“Julie Rowe blends the perfect cocktail of action&romance.” — Brenda Novak, NYT bestselling author on Icebound
CDC nurse Joy Oshiro is stressed to the breaking point. College students are dying and no one knows why. And her new partner Dr. Gunner Anderson is frustratingly annoying—and sexy, but mainly just plain annoying—and proving difficult to avoid. He spent three years with Doctors Without Borders, and disillusioned is just the tip of his issues.
They’ll need to learn to trust each other if they have a chance at figuring out who is behind the attacks. She makes him laugh, makes him forget—for a little while. But each new clue keeps them one step behind the terrorists, with buildings and evidence being destroyed just as they near.
Now they’re in a race against time to not only find a cure, but also to avoid becoming the next targets themselves.
Each book in the Outbreak Task Force series is STANDALONE:
* Viable Threat
* Sleight of Hand
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February 1, 8:00 a.m.
Fired. He was going to get fucking fired.
Dr. Gunner Anderson stood in the open doorway of his shared office, a cup of coffee in one hand, a growl clawing its way out of his throat.
His desk faced the door and was the first thing to come into view. It held the same mess of papers, folders, and sticky notes covering the scuffed surface as when he left. The same four-sided rectangular shape and banal beige as a million other desks government employees rode.
It was the second desk, perpendicular to his, that caught his attention. Clean, free of paper and everything else — its excessive neatness made it stand out and shout for attention.
Gunner continued to stare at it for a moment, dread's cold fists pummeling his stomach and diaphragm.
His work partner, Raymond, a man in his late-twenties who still lived with his parents, had cleared out his stuff. Or had he just tidied things finally? The guy was disorganized, stacking files, reports, and notes all over the place. It drove Gunner nuts. There was no excuse for being unable to find information on your desk because it was a pigsty.
He strode to the stripped work space, searching for signs of life.
He was out of luck. Everything was gone, right down to the paperclips and stapler. Raymond, a microbiologist with a hand- washing fetish, had abandoned ship.
Son of a bitch. That little twerp had left him with over a dozen open cases to properly investigate, classify, and offer recommendations on.
Fingers itching to strangle the shit, Gunner took a swig of his coffee and contemplated what he was going to say to his boss, Dr. Carmen Rodrigues.
She'd given him fair warning when the partner before Raymond had bailed on him, telling him to stop acting like a jerk and get along with his coworkers. Or else.
She hadn't specified the or else.
Worst case scenario was he'd get fired, which did, in fact, bother him.
Sometime during the last couple of years, he'd discovered he liked investigating hotspots of disease. He liked untangling the threads of an outbreak to find its source. He liked seeing normal return to places and people who'd been devastated by disease or disaster.
Disease always followed disaster.
A few months ago, he'd been assigned to work as part of the Outbreak Task Force, whose members were the boots on the ground who implemented medical assistance. He liked that most of all. It was exhausting, difficult work, but that just made success more rewarding.
What he didn't like was having to break in another new partner.
Someone cleared their throat behind him.
Gunner turned to find DS, as he preferred to be called, standing in the doorway. He was a retired Army drill sergeant who took his new job of settling in new employees very seriously.
"Got a new partner for you, Gunner," the grizzled older man said. His brush cut looked fresh and precise, his jaw clean shaven, and his clothes pressed, making him look like he was wearing a uniform, even though he wasn't.
"I'm not fired?" Gunner asked, genuinely surprised.
DS smiled, and it wasn't altogether friendly. "Rodrigues thought about it but decided to give you one last kick at the can."
DS looked way too happy about the situation. That didn't bode well. "So, is this person my worst nightmare?" "Of course not." The DS's smile definitely had an edge to it. "I'll bring her up as soon as she's finished boxing her stuff for the move in here and other crap. Should be in about an hour."
DS turned to leave, but stopped and glanced over his shoulder at Gunner, the smile nowhere in evidence. "Ray wasn't a good fit for you. Too ... young."
Too inexperienced, but DS didn't have to elaborate. Gunner had lived through three years of hell and horror. It had changed him, made him less patient and less tolerant of politics, power plays, and polite niceties.
Who had time for that shit when people all around you were dying?
"How do you know this one is different?" Gunner asked.
The smile returned. "Her eight years as an Army nurse, for one thing. And if that doesn't convince you, she did a stint as a combat medic, too. She isn't going to be scared of a little bit of snark."
His pulse picked up speed. There was only one person working for the CDC in Atlanta that fit those parameters. "And if we don't get along?"
"I'd start looking for a new job."
The older man walked away.
Gunner sat down behind his desk. Joy Ashiro ... He'd stayed away from her for several very good reasons.
Petite and curvy with dark hair and eyes, she added something energetic and fresh to a room when she walked in. But it was her smile and laugh that grabbed him by the balls. They did something to his insides — lessened the pain, the regrets, the wounds on his soul. Made him feel ... human again.
When she'd shown up on Thanksgiving with food for whoever was working, complete with pumpkin pie, he'd almost asked her to stay and eat with him. Keeping his mouth shut hadn't been easy, but his gut told him that if he spent time with her, his physical attraction to her would grow beyond his ability to control.
If he allowed himself to feel anything, the dam inside his soul would burst, and the weight of his dead would suffocate him in sorrow. He wasn't ready for that burden. Not yet. Maybe not ever.
Still, every time Joy glanced at him with all that passion in her gaze, he wanted to find out if maybe, maybe he could exist outside of the prison of his memories, outside of work, without self-destructing.
That scared the shit out of him.
His cell phone dinged with a text.
It was from Dr. Rodrigues.
My office. Now.
Great. She was going to read the riot act to him, including all the ways she was going to fire his ass if he couldn't get along with his new partner. Blah, blah, blah.
He walked into her office then had to wait while she ended a phone call.
Carmen Rodrigues stared at him after she put her phone down, her gray hair cut in a feminine style that make her look younger than the color of her hair said she was. "Raymond is going to need therapy."
"Raymond needs some field experience to toughen him up," Gunner countered. "I don't have the time or inclination to hand- hold anyone."
"I was hoping you'd act as his mentor."
Gunner shrugged. "Maybe in five years or so. When he isn't afraid to get his hands dirty and swear once in a while."
Rodrigues shook her head. "This is the last time, Gunner. If you can't work with Joy, I'll have to cut you lose."
"Joy Ashiro?" Say no, please say no.
"Yes." Rodrigues fixed him with a stern stare. "Figure out your shit, Gunner. I don't want to lose you."
Gunner managed to keep his mouth shut and just nodded. Did she think he wasn't trying to get his head on straight? He'd done all the things you were supposed to do. Psychiatric assessment, regular counseling, and an alphabet of medications. He knew damn well he suffered from PTSD and depression, but the attitude of most of the mental health professionals he'd encountered had gone in one of two directions. Either they smiled, patted him on the head, and promised him that with enough time, he'd be able to function normally in society again — gee, thanks for making him feel like he was a charity case. Or they offered even more medications, enough to knock an elephant on its ass, without asking the right questions about what he'd experienced. They simply didn't have a frame of reference to understand what he'd been through.
What he was still going through.
He hadn't been able to control his environment even on the most basic level in Syria. Now, a tidy, organized apartment and office was a key coping strategy for him. Expecting his partner to keep their goddamn desk clean wasn't too much to ask for, was it?
"I'm not chasing people off on purpose," he said. "It's like I've lost all my filters, and no matter how hard I look, I'm not finding them."
Rodrigues considered him for a moment. "Maybe you'll get along then, because Joy doesn't have any filters either. Shoo." She turned her attention back to her computer screen, a not-so-subtle message for him to leave.
Gunner left her office and returned to his own as frustration built up against the internal fence he'd constructed to keep his emotions corralled.
Now what the fuck was he going to do?
Work. If he focused hard enough on work, it would keep him from acting like an even bigger jackass than he was afraid he could be.
He sat down and began wading through the most recent lab reports from American hospitals and clinics of reportable diseases and infections. Everything from antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections to weird viruses some newbie resident thought was brand new.
A lot of the reports were nothing unusual, but you never knew when something interesting or dangerous might pop up.
A brisk knock at the door, followed by someone entering, brought his attention back to the here and now.
DS walked in with Gunner's personal kryptonite right behind him. Adrenaline kissed his bloodstream, and he had to force himself to maintain his relaxed posture. She was small, with short dark brown hair and brown eyes. Her scrub top and jeans told him she was ready to work and wasn't afraid to get a little dirty.
Better start this off on the right foot.
Professional, he could do professional.
Gunner got up and went around his desk to shake her hand.
"Gunner." He took her hand, and a tendril of her scent, autumn leaves and pumpkin pie, set off a chain reaction inside him. It fed him energy and adrenaline. He savored it, noting she was at least a foot shorter than his six foot two height, and her curves were even more lethal than he remembered. Her grip was firm, confident, and she had a sprinkling of freckles across her nose. He paused, her hand warm in his. He loved freckles. Why hadn't he noticed them before? He could have stood there for a long time, soaking in her warmth and savoring the bite of attraction nibbling on every nerve in his body.
She gently pulled her hand away. "Joy," she said, and her voice was a pleasant alto. She tilted her head to one side and looked at him with a half smile. "Huh. You don't seem as carnivorous as the rumor mill describes you."
A shoot first, ask questions later person. It shouldn't have been appealing, but a part of him that had been sleeping for a long time cracked open an eye to evaluate this new and interesting creature in his lair.
"We've run into each other a few times before," he said, trying out a smile. Hey, look at that, his face didn't even crack. "But we weren't introduced. Besides" — he shrugged and glanced at the empty desk — "I just ate."
She cleared her throat and looked at him sidelong. "Still full or suffering from indigestion?"
Was she laughing at him? He glanced at DS and found the older man smiling widely.
Gunner looked at his new partner again. "Full." She had a sense of humor — bonus.
His cock took notice.
Fuck, that's all he needed. She was his new work partner, nothing more, nothing less.
"I'll leave you two to get better acquainted," DS said. "I'll be back at lunch." He left the room, leaving the door open.
Gunner focused on Joy. If he didn't get his body under control, she was going to see just how happy he was to have her working with him. He moved to sit behind his desk. Not a retreat. Nope, no sir. "I know I'm supposed to be polite and refrain from using bad language, whatever that means, but I was wondering if you'd like to ... uh, skip the bullshit?"
She met his gaze with one that briefly showed surprise before it morphed into a delighted smile. "Please."
Where to start? "What do you know about me?" "We went through the CDC's outbreak investigation training at the same time, but never interacted together directly. I'm the third person assigned to be your partner in the last six months. Your previous partners have described you as: irritable, short-tempered, and impatient." She leaned forward and lowered her voice to whisper loudly, "Those were the nice words."
He snorted, almost laughed. "What were the not-nice words?" She grinned and started unpacking as she said, "I quote, from your first partner: he's an asshole. Your second one said, he has all the diplomatic skills of a starving velociraptor."
Colorful, but obviously she didn't find the not- nice words intimidating. "Most people would hesitate to work with someone like that."
"I'm not most people."
"So, you've worked with a few asshole dinosaurs before?" "The Army is full of them." She met his gaze, and her smile had gained a sharp edge. "Whatever I receive, I can dish out."
His gut said she wasn't boasting. "DS said you were in combat rescue. How long did you do that?" "One deployment, about eight months." She considered him. "I heard you spent some time in Syria."
"Doctors Without Borders, yeah. Three years."
She paused, the smile falling off her face. "That's a long time. Did you move around?"
"Some. Most of the time I was in Aleppo, but I also spent time in Damascus and Homs."
She stared at him, a frown on her face. "Some serious shit went down in all of those places."
"Shit is a good way to describe it." But completely inadequate. More like total death and destruction.
"So, what was the deal with you and your previous partners?" she asked in a carefully cheerful tone.
Phony feelings he could do without. "Are you trying to manage me?"
"That's what getting along with people is. Figuring out how to manage them." She gave him a duh look. "You're smart enough to know that, so I ask again, what was the deal?" She hadn't known him five minutes, and already she wanted to take him apart.
She glanced at him and started to laugh. "Did they take one look at your awesome grumpy face and start babbling?"
"No," he said, but even he could hear the irritation in his voice.
"I bet they shut right up." She laughed again. "I talked to Raymond for a couple of minutes this morning."
"And what did he have to say?"
She rolled her eyes. "What a whiner. I'm not surprised you didn't get along. I think he wants to work with a mother figure."
"I don't have the hips for it." That wasn't the only reason. What could he say that wouldn't scare her off? Wait, did he want to keep her?
With her experience, she might be a good fit.
His mind went to places it should never go with a coworker.
He cleared his throat. "I do swear a lot," Gunner confessed. "It's made some people here uncomfortable."
"Fucking A," she said with a grin that now appeared completely genuine and way too energetic.
Oh boy. "Are you always this happy?"
"Nah, I'm usually much happier."
"Happy people give me a rash." Gunner rubbed his face with both hands. "Maybe I should just kill myself now."
"Where would the fun be in that?"
He pulled his hands away from his face to find her smiling, but it was quieter, less silly.
"I don't care if you're bitchy," she said, the humor not quite leaving her face. "As long as you do your job. You back me up when I need it, and I'll do the same for you."
"Sounds reasonable," he said.
All traces of comedy fled from her face as she said in a tone so hard and sharp it could flay the skin off his bones, "But if you try to fuck me up or fuck me over, I will bury you." Her gaze was clear and direct. "Do you get me?" Joy Ashiro, trauma nurse, had a scary side to her, and damn if he didn't find that both admirable and attractive as all hell.
It was Gunner's turn to grin. "That is the best deal I've heard in years."CHAPTER 2
February 14, 2:30 p.m.
Joy paused outside her office door and kicked it with one foot in lieu of knocking, both hands busy holding up a precariously piled high pillar of coffee cups, pumpkin muffins, and a container of her killer pumpkin cream cheese icing for the muffins.
Gunner had a soft spot for pumpkin-flavored treats. She'd found that out a few months ago when she'd popped in with food for whoever was on duty over Thanksgiving weekend.
He hadn't been overly friendly, but the sight of the pumpkin pie amongst the containers of food had turned him into Mr. Cooperation.
He'd kept looking at the pie like it was going to spontaneously combust at any moment and cheat him of his opportunity to consume it. Did he look at a woman he wanted with the same laser-intense focus?(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Sleight of Hand"
Copyright © 2019 Julie Rowe.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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