Hard Hitter(10)

By: Sarina Bowen

The hair stood up on the back of Ari’s neck, and she had to restrain herself from asking why. Not liking to be touched wasn’t a common attitude. “Everybody’s different,” she said softly. “But we still have to work on your hip flexors. I have one idea that might help you.”

“Good.” He made a sheepish face. “Because I’m fresh out.”

She patted his wrist again—intentionally. If they were going to work together, he needed to become at least a little more accustomed to being touched. “Let’s try a more active technique. It will feel more like a gym exercise and less like massage. Can you roll onto your good side and bend your knee for me?”

He complied, turning his broad back to her. She adjusted his bottom leg to be somewhat straight, and then wrapped her hand around his right ankle. “Bend this knee a little more for me.” He did. “All right. I’m going to brace your outer hip. Like this.” She gripped the muscle as far in as she’d gotten before he’d begun fighting her touch. “And you’re going to put your own hand on the trouble spot. Show me.”

He pushed his fingertips into his flesh between his hip and his groin.

“Now, don’t use your back.” She tapped the muscles of his lower back. “Don’t activate these. Instead, use your hip and leg. Press down and straighten that leg. Go.”

With a lazy-sounding rumble from his chest, he did as she’d instructed.

“Good! How’d that feel?” She dug her hands into the accessible muscle at his hip, warming it, working it as best she could.

“Not too bad.”

“You wouldn’t lie to me, captain, right?”

He chuckled for the first time. “No, ma’am.”

“Ugh. You ma’amed me like an old woman. Just for that you’re going to do it four more times.” She grabbed his ankle again. “Bend.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“For that? Six times.”

“Yes, master.” She watched the taut muscles of his back shake with laughter.

Ari placed her hands on his body again, her palm warmed by the taut skin of his lower back, the fingers of her other hand gripping his sturdy hip through the thin cotton of his navy blue briefs. “Ready, big guy?”

“Ready,” he rumbled.

“Push and go.” Together they worked around his trouble spot while he extended his leg. And the sigh he let out was a good sign. “Okay?”

“Yeah. It feels a little looser than it did a half hour ago.”

Ari’s small victory was like a warm tingle in her chest. Smiling, she made him repeat the exercise a few more times. “Now roll onto your stomach,” she insisted. “For fifteen minutes I want you to pretend you enjoy massage. Just to stroke my ego, okay?”

Chuckling, he rolled over. She spread a bit of oil on her hands and went to work on his calves, slowly working her way up to his hamstrings. Bit by bit she felt his body relax beneath her touch. “How am I doing?” she asked. “Feel free to lie.”

“Aw. This is the best massage I’ve had all year.”

She let out an unladylike snort. “This is the only one, right?”

“Yeah, but still.” He rolled his handsome face into the crook of his arm and sighed again.

Skipping his hips, she went to work on the muscles at the juncture of his lower back and his rather beautiful ass. “Do you have much pain here? The risk with a hip strain is that you’ll overcompensate by using your lower back.”

“By the end of a game, I’m feeling it there for sure.”

The honest answer surprised her. She gave him a pat on the back. “Okay. At your next visit, we’ll keep working on these trouble spots. Each time you put on a burst of speed on the ice, you demand a lot from these muscles. If we keep you loose, it’s going to help. I’m going to work into your hip a little now—but only from the back. And I’m not going to hurt you. And you’re lying on the trouble spot, right? No one can touch it.” She hoped his defensive position on the table would prevent him from tensing up.

“Got it. Do your worst.”

They were tough words from a tough guy, but now she knew better. Patrick O’Doul had some serious issues with having hands on his body. His reluctance probably stemmed from a refusal to make himself vulnerable.