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Six months later
Joel Hightower entered the physical-therapy stage of his rehabilitation feeling less like his normal upbeat self.
Okay, make that nothing like his normal self.
After the two operations on his back, he had spent the bulk of the past five months in traction, and once the casts had come off, he'd had to get used to walking around with a cane for a little while, walking around feeling like half the man he used to be.
As far as he was concerned, he was allowed to be in a bad mood. His entire life had been snatched from under him, and he had to literally learn how to walk on his own two feet again.
The inside of the clinic looked as drab as the adjacent hospital had. Sure, the walls of the waiting room were a bright shade of Pepto pink, but everything else screamed stale and antiseptic. He really hoped the rest of the clinic wasn't the same color scheme. He couldn't take three months of constant puke pink.
He had to get his body back functioning properly so he could get a clean bill of health to return to his job. That was the most important thing. Getting back to work. Putting out fires. Until then, he felt as if he was on hold.
Too bad his physical therapist was keeping him waiting, too. He stood, freed himself from his brother Lawrence's helpful grasp and steadied himself on his cane as he walked over to the receptionist's desk for the second time in twenty minutes.
The short, perky woman had her shoulder-length hair pulled back in a ponytail and wore very little makeup on her almond-colored face. He glanced at the nameplate on her desk. Jenny Saunders.
"Ms. Saunders, I" he started, only to be cut off with a honey-sweet smile.
"She's running a little behind. This isn't normally the case. She'll be right with you. Again, I apologize for the delay. We had a therapist call in sick today, and Samantha had to take on some of his patients."
The woman gave him another pleasant grin and a stare that seemed to suggest he go and sit down somewhere. He could tell Jenny Saunders was getting a little tired of him.
So what? He was tired of waiting.
His therapist's first-impression points were going downway down.
"Why don't you just chill, man? Have a seat. Relax." His brother Lawrence was only a couple of years older than him. The way the narcotics detective was always telling Joel what to do, one would think Lawrence had him by decades.
Although all the Hightower men shared the same mahogany complexions, dashing good looks and athletic builds, he and Lawrence had often been mistaken for twins when they were growing up. He used to hate that.
He decided to ignore Lawrence for the moment.
"It's not like you walking up there every five minutes is going to make your therapist come any faster," Lawrence offered.
When he realized Joel was not going to respond, Lawrence shrugged and went back to flipping through the Vibe magazine he'd gotten from the humongous pile of reading materials on the coffee table.
"I'm sorry I'm late. I'm Samantha Dash, and you must be Mr. Hightower."
He turned to set eyes on a curvy chocolate goddess with flashing brown eyes, flawlessly smooth skin and jet-black hair. She wore her hair in one of those natural styles with twists, and it reached her shoulders. Then there was her smile With a smile like hers she could probably get away with anything.
Anything but keep him waiting.
Forget how captivating she looked. "Do you always disregard your patients'time like this, or is it just me? Because if this is the way you conduct yourself, then maybe I should look into getting another therapist."
She tilted her head, and she took a step back, placing her hand on her hip. She glared at him for a full minute before saying a word.
Joel glanced at Lawrence for some moral support and saw his brother had buried his face in the magazine.
No problem. He didn't need backup for this. Right was right and wrong was wrong.
"Like I said, I apologize. We're down one therapist today, but that's not your problem. The gift of understanding isn't something everyone is born with. So, I'm sorry for giving you the opportunity to exhibit your extreme lack in that area. Now, if you'll just follow me, we can get you started." Her smile took on a decidedly false appearance, and gone was the warmth and kindness that seemed to exude from her just a few moments ago.
That wasn't his problem. He was there for one reason and one reason only, to get his life back, and if this hand-on-hip, smart-mouth spitfire of a woman had to be checked from the door in order to ensure he got what he needed, then so be it.
Well, pictures certainly are deceiving. Samantha led Joel Hightower back into her office in the clinic. She had been a little nervous when she found out she was the therapist assigned to the hero firefighter. The fact that she had thought of him often over the past six months made her think she might be risking her usual professional distance with him as a patient.
Meeting the incorrigible, surly man in person let her know right away she had nothing to worry about. She didn't have to worry about being attracted to him. Hell, she didn't have to worry about even liking this man. He was nothing like the playful, mischievously sexy stud she had conjured up in her imagination.
That guy would probably always have a funny joke and a smile. That guy had sex appeal for days and would make a woman run hot, not with anger the way she was at the moment, but with passion.
That guy didn't exist and in his place was this jerk.
"First off, I'd like to tell you a little bit about what you'll be doing here for the next three months." She kept her tone even and flat as they sat in her office.
It was a small office with an even tinier window, but it was hers. At twenty-seven years old, she liked the fact she had worked hard and secured a position with excellent growth opportunities at such a high-profile clinic attached to a renowned hospital and medical center.
One day she would have a bigger office and even more patients, but for now, she made this one cozy with lots of earth tones and faux plants. She would have loved real plants, but her first efforts of using real greenery to beautify her space ended in carnage. It would have rivaled the destruction of the rain forests if she hadn't performed a self-intervention and embraced her lack of a green thumb.
During her first time meeting with a patient, she liked to give them a sense of what to expect. So she talked with them in her office for about twenty to thirty minutes depending on her first impression of the patient's personality and the injuries each had sustained. At the end of each session, she spoke with them to wrap things up.
"My job is to help improve the function and mobility in your back. To help you begin to walk more fluidly. I'm also here to help relieve the pain and teach you exercise and pain-management techniques. We'll run some general exercises today, testing your strength, balance, coordination, posture and muscle performance."
He sighed and rolled his eyes.
Oh. No. He. Didn't.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Hightower, but am I boring you? Does the discussion of how I plan to help you with your back bother you?" She knew her tone was snappy, but she couldn't help it.
He sighed again. "I heard all of this from my doctor. I know what a physical therapist is supposed to do, so can we get to it and just do it?"
Oh. Yes. He. Did.
How could she have been so wrong about a person? This impatient, irritable man was nothing like she had imagined, nothing like the man she had dreamed of him being. She almost wished she had never met him. At least then she would still have her sweet version of him to think about.
She plastered on her most professional smile. "Fine. I can explain as we go along."
You surly sourpuss of a man!
Once she started working with him, things went somewhat smoothly. As long as they didn't try to have a conversation, they were fine.
After working with him on balance, coordination and trying to get him used to moving around without the cane, she decided to try another shot at small talk. They had three months of therapy to get through, after all. It would be nice if they could build at least a cordial working relationship.
What man didn't like to talk about sports? And the Nets and the Knicks were both having great seasons. As a Jersey guy, he was bound to be a fan of one of those teams.
Being a Chi-town girl, she personally liked the Bulls over all teams. She had been a fan since the days of Michael Jordan and she believed he was the greatest player to have ever played the game.
No one compared. No one.
And she included the Bulls in her prayers at least once a weektwo or three times during the play-offs in hopes the team would return to its former glory.
But she could squelch her fandom to reach out to a patient. She didn't hate the Nets or the Knicks. She could tolerate those teams and their fans. As long as he wasn't a Lakers fan or God forbid a Phoenix Suns fan, they could have a nice conversation.
"So, what do you think about the Nets?"
He shrugged. "I don't think about them. I'm not really a fan of the team."
"Oh, so you're a Knicks fan?"
"Knicks? No way. That's my brother Lawrence's favorite team. I can't stand them. They invent new ways to lose a game. Sorriest team in the league, well minus the Chicago Bulls, who haven't seen a good year since that highly overrated ball hog Jordan left." He laughed.
The hair stood up on the back of her neck and her lip twisted to the side.
Did he just call Jordan overrated and the Bulls sorry?
Her mind did a rewind as she replayed his blasphemous words in her mind. Sure, she'd wanted him to lighten up so they could connect, but
"Actually, I'm a former Lakers fan. Now it's all about the Suns. Shaq Diesel will go down in history as the best to ever play the game." He flexed an arm muscle and nodded.
She could only assume he was trying to convince himself that the nonsense he was spouting was somehow true.
"On what planet? You must be delusional. Even if Michael Jordan had never played the game, Shaq would hardly qualify as the best to ever play it. And really the Lakers? The Suns? That just lets me know you don't have a thing to say about the sport worth listening to." As soon as the words came out of her mouth, she winced.