THREE: 2:36 AM
I push the weight up with my legs, straining, aching, and fighting the agony in my right knee. I manage to straighten my legs, and I desperately want to lower them and release the strain. I start to do just that…
“Hold it there for me, Ben,” Cheyenne says. “For ten seconds. That’s all. Ten seconds. You can do it, I know you can.”
But I can’t. I’m a fucking pussy, and it hurts. I try, though. I shake all over, sweat sluicing down my face. I strain, and a growl escapes me as I fight the urge to let the weight go.
“…nine…eight…seven…six! Keep it up, Ben! Five more seconds, come on!” She’s kneeling beside me, her voice patient and encouraging as it always is.
My leg trembles, and the pain in my ruined knee is so bad I could almost cry. “I can’t—fuck, I can’t. I gotta let it go.”
I start to lower the leg press, but my knee gives out. And Cheyenne is there, catching the weight and lowering it. I slide to a sitting position, grab my right leg near the knee and lift it over the bench, and then collapse forward, elbows on my thighs, gasping.
The most pathetic thing about this? The press only has a hundred pounds on it. And I only managed two reps of ten. I used to be able to press over twice my bodyweight, six or eight reps of twenty each. Now, a hundred measly fucking pounds pushed twenty times and I’m out of breath, sweating, and my knee hurts so bad I don’t dare speak in case the tremor my in my voice would show. I feel her hand on my shoulder, and a white towel appears in front of my face. I take the towel, dab my face, neck, and chest, and then accept the bottle of water she hands to me.
“That was great, Ben. You’re making excellent progress.” She sips from her own bottle of water, another towel slung over her slim shoulder. She toys with her hair, a sleek blond braid hanging down her back. “Next time we’ll try for three reps, huh?”
“I barely managed two today, Cheyenne. Gonna take awhile to get to three.” I hate how defeated I sound.
She crouches in front of me, and my eyes go involuntarily to her gray-and-pink sports bra, visible beneath the white tank top, and then to her muscular thighs, encased in black knee-length stretch pants. I force my eyes back to her hazel-green gaze. If she noticed me checking her out, she doesn’t give anything away. “Ben, you’re too hard on yourself. It’s only been a month. It’s going to take some time, okay? You have to be patient with yourself.”
“I know,” I sigh, and roll my head around my shoulders to loosen the tension. “It’s just frustrating to be so limited.”
She smiles, warm and understanding. Only the slight crow’s feet in the corners of her eyes give away the fact that she’s older than me by quite a bit. I don’t know how much, but enough. She has a daughter in college, so she’s got to be at least forty. But Jesus, what a gorgeous forty.
“I get it, Ben. I do.” She pats my knee, the good one. Is it me, or do her fingers linger a few seconds too long? “I went through it too, remember? I know what you’re going through, how hard it is. You can do this. You just have to be patient and stay the course.” She stands up, turns away and grabs two ten-pound hand weights from a rack.
She’s facing away, so I let myself eye her ass. Taut, all toned muscle.
Fuck, what’s wrong with me? She’s got a daughter in college, for fuck’s sake. She’s my physical therapist. I should not be checking her out. But yet, every time I’ve been here since being injured in the game that ended my chances at a football career, I check her out. I struggle to keep my eyes off her, especially when she’s looking my way. Like she is now. Shit. She totally caught me staring. But yet, she doesn’t turn cold, doesn’t scold me, or glare at me. She just offers me the same kind, warm, patient smile she always has for me.
“Come on. Time to walk that knee out, mister. Come on. Up, up, up.” She grabs me by the hand and pulls me up to my feet.
Her hands linger in mine, just for a moment, but it’s enough to make me wonder. And then she’s putting the weight in my hands and gesturing to the track that leads around the perimeter of the gym. She walks beside me, twenty-pound weights in her hands, and sets the pace. She ignores the fact that I’m fighting to keep up, that I’m hobbling so bad it can barely be called walking. And then a ripple in the carpet catches the toe of my cross trainer, and I trip. I lurch forward, hobble, and my bad knee twists and goes out from under me. I fall, the weights dropping from my hands. My knee crashes into the floor, and pure agony lances through my leg, shooting from toe to hip, throbbing so hard my gut tightens. I roll off my knee, clutching it, gasping, fighting the urge to curse a blue streak.
“Ben! Shit! Are you okay?” She’s kneeling beside me, helping me sit up.
Her hand goes to my knee, and she rips open the snaps of my track pants up past my knee, baring my hairy thigh. Her hands are warm and strong, flexing my knee, straightening my leg until I yelp.
“Fuck!” I pull free of her hold on my leg and lay back. “Fuck, that hurt.”
“I think we’d better call it a day,” Cheyenne says, a concerned expression on her face. “I’m worried that’s going to swell.”
“Yeah, no shit.” My voice is hoarse with the effort needed to breathe through the pain like a man.
“Can you stand up?” She’s taking my hand, pulling.
“Yeah, I can fucking stand, okay?” I snap, jerking my hand away.
“Fine then, stand up.” She backs away, not quite hiding the hurt before I see it.
I scrub my hand through my hair. “God, Cheyenne, I’m sorry. I’m being an asshole and you don’t deserve it.”
And just like that, the smile is back. She holds her hand out to me, and this time I take it and let her help me pull me to my feet. “Okay, see if you can put any weight on it,” she tells me, not letting go of me.
I hobble, get my balance, and gingerly put weight on my knee. “Nope, nope, nope. Not happening,” I grunt, hopping as my knee gives, wincing.
“Okay. Lean on me.” She slides her slim shoulder under my arm and supports me.
She’s a lithe little thing, barely five-five to my six-two, and I outweigh her by at least seventy pounds, but she still manages to support my weight and help me limp out of the gym and to the locker room. I lower myself to the bench and straighten my leg, closing my eyes as the motion sends pain shooting through me.
“That set us back, didn’t it?” Cheyenne asks.
I nod. “Yeah, I think it did.”
She sits down next to me and buttons the snaps of my pants leg. When she’s done, she’s sitting just a little too close to me. “You need ice on that.”
“Yeah, I’ll ice it when I get home.”
“You have a ride?”
I shrug. “No, I’ll just take the bus, then walk, same as always.”
She frowns. “Ben, you can’t. You’ll hurt yourself worse.”
“Well I can’t drive with my knee fucked up, and I’m still working on teleportation.”
She snorts and smacks my shoulder. “Smart ass.”
“Better than being a dumbass,” I retort.
“Well, you’d be a dumbass not to just ask me if I can drive you home, then, wouldn’t you?”
I swallow my pride. “Cheyenne, would you mind driving me home?”
She smiles brightly. “Why sure, Ben, I’d be happy to.”
So I wait, leaning against the frame of the door as she wipes down the machines, shuts off the lights, and then locks the door behind us. She hikes her gym bag higher on her shoulder, and I, out of the instinct drilled into by my mom and dad, take it from her.
“Ben, I can—” she starts to protest.
“And so can I. I have a shit knee, but I’m not useless.” I hang the bag from my right shoulder and lean on the cane.
She lets me carry her bag, shooting me a smile that’s somehow different from the ones she usually gives me. This one is…more personal, somehow. Less politely professional, containing a note of…I don’t know what. I can’t read Cheyenne, most of the time.
She opens the back door of her F-150, takes the bag from me, and tosses it in. I watch her climb up and in, and then around the truck to open the passenger door. It’s not a big truck, not jacked up as high as my Silverado is, but the step up and in is still going to be hellishly difficult. I set my cane—my stupid fucking cane—inside, grab the handle and the seat and lift myself into the seat using only my upper body.
“Nothing wrong with your core muscles, clearly,” Cheyenne says, a strange note in her voice.
I glance at her, surprised by the comment, but she focuses on putting the truck in gear and backing out. I have to be crazy, because it almost looked like she was blushing there for a moment. But that’s stupid. There’s no way a forty-year old fox of a woman with a grown daughter would be blushing over a twenty-two year-old kid. I give her directions to my apartment, and the ride is surprisingly comfortable, no awkwardness. She tunes the radio to an XM country station, and “Cowboy Side of You” by Clare Dunn comes on. I surprise myself by knowing the lyrics. But then, you don’t grow up in Nashville, and now live in Texas, without hearing some country music, even if it’s not really your thing.
We pull up to my apartment, and she hops out, circles around and hovers near me as I slide out. God, I hate being a damned invalid, having her hover over me in case I fall. But a part of me, way deep down, kind of likes having her close, having her hover. Because it means she cares.
And shit, this last year has been fucking lonely.
I have to lean on the cane more than I’d like on the way up the front door of my apartment, which, fortunately for me, is a ground floor. Cheyenne is beside me, not really hovering now, more just…there. In case. I unlock the door, shove it open and let bang against the inner wall. Hobble through, and glance back at Cheyenne, who hasn’t crossed the threshold.
“Hey, so…you want to come in for a second?” I ask.
She hesitates. “I…” her eyes go to mine, and then she smiles. And it’s that other smile. Still bright and warm and genuine, but…intimate. I don’t know how else to think of it. “Sure, for a few minutes.”
I flick a switch to turn on the lights in the kitchen, and then the lamp in the living room. And that’s the apartment. Kitchen, living room, a bedroom. Tiny, but mine. Well, Dad’s. He’s been subsidizing me while I got started in FXFL, the experimental minor league football league. Except now…I’m not sure what’s going to happen. I didn’t tell him about the hit I took, or what it means. I’ve been avoiding it.
And fuck, my place is messy. Dishes in the sink, clothes on the floor in the doorway to my room, unmade bed, a pizza box on the counter.
I grimace and glance sheepishly at Cheyenne. “This place is kind of a mess. Sorry.”
She just grins. “You’re a bachelor. I’d be worried if it wasn’t.” She lifts the lid of the pizza box with a thumb and forefinger, glances in and closes it again quickly; it’s been there a while. “And you should see my place. It’s not much better.”
See her place. Huh. I’m not sure I’m entirely comfortable with the thoughts that inspires. I think of a cute little two bedroom house in the ‘burbs somewhere, and then I think of a king-size bed, maybe a blue quilt, and a bra hanging on the bathroom doorknob. I feel my cheeks heat and turn away from her before she sees.
“I do have some pizza that’s only from yesterday,” I tell her, grabbing the box from the fridge. “And some Killians.”
Her eyes light up. “Now that’s the best idea I’ve heard all day.”
So that’s how I end up sitting on my couch, finishing off a large pepperoni pizza and a six-pack with my physical therapist, watching Die Hard 2.
More confusing, though, is our arrangement on the couch. I’m in the corner, feet propped up on the coffee table, and she’s sitting right up against my side, body twisted to face the end of the couch, legs curled up under her, watching the movie. And my arm…it’s along the back of the couch. Not around her, per se, but close. Very nearly. And my pulse thunders in my veins, my hand itches to go lower, to curl around her shoulders. I mean, that’s crazy talk, right there. But the desire is there. And I can’t help but wondering what she’d do if I did let my arm slide down onto her shoulders. Maybe nothing, maybe she’d welcome it, maybe she’d get upset. But no, she’s not that kind of person. She’d find a way to let me down gently, and that’d be that.
Halfway through the movie, she gets up to visit the bathroom, and with my nerves jangling, I let my arm slide just a bit lower on the couch back. She comes back, her eyes flicking to me, to my arm. But she sits down anyway, and she settles in close once more. And now…my arm is around her. She sinks lower in the couch, and actually leans in closer to me. My mouth is dry. The exhaustion of the day catches up to me, and I find myself blinking to stay awake. Beside me, Cheyenne is fighting sleep as well, drifting closer and closer to me so that, by the time the movie is over, she’s fully propped up against me. For a woman who’s fit and taut and muscular, she’s also soft. My hand slides down as the credits roll, and it comes to rest against her waist, my fingertips brushing the upper swell of her hip.
I’m nearly asleep, but her proximity, the feel of her against me is heady. But eventually I can’t fight it, and I drift off.
I start, blink, and realize I’ve fallen asleep. The TV has turned off on its own to conserve energy. I crane my neck and glance at the red numbers of the microwave: 2:23 am.
Shit. We slept for a long time. My therapy appointment was at seven, lasted for an hour and a half, and then the movie…
Cheyenne stirs against me, stretches, making a sound in the back of her throat that has my heart clenching for some odd reason, something to do with how cute it is, how intimate a sound it is. “Time’s it?” she asks.
She jerks upright. “Shit. I’ve got a client at nine, I’ve gotta go.”
I lever myself to my feet, leaning on my cane. But I forget how weak my knee is and put too much weight on it and stumble. And she’s there, catching me. Close. So close. She’s looking up at me, hazel-green eyes full of things I don’t know how to interpret.
“Okay?” she asks, her voice barely above a whisper.
And she hasn’t moved away, and somehow, for some reason, her arms are around my waist…or one is, the other resting on my chest. My breath comes slowly, deeply, because my arms are around her too, resting on her back and sliding lower, and she’s not doing a damned thing to stop me.
She blinks, and her tongue slides across her lips, and my eyes follow that movement.
I refuse to think, just let whatever is going to happen happen.
She smells like shampoo and faintly of sweat, and she’s small and soft in my arms, and her chest is pressed up against mine, breasts that even a sports bra can’t hide despite her svelte, athletic build.
Fuck me, I want to kiss her so bad. I’ve been so lonely, dealing with such wrenching heartbreak for so long, holding myself back from making a move too soon with Kylie, wanting the time to be right. I waited, and I waited too long. I don’t want to make that mistake again. I’m not going to let fear hold me back any longer.
So I lean in and I feel her breath on my lips, feel her fingers curling in my Under Armor shirt…and I feel her lips, soft, damp, warm, against mine…
But then she’s backing away slowly and carefully, but decisively. “Ben…god, I can’t. We can’t.” She waits until she’s sure of my balance, thinking of me even now.
Embarrassment, hurt, and disappointment all war within me. “No, I’m sorry, I don’t know what I was thinking.”
She reaches toward me, but doesn’t touch me. “Don’t apologize, Ben. It was as much me as you. But I just… I can’t.” She lets out a long, shaky sigh. “I have a daughter your age, Ben. And I’m your therapist. You’re my client. I just can’t let this…I just can’t.”
I nod. “I get it.” I shutter my emotions, shove them down, force a casualness into my voice that I don’t feel. “You’re a great therapist, Cheyenne. For real. You’ve helped me a lot over the last month. I just hope…I hope this doesn’t affect our working relationship.”
She smiles, but it’s strained and slightly closed, now. “It’ll be fine.” She lets out another breath, and then rubs her eyes. “I have to go. It’s late and I live on the other side of town.”
And now that I’m paying attention to anything other than how I feel, I see how tired she is. There are dark circles under her eyes. She seems to sag for a moment, and then gathers her strength and straightens.
“Cheyenne, maybe you should…” I hesitate to offer, considering what just happened. “Are you sure you’re okay to drive?”
She smiles and shrugs. “Oh, sure. I was an ER nurse for a long time. I’m used to it.”
I gesture at the couch. “You can stay here, you know.”
She shakes her head and moves toward the door. “No, I should go. But thank you.”
I follow her to the front door, leaning on my cane. She pauses with the door open, and I wasn’t expecting it, intending to follow her through and watch her go from the front step. So when she stops and turns back, I’m right there, and she bumps into me. And now my arms are around her again, and I don’t know what the fuck I’m thinking, but I’m milliseconds away from trying to kiss her again.
She stumbles away from me, less carefully this time. Her eyes seem pained, haunted, as if pulling away is difficult for her. “Ben, stop. Please don’t.”
I back away. “Jesus, I’m sorry, Cheyenne. I’m sorry.”
She stays in place, hands over her face. She suddenly seems so tired, so small. “You don’t know how I wish I could…it’s been so long, and—” she shakes her head. “But I can’t. Not with you, not now. I just can’t. I’m sorry, I really am.” She walks away then, and her feet drag. Her shoulders are bowed, as if feeling the pressure of refusing the kiss, twice, of walking away.
“Cheyenne?” I call. She stops with one foot in the cab, holding on to the roof. “Are you sure you’re okay to drive? You seem really tired.”
She smiles faintly. “I’m fine, Ben. I didn’t sleep well last night is all. But thank you.”
She climbs into the truck, closes the door, and starts the engine. Backs out. I stand in the doorway, the warm San Antonio night wrapped around me like a blanket. I watch her as she turns onto the main road, and I watch as she waits to make a left turn. There is no traffic and the streets are quiet. I’m about to go back inside when the light turns green and she steps on the gas. And then I see it. I see the on coming older model red Mustang run the light. She doesn’t see him. She’s too tired to check for traffic, probably, focused on the light ahead of her.
Her white truck is halfway through the intersection when the Mustang slams into her driver’s side door, going forty or fifty miles per hour.
“CHEYENNE!” I shout and hobble forward.
Her truck rocks with the impact and jolts to the side, topples, and then momentum and weight take over and the vehicle rolls over to the roof. I watch the cab crumple. Smoke rises from the hood. I can see her driver’s door is smashed in, crumpled.
“CHEYENNE!” I’m trying to run, but I can’t. I can barely walk, but I somehow make it out into the street, knee throbbing and protesting.
The Mustang is a few feet away, the hood accordioned, smoking.
I get to her overturned truck, just now remembering my cell phone is in my pocket. I dial 911, heart hammering, fear ramming my pulse into overdrive.
“Nine-one-one what’s your emergency?”
“A car…it ran the light and slammed into her.” I don’t know how to make sense. “The truck…I think she’s hurt…”
“Sir, can you tell me your location?” Her voice is calm, smooth, emotionless.
I glance at the street names and relay them, and then I’m awkwardly, painfully lowering myself to one knee at the driver’s side window, which is smashed out.
There’s blood on the road.
She’s not moving. Her head hangs; her braid is dangling over her shoulder.
“Cheyenne. Talk to me. Hey. Come on. You’re okay. Talk to me.” I reach in and tap her shoulder hesitantly. She doesn’t respond. “No. No. Cheyenne? Come on. Fuck. Fuck.”
“Sir?” I’d forgotten the 911 operator. “Sir, are you there?”
“She’s not moving, she’s not—she’s not—”
“Help is on the way, sir. We have your location and paramedics are en route. Just stay calm and don’t try to move her…”
But it’s no good. I can tell.
They won’t be able to help.
And when they show up and check her pulse and vital signs I know from the minute shake of a head…
My gaze falls upon the lock screen of my phone: 2:36 AM.
PRE-ORDER FALLING AWAY