Tucking Joshua close, she crouched out of sight while she listened for Hugh—and didn’t hear him. God, the man had ghostly footsteps. She drank in the comfort of his training in big heaping gulps of air.
The scent of gasoline drifted by and she realized he must already be filling the tank. Soon, they would be racing away. Stealing a car. Deliberately ramming a gate. Then driving off on a hope and a prayer that they wouldn’t run into more trouble before they reached a civilization that was currently far from civilized.
But at least she wasn’t stuck underneath a hotel building anymore.
Hysteria built and she fought back the urge to laugh. Giggles bubbled up inside her until her eyes burned with tears. It had to be from the fuel’s fumes, because she refused to break down. She would hold up her end until she dropped. No quitting.
Hugh materialized beside her, so silent she hadn’t heard him approach. “You and Joshua sit in back. Buckle both of you in, then drape yourself over him to keep both of you down and out of the line of fire. Especially when we ram the gate. It’s not the perfect scenario for securing him, but it’s the best we can do without an infant seat.”
“Too bad her ‘nephew’ didn’t leave one of those lying around where we could see it.” Because from what Hugh had told her he’d discovered in that cottage, there had to be plenty of kiddy gear stashed all over this place to accommodate their baby-smuggling ring.
As a lawyer, she shuddered to think of the horror those children could land into, their identities taken off the grid and thrust into a world where no one was accountable for their well-being. Child prostitution and slave traffickers preyed on even well-meaning organizations that flew under the radar. The legal system and channels weren’t perfect, but they were a damn sight better than anything going on here. What a realization that such horror could be happening here, in this oceanside hideaway scented with frangipani and night-blooming jasmine.
She snapped the seat belt over Joshua’s lap, tightening the strap over his frighteningly vulnerable body. Then buckled herself in as well, securing the pillowcase full of baby supplies under the seat in front of her. While she understood Hugh’s reasoning and knew that the force of ramming the gate could wrench Joshua from her arms, she still ached to hold him.
The Jeep tilted as Hugh settled behind the wheel. He cranked the engine… and it caught. First try. Jocelyn’s place might not be brand-spanking-new looking, but apparently she kept her machinery in good mechanical condition. The engine hummed as smoothly as Hugh’s voice had.
Easing the vehicle forward, he drove slowly at first, no revving or grinding gears or spitting rocks. He increased the speed at a steady pace so the noise almost seemed to blend with the jungle night sounds.
He steered clear of the main house as long as possible, but even from her low vantage point, Amelia could see that eventually they would have to drive within sight of Jocelyn’s home. Going straight to the beach wasn’t an option, as Hugh had told her the entire place was fenced in. The front gate was the weakest vantage point for breaking out.
A car backfired in the distance. Then again.
Hugh cursed and nailed the gas.
Not a car backfiring, she realized. Someone was shooting at them. The windshield shattered. An inch farther to the left and the bullet would have hit Hugh.
She locked her arms tighter around Joshua. He squealed in protest, but keeping him quiet was pretty much a moot point now. Or would that be mute? God, there she went getting hysterical again.
“Brace yourself,” Hugh said. “We’re going through the gate.”
“Can you give me a three count?”
The Jeep jolted on impact, slamming her side back against the seat. She held her breath for a suspended second as he revved the gas and she wondered if they would make it—
Hugh ducked as parts of the shattered gate flew over the Jeep. They’d made it through. They had wheels and a tank full of gas.
“You two okay back there?”
“We’re fine. We’re completely okay? You?”
“I’m good,” he answered, his words clipped. “Stay down though.”
Her elation faded as she heard the sound of sirens, alarms from the compound. How soon before some of those other cars came after them, driven by people who knew the lay of the land better?
The Jeep jostled over the rough terrain, branches smacking the roll bars as they sped through the jungle. She had no idea how long he drove like a bat out of hell, but she kept herself draped over Joshua as he whimpered, protecting him, talking softly to him, even singing in her awful off-key voice. She thought she heard another car in the distance, the sound seeming louder. Maybe?
“Hugh—” she shouted.
“Roger,” he barked back. “I got ’em in the rearview mirror.”
“What’re we going to do?” Fear crushed her chest as she stared into Joshua’s eyes. What impossible decisions a parent had to make to protect a child. This had to be a special hell for Hugh, after losing his wife and daughter. How could his big generous heart cope if anything were to happen to them now, despite his superhuman efforts?
“They’re in vans. I’m heading toward the beach. It’s more open, more exposed, but they won’t have the same traction we will.”
She stared at the back of his vulnerable head and thought about the gunfire earlier. “If you’re sure.”“I’m sure it’s our best odds.”
“Okay, then.” Like they really had a choice at this point.
He half stood in his seat, twisting to fire his gun at whoever followed them. Damn it, she could do that part.
“Give me the gun,” she yelled. “I’ll shoot. You drive.” She would be in a better position for coverage and he would be a much safer driver.
He passed the gun over the seat. Thank God he saw the wisdom of her judgment and hadn’t wasted time arguing. She eased up in the seat, aimed the gun at the van’s radiator, and squeezed off a shot. The gun’s recoil knocked her against Hugh’s seat.
“You okay?” he shouted.
“Just fine.” And better prepared now.
Pop. Pop. She squeezed off two more shots that made her ears ring. The first van spun out as the engine spewed smoke. A second van roared around, taking the lead as the other stopped altogether.
Hugh steered around a tree. “Good job evening up the odds. Need you to hunker back down, though, and hold on tight. This next part’s gonna be rough.”
Like the rest wasn’t? She passed the gun back to Hugh.
Amelia ducked behind the seat again, staring at her feet bouncing on the floor from the rough ride. She locked her arms and gave Joshua a kiss on his forehead.
The Jeep raced out of the jungle, going airborne for an instant before landing in the muddy sand. Her teeth slammed together. Blood filled her mouth and she realized she’d bitten her tongue. Joshua started crying in earnest, his fearful wails tearing at her heart. She checked him over with her hands as best she could and he didn’t appear hurt. Just terrified.
“I’m right there with you, sweetie,” she whispered in his ear. “Hang in there.”
Rear tires fishtailed, spewing sand as the Jeep worked to catch traction. Just when she’d begun to fear they were going to bog down… the four-wheel drive launched forward smoothly, flying across the sand like a sailboat over smooth waters.
She looked up at Hugh again in the rearview mirror, her mouth so dry she could barely form words. “Update? Please?”
Smiling, he winked back at her. “Other van’s stuck in the sand. How’s the kiddo?”
“Vocal.” She eased up and checked every inch, kissing each precious finger and toe to be sure. “Pissed off, but completely unscathed.”
“Nice work. In about ten miles we should be home free.”
“Home free,” she repeated, some of the relief seeping away since they were headed right back to the middle of a lawless city devastated by an earthquake.
Holding an IV bag, Liam raced alongside the litter carrying their latest rescue toward the open cargo plane of the C-17 preparing for takeoff on the crappy small runway—basically a long strip of dirt.
“Hold, hold,” Liam shouted, as he jogged beside the victim he’d just freed from under a collapsed college building. “We’ve got one more. Critical. Head trauma and double amputee. Gotta get him out.”
A three-ship of cargo planes roared overhead. Aircraft had been flying in and out at a regular clip, transporting humanitarian relief from the U.S., Canada, Brazil, Italy, and Cuba, and the list of countries grew by the day. More than twenty so far. Ports were beginning to fill with boats and ships as well. Some supplies, especially early on, were parachuted in.
The loadmaster in the C-17 raised a thumbs-up and waived them forward. “Haul ass, sir. We’ve gotta clear out.”
There wasn’t much parking space alongside the already-short runway, so as soon as supplies, troops, and relief workers were unloaded, the cargo hold was filled with departing injured and they were quickly airborne again. The C-17 was the world’s premier cargo craft for delivering troops and supplies anywhere, anytime, able to land on dirt runways as short as thirty-five hundred feet and as narrow as ninety feet.
Communication was improving with more reliable cell phone reception, satellite phones, and radios. And still he hadn’t heard anything more about Hugh Franco, the woman, and the child. Meeting the woman’s family—Dr. Aiden Bailey and his wife, Lisabeth—hadn’t brought any new information on the whereabouts of the missing trio. The Baileys had looked at him with such damn hopeful eyes, as if he could deliver their loved ones back to them. It had been hard as hell to tell them he knew nothing more than they did. Just that Hugh, Amelia, and the baby, Joshua, had last been seen together at the field hospital set up in a school.
Never had keeping his focus sharp been more difficult than now. One foot in front of the other, he kept charging ahead because he couldn’t afford to deal with the emotional fallout until afterward.
His combat boots clanked along the load ramp as they passed over the patient. Turning, he almost slammed into a vaguely familiar military nurse handing off an infant to a refugee in the plane.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” he said, angling past, checking her name tag, then remembering.
“No problem, sir,” answered Lieutenant Gable, the nurse from the school/hospital.
Another reminder of how he’d screwed up in not keeping a closer eye on Franco. He’d known the guy was more on edge than ever and hadn’t pulled him out of the field. Liam had weighed the risk to Franco against all the lives in danger here… and had chosen wrong.
After nearly twenty years of service, maybe it was time for him to call it quits. Liam had enlisted in the army at eighteen, become an Airborne Ranger medic, gotten his college degree, then switched service branches to become a PJ. Maybe his body was just past the point of being able to do this kind of work. Shit, it sucked getting old, and why the hell did nearing forty have to be considered old?
He tipped his head skyward, where life was crisper, cleaner, with only the clear blue, some puffy clouds and airplanes. He could almost feel the rush of plummeting out of the craft, arms wide as he hugged the air in free fall.
Stepping away from the C-17 as the load ramp raised, he scrubbed a hand over his bleary eyes, his hand coming back full of grime and sweat. He needed to haul ass over to the hooch to shower and sleep. But he was still too restless from the lack of information, too wired from the last rescue mission. He grabbed two water bottles from a relief station, drinking one in a long continuous swallow and then pouring the other over his head.
Since he knew from experience that sleep wasn’t going to come his way anytime soon, he let his feet carry him past his quarters to the cottage next door. Seeking out Rachel Flores was becoming more and more of a habit over the past days. They were pretty much on the same shift…