Time!” Charlene Hendricks announced, clicking the button on her stopwatch.
“Another minute,” Steven Armstrong gasped. His breathing was labored as he pedaled furiously on the stationary bicycle. “I can go for another minute!”
“That’s enough!” she insisted. “Let’s not overdo it. You strain something and you’re back to square one. Just stay with the program.”
Steven stopped pedaling and slumped forward over the handlebars. Charlene draped a fresh towel over his shoulders and offered him an open bottle of water. He took a drink, then wiped his face with the towel. “You know I can do a lot more than you’re letting me,” he said.
“You’re doing more than enough. I don’t want you trying to break the world record for knee surgery. It takes time, and patience.”
Steven managed to laugh even as he was gasping for breath. “I don’t have a lot of time, and I’ve never been big on patience. Believe me, Charlie, the knee is fine. I’m just trying to work off the paunch I got from all that time in bed.”
She looked at him skeptically. “What paunch? You’re in great shape.”
“Nah! I used to ride twice as long without even breaking a sweat.”
“Sure,” she agreed, “when you were in your thirties and forties. But for a man in his sixties you’re way above the curve. You know the rule in personal training: Act your age.”
She took her warm-up jacket out of her backpack and put it on over her tank top. “Tomorrow at one o’clock, Mr. Armstrong?”
“Steve!” he snapped angrily. “I keep telling you to call me Steve.”
“Okay, Steve, I’ll see you tomorrow, same time, same place.” She started toward the open door that connected the gym with the rest of the house.
“Charlie! Do I really look like I’m in my sixties?” When she looked back, he seemed desperate.
“No, Mr. Armstrong, you look twenty years younger. And now that you’re shaving your head you look like a stud!”
He smiled and ran his hand over the dark haze that had been a crown of wild hair surrounding a bald pate. “You like this?”
“It’s a turn-on,” she smiled. “I can hardly keep my hands off you.”
She was out the door when he called to her again. “Charlie!”
She poked her head back into the room.
“I’m going to swim some laps. Why don’t you stick around so you can tell me what I’m doing wrong?”
She raised her hands in a gesture of helplessness. “I have to pick up my kid. You can hold off on the laps until tomorrow. We’ll do them as soon as you finish stretching.” She pulled back through the doorway. Steven was still looking at the space she had vacated when he heard the front door snap shut. A few seconds later he heard the telltale rattle of her antique Toyota. She had just left, but already he missed her.
Charlene Hendricks had come into his life along with a steel and epoxy hinge that had been substituted for his fatally damaged knee. Steven had resisted the knee replacement for over a year, managing to get by on a combination of painkillers and grit. Hell, he didn’t build his hardware empire by pandering to every ache and pain. Thirty-three years on the job and he had missed only three days of work—one when each of his children was born. Even after he’d taken the company public and retired to his role of disgruntled share owner, he still kept himself busy. He had designed his new home on the Fort Lauderdale waterway, and then become his own construction contractor. Every cement block, every plumbing fixture, every truss and tile had passed his scrutiny. Why not? He had spent his life in hardware. Nobody was going to put anything over on him!
Then the boat! He had bought a seventy-five-foot motor yacht with a planing hull and twin diesels, and then supervised every step of its construction from laying the resin to installing the running lights. He had been climbing the ladder from the after deck to the flying bridge when his knee buckled under him.
The doctors prescribed a new knee, a prosthesis that would replace the worn joint he had overworked. Steven had absolutely refused. There was nothing wrong with his knee that a little time wouldn’t heal. He would simply suck it up the way he had always done when ailments threatened to slow his pace. The doctors shrugged. “When it hurts enough, you’ll come back,” they assured him. He had struggled for ten months, laboring to move around his house during the day, and sitting with his knee iced at night. Eventually, he had decided that the doctors were right and signed up for the knee replacement.
Charlene had visited him in the hospital right after the operation and introduced herself as his therapist. She had helped him out of bed and supported him as he took his first faltering steps on his new knee. Then she went home with him to help him in the arduous task of rehabilitation.
At first, Steven had wondered why he needed her. He could stretch his own muscles, do his own leg lifts, and climb aboard the stationary bicycle. Why did he need her to twist his legs and stretch his back, or count his repetitions? But slowly he had learned to value her advice and to welcome her company during the grueling hours that he would have been spending alone. Then, halfway through his recovery, he had begun to notice her not as a professional trainer but as a woman. A very attractive woman, totally different from his deceased wife, the mother of his children.
He noticed the rivulets of sweat that trickled down from her headband when she ran beside him, and the stains that spread down the sides of her tank top. He took in the sculptured muscles in her legs, the firmness of her thighs, and the tight buns that pressed into her leotards. Her waist, which frequently flashed as her shirt rose, was slim and flat. The breasts that showed when she bent toward him were firm and erect. Charlene, he had decided, was a new kind of woman, not soft, nor gentle, nor modestly ashamed of her femininity. She was spare, strong, and confident, invariably upbeat and annoyingly capable. As he had worked with her, he had realized that whatever other admirable characteristics she had, she could probably run him into the ground.
Steven found himself competing with her. He’d be damned if a woman young enough to be his daughter was going to be quicker, stronger, or more durable than he was. If she could demonstrate leg lifts with twenty pounds of weight, then he would do thirty pounds. If she could raise the treadmill to fifteen degrees, then he would turn it to twenty. He enjoyed her concern that he was pushing himself too much, and basked in the admiration she had for his determination. In the six weeks of his rehabilitation, Charlene had become his physical and emotional partner. So Steven was not surprised when he realized that he was falling in love with her.
But he was embarrassed. He had seen many men his age decide that they were still physically desirable to younger women, and then make asses of themselves as they pursued a ridiculous romance. Some had spent fortunes showering presents and trust funds on bon bons half their age. No fool like an old fool, he had thought, shaking his head in despair. Was that what he was becoming? An old fool! Charlie was in her thirties, the same age range as all three of his children. He was old enough to be her father. Hell, he could be her grandfather! What was her first rule of rehabilitation? Act your age!
It’s not the same thing, he tried to reason with himself. Charlie and I are already partners. Weren’t they working together day after day? Weren’t they matching each other pound for pound and stride for stride? Hadn’t she told him time after time that he was way ahead of his age group in his physical strength and endurance? What was it she had called him—a stud! She didn’t talk to him as if he was old enough to be her father. Maybe that wasn’t the way she thought about him.
But then he laughed at himself. Act your age! What in God’s name could he possibly offer a woman like Charlie? More than likely she had her pick of any number of guys her own age. Virile guys with six-pack abs and rock-hard buns, and erections that could lift a woman off her feet. Why would she be interested in an old man with bad knees?
On the other hand, there were things he could offer that most younger men couldn’t match. He was worth $200 million, so he could provide her with a sense of security that she had never known and wasn’t likely to ever know. That had to count for something! There was his house, a modern design on the inland waterway just north of Fort Lauderdale, that had made the cover of Architectural Digest. It had to be twice as luxurious as the nicest dream house she had ever imagined. There was the yacht, with its implied promises of faraway places. And the simple comfort of knowing she could have anything she wanted.
But Charlie wasn’t mercenary. The most important thing in her life was her daughter, a thirteen-year-old whom she loved without reservation, and whose future was infinitely more important to her than her own. Steven knew that he could change the young girl’s life. She could be in private school instead of in one of those left-behind public schools. She could be tutored in art, music, horsemanship, whatever might interest her. Her college education would be assured. Not many young studs could handle all that!
Was he trying to buy her? Perish the thought! Buying was when you wanted something and you paid the price it cost. All he was doing was tallying up the joys he could bring to her life. He was a man of means with global clout who would love, honor, and protect her. It was up to her to decide whether all that was more valuable than great buns.
If he decided to ask her, how would he do it? The easy way would be to simply keep her on as his personal trainer, three hours a day, six days a week. He could pay her lavishly so that she could afford to spend more time with him, perhaps bring her daughter to the house or out on the boat for trips to the Bahamas and the Keys. Foster the relationship until the next step was inevitable.
Or, he could do what he had always done with a difficult decision. Bite the bullet and put it to her squarely. I love you. I can’t bear the thought of you leaving. Please marry me so that you and your daughter can be my new family. That’s what he should do the next day as soon as she showed up at his door. Except she might break out laughing before she knew that he was serious. That would be the most crushing defeat of his entire life. Or, she might explain patiently that lots of men thought they were in love with their personal trainers. It was a hazard of the occupation, and she certainly wouldn’t hold it against him. A patronizing evasion would be much more painful than an outright refusal.
What should he do? Steven vacillated during his dinner and during his evening walk along the beach. He tossed and turned the entire night. The one thing that he was certain of was that he couldn’t live without Charlie nearby. The one thing he feared was that he was just another old fool.
Copyright © 2005 by Diana Diamond