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Winter Igniting (Scorpius Syndrome Book 5) by Rebecca Zanetti (1)

1

I’m the perfect person to take this job. I have nothing to lose.

—April Snyder, Journal

This was crazy. Even in a world already gone to insanity, her going undercover was nutballs. April Snyder kept her face stoic, though her body rioted with a tenseness that made her neck ache with knots. “I can do it,” she said quietly, lying her ass off.

Jax Mercury, the leader of Vanguard, sat across from her at the executive-style conference table, his brown eyes soft. Which was incredibly rare. “You don’t know the plan yet.”

It didn’t matter. Whatever the plan, she was in. “I have nothing to lose,” she said quietly. Now that was the truth.

Jax sat back and crossed impressive arms. At the early hour, Vanguard headquarters, and especially his war room, was quiet. After Scorpius had infected and killed most of the world, Jax had created this somewhat safe haven in the middle of Los Angeles for survivors. Vanguard territory took up seven complete blocks of old apartment buildings, bankrupted businesses, and a couple of ex-drug houses. Jax ruled them all. “I’m concerned this will be too much for you.”

Every once in a while, the guy showed a sweet side that came as a complete shock. But she didn’t need sweet.

She blinked and glanced at the empty chairs surrounding a table that must’ve belonged to a law firm at some point, considering the inlaid design in the middle. This was where Jax and his top lieutenants often strategized how to survive. She didn’t belong here, and she knew it. “Nothing is too much for me,” she said, meaning it. She’d lost everything. Her husband, her daughter, her friends. The pandemic had killed them all. “You need me.”

Jax’s gaze narrowed as he studied her. “I’m not looking for somebody to go on a suicide mission.”

She barely kept from squirming beneath his regard. Jax’s picture should be next to badass in the dictionary.

Focus. She had to focus. Taking a deep breath, she settled back in her chair. After her teenage daughter had died, everyone had treated her with a soft touch, including Jax. But he’d never acted as if she’d been destroyed. “I’m not looking to die, Jax. I don’t want to. But I don’t really care if I do.” She owed him that much truth. “I might be able to help some folks before I go, so why not?”

He didn’t like her answer. By the tightening of his jaw, he definitely wasn’t pleased.

Her stomach ached, but she faced him as bravely as she could. Not blinking helped.

The door opened, and Damon Winter strode inside, munching on a Twinkie. The world might’ve died, but preserved pastries lived on.

Damon winked at her.

April’s breath caught. Damon was everything she was not. Big and tough and dangerous. Even before the world had basically ended, he’d been a cop in Los Angeles. Fighting bad guys. And he had that electric charisma she’d only seen in movie stars before now.

He pulled out a seat at the end of the table, finishing his breakfast. “What’s the plan?” His voice was a rich rumble that made her wonder about things she shouldn’t.

Jax looked his way. “Did Tace release you medically?”

Damon rolled very deep brown eyes. “Yes. I’m fine. The ribs have already healed, and Tace took stitches out of everywhere he slid the needle in. I’m ready for the op, Mom.”

Jax grunted. “You’ve only been here a week, and I’m already regretting aligning with the Mercs.”

Damon grinned. “We are a handful.”

The Mercs were military soldiers, all men, who took over Santa Barbara before it had burned to the ground. Now, they were integrating into Vanguard territory, though not very smoothly it appeared.

April cleared her throat. “How’s the integration coming?”

“Not well.” Damon lost the smile. “It’s a bit rocky.”

“Good,” Jax said.

April’s shoulders jerked. “Good? Why is that good?”

“We need internal strife for your mission,” Jax said.

Mission. She was actually going to do something that was called a mission. Life had turned into Bizarro World.

Jax looked at her and then at Damon. “The Pure church has been courting April for months, trying to get another woman to join. But Damon’s going to be the prize for them.”

What? April shook her head.

Damon nodded. “Yep. I’m a prize. It’s nice to be appreciated.”

Jax rolled his eyes. “They want members, women especially, and we need to find out why. But they’re also low on soldiers, and I’m sure they’d love to gather Damon into the ranks since he’s trained and hasn’t been infected by Scorpius. So, you’re going to be the key to him, April.”

Okay. She was starting to understand the strategy. The Pure church had set up inside Vanguard, and Scorpius had not infected the members. Nor had it affected Damon or her. “They’ve been slow to recruit me,” she murmured.

“They’re smart,” Jax said quietly.

Damon tapped his fingers on the table. “Catch me up to speed about this church. I don’t have any details.”

Jax scratched the scruff along his jawline. “We don’t know much, which is a problem. They’ve taken over an apartment complex in the western corner of Vanguard territory, and they have food and ammunition. No members have contracted Scorpius, thus, the Pure.”

Damon eyed April and then Jax. “What’s the problem? The Scorpius bacteria is deadly, and they should be protected from infection if possible.”

Jax lifted a shoulder. “Agreed. But we don’t know how many kids are in there, or if the members are there willingly. It’s too secretive. Creepy, actually. Pastor Zachary King won’t let us talk to any of them, and armed guards cover the complex. In my territory.”

April leaned forward. “Just the pastor. No name. He said God spoke to him decreed him the Pastor. That names are for other people.”

“Jesus,” Damon muttered. “Sounds like a cult.”

Jax sighed. “That’s what I’m afraid of. Okay. I’d prefer to call him Pastor King so we don’t get him confused with a prisoner I have locked down named Zach Barter. So far, the name Zach is causing me problems.”

April winced. “We know there are at least five pregnant women in the Pure, and we have to find out if they are voluntary members. I want to do this, Jax.” What was left of her life had to mean something.

“You’re our best option,” Jax said, a muscle ticking in his jaw. “They’ve been slowly making a move on you for a while.”

“Only a few meetings and a lot of chance encounters,” she said.

“They’ll step it up if they think they can get Damon through you,” Jax said, wincing and then pulling a knife from the back of his waistband. “Forgot this was there.” He plunked it onto the table.

April swallowed, her gaze going to the rough hilt. At least it was in a sheath. “Through me? How?”

“Two ways. First, you’re going to assist Damon with integrating the Mercs into Vanguard territory so you have a reason to spend time together,” Jax said.

Easy enough. “Okay,” she said.

“And, second, he’s going to romantically pursue you. Big time,” Jax finished. “The church will see and will try to use you to manipulate him since he’s about to be so into you.”

Her body flushed hot. “Huh?”

“Men falling for women act like morons for a brief time,” Jax said simply.

Brief time? Right. April lifted an eyebrow.

Damon smiled, and this time, a dimple showed in his left cheek. “This might be my favorite mission ever.”

Warmth spread to her face, no doubt causing her to look like a tomato. Courage. She had to be brave with these guys. “Why don’t I pursue him?” she retorted with as much spirit as she could drum up.

“Great plan,” Damon said instantly, oozing charm.

Jax cut him a hard glare. “Knock it off.” He faced April. “The church knows you and has watched you for months. You’re not the type to pursue a guy you barely know. But they don’t know Damon. We can make him into anybody we want right now.”

Geez. Okay. All right, she wasn’t a femme fatale. She’d been with one man her entire life, and then he’d died. So, she truly had no argument. Except the idea of sexy Damon chasing her, a widow from suburbia, was ridiculous. “So, we pretend a romantic…ah…relationship?”

“Why pretend?” Damon asked smoothly.

She gaped. Was he actually flirting with her?

Jax picked up his knife. “I told you to knock it off. I meant it. This is our last-ditch effort before I take the complex by storm, and I’d rather not scare the women and kids there. But I’ll do it if necessary.” He studied them thoughtfully. “We’re going the safe route for now, but we might have a problem.”

Damon’s gaze narrowed instantly. “Why?”

“Because you’re black,” Jax said bluntly, turning to look at her, “and she’s white. Very white.”

April’s mouth gaped open. “Jax.” Had he just said that?

The Vanguard leader met her gaze head-on. “I don’t have time to be politically correct, April. You’re white, he’s black, and this church has rules we don’t know or understand. They’re secretive, and my gut tells me something is wrong there. There’s bad shit going on, and racism might just be a part of it.” He shrugged. “Or not. We just don’t know.”

“But still,” she protested.

“I don’t have a racist bone in my body,” Jax muttered. “I’m Hispanic, and I have Native American, Korean, Anglo-Saxon, and Texan lieutenants.”

She coughed. “Texan isn’t a race.”

“It should be,” Jax returned. “Tace is one of a kind. But my point is, even though we’re not racist assholes, the Pure church might be. They might not like interracial couples. Or premarital sex. Or brunettes with big boobs. Or LAPD officers. Who the hell knows. I want you to be prepared for that.”

Damon looked at her, his gaze warm. “I like that you’re offended and surprised by this, by the way.”

She shifted in her seat. He was just too much. Dark eyes, rugged jaw, cut cheekbones. His chest was wide and muscled. With a gun strapped to his thigh, and a knife to his calf, he oozed deadliness. That shouldn’t be sexy...but it was. But she had no business viewing him like that. This was a mission. A job. “I don’t know how to be pursued,” she blurted out.

His chin lifted, and a different light entered his eyes. A predatory glint. “Then this should be fun.”

Panic engulfed her so she remained quiet.

Jax sighed and shoved away from the table as if bored with the entire conversation. “You two talk and come up with a game plan. April, last time Damon was here, we had him throw a fit about being around people who’d survived Scorpius.”

“It wasn’t exactly a fit,” Damon drawled. “More like a loud objection. A manly one.” He winked again.

Was he teasing her now?

Jax grumbled and stood, heading for the door. “Whatever. I’d like to get things into motion tonight. Damon, you’re taking point. Figure it out.” With the last words, he stomped out the door, slamming it behind him.

Quiet descended.

Her throat clogged. “Um. What does ‘taking point’ mean?”

Damon studied her, his gaze serious now that Jax had left the room. “I’m in charge of mission parameters.”

Considering she’d never been on a mission in her life, she was okay with that. “Which are?”

He leaned toward her, a woodsy, ginger scent wafting her way. Manly and intriguing. “We’ll use our real jobs as cover for this mission. Our first meeting will be today at noon, in the park that’s been set up middle territory for the kids, to work on integrating the Merc soldiers into Vanguard.”

“So we really do our jobs while also doing the other job,” she said, blinking. This was confusing.

“Yeah. The more natural we are, the better.” He reached out and planted his warm hand over hers.

Heat and electricity zapped through her. She looked at the difference. His hand was big enough to completely engulf hers and had scars across the knuckles. From fighting? She lifted wide eyes to him. “I don’t know how to act. To pretend.” She’d worked at a dentist’s office before Scorpius descended for Pete’s sake.

“Just be you, blue eyes,” Damon said. “React exactly as you would normally.”

She pulled her hand from beneath his and set it in her lap. “Okay.” There was no reason for them to hold hands. Why couldn’t she breathe? His simple touch had overwhelmed her and forced sensations into her body that she had no business feeling. “We don’t need to pretend now.”

His eyes glittered with a light she couldn’t quite read. “Who’s pretending?”

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