You’re really in for a treat now. This first chapter of Hot Zone pulls you right in, places you in the middle of the devastation after an earthquake tumbles the Bahamas every which way. You meet Hugh and Amelia under the worst of circumstances, when you see the best of them, what makes them the people they are today.
Catherine Mann has given readers characters who are, foremost, honorable, so very likeable but also flawed, and who make you emotionally invest in them from the start. I don’t think you’ll be able to walk away from this excerpt without wanting more of Hugh and Amelia, without wanting to know what happens to them and where they go from here.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Days full of danger…
For Pararescueman Master Sergeant Hugh Franco, it’s all about saving other people’s lives. Then he moves on. But when he pulls beautiful Amelia Bailey and her adopted nephew from the rubble of a catastrophic earthquake, he finds himself entangled in their lives in ways he could never have imagined…
And desire-filled nights…
Amelia’s trip to the Bahamas to help with an international adoption has been no vacation, but the hardest part is yet to come. As Amelia and Hugh are pulled unawares into a deadly smuggling scheme, simmering beneath their growing need to protect each other is a compelling attraction they’re both determined to deny…
The world had caved in on Amelia Bailey. Literally.
Aftershocks from the earthquake still rumbled the gritty earth under her cheek, jarring her out of her hazy micro nap. Dust and rocks showered around her. Her skin, her eyes, everything itched and ached after hours—she’d lost track of how many – beneath the rubble.
The quake had to have hit at least seven on the Richter Scale. Although when you ended up with a building on top of you, somehow a Richter scale didn’t seem all that pertinent.
She squeezed her lids closed. Inhaling. Exhaling. Inhaling, she drew in slow, even breaths of the dank air filled with dirt. Was this what it was like to be buried alive? She pushed back the panic as forcefully as she’d clawed out a tiny cavern for herself.
This wasn’t how she’d envisioned her trip to the Bahamas when she’d offered to help her brother and sister-in-law with the legalities of international adoption.
Muffled sounds penetrated, of jackhammers and tractors. Life scurried above her, not that anybody seemed to have heard her shouts. She’d screamed her throat raw until she could only manage a hoarse croak now.
Time fused in her pitch black cubby, the air thick with sand. Or disintegrated concrete. She didn’t want to think what else. She remembered the first tremor, the dawning realization that her third floor hotel room in the seaside Bahamas resort was slowly giving way beneath her feet. But after that?
Her mind blanked.
How long had she been entombed? Forever, it seemed, but probably more along the lines of half a day while she drifted in and out of consciousness. She wriggled her fingers and toes to keep the circulation moving after so long immobile. Every inch of her body screamed in agony from scrapes and bruises and probably worse, but she couldn’t move enough to check. Still, she welcomed the pain that reassured her she was alive.
Her body was intact.
Forget trying to sit up. Her head throbbed from having tried that. The ceiling was maybe six inches above where she lay flat on her belly. Again, she willed back hysteria. The fog of claustrophobia hovered, waiting to swallow her whole.
More dust sifted around her. The sound of the jackhammers rattled her teeth. They seemed closer, louder with even a hint of a voice. Was that a dog barking?
Hope hurt after so many disappointments. Even if her ears heard right, there had to be so many people in need of rescuing after the earthquake. All those efforts could easily be for someone else a few feet away. They might not find her for hours. Days.
But she couldn’t give up. She had to keep fighting. If not for herself, then for the little life beside her, her precious new nephew. She threaded her arm through the tiny hole between them to rub his back, even though he’d long ago given up crying, sinking into a frighteningly long nap. His shoulders rose and fell evenly, thank God, but for how much longer?
Her fingers wrapped tighter around a rock and she banged steadily against the oppressive wall overhead. Again and again. If only she knew Morse code. Her arm numbed. Needle-like pain prickled down her skin. She gritted her teeth and continued. Didn’t the people up there have special listening gear?
Dim shouts echoed, like a celebration. Someone had been found. Someone else. Her eyes burned with tears that she was too dehydrated to form. Desperation clawed up her throat. What if the rescue party moved on now? Far from her deeply buried spot?
Time ticked away. Precious seconds. Her left hand gripped the rock tighter, her right hand around the tiny wrist of the child beside her. Joshua’s pulse fluttered weakly against her thumb.
Desperation thundered in her ears. She pounded the rock harder overhead. God, she didn’t want to die. There’d been times after her divorce when the betrayal hurt so much she’d thought her chance at finally having a family was over, but she’d never thrown in the towel. Damn him. She wasn’t a quitter.
Except why wasn’t her hand cooperating anymore? The opaque air grew thicker with despair. Her arm grew leaden. Her shoulder shrieked in agony, pushing a gasping moan from between her cracked lips. Pounding became taps… She frowned. Realizing…
Her hand wasn’t moving anymore. It slid uselessly back onto the rubble strewn floor. Even if her will to live was kicking ass, her body waved the white flag of surrender.
Master Sergeant Hugh Franco had given up caring if he lived or died five years ago. These days, the Air Force pararescueman motto was the only thing that kept his soul planted on this side of mortality.
That others may live.
Since he didn’t have anything to live for here on earth, he volunteered for the assignments no sane person would touch. And even if they would, his buds had people who would miss them. Why cause them pain?
Which was what brought him to his current snow-ball’s-chance-in-hell mission.
Hugh commando crawled through the narrow tunnel in the earthquake rubble. His helmet lamp sliced a thin blade through the dusty dark. His headset echoed with chatter from above – familiar voices looking after him and unfamiliar personnel working other missions scattered throughout the chaos. One of the search and rescue dogs above ground had barked his head off the second he’d sniffed this fissure in the jumbled jigsaw of broken concrete.
Now, Hugh burrowed deeper on the say so of a German Shepherd named Zorro. Ground crew attempts at drilling a hole for a search camera had come up with zip. But that Zorro was one mighty insistent pup so Hugh was all in.
He half listened to the talking in one ear, with the other tuned in for signs of life in the devastation. Years of training honed an internal filter that blocked out communication not meant for him.
“You okay down there Franco?”
He tapped the talk button on his safety harness and replied, “Still moving. Seems stable enough.”
“So says the guy who parachuted into a minefield on an Afghani mountainside.”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever.” Somebody had needed to go in and rescue that Green Beret who’d gotten his legs blown off. “I’m good for now and I’m sure I heard some tapping ahead of me. Tough to tell, but maybe another twenty feet or so.”
He felt a slight tug, then loosening to the line attached to his safety harness as his team leader played out more cord.
“Roger that, Franco. Slow and steady man, slow and steady.”
Just then he heard the tapping again. “Wait one, Major.”
Hugh stopped and cocked his free ear. Tapping for sure. He swept his light forward, pushing around a corner and saw a widening cavern that held promise inside the whole hellish pancake collapse. He inched ahead, aiming the light on his helmet into the void.
The slim beam swept a trapped individual. Belly to the ground, the person sprawled with only a few inches free above. The lower half of the body was blocked. But the torso was visible, covered in so much dust and grime he couldn’t tell at first if he saw a male or female. Wide eyes stared back at him with disbelief, followed by wary hope. Then the person dropped a rock and pointed toward him.
Definitely a woman’s hand.
Trembling, she reached, her French manicure chipped, nails torn back and bloody. A gold band on her thumb had bent into an oval. He clasped her hand quickly to check the thumb for warmth and a pulse.
And found it. Circulation still intact.
Then he checked her wrist, heart rate elevated but strong.
She gripped his hand with surprising strength. “If I’m hallucinating,” she said, her raspy voice barely more than a whisper, “please don’t tell me.”
“Ma’am, you’re not imagining anything. I’m here to help you.”
He let her keep holding on as it seemed to bring her comfort—and calm—while he swept the light over what he could see of her to assess medically. Tangled hair. A streak of blood across her head. But no gaping wounds.
He thumbed his mic. “Have found a live female. Trapped, but lucid. More data after I evaluate.”
“Roger that,” McCabe’s voice crackled through.
Hugh inched closer, wedging the light into the crevice in hopes of seeing more of his patient. “Ma’am, crews are working hard to get you out of here, but they need to stabilize the structure before removing more debris. Do you understand me?”
“I hear you.” She nodded, then winced as her cheek slid along the gritty ground. “My name is Amelia Bailey. I’m not alone.”
More souls in danger. “How many?”
“One more. A baby.”
His gut gripped. He forced words past his throat clogging from more than particulates in the air. “McCabe, add a second soul to that. A baby with the female, Amelia Bailey. Am switching to hot mic so you can listen in.”
He flipped the mic to constant feed, which would use more battery but time was of the essence now. He didn’t want to waste valuable seconds repeating info. “Ma’am, how old is the baby?”
“Thirteen months. A boy,” she spoke faster and faster, her voice coming out in scratchy croaks. “I can’t see him because it’s so dark, but I can feel his pulse. He’s still alive, but oh God, please get us out of here.”
“Yes, ma’am. Now, I’m going to slip my hand over your back to see if I can reach him.”
He had his doubts. There wasn’t a sound from the child, no whimpering, none of those huffing little breaths children made when they slept or had cried themselves out. Still, he had to go through the motions. Inching closer until he stretched alongside her, he tunneled his arm over her shoulders. Her back rose and fell shallowly, as if she tried to give him more space when millimeters counted. His fingers snagged on her torn shirt, something silky and too insubstantial a barrier between her and tons of concrete.
Pushing further, he met resistance, stopped short. Damn it. He grappled past the jutting stone, lower down her back until he brushed the top of her—
He looked up fast, nearly nose to nose now. His hand stilled on her buttock. She stared back, the light from his helmet sweeping over her sooty face. Her eyes stared back, a splash of color in the middle of murky desperation.
Blue. Her eyes were glistened pure blue, and what a strange thought to have in the middle of hell. But he couldn’t help but notice they were the same color as cornflowers he’d seen carpeting a field once during a mission in the U.K.
Hell, cornflowers were just weeds. He stretched deeper, along the curve of her butt, bringing his face nearer to hers. She bit her lip.
“Sorry,” he clipped out.
Wincing, she shrugged. “It was a reflex. Modesty’s pretty silly right now. Keep going.”
Wriggling, he shifted for a better path beyond the maze of jagged edges, protruding glass, spikes…
“Damn it.” He rolled away, stifling the urge to say a helluva lot worse. “I can’t reach past you.”
Her fingers crawled to grip his sleeve. “I’m just so glad you’re here, that everyone knows we are here. Joshua’s heart is still beating. He’s with us and we haven’t been down here long enough for him to get dehydrated, less than a day. There’s hope, right?”
Less than a day? Nearly forty-eight hours had passed since the earthquake occurred, and while he’d participated in against all odds rescues before, he had a sick sense that the child was already dead. But alerting the woman to her own confusion over the time wouldn’t help and could actually freak her out.
“Sure, Amelia. There’s always hope.”
Or so the platitude went.
“I’m going to hang out here with you while they do their work upstairs.” He unstrapped the pack around his waist and pointed his headlight toward the supplies. “Now I’m gonna pull out some tricks to make you more comfortable while we wait.”
“Happen to have an ice cold Diet Coke? Although I’ll settle for water, no lemon necessary.”
He laughed softly. Not many would be able to joke right now, much less stay calm. “I’m sorry, but until I know more about your physical status, I can’t risk letting you eat or drink.” He tugged out a bag of saline, the needle, antiseptic swabs, grunting as a rock bit into his side. “But I am going to start an IV, just some fluids to hydrate you.”
“You said you’re here to help me,” she said, wincing at a fresh burst of noise from the jackhammers, “but who are you?”
“I’m with the U.S. Air Force.” Dust and pebbles showered down. “I’m a pararescueman—you may have heard it called parajumper or PJ—but regardless it includes a crap-ton of medic training. I need to ask some questions so I know what else to put in your IV. Where exactly did the debris land on you?”
She puffed dust from her mouth, blinking fast. “There’s a frickin’ building on top of me.”
“Let me be more specific. Are your legs pinned?” He tore the corner of a sealed alcohol pad with his teeth, spitting the foil edge free. “I couldn’t reach that far to assess.”
Her eyes narrowed. “I thought you were checking on Joshua.”
“I’m a good multi-tasker.”
“My foot is wedged, but I can still wriggle my toes.”
He looked up sharply. If she was hemorrhaging internally, fluids could make her bleed out faster, but without hydration…
The balancing act often came down to going with his gut. “Just your foot?”
“Yes. Why? Do you think I’m delusional?” Her breath hitched with early signs of hysteria. “I’m not having phantom sensations. I can feel grit against my ankle. There’s some blood in my shoe, not a lot. It’s sticky, but not fresh. I’m feeling things.”
“I hear you. I believe you.” Without question, her mind would do whatever was needed to survive. But he’d felt enough of her body to know she was blocked, rather than pressed into the space. “I’m going to put an IV in now.”
“Why was it so important about my foot?”
He scrubbed the top of her hand with alcohol pads, sanitizing as best he could. “When parts of the body are crushed, we need to be… uh… careful in freeing you.”
“Crush syndrome.” Her throat moved with a long slow swallow. “I’ve heard of that. People die from it after they get free. I saw it on a rerun of that TV show about a crabby drug addict doctor.”
“We just need to be careful.” In a crush situation, tissue died, breaking down and when the pressure was released, toxins flooded the body, overloading the kidneys. And for just that remote possibility, he hadn’t included potassium in her IV.
Panic flooded her glittering blue eyes. “Are you planning to cut off my foot?” Her arm twitched, harder, faster until she flailed. “Are you going to put something else in that IV? Something to knock me out?”
He covered her fingers with his before she dislodged the port in her hand. “There’s nothing in there but fluid. I’m being honest with you now, but if you panic, I’m going to have to start feeding you a line of bullshit to calm you down. Now you said you wanted the unvarnished truth—”
“I do. Okay. I’m breathing. Calming down. Give me the IV.”
He patted her wrist a final time. “I already did.”
Blinking fast, she looked at the tape along her hand. A smile pushed through the grime on her face. “You’re good. I was so busy trying not to freak out I didn’t even notice.”
“Not bad for my first time.”
“Your first time?”
“I’m kidding.” And working to distract her again from the rattle overhead, the fear that at any second the whole damn place could collapse onto them.
She laughed weakly, then stronger. “Thank you.”
“It’s just an IV.”
“For the laugh. I was afraid I would never get to do that again.” Her fingers relaxed slowly, tension seeping from them as surely as fluid dripped out of the bag. “The second they uncover us, you’ll make Joshua top priority. Forget about me until he’s taken care of.”
“We’re going to get you both out of here. I swear it.”
“Easy for you to claim that. If I die, it’s not like I can call you a liar.”
A dead woman and child. He resisted the urge to tear through the rocks with his bare hands and to hell with waiting on the crews above. He stowed his gear, twisting to avoid that damn stone stabbing his side.
“Hey,” Amelia whispered. “That was supposed to be a joke from me this time.”
“Right, got it.” Admiration for her grit kicked through his own personal fog threatening to swallow him whole. “You’re a tough one. I think you’re going to be fine.”
“I’m a county prosecutor. I chew up criminals for a living.”
“Atta girl.” He settled onto his back, watching the hypnotic drip, drip. His fingers rested on her wrist to monitor her pulse.
“Girl?” She sniffed. “I prefer to be called a woman or a lady, thank you very much.”
“Where I come from, it’s wise not to be nitpicky with the person who’s saving your ass.”
“Score one for you.” She scraped a torn fingernail through the dust on the ground. Her sigh stirred the dust around that shaky line. “I’m good now. So you should go before this building collapses on top of you and keeps you from doing your job for other people.”
“I don’t have anywhere else to be.” He ignored a call from McCabe through his headset that pretty much echoed the woman’s words. “The second they give the go ahead, I’m hauling you out of here, Amelia Bailey.”
“And Joshua. I want you to promise you’ll take care of him first.”
“I will do what I can for him,” he answered evasively.
Her wide eyes studied him for seven drips of the IV before she cleared her throat. “You don’t think he’s alive, do you? I can feel his pulse.”
“I’m not imagining it, damn it.” Her hand flipped and she grabbed his arm, her ragged nails digging deep with urgency. “I can feel his pulse in his wrist. He’s a little chilly, but he’s not cold. Just because he’s not screaming his head off doesn’t mean he’s dead. And sometimes, he moves. Only a little, but I feel it.” Her words tumbled over each other faster and faster until she dissolved into a coughing fit.
Ah, to hell with it. He unhooked his canteen. “Wet your mouth. Just don’t gulp, okay? Or they’ll kick my butt up there.”
He brought the jug to her lips and she sipped, her restraint Herculean when she must want to drain it dry. Sighing, she sagged again, her eyes closing as she hmmmed, her breathing evening out. He freaked. She needed to stay awake, alert.
“Tell me about your son Joshua.” He recapped the canteen without wasting a swallow on himself.
Her lashes fluttered open again. “Joshua’s my nephew. I came with my brother and his wife to help them with the paperwork for their adoption. They don’t want any legal loopholes. What happens to Joshua if they’re…?”
She bit her lip.
His brain raced as he swept the light along the rubble, searching for some signs of others. Although there hadn’t been a helluva lot of survivors in the vicinity. All the same, he made sure they heard upstairs, by speaking straight into his mic as he asked her, “Where were your brother and sister-in-law when the earthquake hit?”
“They were in the street, outside the hotel. They left to buy lunch. They waited until Joshua was asleep so he wouldn’t miss them.” Her voice hitched. “I promised I would take care of him.”
“And you have.” He pinned her with his eyes, with his determination, the swath of light staying steady on her face. “Keep the faith. Hold steady and picture your family in one of the camps for survivors right now going nuts trying to find you.”
“I’ve read stories about how babies do better because they have more fat stores and they don’t tense up or get claustrophobic.” Her eyes pleaded with him. “He’s just napping, you know.”
The force of her need pummeled him harder than the spray of rocks from the jack hammered ceiling. The world closed in to just this woman and a kid he couldn’t see. Too clearly he could envision his wife and his daughter, trapped in the wreckage of a crashed plane. Marissa would have held out hope for Tilly right to the end too, fighting for her until her nails and spirit were ragged.
The vise on his brain clamped harder, the roar in his ears louder, threatening his focus. “I’m changing your IV bag now, so don’t wig out if you feel a little tug.”
She clenched her fist. “You must get pretty jaded in this line of work.”
“I’ve got a good success rate.” He didn’t walk away from tough odds. Every mission was do or die for him.
“About my foot,” she started hesitantly, “am I imagining that it’s okay? Be honest. I won’t panic. I need to be prepared.”
“The mind does what it needs to in order to survive. That’s what you need to focus on. Surviving.”
Not that any amount of determination had mattered in the end for Marissa or Tilly. They’d died in that plane crash, their broken bodies returned to him to bury along with his will to live. A trembling started deep inside him. His teeth chattered. He dug his fingers into the ground to anchor himself into the present. Amelia Bailey would not die on his watch, damn it.
But the trembling increased inside him. Harder. Deeper. Until he realized… The shaking wasn’t inside, but outside.
The ground shuddered with another earthquake.