Typical shit that happened in situations like this. Looters. Medications would sell for big bucks in the outer regions, where help hadn’t yet reached. Hell, anything could happen at times like these… Everything from drug trafficking to human trafficking.

He had a 9 mm tucked under his scrubs and he knew how to use it. Yeah, he’d made use of one of those black-market scavengers right after the earthquake hit. It had cost him his Patek Philippe wristwatch to get a weapon. He hadn’t hesitated in making the exchange. No one would touch his wife.

And his sister? His… child?

Bile churned in his gut until his vision dimmed. He pushed down the abyss of memories always there waiting, threatening to swallow him. Turning back toward the sink, he became the surgeon again. No longer Aiden, husband, father, brother… son of a perverted criminal. For now, he would save lives.

But if anyone threatened his family, he wouldn’t think twice about once again becoming a killer.

***

She would kill for this baby.

Amelia cradled Joshua in her arms as she had through the night, rocking her nephew in the school library that had been turned into a pediatric ward. She’d never imagined such powerful protective instincts could fire through her. But her love, her bond with her nephew couldn’t be denied.

Although he slept peacefully, she wasn’t ready to let go of him yet. Pressing a kiss to his smooth forehead, she breathed in the scent of his freshly washed skin and hair. Clean clothing was in short supply, so he wore only a diaper and a T-shirt that was a little too large. Bright letters spelled out Bahamas, with a toucan and palm tree. Apparently even the good guys were looting.

Sighing, she smoothed the cotton, tugged the hem, and reassured herself in a dozen ways that he was okay. Scrapes marked his tiny limbs, but miraculously, no cuts, no stitches were needed. Only the IV taped to his arm hinted at the ordeal he’d endured, trapped under an entire hotel.

Her body ached more than she could have believed possible, but other than bruises, scrapes, and a cut on her hand, she’d come through blessedly whole as well. The medics had pumped her full of antibiotics and a tetanus booster, then freed her to go with Joshua. She hadn’t left his side since.

Two nurses—or some kind of medical techs—circulated around the room, checking on their dozen little charges, making notes on their painfully thin charts. Most of them were orphans. The rest had parents or relatives in critical condition elsewhere.

And Joshua’s parents? Her brother and his wife? Amelia’s head fell back as she tipped her face toward the open window. The first morning rays splashed a tequila sunrise across the parched dusty world outside.

The night had passed quickly as her nephew had been shuffled from the tent clinic to an elementary school that had been converted into a hospital. The library had tables stacked in a corner, the open floor space filled with tiny cots, basinets, even pallets, anything that could hold an injured child until better accommodations could be airlifted in. Blankets were hung up here and there for impromptu privacy. A battery-operated radio hummed softly in a corner.

The building ran off generators now. There was no air conditioner, but fans hummed lowly in the windows, the sounds and the morning world coming to life, so normal and yet strangely empty without the sound of Hugh Franco’s calm reassurance.

How could she have grown that accustomed to, so dependent on, his voice in such a short time?

A hand on her shoulder jarred her from her thoughts.

“Ms. Bailey?” A military nurse passed her a bottle of water. “You need to remember to take care of yourself. You’ve been through quite an ordeal.”

“Thank you, but really, I’m only sitting.” She opened the bottle and took an obligatory sip so Nurse—she read the tag stitched onto the uniform—Nurse Gable wouldn’t worry. “I just don’t want to let him go.”

Nurse Gable knelt beside her, warmed her stethoscope against her palm, then slid it under Joshua’s shirt. A second later, she nodded. “That’s understandable, after what you’ve experienced. But we have extra nurses coming on shift, thanks to more relief efforts coming in, so whenever you’re ready, you should go to the cafeteria and get a boxed meal. Even if you bring it back here, the walk will do you good.”

“I will, soon, I promise.”

And the woman was undoubtedly right. The shower earlier had spiked her energy considerably. She plucked at the borrowed hospital scrubs she’d put on once she’d finished the lukewarm rinse-off in water pumped from a newly dug well—thank goodness for the military engineers. Her spray had been trickling and brief, but orgasmic. She’d been warned not to drink even a taste of what spewed from the faucet. The desperate urge to be clean had overridden any concerns about microbes possibly swimming through the chilly drizzle.

Yet nothing could wash away the scent of death, the fear of more bad news lurking under the rubble. Somehow she’d been calmer underground with Hugh than she was now. How could one person be so full of gratitude and grief at the same time?

If only she had some word about her brother and Lisabeth from one of those people with a two-way radio. Their names weren’t on any of the casualty or wounded lists, but the number of dead was already so horrific… Amelia cuddled their son closer as she rocked next to the playpen being used as his bed. She had to believe they were okay. Just detained somewhere. She’d hoped the fact that Aiden and Lisabeth were medical professionals would bring them to the front, make them more identifiable… if they were even alive.

But she’d been told again and again that communication was spotty. It could take days, even longer, for different rescue sites to communicate back and forth with ease.

So much had been accomplished since the earthquake over three days ago, with so much still left to do.

How could she have been down there for two whole days without realizing that much time had passed? The doctor had told her she must have been unconscious at first, a diagnosis the monster-sized lump on the back of her head validated.

Hugh hadn’t told her about the passage of time either, likely to keep her from panicking. Good call on his part. But then he’d seemed so confident throughout the entire ordeal, so in control during living hell, she shouldn’t be surprised at how he’d known just what to do. And now he was off helping someone else who needed him, offering those same words, that same comfort. She needed to realize she was just a routine mission for him.

Yet still…

Even when he wasn’t around to fill the space with his broad shoulders and strong reassurance, he occupied her thoughts… and even her dreams.

Her head lolled to the side as she drifted into another micronap, exhaustion tearing at her. Amelia indulged herself in the memory of his reassuring bass, the lingering feel of his hand. She invited thoughts of him to fill her, to anchor her through the nightmares.

“Amelia,” his voice whispered through her head, the feel of his hand on hers becoming all the more real until…

She jolted upright to find Hugh kneeling in front of her. Green eyes held her with the same intensity that had sustained her for hours belowground.

Her brain churned overtime to make the leap from sleep to awake, the dream and real world blurring. “Is everything all right? Did something happen during the night? Are you here to see a doctor?”

“I promised to check on the kid and I keep my word. I just finished my shift or I would have come earlier.”

Those bourbon-smooth bass tones had kept her alive. She couldn’t forget the sound of him even if she never saw him again.

But a clear view of his face, of his body? There she found uncharted territory. She’d thought she memorized the look of him as she’d been carried out on the stretcher. But realized she’d only seen his body. His face had been covered in grime, and while his clothes were still grimy, he’d washed his face and hands.

His face wasn’t poster-boy pretty. He was all man, with hard handsome angles and gleaming emerald eyes. Buzzed short black hair proclaimed a lack of vanity. And his mouth was a full but hard line that called to a woman’s finger to trace, to tease into softening.

She reached for a gulp of water.

His dusty camo uniform sported a survival vest. His weapon was strapped to his hip. An angry scrape down the side of his face added to the outlaw look, like he was some kind of rogue rebel fighter. He personified everything edgy and dangerous she’d steered clear of as an adult—and strangely, exactly what she needed right now.

“Amelia? The kid?” He nodded to the sleeping baby in her arms. “What did the doctors have to say?”

“Oh, uh…” She toyed nervously with the drawstring on her surgical scrubs.

Damn, she was seriously losing her grip. She should find a free cot and just sleep as the military doctor had suggested, but she couldn’t bring herself to send Hugh away.

Besides, she was suddenly wide-awake and wired.

“The doctors say Joshua should be fine, once he’s rehydrated. And he’s blessedly unfazed by the whole ordeal, as if he truly did nap through it all. A couple of IVs and he will be ready to eat, play, laugh, just like before.”

“Good, that’s really good.”

“What about you? You were supposed to see the medic last night. I thought you would still be asleep.”

He scrubbed his fingers along the scratch on his cheek. “We found another pocket of survivors. My help was needed. Sleep can come later.”

Yet he was here now instead of resting.

She stood, placing Joshua in the playpen, careful to adjust his sleeve for the IV. With a couple of nurses watching over him and the other eleven napping babies, she could afford to step away for a moment.

“The nurse was just telling me how I should pick up one of the boxed meals in the cafeteria. Would you like to walk with me? I imagine, since you worked through the night, there wasn’t much time for food.”

A smile kicked into one cheek. “You guess correctly.”

She pulled her eyes off his mouth and angled past, leading him into the hall packed with pallets of supplies, and the only part of the school without people to disturb. Other corridors were full of injured, but they kept the kids with the gear as a means of quarantining the more vulnerable little ones. The building was filled to capacity. She’d heard they were sending all new arrivals to another site set up at a nearby church.

Hugh marched past a mural obviously painted by the school’s students, a playground scene of rainbows and palm trees. “You’ve bounced back quickly for someone who went through hell for forty-eight hours.”

She breathed deeply, still savoring the ability to draw air into her lungs after her time in the dark and dust. Now she smelled twenty years worth of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, a scent that no amount of hospital antiseptic could dispel. “I’m fine. I have a baby to take care of, a brother and sister-in-law to search for.”

“No word at all on them yet?”

Her chest went tight. And suddenly she understood her draw to him, to his reckless look. This was the kind of man who—in a lawless world—kept people safe. “They’re still unaccounted for.”

“I am sorry.”

More of that fear and grief howled inside her and she saw a deep understanding in his eyes. Those three words weren’t the mere platitudes others offered.

“Thank you.” She sucked in another breath, shakier this time as she worked hard not to think of the particular brand of hell her brother could be going through. “I have to believe they’re okay, out there somewhere, worrying about Joshua and me.”

“What’s your plan?”

“I’m staying here with my nephew. I won’t, I can’t leave him. I’m hoping to hire help in searching for my family.” She needed someone like Hugh, but he obviously already had a job of his own.

“It’s not safe to stay here.”



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