Hugh’s hand curled into a fist a second before he whispered, “Now.”
Hugh launched forward, eyes on the green glow of the dash lights. He didn’t want to think about the inevitable wreck.
Rushing the pair up front was his only option. At least he had the reassurance Amelia would do everything possible to keep the baby safe. But he could not let them get to this “Guardian” person.
His arm swept a stack of crates like a battering ram, toppling them onto Tandi. The van veered hard. He landed on the driver, arm around Oliver’s neck. A low-lying branch slammed into the windshield. Glass shattered. Oliver clawed at Hugh’s cheek, his voice garbled.
Hugh squeezed his forearm harder along the windpipe of the bastard who’d kidnapped Joshua and Amelia. The criminal who’d leered at Amelia, not even bothering to hide his lecherous plans. He wanted to kill the bastard. No one would blame him. This was a kill-or-be-killed situation.
But Amelia sat in back. She didn’t need to see that side, the violent side of him that seethed like the assholes she put in prison. He would hold tight, squeeze just long enough to knock him out—
Oliver stabbed back with a knife from nowhere. Hugh jerked, the knife grazing his leg in a fiery swipe. The car swerved. Hugh adjusted his hold and resorted to a Vulcan nerve pinch—fast and effective. Oliver slumped forward, foot ramming the accelerator.
Hugh’s hands shot forward to grab the steering wheel. The van rocked, catapulting over a ditch.
“Brace, brace, brace!” Hugh shouted to Amelia.
“I hear you,” she shouted back just as the van went airborne. Time seemed to freeze for those three seconds before—
The van rammed a palm tree, flinging Hugh forward. He forced himself not to tense, to roll with the momentum rather than fight it. Pain exploded through him as the vehicle settled. Wrapped around the dash, he willed the world on the other side of the fractured glass to steady. But the spinning landscape just kept right on whirling like a kaleidoscope.
He looked left and right fast to make sure no one would come gunning for him. Tandi lay slumped against the door, her eyes wide, vacant, sightlessly dead. Blood trickled from the corner of her mouth. Oliver… still unconscious.
A scream boomeranged around the tinny cavern. A baby’s cry. The kid. Joshua was alive.
“Amelia,” Hugh barked out, his voice more of a breathless croak, since the wind had been knocked out of him.
Hugh pushed away from the dash, careful to test his arms and legs. “Amelia, answer me, damn it. Are you and the kid okay?”
Panic replaced the pain, quickly, fiercely, and so intensely, he was rattled all over again by how fast the woman wrecked his professional distance.
He staggered toward the back, the baby’s cries increasing to all-out screams. Hugh grappled along the side for balance. His eyes locked on the slim long legs stretched out from behind the boxes where he’d sent her to curl up around Joshua.
His gut knotted.
He rounded the boxes. Amelia lay on her back, eyes closed, her arms still locked tight around Joshua. The toddler shrieked and squirmed in her hold, his tiny arms and legs flailing.
Hugh dropped to his knees beside her. “Amelia? Amelia, answer me, damn it.”
He cupped her face, patting lightly. The light was too dim for him to assess her fully, the moon giving way to the early-morning sun fighting to slice through the night.
“Amelia,” he said louder, snatching up her wrist to check her pulse. Steady. Strong. He almost sank back on his ass with relief.
She groaned. He straightened, staring at her face. Her nose scrunched.
“That’s right, Amelia,” he said. “Wake up. You’re okay. The kid’s okay.”
He patted the baby’s back awkwardly.
She crinkled her nose again, her eyes fluttering open. “Hugh? Do you smell smoke?”
Shit! He should have thought of that. He looked in front fast. The first rays of sunrise illuminated the smoke spiraling from the engine crumpled against the tree.
The scent grew thicker inside the van, mixing with the unmistakable stench of leaking gasoline. Hugh scooped the kid under one arm and yanked Amelia up with his other hand. He kicked the back doors of the van, exploding them open.
Liam was losing his shit fast.
He charged up the front steps of the stucco island school, now a temporary hospital and the last known location for Hugh Franco.
Where the hell was he?
Franco had raced off to check on the Bailey woman seven hours ago and still hadn’t returned. He wasn’t answering his phone or shortwave radio. Communication was sketchy with phones, but no comm through the radio?
Something was wrong. He could feel it deep in his churning gut. Franco has said he would be back in an hour—and that deadline had long passed.
They all had to log back in to work the next shift in three hours, which didn’t give Liam much time to search. He should be sleeping. Should be. But knew he wouldn’t even be able to close his eyes until he got rid of this sick feeling he’d had too many times during his prior days in the Army, times when he’d lost a fellow ranger.
Franco would probably come racing in at the last second and they would laugh their asses off at Liam for acting like a f**king mother hen. At least that’s what he told himself as he ran like a maniac up the steps into the hospital housed in the local school.
It wasn’t as if he could report the guy to the cops to investigate. The police had their hands full, as did every other individual here. Except Franco wasn’t answering his phone or pager, which of course could have been due to the jammed channels. Communication was still iffy and likely wouldn’t get better anytime soon.
For now, Liam had three hours to figure out what had happened to Franco before the next rescue shift.
He tugged open the heavy wooden door and stepped inside. The light was dim, mostly filtering through the window and from bulbs running on minimal power from generators. The air was thick with an antiseptic scent and pained groans. Hospital “staff” rushed down the halls, in and out of rooms, wearing scrubs and camo.
He eyed the harried personnel and chose the least frantic of the bunch, a reed-thin woman removing the lab coat from over her camos. “Excuse me, ma’am?”
She turned and he took in the army insignia on her uniform and her name tag. A nurse, a lieutenant. “Lieutenant Gable, a minute of your time?”
She turned impatiently, took in his uniform, and her face shifted into a smile. “What may I help you with, Major?”
“I’m looking for a patient here, toddler, about a year old, named Joshua, a local boy recently adopted.” He stepped closer as he sidestepped to make way for an NGO worker pushing a cart of MREs and a crate of bottled water. “He would have been brought in with his aunt from the U.S., Amelia Bailey.”
Her brow furrowed with deep thought, Lieutenant Gable stuffed her hands in her pockets for a moment before nodding, “Right, right… I remember them, sweet lady and kid. Very lucky to be alive. They’re not here any longer. They must have checked out while I was on a break.”
Damn. Not unexpected, but frustrating all the same. “Anything else?”
“She had a military friend who came by a couple of times. I assumed he arranged a place for them to stay.”
Something didn’t sound right. “In the middle of the night?”
“We are in such desperate need of beds, when somebody can leave, we’re glad to have the space. Surely you understand.”
“Of course. Sorry.” These weren’t normal times. “A military friend? Male?”
“Definitely male and close friends with the woman. That’s all I know, Major. We’ve been very busy here.” She swept back a straggly strand of gray-streaked hair with a shaky hand. “I really need to get back to work.”
He backed up a step. “Thanks for your help.”
As the lieutenant jogged away, shoes squeaking, he stood in the middle of the two-way traffic in the hall, wondering what the hell to do now. He always had a plan of action, marching orders. But now? He didn’t have a clue where to even start looking.
Where could they have gone from here? How was he supposed to even know which way to search? There weren’t any bread crumbs or red arrows pointing the way.
But there was a scent.
The world seemed to slow around him and take shape as an idea came to him, one that made him a little more pumped than he should be feeling, given the current state of hell on earth around them.
But what if Rachel and her search and rescue dog could work another miracle here?
He couldn’t pull them off an active search for someone trapped in the debris. Although if she could give him half an hour to just point him in the right direction…
Pivoting on his heel, he jogged back out the door, down the steps. Once outside, the sun just climbing on the horizon, he broke into a run. His military uniform would get him past any roadblocks or checkpoints. Even with the debris, he could make it to Rachel’s quarters in under ten minutes.
No one looked twice at him running through the street like a madman. Nothing seemed unusual here anymore—well, other than running out in the street half-naked, wearing nothing but towels.
Had that been only a few hours ago?
This couldn’t be happening. He couldn’t be losing a man on his team. Yes, he understood it happened. Hell, it had happened far too often during his combat days as an Army Ranger. But he was in charge now. He controlled the missions and they focused on rescue, not combat. He refused to lose another brother-in-arms. And yeah, that made him overreact sometimes.
Like now, chasing down a missing team member who was probably just off trying to impress a woman. Except Franco never, never dated women with children since his wife and daughter died. Which brought Liam to his real fear—that this latest rescue had pushed Hugh over the edge. A dark thought, sure, but then morbid conclusions had a way of chasing him.
People thought Liam was a lighthearted son of a bitch who did a helluva Chuck Norris impression. He was just covering up the fact that his insides were so scarred up from burying fallen comrades he’d become like that old Charlie Chaplin tune his mama liked to sing through her cancer treatments, “Smile, though your heart…”
Shit. He cut the morbid thoughts off short. Morose garbage never saved anybody and it wasn’t going to find Franco for him.
Although if Franco was off kicking up his heels, playing house with the Bailey chick and her nephew…
Yeah right. The chances of that happening were next to nil. The only thing Franco avoided more than commitment was kids.
He sprinted past his lopsided quarters, the cottage still hanging out on the edge of the cliff at pretty much the same scary-ass angle as before. Stopping at the next house, a yellow and green little place with porches all the way around, he tugged his camo top smooth again. The door was covered with plywood over where a glass panel must have been. He knocked hard, twice.
Footsteps echoed from inside, along with a couple of deep barks. The door swung open and Liam almost swallowed his tongue. Rachel wore skimpy gray cotton shorts and a T-shirt without a bra.
He had more serious things to think about than how her ni**les strained against well-worn cotton and how her brown hair tumbled around her shoulders as if calling to his hands.
“Major?” She reached down, her hand falling to rest on her dog’s head without her even looking to see that he’d slid into place beside her.
Liam cleared his throat and thoughts. “I’m sorry to bother you. I know sleep is scarce—”
“Right. Sorry. Honest to God, I am. But one of my team members, the one you found, he’s gone missing, along with the woman and child he rescued.”
“I’m not sure I understand.” She blinked fast, her brown eyes still fuzzy with sleep and exhaustion.