Her deep brown eyes assessed the scene. “My dog only does live searches. Not cadavers.”
“My guy is not dead.”
She looked back fast, pinning him with a no-bullshit stare. “I’m not trying to get up in your grill, but you need to keep your objectivity. We have limited resources. If I spend hours searching here, then someone else goes unfound. I can’t have you using me for your personal agenda, Major.”
“My guy is not dead,” he repeated through clenched teeth. “And my objectivity is rock solid. He’s down there with a female victim and a male toddler.”
“Okay”—she nodded curtly—“I’m just making it clear. Ready to roll.”
He shifted into work mode, rattling off details and answering her questions as he escorted her to the dig site. Disco trotted alongside, looking like any regular house pet out for a daily walk. Until a person looked closer and realized how finely in tune the canine was to every minute gesture of his handler. How they were both on edge and prepared for anything they might face.
The death they likely would face.
God, he hated missions like this most of all. He’d seen so much death back during his days as an Army Ranger. Once the PJs accepted officers on their teams, he knew without a doubt where he had to be. He’d swapped from army to air force. From hoo-uh to ooh-rah. He wasn’t ready to hang up his uniform, but he’d needed to shift to the saving end of the job before he burned out.
Life by life, he gained back pieces of his sanity. Cause for rejoicing. Except he’d left the wreckage of three divorces behind him. He’d liked being married, having someone to come home to, a soft woman in his life. He fell in love too easily and unwisely.
But here, on the job, he didn’t doubt his instincts for a second. And his gut told him Rachel Flores would find Hugh Franco. She had to.
The alternative was unacceptable.
Every bone in Amelia’s body ached as huge hands under her armpits hauled her from the crevice. Loose rocks and stones scraped along her back through her shredded silk blouse, but oh God, finally, she was free.
Lights flooded her cave, a larger space now that the rescue workers had hacked away enough concrete to pull her out. She landed on a canvas stretcher, the IV tube slapping her arm. She twisted to check Joshua—
Hands bracketed her head a second before a strap stretched across her forehead, securing her. She didn’t even have to look to see who had hold of her. The past hours had even her breaths synced up with Hugh Franco.
She grabbed his sleeve and squeezed hard so he couldn’t walk away. “Hugh, please, get Joshua… don’t give up on Joshua.”
“They’re on it.” His fingers slid from her hair. “I promise.”
“You. I want you to be the one. I know you’ve already done so much for me, but I trust you—”
His face creased with one of those half smiles that had carried her through hell. “I appreciate the vote of confidence. And all Superman claims aside, I’m a worn-out, exhausted piece of crap right now. You want someone fresh freeing the little guy. My buddy Cuervo’s already going in, and he will take the best care of him. Trust me on that.” He squeezed her shoulder. “No freaking on me now. I don’t want to have to knock you out with a Vulcan nerve pinch. Okay?”
Nodding, Amelia slumped back onto the stretcher. Finally, finally daring to let herself relax as they made a jostling journey through a tunnel in the rubble so lengthy she was overwhelmed by what Hugh had done for her.
And because of him, she was actually going to get out of here. Alive. In one piece. Granted, every piece of her ached from a combination of bruises, scrapes, and immobility. But she welcomed every twinge, stab, burn that let her know she was alive. Somehow, she’d survived. She had the chance to breathe regular air again.
The end of the tunnel waited ahead, glowing. A breeze gusted inside, dank but free of grit. Strapped to the stretcher, she slid free into her second chance, like a rebirth.
Blazing lights pierced her eyes. From the sun? She’d lost track of time. But no. It was night now, with halogen spots placed all around, illuminating… Hell.
The beautiful tourist town was gone. So much devastation. Hotels and brightly painted shops were either broken in half or covered in a film of gray grime.
Noises, no longer muffled, assaulted her ears. The growl of machinery. Engines straining in tractors, trucks, and cranes. Shouts. Barking dogs.
And moaning masses of injured humanity.
Her gaze scanned to… oh God, a tarp on the ground with sheet-draped bodies on top. The dead. Horror and bile filled her mouth. She winged a prayer for all those lost souls, all too aware of how easily her lifeless remains could have been there, unclaimed, unknown.
If not for Hugh Franco.
Her eyes tracked back to him as he towered over her. He held one side of the jostling gurney. He’d been through a horrific ordeal himself and yet he still had the energy to haul her out, waving aside a uniformed medic trying to take his place.
Hugh shrugged off the man’s hand on his shoulder. “I’m fine, Major. Surely there’s somebody in this godforsaken mess who needs you more.”
The major backed away, out of Amelia’s limited sight line. All the same, she wondered if Hugh was hiding an injury. Why hadn’t she thought to worry more about him belowground?
For the first time, she could really see him. Before now, he’d been a deep voice and shadowy savior under the hard hat. She tried to turn her head for a better view, but the strap held her secure.
Gravel crunched under Hugh’s boots, his broad-shouldered body looming. He was taller than two men jogging past. In fact, he was every bit as tall as she’d thought in their cavern. The outside world and circle of lights only accentuated the breadth of his shoulders, the hard lines of his face.
A harsh shout echoed in the distance a second before she heard—
Staccato shots popped in the distance. Her heart echoed in horror. Her every muscle screamed run, run, run! But she couldn’t move.
The stretcher thumped to the ground. Hugh threw himself over her, covering her with the bulk she’d been learning only seconds earlier.
The hard wall of his chest shielded her. His body curved around her and she realized that even in the pandemonium, with bullets flying, he still thought to keep his weight off her in case she was injured.
She stared up at him, his piercing green eyes close to hers, as they’d been when he first found her. Her mouth dried up. She wanted to tell him she was okay, that she could take care of herself. He should look out for his own safety.
As a prosecutor, she stared down criminals on a regular basis in prison interrogation rooms, on the witness stand. She’d even been confronted once by a drug dealer out on bail who’d hoped to intimidate her. She’d thumbed her car alarm and kneed him in the balls—then almost passed out when a rat ran across the alley.
But hey, she’d taken care of herself then and she could do it now—if someone would free her hands. Yes, she was a wimp on the inside, but she could deal when she had to.
And she’d always had to.
Being protected felt… foreign, strangely frightening in how easily she gave over control and simply absorbed the feel of this toned man on top of her. Her pulse hammered in her ears. Her blood burned through her veins as her senses went into hyperdrive. The sliver of air between their gazes fizzed with awareness, danger, and some sort of world-stopping connection. Which was so ridiculous, given that they were both filthy, beyond disgusting, after being all but buried alive—and yet somehow that didn’t matter. And she could swear she saw a whisper of matching emotion in his eyes as well.
It had to be from what they’d experienced together. She knew that intellectually. Her body, however, clung to the feel of him.
Then he looked away. Air whooshed from her lungs.
He glanced over his shoulder a second before he eased himself off her. “Just some looters. They come out in droves at times like this. Security personnel have it under control.”
How could she have forgotten for a second how dangerous it must be out here in the aftermath of such a catastrophic earthquake? How vulnerable Joshua would be without his newly adoptive mom and dad. And until Aiden and Lisabeth were located, Amelia was Joshua’s guardian, his protector. She couldn’t lose sight of that for even a second.
“Hugh, please be sure your buddy Cuervo and the medics know who Joshua is when he’s checked over, just until I can get to him.” She pleaded with her eyes, her voice. Hell yes, she was shamelessly using that connection, that thread she’d sensed between them. Something shifted in his eyes when she mentioned Joshua, and damn it, she would use whatever she could to keep that baby safe. “It’s too easy for a child to get lost in this confusion. You know I’m right, and I realize you have to be exhausted. But he’s a helpless baby.”
Hugh’s throat moved in a long swallow.
She clung to his sleeve as two medics lifted her stretcher again. “I know you’ve already done so much for me.” She spoke faster, time running out. “I don’t have the right to ask for more, and I wouldn’t, except there’s no one else for me to turn to. Please, can you stay to be sure?”
He shook his head slowly. “Amelia, you have to accept that the boy is d—”
“No! I realize you don’t believe he’s alive but—”
A cry cut through the mayhem, a lone piercing wail so different from the jaded horror all around them. The gasping sob of a child.
She squeezed her eyes closed in relief. He was alive. She wasn’t crazy. Thank you, God, her nephew was alive. She blinked back tears and stared back up at Hugh.
Her hulking rescuer turned paler than any corpse.
Hugh fought the urge to punch out.
The major wouldn’t question him. He’d pulled his weight today. But it wasn’t exhaustion nailing his ass.
Right now, he was scared shitless of the squirming kid being thrust toward him. Instinctively, Hugh took him with the sure hands of a father who’d cradled his own baby girl through colic, teething, night terrors, and scraped knees.
He forced his focus on the present. On this child. A boy, a toddler, just as Amelia had said.
Her nephew was really alive, in spite of the odds.
His chocolate brown skin had lost some elasticity due to dehydration. The kid was covered in dirt and his own feces. But his eyes were wide, alert, and staring straight up at him. The boy—Joshua—reached a shaking little fist toward him. His dry, cracked cherub mouth moved with a raspy whisper of garbled baby talk.
The weight and wriggle of him in Hugh’s hands felt too familiar. Too painful.
He thrust the child at Cuervo. “Make sure they stay together. He’s hers.” Stuffing his fists into his pockets, he nodded to the gurney disappearing into a medical tent. “Amelia Bailey. She’s his aunt, adoption completed just before the earthquake.”
“Right.” Cuervo secured the kid against his chest. “Will follow through. You should go back to the hooch, clean up, and sleep. You look like hell, by the way.”
“Thanks. I’m outta here.” He pivoted on his heel. Away from the woman.
Away from the kid smiling at him with six tiny teeth.
His throat closed up.
Major McCabe clapped him on the back. “You had us worried there for a while.”
“When have I ever not come out okay?” He scanned the ruins for someplace to help, another mission to take on, the crazier the better, because sleep suddenly didn’t sound like a good idea, with nightmares sure to haunt him. Better to work himself unconscious instead. A good plan. It had carried him through the past five years just fine.
“Hey.” McCabe snapped his fingers in front of Hugh’s face, drawing his attention back. “You can’t count on that kind of logic to carry you through forever. I should have your ass for not coming out after you stabilized your patient.”