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Under Montana Skies
Darlene Graham


“I suppose,” Laura said quietly.

He nodded and regarded her with cool detachment. “Good. Now if you don’t mind, I’d like my first treatment right away. My shoulder is killing me.”

CHAPTER THREE

WHILE LAURA DUNCAN was applying her strong skilled hands to his bare back, Adam had to make an effort not to feel what he was feeling, not to think what he was thinking.

It scared him, the effect this woman had had on him when he’d first seen her. The more he thought about it, the more he realized that it hadn’t just been that she was attractive. She’d looked…special.

No woman had looked that way to him since Elizabeth.

Of course, the few women he’d seen since he’d decided to go into hiding up on Sixteen Mile Creek couldn’t be considered much of a sampling. The husky postwoman delivering a package, those matronly Mountain Home nurses, the elderly Katherine. Nice ladies. None of them a threat to his precious memories.

Laura’s hands kept bringing his attention back to her. He could hear her gentle breathing becoming more labored as she worked diligently. She’d made him sit in one of the straight-backed chairs, facing backward, and was rhythmically digging her thumb into a muscle that had felt like a burning knot only seconds ago.

“You have a trigger point here, where a tight muscle is crossing a nerve and compressing it. I’ll be sure to use moist heat packs on it before the next treatment.”

Yes, even from a distance this woman had looked singular, unique. Despite her faded jeans and that neon-orange sweatshirt with that dumb slogan—PHYSICAL THERAPISTS HAVE PATIENTS—she exuded a kind of elegance.

He had watched her unload her belongings from the hatchback of that faded red Toyota like a magician pulling stuff out of a hat. First had come her personal bags, surprisingly compact, then she’d heaved out a big rectangle that looked like a folding table. After that she’d struggled with a contraption that looked like the front half of a small bike, mounted on a stand.

Then a CD player, a pillow, a gym bag that seemed too heavy for a woman of her petite stature, and a large gift basket—what was that for?

Finally, she’d taken out the life-size doll she’d called a safety dummy. The thing was done up to resemble a sort of Raggedy Andy cowboy with a painted-on face, plaid shirt, battered black hat, even an old pair of boots at the end of stuffed denim legs.

“The passenger door leaks when it rains, so better to keep him inside,” she’d explained as she lugged the dummy up the porch steps. “Meet Ned.” She stopped in the doorway and flopped the white muslin “hand” at him.

Adam had given the thing a dubious frown, but he’d admired the way she’d managed to cheerfully haul it and everything else up the cabin steps and inside without emitting so much as a groan.

“I’ll set up the massage table tomorrow. We can manage without it today,” she’d explained.

Now she was flattening her warm palm against the injured area, applying a gentle rotating pressure that seemed to pull the pain out. After a moment his eyes involuntarily closed with pure relief.

“Mr. Scott?”

His eyes flew open and looked straight into hers, only inches from his own. They were clear blue eyes, tilted up at the corners. No makeup.

“I’m afraid that was the pleasant part of the treatment.” She spoke softly, apologetically. Her voice was melodic and low, with a hint of a Southern drawl.

Her lips—moist-looking pink lips—parted, as if she was unsure about something. “Umm…for the next step, which may cause some discomfort, I’ll need you to be stretched out on your abdomen.”

She stood straight, swiveling at the waist as she scanned the room. Her breasts—perfect, very rounded—stretched the fabric of the sweatshirt.

“Where’s your bed?” she said.

Her gentle hands resumed massaging his shoulder muscles rhythmically while she waited for his answer.

Adam was so completely relaxed from what her hands were doing to him that he didn’t answer right away.

She leaned forward. “Mr. Scott? The bed?” she repeated.

He took a deep breath and reluctantly shoved himself to his feet. “Upstairs.”

He fumbled with his shirt, couldn’t find the armholes, gave up. “The, uh, stairs—” he pointed “—are in the kitchen.”

She followed as he led her through the door to the left of the fireplace, down a short dim hallway and into a bright kitchen at the back of the cabin.

NOW THIS ROOM is more like it, Laura thought.

Above the deep white enamel sink a solid bank of pleasingly spaced casement windows looked out on the verdant mountainside as it rose at an acute angle behind the cabin.

The varnished knotty-pine cabinets formed a cozy U around a waist-high chopping block. Thank God I’ll have plenty of ice, she thought when she noticed a large refrigerator, albeit an ancient rounded model, humming in the corner. An old wood-burning cast-iron cook stove completed the charming picture.

There were bird feeders outside the windows and fresh herbs growing on the sills in hand-thrown clay pots. A squat old teakettle stood on the stove, and a colorful quilt draped an antique rocker.

Adam jerked a leather strap on a plank door that groaned opened onto a narrow wooden staircase rising between two whitewashed walls. The stairs creaked as he clumped up them, Laura following.

At the top was an attic room that seemed even gloomier than the one below it. Laura’s first question when her eyes took in the enclosure with its bare-studded walls was going to be: Where is the bathroom?

She hadn’t noticed one downstairs. But when she glanced out the large floor-to-ceiling window set into the gable end by the stair landing, she saw her answer.

Below, at the end of a narrow footpath worn through the thick mountain grasses, looking like something from a picture postcard, sat a weathered gray structure. Complete with tin roof and quarter-moon hole in the door. An outhouse. Lovely.

She turned to her new patient and smiled bravely. “Please lie facedown on the bed with your shoulder near the edge. No pillow.”

He went to the heavy four-poster bed tucked up under the roof between two dormer windows, pulled off his boots, struggling with the left one, then did as she asked. Laura stood over him, warming some lotion between her palms and wondering how in the world she could continue. Though she’d admitted to herself right away that he was handsome, actually touching him had been a shock.

His skin was tanned, smooth and warm. As soon as she laid her hands on his firm back, she felt an electric thrill run through her fingertips, unlike anything she’d ever felt before. Certainly a sensation unlike any she’d felt while touching any other patient.

She’d made it through the warm-up phase of the therapy on sheer professional concentration, but now she wondered if she could complete the painful stretches and manipulations necessary to remove scar tissue without communicating her nervousness to him.

He was lying very still, his back muscles relaxed and his breathing regular. Careful not to drip the lotion on his bare back, she leaned forward and realized the man had fallen asleep.

WHEN HE WOKE UP, he realized he was upstairs in his bed, but couldn’t figure out how he’d gotten there or what time it was. The sunlight slanting through the western dormers was low and golden, so it must be evening.

He was startled when he saw a cowboy slumping between the wall and the bed, denim legs sprawled straight out as if the man was drunk. Then he remembered.

The safety dummy. Her.

He’d been so relaxed when she’d finished the first part of the treatment that he’d trudged up the stairs in a fog, flopped on the bed the way she told him to and then?

He sat up, rubbed his eyes, flexed his injured arm and shoulder. It felt pretty good. And he felt fantastic. He hadn’t slept like this since…He heard voices downstairs. Doc and Katherine. The delicious spicy aroma of Katherine’s lentil soup drifted up. Was it dinnertime already?

Laughter.

Laura Duncan’s laughter.

Man. Having her here was going to be tough. Why did they have to send him a beautiful female physical therapist? It was hard enough looking at her, but when she touched him…
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