The Unexpected GiftAmazon, B&N, Kobo, iBooks, Smashwords, Scribd, Inktera, Oyster
Release Date: June 3, 2014
When Michael “Coop” Cooper gave up his Gift, he was told it’d be forever. And he accepted it. Years later, the sacrifice doesn’t seem so terrible: he’s learned to survive without it, he’s gained the necessary intel to begin building his Gifted army, and he found the woman he intends to claim for his own.
But in the middle of their recruitment process, his Gift comes back. Unexpectedly. But rather than celebrating the impossible, Coop’s carefully laid plans are about to come to naught… unless he can find a way to survive and make it right.
Twenty-two hours, forty-three minutes, and nineteen seconds. Coop eyed the clock. Give or take a second or two. He’d been without Samara that long. She’d left yesterday to be with her grandma, tying all the ends that had loosened and frayed after she’d decided to devote her time to him.
Well, to the Gifted army they were creating. But it was essentially the same. He was central to her plans, as she was to his. Though it was fair to say his plans were a little different than hers.
One side of his mouth quirked up. For now.
He did another calculation. One week, three days, four hours, and twenty-four minutes until they were on the road together, alone, to recruit illusionists for their army. They’d planned the trip a couple weeks ago, and he’d seen it for the perfect opportunity it was. She wanted him, and he was close—so close—to breaking through her walls. The trip would give him the final push.
His eyes strayed back to the clock. He was itching to see her again. They’d spent so much time together in the past few months that being without her felt like the first days after his Gift had been removed. His mouth tipped up in a full smile. But nothing would be sweeter than seeing her grumpy morning face when she stomped into the room. Most likely pre-coffee.
He shouldn’t find amusement in her sleep-lidded eyes and sour looks, but he did.
Coop found there was little he didn’t like about Samara Benson.
They’d set up a temporary base in an abandoned school. The room they were meeting in must have once been a teachers’ lounge. Some of the furniture belonged in a different decade, but it was functional. And he’d never cared about fashion.
Coop let his feet thud to the ground and prowled to the coffeemaker, whose coughs and sputters told him it was nearly finished spitting out its pot. His eyes slid up to the clock. He still had a few minutes before Samara rolled in. His lips curled into a smile again.
God, he loved that woman. Morning grump and all.
Coop poured two cups—both black—and set one on the table for himself. He took the other and walked to the doorway, leaning against the frame. Waiting.
And just as he suspected, there she came, stomping through the hallway with a scowl. It was anything but intimidating. Coop would have called it cute if he’d been stupid enough to say something out loud. And while he’d certainly had his moments, he was smart enough not to mention this.
To her face, anyway.
When she was within arm’s length, he held out the cup and bit back a laugh as she took it without acknowledging him and slid into the chair next to his. They’d done this so often it’d become routine. Coop took his time walking to the table, partly to give Samara time to inhale some of the coffee and return to the land of the conscious, and partly to give himself the opportunity to appreciate her before they got down to business.
A lock of hair fell down her forehead as she hunched over her cup, and she blew it up with a frustrated sigh. He’d felt it before, her hair. A silky slide against his skin. As a rule, he touched her as much as possible.
She didn’t fully trust him—or anyone else after what her mother had done—but those small touches created holes in her walls.
Coop sauntered to his chair and sat down, propping his feet up. Samara lifted her eyebrow in reproach, but he ignored it, as he had many times before. People underestimated him when they thought he didn’t take anything seriously. And that was when they showed their true colors.
It’d served him well in the Northern Alliance Betterment Society’s compound. He couldn’t wait to make those Hunter bastards pay for everything they’d done to his people, to his family, to Samara.
That Samara’s father was the head of the Hunters was a minor inconvenience. One she refused to talk about. Coop was fine with giving her the space. But sooner or later, they’d have to discuss what she needed.
And not just on an emotional level. He let his eyes rove her body and felt the answering spark of arousal. She had physical needs too.
But she did have questions about her parents she wanted answers to. Coop had spent more than enough mornings with her as she tried to experience any memory of her mother or father that would give her any insight. She never told him what she saw, but the fact that she continued with the practice told him she hadn’t gotten the information she wanted.
Coop smiled when he saw the same lock of hair had fallen in her face again. “You ready?”
“Mmm,” she murmured.
He took that as a “Just give me a minute. I need to finish my coffee” mmm. He settled back in his chair and grimaced when his stomach let loose a bellow that told him he’d forgotten to eat breakfast. He’d been in too much of a rush to see Samara.
A snack bar appeared in front of him and his lips twisted. She’d developed a habit of bringing food with her wherever she went. The result of being imprisoned without it for so long, she said. The thought tore him apart—as it had many times before—and he shoved down the need to apologize. Again.
The last time he’d tried, she’d told him to shove a sock in it.
Which somehow had seemed fitting for them.
Samara pushed her cup away and stood up. “I want to try having a memory before we start.”
He’d had a feeling she’d say that. He motioned to one of the couches. “Why don’t you sit down over here?”
With narrowed eyes and a suspicious look, she scooted over to the couch and sat. Coop let the edges of his lips curl up and popped part of the snack bar in his mouth. The last time Samara had tried to call up memories, he’d slipped on the couch next to her. When she’d finally blinked her brown eyes open, he’d had his arm wrapped around her shoulder.
She hadn’t known what to do. So he’d kissed her cheek and watched her squirm.
She was squirming now, too, a blush rising high on her cheeks. Coop battled with the smile that threatened. She remembered. He dropped down on the opposite side of the couch—an ugly orange affair that couldn’t fit three people if it tried—and balled up the snack bar wrapper as he popped the rest of it in his mouth. He looked around for the garbage.
Samara crossed her arms over her chest. “You’re going to miss.”
It wasn’t so much a lack of faith as it was an assumption based on past attempts. Give him a target to shoot at, and he could nail it every time. But tossing a wrapper in the garbage? It was hopeless. Coop set it on couch’s arm and swallowed the last of the snack bar.
Samara stared at the wrapper and swung her gaze back to him. He leaned forward. “If you want me to do something for you, Samara, you only have to ask.”
Her breath hitched slightly, and her words came out breathy. “You should throw that away.”
“Is that all?” He raised an eyebrow and leaned even closer, smiling when she swayed toward him.
Her nostrils flared. “Y-yes.”
Coop tossed out the wrapper and moved back to the couch, grabbing her shoulders. He spent entirely too much time attempting to get his hands on her. But his reward was always supple skin under his roughened hands.
“You look uncomfortable when you have a memory sitting up,” he said, pushing against her slight resistance. “If you start lying down…”
Her eyes widened, their color deepening. “You want me to rest my head in your lap.”
Coop murmured his assent. And despite the skepticism in her voice, she let him settle her head in his lap.
“Isn’t this better?”
Her eyelids fluttered down before she answered, but he’d caught her pupils dilating. “Yes.”
“Don’t fall asleep on me.”
She scowled at him and he grinned, safe in the knowledge her eyes were still closed. She relaxed quickly—a good sign—and it took only a few seconds before she shifted into a memory, her body twitching with movement.
Coop lifted his hand to run his fingers through Samara’s hair and froze as a sharp pain started in his arm and ricocheted to his chest. Aborting his movement, he clutched his chest as it tightened and squeezed the air out of his lungs. Peeking at Samara still locked in her memory, Coop tried to drag in air.
When black spots began to appear in front of his eyes, he cursed and balled his fist. Breathe. He just had to breathe through it. As if from a distance, he heard the coffeemaker spit and hiss as it settled. Breathe. The pain seemed to echo through him, consuming his attention.
He blinked, letting Samara come into focus. The pressure inside snapped, disappearing almost as fast as it’d come. He blinked again, taking in the downward tilt of Samara’s brows and the concern in her eyes.
“Are you okay?” She sat up and scooted herself over until her side melded against his.
“Yup,” he lied. Even though the pain and pressure was gone, his heart hammered in his chest. He forced his lips up, the smile feeling rigid and awkward on his face, and bumped his shoulder into hers. “Learn anything new?”
Her hand landed on his leg. The warmth leeched into his leg, and he realized how cold he was. He stared at her fingers—long and elegant—against the dark blue of his pants. If he hadn’t been caught up in the aftereffects of whatever that was, he would have crowed over her initiation of contact.
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
He covered her hand with his and angled himself to meet her gaze. “I’m fine. Tell me what you saw.”
A blush crept up her face, spreading into her cheeks. The smile he’d plastered on his face softened into a real grin.
“Nothing about my parents.”
It was about him, then. She’d had a few memories of him and they all seemed to end with her cheeks turning pink. Those were his favorite, even though she never told him what she’d seen.
He kissed her cheek, right where it was reddest and pulled her up. “Should we get started?”
He’d already put the odd pain out of his mind.
There was a surprising amount of menial work in creating a military organization. Samara seemed to take everything in stride, from the hoops they had to jump through to secure a building to the diplomacy of coordinating two groups predisposed to hating each other.
Not for the first time, Coop was glad to have her by his side. Her memory-bringer elder training made her the perfect partner.
No matter how much he wanted this to come together perfectly, he also wanted to skip the bullshit and begin. It shouldn’t take them months to assemble an army. Not when they already had so many people willing to join them.
Apparently being in charge didn’t always mean you could barrel ahead when you wanted.
He struggled with knowing he and Samara still had a long way to go before they could fight back against the Hunters, but it meant spending time with her, and that was more than okay. Coop pulled his sandwich closer, began rolling up his sleeve, and froze.
A bright red welt started at his wrist and traveled up his arm, disappearing under his shirt.
“Is that all you’re eating?”
Samara’s words snapped him out of his trance, and he rolled his sleeve back down until it covered the welt. The sandwich, which had looked so appealing before, made his stomach roll. He struggled for flippancy. “I’m planning to have you for dessert.”
There was a warning in her voice, but he couldn’t quite tell if he’d crossed a line or if she wanted him to be quieter because there were other people on the opposite side of the room. Not that it mattered: they were used to his flirting with her. He smiled and bit into his sandwich. It tasted like ash and sat in a lump in his mouth. He struggled to swallow.
Coop stood abruptly. “I’m going to eat outside.” A lie, but telling the truth was out of the question. He escaped the room and deposited his food into the nearest trash. No way could he eat now. Not when the worry about what was going on with his arm churned in his stomach.
Since bad things generally got worse with time, he locked himself in the nearest bathroom and rolled up his sleeve. Only one of the lights was on, and he debated whether it would look worse in dim or bright light.
He wanted to know—but how much he wanted to know, that he wasn’t sure of. There were always levels of knowing. The whole, ugly truth: Samara’s mother working against him and the Gifted, putting her daughter in harm’s way. The what-you-need-to-know truth: he’d been there to protect Samara.
But given how Samara still tiptoed around him, perhaps the whole, ugly truth would serve him—serve everyone—better. The truth hurt. But it was difficult to prepare and move forward without the whole truth.
He flipped the second and third lights on. The fluorescent light flooded the room, and he winced as his eyes adjusted. He stared at the mirror, cataloging his features. He looked fine. No circles under his eyes. Color normal. He ran a hand through his hair. Still there. No massive loss.
Nothing but the welt snaking up his arm, standing out like an angry red line, to indicate anything was wrong. Coop unbuttoned his shirt and pulled it aside. The welt came to an end in the center of his chest, just above his sternum.
Where his Gift used to simmer and roll inside, before it’d been removed.
Coop poked at the welt. Other than its appearance, it didn’t hurt. He shrugged his shirt back on. It could be nothing. He’d wait. Give it time, see if it got worse. The last thing he wanted to do was cause undue concern and drag the already slow proceedings to a halt.
Chills woke him. Covered in an icy sweat and shivering under the thin blanket he’d dragged over him, Coop struggled to pull himself up. His arms shook with the effort. Yet he knew, with preciseness that sent another wave of chills over him—nothing to do with temperature this time—exactly where the welt traveled up his arm and down to his chest.
Because every inch of it burned and pulsed.
Coop let himself fall back down. His lungs squeezed and labored with each breath as he felt the burn and hiss of his Gift awakening. He racked his brain for what the doctors had said about removing it.
One, that Coop had to sign a waiver signifying he hadn’t been influenced by anyone. Two, that it would hurt, akin to the agony of losing a limb. They’d been right about that, too. And three, that it’d be forever.
There had never been a fourth: your Gift will come back and make dying feel like the preferable outcome.
If it wasn’t for the welt, he could explain away the chest pains as anxiety or stress. He was certainly experiencing enough of both. The road to creating their army went uphill with dangerous curves. It’d be miles before they could do something. Worry plagued him about whether they’d be able to do it. And his chills, too, as awful as they were, could be a sign he was getting sick.
But the welt? That he couldn’t explain. He could only suspect.
Or he would suspect later, when the thought of moving didn’t make him want to vomit or fill him with shaky exhaustion. The next few hours passed in a blur: he slept, he woke, he groaned, he attempted to move, he slept. Only the chills and the pulse of his welt in time with his heart were constant.
His door slamming against the wall made him flinch awake. His cheek was plastered to his pillow, his face turned away. It could be anyone, and yet the thought of lifting himself up off his stomach to check exhausted him.
“Coop.” Samara. Low and urgent. “You’re late.”
He’d never been late before. No, he’d been late. A minute here and there. But he’d never slept through the start of a morning, not when it meant spending time with Samara.
He managed a grunt in response.
She touched him softly, the barest flutter of her fingers over his shoulders. “Are you sick?”
Coop wished that were the case. But before he could summon the brain power to construct a reply, he felt the blanket slip down and Samara’s swift intake of breath.
“Coop.” A brush of her hand on his back. A wealth of emotion in her voice. Wonder, awe—and fear. “Your Gifted mark is back.”