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November 22, Thanksgiving
TANNER took a deep breath before entering the room. From the moment he’d woken up in the hospital and started his long stay there, he’d imagined Thanksgiving afternoon; the smell of turkey roasting, the sound of his family talking, the feeling of finally being able to walk into a room again. He glanced down at the cast still covering his lower leg and clenched his fingers tightly around the crutches. Not exactly walking, perhaps hobbling was a better description for what he was doing, but it was close enough.
He stood up as tall as he could and gave his younger sister a grin, ignoring the blast of pain in his right wrist as her little toddler threw her arms up, excited to see him. “Hey, Mia. Hey, Sophia.”
“Tanner!” Mia exclaimed, leaping up and throwing her arms around him. Her pregnant belly squished against him and he struggled not to groan as she held him. Everything hurt still—his chest, his back, his wrist and his leg. He was a goddamn mess all over, but he wasn’t about to let anyone else in the room know that. Even his little niece, Sophia, toddle-walked over to him and held onto his leg in a big cuddle. Thankfully it was his good leg, so he wasn’t wincing in pain the entire time.
“Hey, it’s not that exciting having me home, is it?” he asked, grinning down at Mia and pressing a quick kiss to her cheek, then ruffling Sophia’s hair before she toddled off again. “You’d think I’d been gone for a year.”
“Honestly, you haven’t been home a minute and I’m ready to strangle you,” Mia muttered. “Of course it’s exciting! You scared us all half to death when you ended up in the hospital like that.”
He hadn’t meant to tease her—she’d lost her best friend to a riding accident and he wasn’t trying to trivialize what had happened—he just didn’t particularly want to be the center of attention. Not here and not at the hospital—all the fuss was embarrassing.
“Hey, Tan,” Cody called out, raising his beer bottle. “Ready for a drink?”
“Hell yes,” Tanner answer, throwing his brother a grateful smile. “Hey, Sam,” he said when his brother-in-law shook his hand, slapping him on the back and passing the beer over from Cody. Mia hadn’t been married to Sam for long, but Tanner already felt like he was part of the family. It helped that they both shared a solid love for Quarter Horses.
“It’s good to have you home, Tanner.” His older sister Angelina had been talking to their dad on the other side of the room but she was by his side now, giving him a long, warm hug. She was so unlike Mia, who was usually always dressed down in jeans and a T-shirt or her riding attire. Angelina was more often wearing tailored pants and silky blouses, making her stand out like a sore thumb whenever she returned to the ranch.
He always loved Thanksgiving—it was the only time their entire family was ever together. Cody might be the complete opposite of him and Angelina was as interested in the ranch as he was in clothes shopping, but they’d always gotten along well and he missed the hell out of them when they weren’t around. As kids they’d been more similar, it was only as young adults they’d slowly drifted apart when it came to their careers and interests.
“Good to have you home, son.” His dad, the one and only Walter Ford, spoke in his trademark booming voice from the other side of the room.
Tanner raised his beer to his father and took a long, cool sip. It was like heaven in a mouthful as he stood there, propped up on his crutches.
“Come sit,” Cody ordered. “Put that leg up and watch some football.”
He let Mia fuss and take his beer while he settled himself down, grimacing when he lifted his leg up and placed it on the coffee table. It was good to get the weight off it, but it still hurt like hell most of the time—a dull, never-ending thud of pain that he was almost starting to get used to.
“You feeling okay or putting on a brave face?” Mia asked, her brows drawn together, concern written all over her expression.
“If I told you the truth, you’d only start fussing.”
Mia nodded. She was his ally in this whole thing—Mia was a professional show jump rider, and although not as dangerous as what he did, it was still a high-risk sport. Not to mention the fact that he’d stood her ground with her when their entire family had protested about her continuing to ride while she was pregnant with Sophia and now again with her second pregnancy. She owed him a debt big time.
“You let me know if you need anything, or if all of this,” she said, waving her hand around, “gets to be too much.”
She left him then and went back to Sam, and Tanner grit his teeth and tried to get comfortable. He’d been hurt before, but damn, this was something else. Perhaps he should have heeded his doctor’s advice and stayed a few days longer.
“So how’d you convince the docs to let you out of the hospital so soon?” Cody asked as he sipped his beer.
“Bribed a pretty nurse,” Tanner replied with a wink.
“I should have guessed.” Cody laughed and Tanner joined in, pleased he’d decided to come home. It was Thanksgiving and the last thing he wanted was to sit alone in a hospital bed, wishing he was at home with the rest of his family.
“Any thoughts about rehab yet?” Cody asked. “And please don’t tell me you’re hoping to get on a bull again. Surely you’ve got all that out of your system? It’s been ten years of risks, Tan, it’s time to give it up and grow up a little. Get a real job.”
Tanner took a big pull of beer. “We’re not all cut out to be pen pushers,” Tanner replied, knowing how badly that would grate his brother.
“You know what? Screw you,” Cody muttered. “At least I’m not trying to kill myself every time I go to work.”
Tanner wasn’t so sure about that. He’d feel like he was trying to kill himself if he went to work in an office each day, but he decided to keep his mouth shut instead of retaliating.
For the next half hour, Tanner managed to ignore Cody and watch the game, and before he knew it, his sisters were calling them in for dinner and everyone rose. Tanner hauled himself up as best he could, accepting Cody’s hand when he steadied him and held out one of the crutches to him.
“Thanks,” he muttered.
“You know I do actually give a damn about you, right?” Cody asked. “It’s the only reason I keep at you about doing something different with your life.”
“Yeah, I know.” Tanner moved into the adjoining room where the big dining table was set. “It just ain’t gonna happen.” A huge turkey was in the middle and smaller dishes surrounded it—Tanner’s mouth was watering just looking at the feast. His brother needed to learn when to shut his mouth, and right now would be as good a time as any.
“But when is enough going to be enough, Tan? What do you have left to prove?” Cody asked. “I think you owe it to us.”
“Just leave it,” Tanner ground out, not wanting to ruin a damn fine meal because his brother wouldn’t get off his back.
“You know,” Mia said, obviously having heard the conversation and trying to deflect the argument. “The best thing you can do is to heal your body properly. If you do decide to go back to riding, and that’s something only you can decide, you’re less likely to injure yourself if your body’s in top form. Maybe you can promise us all that you won’t go back until you’re in top shape again?”
“See, words of wisdom over here,” Tanner said with a laugh, eternally grateful for Mia. “I need to heal, then find a top physical therapist. I’ll be back on a beast in no time, but I will give you all my word that I’ll wait until I’m good and ready before I go back. Maybe I’ll stick with broncs awhile before returning to bulls.” It wasn’t a question of if—in his mind it was only a matter of when.
Mia gave him a look and he stared back at her, but then she smiled and leaned over to take his plate. He ignored the raised eyebrows from his father and didn’t bother looking at his other siblings.
“Everything?” she asked, gesturing toward the dishes of food.
He nodded. “The works.” He’d been fantasizing about this meal all week as a way to survive the disgustingly bland hospital food. Angelina passed him another beer and he took it gratefully, although it would have to be his last. He didn’t want to mix the pain meds he was on with too much alcohol.
Everyone started talking and Tanner reached forward to take the plate from Mia, sucking in a sharp breath when he engaged his stomach muscles without realizing. The bull had gouged straight through his flesh, into his ribs and tearing through his side, and the pain there was still hard to manage.
“Thanks,” he said, trying not to hiss with pain as he set the huge plate of food down.
“You know,” Mia said, leaning toward him a little as she filled her own plate. “I think you need to go away somewhere for a few weeks. You can go somewhere relaxing, take a physical therapist with you, and just focus on healing. I think a long rest away from here would do you good for your recovery.”
He grunted. “Why is it that you and I are the only people in this family who speak the same language sometimes?”
She laughed. “Seriously, Tanner, can you trust me to organize it for you? I’ve been talking to some PT’s and investigating options for you. I really want to help.”
“Damn, girl, sounds like you’ve been busy while I’ve been lying around in a hospital bed.”
There went that look again. Mia never sucked in her bottom lip, yet she’d done it twice now and he had no idea why. He raised an eyebrow and stared at her, long and hard. “Mia?”
“I need you to be open-minded,” she said. “But I’ve tentatively booked accommodations for you, and the jet is available. You can leave the second week of December and come back in the New Year.”
Tan took a sip of his beer. “What’s the catch?” He couldn’t exactly see what was so bad about taking a vacation.
“I’ve also booked the physical therapist.” She hesitated and he set down his beer, waiting for her to finish. “There was one who clearly stood out from the rest, so I took the liberty of making sure she was available, too.”
“Cody, how about you say grace this year,” Walter Ford, Tanner’s dad, suggested from the other end of the table, interrupting the conversation Tanner was having with his sister.
“It’s Lauren,” Mia whispered as Tanner went to bow his head.
His head shot up so fast he got whiplash. “What?” he demanded in a loud voice.
“Tanner!” His father scolded.
“Lauren Lewis,” Mia repeated, her voice barely audible. But he knew what he’d heard, and he knew why she’d said it so quietly, too.
“You’ve got to be goddamn kidding me,” he muttered.
Tanner sat silently, head dipped, fuming as he listened to Cody’s words. Thunder roared in his ears and when he lifted his head and reached for his fork, his hand was shaking as he tightly clenched the piece of cutlery. He stabbed at a piece of turkey.
“Tanner, come on. It’s…”
“The answer is no, Mia. Find someone else.”
“She was already heading to Fiji on vacation and it was the only way to get her, so I organized for you to, well, join her. You’ll be flying out together in a few weeks’ time.”
She stared at him and the rest of the table went quiet. He felt eyes on his burning hot skin, but no one said anything and Mia eventually smiled and changed the subject, striking up a conversation with her husband.
Lauren wasn’t the only physical therapist around, and he’d rather suffer in pain for the rest of his life than ever see her again. There was no way in hell he was letting her touch him, let alone board a plane and spend weeks with her on a goddamn island in Fiji.
* * *
Lauren stretched out like a cat in a puddle of sunshine. Sleeping in was amazing. In fact, right now, it was her absolute favorite thing to do.
She’d been working twelve-hour days, seven days a week, for nine months straight, and she was still exhausted even a week after finishing up for the season. She flexed her toes and reluctantly pushed the covers back, dragging herself up and trying to decide if it was worth making her way to yoga, or if she’d be better off staying in bed and reading a book.
Then again, this was the only time in her life she had to go to yoga. There wasn’t usually any time to make classes or hell, make any time for herself at all, if she was completely honest. Not when she was working. She sighed. And this was why she was waking up in a bed alone, again, after her last boyfriend had reminded her repeatedly about how little time he ever had with her because she was more interested in work than play.
Her phone buzzed on her bedside table and she reached for it, admiring her hot pink manicure—another thing she didn’t get to indulge in very often. She smiled when she saw who it was from. Mia Ford had always been friendly, and whenever they’d run into each other over the years they’d always enjoyed catching up, but this time was different. She’d heard about Tanner’s fall—hell, everyone had heard about what had happened to Texas’s bull riding star at the World Finals—she just hadn’t ever expected a personal invitation to work on his rehab. But Mia had been insistent, and she supposed that if Tanner was okay with seeing her again, then she could be too. She was a professional physical therapist. She worked on top athletes for a living and she’d perfected the friendly but professional relationship with all the men she saw on a regular basis. Why would Tanner be any different?
Her heart did a little flutter, but she ignored it. Tanner was in the past, period. This was a professional engagement, nothing more, nothing less. So what if she’d technically be vacationing with him on a beautiful island in Fiji? The fact her skin was on fire had nothing to do with Tanner, and she’d booked this trip months ago as a way to prove to herself and everyone else in her life that she was capable of relaxation. The irony that she’d now be working on her one vacation in almost a decade wasn’t lost on her though.
She texted Mia back, her thumb flying fast over the screen of her iPhone.
All confirmed, available for the entire three weeks if needed. Send me through all the final details, including his latest scans and reports so I can review, and you should already have my itinerary so you can schedule his flights and room. Looking forward to it. Lauren.
She set her phone down and scooped her long dark hair up into a ponytail, slipping a tie from her wrist. She stripped down, put on tights and a t-shirt, then made her way into the adjoining bathroom. Lauren turned the faucet on and studied her face while she waited for the water to run hot. What would Tanner think after all this time? Would he think she’d aged? That she was different? Her face was a little slimmer than it had been back in high school and there were tiny lines feathering beside her eyes, but hell, that was twelve years ago. He’d probably changed since then, too.
She washed her face then dried it and rubbed in some tinted moisturizer before brushing her teeth and heading downstairs. She’d walk to yoga and grab a shake for breakfast on the way. Who knew, it might help her stop thinking about a handsome as hell, reckless, fun-loving cowboy who’d stolen her heart in high school and had never, ever truly given it back to her. Or if he had, it sure as heck wasn’t in one piece.
She grabbed her phone off the counter and her keys, then let herself out and locked the door, smiling the second sunshine hit her face and a light breeze of wind tickled against her bare skin.
Lauren dialed her sister, Hannah, grinning to herself as she thought about her sister’s reaction to what she was doing.
“Hey,” Hannah answered. “Tell me something exciting. Did you go out last night?”
“Me, exciting?” Lauren laughed. “Come on, you know me, an exciting night is watching more than one show on Netflix and getting a big sleep.”
“Seriously, when you’re up to your elbows in diapers one day, with kids’ television shows blaring, and you’re operating on zero sleep and way too many coffees? You’ll be wishing you’d made the most of your single years.”
Lauren stifled a laugh. She didn’t know whether Hannah was joking or whether it was a genuine plea for help. “You need me to come over and help out?” she asked. “Because seriously, I was just going to a class. I can jump in my car and be there in, like, an hour?”
“No.” Hannah sighed. “I just, you know, I love my kids so much but sometimes I’d just like to hit pause for a day, a weekend, heck maybe even an entire week. It’d be nice to go to the toilet for once without having an audience of little people.”
“I can’t imagine being at home with kids. It must be…” she wasn’t sure what the word was. Boring? Repetitive? “But I do totally get the operating on coffee and zero sleep thing, that’s one thing I do understand.”
“Rewarding,” Hannah said for her. “It’s all meant to be so rewarding, and I get it, I do. I love my kids so much my heart just about bursts sometimes, but I’m still the old me, too. I want to drink too much every once in a while and sleep in, or just talk to another adult for longer than thirty minutes without someone throwing up on me or pooping or needing to be fed.”
“You realize you’re totally putting me off ever having children, right?” Lauren teased. “You may never be an aunty if you keep being so honest with me about this whole child rearing business.”
“You’d actually need to meet someone first, you do know that, don’t you? And your last boyfriend doesn’t count because he was a douche bag.” Hannah said as crying erupted in the background. “You haven’t started dating some gorgeous player, have you? Because if you have I want every juicy detail. Don’t leave anything out!”
Lauren laughed. “Not a chance. You know I’m way too professional for that.”
She heard it all the time from Hannah, and her mom, and just about every other woman in her life. She even received raised eyebrows from the player’s wives and girlfriends early on, until they’d quickly realized they had nothing to worry about where she was concerned. She just didn’t look at the guys she worked on like that. She took her job as physical therapist with the Texas Rangers seriously, and she would never, ever date a player or let anything happen to ruin her career. Or theirs.
“I was calling to say that my trip is next week,” she said, talking louder as the crying intensified. “In case you’d forgotten.”
“Ha!” Hannah scoffed. “Like I’d forget the exact hour you’re flying to some magical island and leaving me in domestic bliss.”
“I just, well, things have changed a little, so it’s not exactly the vacation I planned.”
“Don’t tell me you’re working in the off-season again? You need a proper break!”
“Well, it’ll be part vacation, part work,” Lauren told her. “Heavy on the vacation part though.”
“I’d do anything to be going to Fiji right now, so I guess if you have to combine it with some work, so be it.”
“The work’s with, um, well, with Tanner. You remember Tanner Ford?”
There was silence down the line. She had no idea where the crying child had gone or if Hannah was even there still.
“Tanner?” Hannah suddenly hissed. “Tanner Ford? Quick, spill, I’ve locked myself outside for a minute.”
Lauren smiled as she imagined Hannah on the other side of the door, with pudgy-faced, sticky-fingered little ones pressed to the glass, watching mommy from inside.
“It’s a professional trip for him. He’s injured and his sister called me to see if I’d work on him. He needs intensive rehab to get ready for the next season, and…”
“Is he okay with this? I mean, you kind of broke the guy’s heart, Lauren.”
And mine. Lauren had never, ever forgotten the deep burn in her chest and the pain that reverberated through every inch at her when she’d walked away from Tanner. It was heartbreak like she’d never known before, and she’d made sure to protect herself from it ever happening again, too.
“I guess I’ll find out soon enough,” she replied. “Honestly, he’s probably forgotten all about me. He’s a professional bull rider now and I doubt he’d have agreed to me treating him if he had a problem with it, and I said the only way I could work on him was if he met me in Fiji.”
“Wow. Just, wow,” Hannah sighed. “Sorry, the kids are staring at me through the glass like I’ve abandoned them. I’d better go.”
“Okay, see you later.”
Lauren hung up and smiled to herself as she walked, imagining Hannah with her kids. They were a handful, with twins who weren’t yet two years old and a three-year-old too, but they were gorgeous. She was happy focusing on her career for now, but sometimes when she talked to Hannah or visited, it made her think about the future. She’d been so focused on work for so long that she needed to start making an effort with her social life, otherwise she’d probably wake up at 50, alone and wondering why the hell she’d never made an effort to go on any dates. And she knew she had a type—the guy who was fun for a little while but was never going to be anything serious, or someone nice who she had no intention of committing to. Deep down she knew she needed to put the effort into meeting the right guy, but …
There’s always online dating, she thought, shuddering at the thought as she stopped outside her favorite café and headed in to order a juice. Over my dead body.
Copyright © 2018 by Soraya Lane