Someone scratched a death threat in the paint of CDC nurse Kini Kerek’s rental car. She’s in Utah researching Hantavirus, but damaging rumors about the CDC have left residents suspicious and uncooperative. Thank goodness for hot, sexy, former soldier Smoke, a man of few words, who’s assigned to protect and help her navigate the isolated desert town as she races to identify a deadly virus before more people die.
Memories from the combat zone leave ex-Special Forces soldier Lyle Smoke in a constant state of battle readiness, and he finds no solace, even after returning home to Small Blind. When he meets Kini Kerek, he discovers his heart isn’t entirely dead. But, that might not last long, because this outbreak is no mistake, and he’ll need to use all his survival skills gleaned from the military and his Native American upbringing to keep him and the beautiful, but secretive, Kini alive.
Each book in the Outbreak Task Force series is STANDALONE:
* Viable Threat
* Sleight of Hand
About the Author
Julie Rowe’s first career as a med lab tech in Canada took her to the North West Territories and northern Alberta, where she still resides. She loves to include medical details and a lot of adventure in her romance novels. Julie writes contemporary and historical medical romance, and fun romantic suspense. Her writing has also appeared in several magazines such as Today’s Parent, Reader’s Digest (Canada), and Romantic Times Magazine. You can reach her at www.julieroweauthor.com , on Twitter @julieroweauthor or at her Facebook page:
Read an Excerpt
At one o'clock in the morning, the I-15 through the Utah desert gave the impression it had been abandoned for years. Lyle Smoke drove his jeep through the desolate moonlight, not another car in sight. Not even the slow, slumberous roll of tumbleweeds. Not even wildlife approaching the pavement looking for roadkill.
Nobody to listen.
Nobody to issue orders.
Nobody to guard his back.
Eight years in the army — breathing, eating, shitting that life. Gone.
He wasn't Sgt. Smoke, the soldier who could track ghosts, capture boogey-men, and keep his battle-brothers safe. He was Smoke, just smoke. Nothing and nobody and not here.
The quiet highway should have been soothing.
A good soldier didn't trust the quiet. Smoke hated it.
He used to love it.
He'd spent summers on the reservation with the desert as his backyard. He'd rode horses and dirt bikes through it, camped for days at a time, and hunted to feed himself. He'd learned to navigate by the stars and knew the location of every water source.
But those simple, quiet, satisfying days were long gone.
Now his days were nightmares of memories. Memories of pain and blood.
All that shit should have stayed in the fucking Afghan sandbox. Too bad his brain hadn't figured that out yet.
He passed the silver shrouded shadow of Jack Rabbit Rock on the right. The last time he'd been in this part of the desert, he'd taken Liam there. His son had sat in front of him in the saddle, his small body warm and trusting as he looked everywhere at once and pointed at everything.
"Papa," he'd said, his voice high with excitement. He pointed at something new and announced, "Papa."
Smoke clenched the steering wheel, gritted his teeth, and tried to shove the reminder that his son would never have a life out of his head.
He sucked in deep breaths and focused on the facts. The truth. Maybe if he recited reality often enough, he'd accept it.
The last time he'd been home had been for Liam and Lacey's funerals.
Liam and Lacey were dead. His son and the mother of his son were dead.
There. He'd thought it. Didn't make it any truer to him than five minutes ago.
He'd sworn to stay away until he'd accepted what had happened. Yet, here he was, not twenty miles from the epicenter of his pain. Here he was, ready to kill someone, but no enemies to gut in his mother's kitchen.
Reaching to rewrite the past was stupid, dangerous, and insane. Didn't stop him from reaching for it in his head, anyway. The past was a ghost not even he could track. Still ... the desert held other memories for him. Memories of happier times.
He'd say hello tomorrow morning, kiss his mom, nod at his father, then pack his shit and go hunting for a week. Or three. Maybe that would cure him of his increasing need to choke the life out of something with his bare hands.
He drove through his hometown of Small Blind, Utah, to his parents' ranch-style house. He left his vehicle on the street and went around toward the back door. A car was parked at the back of the driveway. Rental plates? Someone visiting?
Then he saw the dent in the driver's side door. A monster-truck sized dent. The kind of dent you can only get if you've been T-boned by something big and mean and pissed off. Some of the scratches in the paint looked like letters.
Fuck off & die FBI.
What a fuckup. Not an FBI vehicle. Not an accident. Not dealing with smart assholes.
He took a look inside. The airbag on the driver's side was smeared with something dark. Blood. The driver would have a couple of black eyes. And a hospital bill.
What was a bloodied and bent car doing in his parents' driveway?
Stop stalling, pussy.
He opened the back door, stepped inside, and memories raked pain across his battered, bruised, and broken heart.
After the first stab of sharp steel, images of Liam became a dull, dishwater ache, settling into his chest as if they were moving in for the duration of his deployment.
No, he was home, not in a combat zone.
Fuck, was he ever going to catch up to reality?
He took a step, and when no improvised explosive devices — physical, emotional, or otherwise — went off, he took another step. His room was only twelve more steps away. Twelve teeny, tiny triggers that could blow him up from the inside out.
The darkness helped by shrouding everything in shadows. His room, his stuff, his bed were right where he left them. Okay, good. He could breathe a little easier now.
Smoke set his duffle on the floor and stripped. He kept his boxers on in case his mom walked in, but it was hot enough in the room that he didn't want any part of the pile of blankets on the other side of the bed.
He should have called first. His mother was going to give him hell for not giving her time to make the damn bed. He slid onto the mattress.
As he considered the ceiling, Smoke put his hands under his head. His pencil drawings of the constellations were still up there, faded and farther away than ever. He'd wanted to feel like Michelangelo, transform his ceiling the way he planned to transform his life. Transform the world.
Now, he was adrift between the stars unable to see a way to live past his week-old discharge.
* * *
Fuck, it was hot.
Smoke rose out of sleep at the pace of a snail.
Who the fuck was touching him?
His body knew when something hinky was happening, and it roused him the second some asshole thought he could put shaving cream on his face or snuggle up and take incriminating photos. He sure as hell should have woken up the second anyone put their hand on Smoke's chest.
A second away from dumping the soon-to-be-interrogated dude on the floor, his brain registered two things. One, the size of that hand. Small, dainty even. Two, the lavender with a bite of citrus scent.
It made him horny.
He glanced down. There was a woman in bed with him.
Christmas? Months away. Birthday? Months away. Hallucination? Months too soon.
He scrutinized the woman. The blanket had slipped off her as far as the top of her butt, leaving her back bare.
Christ, she was lying partway over his chest with nothing covering her but skin and him.
His body tightened, hardened, and wasn't that a kick in the nads, because this was a no-go situation front to back.
He couldn't just shove her off of him. Despite the fact that he'd gone to sleep alone, this little gal was no threat to him. He'd have to slide out from under her carefully, so he didn't wake her, and sneak out of the room.
Waking her would be ... awkward. She'd scream, and he'd be hard pressed to explain what the fuck he was doing in the same bed with her. The screaming he could have put up with; it was the explaining he wanted to avoid at all costs.
Decision made, he eased out from under her a couple of inches.
She sighed and shifted her body, ending up with more of her covering him than before.
Now he knew she had big breasts. Both of them were pressed against his lower rib cage, a soft, sweet weight parts of him really wanted to get to know better.
His cock was all kinds of interested, but given the lack of room in his boxer-style briefs, she'd probably freak out if she opened her eyes. Her face was turned in the direction of his primary weapon.
He tried to ease out from under her again, but this time, she woke up.
Her head rose a couple of inches above his chest then stopped. She froze, her body tensing.
Here it comes, the screaming, the yelling, the accusations. A special kind of hell for a man who didn't like explaining anything to anyone.
Not breathing, he waited for the uproar to begin.
She turned her head slowly, like she had all the time in the world and complete power over the mostly naked man under her.
Her gaze met his and she tilted her head to one side, a tiny furrow etched between her brows. Not angry or afraid, no, she wore the same stoic mask some of his team wore before going into an active combat zone. Prepared to engage with the enemy.
He could see danger in her dark brown eyes and full, curved mouth. It was her hair, a tumbled rush of dark curling waves over her shoulder that made him want to thread his hand into its mass and tug her to him.
She was fucking gorgeous.
Someone needed to shoot him. Now.
She lifted her head another fraction, and the shadows fled from her face enough for him to see the bruises. All around each of her eyes, turning her pupils into dark targets.
She'd been in that car, the one with the dent. The one that had a death threat scratched into the paint.
Sleep hadn't quite let go of her yet, and he really didn't want to scare her, so he should say something to put her at ease. Reassure her somehow.
"Who did it?"
She blinked, surprise replacing the determination on her face.
What the fuck had just come out of his mouth? And why had he said it so it sounded like a threat?
"Who did ... what?" she asked.
Her voice was breathy, soft, and sexy. His cock went from interested to lifetime commitment in a heartbeat.
"Who hit your car and hurt you?"
"I don't know." Her gaze went unfocused. "It all happened so fast. I don't remember seeing another car. I don't remember the crash. I do remember one of the sheriff's deputies asking me about what happened, but ... " He stared at those bruises, bruises that looked wrong on her skin. "Car, van, ice-cream truck, give me something."
Why? Why wasn't she angry? Why wasn't she scared? "Because whoever did this to you" — he lifted one hand and traced the bruise circles with one cautious finger — "I'm going to find the fucker and kill him."
Calm curiosity was chased off her face by a cold, rigid rage that rivaled his own.
"Not for me, you're not." She began wiggling away from him.
Everything that made him a soldier rebelled at the idea of this injured, vulnerable woman leaving his home, his room, his bed. He locked his hands in place. This was a battle he had to fight with words. Not his weapons of choice.
"And if they hit you with something bigger next time?" he asked.
She slid away a bit more. "It was just random kids. Graffiti."
"Followed up by attempted murder."
She rolled her eyes then winced. Yeah, those bruises looked like they went all the way down to the bone. "Do what you want. Your house, your bed, but don't use me to rationalize your violence." She paused. "You are Lyle Smoke, right?"
"Smoke," he said, watching in fascination as she managed to slither out of bed without flashing him once.
"Isn't that your last name?"
He shrugged. "Yeah."
She got to her feet, the blanket now around her like she was a Roman goddess.
He realized she'd asked him something. "What?" One eyebrow rose and she smiled.
She shook her head. "I said it's okay. I can take care of myself."
The words fell from her mouth like lead weights, dark, heavy, and cold.
She headed for the door.
"Alone is a dangerous place to be." She paused, looking over her shoulder at him. Her eyes were wide for a second.
She didn't answer, just stared at him with those somber, bruised eyes. Then she turned away, picked something off the floor, and left the room.
She took all the fucking air with her.
He couldn't breathe, couldn't remember how to breathe.
The bathroom door closed. He stood next to his bed, sucking in air like it was laced with cocaine and he needed a hit.
Holy, holy shit.
Who was she?
Why was she here?
He needed intel on this woman and he needed it now.
Kini stared at her reflection in the bathroom mirror then poked her cheek with one finger. What just happened couldn't have been real. Could it?
Had she really fallen asleep alone, only to wake up draped over the body of the hottest man she'd ever seen? A six foot-something tall, muscled, hung, man with Caribbean blue eyes.
She'd been ready to knee him in the nuts until he offered to kill whoever crashed into her car yesterday. All it had taken was a glimpse of her bruises.
So much violence in his eyes, on his face. It almost took her back to the scariest moments of her childhood. When her father had been in a rage he could do anything, hurt anyone. Could and did. Safety was a mirage most people believed in without thought. She'd learned the truth much too young.
Her father never had control over his anger. Smoke looked as if he had too much. He should have inspired terror, but he'd looked so damn serious and sincere, all she'd felt was regret because he was too late.
Two decades too late.
He'd demanded to know who hurt her.
The first words out of his mouth weren't a slick hello or hey, baby, come here often? No, he offered to kill for her instead — in a deep baritone that sent shivers of pleasure slipping up her spine.
Who did that? Offer to start a war for a woman he'd just met.
It was stupid to believe heroes existed. Depending on another person to save you was setting yourself up for disappointment, and she knew better than that.
She'd known then he was Susan and Jim's son, the soldier who hadn't been home in a long time. They'd told her he'd been in the army for eight years. Her dad had only been in for four and had come out of it a broken, angry, violent man. Eight years ... God, she couldn't imagine the shit he'd seen and done and couldn't forget.
Her reflection stared back at her, sadness framed in her downturned mouth and dull gaze.
That wouldn't do at all. The whole world thought she was endlessly cheerful and had few worries. Time to put her game face back on. The one with a mega-watt smile that made anyone who looked at her believe she was young, a little foolish, and completely harmless.
Kini dropped the blanket and stepped into the shower, struggling to push Smoke out of her mind. His skin had been warm under her hands, his muscles firm, and his scent, cedar and sand, had made her want to lick at his skin to taste the spice of him. He was a temptation she didn't need.
Smoke was hot, but she'd gotten as close to him as she was ever going to get. Besides, she was only going to be in the area another week, then it was back to Atlanta to write up her report. After that, it was off to her next assignment in another state.
She dressed in the clothes she'd nabbed on her way out of the bathroom, a pair of dark blue jeans and a Public Health T-shirt that identified her without making her look like she'd just walked out of a hospital.
Her current assignment was to collect patient histories and blood samples from at least two hundred local people from the rural areas of Utah. Most especially, from those of Native American descent.
She'd been here a couple of weeks already, and things were going slower than she liked.
Kini braided her wet hair then left the bathroom, hoping to grab a coffee and go.
Jim and Susan were in the dining room off the kitchen with Smoke. No one looked happy.
"Morning," she said with a bright smile before anyone else could say anything. "I'm late, so I'm just going to grab some coffee before I go." She matched actions to words, heading toward the coffee pot and filling her travel mug with liquid energy.
"I'm not sure when I'll be back tonight," she continued in the same upbeat tone. "Don't hold dinner for me." The issue of sleeping arrangements occurred to her.
"Um, should I sleep on the couch tonight?" She glanced up and found Jim and Susan glaring at their son.
Smoke was staring at her, but he finally met his parents' gazes before meeting hers again and saying slowly, "No." That was all he said. No explanation, no additional information. Must be a regional trait. She had yet to meet a talkative resident in the whole state.
"Okay." She saluted him with her cup and was about to turn and head for the front door, but there was a flash of movement behind her and male hands slid over her hips, pulling her backward into a body larger than hers.
Adrenaline shot through her system, dumping all the confusion, frustration, and irritation she was trying to suppress straight into her bloodstream. She didn't freeze, didn't think, didn't hesitate, pushing back into the man behind her, surprising him and forcing him back a step, then she turned to face him and brought her knee up as hard as she could into his groin.
He went down on a groan, first to his knees then fell onto his side.
The next second, Smoke was there, between her assailant and her, blocking the man's access to her.
"Nathan," Susan demanded of the man on the floor. "What did you do?"
Excerpted from "Smoke & Mirrors"
Copyright © 2018 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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