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The ocean had a hypnotic effect. Dione gave in to it without a struggle, peacefully watching the turquoise waves roll onto the blindingly white sand. She wasn't an idle person, yet she was content to sit on the deck of her rented beach house, her long, honey-tanned legs stretched out and propped on the railing, doing nothing more than watching the waves and listening to the muted roar of water coming in and going out. The white gulls swooped in and out of her vision, their high-pitched cries adding to the symphony of wind and water. To her right, the huge golden orb of the sun was sinking into the water, turning the sea to flame. It would have made a stunning photograph, yet she was disinclined to leave her seat and get her camera. It had been a glorious day, and she had done nothing more strenuous than celebrate it by walking the beach and swimming in the green-and-blue-streaked Gulf of Mexico. Lord, what a life. It was so sweet, it was almost sinful. This was the perfect vacation.
For two weeks she had wandered the sugar-white sands of Panama City, Florida, blissfully alone and lazy. There wasn't a clock in the beach house, nor had she even wound her watch since she'd arrived, because time didn't matter. No matter what time she woke, she knew that if she was hungry and didn't feel like cooking, there was always a place within walking distance where she could get something to eat. During the summer, the Miracle Strip didn't sleep. It was a twenty-four-hour party that constantly renewed itself from the end of school through the Labor Day weekend. Students and singles looking for a good time found it; families looking for a carefree vacation found it; and tired professional women wanting only a chance to unwind and relax beside the dazzling Gulf found that, too. She felt completely reborn after the past two delicious weeks.
A sailboat, as brightly colored as a butterfly, caught her attention, and she watched it as it lazily tacked toward shore. She was so busy watching the boat that she was unaware of the man approaching the deck until he started up the steps and the vibration of the wooden floor alerted her. Without haste she turned her head, the movement graceful and unalarmed, but her entire body was suddenly coiled and ready for action, despite the fact that she hadn't moved from her relaxed posture.
A tall, gray-haired man stood looking at her, and her first thought was that he didn't belong in this setting. P.C., as the vacation city was known, was a relaxed, informal area. This man was dressed in an impeccable three-piece gray suit, and his feet were shod in supple Italian leather. Dione reflected briefly that his shoes would be full of the loose sand that filtered into everything.
"Miss Kelley?" he inquired politely.
Her slim black brows arched in puzzlement, but she withdrew her feet from the railing and stood, holding out her hand to him. "Yes, I'm Dione Kelley. And you are ?"
"Richard Dylan," he said, taking her hand and shaking it firmly. "I realize that I'm intruding on your vacation, Miss Kelley, but it's very important that I speak with you."
"Please, sit down," Dione invited, indicating a deck chair beside the one she had just vacated. She resumed her former position, stretching out her legs and propping her bare feet on the railing. "Is there something I can do for you?"
"There certainly is," he replied feelingly. "I wrote to you about six weeks ago concerning a patient I'd like you to take onBlake Remington."
Dione frowned slightly. "I remember. But I answered your letter, Mr. Dylan, before I left on vacation. Haven't you received it?"
"Yes, I have," he admitted. "I came to ask you to reconsider your refusal. There are extenuating circumstances, and his condition is deteriorating rapidly. I'm convinced that you can"
"I'm not a miracle worker," she interrupted softly. "And I do have other cases lined up. Why should I put Mr. Remington ahead of others who need my services just as badly as he does?"
"Are they dying?" he asked bluntly.
"Is Mr. Remington? From the information you gave me in your letter, the last operation was a success. There are other therapists as well qualified as I am, if there's some reason why Mr. Remington has to have therapy this very moment."
Richard Dylan looked out at the turquoise Gulf, the waves tipped with gold by the sinking sun. "Blake Remington won't live another year," he said, and a bleak expression crossed his strong, austere features. "Not the way he is now. You see, Miss Kelley, he doesn't believe he'll ever walk again, and he's given up. He's deliberately letting himself die. He doesn't eat; he seldom sleeps; he refuses to leave the house."
Dione sighed. Depression was sometimes the most difficult aspect of her patients' conditions, taking away their energy and determination. She'd seen it so many times before, and she knew that she'd see it again. "Still, Mr. Dylan, another therapist"
"I don't think so. I've already employed two therapists, and neither of them has lasted a week. Blake refuses to cooperate at all, saying that it's just a waste of time, something to keep him occupied. The doctors tell him that the surgery was a success, but he still can't move his legs, so he just doesn't believe them. Dr. Norwood suggested you. He said that you've had remarkable success with uncooperative patients, and that your methods are extraordinary."
She smiled wryly. "Of course he said that. Tobias Norwood trained me."
Richard Dylan smiled briefly in return. "I see. Still, I'm convinced that you're Blake's last chance. If you still feel that your other obligations are more pressing, then come with me to Phoenix and meet Blake. I think that when you see him, you'll understand why I'm so worried."
Dione hesitated, examining the proposal. Professionally, she was torn between refusing and agreeing. She had other cases, other people who were depending on her; why should this Blake Remington come before them? But on the other hand, he sounded like a challenge to her abilities, and she was one of those high-powered individuals who thrived on challenges, on testing herself to the limit. She was very certain of herself when it came to her chosen profession, and she enjoyed the satisfaction of completing a job and leaving her patient better able to move than before. In the years that she had been working as a private therapist, traveling all over the country to her patients' homes, she had amassed an amazing record of successes.
"He's an extraordinary man," said Mr. Dylan softly. "He's engineered several aeronautical systems that are widely used now. He designs his own planes, has flown as a test pilot on some top-secret planes for the government, climbs mountains, races yachts, goes deep-sea diving. He's a man who was at home on land, on the sea, or in the air, and now he's chained to a wheelchair and it's killing him."
"Which one of his interests was he pursuing when he had his accident?" Dione asked.
"Mountain climbing. The rope above him snagged on a rock, and his movements sawed the rope in two. He fell forty-five feet to a ledge, bounced off it, then rolled or fell another two hundred feet. That's almost the distance of a football field, but the snow must have cushioned him enough to save his life. He's said more than once that if he'd fallen off that mountain during the summer, he wouldn't have to spend his life as a cripple now."
"Tell me about his injuries," Dione said thoughtfully.
He rose to his feet. "I can do better than that. I have his file, complete with X-rays, in my car. Dr. Norwood suggested that I bring it."
"He's a sly fox, that one," she murmured as Mr. Dylan disappeared around the deck. Tobias Norwood knew exactly how to intrigue her, how to set a particular case before her. Already she was interested, just as he had meant her to be. She'd make up her mind after seeing the X-rays and reading the case history. If she didn't think she could help Blake Remington, she wouldn't put him through the stress of therapy.
In just a moment Mr. Dylan returned with a thick, manila envelope in his grasp. He released it into Dione's outthrust hand and waited expectantly. Instead of opening it, she tapped her fingernails against the envelope.
"Let me study this tonight, Mr. Dylan," she said firmly. "I can't just glance over it and make a decision. I'll let you know in the morning."
A flicker of impatience crossed his face; then he quickly mastered it and nodded. "Thank you for considering it, Miss Kelley."
When he was gone, Dione stared out at the Gulf for a long time, watching the eternal waves washing in with a froth of turquoise and sea-green, churning white as they rushed onto the sand. It was a good thing that her vacation was ending, that she'd already enjoyed almost two full weeks of utter contentment on the Florida panhandle, doing nothing more strenuous than walking in the tide. She'd already lazily begun considering her next job, but now it looked as if her plans had been changed.
After opening the envelope she held up the X-rays one by one to the sun, and she winced when she saw the damage that had been done to a strong, vital human body. It was a miracle that he hadn't been killed outright. But the X-rays taken after each successive operation revealed bones that had healed better than they should have, better than anyone could have hoped. Joints had been rebuilt; pins and plates had reconstructed his body and held it together. She went over the last set of X-rays with excruciating detail. The surgeon had been a genius, or the results were a miracle, or perhaps a combination of both. She could see no physical reason why Blake couldn't walk again, provided the nerves hadn't been totally destroyed.
Beginning to read the surgeon's report, she concentrated fiercely on every detail until she understood exactly what damage had been done and what repairs had been made. This man would walk again; she'd make him! The end of the report mentioned that further improvement was prevented by the patient's lack of cooperation and depth of depression. She could almost feel the surgeon's sense of frustration as he'd written that; after all his painstaking work, after the unhoped-for success of his techniques, the patient had refused to help!
Gathering everything together, she started to replace the contents in the envelope and noticed that something else was inside, a stiff piece of paper that she'd neglected to remove. She pulled it out and turned it over. It wasn't just a piece of paper; it was a photograph.
Stunned, she stared into laughing blue eyes, eyes that sparkled and danced with the sheer joy of living. Richard Dylan was a sly one, too, knowing full well that few women would be able to resist the appeal of the dynamic man in the photograph. It was Blake Remington, she knew, as he had been before the accident. His brown hair was tousled, his darkly tanned face split by a rakish grin which revealed a captivating dimple in his left cheek. He was naked except for a brief pair of denim shorts, his body strong and well muscled, his legs the long, powerful limbs of an athlete. He was holding a good-sized marlin in the picture, and in the background she could make out the deep blue of the ocean; so he went deep-sea fishing, too. Wasn't there anything the man couldn't do? Yes, now there was, she reminded herself. Now he couldn't walk.
She wanted to refuse to take the case just to demonstrate to Richard Dylan that she couldn't be manipulated, but as she stared at the face in the photograph she knew that she would do just as he wanted, and she was disturbed by the knowledge. It had been such a long time since she'd been interested in any man at all that she was startled by her own reaction to a simple photograph.
Tracing the outline of his face with her fingertip, she wondered wistfully what her life would have been like if she'd been able to be a normal woman, to love a man and be loved in return, something that her brief and disastrous marriage had revealed to be impossible. She'd learned her lesson the hard way, but she'd never forgotten it. Men weren't for her. A loving husband and children weren't for her. The void left in her life by the total absence of love would have to be filled by her sense of satisfaction with her profession, with the joy she received from helping someone else. She might look at Blake Remington's photograph with admiration, but the daydreams that any other woman would indulge in when gazing at that masculine beauty were not for her. Daydreams were a waste of time, because she knew that she was incapable of attracting a man like him. Her ex-husband, Scott Hayes, had taught her with pain and humiliation the folly of enticing a man when she was unable to satisfy him.
Never again. She'd sworn it then, after leaving Scott, and she swore it again now. Never again would she give a man the chance to hurt her.
A sudden gust of salty wind fanned her cheeks, and she lifted her head, a little surprised to see that the sun was completely gone now and that she had been squinting at the photograph, not really seeing it as she dealt with her murky memories. She got to her feet and went inside, snapping on a tall floor lamp and illuminating the cool, summery interior of the beach house. Dropping into a plumply cushioned chair, Dione leaned her head back and began planning her therapy program, though of course she wouldn't be able to make any concrete plans until she actually met Mr. Remington and was better able to judge his condition. She smiled a little with anticipation. She loved a challenge more than she did anything else, and she had the feeling that Mr. Remington would fight her every inch of the way. She'd have to be on her toes, stay in control of the situation and use his helplessness as a lever against him, making him so angry that he'd go through hell to get better, just to get rid of her. Unfortunately, he really would have to go through hell; therapy wasn't a picnic.
She'd had difficult patients before, people who were so depressed and angry over their disabilities that they'd shut out the entire world, and she guessed that Blake Remington had reacted in the same way. He'd been so active, so vitally alive and in perfect shape, a real daredevil of a man; she guessed that it was killing his soul to be limited to a wheelchair. He wouldn't care if he lived or died; he wouldn't care about anything.
She slept deeply that night, no dreams disturbing her, and rose well before dawn for her usual run along the beach. She wasn't a serious runner, counting off the miles and constantly reaching for a higher number; she ran for the sheer pleasure of it, continuing until she tired, then strolling along and letting the silky froth of the tide wash over her bare feet. The sun was piercing the morning with its first blinding rays when she returned to the beach house, showered and began packing. She'd made her decision, so she saw no need to waste time. She'd be ready when Mr. Dylan returned.
He wasn't even surprised when he saw her suitcases. "I knew you'd take the job," he said evenly.
Dione arched a slim black brow at him. "Are you always so sure of yourself, Mr. Dylan?"
"Please, call me Richard," he said. "I'm not always so certain, but Dr. Norwood has told me a great deal about you. He thought that you'd take the job because it was a challenge, and when I saw you, I knew that he was right."
"I'll have to talk with him about giving away my secrets," she joked.
"Not all of them," he said, and something in his voice made her wonder just how much he knew. "You have a lot of secrets left."