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Amanda LaGrange shook her head so vigorously it felt as though it might come loose from her shoulders. "Please, not him. Anyone but him."
"Jacob's the only agent currently available, and we need this house investigated tonight. The owner paid extra for an immediate assessment." Patrick McKay's voice was firm.
It was pointless to argue. Knowing Patrick, her boss, there was no way she'd be able to get out of this. Besides, making a fuss about her last official assignment for the Paranormal Assessment and Recovery Agency would make her look childish.
She finally sighed. "Okay, fine. I'll do it." "I don't understand why you two can't stand each other after all this time. Why is that again?" Patrick sounded both curious and distracted. He was a born multitasker, and was currently having a conversation with Amanda while he replied to a long list of text messages from other agents on his BlackBerry.
"It's...it's just...many reasons. Too many to list." PARA had hired Jacob Caine two years ago because of his empathic abilities. He could get a sense of people and places just by touch. Before that, he'd worked as a private detective for five years. Both talents came in very handy at an agency that investigated paranormal phenomena. PARA agents were often called in to assess haunted properties and cursed or enchanted objects, and would then take the necessary precautions to ensure no one was harmed.
Jacob had it easy, like many of the other agents in-house. He hadn't even known he was psychic until recently.
Amanda? Not so much.
She'd seen her first ghost—and had a pleasant conversation with him, in fact—when she was only eight years old. At the time, it had been natural and not scary at all. However, that encounter had led to many others in quick succession, and some of the ghosts weren't as friendly as the first. Her frightened parents had tried to get her to stop, but it wasn't as though she'd been trying to attract otherworldly attention—it just happened. Ghosts were drawn to her. One ghost, annoyed at being interrupted by her father, had pushed him down a flight of stairs. Luckily, other than a twisted ankle, he wasn't injured, but the event did its damage in another way.
Not able to deal with his daughter being a "ghost-magnet freak," which was how he'd put it at the time, Ed LaGrange had packed his bags and left Amanda and her mother that very night. She'd never spoken to him again.
The memory still brought a painful lump of emotion to her throat.
Her mother blamed Amanda and her clairvoyant ability for shattering their home. Amanda grew up feeling like more of an outcast every day of her childhood. Her being different had destroyed her family.
Being at school didn't help, either. Normal kids gave her the nickname "Amanda the Strange," which, while not a terribly original taunt, came to represent verbally everything she hated about herself. She was a freak—she was strange.
Therefore, she had tried as hard as possible to ignore her psychic abilities. It had worked for a while, at least until PARA came to her college looking for potential agents. Patrick McKay had seen Amanda's file, met with her personally, and offered her enough money to justify dipping back into her despised abilities.
Other than the money, the bright side of working for PARA was that there were other agents who subsequently became her good friends—kind of like a bizarre extended family. She was invited to their weekly "tequila and séance" parties. She'd gone a couple of times since her best friend Vicky, another clairvoyant, rarely took no for an answer in pushing Amanda to get out and have more fun, but it wasn't really her scene.
Even though she was surrounded by happy psychics who liked her and who she liked in return, she'd never gotten over her father's rejection and her childhood traumas. It had made her the woman she was today, for better or for worse.
As far as her dating life—well, she tried not to tell her boyfriends about her psychic abilities at first—or at all, if possible. PARA agents were a close-knit group, but "normal men" outside that circle didn't understand or were scared off by anything unusual—just like her father and schoolmates had been. When Amanda's boyfriends found out her secret, they usually found the nearest exit as quickly as possible.
And then there was Jacob Caine. Decidedly not a normal man.
She'd met him at a staff party held at O'Grady's, a local pub, two years ago, shortly after he'd moved to the area and joined the agency. Her friends, especially Vicky, had already told her how hot the new recruit was, how devas-tatingly charming, and how most of them—the single or even not so single—wanted to have extremely imaginative sex with him. Like, immediately.
And he was. Hot, that is. Darkly attractive with short, scruffy black hair and flashing green eyes framed with thick black lashes. He dressed casually—no tie for him. She could vividly recall his navy-blue shirt being unbuttoned at the neck that night to reveal a glimpse of his obviously chiseled torso. He was six feet tall with broad shoulders, lean hips...and an amazing ass.
At least, that had been her first impression.
Amanda's mouth had literally watered at the sight of him despite the fact she wasn't usually romantically drawn to fellow psychics. Then again, she'd been celibate for over a year after a bad break-up—another guy who'd freaked at the thought she could talk to ghosts—so she was certain that was to blame for her heightened sensitivity to such a fine specimen of male hotness.
From across the room, Jacob caught her staring and their eyes met. She was sure he'd be able to tell just from a glance that she wanted to climb onto his gorgeous body and do things to him she wouldn't even trust to her diary.
He disengaged from the throng of cleavage-revealing women and came toward her with his hand extended.
"I'm Jacob," he said without losing her gaze. "And you are?"
"Amanda." She inhaled sharply as she felt the strength and warmth of his long fingers wrap around hers. An unbidden surge of desire curled inside her. His aftershave was a spicy musk with just a hint of cinnamon and a whole lot of man.
He frowned, but she had no idea why. Maybe it was because she was practically drooling on him.
Pull yourself together, she commanded herself.
"Something wrong?" she asked when his grip tightened.
"No..." But his frown deepened as he looked down at her hand. "It's odd. It's like you have a psychic wall up around yourself. I normally get a sense of someone when I touch them for the first time, but I'm getting nothing from you at all."
"You can get something from me if you come over here!" Vicky called from their far left before laughing suggestively. Amanda repressed a smile and an eye-roll at her friend's enthusiasm and returned her attention to the gorgeous man in front of her.
"No walls, I assure you," she said. "Maybe I'm just special."
His eyes snapped back up to hers. "Maybe you are." The frown disappeared, replaced instead by a killer smile. "Amanda, you said?"
He nodded. "They already told me about you. You're the one they call Amanda the Strange, right?"
She tensed. "It's LaGrange. But yeah, that's me. Strangeness incorporated."
An ice-cold sensation immediately swept over her at the sound of the despised nickname that represented everything about her that she hated. Why would he say that to her? To get some sort of a reaction? And who'd told him that?
So much for letting down her guard and getting drunk on tequila with Vicky and the gang last week and sharing soul-crushing childhood stories. That wouldn't happen again.
She finally yanked her hand back from Jacob's. He looked at her oddly.
"Is there something wrong?" he asked.
"Wrong?" Her jaw felt tight. "No, of course not. I...uh, I have to go."
Damn, she'd been having such a good night, too. How was it possible that three little words could ruin everything?
Jacob grabbed her wrist. "I thought we might be able to talk for a bit."
So he could insult her more? Yeah. That sounded like a plan.
"I guess you thought wrong," she said, the iciness in her voice matching the chill she felt inside. "There are lots of women here who will be happy to talk to you. Or more, if you like. Trust me, you won't miss me."
She fixed a frozen smile on her face. She needed to get out of there. "Welcome to PARA, Jacob. I'm sure everyone will be as delighted to meet you as I've been."
He raised a dark eyebrow. "Is that sarcasm I hear?"
"You're very insightful. You must be psychic."
He studied her closely. "I guess first impressions are misleading. I thought we might hit it off."
Amanda had no idea why she wanted to cry. Why was she letting this guy affect her so strongly? It felt as though he could see right through to the vast and varied weaknesses she tried desperately to hide from everyone. Hell, maybe she did put up psychic walls around herself without even realizing it.
Just being near him suddenly made her very uncomfortable.
She gave him a practiced withering look that helped to hide when she was feeling more than a little vulnerable. "I guess you thought wrong."
"Well, then, it was delightful meeting you, too, Amanda." He turned away, but then glanced back over his shoulder, his green eyes narrowed. "By the way, that was also sarcasm."
And then he returned to his waiting swarm of admirers and didn't look back.
Vicky ran over to see how everything had gone during her conversation with the new hottie. Amanda had kept her answers vague and then excused herself from the party early. She'd had enough.
It was definitely true what they said—don't judge a book by its cover. Jacob Caine had a mighty fine cover, but she wasn't interested in reading any further.
But for a moment there, when their eyes first met...that rare instant attraction she'd felt...
Well, it didn't really matter. Amanda was much too practical to believe in love at first sight.
She'd felt strongly enough about their unpleasant meeting that she'd asked Patrick not to pair her and Jacob for any assignments together and he'd agreed. PARA had over two dozen agents so it was an easy problem to avoid. If she saw Jacob in passing, she'd make polite small talk about the weather or traffic, but even then she tried to get away from him as quickly as possible.
From the tightness in Jacob's jaw whenever they spoke, it was obvious that he wasn't all that fond of her, either.
It was really unfortunate that, despite everything, she still found him as devastatingly attractive as she had the first time she'd seen him.
And now, after all this time, Patrick was going to make them work together.
Less than a week and she'd be saying good-bye to her friends at PARA—the ones who made life as a psychic almost bearable—and moving to New York City to work for her boyfriend, David K. Smith, in his advertising agency. Selling advertising was about as far removed from investigating paranormal phenomena as you could get...and that would be a huge relief for her. She was starting her life all over again at the ripe old age of twenty-seven.
While David knew she worked for PARA, he didn't know in what capacity. She hadn't told him she could talk to ghosts at all. Better safe than sorry.
And he didn't have to know. When she left Mystic Ridge for good she'd put her past behind her and get the chance to be completely and totally normal.
"Jacob will pick you up outside in ten minutes," Patrick said. He'd finished answering his e-mails while she'd been lost in her thoughts.
He glanced up at her from his high-tech wheelchair. He'd had a run-in with a very unpleasant poltergeist six months ago that had sent him headfirst down a flight of stairs—a scary reminder of what had happened to her father. Patrick was still recovering from a near-fatal spinal cord injury. Since he was a friend, as well as a great boss, Amanda was just happy and relieved he'd lived to tell the tale.
"Are you doing this on purpose?" she asked.
He raised an eyebrow. "What are you talking about?"
"This assignment tonight with Jacob. You're mad I'm leaving, aren't you?"
Patrick put his BlackBerry down on his desk and spread his hands. "You have to do what you have to do, Amanda. As long as you think quitting PARA will make you happy, then I fully support your decision."
She nodded stiffly, swallowing past a huge lump that had formed in her throat. Quitting PARA would make her happy—she knew it. The only thing that made it hard was knowing she wouldn't be seeing Patrick, Vicky and the others on a daily basis anymore. "Well, good."
"However, we are throwing you a going-away party." He grinned at her and his blue eyes twinkled with good humor. "And attendance is required. Tuesday night at O'Grady's. Drinks are on me."
She couldn't help but smile at that. Patrick would find any excuse for a party. "I'll be there."
"I'm picking up the cake, too. Got a preference? Chocolate, vanilla...maybe rum?"
"Rum," she said as her smile widened. "Definitely rum."
She could use a little bit of the booze right now. It might make spending the rest of her evening with Jacob Caine remotely bearable.
Patrick watched Amanda leave his office. She was uncomfortable at the prospect of being partnered with Jacob. It was obvious.
But it had to be done.
Maybe it was because he'd been stuck in the damn wheelchair for so long that he'd started interfering in people's lives. Too much time to sit and think...and observe.
Amanda was making a huge mistake by quitting PARA and leaving the friends who loved and accepted her to go off with a man she obviously, to Patrick at least, didn't love.
He saw it in her eyes, a growing dullness, an acceptance that life was not supposed to be extraordinary.
Since his accident, Patrick knew firsthand that life was a gift—every damn day was—and if you didn't accept it, sooner or later it might be snatched away right in front of you.
He'd seen a spark of passion in Amanda's eyes, though. Whenever the beautiful brunette saw Jacob she seemed to fill with life. She claimed to dislike him for reasons she'd never properly explained, but Patrick was far from convinced when that flush came to her cheeks as it had just now. And he'd seen the same intensity in Jacob's gaze, as well.
Patrick rubbed his temples. When exactly had he been appointed resident cupid? Hell if he knew, but it was the least he could do when the evidence presented itself so clearly that the two of them belonged together.
One attempt. That's all they got. Make them work together, make them spend time together before Amanda left for what she considered her shiny new life for good, and see what happened.