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Violet was shaking in her shoesliterally.
The walk to the director's office had never seemed so long. On every one of the thirty steps her legs felt more like jelly and her brain like laundry on a permanent spin cycle.
Her hand gripped the piece of paper in her hand tightlythe only evidence that she'd actually done any of the work she was supposed to have completed days ago. The three sentences didn't exactly help her defense.
But inside her, next to her churning stomach, rage was building. Rage against Evan Hunter, her boss.
It was his fault she was in this situation.
He'd asked her to find out background information on her brother, Matt Sawyer, who'd been at the heart of the most prolific outbreak in the history of the Disease Prevention Agency. Granted he hadn't known Matt was her brother, but that did nothing to quell the anger in her belly.
She'd used her other work as an excuse not to comply with Evan's request. Plotting the potential spread of the suspected smallpox virus was surely more important than finding out about the ex-DPA doctor who'd made the preliminary diagnosis. Too bad Evan didn't feel that way.
Her legs trembled as she reached the door.
Stay calm, she repeated in her head. Erupting in front of the director would do nothing to help her cause.
But there was a surprise. Evan's broad shoulders immediately towered over her. It seemed like he was waiting for the director too.
There he was. Blocking her way to the boardroom. His arms were folded across his chest. In another world she might have found him attractive.
In fact, a few months ago and after a couple of glasses of wine, she had found him attractive and had ended up locked in a heated embrace that neither of them had admitted to or acted on again.
Evan could certainly turn heads. His tall frame and broad shoulders, combined with his dark brown hair and blue eyes, attracted female attention wherever he went.
To say nothing of the sexy three-day stubble currently on his chin.
Too bad he was about to be her executioner.
So why did he look a little twitchy?
"What are you doing here?"
She jerked at the tone in his voice. "I could ask the same of you. The director sent for me."
"He did?" Evan looked surprised. Surely he'd initiated this by complaining about her?
"Why do you think we're here?"
Evan's eyes met hers. They were steady, uncompromising. "I can only guess it's about the report I sent him."
She could feel her stomach turn over. "What report was that?"
"The one about Matt Sawyeryou know? The one I asked you to write days ago." He shot her a steely glare. "It seemed a remarkable coincidence that a former DPA employee was around when a provisional smallpox diagnosis was made." It was almost as if he was trying to bait her.
"What's the supposed to mean?" The words were out before she could stop herself.
"Oh, come on, Violet." His words were frustrated. "You must appreciate that the chances of smallpox occurring naturally are virtually impossible. All situations in our current plan are around a terrorist attack. What are the chances of a former DPA employee being around when it happens? You were asked to compile a report of Matt Sawyer's recent history. It was essential that we found out exactly where Matt Sawyer had been and who he'd been consorting with."
Violet couldn't hold her tongue any longer. "Consorting with? You've got to be joking, Evan."
But he continued as if she hadn't spoken. "You ignored my requests for informationeven after I gave you a warning. That information could have meant the difference between preventing a terrorist attack and putting more lives at risk. You still haven't handed over any information on Matt Sawyer. What exactly have you been doing with your time, Violet?"
The rage that had been simmering beneath the surface was threatening to erupt. Idiot. The man was clearly an idiot. And the implication in his words meant she couldn't think straight any more.
"You honestly thought that Sawyer was a terrorist? That idea actually crossed your tiny, warped mind? You have absolutely no idea what you're talking about. How dare you?" Her voice was rising in crescendo and in pitch.
Evan towered over her. He was furious. "How dare I? I was the lead on this investigation. It was up to me to cover every eventualityincluding the possibility of terrorism. How dare you, Violet? How dare you obstruct me?"
But Violet wasn't even listening to the words he was saying. She was still stuck on the ridiculous thought that her brother was even remotely connected with this. "I can't believe you thought Sawyer was a terrorist. I can't believe you considered he'd have anything to do with the outbreak. The last thing Sawyer wanted was to be involved with the DPA again. I've never heard anything so ridiculous in my life."
Evan stepped closer. A dark expression swept across his face. "What is it with you and Sawyer, anyway? How do you even know him? He left long before you even got here." His face was only inches from hers. "Why should you have any loyalty to him? What was heyour lover?"
What kind of a question was that? And what was it to him, anyway? Was he jealous?
"What?" The red mist was descending. She couldn't even see his scrunched-up angry face any more. "He's my brother, you idiot!"
There was a hiss. A sharp intake of breath. Evan jerked back as if she'd just delivered an electric shock.
"Your brother?" His voice was barely audible and he looked horrified. "But how can he be your brother?"
Her heart was thudding against her chest wall. Oh, no. She'd just revealed the secret that she'd kept for the past three years.
She couldn't think of anything sensible or rational to say. But, then, Evan had just asked a pretty stupid question. "The same way anyone can be someone's brother," she murmured.
But that clearly wasn't enough for Evan. He hadn't finished with her.
"Sawyer is your brother?" His voice had started to rise.
She nodded. But it obviously wasn't sinking in for him.
"Sawyer is your brother? How can that be possible? You have different namesand you're not married."
Her brain was starting to work in another direction. She had deliberately kept this a secret. Could it be considered fraud? There hadn't been anywhere on her application form to state if family members worked at the DPA. But, then, there would have been an expectation of disclosure. Would she get in trouble for this?
She took a deep breath. "Yes, Matt Sawyer is my brother. I'm well aware that he left here under a cloud and thought it best not to mention our connection. We have different surnames because our mother remarried when I was young. I took my stepfather's surnameMatt didn't."
She held the crumpled piece of paper up in her hand, trying to ignore the fact that it was shaking. "As I'm sure you were aware, Matt hasn't made much contact over the past few years. He struggled with Helen's death. I've never known where he's been working. It turns out he's been in Borneo, Alaska and Connecticut." She hesitated. Should she say any more? "And I never found that out for myself. I've been trying to find out where my brother's been for years. Matt told me and I checked the details."
Evan erupted. "Why on earth didn't you tell me he was your brother? I asked you to investigate him and you said nothing! You had a conflict of interest that you should have declared. Of all the unprofessional"
Violet flinched and stepped forward instantly, her face inches from his. "Unprofessional? Well, let's talk about unprofessional behavior, shall we? Because I'm not the only one to indulge in that. I'm not the only one keeping secrets around here."
The loud noise of someone clearing their throat made them both jump.
The director was standing behind them both with a pile of papers in his arms, looking less than impressed. He pushed open the door to the boardroom. "Let's take this inside, please, and stop entertaining the masses." How much had he heard?
Violet's jaw dropped and her head shot round to the office space where just about every member of staff was standing on their feet, their heads above their cubicle walls, staring at her and Evan.
How long had they been like this? And why hadn't she noticed? She felt heat flood into her cheeks and hurried into the boardroom behind the director.
She couldn't breathe. She couldn't think. All the nerves that she'd felt a few minutes ago on the walk to the boardroom instantly returned.
The director seemed cool and unfazed. He walked around the desk and sat down in his chair. He placed his paperwork in front of him and gestured to the chairs on the other side of the desk. "Take a seat please. Violet, Evan."
What was that paperwork? Was that the HR documentation he needed to fire her?
She swallowed. A tennis ball was sitting in her throat. Just get this over with.
There was a few minutes' silence as the director looked at the paperwork in front of him. It was agonizing. The wait seemed to stretch on and on for ever. She couldn't stand it.
Evan obviously couldn't either. "Director, if you'll just let me explain"
The director held up one hand. "Enough." Evan tried to speak again, his face flushed.
"From both of you." The director's voice cut him dead. He pulled some papers out from the file in front of him.
Violet felt her chest tightening and she struggled to breathe. Was this it? Was she about to get fired?
The director looked her in the eye. He had pale grey eyes. She'd never really noticed before. She'd always been too busy keeping her head down and stopping herself being noticed.
She gulped. He was addressing her formally. This couldn't be good.
He sighed. "Putting aside what I just witnessed outside, I actually came here today to let you know that your transfer request has been approved."
Their voices rang out simultaneously, as if neither of them could really believe their ears.
He folded his hands in front of him. "But with hindsight it seems as if there are a number of issues we need to address here today."
"Transfer request? What transfer request?"
Evan's head was spinning. He'd had no idea why he'd been called to the boardroom. He'd assumed it was regarding the missing report. The report on her brother.
Now it seemed as if the director hadn't even noticed the report was missing.
The director shot him another steely glare. He obviously didn't like to be interrupted. "Dr. Connelly had requested to be transferred to the emergency operations center and join the stop transmission of polio program."
His brain whirred. Violet Connelly had been driving him crazy for months. Ever since they'd kissed on that night out and both of them had pretended it hadn't happened.
But the issues in the past few days had been serious. Serious enough for him to consider reporting her. No matter what their history was. As team leader he had a responsibility to ensure everyone pulled their weight.
Since when had Violet wanted to do field work? And why had she never mentioned it?
"I had no idea. She obviously didn't see fit to mention it to me." The hard edge in his voice was crystal clear and he could hear the way his words must sound to hercold.
Did that hide the fact he couldn't explain how he was feeling?
Was Violet leaving because of him? Was she leaving because of their mistaken, fumbled kiss?
And why did the thought of not seeing her any more drive him just as crazy as working with her every day?
He watched as she seemed to sag into her chair. As if all the tension had just left her body. Disbelief was written all over her face.
"Really? You've approved my transfer? When can I start? Where am I going? What will my role be?" It was obvious her mouth was running away with her and her brain had gone into overdrive.
Meanwhile, he was still getting over the shock that he wouldn't be seeing Violet anymore. It almost squeezed the air from his lungs.
"Hold on." The director raised his hands. "I think there are bigger issues here." He looked between the two of them and leaned back in his chair. "I have to say that I'm disappointed in you both." Evan felt his heart sink like a stone. This couldn't be good.
"Evan, I'm surprised that Dr. Connelly didn't tell you about her application to transfer. As her line manager I would have expected you both to have discussed this." The implication was clear. Why couldn't Violet speak to him? He kind of wondered that himself. Was he really so unapproachable?
"And Dr. Connelly " He turned his head back to Violet. "Unlike Dr. Hunter, I don't really care that Matt Sawyer is your brother. I can't think why you thought it necessary to hide that, but I'm very happy with the work your brother has done over the past few days for us. And I'll be keen to work with him again in the future." He tapped his pen against the desk, as if he was contemplating what to say next.
"It's my opinion that your reaction to Dr. Hunter was unreasonable. He was just exploring every angle regarding the possibility of a smallpox outbreak. We would have checked up on anyone who reported a suspected outbreak, no matter who they were. But what's clear to me is that Dr. Hunter didn't explain his rationale for his request very well. But then again, why should he? He was in charge of the team."
Evan had no idea where this was going. He could see Violet struggling to swallow. She was finding this as difficult as he was. One second he'd thought the director was going to come down on Violet, and the next second he thought his own head was going to be on the chopping block.
Something struck him. Was. The director had said he was in charge of the team. Oh, no.
Violet's face had fallen again. And he hated it when she looked like that. One minute she was getting her dream transfer the next she was thinking she was being given her marching orders.
"What's most clear to me here is that the two of you need to learn to work together as a team. I don't care what your personal issues are. What I do care about is how the staff at the DPA work together. It's one of the most vital components of our jobs." His eyes narrowed, "And the display I've just witnessed gives me great concern."
He turned on Evan. "You're one of my most experienced and senior doctors. I would expect better from you. The exchange outside seemed unprofessional."
This was it. He was going to be fired.
The word that he and Violet had just flung at each other. Hearing it come from the director's mouth was an entirely different matter.
It was the most offensive word you could say to a doctor. Particularly when it hit home.
"You are two of the best clinically competent doctors that I have and it's time to put your skills to good use. So I've come to a decision. Violet, you will be joining the polio team in Nigeria. I've already approved the transfer. They are on the final push to try and stop the spread of polio. Your field assignment will last three months and you'll be leaving in a week. Start packing."