Chapter 1-2

1291 Words
At ten fifty-seven, he pulled open the heavy glass door that led to the physical therapy center. On his left, a bank of glass windows offered a glimpse into a state of the art gym. At least it looked like a gym. Rows of treadmills and stationary bikes gave way to weight machines and contraptions that resembled modern-age t*****e devices. Surprisingly, the space was buzzing with activity. It shouldn’t surprise him, given how Prairie had virtually risen from the ashes like a phoenix after a devastating tornado almost two years previous. Thanks to his mother’s boyfriend, billionaire Zack Forte, and Mason Carter, a family friend of his cousin Maddie’s husband, Prairie had transformed from a sleepy one-light, blink-and-you-miss-it village, to a legitimate bustling small town. A man who looked more like a bouncer than a physical therapist looked up from behind a computer. “Can I help you?” Cody jammed his hands in his pockets. “Yeah. Cody Hansen. I have an appointment at eleven?” The guy nodded, studying the screen. “Yes. I see you’re scheduled with Carolina. She’ll meet you in room B.” Wait. Carolina? He only knew one Carolina, and she was Cassie’s little sister. No way was he stripping down to his skivvies in front of her. He shook his head. “No way. I’m not seein’ a girl.” The man, who wore a badge with the name Greg on it, eyed him critically. “Did you bring a change of clothes? You’ll probably be more comfortable in sweats.” He craned his neck over the front of the desk. “And sneakers.” “I said,” Cody began sharply, “I don’t want to be seen by a girl.” “It’s a good thing I’m not a girl, then, Cody Hansen.” A husky voice behind him answered sharply. He swung around and froze. The person before him was all woman. He dropped his gaze, taking in her athletic shoes and fancy sweatpants that clung to full hips. This was no girl. The long-sleeved blue knit shirt she wore clung to her curves and set Cody’s imagination whirling. He focused in on a full, sensual mouth, drawn tight. “You have a problem with me, cowboy?” The mouth moved, but his brain seemed to slow down, unable to process it was her talking. He raised his head to lock eyes with a very irate Carolina Grace. When had she transformed from sweet girl next door to spitfire? His belly tightened as they stared at each other, neither willing to look away. A spark of awareness zipped through him, but he stamped out as quickly as it appeared. Another time, another place, maybe. But not now, when he was broken and scarred, a shell of a man. Not ever. Carolina Grace was out of his league, and for that fact alone, he’d rather be dead than let her see his scars and the way his muscles hung off his bones. “What’d you say?” She said sharply, green eyes going icy. Shit. Had he said that out loud? “You’re lucky to be alive and all you can do is stand here mumbling you’d rather be dead?” Her face twisted in anguish. “Greg, you take him. I don’t work with quitters or thumb suckers.” She handed her clipboard to the bodybuilder and spun on her heel. Parker had used that word on him earlier this morning. Was that how everyone in town viewed him? As a thumb sucker? A pathetic, washed-up excuse of a man? Something inside him snapped. f**k that. He’d show them all that he was made of stronger stuff. He might be down, but he sure as hell wasn’t out. He’d risen to the top of the bull-riding world not by choosing the expected route, but by acting on instinct, often surprising the heck out of the people around him. And every instinct in his body shouted at him to not let Carolina Grace hand him over to Giant Greg. “Wait.” Cody hustled after her, pushing through the shooting pains traveling up and down his leg. “Hold up a minute, Caro?” he called, slipping into the old nickname everyone had called her by when they were teenagers. Ahead of him, she stiffened, but stopped, not turning around. “I go by Carolina now,” she answered tersely, still facing forward. He came abreast of her, laying a hand lightly at her elbow. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said what I did. It was out of line.” He sucked in a breath, gut lurching. Asking for help wasn’t his style. While he’d always been quick to lend a hand on the circuit, he’d prided himself on being self-sufficient, independent. It ate at him that he had to rely on others, now. Every damn day. He swallowed the lump of shame stopping up his throat. “I, ah… will you help me?” The anger peeled off her in waves. “Carolina?” Her sudden movement caught him by surprise, and he found himself inches from her face, close enough to see gold flecks in the center of her green eyes. His pulse kicked up a notch as he held her gaze. Let her see he meant what he’d said. “Can you handle it?” “Bring it.” Her mouth thinned to a straight line. “Like I said, I don’t work with quitters or thumb suckers.” “Good thing I’m neither.” Although even as he said it, a picture of him nipping the tip of her thumb flashed through his mind. Bad Cody. Carolina was the girl next door, not a buckle bunny. Hell, they were practically family, now that her sister had married Parker. “It’s gonna hurt.” “Can’t hurt worse than it already does.” She arched a brow. “You have significant scar tissue. Breaking it up will hurt.” His belly clutched at her words, but he lifted his good shoulder nonchalantly. “Nothin’ I can’t handle.” She looked skeptical. Fuck. Did she think he was some kind of weakling? “I mean it.” “The second you’re late, or I discover you haven’t done your exercises on your own, I drop you.” He nodded once. “And don’t think I’ll go easy on you because we know each other.” “I’d expect nothing less.” He gave her a lopsided grin. She was a Grace, after all. Everyone knew the Grace sisters didn’t take any s**t. All anyone had to do was look at their mother. “You’ll need a pair of tennis shoes. We don’t allow boots on the floor.” “I can bring them tomorrow.” “I didn’t say I’d take you.” “You didn’t say you wouldn’t,” he challenged, raising an eyebrow back at her. Her eyes snapped back to his. There it was again. That pull between them. She felt it too, because her eyes widened for a fraction of a second before icing over again. “Wait for me in room B.” She turned and hurried down the hall. Cody remained, boots bolted to the floor, taking in the perfect sway of her hips as she retreated. No doubt about it. Carolina Grace had matured into a fine, fine woman. A lady. The likes of which he rarely saw or appreciated out on the circuit. “Don’t go gettin’ any ideas about her, cowboy.” Greg’s baritone voice rumbled in his ear. Instant dislike rose through Cody like a geyser. “You threatnin’ me, big guy?” He kept his voice low and even. “More like promising.” Cody set his jaw, willing his hand to stay open and relaxed. After a slow count to three, he turned around and made eye contact with Carolina’s self-styled protector who stood legs wide, arms folded across his chest, wearing a glower that would make some men piss themselves. He was in no condition to start a fight, or to act as Carolina’s champion, but for a split second, all Cody wanted was to lower his head and charge, like a young bull taking on the sire. He opened his hands. “No harm, no foul. But just so you know, Carolina and I go way back. So if anyone’s gonna do the promising, it’s me.”
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