“DON’T YOU dare say it,” Bri said with a scowl that threatened to spear the team trainer right through the heart. “I can see you getting ready to use that tone with me, and only my mother calls me by my full name… ever.”

“Well, being a total stubborn jackass is not going to help your knee heal or get you back on the court,” Jack said with an equal dose of bullheadedness. “I know you’re impatient, but cut it out. You can be aggressive on the court, but here, it’s only going to hurt you. And you know damned well I’m not going to let you play until you have full extension. Otherwise, you’re going to injure it again, and then you’ll be right back in the same place, only this time with a double injury. And you know what the team will do then.” He drew his finger across his throat in dramatic fashion.

Bri stifled a cringe. Being cut from the Philadelphia Rockets—his dream NBA team—was the last thing he wanted. Lately he’d been giving a lot of thought to what he would do when his playing days were over. And the truth was, he had no idea. That frightened the absolute fuck out of him, enough that he felt like throwing up all over Jack’s shoes. “I know.”

Jack thumped him on the shoulder. “You’re getting older. It happens to all of us, but it’s not all bad. You’re the team leader and they need your experience. But things are taking longer to heal now, and you have to do what the therapists tell you.” Jack made it sound so reasonable…. But Bri wasn’t afraid of hard work—hell, he excelled at it. Only, the therapists he’d seen had all seemed afraid to push him. So he’d had to do it himself.

“I try. But they don’t seem to understand that I need to get back up to playing condition as soon as possible.” He actually growled at Jack, who rolled his eyes. Jack Harker had been around long enough that it just rolled off his back. “What am I going to do?”

Jack blew air out of his mouth as he thought. “You’ve been through the therapists that the team uses, and none of them want to see you again.” Jack pulled open the drawer of his desk. “I have notes from all of them asking that I not send you their way again.” Jack’s lips didn’t curl upward at all. “They describe you as grumpy, bossy, unruly, and impossible to work with.” He let the pages drop to the polished surface of the desk. “I don’t know what to do with you. I really don’t.”

Bri blinked, suddenly a little light-headed. “Is that true?”

“Yes. You yelled at one of the therapists so loudly that the other patients complained. No one else in that office is going to take you on either.” Jack sighed. “You need to understand that you have to work with therapists, not against them. They can’t help you if you won’t help yourself.”

Bri took a deep breath, then released it. “Okay. But none of them seemed to understand how important this is. It’s my life!”

Jack stood, leaning over the desk. “What you don’t understand is that working with you is not the end-all, be-all of their existence. You are a patient, a client they work with, not the most important thing in their lives. These are people with families and friends, and they don’t need ulcers because they’re trying to help you. Got it?” Jack’s eyes blazed in a way Bri had never seen before.

“I got it.” Man, he hadn’t realized that he’d taken his frustration out on the others. Shit, he wasn’t a dick, not really. “Where do we go from here?” He’d come into this meeting ready to fight, and now it was gone out of him. His knee still ached on a daily basis, and using crutches sucked the big one.

Jack sat down and leaned back as though he were thinking, but Bri knew this was the crux of their entire conversation and that Jack had been leading him here the entire time. “We need to find you a new therapist, and you have to do what he says. You will follow the program he lays out for you and stick to it. The season starts in three months, which means you have to be in top shape well before that. Two months is what you have, so you need to make the most of it.”

“I will. But who is my therapist?” Bri asked.

Jack got this cockeyed, almost cruel smile. “I don’t know. I don’t have one. Word has gotten around.” He put his hands behind his head. “I made a few calls and got nowhere. So, this one is up to you. Try the Yellow Pages.” He grinned. “Seriously.”

His phone rang. Jack raised a finger to Bri, silently asking him to hold on to that thought, then snatched it up. “This is Jack. … Awesome, thanks for returning my call. I have a bit of a problem. … Yes, you heard right.” Jack met his gaze, and Bri knew he was the subject of the conversation. Bri grew more nervous by the second as Jack hummed and agreed with whoever was on the line. “You’re a prince, you know that?” Jack began writing on a slip of paper. “Thanks so much. Give my best to Monty and maybe we can get together soon.” Jack smiled and hung up. He turned to Bri. “You, my friend, are one lucky son of a bitch.”

Bri glowered a little, narrowing his eyes. “Okay, how?”

“I put some feelers out because we were running out of ideas. You remember Hunter Davis? He was injured at the end of the last football season. I called him to find out who he used for his rehab, and he gave me the name.” Jack didn’t pass the sheet of paper over.

“Good.” He reached out for it, but Jack didn’t move.

“You know Hunter, right?” Jack asked.

“I play poker with him a few times a month.” He started to roll his eyes and stopped himself. Jack was trying to help, and he needed to stop acting like a dick. “Yeah, I know him. He’s a stand-up guy.”

“And even he’s heard about you. Like I said, word gets around. So expect some shit about it at your next game.” Jack passed the scrap of paper across the desk. “This is the guy that Hunter used, and he says he was incredible. He’s also a friend of his husband Monty’s, so if you piss this therapist off, it’s likely you aren’t going to be invited to any more poker nights.” Jack glared at him hard, and Bri nodded. Monty was a great guy, and no one wanted to be uninvited to poker night.

“I understand.” He was tired of his knee hurting, of having to wear a brace and use crutches. Why couldn’t anyone understand that all he wanted was to be himself again? Was that so much to ask? “I’ll call him first thing and make an appointment.”

“Good.” Jack leaned forward. “And whatever you do, be nice to the guy. Maybe treat him like a friend instead of a servant. After all, he is the friend of a friend.” Jack waved him out of the office as his phone rang again. “And for God’s sake, do what he says and follow his regimen. Give your torn ligaments a chance to heal properly and don’t overdo it.” Then he turned away to answer the phone. Bri got his crutches from where he’d leaned them against the chair, shifting them under his arms and getting up, hobbling his way out of the office.

He smiled at Janet, the team receptionist, stopping to talk with her for a few minutes before continuing out of the arena office and down to his car.

He lowered himself into the driver’s seat with a sigh and got himself inside. It was a good thing he’d hurt his left leg or he wouldn’t have been able to drive, and that would’ve been total crap. As it was, his mother was hinting that she should come stay with him. Bri loved his mother—she was a force to be reckoned with, in a really good way. His father was the educated one in the family, but his mother was the one who ran things and brought everyone together. Bri’s big sister had gone on to medical school, and his older brother was an elementary school principal in Carlisle, a small Pennsylvania town west of Harrisburg. Bri loved his mom, but at a distance, definitely a distance. She was someone who liked things done her own way.

Taking a breather, he pulled out his phone and called his new therapist. He might as well get this over with. The phone rang and rang, and Bri figured he was going to have to leave a message. Then suddenly, someone picked up.

“Hello, OK Physical Therapy, Obie speaking. How can I help you?” a breathless man answered. At least Bri thought it was a man. It was a little difficult to tell.

“I’m Bri Early, from the Philadelphia Rockets. I was told that you can help me.” He kept his voice as calm as he could make it, even though his belly was doing flips. If he didn’t heal and regain his strength, he was going to be cut from the team. Contract or not, his career would be over. And that was something he didn’t want to contemplate.

“Yes. Monty said he was passing on my contact information.” He still sounded a little out of breath.

“I don’t mean to be pushy, but….”

The guy laughed. “You’re talking pushy with a physical therapist? That’s a good one. I can out-pushy anyone.” He continued chuckling. “Let me guess, you want an appointment as soon as possible so we can meet and get started.” The guy talked a mile a minute. “You’re in luck, because I had a cancellation, so I can see you for an evaluation in two hours if you’re available. Then we can put together a plan to get you on your feet and back on the court. Does that work?” A beeping sounded in the background behind him. “Fiddlesticks.”

“Is something wrong?”

“No. I overcooked my lunch.” He giggled this time, and Bri wondered just what he was letting himself in for. “So, will I see you this afternoon?”

“Yes.” At least he could get in right away.

“Sounds good.” He rattled off the address, and Bri had to work quickly to get it into his phone. Then he read it back. “What sort of office do you have?”

“I don’t work in an office. I have a private practice and I work out of the back of my home. I don’t talk about other clients and I keep everything confidential. I have a number of high-profile clients who use my services because no one sees them coming and going. The house has an alley in back, with a parking space under the carport that you can use. Then come right through the gate and up to the office door.”

“All right.” At least there weren’t going to be other people around to stare at him, like at the first place he tried. It was supposed to have been exclusive too, but that’s sure not the way he remembered it. He shook his head, trying to forget the embarrassing episode.

“Do you have any other questions?”

“What sort of records should I bring?”

“If you have your latest X-rays, that would help. Today, we’ll do an evaluation and I’ll try to make you as comfortable as I possibly can. Then I’ll check the condition of your muscles and we’ll go from there. Please call me if you have any questions, and I’ll see you at two.”

Bri ended the call and put the address in his GPS so he’d know where he was going. It turned out one of his favorite restaurants was on the way, so he decided to stop there for lunch. Since he’d been hurt, he’d been careful to watch what he ate, and a Middle Eastern vegetarian lunch sounded really good. Bri turned the car engine on and pulled out of his space.

 

 

A LITTLE before his appointed time, he pulled into the carport as instructed and got out, entering the yard through the back gate. It took him a few seconds to close it behind him, but once he turned around, it was as if he had stepped into another world. The small yard was stunning, with running water, a bridge, and flowers and plants everywhere—a calming, quiet Eden.

“Mr. Early?” a small man asked as he stepped out the back door of the house. He was fashionably thin, with bright, Easter egg–yellow short hair. “Come on through. My last client just left a few minutes ago.”

“This is gorgeous back here,” he commented as he used his crutches to navigate the paver stone pathway, trying not to stare at the man’s bright hair color, but failing. Paths led off in different directions, presumably to different areas of the garden.

“Be careful.” His new therapist hurried over, lifting something off the path. “Don’t want to hurt George.”

“A turtle?” Bri asked, coming to a stop as the box turtle headed for cover. “You have a turtle.”

“Two of them. That was George. Gracie is hiding somewhere.” He smiled. “She comes out in the evening. They love strawberries, so I keep some on hand for them.” He turned, leading the way inside, holding the door for Bri and then closing it behind him.

The back room of the house was a large single room, fitted with therapy equipment, a massage table, and almost everything the larger clinics had, except this was quiet and more intimate, with soft music piped in.

“I’m Obie. It’s good to meet you.” He held out his hand, and Bri shifted the crutches under his arm, then took it.

“It’s good to meet you.” He hobbled over to the nearest chair and sat down.

Obie drew one over and sat across from him. “I know what happened to you. I saw a replay on YouTube. After you called, I brought up the videos. The source of an injury is often a good indicator of where to begin treatment and rehabilitation. You tore your ligaments and meniscus pretty badly.”

“Yes.” He lifted his gaze and met the brightest, most limpid round blue eyes above gently freckled cheeks he could have possibly imagined. They had to be dinner-plate-size and seemed filled with gentle caring. It was intriguing to say the least.

“The other player should have been ejected from the game and probably the sport. The refs that night were totally blind.” Obie leaned forward. “Did you bring shorts to change into? If not, I have a pair you can borrow.” Bri hadn’t thought about bringing anything, so Obie got up and returned with a pair of blue shorts, handing them to him, then pointing to a small room. “Go on in there and change, then we’ll get started.”

“Don’t you have a million questions for me? The other therapists asked a barrage of questions before they began.” He hopped to the changing room door.

“I’ll have plenty, but I want to talk while we work.” Obie closed the door, and Bri took his time getting out of his pants and into the shorts. Everything seemed to take such a long time with the crutches and the brace. He nearly fell as he pulled on the shorts, but managed to get them on, and returned to the outer room, where Obie waited for him.

“The initial injury was in an exhibition game a month ago, correct?” Obie asked. “And I’m guessing you’ve overdone it a couple times, and that has set back healing. Well, that isn’t going to happen again. Right?”

“Yes. I want to get back to normal as quickly as possible,” Bri countered.

“We all want that.” Obie patted the top of the massage table. “You and I are partners now. That’s how it works here. I don’t have a revolving door of clients, and I get invested in your recovery.” Bri sat on the edge of the table. “The team trainer sent me some basic information, but I need you to fill out these forms for me, sign them at the bottom, and then we can get started.”

Obie handed him a clipboard, and Bri began filling out the paperwork. He’d done this sort of thing a million times lately, and it took just a few moments. Obie looked it over and skipped to the health questionnaire. “You aren’t allergic to anything and have no other issues. That’s good.”

“Except I’m getting older,” Bri added.

Obie pffed and had him lie on his back on the table. “Come on. You can continue to do what you love as long as you want to. Look at Cher. She’s still performing and singing in her seventies. And the lady looks good.”

“Better living through surgery?” Bri quipped.

“Have you ever seen how active she is at one of those shows? I saw her once when I was younger.” Obie gently ran his hand up Bri’s leg, avoiding the knee but loosening up the other muscles.

“God, that’s good,” Bri groaned.

“Since your knee has been out of commission, the other muscles have taken up the slack. Even holding your leg up off the ground requires work, and those muscles need to relax as well.” He continued working away. “So why are you here with me?”

Bri groaned as Obie hit a tender spot and then the muscle released. “Because I pissed off every other therapist on the planet.” He closed his eyes and floated for a second. “I wanted to get better and back into playing form as fast as possible, I guess.”

“Too fast,” Obie said, as he continued massaging the muscles in Bri’s leg. “The body needs time to heal, and what you did requires just that. See, you have cartilage and muscle, and you injured both of them. You had the surgery to deal with the meniscal tear. Now we have to let the ligaments knit together before we can work with the muscle. Otherwise we can hurt you worse.”

“I get that. This isn’t my first injury,” Bri said without heat.

“What did the doctor say at your last examination?”

“That I need to give it time. But the longer I can’t move my leg, the more muscle I’m going to lose and the harder it will be to come back. When I was twenty-two, this would have been nothing.”

Obie switched his attention to the other leg. “You aren’t twenty-two any longer, so the healing process requires more work.” He got the muscles loose, and Bri groaned under his breath as the tension in his quads and calves released as though they were on a spring. “I believe in whole-body healing. Not just the part that’s injured.”

“Okay.” Bri kept his eyes closed, listening to the soothing sound of Obie’s voice. It had a gentling quality. He spoke just softly enough that Bri had to listen carefully, which kept his attention off his leg, especially when Obie turned his attention to his knee.

“Don’t tense up. I’m not going to hurt you.” He kept his touch light, and soon Bri found himself relaxing once again. “So, as I was saying. You need to eat for recovery. Plenty of protein, but make it lean, chicken and fish, plus lots of vegetables and fruit. Give your body what it wants and don’t be hard on it.” He continued working gently. “And no heavy drinking. The body wastes energy getting that out of your system.”

“So, no onion rings, then?” Bri teased with a smile.

“Oh. Those you can have all you want, especially the ones from Blooms around the corner.” Damn, Obie was teasing him back. That was unexpected. “My God, those things are my one weakness. They make them fresh, with a tempura batter that they put a little pepper in, so it has a kick. Then they serve them with ranch dressing.” Obie chuckled. “I don’t think that’s what you were getting at, though, right? But it made me hungry.”

“You?” Bri did his best to sound affronted. “Now I’m starving, and the hummus and baba ghanoush I had for lunch just isn’t cutting it.”

“From Mediterranean Garden? I love it there. They make everything fresh that morning, and you can tell by the way it tastes. Yeah, you can go there all you like.”

Obie giggled, and Bri slipped his eyes open to watch him. Obie was smaller, with fewer angles and more soft lines than the guys he was usually attracted to, but he was stunning. Bri mentally shook himself. He was not going to have those kinds of thoughts. Not here.

“You’re an athlete, so you know all about eating well. Be good to your body and don’t strain the rest of it.”

“Okay.” Bri let go of his curiosity and let Obie work.

“See, we only have so much juice,” he continued. “So if you strain your arm, your body has to heal both the knee and your arm. But we want all the good energy focused on your knee.” He pulled his hands away, and Bri sat up slowly. Obie handed him a small bottle of water. “Drink up. You need to flush some of the toxins I just released out of your system.” Obie stood close enough to him that his own fresh, clean scent filtered in over the lotion. Bri leaned in slightly, inhaling slowly just to get a little more. He stopped himself a second later, pushing the thought away. That was not what he came here for at all. Yeah, he was friends with Hunter and understood about the whole gay thing. But that wasn’t for him. He couldn’t risk his career that way. Bri had long ago accepted that he wasn’t going to get married. He was a bachelor, he was happy, and he’d stay that way. When he needed an itch scratched, he did so discreetly and always out of town—far out of town. Damn it all, he was not letting his mind go there.

Bri pulled the top off the water bottle and drained the contents. “Is that it?” Bri got his head back where it belonged and away from the interest that certain body parts were beginning to show.

“No. Now that I have the muscles warmed up and supple, let’s see where you’re at. We aren’t going to work too hard today. I’m going to have you lie down and we’re going to check your range of motion. No quick movements and no untoward pressure.” Obie helped him get settled on the table once again, and Bri slowly lifted his leg. Obie helped maneuver it, bending the knee slightly back and forth. His hands were soft, and true to his word, each movement was fluid. Their eyes kept meeting, and Bri told himself that it was because Obie was doing his job, that he was looking back at him because it was what he should do. Still, Bri couldn’t seem to take his eyes off him, and he had to admit, it wasn’t all because of what Obie was doing, but more about his biggest, bluest, “get lost in them and never come out again” eyes. “Can you do a little more?” Obie asked.

Bri closed his eyes, gritted his teeth, and bent his knee a fraction farther, to the point of pain. “How is that?”

“Good. Hold still.” Obie measured quickly and then slowly settled his leg back on the table. “It’s better than I thought it would be. You’re moving your knee about 20 percent. That’s not a bad starting place. We’ll keep working on it as healing progresses. Okay. I’m going to give you some exercises that I want you to do at home every day. These will help keep your leg limber and the muscles supple.” He took Bri through each one and had him repeat them. “Good. And don’t overdo it. I usually have to scold my patients into doing their exercises, but I have a feeling that won’t be the issue here.”

“Probably not. I’ll do them every day.” Bri got up and carefully got off the table, returning to the changing room to dress in his street clothes.

“Just leave the shorts in the hamper and I’ll wash them,” Obie called through the door. Once again, it took him more time than he would have liked to dress and then get his brace back on. He hated the thing, but felt better once it was in place. “Put some heat on your knee if it’s sore, but that shouldn’t last too long. Try not to take pain medication. It dulls the body.”

“Don’t like pills anyway.” That was the truth. “In college, the trainer….” God, he so didn’t want to go there. “I stay away from as much of it as I possibly can.”

“I’m aware that team trainers and doctors overprescribe sometimes and will do just about anything to keep you guys playing.” He pulled up the chair and sat down again. Bri let his legs settle to the floor. It felt good to have both of them free again, for a while anyway. “I’m the same way. I’ll do anything to help my clients get better. I’ll work just as hard as you do. But I can’t work miracles. I also advocate healthy living and plenty of rest, eating right, proper, controlled exercise, and….” Obie giggled again. “I sound like a commercial, don’t I? Sometimes I go on and on, I know that. Feel free to tell me to cool it. I won’t get offended, I promise.” He took a breath, and Bri stared at his lips a little too long, then blinked. Damn, he needed to get it together.

Obie nodded. “And drink plenty of water. Is Friday afternoon good for you?” Obie opened the laptop on the small desk. “I have two thirty open again, if that’s okay.” He was already typing away.

“I’ll be here.” Bri got his crutches and hobbled toward the door. Obie opened it, and Bri made his way back to his car, through the incredible garden. Obie followed and waited until he was back to the car, then closed the gate.

Bri got behind the wheel, sliding his crutches into the back seat and closing the door, then taking a deep breath. This was a professional relationship and nothing more. He needed to get back on his feet so he could play again. If Obie could help him do that, great. The rest of it didn’t matter. He needed to keep his head in the game.

Bri started the ride home and placed a call to Jack. “I had my first appointment.” He spoke through speakers built right into the car. He loved that.

“How did it go?” Jack asked.

“Pretty well, I think. He’s not at all what I expected, but he seems to really know what he’s doing. My leg aches a little, but it feels good too.” He got on the Schuylkill Expressway and, of course, came to an almost immediate stop. Good thing he only had to go a few exits.

“I hear doubt in your voice,” Jack said. “Look, you need therapy and this is the last guy available. Hang in there and get it done so we can put you back on the active roster.”

“I know.” He needed to put his doubts away and keep his mind on what was important—his career. Nothing else mattered. “I’ll keep you posted.” He ended the call, and thankfully traffic ahead began to move.

His phone rang, and Bri pressed the button on his steering wheel to answer it. “Hello.”

The line crackled. “I know what you are,” a mechanical voice rang through the car speakers. “And I won’t allow you to taint the sport any longer. You don’t seem to be able to read a message when I send it, so I’ll have to try again. This time, it will hurt more than it did the last time.”

“Who the hell is this?” Bri demanded, even as a chill raced up his spine. “How did you get this number?”

But nothing else came through the speakers.