James—Ten Years Ago
I’ve never had much in my life. Not a penny to my name. Don’t think I’ve ever owned a new shirt; it’s all been hand-me-downs from my foster “siblings.” I’ve never been outside the Chicago city limits. I’ve never had a holiday meal that’s shown on TV.
Tonight is the most destitute I’ve ever been, though.
I ran with just the ratty sneakers on my feet, a borrowed shirt under my dark gray hoodie, and jeans so tattered and worn, there’s a tiny hole on my ass right above the left pocket.
That’s all I have.
And the duffle bag of stolen cash. My hand grips the bag so tightly, my tendons ache. I can’t stop flashing my eyes down to the bag every other second, making sure it’s still there. It’s a conscious effort not to look around at the people like a crazed maniac.
Play it cool runs through my mind on a loop. I squeeze my thigh to stop my leg from bouncing up and down as I sit by the window of an old Greyhound, the ripped vinyl of the seat biting into my leg.
The hood of my sweatshirt conceals my face as I step off the bus, keeping my head down. The duffle bag and ratty clothes help. No one pays attention to a punk kid on a cheap-ass Greyhound headed to nowhere.
I’m being as careful as I can, even though I know no one looks for a dead man.
Waiting. Something I’ve spent my life doing. Something I hate.
First month of my life was spent in a hospital waiting for a vacancy in a foster home that accepted newborns born with an addiction.
My youth was spent waiting for a family. Waiting for food.
My life now is spent going day to day waiting for the world I’ve built to come crashing down.
I fucking hate waiting.
My eyes are glued to the clock above the door, watching the seconds ticking away. One after another, passing time, erasing precious minutes of my appointment. Every damn time, my physical therapist has come late but doesn’t extend the hour I should be here. I’m over it. Done with it. This changes today. If the PT was helping, I could overlook his tardiness. Maybe. But there hasn’t been any improvement since the first appointment. I’m half-way through the ordered six weeks and nothing to show for it.
Simon Lambert, worst physical therapist in the damn world, and of course I land him.
The surgeon assured me that the recovery after being shot should be simple enough. He only enforced physical therapy because of the extensive exercises I do on a normal basis. I chose the therapist with the most openings to get this done and over with, so I can get my ass back in the gym and not just watch.
Simon finally appears in the doorway, twenty-six minutes late, looking around until his eyes fall on me propped against the wall. The displeasure on my face must be evident because he backs up a tiny step before swallowing and straightening his spine. His eyes cast down to his shoes, he slowly walks toward me. I track him with my glare, waiting for him to look me in the eye like a man.
The spineless prick doesn’t even look my way when he finally reaches me. Doesn’t even give me that courtesy.
When he finally looks up, his eyes wander around the room, snagging on every female in here, leering at them with his beady eyes. My patience is paper thin after continuously catching him staring at patients and other therapists. He watches them, running his tongue over his teeth, looking like a damn predator.
My fingers snap in front of his face. “Late,” I clip through clenched teeth.
“Won’t happen again,” Simon says, holding his hands in front of him trying to placate me with a smile. My scowl deepens, my lip curls, and the smile slides from his face.
“Been hearin’ that for weeks.”
“Shall we get started?” he asks, changing the subject and expecting me to fall in line like I have been. Yes, I’m desperate to get out of here and done with this, but not with this guy. Not anymore.
I didn’t have a damn person to teach me manners growing up, and I have more than this clown. Not even an apology. Every little thing is getting to me since I got shot near my shoulder and lower chest. I feel like a wounded animal trapped in someone else’s clutches. Unable to find release my normal way, my anger is faster to rise to the surface.
Turning and striding toward our area, I wait for him to follow. His steps are slow and would be faster if he wasn’t constantly distracted by every girl in the room. Won’t lie, there are some beautiful women in here, but the way this man gawks, you’d think he’s never seen a woman before in his life.
“Start with a shoulder roll.”
I roll my eyes instead. He’s been having me do light stretches and shit they do in an elementary school gym. An exasperated sigh passes my lips as I start my shoulder rolls, counting at a rapid pace. If I have to do this shit, I’ll push myself any way I can.
“Take it easy, James.”
A growl erupts from my chest, my glare locking on his eyes. “Done takin’ it easy.”
Simon Lambert excels at being a pain in my ass. He’s excelled at this since the moment I met him. Fuck. Dealing with him and his constant need to move my progress along at the speed of a fuckin’ snail is worse than the pain of the bullets that tore through my body several weeks ago.
Two bullets. One in the shoulder, one in the chest. Surgery was required for both, but it’s the shoulder wound that needs physical therapy. The bullet ripped through my muscle, limiting my range of motion after surgery. I own a damn gym, and I can’t do shit while I’m there. My body aches to get back in front of a bag or under a bench press.
“Let’s start with the two-pound medicine ball, it’s the lightest,” Simon says lifting the ball from the rack.
“He looks like he can handle more,” a female voice says from the side. I turn toward the voice to find a blonde nurse in hot pink scrubs. I’ve never seen scrubs so tight, they’re perfectly molded to her body. Her eyes are slowly moving over every inch of me.
What the hell is wrong with this place?
“Kimmie,” Simon greets with his usual leer.
“I came to drop this off,” Kimmie says handing Simon a folder without breaking her gaze from me. “What happened to you?”
I know she’s asking me this question, but I stay silent grabbing the puny ball from Simon’s hands and turning my back on the pair of them.
“He was shot. Twice,” Simon boasts as if he’s the surgeon that saved my life.
“Oh my god,” Kimmie breathes placing a hand on my arm. Her small hand has long pointed nails painted the same pink as her scrubs. I shake it off, take a step to the side, and proceed to mimic a shoulder press with the medicine ball resting in my palm. A two-pound medicine ball. I could lift this damn thing with my pinky finger.
My fingers curl into the ball, pressing in the rubber when Simon starts speaking again.
“He was shot by a police officer who was working with a gang,” Simon brags. I see him move closer to a riveted Kimmie out of the corner of my eye.
The dirty cop was in a drug cartel’s pocket. If this motherfucker is going to share my story, he could at least get it right.
“He was shot twice,” Simon repeats. “He totally saved one of his friends though.”
“You’re so brave,” Kimmie says, placing her hand on my arm again. I shake it off. Again. “What else happened?”
I don’t answer. I don’t tell her my friend, Harper, and her man, Roman, were in a bind with a ruthless cartel president. I don’t tell her I was shot by a dirty cop.
I clear my thoughts before the anger creeps in. That’s what I feel every time I think about the situation. Story of my life. I told Harper to dial 9-1-1. First time I trusted the authorities to handle anything, and only told her to do it because that’s what Roman would have wanted her to do. He was trusting me to do right by Harper and protect her until he could be back at her side. Trust is something I take seriously. I don’t give it freely, but I aim to earn it from the people in my life. If I earn it, I’ll do damn near anything to keep it. Out of respect for Roman, I played it his way—I told her to call the cops. Dirty fuckin’ cop showed up and pushed Harper out of the way to drill two holes in my body, taking out her only protection.
Making sure Harper was safe from that lunatic was worth it though, and Roman has become a fast friend, even if I still want to kick his ass from time to time. I’m thankful as fuck those bullets hit me and not her. They’ve both been dealing with the fallout and the high body count of that night. Only thing I’m dealing with is this worthless physical therapist who sets off everything on my radar. The events from that day have had little effect on me otherwise. I’ve seen worse carnage. I’ve done worse carnage.
It’s been a long time since I ran away from that life. Now I just try to live my life as honorably as I can and protecting the trust I’ve earned.
“Hey, asshole,” I call when Simon continues to embellish my story. Kimmie and Simon look my way. “Does HIPPA ring any bells? Doctor-patient confidentiality? If I want someone to know my business. I tell them.”
Simon’s jaw snaps closed and he gives me a curt nod. My eyes move to Kimmie. She scurries out of the room without a word. My tongue runs across my front teeth as I slowly inhale through my nose to calm myself. After another beat, I start raising the ball into the air again.
“You have to give your shoulder time to heal,” Simon says, putting his hand on my shoulder, trying to slow me down.
I throw his hand off me as I whip around to face him. “It’s a fucking two-pound ball,” I growl. “I could lift you over my head with my one hand.”
Simon sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose. We’ve been doing this back and forth since my first appointment. I’ve seen no improvements in my shoulder, and I’ve been as patient as I can. Six weeks of therapy, that’s what they promised. At this point, I’ll be here for the rest of my damn life.
“We have a plan, James,” Simon says with his hands up in front of him, trying to calm me down.
I cock an eyebrow, challenging him to admit that his plan isn’t fucking working. Not even a little bit. It’s time for a new plan.
His lips roll between his teeth as he takes a step away from me, his hands still slightly raised. “Let’s stick to the plan.”
“Fuck the plan,” I mutter.
“If you don’t follow the plan, I’ll have to move you to someone else’s service,” Simon threatens, placing his fists on his hips.
This could be the best news I’ve had in a long time. I raise my eyebrows. “That an option?”
I cut him off with an order. “Make it happen.”
“Make. It. Happen,” I repeat in a low, thick tone. My jaw hurts from clenching my teeth so hard.
Simon stares at me, waiting for me to change my mind.
With a shaky jerk of his head, Simon turns on his heel, rushing out of the room.
My body shivers as I hum, happily slurping my vanilla iced coffee. Heaven in a cup. Not one thing could take away from my good mood today. I woke up before my alarm, feeling fully rested instead of needing to drag myself out of bed. My hair dried fast, and for once my natural waves don’t look frizzy after the hair dryer. That is enough to consider this a good day—no, a great day.
It’s just kept going up from there, though. The cool, crisp fall air decided to make an appearance overnight. This is my absolute favorite time of year. I left on time to stop at my favorite Starbucks where the best barista works. When I arrived, there wasn’t a single person in line. Usually it’s so busy, I have to allow a good chunk of time before I’m supposed to be into work. This morning I waltzed in and ordered my delicious coffee and a croissant, just to celebrate the day.
The absolute best part about the empty Starbucks? No Simon. Simon Lambert, creepiest creeper on the planet. Most mornings I run into my weird coworker. Seeing the guy that makes my skin crawl before I’ve had coffee? Not the greatest thing in the world. Unfortunately, there’s no other Starbucks on my drive to work.
Not one red light was hit on my drive from Starbucks to the hospital, just smooth sailing with my windows cracked open enough to let the fall breeze through, but not enough to mess up my hair. Now, here I am sipping on the best drink in the world, with the perfect amount of vanilla and the perfect amount of cream, while eating a soft, warm croissant. My shift hasn’t even started yet, and I’m in blissful heaven.
Nothing can bring me down today.
A throat clearing on my left makes me doubt my declaration. Slowly, I turn my head to the man I know will be standing next to me. Skeevy vibes are already rolling off him, and I’m not even facing him yet. I take in his beady eyes and disgusting leer. My lips purse as I force myself not to grimace.
“Tatum,” he says slowly, stepping closer.
I turn fully toward him, taking two steps back. I bite the inside of my cheek to keep from making a disgusted face. Even the way he says my name sets me on edge. Most of the other girls I work with steer clear of him as well, but I’m the only unlucky one he asks out, blatantly ignoring my outright rejections. He’s never said anything overtly lewd, but it’s everything else about him. His tone of voice, his endearments, the way he stares and licks his lips. The silent stare after I reject his date requests are the worst.
“Simon,” I return dryly, barely hiding my grimace.
“I need a favor, babe.” He steps closer again, speaking softly in a conspiratorial whisper.
I step back, not bothering to hide my annoyance. Taking a large sip of my now-watered-down coffee—just a symbol my day is going down the gutter—I wish the start of my great day stayed that way. “Can’t wait to hear this.”
I can tell he doesn’t get the sarcasm when he grins at me, eyes lighting up and sweeping over my face before dipping down to my chest.
“Don’t call me babe.” Rolling my eyes, I angle my body so it’s half hidden behind the counter. He gives a little shrug as if to say he can’t help it and his sheepish eyes snap back to mine. I can’t hide my disgust, even if I wanted to.
“I need you to take over my patient.”
Oh boy, this could be ugly. We typically don’t make a habit of switching patients. Each of us have different philosophies when it comes to our therapy regimens, so switching can set a patient back. Simon has passed a patient off on me in the past, though. A pretty girl in her early thirties hated working with him so much, she asked for a trade. It wasn’t until she’d been working with me for a while that she was honest about it. He creeped her out. Same, girl. Same.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” I say carefully, thinking of any way I can get out of this without getting our boss involved. Simon is his nephew, and in our boss’s eyes, the shining star amongst all the therapists.
“One of my long-term patients needs to change when they’re coming in. Their schedule is so tight. Otherwise I wouldn’t even ask. The patient I’m asking you to take has only been coming for a few weeks and only needs an additional few. Basic muscle movement type stuff. Please, I’ll owe you one.” He reaches out his hand to brush over my arm.
I masterfully step out of the way just in time to avoid contact. “When?”
“Right now,” he says, grinning, trying—and failing—to be charming. “I owe you.”
Holding up a hand, I stop him. “Right now? Why are you just asking now? And I haven’t agreed yet.”
“It’s the end of his session, just thought you could meet him right now, walk through the chart with him. He’s great. You’ll like him.”
I don’t have a patient for another hour, so I could run through his chart, find out from him what he’s done and how he feels. I’ve seen Simon work with his patients. I don’t understand his philosophy when it comes to physical therapy and attaining a patient’s goals and needs. If I needed to come to a therapist, he wouldn’t be my choice, so I don’t trust his assessment. Learning from the patient is the best way to go.
“Fine,” I mutter, reaching past him to grab the rest of my croissant and iced coffee. The day started out so well, but conversing with Simon and having an unexpected patient that I’ll need to work into my already rigorous schedule definitely dims my happy mood a bit. Hopefully Simon is the worst that will happen today. At least he didn’t ask me out.
“Great,” Simon says, pulling his tablet from the large pocket on his white coat. “I’ll share the file with you now.”
I don’t respond as I walk toward the locker room to grab my tablet.
I stop, not bothering to face him.
“Ready for that date?”
“No,” I spit out icily, resuming my trek to my locker and picking up the pace. An alert sounds from my cubby as soon as I step into the locker room. I reach for it and my notepad, getting ready to meet this new patient.
A file has been shared with you.
I swipe open the file and glance at the name while walking toward the physical therapy room. James Harris. Thirty. I lock the screen before reading any further, preferring to gather the information from the patient before forming an opinion about the treatment needed.
My eyes sweep over the large area. Everyone is with a therapist except for one man—one extremely large and good-looking man. He’s leaning against the wall with a scowl on his face, staring at the door I just walked through, looking right through me like he doesn’t even see me. His frame is huge, with broad shoulders that look like they’re about to burst out of his shirt. The thin material leaves nothing to the imagination; every defined muscle can be seen clearly, all the way down to his tapered waist. His thigh muscles are like tree trunks, so strong, he has to have an ass just as strong.
I’m average height for a girl, but this man towers over me, making it seem like I’m short. Having the hots for a patient is frowned upon, but I can’t help the immediate reaction I have upon seeing him.
“James?” I ask, smiling and extending my hand. “I’m—”
“No,” he snarls.
I glance over my shoulder, looking around the room again, confused. Simon said James would be waiting for me to speak with him before he took off. Maybe I took too long getting here, and he left? “You’re not James?” I ask.
Okay, now I’m officially confused. My eyes search his face, but the only emotion I see is annoyance.
“You are James?”
His jaw ticks as he grinds his molars and glares at me. His incredibly handsome face deepens its scowl as he looks me over from head to toe. Twice. “Incompetent prick. He really sent you?”
“Simon?” I ask, utterly confused by what is happening. If Simon didn’t already repulse me, I’d surely dislike him now. He lied. He said this would be an easy patient. Nothing about this giant who can’t stop glowering is going to be easy. No wonder my morning was so great, the universe was preparing me for this. Giving me just a bit a sunshine before sending this thundercloud my way.
“Yeah, Simon.” James’s tone is clipped and frustrated.
“He asked me to take over your therapy because your schedule conflicts with another patient of his.”
James shakes his head, still glaring. “Played you.”
“I’m getting that,” I murmur.
James and I continue to stare each other down. I curl my hair behind my ear and flick my gaze to the wall behind him, trying to compose myself before I speak. The longer I stand in front of this silent giant, the more annoyed I’m getting.
“Let’s start over. I’m Tatum Rothschild. Call me Tate. Why don’t you tell me why you’re here for physical therapy?”
“Are you as incompetent as the other one?”
I bite my tongue. “Simon is not incompetent, but we definitely handle patients in a different manner.”
“Everything is on the chart.”
I run my free hand down the soft material of my scrubs covering my thighs. Once my hand stops shaking, I plant it on my hips, mustering up every ounce of attitude I have. “I prefer to hear it straight from the patient. No one knows your body better than you.”
James’s eyes rove over me from head to toe, twice, just like earlier. His jaw hasn’t stopped ticking since I walked over here. When his steely eyes meet mine, a tiny flicker of annoyance flutters away.
I suck in a sharp breath, looking over his form as if I could see the holes through his clothes. Woah. I’ve treated patients with a wide range of injuries, but I’ve never actually met someone who’s been shot. I want to ask so many questions, none of which are necessary for our sessions.
“Chest and shoulder. Range of motion issue in the shoulder. Been here three weeks, no improvement. Simon is incompetent. Constantly late, having me do nothing but bullshit exercises while his eyes stay glued to all the tits and ass in the room.”
“Ew,” I mutter before I can stop myself.
James doesn’t respond, just watching me, waiting for me to speak. His lips are shut tight. I wonder if he’s ever spoken that much before. He gave me all the information as quickly and efficiently as possible.
“How limited would you describe your range of motion?”
“Not too much, but enough that I can’t do my normal routine. That’s unacceptable.”
“Do you mind spending a few extra minutes here so I can see your baseline and map out a strategy for our next session?”
“If you ask me to do a shoulder roll, I’m walkin’ out that fuckin’ door,” James warns in a tone that invites no arguments.
My lips twitch as I rein in my laughter. He is definitely not a fan of Simon. He’s not really a fan of mine, either, but I will make sure by the end of all our appointments he’s seeing improvements and getting to where he wants. I love watching a patient transform, gaining even the slightest movement back.
“Duly noted,” I say, flashing him a smile, hoping we’re going to start to form a bond to make these sessions easier. His scowl turns into a sneer as he motions for me to walk in front of him. Most of the other appointments have cleared out, so the room is almost empty.
“Is there anyone else?” he asks in a gruff tone.
I bristle and turn on my heel to face him, cutting his long stride short. He stares down at me as I step even closer, glaring up at him, poking a finger into his chest. There’s not even a little bit of give, it’s hard as a slab of granite. “You don’t have to like me, but you will respect me. I’m the best. You want someone else? Sure, I’ll get them. You won’t get what you want from them, though.” I raise an eyebrow, daring him to ask for someone else.
His eyes move slowly over my face before he leans down, getting into my personal space, my finger that’s still pressed into his shoulder bending back at an uncomfortable angle, and growls, “Prove it.”