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Chief Warrant Officer Miles Mikowski was in no mood to save a life this morning. He'd driven across Deception Pass Bridge onto Whidbey Island countless times, and while it was common to see walkers or runners working their way across the pass, nearly gale-force winds usually kept the bridge clear.
Not this morning.
His hands gripped the steering wheel of his truck as the image of a lone figure clinging to the bridge's side rail morphed into the all-too-familiar Roanna Brandywine.
No, no, no! "Christ."
Regret tasted metallic in his instantly dry mouth. Not another one, not another sailor lost to the aftereffects of the war. He never should have stopped asking her to go out with him.
How had he not seen the warning signs with her? He couldn't bear the loss of another warrior-in-arms to the war. No matter if the cause was a bomb, rocket-propelled grenade, bullet or PTSD.
Not on his watch.
Instinct took over as he floored his gas pedal to get to her. He slammed on the brake, unclicked his seat belt and burst out of the truck's cab in one practiced motion. He'd already checked his rearview mirror and knew he had a clear shot across Highway 20 to Ro.
Wind ripped away any warmth from the early-morning sunlight as Lieutenant Commander Roanna Brandywine walked across Deception Pass Bridge. She'd run four miles and looked forward to the hot shower she'd get at the base gym. But first, she needed to complete a mission she'd planned for weeks. Poised nearly two hundred feet above the turbulent passage that connected the Strait of Juan de Fuca with Puget Sound, she fingered the engagement ring that lay in the palm of her gloved hand for the last time.
Her desolation loomed large and real as she paused at the bridge's midspan. The grandeur of Deception Pass never failed to make Ro feel at once small and insignificant yet able to conquer the world.
The small diamond that cut into her palm had been her link to what she thought a real, normal family life meant. Proof that she had somewhere else to go outside of the navy. That the navy wasn't the only thing she'd ever succeed at.
Her illusion of having a happy, fulfilling personal life was just that. An illusion she'd strung out over several years and half a dozen navy postings. Her relationship with Dick had been part of her fantasy life away from the military.
Face itthe only part of your life that's been real since you graduated from the naval academy nine years ago is your career.
She was done with pouring her emotions into the out-of-reach life that was never going to happen for her. Not in the way she'd planned it, anyhow.
So much of her pain was represented by this one tiny diamond.
She'd failed Dick. She should never have expected any man, especially a man who didn't understand her need to serve her country and see the world, to wait years for her.
Would she have waited years for a man who'd gone off like she had?
Dick knew her family as well as she did, and he'd loved her despite all its crazy ways. He'd fit in to her family so damn well, in fact, that he'd gone off and married her sister at the first hint of Roanna taking orders to Whidbey Island instead of getting out of the navy. Once her aircraft carrier pulled back into Norfolk, Virginia, they'd broken up.
Dick's timing had been unfortunate, since he'd told her he was breaking up with her at the same time he revealed he'd married someone else.
Their last conversation still replayed in her mind, over a year later.
They were at a chain restaurant in downtown Trenton, New Jersey. Dick's idea of a welcome-back-from-deployment meal. She'd been able to overlook his lack of planning even then. It was okayhe waited while she went off and fought wars and she put up with his not-so-desirable qualities when she came home. It was how they did things, both accepting less than what they deserved.
But then he'd revealed that their engagement was off. And, in fact, that he'd married the love of his life.
"Face it, Ro. We're more like brother and sister than a couple. Have been for years." He'd shot her a remorseful grin.
"I don't know of too many brothers and sisters who sleep together," she'd retorted.
Her bluster had been automatic, the reaction she knew she was supposed to have. In truth she'd been shocked at how little she'd cared. As if he'd done them both a favor. Maybe it was time for her to look at herself and even let go of whatever image she'd set out to achieve for her life.
But that would have meant she didn't know where she was going next. Roanna always had a plan B, a safety net, and it had always been Dick. Plan A had always been whatever her navy orders said they were. The orders to Whidbey Island sent her three thousand miles from Dick. Did she really think he'd follow her out there and start a new practice in a strange state?
Again, her career was the one thing she'd been able to count on.
At Dick's silence, her cheeks had grown warm, and then she'd started to shiver.
"I'm sorry if it wasn't good enough for you, Dick." They both knew she was talking about their sex life. At its height it had been a release from months of separation, a simple youthful yearning that demanded fulfillment in their teens and had turned into an obligatory ritual.
"Ro, don't do this."
"Do what, Dick? Get upset that you got married before you dumped me? Or feel hurt that you've been less than happy with our sex life?"
She'd sighed. Dick's face bore an expression she'd never seen on him beforeresignation. Maybe it's time to grow up and move on, she'd thought.
"I'm sorry, Dick. This isn't what I'd expected, but you're actually right. We've been kidding ourselves for a long time, haven't we?"
"I think so."
The waitress had come and taken their orders. Ro had picked her favorite fish and chips basket while Dickpreviously the king of junk foodordered a grilled chicken salad, dressing on the side.
"So who is she, Dick? I'm impressed that she's gotten you to eat healthier. She must be your soul mate." She'd felt genuine when she'd uttered that, too. Really, it had become clearer as their conversation went on that Dick had saved both of their lives by finding another woman.
Dick had stayed silent. She'd felt a flash of compassion for him then, and for his new wife. Poor dears must have tortured themselves over how she'd take the news.
"Oh, I almost forgot." She twisted off the small engagement ring they'd bought at the navy base exchange on one of his trips to Virginia Beach to see her. It had been inexpensive and tax-free, perfect for the young couple they'd been at the time.
He waved her hand, and the ring, away.
"No, no, I can't take that, Roanna. Sell it or give it away, but it's yours to do with as you wish."
She'd held her hand out awkwardly for a few more heartbeats before she'd slipped the ring into the small front pocket of her jeans.
"So, do I know your bride, Dick?"
The guilt on his face had been palpable. She'd reached out to him and put her hand on his forearm.
"Dick, it's okay. Cross my heart. I know you must think I'm in shock or somethingmaybe I ambut deep down I know this is the best thing for both of us. And I really, really want you to be happy. So who is she?"
His gaze had stayed downcast on the plastic ketchup bottle. It had seemed an eternity before he looked back up at her.
"It's Krissy, Ro."
Finally the shock hit her, followed quickly by despair, betrayal and a sprinkle of good old-fashioned outrage.
"Krissy?" She'd tilted her head and tried to smile. Her lips had felt frozen. She only knew one woman named Krissy.
Dick had sighed and bitten his bottom lip, garnering more courage.
"Your sister, Ro. Krissy, your sister, is my wife."
Ro remembered that she stared at him for a good bit before she stood up without a sound and left the restaurant. She hadn't known what else to doshe'd never seen this in a movie before, hadn't practiced this type of exit strategy during any of her navy drills on the ship.
That was the last time she'd spoken to Dick. She'd refused Krissy's calls, too.
The Pacific wind tore at her cheeks and brought her thoughts back to the present.
That had been fourteen months ago. She hadn't spoken to her family since, except for holiday calls to her mother, and a brief visit from her a year ago. Mom had known all along about Dick and Krissy's relationship and had never bothered to tell Roanna. She'd been deployed to the Persian Gulf, in the midst of a freaking war, and her mother hadn't warned her.
No one had.
Why she'd kept the cheap ring this long was beyond her. Dick had certainly never offered her the family heirloom that her half sister, Krissy, wore on her petite left hand. Mom had let this tidbit drop last Christmas. It had been Ro's first Christmas willingly away from her family and it had been her best. A bit lonely but she'd dined in the chow hall on base with other single sailors who worked for her and it had turned out to be a wonderful day.
Ro was the strong one in her family. The natural leader with common sense. The one who broke the mold, got away from the hell she'd known as a child.
But strength was the last thing she felt as she battled the wind and her emotions. The moisture from the mist started to form drops.
The sorrow, sense of failure and complete emptiness she experienced in the driving rain belied the professional reputation she'd built for herself. Clad in only her running tights, athletic shoes and weatherproof jacket, she felt smaller than usual. Her runs often took her across this bridge. Usually it was a place of solace and exhilaration, mingled with consolation. She'd chosen Deception Pass for the closure she needed. No more waiting. Her new life, her new attitude, started today.
She looked out over the edge of the bridge. White foamy water resembled the froth on a cappuccino. It was so far below her it made her dizzy. She grabbed the cold metal railing to keep her balance.
This is it.
She ungloved her right hand while keeping her fingers wrapped around the ring that pressed against her palm.
"Goodbye, Dick, goodbye, old Ro. Hello, new life!"
Before she allowed herself to reconsider, she held the ring out, ready to release it into the wind.
A sudden strong gust of wind forced her to use all of her strength to keep from falling over.
The ring fell out of her outstretched hand, into nothingness.
For a horrible moment it looked as if the ring was going to blow right back in her facethe gusts were that strong. Instead, it made it only halfway back toward her before it pinged against the metal edge of the railing and ricocheted into oblivion. She visualized its descent past the massive fir trees that covered the cliffs on both sides of the gap. A lone seagull floated on the updrafts and she imagined the bird cocking its head at the sparkle of sun glinting off the gem.
The sense of empowerment she'd anticipated was mixed with chagrin and anger that a gust of wind had turned her grand gesture into no more than an accident.
It took every ounce of Miles's explosive ordnance disposal training and prior experience not to scream at Ro to stay still and notplease, God, nojump.
He was next to her in a few agonizing strides. He took in her stiff body, one gloved hand on the guardrail while the other lifted in front of her as if she were tossing her anguished thoughts away.
Only after he had his arms around her and they were falling toward the safety of the hard concrete sidewalk did he allow any words to escape his lips.
"Ro, it's over. I've got you."
Ro remained frozen as she tumbled with her assailant. The shock of being hit by a solid wall of muscle was as much to blame for her lack of response as her teeth-loosening collision with the concrete path.
The arms around her middle and shoulders, and the hand that cradled her head, kept her from a total loss of consciousness as sparks spewed in front of her vision.
"Stay with me, Ro. Are you okay?"
She blinked at the all-too-familiar baritone. A groan made its way past her clenched teeth. Only one man fit the bill of hero and rescuer, and had that deep sexy voice to match.
Navy Chief Warrant Officer and Explosive Ordnance Expert Miles Mikowski.
"You scared the shit out of me, Ro." Her breath came back in gasps. Anger began to warm her from the inside out.
"What the hell are you doing?"
His face was a mere inch from hers, his weight hard but hot in contrast with the frigid ground beneath her. She'd never seen his eyes this closehis pupils were pinpoints of black heat in his steel blue irises as his breath warmed her wind-burned cheeks.
"Ro, it's okay. I'm here, and you're not alone."
"Alone in what?" Their physical proximity started to register across all her senses and she squirmed. "Will you get off me?"
Had he lost his mind?
Slowly, as though she were a hand-blown Easter egg, he inched up and off her, all the while retaining a firm grasp on her arms, her hands. He rocked back on his heels in a crouch and pulled her up to a seated position.
The sound of car engines and the call-outs of drivers forced Ro's glance away from Miles and to the highway.
"What's going on, folks?" A uniformed state trooper stood on the street next to them. "Are you okay, miss?"
Ro looked at the officer, then at Miles.
"I'm fine, Officer. At least I was, until my my colleague seemed to think I was in trouble. Miles?"
He shook his head.
"Tell me you weren't about to do something really stupid, Ro."
"The only thing I was going to do, I did. I tossed my old engagement ring." She stood up and ignored the sharp cries of pain from her battered bones. She was going to kill Miles when she had the chance.
He stared at her as if he was seeing a ghost.
"Sir, are you okay?" The trooper turned to Miles, a hand on his hip.
"Yes, I'm fine. Sorry about any confusion, Officer." Miles ran his fingers over his chin and Ro caught the grimace he was trying to hide.
Miles, embarrassed? This was new.