“Staying kept her stable.” He frowned, his jaw jutting. “Write me up if you need to, but I wouldn’t change a thing.”
McCabe sighed like a weary parent. “Let Rocha check you over. Now. We need to make sure you’re not hiding any injuries.”
He grinned, forcing a smile through caked-on grime so the major wouldn’t realize how blown to shit his insides were. He refused to be benched. “Would I do that?”
“Yes you would. Go. It’s an order.”
A light breeze parted the stifling air, welcomed for the cooling. Dreaded as it stirred the flies and the stench. Snakes and rats already scavenged through the debris. The fetid wind rolled across the uneven landscape, gathered grit and stray papers before lifting the door flap of the nearest medical tent…
His boots picked up speed toward the field hospital they’d put together shortly after landing. Triage was in place for major injuries to the left, minor to the right. Lines of wounded streamed out of both. His teammate Wade Rocha was already waiting, just as the major had insisted.
Still, Hugh checked one last time… just as Amelia’s stretcher reached the tent flap. He could swear she stared back at him, held him with those intensely blue eyes. Eyes that reached down deep in his gut and twisted.
He’d only felt this connection once before in his life. The day he’d looked at Marissa’s tear-filled eyes as she’d begged him to get her Siamese out of the tree. Next thing he’d known, he was hauling his ass up a twenty-foot oak.
He didn’t want this.
The past few hours had proven beyond a doubt that Amelia Bailey was dangerous as hell to his peace of mind. More than ever he couldn’t afford this during a mission that already put him raw and on edge.
And still… He bolted across the jutting mass of broken concrete. His eyes locked on the stretcher being carried to a drab green tent, the canvas flapping in the muggy air, stirring fat flies around.
He grabbed the arm of a foreign medic, a wiry guy with a top-of-the-line Motorola two-way radio and a clipboard. “Where will she go after you finish here?”
“There are already over a dozen makeshift hospital sites being set up in schools and churches.” The foreign soldier covered the mouthpiece on the walkie-talkie and tucked the clipboard under his arm. “It’s going to be a matter of which one can take them.”
“I know it’s chaotic right now, but if she’s not going to be flown out—”
“Do you know this woman?”
So easily he could end this now. He could do what he would—and should—in any rescue situation. Ensure the appropriate personnel made a record of the pertinent information, such as her connection to the child, then move on to the next case.
He could not be personally responsible for every individual he saved. It wasn’t practical, feasible, or mentally advisable, if he wanted to keep from falling the rest of the way off the deep end.
But then he’d stopped giving a shit about his sanity five years ago.
Hugh looked back at Amelia, under the sheet with only her face and one arm sticking out. “Yeah, her and the kid… They’re mine.”
Dr. Aiden Bailey thrust his hands into the man’s chest cavity and squeezed life back into the dead heart.
Squeeze. Squeeze. Pray.
“Catch, damn it, catch,” the seasoned surgeon muttered with each massage of his fingers.
The canvas wall creating the makeshift operating room flapped from movement on the other side, another surgical team to tackle the insurmountable flood of injured. Aiden focused, worked, even though he’d been in the Bahamas to adopt a son, not ply his trade.
Squeeze. Squeeze. Pray.
He’d volunteered his services in the improvised hospital after the earthquake hit. His Hippocratic oath, his call to heal, wouldn’t let him turn away from the masses of injured.
Squeeze. Squeeze. Pr—
Through the thin membrane of latex gloves, he felt the warm blood, the fibrous muscle, the tips of his fingers tuned in for the tiniest hint of a… throb.
The heart expanded against his palms. Again. And again, as life returned to the waxy, middle-aged man sprawled on a stretcher in the half-standing church that had been turned into a temporary hospital. Supplies and conditions were rustic, to say the least.NGO workers and military medics on loan from other countries brought freshly wounded faster than he could treat them. Groans filled the air, mixed with the crackle of shortwave radios. A couple of people had been lucky enough to get a cell phone connection and a rare few had satellite phones, but none of that had helped him find out what he needed to know.
So he worked. And waited. His mind filled with the worst-case scenarios. Joshua. Amelia. Helpless in the face of more than just the destruction. Looters. Worse. He understood how far seemingly normal people would go better than most.
God, he had to keep busy or his mind would explode from worrying about his sister and Joshua.
Once he was certain the patient had stabilized—as much as anyone could be considered stable in these crappy conditions—Aiden extended his hand, ready to suture layer after layer to close the gaping chest cavity. He didn’t even need to look or ask. His nurse—his wife—had worked with him for five years on Doctors Without Borders missions before they’d recently swapped to Operation Smile to repair cleft palates in children. They’d known each other far longer, having met as undergrads at Auburn.
They didn’t require words anymore when operating.
The terror he saw in the eyes around here, though, would require more skills than he possessed. So he focused on what he could accomplish rather than dwelling on the grief gripping his chest as tightly as any fist wringing life back into a dead human hull.
His sister and his son were somewhere out in that post apocalyptic hell, and there wasn’t a damn thing he could do. His little sister was out there, the sister he’d taught to drive, helped proof her college papers, vowed to take care of since their father died. And his son… already he hadn’t been there when his child needed him.
If only he and Lisabeth hadn’t jumped in that cab to pick up lunch at her favorite place a few blocks away. Joshua had been napping, and they’d wanted to treat Amelia to a special meal in thanks for all she’d done for them with the adoption.
And yeah, he’d wanted some time to absorb becoming a father, something he’d never expected to happen. He’d thought he and Lisabeth had a life path in place, dedicated to helping other children. He’d needed to take in how that course had shifted.
Then the world had shifted in a different, all-too-real way.
He and Lisabeth had spent the first six hours after the quake hit searching for Amelia and Joshua. They’d tried to get back to the hotel, only to be blocked and sent to the site where survivors had been taken. Then they’d been told patients had been sent to multiple locations. Some names appeared on multiple lists, but no list carried the names he was looking for.
Still, they’d searched without turning up any leads. They’d been turned away again and again at barriers and checkpoints as martial law quickly slid into place. They were just two of thousands desperate for information.
They’d given Amelia and Joshua’s names and descriptions to rescue workers, who made notes with fatalistic compassion. Lisabeth’s silent tears had tracked paths through the grime that coated everything. They hadn’t even been allowed near the hotel, the epicenter. Instead they’d been shuttled to another site… this crumbling church-turned-hospital. Now nearly three days since the earthquake, he’d lost count of how many lives he’d saved—and lost.
He stepped back from his patient.
This man, at least, was alive. For the moment. He’d patched up a forty-seven-year-old father caught looting an overturned market vendor’s booth for untainted food. The guy had sprinted away with a burlap sack full of bananas and pineapples, slipped on loose gravel, and fallen into a pile of rotting fish—impaling his chest on a metal rod.
Aiden flexed his fingers. He’d caught shit for saving a thief when earthquake victims waited. This place was a lawless hell full of scared, desperate people, and no doubt it would only get worse. Even if his Hippocratic oath hadn’t already demanded he stitch up the man, Aiden still wouldn’t have been able to turn away from a father putting his family first, defending his children, something far too rare in his experience.
Backing away from the stretcher, he left the church’s social hall, which had been turned into an operating room. As he charged down the corridor, he kept his eyes off the frescoes and crosses. A helluva time to realize he hadn’t been in a church since his wedding, and then only because his wife had insisted on a service in her childhood chapel back here in the Bahamas.
Pushing through double doors, Aiden retreated to the chapel’s kitchen. Clean scrubs and gloves were stacked on a shelf beside the sink. Some military group called RED HORSE had dug latrines and drilled a fresh well for showers. Except on a day like this, he didn’t think there was a shower long enough to wash away the destruction.
He peeled off the bloodied gloves and pitched them in the trash, slap, slap.
“Aiden?” Lisabeth’s calm, soft voice cut through his thoughts. “Are you okay?”
“Of course, just recharging the brain.” He pulled off his glasses, wiped a spot of blood off the left lens with an alcohol wipe, and put them on again.
She studied him over her surgical mask, her brown eyes turning golden yellow with concern, too perceptive after sixteen years of marriage. He looked away quickly.
Her cool hand fell onto the back of his neck. “I know you better than that. You may look emotionless to the rest of the world, but I see deeper. I know how much you hold in.”
She pulled her mask down, revealing her regal face, which had stared back at him across the pillow every morning since he was twenty-two. “All of this is more than any one person can bear. We need to turn to each other. I need to talk to you.”
He held out his arms without hesitation. “I’m here for you.”
“I know that. But will you let me be here for you, love?” she said with a rare hint of British accent she’d picked up from her father. Her dad had moved to the Bahamas to teach history, met her mother, and stayed. Lisabeth had been their only child, their world, treasured.
The way life should be for a kid.
He turned back toward the sink. “If you want to help me, then ease up right now. I’m maxed out.”
She slid her lithe body between him in the basin. “You can’t always protect your sister. This is not your fault.”
“Do not go there,” he snapped. “Not. Now.”
He already knew how fallible he was.
“Okay.” She eased off in surrender, sweeping off her surgical cap and shaking free her short black curls. “Let’s just sit together for a minute quietly and catch our breath.”
Aiden reached for the antibacterial scrub. “No time for that now. People will die while we breathe in a paper bag. We’ll talk later.”
He was lying about that, but willing to do anything to get her to stop this line of questioning. Bullshit weakness. He shouldn’t have caved to Lisabeth about adopting a baby from her home country. If he’d held strong, they would be home in the States now. They would be safe.
And the child? Joshua? Aiden pivoted away from his wife before she could read the pain in his eyes. She needed so much more than he could give her. He still wasn’t sure why she stayed with him, but God help him, he couldn’t walk away.
He felt her standing behind him for at least five heartbeats before the soft sound of her footsteps faded. Sighing, he let his guard down and swayed, dead tired on his feet.
Through the cracked stained-glass window, he saw a military Humvee pulling up with armed guards in front and back. Most likely the restocking of medical supplies. The last convoy had been ambushed.