“So you became the incorruptible lawyer.” Her quest for justice fell into place. What career would she have chosen with a different kind of childhood, a different father?
“And my brother is a surgeon with a specialty in genetics. Spends his spare time traveling for programs like Doctors Without Borders and Operation Smile, fixing the smiles of kids with cleft palates. Fixing children’s smiles… there’s symbolism there if ever I saw it.” She whacked a tree, sending a flock of birds flying.
He grabbed her shoulders, stopping her there under the sprawling branches. “You don’t have to pay for what your father did. It’s okay to live your life.”
“You’re one to preach about moving on with life,” she snapped.
Her words struck home. Hard. He should have followed his first instinct and stayed away from deep conversation and soul-searching today. But he couldn’t simply walk away from her. Maybe if he just… hugged her? He tugged her closer.
Her eyes went wide and he had to admit he was glad to have surprised her. Maybe that meant he was on the right track. She reached toward him…
She shoved him aside with one hand and fell past him. Her push was surprisingly strong and he stumbled once before realizing she held a snake in her fist.
She threw it away as he drew his gun and shot the head off.
The world went still. His ears rang, the gun in his hand pointed toward the headless snake, still thrashing. A scream split through the aftermath. The baby. Joshua grabbed and clawed at Hugh’s shoulders. He reached around and pulled the boy out, holding him.
Amelia slumped down with her back against a tree, drawing in shaky breaths one after the other. She hugged her knees to her chest.
“Amelia”—he knelt beside her, holding Joshua—“I thought you were scared of snakes, but good God, woman. You didn’t even flinch.”
“I was afraid if I took the time to say something…” She turned toward him, burying her face in his chest. “It was so close to Joshua. I didn’t have a choice.”
He kissed the top of her head and rubbed her arm. If they were alone he would have done more. His insides were shaking with relief. “You did well.”
Her breath hitched one after the other, visibly pushing back hysteria. “Hugh, I need to know. Was it a poisonous snake?”
Hugh looked at the thin length—about five feet long. “A brown racer, a mature adult. They carry a minor poison, for small animals.” He tucked Joshua closer. “A child would have been particularly vulnerable. Even some small adults, given its size.”
“But Joshua’s okay?” She skimmed her fingers along her nephew’s cheek. The little boy hiccupped as his cries died down.
“He’s fine.” Hugh scanned his tiny arms and legs again to be sure. “Just scared. I don’t see a mark on him.”
“Good, good.” A sigh of relief shuddered through her. “Hugh?”
“Yeah, Amelia?” He rested his chin on her head, willing his heart to slow.
“You were really great there, doing your Superman PJ rescuer.” Her fingers toyed with his survival vest.
“You weren’t so bad yourself.”
“Yeah, well, I need you to be the medic PJ now.” She looked up at him, the fear finally showing on her face as she held up her arm, her hand puffy and red. “The snake… It bit me.”
Amelia’s hand hurt. Really hurt.
It throbbed as if she’d been stung by a wasp a million times. She glanced down and—
She squeezed her eyes shut to block out the two puncture marks on top of her puffy, red hand. She’d been bit on the same hand that had been cut in the earthquake. She resisted the urge to make a fist. Something told her she needed to hold still, not circulate the venom around. Tough to do when she was shaking like a leaf in the aftermath. Or maybe that was another aftershock buzzing the ground under her feet.
Hugh clasped her trembling fingers in his. “Keep it below the level of your heart. Don’t panic. Everything’s going to be fine.”
“Joshua? Where is he? If there are more snakes…” She shuddered. She wasn’t feeling nearly as brave now as she had a few minutes ago.
“He’s okay. Right here beside me and I don’t see any sign of more snakes.” His calm bass rumbled over her just as it had at the earthquake site. That voice was pure intoxication.
Sighing, she felt her pulse settle and her eyes fluttered open. Hugh tugged his T-shirt off—gulp, there went her heart rate again—and he started ripping it into strips.
“Put Joshua in the baby sling again anyway, please.” Her hand throbbed and fear clogged her throat. “No matter what you say, I won’t be able to stop hyperventilating until I know he’s not going to get bitten by Sammy the Snake’s brother or sister lurking around in there.”
“All right, all right.” He started plucking things from his survival vest… alcohol swabs, gauze, and some kind of ointment.
Then he shrugged into the vest again and the makeshift baby pack. He tucked his arms under Joshua’s armpits and swung him around, settling him in place. The toddler locked his arms around Hugh’s neck.
She kept her eyes averted from the throbbing snakebite. “What do we do now? Do you cut it open, draw out the poison?”
She eyed his knife and struggled not to wince. Whatever needed to be done. Right?
“Sucking out the venom is a myth from Wild West films.”
Thank God. She sagged with relief.
He twisted open a bottle of water and poured it over the bite. The coolness momentarily soothed the heated sting. Hugh tore open antiseptic pads and cleaned around the puncture marks so gently she barely knew he touched her. She remembered well those same fingers stroking elsewhere, so controlled and tender… just before they’d both turned frantic and overheated.
How had she walked away from him? More importantly, why? But it was too late to think about that now.
“Hugh, you have to leave me here. I can’t walk. I’ll hold you back. Take Joshua and go get help.”
“You’re not going to die.” He cradled her face in a broad palm, calluses rasping along her sunburned skin before he shifted his attention back to her hand.
“I don’t want to slow you down.” Her head spun. She was dizzy even sitting, for crying out loud. “Or what if I pass out?”
“Then I’ll put your pretty ass”—he winked, actually winked, so it must not be that bad, unless this was another technique to keep her calm—“on a sled and drag you home. Now quit arguing.” He pinched a string of antiseptic along her hand before placing gauze on top. “When did you become defeatist?”
“Excuse me for being a little upset.” Her voice went squeaky with encroaching hysteria. “But I just got bitten by a very big, very scary snake.”
“That’s the Amelia I know and—” He stopped midsentence.
Her heart slammed against her ribs as fast as his gaze rocketed up to meet hers. His green eyes gleamed with an awareness she was beginning to recognize well, an awareness that echoed inside her. She wanted more time with him, normal time on a date or even just coffee…
Except that regular date or coffee would end with sex that was far beyond ordinary.
The reality of that, the need for more from a man who was still so lashed to his past, still painfully locked in love with his lost family… God, she really knew how to pick ’em.
He looked back down at her stinging wound. “The venom from this particular snake isn’t strong enough to kill you or even make you sick. But I want to be sure you don’t get an infection and that you don’t suffer any tissue damage around the bite site. I’ll clean it and bind the area. Then we’ll have you checked over again when we get back to civilization. Hey, trust me. You’re going to be okay. Do I look worried?”
Wow, he should bottle that calming voice, because it worked better than any tranquilizer. For the most part. Until she sneaked another look at her fingers puffing up. “Of course you’re going to say that. And you never look afraid.”
“But I also told you I wouldn’t BS you.”
She gave him a shaky smile. “Actually, you said for me not to start freaking out or you would have to BS me.”
“If I was worried about that little bite, would I take time to do this?” He tucked a knuckle under her chin and skimmed his lips over hers.
Then kissed her again, holding. Closed-mouthed and totally appropriate, considering he was holding a kid and she had a snakebitten hand. But there was something special about the kiss, something even more intimate than their out-of-control tongue tangle in the closet at the hospital.
This wasn’t about sex. It was about feelings and connecting, which somehow was a turn-on too. What a helluva time to realize she hadn’t loved her ex-husband nearly as much as she’d thought, because even his best kisses had never touched her heart like this. The ground vibrated under her feet again and she knew this wasn’t an aftershock, but Hugh’s touch rocking her balance.
A new panic settled over her, humming in her ears, growing stronger and louder until she realized—
Hugh stepped away sharply. “Someone’s coming.”
His body tensed with a professional alertness she was learning to recognize all too well.
The sound of an engine carried on the ocean breeze. She searched the water and beach, following the sound down the stretch of sand. A speck appeared from around a bluff, a vehicle of some kind.
Hugh’s hand slid down to his gun. “Take Joshua out of the pack and go into the woods until I see who it is.”
Until they learned if they were being rescued—or attacked.
An infant girl cradled in his arms, Liam picked his way down the staggered levels of the collapsed apartment building. Structural engineers had said the place was made from piece-of-shit-quality materials. The slabs of concrete looked like a tilting stack of pancakes heating up in the midday sun. He tucked the tiny weight closer, safer.
“You’re out now, baby girl,” he whispered, her skin soft under all the grime.
He forced his body back on autopilot, training ramping into overdrive because he couldn’t afford to think or he would go f**king nuts remembering what he’d seen down there.
The overall frenzy of noise from early on had dulled to a more despondent, low hum of hailing calls—people yelling into piles of rubble and listening for a response. Fewer and fewer came through anymore, just weak whimpers for the most part.
The stench of decaying remains thickened by the hour.
They couldn’t give up the search for potential live victims. But the wins were such a mixed bag.
After Rachel’s dog got the hit on a live find around what must have once been the third floor, the crews had started digging—a laboriously slow process with everything from jackhammers to pry bars. The voices answering were high-pitched. Kids. A baby girl and her five-year-old brother. Stuck below with the dead bodies of their parents and another brother.
The little girl was in his arms, while Bubbles carried the boy.
An army nurse waited at the base of the rubble with a papoose board and actual transportation. As he neared he recognized her from when he’d gone to the hospital housed in the school. “Lieutenant Gable?”
“Hello, Major. Did you ever find your friends?”
So much for asking her if she’d seen them. He squashed down another disappointment on an already-crappy day. He passed over his charge. “Six-month-old girl, parents died along with one of her brothers. The kid there is the only other survivor in the family.”
Even saying it sliced him through with memories of seeing the dead mother’s body curled around her other son. The father had shielded the two living kids at the expense of his life. His eyes met the tiny girl’s heart-melting gaze that—thank God—could still focus. He forced himself to look away, to disengage.