knowledgeable about medical liabilities that are no longer science fiction. If I thought it was what you wanted, then I would ask you to join me as my partner on my medical security project. But I know you tested for a piece of paper to certify you as an ethical hacker. I know you want to tryout and to win big, to score a spot in medical security with the feds.”
“So what exactly do you do now? Counterattack hacked hearts?”
“I’ve been working with other former outlaws turned guardian angels to protect the innocents in this world. Everyone deserves a second chance. Can you give me that?”
Her words were so quiet he had to lean closer to hear. “I wish I could.”
“I wasn’t threatening your life the last time we chatted at your house. I had changed and you did not want to know me at all. I think you might have wanted to shoot me. Telling you that you can run but never hide was because I knew someday you would be mine.”
She lifted her lips just the tiniest bit, so he leaned in and pressed his lips to hers. He brushed her lips again and again as heat from her body flash-fired into his. Her hands wound up his chest, over his shoulders, to tangle in his hair. Her mouth grew hungry and she moaned into his.
Cole rolled her under him, freefalling into passion. “You are the woman I want. Be my partner, Tessa Kendall.” Her nails scored lightly up and down his back, urging him to fall faster. He closed his eyes and lifted his face to the ceiling, breathing hard and heavy, struggling for control.
When he jumped to his feet and walked to the door, she had the same priceless shocked expression on her face as when he walked into a hotel room next door. “Think about it, Tess. You’ll not blame it on passion and regret it in the morning. But in the morning, angel, I want to know if you will accept me and let me in or not."
He winked at her. "Knowing your sweet and spicy temper, you may say you are gonna burn my ass and my project. But in the morning, I want to know which you choose.”
"Listen here, mister-"
“Choose wisely,” he advised. “For your sake and mine, so we can step out of the shades of gray.” He shut the door between their rooms.
What will Tessa decide? What will she tell Cole in the morning?