Slowly, like prey, she rolled over to face Jax Mercury, bare chested, cascading heat. A jagged tattoo made up of complicated lines and sharp edges wound over his left shoulder. She could make out a 20 in the center, covered and crossed over by lines. A special ops tat with a 44 in it shifted in the muscle on his left arm. A military designation of some type? “You promised,” she whispered.
He opened one brown eye. “I’m not attacking you, am I?”
“Well, no.” She inhaled, trying to slow her heart rate before a panic attack swamped her. She eyed him, tousled and relaxed. His right bicep held a tattoo with sharp lines, a shield, and the word Vanguard written through a heart. A dark lock of hair had fallen over his forehead, and a bristly shadow covered his square jaw, giving him the look of a lazy panther.
Panthers didn’t really get lazy, now did they?
He sighed and reached for the comforter, frowning when she flinched. Sighing, he pulled up the threadbare fabric to her neck, covering her completely.
“I need to know what I’m dealin’ with here, darlin’,” he rumbled, opening both eyes and focusing on her.
She curled her knees up toward her chest, hitting his hip bone on the way. “What do you mean?”
His gaze roamed her face, lingered on her lips, and returned to her eyes. “The world turned shitty-times-ten for women without the ability to fight.”
She blinked. “I know.” Predators always found the weak.
“What really happened when you disappeared from the CDC? Kidnapping or escape?” he asked.
Apparently the questioning would begin in bed. She tried to move back, but the wall stopped her. “I’d rather discuss this later while clothed.”
“That’s unfortunate, because we’re discussing it now.” His tone remained gentle.
She’d have to crawl over him to get to the floor, and no way was she getting in a tussle in bed with him. “I escaped.”
“Three months ago.”
“Yes.” She plucked at a string on the comforter. “The contagion spread, and soon the people in control weren’t the people who should be in control. I ran.”
He nodded. “Right about that time, the news stopped.”
So many people had succumbed to the illness, the world had seemed to stop. “I know.”
“Where have you been for three months?”
She tightened her jaw to keep her lips from trembling.
“Before the Internet crashed, the battles in L.A. were broadcast continually. I saw you fight, and I later read about the group you’ve formed here. Even the worst of the worst know not to come within five miles of inner Los Angeles, or they face the wrath of Jax Mercury.”
He lifted one dark eyebrow. “Those reports were exaggerated.”
“Of course.” She rubbed sleep from her eyes, her heart rate finally slowing. “The remaining doctors at the CDC tried to contain me, but I got loose. I knew I needed to get here, that with your vitamin B stores and fighting troops, maybe I could be safe and help find a cure.” That wasn’t the whole story. But she couldn’t trust him with it yet.
“Did you meet trouble on the way?”
“Of course.” There was always trouble, and she’d seen too much. “But I made it here.”
He touched her cheek. “Did anybody hurt you?”
She frowned. Oh. “No. I traveled with my uncle Bruce, who was a hell of a cop in his day. He helped me to break out of the CDC—the center we created in the nation’s capital the second Scorpius got out of hand.”
“Wasn’t the CDC branch in DC just policy oriented?”
“Yes, but we took over a hospital and started researching there, and once I was better, I worked there. It was supposed to be temporary, but as you know, everything happened so quickly, so we never returned to the main CDC hospital in Atlanta.”
Her uncle Bruce had visited her many times in the hospital, and when it became evident that several of the CDC doctors had been infected and were considering making Lynne a prisoner, he’d come up with a plan to get her out. “He posed as a lab technician to get me out of the facility, and then he had an elaborate scheme that included three stairwells, one secured lab, and finally a row of windows.” She smiled and then faltered. “We’d been on the run for months, and he’d taken great pains to protect me. He died a month ago.” The pain was fresh and almost doubled her over. She’d lost so many family members and friends, as had any survivor. God, it hurt.
“I’m sorry.” Jax ran a knuckle across her chin. “Scorpius?” It’d be easy to just nod and lie. “No. Bruce was killed by one of the groups seeking me. Many people still are hunting me, believing I either started the apocalypse on purpose or I have knowledge about a cure.”
She had knowledge about Myriad but no cure. “After my uncle’s death, I continued my search for you and safety, meeting stragglers on the way and staying away from most encampments. Foraged for food when I could.” Of course they were hunting her now. It was amazing she’d survived, considering she could trip over a smooth floor, she was such a klutz.
Her former lack of grace was the least of her worries. At some point, she’d need to tell Mercury everything, especially if he wouldn’t let her out of the room. But not now, and definitely not while in such a vulnerable position. “I haven’t been attacked, Jax.”
“Good.” His smile seemed almost sinful. “Then you can relax here in our bed and not flinch when I pull up the covers.”
Heat flared through her. Our bed? “Oh, hell no. I’m not sharing a bed with you.”
He glanced at her, at the bed, down at his chest, and then back at her. “I believe you are.”
She shoved him. “Absolutely not.” When he didn’t move or respond, she coughed out air. “Why? Why would you want to share a bed?”
He sighed. “It’s not personal. You’re a danger to people, and some of them might be a danger to you. So you stay with me, under guard, where I can protect everybody.” He pointed to the stacked locks on the door, which she’d failed to study the day before. The door was metal, huge, and obviously not native to the building. “There are locks on both sides, and I have all the keys. One of us could take the couch, but frankly, it sucks.”
What should’ve been the worst come-on she’d ever heard actually sounded like the truth. It was a pretty cage, but a cage nonetheless. She needed freedom. “I want my own place.”
“You’re not safe, and I can’t have guards on you twenty-four seven. Sometimes it’s just me, and I need sleep. So you sleep when I sleep, and everybody stays safe. Period.” He stretched an arm above his head, showing that amazingly cut chest. “Like I said, I won’t force you. You want the couch? It’s yours.”
She eyed the cold-looking, rather worn pleather. It was a freakin’ luxury compared to sleeping on the hard ground, but even so, now she’d had a taste of a real bed again . . . “A gentleman would give me the bed.”
He scratched the stubble next to his scar. “All the gentlemen are dead, baby. Soldiers and survivors are what we have now.”
She pushed up to one elbow, discreetly eyeing the locks on the door before studying him. “How dangerous is it here for me?”
“Very.” His eyes darkened from bourbon to Guinness. “We have many who haven’t been infected, and you are a carrier.”
“Anybody who survived the fever is a carrier.”
“As you know, there are rumors that you carry a new strain of the disease.”
More lies meant to force her away from other people. “We already discussed that. Either you believe me or you don’t,” she whispered.
His expression didn’t gentle. “There are so many rumors and ghost stories out there; I don’t pay attention to them.”
She swallowed, her throat clogging. “Good. There is no new strain of the bacterial infection. I’m no different from anybody else who’s survived Scorpius.”
“You’re the only one with a blue heart.”
“I know. I was infected with the main strain, and then we used one of the many experiments to save my life, turning my heart blue. We were never able to duplicate the exact concoction again, although since it didn’t cure me, I’m not sure it matters.”
“You’re different. How can it not matter?”
She sighed. “My heart is blue, as are a few veins around it. I have both photosphores and chromatophores in my heart, which without the initial bacterial infection would be impossible. Squids and octopi have the same materials, essentially, and they can turn different colors—usually blue.”
“So you have squid genes?” His brows furrowed, and his gaze pierced her.
She snorted. “Not exactly, but close enough.”