The soldier slid into the shower. Aiden looked at the food tent, then toward the bunks where he and Lisabeth had side-by-side cots in a warehouse full of rescue workers. He didn’t even have to think twice about where he had to be right now to keep his sanity.
Aiden made tracks back toward the church, to the waiting patients.
Moonlight glinting off the rolling waves, Amelia rinsed her face and hands in the surf while Hugh constructed a lean-to for them to sleep under for the night. She’d offered to help, but he’d said he could work faster on his own if she would keep an eye on the kid.
Joshua was toddling in hyper circles in the sand, glad to be walking after a day constrained. Hugh had wrapped the child’s feet in leaves from banana trees to protect his soles. His diaper had been soaked, so she’d washed it and his tiny T-shirt in the ocean and draped them over a stretch of limestone to dry. There was something so endearingly innocent about a naked baby splashing in a little tide pool.
The day with Hugh had been so surreal—the fight in the van, the trek through the jungle, and now setting up a site for them to sleep together like some family on a camping trip. Except they weren’t a family. This wasn’t her child. Although right now he looked so heartbreakingly happy and perfect, her chest hurt over the dreams she’d once stored up about having babies.
Her eyes tracked back to Hugh. He spread foliage on top, mostly more banana leaves. He’d called the structure a hide site, designed more for evading than comfort, in case Oliver’s people decided to come after them.
Joshua toddled over to the small camp. Amelia pushed to her feet, her body creaking with exhaustion as she trudged across the sand. “Joshua? Come back here, sweetie.”
While Hugh had carried the child all day, there was no missing how uncomfortable he was around the boy.
Joshua clapped his hands, babbling and pointing.
Hugh frowned, reaching into a small pile of fruit he’d gathered. “Are you hungry? Banana? Is that what you want, kid?”
“B’ana?” Joshua tipped his head to the side, salt water still glinting off his dark hair from his tide pool bath. “No, no.”
He pointed to the mango.
“Yeah, right. Here.” Hugh peeled it with a knife, carved a slice and passed it to Joshua, so obviously careful to keep his distance.
She dropped down to sit beside them wearily and reached for the mango and knife to finish feeding Joshua. Hugh reached into his pocket and pulled out a fistful of plant stems. “Aloe. Just break each stem open and squeeze the liquid on your face. It’ll ease the burn. I’ve also got some bay geranium. It’s good for itching skin and even makes a decent tea. Let me know if you need it.”
“The aloe’s great. Thanks.” She snapped open the squishy stem and pinched the liquid onto her finger. She smeared it over Joshua’s cheeks before turning her attention to her own face. “You’re good at the whole shelter-building gig. After all we’ve been through, you’ve handled everything that’s come our way. You’re obviously in the right line of work. Was anyone else in your family in the military?”
“Not a one. I was a regular Middle America farm kid with dreams of traveling the world. I even got an appointment to the Air Force Academy…” His voice trailed off as he tossed aside a branch.
He’d been on the path to become an officer?
She passed another slice of mango to Joshua. “What happened?”
Hugh dropped to sit beside her, hands on his knees, watching the little guy eat, with eyes so full of… pain? “My girlfriend and I weren’t as careful as we should have been. We got married and became the parents of a beautiful baby girl.”
He said it so simply, so few words, but such a depth of emotion packed into each one. There could be no missing how very much he loved his family. And no married man with a love that deep had sex with another woman in a closet. Something had gone very wrong with his beloved family.
Waiting for him to talk seemed wisest, but her hands trembled as she offered the last of the fruit to Joshua. The little fella shook his head and crawled under the lean-to, testing out a stack of leaves in the corner. Amelia looked sideways quickly and realized Hugh was watching along with her.
“I had a daughter.”
Oh God. Please let this just be a divorce story, not what she feared was coming. “Had?”
“For five years… Then… She… They…” He swallowed hard, looking down.
But she didn’t need the words. She made her living reading the undercurrents in what people left unsaid. His wife and child had died somehow and the pain she saw in his eyes was beyond bearing.
She touched his foot lightly, uncertain how much comfort he would accept but unable to do nothing. How strange to know his body so intimately and his soul not at all.
Scraping a hand over his face, Hugh continued. “When my daughter was in preschool—about four years old—she woke us up one night in a panic because she’d forgotten to tell us she needed a rock for class.”
Waves pulled at the shore just as the tension radiating from him pulled at her while she listened, just let him talk.
“I promised her we would get one in the morning, but she couldn’t go back to sleep. So my wife and I went out to the backyard to see what we could find.” He looked at her for the first time, his raw eyes reflecting the moonbeams. “Did I mention we lived in Alaska and it was December?”
She smiled because he seemed to need that from her, but her insides burned with an ache for where he was going in his mind. Her hand fell to rest on Joshua’s back as he settled on the leaf bed, curling up with heavy eyes.
“My wife held the flashlight while I shoveled through the snow. I was determined my little girl would have the best rock in class. After tossing aside a half dozen ‘inferior’ stones, I found the perfect one—probably weighed about five pounds.”
Her hands circled on the baby’s back, the moment so quiet, and heavier than that five-pound rock.
“So the Christmas program rolled around. We walked in to find this table set up with a display of all the kids’ art-project gifts for their parents.” He cut his eyes at her, a smile tugging at his face so beyond perfect, it took her breath away. “They’d made pet rocks.”
“Oh, my,” she whispered, falling so hard into those eyes and that nostalgic grin from a world she’d never known.
“Yeah, the table was full of tiny painted cats and dogs and cows. And right there in the middle was my girl’s boulder, completely unrecognizable. It had glitter and feathers and blobs of paint. The label called it a pet gerbil.”
He laughed, shaking his head and she laughed with him, even though God help her…
Hugh Franco broke her heart.
He stirred up the sand at his feet, scooping and dumping, scooping again. “She and my wife died in a plane crash.” Sand drifted through his fingers. “Tilly… my daughter’s name was Matilda, and my wife’s name was Marissa.”
She looked into his eyes and for once hated the instincts that allowed her to perceive so fully what lurked under the surface. She’d thought of Hugh as Superman, going all the way to the edge, risking his life again and again for others.
And now she realized that he pushed himself to the limit out of a grief-filled need to chase his family to the other side.
Throwing the Jeep into park beside the burned-out van, the Guardian leaped out from behind the wheel, engine idling in the crisp morning air. “What the hell?”
The utility vehicle was nothing more than a blackened hull against the palm tree, also charred. The pyre had offered a beacon to locate the missing van even when communications from Oliver and Tandi ended.
And speaking of Oliver and Tandi…
The Guardian sidestepped a log, work boots crunching along the foliage, and pressed a hand to the still-warm door frame and looked inside. A burned corpse was slumped in the front passenger seat, horridly disfigured. Unidentifiable. Nothing but melted flesh over bones remained.
The Guardian whispered a string of curses before walking around to the rear of the van. The back was empty, other than exploded glass from incinerated crates.
Informants had already clarified that there’d been a screwup at the hospital that resulted in the wrong child being taken. Something about the wrong file attached to the wrong basinet or playpen or whatever the hell they were using. The whole system was a hodgepodge mess, with patients dying, new arriving, faster than a makeshift, understaffed hospital could handle.
Punishments would be doled out later. Right now? Nothing mattered but ensuring the safety of the child they’d taken and protecting the identity of the organization.
A groan sounded from inside the bushes. A quick search through the leafy green underbrush showed… Oliver bound by his hands and feet, lying on his side. His face was bruised, his eyes both angry and fearful.
“What the hell is going on here?” A ridiculous question to ask, since the man was gagged with his own bandanna. Tearing off the hemp ropes and swiping away the rag from Oliver’s mouth, the Guardian asked again, “What happened here? Where’s the little boy? And the woman?”
When the van exploded, had Tandi or the extra woman they’d picked up died?
“Tandi… They…” Oliver swallowed and swiped his wrist across his mouth. “Tandi is dead. The others… got away.”
Got away? This wasn’t making sense. But the clearing was disturbed, undergrowth trampled from lots of foot traffic. And where were Oliver’s weapons? “You and Tandi were both overpowered by a woman with a child?”
Oliver stood slowly, stretching after being bound for so long. Except his unease seemed to be rooted in something else, something more. His eyes darted around like two bees unable to settle on a flower. “She, uh, had a man with her.”
Anger simmered through the confusion. “When you picked up the child, you kidnapped a woman and a man? And you didn’t bother to tell me this when you and Tandi checked in.”
He rubbed his neck. “The man got into the back of the van as we were driving away.” His words picked up speed. “We tried to control him with the gun, but he rushed the front of the van and…”
“You screwed up.”
“He was military, trained; there are soldiers crawling everywhere around here.” Oliver stepped closer, tipping his head confidentially while eyeing the wreckage site even though there clearly wasn’t anyone alive to hear. “Perhaps this isn’t the best time and we should put our runs on hold—”
The Guardian whipped out a gun and leveled it at his big, fat, incompetent head. “You don’t decide who and when. We’re needed now. Our troops are needed now. And I’m wondering if you even have the same goals anymore, if your motivation for taking the woman was… less than necessary.”
Oliver started shaking, his lying eyes wide. “No, I would never—”
The gun pressed deeper. “Did you take the woman because you had to or because you wanted to? What did you intend to do with her?”
The stench of sweat, the smell of fear, radiated off Oliver’s skin as his mouth worked soundlessly.
“Don’t even bother answering. I can see it in your traitorous eyes.”
The Guardian pulled the trigger.
Hugh checked and rechecked his guns until he felt like his teammate Bubbles. Going through the motions instinctively helped restore order to his mind after a long night keeping watch to make sure no stray animals—or people—found their camp.
Although that was the easy part. It had been much tougher tamping down thoughts of the past he’d dredged up for God only knew what reason.
He’d all but opened a vein last night, pouring out more than he had to anyone. He still wasn’t sure why he’d said as much to her anyway. There was something about her, had been from the second he looked into her cornflower blue eyes. But he didn’t have it in him to go there again, especially not so soon.