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Authors: Lynn Crandall

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BOOK: Heartfelt
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She shot him a wry grin. “Funny.” She dropped her head in her hands. “What am I going to do? It’s not like I can wear sound-dampening earphones; the voices are inside my head.”

“It figures that humans would bombard you with their incessant problems.”

“Hey, don’t hate on humans. They have just as much right to be who they are as were-cats do.” Asia had encountered Conrad’s disdain for humans years ago when they first met. She didn’t like it then and it still got her hackles up. And right now she didn’t have the energy to hear such insufferable sentiments.

Conrad sighed heavily. “Many things humans do leave a bitter taste in my mouth. They’re selfish and petty and destructive.”

Asia shook her head. “They are more than that, so get over it. You’re not helping.”

His sheepish expression plucked her heart, but she wouldn’t let him off the hook.

“Okay, you’re right. Sorry I got on my soapbox. Back to you and how you can manage your day among humans and all their unwanted thoughts.”

“You see solutions to problems. What good is your ability to do so if you can’t help me?” She knew she was whining but the strain on her brain annoyed her.

Conrad nodded and stared into the distance for a few minutes. Asia knew from experience he wasn’t looking at anything in particular, but rather was opening his mind to a pathway. One that would lead to a viable way out of her problem.

Patience was not her strong suit, so though she had to wait for Conrad’s process, her foot began tapping the pavement.

Meanwhile, her own thoughts stirred restlessly. What was different about telepathy with animals? They didn’t invade her with the contents of their minds. She had to deliberately open a connection. “Animals don’t spew thoughts,” she said more to herself than Conrad, but her voice interrupted his study.

“What? What did you say? Animals don’t send you thoughts? Are they in some way walled off to you?”

“I think animal minds are naturally protected, contained. It’s in their best interest to contain their thoughts. I have to initiate a connection.”

“So human minds aren’t protected? It’s not in their nature to wall off their thoughts, maybe because of their language development. As the dominant species on Earth, they haven’t developed the boundaries animals have.”

“With animals, telepathy is very clear, very basic, very straightforward.” Asia’s mind checked off the various elements of telepathy with animals, trying to understand what was different with humans.

“Basic how?” Conrad tilted his head, his eyes staring intently at her.

“If a cat is hungry, I get an image of what it wants. Food. It’s very in the moment and simple, as though they are only in that moment of being hungry. If they’re in pain, I get an image of what is hurting.”

“Yeah, I can imagine human thoughts are much more complicated. Humans tend to be in many different places and states at the same time.” He rubbed his thumb across his chin.

“Yes. I’ve only just begun getting their thoughts, but human thoughts are so much more nuanced. They’re hungry and at the same time they wonder what would taste good and can they afford it or are the calories too high? Their thoughts seem to roll off into many directions. They’re hungry but they also think about what’s stressing them and how they’re going to make the rent this month. There’s no pause, just a complex web of different concerns.”

“You’re exhausting me with just the idea of it.” Conrad chuckled. “But were-cats are part human and you can’t read my mind. I have a maze of thoughts, just as you described. I think there’s more to this, but right now we’ve got to come up with a way for you to get through your day.”

“Do you have an idea?”

“Sort of, maybe.” He grimaced. “You have experience in limiting input or lowering the volume to a level where the thoughts are quieter, less noticeable.”

• • •

Out on the downtown streets, pedestrians walked briskly, chatting between themselves. The morning sunshine was blocked from Conrad and Asia as they stood under a long ledge, but beyond them its rays shone brightly. It was a small taste of nature, but it was enough to clear his mind. “Do you know what I’m referring to?”

The wind lifted strands of Asia’s shining dark hair. His focus shifted to her: her gleaming hair, her serious but beautiful face, and her lips, the color of silky pinot noir. She licked her full lips and his heart skipped. Immediately, inwardly he groaned. He shifted his gaze to her eyes, fearful he’d been caught with more than just-friends interest hanging out of his mouth. Fortunately, her attention was caught up in reflection. Finally, she spoke.

“Are you thinking about my mom and how I used to tune her out?” Asia’s hazel eyes gleamed.

“Yes, exactly.” Relief wobbled through him. She hadn’t seen anything on his face that resembled desire. He shoved the glimmer of interest deep down into wherever disturbing thoughts went.

“Good old Mom.” Her eyes shuttered. “I haven’t seen her in a while. I don’t know where she is.”

Conrad wrapped an arm around her shoulder. “I’m sorry, Asia. I remember the last time she stepped off the mainstream.” She hadn’t been able to find her and didn’t hear from her for six weeks.

Asia shook her head. “I don’t want to think about that right now.”

“That’s it.” He pointed a finger at her, smiling. “The thought makes you feel sad and you choose not to think about it.”

“Yeah. Thoughts of my alcoholic, drug-addicted mom do make me sick inside. They’re painful.” Her eyes brightened and she spoke slowly. “I tune them out.”

“I wonder if you can selectively filter out thoughts that enter your brain uninvited.”

“Filter out? That sounds like a lot of effort and it would take time to do.”

Conrad rubbed his chin. “It would. But you’ve already got the skill. It’s just unconscious for you now. You’ve got to separate the thoughts and set them aside, like you do with your thoughts of your mom.”

Asia glanced at her cellphone. “I’ll put the idea to test in about thirty minutes. I’ve got to get to the news conference.”

He smiled, watching her gathering herself up and putting on her newswoman face. She peered up at him, as though she noticed something different but didn’t know what, before turning to go back inside the newspaper building.

“Good luck,” he murmured. His eyes collided with hers. He held the gaze for a long moment, then turned to walk to his car. A mixture of surprise at the sensuous aching in his belly and concern over Asia’s enhanced ability tightened his muscles.

Chapter Four

Asia elbowed her way through the crowd gathering for the press conference at the hotel and conference center downtown. Her destination was the chairs up front sectioned off for the press. Thoughts from around her barged into her brain. Stiffly, she sat in a chair. She gritted her teeth, attempting to become impervious to outer thoughts.

The conference was scheduled to begin in about fifteen minutes. Camera operators hugged the floor in front of her, trying to be unobtrusive while getting a good shot of Senator Sage.

She stared at the press release regarding his announcement today. Fortunately she’d read it at home, because right now her brain was a room full of distracting thoughts. Aggravation churned in her body. This new ability was getting in the way of doing her job.

She tuned her attention inward, sensing out the various voices. It took all her concentration, and still it was a jumbled mess. Her insides squirmed, reacting as though someone was scratching fingernails across a blackboard.

Pressure built as the minutes ticked by. She turned back to her conversation with Conrad. Her mother’s voice combined with all manner of difficult and painful situations, and Asia had made a habit of ignoring her. This was different, but she felt herself relax into a known pattern. She recited words to herself.
I’m hearing this cacophony, and now I am setting it aside.
The voices in her head became a cloud, a configuration that she could shove away and divert her attention elsewhere.

She sucked in a deep breath and let it out, pausing to settle her nerves. Again, she pulled in a breath and let it out slowly, ignoring the remaining thoughts still persisting.

Another breath in and out. The thoughts hummed, distracting her concentration. But instead of punishing her brain like a harsh, staccato beat from inharmonious sources, the thoughts were a homogenous glob droning in her head. She could work with that, for now.

She reviewed the press release and balled her hands. If what she read was true, Senator Daren Sage was trying to legitimize The Nexus Group. She’d run into Sage last winter when his involvement with TNG became apparent to the colony. Along with Kennedy’s parents, Sage had intended to turn Kennedy into a warrior lynx and use her as means to eliminate any opponents to his reelection and anyone who would get in the way of the group’s Project Powering.

A small group of people belonging to Sage’s staff bustled into the room and took a place standing along the sidelines. Daren was announced and he marched in and stood behind the podium to the sounds of applause.

Asia frowned and glanced around, keeping a relaxed hold on the flow of thoughts.
I hear the thoughts. I set them aside,
she recited again, imagining the thoughts being pulled into the glob.

“Thank you, thank you,” Sage said to all the clapping.
I’m not going to look at her.

Daren’s thought charged right through her containment strategy. Did he mean her? She’d never met him, but apparently he knew her.

Of course, what did she expect? The colony knew TNG had eyes on them. They’d stepped straight into the crosshairs of business mogul and head of TNG William Carter when Jackson—Carter’s son, Casey’s friend, and Lacey’s fiancé—had needed the were-cats’ help in thwarting Carter’s attempt to steal Michelle’s property. Carter and his disregard for laws had been a thorn in the colony’s side until the day he’d died at the hands of one of his drug experiment subjects.

The organization shifted leadership and it became apparent that Sage had been involved with TNG’s plans to turn Kennedy into one of their pawns.

“I’ve come here today to announce that I’m sponsoring a bill that will bring more money to the state and provide support for species of animals that are threatened in the wild. This bill is particularly close to my heart because I believe sustaining nature in its many glorious forms is not only vital, but beneficial to the human population on earth. We’re all connected.” He smiled to no one in particular, and Asia’s stomach lurched. It was all lies. By the increased buzzing in her brain and the tone of the thoughts, she gathered individuals in the room knew better, too, than to trust such a project to Sage.

Sage looked down, then continued. “If passed, the bill will provide for setting aside parts of the Midwest for the purpose of creating a wildlife preserve designated for supporting species now and for future generations. Also, my bill proposes the construction of an exotic feline rescue center that would provide habitat and support services for big cats rescued from abuse and neglect.”

Asia’s gut clenched. The room exploded in applause for Sage’s ideas. The noise and the outrageous idea he presented distracted her concentration. Thoughts pummeled her brain.

He’s so amazing. I wish he would shake my hand.

Wildlife preserve in the Midwest? For what kind of animals? More wasted taxpayer money.

What a crook.

These people love me. I’m golden. I can do anything.

Bile slipped into Asia’s throat. While Sage’s proposal got as much mixed reception as his presence, she knew the egotistical fool was loving every bit of the attention and the applause. He truly believed he could do anything and get away with it.

Sage opened for questions, and Asia quickly jumped to her feet. “Senator, how do you think your arrest a few months ago for racketeering will affect your ability to garner support for your proposed bill?” It made a relevant question. In the whole mess with Sage and Kennedy’s parents it had come to light that he was obstructing justice and bribing the right people to get the work of TNG accomplished.

Sage glared at her.
You bitch.

His thought came through so clearly, it surprised her. “Excuse me?” She scrambled for composure. The last thing she wanted to do was clue him into her telepathic ability.

He studied her, up and down. “I didn’t say anything.” He pursed his lips and glanced around the room then landed a hard gaze on her. “Those charges were dismissed, Ms. Blue.” He cleared his throat again and turned his attention on another reporter.

“What animals do you plan to introduce in the preserve?” The young male reporter prepared to scribble notes in his notebook.

“Good question. I am working with an organization with extreme interests in making the world a better place for humans and other species on the planet. Its members recognize the destructive forces that have taken a toll on quality of life for people, and threaten animal habitats and survival. This group has been working under the radar, but it now is coming forward to exert a greater impact on life on earth. The group is called The Nexus Group, and is comprised of influential individuals who are willing to dedicate themselves to this project.”

“Who are the members?” Asia’s control over her brain didn’t deter her enough to let this bullshit ooze out of Sage’s mouth unchecked.

“Let’s give another reporter a chance.” Sage pointed to a young woman. “You, miss. What’s your question?”

Asia didn’t recognize the woman and wondered what news outlet she represented. She didn’t like the provocative clothing the young woman wore, or the way she flirted with Sage in front of the entire room.

“You mentioned the project would be economically advantageous for the state. How?”

She’s a plant, Asia decided. Leave it to Sage to pad his audience.

“The preserve will need scientists to perform important research on site at the Phoenix Biosciences facility, and veterinarians and grounds keepers, so there will be jobs. Research will garner research dollars. Breeding programs will be tied to commercial endeavors. Of course, the facility will need legal expertise to manage the various rules and regulations. And visitors will pay entrance fees to tour the facility. I mean, who doesn’t enjoy seeing wildlife in the safety of a preserve?” Sage’s gravelly chuckle grated on Asia’s nerves. “The opportunities are endless.”

BOOK: Heartfelt
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