“There was one?”
McCabe looked over his shoulder at him, grinning. “Sometimes being out of touch can be a blessing, my friend.”
“That it can.” Hugh stepped alongside him and they stood together quietly. Hugh took in the still earth, the flow of business moving at a steady clip. Not dragging, but not too hurried either.
McCabe finally turned to him again. “Take twelve hours, check in with a doc, and then you’re going to report in for duty.”
“I can report up now.”
“No offense, but you’re not known for understanding human limitations. Take twelve hours. I’ve got half our guys out there now.” McCabe was a lighthearted dude—except when he wasn’t. And right now, he was wearing the no-bullshit expression. “You can join the rest when we rotate.”
“Yes, sir.” He knew an order when he heard one.
McCabe clapped him on the back once more before starting toward his Humvee. He called over his shoulder. “Just in case you were wondering, the lady you saved ran into that storage tent about ten minutes ago. She looked pretty upset.”
Hugh snapped to attention, his focus zipping over to the supply tent, drab gray and so densely packed with pallets he couldn’t see inside. He thought about her inside alone, and given the family reunion she’d just had, he could too easily figure out what must have happened. She’d passed over her nephew to his parents.
A baby she’d grown attached to this week. How could she not, after all they’d been through? She’d been ready to die for that child. Had fought to stay alive for him after the earthquake, making sure Hugh never forgot the boy was there, insisting he was alive when anyone else would have given up. Joshua owed her his life.
And again she’d given him a chance at a bright future in handing him over to his parents.
Hell, even thinking about not seeing the kid’s six-toothed smile brought a lump to Hugh’s throat. It wasn’t as if he’d expected to keep Joshua. But the way Amelia had been chipping through emotional walls, getting him to dig around in his past, brought everything roaring painfully to the surface.
Shining through it all? Amelia, with her grit and her strength.
He didn’t even have to think of what to do next.
His feet were already moving fast to find her.
Amelia sat with her back against a huge wooden crate of supplies resting on top of a pallet. The far corner of the tent was dark and private, the perfect place for sobbing her ungrateful heart out.
Hugging her knees, she rocked, her face pressed into her legs to muffle her cries. She should be thankful to be alive, to have come through everything with Joshua alive. Major McCabe had even given her a personal update to let her know the raid on Jocelyn’s place had been a success. Not even a shot fired. Hugh was fine.
And her heart was shattering over relinquishing a child that had never even been hers in the first place.
The sound of footsteps startled her. She reached for her gun—only to realize she didn’t have it anymore. It had been taken from her when they returned. She shot to her feet, nerves stirring in her stomach. How could she have forgotten already what a dangerous place this was?
The sound of Hugh’s deep bass rumbled through the tent, and she sagged against the crate with relief. She just barely caught herself from sliding down to the ground again. Only pride kept her upright.
“Over here,” she called, scrubbing her wrist under her nose. Her eyes were probably swollen and her nose red, but Hugh had definitely seen her looking worse.
She heard his steps come closer as he walked through the maze of crates and pallets, finally reaching her shadowy, private corner.
Leaning a shoulder against the wooden crate, he studied her so long she resisted the urge to swipe her nose again.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“Not really,” she answered honestly. “But I will be.”
He stroked her ponytail until it draped over her shoulder and somehow that light pressure was like a soothing massage to her achy head.
“Amelia, I am so sorry.”
“For what?” She didn’t move, just enjoyed the feel of his fingers lifting lock after lock, stroking, lightly tugging.
“I know that had to have been tough for you, passing Joshua over to his parents.”
God, she felt selfish. Hugh would never see his daughter again and here she was, weeping like someone had died. “It’s not like I won’t ever get to visit him. He’s my nephew.”
“True enough.” His fingers thrust deeper through the strands, against her scalp, freeing the confining ponytail and rubbing as he’d done when he’d washed her hair. “You were a mama bear for him these past few days.”
The warmth of his hand, the breadth of his chest, and insightfulness of his words calmed her as much as his touch.
“I had no choice, Hugh. He needed me.”
“You were—you are—amazing.” His forehead fell to rest against hers.Her hands fell to rest on his chest, his heartbeat thumping against her palm. “I’m just so glad those other children are safe now, thanks to you.”
He’d returned to that Hotel Californiaesque hell knowingly, to help save those children. As she thought of what could have happened to him, the tears started flowing all over again.
“Oh God, Amelia, honey, it’s going to be okay now.” He pulled her against his chest, arms locking her in tight. “Everybody’s all right.”
“I know.” Although he would be staying here and she was leaving. What if something happened to him? Now, or on another mission? Life-and-death situations felt so much more real to her now. “I’m losing it here. I know that, but I can’t seem to stop the tears.”
“It’s the adrenaline letdown.” He shushed against her hair. “You don’t have to be strong anymore. Everything you held in before is coming up now.”
“Everything is just so”—she hiccupped—“so very quiet.”
“It’ll feel that way for a while.”
She rubbed her cheek against the warm cotton of his shirt, breathing in the musky scent of him, so familiar now. “Do you go through this after every mission?”
He paused for a second before admitting, “This one was definitely more… intense.”
It had to have been a nightmare for him, holding a baby that wasn’t his own, but whom he felt responsible for nevertheless. Hugh had been so good with Joshua. He’d rescued them both in so many ways.
“Was it tough for you, too, letting go of Joshua?” Of course it had to be. She felt selfish for her tears and taking comfort from him after all he had been through keeping them safe.
“He’s where he’s supposed to be.”
She tipped her face up to his. “I don’t mean to sound snarky here, but do those kinds of platitudes actually work for you when you’re upset?”
He laughed dryly. “Not really.”
“They’re not doing it for me either.” She smiled back.
And how strange was that, to finally find comfort in their shared sadness? And of course the way he held her went a long way toward easing the knot of grief in her chest.
And as the pressure eased, she became more aware of the world around her, the crisp scent of the wooden crates. Her ears filled with the roar and vibration of airplanes taking off and landing, the cacophony of engines so loud it blocked most other noises. Most of all, she noticed their total privacy, which gave her a moment to view Hugh in all his protector glory. So strong, with such capable hands.
Another kind of tension altogether coiled inside her. Her fingers clenched in his T-shirt and she felt his heart speed up under her fist. A flush spread out over her skin, a burning tingle that only increased as she felt him harden against her stomach.
And just as quickly as the tears had come upon her, passion flooded through her, her emotions already volatile, ready to ignite.
She nipped his collarbone lightly, then harder. “How about we stop talking?”
“I think that’s the way to go,” he growled against her ear.
“It must be the supply tent. What is there about storage facilities that bring out the animal in me lately?” She tore at the buttons on his pants.
“Could be the deprivation of basic life staples in the earthquake has made you crave the surroundings of a well-stocked pantry. It could be a lifelong turn-on.” He inched down her zipper.
Their laughter filled the sliver of space between them as he skimmed off her pants and she freed his erection.
“Condom?” she gasped, her body shouting in protest that this might have to end before it started. “Do you have one? Where’s your vest?”
“I’ve been carrying around condoms since our time in that supply closet.”
Confusion nipped at the edges of her desire. “You didn’t mention it before, after the shower.”
“My vest was closer.”
Perhaps he hadn’t wanted to let her know. They’d both been holding back something then that she hadn’t even quite grasped. But not now.
Just thinking of the idea that he’d wanted her ever since, even though she’d tried to be so cool and practical about the attraction, sent sparks of anticipation showering through her. He had wanted her. And knowing she held that kind of sway over this complex man who’d become her personal superhero… that felt pretty incredible right now.
“But Hugh, I walked away from you.”
“And I was damn sure not going to let you go so easily.” He backed her more fully against the tall wooden crate.
Body to body they stood—even in this moment of total abandon he stayed between her and the world. His broad shoulder blocked even a view of the canvas tent wall.
But then the rest of the universe basically faded when he touched her. All she could think about was the way he cupped her breasts, bringing each pebbled peak to his mouth as he feasted on one, then the other, going back again until she thought she would scream out from the pleasure pulling tighter at the core of her. Much more of this and she could damn well fly apart before he’d even thrust inside.
She wanted, needed for him to feel the same fire, licking at his skin with the same heat and intensity of his tongue against her nipple.
She dipped her hands into his pants, palming his butt, fingernails digging in just a hint before she raked around his hips farther still. She took him in her grasp, testing the weight and length of him in both hands. She stroked and explored the rigid length until he throbbed even harder in her grip. With efficient, swift hands, she rolled a condom over him.
Groaning, he slid his mouth up her neck and took her lips as firmly as she sensed he was about to take her. He hooked a hand behind her knee and brought her leg around, opening her to receive…
Her head fell back against the crate as he plunged inside her. Deeply. He withdrew in a slow, slow glide, then filled her again and again. His hips met hers, fitting as they rocked together. Her back flattened to the wooden panel in a sweet pressure and release that wasn’t gentle but never crossed the line into painful. They danced close to the edge, though, mouths meeting, bodies grinding.
It wasn’t about anonymous sex in a supply closet or romantically scented soaps; this was about a raw coming together. A hunger to be closer, a fear that there wouldn’t be another chance, and a driving need for there to be more and more and more opportunities to lose themselves in this crazy connection.
Sweat trickled down her back just as it dotted his upper lip. She panted, breathless, but couldn’t bring herself to let this end. So much was undecided between them, unspoken, and when they stepped outside of this tent they would have to say good-bye, him staying and her leaving. She would leave, not knowing if this insanely intense bond would hold up in the real world. Could he bring himself to commit to another relationship after all he’d lost?