Hot Zone Page 1

Author: Catherine Mann

Series: Elite Force #2

Genres: Romance

Chapter 1

The world had caved in on Amelia Bailey.


Aftershocks from the earthquake still rumbled the gritty earth under her cheek, jarring her out of her hazy micronap. 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 eyelids 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 being 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 snowball’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 aboveground 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 a 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,” Major 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 make when they sleep or have 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 farther, he met resistance, stopped short. Damn it. He grappled past the jutting stone, lower down her back until he brushed the top of her—

She gasped.

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 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 UK.

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.”