Dusty Gibson focused her eyes on the black number two before slamming the visor of her helmet down. The noise of the other competitors faded out, making her feel like she had entered an alternate reality.
Her bike rumbled beneath her.
The two changed to a one.
She flicked her wrist, twisting the handle and pumping the gas. With her other hand, she squeezed the clutch. Her bike trembled in eager anticipation.
The one turned sideways.
Two seconds later, the gates fell. Dusty dropped the clutch and twisted her wrist. Engines screamed around her. Grabbing the clutch, she jerked her foot, caught second, and sprang ahead. A guy in purple on her left edged closer. On her right, a yellow jersey and a red jersey fought for position.
She jammed third, then fourth gear, keeping her eyes on the first jump. Ideal position would be the leader of the pack at that point. She hadn’t gotten to be the points leader in motocross racing by running in the back.
Running wide open, she angled to the left, toward purple shirt who was running even with her. From her practice runs, she knew the direct middle of the jump had a slight dip that, hit the wrong way, could cause her bike to flip end over end. Not what she wanted to have happen with a whole class of fifteen aggressive racers behind her.
Purple shirt gave the space then pushed back. Dusty jerked to avoid smacking his foot peg.
Her bike caught; her handlebars twisted. She jerked them back, keeping the throttle on wide open. Sweat trickled down her forehead. The visor on her helmet steamed up, fogging her vision. She could see the horizon where blue met brown but couldn’t judge the distance to the first jump. Fifty feet? Thirty?
She needed to get out of the middle. Pushing again at purple shirt, she refused to allow anything but cool determination to sit in her chest. She’d done this a thousand times before. But purple shirt either didn’t see her or was determined to keep her boxed in.
The latter was quite possible, since she was the current points leader and, hence, the person to beat.
Her bike screamed beneath her. She twisted hard on the throttle, keeping it wide open. She wanted to catch a big lift on that jump. But not from the middle.
Changing up, she pushed against yellow shirt on her right. But red shirt ran tire to tire with him, and he couldn’t give her the space if he wanted to.
She tried purple shirt again. Still no budging.
In a split second, her three options ran through her brain: force purple shirt to move, with contact, if necessary, risking a crash for both of them; slow down, let him and red and yellow go by, which was surely the plan of the other three leaders; or shift her weight off her front tire and hit the jump flat in the middle. The third option would have been the only one she would have considered, except she couldn’t see.
She hadn’t expected it to be this hot, and she hadn’t put her anti-fog on her visor. Rookie mistake.
A decision had to be made. Fast.
Pushing once more at purple shirt, who didn’t budge from her side, she crouched on her pegs and squinted, wanting to get the timing just right. Pulling up would slow her down. Not much, but enough to let the others get ahead. Where she wanted to be. Where she was going to be. Nothing was going to stop her from becoming the first female motocross champion.
Suddenly the jump loomed up in front of her, faster than she had estimated. She stood and leaned back, but she was a millisecond too late.
Her front tire dipped. Her body hitched forward. Her bike kicked up, and she was flung over the handlebars, spread-eagle in the air. Purple shirt had decided at the last minute to move over, giving way to a guy in a blue shirt. She caught it out of the corner of her eye in the split second she hung upside down and backward in the air.
The split second before he crashed into her.
A crack sounded loud in her ears. Pain flared up her back and out both arms. Her body flung wildly.
She saw the next bike coming and tried to twist, but the pain radiated out in sharp spikes, and her mind went black.
Four weeks later.
“This one’s yours.” Sherri, the office nurse, handed Roland Bryant a folder with a smirk. The harsh florescent lighting in their physical therapy office glanced off the pristine white walls with tasteful overblown photos of palm trees hung in an even spread.
He took the folder as he stood behind the high counter and opened it.
Sherri put one hand on the counter. Her bright red nails sparkled. “They requested ‘the best.’” She laughed. “You know what that means.” With a lifting of her brows, she walked away.
Roland swallowed his snort. When a client requested “the best,” it was almost always because they were “the worst.” Not the worst as in the physical worst, but the worst as in the most difficult to deal with. He always got those.
His eyes skimmed over the folder. The client would be waiting in the big room where all the therapy sessions were held, but he always liked a little privacy to familiarize himself with a new patient’s background before he met them. Some injuries were so horrific he couldn’t contain his grimace. Some were unusual, requiring him to do a quick search or even shoot off a few emails to colleagues, for their advice and opinion on best practices.
Dusty Gibson. Twenty-six. He’d fractured his femur and vertebrae T-11 and T-12 in a motocross race. Roland shuddered. There was a starred note that he was a top contender and insisted that he would race again.
Maybe Roland was “the best,” but he wasn’t a miracle worker, and Dusty was flipping lucky he wasn’t paralyzed.
Yeah. He closed the folder, already picturing in his head exercises that would strengthen the rarely used muscles in the back that would help Dusty until his leg was fully healed.
Normally, Roland worked the best with the patients who were discouraged, who needed someone with a story of their own to breathe hope back into a client who wondered what their life was going to consist of now that they were no longer perfectly whole. That, Roland could do. He just told his own story. Leaving his dead fiancée out of it.
With a last glance to make sure all the proper forms had been signed, he carried the folder out. He glanced inconspicuously around the room. Dusty wouldn’t be the older gentleman nor the three senior ladies scattered through the room. A skinny elementary school-aged boy sat beside a woman, his mother presumably, with his arm in a brace and his ball cap pulled down over his forehead.
Roland’s eyes skimmed over all of those. Dusty would have a leg brace; he might even be in a wheelchair. Only two people in the patient waiting corner of the large room could possibly be twenty-eight years old. A man who did not have a leg cast and a slim woman with waist-length blond hair who did.
She also wore a back brace.
Dusty Gibson, motocross champion, was a woman.
Roland dealt with men, women, boys, girls, old men, and senior ladies. So the odd reaction of his heart, which twisted in his chest, was unexpected. And unwelcome.
He put his game face on. “Dusty Gibson.”
The blond rose stiffly, which is the only way one could move in a back brace. She turned. Roland’s heart twisted again. Harder. Her wide blue eyes turned in his direction, looking for the source of the summons. A heart-shaped face, cute nose, and high cheekbones complimented that long, straight hair. Her carriage was proud, and despite the braces, she moved with a catlike grace.
No wheelchair. She wasn’t even using crutches. He obviously hadn’t studied her chart in enough depth.
He pointed to the first counseling room along the side. “We’re going there. Let me grab your chart.” It wasn’t the way he normally met patients, but Dusty had already turned his “normal” upside down, and he hadn’t even introduced himself yet.
In the course of his practice as a physical therapist, he’d had a few patients that had stuck with him, because of the severity of their injuries, their amazing personalities, or their grit and determination. He knew for sure Dusty was going to be one of those patients he didn’t forget.
Grabbing her chart, he caught up to her in time to open the counseling room door for her.
She gave him a disdainful look. “I can get it myself.”
“I’m sure you can.”
“Don’t patronize me.”
She wasn’t the first person who came in for therapy with a bad attitude. Now wasn’t the time for tough love. That would come soon enough. “I’m sorry,” he said.
She walked through the door without another word. He followed, closing it behind him.