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Patti O'Shea - Paranormal Action Romance Author

 

Excerpt from The Power of Two

Cai bit her lip. Ignoring the tension building between her shoulders, she perused the crowd. She wasn't wrong. Now that she was looking, she found Jake easily. He sat at a round table in the corner with two other soldiers. Her hands clenched at her sides as she studied his profile. Though deep shadows concealed his face, she could see he was watchful, his eyes never still.

She took a step forward. Stopped. Squared her shoulders and walked toward him. She could do this.

Though he didn't react as she came up beside him, Jake was aware of her presence. He had to be. Even if he hadn't sensed her approach, which she doubted, his friends were staring at her. Cai stared right back until Jake turned.

His expression said get lost, but it quickly became neutral. She knew he was waiting for her to explain why she'd come over, but she took a moment to study him anyway. The first thing she noticed was that he was coiled, ready to spring if she posed a danger. And he was even better looking in person.

His glacier blue eyes were striking with his dark hair and tanned face, but it wasn't the color that prompted her to gaze deeply into them. She was trying to find the man she knew. The man who was always tender and thoughtful with her, the man she talked with and comforted in the aftermath of his nightmares. Cai's stomach twisted when she couldn't find anything familiar in this stranger's hard face.

Part of her wanted to excuse herself, but she couldn't. She needed to talk with him tonight. There were no other options.

"Hello, Jake."

He lifted an eyebrow. "No one calls me Jake." He sounded different to her ears. Harsher than she'd thought he would.

A shiver began deep inside, but she fought it off before it became noticeable. "I do. I always have."

She held her breath as he pushed slowly to his feet. In her peripheral vision, she saw him slide the chair out of the way with his foot. This had been the wrong approach, she decided, exhaling with a silent sigh. Perhaps she'd have been wiser to wait till he'd left Hell to talk to him. If she'd thought it through longer and not let her impatience get in the way, she would have realized he'd be on his guard here.

"Always?" he asked menacingly. "I don't know who you are."

When the other men stood, flanking Jake on either side, she realized they'd heard the warning in his tone as well. Great, just what she needed. The three musketeers. As she met their hard gazes, Cai tried to decide the best tack to take.

Before she picked an option, the hair on her nape prickled. It was the only tip-off she had before a beefy arm went around her neck. Training took over. She squatted and leaned forward, sliding her hand between her throat and the arm as she stepped sideways.

Almost in the same motion, she brought her elbow back into his mid-section, using the full force of her body to add all the power she could. She heard an "oomph," but didn't hesitate.

Turning, she hooked her foot behind his leg and pushed the man. Since he was already off-balance, he went down like a polar bear on wet ice. Cai was about to take him out of the equation indefinitely when she was wrapped in a hug. Though she had no clue how she knew, she was sure it was Jake.

When the man she'd put on the floor began to stand, she tried to get free. "Down, killer," her recep said, mouth near her ear and she thought he might be laughing.

That was when she realized her attacker hadn't been one of the lowlifes from the bar, but a commando. A big, huge, enormous commando. When he was upright, she saw he was at least six and a half feet tall with muscles that strained the seams of his T-shirt. Holy crap. All that practice really had paid off. She could react, and succeed, outside of a controlled situation.

"Didn't your momma ever tell you not to grab a woman without an invitation?" she snarled. She heard the snickers from the men behind her a split second before Jake let go and stepped away.

"I won't make that mistake again," the man grumbled, sidling past her to join the other three.

She moved with him, keeping him in front of her. He wouldn't be easy to take down a second time. It surprised her that he kept her in his line of sight too. As if someone his size would be leery of a woman who was five foot eight, and about half his weight. Yeah, right.

When he stood with his buddies, the stare down resumed. None of the men were laughing now and she bit her lip as her nerves returned. She'd been damn lucky that the bouncers hadn't swooped in and zapped her. Since she needed to keep her mind on the situation, she put that thought aside.

"Who the hell are you?" Jake demanded.

Well, as her great-grandma Nguyen used to say, in for a penny, in for a pound. "I'm Cai."

"Nice try," he drawled sarcastically. "I don't know where you heard the name, but you made a mistake. Cai isn't human."

"Not before I've had my first cup of coffee, no, but after that, I'm as human as anyone else."

"She's not bad, Tuck," the commando she put on the floor said. "Quick witted enough to keep up with you. Maybe you should play nice for a while. You could use some fun."

Cai looked past Jake and frowned at the grinning man. She knew what he meant by fun. "Let me guess, you're Gnat, right?"

That wiped the mirth off his face. Unfortunately, it also brought her closer scrutiny than before. She should have kept her mouth shut. Now the cross-examination would begin. Unless.... Hmm. Her idea would either preempt the questioning or they would want to haul her into headquarters.

"Yes, I know who you are and that you were nicknamed after an insect because you're such a pest. They picked Gnat because of your size." The man really was a damn mountain. She shifted her focus over one. "You're always reading something, the more obscure the better, so they call you the Professor. Not too original, but it could be worse."

Cai switched to the man on Jake's other side and bit the inside of her lip when she couldn't identify him. Then she realized why. "You're not on the same team with these guys. I don't think Jake's worked with you before. Not recently anyway."

"You sure you don't know her, Tuck?" the man she didn't recognize asked quietly.

"Do you think I'd forget?" Jake didn't take his attention from her. "How do you know this stuff?"

Cai shrugged. "You told me."

"No, I didn't."

She fought the need to back up a step at his tone. This wasn't going well. There was only one way to salvage this mess. Cai sighed. She'd hoped he'd believe her without it, but clearly that wasn't going to happen. Mentally, she reached for the neural implant and opened the pathway that connected them.

Jake, I couldn't know these things if you hadn't told me.

For a split second, he stared at her, then it sank in. She saw it happen. "Son of a bitch," he muttered. He took her by the elbow and hauled her toward the exit.

"I think he remembered her," Cai heard Gnat say with a short laugh before Jake had her out of earshot.

It was a good thing her legs were long because he wasn't making any concessions for their height difference. As it was, she had to half-run to keep up with him. Cai didn't protest. She couldn't see the expression on his face, but she did notice how the worst dregs in Hell cleared out of his way. If they took one look and decided to give him a wide berth, she sure wasn't going to say anything that might exacerbate the situation.

He pulled her through the entrance and the men and women standing in front stepped out of the way as quickly as the people in the bar had. Jake didn't release her until they'd rounded the corner and stood in the narrow space between the bar and the crumbling structure next door. Despite being outdoors, it didn't smell any better here than it had inside.

To avoid his eyes, Cai surveyed her surroundings. Although the only illumination came from the moonlight seeping between the buildings, it was enough for her to pick out the two dark shapes lying on the ground. Since they were twitching, she figured it was the men who'd fought inside Hell. She could also see debris scattered around the alley. Some of it had been pushed to the sides of the building, indicating that an effort had been made to clean up, but most of it was laying piecemeal.

The weight of Jake's stare became too much for her to ignore any longer and she forced herself to look at him. His face was bland, but what she read in his eyes explained why everyone had wanted to get out of his way. Ice-cold fury. Rage was normally a hot emotion, one that would burn itself out eventually, but this.... How did she deal with frigid anger?

He crossed his arms over his broad chest and silently waited. She'd known he'd be pissed off, but she was his friend. He'd come around. She hoped. Cai ran her damp palms down the front of her trousers and took a deep breath. "Jake—"

"Tucker. You don't get to call me Jake any more."

His words, spoken so coldly, hurt her more deeply than she'd been hurt in years. "Jake, please. We're friends."

"Friends don't lie to each other."

"I never lied!"

"Oh, really? Then why have I been under the impression that Cai was a computer programmed with a female personality?"

"I didn't tell you that," she denied.

"No, you didn't, but you knew what I thought and you didn't correct me, did you? A lie of omission."

This was going worse than she'd imagined and she'd pictured some pretty negative scenarios. She rubbed the underside of the ring on her right hand with her thumb, trying to find reassurance. The warm metal reminded her of what was at stake. She had to get past his anger.

"They gave me a briefing prior to inserting the nano-probes so I thought you'd been filled in too." She paused to swallow the lump clogging her throat. "I didn't know differently until later, almost seven months later."

"You could have said something then."

"I should have. Except it took me by surprise, and by the time I recovered, you'd closed the connection between the probes. For weeks after that, I tried to find a way to tell you I was a person, but there never seemed to be a good way to mention it."

"So you decided not to say anything."

Cai couldn't meet his piercing blue eyes any longer and dropped her gaze. "I'm sorry," she apologized softly. "I should have found some way to straighten you out."

He didn't reply and she realized he wasn't ready to forgive her. It was her own fault. She'd known Jake had trouble trusting others, that he had buddies, but no close friends. Somehow she'd thought it would be different between them, that the last five years would count for something. She lifted her head again, but he continued to frown stonily at her.

How hard had she tried to tell him the truth? It had seemed easier at the time to let him go on thinking she wasn't real. Much easier. She knew Jake, he'd have been curious. He would have wanted to meet her. No way could she have agreed to that. Even if he hadn't told her so many personal things about himself, even if he hadn't slipped time after time that first year while trying to block her, it still would have been awkward.

He hadn't gotten a good look at her yet, not in the bar and not out here because of the poor lighting, but when he did, she'd be dealing with his reaction to her age. The man would be absolutely furious. Then when he calmed down, he'd do the math, figure out how young she'd been when they'd been linked, and go off again. She sighed quietly. There was no help for it now and she had more important worries.

Hesitantly, she reached for him, but he stepped back and Cai dropped her arm. His unexpected retreat hurt, kind of like a hard jab to the mid-section, but this wasn't about her. "I never meant to hurt you," she said fiercely.

Again, no response. The silence felt heavy, oppressive. One of the brawlers moaned, but it sounded muted and distant. Her reality centered on one man and nothing else. Even if she couldn't convince him to help, Cai didn't want to lose his regard. Jake meant too much to her.

"If it would change anything," she said, voice barely above a whisper, "I'd apologize again. But we both know it won't make a difference. I've damaged the trust between us, I know that. Just like I know only time can start to heal the breach."

He laughed, but it was sarcastic and cutting. "Sweetheart," he said scornfully, "I want nothing to do with you."

After giving her a hard look, he turned and began to walk away. Cai couldn't let him go. She took a couple of running steps to catch up with him and grabbed his bicep. The glare she got this time did hold heat, enough fire to make her flinch. "No matter how you feel about me, we're going to be expected to work together, Jake."

"Tucker," he growled, leaning over to scowl into her face. "And I'll be damned if I'm going out on another mission with you in my head. I did fine before you and I'll do fine again once the implant is removed. Let go of me."

She didn't. In fact, she tightened her grip. "We're too successful, they'll never let either one of us have the probes removed." Cai realized her voice was too loud and she took a deep breath before saying more quietly, "There were only ten people in the experiment, did you know that?"

He shook his head, but at least it was a response.

"They couldn't afford a bigger sampling; the Quantum Brain Nanotechnology was too expensive. It still is. No matter how many years and how many scientists have worked on the problem, nobody has solved the replication issues for these probes. No one is even close. They picked the commandos, the receptors, first based on your field evaluations, your ages and whether or not you were lifers."

Now he appeared interested.

"Once they had the five of you set, they went looking for the rest of us. My brain wave patterns matched yours more closely than anyone else's so I was approached to be the other half of your team. That's how every anchor was chosen."

For a moment, Jake looked thoughtful, then she felt the muscle tense beneath her hand. "Does this have a point?"

"Yes, it has a point." She must have been blind to miss his sarcasm all these years. "Of the ten of us, two are dead. One from Spec Ops on a mission and his partner a few months later. The other three Quandems are non-functional. You and I are the only pair left that can be used. Get it?"

"I've got it. I'm stuck with you until one of us dies or the experiment ends." He muttered a curse, then his expression changed, became speculative. "How do you know this? And don't try to tell me you were briefed, I know better."

Involuntarily, she squeezed his arm, then pulled her hand back and retreated a couple of steps. If Jake weren't so mad at her, if he were more like the man she thought she knew, she wouldn't hesitate. But she couldn't begin to guess what this hard-edged, pissed off stranger would do with the information.

Biting her bottom lip, she considered her options. She could try to evade, but his stubborn expression told her clearer than words that she'd be facing a huge argument if she chose this path. Deception was out of the question. She'd never lied to him, at least not outright, and she wouldn't start now. But if she told him the truth, he could use it against her.

What it boiled down to was trust. Cai studied him, tried to predict what he'd do, but his face gave her no answers. In the end, one idea swayed her. Maybe if she showed her faith in him, it would be the beginning to rebuilding their friendship.

"I have security clearance into more than a hundred different systems. It's how I get the information that I pass along to you when you're out on a mission." She took a deep breath. "I merely extended my authorizations a bit."

Jake didn't show even an iota of surprise. Of course, the man was damn good at hiding his thoughts, but she suspected he'd already figured it out and had been testing her. She rubbed her forehead, trying to ease the headache she hadn't been able to shake. Her emotions had been all over the map today and it wasn't over yet. She lowered her hand and wrapped her arms around her waist. The hardest part was yet to come.

"Don't pretty it up. You hacked into restricted files."

Cai blew out a loud breath. "Are we going to argue about this now? Do you really care that much about it?"

"No, I don't. Let's get to the main issue." Jake closed the distance between them. "Why did you come looking for me?"

She'd wondered how long it would take him to calm down enough to ask. Hugging herself harder, she tried to find the perfect way to broach the subject. Though she'd rehearsed what she planned to say, nothing she'd come up with was going to work now. Not when he was so unreceptive. Maybe she should lay it out there and hope for the best.

"I need your help." There. She'd said it.

He cocked an eyebrow and looked at her as if she'd lost her mind. Maybe she had.
"So that's why you revealed yourself." His voice was even harsher, but now there was an edge of cynicism as well. "You want something from me. I should have guessed."

Cai grabbed him before he could walk away again. "No! I know you hate me right now, but please. It's important."

For a moment, she feared he'd simply break her grip and leave, but he surprised her. "Okay, let's hear it."

It wasn't "whatever you need, Cai," but it was a damn sight better than what she'd expected. "Thank you."

"Don't thank me. Talk," he ordered.

"I need you to help me find my parents." She waited, but he said nothing. The only reaction she received was the flex of his forearm beneath her fingers. She hesitated, then hurried to fill the silence. "They disappeared six years ago. The authorities declared them dead, but there wasn't any evidence to support that conclusion. After years of scanning the different databases, I think I came across something that will lead me to them."

She took a breath when she finished blurting her summary. Once again, when it counted, smoothness had deserted her. But then she'd always been better with machines than people.

"You can't take this up proper channels because you'd be in hot water once they found out you got the information by hacking." Jake's eyes seemed to grow even icier as he spoke.

"You think I'm protecting myself by coming to you instead of the authorities, but I'm not. If it brought my mom and dad back, I wouldn't care if I wound up court-martialed." Cai rubbed the ring again, looking for strength. He made no effort to hide his disbelief and that hurt too. She gave a shrug, trying to use a physical action to rid herself of an emotional pain.

"After my parents were declared dead, I appealed the decision. I took it up the ladder of every agency that might have some jurisdiction. I presented my theories and what evidence I had, but I may has well have saved my breath. I generally got one of two reactions. Either they humored me, then patted me on the head and told me to get on with my life or they laughed and told me grief had made me delusional. I'll get the same reaction now."

"You can't know that," Jake said, and for the first time, Cai thought she detected a hint of compassion.

She looked away, blinked hard a few times and then met his eyes again. "I do know. Since they didn't believe me six years ago, they sure as hell aren't going to believe me now."

He touched her, covering the hand she had on his forearm with his own. The calloused warmth of his fingers soothed her and she took the comfort he offered without hesitation. Even if the kindness lasted only a moment, she was grateful for it.

"Have you thought maybe you're grasping at straws?"

"Yeah, maybe I am," she said quietly, "but if there's the slightest chance this could lead to some answers, I have to take it. Wouldn't you if it were your parents?"

"No." The tone didn't encourage questions.

Jake withdrew, taking his hand from hers and shaking free of her hold. Every time he spoke, the illusion that she knew him disintegrated further, but there was something in the way he retreated that made her ache on his behalf. She wrapped her arms around her waist again before she did something stupid.

"Give me the short version," he said.

Nodding to show she heard him, Cai tried to quickly organize her thoughts. She knew her plan was going to be a hard sell, but the fact that he was willing to listen after everything she'd done wrong tonight gave her a slim chance. "My parents are doctors who've been doing research in bionanotechnology. To be precise, they've been working on advanced nanites."

"What's a nanite? Is that like the implants we have?"

"No, nanites repair genetic problems, perform minute surgery, and continually remove dead cells. And that's only the beginning of the possibilities. Life spans could be lengthened indefinitely and more. The Quantum Brain thing is different."

Jake crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back against the side of Hell. "Do you understand this nano shit?"

"Some of it. I'm in no danger of being recruited for lab work, though." Cai used both hands to rub her temples for a minute. Her headache was getting worse. "My mom and dad were on the cutting edge in their field and frequently received offers to work for some mega-corporation or other. They turned them down because of ethical questions on the end-use of their research, but despite the heavy recruitment, there was only one time they worried over the reaction to their refusal."

"You think this company is behind their disappearance?"

"Not a company. A man. Marchand Elliot."

When he straightened away from the wall, she knew he'd recognized the name. "That explains why no one wanted to reopen the investigation. Are you sure?"

Reluctantly, she shook her head. "It's circumstantial at best. I know he approached my folks at least twice. Once when I was fourteen and the second less than a month before they vanished. I know they were anxious after his final visit, but they wouldn't tell me why or share any details."

"So of course you concluded he'd kidnapped your parents."

She ignored the caustic tone. "I know it's a leap, but I find it suspicious that Elliot dropped out of sight at about the same time and that no one knew where he went. I don't believe in coincidence and he wanted the research badly."

"For what? The money he could make with it? He's already so damn rich that he'd never notice a few hundred billion more."

"No, not the money. What if you could decide who did and didn't get the nanites? In essence, you'd be controlling life and death. And what my mom and dad were trying to perfect was light years ahead of anything out there now. That's not all. There are destructive nanites that, instead of healing, consume everything they come in contact with for energy. What if you could convert a good nanite to a bad one with a command?" Cai did reach for him then, grabbing both his arms. "Think of what kind of power you'd wield and what you could do with it."

He didn't reply. She knew how wild it sounded, how impossible it was to believe. There were days when she wondered if it were some elaborate form of denial. Cai released Jake and stepped back. She'd made a promise. If it took the rest of her life, she'd never quit looking for answers. She couldn't.

The last comm conversation she'd had with her mom and dad was seared into her brain. She'd been so devastated that her parents had exiled her, so hurt by it, that she'd lashed out. Told them she hated them, told them she didn't care if she ever saw them again. They'd tried to contact her the day they'd gone missing, but she'd known it was them and hadn't answered.

And then it had been too late. Too late for apologies, too late to assure them that she understood they'd sent her away to protect her from Elliot. Too late to tell them she loved them. She needed another chance, she had to set things right.

Squaring her shoulders, she continued on despite her recep's skepticism. "One of the files I was scanning through today suggested that Elliot might be on the Raft Cities."

He shook his head, looking disgusted. "Let me guess, you want to go there and question him." She nodded. "Do you know anything about the Raft Cities?" He didn't wait for an answer. "We call the people there pirates, but that's bullshit. They're terrorists, pure and simple. The UCE sent the Navy SEALs in because they'd grown too dangerous, too powerful. And now, not that many years after the Pirate Wars, they're already regrouping, that's obvious from the increase in attacks."

"I know the Raft Cities are lawless. I researched—"

"Research? God." He muttered something she couldn't hear. "Reading about a place is different than seeing it firsthand." Jake shook his head, cutting her off again. "Never mind. Do you honestly believe Elliot kidnapped your parents? With his wealth, he could hire someone who was doing the same kind of research easily enough without risking anything but money. And if for some odd reason he did have your parents abducted, do you think he'll admit to it if you walk up and ask?"

"Probably not," she conceded, answering his last question and leaving the rest of it alone. "But I have to try."

He closed his eyes for a moment and exhaled sharply. "You want me to go with you, right? To track Elliot down, get you past his security and help interrogate him."

Cai winced at the bitterness in his voice. "Kind of, but not exactly."

He ran a hand over his chin, then asked, "What, exactly, do you want then?"

"General Yardley contacted me tonight," she told him. "I'm supposed to report to his office tomorrow morning. With you. If you approve the idea, I'll be accompanying your team on an assignment to the Raft Cities. I don't expect you to do everything for me. I'm only asking that you okay my presence."

It was a long moment before he said, "Even if you're right about Elliot and there is something worth looking at, I don't believe you'll be an asset to the mission. Not when your head is more on your personal aims than whatever the op involves."

She barely stopped herself from flinching. She knew he was thinking of the men who'd died today and wondering if she would jeopardize the lives of his surviving teammates. "I'd never put anyone else at risk," she said.

Jake stared, clearly he didn't believe her. Didn't he know her well enough to realize his team was hers too? That she would live and die by the same code Special Forces followed? And when his expression didn't change, she had to accept that he didn't know her at all. It hurt.

"Go home." His tone wasn't unkind. "If you need to find proof of your parents' deaths, keep looking. I won't say anything about the hacking. But I won't agree to your presence on the operation."

 

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