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Dr. Rafe Granger would never escape this rotting purgatory. The small, cramped town where he had grown up had sucked him back inside, barring and locking the gates behind him. If being trapped behind a perimeter monitored around the clock by armed guards wasn't bad enough, Rafe's return had brought with it a terrible series of events: an unidentified virus was claiming victims by the dozens, the virus research lab had been trashed and a murderer had escaped the local prison and was adding to the terror and paranoia of every person in town.
Unless he foolishly attempted to brave the Laramie Mountains and climb his way to freedom, there was no way to escape Dead River. For Rafe. For the killer. For anyone.
Rafe strode to his childhood friend and current Dead River Chief of Police, Flint Colton. "You know what we're trying to do here, don't you?" He knew he sounded like a perfect jerk, but he was beyond caring what anyone thought of him. He was angry and he didn't care who knew it.
Flint nodded, touching the brim of his cowboy hat. "I do." He sounded calm, which only frustrated Rafe more. Did no one in this town understand?
"This can't happen again." Rafe could feel the ends of his temper burning, but he couldn't help himself. Knowing two months of research into a cure for the Dead River virus, the virus that was responsible for quarantining the entire town, had been destroyed was enough to push him over the edge. "I'm going in there." He pointed to the clinic and pushed past Flint.
His old friend grabbed his arm. "Wait for Stan to clear the scene," Flint said, referring to Fire Chief Stan Burrell.
Rafe tugged his arm away. "Forget that. I need to see the damage." The clinic wasn't on fire. The fire had been contained. If it hadn't, they would have been evacuating the patients inside.
Flint didn't try to stop him again. Rafe entered the clinic through the single metal entry door. The smell of smoke hung in the air. Behind the reception area, the clinic's patient files had been pulled from the shelves and littered the floor, the rainbow of folder colors mocking him. The path of destruction led to the tiny, closet-sized offices he, Dr. Abigail Moore and Dr. Lucas Rand occupied. Rafe suspected they were once intended to be just that: closets. Dr. Rand's office had been broken into and searched a few days before by an unknown culprit. Rand had reported that some of his notes had been stolen. The culprit had returned to do much worse to Rafe's office and the lab.
The metal trash can in Rafe's office was charred, whatever had been inside unrecoverable. His computer was missing from its location on top of his desk and the two-drawer file cabinet tucked under the desk was overturned, papers spread on the floor and into the hallway. Dread pooled low in his stomach. What had been taken? What had the thief been looking for?
Rafe had not much of importance in his office. The most critical work had been stored in the lab. The mobile lab had been brought in to Dead River by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. State of the art, it was attached to the clinic via the backdoor. The lab had a biosafety level of four, the level reserved for research centers that worked with the world's most deadly viruses: Lassa, Ebola, Marbug and in this case, the unknown virus rampaging through Dead River. The lab had a closed venting system, complex HEPA filters for the air and epoxy surfaces for cleaning and sterilization. Though they were missing the proper security, like a round-the-clock guard and iris scanners to enter the lab, it was the best the CDC could do under the current conditions.
Given the events of late, skimping on security in lieu of expediency was a mistake.
Rafe checked and pulled on his protective gear and entered the lab, noting the lock was broken on the door. He connected his suit to the hoses that hung from the ceiling and then signed in, noting the last authorized person inside the room had been Dr. Rand, the doctor who had been on shift when the break-in had occurred. The staff at the clinic was working every spare hour they had to find a cure for the virus spreading through Dead River.
Only Dr. Moore hadn't been cleared to work in the lab due to her asthma.
Anger and frustration shook Rafe to his core. The inside of the lab was a disaster, tables overturned and petri dishes and beakers smashed to the ground. Equipment was thrown to the floor but the most alarming thing was what had been done to the samples. The small refrigerator they'd been using to store the carefully labeled Vacutainer tubes was open and emptied.
Rafe let loose a curse he almost never used. But this situation was beyond all repair.
He felt a hand on his back and whirled around, coming face-to-face with Gemma Colton, one of the clinic's registered nurses. He was ashamed of what he'd said when she most likely had overheard him, but her face spoke of the same anger he felt.
"Where are our samples?" Gemma asked, sounding shocked and panicked. Her green eyes were filled with concern. As many times as he had looked into those green eyes, the vibrancy and beauty of them struck him every time. She was the one pleasant surprise he'd found when he'd returned to Dead River. Young Gemma Colton was grown up and she was worth a long look.
Her voice sounded deeper through the microphone and speaker equipment built into the gear, making it possible to hear over the roar of the vents. Deeper and sexier, though some of it could be more related to her exhaustion than the speakers.
"Stolen," he said.
Gemma turned to scan the room.
Rafe and the clinicians had been collecting blood samples from every victim of the virus they could and looking for a common sequence. The process had taken thousands of man-hours and now, those samples were gone. Starting from ground zero would have a devastating impact on their research.
"Who would do this?" she asked.
Someone who didn't mind taking their life in their hands. Handling the blood samples that contained the virus was dangerous for the trained professionals at the clinic. The CDC expert, Dr. Colleen Goodhue, reminded them daily to exercise precaution whenever coming into contact with patients or working in the lab. She was understandably strict about following every security procedure. "That virus on the street is deadly," Rafe said.
"We already have an epidemic and now we have to worry about someone running around with vials containing the virus," Gemma said, her voice shaking.
Rafe heard shouts and banging from the clinic. He and Gemma exchanged looks. What else could go wrong? They exited the lab, stood in the chemical shower, removed their protective gear in the suit room, and hurried to find Anand Gupta, the clinic's other registered nurse, his normally calm demeanor vanished. He was standing in the clinic's storage room among shelves of ravaged supplies. Their drug locker had been forced open and bottles of life-saving medicines spilled on the ground.
The culprit had been bent on destruction. Rafe knew of no other explanation for this level of ruin. He had no understanding of why someone would do this. Who in Dead River didn't want a cure found?
"It will be days, if not weeks, before we receive another shipment to restock these supplies," Anand said.
Shipping products into Dead River was difficult and slow.
Gemma slipped her arm around the large man and hugged him. Rafe ignored the sense he was intruding on a private moment. Anand and Gemma were good friends and Rafe hadn't worked at the clinic as long as they had. Rafe didn't have the same connection with the staff Gemma and Anand did with each other and the rest of the doctors and nurses.
"Why don't you head home, Anand? Your shift is over and I'll clean up what I can," Gemma said.
Anand shook his head. "I'll stay a few more hours and help with this mess."
The staff was working twelve-hour shifts and far too many of them per week since the virus had started spreading.
Gemma and Anand bent to the floor to pick up supplies and organize the salvageable ones on the shelves. The small room didn't have enough space for the three of them, so Rafe excused himself. "I need to speak with Flint," Rafe said. He left the clinic via the front entrance and tried to put a lid on his anger. He was only wearing scrubs and the cold December air felt good, almost a welcome contrast to the heat of his fury.
Rafe needed answers. He needed a plan to put them back on track to finding a cure.
Flint was directing another officer who was taking pictures of the scene. He stepped away as Rafe approached.
"Is it as bad as you thought?" Flint asked.
"Worse. They took samples of the virus."
He didn't need to explain to Flint how devastating that was. Many residents of the town who had contracted the virus were remaining in their homes. The clinic didn't have enough beds or staff for every patient, though Dr. Goodhue was checking in with every known victim of the virus and tracking symptoms and changes.
"What are you doing about this?" Rafe asked.
Flint tipped his hat back on his head and in the sunlight, Rafe saw the dark circles of exhaustion around the chief's eyes. "Everything I can. I'm trying to keep this quiet and out of the media to avoid more panicking, but the virus is big news, maybe the only news anyone in this town wants to read about. I suppose the media would be distracted if we recaptured Hank Bittard, our resident killer-at-large, but we haven't managed that yet. I'll have some uniforms drive by the clinic more often, but we're stretched thin as is."
The clinic was stretched thin, too, and somehow, they were expected to do more with less. More patients, more problems, limited time and dwindling supplies. "Can't you ask the National Guard to help with security at the clinic? They have enough soldiers patrolling the border. They can spare a few men," Rafe said.
Flint shook his head. "No one in and no one out."
"We won't find an antidote if every time we take a step in the right direction, we're tossed back two," Rafe said. It took all his willpower to keep the edge off his words and not lash out at Flint.
"I'm sorry, Rafe. No one wanted this. Everyone is pulling for you to find a cure."
"Not everyone. Whoever did this doesn't want a cure found," Rafe said.
Flint folded his arms across his chest. "You have a theory on why?"
Rafe couldn't imagine anyone who wanted to stay in Dead River longer than they had to. "I have no clue why anyone would want this to drag on longer than it has to. The virus will keep spreading and claiming more lives."
Rafe, for one, couldn't wait to beat feet out of Dead River and not solely on account of the virus. He was honoring a promise he'd given his late father by working at the clinic. But that was as far as his commitment to Dead River extended. He wasn't getting entangled in small-town life again. He could almost hear his mother's raspy laughter knowing that he'd planned to stay a short time and now couldn't leave. She'd warned him about getting sucked into this tiny town. She used to say Dead River had wrapped its tentacles around her, one by one, until it was impossible to leave.
His mother's big dreams had died when she'd become a young mother. Rafe felt lucky he'd had an opportunity for an education outside the small Wyoming town and had used his career trajectory to escape.
Only now, he was back and he was stuck. He refused to let any of the town's charms keep him here. Not even his friendship with Flint or his attraction to Flint's sister, Gemma, would trap him. The job and the life he had worked hard for was waiting for him in New York City.
After a few minutes, feeling nervous about Rafe's irritation and what he might do, Gemma left Anand in the storage room with an apology and a promise to return. She followed Rafe outside. Her brother Flint was on the scene and she was worried about him and Rafe. Flint had been working too hard and while his new relationship with the Dead River Diner owner Nina grounded him, the pressure was wearing on him.
It was wearing on everyone.
Rafe, on the other hand, didn't have someone to confide in. From what she could see, he was married to his job and without an outlet for his stress, he was a time bomb. He behaved as if the patients at the clinic and finding the cure for the virus were his responsibility, and that was too much pressure for anyone. Rafe seemed to believe that the health and welfare of every single patient rested solely on his shoulders. Though Dr. Goodhue was leading the effort in finding a cure and lending her considerable expertise and experience, Rafe was driving them hard and closer to a breakthrough.
Gemma had tried to be a friend, but Rafe was a hard man to get close to. He was standoffish and prickly, bullheaded at times, and a strange combination of self-centered and completely selfless. Self-centered in that he thought he had control and selfless because he did it for his patients.
The most difficult trait for Gemma to deal with was how intensely handsome she still found Rafe Granger. Bad-boy-turned-doctor, wild-teenager-turned-disci-plined-man and, oh, what a man he was. Sexy and brooding and someone she should stay far away from. Her brothers had warned her in high school about Rafe and her instincts warned her now. He was a twelve out of ten on the scale of her top temptations. Better than wine. Better than chocolate.
If she let him, he would burn her. He would break her heart. She knew it, but even that didn't stop her from thinking he was the single most fascinating man she'd ever met.
She was closer to her brother and Rafe now and she wished she had minded her own business and stayed inside to help Anand. She had often stood between her brothers Theo and Flint when they argued, but this was different.
She didn't know Rafe as well and he didn't have a soft spot for her the way her brothers did.
The tension between Flint and Rafe was palpable.
"Everything okay?" she asked, knowing it wasn't, but looking to tamp down their mutual frustrations.
"We've lost hundreds of hours of research," Rafe said.
"I know," Gemma said. "But we'll get it back." She didn't know how they could do more, but they would. Too many people were relying on the clinic to succeed.
Rafe stared at her incredulously. "How is that, Nurse Colton? Do you have the test data and the lab results and additional samples we can work with?"
His sharp tone stung. He was mad and having trouble controlling his temper.
"You know that I don't," Gemma said, countering his anger with a cool tone.
"Then how can we make this right?" he asked.
"We have the data we uploaded to the CDC. We have what we've learned. We won't make the same mistakes and we already know what doesn't work," Gemma said, thinking of the time they had lost because they'd stored earlier samples at the wrong temperature and killed the virus.
"Mistakes?" Rafe asked.
He and Dr. Rand insisted the temperature issue hadn't been a mistake. It was research. Gemma preferred to call a spade a spade. "I'll give you that if we could lower our patient's temperature to zero degrees Celsius for a time, the virus would die." A concession.
He scowled. "We learned from that same failure that the virus can't live off a live host for more than a couple of hours."
"See? We have dozens of those observations that we can start with. We're not starting from a blank slate this time," Gemma said. "We're past the initial confusion. We know better what we're doing."
Rafe looked away, though his shoulders relaxed a fraction of an inch. She was calming him and she took it as a win. Every little forward step with Rafe was progress.