Title: Lethal Game
Book 2: Biological Response Team Series
Author: Julie Rowe
Publisher: Carina Press
Publication Date: October 12, 2015
Genre: Romantic Suspense
Format: eBook, PDF
Book Two of Biological Response Team Series
As the nation’s youngest virologist and hematologist, Captain Sophia Perry has always been one step ahead of her peers. But there’s one thing she can’t beat—cancer. She wants to make a difference in the time she has left, so when she’s sent to investigate a breakout at a Syrian refugee camp, she goes, saying nothing of her diagnosis. But saving the masses isn’t easy when the man tasked to protect her is so irresistible.
Communications Sergeant Connor Button is back on active duty after a deadly explosion, but he doesn’t feel whole again until he meets Sophia. Assigned to keep her safe, he’s prepared to die for her, but for the first time in months he truly wants to live—if only she wasn’t so determined to put them both in danger.
With a secret to keep and nothing to lose, Sophia is determined to find the source of the breakout at any cost. Violent attacks on the camp convince her that someone wants her to pay dearly. But as Sophia’s health deteriorates, Connor must find a way to help her defeat her enemies before her body defeats her.
Security is mostly a superstition ~ Helen Keller
It had taken him three airplanes and over twenty-six hours to travel more than seven thousand miles, and now he was going to have to kill someone.
Ten feet from his room in the Navy hotel at the American Naval base in Bahrain.
All Special Forces Communications Sergeant Connor Button wanted was to find a bed and crash for a few hours.
What he did not need was witnessing some idiot striking out with a hot blonde and not taking it well.
She’d just removed his hand from her waist.
The man put it on her shoulder and tried to bring her closer. “Aw, come on, sweetheart.”
She slid away, her voice clear across the short distance. “No.”
Okay, dude, time to retreat. Only, the guy didn’t. He grabbed her by the back of the neck, hard enough to make her gasp in pain, and leaned down, his mouth aimed for hers.
She slapped the moron, but he didn’t get that hint either, just grabbed her hand and twisted it behind her back.
Con had to make himself stand still for a second. One second, so he could throttle back the instinct to beat the stupid fuck to death.
Fine. His jaw flexed. He wouldn’t kill the asshole, but he could hurt him real bad.
Con dropped his duffel on the floor and stomped toward the woman and the moron whose arm he was about to break.
Into several pieces.
The stomping got the moron’s attention. He glanced up, saw Con coming and his eyes went wide. He let go of the woman so fast she wobbled off balance and fell to the floor. Con stopped to help her while the moron ran like a track star down the hall and around a corner.
Good call, asshole.
Con bent down and offered his hand to the woman. “Are you okay?”
Her head jerked up and she stared at him with eyes that didn’t miss a thing. She scooted away, leaving his hand hanging in the air, then stood. Her shoulders went back and her chin rose.
He almost smiled. She was so not interested in another man getting all up in her business. He’d make sure she was all right, then he’d back off.
“Ma’am, did he hurt you?”
“I’m fine,” she said, retreating a step.
Blue-green eyes stood out in a face framed by white-blond hair hanging in a sheet down to the middle of her back. She was also stacked, though she wasn’t showing it off. She was following military clothing requirements, wearing long pants and a collared shirt one size too big, buttoned up to her neck. An asshole had just tried to sexually assault her, but Con would bet a year’s pay that had he not come along, the moron would have had his hands full with a pissed-off female trying to smash his balls into paste.
He glanced down.
Her mouth was pressed into a thin angry line, but her hands were shaking.
For the first time in months something other than anger or despair slammed into him.
He knew just how she felt. Hyped up on adrenaline and looking for a target.
It surprised him so much he opened his mouth to make some inane comment or other to show her he was no threat, but she raised a hand to stop him.
She spoke a quick, firm “Thank you.” And then she was gone, inside the room closest to her. The click of the lock being engaged echoed down the hall.
He blinked at the empty hallway. He wasn’t sure she was okay, but those shaking hands and that locked door sent a pretty clear signal that she didn’t want another man anywhere near her.
Sometimes other people just made things worse.
He sighed, strode back to his bag, checked his room number again and discovered he was next door to the blonde.
At least he wouldn’t have to go far if Moron came back.
So much for getting some sleep. He’d lain awake, alert for any noise that might indicate a problem in the room next door, but it had been church-quiet. He got up at 0700 base time, then went in search of his new commanding officer, Colonel Maximillian. The man had an interesting reputation, but he trusted what his buddy, Jacob “Sharp” Foster, a former Special Forces soldier, had to say about him. Everyone else said the colonel was one bullet shy of a magazine. Sharp had warned him that the colonel wasn’t exactly regular army, but he gave a shit about his people, and that was number one for Con. If your CO had your six, at least you didn’t have to take your attention off what was coming at you.
The colonel had a fancy lab that didn’t exist on the base, according to official records. Officially, the lab that did exist on paper was rated for level two containment. Good enough to run the sort of tests any big city hospital conducted. In reality, the lab was capable of level four containment testing. The stuff you needed to wear a bio-suit for and breathe your own oxygen supply.
Con had to pass through two internal checkpoints to gain entry to the nondescript building that was his destination. Colonel Maximillian’s office was the first one inside the prefab rectangle that housed the lab and offices. A soldier who didn’t look a day over sixteen sat typing on a computer facing the entrance to the building.
The kid’s gaze darted over Con’s uniform, then he stood and saluted. “Private Eugene Walsh.”
“Sergeant Connor Button, Special Forces.”
“Yes, sir. Colonel Maximillian is expecting you.” Walsh extended his hand in the direction of the first office. “Go right in.”
Con gave him a nod, then walked into the office.
He saluted the salt-and-pepper-haired man, who stood and saluted back. “Sir, Sergeant Button reporting for duty.”
“Welcome, Sergeant.” The colonel came around his desk and offered his hand.
Con shook it once, twice, then released a hand that hadn’t tested him beyond what would be considered polite.
“Take a seat,” the colonel said, gesturing at one of the chairs facing his desk. “I’d like to go over your assignment and answer any questions you might have.”
“Thank you, sir.” Con sat and adopted a neutral body posture, back straight and hands resting lightly on his thighs. It was harder than it should have been.
The last time he’d been in the Middle East he’d been deployed with his unit, attempting to ascertain the military strength of two groups of extremists in Northern Iraq and Syria. Both groups had threatened multiple American and allied targets, as well as calling for sympathetic citizens to carry out terrorist acts inside their own countries.
The last time he’d been in the Middle East, he’d been the only survivor of an IED that took out their vehicle. Fortune had smiled on him that day. He’d been thrown clear.
More and more often, he wished he hadn’t been so lucky.
Colonel Maximillian continued to stare at him and seemed content to not say anything for several moments.
Con waited with the patience of a man who’d waited days for just the right moment to take a shot at his target.
Finally, the colonel asked, “How much do you know about your mission here?”
“Probably not enough.”
Maximillian’s face didn’t change. “Sharp said you were smart. Are you, Sergeant Button?”
“That would depend on your definition of smart.”
“Observant, creative, organized, able to see unusual relationships between people and information.”
“Sir, you’re looking for Sherlock Holmes. He’s a fictional character.”
A brief smile crossed the colonel’s face. “How would you describe yourself?”
“Flexible, determined, fuck the box.”
Colonel Maximillian’s forehead lowered over his eyes. “Were you aware General Stone had some reluctance in assigning you to this mission?”
“Not directly, but it doesn’t surprise me.”
How many conversations like this had he had recently? Five, six? “Sir, I received injuries in an attack that killed all the men in the armored vehicle with me. I’d be surprised if he wasn’t hesitant.” No officer wanted to have a suicidal or homicidal soldier on a mission. Survivor’s guilt could lead to either one. Or both.
“Do you consider yourself fit for duty?”
Goddamned why-questions. Why judged, weighed and measured what was in a man’s head. What was in his head was not pretty, and not to be shared.
“Sir, I signed on to serve my country. My service isn’t done.”
Maximillian tilted his head to one side. “That is one of the best non-answers I’ve ever heard.”
Fuck it. Con leaned forward and said in a less civilized tone, “I got thrown off the horse. I need to get back on and finish my ride.”
“And if you don’t?”
Con’s throat closed up. “That thought can’t be in my head.”
The colonel’s face lost its sharp inquisitiveness for a moment, replaced by a surprising level of comprehension. A second later it was gone and he was flipping through pages on his desk. “You’ve had some problems with your temper since you returned to duty.”
“I’m working on that.” Anger was easy. Acting on it was even easier.
The officer considered Con for a couple more seconds, then nodded briskly. “My Biological Response Team is tracking a very dangerous man who’s created his own extremely deadly strain of anthrax. We managed to prevent an attack on a base in Afghanistan, but not before nearly one hundred people died of the infection. We think he’s not done. We think he’ll continue to strike at high-quality American or allied targets, and we don’t know where he is or where he will attack next.”
Con straightened. Hunting down a homicidal nutcase wasn’t the sort of duty he’d taken on before, but it sounded dangerous. Good.
Holy fuck he was messed up.
Maximillian continued. “We were successful in preventing the last attack because we had one of our infectious disease specialists embedded with an A-team training members of the Afghan military. General Stone agrees with me—until this man is found, we need more cooperation between my team and army Special Forces. I asked for specific men to work with my people. Men who are not only well trained and smart, but also creative and who can take a step back and support his teammate or take charge of a situation if that’s what’s needed. Jacob Foster says you’re that kind of man. Are you?”
It might be nice to have a specific enemy, with a face and a name, rather than a faceless one who could be anybody. The need to kill, to avenge his dead, was a relentless voice in the back of his head. This mission could get him the opportunity to give himself that, and maybe a measure of peace.
“Sir.” He paused, trying hard not to come on too strong. If he lost this chance, he might not get another. “I’m a team player. That means I’ll play whatever role is needed by the team.”
Colonel Maximillian smiled. “Do you mind working with a woman?”
“No, sir. Sharp mentioned the possibility I’d be paired with a woman.” Man, woman, two-headed alien, he didn’t care as long as they shared a common enemy.
“You’re okay with that? No hesitations?”
The colonel seemed unusually concerned.
What the hell? While he might smack down a fellow Special Forces soldier, he’d never lay a hand on a woman.
“Sir, I’m the youngest of five children with four older sisters. Working with or for a woman is nothing new to me.”
“Good.” Maximillian nodded. “I don’t mean to sound paranoid, but the doctor you’re going to be working with is somewhat high-strung.”
The colonel shook his head. “That’s the wrong description. She doesn’t trust…people. I’ve been trying to find a suitable partner for her, but I’ve been unsuccessful.”
“Most people look at her and see a young woman who looks as if she’d have trouble with breaking a nail. Coddle her in any way and she’ll find a way to make you miserable.”
The bottom of Con’s stomach grew cold. “So why me?”
“Growing up with sisters is part of it.”
This interview was a personality test. Fuck.
“You’ve also been through some challenging combat situations and I think that will give you a level of experience she’ll respect.”
Con had to work to keep a growl out of his voice. “I’m not going to sit around the campfire telling her war stories.” What he’d seen wouldn’t instill confidence in anyone.
“I don’t expect you to. She works best with people who are highly competent, who don’t brag or try to impress.”
First time he’d been complimented on his ability to keep his trap shut.
“Another issue is her age. She’s young, she’s a genius and she has absolutely no idea how to talk to anyone who isn’t a scientist or doctor.”
That didn’t leave a whole lot of people. “Genius, as in graduated from medical school really young?”
“She’s twenty-four and is the youngest physician in the USA to have a double speciality in virology and hematology.”
“Virology, I get. Hematology?”
“The study of blood cells.”
If she was an overachiever, he could work with that. “So, work is her life, and before that, it was school?”
“S’okay. My second-oldest sister is married to a physicist. He speaks math, and we get along just fine.”
Maximillian quirked an eyebrow. “You speak math?”
“Nope. I speak barbecue. Everyone has something to say about properly grilling a steak.”
The colonel laughed. “You’ll do. Time to meet her.” He stepped out of his office and led the way down a hall. “Oh, and call me Max. It’s shorter.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Max sighed as he opened a door with a key and preceded Con inside.
The room they entered was part office and part lab, with a couple of desks and two tall microscopes set up on the end of each. Papers and boxes of slides littered both surfaces. Only one of the desks was occupied.
A woman sat looking through the lens of one of the microscopes. Her hair was white-blond and pulled back into a severe bun. She wore an army uniform with a lab coat over top. When she saw Max, she pushed away from the scope, stood and moved to meet them.
The blonde from last night. With her hair pulled back, she could have passed for even younger than twenty-four.
Fucking gorgeous. He took that thought, hog-tied it and shoved it into a dark corner. His personal mission left no room for anything beyond a professional relationship.
She also looked ready to rip someone’s head off.
“Sophia,” Max said. “This is your new partner, Communications Sergeant Connor Button.” He turned to Con. “Connor, this is Captain Sophia Perry.” Her mouth, pressed into a thin line, convinced him to pretend last night hadn’t happened. He nodded at her respectfully. “Good to meet you, ma’am.”
“Ma’am?” she asked, crossing her arms over her chest and displaying a huge bruise on her right hand.
“This is who you found to babysit me, Max? A fossil?”
Damn, she came out swinging. Maybe he’d let her win this bout. Con managed to keep a straight face and said in a hesitant voice, “I’m only twenty-nine.”
“Would you rather I pair you up with someone who follows all the rules and regulations?” Max asked her, irritation showing in his rigid posture. “This guy—” he pointed a thumb at Con “—hates inside-the-box thinking as much as you do.”
“Oh yeah?” she said, looking Con full in the face. A challenge. Why was she so pissed off? Because she didn’t think she needed a babysitter?
He shrugged, then coughed to hide a chuckle. If he laughed now, she’d think he was laughing at her. “I don’t like boxes. They’re never big enough, and they’re too…square.”
She blinked at him, then narrowed her gaze. “What did you do to draw this duty? It had to have been bad.”
Max opened his mouth, but Con didn’t want to escalate things, so he spoke first, and went with the unvarnished truth. “I got blown up. I spent almost seven months in hospitals and physical therapy. The last three or four months I’ve been instructing and getting back into shape.” He smiled at her. “When I found out what my first mission was going to be, bodyguarding some army doctor, I thought what the fuck? I sure as shit didn’t want easy duty. But having talked with Max here, I’ve changed my mind.” He shifted his gaze to Max’s face. “This isn’t easy duty, is it, sir?”
“No. It’s not a matter of if there will be another biological weapon attack somewhere in this part of the world, it’s when.”
“My role isn’t just to bodyguard Dr. Perry, is it?”
“No.” Max began pacing back and forth between Con and Sophia. “We have intel that points to the Biological Response Team as a specific target. I don’t want you to just protect Sophia, I need you two to be a team. All of us are being paired with Special Forces soldiers, even myself.”
“Assassination?” Con asked. The idea of it made the back of his neck itch.
“Very possible. Sabotage is another danger.”
“Have any attempts been made?”
“Yes. Dr. Samuels and her Green Beret were nearly killed in a trap I believe was set for them. We have an enemy who is intelligent, ruthless and fearless.”
“Can I get everything you have on this guy?” Con asked.
“My assistant will have it ready for you in an hour or two.” Max turned to him. “Have you been assigned quarters?”
“I’m going to have you moved to the room next to Sophia’s.”
The woman in question opened her mouth to say something unpleasant—he was sure from the way she’d screwed up her nose—which is why Con spoke first again. “Are you sure that’s necessary?” He looked down, like he was thinking hard. “Do you want to advertise to the whole base that I’m her bodyguard, or would you like to keep it below the radar?”
Max gave him a dirty look. “Whose side are you on?”
“Fine,” Max said, with bit of an impatient edge to his voice. “I’ll check to see where you’re housed now. If it’s not too far, you can stay where you are.” Max pressed his lips together, glared at them both, then stomped off.
Con looked at Sophia.
She looked back at him, snorted and went back to her microscope. “Nice attempt to come to my rescue. Again. But I don’t need anyone to rescue me.”
She needed to talk to someone about the moron. To prevent fear and anger from getting too deep a hold on her brain.
Despite how fast things had happened, the human mind had a way of warping events so the memory of them seemed to take a thousand times longer than the reality had.
Hell, he was a walking testament for how three seconds of hell could totally screw up the rest of a man’s life.
Or take it.
Listen to him passing judgment on her mental state, when he’d done his level best to keep the shrinks out of his. Right now, he just had to convince her he was on her side. He wanted this assignment. “I know.”
“Really?” Sarcasm turned the word into something sharp and heavy. “You just met me. How would you know that?”
“I saw you in action last night.”
She froze, and for a moment the expression on her face was a mixture of anger, fear and disgust. A second later, it was gone, smoothed away as if it had never been there.
Whoa. What was that?
Without looking at him, she said, “Babysitting me is going to be a complete bore for a soldier’s soldier like you. I’ll tell Max to find someone else.”
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In addition to writing contemporary and historical medical romance, and fun romantic suspense for Entangled Publishing and Carina Press, Julie has short stories in Fool’s Gold, the Mammoth Book of ER Romance, Timeless Keepsakes and Timeless Escapes anthologies. Her book SAVING THE RIFLEMAN (book #1 WAR GIRLS) won the novella category of the 2013 Gayle Wilson Award of Excellence. AIDING THE ENEMY (book #3 WAR GIRLS) won the novella category of the 2014 Colorado Romance Writer’s Award of Excellence. Her writing has also appeared in several magazines such as Romantic Times Magazine, Today’s Parent, and Canadian Living.
You can reach Julie at www.julieroweauthor.com , on Twitter @julieroweauthor or at her Facebook page: www.facebook.com/JulieRoweAuthor
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