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"You've gained twenty-six degrees in your mobility over the last six months, Helen." Drew smiled at his prize patient and snapped his protractor closed. Helen Burkoven was sixty-two, and had presented with a frozen right shoulder, due in part to her competitive tennis practice of the past fifty years. She made a lot of his younger clients appear lazy.
"I can't tell you how great it is to be able to pull weeds again, Drew. The brambles had taken over my rose garden!"
"As long as you keep doing the exercises we've gone over, you'll be fine-but take it easy on the tennis court, okay?"
Helen grunted and walked over to the chair, where she waited while Drew got an ice gel pack out of the chiller.
He arranged the pillow under her arm to make her more comfortable before he placed the gel pack over her injured shoulder.
Helen groaned in pleasure. "Oh, that always feels so good after all the work you make me do."
"Sit tight and enjoy. You're free to go in fifteen minutes." He set the timer near Helen's chair and went to see his other client, Tom, who was doing leg exercises for his knee on a wheeled office chair.
Drew relished the modern layout of his clinic. One large room held the equipment and therapy tables for up to six clients at a time.
"How's it going, Tom?"
"Fine, doc. But I feel like a crab on the beach, walking around while I'm sitting on this stool."
"It's going to help your knees, trust me."
"Drew?" Serena Delgado, his receptionist, interrupted him.
Drew looked at her sharply, but his annoyance dissipated at the stunned expression on her beautiful face. Whatever it was, she wouldn't express it in front of his clients. Serena didn't normally interrupt his consultations. The last time she'd burst in like this-
Gwen's plane had gone down.
That was well over six months ago, but damned if he didn't tense up and expect Serena to give him more bad news.
There isn't anything worse than knowing Gwen's never coming home.
"You have some visitors. It's very important."
The dread that had simmered in his gut since the minute he'd learned Gwen was missing erupted into an all-out boil.
They've found her body.
As much as every piece of naval intelligence that he'd been told about, not to mention logic, indicated that Gwen had perished in the South Pacific six months ago, he'd held out hope. That she'd survived-that she'd come back. That, somehow, against all the odds, she'd made it.
He shook off the fantasy.
If she'd lived, if she came back, they'd only be the friends they'd become since the divorce.
"Drew?" Serena stared at him. He swung his gaze to Helen, his rotator cuff patient. She hadn't said a word, but she wasn't deaf. Her eyes sparked with knowing. Hell, the whole town knew what he'd been through. The P-3 ditch. Gwen's role in it-she'd saved her crew. The entire damned crew had returned safely to Whidbey Island. To their families.
Gwen didn't have a family to return to anymore. Only him, her ex-husband, and their shared pets. The island newspaper had detailed Gwen's naval career as well as her personal bio, including their divorce. Her MIA status had been picked up by the national news, as well.
While locals like Helen knew an awful lot more about his personal life than he'd choose, they didn't know the half of it.
"Go ahead, Drew. You're done with me." Helen's eyes didn't twinkle any longer, and her expression was gentle. Motherly. "We're all praying for you."
After a quick nod at Helen, he followed Serena to the back office, behind the therapy room.
He stopped at the threshold when he saw the occupants.
Lieutenant Commander Roanna Mikowski, his wife's best friend since they'd been midshipmen at the Naval Academy, stood with her hands clasped in front of her. She was still on active duty, but had put in her resignation so she could remain in the same place as her husband, Chief Warrant Officer Miles Mikowski. A stab of envy broke through his shock as he saw the obviously happy couple.
Why couldn't Gwen have resigned, too?
It wouldn't change who we both are. We'd still be divorced.
Miles stood next to Ro and offered Drew a slight smile. "Drew."
Silence stretched between them. They'd shared an awful lot of grief these past several months. Tension seemed to crackle off Ro and Miles. They were going to confirm his worst fears, the news they'd all dreaded.
"Do I need to sit down?" His voice sounded sane, steady, but he couldn't feel his mouth move with the words.
"Yes." They spoke in unison, then glanced at each other. It was the kind of look that only a couple who knew and deeply loved each other exchanged. Drew missed that kind of intimacy.
He sank into the leather office chair, unable to relax.
"Spit it out." He wanted to run away, leave the office, leave Oak Harbor, charter a flight off Whid-bey Island. Destination: Anywhere But Here.
It wouldn't change the truth.
"Drew, they've found Gwen." Ro's voice was low and steady. He gave her credit for being so strong.
He couldn't stop the tears that squeezed past his closed eyes. "Where?"
"Drew, look at me. You don't understand."
He opened his eyes and saw that Ro's eyes glistened with unshed tears, too.
"She's alive, Drew. She made it."
"She-" His voice crapped out on him. Miles nodded in affirmation. Relief bloomed in his chest. And then common sense shut it down.
"Ro's not kidding, Drew. She's alive! She was caught by insurgents but escaped from their prison camp after two weeks."
Drew jumped out of the chair and grabbed the edge of his desk. "Where was she for the past five months? Where is she now?"
"Apparently, she found a small village where she hid out until she had a chance to walk out of the jungle. She got to our embassy in Manila via the Philippine government, once she was able to reach them. She saved a baby's life while she was out there." Ro paused. "That, of course, is classified."
He blinked, grateful that Ro was willing to risk telling him something she probably shouldn't have.
"I appreciate it, Ro." He turned to each of them. "Thanks for sharing this with me. I'll call her mother."
Ro shook her head. "She's probably already called her. It's going to hit the news any moment."
"Got it." Drew was grateful they'd come and told him in person, so he wouldn't hear it first on the radio or see it on TV. Now he needed them out of here. They were waiting for a reaction he couldn't give them. No matter what he'd told them when Gwen had gone missing, it didn't change who he and Gwen were. They were friends. Exes who'd outgrown their youthful first love.
"She'll be coming home in about a week. She's being flown from Manila to Seattle, and examined down at Madigan for several days." Madigan Army Hospital was three hours away, south of Seattle.
"I'm sure they'll take good care of her," he said. "She's tough, we all know that." He stood up as if to go into the therapy room. It had to be enough of a hint for them.
"No, Drew, stop." Ro walked around the desk and put her hand on his arm. He stared down at her hand.
"She needs some time to come to grips with it all, to adjust to the reality that she got out of there alive."
"You talked to her?"
"No, not yet. I'm telling you this ahead of the call you're going to get from the commodore. I couldn't bear the thought of you finding out alone. We wanted to be with you."
He looked at Ro, then Miles.
"You know this doesn't change anything," Drew said. "We'll never be more than friends." He didn't mean to say that out loud, but there it was.
"This isn't the time to worry about that, bud." Miles gave him a long look. "What you told Ro and me, it's just between us."
Drew wasn't so much in shock that he didn't know bullshit when he heard it. Ro was Gwen's best friend since they'd been on the same sailing team together. Gwen was like a sister to Ro. Drew shook his head and walked to the side of the desk. He beckoned to Miles and Ro, and enveloped them both in a hug.
"She's alive. Nothing else matters."
He'd been given what he'd prayed for. The chance he'd bargained for with God. He'd promised he'd accept that they were friends, and never hold another angry thought about the fact that they weren't destined to be more.
Surprisingly, Gwen's disappearance had taught him to be grateful for the entire time he'd known her-not only the good years of their marriage but the tough years, too. It had all brought him to where he was today, enjoying the career he'd dreamed of in his favorite place on earth, Whidbey Island.
He couldn't go back to regrets or what-ifs.
To the reasons for a divorce that had become final five years ago, after nine years of marriage.
Miles pulled back from Drew's embrace but Ro stayed by his side, her expression hopeful as she kept glancing over at Miles as if for support.
Please don't bring up the possibility of reconciliation.
"There's a detail we still have to take care of, Drew."
"She has to stay with you."
Drew pulled back and dropped his arms. He rubbed his face.
"I'm willing to help her out, Ro," he said after a moment, "but living with me? Not going to happen. She'd never agree to it. Besides, I'm sure Brenda will take her home before the week's out." Let her mother, Brenda, help her out for once.
He could be her friend, but not in such close proximity. Not day after day, in a situation he might mistake for more than it was.
They'd all thought she was dead.
You knew she was still alive.
"She'll want to come here. Whidbey is home to her. And you know Brenda's not who Gwen needs right now. She needs someone who's had PTSD, who's been through a war. Someone who understands what she's got ahead of her."
Leave it to Ro to pull out the big guns.
"I went through my issues a decade ago, Ro." Miles was watching him with wary alertness.
"Ro and I just finished going through our 'issues.' None of us will forget the hell it can be once we're back. You'll be able to support Gwen like no one else can. You've known her almost as long as Ro has." Miles didn't add the "you've been married to her" part. He didn't have to.
No. Freaking. Way.
Gwen in his house? Living under the same roof again? No.
"You're still forgetting that Gwen has to agree to this."
"Her apartment's been rented out. You have all her stuff in your garage from a month after she went missing. It'll take at least two weeks before she's steady enough to go looking for a place of her own." Miles spoke reasonably enough.
"I'll get her household goods delivered to a new apartment. Hell, I'll find an apartment for her, if that's what it takes."
Ro and Miles stared at him. He clenched his fists, taking a deep breath before continuing.
"I realize you two would love nothing more than for me and Gwen to suddenly decide we made a mistake and get back together. But it's not going to happen, and we all know it. Why make her suffer right from the get-go? She needs to get herself squared away without being around me." And he didn't need the reminders of what had gone wrong, what they'd lost when they'd allowed themselves to drift apart.
Ro leaned over the desk. "You're all she's got, Drew. Her mother and stepdad are not who she'd pick to recuperate around. You know that as well as I. She could come stay with us, but.."
"You're still newlyweds. No way."
Ro nodded. "Right, and as much as we don't care about that, Gwen would."
"Speak for yourself." Miles smiled at Ro.
A sense of anticipation awakened in Drew. To have Gwen home, to be able to exchange simple small talk while she healed, seemed innocent enough. But it wasn't good in the long run. For either of them.
Still, his gut instinct to take care of her was hard to ignore.
"Drew, you're a physical therapist. You know that clients have to start from a baseline, work on the smaller, less challenging exercises first. Only after their strength comes back can they do the hard stuff. Like when you helped me get my hips and lower back straight after my fall." Miles gestured at his prosthetic leg. He'd survived a tough rehabilitation with the navy. He'd taken a fall several months back and had come to Drew's clinic for physical therapy.
Drew glared at him. "Being patronizing isn't your forte, pal. Your back and sacrum were easy fixes-you were already in great shape. Gwen and I haven't seen each other in over six months." And hadn't spoken, or touched or talked like a real couple in five years.
They were friends without benefits.
"This is a lot to put on you, Drew, but imagine what Gwen's going through. For her to come back to anyplace but a house she's familiar with is too much right now. She needs the easier road."
"I don't disagree with that, Ro, and you can't disagree with the fact that there aren't a lot of happy memories for Gwen in my house." It'd taken him years to call it my house and not our.
"Think about the comfort the pets will give her, Drew. You have to know it just about killed her to leave Rosie and Nappie." Ro's persistent tone grated. This was the problem with having friends who'd known you forever. They called you on your crap.
What they're saying is true.
After Gwen moved out, she'd asked to come by when he wasn't around. Said she needed to spend time with their parrot and their dog, so the pets wouldn't be traumatized by the divorce. It had evolved into a joint pet-sharing venture that rivaled the joint-custody agreements divorced parents arranged. He didn't know how much Ro knew about that, and wasn't going to volunteer it.
"Okay, fine-she needs a place, and the house is probably the best option for her. She can be with the pets. I'll take a room in town." Hell, he could camp out in his office.
Miles shook his head as he put a calming hand on Ro's shoulder. "That won't work, either, Drew. She has to be with someone, another adult, in the house. Hell, Drew, you know what coming home from war's like. The nightmares, the crazy crap right afterward. No one should have to do that alone."
Miles was right. He watched Ro slip a protective arm around Miles's waist. Both Miles and Ro had gone through their post-war transitions as single sailors, living on their own. They'd found each other in the midst of it.
He couldn't let Gwen suffer on her own, no matter how difficult the living arrangement was for either of them. He stared down at his closed laptop, unable to look at the happy newlyweds while contemplating the antithesis of a honeymoon with his ex-wife.
His injured, battle-fatigued ex-wife.