By: Lily Harlem

Chapter One

“Great, you must be the stand-in physio?” A young nurse stood before me, clutching a bag of saline, a drug chart and a handful of clear tubing.
I placed my equipment box on the ward reception desk and smiled. “Yes, I’m Fiona Wrigley. Where do you want me to start?”
“There’s a stack of patient charts there.” She nodded at a pile of paperwork. “I’ll let you prioritize.”
“That’s perfect, thanks.” I reached for the list and scanned through the fifteen or so names and orthopedic diagnoses.
“But you might want to start in room four. Get him over with.”
“Why?” I glanced up. “What’s the matter with him?”
“Dislocated shoulder, partial tear to his rotator cuff. But that’s not his biggest problem.” She pulled down the corners of her mouth.
I cocked my head, urging her to go on.
She shrugged and turned away. “Don’t mind him if he growls, but if he bites, pull the alarm. We’ll send in security with muzzles and sedation.”
I sighed as she flitted into the clinical room. She was right, if there was a patient with a stroppy attitude it was worth getting him out of the way, otherwise waiting for treatment was one more thing for him to complain about.
I searched for room four on my chart. Raven Starr—sounded like a stage name—twenty-nine years old, dislocated his shoulder yesterday, now realigned. Small rotator cuff tear showed on MRI. Treatment—sling, anti-inflammatories, analgesics and physiotherapy.
Simple enough. I reached for my box of goodies and headed toward room four. I was just about to push open the door when it opened in on itself.
A tall guy with broad shoulders and a face that could have adorned billboards selling aftershave grinned down at me. “Hi there. You coming in here?”
“Er, yes.” My heart gave several little skips, like a pebble over water. He was too damn cute for words. All chiseled features, white teeth and eyes the color of the sky on a perfect summer day. “Is this Mr. Starr’s room?” I asked.
“It sure is, sugar. But don’t you go calling him Mr. Starr, he’ll get above himself. Raven will do just fine.” He stepped aside and held the door open for me.
As I brushed past him, he winked and produced a naughty-boy, about-to-get-up-to-mischief smile. He had a small, upright dent in his chin and the curve beneath his bottom lip was deep and sensual.
I tried my best to stay professional and not simper like a pathetic schoolgirl. Seriously, I was twenty-eight years old. It should take more than a sexy American drawl and a cute face to have me blushing.
“I’ll leave you two alone,” he said. “But I’ll be back to find out what you’ve been doing to his poor battered body.”
“Er, yes. Okay.”
He shut the door, leaving me in the dimly lit room alone with my patient, Raven Starr—prone to growling and biting.
Why can’t Mr. Drop-Dead Gorgeous be my patient? Life is so unfair.
I pulled in a deep breath. The warm air was laced with a spicy male scent that did nothing to ease my tripping nerves and must have been left behind by the cute early-morning visitor. Heat rose on my chest and neck and seemed to burn my skin. I walked over to the window and eased open one of the curtains, letting in the bright morning sunshine and a little waft of Welsh breeze.
“Don’t open the damn curtains. It’s too early.”
“It’s nine o’clock and I need to see what I’m doing if I’m going to treat you,” I said, moving over to the table and setting down my box.
Now the room had a thick wedge of light, I could make out my patient properly. He was every bit as huge as his visitor had been, completely filling the hospital bed with his wide shoulders, broad chest and long legs. The sheet was turned down to just below his navel.
“You must be Mr. Starr.”
“Raven,” he grunted, closing his eyes and resting his head back on the pillow. “And yes, it is my real name.” He sighed and tightened his lips into a straight line. I got the distinct impression he was trying to ignore my presence.
“Real name Raven, okay,” I said, looking at his long hair. It was spread over the pillow and appeared coal-black against the starched whiteness of the hospital linen. “My name is Fiona. I’m a holistic physiotherapist and I’m going to show you some exercises that will help your left shoulder regain a full range of movement as soon as possible.”
“What’s the point?” he muttered.
“Whatever do you mean?”
He opened his eyes. His dark gaze seemed to stare straight through me. “I mean what I said, what…is…the…point?” He really did speak as though he was growling. Low and husky, and his voice held more than a hint of menace. “This is one more knock to a career that is rapidly going down the drain. So what difference does it make if I can use my damn shoulder or not?”
“I really think you’re being overly dramatic. You should recover one hundred percent from yesterday’s injury.”
“It’s not just yesterday’s.” He shut his eyes again and his fists clenched—one within the sling, the other resting over his belly.
“You have old injuries bothering you?”
“More than I care to mention, but mainly my leg is still nagging me. If that hadn’t given me hell during the check, I wouldn’t have fallen and done my fucking shoulder in.”
His colorful language irked me. It wasn’t in my job description to listen to foul mouths. But I could see he was upset, angry, so I decided not to object. “What do you mean check?”
“One of your damn Devils. It was only meant to be a warm-up for fuck’s sake. Why they had to get so fucking dirty I have no idea, not when—”
“Hey, hey.” I held up my hands. “Now I officially have no idea what you’re on about.”
He glared at me. “What did you say your name was?”
“Fiona, and I really don’t know what you’re talking about. The Cardiff rugby team are not called the Devils, and they’re certainly not my team, I’m from Swansea.”
“Rugby?” He creased his head into a frown. “I’m talking about hockey.”
“Yeah, hockey, you know, ice, a stick, guys hitting a puck into a net.”
I stepped to the end of the bed and reached for his charts. The way he was staring at me was making me uncomfortable. As if I was some kind of novelty for not knowing he was talking about ice hockey.
“So you play professionally?” I asked, noting that he’d been given a full whack of analgesic an hour ago with his breakfast.
“Which team?” I glanced through the accident department’s report of his injuries. Anterior dislocation. Nitrous oxide and three burly male members of staff required to pull against all that muscle and reposition the ball joint. Must have hurt like hell.
“Vipers,” he said. “Orlando.”
“Oh, that’s nice.”
He made a grunting noise.
I scanned down the paperwork. He hadn’t given any medical history of his leg injury. “So what happened to your leg?”
“Ruptured ACL earlier in the year. Hell of a thing to recover from.”
“Yes, they’re not nice injuries to endure.”
“Endure is the right word.” He pinched the bridge of his nose and shut his eyes.
Slotting his chart away, I stepped up to the left side of the bed. “So how is the pain in your shoulder this morning on a scale of one to ten, one being nothing and ten excruciating?”
“About a two I guess,” he said, opening his eyes and looking at me. “Feels like some bastard has punched it over and over.”
Two. I reckoned it was more than that if his rotator cuff was torn but I could tell he wasn’t going to admit to it. That was probably why his leg hadn’t recovered properly. He’d tried to be tough even when it hurt and so hadn’t given it the rest it needed.
“Okay,” I said. “What I’m going to do today is some acupuncture to ease the pain and then perform really gentle passive movements.”
He stared at the window and pursed his lips.
“Is that okay?” I asked.
“Can’t you just leave me the hell alone?” His lips moved but his teeth stayed gritted.
“I could, yes. It would be easy to write on your chart that you refused treatment and go and see my next patient. But that wouldn’t really help you. Joints are meant to be used, the longer you keep them still the less mobile they become.”
His left cheek sucked in slightly as he gnawed it. “So you’re not going away and you want to stick needles in me?”
“They’re so tiny, almost like hairs. I promise it won’t hurt and afterwards you’ll feel a whole lot better.”
With a sigh, he rolled his eyes. “Whatever. Do your stuff. Just don’t expect conversation.”
I felt like sighing too. What a start to the day, a difficult, gutter-mouth, sullen ogre to deal with. He should have realized he was lucky to get me. Most physiotherapists didn’t have the extra qualifications and tools at their disposal that I had. And if they did, they reserved them for favorite patients, special cases or when they were getting paid considerably more than I was today. But that wasn’t me. I saw everyone as an individual worthy of my absolute best care. It seemed that also including growling ones.
“Okay, can you sit on the side of the bed?” I asked.
Grimacing, he sat forward and swung his legs so his back was to me. The sheet slipped, exposing gray boxer briefs with a wide black waistband that had CK written around it.
“I’m just going to undo the sling. You might want to support your arm with your other hand.” His hair, as I brushed it away from the sling knot, was super-smooth and so silky it floated over my knuckles. I scooped it over his right shoulder so it hung out of the way. I’d never seen a man with such luscious, long hair before, let alone touched it.
“You ready?” I asked, having undone the knot at his nape.
He grunted a response that I took as yes. Carefully I removed the sling. I was looking for any obvious deformities or bruising, so I hadn’t been expecting a half-sleeve tattoo traveling from his elbow right up to his shoulder and completely covering the ball of his deltoid. For a second I just stared. It was an intricate, blue-black web of animals—horses galloping, birds flapping and wolves howling. It was truly beautiful and like no other tattoo I’d seen before.
“Nice artwork,” I said.
“What does it signify?” I already knew he wasn’t a great talker, but I had to ask.
“It depicts protecting spirits,” he said after a moment of hesitation, “spirits who attended a great battle my ancestors were victorious in many years ago.”
“Your ancestors?”
“Yes, my forefathers.”
“Oh, I see.” His answer was different than what I’d expected and I wanted to know more. “What do you mean by spirits?”
He kind of sighed and I wasn’t sure he would answer, but then he said, “The birds are symbols of information, messengers. The horses provide a way home and the wolves remind us of the leadership and strength that is necessary to be triumphant in all walks of life, then and today.”
“That’s fascinating.” I wasn’t normally a tattoo kind of girl, but there was something about Raven’s that appealed to me despite its size. It was wonderfully detailed, skillfully drawn and matched his gruff mysteriousness. “I really like it. You had it long?”
“Since I was fifteen.”
“That’s pretty young to get ink on your skin.” Was it even legal?
“It’s the way it is.”
“Yes, I suppose, it’s just a little unusual, that’s all.”
Finally managing to tear my gaze away from his ink, I checked the outline of his shoulder. It appeared as it should, though spotting bruising amongst the ink was near impossible. “How is it feeling now?”
“Hurts like fuck.”
“Whereabouts? In your hand, arm, shoulder blade?”
“Mainly around the joint.”
“I’m going to touch you now, so don’t jump, okay?” I rubbed my hands together to create a warming friction, then gently placed my palms on his back. His deeply golden skin was warm and smooth, his wide shoulder blades angled and he had two small freckles at the center of his back, over his spine. “I’m guessing the pain is here,” I said, gently curling by hand over the roundness of his shoulder.
“Nothing here?” Gently I swept my fingertips to his neck and traced the bones of his cervical spine.
“Great, we can soon sort out that bit of shoulder discomfort.” Stepping away, I reached into my box. I pulled on sterile gloves and gathered my acupuncture equipment. “Okay, now just keep still, really still. You’ll barely feel this on your skin, but you’ll be aware of a deeper, denser sensation.”
He didn’t respond so I set about inserting whisper-thin needles. Not once did he flinch or comment as I slotted them in. When finished, I stepped back and studied the sweeping line of silver pinpoints poking out an inch from his back and shoulder. “Okay, all done here. Would you like me to take a look at your leg?”
“My leg?”
“Yes, acupuncture is good for all types of pain, acute and chronic. It’s not the whole treatment, but it can definitely be a very useful part of therapy.” I moved around the bed and stood in front of him. Looked down at his thighs bent over the side of the bed. They were the size of tree trunks, thick with muscle and coated with a thin layer of black hair.
“I don’t think it will get any better than it is right now,” he said, running his hand over his right kneecap.
“I’m sure there is some room for improvement. Let’s have a look.” I squatted down so I was face-level with his right knee, the one he was rubbing. “I take it it’s this one?”
“Yep.” He moved his hand and I cupped my palm over his patella. It was big and wide and warm. With my other hand, I pressed on the hard bone of his shin.
“Push against me.” I exerted pressure and he resisted. “Does that hurt?”
“Not really, but it would if I pressed forward much harder and then twisted.”
There was a pause, then, “Everywhere.” He pushed my hand away. “So just forget it.”
I glanced up. It was as though a blanket had come down over his face, a heavy, impenetrable wall that he wasn’t going to let me see beyond. I knew when to let an issue go. Though it was a shame; I could have helped.
“Okay,” I said, standing. “But if you change your mind about some treatment let me know. It will have to be either today or tomorrow, because that’s all I’m here for.”
“You and me both. I can’t wait to get home.” He rubbed his hand gingerly over his tattoo, as if testing the feeling in his upper arm. “I miss it. I like having my own stuff around me.”
“Home to?”
He tutted. “Orlando.”
Oh yeah, he’d said something about Orlando earlier.
“Of course, er, right then, these needles should have done their job in another ten minutes and then, once they’re out, we’ll do some physio. I would have preferred to do hydrotherapy, but the pool here is closed for maintenance today.”
“What therapy?”
“Water treatment. The resistance is great for helping regain movement and for providing support in the process. Do you have a local swimming pool you can use when you get back to Orlando? If I show you what exercises to do it really would be great for your recovery.”
“If you consider having a pool in my backyard as local then, yeah.” He pulled that face again, the one that implied I was being dim. He was really starting to irritate me. If he wasn’t careful, I might have to add more needles and flick them, hard.
Dragging in a calming breath, I nodded, counted to ten. “I’ll just check another couple of patients and be right back. Ring the nurse call-bell if you need anything.”
Quickly I left the room. His sour mood was wrapping around me as if it were a sticky web, and the last thing I wanted was to be in a grump when I had so much to do.
Working on autopilot, I went through a couple of exercises with a hip-replacement patient who was ready for discharge, then scooted around my other patients, telling them I’d be back to see them at various points during my working day.
Ten minutes later, I was in Raven’s room again. He was exactly where I’d left him, hunched on the side of the bed, staring through the gap in the curtains. The brooding atmosphere radiating from him was almost palpable.
“Here I am,” I said in a falsely bright voice. “Let’s take these out then.”
No reply.
That suited me just fine.
It took only a few seconds to take the needles out and drop them in the sharps bin. Once again I warmed my hands by rubbing them together. “I’m going to touch you now,” I said as I always did before laying my hands on a patient’s body from behind.
My palm absorbed heat from the solid curve of his shoulder, but it wasn’t as intense as before and I curled my hand over his other shoulder to compare. “How is it feeling?” I asked quietly.
I heard him swallow. “Better.”
“Has your pain score dropped from a two?”
There was a long pause. “Yeah, maybe a one now.”
A bubble of triumph swelled within me. “Great, just what I hoped and certainly some of the heat has gone.” I lifted my hands from his wide frame and moved away from the bed. “Are you up to standing?”
He gave a humph and stood.
Damn, the man was tall. I knew he would be, but against my five feet three, his beyond six seemed even more pronounced.
He turned to face me and I couldn’t help but let my gaze slide down what was a truly magnificent body. If he could just keep his huffs and grunts inside, he would have been a fine specimen of a man—roped with muscle, bronzed like a warrior’s shield and darkly exotic with his long, shiny hair, angled features and dramatic tattoo.
Stop it, woman. Not only is he a total grump, you’re at work. He’s your patient.
I took hold of his lower arm and looked up into his sulky face. “Let your forearm lay heavy in my hands, that way I do the lifting and not you. We’ll just do passive exercises today and I’ll show you the others tomorrow.”
Silence. Just a tightening of his lips and a small nod.
His breaths breezed steadily over my cheek and I averted my gaze so I could watch the movements of his shoulder rather than looking into such a hooded expression.
Very gently I lifted and rotated his arm so that his shoulder joint received a soft work through all the angles it needed to. His limb was heavy but I suspected he was still supporting some of it and not completely relaxing into my hold. I wished he wasn’t. It would have been a better workout if he’d let me put in the effort rather than him.
“Do you want the sling back on?” I asked when I’d finished.
“Should I?”
“Yes, probably a good idea.”
“You know best.”
I reached it from the bed and walked back up to him. Normally standing next to a patient who was wearing only his boxers wouldn’t have affected me, not in the slightest. It was something I did every day. But there was something about touching this athlete, aligning the material over his arm, then sliding around him to move aside his hair and fasten a knot, that sent tingles up my spine. Once again I berated myself. I had a job to do, joints to exercise, techniques to show him. If his health was really causing problems with his career, I needed to give him a good assessment and the best advice I could for his onward recovery.
I only hoped the female side of me understood that, because I wasn’t known for staying in control when handsome men were around.
“Can I get back on the bed?” he asked, his sullen tone shaking me from my dreamy state.
“Sure, go ahead.”
He maneuvered himself onto the mattress. I reached for the sheet to help him but he snatched at it one-handedly and tugged it up.
“Shut the door when you leave,” he said in a rasping, exasperated voice.
Okay, so maybe resisting a rude, obnoxious pig wasn’t so hard after all.

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