Book 2 of the Offspring series
October, 2009 Avon Books
In one minute, Zoe Stoker goes from tattoo artist to a woman with assassins hot on her trail. All her life she's felt like a freak, and now the Offspring, people who also have extraordinary psychic abilities, are her only hope. As their group grows stronger, and the enemy gets more dangerous, one sexy loner pushes her to the brink of love.
"This would go a lot easier if you'd stop screaming in pain," Zoe told the muscular man lying beneath her.
"Nobody told me this was going to hurt so much," he said in a strained voice.
She arched one of her dark red eyebrows. "What did you think a tattoo needle was going to feel like?"
"Just finish already."
A line of people waited to get their tattoos at Creative Ink, and her three artists, RJ, Rachael, and Michael, were all busy doing one of three tattoo designs she'd limited the event to for efficiency. Nothing more beautiful than the sound of all their tattoo machines buzzing through the shop. Zoe could hardly enjoy the fact that her charity event for SafeHouse was a success. She struggled to maintain control, a mega feat considering how many freaking things had gone wrong.
She absolutely could not let frustration bubble to the surface. Especially with the news cameras rolling. When she lost her temper, crazy things happened. Embarrassing things.
She'd arrived an hour early, psyched to find about sixty people already waiting. She was totally not psyched to also see the cop demanding to see the owner—her. Apparently, she hadn't set up proper crowd control. Heck, she hadn't expected a crowd. She'd made arrangements to get the velvet ropes that nightclubs used for their overflow lines. Relief. She'd enjoyed that for about five minutes until the power died for a half an hour.
RJ's car had broken down, making him late. Rachael had a cold and barely dragged herself in. She wore one of those respiratory masks and complained how ridiculous she looked.
"You look like a world-class surgeon, Rach," Zoe called out. "Work it, babe."
Rachael's eyes crinkled in a smile as she lifted one of her blue-glove-clad hands and gave her the finger. A photographer snapped the picture. If that made it into the paper, Zoe was going to—calmly—kick Rachael's pretty little ass.
The hot day spiked impatience levels. Ugly black clouds threatened to dump rain on the people waiting in the line that snaked around the block.
And now this six-foot-two bodybuilder was whimpering in pain before her needle even touched him.
"Key West," Zoe said between clenched teeth. "St. Bart's. St. Martin. Nassau." She looked at the poster of Aruba that she'd pinned up next to her station. The tack at the right corner trembled.
"What are you doing?" the guy asked.
"I recite island names for stress relief. You know, visualization, imagining the salty breeze fluttering through my hair, hearing the ruffle of the palm fronds." Someday, when she could afford a vacation, she was going to experience those sensations first hand. She lowered the needle to his chest.
He screamed like a little girl, and she almost dropped her machine. The photographer walked over to capture the moment. The guy in the chair pasted on a tough-guy smile. What a bozo.
Zoe took advantage of the situation and leaned forward to finish the tattoo. The guy jerked when the tip touched his skin. "Look," he said, "I'll give you the money for the shelter's playground but no more of this torture."
She placed her hand on the center of his chest, her nails blood-red against his white skin. "You are not walking around with half a tattoo telling people that Zoe Stoker did that to you. Buck up, 'cause I'm finishing it."
With a sigh he slumped into the chair again. She had to hide her grin when he said, "Nassau…Paradise Island…"
At least she had music. The Russian rock tunes she dug poured through the shop. They no longer reminded her of Vladamir, the sexy Russian college student she'd superficially fallen for years ago. She didn't have his gorgeous body or his hot temper around, but she had his music. Cued up next was some local rock band RJ liked where the lead singer screamed the lyrics to every song. Luckily RJ didn't sing along.
The phone rang off the hook. She couldn't afford a shop manager; she was still making payments to the guy who'd sold her the shop. For today, she'd hired a friend of Rachael's to man the phones and collect money. Breanna kept the coffee brewing, filling the shop with the scent of it. She walked over, her body language giving off vibes of not wanting to disturb Zoe.
"Cyrus Diamond is on the line. He says it's life-and-death important."
Cyrus, the CIA guy helping her to dig into her father's past, life and death?
Twenty-one years ago Jack Stoker, respected Army and family man, walked into the office where he worked and started shooting people. He killed three and wounded four more before taking his own life. Her mother refused to discuss it, choosing to push the ugliness into the distant past. Or even worse, acting like he never existed at all. Zoe had tried to pretending the same thing for a while, too. God, her father had killed people.
Then one day in a fit of anger her mother said something that struck fear and curiosity in Zoe: You got what he had! She had to know more.
She had been blocked or ignored until Cyrus Diamond contacted her, having learned of her inquiries. He also had questions about a friend who had worked with her father. So far he'd found out very little. So what could be life and death?
"Relax," she told the guy as she pulled off her gloves. "I'll only be a minute."
She walked to the back corner, where posters showcased a selection of flash, her shop's stock designs. The one filled with old horror movie monsters was all hers, as were most of the tropical tattoos.
"Cyrus, what's up?"
"Zoe, thank God. I'm sorry to lay this on you. You may be in danger because of our snooping. I'm afraid we got the attention of someone who doesn't want us to find out the truth. I'll explain more as soon as I can."
His breathless warning seemed so bizarre, she could hardly compute it. "Cyrus—"
"I'll call you later. Stay somewhere else tonight. They know where you live. Beware of strangers, even the police. They're not involved, but if a powerful agency claims jurisdiction, they have to turn you over. I know how it works. You'll be taken somewhere for questioning and no one will hear from you again. I've got to go. Talk to you soon. Be careful, Zoe. Be really careful."
For a moment she couldn't breathe. His fear was as solid as the phone she held. Now it was her fear, too.
One of the posters fell off the wall.
No, not now. Control, Zoe, control. St. Thomas. Kitts. Fiji, Fiji, Fiji.
She looked up at the line of people that wound out the door and the cluster of lookee-loos crowded at the window peeking in. She was freaking surrounded by strangers!