Emerson Montgomery straightened the boxes of elastic bandages on the shelf in front of her for the thousandth time that hour. Turning to survey the one-room physical therapy office tucked in the back of Millhaven’s medical center—aka Doc Sanders’s family practice—she surveyed her new digs in search of something to keep her occupied. She’d already rearranged the rolls of athletic tape, wiped down the questionably sturdy portable massage table—along with the geriatric treadmill and recumbent bike over by the far wall—and organized the mismatched hand weights and resistance tubing she’d dug out of the storage closet.
She was still an hour shy of lunch on her first day at work, and she’d officially run out of things to do. Beautiful.
Now she had nothing but time to dwell on the fact that in the last two weeks, she’d lost a job she’d loved, a boyfriend she hadn’t, and the ability to keep the one vow that had saved her life twelve years ago.
She was back in Millhaven.
Emerson blew out an exhale, trying to ignore the stiffness in her knees that made her wonder if her synovial fluid had been replaced with expired Elmer’s glue. She knew she should be happy Doc Sanders had been willing to hire her to do supplemental physical therapy, especially when the fifteen job inquiries Emerson had made before her last-ditch call to the doctor had yielded fifteen positions requiring sixty hours a week, with fifty-nine of them on her feet. Under normal circumstances, Emerson would’ve pounced on any of those employment opportunities before returning to Millhaven. Hell, under normal circumstances, she’d have never left her high-powered, higher-energy job as one of the top physical therapists for the Super Bowl Champion Las Vegas Lightning in the first place. Of course, everything she’d known about normal had been blasted into bits five weeks ago.
And if there was one thing Emerson knew by heart, it was that once you broke something into enough pieces, your chances of putting it back together amounted to jack with a side of shit.
The door connecting the physical therapy room and the hallway leading to Doc Sanders’s office space swung open with a squeak, and the woman in question poked her head past the threshold.
“Hi, Emerson.” She swept a hand toward the PT room in an unspoken request for entry. Emerson nodded, sending a handful of bright-red hair tumbling out of the loose, low ponytail at her nape.
“Hey, yes, sure. Come on in Doc . . . tor Sanders,” she said, awkwardly tacking on the more formal address. But the woman was her boss, an MD who she respected greatly, and at any rate, more than a decade had passed since Emerson had left Millhaven. She was an adult now, a professional. Accomplished. Capable.
Even if her pretense for coming back home was a complete and utter lie.
“Emerson, please,” Doc Sanders said, her smile conveying amusement over admonition. “I know with all your experience, you’re probably used to different protocol with physicians, but call me Doc. No one in Millhaven has called me Doctor in . . . well, ever. And quite frankly, it makes me feel kind of stodgy.”
Emerson dipped her chin, half out of deference and half to hide her smile. While all of the doctors on the Lightning’s payroll had been top-of-their-field talented, they’d also sported enough arrogance to sink a submarine, making sure everyone down to the ball boys knew their status as MDs. Even though she’d technically earned the title of “Doctor” along with her PhD five years ago, she never used it, preferring to go by her first name like all the other physical therapists at the Lightning. True, she’d been the only one of the bunch with the varsity letters after her name, but the title meant nothing if she wasn’t good enough to back it up hands-on. Plus, she’d always felt something heavy and uncomfortable in her chest on the rare occasion anyone called her Dr. Montgomery. She turned around every time, looking for her father.
Don’t go there, girl. Head up. Eyes forward.
Emerson cleared her throat, stamping out the thoughts of both her father and her lost job as she kept the smile tacked to her face. “You got it, Doc. How are things in the office?”
“Not so bad for a Monday, although I could’ve done without Timmy Abernathy throwing up on my shoes.”
“Gah.” Emerson grimaced. Broken bones and ruptured tendons she could handle, no sweat. But stomach woes. No, thank you. “Sorry you’ve had a rough morning.”
“Eh.” Doc Sanders lifted one white-coated shoulder. “Timmy feels worse than I do, and I had an extra pair of cross-trainers in my gym bag. At any rate, I’ve got a patient for you, so I thought I’d pop over to see if you have an opening today.”
Emerson thought of her schedule, complete with the tumbleweeds blowing through its wide-open spaces, and bit back the urge to laugh with both excitement and irony. “I’m sure I can fit someone in. What’s the injury?”
“Rotator cuff. X-rays and MRI are complete, and Dr. Norris, the orthopedist in Camden Valley, ordered PT. But the patient is local, so I figured if you could take him, it’d be a win-win.”
“Of course.” An odd sensation plucked up Emerson’s spine at the long-buried memory of a blue-eyed high school boy with his arm in a sling and a smile that could melt her like butter in a cast-iron skillet. “Um, my schedule is pretty flexible. What time did he want to come in?”
“Actually, he’s a little anxious to get started, so he came directly here from the ortho’s office . . .”
Doc Sanders turned toward the hallway leading to her waiting room, where a figure had appeared in the doorframe. Emerson blinked, trying to get her brain to reconcile the free-flowing confusion between the boy in her memory and the man standing in front of her. The gray-blue eyes were the same, although a tiny bit more weathered around the edges, and weirdly, the sling was also a match. But the person staring back at her was a man, with rough edges and sex appeal for days, full of hard angles and harder muscles under his jeans and T-shirt . . .
Emerson stood with her feet anchored to the linoleum, unable to move or speak or even breathe. For the smallest scrap of a second, she tumbled back in time, her heart pounding so hard beneath her crisp white button-down that surely the traitorous thing would jump right out of her chest.
A blanket of stars littering the August sky . . . the warm weight of Hunter’s varsity jacket wrapped around her shoulders . . . the warmer fit of his mouth on hers as the breeze carried his whispers, full of hope . . . “Don’t go to New York. Stay with me, Em. Marry me and stay here in Millhaven where we’ll always have this, just you and me . . .”
“Emerson? What . . . what the hell are you doing here?”
The deeper, definitely more rugged-around-the-edges version of his voice tipped the scales of her realization all the way into the present. She needed to say something, she knew, but her mouth had gone so dry that she’d have better luck rocketing to the moon in a paper airplane right now.
“I work here,” Emerson finally managed, the truth of the words—of what they meant—delivering her back to reality with a hard snap. She hadn’t returned to Millhaven for a jaunt down memory lane. Hell, she’d only come back when her process of elimination had dead-ended in total despair. She was here for one thing, and one thing only. To bury herself in as much work as her body would allow. Even if her first client probably hated her guts.
Check that. Hunter had probably moved on ages ago and didn’t care one whit about her.
She sure hadn’t given him any reason to when she’d turned down his marriage proposal and left town without a backward glance.
“You work here.” Hunter’s lips parted, his shock going for round two. “As in, you’re back in Millhaven permanently?”
Regaining her composure (or, okay, most of it) she nodded. “I’m providing physical therapy for some of Doc Sanders’s patients.”
As if on cue, the doctor stepped toward the door, her Nikes squeaking softly over the aging linoleum. “Since you two seem to remember each other, I’ll leave you to discuss the particulars. Thanks for your help, Emerson. Hope you heal quickly, Hunter.”
They murmured a pair of thank-yous to Doc Sanders, although neither of them moved their eyes to watch her slip quietly down the hall. Emerson had no doubt the woman knew they’d remember each other—more than a decade might have passed since Emerson had clapped eyes on Hunter, but they’d spent their entire senior year glued at the hip and the lips. In a town as small as Millhaven, Doc Sanders would’ve had as much luck forgetting her own name as the fact that Emerson and Hunter had once been crazy about each other.
Although from the absolutely unreadable look on his still handsome-as-hell face, if Hunter remembered, it wasn’t fondly.
“Well,” Hunter said as he finally broke the silence. “Can’t say I ever expected to see you in Millhaven again. You were awful hell-bent on getting out of Dodge twelve years ago.”
She knew she deserved them, but his words made a direct hit to her solar plexus all the same. “I was.”
His brows lifted slightly, the only betrayal of his emotions. “I had no idea you were moving back to town.”
“I just got in over the weekend,” she said, selecting each syllable with care in order to give up as little information as possible about her return. If leaving the past behind was her number one goal, staying under the radar was a close second. Still, the fact that Hunter clearly hadn’t heard she was back was a minor miracle considering the fortitude of Millhaven’s small-town grapevine.
Then again, Emerson had barely been on the East Coast for a day and a half, and the only people who had known she’d planned to return were Doc Sanders, who detested gossip, and her parents, who were as unthrilled about the fallout from her move back to Millhaven as Emerson was to be here. Not that she’d told them the real reason she’d quit her job . . . or the truth behind why her star running back ex-boyfriend had quit her.
Head up, eyes forward.
She cleared her throat, straightening every millimeter of her five-foot-six frame despite the thudding ache it sent down the length of her spine. “Anyway, yes. I’m here in town permanently.”
“Welcome back.” Hunter’s expression had grown perfectly polite, as if only twelve days had passed instead of the twelve years since they’d last seen each other, and Emerson’s cheeks burned. She’d been so caught up in the spin cycle surrounding her move that the possibility of running into Hunter so soon hadn’t been on her radar.
But she’d known she would see him, and she’d known it would hurt. Just like she’d known without a shred of doubt that he was still in Millhaven. He’d certainly made no secret of his desire to stay in the small Virginia town every day for the rest of his life. And, of course, despite his chilly reception, he’d probably long since gotten over her leaving after high school.
Even if the fact that she couldn’t possibly have stayed had broken her heart.
“Thank you,” she said stiffly, stuffing the past back where it belonged. “You look great. Shoulder notwithstanding.”
“And you look like you’ve been busy over the last twelve years. Doctor Montgomery.”
The slight emphasis on her technical title accompanied an equally slight lift of Hunter’s chestnut-colored brows, and both made Emerson take a step back. She might not wear her title like a crown, or, okay, even care for the formal address, but she was still good at her job. She knew how to take care of people and help them heal, that was for damn sure.
“I got my doctorate in physical therapy five years ago from Swarington University. I may not be an MD like Doc Sanders, but I’m a licensed physical therapist with a concentrated specialty in sports medicine.”
“I don’t know,” he said, scanning the painted cinderblock walls with a cool, ice-blue stare. “That sure sounds well and good, but there are no credentials up there. Am I supposed to just trust you?”
Emerson’s pulse pressed hard at her throat. She’d left Millhaven for a reason, and it had been a damned good one. But that reason had been the one thing she’d never been able to tell him, the only thing she couldn’t possibly have confessed, so now she had no choice but to say, “I guess I can see why you wouldn’t want to take me at my word. My license and my degrees are currently in a moving van somewhere between here and Las Vegas. But I can promise I’m still more than qualified to treat you.”
“Actually, I know all about your qualifications.” Hunter regarded her from beneath the brim of his faded navy-blue baseball cap, but God, his expression was still indecipherable.
Hunter met both the challenge and the disbelief in her voice head-on. “First of all, Doc Sanders never would have hired you if you weren’t really legit. Secondly, you seem to forget how we operate around here. When the homecoming-queen-slash-valedictorian-slash-class president gets a handful of degrees from the most high-brow university in the nation, then a fancy job with a Super Bowl–winning football team, people in Millhaven tend to talk. A lot.”
Emerson slid a deep breath into her lungs at the laundry list of her senior year accomplishments. Not that she’d chosen any of them. “I remember exactly how you operate around here,” she said, smiling even though she had to work for it. “If Molly Mae so much as cuts someone’s bangs crooked down at the Hair Lair, people in Millhaven tend to talk.”
“Guess you’ve got us small-towners pegged just right, after all. So, what brings you all the way back to our humble little spot on the map, anyway?”
She fought the nervous fidget building in her veins. Nope. No chance in hell was she was putting her toes in that pond. Especially not with Hunter Cross, no matter how many sexy muscles time had managed to chisel over his body.
From the look of things, time had been one busy bitch.
“I came back here to work. Which I suspect is what brought you in to see me.” She gestured to his shoulder, praying the redirect would stick.
Score one for subterfuge. Hunter took a step forward, reluctantly offering up the manila file folder in his free hand. “It’s how I got hurt, yeah. Owen and I were hauling hay bales last week, and I lost my balance in the loft.”
Emerson’s heart twisted against her rib cage, but she smoothed her expression into neutral as she took the folder and placed it on the slim stretch of counter space in front of her. “Did you fall on your shoulder?”
“No.” He punctuated the word with a single shake of his head. “I caught myself one-handed going over the side.”
“Whoa. No wonder your rotator cuff is pissed.” Emerson propped the folder open, flipping through the orthopedist’s notes and the X-ray and MRI printouts in a clinical assessment. “Looks like you got lucky.”
Hunter’s brows winged upward. With his free hand, he gestured to the navy-blue canvas holding his right arm flush to his T-shirt. “You call this lucky?”
“Your shoulder strain is moderate,” she admitted, giving Dr. Norris’s notes one last look before closing the folder to meet Hunter’s are-you-kidding-me stare. “But there’s no tear to the muscles or tendons, not even a partial. Considering you hung, what”—she paused to measure him with a glance—“a hundred and ninety pounds on a network of tendons meant to hold your bones in place rather than support your body weight, and that you’ve previously suffered a full-thickness tear in the same rotator cuff, yes. With luck like that, I think you should be playing the lottery.”
Hunter paused, although the frown tugging at the edges of his ridiculously full mouth didn’t budge. “One ninety-five. And I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree, because from where I sit, not being able to lift anything heavier than a bottle of water is far from lucky. Especially in summer.”
“It’s only halfway through June,” Emerson pointed out. “If you follow doctor’s orders and rehab your shoulder properly, you should be able to return to light lifting at Cross Creek in about four weeks.”
“Are you implying that you think I won’t play by the rules, Dr. Montgomery?” Hunter’s eyes flashed more gray than blue, one corner of his mouth lifting just enough to bring out the dimple it had taken Emerson a full six months to block from her brain.
She scooped a breath all the way from her breastbone to her belly. The Hunter she’d known hadn’t been a rule breaker—rocking the boat had just never been his way. But he had been dedicated to the farm above all else, a devotion that had clearly grown even stronger in the twelve years that had passed. As badly as Emerson needed to drown herself in work right now, she wasn’t about to waste her time if he wasn’t going to take his rehab seriously.
“I’m not implying anything, Mr. Cross.” The formality hit its mark, unfolding his stance to its full six two. “I’m flat out saying it’s imperative for you to stay within the parameters set by your orthopedist if you want to regain full mobility and the muscular functionality required by your profession.”
“In plain English for the country boy?” Hunter’s expression revealed nothing, his tone a slow drawl that slid over her like honey. But he wasn’t stupid, and neither was she. Emerson read the implication threaded deep within his voice as clear as a 160-foot jumbotron. The last thing she needed was yet another reminder she’d escaped everything that had smothered her in Millhaven—even at the cost of her heart—only to have no choice but to leave the job she’d loved to return as an outsider.
“I can get you back on the farm in good working order, Hunter, but if you want that shoulder to heal up right, you’re going to have to trust me and do exactly what I tell you. Now are you okay with that, or should we just call it a day?”