Justice Ascending Chapter One
Scorpius Syndrome, Book 3
The Darkness doesn’t just stare back . . . it moves forward, opens its mouth, and swallows you whole.
Tace Justice read the last depressing line on the page and growled, tossing the journal across the room. When it landed, the cover slapped back into place with Hello Kitty smiling at him. Jesus. Paper was scarce, but Doc could’ve found a different notebook when she’d ordered him to start journaling. Like his descent into madness really needed to be recorded by a happy cat.
He glanced around his dismal apartment in Vanguard headquarters. Worn beige bedspread, tan couch, ripped brown linoleum that smelled like, well, nothing. Hell, it probably smelled bad, but he’d lost his sense of smell. If he wasn’t crazy already, the entire room would just depress the shit out of him. The walls had been painted white decades ago and even now stood bare and dingy. Should he get some art to brighten the place up?
Why bother? He stood and stretched, wincing as new bruises ached to life.
They’d returned mere hours before from a full-out battle up north where they’d rescued two of their own. His adrenaline had ebbed, yet his mind still spun. No way could he sleep.
A tremor started in his right foot, and he paused, taking note. It vibrated up past his knee, and he had to balance on his other leg as weakness assailed his entire limb.
Not another tremor.
He sighed and waited, breathing in and out evenly until his strength returned. Damn it. What was wrong with him? He lacked the emotion to be truly concerned, but this was certainly annoying.
His bed was empty of company, and he needed to burn off some energy. At the midnight hour, the gym downstairs would be free, so he deserted the crappy apartment, leaving the door unlocked. If anybody wanted to steal his ugly bedspread, they could take it with his blessing.
He turned down the quiet hallway where the elite Vanguard soldiers slept. All was quiet. Apparently, anybody getting some had already done so, and folks were now recuperating from the fight earlier.
Reaching the landing, he hustled down a flight of stairs to the vestibule of the brick building, tuning into the soup kitchen to the right. No breathing. The place was deserted. Pivoting sharply, he took two stairs at a time to reach the basement, which housed their makeshift gym.
“What are you doing up?” A female voice caught him unaware.
He stopped cold at the sight of Sami Steel stretching out on the blue gym mat, her dark hair piled on top of her head, her fit body in tight yoga pants and a tank top. Bruises marred her slim jaw from the fight earlier, and a purpling lump showed on her right wrist. “Couldn’t sleep,” he said, his body awakening completely. Hell, he hadn’t realized his body had been slumbering. “You?” he asked.
She breathed in, raising very nice tits. “Too keyed up from the fight earlier.”
“I’m with you.” After the fight, it had taken hours to return to Vanguard territory, so they should both be fine by now. “We’re strange.”
She grinned, and cute lines crinkled by her soft brown eyes. “Anybody who has survived Scorpius is weird, if you ask me.”
He nodded. The Scorpius bacterium had spread through the human population like a biblical plague, killing more than 99 percent of those infected. Since the bacteria localized in the brain, it altered everyone who’d survived it. Some were faster, some meaner, some crazier, and some evil. He was still figuring out where he was landing on that spectrum, and all indications pointed to sociopathic. “You fought well earlier.”
She lifted a dark eyebrow. “Thanks, although I did notice you covering my back more than was necessary. I can kick your ass, remember?”
True. She’d been kicking his ass for months in training. The woman had been raised by a father who owned a karate studio and an uncle who owned a street fighting organization, so she’d been fighting since birth. Yet lately . . . Tace had been holding back, not wanting to hurt her. Or to take away the confidence she seemed to need. “You are tough, now, aren’t you?”
Something in his tone must’ve alerted her, because her chin lowered. “You wanna go a round?” she murmured.
His cock perked up. Damn it. He should’ve gone looking for the woman he’d been sleeping with lately, but the gym had interested him as much as sex, which was a bad sign. Lately he kept seeing Sami’s face, even with Barbara moving naked beneath him, and that could never happen. For as tough as Sami was physically, she had a delicacy of spirit he’d destroy. Right now, before he completely succumbed to his darker side, he needed to make sure they stayed colleagues. “Nah,” he said, letting his natural Texas twang free. “I don’t wanna fight.”
“Chicken,” Sami taunted, standing and pulling one arm across her chest.
His mouth went dry, but he couldn’t look away. “I, ah, was trying to write in a journal and got frustrated.” Why was he sharing?
Sami rolled her eyes and worked on the other arm. “The doc told me to start journaling, too. Said it would be good for my brain as well as a proper recording of us rebuilding civilization.”
Tace snorted. “You’ve been keeping a diary?”
“No,” Sami shot back.
Lie. Interesting. While Tace couldn’t smell things any longer, he could sure as shit make out a lie. His chest heated. Oh, he was fine with her calling him a chicken, but lying to him? The darkness inside him rose up to battle with his good intentions. “Why the hell are you so secretive?” he snapped.
Her eyes widened and then narrowed right on him. “I’m not.”
Another fucking lie. The woman had more secrets than a CIA agent he’d met once while working as a medic in the Army. “I’m not the only one who can read a lie these days, sweetheart. Many of us survivors have extra abilities, it seems. You might want to watch yourself.”
Her upper lip curled. “The day I need advice from you, Justice, I’ll be sure to ask nicely.”
Oh, he wanted to sink his teeth into that pretty pink lip. He took a step back, shaking his head free of the image. This was Sami, for Pete’s sake. They were both lieutenants to Jax Mercury, the leader of Vanguard, and they needed to keep it professional. Hell, at some point, if he turned crazier, she might be present when somebody had to put him down.
“You sure you don’t wanna go a round?” she asked again, her stance wide.
His chin lowered. “I don’t think you want my hands on you right now.”
She blinked. “Oh, you are asking for a beating.”
The challenge, arrogant and annoying, barreled right through him. The beast growing in him won. He moved without thinking, grabbing her and putting her ass against the wall.
She gasped as he held her a foot or so off the ground.
He leaned into her face and smiled. “You should watch your mou—”
She chopped to his neck, and he saw stars. Two seconds later, she’d knocked him on his back, planted her ass on his abdomen, and angled her hands around his throat. “Tap out,” she snarled, straddling him.
A day ago, he would’ve tapped out. But something new and dark rose in him, hard and fast. “No.” Sweeping her arms away from his trachea, he grabbed her hip and shoved, rolling them both over. “I’m done tapping out.”
Sami’s shoulders hit the mat a second before her butt landed. Going on instinct and a lifetime of training, she struck out, nailing Tace in the throat. His head jerked back, and she rolled away, leaping to her feet. “What the fuck?” Her breath puffed out in bursts. How had he gotten to her so fast?
He angled to the left, his movements agile, his gaze on her legs. “Gloves are off, baby. Get ready to have your ass kicked.”
The breath caught in her throat. He moved with the deadly grace she’d seen in a panther once years ago, his steps sure, his stance aggressive. Tace and aggressive with a woman? They didn’t go together. “What is wrong with you?” she said, keeping him squarely in her sights.
He chuckled, the sound both pissed and frustrated. “We don’t have that kind of time, darlin’.”
Darlin’. She swallowed and tried to ignore that sexy accent. Oh, he’d called her endearments before when they’d trained, but there had always been a brotherly fondness to his tone, so she’d been able to keep him in that safe slot. This was different. This tone caught her breath in her throat and shot lava through her veins, which was all sorts of bad. Her penchant for bad boys had ruined her life more than once, and never again. They had to remain colleagues if not friends. “You’ve lost your mind,” she muttered.
“No doubt about that.” He feinted in and back out.
Her head lifted, and she set her feet on the mat. “I guess the good ole boy needs a lesson.” She used the falsest Texas accent she could muster, fighting to remain in control.
His upper lip lifted just enough for her to notice. “One of us is learning a lesson tonight.”
All right. He’d asked for it. She inventoried him quickly. Clear eyes, fluid movements, absolute focus. The fight earlier hadn’t seemed to weaken him. At six foot four inches tall or so, he towered over her. Add in cut muscles and raw strength, and she’d need to take him to the mat to win. She also had her mouth and brain to use against him. “If you’re feeling so frisky, why didn’t you call on the doctor you were screwing? Or the second-squad soldier? The one you’ve been banging this last week.” If he just moved an inch to the left . . .
He angled to the right, his hands loose, his body relaxed. “Those were both casual and aren’t gonna work out.”
“Oh?” Keeping her peripheral gaze on his feet, Sami slid to the left, trying not to care about his relationships ending. When he was with somebody else, she didn’t see him as a possibility, which he could not be. “Why isn’t it going to work out with the doctor inner city?”
He lifted a broad shoulder. “We agreed on just fuckin’, and I’m getting bored. Angie wants more.”
An ankle shot would take him down, but she couldn’t put him out of commission. “Love, huh?”
“No. A good beating.”
Sami stilled. “What?”
Tace shrugged. “She likes it rough. I’ve enjoyed smacking the hell out of her ass, but I can’t bring myself to use a whip. She wants a whip, and she wants it to cut deep.”
Sami shook her head and took a step back, mentally erasing the image of Tace delivering a sexual spanking. Her chest heated. “She’s a masochist?”
“But you’re not a sadist.” This conversation had taken a serious left turn. Why were they talking about sex?
“Guess not.” He rubbed his chin, his gaze traveling across her body. “Though the right woman could probably talk me into it.”
Sami held up a hand, her skin tingling where his gaze had landed. “Whoa. I do not want to be whipped.”
Triumph filled his gaze. “Who said I was talking about you?”
Her mouth snapped shut. She drew a breath in. “Fine. Then how about Barbara? She’s a great soldier, and you’ve seemed happy with her this last week.”
He shrugged. “We agreed to no commitments.” His eyebrows rose. “I’d ask you back, but you haven’t been seeing anybody. Don’t you miss sex?”
“Who says I haven’t been having sex?” Time to put him in his place, damn it. She moved then, punching him hard in the gut and sweeping left. He bent over with a muffled oof, and she kicked out, aiming for his shoulder.
“You’ve been celibate. I’ve watched.” His torso pivoted, and he grabbed her foot before it connected with his flesh.
What the hell? She hopped back, her entire body going into a fight-or-flight mode. He’d never moved that quickly before. Her breath sped up, and only part of her reaction was from the fight.
Giving a low laugh, he shoved her foot up into the air, knocking her off balance.
She landed on her back with a loud slap against the mat, the air whooshed from her lungs, and he was on her.
Her mouth gaped open.
He straddled her and manacled his powerful hands around her biceps, pressing her upper body to the mat. He leaned down, his eyes right above hers.
She blinked several times. From day one, his eyes had fascinated her. Deep and blue, they looked what she’d imagined the Texas sky looked like. But as she focused, awareness struck. A dark blue rim, nearly black, encircled his iris. That was new.
“Tap out,” he whispered, his voice gritty.
Oh, he really didn’t know her at all. She went limp as if giving up. His lips started to curve into a smile. Using her butt as a fulcrum, she rolled her hips up, pushed off from her shoulders, and yanked her knees up beneath his arms. Putting all her strength into her legs, she kicked him squarely where his arms met his shoulders. The shock of the impact ricocheted up to her hips.
He fell back, releasing her.
She rolled into a backward somersault and leaped to her feet, her gaze tracking him. Awareness clacked through her, igniting nerves to life. Her blood stirred, and her body went on full alert, reacting to the raw maleness suddenly challenging her.
He stood and stretched his right shoulder, smiling. The smile wasn’t amused and held more than a hint of warning. “That’s relief in your pretty eyes, Samantha,” he whispered.
“Ha. That’s boredom,” she shot back, keeping track of his hands, her heart thundering. She’d spent her whole life courting danger, and she wasn’t changing now. If he moved in fast, she’d need to kick.
“Hmm.” He rubbed his other shoulder. “I originally just wanted to let off some steam, you know.” He moved forward, just a foot, already in a fighting stance but way too calm.
“Is that so?” She kept on her toes, her body on alert for his move.
“Yeah. Then I kind of wanted to win and make you tap out. But this isn’t about just tapping out anymore, now is it?” His chin lowered, and he focused on her knees, a different look in his eyes than she’d ever seen there.
The look stole her breath.
She couldn’t transmit her intention with her legs, so she shook out her hands, trying to draw his attention. His concentration didn’t move. Her entire body felt sensitized and primed—hyperaware of him. “What more is there than tapping out?” Her voice lowered to a whisper.
His nostrils flared like a wolf’s catching a scent. “You’re wondering what it’d be like. You and me—just once.”
She stiffened and then quickly loosened her muscles in case of attack. How did he know that? Her legs trembled, and she settled her stance again. “Not even close.”
His grin was full-on this time. “Liar.”
She swallowed. All right. The guy had blue eyes, chiseled features, ripped abs, and a Texan accent. Plus, she’d always had a thing for blonds. “Wait a second.” She cocked her head to the side. “Is your hair getting darker?” He’d cut it, but now that it was growing out a little, she could see burnished auburn instead of blond.
“Yes, ma’am. Apparently hair and eyes can change color after Scorpius.” He moved his head, his gaze on her feet now. “The eyes of some of the early Ebola survivors changed color, so it’s not a huge surprise.”
She breathed out. Okay, this was good. They had returned to talking about Scorpius. “I see.”
“Back to the point. You’re attracted to me, and I think I’m finally seeing how you’ve managed to hide that so well.” Regret twisted his lip even as he spoke.
Heat climbed into her face. Focus. Don’t get angry. Keep calm to fight. Her father’s mantra rippled through her head. “Maybe you’re just crazy now.”
“Could be.” He moved then, and she countered, shocked when he took her down with one arm around her waist.
She struck out, and he once again straddled her, his groin firm against her abdomen. His hands pinned her arms to the mat, and this time, he kept his elbows in so she couldn’t use her legs.
Tace had always been a fast learner.
He leaned down, his face once again above hers. Heat bracketed her from all sides. “The fact that you could kick my ass kept you feeling all nice and safe and superior, now didn’t it?”
Warning pricked through her abdomen at his words. His hold was absolute, so she didn’t try to fight it. A pulse pounded between her legs. He’d move, and then she’d find an opening. “That’s ridiculous.”
“Is it?” He leaned down, and his breath warmed her mouth. “I’m thinkin’ an old-fashioned girl like you would not want a guy she could beat. It’s a biological issue, especially now civilization has died.”
“Old-fashioned?” She snorted even as she fought a shiver.
“Oh, Samantha. Little girl, big Hispanic family, raised by street fighters? Yeah, you’re old-fashioned.”
She rolled her eyes. “My mama was Hispanic, but a name like Steel? I’m descended from Scots as well, buddy.”
“No wonder that temper is so glorious.” He kept her easily in place, and she had to try hard to banish images of him over her in another way that involved multiple orgasms. He smiled. “I appreciate the old-fashioned side, but you know what? I like the wildness in you even more.” His voice lowered to a deep rasp.
Her nipples peaked, and finally, anger won. Fury against them both as well as her traitorous body. A fellow soldier shouldn’t affect her like this. “Do you, now?”
“Oh yeah. I just hadn’t realized it needed to be tamed.” He leaned down farther, and his lips brushed hers. “The old me? The pre-Scorpius Texan good ole boy? The one you could handle?”
“Yeah?” Finally, she let her temper free. The man had no clue whom he was messing with. She met his challenge and sank her teeth into his bottom lip.
His head jerked back. “He’s almost gone.” The growl that rumbled from him sounded much more animalistic than human. Keeping her in his sights, he slowly licked a dot of blood off the small wound. “Stop challenging me, because I’m what’s left.”
Her heartbeat sped until her chest ached. “Meaning?”
“Tap out.” He leaned down again, his gaze so intense she could feel it through her entire body. “And remember one more thing.”
She couldn’t breathe, and it wasn’t from his weight, because he was balanced on his knees. “What’s that?”
He nipped her lip. “I bite back.”
Desire speared through her, this time edged with a sharp blade. So for the first time since Scorpius had hit, for the first time since she’d arrived at Vanguard, Sami Steel tapped out.