"Jace Cooper's coming back to town!"
Rebecca Bradshaw's hand slipped on the edge of the whirlpool, and she dropped her clipboard into the churning water. Water splashed up onto the newspaper her patient, Bob Wilkes, held open just above the surface and sprayed onto the front of her white smock.
"Hey!" Yanking his paper out of the way, Bob gave her an indignant look. "Jeez, Rebecca, what if that had been a radio or a hair dryer or something?"
She frowned, more at her reaction to the news about Jace Cooper that Bob had read aloud than at him. "You would have gotten a free hairdo. May I have my board back, please?"
Bob's wide mouth lifted in the comic leer he had used on her on a regular basis over the last few months of his physical therapy. "Why don't you come and get it, beautiful?"
Rebecca slanted him a look. "Fork it over, Romeo, or I'll put you back on the tilt table and spin that thing like a roulette wheel."
Wilkes handed her the dripping clipboard with its sheaf of soggy papers. "You're heartless, a sadist."
"Flattery will get you nowhere," she said. As she tried to blot her notes and her sweater with a towel, unbidden thoughts of Jace Cooper tormented her. She quelled the urge she had to pump Bob for more information.
But as if he'd read her mind, he went on. "It says here that Cooper's being sent down to the Mavericks. He'll be playing here in Mishawaka if he can get his knee back in shape." Wilkes shook his head. "How do you like that? The guy gives the Chicago Kings six and a half great seasons. He's been an All-Star, he's been a Golden Glove winner. Now he gets wracked up, and they pack him off to the minors without so much as a fond farewell. He goes from the big show back to Class A ball overnight. That stinks."
"I imagine they got sick of his shenanigans off the field," Dominique LeGault said as she worked with a patient on the mat table.
Rebecca glanced up at her coworker. Dominique was a woman of rare and exotic beauty. She was a long-limbed six footer, with skin the color of cafe au lait and almond-shaped eyes that reflected her mother's Cherokee heritage.
Dominique shook her head, her wild cloud of black hair bouncing behind her. "With all his partying, practical jokes, and publicity stunts, that man was in and out of more trouble than the rest of his team put together."
"What a guy does on his time is his own business," Wilkes declared. "Which reminds me, Rebecca, do you want to watch a movie with me tonight?" He chuckled mischievously. "Bimbos Galore is now available on videocassette."
"As much as I've been waiting for that, I'll have to pass," she said firmly. "You know I don't date patients, Bob."
"Bad policy," he muttered.
It was a policy Rebecca had adhered to strictly during her nine years as a physical therapist. The one exception she had made to that rule—Jace Cooper—had turned out to be the biggest mistake of her life.
She pushed the thought from her mind as she abandoned her ruined notes and went to a cabinet against the far wall of the exercise room to get out the toolbox and the coffee can of miscellaneous screws, nuts, bolts, and pins. She had a patient with a spinal cord injury coming in an hour to make her first attempt at using the parallel bars, and the bars had to be adjusted.
Rebecca told herself she had no time to reflect on the news that Jace Cooper was coming back to town. What did she care? She didn't. The news had just surprised her, that was all.
"Jace Cooper," Mrs. Krumhansle, Dominique's patient, mused aloud. She scratched a hand back through her steel gray hair. "Isn't he the cute one with the ash blond hair and the great fanny?"
Dominique's hoarse laugh filled the air. "That's him."
"Good glove. Swings a mean bat when he wants to. I'll have to renew my season ticket."
"It seems to me we're doing a lot more talking than working in here today," Rebecca said sharply.
Bob Wilkes gave a low whistle and hid behind his newspaper. Dominique's exotic black eyes focused on Rebecca's from across the room. Rebecca dodged the question in her friend's gaze.
Concentrating on the task at hand, she squatted down and began to work on the piece of therapy equipment. She certainly had better things to think of than some overage adolescent getting kicked off his team. She had her next patient to think of. She had the proposed expansion of the physical therapy department to think of. She wondered if there was any way she was going to be able to talk the hospital board into providing a separate hydrotherapy room. She wondered what Jace Cooper had done to his knee.
"No, no, Rebecca," she muttered under her breath, shaking her head so her glossy black hair swung back and forth above her shoulders.
It upset her that the mere mention of the man could throw her into such a mental tailspin. Jace Cooper had ceased to be a part of her life. She had accepted that fact, had dealt with it. It wasn't as if she'd been carrying a torch for him. She'd dated other men over the years, had enjoyed other relationships. Jace Cooper didn't mean anything to her. He didn't matter a whit, not one iota.
Not more than ten feet away from her, the door to the therapy room was pushed open by Dr. Cornish.
Rebecca's gaze landed on the man resting on crutches beside the doctor.
He had the lean, tough good looks of an alley cat who'd won more fights than he'd lost. His hair was a little shaggy, dark at the roots but gradually lightening to a distinctive silver blond at the ends. Navy blue eyes stared at her from beneath dark brows.
As her heart went into a frenzied dance, Rebecca bolted to her feet, hitting her head on the bar. She dropped her screwdriver and upended the coffee can. Hardware spilled onto the smooth floor. Nuts and washers skittered off in all directions.
A tiny smile lifted one corner of Jace Cooper's mouth. "Well, Becca," he said softly, "you never were the mechanical one in your family."
"No." Rebecca's eyes burned with an emerald fire as she stared at Dr. Donald Cornish.
At five feet ten inches, she had no need to lift her head to look the balding, middle-aged doctor in the eye. She wasn't intimidated either by his disgruntled expression or by the tag on his white jacket that identified him as head of orthopedics.
Even though Rebecca was only thirty, she was the boss in physical therapy and everyone at the hospital knew it. Besides, she thought as she glanced out the window of her office at the man who was holding court in the exercise room, she would have stared down the devil himself to get out of working with Jace Cooper.
She watched as he grinned and laughed at something Bob Wilkes said. Jace had the kind of charm that attracted people to him. Everyone automatically liked him. He was charismatic. He was dangerous.
A shudder skidded through Rebecca's body. At first she labeled it as loathing. No, she corrected herself, not quite able to tear her gaze from the man, she was coming down with something. A spring cold, she decided. She felt dizzy, weak, feverish, and chilled at the same time. She definitely felt a cold coming on. She stubbornly refused to accept the fact that the symptoms had appeared the instant Jace Cooper had hobbled back into her life after nearly seven years. He couldn't have that kind of effect on her, not after all this time.
"Dominique or Max can work with him, or he can go elsewhere. I don't want anything to do with him."
"Why not?" Dr. Cornish asked in a West Texas drawl that sounded very out of place in Mishawaka, Indiana. Already he had given up acting tough. Rebecca knew it just wasn't in him. Donald Cornish was by nature an amiable sort.
Why not, he'd asked. She glanced away once again. This time her gaze ran head-on into a pair of dark blue eyes. Why not? There were a million reasons she didn't want Jace Cooper as a patient, a million reasons she never wanted to see him again. There was a reason to go with each piece of the heart he had so thoroughly broken seven years ago.
Her logical, analytical mind was shocked at how fresh, how sharp, the pain seemed. She wasn't the kind of person who nursed a grudge, but seeing Jace again had wrenched open a door to the past she would rather have left nailed shut.
"Rebecca, do you have any idea who that is?" Cornish asked in a plaintive tone. "That's Jace Cooper, third baseman for the Chicago Kings. Do you have any idea how I love the Kings?"
"Donald, I don't want to hear about your personal perversions," she said with a hint of the dry humor he was used to hearing from her. "Take them up to the fifth floor. I'm sure Dr. Baxter could make room for you on his couch. As for Jace Cooper, I don't give a rat's posterior what he does. I'm too busy to work him into my schedule."
"I suppose it doesn't matter to you that he's going to be playing with the Mavericks until he gets himself back in top form. Do you know what that could mean to the Mavericks, your own hometown team?"
Her expression clearly told him exactly how much it meant to her. "Then let the Mavericks take care of him."
"You know full well the Mavericks' idea of a knowledgeable trainer is a guy whose brother used to empty bedpans at the VA hospital." Dr. Cornish affected a somewhat resigned air as he took a step away from Rebecca and shoved his hands into the pockets of his brown trousers. "Mr. Cooper specifically requested you as his therapist."
"Well, tough. Tell Mr. Cooper that for once in his life he isn't going to get what he wants. There are hundreds of qualified physical therapists in Chicago. I can't believe he found them all so unsatisfactory that he had to come here and bother me."
The door to her office swung open, and the object of her scorn hobbled in. The years hadn't altered his physique, she noted with grudging admiration. He wasn't a man of intimidating size, yet even on crutches Jace radiated an athletic energy that charged the air around him.
He had the kind of lean, rangy build that lent itself well to his profession. The well-muscled shoulders and upper arms that were now encased in a soft pink polo shirt gave him the power to swing a bat with authority. His slender waist and muscular legs, now hiding beneath a snug pair of jeans, gave him agility and speed on the infield. Baseball couldn't have custom-ordered a more perfect body for its needs.
Then Rebecca's gaze came to rest on the Lenox-Hill derotation brace he wore. It began at midthigh on his left leg, where his pant leg had been cut off to accommodate the metal and elastic device, and ended below his knee. A pain twisted in her chest. She looked away. No, she didn't want to know what had happened. He wasn't going to be her patient, therefore she didn't need to know. Even as she felt his unwanted allure take hold of her attention, she told herself she didn't want anything to do with this man, ever again.
"I know I'm barging in," Jace said. He watched Rebecca from the corner of his eye as he flashed a dazzling smile at Dr. Cornish. "But it is my body you're discussing. Hope you don't mind if I sit in."
"I do mind," Rebecca said tightly as she watched him ease himself down on the chrome-and-black-vinyl chair.
"Rebecca!" Dr. Cornish said in a lightly admonishing tone. He slouched down on the other chair in front of her desk and grinned at Jace like the village idiot. "Jace has every right to be in on this discussion."
She gave the doctor a stern look. He was as transparent as plate glass. Obviously he believed she wouldn't refuse the request with Jace sitting right there. Men. They always managed to stick together.
"Jace was telling me you worked with him before on a rather severe shoulder injury. He was very satisfied with the outcome."
"It was a slight separation," she said, crossing her arms over her chest and trying to look in command of the situation. "I followed the basic therapy routine. It was hardly on the scale of Lazarus being raised from the dead."
Jace sat back in his chair and smiled. If she remembered his slight injury after all these years, he had reason to hope. In his blacker moments since the accident, he had wondered if she would remember him at all. Seven years was a long time, and Rebecca Bradshaw was a very attractive lady. He had held out little hope that she would still be single, but the accommodating Dr. Cornish had informed him that Rebecca was indeed still eligible. That raised some interesting questions in his mind, but they were questions that were going to have to wait.
"Well," he said, giving her a little smile, "I was certainly impressed."
She merely stared at him. One thing hadn't changed in seven years—the lady still had a look that could freeze the Equator.
Jace took a deep breath and forged onward. "That was why I asked Dr. Cornish if you could be my therapist for this knee business."
"I'm afraid that's impossible, Mr. Cooper," she said in her most businesslike tone, ignoring the sudden jump her heart rate had taken at his rogue's smile. "As director of the department, I have a great many administrative duties. My patient load is restricted to very special cases. I can assure you, you don't qualify."
Dr. Cornish leaned forward and offered Jace a lemon drop from the dish on Rebecca's desk. He took one himself and popped it into his mouth, then directed his steady brown gaze at the recalcitrant therapist. "I'm certain we can arrange something."
"And I'm certain we can't," Rebecca said. "I hope Mr. Cooper can understand that I have responsibilities I can't simply walk away from."
Jace barely managed to keep from wincing. Something else hadn't changed in seven years—the lady still had a tongue that could draw blood. At least she wasn't indifferent to him. He knew there was a fine line between anger and passion. If she still harbored one toward him, maybe she harbored the other as well. He was determined to find out one way or the other.
Excerpted from Straight from the Heart by Tami Hoag. Copyright © 2007 by Tami Hoag. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.