Or at least try for now, because he knew the faces of this entire family would haunt his sleep later.
Lieutenant Gable took the bloodied infant gently. “I’ll make note of that in her files. We’ll do our best to keep the brother and sister close to each other.”
He stepped away, his body fried from exhaustion as well as the heat. “Thanks.”
Gable hesitated for a split instant. “Did you find your friends?” she asked again.
He shook his head. “Not yet.”
“Sorry, sir. I’ll let you know if I hear any more from them.” She pivoted away with her patient toward a waiting transport van.
In the distance, a shout went up. “Dog on the pile.”
The call carrying on the breeze made him think of Rachel. He glanced over quickly even though he already knew it wasn’t her. Rachel was sitting off fifty yards away on a tarp, her arm wrapped around her dog, Disco, as she stared off zombielike, not even noticing the water truck stuck in a mob scene so intense the vehicle couldn’t move farther.
Without another thought, he jogged toward Rachel, his jump-worn knees creaking with each step. The closer he got to her, the more he could see how zoned out she was. The Labrador’s ears perked up, twitching in his direction. But Rachel didn’t move.
He slowed, finally stopping alongside the edge of the tarp blanket on the ground. “Are you doing okay?”
Her eyes shifted up; she snorted, then looked down again silently.
“Of course you’re not all right. No way to be here, see all of—” He gestured around them, shaking his head. “This is war-zone material.”
“Got that right.” She tugged her hat off and pitched it on the ground, thick brown ponytail unfurling down her back. “Did you find your friend?”
He winced. “Not yet.”
She looked at him, sympathy in tired eyes. “I’m sorry. I should be comforting you rather than the other way around.”
And he should be doing something, anything, except he was out of ideas other than sitting with this woman and hydrating before cranking up for the next rescue.
He dropped down beside her, tarp crackling under him. “This isn’t a game of whose life sucks most right now, especially when I look at everything folks here have lost. And the lives lost…”
He uncapped his water and drank… and drank…
Rachel’s fingers worked along Disco’s neck. “That’s a very sensitive thing to say.”
“You don’t have to act so surprised. I can be a sensitive guy, when the situation calls for it.” He gestured toward Disco. “Is there some rule again me petting your working dog?”
“He’s off the clock right now.” She half smiled. “Knock yourself out.”
He passed Rachel the rest of his water bottle and held out a hand for the dog to sniff. “Disco? Hey fella, remember me? Just a friend of Rachel’s, so don’t go postal on me, pup.” The dog nosed his fingers, so he scratched behind the Labrador’s ear. “I gotta confess, I can’t take credit for the sensitivity. My first and third exes were both into marital counseling. I may have ended up divorced, but I came away with a ton of insights.”
“Why no therapist with wife number two?” She tipped back the bottle.
“Pictures changed my mind. Lots of pictures. Of her with a number of different guys.” He’d been an idiot marrying on the rebound, not wanting to stay in his crappy-ass apartment alone. “One of those guys had a wife pissed off enough to hire a private eye. I got a complimentary photo album. Didn’t see much point going to a therapist in light of their Kama Sutra pictorial.”
“Ouch, that’s, um…” She rolled the bottle between her palms.
“No worries about me.” He leaned closer conspiratorially. “I didn’t pick up any diseases from my ex.”
“This isn’t funny, and that wasn’t what I was thinking.” Her voice was tart, but her eyes were sweet.
He liked her. A lot. Like was more unsettling than love.
“Well, you can sure as hell know it’s exactly what I was thinking. Cheating isn’t just damn disrespectful. It’s dangerous.” Ex number two had blamed the infidelities on his long deployments, vowing she thought he’d stepped out too while away. She’d been wrong, and hell yeah, he was still bitter. “I may have been married three times, but when I’m with a woman, I am always, always monogamous.”
“Okay, so no therapy with wife number two. Still, therapy obviously wasn’t successful with number three either if you ended up divorced.”
Some of the tension left her face as she settled into the conversation, so he kept going with it. They both needed the distraction, even if only for a few minutes, to take their mind off what they’d seen since arriving in this nightmare.
“The counselor for marriage number three was especially savvy. He figured out I choose relationships destined to fail… He just talked me through to that revelation a little too late.”
“Hmmm…” She brushed the dirt off his shoulder. “And you feel the need to continue to affirm his diagnosis by picking me?”
“Sure”—he kept his tone light for her—“but it works better now since I don’t make the mistake of proposing. And if I’m crazy enough to pop the question, the woman—you—would be forewarned.”“You’re an odd man,” she said with what actually sounded more like interest.
“That’s a fairly benign insult compared to others I’ve been called. I think maybe you’re starting to like me.”
Her dark eyes heated, steaming along him. “My impression of you is organic, open to change.”
“That’s promising.” He skimmed her hair back over her shoulder.
She didn’t move or speak. So he dipped his head toward hers, waiting for her to object, but she still stared back at him steadily. He slanted his mouth over hers, taking in the softness slicked with some kind of lip balm. They were both exhausted and sweaty and there was no way this kiss could go farther out here in hell on earth. But for just a second, touching her made the roar in his mind recede.
“Sir?” someone called breathlessly, footsteps sounding. “You can’t be over here.”
Liam pulled away from Rachel fast, shooting to his feet, hand on his holstered 9 mm. A harried local cop who looked like he’d been given his badge yesterday chased a couple walking in his direction. A man and woman in surgical scrubs raced toward him.
He held up a hand. “This is a restricted area. Not to mention dangerous. Medical personnel are supposed to meet up over there in that tent. The policeman here will show you the way.” He clasped Rachel’s elbow. “We should get going.”
He started to pivot away.
“Hugh Franco,” the man said with an American accent.
Liam turned sharply, already tensed for another sucker punch. “Excuse me?”
The woman pushed past the other and grabbed his wrist urgently, her wide brown eyes steely with… fear? “I believe one of your men—Master Sergeant Hugh Franco—is with my son and my sister-in-law.”
Hugh studied the top-off Jeep driving closer.
Amelia hadn’t been thrilled about going into the woods where she was sure the snake had a gang full of buddies nearby. He was more concerned with the possibility of a shady character driving that beach buggy across the sand, and that had been enough to persuade her to make sure Joshua was out of sight. This hell just didn’t seem to end; in fact it got worse the longer he spent with Amelia, because the need to keep her safe was sliding past personal.
The vehicle sped closer, spitting sand out from behind the back wheels. With luck, it would be a cop. But he didn’t count on luck.
The driver behind the Jeep’s windshield was a blur, other than a hat and shades. He stayed close to the jungle in case he needed to duck for cover, and he wasn’t taking his eyes off the driver’s hands on the wheel.
He cocked his head to the side as he scoped out the situation. The face under an outback hat came into focus—a woman’s face. She wore bulky work clothes and gloves that had made her less distinguishable from a distance. A strand of gray-blonde hair striped out from her hat.
The Jeep fishtailed to a stop.
Standing, the woman pulled off her sunglasses. “Would you mind taking your hand off the gun, young man? I’m here to help.”
Except now he could see she had a 9 mm strapped to her waist, belting in her loose white shirt. Of course anyone who had a weapon would be wise to keep it close right now, with the country in such unrest.
And shit, was that another aftershock? He eyed the rolling ocean. He didn’t even want to consider the possibility of a tsunami.
“Ma’am, I’ll keep my hands off mine if you’ll do the same.”
“Fair enough.” She jumped out onto the beach, her boots packing earth, green work pants tucked into the tops. “My name is Jocelyn Pearson-Stewart. I own a small sugarcane plantation nearby.”
The woman didn’t have a local accent, instead sounded like an American.
She smiled as if understanding the unspoken question. “I’m from Miami originally. It would be nice if you would speak. Just let me know if you need a ride or not, and then I can head home.”
“How did you find me?” A movement out of the corner of his eyes flashed, and damn it, Amelia stepped out with Joshua. He wanted to tell her that just because this Jocelyn person appeared to be in her fifties didn’t mean they should lower their guard.
“I heard your gunshot,” the woman—Jocelyn something-or-another—said, her eyes skipping over his bare chest to the torn-up strips of shirt in Amelia’s fist. “Is everything all right?”
“A snake went after her little boy.” He wasn’t sure why he’d called Joshua her son rather than nephew, but it seemed smart to go that route, to keep the connection tighter. “But he’s fine. The snake’s dead, and while she got bitten, there’s a blessing in it all, since you heard the gunfire.”
Hitching Joshua onto her hip, Amelia walked to Hugh’s side, watching the woman in the Jeep with that lawyerly look of hers. “If you could take us to the capital, I can’t tell you how much we would appreciate it.”
Jocelyn shook her head slowly. “I’m sorry, but the roads in and out of the city have been closed. I’m afraid even your uniform, sir, won’t gain us access, even if I did have enough fuel, which I don’t. The aftershocks took out bridges, and the access ways that are left are being checked for structural integrity. But I can take you all back to my place.”
What she said made sense, but that didn’t mean it was true. It also didn’t mean they had a lot of choices. He could walk the rest of the way with a kid and a woman who was probably going to be okay from a snakebite and hope that the bridges were open. Hope? He hadn’t had a lot of luck with that.
“We would appreciate the hospitality and the use of a phone. I need to check in with my unit. Amelia has family that will be worried about her.”
“Absolutely. Anything I have at my house, you’re welcome to use.”
Amelia looked at him, her eyes questioning. He nodded and gestured to the Jeep. He knew he could outdraw the woman if he had to. He smiled his thanks at Jocelyn as Amelia and Joshua settled into the front seat of the Jeep. Then he swung around into the back, standing. Ready.
Jocelyn rammed the Jeep into gear and pulled a three-point turn on the sand, just out of reach of the rolling waves. “And your names are?” She smiled at the baby. “Since you’re going to be my guests and all.”
“I’m Amelia. This is Joshua. Thank you for your help.”
Jocelyn met his eyes in the rearview mirror. “And you, handsome marine?”