Excerpt: Love For Beginners - Vilma Iris | Lifestyle Blogger

What would you change if you had to start your life—and love life—over again?

When Emma Harris wakes up from a coma she learns that her fiancé and her BFF have fallen in love, she’s lost her job, and the life she knew is gone. Overwhelmed but grateful to be alive she starts over from scratch. Not as easy as it sounds, of course. But she’s never been a quitter, even if she wishes she could quit rehab, where her hot but evil physical therapist, Simon, puts her through the wringer.

Eager for a new beginning, Emma opens a doggy day care. Unfortunately, the only space she can afford is owned by her childhood nemesis Ali Pratt. But hey, she’s been through worse, right? She tries to roll with the punches, but a friend drops his grandpa off at the doggy day care in desperation then on top of that, she and Ali bring the term ‘frenemies’ to a whole new level. And then another grandparent shows up. And another.

In the midst of all that, Emma realizes she’s accidentally fallen for Evil PT. But the most horrifying thing of all is that Ali just might have turned into the best friend she’s ever had. And as Emma grows from the pain of her past and takes on her new path, she comes to realize that life isn’t what you’re given, it’s what you make of it.

Series:

The Wildstone Series

Can be read as a standalone

Book Type:

Contemporary Romance

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Excerpt: Love For Beginners
By Jill Shalvis

Excerpt: Love For Beginners

Bestselling author Jill Shalvis is back with a heartwarming story about a woman forced to start over after she awakes from a coma. Brimming with humor, heart and charm, LOVE FOR BEGINNERS is a story about friendship, love and second chances. Read an excerpt below!

Chapter 1

Step 1:

Get over yourself, the fear is all in your head…

Alive was better than dead.

Or so the rumor went. But damn, Emma hurt from head to toe. Even her hair hurt. But the funny thing about spending two months in a coma and then the rest of the year in a rehab facility reacquainting herself with where her limbs lived, was that it’d given her some hard-earned perspective.

Yes, she felt like ninety instead of thirty. And yes, half the time her left arm thought it was a useless club that hung from her shoulder. Not to mention the rest of her body pretending it didn’t have to listen to her brain.

Alive was still better than dead.

Her physical therapist had taught her that mantra. The man was diabolical with what he’d put her body through. She’d lost track of how many meltdowns she’d had on his table. He’d been extraordinarily kind, taking each one in stride with a sympathetic but steady professional touch, patiently waiting her out, letting her calm down before going at her again—which he always did. But she hadn’t privately nicknamed him Hardass PT because of his hard ass. Okay, so he had a hard—and fantastic—ass, but he didn’t know the meaning of Give Up. Emma couldn’t argue with his results, though. She was now doing things the doctors said she’d never do. Like walk.

But she still hated him with a passion of a thousand suns.

And yet, turned out there was something she hated even more. Stairs. “Seven,” she said out loud, teeth gritted, jaw locked. “Eight . . .” The exhaustion was insidious, running in her veins instead of blood, but the stairs were part of her penance for surviving the accident, when not everyone had. “Nine.” She gasped for air. “Ten.”

There were fourteen in total, so silver lining—she was in the home stretch. Each step brought her closer to adulting on her own for the first time in a year. A year of having everything she did, every single thing, supervised.

“Ten.”

“You already said ten, hon,” her ex-BFF, Cindy, said in a very gentle voice, the kind that insinuated Emma was a child. “Which makes it eleven. E-lev-en . . .” she repeated slowly.

Emma sent her a long look. Yes, sometimes her brain and mouth couldn’t find each other and she got her words mixed up. The docs had said it was normal. BC—Before Coma—she’d been a runner and a PE teacher, and because she loved dogs more than people on most days, also a dog trainer. Having grown up here in the small adventurous town of Wildstone, a mid-California coastal spot marked by gorgeous green rolling hills dotted with ancient old oak trees, her whole existence had been defined by activity. But she’d lost the ability to do anything she’d done before.

She had no idea who she was now.

“Should you really be taking the stairs?” Cindy again, sounding genuinely worried.

“Yes.” Because Emma refused to go back to their old apartment. She swiped the sweat out of her eyes. Hard to believe that she used to run 5Ks for fun.

“Careful. You’re really pale.” This not helpful statement came from her other side—Ned, her ex-fiancé.

Emma took another step. Twelve.

“Emma.” Ned put a hand to her elbow. “You shouldn’t be moving out so soon after getting out of the rehab facility. It’s only been a few days.”

Emma had gone from the hospital to the rehab center to the apartment she and Cindy had shared for four years, the one that Ned now lived in, so she literally hadn’t been alone in nearly a year. At the moment, she was holding on by a bare, ragged thread. So it took every ounce of control she had not to throw Ned’s hand off. “I’m doing this.”

A soft whine came from just behind her, and then a cool, wet dog nose nudged into her palm. Hog was her emotional support dog, because yeah, that was a thing for her now. After one too many nightmares in rehab, one of her occupational therapists had given her a two-year-old 110-pound St. Bernard/Chewbacca mix. Historically the breed had been used to help find and save travelers. The gentle giants were calm, patient, relaxed, and sensible.

Hog’s job was to watch out for Emma’s emotional well-being and protect her as needed, but as it turned out, he was named Hog—short for Groundhog—for a very good reason. He’d flunked out of service dog school for being afraid of his own shadow. Didn’t matter to Emma. He drooled, he ate anything not tied down, and he had gas that would kill an elephant. She loved him ridiculously anyway, even if as it turned out, she was his emotional support. “Good boy.”

He licked her hand.

“This is ridiculous,” Ned said. “Just come back to our place. I’ll even stop complaining about Hog’s . . . intestinal issues. It’s not necessary for you to move out, Emmie.”

Oh but it was. Deathly necessary. And not her death, but his. And possibly Cindy’s too. “Hog only has gas issues because you make him anxious.”

Ned looked at Cindy. “Tell her. Tell her she shouldn’t leave.”

“She shouldn’t leave.” Cindy’s eyes were filled with what seemed like genuine guilt and remorse as she looked at Emma. “Roomies forever, remember?”

More than most, Emma understood how guilt and remorse could screw a person up. She was living proof. But Cindy had been her best friend for twenty years, right up until Emma had been hit by a car, punted fifty feet straight into a coma.

Then, later, at some point sitting in the hospital waiting room, Ned and Cindy had decided that it’d be a good idea to sleep together. Granted, they’d been told Emma’s chances of survival weren’t good, but she’d proven the doctors wrong.

Her mom said it was because she was too stubborn to die. Undoubtedly accurate.

In either case, apparently Ned and Cindy’s relationship had only strengthened while Emma had spent the rest of the year in the rehab facility. And now, a year later, the two of them were still going strong. In fact, Ned had moved into Cindy’s bed—in the apartment Emma and Cindy had shared for years. Romantic, right?

“And our place has an elevator,” Cindy said.

Like Emma didn’t know this. She might be foggy on a lot of things—her memory was still shoddy at best—but she remembered the basics of her life. Well, mostly. And yeah, an elevator right about now would be even better than the nap she desperately wanted. But she’d live in hell before going back to her old apartment. Actually, scratch that. After losing her fiancé, her best friend, her jobs, she was already in hell.

It wasn’t that she was heartbroken anymore. Months ago she’d come to terms with the fact that Ned and Cindy had done her a favor. And maybe she’d forgive them someday, but forget? Doubtful.

Clearly Ned hadn’t been the right one for her and honestly, she could no longer remember why she’d ever thought he was. But Cindy . . . that hurt. “Let me save you some time,” she said. “I appreciate the help these past two weeks after I was finally sprung from the rehab facility. But there’s no way I’m going to keep staying where my ex-fiancé and ex-BFF are sleeping together. Loudly, by the way. You guys do realize how thin the walls are, right?”

Cindy smacked Ned in the gut and glared at him. “Oh my God, I told you!”

Emma tackled another step. Thirteen. Hog was right with her, panting hotly on the backs of her legs. “You think I want to know that Cindy howls like a banshee, or that you do her up against a wall?” She whipped around and glared at Ned. “And you do remember telling me you couldn’t do it that way because it hurt your back, right?”

He opened his mouth, but Emma turned away, staggering up the last step, breathing like a lunatic. The good news was that she’d done it. The bad news was that she’d just come face-to-face with a man leaning against the wall, feet casually crossed, a set of keys in his hand.

She might’ve yelped in surprise, but frankly, she was too tired. Besides, she knew him. All six feet of lean muscles and unruly hair the color of a doe’s fur, which was to say every color under the sun; all shades of brown, mahogany, even some red and blond. Clearly only finger tousled, like he didn’t have time to be bothered.

Hardass PT, aka Simon Armstrong.

Why did she know exactly how many strands were blond and red and brown? They’d spent hundreds of hours together over the past year. In each other’s space, his hands on her body. For most of those hours, she’d been in so much pain she doubted he’d ever noticed her spiked heart rate for what it was.

A reluctant reawakening of her body.

Not that he’d given her any inclination of a return interest. Nope, he’d been nothing but professional. She was good at reading people, but Simon had a poker face she’d kill for—not to mention dark lashes over eyes that were as hard to name as the color as his hair. Greens and browns and golds swirled together in what was technically hazel, but seemed too tame of a word. Those see-all eyes of his could express a wide gamut of emotions from a quiet patience to an intensity that burned. At the moment, though, he seemed amused as he stood there, clearly having heard the conversation coming up the stairs.

“Sounds like you three need a moment,” he said.

The old Emma would’ve died of embarrassment. But Emma 2.0 didn’t do embarrassment. She no longer gave a shit what people thought. Or so she reminded herself as she lifted her chin. Pride before the fall and all that.

The exes squared came up behind her with their faux worry. Or maybe it was real worry. That was the beauty of her new attitude—she didn’t care.

“How did you find this place anyway?” Ned asked, not yet seeing Simon. “Thought you couldn’t find an apartment anywhere in Wildstone that would take you with your yearlong lapse in income.”

“I got lucky.” It’d been much more than luck. Simon had told her about the available apartment and said that he could help facilitate her approval. Which meant he wasn’t one hundred percent hardass . . .

She’d gratefully jumped on it.

The building had once been a single Victorian home, but being in such close proximity to the beach had made it crazy valuable. Somewhere in the 1950s it’d been separated into four apartments, two up, two down. Emma was moving into apartment 2A, because unfortunately, nothing had been available on the bottom floor. It didn’t matter, she was beyond grateful for it because, as it turned out, Ned was right—nobody wanted to rent to a woman with no current source of income other than a few part-time hours at Paw Pals, the local doggy day care where she gave dog training classes.

Luckily, she’d received an insurance settlement from the accident, which she’d vowed not to touch unless it was for a life-changing reason, but in the end, she’d decided not having a roof over her head was a life-changing reason, so she’d used some of it to pay first and last and security deposit on this place.

Simon smiled at Hog. “Hey, big guy.”

Hog was afraid of most men. Emma had tried to get his history, but it was sketchy at best. Her guess was that he’d been abused, most likely by a male. Now there was only one man who Hog automatically melted for, and that was Simon.

Emma understood the melting on a core level, though after all these months she was so good at ignoring it that Simon had never even noticed.

He didn’t notice now either as he crouched to Hog’s level. Her big doofus of a dog let his legs slide out from beneath him, hitting the floor, making the foundation shake like an earthquake.

Simon just laughed and used both hands to rub up and down Hog’s belly, promptly melting him into a puddle of goo. Emma understood that too. Those big, warm hands of Simon’s had melted her too, plenty of times. Not that he’d noticed that either. Which was when she realized what felt weird—she’d never seen him outside of a PT session, or in anything other than what she considered his PT uniform of a form-fitted performance long-sleeved T-shirt and basketball shorts or sweats. Today he was in Levi’s with a hole across one knee, an army green Henley, and battered sneakers. He had a few days of scruff going and she could see a few tats sticking out from where he had his sleeves shoved up to his elbows.

He looked . . . real.

And disarmingly handsome, which wasn’t good. He had a way of making her feel things she had no business feeling—not for her PT and not for men in general. All it did was make her want something she couldn’t have, leaving her with one more ache in her body she didn’t need.

Simon was still loving up on Hog, clearly clueless to her thoughts. After all, theirs was a strictly professional relationship, even if after all these months they also felt like friends. Which they weren’t, because she wasn’t on the friend train. Or any train that involved a relationship thanks to a myriad of reasons like her cheating ex, the accident . . . her physical limitations.

Ned eyed Simon carefully before turning to Emma. “You’re dating already?”

She nearly laughed. Dating? She was barely breathing. And besides, as already noted, she wasn’t on the relationship train, thank you very much. “No longer your concern,” she said. “Simon, this is Ted.”

Ned,” her ex corrected.

Emma shrugged and pointed her head, like sorry, coma . . .

Simon rose to his full height and smiled at her, clearly enjoying her using her temporary disability to her benefit. Ignoring the very slight flutter in her belly at the unexpected smile—very slight!—she rolled her eyes.

Ned held a hand out to Simon. “I’m Emma’s fiancé.”

Ex-fiancé,” Cindy said very quietly, without a single hint of how she felt about the slip, Freudian or otherwise. “And I’m Cindy, Emma’s best friend.”

“Also an ex,” Emma said.

Cindy winced.

Emma reached out for the keys, belatedly realizing her fingers were trembling from getting up the stairs on her own steam.

Simon looked at those fingers, then into her eyes and . . . didn’t hand over the keys.

And here was the thing. He was perceptive. Too perceptive. She turned away.

“I don’t see you being able to handle those stairs every single day,” Ned said. “It’s too much for you.”

“Agreed.” Cindy nodded. “You should come back home, Emmie.”

That place was no more home to her now than the hospital or rehab had been. And if one more person called her “Emmie” she was going to lose it entirely. She turned again and found Simon watching her, amusement gone. “You okay?”

At his question, Ned looked at her and frowned. “You really are pale, Emmie. Are you okay?”

“Great, actually,” Emma said. “Think you guys could go down to Ned’s car and unload my boxes while I finish up the paperwork?”

Simon lifted a brow. He knew there was no further paperwork, but thankfully he didn’t contradict her, and her exes squared went back down the stairs.

Hog lumbered to his paws and shook. Fur flew around him like a halo. So did drool. Both were all over Simon’s jeans. She knew he’d told her that Hog wouldn’t be a problem, but . . . “I’m sorry. He doesn’t usually shed so badly.”

“Another fib.” Simon sounded amused again as he brushed Hog’s fur from his jeans. “Don’t worry, four-legged fur babies are always welcome here. Even the giant ones.”

Emma let out a relieved breath. “Appreciate that. I really needed to get out of my old place.”

“I can see that. Nice one on calling him the wrong name on purpose.”

She grimaced.

“Hey, I’m all for self-preservation,” he said.

Grateful for Simon’s nonjudgment, Emma leaned on the wall for support. “Damn. I hate that I’m still breathing as if I just ran a 5K, like I did BC.”

He smiled because he knew all about “BC.” She’d told him lots of things about her life Before Coma during their PT torture sessions. “So . . . the key?”

He inserted it into the lock for her and opened the door. “Do you need help with your boxes?”

“Nope, I’ve got it. Or rather the exes squared got it. There’s no way they’re going to leave me in peace until I’m settled. Or dead. Whichever comes second.”

His mouth curved slightly. “Nice to see your attitude is the same in or out of PT.”

“Don’t you mean my bad attitude?”

That bought her a smile, but he was smart enough not to comment. “I’ll leave you to it then, if that’s what you really want.”

“It is.” Hog pushed the top of his head against Emma’s palm again with a soft whine. Comforted by the touch, she leaned into him.

“Emma. You sure?”

Hell no. She wasn’t sure about anything. But the old Emma had lived to please others. Emma 2.0 didn’t want to do that. She was making changes. Up until now, her life had been about perceptions and keeping up with the Joneses. She’d worked several jobs, none of them paying well, but all of them adding to the image of a young woman at the top of her game: fit, able, and social media worthy.

But at the end of the day, when she’d been out of sight for a year, it hadn’t mattered, and every one of her wide circle of friends and acquaintances were gone.

Or boinking each other.

She’d been given a reset, a second chance that she’d crawled out of hell for, and she was going to do things right this time.

Simon was still waiting calmly for her to respond. She already knew he had patience in spades. He was gentle steel, always pushing her to the very ends of her endurance and beyond, waiting as long as it took for her to get it back together—which she always did. He’d proven that to her time and time again. He knew her limits better than she did. Resistance was futile.

“I’m sure,” Emma said. “I’ve only got the four boxes anyway, and one of them is a case of Girl Scout cookies.”

His approval of her toughness was in his smile. “I’m right downstairs if you change your mind.” He turned to the stairs and her gaze slid down his body. She might be off relationships, all of them, but she wasn’t dead. Good to know. “Wait. Why are you going to be downstairs?”

“Taking care of my dad, who lives in 1A. I had to move in with him for a bit after his strokes.”

“Right.” He’d told her this already. “Sorry.”

“Don’t be. I forget shit all the time and I have no excuse.”

Emma shook her head. “You forget nothing, including exactly how many reps I’m supposed to do, even when I try to cheat.”

Simon shrugged. “I was born with a cheat radar.”

She wished she’d been born with a cheat radar. That would have been handy before getting involved with Ned for nearly a year. “Thanks for getting me into this apartment.”

“Happy to help.”

Oh, how she hated to be helped, and given that he just laughed softly at the look on her face, he knew it too. When he left, she blew out a sigh. Simon thought he understood, but he didn’t. Couldn’t. No one could. After all she’d been through, after watching her parents give up a year of their lives to sit at her bedside and worry, her biggest fear now was to be a burden. To that end, she’d just last month finally gotten her parents to fly back to Florida, where they’d retired right after Emma had graduated from high school. A dream come true for them.

Not for her. She’d been to Florida to visit. She wasn’t a fan of the heat, the humidity, or the flatness of the landscape. Nope, she was a California girl through and through. Once upon a time, Emma’s biggest dream had been to run a half marathon. That seemed like a lifetime ago now.

Her new plan? She had no clue, other than it had to be bigger than her old one. Maybe it should be to appreciate surviving, learning to live her life to the fullest.

She stepped into her new, thankfully fully furnished apartment. Other than the pics Simon had on his phone, she’d signed the lease place unseen, so she was relieved to find it was even roomier than she’d thought. The kitchen, living room, and bedroom were filled with nooks and crannies typical of an old Victorian. It was furnished, which was a bonus because she hadn’t wanted anything from her previous life. Comfy-looking leather couch and chair, a huge TV, an oak table and chairs, and a king-size bed with navy-and-white bedding that looked so inviting she almost crawled into it on the spot. All of it looked well loved and well lived in, and Emma sent a silent thank-you to whoever had furnished the place. It was clean, definitely masculine, but also warm and cozy. It felt . . . perfect.

Shutting the door behind her and Hog, she was immediately drawn to the big picture window and the view of the Pacific Ocean. Turquoise water, dotted with whitecaps and sailboats, stole her breath.

Still sweating and trembly, Emma made it to the couch, collapsing onto the cushions. Hog plopped heavily to the floor at her feet, both of them thrilled with the glorious view but even more glorious silence. Some of her tension started to drain away.

Until someone knocked on her door.

Hog jumped up and hid behind the couch.

“It’s open,” Emma said wearily to the exes squared, wishing she could hide behind the couch too.

The door opened, but it wasn’t the exes squared. It was two high-school-aged boys, both tall, gangling, and clearly twins, wearing matching T-shirts that said rj mowing service.

And they were carrying her entire life in four boxes.

Hog peeked out behind the couch, his hangdog face creased in worry.

Emma managed to sit up. “Um, hi?”

“Hi,” one of them said. “We take care of the yard of this property. I’m R.” He jabbed a thumb at the other kid. “He’s J. Simon gave us twenty bucks to carry these boxes up here for you. Uh . . . is that a bear behind the couch?”

“Nope, just an anxious dog named Hog. What does R and J stand for?”

“Robert,” the first kid said, patting his chest with his hand. He pointed at his twin. “Jeremy. We hate our names so we go by R and J.”

Jeremy nodded, but didn’t speak.

They were so identical it was almost spooky, but then Emma realized that while R had two green eyes, J had one light brown, one green. He nudged R, whispering something in his brother’s ear.

R nodded. “Right.” He looked at Emma. “So does Hog eat people? Cuz he’s drooling like maybe he needs lunch.”

They all eyed Hog. The classic-looking St. Bernard was massive, heavy, and potentially powerful, with a thick furry coat. Emma could see how he’d been mistaken for a bear because only his huge head was peeking out from behind the couch. He was panting slightly, his big milk chocolate eyes filled with a deep concern.

“He eats everything but people,” Emma said fondly. “Also, he’s a very large scaredy-cat. I’m . . . kind of his emotional support person.” Then she said to Hog, “It’s okay. They’re friendlies.”

Hog, always good-natured even when scared, gave a tentative wag of his tail and came out, waiting to receive all the love. Both guys were happy to give him what he wanted. In two seconds, Hog was on his back again, tongue lolling in happiness while he received all the pets.

“What happened to the couple who was supposed to carry my boxes up?” Emma asked.

“Simon told them we had this,” R said. “And that they should go because the sprinklers were going to come on and ruin the new wash job on their Lexus. The guy said he could move the car and park on the street instead, but Simon said the street cleaners would be coming through soon so it was best if they just left. The woman had to talk the guy into it.”

Not sure how she felt about Simon being her own personal superhero for the day, Emma searched her pockets, hoping she had some money to tip the teens. “Thanks so much for the assist, I really appreciate it.” She went to stand up. “Let me just find my wallet—”

“Simon told us if we took a tip from you, he’d fire us,” R said.

And then they were gone, and she was blessedly alone. If she could’ve done a happy dance, she would’ve. Instead, she settled for flopping onto the couch again. She was on her own. Yay! She looked around and her smile faded some.

Alone meant she didn’t have anyone to open a jar when her shaky fingers couldn’t grasp it tight enough. No one to sit on the bathroom counter while she showered to make sure if she fell, she had a quick rescue.

No one to be there when she woke up from the nightmares of being back in the coma, trapped in her own mind.

As if he sensed her worry, Hog joined Emma and they both tried to watch the beautiful scenery; the water, the puffy clouds lazily crossing a bright sky . . . but they promptly caved to the exhaustion and took a nap. And for those few hours, Hog wasn’t the only drooler.

 

Chapter 2

Step 2: Listen.

Being in a coma was a funny thing. One minute you were jogging and singing along to Pink in your headphones as you hopped off the curb to cross the street, and in the next beat you were . . . nowhere, just floating somewhere above reality, but below the afterlife.

For Emma, it’d been like sinking underwater, terrified and unable to move, not even to open her eyes, at the complete mercy of the tide. She could hear things going on around her, all of it warped, as if going through a filter.

Later she’d learned that had been the heavy drugs they’d had her on, but at the time, all she’d known was that she couldn’t open her eyes or move as real life went on around her. The snippets of conversations she’d caught had come to life vividly behind her eyelids, like dreams.

She could still remember two women talking about one of them hooking up in a supply closet with an ER doc the night before. She’d gotten pregnant and had given birth to a litter of healthy puppies. Ten of them.

Obviously she’d been given really good drugs.

She’d heard Ned and Cindy talking quietly to themselves about a cruise to the moon.

Her parents promising her that if she would only wake up, they’d help her learn to fly.

Then two more female voices; one of them had just broken up with her boyfriend who was on fire, racing through flames carrying his dad on his back everywhere he went. She’d dumped him for leaving her behind.

Emma had to laugh at those dreams or she’d get anxious again, the kind of anxiousness she’d suffered during her coma, where she’d felt like she was drowning but couldn’t wake up and get out of the deep water.

She’d never been a fan of swimming, especially in the often rough and choppy water off the coast, but being stuck in her own mind in the ocean had been hell.

Later she’d found out that after a postsurgery infection and a dangerously high fever, and then a subsequent seizure, they’d put ice packs all around her. Which demystified the horrifying dreams about trying to swim in the ocean, but feeling too weighed down to move.

It’d demystified everything, because postcoma, she’d realized that everything she’d overheard had some level of truth to it.

The worst part of all of it had been the insidious pain.

Not surprisingly, it’d been Simon, during those first PT sessions, to tell her something that had stuck with her.

They’d been in Emma’s hospital room, her still hooked up to all sorts of things, weeks before she’d been released to the rehab facility. The lights had been on low because she’d had a migraine, probably brought on by the pain and her inability to manage it effectively.

The anticipation of pain is worse than the pain itself, he’d told her, a lean hip perched on the edge of her bed as he worked the muscles in her left leg. Close your eyes.

She’d spent way too much time with her eyes closed, but there’d been something so compelling in the gentle steel of his demand that she had done what he said.

Now go to another place. A happy place.

She had strained to remember one. But she was practically humming with anxiety. No job, no prospects. Her left arm had seceded the United States of Emma. And yet, none of that was first in line. She didn’t need a shrink to tell her what was first in line, what her constant low level of anxiety really came from. She’d always known the root of it.

Survivor’s guilt.

Go to your happy place, Emma. She smiled now because she could still hear Simon speak to her as he had that day, clear as a bell, like he was right there with her.

Where’s your happy place today? Dream Simon asked.

Same as always. Avila Beach. Where the bright sand and the pretty ocean melded together like heaven on earth. It took her a minute, but finally she could hear the water lapping against the beach. Birds squawking at each other. The salty scent of the ocean air all around them, a warm breeze on her face. She was on the warm sand with the heated, hard body of a man lying with her, spreading sunscreen over every inch of her body . . .

Wow. Okay, so this really was a happy place today, and she smiled, liking Dream Simon a whole lot. She hadn’t dreamed of or yearned for physical intimacy in . . . a long time. She’d actually thought that part of her womanhood might be lost to her forever—

“Turn onto your belly,” came Dream Simon’s low, gruff command.

Mmm. She liked his sex-on-a-stick voice.

“Emma.”

Her eyes flew open. Not Dream Simon.

Real Simon.

She wasn’t at the beach. She was at physical therapy, and she’d dozed off.

“Turn over,” Not Dream Simon said.

“’K, but I usually get dinner first . . .”

“Funny.” He nudged her over himself with his big, strong, warm hands and she had to swallow her moan.

“Am I hurting you?”

“No.” She squeezed her eyes shut and buried her head in the crook of her right arm, wondering if her ears were on fire.

Or if he could read minds.

No. If he could, he’d be running for the hills. The man was hot, but he’d never, not once, given her a hint of having any lust for her bod.

Just as well. Her mind might be suddenly ready for a physical relationship, but her body didn’t exactly seem ready for prime time. A mental inventory proved that to be true: aching limbs, aching ribs and back. Aching everything. Which made it official. Still not ready.

Well, except for maybe her traitorous nipples . . .

“Lift up.”

She snorted a little to herself because now everything in this session was going to sound dirty to her. But she knew what he wanted, and unfortunately it wasn’t dirty at all.

“Emma.”

“Right.” She took a deep and shaky breath because damn, he was particularly evil today. She held her arms straight out in front of her and her legs behind her and arched her back. Theoretically, every part of her should lift off the table, except her belly and hips. It was a good stretch for an able-bodied person, of which she wasn’t. Her left arm raised about an inch, before dropping heavily back to the table.

“Again.”

She could feel a fine sheen of perspiration on her skin and her every muscle trembled with effort—

“Hey.” Simon bent and put his face level with hers. “You with me?”

Yep. Yep, she’d just been with him. On a beach. Naked . . . Which was incredibly eye-opening for her as her lady bits twitched for the first time in a year. Not trusting her voice, she nodded up into those hazel eyes. Green and light brown swirled, surrounded by a ring of milk chocolate brown. Mesmerizing.

“Where did you go?” He’d taken his hands off her. “You okay?”

“Nowhere,” she said quickly. “I’m good.”

“So you can do it again then.”

Damn. And note to self: Never tell Hardass PT you’re good. “Or . . . we could go have one of the juices you guys sell out front.”

“After. This first.”

Damn. “So where’s your happy place?”

Simon arched his brows.

“Come on,” Emma said coaxingly. “I know you must have one.”

“Oh, I do.” He smiled. “It’s just under lock and key.”

She put her hand on her left calf, rubbing it before it could cramp. “Seriously? You’re not going to share?”

“Not right now. Right now we’re concentrating on your recovery.”

“I’m recovered enough.”

He nudged her hand away from her calf and began to knead it for her. “‘Enough’ isn’t the same as your long-term goal of working your way back up to a 5K.”

“That was BC.”

“Stretch your legs like I showed you.” He waited for her to start doing that before speaking. “So your standards have changed then?”

“Well, yeah. Life changed.”

“Emma.” His voice was quiet, concerned. “Doesn’t have to be that way. You can get back there.”

She looked away, not sure how to tell him she no longer coveted her old life. Problem was, she didn’t know what her new life looked like. “Maybe I don’t need to be the same as before.”

He was quiet a moment, watching her stretch the way he wanted, occasionally adjusting her posture to suit himself. “Here,” he said.

“What?”

“My happy place is here. Helping people.”

That gave her a warm fuzzy, something she didn’t often feel here in the torture chamber. “Thanks,” she whispered.

He nodded and she kept working. Sweating. And occasionally swearing. “It never gets easier,” she gasped.

He was quiet a moment. “We’ve been working this program, facilitating your healing, rebuilding muscle mass for months and you’ve come so far. But there’s still a lot of work ahead.”

She blew out a breath, not sure she was up for it. “Awesome.”

Ignoring her sarcasm, he adjusted her again. His hands warm and firm, pressing her into place, holding her there a beat, signaling how he wanted her.

“What work?” she finally caved and asked.

“We’ve been working on your body, but not your spirit.”

“Not your job,” she managed, breathless from holding the position. And maybe a little bit from having his hands on her.

“It is my job, Emma. And I’m good at it. When you let me be.”

She couldn’t see his face. Probably for the best. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You already know.”

She flopped over to her back to look up at him. “Humor me.”

“It’s whatever’s in your head telling you that you don’t deserve to be all the way healed.”

Their gazes locked and her heart started pounding. “Why would I feel that way?”

“Because you lived. When someone else didn’t.”

Her throat closed. Just shut off both her air and ability to speak. She sat up, curled her legs beneath her, and dropped her head to the tops of her knees. How did he know? Was she that transparent?

“Emma.” Simon gentled his voice. “I know how much you loved running. And I know what the doctors told you about not expecting to ever get that back. But I’ve told you that I believe otherwise. I still believe it.”

She lifted her head. “You do?”

“Yes. You’ve been working on the weight machine. You’ve even been on the treadmill—”

“At a crawl.”

“Which is faster than you were last month. You’ve been climbing stairs to get in and out of your apartment the past few days. It’s all working. I’ll have to check with your doctor, but we can try pushing harder now that you’re weight bearing. How does that sound?”

She chewed on her lower lip, not sure. “I don’t know.”

He studied her for a moment. “You do realize you’re in the driver’s seat here, right? No one can dictate the path of your life except you.”

“Not true. A car dictated my life. Detonated it, actually.”

His eyes went very serious. “Yeah, okay, and that was bad. But you’re standing on your own two legs. You’re doing better every day.”

Maybe. Emma slipped off the table, winced at her aches, and made her way to the mats in front of the windows with a beautiful view of the water in its glorious summer glory. She sat down, exhausted, and distressed over how quickly she tired. She looked down at her body, which she sometimes didn’t recognize. Once, she’d been all lean toned muscles. Now there was no tone, no muscles. “It’s hard.” Fighting for every inch of mobility all the time. Fighting through the brain fog. Dealing with her new reality.

Simon dropped to his knees at her side. “Life is hard.”

He wasn’t going to let her feel sorry for herself. Which, she supposed, she should be grateful for. She thought about apologizing for her bad attitude, but knew he didn’t want an apology. He wanted her to try harder, to get full recovery.

“What’s wrong?” he asked. “You’re off today.”

She shrugged, but he knew her. He understood her. Which currently made him the only one in her life who did. “I’m . . . feeling things,” she admitted.

“Pain?”

“No.”

His eyes held hers and she had the feeling that maybe he could read her mind, which was a bit horrifying, so she closed hers.

“Emma—”

“We about done here?” she asked.

“Nope.” He pointed to . . . She sighed. The lat pulldown machine. “Goodie.”

He smiled but didn’t back down. He did adjust it to no resistance. Just movement for today. She’d take it. She watched him counting her lifts. He was right. She’d gained strength, more and more each day. Her body had been wasting away when he’d come into her life. She was still limited by internal healing and her own mental health, but she really was doing better.

“It’s Friday,” he said. “I imagine you’ve got somewhere to get to.”

Did Netflix count? “Sure,” she said instead of admitting her social life meant sharing a bowl of popcorn with Hog. “You?”

Kelly, the owner of the rehab facility, had just walked into the room and laughed. “Simon the workaholic? Doubtful.”

“There’s nothing wrong with working hard,” Simon said.

“Even when it gets you dumped by your last girlfriend because your life’s too crazy for a relationship?”

The two of them exchanged a long look, then Kelly laughed and turned to a machine.

Simon looked at Emma. “Five more.”

“You put work before a relationship?”

“Make it ten.”

“You did,” she said, finding a smile at his bullshit blank face. He wanted her to move on, but no way. He knew everything about her. It was her turn. “Why?”

“Because he thinks he’s too busy to have a life,” Kelly said.

Simon ignored this, but Emma was fascinated and needed more. Still, she started moving before he changed the count to fifteen. “Ouch.

“What kind of ouch?” he asked. “The ‘I don’t want to do PT today’ ouch? Or ‘I need a nap’ ouch?”

“A nap sounds gr—” Emma gritted her teeth on the last word as her calf muscles suddenly seized, making her curl into herself. She tried to straighten her leg to ward it off, also knowing she couldn’t, and sure enough the cramp gripped her like a vice, sending searing pain through her whole body. She cried out as she scrambled up, putting weight on the foot, trying to relieve the pressure.

Hands caught her. Simon, of course. He dropped down to massage her leg, working his magic until the unbearable tightness was gone and so was the pain. “Breathe,” he said quietly and waited for her to do so, to mimic his slow, steady breathing.

But it was hard to draw air in slowly and steadily when she felt betrayed by her body. It’d been almost a year, a whole damn year, and she hated the helplessness of knowing that her body still couldn’t be trusted.

“It’s okay to be angry,” Simon said while his hands continued to work on her calf.

Emma opened her eyes and found him watching her carefully. He did that, always assessing what he was doing, how she was taking it, and there was comfort in that. Much as she teased him about being a hardass, he was actually the opposite.

“You’re not doing your stretching at night,” he said.

“Not as much as I should,” she admitted through clenched teeth. “I know, not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer, right?”

“You’re plenty sharp, Emma. You’ve just got a couple of blind spots. We all have them.”

“Yeah, right. Name one blind spot of yours.”

Those fascinating gold and green eyes of his held hers, a slight raise to his brow, and her insides got a little squishy. She was his blind spot?

His hand, on her leg, squeezed a little as his eyes lit with amusement and affection, which had her gaping at him like a fish out of water. “Um . . .”

His low chuckle didn’t help. He pointed at her, gesturing her back to the stretching she wasn’t doing.

Right. And clearly he could find his professionalism in a single heartbeat, but she sure couldn’t.

“Do your stretching at night, before you get into bed.”

“I’ve been using nighttime to stress about getting work. People ask about my huge gap in employment, which means explaining I was in a coma, which then changes how they look at me.”

“And how do they look at you?”

She gestured to herself. “No one wants someone this damaged. I come with implied problems.”

“Any implied problems are their own. You’re not damaged, Emma.”

“You might want to get your eyes checked.”

“My eyes are fine.”

Her breath caught in her throat. He was hunkered before her, close, very close. They’d been in this position many times before, but they’d never stared at each other while her heart thundered in her ears.

Kelly moved past them.

Flustered, Emma jerked to her feet and backed away.

Simon didn’t move. Nor did he seem flustered in the slightest. Just got quietly to his feet and waited for her to look at him.

“We done now?” she asked.

He gave a slow nod. “For now.”

They stared at each other and she wondered if there really was something there or she was just imagining it. And why that thought came with a little fear. Fear she wouldn’t be ready, that she’d never be ready again. “Okay, then,” she said. “Gotta go.” And like she did with just about everything, she ran off like the hounds of hell were on her heels. Well, okay, walked, because her legs hurt and running was no longer in her repertoire.

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