Marine? He almost rose to the bait to snap back—until he saw the twinkle in the woman’s eyes. “I’m Hugh.”
“Nice to meet you, Hugh.” Laughing softly, the woman steered onto a narrow road back into the jungle.
He turned on his mental GPS as she drove away from the beach—away from the direction of Oliver and Tandi’s crash site. The woman drove like a speed demon racing along the dirt road like it was the f**king autobahn as she talked with Amelia, shifted gear, and drank from her water bottle all at once.
The Jeep was a working vehicle and a real mess. Tools rattled in the box beside him. Papers were stuffed in the console. And a silver angel swayed from her rearview mirror.
“I would imagine it’s been difficult for you out here alone with such a little child. How did you say you became lost out here?”
He tensed in response to the question, ready to jump in.
Amelia turned toward her without missing a beat. “I was out walking with my son when the earthquake hit. We got cut off from help. I wandered around lost. We probably would have died out there if he hadn’t found us.”
Her lie fell out of her mouth so easily he would have believed her if he hadn’t known better. She’d seemed so trusting as she walked out of the jungle to his side. Of course now that he thought about it, that latest aftershock may have put her as on edge as he was. Although even on edge, she was keeping her wits enough to play it close to the vest—as he was.
The Jeep jostled over another dip in the dirt road, sugarcane fields on either side of them until they entered a clearing with a small homestead fenced off. Thick vines grew over most of the length, muted the harsh metal. Jocelyn reached down to her keys and thumbed a remote that opened the main gate. The graveled drive led up to a beige stucco house on stilts as protection from hurricane floods, even though they weren’t on the beach. It wasn’t a plantation home, but it sure wasn’t a shack. Porches circled the entire place. Plenty of means to leave quickly if he needed to, not far to scale down.
Hugh scanned the outbuildings—a shed and a large barn that appeared to serve as a garage. A couple of RVs were parked alongside as well. It seemed some people had taken refuge at her place. Her family, maybe? Or some locals? But it certainly wasn’t the jam-packed mayhem they’d left behind in the city. And everything here seemed intact.
He could treat Amelia’s hand, give her and Joshua both a chance to clean up, eat, and sleep. They would all definitely be more comfortable here than in a jungle lean-to or a cottage halfway sliding off the edge of a bluff, assuming trouble didn’t follow them to Jocelyn Pearson-Stewart’s doorstep.
They might have a few more amenities here for the night. But he still wasn’t letting Joshua or Amelia out of his sight.
The late-afternoon breeze curled over Amelia as she sat cross-legged on the porch floor, rolling a ball back and forth with Joshua. She could grow seriously addicted to staying out on this porch. Safe. Peaceful. And relatively clean, thanks to a quick sink rinse-off and change of clothes. Although God, she couldn’t wait for a shower after they all ate dinner, while there was still daylight to stream through the open floor plan.
A generator was being used to power the fridge and freezer. Windows, windows, windows and French doors were open to reveal the living room, dining area, and kitchen. The place was made to capture breezes blowing through, perfect architecture for the Bahamas. Someone had spent some serious dough building this place. But it appeared that money had stopped long ago.
The kitchen would have been top-of-the-line twenty years ago. High-end appliances, slate floors, and countertops were pristine clean but showing signs of age with scratches and dulled yellow.
She’d worried at first that the woman—Jocelyn—might be affiliated with the Guardian, perhaps his wife. But Jocelyn said she was a widow living with her two nieces. Jocelyn’s supply of baby gear had seemed strange, but she’d smoothly explained it away as leftover from frequent visits from her nephew’s family in Miami.
If she was lying, she was doing it so damn well, even Amelia couldn’t read a hint of deception in the woman’s calm hazel eyes. And this place certainly didn’t appear to be the affluent compound of someone trafficking in babies and women.
She’d seen that this was a working farm—Jocelyn stepping outside to give fertilizing instructions to a worker on a tractor, staking the trunk of a fledgling tamarind tree in a pot off the back step, tending a spice garden on the kitchen sill. She’d witnessed the evidence of time and effort put into the sugarcane plantation, and Jocelyn clearly knew how to keep the cogs in the machine running smoothly.
They were safe. For now. Her hand was barely even throbbing anymore, and she could move her fingers again.
Joshua pushed the soccer ball toward her, sweet baby laughter rolling free just as fast. He was such an adorable child, six teeth gleaming as he smiled. His joy just reached out and filled her right up.
“Beautiful boy,” Jocelyn Pearson-Stewart said from the open doorway. She’d ditched the hat on her gray-blonde hair. She was one of those women who aged with grace, comfortable in her own skin, free of implants or injections.
Amelia couldn’t help but think if she’d met this woman in everyday life, she would have liked her, respected her. She wanted to do that now, but this experience had made her a much more cautious person.
“Thank you, Jocelyn, for taking us in. Truly.” Amelia rolled the ball back to Joshua. “You’ve been so generous.”
“It’s nothing.” She sank into a wide rattan chair, a palm fan in her hand. “In a crisis, we all do what has to be done.”
“Once I’m back in the States”—she caught the ball as it rolled to her again—“I would like to reimburse you.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” Jocelyn fanned her face with slow swipes, but her eyes were sharp, alert. “I don’t have any needs.”
“All right.” Pride was a tricky thing. “Do you have a favorite charity? I’ll make a contribution to show my appreciation.”
“That’s very thoughtful.” Jocelyn nodded regally, odd given she was wearing stained khakis and a loose peasant shirt, but somehow, the whole package fit. “Something to do with the homeless would be appreciated. That’s first in our minds after a tragedy like this.”
The horrible catastrophe a few miles away came roaring back to the forefront of her mind. “Joshua and I are very lucky to be alive.”
“You’ve both been through a lot. I’ll be happy to watch this little sweetheart while you sleep.”
Amelia looked up fast, then forced a smile through the protective urges flooding her. “Thank you. That’s generous, but I can’t stand to be apart from him, especially after all we’ve been through. You understand.”
“Of course.” Jocelyn pushed to her feet. “I actually came out to let you know we’ll be eating supper in about fifteen minutes. Nothing fancy, but it’ll be a step above the mangoes and bananas you’ve probably been eating.” She dropped a kiss on top of Joshua’s head. “See you inside.”
As the woman left, Amelia snagged the fan left behind on the chair and whipped up a breeze for herself. Jocelyn was doing everything right, being completely nice and gracious. Still, Amelia desperately wanted to take Joshua and run somewhere… anywhere else, but her reality was here and now, making the best decisions she could in between earthquakes and snakebites.
The ball bounced off her foot. Joshua giggled, pulling her attention back to him. Where it should be. Where she wanted it to be.
“Hey, there, cutie-pie.” She waved the fan in front of his face until he laughed again, tugging the palm from her hands and whacking the ball.
Such a perfect moment. So simple, but pure. Normal, after far too much insanity.
Other than some scratches on his arms and one leg, there were no signs of the hell he’d been through. His arms waved with excitement and energy. His eyes were bright and alert. There was just… happiness. Happiness in spite of an earthquake and kidnapping. In spite of the fact that he’d been in an orphanage last week and his new parents could be dead.
Which left Joshua… where?
She rolled the ball back. With a soft baby chuckle, he flung himself over and into her arms. She hugged him close automatically. Then tighter. He wasn’t going anywhere except with her.
And God forbid anyone try to get in her way.
Jocelyn Pearson-Stewart pulled a knife from the wooden block in her kitchen and whipped the edge across the sharpening stone. Again and again, flipping the blade to get both sides.
She had always trusted her inner circle completely—until she’d been forced to put a bullet through Oliver’s head today. Killing Oliver tore at her soul. He was hired muscle, and disposable for the greater good of making sure her organization wouldn’t be exposed. She’d been warned he might be a loose cannon, but he’d been efficient. She hated those moments when she was forced into positions that made her feel no better than her drug-dealing family.
Forcing a smile for her dinner guests, she turned to the tile-topped island and a pile of the last fresh vegetables. She set to work chopping a salad—lettuce, cabbage, carrots, celery, radishes. Chop. Chop. She monitored each of her “nieces”—not blood relations, since all of hers were about as trustworthy as rats in a cheese shop.
Her nieces—sergeants in her business—carried plates and a serving bowl full of canned spaghetti. Their surprise company sat at the long table, illuminated by the sunset.
Chop. Chop. Everything in her world looked nice, normal, and most importantly, under control.
After Jocelyn had heard the gunshot on the beach, she’d found the trio within minutes, saving her hours of driving around, searching for them, once she’d realized how hugely Oliver had screwed up. She’d taken her time to assess them just beyond the cover of trees and decide if she should kill the two adults outright or if somehow this could be salvaged with no more loss of life. Especially since they appeared to be innocents who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. She preferred not to kill unless absolutely necessary to protect her operation. She was in the business of saving lives, not taking them.
Time. Chop. Chop. She just needed time to see how much they knew and if it could be traced back to her. So she’d called her compound to prepare. They’d been instructed to take the children—eleven of them—to the beach cabana. A skeleton crew was left at the main house, pretending to be her nieces, Courtney and Erin.
Number one rule for them to remember right now? Pretend they had no means of communication with the outside world and limited fuel until she figured out what to do with their unexpected company.
Thanks to her contact at the hospital, she’d learned Amelia was not the boy’s mother, but rather an aunt who’d only known him for a few days. It was unclear whether his parents were alive or not. Now she would use this opportunity to decide how much Hugh and Amelia knew, then proceed from there.
She sped—chop, chop, chop—through the rest of the vegetables, tossed them in a bowl, and circled round the island toward the carved oak table. Placing the bowl in the middle, she eyed the child sitting on his aunt’s lap as she fed him spoonfuls of cut-up spaghetti.
Jocelyn sat at the head of the table. “Sorry about the canned dinner, but our options are limited. We have fuel for the generator, but we’re conserving.”
Swiping Joshua’s mouth with her good hand, Amelia said, “Just sitting at a table feels… unreal. Sardines and crackers would be gourmet.”
Courtney grabbed the tongs and served herself salad. “Not a joke. That’s up soon on the menu.”
Erin gripped her water bottle in a white-knuckled fist. “How bad is it out there, Sergeant? We’ve heard reports on the radio.”