“You said you’re here to help me,” she said, wincing at a fresh burst of noise from the jackhammers, “but who are you?”
“I’m with the U.S. Air Force.” Dust and pebbles showered down. “I’m a pararescueman—you may have heard it called parajumper or PJ—but regardless, it includes a crap ton of medic training. I need to ask some questions so I know what else to put in your IV. Where exactly did the debris land on you?”
She puffed dust from her mouth, blinking fast. “There’s a frickin’ building on top of me.”
“Let me be more specific. Are your legs pinned?” He tore the corner of a sealed alcohol pad with his teeth, spitting the foil edge free. “I couldn’t reach that far to assess.”
Her eyes narrowed. “I thought you were checking on Joshua.”
“I’m a good multitasker.”
“My foot is wedged, but I can still wriggle my toes.”
He looked up sharply. If she was hemorrhaging internally, fluids could make her bleed out faster, but without hydration…
The balancing act often came down to going with his gut. “Just your foot?”
“Yes. Why? Do you think I’m delusional?” Her breath hitched with early signs of hysteria. “I’m not having phantom sensations. I can feel grit against my ankle. There’s some blood in my shoe, not a lot. It’s sticky, but not fresh. I’m feeling things.”
“I hear you. I believe you.” Without question, her mind would do whatever was needed to survive. But he’d felt enough of her body to know she was blocked, rather than pressed into the space. “I’m going to put an IV in now.”
“Why was it so important about my foot?”
He scrubbed the top of her hand with alcohol pads, sanitizing as best he could. “When parts of the body are crushed, we need to be… uh… careful in freeing you.”
“Crush syndrome.” Her throat moved with a long slow swallow. “I’ve heard of that. People die from it after they get free. I saw it on a rerun of that TV show about a crabby drug-addict doctor.”
“We just need to be careful.” In a crush situation, tissue died, breaking down, and when the pressure was released, toxins flooded the body, overloading the kidneys. And for just that remote possibility, he hadn’t included potassium in her IV.
Panic flooded her glittering blue eyes. “Are you planning to cut off my foot?” Her arm twitched harder, faster, until she flailed. “Are you going to put something else in that IV? Something to knock me out?”
He covered her fingers with his before she dislodged the port in her hand. “There’s nothing in there but fluid. I’m being honest with you now, but if you panic, I’m going to have to start feeding you a line of bullshit to calm you down. Now, you said you wanted the unvarnished truth—”
“I do. Okay. I’m breathing. Calming down. Give me the IV.”
He patted her wrist a final time. “I already did.”
Blinking fast, she looked at the tape along her hand. A smile pushed through the grime on her face. “You’re good. I was so busy trying not to freak out I didn’t even notice.”
“Not bad for my first time.”
“Your first time?”
“I’m kidding.” And working to distract her again from the rattle overhead, the fear that at any second the whole damn place could collapse onto them.
She laughed weakly, then stronger. “Thank you.”
“It’s just an IV.”
“For the laugh. I was afraid I would never get to do that again.” Her fingers relaxed slowly, tension seeping from them as surely as fluid dripped out of the bag. “The second they uncover us, you’ll make Joshua top priority. Forget about me until he’s taken care of.”
“We’re going to get you both out of here. I swear it.”
“Easy for you to claim that. If I die, it’s not like I can call you a liar.”
A dead woman and child. He resisted the urge to tear through the rocks with his bare hands and to hell with waiting on the crews above. He stowed his gear, twisting to avoid that damn stone stabbing his side.
“Hey,” Amelia whispered. “That was supposed to be a joke from me this time.”
“Right, got it.” Admiration for her grit kicked through his own personal fog threatening to swallow him whole. “You’re a tough one. I think you’re going to be fine.”
“I’m a county prosecutor. I chew up criminals for a living.”
“’Atta girl.” He settled onto his back, watching the hypnotic drip, drip. His fingers rested on her wrist to monitor her pulse.
“Girl?” She sniffed. “I prefer to be called a woman or a lady, thank you very much.”
“Where I come from, it’s wise not to be nitpicky with the person who’s saving your ass.”
“Score one for you.” She scraped a torn fingernail through the dust on the ground. Her sigh stirred the dust around that shaky line. “I’m good now. So you should go before this building collapses on top of you and keeps you from doing your job for other people.”
“I don’t have anywhere else to be.” He ignored a call from McCabe through his headset that pretty much echoed the woman’s words. “The second they give the go-ahead, I’m hauling you out of here, Amelia Bailey.”“And Joshua. I want you to promise you’ll take care of him first.”
“I will do what I can for him,” he answered evasively.
Her wide eyes studied him for seven drips of the IV before she cleared her throat. “You don’t think he’s alive, do you? I can feel his pulse.”
“I’m not imagining it, damn it.” Her hand flipped and she grabbed his arm, her ragged nails digging deep with urgency. “I can feel his pulse in his wrist. He’s a little chilly, but he’s not cold. Just because he’s not screaming his head off doesn’t mean he’s dead. And sometimes, he moves. Only a little, but I feel it.” Her words tumbled over each other faster and faster until she dissolved into a coughing fit.
Ah, to hell with it. He unhooked his canteen. “Wet your mouth. Just don’t gulp, okay? Or they’ll kick my butt up there.”
He brought the jug to her lips and she sipped, her restraint Herculean when she must want to drain it dry. Sighing, she sagged again, her eyes closing as she hmmmed, her breathing evening out. He freaked. She needed to stay awake, alert.
“Tell me about your son Joshua.” He recapped the canteen without wasting a swallow on himself.
Her lashes fluttered open again. “Joshua’s my nephew. I came with my brother and his wife to help them with the paperwork for their adoption. They don’t want any legal loopholes. What happens to Joshua if they’re…?”
She bit her lip.
His brain raced as he swept the light along the rubble, searching for some signs of others—although there hadn’t been a helluva lot of survivors in the vicinity. All the same, he made sure they heard upstairs, by speaking straight into his mic as he asked her, “Where were your brother and sister-in-law when the earthquake hit?”
“They were in the street, outside the hotel. They left to buy lunch. They waited until Joshua was asleep so he wouldn’t miss them.” Her voice hitched. “I promised I would take care of him.”
“And you have.” He pinned her with his eyes, with his determination, the swath of light staying steady on her face. “Keep the faith. Hold steady and picture your family in one of the camps for survivors right now going nuts trying to find you.”
“I’ve read stories about how babies do better because they have more fat stores and they don’t tense up or get claustrophobic.” Her eyes pleaded with him. “He’s just napping, you know.”
The force of her need pummeled him harder than the spray of rocks from the jackhammered ceiling. The world closed in to just this woman and a kid he couldn’t see. Too clearly he could envision his wife and his daughter trapped in the wreckage of a crashed plane. Marissa would have held out hope for Tilly right to the end too, fighting for her until her nails and spirit were ragged.
The vise on his brain clamped harder, the roar in his ears louder, threatening his focus. “I’m changing your IV bag now, so don’t wig out if you feel a little tug.”
She clenched her fist. “You must get pretty jaded in this line of work.”
“I’ve got a good success rate.” He didn’t walk away from tough odds. Every mission was do-or-die for him.
“About my foot…” she started hesitantly. “Am I imagining that it’s okay? Be honest. I won’t panic. I need to be prepared.”
“The mind does what it needs to in order to survive. That’s what you need to focus on. Surviving.”
Not that any amount of determination had mattered in the end for Marissa or Tilly. They’d died in that plane crash, their broken bodies returned to him to bury along with his will to live. A trembling started deep inside him. His teeth chattered. He dug his fingers into the ground to anchor himself into the present. Amelia Bailey would not die on his watch, damn it.
But the trembling increased inside him. Harder. Deeper. Until he realized… The shaking wasn’t inside, but outside.
The ground shuddered with another earthquake.
Major Liam McCabe lurched as the ground shook under his feet. He grabbed the tractor beside him for support. Debris shifted below his feet, rattling all the way to his teeth. Rescue workers scrambled down the piles, carrying the male victim he’d just stabilized and extricated—a businessman who’d been trapped in his office chair.
Frantic wails filled the air from family members who’d been digging with shovels, even hands, in search of loved ones. A German shepherd jockeyed for balance on top of a shifting concrete slab.
He had to get off this oscillating pyramid of debris. Now.
His pulse ramped with adrenaline. Splaying his arms for balance, Liam tested for firmer ground. The structural triage report on this site had sucked, but Hugh Franco had been ready to tunnel in once Zorro barked a live find.
Liam looked left fast to check on team member Wade Rocha. Combat boots planted, Rocha balanced with the feed line tight in his grip�� the other end attached to Hugh Franco somewhere underneath the trembling hell.
Shit. Franco. Stuck below with his victim.
And just that fast, the earth steadied.
The demolished wasteland around him went eerily quiet. Sweat and filth plastered his uniform to his body, his heart hammering in his ears. Relief workers stood stock-still as if the world had stopped. But spirals of smoke affirmed the world hadn’t ended, just paused to catch a breath.
He exhaled hard. Adrenaline stung his veins. The tremor hadn’t been an earthquake, just another aftershock. Four so far today. Nerves were ragged, especially with the locals.
His headset blazed to life again with a frenzy of orders, questions, and curses from command center, along with check-ins from others on his team—Brick, Fang, Cuervo, Data, Bubbles—spread out at other potential rescues in the sector. But the most important voice was conspicuously missing.
Dread knotted his gut. Liam had lived through hell on earth before, but it was always worse when his men’s lives were on the line. They were his family, no question. As his three ex-wives would attest, he was married to the job.
“Franco? Franco?” Liam shouted into the mic. “Report in, damn it.”
His headset continued to sputter, some voices coming through piecemeal. None of them Franco.
Crappy headset… Liam’s hands fisted.
“Shit.” He punched the tractor. Knuckles throbbing, he resisted the urge to pitch the mic to the ground.