Emerson Montgomery straightened the boxes of elastic bandages on the shelf in front of her for the thousandth time that hour. Turning to survey the one-room physical therapy office tucked in the back of Millhaven’s medical center—A.K.A. Doc Sanders’s family practice—she surveyed her news digs in search of something to keep her occupied. She’d already rearranged the rolls of athletic tape, wiped down the questionably sturdy portable massage table—along with the geriatric treadmill and recumbent bike over by the far wall—and organized the mismatched hand weights and resistance tubing she’d dug out of the storage closet.
She was still an hour shy of lunch on her first day at work, and she’d officially run out of things to do. Beautiful.
Now she had nothing but time to dwell on the fact that in the last two weeks, she’d lost a job she’d loved, a boyfriend she hadn’t, and the ability to keep the one vow that had saved her life twelve years ago.
She was back in Millhaven.
Emerson blew out an exhale, trying to ignore the stiffness in her knees that made her wonder if her synovial fluid had been replaced with expired Elmer’s glue. She knew she should be happy Doc Sanders had been willing to hire her to do supplemental physical therapy, especially when the fifteen job inquiries Emerson had made before her last-ditch call to the doctor had yielded fifteen positions requiring sixty hours a week, with fifty-nine of them on her feet. Under normal circumstances, Emerson would’ve pounced on any of those employment opportunities before returning to Millhaven. Hell, under normal circumstances, she’d have never left her high-powered, higher-energy job as one of the top physical therapists for the championship-winning Las Vegas Lightning in the first place. Of course, everything she’d known about normal had been blasted into bits five weeks ago.
And if there was one thing Emerson knew by heart, it was that once you broke something into enough pieces, your chances of putting it back together amounted to jack with a side of shit.
The door connecting the physical therapy room and the hallway leading to Doc Sanders’s office space swung open with a squeak, and the woman in question poked her head past the threshold.
“Hi, Emerson.” She swept a hand toward the PT room in an unspoken request for entry. Emerson nodded, sending a handful of bright red hair tumbling out of the loose, low ponytail at her nape.
“Hey, yes, sure. Come on in Doc…tor Sanders,” she said, awkwardly tacking on the more formal address. But the woman was her boss, an MD who she respected greatly, and at any rate, more than a decade had passed since Emerson had left Millhaven. She was an adult now, a professional. Accomplished. Capable.
Even if her pretense for coming back home was a complete and utter lie.
“Emerson, please,” Doc Sanders said, her smile conveying amusement over admonition. “I know with all your experience, you’re probably used to different protocol with physicians, but call me Doc. No one in Millhaven has called me Doctor in…well, ever. And quite frankly, it makes me feel kind of stodgy.”
Emerson dipped her chin, half out of deference and half to hide her smile. While all of the doctors on the Lightning’s payroll had been top-of-their-field talented, they’d also sported enough arrogance to sink a submarine, making sure everyone down to the ball boys knew their status as MDs. Even though she’d technically earned the title of “doctor” along with her PhD five years ago, she never used it, preferring to go by her first name like all the other physical therapists at the Lightning. True, she’d been the only one of the bunch with the varsity letters after her name, but the title meant nothing if she wasn’t good enough to back it up hands-on. Plus, she’d always felt something heavy and uncomfortable in her chest on the rare occasion anyone called her Dr. Montgomery. She turned around every time, looking for her father.
Don’t go there, girl. Head up. Eyes forward.
Emerson cleared her throat, stamping out the thoughts of both her father and her lost job as she kept the smile tacked to her face. “You got it, Doc. How are things in the office?”
“Not so bad for a Monday, although I could’ve done without Timmy Abernathy throwing up on my shoes.”
“Gah.” She grimaced. Broken bones and ruptured tendons she could handle, no sweat. But stomach woes. No, thank you. “Sorry you’ve had a rough morning.”
“Eh.” Doc Sanders lifted one white-coated shoulder. “Timmy feels worse than I do, and I had an extra pair of cross trainers in my gym bag. At any rate, I’ve got a patient for you, so I thought I’d pop over to see if you have an opening today.”
Emerson thought of her schedule, complete with the tumbleweeds blowing through its wide-open spaces, and bit back the urge to laugh with both excitement and irony. “I’m sure I can fit someone in. What’s the injury?”
“Rotator cuff. X-rays and MRI are complete, and Dr. Norris, the orthopedist in Camden Valley, ordered PT. But the patient is local, so I figured if you could take him, it’d be a win-win.”
“Of course.” An odd sensation plucked up Emerson’s spine at the long-buried memory of a blue-eyed high school boy with his arm in a sling and a smile that could melt her like butter in a cast-iron skillet. “Um, my schedule is pretty flexible. What time did he want to come in?”
“Actually, he’s a little anxious to get started, so he came directly here from the ortho’s office…”
Doc Sanders turned toward the hallway leading to her waiting room, where a figure had appeared in the doorframe. Emerson blinked, trying to get her brain to reconcile the free-flowing confusion between the boy in her memory and the man standing in front of her. The gray-blue eyes were the same, although a tiny bit more weathered around the edges, and weirdly, the sling was also a match. But the person staring back at her was a man, with rough edges and sex appeal for days, full of hard angles and harder muscles under his jeans and T-shirt…
Emerson stood with her feet anchored to the linoleum, unable to move or speak or even breathe. For the smallest scrap of a second, she tumbled back in time, her heart pounding so hard beneath her crisp white button-down that surely the traitorous thing would jump right out of her chest.
A blanket of stars littering the August sky…the warm weight of Hunter’s varsity jacket wrapped around her shoulders…the warmer fit of his mouth on hers as the breeze carried his whispers, full of hope… “Don’t go to New York. Stay with me, Em. Marry me and stay here in Millhaven where we’ll always have this, just you and me…”
“Emerson? What…what the hell are you doing here?”
The deeper, definitely more rugged-around-the-edges version of his voice tipped the scales of her realization all the way into the present. She needed to say something, she knew, but her mouth had gone so dry that she’d have better luck rocketing to the moon in a paper airplane right now.
“I work here,” Emerson finally managed, the truth of the words—of what they meant—delivering her back to reality with a hard snap. She hadn’t returned to Millhaven for a jaunt down memory lane. Hell, she’d only come back when her process of elimination had dead-ended in total despair. She was here for one thing, and one thing only. To bury herself in as much work as her body would allow. Even if her first client probably hated her guts.
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