|UNHACKABLE HEART: Cole Stone|
Cole grinned, seeing her decision in green eyes as steamy as a hot spring. "Good."
After one hard exhale out her pretty mouth, Tessa placed her hand on his. She shrugged at Glenn. "If we are going to the same place, and this man must be foolish indeed to try a motorcycle down that road, then hey? I've already been on the back once, and do I so love to ride."
Cole squeezed her hand. "I'm not sure if it's the right time to introduce myself. Not sure you're ready. Too much, too fast . . . will you uncork that sweet and spicy temper on me?"
"Don't talk to me like you know me. You don't know me. Just so we are clear on that on the first page."
Cole didn't say anything. No need to test it and see if she would uncork her temper. This woman did not trust but two or three people. Ever. He swung over his bike and nodded to Glenn. "We'll be there when we get there."
"That's kinda rude, Cole." She said and swung on behind him. She looked at Glenn. "We'll be there as soon as we can get there on this Hog. We'll probably beat you there."
"Hang on, Tessa," Cole recommended and revved his bike. When her hands stopped holding his waist and instead slid around him, he grinned. "That's much better."
"Tear 'em up, cowboy."
As they rode out of town, he turned his face to see her. Her tawny hair flew in riotous curly whips. Her shades mirrored his. And her shirt boldly pronounced she was a hacker. This bold and sexy woman thought she was invisible, he grinned. "So how do you get your kicks nowadays? Need help carrying all that baggage?"
"I keep busy, working."
"Living? Or existing? With all those sexy accessories under your shirt?"
"Drive," she urged him and pulled her face behind his back.
"Stop thinking," he urged her right back.
"Maybe I wasn't thinking. Maybe I was multitasking."
He lifted one hand from the handlebars and slid it over her hands at his waist. "No. You weren't multitasking."
"You're fast. You're bold."
"And the mess you once chose. That's why you like me so much. But you seem to be having a problem understanding it. It ticks you off that you are attracted to me. Wonder why, Tessa? Cause you see the outlaw and the rebel in yourself? You can not burn such things out of your life. It doesn't work that way. You are talented."
"Am I gonna have to ask you to pull over so I can walk or hitch a ride with Glenn?"
"No." She was running from him even on the back of his bike.
"You're going the wrong way," she said closer to his ear. "It's way way out there. Have you ever taken this bike on a gravel road?"
"Back way. Backdoor. Enjoy the ride, okay?"
After he had driven far from town, he turned onto a deserted gravel road. He parked alongside a stretch of forest before shutting off the engine. He shifted, swinging one leg over his motorcycle so that he no longer straddled his bike, and he studied the woman behind him.
Although she loosened her hold around his waist, she didn't remove her hands from him completely. She nodded toward the woods. "Are we here to commune with nature?"
He chuckled and fingered a strand of her wind-tousled tresses. "Something like that. Wanna take a hike?"
"What about Glenn?"
"We can get there from here."
Tensing, she pulled her arms away from him and folded them over her chest. "This is not wise," she muttered with a frown.
He elbowed her playfully. "Loosen up, babe."
She nibbled on her lower lip. Rubbing her palm over her forehead, she massaged out the tension. "Let's go somewhere else."
He rolled to his feet and turned to stare down at her with such an intensity she squirmed. "Hrmm." He frowned, feeling his lips thin into a fine line at his deep disappointment. Then he inclined his head toward the woods. "Been here before?"
She growled her irritation, ignored his question, and hopped off the back of his bike. "I'll lead."
"Ah-ha!" He pointed toward a narrow path by the trees, only barely visible now in the setting sun. "I'll lead."
"No!" She grabbed his arm and pulled him in another direction. "That way isn't safe."
He sighed. "Not safe? What . . . lions and tigers and bears in this woods?"
She chuckled but shook her head once. "Not quite." Right before she ducked in-between two bushes, she winked at him. "I'd tell ya, but then I'd have to kill ya."
He groaned. After following her through a tangle of trees, tromping on and on, with only the crinkle of dried leaves under their feet, he finally stopped as the wind whistled through the treetops above them.
He squinted through the dusk before starting toward something shiny on the forest floor. "What the hell is that?"
She nearly tripped in her haste to block his path. "No, please." She grabbed his hand and squeezed. "It's a trap, as in snap, as in steer clear."
He grabbed her shoulders, holding her in place as he lowered his face to hers. "As in hunters? Poachers? What?" he interrogated.
She blew out a slow deep breath. "As in protectors of crops," she disclosed in little more than a whisper. "Ok, city fella, please don't ask more."
He pulled her more tightly against him until she rested her head on his chest. "I need to know the rest, sweetheart. Just tell me the truth."
"What are you, a narc?"
"What are you, a dealer?"
He hugged her stiff body until she relaxed against him. He slid one finger under her chin and lifted her eyes to his. "I'm the man in serious lust with you. I want ya, dead or alive."
She tipped up on her toes, pressing her lips against his ever so lightly. "Prove it."
When a chill of white mist wound around and across, pulling them together like an invisible key to a lock, like they had known each other for years, Cole pulled her tighter against him and slanted his mouth over hers. He stepped forward, holding her, kissing her, walking her backwards until her back stopped against a tall stone column. He tore his mouth from hers, his heart beating like he had run all the way through the woods, "Mmm. You like danger, lady?"
Backed right up against a stone mausoleum in the foggy woods, not far from where she had once lived, she stared at his lips. "Sometimes."
"Do you have a list of most likely candidates to be assassinated by cracking open the medical code? A most likely medical supplier? Hrmm?"
"Medatron. I'm not gonna hack some dude's heart for you. I don't work that way. That's the next step in bash and dash, assassinations with no trail to be followed."
"How about hacking his insulin pump? No? The woman with four computers running four different USBs, a different batch, a different control program on each? Don't tell me it was all in the name of test purposes. And you had a problem with me, for shoulder surfing . . . low tech hack? Do you have any idea how much you continue to insult me?"
She scooped one of his hands into her small one and folded her fingers next to his. As they crunched on through old leaves in the forsaken cemetery, she asked him, "What do you want from me then?"
"I guess I'm going to sweep you off your feet; you leave me no other choice."
"Don't you dare even think about it for real."
He pulled her around and settled big hands to rub up and down her chilled arms in this creepy place. "I want you to stop hiding your intellect. I want you to step up to the plate and knock one way way out of the park."
As he had hoped, the childish impulse she had such a hard time walking away from, a dare, sparked deep hot green depths of challenge. "I know better than to hire out my guns to a man who triggers a ping ping alert against the firewall around my heart."
"I've seen the judge's notes of your divorce hearing, darlin'. You didn't try to defend yourself at all when they called you a hacker."
Nuclear. That's what her temper did. She looked like she wanted to wallop him up side the head. "I wanted my freedom from him too much to try and talk to people with preconceived notions of hackers being a bad thing."
"Oh, Tessa, I understand for sure. Can you finally understand it too? It might not be all the way white, smudged with gray, but you do have a high ethical code. Just the same, I like your black hat. You like it, you know you do. Beware bored admins. Commended highly for your ethics from your corporate uppity-up penetration tester career you had. Now it's time for a career choice again. Come with me and test."
"You're a brute force kind of guy, huh?"
"Of the digital kind, yes. I thought I warned you off asking questions a long time ago. You had quite the club of haters, farmers, reporters, state cops, feds; you didn't care who you shot."
"That was the hardest time of my life. I'd come back after a month to pack and leave for good. And then I didn't go." She pointed toward the lonely house shrouded in fog, her house. "Sammy shot out his brains when I did finally leave."
"That was Sam's choice. Just as it was his decision to be a drug dealer who grew weed and sold smoke. His death was not your fault. You didn't pull the trigger."
"If you say so," she whispered. She seemed to snap out of whatever spell was cast over them. Her fists clenched and unclenched at her sides as she walked across the gravel road to her front yard.
"You don't like to share," he stated with firsthand knowledge. "Sharing music, movies, harmless, but sharing ideas is a wee bit more dangerous. Tell me why you are afraid of this house?"
Tick tap, tick tap, tick tap.
He boldly slid his hand over the USB sticks bouncing against her navel ring.
She laughed then like she had broken free from whatever decade old scene she was seeing before her, trapped in it, and placed her hand over his at her midriff. "I know; it's like every step echoes a peg-legged pirate."
"I think it's sexy. What other accessories do you have on under there, lady?"
"You must be crazy," she muttered.
"No. Say thank you, Cole, for stating the obvious."
"You are crazy," she added a bit louder.
But if he was crazy, he wanted her to catch it from him. Contagious. Viral. It was more than a meeting of the minds, but she wasn't ready for that yet. It was a hot strong connection like an invisible electric fence wrapped around them. If he moved too fast, he could set off an alarm to her encrypted heart.
Although Glenn's truck was in the circular driveway, he must be taking the final photographic shots before the purple dusk turned inky blue.
Shades of gray touched the female beside him. Everything he knew about her unhackable heart had always been acquired in those murky shades of gray. He intended to change that to up-close and personal in full living color even if he had to hack her heart.
She paused at the front door, looking at a latch where a deadbolt waited for a key to enter the dwelling. "There are latches on the inside too. But try not to think of that while you're in there."
"Are you afraid to go in, Tessa? Do you want me to unlock it and open it right up so all you have to do is waltz in?"
She sidled up closer to his right side before sliding the key into his right palm. "Yes please, thank you ever so kindly for the offer, dark prince charming."
After he pulled off the lock from the door, she touched his forearm again. "Once upon a time, long long ago, Alice and Bob met Eve," she started and he tried not to laugh down in her lovely face.
"And Eve," he continued, "had a big brother who watched out over her."
"In a matter of speaking, yes," she agreed.
"I'm him," Cole said after lowering his face to hers. "The good guy and not the bad guy."
"Well well, no wonder you look like such a bad boy. I'm finally in real-time with the bad guy."
He turned the knob and swung open the front door. He reached around the corner, into unusually cold air, and slid his hand around to find a light switch. "I was. But I've been your guardian angel for a long time, the good guy. Don't think of me as your enemy, Tessa."
He walked into the house, his hand on her lower back, guiding her inside. He turned on the next light, her computer room, and pointed at the opposite wall. "Because you would tell no one, damn you, what was happening in this house, I ended up watching you to find out what was happening. It was like I was over your shoulder, watching it and all the players unfold on every computer you owned."
She blinked a few times, almost like she was trying to speed up the processing to tighten her mental encryption. "So you were the one watching me. Bet you didn't count on all the freaky things happening in this house, like books blowing around and furniture sliding on its own?"
He nodded once. "I had Glenn sent in. Better the devil you know type thing. You had trusted him, were cool with him, until you pointed your gun at him."
"You saw that? That wasn't cool."
"Thanks to his audio, neither were the carbon monoxide detectors going off while unplugged in your basement. I might have hired on more like a gun to take you down, but then I simply wanted to get you out. But you settled in for the siege and waged war."
He pointed again to the ceiling. "The last images were you ripping out my cameras. I stopped hunting you and started protecting you and you knew it! But you stayed with him, but you fought alone. What kind of man hires a hitman to take down his wife so she will be so scared that she'll never run off again?"
The last he had finished in anger. The atmosphere grew frigid around them. He blew out a breath and a white cloud formed from his lips. It was summer! "This isn't cool. Let's get out of here."
Glenn walked in and left the front door open. He pointed up and tilted his head when a loud shuffling of footsteps sounded overhead. "I've got the pictures. Do you feel like ghost hunting, Tessa? Cole?"
"Not tonight," she whispered. "Hurry. Let's go. It's awake."
"No, Tessa," Cole disagreed. "Face your ghosts. Do you know who they are? Not the ones in this God forsaken house, but all the players, your cyber ghosts? Do you want me to tell you, so you can move past it without ever wondering about it again? Or do you want to move on to your new future, maybe a job with the government in medical security?"
"Can I look ahead only? And never have nightmares about what happened here again?"
Thud thump. Thud thump. Thud thump. Footsteps coming down the stairs!
Beneath his feet, pans crashed in the basement. The floor seemed to lift her up, buckling, causing both men to hold out their arms like surfing in the living room.
Glenn snapped pictures with his camera. Flash! Flash!
The lights in the house flickered off. The camera flash was blinding them all, Cole decided, as white lights flashing in the distance must be damage to their retinas.
Tessa pointed her cell phone camera toward the back of the house. Ghoulish red light grew brighter and glowed from the basement entrance. "I lived in hell for a long time. It can hear you thinking. It's intelligent. Don't run. It likes to play chase. Don't act afraid. It feeds off that and grows stronger."
The power shut off on her cell phone, battery suddenly drained dry, as an inky black shadow solidified one room away.
If she was indeed crazy, then he was catching it from her. Cole grabbed her around the waist and pulled her toward the door even as the evil scent of sulfur wafted into the room. "Come on, Tessa. Do you really need to see the ghosts from your past? Can you move onto your new future without facing everything, without being armed with all the knowledge of why me?"
Which should she choose?