"Nothing is easy or black or white in Zanetti's grim new reality, but hope is key, and I hope she writes faster!” —New York Times bestselling author Larissa Ione
With nothing but rumors to lead her, Lynne Harmony has trekked across a nightmare landscape to find one man—a mysterious, damaged legend who protects the weak and leads the strong. He’s more than muscle and firepower—and in post-plague L.A., he’s her only hope. As the one woman who could cure the disease, Lynne is the single most volatile—and vulnerable—creature in this new and ruthless world. But face to face with Jax Mercury…
Danger has never looked quite so delicious…
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By REBECCA ZANETTI
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Rebecca Zanetti
All rights reserved.
Life on Earth is at the ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster, such as sudden global warming, nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus, or other dangers we have not yet thought of.
— Stephen Hawking
Despair hungered in the darkness, not lingering, not languishing ... but waiting to bite. No longer the little brother of rage, despair had taken over the night, ever present, an actor instead of an afterthought.
Lynne picked her way along the deserted twelve-lane interstate, allowing the weak light from the moon to guide her. An unnatural silence hung heavy over the barren land. Rusting carcasses of vehicles lined the sides; otherwise, the once-vibrant 405 was dead.
Her months of hiding had taught her stealth. Prey needed stealth, as did the hunter.
She was both.
The tennis shoes she'd stolen from an abandoned thrift store protected her feet from the cracked asphalt, while a breeze scented with death and decomposing vegetation lifted her hair. The smell had saturated the wind as she'd trekked across the country.
The world was littered with dead bodies and devoid of souls.
A click echoed in the darkness. About time. Predators, both human and animal, crouched in every shadow, but she'd made it closer to what used to be Los Angeles than she'd hoped.
A strobe light hit her full on, rendering sight impossible. The miracle of functioning batteries brought pain. She closed her eyes. They'd either kill her or not. Either way, no need to go blind. "I want to see Mercury." Since she'd aimed for the center of Mercury's known territory, hopefully she'd find him and not some rogue gang.
Silence. Then several more clicks. Guns of some type. They'd closed in silently, just as well trained as she'd heard. As she'd hoped.
She forced strength into her voice. "You don't want to kill me without taking me to Mercury first." Jax Mercury, to be exact. If he still lived. If not, she was screwed anyway.
"Why would we do that?" A voice from the darkness, angry and near.
She squinted, blinking until her pupils narrowed. The bright light exposed her and concealed them, weakening her knees, but she gently set her small backpack on the ground. She had to clear her throat to force out sound. "I'm Lynne Harmony."
Gasps, low and male, filled the abyss around her. "Bullshit," a voice hissed from her left.
She tilted her head toward the voice, and then slowly, so slowly they wouldn't be spooked, she unbuttoned her shirt. No catcalls, no suggestive responses followed. Shrugging her shoulders, she dropped the cotton to the ground, facing the light.
She hadn't worn a bra, but she doubted the echoing exhales of shock were from her size Bs. More likely the shimmering blue outline of her heart caught their attention. Yeah, she was a freak. Typhoid Mary in the body of a woman who'd failed. Big time. But she might be able to save the men surrounding her. "So. Jax Mercury. Now."
One man stepped closer. Gang tattoos lined his face, inked tears showing his kills. He might have been thirty, he might have been sixty. Regardless, he was dangerous, and he smelled like dust combined with body odor. A common smell in the plague-riddled world. Eyeing her chest, he quickly crossed himself. "Holy Mary, Mother of God."
"Not even close." A silent overpass loomed a few yards to the north, and her voice echoed off the concrete. The piercing light assaulted her, spinning the background thick and dark. Her temples pounded, and her hollow stomach ached. Wearily, she reached down and grabbed her shirt, shrugging it back on. She figured the "take me to your leader" line would get her shot. "Do you want to live or not?"
He met her gaze, his scarred upper lip twisting. "Yes."
It was the most sincere sound she'd heard in months. "We're running out of time." Time had deserted them long ago, but she needed to get a move on. "Please." The sound shocked her, the civility of it, a word she'd forgotten how to use. The slightest of hopes warmed that blue organ in her chest, reminding her of who she used to be. Who she'd lost.
Another figure stepped forward, this one big and silent. Deadly power vibrated in the shift of muscle as light illuminated him from behind, shrouding his features. "I didn't tell you to put your shirt back on." No emotion, no hint of humanity echoed in the deep rumble.
His lack of emotion twittered anxiety through her empty abdomen. Without missing a beat, she secured each button, keeping the movements slow and sure. "I take it you're Mercury." Regardless of his name, there was no doubt the guy was in charge.
"If I am?" Soft, his voice promised death.
A promise she'd make him keep. Someday. The breeze picked up, tumbling weeds across the lonely 405 to halt against a Buick stripped to its rims. She quelled a shiver. Any weakness shown might get her killed. "You know who I am," she whispered.
"I know who you say you are." His overwhelming form blocked out the light, reminding her of her smaller size. "Take off your shirt."
Something about his command gave her pause. Before, she hadn't cared. But with him so close she could smell male, an awareness of her femininity brought fresh fear. Nevertheless, she again unbuttoned her shirt.
This time, her hands trembled.
Straightening her spine, she squared her shoulders and left the shirt on, the worn material gaping in front.
She lifted her chin, trying to meet his eyes although she couldn't see them. The men around them remained silent, yet alertness carried on the oxygen. How many guns were trained on her? She wanted to tell them it would only take one. Though she'd been through hell, she'd never really learned to fight.
The wind whipped into action, lifting her long hair away from her face. Her arms tightened against her rib cage. Goose bumps rose over her skin. She was accustomed to being vulnerable, and she was used to feeling alone. But she'd learned to skirt danger.
There was no doubt the man in front of her was all danger.
She shivered again.
Swearing quietly, he stepped in, long, tapered fingers drawing her shirt apart. He shifted to the side, allowing light to blast her front. Neon blue glowed along her flesh.
"Jesus." He pressed his palm against her breastbone — directly above her heart.
Shock tightened her muscles, and that heart ripped into a gallop. Her nipples pebbled from the breeze. Warmth cascaded from his hand when he spread his fingers over the odd blue of her skin, easily spanning her upper chest. When was the last time someone had touched her gently?
And gentle, he was.
The contact had her looking down at his damaged hand. Faded white scars slashed across his knuckles, above the veins, past his wrist. The bizarre glow from her heart filtered through his fingers. Her entire chest was aqua from within, those veins closest to her heart, which glowed neon blue, shining strong enough to be seen through her ribs and sternum.
He exhaled softly, removing his touch.
An odd sense of loss filtered down her spine. Then surprise came as he quickly buttoned her shirt to the top.
He clasped her by the elbow. "Cut the light." His voice didn't rise, but instantly, the light was extinguished. "I'm Mercury. What do you want?"
What a question. What she wanted, nobody could provide. Yet she struggled to find the right words. Night after night, fleeing under darkness to reach him, she'd planned for this moment. But the words wouldn't come. She wanted to breathe. To rest. To hide. "Help. I need your help." The truth tumbled out too fast to stop.
He stiffened and tightened his hold. "That, darlin', you're gonna have to earn."
Jax eyed the brunette sitting in the backseat of the battered Subaru after rifling through her backpack. Water, leather bound journal, and granola bars. No weapons, and he'd frisked her, finding one little knife by her calf, which he'd let her keep. She was at the wrong angle to harm him, and if she struck with the blade, he could easily take it.
He forced his body to release necessary tension and tried to relax into the worn seat. He'd stolen the vehicle from a home in Beverly Hills during the riots for food and supplies. The gardener who'd owned it no longer needed it, considering his dead body had joined the neighborhood burn pile after he lost his battle with the Scorpius bacterium.
The luxury SUV sitting so close to the Subaru had tempted Jax, but the older car would last longer and use less gas, which was almost depleted, anyway. Everything they had was almost depleted. From medical supplies to fuel to books to hope. How the hell did he refill everybody with hope when he could barely remember the sensation and needed his energy focused on shoring up his defenses?
Tonight's raid had been a desperate hunt for gasoline from abandoned vehicles, not a search party for survivors. Based on early reports, when the news had still been broadcast, Lynne Harmony had completely disappeared with no explanation. Most people thought she was dead; others believed she had gone on the run, hiding from vigilantes who blamed her for the epidemic. The government, such as it was, had immediately put a reward out for her safe return. He'd never thought to find her in Vanguard territory.
How fortunate his vehicles were always stocked with restraints and hoods, just in case.
The woman had closed her eyes, her head resting against the faded leather. Soft moonlight wandered through the windows to caress the sharp angles of her face. With deep green eyes and pale skin, she was much prettier than he'd expected ... much softer. Too soft.
Though, searching him out ... well now. The woman had guts.
Manny kept looking at her in the rearview mirror, and for some reason, that irritated Jax. "Watch the road."
Manny cut a glance his way. At fifty years old, beaten and weathered, he'd tossed the cap and monkey suit needed as a Bellagio chauffeur and now drove in threadbare clothing wearing unruly scruff on his chin. But he took orders easily, which was a necessary requirement in Jax's camp. "There's no one out here tonight but us."
"We hope." Jax's gut had never lied to him. Something was coming. If the woman had brought danger to his little place in the world, she'd pay. "Dawn will arrive in less than an hour. Speed up."
Manny pressed his foot to the pedal and swerved around what looked like an overturned hot dog stand near a park being molested by spreading bushes and trees. He frowned and leaned forward to peer up at the sky. "Shit. Less than an hour."
The faintest scent of fear cascaded off him.
Jax took inventory of the weapons within reach and allowed just enough adrenaline to flood his system to be effective. The presence of survivors marked shop alleys as they left the commercial area and entered slums lined with dilapidated former crack houses. His territory. The desolate smell of decomposing tissue followed them. It was time for another scouting to burn deceased bodies.
He glanced back at Lynne.
Her eyes flashed open, directly meeting his gaze. The pupils contracted while her chin lifted. Devoid of expression, she just stared.
He stared back.
A light pink wandered from her chest up her face to color her high cheekbones. Fascinated, he watched the blush deepen. When was the last time he'd seen a woman blush? He certainly hadn't expected it from the woman who some thought had taken out most of the human race.
Around them, off-road vehicles kept pace. Some dirt bikes, a four-wheeler, even a fancy Razor confiscated from another mansion.
They drove into the inner bowels of Los Angeles, skirting abandoned vehicles and weakened buildings. Climbing vines attacked brick, while many places had been burned in the riots. Most storefronts gaped open from broken windows or trashed doorways. The first survivors had looted quickly, not knowing that the bacteria hadn't finished spreading.
Most of the looters were dead ... or worse.
Tension rode the air, and some of it came from Manny.
"Say it," Jax murmured, acutely, maybe too much so, aware of the woman in the backseat.
"This is a mistake," Manny said, his hands tightening on the steering wheel. "You know who she is. What she is."
"I doubt that." He turned to glance again at the woman, his sidearm sweeping against the door. She'd turned to stare out at the night again, her shoulders hunched, her shirt hiding that odd blue glow. "Are you going to hurt me or mine?" he asked.
Slowly, she turned to meet his gaze again. "I don't know." Frowning, she leaned forward just enough to make his muscles tense in response. "How many people are yours?"
He paused, his head lifting. "All of them."
She worried her lower lip between two teeth. "I'd heard that about you." Turning back to the window, she fingered the glass as if wanting to touch what was out of reach.
"Heard what?" he asked.
"Your sense of responsibility. Leadership. Absolute willingness to kill." Her tone lacked inflection, as if she just stated facts. "You are, am I correct? Willing to kill?"
He stilled, his eyes cutting to Manny and back to the woman. "You want me to kill somebody?"
He kept from outwardly reacting. Not much surprised him any longer, but he hadn't been expecting a contract killing request from Lynne Harmony. "We've lost 99 percent of the world's population, darlin'. Half of the survivors are useless, and the other half are just trying to survive. You'd better have a good reason for wanting someone dead."
"Useless isn't an accurate description," she said quietly.
"If they can't help me, if they're a hindrance, they're fucking useless." Months ago, he'd turned off the switch deep down that could see a gray area between the enemy and his people, and there was no changing that. He'd become what was needed to survive and to live through desperate times. "You might want to remember that fact."
Her shoulders went back, and she rested her head, staring up at the roof. "I'd love to be useless."
He turned to the front. Her words had been soft, her tone sad, and her meaning heartbreaking. So the woman wanted to die, did she? No fucking way. The blood in her veins was more than a luxury, it might be a necessity. She didn't get to die. "Tell me you're not the one I'm supposed to kill," he said, his body on alert.
Silence ticked around the dented car for a moment. "Not yet, no."
Great. All he needed was a depressed biological weapon in the form of a sexy brunette to mess with his already fucking fantastic daily schedule. "Lady, if you wanna eat a bullet, you should've done it before coming into my territory." Since she was there, he was making use of her, and if that meant suicide watch around the clock, he'd provide the guards to keep her breathing and helpful.
"I know." Fabric rustled, and she poked him in the neck. "When was your last injection?"
His head jerked as his neurons flared to life. He grabbed her finger before turning. "Almost a month ago."
She tried to free herself and then frowned when she failed. "You're about due, then. How many vials of B do you have left?"
He tugged her closer until she was leaning over the front seat, his gaze near to hers. "Doesn't matter. Now I have you, don't I? If we find the cure, we won't need vitamin B." This close, under the dirt and fear, he could smell woman. Fresh and with a hint of — what was that — vanilla? No. Gardenias. Spicy and wild.
She shook her head and again tried to free herself. "You can have all my blood you want. It won't help."
They drove past structures, and for the briefest of moments, empty lots full of decomposing fast food wrappers and broken beer bottles bracketed them on both sides. "Stop the car," he said to Manny.
Manny pulled over as if he'd been waiting for the order. Jax released Lynne, stepped out of the vehicle, and pressed into the backseat next to her.
Her eyes widened, and she huddled back against the other door.
He drew a hood from his pocket. "Come here, darlin'."
"No." She scrambled away, her hands out.
With a sigh, he reached for a zip tie in his vest and way too easily secured her hands together. A second later, he pulled the hood over her head. He didn't like binding a woman, but he didn't have a choice, since she just might be working for an enemy. While the location of his territory was generally known, the weaknesses of entry and exit were not. "In the past year, as the world has gone to hell, hasn't anybody taught you to fight?" he asked.
Excerpted from Mercury Striking by REBECCA ZANETTI. Copyright © 2016 Rebecca Zanetti. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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