And it did help, her voice, her smile, just looking in her deep brown eyes. So he kept right on doing that for as long as she would stare back in their intriguingly comfortable silence. A realization sunk in that for all their sexual banter, regardless of how incredibly attracted he was to her, he needed to keep this relationship on a smart level. He was developing a friendship with this woman, something he’d never had before. Sure enough, if he let sex or love into the mix, he would screw the whole thing up. He always had and had come to accept he always would.

A sharp movement out of the corner of his eye tugged at his attention and he looked away. A security-force guy wearing another country’s uniform charged up the stairs to the next cottage—where he and his team were bunking—and pounded on the door.

Setting aside his boxed meal, Liam stood, his brow furrowing. “Can I help you?”

The security cop turned toward him. “Major William McCabe,” he said with a thick accent to match his Brazilian uniform. “I am looking for Major William McCabe.”

“That would be me.” He started down the steps, his gut twisting as all the concerns he’d managed to put aside for a half hour came rushing back. “I’m Major William—Liam—McCabe.”

“Graças a Deus, thank God, a security force on the beach picked up three people—a man, a woman, and a child.” The young serviceman met him on the buckled road between the two buildings.

Liam forced his steps to stay steady as he listened and hoped.

“They said they are looking for you, sir. You are missing one of your soldiers? No? Sargento Franco?” The Brazilian cop held up his satellite phone and continued, “He said it’s urgent he speak with you.”

Chapter 17

Satellite phone in hand, Hugh stood in a tent used to house security forces. A mixture of local police and military cops from more countries than he could count stood guard beyond, as far as the eye could see. Tasked with keeping looters from flocking to the epicenter of the earthquake damage, they’d been wary when Hugh had driven up with Amelia and Joshua.

After some fast talking, he’d convinced them to let him contact his commanding officer, even to give him a moment’s privacy to relay what he’d seen. Hopefully McCabe could instigate some kind of troop force to raid Jocelyn Pearson-Stewart’s property before the children were moved.

Hugh gripped the phone tighter, wishing like hell he’d been able to lay his hands on one of these two days ago. How different things would have been if Oliver hadn’t tossed his comm gear out of the van. Although then they wouldn’t have uncovered Jocelyn’s operation.

“Major McCabe speaking.” Liam McCabe’s familiar voice traveled over the airwaves.

Hugh grabbed the edge of the back of a chair for support, sweat popping on his brow from more than just the muggy day. “God, am I glad to hear your voice, sir.”

“Same here, Franco.” A hefty exhalation echoed through the earpiece. “Now cut the ‘sir’ crap and just tell me where the hell you’ve been.”

His gaze tracked to Amelia and Joshua sitting on a blanket, playing with a pair of handcuffs. She jingled them in front of the kid like some kind of toy, their half-eaten MRE forgotten beside them.

“Amelia Bailey and her nephew were kidnapped from the hospital, the one set up in the school.” After he’d let himself get distracted from the danger and had sex with her in the closet. He ground his teeth, editing the story heavily. “I, uh, ended up being taken along for the ride.”

That hellish moment slammed through him, that instant when he’d seen Amelia slung over Oliver’s shoulder and hadn’t known if she was alive or dead.

“Sir, it’s a long story and I am more than glad to share every detail in debrief.” Every detail except the part about sex in the supply closet. “But we have more pressing concerns first. While we were in the jungle, we stumbled upon what appears to be a black-market baby-smuggling operation.”

He could almost hear McCabe sitting up straighter. “Wanna run that by me again?”

“It’s some kind of under-the-radar child-trafficking ring. I can lead security forces directly to the location where they’re holding at least eleven children. Although now that we escaped, they’re likely to relocate soon. We have to act fast before they move them. And I need you to convince these folks that I’m legit.”

“Can do. And hey, I’m glad you’re all right. I would have missed having your sorry ass around.”

“Love you too, sir.”

“Get back here safely—Oh, and hell, wait a second. Your friend probably doesn’t know. Her brother and sister-in-law are alive and well. They’ve been working in one of the local field hospitals when they weren’t tearing up the place looking for her and the kid.”

“She’ll be relieved to hear.” And he could be sure she was safe in her brother’s care while the matter with Jocelyn was being handled.

“Okay, then, hand over the phone to whoever’s in command there and let’s get the ball rolling.”

“Roger that.” Hugh passed the receiver back to the Brazilian sergeant. “Major McCabe needs to speak with your commanding officer, stat.”

Given the Brazilian guy’s wide eyes, it appeared he’d been listening anyway because he didn’t waste a second shouting out for a capitão the next tent over.

Hugh figured he had about three minutes with Amelia. And still he couldn’t deny himself a second to soak in the sight of her, safe and whole amidst a veritable army of volunteers. No one would touch her. Or Joshua. The adrenaline letdown must have kicked in a double dose because his knees damn near gave out at the sight. He hunkered down beside her and the kid.

She looked up. “You spoke to someone in your unit?”

“My commanding officer is verifying my identity now. I’ll be heading out with some of the cops here to go to Jocelyn’s.” He cupped the back of her neck. “I also found out that your brother and his wife are alive and uninjured.”

“Thank God.” She sagged against him, gasping, damn near hyperventilating. She blinked fast. “I can’t believe it, but oh my God…”

He hauled her close to his side, barely able to believe they’d gotten out alive. “One of the cops here will escort you two back to them and we’ll get you on the first plane out of here.”

“And you?”

“I’m still on the job.” His thumb stroked the side of her neck. Even though he didn’t want to leave her, it was probably just as well he was going back into the field, since his emotions threatened to bleed right out if he didn’t tighten up posthaste. “We’ll talk, though. Soon. I promise.”

She cradled his face in her hands. “Be careful. Promise?”

For five years he’d been anything but careful. He wasn’t sure he even knew how anymore. But looking at Amelia and the little boy sitting next to her teething on a pair of handcuffs, Hugh actually cared whether he came out of this alive.

And having a woman hold his heart in her hands again scared him a helluva lot more than the hazardous mission ahead.

***

Jocelyn drove her other Jeep along a back road through the jungle. It wasn’t her best four-wheel-drive vehicle. That military man and his girlfriend had stolen her personal transportation and escaped. Rage, frustration, and impending doom shuddered through her as tangibly as the latest aftershock shaking coconuts from the trees.

She didn’t have much time left. Once that air force guy made his way to someone with a working cell phone, her whole compound would be exposed.

The Jeep jostled over roots and buckled earth. The remote road was known to few. But then she’d thought her homestead was secure as well.

She didn’t know how he’d found out, but then she wouldn’t have expected him to be able to steal her Jeep and escape with a woman and child in tow, no less. Why the hell hadn’t she killed Hugh and Amelia when she had the chance? But she’d genuinely thought she had them safely locked down. Maybe she was getting soft in her old age. She’d hoped she could find a way to spare their lives. If they didn’t know anything about her operation, she could let them go free. They were innocent people trapped by Oliver’s mistake. God, she tried so hard to be better than her family, to prove she didn’t take lives unnecessarily.

Her fists went white-knuckled around the steering wheel. She’d overestimated herself and her people. And the mistake was going to cost her everything.

Nineteen years of work, over in a day.

It wasn’t as if she had millions of dollars tucked away in some Cayman account to help her slip away and start fresh. Every penny she’d made through those adoptions had gone right back into the operation. Helping abused spouses create new identities. Funding the forces necessary to take those babies in need and house them until homes could be found.

Branches whipped at the windshield as she tore along the narrow road her people had carved out of the woods. She’d been so certain this was her time, the moment she’d been created for. Where her whole operation could be the salvation for dozens, hundreds even, of those orphaned in this natural disaster. She would be their guardian angel.

Instead, this had ended her.

Already she could hear sirens in the distance. Police vehicles coming to raid her home. To arrest her warriors. To take all the children.

She couldn’t let those sirens, the destruction of her operation, be the end. She had to save at least one more child. According to her contact, there was a U.S. cargo plane heading out today with space enough to slip one child in with falsified paperwork. And she had that one baby girl strapped into a car seat in back.

Now Jocelyn just needed to make it to the rendezvous point, to hook up with her guardian warrior from the United States—the military nurse who’d been instrumental in helping her smuggle out four other babies since the earthquake hit.

The sirens grew fainter as she put more distance between herself and the plantation. Only a few more miles until she could meet up with Lieutenant Gable. Together, they would save this last child.

And then? Jocelyn didn’t care if she lived or died now that her mission of mercy had been brutally ripped from her. Without her children—her whole purpose for being—she was nothing but a bankrupt expatriate with nowhere to turn.

Perhaps a little of her mobster family’s blood coursed through her veins after all. Because with nothing left to lose, now she lived only to make sure those responsible for exposing the Guardian paid the ultimate price for what they’d destroyed.

***

Lisabeth’s whole body shook so badly her teeth chattered. She could hardly believe that finally, finally, the fear and grief would end. She would have her baby Joshua in her arms again.

Thank God for Aiden’s supportive arm around her waist as they waited in the small mobile command post set up near the runway where air force planes took off and landed at regular intervals. The command center consisted of a tent and a bunch of computers and other tech equipment on pallets, hooked up to a huge military generator. Even nearly a week after the earthquake, this place still looked like a bombed-out war zone, but at least communications were improving.

They’d been told by Major McCabe that they would be leaving on one of the night’s flights out. Returning home would feel like culture shock—but so very welcome. As she stared at the destruction, her heart squeezed with grief for those who didn’t have the chance to simply leave.

“Dr. Bailey? Mrs. Bailey? Could you step outside for a moment, please?” The woman in uniform looked so official. So serious.

Had something gone wrong? Why couldn’t the woman have just smiled? Lisabeth’s head went dizzy and she stumbled.

Aiden grabbed her elbow. “I’m here, Lisabeth. Whatever happens, I’m always going to be here for you…”



----