Major Grace Samuels, a trauma surgeon deployed to Afghanistan, spends her life helping her fellow soldiers overcome disease and combat injuries. But her own wounds are harder to heal. Wracked with guilt over the death of a fellow soldier, she finds comfort in her only friend and appointed bodyguard, weapons sergeant Jacob "Sharp" Foster.
Sharp feels more for Grace than a soldier should, more than he wants to admit. When the team discovers a new, quick-to-kill strain of anthrax, he tries to focus on the mission to find its source. He knows he can help Grace defeat her demons, but first they must defeat the deadly outbreak.
Sharp is Grace's most loyal ally, but in close quarters, he starts to feel like more. She can't watch someone else she cares about die—but she might not have a choice. The closer they get to finding the source of the strain, the closer it gets to finding them.
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"I'm so dead." Dr. Grace Samuels stared at the chessboard. There was no hope. None. Not a single move left open to her. Except for one.
She sighed, shook her head at the patience on her opponent's face. "I concede."
"Want to know where you went wrong?" he asked as he cleared the board. He set the pieces up again. Those big hands of his could bandage a wounded soldier, field strip a 9 mm and box her into checkmate with equal skill.
"I sat down in this chair," she answered with a straight face. The mess hall was busy with soldiers, American and Afghan alike, either beginning their day or ending their night.
"No," he said. "You played the board."
Grace thought about it for a second, but it still didn't make any sense. Then again, it was 0600 and she'd only been up for twenty minutes. "Huh?"
Special Forces Weapons Sergeant Jacob "Sharp" Foster looked at her earnestly. "You played the board," he repeated. "You should have been playing the man."
He winked and she had to fight not to roll her eyes. When she first met him she'd thought his flirting was for real, and had been worried she'd have to shut him down. She didn't want to, because he was hilarious, but the impropriety couldn't be ignored. Then, she discovered when he wasn't on the job, he had a wicked sense of humor, and everyone was a target.
"Then I suppose I'll have to study you." She leaned forward and made a show of giving him a thorough once-over.
He grinned and spread his hands wide. "By all means, study me."
Sharp was a big man, about six-two, and she'd guess he weighed about two hundred pounds. He flexed his biceps and waggled his eyebrows in response to her joke. Though he had brown hair, with a mustache and beard to match, he had the lightest blue eyes she'd ever seenlike looking into glacial ice.
Right now, those eyes were challenging her. She just wasn't sure if it was regarding the game or something she didn't want to talk about. At all.
Unfortunately, Sharp wasn't going to leave it alone. The chess game should have warned her. They usually played poker.
She watched him reset the chessboard while, for the first time in a week, letting her mind go back to the moment she realized she was in trouble. On her way to her quarters late at night. They'd arrived at Forward Operating Base Bostick the week before, and she'd been introduced to the base commander, Colonel Marshall. He'd barely spoken to her. So why was he waiting for her outside her quarters with clenched fists and a face so blank she knew he was in the grip of a powerful emotion?
The colonel wasn't known for any kind of emotion.
She stopped several feet away. "What are you doing here at this hour, sir?"
One corner of his upper lip lifted in a sneer and he snarled, "I wanted a private conversation."
His words triggered every internal red flag she had. "I don't understand."
Marshall's response was two words. One name. "Joseph Cranston."
A name she wished she could forget. "You knew him?"
Scorn turned his words into weapons. "He was my son."
Grace took an involuntary step backward. Now that she knew, she could see the son in his father's face, the same eyes and jawline as the young man whose features she couldn't forget. As if conjured, his shade floated in front of her mind's eye, thrusting her into a memory she wanted desperately to erase. His face, covered with blood, whipped her heart into a gallop. Her breathing bellowed, lungs attempting to push air through her terror-closed throat. She fought the invisible hands pulling at her and her vision spiraled into a narrow tunnel.
Sharp had surfaced out of the dark, his presence breaking the memory's chokehold.
He'd crouched in front of her, calling her name, ordering her to respond before he did something stupid like give her mouth-to-mouth. She coughed out a response, couldn't remember what, and fought her way to her feet.
Sharp didn't try to hold her. He didn't touch her at all, but he shielded her body from prying eyes with his own. He refused to leave her, facing down Colonel Marshall, who showed no sympathy and less tolerance for her fainting spell. Two of Sharp's team members appeared and, after glaring at them all, Marshall left without saying anything else.
She managed to get inside her quarters before anyone could demand an explanation, shut the door and locked it. She'd only felt relief when no one knocked to ask for an explanation. It wasn't until the next day that she realized their lack of questions was as suspect as her behavior.
She hadn't expected to meet anyone connected to Joseph Cranston outside of the United States. Hadn't expected something that happened that long ago to thrust her into a memory like it was happening all over again.
In the days since, Sharp had been mother-henning her like she was some fragile little chick, and she'd had about as much of that as she could take. She was a Samuels. Her father, also a military doctor, had just retired from the army, and her grandfather had run a MASH unit during the Korean War. He'd met her grandmother during WWII; she'd been one of the first Air Force service pilots. If there was one thing she wouldn't accept from anyone, it was pity.
"I've been studying you for a while." Sharp finished setting up the board and met her gaze. "You're a damn good doctor, a hellacious good shot on the range and you put up with our male stupidity with more patience than we deserve."
"I hear the but coming."
"What happened between you and Marshall?"
"None of your damn business."
When he continued to stare at her, she added, "Look, I'm not going to saddle anyone else with my personal grievances or the fact that I don't get along with someone."
"Personal grievances?" Sharp asked. "Twice last week I thought you were going to damage a guy for jostling you in the chow line. What's going on with you?"
Shit, of course he would notice. She'd damn near freaked out each time, a scream hovering on her lips, her hands and feet moving to defend against an enemy who wasn't there.
The enemy wasn't there. No gunfire. No weapons pointed at her, yet she still found herself reacting as if it were happening all over again.
She hadn't been reacting that way until Marshall had confronted her. Meeting the father of a soldier who'd died an unnecessary death in front of her must have detonated an emotional trip wire in her head. One she needed to deal with.
Not an easy thing when on active duty and nowhere near a base with more than a glorified first-aid station.
It seemed like anywhere she went on the base, Sharp or one of the guys from the A-Team was there. Not doing anything, just there. They weren't fooling her.
Damn alpha males and their overprotective tendencies.
"Nothing I can't handle. I take care of myself." She narrowed her eyes. Her sidearm, a Beretta M9, might have to make an appearance. Then Sharp's words sunk all the way in. "Wait. Are you telling me I should play chess with the same mind-set as poker??" She buried his ass every time they played poker. He was terrible at keeping his attention on his cards and lousy at pretending he wasn't checking her outnot that he was serious about it. He knew the rules same as she, and she was glad, ridiculously glad, she had a friend she could count on, someone she could trust.
"Sort of. Chess demands more of you than poker, but the principles are the same."
Them'sfightin' words. "The hell you say." She'd been playing poker with her dad since she was ten years old. He'd taught her how to bluff anyone.
"Doc," Sharp said, chuckling. "If I were lying, you'd be beating me, but you aren't."
"Ha." She leaned forward and tapped the board. "Make your move."
Sharp opened his mouth to respond, but he never got a chance to say anything before another Beret, the team's other weapons sergeant, Harvey Runnel, strode over to them. It wasn't the speed he was moving that drew her and Sharp's attention, it was the look on the soldier's face. Flattened lips, clenched jaw and a slightly flared nose. She couldn't see his eyes due to the tinted safety glasses he wore, but she could guess that the skin around them would be tighta man who was on full alert.
Special Forces soldiers did not get amped up for no reason.
"Playtime's over," Runnel said. "Doc, grab your gobag."
A mental blanket sank over her, numbing her to the horror to come. It was the first self-preservation tactic doctors learned. Compartmentalize all that terrible stuff or go crazy in a week. Sometimes she wondered when all those boxes in her mind would break open and rip her apart from the inside out.
There was an entire crate named Joseph Cranston.
"Warm or cold?" She asked even though she already knew the answer. Runnel never looked this rattled. Please say warm.
Her warm go-bag was a trauma kit, a backpack with everything she'd need if she was dealing with bullet holes, shrapnel lacerations or broken bones. The typical things most people expected her to treat since she was a trauma surgeon. But that wasn't all she was.
She was also an infectious disease specialist.
Her cold go-bag contained the very latest in biological detection technology. One- or two-step tests that identified anything from anthrax to Ebola to a weaponized flu. She was a member of a select group of virologists, microbiologists and infectious disease specialists the US Army relied on to train not only their own troops, but the soldiers of other nations, in the detection of and protection against biological weapons. They were known officially as the Biological Rapid Response team, but most soldiers called them Icemen or Icequeens.
Lately the army had been assigning BRR team members to work with Army Special Forces teamsGreen Berets. She'd been working with Sharp's team for almost a year. Her job was to assist in training Afghan forces in everything from combat and demolitions to the most survivable responses to biological, chemical or nuclear weapons.
"Cold," Runnel said. "No drill."
Adrenaline spiked through her system as Grace got up and followed Runnel. He led the way back to whoever was calling the shots, Sharp right behind her as they ran at a trot. She might be the base's resident expert on biological weapons, but it was knowledge she wished fervently she didn't have to use.
They entered the staging area where she'd been doing some of the training. Several members of Sharp's team were using it to gear up. Runnel glanced at her and angled his head toward the base commander, a tall man in his forties who wore a permanent frown. He was looking at a map with several ranking officers, including the A-Team's commander, Geoffry Cutter.
Cutter glanced at her. "The major is here, sir."
Base Commander Colonel Marshall gave her a glare before returning his attention to the map in front of him.
He'd called her a fucking quack yesterday as he walked past her. If he kept demeaning her in front of the Afghan forces and their own soldiers, she'd lose the credibility she needed to successfully train them.
"Major," Marshall said without looking at her. "One of our patrols reported in about ten minutes ago with what appears to be a biological incident."
She waited, but he didn't add any more details. "What led them to believe that, sir?"
He met her gaze with an even colder expression. "An entire village dead. Some of the bodies show lesions and bleeding from the nose, mouth and eyes."
Holy Mother of God.
Bad. This was very bad.
"I concur with their assessment of the situation, sir. Your orders?"
"Get the fuck out there," he snarled at her. "Figure out what happened and fix it."
That part she knew already. Asshat. She'd hoped he'd give her some detailed orders, with a timeline and what kind of manpower she could expect. Not more sarcasm and snark. She came to attention and saluted. "Yes, sir."
He took two steps, then stopped and turned around.
He addressed Cutter and only Cutter, who had somehow inched his way over until he was right next to her, with Sharp on the other side. What a couple of papa bears. "Send half of your A-Team with the Icequeen. The other half will stay here in case I need a second team to go in."
Grace bit her tongue hard to keep from telling what she thought of him and his orders, and mentally promoted him to asshole.
"Yes, sir." Cutter saluted. "The location of the village is here." He glanced at Grace and pointed to a spot on the map. From a distance Cutter looked like the least threatening person in the room. He was the shortest, skinniest guy on the A-Team, but he more than made up for that in stubbornness and stamina.
Grace moved closer so she could get a better look. "How far is it from the Pakistan border?"
"About two klicks."
"Not very damn far." She ran her index finger over the spot on the map. "Mountain valley?"
"Yeah. It's a small village. Less than one hundred people."
"The patrol found no one alive?"
Grace breathed in through her nose and out through her mouth. "Did they get their breathing gear on right away?"
"According to their report they did, but they're nervous. Whatever killed those people, killed them fast."
"Okay. I don't have to tell you guys how to prep. You're as well trained as I am. Consider this a live weapon."
"Will do," Cutter responded. He looked at Sharp standing next to her. "I'm assigning Sharp to ride herd on you, Doc. Where you go, he goes."
"I'm not arguing, Commander. I've worked with Sharp plenty of times."
"Good. We leave in fifteen." Cutter nodded at her, gave Sharp a nod, then moved off to brief the rest of his team.
"I have to get my go-bag and the rest of my gear," she said to Sharp, her mind on the eight million things she needed to do before those fifteen minutes were up.
"I'll give you a hand."
"Thanks, but I don't need any help." She was going to have to deal with his protective crap sooner rather than later, but carefully. "I do need every friend I can get, though. Are you in for that?"
At his grin, she relaxed a little and refocused on the job at hand.
Sharp watched Grace rush away for about two seconds too long.
"Do I need to replace you with Runnel?" Cutter asked.
He jerked his head around to stare at his commander. He'd thought Cutter had been briefing the rest of the team. "No."
Cutter stood with his arms crossed over his chest and his feet apart. "Then pull your tongue back into your head. You're damn near panting after her."
"Not fucking likely. She's just the only person on this base who can beat me in poker. If something happens to her, I'll have nothing to do for the next month," he said. "Besides, something's not right. She's been off her game since Marshall decided to be an ass. She's our number-one asset. I'm worried." The way he'd found her the other day, damn near passed out, shaking and hyperventilating like she was about to fly apart It had hit hima sucker punch to the gut. She was reliving something awful.
Post-traumatic stress disorder.
How many guys did he know who lived with PTSD? Ten, twenty, fifty?