His work glove lay on the ground beside him and she realized how he’d been forced to take off that bit of protective gear to tend her. She’d been selfish, asking for him to stay even a second longer.
She squeezed hard then let go. “Okay, I’m good. I want you to leave now.”
“Not a chance.” He rolled to his back as if settling in for a nap. “I lose my Superman status if I check out on you.”
Right now, he sure looked as ripped and invincible as a superhero. Was he as tall as he appeared? Or was the confined space distorting her perception? Not that it mattered. What he was doing for her now… Superman material, no doubt.
Still, why would he risk staying here with her when he really couldn’t do anything more for her? Her brain raced to the only logical conclusion. “The exit closed off during the aftershock, didn’t it?”
He stuffed his pack under his head. “Can’t get anything past you, can I? Yeah, you’re stuck with me for the duration.”
She was too perceptive, and Hugh needed to keep her from rooting around in his brain for answers. While he could still leave here, he wasn’t one hundred percent sure she was as uninjured as she claimed.
And the kid on the other side of her? Once she realized that baby was dead, she would lose her shit and possibly injure herself. Give up. Die.
Not a f**king chance. Not as long as he was still breathing.
Logic said he should get his ass out of here, but with thoughts of Marissa still clanking around inside his thick skull, he wasn’t thinking so straight. What the hell had led him to spill his guts about the cat story, the one about when he’d first met his wife?
Had to be something to do with Amelia’s job training. Lawyers. Always digging around in people’s lives. “So why did you become a prosecutor? Why not some hotshot corporate attorney making the big bucks?”
“You sound like my ex.”
“Damn.” He laughed softly. “That’s harsh for the guy risking his ass for you here.”
She paused. “Maybe my ex was a great guy.”
Not if the tone of her voice was anything to go by. “Don’t think so. Rotten breakup?”
“Train wreck as bad as anything on a reality show.” She rubbed her thumb over her ring finger absently. “Still, for all you know it could have been my fault.”
Could be. But his purpose here was to distract her with happy thoughts. “If he lost you, he must be flawed.”
She rewarded him with a smile. “Ah, where were you when I was drowning my sorrows in pints of Ben and Jerry’s?”
“Cherry Garcia.” She groaned.
He tensed. “What’s wrong?”
“I so didn’t need to think of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream at the moment.”
His muscles melted back onto the concrete slab. “So your smarmy ex didn’t like your job choice.”
Ex-boyfriend or ex-husband?
“He put me through law school and expected we would lead a more comfortable life once I graduated. When he found out otherwise, we got one of those ‘irreconcilable differences’ divorces. No kids. Little money. It was quick and far from painless.”
“Sounds like he was a jackass.” What kind of dumb shit threw away a family?
“Jackass… jerk… cheating scumbag. But he knows what he wants. He’s happily married to one of my law-school classmates. Apparently he’d been sleeping with her for months before we split, something he felt compelled to confess—after he’d gotten his fifty-fifty, irreconcilable-differences divorce. From what I hear, they never see each other but they have a crap ton of money to spend on themselves and their two-point-two children. Not that I’m bitter or anything.”
“You said it.” She finger-doodled small circles in the dirt. “I should probably forgive him in case I don’t make it. But then that would be kinda hypocritical, since if I knew for sure I was going to make it, I would kick the rat bastard in the gonads.”
A laugh burst out of him. “Lady, if we could harness your spirit, we could lift this building right off you in a heartbeat.”
“Yeah, he said I was emasculating.”
Hugh was thinking maybe he might like to look this guy up, use him for a refresher course on martial arts skills. After missions like this one, he needed to blow off steam.
She sighed. “The rat bastard was good in bed though. I do miss that.”
Shock zipped through him, along with an adrenaline surge and a passel of distracting images of this take-no-prisoners woman putting her everything into all-night, sweaty sex.
Not professional thoughts.He cleared his throat. “You know you’re going to live, right? And you’re going to be sorry you told me so much.”
She stayed quiet so long, he thought for a minute she wouldn’t answer. “Maybe. Maybe not. But I’ll never see you again, so it doesn’t matter. Although I’m sorry if I embarrassed you.”
For a few seconds there, he’d even managed to stop thinking about Marissa stuck in the wreckage of a plane, stop wondering how long she’d lived, knowing that their child had died instantly. Had anyone else on the craft been alive in her final seconds to offer a distraction from the fear, to give her comfort?
Although one thing was damn certain. Marissa wouldn’t have been talking like this. She’d been shy and fragile, and it killed him five times over every single day that he couldn’t have been on that airplane instead of her and their daughter.
Amelia kept drawing circles in the sand with a ragged nail, her swirls growing like one of Tilly’s scribble-art pieces he still kept on his refrigerator even though the paper had long ago yellowed with age.
“Hugh, it’s tough not to think about regrets right now. Especially the huge one. Like thinking about never seeing Alaska or having sex again… Never becoming a mother.”
He looked from the ground to her face sharply. “You want kids?”
“Joshua just wriggled his fingers.” She smiled softly. “He’s really alive.”
He didn’t want her thinking about the child.
Hell, he didn’t want to think about the toddler a few feet away who was likely dead, and if the kid lived in some kind of coma state, not being able to do a damn thing for him… Yeah, that dropped Dante’s inferno to a new rock-bottom level.
Time to discuss something else. “I’ve lived in Alaska. It’s incredible. You should take a cruise up there when you get out of here, give yourself a chance to decompress.”
She laughed hoarsely. “Maybe you could join me, and we’ll have lots of great sex in our stateroom so I can erase both of my regrets at once.”
Again, he chuckled along with her and even wondered what it would be like to “decompress” with her. He hadn’t lived like a monk since his wife died. The thought of getting married again made him sick to his stomach. So he’d settled into a life of one-night hookups and casual relationships. Some called him a serial dater.
His only commitment? Throwing himself into high-risk rescues while crossing days off the calendar until he could see his wife and kid again in the afterlife.
Right now, though, the thought of marking time with Amelia Bailey sounded… intriguing. “I may not be able to live up to the rat bastard’s tantric reputation.”
“He wasn’t that good in bed.” She rolled her pretty blue eyes.
“Glad to know you’re willing to lower the bar for regular saps like me.” He smiled, really smiled.
And she grinned back, the kind of grin that lit up a person’s face, the last sort of reaction he expected to get from her here, today. Maybe she was getting punch-drunk on insanity and exhaustion. Could be that he was too. Regardless, right now he could envision one mind-blowing decompression session with this woman he’d barely met. Hell, he didn’t even really know what she looked like under all the grime, just that she had piercingly blue eyes, an upturned nose, and a hundred-watt smile.
A smile that faded.
“Hugh, this is all too silly. I’m not usually so blunt.”
“This isn’t a usual sort of situation.”
“True enough. Real life is very different. You probably have a lovely wife and family back home, and here I am flirting with you.”
And just that fast, his smile faded too. He had a mission to complete here, a woman to save. Time to quit thinking with his dick and do his job.
“No family.” He reached for his gear bag. “Let me have your hand again. I need to check your vitals.”
The Guardian gripped the walkie-talkie in one hand while steering the Jeep around a fallen palm tree. The Motorola transceiver was top-of-the-line, not some two-tin-can kid stuff. Very few unofficial personnel had access to vehicles and reliable lines of communication. Those with better equipment—like the radio and the Jeep—would have an edge.
The four-wheel drive jostled over the uneven road that lay in pieces like a jarred puzzle. A catastrophe like this called for special people, with specific skills and equipment to keep others from being victimized. Above all, the children had to be protected. The Guardian considered it a life’s calling to remove babies from inadequate homes and provide them with better futures.
Never had that mission been more important than now.
Red tape meant nothing in the aftermath of the earthquake. Two decades of experience circumventing official channels would come in handy. Guardian troops already trained and in place would carry out orders without hesitation and with ease in the country’s current lawless state. Babies wouldn’t have to languish in an understaffed orphanage in this earthquake-ravaged hell while waiting for rubber-stamped paperwork.
Rows of sheet-covered dead filled a concrete parking lot outside a crumpled grocery store. The smaller forms carried the biggest punch, reminders of another lost child, a little girl whose face was still painfully clear even after so many years of grieving. The past would not repeat itself.
Anyone who interfered with the Guardian would become a casualty of war. Sad, but unavoidable. Nothing else mattered but gathering the children.
Liam McCabe squinted at the setting sun. They would search into the night, but even with work lights, the operation would be tougher, slower.
The looters would grow bolder.
His eyes shifted to two security cops handcuffing the latest trash pickers. The seventh attempt today, mostly by starving displaced families. They would be escorted to one of the tent camps. The hungrier they got, the more desperate they would become.
They needed more aid—ASAP.
But for now, he would have to content himself with the one fresh set of hands and paws. He charged across the debris, determined to intercept the newest search and rescue dog handler and shout dibs. He’d informed everyone on headset that his mission was top priority, but that wouldn’t keep somebody from trying to scoop her up first.
She was wiry, with a hint of dark hair peeking from beneath her helmet. She seemed too small to stand up under the weight of her gear, but she showed no signs of swaying. Her steel-shanked boots were planted firmly on the uneven ground.
Shouldering past two E3s setting up new stadium lights, Liam thrust his hand toward the woman. “Major McCabe, pararescue out of Florida,” he introduced himself abruptly. “You’re with me. Hope you’re ready to roll.”
“Rachel Flores.” She stroked the neck of her black Labrador retriever. “This is Disco. We’re not newbies. Been at this for over ten years. So give it to me short and sweet.”
“I’ve got men on the pile now. One under the debris. He went in to stabilize a survivor.” He pointed to the German shepherd about fifty yards away having his front paw taped. “The dog there—Zorro, I think they called him—found the scent, but he’s worn out and has an injured paw.”