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Eyes of a Stranger

Sample Chapter
Copyright ©2008 Rachel Ann Nunes.
All rights reserved. No part of this text may
be reproduced, in any form or by any means,
without permission in writing from the author.

Chapter One

The first day of her new life was hotter and more humid than Tawnia McKnight had believed possible. The weltering heat blasted inside her green Pontiac Grand Prix as she peered through the open window at Portland in the distance, the city rising high above the traffic. One of the ten Willamette River bridges was in sight, and she was as impressed as the first time she had visited the city with Bret, even though he wasn't around to point out the unique structural features.

Thoughts of Bret came naturally since they had come here together last year—five months after the funeral in Nevada. She'd felt the pull of the city on her then and knew it was only a matter of time until she had to answer its call. The same thing had happened when she'd moved from Kansas to Colorado and from there to Utah and onto Nevada. Ten years and five different states. Her parents, who had particularly hated this last move to Oregon, alternately blamed her restlessness on a desire to annoy them and a fear of commitment.

She knew her decision to move again wasn't a fear of commitment. She would have committed with Bret.

Maybe.

There had come a time when she had not seen Bret's resemblance to Christian every time she looked into his face, but Bret could not seem to forget that she had been the last one to see his brother alive. The one who cradled him at the base of the tree as they waited for the ambulance.

Annoying her parents was not high on her list, either. They had been good to her over the years, if smothering and strict. She knew they wanted the best for her. As an only child, and adopted at that, she had felt a lot of pressure to succeed. So she had. She had landed that coveted art director position at an advertising firm in Nevada, and now she would be a creative director here in Portland. A nice career move.

Yet she still couldn't say why she'd felt so compelled to move to Portland or how long she might stay. What magic did the city hold?

Or secrets.

Why had her mother cried when she'd mentioned Portland?

Giving one last frustrated thump to the buttons on her broken air conditioner, Tawnia laid her MapQuest directions on the passenger seat and edged back into the thick traffic. Just her luck to be arriving at what appeared to be the busiest time of late afternoon. After driving a good portion of the past two days in the heat, with the wind and her shoulder-length hair beating at her face, she was feeling more than a little irritated. According to her new landlady's instructions, she had to find the Hawthorne Bridge. Then she would be in a perfect position to stop by her new job on her way to her rented bungalow.

"Where are you?" she muttered aloud. There was a bridge ahead, but it didn't look like the one she had seen on the Internet. About the right length, but not the right shape.

A car behind her honked. "All right, already. I'm going." She was on the bridge now, and there wasn't any choice. She thought she caught a glimpse of the right bridge in the distance, but it was impossible to be sure. A glare came off the water, punishing her tired eyes.

At least it's green here, she thought. Nevada had its own austere beauty, of course, but it wasn't the greener Kansas where she'd grown up. Portland seemed more lush than both of them.

She turned left off the bridge and looked for a place to pull over and study the map. "Come on, people," she fumed. "I'm going the wrong way. I think."

At last she spied a place to pull out of traffic. "There we are." As she rolled to a stop, there was a deafening burst of sound, almost like an explosion. Her car began shaking and a horrendous, grating noise filled the air. Metal grinding against metal, a long, drawn-out sound.

"Not now," she moaned. Up until this trip her Pontiac had always been reliable, but first the air conditioning had gone and now this. Maybe she'd been wrong about Portland being the place for her. How could it be right if getting there was so hard? It wouldn't be the first time she'd been mistaken. Nevada had ended up being awful.

Yet would she have given up knowing Christian and Bret?

The grinding noise was louder now, but the car was stopped, so it wasn't coming from the car at all. And a good thing because the battery on her cell phone was completely run down.

Around her, other drivers were slowing, puzzlement on their faces, but almost immediately the cacophony faded.

In its place a huge plume of smoke rose into the air several streets behind her and to the right. With the absence of the grating noise, the simple rumble of the traffic seemed muted.

"What on earth?" She craned her neck to get a better view, but there were too many buildings in the way to get an idea of what might have happened.

With a loud screech, a car on the highway came to an abrupt stop in the road near where Tawnia was parked, narrowly missing being hit by the person behind him. Too many drivers gawking. Horns blared impatiently, and slowly the traffic moved on.

Sounded like a building collapsing, Tawnia thought. She'd seen on TV a building blown up on purpose while she was living in Utah. The dust had radiated for miles.

The dust from this event was quickly dispersing, though the cloud was still noticeable over the city. Fortunately, the traffic was picking up as though nothing had happened. Forcing her mind back to the problem at hand, Tawnia studied her MapQuest directions, comparing the with her car map. with her car map. Somehow, she'd actually managed to pass the Hawthorne District, so she was closer to her new bungalow north of Burnside. Just as well, she thought. She was later than she'd hoped to be arriving in the city, and if she didn't find the rental house soon, her new landlady might wonder if she'd changed her mind. Besides, she was sweat-soaked and eexhausted from her drive, and she didn't want to run into any future co-workers looking like this.

She wasn't due in to work until Monday, anyway, so she had two and half days to find her bearings. After a good shower and a call to an auto repair shop, of course.

With a long sigh she pulled into traffic just as the wail of an ambulance siren cut through the air. She glanced in the rearview mirror where the plume of dust had become a silty sheen poised above the buildings. Someone must have gotten too close, she thought. I hope they're okay.

Shakily, she drove to her rented bungalow, making only three more wrong turns in the process. She was directionally impaired, or so Bret had joked. Her father said she became lost on purpose on a subconscious level, a helpless act that was actually a bid for power over the male species.

Right, Dad. Glad he wasn't around to see her now, she raked her fingers through her lank hair, wishing she had an elastic band handy. The medium brown color was dull with dirt from the beating it had taken from the air coming through the open window. She looked decidedly worn. Worse, the contact in her left eye felt gritty. Oh, well.
Slipping from the Pontiac, she started up the walk, comparing once more the number on the bungalow to the paper in her hands. This was it. But where was the landlady? She'd said something about doing some yard work that morning. If she wasn't still around, Tawnia would have to drive to another address to get the keys.

What a day.

The bungalow was one in a row of close-set houses, similar in size, with sloping roofs and front porches running across the narrow fronts. Hers had a tiny, immaculate yard, with a line of bushes growing up against the red brick porch. Potted plants lined the porch wall and a lounge chair and a rocking chair took up most of the available space. The front of the house was white siding, framed by more of the red brick, giving it a quaint appearance. A gable emerged in the middle of the roof, but she saw it was not a real window to an upstairs but an attic vent embedded in a lookalike window gable, much too small to be the real thing. A tiny strip of grass separated the houses.


"Cozy," she murmured, pleased with her choice. If the inside was half this neat, she would love living here. Even the street exuded a sense of peace. Maybe she'd finally discover what it was she was searching for. She took the three steps in two leaps and rang the doorbell.

No answer. Instinctively her hand went to the knob to test it—after all, she'd paid her deposit and first month's rent—but as her hand brushed the metal, the knob turned and the door flung open.

A robust woman with flushed face, an anxious smile, and short, tightly curled, dishwater hair stood in the doorway, impressive in her purple muu-muu. She wore bright, matching eyeshadow and a thick layer of face makeup. Her mascara was apparently bought in bulk. "I thought I heard someone coming up the walk."

"Are you Mrs. Gerbert?" Tawnia pulled her hand from the knob.

"That's me. And you must be Tawnia!" Her gaze ran quickly over Tawnia's cropped jeans and fitted T-shirt. "You're much younger than I imagined. You said thirty-two, right? But never mind all that. Thank heavens you're here!" With a sigh, the woman pulled her into a rather exuberant embrace.

Tawnia tried not to stiffen, though the last thing she wanted was a hug from Mrs. Gerbert or any other stranger. Her family had never been demonstrative, and she had to work hard not to put people off with her craving for space.Even for friendly people this display seemed over the top. What had she gotten herself into? Mrs. Gerbert had sounded normal enough on the phone.

Mrs. Gerbert pulled away, dabbing at the sudden tears under her eyes. "Oh, I've embarrassed you, haven't I? I'm sorry. It's just that I've been so worried since I heard the news about the collapse. After all, I told you to come that way, and when you were late . . . Oh, I'd never have forgiven myself if something had happened to you!"

Tawnia stared at her. "What are you talking about?"

"Oh, my! You mean you haven't heard?" Mrs. Gerbert's hand went to her heart.

"No."

"Come on in," the woman grabbed her arm with strong fingers,tugging Tawnia through the door and into the living room of the bungalow. "It's on TV right now. I was just straightening the house and watching. You know, waiting for you, and then it happened. Oh, I can't believe it! They're still pulling bodies from the water. They have all kinds of boats out looking for people. So many cars simply sank! And the people on the walkways fell with no protection from the debris." She closed her eyes as though to shut out the horror her words were conveying.

Tawnia dragged her gaze from Mrs. Gerbert's tortured expression and stared at the images on the TV. One moment there was the Hawthorne Bridge, the bridge she had seen on the Internet, and in the next camera shot most of the bridge was missing. Some distance away from the damage, a large boat floated sideways, the top completely shorn off.

The dark surface of the water was covered with debris, including a bicycle helmet, a coat, and a plastic bag. People were in the water, too, some waving their arms, others swimming. A woman was floating on her back with a baby on her stomach. Tawnia couldn't tell if the child was moving and was relieved to see a boat reaching her.

A man appeared on the screen, a grave expression on his face. "As you see, the rescue efforts continue, and more and more people are being plucked out of the water. Still no word on just how this happened, but for some reason either the lift did not go up or the boat you see here was not in the correct position to pass under it. Whatever the case, this boat hit the bridge, setting off this terrible devastation. Five of the six spans have collapsed, including the span with the vertical lift. For some time after the initial collapse, part of the lift with the cabin and controls remained attached on the one side, but it eventually did sheer off and fell into the water. We've confirmed that the bridge operator was able to climb to safety before that happened, but we've had unconfirmed reports of more than a dozen fatalities already—and there are sure to be others trapped in their cars under the water. This is a sad, sad day for Portland, and it's hard to know what to say."

He shook his head and brought a hand briefly to his left eye as he struggled to keep his emotion in check. "Police are saying—as I've stated several times already—that people should not go down to the waterfront unless you are uniquely qualified in some way to help. The rescue personnel need space, and the crowd down there is threatening to hinder rescue efforts. So stay home, please. We'll do our best to keep you informed. We hear police have located a security video of the crash, and we hope to have access to that soon. Meanwhile, we're going to our reporter live at the scene. Julie, what can you tell us?"

A woman with short blonde hair appeared on the screen. "Well, Daniel,. it's an unreal scene we have before us. People swimming to shore; others going out and trying to save them. People walking around with dazed expressions. Many are wounded. Surprisingly, there has been little screaming and shouting here, just a determination to do everything possible to save as many as we can. Divers are here now, and hopefully they will be able to help those who may be stuck underneath the water." She shook her head. "But it doesn't look promising. That bridge is very heavy, and so are the cars. I fear this is going to be far more serious than any of us think."

"Have you managed to talk to any of the victims?"

"Yes, we have a couple right here. Tom and Angie Stewart. They were the first ones out of the water and have stayed to help others." She turned to a middle-aged couple beside her. "What can you tell us about the accident?"
"It just happened without any warning," the woman said. She had a blanket around her shoulders, and mascara ran down her face. "One moment we were driving, and the next, we were falling toward the water. The car ahead of us—it was crushed by the bridge. I know there was a child in the car. I—" She started crying, and her husband put a comforting arm around her.

"I opened the door and we got out," he continued. "Started swimming. A man came by in a boat and helped us."
Tawnia felt a numbness spread through her heart. She had to get down to the waterfront! Now. She was halfway to the door, when Mrs. Gerbert's voice brought her back to her senses.
"Thank heaven you weren't on the bridge."

Tawnia turned. What had she been thinking? Hadn't the man on the TV just told people to stay home? It wasn't as though anyone she knew had been on that bridge. "I think I turned off too late. I went over another bridge—I never could follow directions very well. But I heard the sound. I saw the dust."

Mrs. Gerbert's round face wrinkled with concern. "I'm so sorry. What a terrible welcome for you. But what's important is that you're safe." She glanced back toward the TV. "My daughter is a real estate agent. Goes across that bridge four or more times a day. She's safe, too, thank heavens. I couldn't call her—the cell phone lines all seem to be busy—but I know she had homes to show up north today. It's a terrible, terrible tragedy. But thankfully, those we know are all right."

Tawnia nodded in agreement, as her eyes fixed once more on the TV announcer. By whatever fates were in control, she had taken another route and was safe. Why then did she feel as if someone close to her had died?

"Tawnia!" shouted Christian from the tree. "Come on up!"

"Be careful!"

"There's a squirrel up here. He's jumping from limb to limb. I have to get a picture of this."

"It's really high." Tawnia started to climb the tree. Her parents had never approved of tree-climbing, but she had the right build for it, and physical activities always came to her easily. "I'm coming." A tremor of fear went through her heart as a small branch plunged past her, nearly hitting her cheek.

"Sorry!" Christian shouted. "I needed a place to put my camera. Didn't mean to let that fall."

"I'm okay."

"Good, because I'm hoping for a kiss at the end of this date!"

She smiled. Maybe he'd get one. He seemed to be a nice guy, not the player some of her co-workers claimed he was.

There was silence as he snapped a few pictures. She was halfway up the tree now and having second-thoughts. It was so high. Certainly not something she would ordinarily do in her right mind. But Christian's exuberance and vitality had a way of rubbing off on people. When she'd been moved to his group at work, she immediately recognized how opposite they were. Yet he brought out who she wanted to be. Or maybe who she would have been in another life, raised by different parents.

Maybe if she'd been raised by her birth mother.

Maybe if she'd been raised by her birth mother.

Or if she'd had a sibling.

Not that the person she was wasn't enough. It was. She was proud of everything she'd accomplished.

There was a brief shout of surprise, and then something else was falling toward her. Something large. Too far away to be a danger to her. Her heart started pounding, recognizing the situation before her mind could fully comprehend.
"Christian!" she shouted.

She half-climbed, half-slid down the tree, tears running down her cheek, unmindful of the bark and bits of tree that dug into her skin. "Christian!" she called over and over. "Are you okay? Talk to me!"

She fell the last several feet, and the breath whooshed out of her. She crawled to where her friend was lying on his back. "Christian?" His eyes were closed, but he was breathing.

She reached for her cell phone but remembered she'd left it home. His phone was in his back pocket, and she carefully slid her hand under him to get it so as not to move him more than necessary.

No service.

She knelt by his inert body. "I'll be right back. I'm going to get help."

He gave a weak moan, his eyes fluttering once.

"You hang on!" With a cry, she leapt to her feet and ran down the path. It was a mile before she found anyone—a group of hikers who had a working phone. They'd called for help while she ran back to Christian. She'd held his hand as they waited for the rescue workers. But Christian died later that day during surgery at the hospital.

The first time she'd met Bret, she'd had to tell him how his brother died.
Tawnia remembered how she'd felt that day.

It was how she felt now.

* * *

Bret Winn wondered what Tawnia was doing at that moment. She'd probably already arrived in Portland by now, perhaps even days ago. Would she visit the restaurant he'd taken her to last year? Or dance in the club where he'd begun to think they might be falling in love?

Not that it was any of his business. Not anymore. But he wished her a good life.
Opening the drawer of his desk, he brought out the strip of pictures he and
Tawnia had taken in a booth together one day at the mall. They were sticking out their tongues at the camera, rolling their eyes, and pulling each other's hair. He smiled. The memories were good. It surprised him how good. Sighing, he shut the photos back inside, focusing again on his work.

"Come quick!" His co-worker John Thompkins came into Bret's office at a run. "You have to see this."
Bret reluctantly tore his eyes away from the calculations on his computer screen. "Now? I'm busy." He didn't try to keep the annoyance from his voice. Bret didn't enjoy the pranks or humorous internet sites that seemed to be the base of John's existence.

"The Hawthorne Bridge in Portland has just collapsed," John blurted. "Or most of it. People are in the water. A dozen dead already."

Bret sprinted down the hall to the break room, where a half-dozen engineers were gathered around the wide-screen TV. They stared in horrified fascination as the camera showed the rescue efforts.

The Hawthorne Bridge demolished! The oldest vertical lift bridge in operation in the United States had been his favorite of all the over-water bridges he'd seen in Portland. That it was gone, according to witnesses, in what appeared to be a matter of seconds was impossible to believe. The nightmare of every engineer who had ever designed a bridge.

"There'll be an inquiry," someone commented. "Wonder if they'll call here." Bret didn't take his eyes from the screen to see who spoke, but he could feel eyes on him. He'd been on the committee of independent enjineers who reviewed the tragic bridge disaster in Minneapolis some time back, volunteering for the job when no one else here had wanted it and even becoming spokesman for the group. The experience had been both horrifying and educational.

"You've been to see that bridge, haven't you?" John asked Bret.

Bret nodded. He'd seen every over-water bridge of importance in the United States and many out of the country. Over-water bridges were a particular hobby for him, which was ironic because he worked in Nevada where most bridges were nowhere near water. But it did have advantages. Nevada had one of the best reputations for safe bridge operation.

Bret watched with the others for half an hour hour before a thought came to him: Tawnia was is in Portland. Had she been near the bridge?

Worry ate his insides. No, she couldn't have been. This time of day, when many would be on their way home from work, she would likely still be at the office. Like him, she was serious about her job, and because hers was a new one, she'd be even more inclined to work overtime.

Unless her job hadn't started yet. He tried to remember the details of their last conversation, but all he remembered was the sinking feeling and the realization that this was good-bye for good.

He had to know. He reached for his phone and dialed, but her voice mail picked up immediately.

There, she was on the phone. Safe.

Unless the phone was in the water.

Bret was beginning to feel a little idiotic. Tawnia was out of his life, and he shouldn't be worrying about her. The likelihood that she'd been on the bridge when it collapsed was almost nil.

"Bret, can I see you for a moment?"

Bret tore his gaze away from the television to see his boss, James Griffin, motioning to him. "What's up?" Bret asked as he reached Griffin's side.

"You know a man named Clyde Hanks?"

"Sounds familiar." Bret shrugged. "Can't place it, though."

"He's the manager of the Bridge Section at Multnomah County."

Which meant, of course, that Clyde Hanks was the man responsible for the maintenance—and therefore the collapse—of the Hawthorne Bridge.

Bret nodded. "That's right. I met him last year. Nice guy." He and Tawnia had shared a lively conversation with Hanks about over-water bridges and the collapse in Minneapolis. Yet despite Hanks's knowledge on the fascinating topic, Tawnia had captured most of Bret's attention that day.

I miss her, he thought. The realization didn't change the facts of their relationship, but it did make the situation more sorrowful. Somewhere out there, Tawnia was living her life without him. It was the way it had to be.

"I just got off the phone with Hanks," Griffin was saying, bringing Bret's thoughts back to the present. "Come into my office. We need to talk."
 

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