He yanked up his pants, tugged on his T-shirt, and shrugged back into his survival vest, wondering why in the hell everything still felt so off-kilter. She’d said everything he should have wanted. Exactly the sort of words he’d spoken to women over the past five years. Sex. Just sex. No commitment or messy emotions. He’d seen she and the kid were okay. And all crazy sex aside, she’d still given him the free and clear to walk away. Except for the first time in five years, he didn’t want to walk, he didn’t want to forget.
And that scared him shitless.
She would never forget him.
How could she?
He’d saved her life—not to mention just given her earth-shattering sex, making her forget she was in a broom closet, for crying out loud. She’d learned one thing for sure. Her ex had been right in dissing their chemistry, because she’d never felt anything like this during her entire marriage.
Her ex was a serious dud in comparison to Hugh.
What if she’d met Hugh Franco during a true Bahamas holiday? Maybe she could have indulged in more than one impulsive encounter in a broom closet. But life wasn’t normal even when it was normal. She had a crummy marriage behind her and a dead father who’d left his kids with a crappy legacy of heavy-duty baggage.
All that aside, she had practical worries and concerns in looking after whatever family she had left. Tears burned to be set free but she held them back. She’d been selfish enough stealing the past twenty minutes for herself.
Time to focus solely on Joshua and finding the rest of her family.
She rounded the corner to the quiet pediatrics hall, weaving past crates and stacked supplies. The corridor was deserted, other than one nurse or doctor walking away with a toddler, the little guy sleeping on her shoulder.
The baby wriggled awake, eyes blinking wide and staring down the long hallway, straight at her. Something stirred inside Amelia. A sense of recognition.
She wasn’t sure how she could be so certain after only spending such a short time with him. But his little face seemed imprinted on the back of her eyelids… even deeper on her heart.
Why was the nurse taking him away? Was he sick after all? Or was it a doctor? The unfamiliar woman wore surgical scrubs like everyone else, her cluster of thin braids gathered into a low ponytail. A two-way radio was clipped to the waist of her pants.
Amelia raced down the hall, her borrowed tennis shoes squeaking against the tiles. “Excuse me.”
The woman didn’t turn, didn’t seem to have heard her at all. But her feet moved faster… Amelia’s heart sped with the first inklings of fear.
“Ma’am? Stop, please or I will find a guard.”
The woman turned slowly, holding Joshua so tightly he began to squirm. “Yes?” she said with a local accent. “What do you need, Doctor?”
This woman thought she was a physician? Amelia looked down at her own surgical scrubs. With medical personnel from different groups working together, it wasn’t unusual not to recognize the staff, and they were all wearing the same clothes stacked up beside the tarp shower stalls outside.
Still, alarms jangled in her head. The woman’s body language seemed off, and anyone could have picked up a set of the surgical clothes. “Is something wrong with him? Where are you taking him?”
“To give him a test. I am a nurse.”
Then why hadn’t she been told? And why was the woman who called herself a nurse wearing leather sandals? “In the middle of the night?”
The woman paused, then said, “There are no set hours during a crisis. Now if you’ll pardon me…”
Amelia walked closer, faster, holding out her arms. “Let me carry him so he won’t be frightened. He’s more familiar with me.”
The woman’s body tensed, her eyes going hard. “I think not, since I am his mother.”
Shock rooted her feet to the floor. That couldn’t possibly be true. Could it? “Your baby?”
“Yes, this is my son. I thought we had lost him in the earthquake, but see now?” She cradled the back of his head possessively. “He is fine. Is he not, Doctor?”
This woman’s timeline just didn’t add up, since Aiden and Lisabeth had already adopted Joshua before the earthquake. Amelia considered calling the woman on the lie right then and there, but the woman was holding Joshua in a fiercely tight grip. Risking a scene, anger, and God knows what else didn’t seem wise.
So, what to do?
She sifted through all the information coming at her when her balance was already seriously compromised from her encounter with Hugh. Guilt swamped her. If she hadn’t indulged herself so selfishly, she would have been with Joshua. None of which she could change right now.
Shoving aside the distracting guilt, she narrowed her focus, calling up her prosecutorial skills to get to the bottom of what was going on with this mystery woman—if she could possibly be Joshua’s real mother. “If you’re his mama, then why did you pretend to be hospital personnel?”“Because of your paperwork.” She picked at her scrubs nervously.
Instincts shouted that the woman was holding something back—and she had Joshua in her arms, which made confronting her more than a little problematic. Amelia looked around for help in the deserted hallway. Crap.
The case file on Joshua stated his mother had died and his father had taken him to an orphanage. She had no reason to doubt the adoption agency. She had been laboriously thorough in researching them, knowing there were definitely some suspicious operations out there.
But she’d heard horror stories of babies being stolen from their mothers. Or mothers persuaded to give up a child for money or a so-called better life for the baby.
Or the woman could be grief stricken, mistaking Joshua for her own lost baby. In which case, she would be unstable. Volatile.
Joshua whimpered, reaching out a chubby fist. Amelia’s heart twisted with love—and fear. She gauged the distance between them and decided to continue to bluff rather than risk an all-out confrontation.
“Actually, he is not okay. That’s why he had the IV in.” Oh God, the woman must have pulled out the needle. Where were the nurses? Why hadn’t someone stopped her? “You need to give him to me now so I can get him hooked up again.”
She kept her voice low and calm, her body language as loose as possible with every cell within her screaming out in protest.
Amelia held out her arms. “I’ll be careful with him and have him right back to you. In fact, you can stay with us if you would like.”
And, please God, they would find some other hospital staff, maybe even one of those guards carrying around a big machine gun. Or better yet, this would be the perfect time for Hugh to come around the corner—unless he’d already left through another exit to avoid her. He could already be long gone.
The woman hugged Joshua closer with one arm and called over her shoulder. “Oliver?”
Another person? The time had come to act before the odds went against her. She needed to grab Joshua and start screaming bloody murder.
As Amelia lurched forward, a man stepped from behind a stack of pallets and shoved the woman and Joshua behind him. He wore dirty camouflage with patches from some other country, his red hair slicked back, and long, for someone in uniform.
Amelia opened her mouth to shout—
A survival knife gleamed in his fist, jagged blade kissing her neck. “The boy belongs to us now, and if you want to keep your pretty face unscarred, you’ll shut up.”
The other woman peered around his shoulder. “What are you thinking, Oliver? The Guardian gave us our orders. Get the kid and get out. Now kill her, and let’s go.”
Oliver’s grip on her arm tightened while he stroked back her hair with the blade. “The Guardian understands the importance of a profit margin to keep a business going, and this woman’s worth almost as much as the baby. The blonde bitch? She’s coming with us.”
A distant shriek echoed down the corridor, stopping Hugh in his tracks as he stepped out of the closet. A cry of pain? Certainly not unheard of in a hospital. He moved deeper into the hall, peering around a corner. A solitary nurse in an open office filling out charts merely lifted her eyes for half a second.
The hall was all but deserted, just as it had been when he stepped from the closet after shaking off the shock of Amelia’s rejection and hauling back on his clothes. Most everyone was asleep, and no new patients were coming to this full-to-capacity makeshift school-turned-hospital. He jogged past the gymnasium crammed with beds sectioned off from one another with extra wrestling mats and uneven bars.
Hugh shrugged away a crick in his neck and pushed through the front door into the warm haze of post-earthquake dust. He must just be on edge because of the impulsive, crazy-as-hell hookup with Amelia. What had he been thinking? One thing was clear. They both needed space to get levelheaded again. Then he would contact her and… What? Hell if he kn—
Another shout echoed. Louder, rippling through the quiet night. The scream ended abruptly, as if cut off. And God, his head must really be screwed up, because he could swear that sounded like Amelia.
Crazy or not, he had to check it out.
He scanned the dark lot, a mess like the rest of the area. Cars lay on their sides, some crashed into each other, the asphalt cracked. None on the lights worked. Two poles had fallen on top of a storage shed and corner of the school. Still, there was no activity other than a couple of displaced cats scurrying under cars, no doubt in search of the rats that had already started scuttling through the aftermath.
Which only left the back of the schoolyard to search.
A deep gut sense of premonition drove him forward. He broke into a jog, his boots pounding along the cracked asphalt, onto the soft earth. When he rounded the corner, he would probably find another cat shrieking or someone laughing. The scream had to be his imagination. Everything inside him was a jumbled-up shit pile of the past and present melding together since he’d rescued Amelia and the boy.
The back lot resembled the front, a broken mess. More rats scampered. A kitten screeched beyond the tree line. Could that be what he’d heard?
Footsteps echoed from the far end of the lot, past the cars and a spindly fallen palm tree. He squinted through the darkness lit only by a half moon above. Damn, but it was dark. He would give his left nut for NVGs right now.
He picked his way across the lot, sidestepping an upended trash bin, hurtling over the downed tree. Foreboding buzzed in his ears like the distant rumble of crashing waves on the shore.
His eyes homed in on a glow ahead, lights inside a van with back doors open. The light dimmed with a couple of people blocking the opening. He charged ahead, his gaze locked in for some clue about what was going on, as the lighting shifted over the group. The glow flickered over long blonde hair, a female face…
About fifty yards away, Amelia was draped over some man’s shoulder in a fireman’s carry. A woman beside them held a baby that looked too damn much like Joshua for his peace of mind. He didn’t know what the hell was going on but it couldn’t be good. The silent pantomime of the whole absurd scene sealed the deal.
Hugh drew his weapon. “Stop. Put the lady down now and pass over the child.”
The woman holding Joshua spun sharply, her face cast in shadows. She held the baby in front of her like a shield, damn it.
“Oliver.” The woman’s voice carried softly on the briny breeze. “Get the van started.”
The man—Oliver—threw Amelia into the van, diving in after her, and there wasn’t a thing Hugh could do about it with Joshua in the line of fire. He ground his teeth and assessed his options. For every step he took toward them across jigsawed asphalt, the woman backed away, closer to the grimy white van, until she hit the bumper. She ducked inside just as the vehicle’s engine roared to life.
Waiting time was over. Hugh bolted forward. The doors slammed shut. He ran full-out, eyes trained on the taillights glowing like red snake eyes in the night. He only had a split second to make his move, to—