About the Author
By day Liz Johnson is a marketing manager for a Christian publisher. She finds time to write late at night and is a two-time ACFW Carol Award finalist. Liz makes her home in Nashville, TN, where she enjoys theater, exploring local music, and making frequent trips to Arizona to dote on her nieces and nephews. She loves stories of true love with happy endings and blogs about her adventures in writing at www.LizJohnsonBooks.com.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
But he'd made a promise to his senior chief's wife.
He clattered to a stop at the foot of the slanted ramp in front of a nondescript brick building, which looked just like every other in the medical complex. His gaze shifted from the steps at the front of the building to the too-short metal crutches digging into his sides.
Stairs or the ramp?
A low fire burned in his chest, and he squeezed his eyes closed against the flames that licked at his heart.
For years he hadn't cared. Either way was fine. Either got him where he needed to go.
Now he cared.
Now he didn't have an option.
He swung his left leg forward. The white brace succeeded in protecting his knee and also throwing him offbalance. Shoving one of his crutches out to the side, he caught himself just before his foot touched the ground.
He'd already made that mistake once. There was a reason his doctor had told him to stay off it at all costs.
It hurt. Like an inferno.
Like he'd taken another piece of shrapnel along that roadside in Lybania.
He opened his mouth, a pained groan on the tip of his tongue, but he bit it back when the glass door at the top of the ramp flew open. A teenage girl bounced out, her strides so even he barely noticed that one of the knees below her shorts was wrapped in a black brace.
She flipped her long blond hair over her shoulder and shot him a shy smile as she started down the ramp.
He tried to return her gesture, but the IED that had stolen his ability to walk had also made it hard to find genuine happiness. He settled for a shallow dip of his chin and lumbered out of her way.
When the girl was halfway to him, the office door swung open and a woman with orange hair popped out.
"Juliana," she said, before chasing the teen for five short steps.
Juliana's one-eighty was less graceful than her forward motion, requiring at least two extra steps and the aid of the handrail, but her knee remained stable.
The wild-haired woman held out a bag, at which Juliana laughed, high and sweet. "Thanks, Tara." Juliana slipped skinny arms through the straps, sliding a small backpack in place. "See you next week." With that, she executed another awkward turn and ambled past him.
Luke looked up at the woman still leaning against the handrail, her arms now folded over her neon-green scrubs.
Was this Tara the Dr. Berg everyone said was so amazing? The physical therapist his senior chief on the teams, Matt, was convinced had gotten him back in fighting shape after his leg injury? But Matt's injury hadn't been a blown knee. He'd had a couple dozen stitches in his calf, a minor injury to his muscle.
Luke, on the other hand, had shredded every major ligament in his knee.
The doctor at Walter Reed Medical Center had offered him a medical discharge after that first scan. He'd told Luke there wasn't much hope for a return to active duty. And every doctor thereafter had agreed.
But Luke had promised Ashley Waterstone, the senior chief's wife, that he'd schedule a consultation with Matt's physical therapist.
Squinting into the late-afternoon sun, he shuffled until he'd cut the distance between them in half. "I'm Luke Dunham."
The woman's gaze slid over him like a sculptor searching for imperfections in her masterpiece.
He'd been on the receiving end of that simultaneously curious and knowing stare before. And he'd enjoyed it for a few years. When he was younger. In his early days as a SEAL.
Now it made his stomach churn and his skin feel clammy, even in the warm San Diego air. "I'm early. But I have an appointment with Dr. Berg."
"Of course you do, honey." She gave a sharp nod and walked back to hold the front door open for him. Such a little gesture, but it still set his hands to itching. His dad had taught him that a man held the door open for a woman. Period.
That he couldn't even do it for himself set off that blazing ache in his chest again.
"I'm Tara, Dr. Berg's office manager."
Matt had promised that working with her would change his life.
But that would require a life. And he wasn't sure he had much of one left.
At least this was just a recon mission. He hadn't committed to anything beyond talking with the good doctor and picking up milk for his mom on the way home.
Tara was still standing with the door wide-open, and Luke hadn't moved an inch. She raised her eyebrows and nodded inside, silently asking what was taking him so long. Sucking in a fortifying breath, he pressed his palms against the rubber grips of his crutches and began a slow lumber up the incline. As he reached the open entrance, a blast of cold air greeted him.
"Is it always a meat locker in here?"
Tara shrugged one shoulder as she led the way across a mostly typical medical waiting room. Sturdy chairs lined three walls, except for three conspicuous holes that could only be there for those who brought their own seats. The usual industrial carpet had been swapped for hardwood, which was easier to maneuver on.
He fell into one of the chairs and poked his tongue in his cheek as he took the clipboard that Tara held out to him.
"Fill that out, and then someone will take you back to see Dr. Berg."
By this point, he could pretty much fill out a standard medical questionnaire with his eyes closed. It was all the same. Surgeries and allergies. Insurance and history.
But there, at the very bottom of the page, was a single question he'd never been asked on any other form.
How much do you want it?
There was no box to check next to it. Not even a black line to write on. Just a clear call to hard work.
Luke's SEAL training instructors had asked him the same thing, and he'd showed them he wanted it more than anything else he'd ever dared to dream of.
He jumped at the feminine voice that didn't belong to Tara. The woman standing at the wooden door that presumably led to the exercise and exam rooms offered neither a smile nor a frown. Her face was simply relaxed. One hand rested on her hip, and she cocked her head, sending her long black hair over one shoulder. The collar of her navy blue polo shirt stuck up below her left ear.
At least she wasn't wearing a white coat.
Undoubtedly another of Dr. Berg's assistants.
He held out the completed form, and she took it, nodding down a short hallway. "We'll go all the way down to the big room at the end."
As he moved in that direction, her steps eerily silent behind him, he fought the rush of uncertainty that washed across his shoulders. Another set of soundless footfalls had taken everything from him. His palm slipped against the grip, suddenly slick and clammy, and sweat broke out across his upper lip.
This wasn't the same.
It wasn't the same.
How many times would he have to remind himself of that before he believed that he was home, that men didn't walk around with bombs strapped to their chests and women didn't push strollers of explosives down city streets?
He paused just long enough to swipe his forearm across his mouth.
"Do you wear out more easily than you used to?"
"Not much." That was a bit of a whopper, but he didn't feel like explaining that his sudden sweats had less to do with muscle strain and nearly everything to do with a memory he couldn't erase.
The hallway seemed as if it would never end, with her unseen, unheard steps always behind him. Finally he reached the open entrance she'd indicated. The room was bigger than his old apartment. There was a row of weight machines along the far wall and floor-to-ceiling windows to his left. The panes were covered with fabric shades, which kept the setting sun mostly hidden. To his right sat three consultation tables.
The woman leaned her hip against the first table, fixed her wayward collar and crossed her arms, her gaze assessing and cool. When her stare hit his wrapped knee, she lingered, and the muscles in his back grew tight. Even with his sweatpants tucked into his brace, he felt bare, too exposed.
"When will I meet Dr. Berg?"
Her wide eyes met his gaze, a frown pinching the corners of her mouth. "I didn't introduce myself, did I?" He shook his head. "I am Dr. Berg. Mandy. Please, call me Mandy."
His eyebrows shot up before he could stop them. So, this was the good doctor. The young doctor. She looked just about old enough to start college, but she'd helped Matt more than three years ago. She wasn't exactly a rookie.
Clearing his throat, he tried to find something to say. Nothing came to mind. Not even a generic greeting.
That was odd. He'd never been at a loss for words before the bomb. Before the surgery. Before his future had become so absolutely uncertain.
After what felt like hours of weighted silence, she pasted a smile into place. "So tell me, Petty Officer Dunham"
"Please. I prefer Call me It's just Luke." He bit off the words, unsure how to explain that the medical discharge he'd been offered was one signature, one failed physical away. And after that, he'd never be a petty officer again. Every official document that touted it, every voice that spoke it was just more evidence of how close he was to losing it. All of it.
And a reminder of how much he'd already lost.
"Of course." She pressed her hand flat to her stomach, her shoulders rising and falling in an exaggerated motion. "How long were you at Walter Reed?"
He hitched his chin toward the manila file lying on the table next to her hip. "Isn't that in my file?"
"It is. But I'm asking you."
He narrowed his gaze on her, trying to read between the smooth angles of her face, but whatever she was thinking was hidden beneath a mask of easy professionalism. She maintained eye contact, never flinching, even as he felt the scowl that had become his cover slide into place. "Too long."
She gave him a half smile, the corresponding jolt in his stomach making him stand up a little straighter. She should be frowning. After all, he'd perfected keeping people at a distance since the surgery. Keeping them at arm's length was easier than watching their pitying expressions.
"And in calendar terms?" she asked.
The muscles in his jaw screwed up tighter than a tourniquet. "Three weeks before they could move me to San Diego."
He shrugged. "There were a few." Dozen. The shrapnel from the blast that had twisted his knee had left marks up and down the left side of his body.
But all of that would be in his file.
She nodded, flipped her hair over her shoulder and motioned to a padded chair. "Would you like to sit down?"
He studied her face, looking for any hint that she knew just how uncomfortable these crutches were. But her mask held. She didn't give him even a twitch of a smile as she nodded to the seat opposite her.
With a sigh, Luke lowered himself onto the chair, keeping his left foot a safe distance off the ground. His crutches clacked together as he slid them between the legs of the chair.
"If I take you on, you'll be with me three times a week for at least six weeks. And when you're not here, you'll be exercising at home. Most days, you're going to wish you were back in the hospital. It'll be awful. But after a while, it won't be."
"Wow." He fought the grin that threatened to find purchase and instead opted for a verbal jab. "Do you start every consultation with that sales pitch?"
"Only the ones that need it."
"Huh." Refusing to analyze what she was really saying, he got right to the point of his visit. "Will I be able to get back to my team?"
She squinted until one eye disappeared altogether. "That depends."
"You mostly." She patted her belly. "Are you strong enough? Will you listen to me when I say it's time to wait? And put in the work when I say it's time to go?"
He couldn't keep in a bark of laughter.
Something like a challenge flickered in Mandy's eyes, and she leaned forward. "We'd start out easy the first couple sessions. You've been out of the gym for more than a month."
"But before that, I was in the gym for half my life."
"Only half your life?" She shrugged her shoulder and pursed her lips. "What was that? Ten years?"
"It was long enough." A low sizzle in his veins demanded attention, calling him to prove her skepticism wrong. He crossed his arms, displaying some of the results of those years in the gym as he stretched the shoulders and sleeves of his gray T-shirt.
Thirteen years in the gym couldn't be denied. Nor could three years as a SEAL.
"I'm not so sure about that." She leaned forward, invading his space, and he pulled away, into the unyielding chair.
"Get used to it, Luke. We're going to have to get a lot closer than this if we work together."
But that was still a big if. He hadn't even decided if he wanted to work with her.
Well, there was something about her that reminded him of one of his instructors during SEAL training. Chief Willard had been hard and unflinching, smart and determined to see Luke succeed. And Luke had. Mostly because of the chief.
Could Dr. Berg see Luke through this new challenge?
"You look like you're in pretty good shape physically." An unspoken question washed over her face. How did you stay so fit?
"Force of habit."
"Exercising." His gaze drifted past her, to the shadow of a palm tree beyond the parking lot outside. It looked just like the trees visible from the Coronado beaches where the SEAL teams trained, and his heart jerked with an acute longing to be back there with his brothers.
"And your doctors at the hospital let you keep up a routine?"
He pinched his bottom lip between his thumb and forefinger, forcing his mind from sandy shores. "More like they ignored it when I didn't show signs of atrophy."
Her brown eyes glowed with something new, something interested. "What have you been doing?"
"Mostly resistance bands and bodyweight moves. Whatever I can do from my bed or a chair."
She took a long pause, crossing and uncrossing her legs, tapping her foot, running her fingers across her chin. All the while, her gaze never left his face, until he could physically feel her assessment.
The silence built like a concerto, its pressure pounding at his temples until she spoke. "I wish I could help, but I don't think I'm the right physical therapist for you. But I'll have Tara give you a list of other qualified, local PTs, who might be a better fit."
His heart flipped in his chest, disappointment raging through him like a clap of thunder. "I thought this meeting was to help me decide if I wanted to work with you." "You thought wrong."