Under Montana Skies
Darlene Graham

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Sylvia raised a palm. “Okay, girls. We’ve scared her enough.” She crossed to Laura’s desk.

“Listen, Laura, this is a tough case. No one wants to deal with this man, much less stay up on that mountain and do the hours of therapy necessary to—”

“You told me all that,” she put in, “and about the car accident.” She flipped back a page in the chart. “It says here he’s a widower. Was his wife killed in the accident?”

“Yes.” Sylvia sighed and ran a hand through her short-cropped frosted hair. “A terrible accident. Anyway, you’ll be taking this on as a private contract, with no supervisory visits. In other words you’re totally on your own. And once you and Mr. Scott sign that contract, I hope you’ll stay to finish the therapy regimen.”

Laura flipped more pages. Fractured scapula and humerus. Severe rotator-cuff tear, avulsed muscles, some nerve damage, adhesive capsulitis…. “This man’s surgery was almost a year ago. Why are we just now doing joint mobilization?”

“He shut himself off from people when he left the hospital. But now, all of a sudden, he wants full use of his shoulder back. It wasn’t happening fast enough to suit him with only two visits a week.”

Laura nodded and closed the chart. “I’m going to do joint mobilization once every day, assisted exercises twice a day, ice packs after each treatment.”

“Sounds good.” Sylvia glanced at her watch. “You’d better get going. As I said, Adam Scott demands punctuality.” Frowning, Sylvia bent her head, and said confidentially, “You know, you’re a brave girl to accept this assignment.”

Bravery has nothing to do with it, Laura thought as she lugged the heavy portable massage table and arm bike out to her old Toyota. The obscene amount of money this patient was willing to pay for a private full-time physical therapist for six weeks was her sole motivation.

When Laura had first taken off with Stuart’s money, she hadn’t realized how much she would change. Over the past four years, as she’d finished her education and forced herself to mature and grow, she’d come to realize that she wouldn’t really be free until she paid Stuart back every cent. The salary Adam Scott was offering would go a long way toward getting rid of her debt.

But the nurses’ descriptions of her new patient kept ringing through her mind as she steered her little car along the narrow gravel road that skirted the sheer wall of rock high above Sixteen Mile Creek.

When at last the road ended, she felt as if she’d traveled back in time. A weathered log cabin squatted in an open glade like an old hen brooding on a nest. Two quaint dormer windows twinkled in the September sunshine, and a sturdy native-rock chimney buttressed one side of the steep blue roof. A deep porch across the entire front seemed like the perfect spot for enjoying mountain vistas, but it didn’t have a stick of furniture on it.

And there, on that porch, stood Adam Scott, waiting for her.

His face was hidden in the shadows, but his long muscular legs, clad in worn jeans and hiking boots, were crossed causally at the ankle. He leaned one shoulder—not the bad one, she noticed—against the rough-hewn door frame.

His body looked so…young. So strong!

The relaxed powerful figure leaning against that door certainly didn’t fit the picture of the lame bitter recluse her colleagues had conjured up.

She peered through her windshield. He didn’t look a day over thirty-five. Well, he was close enough at thirty-eight, but somehow she hadn’t expected him to be such a…hunk.

Laura fumbled on the floor for her satchel and tried to swallow the lump that had suddenly formed in her throat.

She glanced back up at him. He wasn’t leaning against the door frame anymore, and now his stance and folded arms radiated impatience.

She opened the car door and drew a deep breath. She climbed out, then carefully closed the door and walked up the path with what she hoped was self-assurance.

He came forward, scowling from under thick dark eyebrows, and the lump in her throat doubled in size, because now that he was in the sun, she could see that not only was he young and fit, he was extremely handsome.

He looked like a younger version of—who was that actor who’d played Marshall Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke?—James Arness. This guy had the same strong jaw. The same big hands. All of which kept him from seeming too perfect, too pretty.

His thick dark hair looked wild and untrimmed, with a few silvery strands sprigging at the temples.

His whole presence seemed unreal. As if he’d been plunked into this rustic setting by some visionary movie director: All right now. Stand there with the sun in your eyes—no, don’t shade them. Look mean. As if she’s a bug you intend to squash with your boot. That’s good. Oh—nice touch! Raising your arm and propping your palm rigidly against the porch post, like you aren’t even going to let her inside the cabin. Does somebody in wardrobe have a really worn-looking denim shirt?

The man fixed his dark eyes on her. When they caught the sun they flashed silver, like a…a wolf’s or something.

Laura averted her own gaze, feeling a little breathless. Not because she was climbing a steep grade, but because that look in his eyes had been so intense that it had left her feeling stunned.

As she climbed the porch steps, it occurred to her that the man before her might not even be her patient. He could be the hired help or a relative, perhaps.

But when he said, “Are you my new physical therapist?” in a low baritone, that small hope burst like a punctured balloon.

“Yes. I’m Laura Duncan—” Laura smiled and put out her hand as she took the last stair “—from Mountain Home Health Care.”

“And who is that?” He nodded toward the Toyota.

Laura dropped her hand and swiveled her head. Ned! She was so used to her ever present “safety man” riding in the passenger seat that she’d forgotten he was supposed to look real from a distance.

“That’s a safety dummy.” She looked up at her patient and smiled. “You know, to make it look like I have a passenger—I drive on a lot of isolated roads.” She stuck out her hand again. “It’s nice to meet you.”

He stared at her hand, then gave her a critical frown. “My right arm is injured, remember?” With that he turned his back and disappeared into the cabin.

Laura’s eyes went wide and she dropped her hand. Her throat got tighter as she felt herself blushing at her mistake.

She hesitated at the doorway, then peered in, wondering if he meant for her to follow. She couldn’t see him; her eyes were still adjusting from the bright mountain sunshine to the gloomy interior of the cabin.

“Well, come in, dammit.” His rich baritone came from somewhere in the darkness. “Don’t just stand there.”

Laura’s back stiffened, and she stood firmly rooted in the doorway. No amount of money was worth being cursed at. She’d had enough of that kind of treatment from Stuart.

She heard heavy footsteps, and in the next instant his face materialized in the shaft of sunlight pouring through the cabin door. She quailed at his fierce expression, but she stood her ground.

“What?” he said.

“Let’s get something straight, Mr. Scott. I heard about the way you treat the nurses. I’d appreciate it if you’d watch your language and your temper.”

He gave her another dark squint. “For the exorbitant amount I’m paying you, I can say and do just about anything I please.”

“Not to me.” Laura turned on her heel, stomped across the porch and clattered down the steps, marching to her car as fast as possible.

“Wait!” he hollered as he sprinted down the steps behind her.

“Okay, okay,” he said, coming up short beside her car as she tossed in her satchel and climbed behind the wheel. She saw him throw up his hands as she slammed the door.

He bent down beside the closed window as she started the engine. “Okay! No cursing!” he yelled through the glass.

Laura lowered the window a couple of inches but didn’t kill the engine.

“Look, Ms.—What’d you say your name was?”

“Duncan. Laura Duncan.” After four years she’d grown comfortable with her maiden name again.

“Ms. Duncan. Stay.” He backed up from the window, jammed his left hand into the pocket of his jeans and shrugged uncomfortably. “Please.”

Stuart used to shrug like that. An innocent-looking gesture that in Laura’s mind was as phony as a three-dollar bill.
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