Rachel swapped into professional mode in a snap—as if she hadn’t already been all business. Disco’s loping manner morphed to sleek attentiveness. Rachel unwound a lengthy leash, about thirty feet, attached to his harness, different from when he’d run freely on top of the piles of earthquake debris to locate survivors. She held the shirt out for the dog.

“Go find,” she ordered. “Go find.”

Disco buried his nose in the soiled shirt, sniff-sniff-sniffing, while Rachel let him take his time to get a solid read. Disco tipped his head into the airstream left and right, then shifted his attention downward, to the ground. He worked in circles outward, farther and farther away in some sort of doggy grid system Liam couldn’t help but notice and admire.

He kept his silence, not sure what protocol she would prefer. And God, he hoped Disco could work some kind of SAR magic that located Hugh holed up somewhere taking a nap or enjoying a hefty breakfast with the woman and kid.

Except while Hugh Franco was one edgy bastard, he was always, always, one hundred percent in the mission.

Rachel followed her dog at work, watching his path with narrowed eyes. “Actually, I was engaged once,” she said softly, catching Liam off guard. “Right after graduation from high school. He proposed just before he deployed overseas. He never came back.”

“I’m sorry,” Liam said automatically, insufficiently, but sincerely.

“Me, too.” She looped the leash around and around her hand. “I had my chance, found my soul mate, and lost him. End of story.”

“So you’re determined to spend the rest of your life alone? Come on, no disrespect meant to your first love and all, but do you really believe in that soul mate crap?”

“I take it from your oh-so-sensitive answer that you’re not a believer.”

“Three failed marriages will leave a guy jaded about the lasting quality of love.”


“Three?” She simply smiled. “Because you didn’t find your soul mate.”

“Touché.” He followed her as Disco continued his grid search of the concrete. “Although that’s damn presumptuous of you to assume I didn’t fall as deeply as you did.”

“I’m sorry. You’re right. It’s not my place to speak about your feelings… for all three women you loved more than life until—”

“Fine, your point is made.” He tucked closer to her as the foot traffic picked around the playground, kids and adults looking at the swings as if unsure whether playing was okay again after such a tragedy. A couple went from one person to the next, flashing a photo and asking if anyone had seen their son. Like so many other couples here searching.

Liam tore his attention away from them and back to Rachel. “And since we’re saying to hell with personal boundaries, do you really plan to spend the rest of your life single?”

“Do you really intend to risk more divorces?” she snapped back.

“My banking account can’t take another split.” And wasn’t that the truth?

“So what do you say we have a raging affair?” she said matter-of-factly, without taking her eyes off her black Labrador.

The air crackled with her words.

“And if I fall head over ass in love with you?”

She looked over her shoulder slowly, her exotic dark eyes undressing him. “I’ll already know you’re a fickle-hearted man who’s had three wives, so I won’t believe your declaration of undying love.”

Her proposition obviously wasn’t serious, but still it lay out there between them. What would it be like to have an affair? With this woman? Exactly what he’d been hoping for since the second he’d laid eyes on her—except when he thought about sex, his mind traveled to the possibilities of what it felt like to be in love, plan for forever.

Although forever and love hadn’t gone that well for him so far. There was also a fundamental difference here. Rachel wasn’t like other women he’d been drawn to. She was making it clear she would never fall for him, never lay claim to his overused last name and paltry bank balance. Yet for some reason, what should be simple confused the shit out of him.

Disco barked sharply.

Liam looked up fast as Rachel announced, “He’s locked in on the scent.”

Chapter 9

For five years he hadn’t held a kid.

Now Hugh had one strapped to his back like a papoose as he and Amelia walked toward civilization. Wildlife screeched and called on one side in the trees. Waves rolled and crashed against limestone on his other side. Rock iguanas bathed in the sunlight, brown and nearly three feet long.

He’d weighed all his options before choosing this slightly longer route following the beach. The van had veered so far off the beaten track before he overpowered Oliver, he’d decided it was better, not to mention safer, to follow the water. While he could find his way through the wooded area, if something happened to him, Amelia would almost certainly get lost. So, water route it would be for them.

Shrugging his shoulders, he adjusted the fit of the baby carrier he’d rigged from his survival vest, holding twenty pounds of kiddo that weighed much heavier on his soul. He stifled a curse that the kid would likely parrot back at him. Marissa had almost had a coronary when Tilly fell off her Big Wheel and said, “Shit.” Of course, once her mom reprimanded her, Tilly had said the word again and again for nearly a week before losing interest.

His throat clogged.

He resisted the urge to thrust Joshua at Amelia. She could barely stand up straight after their daylong hike through the jungle and now along the beach. Carrying the kid would slow her down even farther as she trudged through the sandy earth.

Intellectually, he knew this. That still didn’t help the cold knot in his chest or memories of hiking trips with Tilly in a kid carrier on his back, her tiny fists holding on to his ears as she whispered, “Love you, Daddy.” Her tight grip hurt like hell and was the sweetest thing he’d ever known.

He glanced back over his shoulder. Joshua babbled nonsensically, all gums and six tiny teeth, and so damn cute.

Hugh tripped over a root.

He regained his balance just shy of slamming into a coconut tree.

God, he couldn’t do this. He couldn’t go there again, even for a few hours of pretend parenting. And while Joshua already had a mom and dad, after watching Amelia, he could see clearly she was meant to be a mother. She’d obviously wanted that during her marriage to the rat bastard.

Not that this kid liked him much. His tiny body went stiff when Hugh reached to take him out of Amelia’s arms. Now Joshua had relented enough to hold on to his shirt in fists still sticky from downing a banana. Joshua had to be tired. His head even bobbled every now and again, but the stinker held tough about not resting his head on Hugh’s shoulder as the sound of crashing waves lulled him.

Amelia swatted her way past fronds poking out of the jungle. She jabbed and poked ahead, checking for the snakes he knew terrified her, but she just kept jab-jab-jabbing. He couldn’t bring himself to mention that one could fall out of a tree on top of her.

She would edge closer to the water and get fried by the sun beating down on the beach.

Jab, jab. She walked ahead, branches snagging on her scrubs and shoelaces. “Are you sure I can’t carry him for a while? You both look rather, uh, uncomfortable.”

“If you get tired, you’ll slow us down, and that’s not good for the kid.” He studied her fair complexion, already turning pink. He needed to start keeping an eye out for aloe plants.

“That Superman thing again.” She laughed hoarsely. “You’ve got the most endurance, the fitness required, an extra twenty pounds wouldn’t faze you. And you’re right. I’m sounding like a wheezing asthmatic, which just proves your point.”

“You should drink some water,” he said, even knowing she would ignore him. Again.

A rustle sounded in the underbrush. Amelia tensed. A raccoon-like creature scampered past and she exhaled hard. “How far do you think it will take us to get back or at least find people?”

“I’m hoping before dark.” He scanned the horizon, frustrated as hell that they still hadn’t come across some signs of civilization. “But if we do have to stay out here in the wild, I have the training to build us adequate shelter.”

“Does that training have any tips on how to fashion a diaper in the wild?”

“We’ll make this work.” Yeah, he already had a warm wet spot in the middle of his back, but he’d mucked through a helluva lot worse. “You’re doing good, hanging tough.”

Better than he would have expected, even though he’d already learned not to underestimate this woman. Still, she and the boy had been through too much.

Eyes watching the trail for wild boars, he spotted a pigeon plum hanging low. He tugged it free and polished it on his pants leg. The dark fruit offered a natural cure for diarrhea. The kid hadn’t shown signs of any such problem, but that wasn’t a risk Hugh was willing to take.

He started to pass the plum back to Joshua—then stopped. He cut the fruit in half, pried out the pit so the toddler wouldn’t choke on it, then gave him both halves.

Old parenting skills returned in a snap, bringing too many memories rolling back. All the more motivation to haul his butt out of here as fast as possible.

Amelia gripped a walking stick she’d started using about two miles ago. “I’m not going to let you down. I will hold up my end of things.”

“I believe you.” And he really did.

“I’ve never failed at anything in my life, you know. I made straight As. I behaved in school, always did my homework.” She stabbed the sand with the stick again and again. “The only time I ever got a detention was for reading a romance novel behind my history textbook in class. I already had an A in the class.”

“Of course you did.” A smile tugged through his frustration. The sound of Joshua’s contented chewing even felt right, despite the fruit juice dribbling on his neck.

“I brushed my teeth four times a day no matter what—well, except for that earthquake incident and today. Do you happen to have toothpaste in that vest of yours?”

“I have gum.” He reached into one of the pockets on his vest, glad he could do something to help this stubborn woman.

“I would kill for a piece of it.”

“No need. It’s yours for free.” He tossed her the pack.

Leaping forward, she caught the gum in midair with two hands, struggling for a second not to drop if before holding it up victoriously. He thought it was probably best not to tell her she’d just hopped right over a pygmy boa constrictor.

She peeled off the wrapper and pulled out a piece. She tossed the pack back to him and unwrapped her stick. Popping the gum into her mouth, she chewed slowly, sensually, taking so much obvious pleasure from that bit of spearmint, he found his mind zipping uncomfortably back to the cleaning closet. He forced his attention back onto her words.

“My parents taught me that if I worked hard enough, anything was possible.” She trailed her fingers over a bush, her fingers snagging on the bloom of a yellow elder, the national flower, which bloomed year-round.

“I sense an until coming.”

“My marriage.” She shot him a thumbs down. Joshua threw the pulpy remains of his plum into the bushes as if to punctuate Amelia’s anger. “Big fat F. Failing grade. But you already know that.”

“His fault, his failing grade, not yours.”

She blew a small bubble with the gum, popping it. “I know that now. Still sucks though. I tried so hard to do everything right. I ran an organized house. Even my spice cabinet is in alphabetical order. I read relationship books, went to marriage retreats, shopped at Victoria’s Secret.” She shook her head, twirling the stem of the yellow elder between two fingers. “And still the rat bastard cheated on me. He left me for a totally disorganized, lovely person who couldn’t balance her checking account if you implanted a calculator into her palm.”

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