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Melissa Dalton pulled her red-and-black Jeep Wrangler into the parking lot outside the entrance to the Lone Peak Children's Physical Therapy Clinic with no time to spare before her first appointment at eight-thirty. She lived on Salt Lake City's southeast bench, in the Sandy area, close to the Wasatch Mountains, and the new facility was only five minutes from her town-house condo.
How typical of her that even though she lived so close, she was still going to be late!
Waving to her friend Rosie, another therapist who'd just arrived, she hurried into the building and then her office, ready to go. As was her custom, she'd caught her shoulder-length hair at her nape so it wouldn't get in the way while she worked with one of her patients.
Today she'd worn a floppy French clip bow in navy to match her short-sleeved navy-and-white print top, and designer jeans. She'd put pearl studs in her ears. Melissa believed in dressing up as much as possible so she wouldn't look clinical. No lab coat for her. It made the kids nervous. Children who had to see her on a regular basis liked it when she came wearing something fashionable.
What she wore on her feet had to be comfortable for work, of course, but little girls often commented on her cute candy-apple-red flats. And her bangle bracelets, which came in gold, silver and jeweled tones. It was also important that she smelled good and kept her nails manicured. Children noticed everything. When she was looking her best, the sessions seemed brighter for the kids. Which made Melissa feel better about herself.
After the trauma leading up to her divorce six years ago, she'd gone through a period where she hadn't paid attention to her clothes or hair. But once she'd gone into pediatric orthopedic physical therapy, the children asked so many personal questions that she'd begun to look at herself again and care about her appearance. It was her young patients who helped pull her out of her depression. She loved them and enjoyed working with them.
Susan, the receptionist, had put a new file on her desk. It was a pertinent history sent by a doctor. Melissa sat down in her swivel chair to read it.
Casey Stillman, Salt Lake, seven, broken left femur after fall from a horse July 27. Plated and screwed while in surgery. See X-rays. Successful. Anticipate complete recovery. Given crutches. Was home-schooled during recuperation period. As of Friday, September 7, father indicates son still clings to crutches and is anxious about bearing weight. Patient should be done with them. No physical reason for them now. Is afraid to go to school. Recommend therapy. Pain and muscle soreness expressed, but wonder if there's a psychological issue.
Melissa glanced at the calendar. It was September 10. At more than five weeks following an accident, most children were pretty well back to normal, but others
"Take as long as you need, bud. It's okay." Concerned by his lack of progress, Travis Stillman eyed his son, who was still dependant on his crutches. According to the doctor, Casey shouldn't need them anymore, thus the referral to visit someone who could work with him.
Halfway from Travis's blue Altima to the door of the clinic, Casey stopped. "My leg hurts." He was close to tears.
"I know, but pretty soon it will go away." Travis prayed that was true. Today was Monday, Casey's twentieth day of missing school. Though he'd kept up with his lessons at home, who knew how long it would take before he was ready to rejoin his second-grade class?
Travis held the door as his son hobbled into the clinic. "I don't want to go in there," Casey wailed as they approached the front desk.
The receptionist smiled. "It won't take long." She indicated the therapist's officethe first door down the hall on the right.
Travis didn't dare offer to pick up his son and carry him. His boy was proud as blazes. Lately, Travis's sister, Pat, had been reminding him that Casey was a chip off the old block. But since his fall, too much pride had turned Casey into a hermit.
He wouldn't give up the crutches, and he didn't want to play with his cousins, let alone the neighbors' children. Forget going to school. Travis's friend Mitch Garrett, one of the P.I.s who worked with him at the Lufka Private Investigator firm in Salt Lake, had brought over his newly adopted son, Zack, several times to play. But Casey was having none of ithe'd been too down since the accident.
They were almost to the office in question when someone called out, "Hi, Casey! Wow! Look at you handle those crutches!"
The cheerful-sounding female voice caused Travis to look up. He did a triple take when he saw a knockout woman with ash-brown hair standing outside the office door. She looked like a model.
She walked toward them and stopped in front of Casey, making Travis aware of her flowery fragrance. "My name's Melissa. You look fine, but I want to hear what happened to your horse. Did it live?"
The question was so unexpected, Casey laughed.
"What's his name?"
"Isn't that kind of a wuss name?"
"Who's this with you?" Her dancing eyes lifted to Travis. For some reason the mix of blue and gray was disturbing to him, but he couldn't figure out why.
"How do you do, Dad," she teased. "Come with me, Casey, and let's talk about how boring it's been for you this past month."
A bemused Travis followed them and received another surprise when instead of into her office, she took them to the next door down the hall. The room turned out to be a sunny space containing physical therapy equipment. What? No discussion first?
While Travis looked on, the therapist said to Casey, "I'll take your crutches."
"What if I fall down?"
"I'll catch you."
Travis watched as his son thought about it, then gave them up. The therapist promptly put them on the floor. "okay. Let's see you walk."
"II can't. My leg hurts."
"Don't you know that's a good thing?"
He blinked. "It is?"
"Absolutely. The muscles want to move and it means you're getting well. But if you'll walk without the crutches, it will help you get better even faster. Don't worry if it hurts. A little pain doesn't matter. My first dog lost his hind leg when a car hit him. He had to learn to walk on three legs, without any crutches."
"Yes, and it hurt to have to do that. But he was a trooper, and pretty soon all the pain went away. Have you ever had a dog?"
"Yes. We've got one now. He's a Scottish terrier."
"What's his name?"
"Well, then you need to take Dexter on lots of walks, but you can't do that with those crutches. Let's walk around the room together. If you think you're going to fall, put out your hand."
Travis was astonished that his son would actually do as she asked. When he began taking one tentative step, then another, Travis was elated, but also experienced a feeling of resentment that this Melissa could get his son to perform so easily. The feeling grew when Casey reached for her only once in the journey around the big room. Casey was still favoring his left leg, but this was the most he'd walked without help since the operation!
Melissa picked up the crutches and fitted them back under his arms. "You walked perfectly. And even though it hurt, you're still alive, right?"
Casey nodded with a smile, a reaction that shocked Travis.
"Come to my office and I'll give you a prize for doing a brilliant job this morning."
"What kind of prize?"
The way Casey was chatting with the woman, you'd have thought they were old friends. The change in Casey's behavior was nothing short of amazing. Too amazing, Travis thought, before realizing he was being uncharitable. She'd been working wonders with his boy.
When they walked through the door, he thought they'd entered a children's art museum. On one of the walls a large corkboard was covered in childlike drawings pinned up with colored tacks. Two other walls contained framed, stylized superheroes and animals painted in bright colors. He didn't recognize any of them, which meant they were originaland totally riveting. Casey looked around in delight.
Along the wall by the door sat a big pirate treasure chest. When the therapist opened the lid, Travis saw it was chockfull of store-bought toys in their packaging. This was much better than getting a look inside Santa's pack. Despite his conflicted feelings about Melissa, Travis couldn't seem to take his eyes off her sensational figure as she started rummaging through the toys.
"Hmm, let me see " Travis could tell Casey's interest was piqued. In fact, he was getting impatient waiting for her to decide. "Ah. Here's the one I was looking for." She pulled out a package. "Hand me your crutches and I'll let you open it."
This time Casey hardly hesitated before he did her bidding. Travis could see that his son stood just fine without any support. She exchanged the crutches for the package. It took a minute for him to get it unwrapped.
"Look, Dada new leash for Dexter!" That was the biggest burst of happiness he'd heard from his son since before his fall. For the moment Casey had forgotten the pain in his leg.
"How about that, bud." Travis had tried bribery on him, but without the same result. Those were some pricey items he could see in that pirate chest. The therapist seemed to be doing everything right. His pertur-bance made no sense at all.
"When you get home, you'll have to take Dexter for a walk with it." She picked up the empty carton and tossed it in the wastebasket. "Want to give it to your dad to hold?"
Travis took it from him. The retractable leash would handle their twenty-two-pound Scottie without a problem.
After she'd helped him with his crutches, she said, "You can go home now."
Casey's eyes rounded. "You mean I don't have to get up on a table or anything?"
Her mouth curved into a big smile. "Nope. That's because you're all better. When you come back tomorrow morning, I'll let you look through the chest and pick out your own prizeif you walk all the way in from the car without your crutches. I'll be watching from the front door."
"I think I'll be able to do it." His son was pretty transparent.
"Great! In that case I can't wait until tomorrow."
Casey grinned. "Thanks for the leash. Blue's my favorite color."
"Mine, too." She flicked her floppy bow to show him. Travis noted her bracelets, and saw she wore no rings on either hand. "I like blueberry popsicles, as well."
"So do I!" Casey actually laughed. "Are you really a doctor?"
"No, but don't I look like one?"
"No," Casey said. "You're too pretty."
Travis eyed his son in surprise.
"Well, thank you. I used to be a nurse. Then I trained to become an orthopedic therapist. That means I work with patients after their doctor has seen them."
She finally glanced at Travis, just as he thought she'd forgotten him altogether. "We'll see you and your son in the morning. I'll put you down on my calendar for the same time, unless that's a problem."
"No. We'll be here at eight-thirty. Thank you."
"You're welcome. Bye, Casey."
"See ya," he called back.
Travis followed him out the door. Maybe it was his imagination, but he thought Casey walked most of the way, and used his crutches only for show. When they reached the car, Travis helped him in the back and fastened the seat belt.
In another minute they were on their way home. Instead of complaining, Casey played with the leash. "That was fun! I can't wait to get my prize tomorrow."
"Remember what Melissa said?"
"Yeah. I gotta walk all the way from the car into the building and not use my crutches. I can do that."
Travis smiled tightly and didn't ask any more questions. For the rest of the drive he remained immersed in thought. There'd been no preliminary discussion, and she'd given Travis no follow-up instructions. Nothing! It had irritated the hell out of him.
Not until he pulled in the driveway did he discover what was wrong with him.
There was an old saying about every person on earth having a double. This morning that saying had particular meaning for him.
He'd just come face-to-face with a woman who resembled, in looks and personality, his murdered wife, Valerie.
Travis was convinced that was the reason Casey had undergone a miraculous change at the therapist's hands. Although she was a younger version, Melissa Dalton had Valerie's sunny disposition and a way of making challenging things sound like fun. Her appealing energy had captured his son's attention, and he'd wanted her approval. But the very qualities about her that had caused the first therapy session to go so well haunted Travis.
He dreaded the thought of having to see her again in the morning. It had been fifteen months since he'd buried his wife in Texas. Melissa had unwittingly brought certain memories back to life. Casey's willingness to do what she wanted might have been unconscious, but his son had definitely responded because of deeply embedded memories, too.
It was going to be a long day and an even longer night, because Travis knew there'd be little sleep for him.