His eyes slid back to Joshua in the crib and nodded once. “I did. And we stared at Tilly’s face when she slept, and yes, we talked about what we thought that precious angel-faced baby would do with her life.”
Amelia watched him with those piercing eyes, her lawyer eyes that saw so much.
“Tilly colored on walls and defended her rights in the playground sandbox. She was tiny though, born two months prematurely. She spent three weeks in the NICU.”
He set the guitar aside, the fear of that time filling him up again even in memories. “I prepared myself to lose her during that time. But once she made it through?” He shook his head. “I let my guard down. I got complacent, let myself dream of the day she would start first grade, ride a bike, get her license… And while I know it’s unreasonable to expect I could have saved her, I took her for granted, and that’s what I find the hardest to live with.”
She rested her hands on his knees and stayed silent, thank God, she stayed silent. There weren’t words that could make this any better. Although the pain didn’t continue to grow. Her touch didn’t make it go away, but at least it didn’t increase.
He thought that maybe he could actually explain how they died, something he always left to other people to explain. Staying silent, staying busy had been how he survived for five years.
But right now in the silence with Amelia, he found himself saying “I told you before that my wife and daughter—Marissa and Tilly—died in an airplane crash. A fluke, couldn’t even pin it on mechanical error or pilot error. A wind shear forced the airplane down shortly after takeoff. There was no chance for recovery. The jet broke apart.”
Looking in her eyes became too much, so he glanced away and stroked the neck of the soundless guitar.
Her hand rested on top of his. “I’m so very sorry. I can’t even begin to imagine how painful that must have been, must still be for you.”
And she needed to hear the rest. He needed to say it, finally. “It happened when Tilly was in kindergarten, the Christmas after the pet-rock preschool incident. They were going to spend a month with her mother since I was deployed for the holiday. We didn’t really have the money for the tickets, but I surprised her anyway. Put the whole thing on a credit card because I felt so damn guilty about being away too much.”
“You can’t possibly feel responsible.” She clasped his hands, dipping her head and forcing him to meet her eyes. “You couldn’t have predicted that.”
He tapped his temple. “Up here, I know that.” He tapped his chest. “Down here has a tough time comprehending. If I’d gotten out of the air force and taken some regular nine-to-five job, she wouldn’t have needed to go to her parents. She wouldn’t have been so lonely and stressed-out. I wouldn’t have missed over half of my daughter’s too-short life.”
She squeezed his hands harder… Except he realized he was the one holding so tightly. She hadn’t winced even when he must have been close to breaking her fingers.
He let go abruptly. The reason for all this pouring out of his guts came to him. He needed to make her realize. “Amelia, I may be good with the kid, but I can’t go there again.”
Standing, he walked to the French doors, needing to keep his back to her, needing a second to pull his shit together. He needed to get back to the rescue site, back to work. He was technically AWOL by now. But that worried him less than the fact he was needed and not there.
The time in this place had been needed. But now they’d taken care of finding what they needed for Joshua. Amelia would have the night to sleep. In the morning, if there wasn’t a vehicle available, they would have to leave.
Leaving them behind… He couldn’t do that. Not with the past still dogging his ass.
He stared out into the darkness, with only the moon and a handful of stars. There was no city in the distance, no traffic, not even outbuildings. Only the buzz of bugs, the low hum of the generator, and the whistle of the wind rustling the trees. The branches swayed, moving, parting… revealing…
A light shone in the distance. A light that couldn’t be incidental, since it required power, an extra generator. Moreover, the light came from a house on the property. A property Jocelyn Pearson-Stewart had said was empty except for them.
“I need to do a walkabout.”
Amelia jolted upright in bed, wondering if Hugh had lost his ever-loving mind. “You’re leaving?”
“Just scouting,” he said, turning away from the French doors. “It may be nothing, but there’s a suspicious light out there. If Jocelyn’s hiding something, or if she’s become a target because she helped us out, then I need to know. Oliver has no doubt managed to untie himself by now and is out there somewhere. We don’t know why he targeted Joshua, but I need to be damn sure Oliver doesn’t come near either of you again.”
He crossed the room in five long steps and checked the lock on the door leading out to the hall. He tugged on his shirt and boots. Their weapons were lined up on the dresser, two guns and a pair of knives. He took one of each for himself. The fact that Jocelyn hadn’t asked for them had to be a good sign. Right?
Maybe he was overreacting. It wasn’t as if the woman had slipped tranquilizers or poison in the canned spaghetti. But even if their host posed no threat, that didn’t mean Joshua was safe.
Her stomach jolted with nerves. “Um, do you think you could make that ‘walkabout’ really quick? Because I don’t have a good feeling about this.”
“Very fast. I promise.” He dropped a quick kiss on her head, even though from his eyes she could see he’d already slipped away from her. “No one will know I’ve left. Keep the door locked and the gun close. If you have any problems or concerns, shoot once or scream your head off, and I will be back before you can blink. I swear.”
Gnawing her bottom lip, she crossed the nursery nook and peeked behind the curtain, just to reassure herself Joshua was okay. His back rose and fell with each steady breath.She let the curtain fall back into place and turned to Hugh. “You’re certain about going? I can’t help but think of those teenage horror movies where we all shouted, ‘Don’t go in the basement!’”
He paused halfway through putting on his survival vest and grinned. “So which is it we’re living in here? Horror movie or ‘Hotel California’?”
His smile faded. “This is my job. It’s what I’m trained to do, and believe me, I wouldn’t leave unless I thought it was absolutely necessary.”
“All right then.” She picked at the bandage on her hand and tried not to think about the human snakes with a much deadlier bite. “Pass me the damn pistol.”
Hugh scooped up the other 9 mm, Oliver’s, and placed it into her hands. “Just in case.”
“Just in case,” she repeated, her fingers closing around the cool steel.
“You are… amazing.” He cupped the back of her neck, her hair a tangled damp mess around her face. But she looked in his green eyes and saw Hugh. Here and totally with her for this moment before he left.
He kissed her, another of those intense kisses that was about more than passion. The kind that made her think about what life might be like after they left this nightmare behind. Then his touch slid away.
He opened the balcony doors, stared into the distance for an instant before he stepped out onto the porch and simply disappeared from sight.
His stealthiness gave her a moment’s pause. Although she reminded herself that was a good thing. If she didn’t see him while looking, then others wouldn’t either. Still, butterflies kicked around inside her stomach. Fear. How much longer until she could feel safe again?
A rustling noise from across the room shook her out of her useless self-pity. Joshua shuffled and kicked in his sleep. She had to think of him first.
She yanked on her underwear quickly and pulled the Bahamas T-shirt back over her head. She strapped the gun belt around her waist and slipped into the borrowed khaki pants. If something happened, she needed to be ready to move. The boots Jocelyn had offered were much more practical than the battered and soggy tennis shoes she’d been given at the hospital a couple of days ago.
A cry from the crib carried her across the room. As she tugged aside the curtain, she found Joshua tugging himself up to stand. “B’ana? B’ana?”
He reached for her even as she stretched out her arms for him. A diaper change and song and cuddle later, he still hadn’t gone back to sleep. He continued to chant, “B’ana, b’ana.”
No doubt, the child was hungry. She tugged her T-shirt over her belt and hitched Joshua onto her other hip. After all he’d been through he would have catching up to do filling his tummy again and why, why, why hadn’t she thought to bring snacks from the kitchen?
The thought of leaving the safety of their locked room scared the spit out of her. She did not want to qualify for the too-stupid-to-live starring role in one of those slasher films. She jostled Joshua faster, patting his back and making shh, shh, shh sounds. God forbid he wake up others in the house and have one of them see Hugh running around the compound.
Okay, so the decision not to go downstairs wasn’t as clear-cut as she’d thought. She eyed the door, then the yard. Was that Hugh darting behind a tree?
Joshua’s bottom lip jutted out with only a second’s warning before he started crying again, harder this time, louder. If he kept this up, the whole house would be awake.
Keeping Joshua happy and quiet would be the best way to help buy Hugh more time and safety—which was in the best interests of all three of them.
“Okay, okay, sweetie. We’ll go find a banana.” And now that she thought about it further, she might as well use this opportunity to store up extra food in case they did need to leave when Hugh got back.
And she definitely needed to make this fast so she could be sure to return before him.
With each step down the worn wood staircase, she pushed back those thoughts of high school horror flicks. Picking her way through the dark didn’t exactly help steady her heart rate.
Whispers from the kitchen slithered down the corridor. She hugged Joshua closer and walked softly on. Peering into the kitchen, she found Jocelyn’s nieces, Erin and Courtney, standing at the island with their heads close together as they talked. Courtney’s long strawberry blonde hair contrasted with Erin’s sleek brown bob. They didn’t look much like sisters, about twenty years apart in age. Or were they cousins? Jocelyn hadn’t been clear about the relationship between her nieces.
Both still wore the same jeans and T-shirts they’d had on at dinner time, which seemed strange this late at night. But then they could have gotten dressed again as she had, not wanting to wander around in a nightshirt with strangers around.
Their voices weren’t loud enough for her to understand what they said. Their quiet could be chalked up to good manners, trying not to disturb others.
Amelia stepped deeper into the kitchen, fears for Hugh making the air too thick to breathe. “Where’s Jocelyn?”
They jolted apart sharply. With guilt?
Courtney picked up a bottle of juice off the counter, her ponytail swinging, she moved so quickly. “She’s asleep. What do you need?”
Easy enough to answer truthfully. “The baby’s having trouble sleeping. I just need to find something for him to eat. Jocelyn wouldn’t happen to have any baby food left over from that nephew’s kid?”
Erin opened the cupboard doors. “Afraid not. But we have plenty of canned goods. SpaghettiOs? There’s some applesauce. Crackers. Help yourself. Aunt Jocelyn has an open-pantry policy.”
Courtney extended her arms. “Let me hold the little guy while you look.”
“Um, thanks,” Amelia clutched him closer, and God love the little imp, he locked his arms around her neck. “I have to confess I’m clingy with him after all we’ve been through.”