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Arlington National Cemetery, Washington, DC
Shivering in her Army National Guard dress uniform, Devon flinched when the Air Force honor guard fired their twenty-one gun salute beside Ty's grave. His flag-draped silver coffin sat suspended over it, waiting to be lowered into the dark hole.
The haunting strains of Taps rang out, and her skin erupted in goose bumps. When the last note died away in the crisp fall air, the honor guard folded the flag into a perfect triangle that showed part of the blue field and white stars. Across the grave, seated with her husband's comforting arm around her shoulders, Ty's mother accepted the flag from his commanding officer. She clutched it to her chest and stared with swimming eyes at the box that held the remains of her only child. Her shattered expression alone made Devon want to weep.
She jerked when her friend Ryan put an arm around her, but after a second instinctively moved closer to him. Away from the other man flanking her. Both wore their dress blues, and both had borne Ty to his grave. She was grateful for their presence, but standing this close to Cam hurt almost as much as knowing Ty was going into that hole.
Because they both knew the truth about why he'd died.
The wind gusted through her dress jacket and over her legs below the hem of her skirt. She barely heard what the chaplain was saying-she didn't care what he had to say. Nothing could ease her pain. Or the suffocating guilt that came with it.
When he stopped, the family stood to say their final goodbyes. One by one they placed yellow roses atop the silver casket until the lid was smothered in flowers. Ty's mother trembled beneath her husband's arm for a moment, then let out a keening wail of grief so sharp it made the hair on Devon's neck stand up. Struggling to hold her composure, she bit the inside of her cheek until she tasted blood.
As his family left the graveside Devon stood there, rigid in the cold, staring at her ex-boyfriend's coffin. I'm so sorry, Ty. So very sorry
Ryan stepped up to the edge of the grave. He saluted, bringing his right hand to the brim of his scarlet beret. His square jaw was clenched tight. After a few silent moments he dropped his hand and walked away without a word, leaving her with Cam. The lump in Devon's throat threatened to choke her.
Cam came forward next and raised his salute against the maroon beret that marked him as a Pararescueman. Like Ty had been. She risked a glance at him, and the grief etched in his face stabbed at her. He took something out of his pocket and turned it over in his fingers. Her throat tightened when she realized what he held. She automatically put a hand to her neck, touching the chain that held the lucky quarter's twin over her heart.
Cam stared at the keepsake a moment longer before hunkering down beside the casket. The quarter flashed briefly in the weak afternoon light as he placed it gently on the lid. "See you on the other side, buddy." He rose and took up a position behind Devon, staying at a respectful distance to let her say her final goodbye. Killing her with his presence and not even realizing it.
The tears were there, just as they'd always been since she'd been notified of Ty's death. But tears didn't relieve her suffering, and didn't change the fact that Ty was gone.
Devon squeezed her hands into fists, her short nails cutting into her damp palms. She wished Cam would leave so she could say goodbye properly. So she wouldn't betray Ty more than she already had.
Cam didn't move, but she'd known he wouldn't leave her to face this alone.
Fighting to ignore him and the unsettling effect he had on her, she tried to think of something to say to Ty. She'd already said the most important things while sitting next to his zipped body bag in the morgue at Bagram.
She snapped a smart salute and held it while she stared down at his coffin. "Bye, Ty," she whispered, easing her trembling hand down to her side.
Cam's hand settled on her shoulder. She flinched, and he dropped it. She couldn't bear his touch right now. It hurt too much.
"Come on," he said quietly. "It's time to go."
She swallowed and managed a nod, but couldn't look at him as she turned from Ty's casket. Walking away from his grave was the second hardest thing she'd ever done.
The hardest had put him in it.
She walked through the rows of pristine white headstones. So many of them, and many more still to come before the war on terror ended. If it ever did.
With each step the heels of her pumps bit into the damp, meticulously-kept grass. She kept her eyes focused on Ryan standing at the line of their cars, but she was acutely aware of Cam's undeniably magnetic presence a few feet behind her.
Ryan forced a tired smile when she neared him. "Okay?"
"We'll follow you back."
"Are you sure you're okay to drive?" Cam's voice was full of concern.
She didn't look at him. "I'm sure." The last thing she needed was to be trapped in a car with him.
Devon climbed into her rental car and drove to her hotel, wondering what the hell she was doing hosting the reception for some of Ty's military buddies.
You're tough. You can handle this.
Back in her bland hotel room, she ordered Mexican takeout because Ty had loved it. Cam and Ryan went out to pick it up and find some beer while she took a shower and changed into her civvies. The guests arrived, and the PJs told stories about Ty as they ate, but Devon couldn't relax. They should blame her, hate her, but they didn't. She wished they would. It would be easier for her to bear.
They finished eating, and Cam raised his Corona, Ty's favorite beer. "To a hell of a PJ, and the best damn friend anyone could have."
"Hooyah," Ryan and the others chorused, holding up their bottles.
Devon's throat was too tight to speak. She tapped bottles with guys around her and avoided Cam's gaze while she took a sip. She was doing fine. All she had to do was hold it together for a little longer.
She was still okay when the other guests filed out and left her with Ryan and Cam. But when Ryan stood to leave, she jumped up with him, assaulted by a wave of dread. Given the way she was feeling, being alone with Cam was not a good idea.
She knew it, but couldn't summon the will to ask him to leave with Ryan. Truth was, she didn't want to be alone right now. Not when she'd just been reminded that death stalked all of them. Their professions ensured that.
Beneath the vulnerability that came with knowing how fleeting life was, she was all too aware of Cam's Pacific blue eyes resting on her face as she walked Ryan to the door. Cam's presence had always unsettled her, right from the first time she'd met him.
While she'd been dating his best friend.
Pulling on his shoes, Ryan smiled up at her with his endearing bad-boy grin. "Wish I could stay longer."
She wished that too. "Can't you stay for one more beer?"
"Wish I could take you up on that, darlin', but I can't. Flight leaves in two hours." His mahogany gaze moved to Cam over on the couch. "See you over there."
"You know it."
Just the sound of his deep voice sent traitorous shivers of pleasure up her spine. "You might see me there too," she blurted to Ryan, wishing she could leave with him.
Ryan's brows shot up, but it was Cam's gaze zeroing in on her that she noticed. The touch was almost physical, so strong it made the skin at her nape tingle.
"For real?' Ryan asked. "You just got back."
"I heard a rumor that they might extend my tour." She shoved her hands into her jeans pockets and shrugged. "Not sure, though."
He paused, studying her face. She held her spine straight and kept her expression blank, refusing to show even a hint of the paralyzing doubt she carried with her now.
"Well let me know if you're coming, so I know to look for you." He hugged her. His arms were warm and strong, offering the comfort she badly needed, but it wasn't what she really wanted.
Damn her to hell, she wished with everything in her that Cam was holding her. The knowledge made her feel sick.
"You sure you're okay?" Ryan asked quietly against her hair.
She nodded, fighting the sting of tears caused by equal parts grief and guilt. "I'll be fine."
He released her and stepped back. "No wonder Ty was hung up on you."
More guilt settled in her belly, but she forced a smile. "Don't do anything I wouldn't do over there."
His eyes twinkled with mischief. "Now what fun would that be?"
Devon shut the door behind him, and it seemed like he took all the oxygen with him. Being alone in the same room with Cam made it hard to breathe. Especially now with the silence building between them like a wall.
"Why didn't you tell me?"
She tensed. The low timbre of his voice brushed over her nerve endings like a caress.
Bracing herself, she turned around and met the vivid stare that threatened to suck the remaining air out of her lungs. He had one muscular arm draped over the back of the couch, and his dark blond brows were pulled into a tight frown. She couldn't ignore him now, yet she couldn't summon the courage to go sit beside him. She stayed where she was. "It never seemed to be the right time. A lot's happened over the past few weeks."
For an instant she thought the muscles in his jaw clenched, but it was gone so fast she told herself she'd imagined it. Cam never got annoyed. He was easy-going personified. And the sexiest, most mouth-watering man she'd ever met, much as she hated herself for thinking it.
"Did Ty know you might be extending your tour?"
She nodded, fighting the urge to rub her suddenly damp palms on her jeans.
Cam tilted his head. "There a reason why you're still standing next to the door like that?"
"No." She forced herself to walk over, grab her Corona off the low table strewn with takeout Mexican containers, and sit stiffly on the opposite end of the couch. She searched for something to say to fill the awkward void stretching out between them, but nothing came to mind.
Cam watched her in silence for a long moment before making another attempt at conversation. "Ty once told me you became a pilot because you were afraid to fly. That true?"
The change to a more neutral subject helped. "More like I was afraid of crashing." For good reason. She shrugged, pushing the memory away. "I went to therapy for a while, and thought learning to fly might help me overcome it. Seemed like a good idea at the time."
Cam grinned, flashing a dimple in his lean right cheek. "Helluva way to conquer your fear."
"Yeah. I know it sounds stupid, but being in a helicopter always feels safer than being in a fixed wing. I'm closer to the ground, can land pretty much anywhere if I need to." She shrugged. "I like being in a helo better."
"Especially if you're at the controls."
"Yeah," she said with a reluctant grin. "Especially then."
"You'll have to take me up sometime."
She shot him a bland look. "Right, because you don't get enough chopper rides already."
"Never been up with a female pilot, though."
Because she was tempted to keep staring, she looked away from his beautiful face. "Well, we fly pretty much the same as the boys do." Only better.
"I bet you're great at it."
"I'm not bad," she admitted, brushing at an imaginary piece of lint on her jeans. "I love flying medevac. I like knowing I might give someone a chance-" The words clamped her throat shut like a garrote. No one had been able to get to Ty in time. He'd died before the rescue crew could get there.
She knew the reason behind that too. And so did Cam.
Devon hastily took another sip of her beer, half-afraid it would come right back up. The bitter taste rolled over her tongue and lingered in her mouth.
"Dev. You know you-"
"Want another beer?"
She wouldn't look at him. She could barely look at herself in the mirror anymore. And she was facing another six-month-long deployment back to the place and job that haunted her every waking moment. Not to mention her dreams.
Forcing the thought away, she made herself focus on what Cam was feeling. She wasn't the only one hurting. This had to be really tough on him. "You okay? You must miss him."
"Yeah. I miss him like hell."
Her heart ached for him. He suffered through his grief stoically. "How long were you guys friends?"
"Almost four years. We went through The Pipeline together. Me and Ty and Ryan."
A sad smile formed on her lips. She was proud of every single one of them for getting through that grueling program. It wasn't called Superman School for nothing. "You know, if I was a guy and could qualify for Special Ops, I'd be a PJ too."
One side of Cam's delicious mouth turned up.
A strange pressure began to build in her chest. Like a balloon being filled with helium. "I admire the hell out of all of you." She cradled the cold, damp bottle between her hands and managed to look at him. "What's it feel like to be a medic commando?"
"Nothing like it. I love what I do." He reached for his own beer and took a sip before offering her another smile. "What's it like to fly a Black Hawk on a night mission?"
She bit back a grin. "Pretty damn awesome."
"There you go, we're not all that different. Besides, you've got some medical training."
"Nothing like you guys." Some of the tension bled out of her tight shoulders. This was better. She could almost forget he was the reason for her discomfort when they talked easily like this. "Did Ryan want to be a Combat Controller right from the start?"
"Yeah. He wanted to be on the front lines with the SEALs and Delta boys. And he's good. It suits him."
Yeah, it did. Special Ops suited them all, but Ryan had that knife-edge to him. He was harder than the others. More suited to killing than saving lives like the PJs did. But Cam wasn't fooling her. "You work with 'mixed company' too, if you're stationed at Bagram. If you were working conventional missions, they'd have you based at Kandahar."
His eyes glinted with humor. "Yeah, but you're not supposed to know about that."
She had trouble envisioning him working with soldiers that hardened and deadly. "Have you worked with Ryan out there?"
"Couple of times."
She hated the thought of them going back into harm's way. She didn't want to bury any more of her friends. Or be the cause of more funerals.
"Can I ask you something?"
Something told her she wasn't going to like the question he had in mind. She tensed instinctively. "Sure."
"How come I make you nervous?"
She shot a startled glance at him. There was no amusement on his face, just a kind of puzzlement. And maybe a hint of disappointment. She looked away. "Why do you say that?"
He snorted like she'd just insulted him. "Because you're sitting over there as far away from me as you can get. Any further, and you'll fall off the end of the couch."
"That's not why. I've just
got a lot on my mind."
"You used to be comfortable with me," he pointed out. "But since Ty passed you keep giving me the cold shoulder. Have I done something?"
"No." Oh no, she'd done this to herself, and all on her own.
He was quiet a long time, scrutinizing her. "I wouldn't do anything, you know. Not unless you wanted me to."
Her gaze flew to his. "What?" She couldn't keep the alarm out of her voice.
His eyes held hers, direct and brutally honest. "You know I wouldn't."
So she hadn't misunderstood him.
Oh, Jesus. After all this time the awful truth was out, thrown into her face like a slap though he hadn't meant it that way. The blood rushed to her face so fast she felt dizzy. This isn't happening.