Excerpt for Touch by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Touch

By Kris Bryant

Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2018 Kris Bryant

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Touch

As the go-to therapist at Elite Therapy, Dr. Hayley Sims is the best in her field. It’s exactly why she’s just been assigned her most challenging patient yet, hockey player Elizabeth Stone. Not because Stone’s injury is complicated, but because she is intense to work with and needs someone to keep her in check. When Hayley’s personal life starts unraveling and she realizes she might be developing feelings for her patient, she’s torn between finishing her assignment and walking away to protect herself. Can Hayley get Stone back on the ice in one piece while keeping her heart from breaking?

What Reviewers Say About Kris Bryant’s Work

Forget Me Not

“Told in the first person, from Grace’s point of view, we are privy to Grace’s inner musings and her vulnerabilities. …Bryant crafts clever wording to infuse Grace with a sharp-witted personality, which clearly covers her insecurities. …This story is filled with loving familial interactions, caring friends, romantic interludes and tantalizing sex scenes. The dialogue, both among the characters and within Grace’s head, is refreshing, original, and sometimes comical. Forget Me Not is a fresh perspective on a romantic theme, and an entertaining read.”—Lambda Literary Review

“…She has a way of giving insight into the other main protagonist by using a few clever techniques and involving the secondary characters to add back-stories and extra pieces of important information. The pace of the book was excellent, it was never rushed but I was never bored or waiting for a chapter to finish…this epilogue made my heart swell to the point I almost lunged off the sofa to do a happy dance.”—Les Rêveur

Whirlwind Romance

“Ms. Bryant’s descriptions were written with such passion and colourful detail that you could feel the tension and the excitement along with the characters…”—Inked Rainbow Reviews

Taste

“[Taste] is an excellent traditional romance, well written, well conceived and well put together. Kris Bryant has given us a lovely warm-hearted story about two real human beings with whom we can genuinely engage. There is no melodrama, no overblown angst, just two women with an instant attraction who have to decide first, how to deal with it and second, how much it’s worth.”—Lesbian Reading Room

Taste is a student/teacher romance set in a culinary school. If the premise makes you wonder whether this book will make you want to eat something tasty, the answer is: yes.”—The Lesbian Review

Jolt

“[Jolt] is a magnificent love story. Two women hurt by their previous lovers and each in their own way trying to make sense out of life and times. When they meet at a gay and lesbian friendly summer camp, they both feel as if lightening has struck. This is so beautifully involving, I have already reread it twice. Amazing!”—Rainbow Book Reviews

Touch

© 2018 By Kris Bryant. All Rights Reserved.


ISBN 13:978-1-63555-085-6


This Electronic Book is published by

Bold Strokes Books, Inc.

P.O. Box 249

Valley Falls, NY 12185


First Edition: January 2018


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.


Credits

Editor: Ashley Tillman

Production Design: Susan Ramundo

Cover Design By Deb B.

By the Author

Jolt

Whirlwind Romance

Just Say Yes: The Proposal

Taste

Forget Me Not

Touch


Writing as Brit Ryder

Shameless

Acknowledgments

Every book tells a story. It’s an opportunity to weave imagination, realism, and dreams into one tiny package. As women, we are nurturing and have this desire to help and heal people. When I was little, I wanted to be a doctor but realized that I simply didn’t have the stomach for it. I’ve broken seven bones, have had four surgeries and numerous stitches, so I decided to combine all of my experiences and write a book about the process of healing—from the frustration of incapacitation to the glory of recovery. Only this time I took it a step further than anything I’ve experienced and weaved a little romance into this story.

Thank you, Fiona Riley, for educating me on physical therapy. Having gone through it a time or two, I needed to know all the reasons why it’s important instead of bitching about the repetition of exercises. It was nice to have your expertise handy. Also, thank you, Kelly Harris, for being my in-town consultant. Hopefully, the next time we meet, it will be just to hang out and not me asking you a thousand questions.

My heart swells for my beta readers—Maggie Cummings and Nadine Godsoe. I know we were pushed for time to get this book ready for Women’s Week 2017, and I really put the pressure on both of you. Thank you for dropping everything in your lives to cater to my whims. We got it done!

I want to squeeze KB Draper for her help and advising me NOT to put an alien in this story. We met at Grinders one night and worked through the plot like responsible writers—for about five minutes. That was all I needed. I love you, my friend. M. Ullrich is just as fabulous with her advice. Thank you for being available 24 hours a day—even when you are sleeping and you answer me early on your days off.

Bold Strokes Books always takes a chance with me and I appreciate their faith in my writing. I started this whole process completely wet behind the ears and I’ve grown over the past three years with their guidance and mentoring. The team behind the scenes is fantastic. We couldn’t be this successful without everybody working together.

Cali—One day I’ll listen and learn from you and all of your editing wisdom. I really do try to remember everything. Except for the oxford comma. That asshole gets me every time. Thank you for sticking with me though. I can actually see you rolling your eyes and smirking at me right now. You know you love me. You know I love you back.—Champ

To all of the readers out there—thank you for your support. Every review, every email, every FB message means the world to me. Truly. I put my heart out there time and time again with every book I write, and your support and appreciation fills it right back up. You are the most important people in this journey.

Chapter One

“Why does my new patient look like she’s a lot older than twelve?” I ask my boss. I catch a glimpse of a lone woman sitting inside the examination room, her head down, her left leg in a removable cast. My boss motions for me to follow her into her office and hands me a file, but waits for me to process the information before she speaks. When my mouth drops open and I turn to her, she starts explaining.

“Okay, so she’s twenty-eight, but she’s here for a very good reason,” she says. I stare at her until she continues. “I need you to do this as a favor.” My boss, Gloria Bauer, knows I will do anything she asks, even if I want to scream and throw a tantrum. She explains that the patient is the daughter of her best friend from college and even though I have a dozen questions, I bite my tongue and nod. “She’s kind of a pain in the ass. That’s why I’m pairing you up. I guess I owe you lunch.”

“Don’t be silly,” I say. Her smile is a mixture of a thank you and a touch of smugness. “This is at least a dinner. A really expensive one. One with wine and candles. And you should buy me chocolate. The fancy ones with liqueur made by a chocolatier whose name I can’t pronounce.” I turn on my heel and leave her office before she has a chance to respond. We both know this is a big favor. I stopped working with athletes years ago. Now I only work with children. I take a deep breath before I enter the room where my latest patient is sprawled on the examination table.

“Hi, Elizabeth. I’m Dr. Hayley Sims. It looks like I’ll be working with you for the next five or six weeks.” Her body language tells me she’s as excited about this as I am. She leans back on her elbows and looks at me with the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen. The corner of her mouth slides into a smirk as she looks me up and down. Her appraising nod makes me grit my teeth.

“Call me Stone. Nobody calls me Elizabeth.” She reaches down and plays with the side of the paper that’s stretched over the examination table. The smile’s there, but it doesn’t reach her eyes. They’re piercingly angry. I stop myself from releasing a sigh. Her problems are definitely worse than mine. I quickly and quietly review her file in front of her. Her doctor’s notes are fairly extensive and as much as I want more time to study them, I know I need to assess Stone and make a decision on my own.

“So Elite is your second choice after the team therapist. What happened at the other place? Why did you leave?”

“The guy was an ass. He didn’t even look me over, he looked at my X-rays, read my report, and said I’d never play hockey on a professional level again.” Stone’s cheeks were blotchy. She was getting angry. “So, Doc, are you going to say the same thing?”

“You can call me Hayley. And I have no idea why he would say that. Rehabilitation is a two-way street. It depends on you more so than on us. Once I can evaluate you and see where you are in the healing process, I can give you my opinion,” I say.

“Are you a real doctor or just Gloria’s assistant?” She’s so dismissive of me. My defenses go up immediately.

“Are you a real hockey player or just the Zamboni driver?” I shoot back. I can’t believe I came up with the name for that machine for the correct sport. I’ve never watched a hockey game in my life.

Stone raises her eyebrow at me. She’s attacked my profession and I’ve attacked hers. “No offense, Doc. You just seem really young, vague, and unorganized. I’ve been around a lot of doctors and you lack their natural confidence. You seem more like an assistant or a nurse.”

What did I do to deserve this? I stare at her for a minute and try to come up with something professional to say, even though I want to call her an asshole and explain to her that I no longer work with athletes because they are condescending. I also want to race into my office for my framed degrees, but I refrain. “Assistants and nurses are just as important to the medical field. For your information, yes, I’m an actual doctor with an actual degree. Gloria hired me knowing all of my qualifications. How about I take a look at you? Oh, unless you want me to grab our company directory so you can see photos of everybody and pick somebody more confident to be your doctor.” I shrug at her like it’s no big deal. I hate that I let her get under my skin so quickly.

Her eyes get wide. “I’m sorry. I kind of have a bad attitude lately.”

I nod in acceptance of her apology. “Okay, now that we’ve got that out of the way, why don’t you tell me what happened and how you got your injuries?” I wheel over a chair to sit in front of her. She sits up and watches as I gingerly remove the boot and bandages on her left leg. A fibula break is a tough one, but I’m more concerned about her fractured ankle.

“My car decided to wrap itself around a tree,” she says with indifference, but she can’t hide the bitterness in her voice.

“With a little help? Or just on its own?” Those heated, expressive eyes glare at me, but the smile’s still firm on her face. Now we’re in a staring contest. I want to smile because she doesn’t know how good I am at this game; I work with children eight hours a day. We both wait. I’m the epitome of patience. She is a body of barely controlled anger. I understand why my boss wants me to work with her.

“I dropped my phone on the floor and took my eyes off of the road for a few seconds.” She shrugs. I nod, even though I don’t understand the need to text all of the time.

“Well, let’s see what we are going to work with. Can you lie all the way back?” She slides back so that her leg is completely on the examination table. “Your hard cast was removed yesterday?” She nods. I carefully remove the rest of the dressing so I can look at the injury and the work already performed on it. “The surgeon did a great job on this.” There will be minimal scarring. “How does your ankle feel?” I gingerly move it to feel the flexibility in her tendons and get a general idea of mobility of the joint. It’s not as stiff as I thought it would be.

“Like it wants to explode.” She wipes a tear away. I pretend not to notice. “I feel hopeless. Maybe it’s time to hang up the skates.” Her tone is sarcastic, but laced with sadness. I can feel her body heat before I even touch her uninjured ankle to get her attention. She looks up at me.

“You’re not hopeless. Based on the notes from your doctor and the flexibility without a lot of pain in your ankle, I think you have a good shot at making a full recovery. We’ll get you back to where you were sooner than you think. I promise.” I see a flicker of hope in her eyes and I can’t help but smile. “I just need you to do everything I say. If you don’t feel it’s the right thing, then talk to me. Can you promise me that?”

“I’m supposed to do everything you say? Is that how you get all the women, Doc?” At least the smile on her face seems genuine now.

“No, just the one I’m engaged to,” I say.

She laughs. “Touché. Off the market.”

I’m glad we got that settled. Now maybe we can get down to business. “Because of the extent of your injury and the fact that I’m sure you want to get back into conditioning for the upcoming hockey season, I want you here five days a week. Will getting to Elite be a problem for you? I mean, do you have somebody who can drop you off and pick you up?” She nods. “We’ll start with some measurements and some simple stretching exercises today. I want to see what you’re capable of. I’ll send you home with some exercises, too. Do you have any questions for me?” I almost can’t look at her. I’m surprised at my reaction to her. She’s everything I’m normally not attracted to—athletic, tall, and cocky. I can’t help but compare her to my fiancée who is Stone’s polar opposite with long blond hair, brown eyes, and a petite frame. Alison is five foot three, whereas Stone brushes the six foot mark, according to her records. She’s got me beat by at least four inches, even leaning on her crutches. I roll the chair over to the desk as if I’m taking notes, but it’s really an excuse to get away from her. A hopeful Elizabeth Stone is incredibly sexy.

“So why are you going to help me? I thought for sure Gloria was going to work on me.”

“I’m one of two pediatric therapists here at Elite. I’m helping you because my boss wants me to. She knows that I can work with all types of people and children tend to be the most difficult.”

Stone busts out laughing. “You’re brutally honest. Brutally.” She shakes her head. “I know, I know. I’m moody and difficult to work with, but I feel like this whole thing happened because of a stupid text. Thank you for making me feel like I’ve got a shot at getting back on the ice where I belong. I promise that I’ll try.” Usually this is the time my patient wants to hug me or high five me, but there’s a different energy in this room. I feel like I have to keep a front between us. Even though I’m going to get married in less than three months, I feel a small quiver in my stomach. That would be a good sign if I was single, but I’m not, and my reaction to her is unsettling.

“I’m glad to hear your attitude. It will make a world of difference. How about late afternoons from about three thirty to five? Will that work for you?” Again, I avoid eye contact and focus on jotting down notes in her file.

“Perfect. I can sleep in as late as I want to,” she says.

I somehow think that someone on a professional hockey team is anything but lazy. I’m fascinated by why she’s trying to make herself sound indolent, when clearly we both know she’s not. I play along. “Just make sure to be here on time and do the exercises I give you to do at home. We need to get your ankle strong enough to support your weight again. We both want you out on that ice as soon as possible.”

Chapter Two

My favorite part of the day is my drive home. Some people hate rush hour traffic because they just want to get home to their frantic lives of racing around and utilizing every waking minute. I take the time to decompress and think about my patients. Today, I can’t stop thinking about Stone. She has so many layers and walls built up. Her injury is extensive, but not irreparable. The way her face lit up when I told her I didn’t see any reason why she wouldn’t be in good shape at the beginning of the season was a beautiful sight. She might miss several hockey practices, but getting her leg ready is far more important than learning how to execute plays. Gloria told me Stone has been playing hockey since she was four years old. I’m sure she will catch up quickly.

Alison’s ring tone blasts through my car’s stereo speakers. Her call startles me out of my daydream, but I’m happy to hear from her, especially when I’m not expecting it. “Hey, babe.”

“Hi. I just wanted to let you know that I’m home and we got our invitations back from Meredith. They turned out well.” I smile. Since the moment we started planning our wedding, Alison’s been leaving a lot of the busy work up to me even though they’re her decisions, too. Personally, I would love to run away and elope, but my family would be crushed. Plus, Alison has always dreamed of the fairytale wedding.

“Great. We’ll probably need to get them out by next week. That way people can start planning their fall schedules.” I can’t believe I just said that. About seventy five percent of the guest list is Alison’s friends and distant family. Most of her friends are all doctors. I think there are a few lawyers in the mix, too. I have the most in common with the pediatricians. Our conversations actually last for more than five minutes. Even though I’m in the same field as most of her friends, I feel like a stranger when I’m with them. I grew up riding bikes and catching fireflies, her friends grew up riding horses and catching private jets for trips all over the world. She hates it when I call them her TFFs, Trust Fund Friends, but I can’t believe Alison actually likes these people. I shrug. This is her wedding, too, so I need to play nice. It’s only for a day. Never mind that it’s my special day, too. At least I have a say in where the TFFs will sit during the reception.

“How are you home so early?” I always beat her home by at least an hour.

“My final patient of the day cancelled and most of the paperwork I can do from home,” she says.

“Want me to pick up some food on the way?” Our condo is centrally located in the middle of some of the best restaurants in town.

“I’m actually cooking tonight so just get home,” she says.

“Wow. I’m impressed. Okay, I’ll see you in a bit.” I hang up and resume my review of my day. I wonder why, out of all of the physical therapists in town including the ones who specialize in sports injury, Stone is at Elite Physical Therapy. The Vermont Gray Wolves should have their own therapist or doctor on hand to work with injured players. Gloria didn’t tell me so I make a mental note to find out tomorrow. Most of the time, she pushes paper and doesn’t work with patients. Consider me intrigued by Stone’s story. I check the time. The flower shop on the corner’s still open. On a whim, I pull into the parking lot. There’s something nice about showing up with roses or tulips even though Alison isn’t crazy about flowers in general. Neither of us like watching them die. I carefully place the bouquet on the back seat and head home. Thankfully, we have a garage. It’s one of the few things we splurged on when we made the condo purchase.

Before I’m through the door, Alison greets me with a glass of wine and pulls me to her for a kiss. “Hello, love.”

I hand her the bouquet. “I know it isn’t your thing, but I was in the mood to bring some home.” She takes them from me and finds a vase in the kitchen. “Tell me about your day.” I hop up on the bar stool at the kitchen nook and listen as she tells me about the two surgeries she had today. One was a meniscectomy, the other was repairing and setting a broken ankle. Our professional paths rarely cross because I work exclusively with children, but it’s happened before. I don’t tell her about Stone. I feel like I don’t have a handle on the situation yet. When Alison and I discuss patients, we never mention names, only injuries or, in my case, some patients with disabilities.

I really enjoy working with children. Watching them learn and improve every week is so fulfilling. I admit, I get teary-eyed when my patients heal and move on, but I always hear from them. Every year, I hang up their holiday cards on my office door.

“Can you set the table and pour the wine? I bought us a new red to try,” she says. I’m not fond of red wine, but I humor her. She knows this about me, but continues to try. Give me a beer or water, and I’m set.

“Do I have time to change? I promise to be back in two minutes.” The look she gives me tells me no, so I peel off my suit jacket and grab the wine instead. I slip my shoes off under the nook and untuck my blouse. If I can’t change, I sure as hell will be comfortable. She leans over and kisses my neck as she puts the salad on the table.

“I promise to help take off those horrible work clothes after dinner.” I forgive her.

Dinner is angel hair pasta with crushed garlic, sun dried tomatoes, and a splash of olive oil. I add a ton of cheese. Alison doesn’t. She is thirty-six, fit, and a true health nut. Usually our dinners are carbohydrate free with protein and a salad. It makes me long for my once a month dinner out with my few work friends. It’s the only time I indulge. Well, and any time I can sneak away at lunch, which is almost never.

“Why are we eating this decadent food? I mean, what’s the occasion?” I ask.

“Can’t I make dinner for my soon-to-be wife?” She’s entirely too accommodating right now. I squint at her. Something is up. She holds her hands up in surrender. “Okay, okay. I’ve been invited to speak at a conference in Chicago, but it’s the weekend we are spending with your parents in New York. As much as I love them, I really want to do this conference.”

My fork clatters onto the plate louder than I intend, but my point is made. “Are you serious? We’ve had to rearrange all of our schedules twice just for yours. You just can’t cancel. Our trip is in a few weeks.” I can hear myself whine, but damn it, my parents have changed their schedules at least six times in the three years Alison and I’ve been together, all for her sake. “I understand your job is important, but we all have lives and careers to consider.” Now I sound like I’m really throwing a tantrum. I change my tune. “You know, it’s okay to take a break. When was the last time we actually got away and did something fun?”

“Hayley, come on. You know how important these conferences are to me. There was a last minute cancellation and Oscar Whitmore reached out to see if I could fill the spot. I told him I would let him know tonight.”

“I should have known all of this was because you wanted something,” I say.

“That’s not fair. It all happened today. I was excited to get out at a reasonable time today and just came up with the idea to cook dinner. Can we please not fight?”

Truthfully, Alison is a workaholic. I knew this going into the relationship. Even though I’m hurt, this isn’t unusual for her. “You’re going to have to tell my parents. And I’m still going to New York,” I say.

“Fine. I will. I’m sure they will understand. You have the best parents. I really am lucky to be a part of this family.”

I know she loves them and they love her. I already know they will forgive her immediately. Because Alison is a surgeon, she gets all of the kudos from my family. It’s annoying sometimes. I soften my attitude a bit. “I’m still going.”

“I know and I agree. Thank you for understanding.”

I cross my arms over my chest. I’m not going to forgive her so easily. She always knows how to break me down anyway, so I might as well enjoy the attention. “What’s the conference about?”

“It’s the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons’ Annual Meeting. Thursday afternoon is the meet and greet and the conference is from Friday morning until Sunday afternoon,” she says. She knows I’m going to ask. I hate asking and she hates answering.

“Is Blaire going to be there?” Alison’s divorce wasn’t amicable. I’m not worried that she’ll sleep with Blaire, but that Blaire will turn crazy, again, and make Alison’s life miserable, which makes my life miserable.

“Yes.”

I sigh and lean back in my chair. “Do you need me to go?”

“No, babe. You go have fun in the Big Apple with your parents. I promise to be safe and avoid her at all costs.” I frown. I’m not convinced. Blaire used Alison as target practice with all of their glass and china when Alison served her divorce papers. I can’t imagine Blaire being sane now. That was only four years ago.

“I’m just bummed. I was looking forward to a weekend in New York with you and my parents.”

“I promise to make it up to you. You know I’m good for it.” This is a true statement. When Alison makes things up to me, it’s nothing less than incredible. I just want time with her.

“How much paperwork do you have?” I ask. “Time-wise. How long will it take?”

“I don’t know. Maybe an hour or so. Why?”

“I’ll clean up this mess while you work, then I’m going to draw a bath.” She hitches her eyebrow at me. “If you finish in time, maybe you can join me.” She jumps and races out of the room. I laugh at her theatrics.

* * *

The clock reads 12:03 and I can’t sleep. Alison doesn’t seem to be having the same problem even though her sleeping patterns are worse than mine. In all fairness, she did exert herself nicely tonight and I’m delightfully sore as proof. Our sex life has settled down a lot since we’ve been together. We’re slowly trying new things in the bedroom. And in the Jacuzzi bath. Even though Alison is five years older than I am, she is in twice the shape. She runs when I sleep in, she works out during her lunch while I secretly eat carbs, and she enjoys eating quinoa. Nobody enjoys that. I hate the salads we eat weekly. I know she’s trying to keep us healthy and alive, but every so often I just want to order pizza and drink beer and not feel guilty about it. I’m having an affair with fattening food.

After twenty minutes of sitting, I quietly get out of bed. I snuggle under a blanket on the couch. Remote in hand, I turn on a marathon of The Walking Dead even though I’ve seen every episode. I notice a box on the coffee table. Inside, I find our wedding invitations. I open one up and smile. They’re nice. Not six hundred dollars nice, but Alison wanted them. She eloped the first time, so now she wants an elaborate wedding. Even though I have to plan it, her role is to swoop in at the last minute and change everything. I’ll be glad when this is all over.

The invitations are more contemporary than I would have liked because we chose not to list our parents. Alison’s father passed away years ago and she hasn’t talked to her mom in forever, so we had to improvise. I feel bad that my parents aren’t listed, but they understand since Alison isn’t listing her mom. I file the invitation back in the box, knowing that I will be responsible for addressing and sending them out. I might even enlist the help of Tina, one of Elite’s administrative assistants. She’s always looking for things to do. Hopefully, she can knock out most of them so that by the weekend, I’ll only have a few left. She has better handwriting than I do anyway. I curl back up on the couch and try to block wedding anxiety from my mind.

“Hayley, what are you doing out here? Come back to bed.” Alison is gently shaking my shoulder. I was finally asleep.

“What time is it?” I groan when she tells me it’s only three. She pulls me up and kisses my nose.

“I don’t like waking up without you.” I follow her and let her tuck me into bed. She wraps her arm around my waist and, within seconds, she’s asleep. Again, I’m awake with my thoughts. Stone won’t leave my mind. I’m probably intrigued by her because it’s been forever since I’ve worked with an adult. I promised to get her ready by the season, which I chalk up to an attempt at inspiration. She’s strong enough to make it happen. It was just so hard to see tears in those giant blue eyes of hers. Tomorrow, I’m going to sit myself down in Gloria’s office and get the truth about her.

Chapter Three

Gloria comes in, knocking after she opens the door. “My Keurig isn’t working. Can I use yours?”

I look up from my paperwork, annoyed at the interruption. Then, remembering I want to have a conversation about Stone, I change my tune. “Come on in. I’ve got some chocolate donut flavored coffee if you want that instead.” I couldn’t be more conniving. She slowly walks to the sideboard, her eyes never leaving mine. “So tell me why Elite agreed to work with Elizabeth Stone, professional hockey player extraordinaire. I want to know what I’m getting myself into here.” Gloria takes a seat across from me after doctoring her pastry smelling coffee.

“I’ve known her mother since college. I talked with her and Elizabeth is on the fast track to self-destruction. She’s completely distraught over this injury and has been very difficult to work with. She made the Gray Wolves’ own sports therapist cry after their first appointment. Stone’s manager strongly suggested she look outside for a physical therapist. I volunteered because I know we can help her. You have the utmost patience and can keep your shit together better than anyone else. You’re my best therapist. Even the kids who have a hard time facing their disabilities love you.”

“How many other therapists has she tried? What’s the problem other than her poor me attitude? Her injury is bad, but not necessarily career ending.” I’ve seen athletes come back from far worse injuries and still have good seasons. Gloria leans back in her chair and sighs.

“You know how athletes are. They think their injuries are the worst ever. She’s only been to one other therapist and she destroyed the room after one session. That’s when her mother called me.”

“What the hell happened there?” I start to doubt my own assessment of Stone. What did they see that I didn’t?

“The therapist was some young kid and told her he wasn’t sure she’d play hockey again. Not a great way to start the first session. Stone lost it and starting smashing her crutches into things.” Gloria doesn’t look concerned at all.

“You know how I feel about athletes. They are jerks and harder to control than kids. What if she pulls that with me?”

“Don’t tell her she can’t play hockey. Look, I know you haven’t worked with sports injuries for the last few years, but I think we can work together and salvage this girl’s career.” She pauses to take a sip of the coffee. Guilt trip planned and now I’m packing for it.

“I’m not that good.” She waves her hand at me in a dismissive way.

“You’re my best. I’m serious, Hayley. What you’ve done here has been remarkable. I know I’m asking a lot of you to take on Stone, but I’ve known her family a long time. If she doesn’t get better and improve her attitude, she will lose her job and all of her endorsements. We know what kind of downward spiral that can be.” We both have seen our fair share of athletes whose careers crashed and burned because of their injuries.

“Thank you for telling me. That perspective helps. Not to be a total shit here, but why don’t you jump back in and work on her instead of me? Your background in sports related injuries is far superior to mine, plus you know the family. That should give you the upper hand right away,” I say. The chocolate coffee smells so good that I get up and make myself a cup.

“You know that I’ve lost my patience for patients.” She pauses to smirk. “I really do prefer the administrative side of this job.” Which translates to she doesn’t want to because she’s the boss now, only eight years from retirement. I can respect that. “And I’ve a lot going on with the Children’s Dream Maker’s fund-raiser coming up.” Next month, we’re raising money for the local organization who grants critically ill children wishes. It’s heartbreaking and heartfelt at the same time.

“How difficult is Stone? Truthfully. I need to know what I’m getting into.” I hold my hands up to stop her from becoming defensive. “I’m still going to do this, for you, for the practice. I just need her history. And please tell me it’s not because we are both lesbians.” She laughs.

“Are you serious? I just need my best to work with her,” she says.

I give her a look. “I don’t see a problem with any of this. I just wanted more info. It’s been a long time since I’ve worked with adults. I figured there had to be a good reason.”

“If things get out of control, let me know. If I have to step in, I will. She’s a good kid. She isn’t used to being told no, but she’s worked hard to get where she is. Did you know she was an alternate in the Olympics a few years ago?” I shake my head. I’ll have to Google her later. “Yeah. Not bad if you ask me. Hockey is her life. I’d like to give her that back if we can.” Gloria stands up and stretches before she heads to the door. “Okay, I’m out. Let me know if you need anything. When do you start on her?”

“We started a bit yesterday. I wanted to gauge her levels. I’m going to work on her Monday through Friday. She’ll be my last patient of the day. If she can get here early, maybe I can squeeze some aqua therapy in. I trust she can swim.”

“I’m sure she does. Ice, water. It’s all the same,” she says. She winks at me as she leaves my office.

I Google Stone’s name and am floored by all of the articles that pop up. Tons about her successes, very few about her failures. I had no idea she is this popular. Actually, I hadn’t given women’s ice hockey a single thought before yesterday. I know soccer has blossomed in women’s sports, but who knew about hockey? I hit the images tab and am instantly struck by those gorgeous sapphire eyes from thumbnail photos on the page. Her hairstyle has changed so much over the years. It was long, then short, then really short. I like the shaggy, messy style she has now. I read a few articles and am impressed that she went to Dartmouth. There are several interviews on YouTube and I pull up a few. She’s passionate, friendly, and makes every single interviewer blush. The camera loves her. I shake my head and roll my eyes at her blatant flirting. I did get a glimpse of it yesterday for about two seconds, but mostly I was introduced to the brooding, sulking lesbian who believes this is the worst thing to ever happen to anybody ever. I pull her file and make a few notes. I’m interrupted when Tina intercoms me.

“Alaina’s here,” she says. I glance at the clock. I push back from the desk and slip my shoes back on. I stop in front of the reception area and grab the top envelope from the stack already piled on Tina’s desk.

“Your handwriting is gorgeous. Thanks for helping me.”

Tina smiles. “Thank you for giving me something fun to do. This is so cool. I’m so happy for you.”

I think I’m the only lesbian she knows. She hasn’t even met Alison yet.

I beeline it to therapy room A, which is for infants through elementary school age children. I smile when I see my tiny patient already playing with blocks.

“Hello, beautiful girl. How are you doing today? What are we building?” I drop to my knees next to her and watch as she struggles to stack the blocks taller than herself. Alaina is one of my favorites. She fell out of a second story window after climbing up on the windowsill and leaning her full body weight against the screen. Thankfully, a tree under the window broke her fall. We’re working on getting mobility back after she dislocated her shoulder and elbow. The bruises are already starting to fade.

“Hi, Miss Hayley. I’m going to make this taller than you.” She bites her lip as she concentrates and wills her body to stretch so she can keep stacking.

“Have you stretched the right way today?” I look to Matt, the other pediatric therapist, who nods. He gets my patients ready when I get lost in paperwork. I don’t think she’s ready for the miniature rock wall yet so, after a few more minutes stacking blocks, we head over to the soft, climbable zoo animals that are the biggest attraction of the therapy room. Judging by the way she is scampering over the zebra and hippo, I think Alaina’s PT will be over soon. I’m sad, but glad to be a part of her healing. I work with Alaina for another thirty minutes until her session is over and spend some time with her parents. I like the whole family. They were the first ones to volunteer to help out at our fund-raiser for the Children’s Dream Maker organization. We raise a lot of money every year as thankful patients and parents donate time and money to help us. It’s an end of the summer carnival with fun things for kids to do including game booths and low impact bounce houses. We don’t have rides because they are too much of a liability, but the kids have fun with the simplicity of what’s available. Alaina’s parents are in the restaurant business and are donating most of the food. Some of our patients donate money. It’s open to the public, but a lot of our patients, existing and past, bring their friends and it’s so wonderful to see. Kids being kids again, injuries gone or in the process of healing. The Children’s Dream Maker organization sends over ambassadors with a few Dream Maker children who are able to participate as well. It’s a feel good event on every level. I’m in charge of drinks, the kid-friendly kind only. The hard stuff comes out when we are cleaning up afterwards.

“I’m so excited to be a part of this,” Desiree, Alaina’s mom, says. The sincerity on her face is unmistakable.

“It’s always so much fun. The kids have a great time and it’s for a good cause,” I say.

“Do you need anything else from us?” she asks.

I remember the flyers Gloria created and hand her a stack. “If you put these somewhere in your restaurant where your patrons can pick one up, that would be great.”

“Oh, we can even pass them around the neighborhood,” Desiree says. I refrain from hugging her.

“You have done so much already. Thank you,” I say. If all of this goes well, I think this will be the biggest turnout yet.

Chapter Four

I’m actually nervous. It’s almost three thirty and I know that Stone will be here any minute. Since our initial sessions will be mainly stretching her out, I’m having her meet me in therapy room A. Gloria said I need to work with her, but she didn’t specify where. Matt will be working with his last patient of the day, an adorable eight-year-old who lost his leg due to a severe infection. Watching Davis walk with a prosthetic leg truly puts things into perspective. Maybe Stone will see that there are worse cases than hers. I grab my clipboard with the measurements and stats that we collected last Thursday and head down to the kid-friendly workout gymnasium. Stone is already there, sitting at one of the kids’ tables, her cumbersome boot stretched out in front of her. I watch as she observes Davis out of the corner of her eye. I give her a few minutes, probably more than I should, so that I can watch her and gauge her reaction to him. When I do open the door, Stone looks directly at me, those blue eyes still blazing, but this time they are a little softer.

“Hello, Stone. How’s the leg?” I ask.

“Miss Hayley. Hello. Look at how well I’m walking,” Davis interrupts. He walks over and high-fives me.

“Davis. Look at you! I almost didn’t recognize you with the way you were racing around here.” I’m rewarded with a huge smile.

“I can jump now, too.” He hops up and down and I can’t help but clap. Children really are resilient. I turn back to Stone after he hops off to work with Matt again. Her face holds very little emotion, but I have to think that entire exchange affected her.

“Are you ready to get started?”

She nods. “I did everything you told me to over the weekend. I spelled the alphabet with my ankle, kept my leg elevated and on ice. I was the exemplary patient.” This time her smile is sincere and it almost takes my breath away.

I stumble over my words a bit. “Fantastic. Let’s get started. I’m going to start off with a deep tissue massage. This will help your ankle a lot, I promise, but you will hate it while I’m doing it. It’s designed to prevent scar tissue.” She gasps when I dig my fingers into her ankle. I’m more careful with her leg. I quickly realize that Stone isn’t easily distracted when I chat so I stay quiet. By the end of the twenty minute massage, she’s sweating and not in a good way.

“I deserve something special after that abuse.” She groans, but then she winks at me. I roll my eyes, but I give her a break for ten minutes while I treat her to an ultrasound. It’s painless and soothing.

“You were so right. I hate you and love you at the same time,” she says.

My breath hitches at her warm and gravelly voice. “Patients get excited about the massages until they actually receive one. It takes a little bit of time to get used to them, but by the end of this, you’ll be putty in my hands,” I say. I avoid all eye contact because that sounded way more sexual than it was supposed to.

We exchange only a few words over the next forty-five minutes. Sweat beads on her brow. She has worked hard and wants to push herself even harder, but I have to pace her. We finish with the stretches and I tell her to lie back on the table for a cool down exercise.

“I know this is frustrating as you get used to walking and bending again, but you just have to trust me that I know what you need.” Stone raises her eyebrow at me and I have the decency to blush. We’re quiet for a few minutes while she rests and elevates her leg.

“So what happened to that kid?” she asks.

“Davis? He had a bone infection. He’s been coming here for weeks and has proven to be one tough little dude,” I say.

“Do you have any kids of your own?”

“Me? No. I don’t know that we will. Alison doesn’t really want them.” I inwardly groan. I can’t believe I just shared something so personal with a patient.

Stone snorts and then quickly apologizes. “I didn’t mean anything by that. I’m just shocked. I mean, you work with kids and from what I’ve seen, you’re good with them,” she says.

I shrug. Before Alison, I wanted at least two. She convinced me that kids would be a burden and we would lose ourselves in the process. “What about you? Are you planning on having kids?”

She laughs. “Well, I haven’t really given it a lot of thought. I’ve been pretty busy with hockey the last twenty-four years of my life.”

“No girlfriend?” Again, I scold myself for getting personal.

She shakes her head. “No time really. Most of my relationships take place off season.” That makes me sad. Her whole life has been hockey. I help her put her boot on, satisfied that the swelling is minimal.

“Okay, you’re all set. Stay elevated tonight. Same time tomorrow, okay?” She slides off the table and grabs her crutches.

“Thanks, Doc. See you then.” I watch as she hobbles over to the doorway.

I find myself still smiling minutes after she’s gone. I understand why Gloria wants me to work with Stone. She’s eager like a kid and just as unaware. I have a feeling she would push herself too hard and would reinjure her leg. Tomorrow, we’ll have to talk about her limits. I’ll draw up a timeline of where she should be in the healing process and when she can do certain activities. I’m sure she’s itching to get back out on the ice, but she’s weeks away from even trying it.

Chapter Five

“Why am I so sensitive to touch?” Stone is sprawled out on the table and I’m giving her the dreaded massage. I’m sure she thinks I’m trying to kill her.

“Your leg is still healing and you have to learn how to feel again.” Why does everything I say sound sexual? “How did it feel when you got your cast off?”

“Unbelievably stiff. Is that normal?”

“Your leg was in a hard cast for weeks with zero mobility. Yes, it’s perfectly normal and exactly what you needed to heal the bone. The hard part is done. Now we need to focus on getting your ankle to move your foot up and down, to the left, and to the right. It’ll take time. I know it’s frustrating, but you are kind of learning how to do things all over again.” She makes a grunting noise before falling back on the table.

“I hate that this is taking so long,” she says. I feel bad that this is only the end of the second week. She’s entirely too competitive to hold back.

“How about some good news? I have two patients who are starting water therapy next week. I think that might be good for you. Are you a good swimmer? We would start off slow and just see how well you handle it.”

“I learned to swim before I could walk.”

“You have a swimmer’s build. Why did you pick ice hockey over swimming?” Again, I’m getting too personal with Stone. Did I really just mention her body?

“I like going fast. I can swim fast, but only as fast as my body will let me. On skates, I can reach speeds up to fifteen or even twenty miles an hour. It’s such a freedom. Besides, here in the northeast you’re practically born with skates on. Are you from here, Doc? Did you skate any as a child?”

The thought is foreign to me. “I’m from here, but my passion growing up was always dance. I took tap, ballet, and ballroom lessons.”

She looks me over. “That’s about right.”

“What does that mean? I don’t look like a badass hockey player?” I grit my teeth and snarl at her. She laughs and playfully touches my arm. Her hand is warm and makes me inwardly shiver. Not professional, I scold myself. This is just friendly banter.

“You are entirely too nice to be a hockey player. I can’t imagine you getting checked against the wall.” I assume she means brutally crushed up against the side of the rink. Those checks always make their way to the news during the hockey highlight reels.

“Are you kidding me? Do you know who I am?” I’m rewarded with a hefty laugh.

“Stop. What damage could you do? You are so slight,” she says. I shiver again when I watch her eyes slowly travel over my body.

“I’ll have you know that I’m a red belt in tae kwon do, thank you very much.” I put my hand on my hip and glare at her.

“Huh. I didn’t think you had it in you to kick some ass,” she says.

“You’re not the only tough one here.” I lift my eyebrow at her. “My father insisted that I learn some form of discipline, besides dance, and some self-defense. Tae kwon do was the answer.”

“Do you still practice?”

“I haven’t in years, but it’s like riding a bike. I just need to get back to it.”

“Why don’t you then?”

“I’m kind of busy right now with patients and planning a wedding,” I say.

“When is the big day?”

“October twentieth.” I hand her the ice pack and tell her to relax for a bit. Today’s exercises were hard, but she pushed through them with minimal complaining. She really isn’t as difficult as Gloria portrayed her to be.

“That’s coming up. That’s the start of our season,” she says. Sooner than I’d like. I take a deep breath. I really need to get those invitations out in the mail today. I keep forgetting to do that. I wheel over to the desk and make my notes in Stone’s file. “Are you getting excited?” I frown because I’m not, but then I smile weakly at her.

“There’s a lot going on so it’s hard to say if I’m excited or stressed.” At least I’m being honest. She grimaces at me.

“Where are you having your wedding? Where’s the venue?”

Simple questions. I like that. “We are staying local, the Grande Theatre. Contrary to the name and place, it really is a simple wedding. I would have been happy eloping.”

She nods. “Yeah, I’m all for running away, too. I’ve seen so many weddings in my life. My parents run Stone Orchard and it’s amazing how many people want to get married there.”

“You’re kidding. I love that place! I actually was going there after work to pick up some cider and apples. I bake when I’m stressed.” She laughs when I groan and smack my forehead playfully. “I should have connected the names.”

“I grew up there. It’s a great place for a kid. Forty acres of apple trees and barns. And it’s just up the street from the practice rink,” she says.

We’re quiet again for a few minutes. I’m very aware of the silence and I can feel when she’s looking at me. My pulse races. “So why do you go by Stone?” She leans on her elbows so she can face me. I forbid myself to look at her body even though that pose—one knee up, breasts pressed against her T-shirt—is sexy as hell.

“Coaches call you by your last name. Even the players do. Also, I’ve never acted like an Elizabeth.” She pushes her messy hair back. “If you want, I can give you a tour of the orchard.” We both look down at her leg in a brace and her crutch nearby.

“No, it’s okay. You need to rest anyway.”

Stone laughs. “We have an all-terrain vehicle. A golf cart on steroids. We can take that.” I waver. I don’t like for my personal and professional lives to cross and I think Stone might be a red flag in both. “C’mon. It will be fun. I promise not to monopolize your time.” She looks so hopeful.

“Okay. If you don’t mind, that would be nice.” So much for listening to my own reasoning and all of the dangerous warning signs going off in my head.

“Do you want to just leave from here? Or is that Elite taboo?”

I don’t think that’s a problem. I silence the tiny alarms again. “I can drive. Is somebody picking you up though?”

She quickly types something on her phone. “Not anymore.” I’m so happy I’m sitting down because the devilish smile she gives me is extremely suggestive. I quickly look down at my paperwork and write down miscellaneous notes in the margins to look busy. This is going to be a long evening.

Chapter Six

“You are probably so tired of apples, having lived here your whole life.”

Stone plucks an apple off of a nearby low hanging branch, studies it, and polishes it against her sweatshirt. She hands it to me. “There are so many things you can do with apples. I love to bake and cook. The trick is to find different things you can do with them,” she says.

“Do you work here, too?” I ask.

She laughs. “Oh, God, no. It pained me to temporarily move back when I busted my leg. I love my parents, but once you leave home, it’s hard to return. In all fairness, my mom has been fantastic with me. It’s just hard, you know?”

“Where do you live?” I ask.

“Why, Doc, are you into making house calls?” She playfully raises her eyebrow at me. I blush and stammer. She saves me. “I live in the city in a decent condo. It’s not a place for crutches and my mom insisted that I stay with them. It hasn’t been too bad. Like I said, it’s a lot closer to the practice rink up the street.”

“Is that where the whole team practices?” I don’t remember it being grandiose enough for a professional National Women’s Hockey League team.

She shakes her head at me and laughs. “How do you not know a single thing about hockey? You’re the only lesbian on Earth, all of Earth, who doesn’t.”

I laugh. “It’s just not my thing. I’ll tell you what. When I think you’re ready for skating, we can have our PT session at the mysterious rink up the street from the orchard.”


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