“He went to visit her and the little boy at the hospital.” Liam braced a hand against the door frame. “They all three vanished. Franco was supposed to be back hours ago. He’s an edgy worker in the field, but he is always, always there.”
She stepped outside, her dog staying at her side as she closed the door on the house full of sleeping rescue workers. “No one saw them leave?”
“It’s not like the facility had working surveillance cameras. The nurse doesn’t actually remember them checking out, just thinks they did.” He wondered why it was so easy to come to her, to bring his problems to her doorstep.
He might be halfway in love with this hot woman, but that didn’t mean he intended to need her on some level deeper than the search. “Something’s off. I can sense it. Maybe I’m overreacting, but my guy wouldn’t let his team down. And since the last place anyone saw them was at the hospital, I was hoping your dog—”
“Disco.” The dog nuzzled her hand.
“Since Disco found them before, we could set him on their scent again at the hospital. Maybe he can give us some clue as to which way they went. I know it’s a lot to ask and your resources are needed out there. But so are Franco’s, and if we can get you both out there again…”
“Time’s wasting and I need to throw on some real clothes. You can have Disco and me for one hour. Period.” She grabbed the knob behind her. “Do you have a ride or are we walking to the hospital?”
Joggling Joshua on her hip, Amelia struggled to keep her balance while Hugh scavenged as much as he could from the van before the vehicle blew up. Smoke billowed from the crumpled hood. The leaning palm tree’s roots snaked up from the ground like tentacles from the underworld to claim the two criminals inside the van.
She kept her eyes off the front seat, where Oliver and Tandi’s bodies lay. Tandi stared lifelessly. Oliver slumped unconscious, his hands now bound. Amelia squeezed her eyes shut, still woozy from smacking her head against the side of the van, not to mention being knocked unconscious earlier. The swirl of nausea told her she probably had a concussion, but complaining wouldn’t achieve anything. They needed to move, to get back to civilization. She refused to slow them down.
Grunting impatiently, Joshua wriggled and fussed and she rocked faster, shush-shush-shushing him. It was obvious he just wanted down to run. But he didn’t have shoes and there were rocks and prickly vines and God only knew how much wildlife on the ground. He was probably hungry too, and his diaper was soggy. No wonder he was cranky.
She wanted to cry and scream too. For days. While eating ice cream in a hot bubble bath. Then curling up to sleep beside Hugh while her body recharged from this nightmare.
But she didn’t have that luxury.
Survival was paramount right now, right along with making sure she didn’t fall on her face. She braced her feet farther apart to keep from toppling over and making things harder for Hugh. It was her fault he was in this mess. How many times would he have to come to her rescue? She might not be able to get out of this on her own, but she would be damned before she let him bear the full burden.
Hugh reached into the van.
“Please be careful, Hugh.” The words fell from her mouth before she could stop them. “The smoke looks like it’s getting worse.”
“Got my eye on it.” He hauled Oliver’s unconscious body out and dumped him against the rotting log. “Let me know if he so much as twitches. I’m taking the weapons, anything that could be of use to us… or that he might use against us. We need them.”
“We need you alive,” she gasped, determined to be a help, but still scared out of her mind. Usually when she faced criminals, she had a bailiff or a couple of city cops with her, not to mention handcuffs or bars for the person who might want to use her as leverage in an escape.
Who else might try to find them now?
They were in the middle of nowhere in a lawless country, with no means of transportation and only however many water bottles they could carry. “Tell me what you need for me to do.”
God, she hoped he had some tricks up his sleeve with that military training because she was way out of her element. She hadn’t even been a Girl Scout.
Hugh’s big body leaned deeper inside. “Just let me know if you see flames.”
Flames? Oh God.
He pitched another knife on top of his growing arsenal. He jogged around to the back of the van, stuck his head inside, and pulled out a crate of bottled juice.
Hugh pried open the lid with his bare hands and a hefty grunt. “We’ll drink our fill now, then take as much juice and water as we can carry.”
“I really think we should go. Now.” She leaned to pluck out a bottle.
“The time is well invested pulling together as much as we can in survival gear,” he said, his voice steely calm and cool, as if they hadn’t almost died a few minutes ago. “If the van wasn’t about to blow, I could set up a lot more.”
“So we stay here and wait for someone to follow the smoke signal to us?” She twisted off the cap, took a sip to check the drink—pineapple juice—then tipped the bottle to Joshua’s lips.
“Actually, that’s more of a worry than a help.” His head ducked back out. Blood stained his pants along a tear.
“Exactly who do you think will be looking for us?”
“They had time to call their boss—the ‘Guardian’ person—and that concerns me. But I’m armed. I’m ready.” He faced her full-on, his features and body still warrior-set. “And I’ll be damned if I’ll let us be sitting ducks.”
***The early morning charged upward too fast, time slipping away. Liam didn’t have much longer to make use of Rachel’s expertise before they both went back for another grueling day searching for survivors in the rubble. He wanted to believe this was the right choice, snagging her resources, exhausting them both further, on the hope that he could locate Franco. Choices were damn near impossible when there were so many to save at times like this.
And God help Franco if they found him tucked away in some corner making out with his new girlfriend.
Rachel walked with Disco alongside her as they made fast tracks up the dusty road to the nearby school-turned-hospital. Rachel Flores had taken five minutes to put on her gear that she’d called her PPE: personal protective equipment. A safety helmet with a headlamp, glasses, gloves, steel-toed/steel-shanked boots, along with kneepads. Goggles dangled from the pocket of her dark blue pants.
The look worked for her, sexier than any froufrou pink lingerie and heels his third wife had collected as avidly as some collected stamps. There was something hot about the way Rachel charged ahead without hesitation rather than waiting for him to clear the way.
Still, he hitched his M4 more securely over his shoulder and kept his eyes trained for any threats. “I owe you for this.”
“Damn straight, you do.” Dust puffed from under her steps. “Don’t think this gives you the right to put me on speed dial for all your personal emergencies. I’m taking time out of my sleep only to get you and your guy back out there on the job. We need you. Every one of those trapped individuals needs you. Now walk faster.”
“I’ll buy you a five-star meal when we get back to the States. Where is it you live?”
She eyed him incredulously. “Are you actually hitting on me?”
He held his hands up with overplayed innocence. “Just asking where you’re from to narrow the restaurant choices.”
“You know full well my FEMA urban search and rescue task force is from Virginia.”
True enough, since the only USARs designated to work international missions with the air force were from California and Virginia. “I spend a fair amount of time in D.C. taking care of Pentagon BS. I could make good on that dinner.”
She stopped dead in her tracks, her black Lab halting in step. “Is your friend actually missing? Because if you’re wasting my time, I’m going to kick your ass with my steel-toed boots, then I’m going to go back to work helping people who actually need saving.”
“Whoa, whoa, hang on a second.” He reached for her arm, pausing when she cocked an eyebrow at him. “My guy is most definitely missing, since he left the hooch last night just after that last tremor. I forget sometimes that people don’t know what an irreverent bastard I am. I crack jokes at funerals and hit on women during earthquakes. Makes coping easier.”
“Fair enough.” She gestured forward. “Lead on and let’s find your missing airman.”
“Thanks, and I promise not to ask you out to dinner again.”
She clicked and her dog trotted alongside her. “That would be best. I hear the service isn’t so great around here right now.”
Without another word, she made tracks. He wasn’t big on silence. Left too much time to think, especially at times like this. “What made you get into this line of work?”
She veered off the path with Disco to let a family of four walk past, backpacks overflowing. So many people on the move, the masses became almost invisible. “I could ask the same of you.”
“You first.” He reclaimed his spot beside her.
“Fine. You want my life story? Okay, but it’s not bar pickup cutesy. My mother was a hoarder. She hoarded dogs.” Her pointy jaw jutted. “She died when the animal crates fell on top of her, and since then, I’ve had a mission to rescue.”
“Holy shit.” Her words knocked the stuffing right out of him, a damn rare occurrence. “That’s… uh…”
“The stuff reality shows are made of? Yep, it sure is.” She clapped a hand on her chest. “And in my case, it’s not true. I’m joking.”
And there she went, with a surprise second punch.
“Oh, right.” He stared at her, trying to figure her out, and if he couldn’t figure her out, how come he was so into her? “And why did you feel the need to lead with a reality-show fib?”
“You said jokes are your way of coping with stress. I was just doing my part to help out.”
At the fork in the cracked dirt road, she steered her dog left, the school coming into sight a hundred yards ahead, just past a topsy-turvy playground. A dozen or so staff moved in and out of the building, probably a shift change.
Liam jogged to catch up with Rachel, a different feel, since he was usually in the lead. His knees groaned a little more these days after his years jumping from planes as an Army Ranger, then cross-training to become an air force PJ. But he could still keep up with a challenge, whether locating a friend…
Or bantering with a sexy lady dog handler. In which case, he should be sure of one little detail. “Is there a Mr. Flores?”
“Only my father,” she shot over her shoulder.
Good so far. “Ever been divorced?”
“Never married. Never had the time. I have my dogs for companionship.” A dark brown strand slipped from under her helmet, catching in the wind. “My career keeps me on the road most of the time. Not many men are interested in a wife who’s never around.”
“Ever been in love?”
She pivoted to face him. “Ever been called nosy? Or rude?”
“More than once.” He stopped in front of her, a few feet shy of the school’s front steps.
He reached into his vest and pulled out the wadded-up T-shirt Hugh had left after his shower. “This is the door the army nurse—Lieutenant Gable—said Hugh would have left out of. And here’s something he wore yesterday. It’s filthy and reeks, but there’s definitely plenty of Hugh Franco’s sweat here for your dog to work with.”
“We would call this the PLS—point last seen.”
“Right, okay then.” Swallowing hard, he passed over the dirty cotton.