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Excerpt - Second Chance Dad by Roxanne Rustand

Second Chance Dad
Roxanne Rustand

The minute she steps foot in his dark, miserable house, Sophie Alexander knows Josh McClaren is not her usual patient. But the single mom and physical therapist is desperate to make a life for her and her young son. And she's definitely no quitter! It's obvious to Sophie that handsome, cantankerous Josh hides his pain behind a wall of grief. Little by little, Sophie and her son, Eli, do more than help Josh find his faith again. They make Josh wonder if there's a family in his future after all….

Excerpt of chapter one:

Sophie stepped out of her ancient Taurus sedan but lingered at the open door, staring at the massive dog on the porch of the sprawling cabin. The dog stared back at her with laserlike intensity, head lowered and tail stiff.

It was not a welcoming pose.

But set back in the deep shadows of the pine trees crowding so close, the cabin itself—with all the windows dark—seemed even more menacing than a wolfhound mix with very sharp teeth.

"Don't worry about the dog," Grace Dearborn had said with a breezy smile during Sophie's orientation at the county home health department offices. "He's quite the bluffer. It's the owner who is more likely to bite."

From the spooky appearance of the dwelling, Sophie could imagine the home health care administrator's words about this client being true in the most literal sense. Ominous clouds had rolled in earlier this afternoon, bringing heavy rains and lightning, and from the looks of the sky, the current respite would be brief.

So what kind of person would be sitting in there, in all that gloomy darkness?

She looked at the folder in her hand again.

Dr. Josh McLaren. Widower. Lives alone. No local support system. Declined home health aides. Postsurgical healing of comminuted fracture, right leg with a knee replacement. Surgical repair of fractured .1.-4 and L-5 lumbar vertebrae, multiple comminuted fractures, right hand.

There were no details on the accident itself. Had he been hit by a truck? She shuddered, imagining the pain he'd been through. The surgeries and therapy had to have been as bad as the injuries themselves.

The only other documentation in the folder were the doctor's physical therapy orders dated last year, originating from Lucas General Hospital in Minneapolis, and some scant, frustrated progress notes written by her various physical therapist predecessors.

The last one had ignored professional convention by inserting his personal feelings into his notes.

The man is surly and impossible.

Ten minutes spent arguing about the need for therapy. Five minutes of deep massage of his right leg and strengthening exercises before he ordered me out of his house.

And the final note…

I give up. Doctor or not, McLaren is a highly unpleasant client and I will not be coming back here.

Sophie scanned the documents again, searching for a birth date or mention of the man's age, which was basic information present in the other nine case charts she'd been assigned. Thus far, nothing.

Maybe this guy was an old duffer, like her grandfather. Crotchety and isolated and clinging to whatever measure of independence he could manage.

This morning, Grace had studied Sophie's home visit schedule before handing it over, and she'd made it clear once again that Sophie had to succeed with every physical therapy client, to the limits of their potential, and that she'd be closely evaluating Sophie's progress.

The job was temporary—just three months while covering for the regular therapist who'd gone to Chicago for some intensive advanced training. Excellence was expected on a daily basis, Grace had emphasized. But if Sophie did exceptionally well, Grace would try to push the county board to approve hiring her on a permanent basis.

The thought had lifted Sophie's heart with joy, though now some of her giddy excitement faded. She set her jaw. If her ability to stay in Aspen Creek hinged on those stipulations, then no one—not even this difficult old man—was going to stand in her way. Far too much depended on it.

"Buddy, I'm going to overwhelm you with kindness, and your mean ole dog, too," she muttered under her breath as she pawed through a grocery sack on the front seat of her car. "See how you like that."

Withdrawing a small can, she peeled off the outer plastic lid, pulled the tab to open the can and held it high. "Salmon," she crooned. "Come and get it."

It took a minute for the scent to drift over to the cabin. The dog's head jerked up. He sniffed the breeze, then he cautiously started across the stretch of grass between the cabin and driveway.

She stayed in the lee of her open car door, ready to leap back inside at the least sign of aggression. But by the time the dog reached her front bumper his tongue was lolling and his tail wagging.

She grabbed a plastic spoon on her dashboard— a remnant of her last trip to a Dairy Queen—and scooped up a chunk of the pungent, pink fish. She dropped it on the grass and the dog wolfed it down, his tail wagging even faster. "Friends?"

She held out a cautious hand and he licked it, his eyes riveted on the can in her other hand. "Just one bite. When I come out, I'll give you one more. Deal?"

His entire body wagged as he followed her to the cabin door.

No lights shone through the windows. She knocked. Then knocked again as loud as she could and listened for any signs of movement.

What if.what if the old guy had passed on?

Her heart in her throat, she framed her face with her hands and pressed her nose to a pane of glass, trying to peer into the gloom. Knocked again. And then she quietly tried the doorknob.

It turned easily in her hand. She pulled the door open, just an inch. "Hello? Anyone here?" She raised her voice. "I'm from the home health agency."

No answer.

Thunder rumbled outside, heavy and ominous. A nearby crack of lightning shook the porch beneath her feet. She opened the door wider, then bracketed her hands against the inner screen door and tried to look inside. "Hello?"

The dog at her side whimpered. Then he shoved past her, sending the door swinging back to crash against the interior wall.

So much for subtlety.

"Hello," she yelled. "Are you here? Are you okay?"

Something moved in the darkness—probably just the dog. Still, she took a cautious step back.

If the old fellow had died, she had no business disturbing the scene. The sheriff should be called, and the coroner. And if he was in there with a shotgun, she sure didn't want to surprise him.

But on the other hand, if he needed help, she could hardly walk away. Steeling herself, she reached around the corner and fumbled along the inside wall until she found a light switch and flipped it on.

Only a single, weak bulb came to life in the center of the room, leaving most of it dark. She started to step over the threshold…then drew in a sharp breath.

The room was nearly bare. She could make out the shapes of a sofa, chair and what might be a desk in one corner. But it was the figure suddenly looming over her that made her heart lurch into overdrive with fear. Tall. Broad shoulders. Silhouetted by the faint light behind him, she couldn't make out his expression, but his stance telegraphed irritation.

This wasn't some old guy.

Maybe…maybe he was an intruder. Maybe he'd hurt poor old crotchety Dr. McLaren and was hauling away all the loot in this cabin.

Raising her hands defensively, she backed up a step, and then another, preparing to run.

But then she saw the dog amble over and sit at the man's side, leaning its shaggy body against his hip. He rested a gentle hand on the animal's head.

"I—I'm sorry," she faltered, searching his face. He didn't look disabled…but then she saw the telltale signs of tension in his stance, as if it had been painful to make it to the door. And the angle of his body, as if he were guarding himself against injuries that probably still kept him up at night.

He said nothing.

"You must be Dr. McLaren. I thought…I thought you were old," she stammered as her eyes adjusted to the gloom. He wasn't only a much younger man— probably in his mid-thirties at the most—but he was striking in that tall, dark, and dangerous sort of way that always made her self-conscious about her very ordinary self. "When you didn't answer, I…urn…I was afraid that you might be dead."

"Unfortunately, no," he growled. He glanced at her upraised hands, then met her eyes with a piercing stare. "So who are you, and why are you threatening me with a can of salmon?" His gaze slid over to the folder in her other hand. "Second thought—just forget it and go away."

He started to close the door. She stopped it with her foot. "I can't leave. I'm Sophie Alexander, your new physical therapist, from the county home health agency."

"Well, Sophie, maybe you're the new therapist, but you're wrong. You certainly can leave."

"No, I can't."

"The others did, which was fine with me."

"Look. I've been given my schedule, and Grace Dearborn—"

"Grace." He sighed heavily.

"Right. Ms. Dearborn made it very clear that I had to follow through without fail on every person in my caseload. And honestly? Today hasn't been good. I've been scratched and bitten by an eighty-seven-year-old woman with Alzheimer's who should be in a care center, not living with her son. And I have been screamed at by an old man who was sure I was his ex-wife come back to life, and who called 911, while I was there. You can call 911 too, or you can just let me in and we'll talk about where you're at with your therapy. Okay? Because either way, I'm not leaving. I cannot let Grace down."

He scowled back at her, obviously impressed…or maybe, just stunned into silence.

"Please." She softened her tone. "It was a long drive up here. I'd like to get this visit over before that storm hits, so I can get back to town before the roads wash out. Okay?"

"Why does pleasing Grace mean so much to you? It's just a job."

"It means a lot more to me than you could ever imagine. So now, can we get down to business?"
* * *
For someone who couldn't be more than five foot three and a hundred pounds soaking wet, the latest physical therapist to land on his doorstep appeared to be one very determined woman. He could only hope that she wasn't as stubborn as she looked, but right now the fiery gleam in those pretty green eyes spelled trouble.

"Well?" She pinned him with a steady look. "Can I come in?"

Josh gritted his teeth and inwardly braced himself to mask his pain as he waved her on into the great room of the cabin. "Suit yourself."

She hit him with a blinding smile, then traipsed on in, coochy-cooed his dog, Bear, who—traitor that he was—moaned with pleasure at her soft touch and followed her when she headed for the sofa under the moose head mounted on the wall.

She gave the moose a sad look, then angled a disapproving glance in Josh's direction.

"Don't look at me—he came with the cabin." Josh turned on a table lamp beside his chair and waited until she settled on the couch with a folder in her lap that probably told her more about him than he wanted anyone to know—much less some perky little pixie who was planning to gush platitudes and false empathy about his "situation," and then come up with yet another completely useless plan to turn his life around.

He'd been there, done that, and wasn't going there again with anyone—even if this gal did have a smile that could rival the lighting in a surgical suite.

Glancing between the can of salmon in her hand and the rapt attention of the dog at her feet, she set the can on the table at the end of the couch and waggled a forefinger at Bear. "Don't even think about it."

"How do I know you haven't poisoned my dog with that stuff?"

"I love dogs. I'm just not sure about the ones that meet me with a snarl, and I happened to have the salmon in a grocery bag I forgot to take out of my car last night. But believe me, after meeting several grumpy dogs and their even grumpier owners today I'll always carry something yummy in the future. Pays to make friends." She gave him a slow appraisal.

"What about you? Ghirardelli? Lindt?"

He masked a startled bark of laughter with a deeper scowl.

"Well, then, let's get on with things, okay?" she continued smoothly. "I suspect that with your medical background, you know far more than I do about your injuries and how to provide the exact type of therapy for regaining maximum function."

Did he? Not really. Not anymore. He'd specialized in emergency medicine, not the long haul of restorative medicine that often followed severe injuries, and after ten years of intense focus on his own field, what he knew was based more on logic and what was now outdated information from medical school.

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