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gaze, one by one. He stopped the deserters in their tracks with a hard look.

      “You standin’ against us, Hayes?” a gray-haired firefighter in threadbare turnout gear asked.

      “I’m not standing against anybody,” he answered carefully, setting his face in the mask of composure that had served him well in situations even more volatile than this one.

      Skip Hollister, the pot-bellied mechanic and captain of the volunteer fire department, spat and wiped his face with his arm, leaving a black smear across his pudgy cheek. “If you’re not standing with us, then you’re against us.”

      “I’m just saying maybe you ought to think a minute before you go rushing off.” And just to make it clear that wasn’t a request, he moved his hand to his hip, purposely drawing attention to the bulge of his gun under the untucked tail of his shirt. Habit had made him clip the holster to his belt when he’d rushed out of the cabin before dawn, even though the weapon was useless to him now.

      “What are you going to do, shoot me?” Hollister inched away from the crowd. His fingers tightened around the shovel he carried until his knuckles went white.

      “I hope I don’t have to.” Especially since he doubted he could hit the broad side of a barn at more than ten paces.

      “I was friends with your grandpop for fifty years, known you all your life. I remember the first time he brought you out fishin’ with us. You were just knee-high to a tadpole.”

      Clint set his mouth in a grim line. “I’ve grown some since then.”

      Skip’s jaw gaped. “Charlie would roll over in his grave if he saw this. You standing with her agint’ your own people.”

      “Lemme go. I’m gettin’ out of here.” The deputy still in Clint’s grasp squirmed.

      Clint turned his attention to him. “Where you going to go, Slick? Home to that wife and kid you’re so worried about so you can get them sick, too?”

      Slick’s gaze fell to his feet.

      “What about you, Vern? You got family?” he asked a heavyset paramedic who looked like a rabbit looking for a bolt-hole.

      “Mom,” the man mumbled. “And a sister.”

      “You plannin’ to carry this disease home to them?”

      Vern raised his chin. Resolve mingled with the fear in his eyes. “No, sir!”

      “What about the rest of you? You going to march into town, shake hands with your neighbors, pinch their babies’ cheeks? You going to be the one to wipe out Hempaxe and a hundred more small towns just like it?”

      Clint picked on the deputy because he knew he’d get the answer he wanted. He fisted his hand in the front of the young man’s shirt, forcing him to raise his gaze to Clint’s. “You going to be the one to start the epidemic, Slick?”

      “No, sir!” The deputy’s lip curled on the emphatic sir.

      Clint released his hold on the man’s shirt and looked to the man next to him. “What about you, Skip?”

      Skip kicked up a clod of dirt with his toe. “Hell, no.”

      He swept his gaze over the others. “Right now, if this thing is out, at least it’s contained. There’s two thousand acres of forest between civilization and the virus. Are we gonna make sure it stays that way?”

      The rumble of yeses and yessirs started slow and quiet, but gained momentum quickly. One by one the workers’ chins came up. Their sooty faces were somber, their eyes still scared, but tempered with resignation.

      “All right, then. Why don’t we all listen to what the lady has to say?” He turned to Dr. Attois. His stomach flipped as their gazes sparked like jumper cables when they touched briefly. The little furrow between her perfectly arched eyebrows drew far too much of his attention. Never mind her tongue flicking out to moisten her lips before she spoke.

      Damn. He tightened the screws down on his libido, his expression unmoving. Whatever he saw in her, it wouldn’t reach his face. He hoped.

      She cleared her throat and looked away. “Symptoms of the virus usually begin to appear within twenty-four hours of exposure, but we can confirm or deny the presence of the virus in your systems after twelve with a simple blood test. We’ll move away from the crash site. The first step is for my team to set up the portable decontamination showers and get everyone disinfected. We have choppers coming in from Houston with everything we’ll need after that—tents, cots, tables, food. You think of something you need, let me know. I’ll get it.”

      A thin, black-haired young man in turnout gear raised his hand. “Only one thing I need, lady. That’s a pencil and some paper.”

      Heads turned in question toward the man.

      “Wife’s been after me for years to write out a will,” he said. “Guess it’s ’bout time I obliged.”

      At least the workers had settled, thanks to the Ranger. Macy felt sorry for them, knowing the anxiety and the ordeal they faced if ARFIS had indeed escaped, but she had to put that out of her mind. She had a job to do.

      A virus to hunt.

      She left the men, including Ranger Hayes-with-the-disturbing-eyes, in the competent hands of her team. Susan already had them lining up for interviews and baseline health screenings while Christian and Curtis erected the decon showers that had arrived on the first supply chopper.

      “Who was first on scene? Are they still here?” Susan asked. In spite of the rising pitch of her voice, nothing in her tone belied the urgency of finding out if anyone had been near the crash scene other than the workers present. “Were there police here? Civilians?” If there had been, they would have to be tracked down and quarantined quickly. Susan knew that. She and Christian and Curtis made a good team. They knew their jobs as Macy knew hers.

      While her team kept the workers occupied, she had to find the virus.

      Slipping away from the group, Macy made her way toward the wreckage. The Learjet looked like a toy that had been smashed by an angry child. Wires snaked out of jagged tears in the plane’s skin. Sheets of metal, crumpled like accordions, littered the ground.

      She pushed aside the charred skeleton of a seat propped upright in a tangle of shrub, stepped over a man’s empty tennis shoe, refusing to wonder what had happened to the foot that had once been inside it. The trickles of sweat slipping down between her breasts became rivers. Her breath sounded huge inside the helmet, roaring through the filter like a hurricane wind, yet outside, there wasn’t even enough of a breeze to lift the little red flags marking the locations of human remains.

      A lump formed in her throat as she pictured David Brinker beneath one of the white sheets, torn and bloody. David who was so fussy about his appearance.

      Who couldn’t stand a little dirt under his nails, much less…

      Anguish pulled her over to the draped body, but fear wouldn’t let her touch it. She bit her lip until she tasted blood. She had to know, she told herself. It was natural to need closure. Besides, she owed it to David, didn’t she? To face him one last time.

      He wouldn’t have been on that plane it hadn’t been for her.

      Heart racing, she inched closer to the white sheet, the flag at the corner, and glanced around as if she expected David’s ghost to materialize. To haunt her for what she’d done.

      She told herself she was just being overly emotional. Letting her feelings run away with her again. Still, she couldn’t help whispering, “I’m sorry” before reaching for the corner of the covering.

      “Sorry for what?” A hand landed on her shoulder.

      Macy gasped, straightened and spun with one hand raised to fend off her attacker, even if he was already dead.

      The Ranger caught her wrist halfway to his

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