“Lieutenant Mitch Trenton, reporting for duty, ma’am.”
Remind me again why I don’t date patients?
It was the first thing Paige thought upon seeing her new assignment—all 6 feet, 4 inches of beautiful male (she knew his exact height from his medical records). The guy he was with wasn’t bad on the eyes either, but it was the man in the wheelchair, chest and bicep muscles straining the fabric of his T-shirt, who had Paige contemplating such a ridiculous question.
She supposed she could be forgiven her mental slip. As a physical therapist at the Laguna Hills VA Clinic, and the ex-wife of a Navy soldier, she was no stranger to the allure of a military man, and there was something about this one’s utter manliness, easy smile and the spark of mischief in his eyes that Paige immediately responded to. He had a strong jaw and a straight nose, with the longest eyelashes she’d ever seen on a man. But it was the way he carried himself, despite his injury, that caught her interest the most: he was commanding, clearly used to giving orders. He filled up a room even being in a wheelchair. She couldn’t imagine what he was like when he was standing.
Actually, that wasn’t true.
She could imagine, and it made her shiver at the thought of him towering over her, palms on either side of her head as he caged her in, every wicked thing he intended to do to her reflected in his eyes.
With a mental curse, Paige pushed her runaway thoughts away and stuck out her hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Lieutenant. I’m Paige O’Kelly.”
He clasped her hand in his and squeezed. “Please call me Mitch. And this is my friend Ross.”
Paige and Ross exchanged smiles before Paige crouched down. “And this…?”
“This is Rocky.”
Rocky was a huge German shepherd, with beautiful brown and black markings. He had his mouth open and his tongue hanging out the side. He looked like he was smiling. He was also wearing a green apron, which clearly identified him as a service animal.
“Rocky’s here to help me get around, among other things,” Mitch said as he affectionately ruffled the dog’s fur.
Paige wanted to do the same, but she knew strangers weren’t supposed to pet service dogs when they were working. And truthfully, she’d much rather be in the dog’s place, with this man her master, threading his big hand through her hair. Rubbing her scalp. Soothing and exciting her with his touch.
Paige was immediately appalled at the continuing nature of her thoughts. Yes, she’d always had a thing for guys in uniform. But with one notable exception, that being her ex Tom, she’d never been the insta-love or insta-lust type, and despite the fact she worked in a place where military men came and went in droves, she’d never had this kind of reaction to a patient before.
With determination, she corralled her wayward thoughts and focused on what Lieutenant Trenton had said. His reference to ‘other things’ probably meant the dog provided him emotional support for dealing with the trauma of his injury. For all his outward ease, he wasn’t the same since he’d been injured six months ago, and for a strong, vital Navy SEAL, that had to be playing havoc with his emotions.
Paige straightened with a nod. “Of course. According to the records I received, you were already using crutches before your PT in Coronado released you on convalescent leave.”
Mitch nodded. “But I use the wheelchair for longer distances.”
“Right. So…” She paused, looking out the window toward the parking lot, which was only a short distance away from the clinic’s entrance. One of the reasons he’d been referred to their clinic was because his Naval PT strongly believed he’d benefit from using the state-of-the-art hydrotherapy machine the clinic had acquired last year thanks to a generous benefactor.
“So the idiot started out his leave by pushing himself too hard,” Ross suddenly spoke up, “and he overdid it, resulting in a relapse, and the need to rely on his wheelchair more. So he needs you to get him into fighting shape first, then use that fancy treadmill of yours to get him back in the game.”
She waited for Mitch to glare or snap at him. It was what Tom would have done if one of his friends had chastised him so publicly. To her surprise, however, Mitch just grinned.
“Yeah, that’s about as accurate a report as any.”
“And yet you don’t seem at all repentant for overdoing it,” Paige pointed out.
“I’m a Navy SEAL, ma’am. Overdoing it is part of the job description.”
And there it was. That puffed up, egotistical machismo that often made soldiers like Lieutenant Mitch Trenton so good at their jobs and not always so good at being patients or husbands.
“Well, please remember you’re not active duty right now, Lieutenant, and you might not ever be again if you continue to push too hard, too fast.”
“Duly noted,” he said. “And I promise, I’m here to do exactly as you say. Paige.”
It was the way he said it, with a slight pause before her name, coupled with the intense way he was suddenly looking at her, that infused his words with a subtle edge of sexual innuendo. Instantly, Paige’s mind filled with images of all the things she could direct him to do. None of them for the purpose of making his legs stronger, and all of them for the purpose of getting her off.
Yikes. Clearly over a year of celibacy was wreaking havoc with her libido. She had to get herself together. The man was her patient and therefore off limits. Even if that hadn’t been the case, she had sworn off military men after her ex dumped her for a younger woman. Paige had been stupid enough to fall for an adrenaline-seeking man in uniform once. She wouldn’t make that same mistake again.
She cleared her throat. “We’ll be about an hour,” she said, forcing herself to look at his friend.
“See you later,” Ross said, slapping him on the shoulder. “Don’t harass the pretty lady too much, you hear?” He dipped his head at Paige. “Ma’am. Take good care of him, okay?”
Paige smiled. “Of course. Right this way, Lieutenant.”
“Mitch,” he reminded her.
She walked them to a private room, shut them inside, and started to wash her hands at the sink. “We’ll start with an exam then a massage, which I know you received regularly from your previous PT. For the massage it’s probably best if you take off your clothes.” She wiped her hands with a paper towel and turned toward him. “Do you need help with—”
She’d been going to help him onto the table then leave the room so he could undress, but Mitch was already lifting himself out of his wheelchair. Muscles bulging, he maneuvered his body onto the massage table until he sat facing her.
And he wasn’t even breathing hard when he was done.
“Well, alright then. Doesn’t look like you have too much trouble getting around.”
“Sorry, didn’t mean to steal your thunder.” He then summarily kicked off his boots, stripped off his T-shirt, and removed his pants down to his boxers, tossing the garments in a nearby chair, and honestly, she had to try really hard not to gape.
In the corner, Rocky sat contentedly, the German shepherd tilting a triangular ear toward them. For a second, given how fast Mitch had stripped, how unconcerned with his almost-nude body he was, and how his eyes seemed to be lit with challenge, Paige wondered if she was being punked.
He was all tan, smooth skin, and even though his legs were scarred, attesting to his recent injuries and surgeries, she fought to contain a blush. She never got flustered with patients like this, even the young, hot ones.
Ignoring the fluttering of her pulse, she armed herself with a brisk, efficient demeanor. “You really didn’t need to take off your clothes yet.”
He cocked a brow. “Is that a problem?” He still had that challenging glint in his eyes, and she lifted her chin.
“No problem. I’ll just do the exam then get you a drape for the massage.”
“It will be kind of pointless by then, don’t you think?”
“Nope. Not pointless,” she said. Swiftly, she checked and recorded his vital signs. “On your back, please.”
“A woman who knows what she wants: I like that.” Mitch laid back, his feet hanging off the end of the examination table. He tilted his head to look at the ceiling.
Given his sudden strip tease, not to mention her own strong attraction to him, Paige felt compelled to say something. “Mitch.” She waited until he looked at her before continuing. “I’m a medical professional. Please treat me that way.”
His eyes flickered briefly before he smiled sheepishly. “Yes, ma’am. I apologize.”
“Thank you. I’ve reviewed all your records from the hospital in Coronado, as well as the new patient questionnaire you filled out, but I’d like to assess the current mobility and stability of your hips, core, shoulders, knees, spine and ankles.”
“I appreciate the information, but I’ve pretty much been a human pin cushion for the past six months. And I willingly place myself in your very capable hands, Doc.”
A lot of patients called her Doc even though she technically wasn’t an M.D., but after all he’d been through he had to know that and it seemed foolish to remind him. “Okay, well…” Paige rubbed her hands together to warm them up, then went through the steps of the exam. She pressed and pushed and rotated and stretched all his limbs, noting when his muscles tightened, when he flinched, or when she met resistance. She asked him to push against her hands, then recorded her findings. By the time she was done, he was breathing a little harder and his eyes were focused more intently on her face.
“Alright, now that that’s done, let’s do a short upper body massage, then focus on your legs, starting from the front before I have you turn over.”
She grabbed a drape and placed it over him, breathing a small sigh of relief when some of that bare, gorgeous skin was covered. She stood behind him and placed her hands on his shoulders. It didn’t matter that he was draped or that she’d halted his flirting in its tracks; suddenly, the mood between them softened. She rubbed his shoulders with long, gentle strokes, gradually deepening the pressure, working the muscles with expert fingers. As she did, she glanced at his face, noting how he closed his eyes and how his facial muscles relaxed, and a feeling of joy swept through her that she could bring this man who’d suffered so much some well-needed relief. She worked his upper body for a few minutes in silence, then began massaging his right thigh, feeling the tension deep within it. His skin was warm, the prickle of hair creating extra sensation against her palms. She closed her eyes, concentrating on the task, letting herself get into the rhythm of the massage.
“So tell me, Paige, are you single? I didn’t see a ring on your finger.”
Her eyes popped open and her movements paused only for a fraction of a second before she resumed the massage. Suddenly, her heart was beating even faster and she was finding it a little harder to catch her breath. It wasn’t as if his question should take her by surprise. She was used to persistent flirting from wounded war veterans no matter how hard she tried to keep things professional. They couldn’t walk or they were missing a limb or two, but they wanted to let women know they were still alive. In all fairness, he could just be asking an innocent (though still inappropriate) question. It was possible his interest wasn’t personal, just a result of curiosity. But it felt personal. It felt as if he felt the pull between them just as much as she did.
But she couldn’t acknowledge that or give in to it.
“You were in Afghanistan?” she asked him in an obvious diversion tactic.
He didn’t answer for a second, but then said, “Yeah, near Kabul for the most part.”
She hummed under her breath. His legs sloped into strong calves before ending in feet with high, almost beautiful arches. She wondered if he ran—or used to run—regularly. A clean, woodsy scent emanated from him, and Paige forced herself to ignore how her blood heated at his closeness.
Against her will, her eyes landed briefly between his legs and widened. He was definitely stirring and hardening underneath the drape, and she quickly looked away.
“Sorry about that,” he murmured. “You’re a beautiful woman. And your touch feels damn good.”
She cleared her throat. “No need to be sorry. Totally a natural and purely biological reaction.” Desperately, she changed the subject. “So you’ve been back in the States about six months?”
“That’s right. Had two surgeries. Progressed from not feeling anything in my legs to being able to walk with assistance,” he replied.
“That’s wonderful news. You’re very lucky.”
“You don’t have to tell me how lucky I am. The same bomb that did this number on my legs killed three of my men.”
“You led a team?”
“Commanders lead SEAL teams; I led a SEAL platoon.”
“What’s the difference?”
“There are eight SEAL teams. Each team has six platoons.”
“Ah,” she said.
He’d been staring at the ceiling again, but he glanced at her. Since when did a Navy SEAL need such beautiful blue eyes? Looking away, she focused on continuing to massage his leg, moving downward toward his knee. “Well, I’m sorry for your loss, but I thank you and those men for your service.” When Mitch didn’t respond, Paige asked, “How are you coping? If you don’t mind me asking.”
She suspected he was the type of soldier who would refuse psychological counseling unless ordered to go. It was all part of the macho-masculine thing. And admitting he needed to talk about things would mean that there was some part of him needing fixing—and not just his legs.
Sure enough, he remained silent, prompting Paige to say, “There’s no shame in talking to someone, you know.”
His body seemed to tense underneath her hands, and Paige worked her thumbs deeper into his leg. Willing it to heal, allowing this man to walk again. Mitch relaxed underneath her touch. “I talked plenty to a military psychologist. And I’m coping, thanks.”
“Coming home, though, being unable to walk much and experiencing that kind of trauma…. Have you thought about talking to someone again?”
“Believe me, there’s no shortage of people who want to talk to me, Doc.” His tone wasn’t surly, just resigned. Like he was used to random people asking him questions like this. “When I get enough sleep, I’m fine.”
Paige began massaging below his right knee, where a deep scar began and ran all the way down to his foot. Another one—starting higher, near his inner thigh—marked his other leg. She could only imagine the kind of pain such injuries would cause. How Mitch would’ve awoken and probably not been able to feel his legs and wondered if he’d ever walk again. Staring up at the ceiling much like he was doing now. Hoping, and trying desperately not to show how terrified he was. A rush of sympathy flooded Paige, and she couldn’t help asking, “Do you have nightmares, then?”
Mitch tensed, and guilt assailed her. She shouldn’t be forcing him to remember. Even if he did need to talk to someone, she wasn’t that kind of a doctor either. She healed the body, not the mind. Moving to his left leg, she watched as Mitch flexed the toes of his right foot, like he wanted to make sure he could still feel them.
After a moment, Mitch grinned that grin of his, but it seemed forced. “You never answered my question,” he said in that deep, rumbling voice.
She fumbled and glanced at Rocky, as if he was witnessing something inappropriate between them. The dog was currently licking his paws with his long, pink tongue, obviously paying them no attention. “Question?”
“You never told me if you were single or not.”
“And since I’m a medical professional and you’re my patient, I’m not going to answer that question.”
“You don’t have a ring, so you’re not married or engaged. And if you did have a boyfriend, you would’ve said so at the beginning. Women are always quick to be claimed.”
The man was unbelievable. His cockiness both exasperated and amused her. She couldn’t help but be impressed by his confidence. Most men would’ve backed down already, but not Mitch, and she couldn’t help but be flattered by his persistence. That freaked her out so she inadvertently dug her fingers into his skin, causing him to yelp.
Rocky sat up, concerned. When he realized his master wasn’t in any real danger, he settled back down again.
“Sorry,” she said, even though she really wasn’t. Why should she be the only one uncomfortable? “But whether I’m wearing a ring or not,” (and whether she liked to be claimed) “is none of your business. For all you know I’m a lesbian with fifty cats.”
Mitch laughed, and the sound was so unrepentantly charming that she couldn’t help but smile in response. “Nah, you don’t play for the other team. I know when a woman’s interested, and you’re interested.”
She shouldn’t let him bait her, but she found her resolve to keep things strictly professional slipping. “Why do you think I’m interested?”
“I saw the way you looked at me. Like you wanted a piece of this.”
His tone was blatantly joking, and maybe that’s why she relaxed a little. “I was looking at you because I was surprised you could lift yourself onto the table without assistance.” She suspected all that muscle bulging had been for her benefit. He could have put some weight on his legs, but he’d transferred himself with only the strength of his arms, like a gymnast on a pommel horse.
He waved a hand. “You licked your lips. You were interested.”
True, but he was so obviously trying to get a rise from her that she almost gasped with outrage. “I did not lick my lips!”
“And you were blinking. A lot.”
“What in the world does that have to do with anything?”
“Blinking means you’re attracted to someone. I should know: I see it a lot when women look at me.”
“Really? Well I was just blinking normally. Turn over,” Paige said.
With a little smirk and a raised eyebrow, Mitch did as he was told while she rearranged the drape over him. “Bossy little thing, aren’t you?”
She refused to say anything and to her surprise, he remained quiet for several minutes before saying quietly, “It’s okay, you know. I’m attracted to you, too. Very attracted. I’d love to take you out. Only…”
She held her breath when he paused.
“Well, you’ve already established you’re a stickler for the whole doctor-patient thing.”
She felt relief that he got it, yet disappointed that they hadn’t met under other circumstances. “Yes, I am.”
“Too bad. We’d have fun.”
“Yeah? How’s that? Would you wine and dine me?” Now that he’d clearly acknowledged the reason she couldn’t go out with him, she felt more comfortable bantering. At least, it helped.
So did pretending he was her 80-year-old patient, Peter Horace, a retired colonel who asked her out every time she saw him. She bantered with Peter, why not this man?
“No wine, but dining, definitely. I’d take you to a hamburger joint downtown called Brandon’s. And we’d eat and we’d talk and we’d have beers until you were buzzed, and that’s when you’d get handsy, wanting me to touch you.”
She could swear her hands were trembling. He was right, damn him, although she didn’t need a few beers in her to want him to touch her. She wanted him to touch her now.
“And I’d say ‘not yet, let’s go down to the waterfront.’ And we’d go down there and that’s when I’d touch you, but only a little. Just enough to make you crazy. And then I’d take you back to your car, kiss you once, and then leave.”
“Really, only one kiss?”
“Only one. I’ve been with enough women to know that they love anticipation most of all.”
She fell silent again, tempted to rush the massage to completion for her own peace of mind, but she couldn’t. Mitch deserved better. Still, pretending he was Mr. Horace wasn’t working.
He’d sparked something inside her. Something she hadn’t experienced in a long time—not since her ex. And even her ex hadn’t taken the time to seduce her with words and sweet promises. He’d just worn that uniform and crooked his finger at her, and Paige had been putty in his hands. The glamour of falling for and marrying a soldier had faded soon thereafter, although they’d been married for five years. Then Tom had decided that he’d had enough of Paige, and he was handing her divorce papers and leaving with his new girlfriend.
And here she was, becoming putty in the hands of another soldier just like before.
Tom had been lean and cut, but Mitch’s body was a work of art, with sculpted muscles bulging beneath her fingers as she massaged him.
Her work had always been simply work for her. But with Mitch, it had taken on a different tone: intimate and almost seductive, like she was drinking a glass of smooth, red wine with the bitter sweetness of dark chocolate. Like she was massaging her lover, not her patient.
She wanted him to touch her instead. His rough hands on her waist; his fingers brushing the undersides of her breasts. His deep voice saying her name. He’d be a thorough lover: of that, she had no doubt.
“Well, it’s a good thing we won’t be going out. So you don’t have to worry about me getting handsy for anything other than the most professional of reasons,” she said softly.
Minutes later, Paige finished the massage, ridiculously glad it was over—she didn’t need to be fantasizing about a patient. Once Mitch left, she could clear her head.
She handed him his clothes, then washed her hands once more, taking extra care as if she could wash off her attraction to him, hyper aware of the sounds he made as he got dressed. When she turned around, he was fully clothed, and she wanted to weep at the visual loss of his strong body. “We’re done for today. Do you need help getting back into your wheelchair?”
“I can manage.” He pulled his wheelchair closer, Rocky standing next to it, maneuvered his legs to the side and slowly lowered himself into it. The dog’s tail wagged then, and Mitch patted him on the head.
“He’s beautiful,” she said. Almost as beautiful as his master.
As if he understood her, Rocky’s tail wagged even harder, his tongue lolling, and Mitch rubbed his ears before giving him a scratch on his spine and sides. “He’s probably smarter than most humans I know.”
“I can believe that. Can I pet him?”
Mitch leaned back, gesturing. “Sure.”
Paige squatted to the dog’s level, scratching him behind the ears and feeling his tail thump against her foot. His dark eyes assessed her, as if he knew she was lying to herself about not wanting to go out with his master. You know you want to, his doggy face seemed to be saying. You never let yourself have any fun.
I can’t have fun with a patient. It doesn’t matter if I like him or not.
Of course she wanted to accept Mitch’s offer of a date. She hadn’t dated much since her divorce, and she spent most of her time at work. Not much of a dating pool. Heck, she didn’t even have any close friends outside the office. She’d had Tom, and her work, and that was all. Now that Tom was gone…
Continuing to pet Rocky, she glanced at Mitch.
He really was ridiculously handsome, with his dark hair and blue eyes and masculine face. She looked down at his hands: large and long-fingered. Capable, she was sure, of giving and taking so much pleasure.
She stood so suddenly it was a wonder she didn’t wobble from the rush of blood to her head. “I’ll see you in two days, although if you have any pain, give us a call, and we could probably fit you in before then.”
She opened the door to the room and stood back so he could wheel by her. “Have a good day, Lieutenant. I have to prepare for my next patient.”
He stared at her for a moment, jaw tense, as if he wanted to argue with her, but then he sighed. He wheeled himself past her, saying, “Thank you, Doc. Have a good day.”