“I know.” But what choice did she have? “I’ve heard there are looters everywhere.”
“Damn straight. And worse. Black-market types thrive on situations like this. With all this food and all the drugs here, I wish there were more guards to go around. The best thing you can do is get on the first plane out. I can pull strings for you—”
“Stop.” She squeezed his forearm, pausing outside the cafeteria. “I will not leave Joshua. Legally, I’m on shaky ground without his parents. It’ll take a while to get me declared his guardian until my brother is found.”
“You’re a tenacious one.”
“You’re one to talk.” A smile slid through her grief.
Hard muscles contracted under her fingers. Had she been holding on to him this whole time? Apparently so.
Her body hummed with that same sensation from earlier, so much so, she could no longer write it off as coincidental or some general need for sex. But the feeling, the connection, was inconvenient and unwise. She felt guilty. Her thoughts should all be focused on finding her brother and sister-in-law. Instead, she was a ragged mess clutching some hunk’s arm like a lifeline.
And he didn’t move away.
He eye-stroked her in a way that made his answering attraction clear without crossing the line. “You clean up nice.”
“You’re not quite what I expected either, now that we’re in the daylight.” She slid her hand away, closing her fist to hold on to the feel of him.
“What did you expect?”
Someone with traditional good-guy looks—blond. All-American like her ex. Would she have reacted differently earlier if she’d known her gentle, steady rescuer had a bad-boy body and forbidden-sex eyes?
But she still hadn’t answered his question. She settled on a safer lie, a last-ditch effort to hold strong against the need for an outlet clawing at her insides harder and harder with each second. “I expected someone older.”
“I’m an old guy in this career field.” He scrubbed a hand over his beard-stubbled face. His eyes tracked a kid crying in a wheelchair all the way into the cafeteria. The noise inside swelled out as the double doors opened.
“Age notwithstanding, you got the job done.”
“I only wish we could have freed you faster.” He lifted her hand, her bandage stark white in a dull gray world. “What happened?”
“When the aftershock came, right after you found me, some debris cut my hand, but it only needed butterfly bandages. They pumped me full of antibiotics and a tetanus shot for good measure.” She thought back to cupping Joshua’s head. If she hadn’t, the debris would have pierced his skull. She’d been granted a miracle. She just prayed there was room for another for the rest of her family.
“You should have told me.” He thumbed her fingers until her fist unfurled.
“Wouldn’t have made any difference. It wasn’t as if I could have rolled over to give you the hand to treat.”
“And you called yourself a wimp? I gotta disagree.” He stepped aside to make way for two nuns carrying stacks of boxed meals toward the children’s wing.
“I just did what I had to in order to survive. What you’ve been doing out there? That’s takes bravery to a whole new level. Thank you again.”
“No more thanks needed. You’ll make me blush and ruin my badass image. Let’s find some food.”
He palmed the small of her back. The heat of his hand steadied her in a way she hadn’t felt in days, then warmed her in an altogether different way. An inappropriate way, given what was going on in this corner of the world. She stepped ahead, moving with the line inside.
The room was packed, not a seat in sight, hollow-eyed survivors filling the space and eating the boxed meals with a dazed-automaton motion. Even the small stage to her side was crammed with people eating while sitting on the floor around an old upright piano.
Her feet stilled. “The children break my heart the most. They should be playing outside, singing in music class”—she skimmed her hand along bins of stacked instruments on the steps leading up—“or even grousing about a spelling test.”
“The kids are always the hardest.” He scooped a guitar from an open case.
“I do.” He slid the strap over his head. His fingers worked along the strings as he twisted the tuning pegs.
Heads turned in his direction in a wave of increasing attention. One child, then two, then small clusters, moved toward him. He grimaced, before shooting her a wry grin. He shifted from tuning to a song. Before she could process the shift in him, Hugh was strumming through “Be Kind to Your Web-Footed Friends.”
Surprise tingled through her. When children looked up and began migrating toward him, he started singing. No self-consciousness. Just pure rich tones smoothing tension from the room as tangibly as a hand sweeping over a wrinkled sheet.A small mosh pit of little fans gravitated toward him. He segued into “If You’re Happy and You Know It,” which should have seemed grossly ironic, except the children were smiling and clapping along. One of the nurses reached into a box and began passing out classroom instruments—finger cymbals, blocks, tambourines, castanets, and some rattles she didn’t recognize. An older man left his food to help pass out the instruments to the children, his stoop-shouldered walk growing taller by the second.
Hugh’s ease with the children couldn’t be missed or faked. Her heart squeezed, hard. Watching him with the kids, how could she not think of her own dad right now? No matter how hard she tried to push back memories of the way her father had betrayed his family, purely emotional times like this brought the loss crashing forward. Her father had taken that purity and exploited it, seducing her teenage friends.
Part of her trusted the world far less because of that. Another part of her couldn’t help but celebrate true honor when she came across that rare commodity.
Clutching her boxed meal to her stomach, she turned away sharply. But with every step back to the nursery, she strained to hold on to the echoing drift of Hugh’s voice.
Liam McCabe had stayed in some nightmarish shit holes over the years, but as far as living quarters went on a scale of one to ten? This place rated a negative two.
A tent in a field would be better—not to mention more stable—than a beach cottage on a crumbling bluff.
Although considering that much of the region was currently homeless, he probably shouldn’t complain. As long as the two-room shack with a cracked foundation didn’t slide the rest of the way into the ocean before he finished taking his shower, he was cool.
He turned off the faucet, gathered up his toiletries, and tossed them into his travel bag. Snagging a towel off the stack, he swiped the inside of the shower stall down, cleared his beard shavings out of the sink, made sure he’d flushed the john. All three of his marriages may have failed, but he’d picked up a few friendly housemate habits along the way.
His exes may have been right in calling him an immature son of a bitch, but by wife number three, he never forgot to put down the toilet seat.
Now that the cottage bathroom was cleared, time to hotfoot it out so the rest of the team could clean up. The place had running water and a stack of semiclean bedrolls. Even if the hundred-year-old structure reminded him of a haunted house carnival ride. The floor shifted under his feet every other step as he tied the towel around his waist.
At least it was private, a place to decompress from the hell they’d seen over the past eighteen hours.
He tugged open the warped door leading into the living area. The other seven PJs tasked for this mission were scattered out in the two rooms, quiet, letting the weight of the job roll off before they returned for more tomorrow. An evening muggy breeze drifted in through the open windows, doing little to ease the heat. Grimy uniforms aired out, hung over chairs and nails hammered into the wall, while the team cooled down wearing their boxers or a towel.
Franco—who’d already showered—sat on his bedroll, back against the cracked wall… with a guitar?
Liam tossed his shaving kit on a cot. “Where’d you pick up a guitar in this place?”
“Local school,” he said without missing a beat in a vintage Clapton tune. Good stuff, with the deft touch that had earned Hugh the nickname Slow Hand. The guy was so into his music, he even had some kind of musical staff tattooed on his chest.
“And you were there for a concert gig or what?”
“Checking on patients. Folks there loaned me the guitar.” His head went back against the wall, eyes closed as he played—and sent an unmistakable message of conversation over.
Not surprising. Missions like this sucked the stuffing out of anyone. At least Franco was finding an outlet with the music.
Liam scanned the rest of the room, monitoring the mood of his team. Dupre worked a Sudoku puzzle book, his foot tapping in time to the beat. Bubbles cleaned his weapon—dropped the magazine, peered inside, switched on the safety, and so forth as he went on autopilot, going through the motions. Routine was a great calmer.
Securing the knot on his towel with one hand, Liam jerked a thumb over his shoulder with the other. “Bathroom’s clear. Next.”
The newbie guy—Fang—shot off the rocking chair and bolted toward the bathroom without a word. The rocker slammed back against the wall, showering plaster on the slate floor. The call sign Fang was actually an acronym for Fuck, Another New Guy. Once some other newbie came into the squadron, the current Fang would get a permanent nickname. The old Fang—Marcus Dupre—had become Data due to his computer/math-geek ways.
Frowning, Liam turned to Data, Fang’s teammate this mission. “Is he doing okay?”
Sprawled on the rattan sofa in military-tan boxer shorts, Marcus Dupre set aside his Sudoku Supreme book. “Have to confess today was a tough one, even for someone like me, who’s been around for a while.”
Marcus had been around for all of eight months.
Not that Liam saw the need to point that out. Normally he wouldn’t pair up a new Fang with a recent Fang, but Dupre was rock solid. And while Liam had tried to direct the two of them toward what appeared to be the lighter rescue, sometimes seriously bad shit just happened in this job.
Liam dropped into the rocker, tossing his toiletries case on the floor beside him. “Wanna talk?”
The Clapton tune from Franco’s guitar segued into a mellow Jimmy Buffett riff.
Marcus shrugged. “Not exactly the mission for a fresh-faced Ohio farm boy like Fang to get his feet wet. While we were down there…” Pausing, he scratched his neck, his collar bone, the back of his neck, as if he couldn’t scrub off the itch of memories even after a shower. “We had to cut through a dead woman right down the middle to save her teenage daughter.”
The guitar music faltered, then slowly restarted, the only sign that anyone else was listening in. The images, the smells… Liam didn’t have to work hard to know exactly what that must have been like.
“Shit.” Liam glanced at the bathroom door, running water echoing from beyond the thin panel.
The kid hadn’t looked right all evening, but surgically sawing through a dead body to reach a live one? That would leave crazy horrors clogging the brain, impossible to block or forget. And the stench. God, the smells that clung to the air even now like rancid meat in a septic tank.
This kind of day packed a punch for even the most seasoned warrior.
His gaze shifted to Franco, pouring his attention into classical music now. Bach, maybe? Regardless, his “stand back” vibe came through loud and clear as he picked away faster and faster on the well-worn acoustic.
Liam had spent so much time in marital counseling he should have received some kind of honorary certificate for having processed the gamut of psychobabble. Although it didn’t take a PhD to see the emotional carnage rattling around inside Hugh Franco.