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"Nice shot, Troy!"
Jillian Masterson applauded as the basketball swished through the net.
Her young charge with the neat black braids pumped his fist in the air and whooped in victory. "Oh, yeah. I'm all that!"
"And a bag of chips," she cheered. He pushed his wheelchair beneath the basket to retrieve the ball while Jillian turned to her other patient and smiled. "Come on, Mike. Your turn."
"Basketball is lame," he groused.
Ignoring his ironic choice of words, she let his blue-eyed hatred for the world bounce off her skin and reached for his arms. Clamping one hand firmly around each wrist and bracing her feet in front of his, she pulled him out of his chair and balanced him against her shoulder while his leg braces locked into place. "Well, unless you want to plant some grass and turn this gym into an indoor football field, we're stuck with a basketball court. Let's try one from the free throw line."
"Why? It's not even a real court. Troy's baby brother could make a shot from that free throw line."
"You afraid you can't match up with an eighth grader?"
"I can do it," he argued. "I just don't want to."
She stepped away, brushing the bangs from her eyes and shaking her ponytail down her back, forcing Mike Cutler, Jr.'s, reknit bones and weakened muscles to function on their own whether he liked it or not. She supposed the modified half-court in the university hospital's physical therapy center couldn't compete with the grass and fresh air and promise of the field where this high school athlete had once caught passes and run for touchdowns.
But she'd spare him the lucky-to-be-alive-get-over-yourself speech, knowing he wouldn't hear the words. She understood the black hole he was fighting to crawl out of. She'd lost her dreams when she was a teenager herself. Or rather, after her parents' tragic deaths in a plane crash, she'd single-handedly blown those dreams into smithereens, nearly ruining what was left of her older brother's and sister's lives as well as her own in the process.
Now, at twenty-eight, after rehab and long years of counseling and healing, she could look back objectively and see her mistakes, see that the love of her brother and sister, along with help and hope, had always been there for her. But Jillian would forever remember those dark days well enough to know that, at sixteen, Mike Cutler couldn't yet see beyond the fear, despair, anger and resentment that clouded his young life.
Instead of lecturing him, she stuck to the job she'd been trained to do—helping rebuild the bodies of accident victims and medical patients through physical therapy. And she was counting on the innate competitiveness of his sports-loving nature to help get the job done. Jillian reached down beside him to pick up the stainless steel cane from the polished wood floor beside him. Then she held out her arm and the cane, giving Mike the choice of which way he wanted to get himself to the free throw line eight feet away.
One of the advantages of standing five foot eleven herself was that she could look Young Mr. Attitude in the eye and not be intimidated by the width of his shoulders or the glare in his expression. "You gonna put your money where your mouth is and make the shot?"
"Do it, man." Troy Anthony put the ball in his lap and wheeled back over to their position. "If we don't play, then we'll have to go back to the weight room with the old farts and work out. I do not want to have Mrs. Hauser talking to me about her operation anymore. She smells like my great-grandmother used to. Creeps me out. And you know you don't want Old Man Wilkins talking to you about the Chiefs' off-season trades and recruitment again. That'd suck right down to your shorts."
Apparently willing to do anything to shut up his young compatriot, Mike snatched the cane from Jillian's hand. "Fine. I'll shoot the damn ball."
Jillian spared Troy a wink of thanks as Mike hobbled past her. She turned and studied the slight improvement in his jerky gait. A cataclysmic car crash had killed Mike's friend and shattered his legs. According to the medical reports Jillian had studied before writing up a therapy plan, it was a miracle that Mike Cutler was alive, much less walking. Several surgeries, steel pins and one determined father had gotten him to this point. But it would take a lot of patience—and convincing Mike to apply that stubborn attitude to his own recovery—to get him back to some semblance of normal life again.
"Here, bro." Once Mike had reached the free throw line and paused long enough to catch his breath, Troy shot him the ball.
Reading that split-second moment of terror in Mike's expression, Jillian reached around him and intercepted the straight-line pass. In one smooth movement that didn't allow either teen the time to feel embarrassment or regret, she tucked the ball against Mike's stomach, forcing him to steady it with his own hand. In the next second she took his cane, watching the muscles beneath his jeans and T-shirt clench and adjust to maintain his balance.
Good. Use what you've got, kid. You can do it.
Mike's athleticism would be as much a boon to his recovery as it had once been to her own. She'd remember to make good use of his natural balance and strength. Jillian bit down on the urge to cheer his success and pushed him a little further. "Dribble it."
An answering groan filled Mike's lungs with a deep, healthy breath. Jillian moved behind him, bracing his hips while he used different muscles and adjusted his equilibrium to control the bounce of the ball in front of him. She felt him tense his core muscles, stabilizing his body without any real help from her. Excellent! "Now shoot."
The normal bend of the knees to make such a shot couldn't yet happen, but the instincts were there. He raised the ball above his forehead, took sight of the net and pushed the ball off the tips of his long fingers. Jillian held her breath along with him as the ball arced through the air, hit the backboard and circled twice around the rim before dropping through the hoop.
"Yes!" She held up a hand and was rewarded with a high five. "Don't tell me basketball isn't your game."
Mike grinned. Stood a little taller. "Told you I could do it if I wanted to."
Troy rolled past him and the two teens touched fists. "Sweet, man."
Unexpected applause startled Jillian and drew their attention to the sidelines and the man standing in the doorway. "Nice shot, son."
Easy, girl. Flighty female had never been her style. She wasn't going to let her sick new pen pal turn her into a woman who jumped at the sound of a man's deep voice. Fixing a friendly smile on her face, Jillian calmed the startled leap of her pulse. "Captain Cutler."
Michael Cutler, Sr., filled the entrance to the gym, his square, muscular frame cutting an impressive figure in his KCPD uniform—black from shoulder to toe, save for the white SWAT logo emblazoned on his chest pocket and ball cap, and the brass captain's bars and KCPD badge pin tacked to his collar. His sturdy bicep was marked by a black armband, his long legs by the gun strapped to his thigh.
Talk about sweet.
"Jillian." He touched two fingers to the brim of his cap and acknowledged her with a slight nod.
Though she guessed he had only a couple or three inches on her in height, and was probably fifteen years her senior, Jillian couldn't stop the quiet little flutter of breath that seemed to catch in her throat each time the widowed cop came by to pick up his son after a therapy session. There was something overtly masculine about the military clip of his salt-and-pepper hair and the laser beam intensity of his dark blue eyes. Or maybe it was just the mature confidence of a man at ease inside his own skin, evident in every stride as he pulled off his cap and crossed the gym floor, that made Jillian's neglected feminine hormones stand up and take notice.
Objective appreciation, she told herself. An attractive man was an attractive man at any age—especially one who kept himself in as good a shape as Michael Cutler.
His son, Mike, Jr., pinched Jillian's shoulder in a painful squeeze, jerking her from her wandering thoughts. "I need to sit down," he whispered between gritted teeth. "Now."
"Of course." Jillian hid the blush warming her cheeks by helping Mike walk toward the chair. It was less embarrassment than guilt at being distracted from her job that had her sliding her shoulder beneath his arm and anchoring her hands at his waist to guide him to his seat. Mike's balance might not be rock steady yet, but he was doing the bulk of the work, moving as quickly as his clumsy legs would let him. Maybe something had seized up with a cramp.
"Are you in pain?" his father asked, instantly standing behind the wheelchair like a wall of black granite to keep it still while Mike turned and plopped onto the seat.
"I'm fine, Dad," Mike insisted, shrugging off his father's hand while Jillian knelt down to adjust the foot rests and position his feet. She glanced up into the teen's downturned expression. Just as she suspected. The only thing cramping was Mike's attitude.
His father must have sensed it, too. With a measured sigh, he moved away from the chair and turned to greet Troy. He shook the young man's hand. "Staying out of trouble?"
"How's your brother? Dex, isn't it?"
"Yeah. He made the honor roll last semester."
"Good for him. Good that he's got a big brother like you in his corner. And your grandmother?"
"Working. Two jobs. Like always. I might be getting a job pretty soon, too. As soon as I get this thing all figured out." He spun his chair in a tight circle, proving that, physically, at any rate, he was closer to healing than Michael's son. "I'm trying to finish my GED, too, but the math sucks."
Michael inclined his head toward his son. "Mike's pretty fair with numbers. He's in geometry at William Chrisman this year. Maybe he can coach you."
Troy shrugged off Mike, Jr.'s, shut-up-and-don't-volunteer-me-for-anything reprimand, his own tone growing a little more subdued. "I'll get it figured out."
"I like hearing that. Good luck to you."
Jillian stayed down longer than necessary so that she wouldn't interrupt the man-to-man interchange that Troy got far too little of in his life. Even paralyzed below the waist and struggling to be the man in his family, Troy Anthony was still a big kid at heart. He beamed at the paternal approval in Captain Cutler's voice before wheeling over to Mike's side and thumping him on the arm. "Hey, will you be back on Monday, bro?"
Mike rolled his eyes, as if the Monday-Wednesday-Friday sessions he'd been attending for the last month and a half since mid-February would go on forever and ever. "I dunno."
"Jillian said if enough of us got together, we could play some hoops. She says there's a whole wheelchair league in Kansas City."
Go, Troy. Jillian had hoped that pairing up her two youngest charges in therapy sessions would boost their mental outlooks as well as their physical training. "With that upper body strength and the hands you've got," she observed, "you'd be a natural."
If anything, Mike grew even more sullen at her compliment. "I told you I hate basketball."
"Mike—" his father scolded.
But Troy was back in can't-touch-this form. He knew how to push Mike's buttons. "You hate losing, too?" He spun his chair toward the exit and took off. "Last one to the machine buys the pop."
A beat of silence passed before Jillian coyly prodded Mike. "Didn't you buy the sodas last time?"
"Hey!" With a sudden burst of movement, Mike raced after the other teen, his hands gliding along the wheels of his chair. "Get back here, loser."
"I ain't the one in last place, loser."
"Shouldn't you be walk—"
Jillian grabbed Michael, Sr.'s, arm, stopping him from going after the boys. His forearm muscles bunched beneath her fingers before he swung his attention back to her. "Shouldn't he be walking to build up his leg strength instead of getting more used to that damn chair?"
Jillian drew her hand away from the crisp sleeve and the solid man inside the uniform before her curious fingers dug into that warm flex of muscle. "Let him have a little fun. He's already put in a decent workout session today. Physically, he's reached a plateau and I don't want to burn him out."
Michael Cutler's eyes, as blue and dark as a twilight sky, assessed the shrug of her shoulders before zeroing in onher expression. "He'll continue to improve, won'the?"
"His doctors seem to think so." Jillian reminded him of the good news without sugarcoating the bad. "Mike needs to build his self-confidence as much as anything right now. He needs to care about moving on to the next stage of his recovery before more strength and coordination training will do him much good."
Michael, Sr., rubbed his palm over the top of his hair, making the black and silver spikes spring up in the wake of his hand. "Sorry. It always comes down to the mental game, doesn't it?"
"I just get frustrated that he's missing out on so much. He's still only sixteen."
"Think about his frustration."
"He won't even talk to me about the night of the accident. I had to read the details in a police report."
"Does he share with his trauma counselor?" Jillian's own sessions with Dr. Randolph, the psychologist who'd helped her through rehab at the Boatman Clinic eleven years ago, and who remained a friend and occasional father confessor to this day, had been invaluable to her mental recovery as a teenager.
"Not much. You seem to be the only person he opens up to." Captain Cutler worked the brim of his cap with long, strong fingers before everything about him went utterly still—as if he'd suddenly realized his emotions were showing and he'd shut them down. Such precision, such control. No wonder other cops snapped to his commands. Stop noticing details about the man, already. Jillian focused on what he was saying, made sure she was listening as he slid the cap into his hip pocket and continued. "He doesn't have to play football anymore, or go to Harvard or get rich. I'd just like him to leave his room once in a while and walk without those damn braces—meet girls and hang out with his buddies and be a teenager again."
"Trust me, it'll happen." Jillian went to retrieve the basketball Troy had left on the floor. She knew that damaged people healed at different speeds, and that not even a father's unflinching support could force the process to go any faster. "He just needs time."