She wanted to stand right here in this spot, in the place where she still had a living son named Joshua. In a time where her sister-in-law still might call at any second, her dearest friend as well as family.
Aiden slipped his arm around her waist and guided her forward. And how strange was that? She was always the one who faced life head-on, while he lost himself in work or moody silences. But something had shifted between them when they’d made love in the van last night. Something amazing and beautiful. It seemed wrong that they found this closer connection only to have to use it to support each other through grief.
She followed the uniformed guard from their tent into a smaller one set up next to it. He pushed the flap back and she saw—
Her knees gave out, but luckily Aiden’s arm was still banded around her waist, even if he had gone pale.
Whole body trembling, she reached out to the precious, beautiful pair in front of her. “Joshua? Amelia? Oh my God, you’re both here, alive, okay.”
Her sister-in-law smiled, jostling the baby on her hip. Amelia was scraped and scruffy, wearing stained khakis and a loose shirt belted with a gun holster. She looked nothing like the poised attorney who wore power suits and pearls. A million questions raced through Lisabeth’s mind as she wondered what had happened to Amelia since the earthquake.
But all that could wait.
She let her eyes settle on her child. Her baby boy, born in her heart if not from her body. He smiled with all six teeth showing, jingling a pair of handcuffs in his fist.
And somehow, even though she couldn’t remember moving, they were all hugging, she and Amelia, with the baby between them and Aiden’s big strong arms around all of them. Their words jumbled together.
“Where were you—?”
“—and how did you escape?”
“The hospital said—”
“—thought you were dead.”
They stayed in the massive, amazing huddle for… she had no idea how long. The relief was so huge, so incredible, she felt like the collective hug held them all upright. Then the precious little guy between them started squirming in protest.
Laughing and crying at the same time, she pulled back enough to see him again. She kissed his forehead, stroked his hair, and studied every finger and toe as if he’d been newly born.
Dimly, she heard her husband talking beside her.
“Amelia, I don’t know how to thank you. We’ve only heard a little of what you’ve been through, but my God, what you’ve done to keep him safe through the earthquake and kidnapping… I’m just so glad you’re both alive and in one piece.”
“I can’t take all the credit,” Amelia said. “He’s a strong little boy with a fighting spirit beyond anything anyone could imagine. And even so, without Hugh—you’ll meet him soon—without the help of Hugh Franco, we never would have made it.”
Lisabeth saw a flash of something in Amelia’s eyes, as blue as Aiden’s. A flash of emotion deeper than her words suggested.
Aiden skimmed a hand over Joshua’s head. “I’m glad he could be there for you both. I look forward to thanking him in person. Is he around here?”
“I’m afraid not,” Amelia said, worry dripping from her words. “He’s out on a mission right now. I don’t know all the details. Just that he’s leading authorities to the place where we were held.”
The reality of all they had been through, of what her sister-in-law must have endured to keep Joshua safe, was almost too much to take in. Lisabeth let the tears keep streaking down her face. She didn’t even bother drying them, because there were plenty more that had been bottled up.
“Joshua.” She sighed her child’s name, which she’d chosen especially for him during the weeks she’d looked at his photo and dreamed of when she could bring him home. She slid her hands under his arms and—
He arched away. His tiny fists clamped onto Amelia’s shirt and clung to her.
Her throat clogged with more tears. Had he already forgotten her? They’d had so little time together, only a couple of days as the paperwork was being finalized. She and Aiden had been planning to spend this week in the familiar locale to acclimate him to the new relationship before heading home. Had he acclimated himself to his aunt instead?
Amelia patted his back. “We’ll take it slow. We don’t have to go all or nothing today. I’m here as long as you all need me.” A hint of panic slipped into Amelia’s tone.
Pure panic slid through Lisabeth. Had her sister-in-law bonded with him?
Lisabeth looked up quickly at Aiden. Their peace, his acceptance of his role as a father, was still so fresh. Would he use this as an excuse to back out? His eyes were inscrutable behind the glasses as he studied his sister and the baby.
Who knew what he was thinking right now? Who knew what he would do?
Amelia pulled a wobbly smile. “When we were on the run, Joshua liked bananas and he especially enjoyed it when Hugh sang to him.”
Nodding once, Aiden scooped Joshua out of Amelia’s arms so confidently and quickly, the baby blinked in surprise.
Then his bottom lip started trembling and Aiden said quickly, “Would you like a banana? I’m sure there’s got to be a banana around this place somewhere.”
“’Nana? ’Nana, ’nana, ’nana…” Joshua chanted. His lip steadied for a minute, even if his little brow was still creased into deep furrows.
His wide dark eyes went to Amelia, who stood off to the side, her bandaged hand covering her mouth, unshed tears welling.
“Hey,” Aiden continued, “if you want a song, you’ll have to get that from this beautiful lady here, your mom.” He hitched Joshua on his hip like a seasoned parent. “Because I’m pretty much tone-deaf like my sister.” All that time spent with other children—his patients—over the years had obviously taught him more than a few tricks in handling a frightened, wary child.
Amelia smiled, her eyes watering as she turned to Lisabeth. “He’s really good with Joshua, don’t you think?”
Too choked up to speak, Lisabeth nodded tearily.
Aiden kept up a steady stream of conversation with their son, who was so mesmerized he dropped the handcuffs and reached for Aiden’s glasses. Seeing their two heads together, Aiden’s so fair and Joshua’s so dark, touched Lisabeth’s heart.
There was something more here than a doctor comforting a patient. She’d seen that often enough to know this went deeper. The image of them together clicked into place in her mind.
Father and son.
Parent and child.
And in that moment, Lisabeth fell in love with her husband all over again.
Hugh rode in the passenger seat of the military Humvee, the last in the line of four vehicles that had raided Jocelyn Pearson-Stewart’s property. The caravan churned up a cloud of dust as they made their way back to the military compound near the airfield.
The victory had been swift, but incomplete.
Jocelyn had escaped before they arrived. In fact, the whole compound had been deserted. However they’d managed to apprehend some refugees from the property. They’d hauled in Jocelyn’s “nieces”—Courtney and Erin—although it was clear now that they weren’t actually relatives. The two women and a number of other guards had been driving away in a caravan of vehicles with ten children.
Ten. Not eleven.
He hooked his arm out the open window while the Humvee driver coordinated his route with the truck ahead. Hugh barely registered what they were saying, his thoughts scattered as hell even as he kept his eyes on the dusty city in the distance. Had he miscounted the number of kids? He didn’t think so, but it was possible. His surveillance of the beach cottage had been late at night from a distance. He could have counted one baby twice.
But if he hadn’t?
That meant Jocelyn was out there somewhere with a vulnerable child at a time when lawlessness was rampant. There simply weren’t enough security forces available to search for her. They’d been lucky to shut down the home base of the smuggling operation.
He just hated loose ends. Hated that there was a chance justice might never be served for heaven only knew how many children had been shuttled through her illegal organization.
Now he needed to find Amelia and let her know what happened. And yeah, he needed to see her. To reassure himself that she and Joshua were safely with their family.
It had been scary as hell having her and the kid vulnerable on his watch. Yet it hadn’t flipped him out the way it would have a couple of years ago. He would never be whole, but then again, maybe he wasn’t walking the same tightrope he used to—a razor’s edge between himself and danger.
And he had Amelia to thank for that. She’d reminded him that he mattered and his efforts mattered. Whereas before, he’d been throwing himself into hellish situations as much to tempt fate as to save people. He wouldn’t rest easy until they were on an airplane to the States.
Would he contact her in the “real” world? Ask her out in a regular kind of way? It wasn’t as if she lived on the other side of the universe. Only a few hours apart.
The ground shook under his feet. Exhaustion or another aftershock? Just the Jeep stuttering along a rippled stretch of land leading to the airstrip. He was supposed to meet McCabe here—which was code for the major figuring out if he could trust Hugh back in the field.
The line of vehicles stopped one after the other. The temporary base that had been set up shortly after the earthquake had grown since he’d seen it last—more tents, portable hangars, more parked aircraft, and definitely more personnel. The suspects and children would be held here until local authorities sorted through the kidnapping mess.
At least this place was on the outskirts of the devastation, a tent city of sorts constructed on open land. Uprooted trees and buckled earth were the only signs of the recent earthquake.
He vaulted out of the Humvee, scanning for McCabe—but looking for Amelia. She and Joshua had been brought here to reunite with her brother and sister-in-law.
Amelia was here.
His pulse ramped at just the thought of seeing her. God, he was turning into a sap. He was even pumped about seeing the kid—
Except the child would be with his parents now. As life should be. Still, his feet slowed and he wasn’t sure why. He should be relieved to have Amelia to himself, to talk to her, to figure out where they would take things next.
The ground vibrated under his feet. Aftershock or airplane taking off? He scanned the dirt runway, already moving to the most open space, away from anything that could collapse on top of him. And where the hell was Amelia?
It had to be an aftershock. He hoped. Because the alternative sucked.
The ground steadied. He waited. Still steady. Exhaling, he shrugged a kink out of his neck just as McCabe stepped from around a tent. The major stalled in his tracks. He grabbed the tent pole, paling.
Hugh strode toward him. “You okay, sir?”
“Yeah…” He straightened slowly, his camos crusty and his eyes red rimmed, no doubt from round-the-clock shifts. “Just damn glad to see you alive.”
McCabe hauled him in for a hug, thumping him between the shoulder blades, and Hugh had to admit he was choked up too.
“There were times it was touch-and-go.” He pulled away, but wasn’t in any hurry to be under shelter. The wide-open spaces looked better and safer all the time. “This place has turned into such a lawless mess since the quake.”
“And every time the earth starts shaking again—like a few seconds ago—people go a little batty.”
“Understandable.” Hugh thought back to that time underground with Amelia, how she’d held it together in spite of how often it had seemed the building would collapse the rest of the way on top of her.
“Last report puts the count at seventeen aftershocks since the original earthquake, with more undoubtedly to come.” Squinting into the sun, McCabe stared out toward the ocean. “At least they canceled the tsunami warning.”