The floor creaked a second before Cuervo stepped out of the bedroom. He stopped at the counter in front of a box of MREs—meals ready to eat. “I see the catering staff is as high-end as ever.”
Bubbles grunted without looking up, moving on from cleaning his gun to sharpening his survival knife.
Cuervo tossed back a handful what looked like generic M&Ms. “Somebody’s a Debbie Downer.”
Gavin “Bubbles” Novak never laughed and rarely talked. Whoever had given him that call sign had a serious sense of the ironic.
Cuervo held out his hand with the rest of his candy. “Want some? They’re yummy.”
Bubbles eyed him for three slow blinks before saying, “You’re a sick puppy.”
“Laugh or lose my cookies?” Cuervo chewed thoughtfully, then nodded. “I’ll go for laughter. Gets a person through the day, right Major?”
Liam just smiled. Usually he did agree with that mantra, but today was harder than most. The responsibility of leading his team, keeping their heads on straight, weighed heavy on his shoulders. There weren’t many opportunities for him to blow off steam these days. But this was the only life he knew, the path he’d chosen at the expense of everything else.
He eyed his team, his family, his kids to keep safe.
Cuervo snapped Hugh Franco’s leg with a towel. “Practicing up your tunes for a hot date, Franco?”
Cocking one eyebrow, Hugh caressed his way through the notes. “This just happens to be Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. It’s called culture. Give it a try sometime, bro.”
“Has everyone lost their sense of humor?” Cuervo pitched back the rest of the candy, his wiry frame not showing the least sign of his junk food habit.
“I must have left it in the pile of mangled corpses.” Franco’s fingers picked up speed on the neck of the guitar, emotion damn near pouring from the strings.
Cuervo took the hint and dug around in the MRE box without commentary. His sugar high would send him pacing around the room, but eventually he would crash.
Quiet settled over the room long enough that Liam considered snagging a bedroll of his own and heading to the other room. The next shift would come around soon enough, with a new level of horrors as the chance of finding survivors decreased.
With a final check-in look at Marcus Dupre and Hugh Franco, Liam shoved to his feet. The floor predictably squeaked under his feet. The room seemed to tip sideways, but God, he was so tired he’d probably gone a little loopy. His shower sandals slapped the scarred wood floor. He leaned to grab his gear and bedding—
The ground rumbled. Unmistakably.
Another earthquake, or at the very least a kick-ass aftershock.
Curses bounced around as fast as feet hit the floor. Fang shot out of the bathroom, wrapping a towel around his waist without missing a step. The front door clogged as they all angled out sideways until they burst through. Liam scanned the cottage fast, finding all out, and followed them to the cobbled road.
The ground stilled as quickly as it had stirred.
Just another aftershock.
But apparently the whole damn town had been just as afraid. The side street was chock-full of locals and relief workers. Except they were all dressed and staring gape-eyed at him and his team.
Hugh Franco held his guitar in one hand, securing his towel with the other. Fang’s knot on his hip slipped and he grabbed for the edges frantically. Marcus covertly checked the fly of his boxers.
Cuervo’s mouth twitched with a laugh that Liam could feel welling inside himself as well.
Ah, to hell with it.
He let the laughter rumble up and free, hopefully carrying some tension out along the way. He flattened a hand to a half-uprooted palm tree and shook his head as Fang jogged inside again, his flapping towel flashing half a butt cheek.
No doubt, Fang was going to have a stripper-style call sign by morning.
Some of the tension unkinked in Liam’s gut and he straightened. “Okay, everybody, let’s close down this peep show and catch some Z’s.”
He pivoted on his heel, a deep dog bark giving him only a second’s warning that he was about to bump into—
“Lose your clothes, Major?” She stood beside her black Lab, leash in hand. Her grimy cargo pants and body-hugging T-shirt declared she was still working.
Her dog started sniffing the edge of his towel suspiciously, all seventy pounds of pooch tensed, hackles rising along the canine’s spine.
“It’s not my clothes I’m worried about right now, ma’am. Think you can get your dog to let go of my towel?”
“Disco?” She thumbed some kind of clicker in her hand and the dog dropped to his haunches. “Good boy.”
“Yeah?”“You may want to invest in a larger towel.” She clapped him on his bare shoulder matter-of-factly before striding past, toward the cabana next door.
Her touch lingered on his bare skin. He stood rooted to the spot for a solid five seconds, watching her walk away, her thick ponytail gathered high and haphazardly on top of her head. Wavy brown hair swished with each step.
Movement from the cottage door tugged at the edges of his attention, even as he kept his eyes glued to the no-nonsense twitch of Rachel’s hips. Franco charged back out again, no guitar this time, but fully clothed. He ran past in camo pants and a fresh brown T-shirt, yanking on his survival vest.
“Going somewhere, Franco?” he asked distractedly.
“I’ll be back in an hour, sir.” Without giving Liam a chance to protest, Franco jogged away, weaving through the milling crowd.
And it didn’t escape Liam’s notice the brooding sergeant was heading toward the half-demolished school that had been converted into a temporary hospital. The same place he’d said he picked up a guitar earlier…
He should have known Franco would track down Amelia Bailey again.
Women. It was always about the women. His focus went right back on Rachel Flores, slipping inside the next-door cottage.
He’d been searching for a way to wade through the tension of the day. Then just a few words from that woman and the load on his shoulders felt a little lighter. Damn. He studied the tracks left by Rachel in a layer of dust on the street, dog prints in perfect sync alongside.
If he closed his eyes, he could still see the twitch of her hips, the tangled mass of hair whipping around in the breeze. Only a day and he already had every inch of her hot body planted in his memory as firmly as he could hear her voice, see her smile. All that relationship counseling about taking his time and thinking things through when it came to women hadn’t made a bit of difference.
He was already halfway head over ass in love with Rachel Flores.
Hugh stood in the doorway to the temporary pediatric ward, staring at Amelia like a junkie jonesing for crack.
His need—a gnawing hunger—to see her again wasn’t healthy. Coming back here definitely wasn’t smart. But the second that aftershock had hit at the half-wrecked cottage, he hadn’t wasted a second. He’d only thought of getting dressed and hauling ass to the hospital to check on Amelia.
And now he’d found her. Alive. Safe. Mission accomplished.
He should leave. Should. But didn’t.
Instead he kept his boots planted, taking advantage of the fact that the medical techs on duty with their shortwave radios and walkie-talkies wouldn’t question him being around so late at night, since military presence was a given in these circumstances. So the nurses went about their business while he soaked up the sight of Amelia bathed in the glow of a low lamp.
She slept in a teakwood rocking chair, the kid snoozing against her chest the same way he’d found her the day before. He averted his eyes from the child and back to Amelia. She wore standard-issue green surgical scrubs and a pair of plain white gym shoes that had undoubtedly come from one of those hundreds of empty pallets. And still nowhere near enough gear had been shipped in yet, even four days after the earthquake hit.
Just like when he’d seen her at the hospital before, her hair streamed over one shoulder, sleek and damp. She was a blonde. He hadn’t known that when they were underground and covered in dirt. He hadn’t really thought about how she looked then, just seeing—admiring—her determination. Such calm in a crisis didn’t come around often. He couldn’t even count the number of times the person he’d been sent to save had freaked out. In the water. On a sheer cliff. In the desert. On a helicopter rescue cable. He usually came out with more bruises from being thrashed by the victim than from the actual rescue work.
Not with Amelia though.
Her spirit drew him, and he couldn’t deny the surge of attraction he felt from just looking at her. She was… beautiful. Stunning, even, in a delicate way so contradictory to her tenacious spirit that it made her even more appealing.
A fresh surge of protectiveness hummed through him, tinged with something else. Something he recognized well. He wanted her. So much, the force of his ache to be inside her threatened to drive him to his knees.
He slumped against the door frame. Seeing her again hadn’t reassured him in the least, only stirred up a whole new tangled mess of thoughts—along with the undeniable urge to touch her hair and see if it was as soft as it looked. Find out how it would feel splayed over his shoulder while she sprawled naked on top of him.
The way she’d left the cafeteria without saying good-bye should have kept him away. Their time together was over. Mission complete. And yet he’d still been unable to scrub thoughts of her from his mind. Normally music offered him an escape, and now she’d invaded even that corner of his life.
Which brought him right back here. Searching for closure? A wise man would. But then he wasn’t known for his levelheaded thinking.
Already making his way into the library-turned-infirmary, he absorbed the look of her, relaxed in sleep. His eyes fell to the plump curve of her naturally pink lips. The floor seemed to vibrate under his feet and he knew there was no aftershock this time. The humming came from deep inside him.
Shit. He was screwed.
Hugh’s voice whispered through her mind so tangibly, she could have sworn he spoke from inside her dreams again. And if so, she wanted to stay asleep a little longer, even as reason intruded. Images of him in a hammock at her Alabama condo didn’t make sense but felt so right. Just lazing in her backyard, soaking up the clean air, the bright sunshine…
And munching on a huge hamburger.
Okay, now she really knew she was dreaming. Her stomach grumbled.
“Amelia?” Hugh said again, louder this time, from behind her.
Joshua stirred against her chest before settling his cheek into the curve of her neck again with a baby sigh and a bit of drool. Blinking through the layers of foggy sleep, she secured her hold on her nephew and looked over her shoulder.
As if conjured from her dreams, she saw Hugh waiting a few feet away by a shelf of reference books. She blinked fast, and sure enough, he stood a hand stretch away. His face was cast in shadows, the lights dimmed for the dozen sleeping children.
“What are you doing here again and so late?” she whispered as he moved to her side. “Is something wrong? Did you find out something about my brother and his wife?” Her throat closed up.
“No, I just—”
Nurse Gable shushed them both as she patted a sleeping baby girl on the back.
Amelia smiled an apology before turning back to him. “Let’s talk outside in the hall.”
He nodded and sidestepped the vigilant nurse on his way toward the door.
Slowly, Amelia stood, careful not to wake Joshua as she returned him to his playpen. Kissing her fingers, she pressed them to his forehead and swept a hand over his tight curls before turning back toward the open room.
And the man who’d filled her life so completely so quickly.