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"No-o-o-o!" Josh wailed, throwing his arms around the nanny's neck when Dan tried to lift the boy off the sofa. "I want Gemma to take me!"
Dan Morris gnashed his teeth, his gut burning with guilt as Josh showed him once again how much he preferred the company of Gemma, the middle-aged woman who'd been caring for him the past six months, over that of his father. But with the ease of long practice he buried his true feelings and kept his tone soft as he gently prised Josh away from Gemma, lifting his small frame into his arms.
"It's okay, Josh. Remember how I told you I'm going to be home with you for the next few weeks? We're going to attend physical therapy together. There's nothing to be afraid of. I'm going to be with you the whole time."
Josh didn't look too impressed with his vow but thankfully stopped struggling, leaning against his father's chest as if willing to accept his fate. He'd stopped crying too, but the occasional loud sniffle was just as difficult to bear.
Dan tucked Josh into his booster seat in the backseat of the black BMW, buckling him securely into the harness before he himself slid into the driver's seat, trying to think of a way to breach the chasm between them. He wanted Josh to know he was loved. Cherished. But how? Words alone hadn't worked so far.
"Daddy, is therapy going to hurt?"
Helpless fury and guilt nearly choked him at his son's innocent question. How many times had Josh asked him that same thing in the hospital? How many times had he been forced to answer yes? He cleared his throat and smiled at Josh, using the rearview mirror. "No, Josh, therapy isn't going to hurt. The therapist will exercise your legs. There won't be any needles, I promise."
Josh settled back, seemingly reassured. Dan drove carefully through the busy Manhattan streets to the physiotherapy clinic located within the brick walls of Manhattan's Angel Mendez Children's Hospital, affectionately known as Angel's, where his pediatric cardiothoracic surgery practice was located. He hoped physical therapist Molly Shriver was everything she'd been reported to be.
He'd wanted the best, demanded the best for his son. He couldn't bear to think about the grim possibility that Josh might never walk again. If this Molly Shriver was half as good as her reputation heralded her to be, he was convinced she was the one who could make that happen.
He and Josh arrived ten minutes early because he despised being late. They'd barely settled into their seats in the waiting room when a young woman with bright green eyes and reddish-gold hair pulled back in a perky ponytail came out to greet them.
"Good morning," she said, smiling brightly, her attention focused, rightly so, on Josh. Dan had stood when she'd entered the room, but Josh was obviously still seated in the waiting-room chair, wearing shorts and a T-shirt as requested. She knelt beside Josh so that her eyes were level with his. "You must be Josh Morris, although you look much older than seven. Are you sure you're not eight or nine?" she asked, her voice full of doubt.
Josh giggled, and shook his head. "Nope. I'm seven but my birthday is in three weeks."
"Oh, goody! I love birthdays! We'll have a party to celebrate!" she exclaimed, making Josh giggle again. "And that must be why you look so much older. My name is Molly and I'm so happy you came in to see me today."
Dan tucked his hands into the back pockets of his jeans and watched, reluctantly impressed with how she'd immediately established a connection with his son. She seemed to know a lot about kids.
No doubt, far more than he did.
"We're going to have lots of fun today, Josh," Molly confided. She held out her hand to his son. "Are you ready to play some games with me?"
All evidence of his former tears gone, Josh nodded eagerly as he reached for her hand. Fearing that she didn't realize his son couldn't walk, Dan quickly swooped down to swing Josh into his arms. "We're ready," he said gruffly, sending her a dark look.
For a moment her gaze narrowed and her smile dimmed. "Did you leave Josh's wheelchair out in the car?" she asked with feigned sweetness.
Just the thought of seeing his son confined to a wheelchair made him break out in a cold sweat. He could spend twelve hours in surgery, meticulously reconnecting coronary arteries and veins to repair tiny damaged hearts, but those hours he'd sat at his son's hospital bedside after the car crash had been the longest, darkest hours of his life. "No," he said bluntly. "Josh won't need a wheelchair. He has me. And now he has you, to help him learn how to walk again."
Her lips thinned and her smile faded even more. He thought she was going to pursue the issue, but instead she led the way through the doorway into another, much larger room. There were all kinds of exercise equipment scattered about, along with what appeared to be toys. Lots of toys, like brightly colored balls of every shape and size, jump ropes, bean bags and hula hoops. She gestured toward a padded table located on the right-hand side of the room. "Josh needs to sit right here. And why don't you take a seat here, on his left?"
He gently set Josh on the padded table, taken aback by how she wanted him right next to Josh, since he'd planned to just sit back and watch. "I can sit over there," he said, indicating a hard plastic chair tucked in the corner of the room.
"I'm afraid that won't work," Molly said cheerfully. "We'll need you close by in order to help. Right, Josh?"
"Right," Josh agreed enthusiastically, although Dan was sure the boy had no idea what he was agreeing to.
While it grated against his nerves to take orders from this petite woman, whose head barely reached the level of his chin, he'd vowed to do whatever was necessary for his son. And belatedly he realized she probably wanted to teach him the same exercises that she'd be doing with Josh, so he could reinforce them at home. "All right, then." He pulled up a rolling stool to sit close to his son's left side.
"Excellent." Molly grabbed a red plastic ball that was slightly smaller in circumference than a basketball, and took a seat on another rolling stool, positioning herself off to Josh's right side. "We're going to play catch, okay, Josh?"
He nodded enthusiastically.
"Watch carefully. I need you to toss the ball high in the air, like this " She demonstrated what she meant, throwing her arms in the air and then keeping them over her head to catch the ball again. "And then catch it again like this. Are you ready?" she asked.
When Josh nodded, she tossed the ball in a high arch, so that Josh had to lift up his arms to catch it. "Great!" she called with enthusiasm. "Now toss it back up in the air toward your dad."
Before Dan realized what was happening, Josh did as she requested, the ball going high in the air and crookedly off to one side, so that Dan had to react quickly in order to catch it. He wanted to scowl at the obvious amusement in Molly's gaze, but as usual kept his feelings to himself. Besides, he found her enthusiasm and laughter oddly relaxing.
"Good job, Josh. Now, Mr. Morris, toss the ball back to your son."
It was on the tip of his tongue to correct her, Dr. Morris, pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon, but right now the focus needed to be on his son. He didn't mind taking the role of a concerned father. After all, he was currently on leave of absence from the hospital, with one of his partners covering his patients. "Dan," he said shortly, as he did as she requested, tossing the ball up in the air so his son could reach out for it. "Call me Dan."
She didn't answer, as if she couldn't have cared less what his name was, and her gaze remained trained on his son. He tried to squelch a flash of annoyance. "Now, throw the ball back up in the air, toward me, Josh," Molly said. "Up as high as you can."
This time Josh's aim was a little better, although the ball still veered off to the side. They repeated this game several times, and Dan couldn't help glancing at the clock with growing annoyance. Okay, maybe he could understand her need to establish a bond with his son, but was this really what their medical insurance was paying for? What good would tossing the ball in the air do for Josh's legs? When was she going to start with his muscle-strengthening exercises?
"Great job, Josh," Molly said with another broad, cheerful smile. She looked and acted as if she absolutely loved her job. "Okay, now we're going to work with a hacky sack." She put the red ball back on the shelf and brought over a small round beanbag. "Have you ever played with a hacky sack, Josh?"
"No," he said, a tiny frown furrowing his brow as he watched Molly. She tossed the hacky sack into the air and bounced it off her elbow, aiming up so that she could catch it again. Then she repeated the motion with the other elbow, and then with her knee.
It was on the tip of Dan's tongue to remind her, again, that his son couldn't walk or stand for any length of time to play the goofy game of hacky sack, but then she sat down on the rolling stool, still holding the small beanbag.
"This isn't an easy game, so you have to concentrate very hard," she warned. "Do you think you can do that for me?"
Josh's big brown eyes were wide as he nodded.
"Maybe we should get your dad to play, too," Molly said, with a mischievous glint in her eye. Without warning she tossed the hacky sack into the air and then bounced it off her elbow and then her knee, aiming toward him. She hit it hard enough to make him scramble to reach up and grab it before the beanbag could smack him in the center of his forehead.
His temper snapped as he tossed the hacky sack back in her lap. "Maybe you should quit playing games and get to work." The moment the sharp words left his mouth he wanted to call them back, especially when Josh's brown eyes darkened with wounded sorrow.
Slicing his heart like the sharp blade of a scalpel.
It took everything Molly had to keep her relaxed smile on her face, when in reality she wanted to sweep Josh into her arms and take him far away from his ogre of a father.
"Hmm, I think your dad got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning, Josh," she murmured, picking up the hacky sack and turning in her seat so that she faced Josh. She lowered her voice and leaned forward as if he was her coconspirator. "Or maybe it's just that he doesn't know how to play games," she said as if they were sharing a big secret. "You and I are going to have to help teach him, okay?"
Josh bit his lip and ducked his head, sending a worried glance at his father. "Okay," he said in a very small voice, as if torn between siding with her and trying to protect his father.
She did her best to ignore Dr. Morris's piercing gaze. She knew very well who he was, of course. After all, she'd seen him at the ribbon-cutting ceremony when Angel's had opened the new neonatal wing, although he hadn't noticed her. Plus, she'd cared for many patients who'd had surgery performed by him. Parents raved about what a great surgeon he was.
Dr. Morris had an amazing reputation within the hospital, but she couldn't say she was nearly as impressed with the guy in person. Granted, he was devastatingly attractivetall and broad-shouldered, with mink-colored close-cropped hair and big, melting chocolate-brown eyes. But she wasn't easily swayed these days by a good-looking guy. Especially one who rarely, if ever, smiled.
In fact, they'd be far better off if he'd put his frowning energy into his son's therapy instead. She was still seething with the fact that he'd denied his son the freedom of a wheelchair.
But there would be time to talk to Dr. Morris about that later. Right now she needed to concentrate on poor Josh, who deserved every bit of her attention. "Okay, here's what I need you to do for me," she said with a smile and a secret wink. Josh rewarded her with a tremulous smile, so heartbreakingly sweet she had to crush the urge to sweep him into her arms and promise him that she'd never let anything bad happen to him.
Ridiculous, as Josh was her patient, not part of her family. He belonged to the stern-faced surgeon sitting next to him. And she'd do well to remember that.
Don't get emotionally involved. You'll only lose another piece of your heart once this adorable little boy doesn't need you anymore.
She made a career out of helping her small patients not need her anymore. So, of course, she needed to keep a safe emotional distance from them. However, telling herself not to get emotionally involved was easier than actually doing it. Still, she gave it her best shot. "I want you to bounce the hacky sack in the air with your elbows and your knees." She demonstrated what she wanted him to do. "Now, you try it."
Josh did his best, which was more than she could say about his father, who watched him like a hawk. More than once he almost came out of his chair to help his son, even though she sent him a glance that clearly told him to back off.
Josh's ability was hampered a bit by the fact that he sat on the exam table, he would have done better in a wheelchair, but soon he managed to get a decent rhythm going. She was glad that he had the ability to move his knees because that meant his hips were in good shape.
"Excellent job," she lavishly praised him. "Now, let's try something else. Try to kick my hands with your toes. Kick me as hard as you can."
Josh tried to lift up his legs so that he could kick her hands, but his leg muscles were too weak. The bright angry red scars that marred his youthful skin weren't easy to ignore. But the weakness in his legs was even worse. She hid her dismay at how little he could raise them upward. He would need a lot of work to get his strength back.
Good thing she had plenty of patience. Unlike his father.
"Let's try something else," she quickly improvised, since he couldn't kick the palms of her hands. She reached over to lift him up and quickly set him down on the floor before Dr. Morris could jump up to take over. She grabbed the red plastic ball again and placed it between Josh's feet. "Try and kick the ball sideways toward your other foot, but keep your leg straight like this." She gently moved his right leg, showing him what she wanted him to do.
Josh did as she asked, shifting his right leg enough to move the ball, although it went barely a few inches before rolling to a stop far away from his left foot.
"Great, that's wonderful, Josh." She quickly moved the ball so that it was located near his left foot. "Now, kick it back again."
He scrunched up his face with the effort to concentrate on doing what she'd asked. He tried a couple more times but only moved the ball scant inches. And suddenly he crumpled into tears. "I can't," he wailed. "I can't kick the b-ball!"
This time she did wrap her arms around him in comfort. How could she not? "Don't cry, please don't cry," she crooned softly. "You're doing very well, Josh. Remember how I said some of the games were hard? Believe me, very soon you'll be kicking that ball between your feet just fine. Just don't give up on me, okay? I promise we'll keep working on these games together. But I need you to do your part."