Today, he needed to hold it together better as they approached “civilization” again. He lined up the weapons, his knife and Oliver’s. His 9 mm and the two SIG Sauers from the van. He hoped like hell he wouldn’t need to use them. But between the wild animals running loose in the jungle and the lawlessness running just as out of control, he couldn’t be too careful.
With luck, by noon they would arrive at the outer city limits. Once there, he would notify someone with security forces to pick up Oliver and question him. To find out what the hell had happened back at the hospital.
And then he would get Amelia and Joshua the rest of the way to the security of town—and onto the first military cargo plane out of here.
He tucked his 9 mm back in the holster and one of the two extra guns in his vest. His knife was strapped to his leg. The others would go to Amelia. He trusted she would do what she needed to if necessary. If she’d had one or the other back at the hospital, he felt certain she would have used them to protect Joshua.
His eyes slid to the little boy on the beach. The first rays of morning stretched over the seaside patch of sand. Joshua ran in figure eights through the sand, his diaper in place again, the tiny T-shirt on his body again. The palm tree and bird spelling out Bahamas. He’d almost worn out his leaf shoes already.
Amelia scraped her hair back and used a strip from the edge of her scrubs to tie it in a short ponytail at the base of her neck. They were grimy, sweaty, and essentially how he would expect after this impromptu nature hike without much in the way of gear. He was used to conditions like this. He’d been filthier on missions. Although Amelia… she’d been hanging tough but he didn’t know how much more she could take before collapsing.
“Amelia,” he called, waving her over. “We need to regroup before we head out.”
Her head tipped to the side, she picked around seaweed and driftwood washed up on the shore. She stopped in front of him. “Yes?”
“I should have given these to you yesterday.” He passed the SIG and the knife. He also scooped up the gun belt he’d taken off Oliver. “Do you know how to use them or do you need a quick how-to now?”
She took the weapons from him carefully. “I can handle them well enough, thank you.”
“Good, then.” He stroked her cheek, wanted to do more, but the time wasn’t right.
The discussion about his wife and daughter was still too fresh. He willed her to see in his eyes his need to keep things level.
She leaned into his hand for a split second before backing away with a curt nod that bobbed her scruffy ponytail. “Let’s get moving then.”
Kneeling, she stretched out her arms for Joshua.
Hugh reached between them, a hand on her shoulder. “We already covered this yesterday. I’ll carry him.”
She looked up at him with those pure blue eyes, and he saw written sympathy for every word he’d said the night before. Even if he didn’t mention it and she kept quiet, his baggage was still hanging out there between them. In fact, as silent as he’d stayed about it over the years, it was still there, biting him all the time. Pushing him. Leading him to take risks that put other people in danger if they had to haul his butt out.
He scooped up the kid and tucked him into the backpack sling. The little guy didn’t protest as he had the day before, but he still wasn’t giving in completely.
Amelia took up her walking stick and gestured for him to lead the way. “Talk to me about your—”
“—your job. The pararescue mission.”
He snatched up the chance to talk about anything else as handily as she snagged two bananas left from their food stores of last night.
“We train for rescue missions—land, sea, mountain. There are only three hundred of us.”
“Sounds like a movie title.” Grinning, she tucked her walking stick under her arm and peeled a banana.
“You’re poking fun?” He cocked an eyebrow. “You’re supposed to be suitably impressed with my kick-ass profession.”
“Like a groupie?” She pinched off a piece of the fruit and passed it to Joshua as she walked. “There are groupies, I assume.”
“There are people impressed with the uniform, more so than the actual mission, the calling,” he conceded.
“To rescue airmen and other service members. I think I read somewhere you motto is something like…”
“‘That others may live.’”
“Heavy stuff. Honorable. And very lucky for people like me.” She smiled her thanks again, before continuing, “Given that you’re here, you’re obviously called in during natural disasters.”
“And smaller-scale civilian rescues on occasion.” He studied her gait, wishing she had boots like his rather than the simple gym shoes she’d been given at the hospital. “We also work with NASA during water landings in case of emergencies. We work with SWAT and the FBI.”
“You’re in Florida now?”
“Florida, Japan, Alaska twice…” His mind traveled back through the years to that first assignment after training. His first tour in Alaska. With Marissa and Tilly.
“But you’re in Florida now.” Amelia snapped him to the present again with her crisp, no-nonsense voice.
“Technically, although we haven’t spent much time there. We were in the Middle East until a couple of months ago.” While most people looked forward to homecomings, he would have preferred to skip that part, all the happy family reunions.“You must be ready for some downtime.”
He looked ahead, steering her past a thick overgrowth of poison ivy. The kid did not need exposure to that. At least the dust was thinner here than in the city.
“I’m not much into vacations. Too boring for me. What about your job?” He wanted to hear, and how strange was that? They had this in reverse, sleeping together and then doing the bar-style pickup conversation, getting to know each other. “You have a high-pressure career of your own.”
“Go ahead and get the lawyer jokes out of the way.” She peeled the remaining banana for herself. “I believe I’ve heard them all, but you’re welcome to give it your best shot.” She bit the top off with a wicked smile.
Was she playing with him? “I wouldn’t be so rude.”
“Then I’ll go ahead for you…” She danced ahead of him, walking backward along the sand. The landscape stretched ahead with trees and more trees hemming them in, closing off any view of the city still miles away. “There are only two lawyer jokes, you know.”
“Really? Only two lawyer jokes?”
“That’s right.” She winked. “The rest are true.”
Her words jolted a laugh out of him. Beyond not coddling him this morning, she’d managed to do what not many could at times like this. She made him smile. “You have a sense of humor about yourself. That’s rare.”
“Believe me, in this profession, you have to laugh or you would go crazy.” She turned away, walking ahead with her stick in front of her again, stabbing at bushes. “People lie…”
She jabbed. “And they lie.”
Again Amelia jabbed. “And they lie some more. Even upstanding people flinch at telling the complete truth. I can spot bullshit a mile coming.”
“You still haven’t told me why you became a lawyer.”
“And I don’t have to tell you.” She glanced back with another of her glittering smiles, but there was ice in her blue eyes this time.
“Ah, lawyer skills.” He couldn’t resist jabbing too, with words. “You get me to spill my guts, then you don’t say a thing.”
“No one forced you to talk.” Her whisper drifted over her shoulder, the edge carrying something else he recognized well.
“You’re right. You didn’t.” He lengthened his stride and walked alongside her, the soft sand giving under his boots. “My apologies.”
“No”—she glanced up at him—“I’m sorry. We’ve gone past the holding-back stage, I think.”
“Getting naked—or almost naked—together does take away certain boundaries.” And just that fast the air crackled between them, the awkwardness that he’d caused last night finally—thank God, finally—easing.
“I was thinking more of the life-and-death thing, but whatever.”
“Ah, that’s right. The sex meant so much to you that you walked away before I could pull up my pants.” That stung now even more than before.
Her hand fell on his arm, soft and cool against his sunburned skin. “That wasn’t very nice of me. I’m sorry again.” She reached past to tickle the chin of the kid squirming in the pack. “I don’t do so well with relationships these days. The past has a way of dogging a person, you know.”
That he did. He reached back to pat the wriggling kid’s shoulder. “You would blame all men because your ex was a jerk?”
“Are you really sure you want to have this kind of conversation?” Her feet slowed, her smile fading. “I got the impression this morning that you want to keep things lighter…”
That he did.
He grasped the shift in conversation with both hands and settled on the first topic that came to mind. Easy enough, with the kid grabbing hold of his ears tightly. “Your parents must be excited about their first grandchild.”
The air went thick, heavy with more than humidity. He ducked under a branch.
Her hand slid from her nephew and she stepped over a turtle lumbering across their path. “My mother doesn’t speak to my brother and me anymore.”
Surprise slowed his stride for a step. “And your father?”
“Is dead,” she said unemotionally, smoothing a hand over her pulled-back hair as if to restore… composure?
“I’m so very sorry.” He wasn’t sure what to read into her flat tone, her stiff spine. Her ponytail barely moved she was so in control of her every movement. “You must miss him…”
“All the more because I’m not close to my mom? If only it could be that simple. There’s no easy way to put this. My issues with men go back further than my ex-husband. My father was a convicted criminal… statutory rape was the charge… I have another far worse term for him.” She scraped a hand over her pulled-back hair again. “He killed himself rather than go to prison.”
Hugh tried to wrap his brain around what she’d said, definitely not where he’d been expecting this conversation to go. He searched for the right thing to say… and came up dry. Emotional stuff? Not his forte. He absently patted the toddler’s leg to keep him content, to give Amelia the quiet to gather her thoughts.
“He was caught with my brother’s girlfriend. She was fourteen, and she was not anywhere close to consenting.” She swept ahead of her with her walking stick, drawing semicircles in the sand ahead of them. “Dear old dad was going to cut a deal with the prosecution. He would get out after five years. He and Mom would move to the Keys afterward and start a new life away from the scandal. Away from others who might come forward to accuse him.”
“Your mother stayed with him?” Where had their children been in all of this? Defensiveness for the child Amelia had been seared through him.
“She vowed my brother and his girlfriend set him up, but I knew better.” Her upper lip curled. “I was the witness.”
The realization of how things unfolded struck him deep in his gut. He felt her pain, wanted to fix a wrong for her already over a decade old. “And your mother didn’t believe you?”
“She explained that away, as well. Said I was upset over not being Daddy’s little girl…” She rolled her eyes. “If he hadn’t killed himself, she would be with him now, starting off with her morning mimosa.”