Massaging an injured hockey star makes the art career of your dreams drop into your lap... but will that career ruin the hobby you adore?
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Go Small or Go Home
When massage therapist and aspiring artist Tess begins treating stressed but attractive hockey star Forrest, her art career soars due to his gallery-owning mother, but her creativity plummets under the weight of rules and deadlines. Soon, she's lost the freedom and joy she'd always found in art.
Is having her dream career worth losing doing her art her way, or can she somehow have both at once?
"Yes, I'm serious, Joe. Turn around."
"I can't ask you to do that." He glanced at the receptionist, at her desk beneath a framed poster of the 1974 Toronto Hogs hockey team, but her focus on her computer remained absolute.
"You didn't ask, I offered. And your shoulders are right up to your ears. Don't look a gift massage in the mouth."
I probably didn't have much time before my interview, but I couldn't leave such a nice guy in such discomfort. Besides, I'd get to touch him again, like I'd wanted to since our introductory handshake. Something about him, not just his cuteness, called to me. He felt wounded. Fragile, despite his height and clearly muscular body.
"Might make your interview easier if you were relaxed," I cajoled. "You do want to be the team's equipment manager, right? And I might be their massage therapist. So let me help you. Turn around."
After another moment's hesitation, he did. I rested both hands on his shoulders to get him used to my touch then let my fingers explore. He was tighter than a size four bathing suit on a size fourteen woman, his muscles like solid bone beneath my hands, and though I tried to be gentle he caught his breath a few times.
When he flinched, I said, "Sorry. Should I stop?"
"No," he said at once. "It hurts but it's helping. You're good."
Doubt skittered through me. I was good, and I knew it. So why was I considering leaving massage?
Because yesterday I'd vowed to chase my artistic dreams. Somehow.
Joe stiffened and on impulse I slipped one hand into his sweatshirt to work directly on the knot I'd found. As his tension eased, sadness flooded me and I had to blink back unexpected tears. I'd felt clients' newly released emotions before, but never like this. So much pain, so intense. What could have hurt him so deeply?
He only let me touch his bare skin for a few seconds before he said, his voice rough and husky, "That feels better. Thanks."
I drew my hands back though I longed to go on. "You're more than welcome. I hope it helped."
He faced me, his hazel eyes still holding traces of the pain I'd felt from him. "It did." He cleared his throat. "You don't know how much."
No, but I knew how much work he still needed. Before I could offer another session, the receptionist said, "Ms. Grayson, Mr. Filmore's ready for you."
I looked at her. "He is? I didn't hear a phone ring or anything."
She blinked twice. "Um, he emailed me."
"Ah." I gathered my bag and jacket. The team's manager had probably told her to keep me waiting. Power trip.
"Good luck," my impromptu client said, extending his hand to me.
"You too." Our eyes met as we shook hands. The pain I'd seen was gone, but it had been real and I knew he still felt it. I didn't want to leave him.
"It was nice to meet you." He released my hand. "Thank you again."
"Ditto, and you're welcome again." We exchanged smiles and I headed toward the double doors hoping we'd both get hired and I'd get to work with him.
"Ms. Grayson, could you start immediately?"
At last, a relevant question. So far my interview had consisted of small talk and awkward silences. "My previous boss retired and shut down the clinic two weeks ago, so I'm free any time. And please, call me Tess."
Filmore leaned forward, his hand resting on the Hogs team logo inlayed into his desk. His little finger, bearing an enormous gold ring emblazoned with '1974', stroked the cartoon pig's forehead. I didn't think he knew he was doing it.
"All right, Tess, let me level with you."
Instead of leveling, he stared at me, hard enough that I wanted to fidget but not quite enough to force me to. When I didn't look away he stared harder, which only made me more determined not to flinch.
My eyeballs began to dry out, so I gave a slow deliberate blink. He did too, and dropped his head until his eyes nearly vanished beneath his thick grey eyebrows.
After the longest few seconds of my life, he blinked again and gave one faint nod. Had I won? He did seem marginally friendlier when he went on. "We won the Beechman Cup in '74 and we haven't come close since."
Beechman? From the reverence in his voice, I assumed the top team in the league won it. When Toronto's media described the Hogs these days, "top team" never came up.
I must have appeared doubtful instead of clueless, because he held up a hand to stop the protest I wasn't making. "Sure, we make the playoffs nearly every year, and we even reached the final round in '95. Last year, we thought we'd win it all, but then..." He shook his head. "Well, gotta move on, right?"
I didn't know what he was moving on from, but he clearly expected my agreement so I nodded.
"This will be our year." He dropped each word like a little bomb, then glanced at his cell phone for at least the tenth time and said, "We need you to help us succeed."
If I'd thought hockey mattered, the passion in his voice might have swayed me. But I didn't.
I believed in sports. I'd picked up my childhood swimming again as a so-called 'masters swimmer' at twenty-six, although the only thing I'd mastered seemed to be failing to qualify for the championship meet held every December.
I'd failed three times, but this year, my last chance before I turned thirty and moved into a new age bracket, I would succeed. The determination to get there kept me training day after day. Swimming, along with my art, had made me who I was.
Sports were important and life-changing, no question. But professional sports? Overcharging, underperforming, and irrelevant.
I chose not to share this opinion. "How? What exactly would I do to help?"
His expression suggested I'd asked if he'd sing the national anthems naked at the next game. "I can't answer that now," he said eventually. "I can only say it'd be massage."
"Good," I said, trying to ease his strange mood, "since I'm trained for it."
He sighed. "I guess we should cover your training," he began, but his phone rang as he reached the last word. He lurched forward and answered it, relief spreading over his hockey-scarred face. "Took you long enough. So?"
He listened for several seconds, drumming his fingers against the table. "Sure, but will it work?"
More listening, then his eyebrows shot up. The drumming stopped. "Good enough. Will do."
He snapped the phone closed. "Tess, thanks for your time. I'll be in touch."
Startled, I scrambled to my feet and shook his offered hand.
"Close the door on your way out, please."
I walked through the unfortunately empty waiting room, and a calm certainty settled over me. This was a sign. I was meant to become a professional artist. If only I knew how.
I'd been making my miniature scenes for nearly half my life, but hadn't considered selling them until Pam had sold her first painting a few years back. While I'd been immediately drawn to the idea, following my twin sister into a new career had seemed awkward at best and a potential battlefield at worst, so I'd put it aside. But on the weekend, on our twenty-ninth birthday, we'd battled anyhow, so why not pursue my dream?
I'd spent the hours before my interview researching the art world. The same names came up repeatedly, but they wouldn't deal with artists without referrals or gallery experience, and I didn't have either and didn't know how to get them.
I tried to focus on finding a solution but my mind kept wandering to Joe. I hadn't even asked his full name, so I couldn't find him to massage him again. He'd been so nice, and in so much pain. If he became the equipment manager, maybe whoever got the massage therapist job would take good care of him. I hoped so.
Once I got home, I opened the blinds to let the late-autumn sun illuminate my twelfth-floor apartment then settled down at my work table. Time with my art never failed to soothe me. Occasionally it gave me a headache, but always joy as well.
Each miniature started with a solid base, usually plywood, about the size of my palm, to which I attached tiny three-dimensional figures and objects. I spent most of my time looking through a magnifying glass as I painted and molded clay and shaped fabric to match the image in my mind.
Finding the right form for the image of my current project had been a challenge. A week ago, I'd dreamed about a woman trapped in a pit while people gawked down at her, and I'd been working on it ever since.
Making the base several inches thick so I'd have somewhere to dig the pit was the obvious answer, so I'd rejected it. Instead, I'd tried many different ways before hitting on a vortex dragging the woman down to her doom. The concept bore only a faint resemblance to my dream, but if a piece felt right, it was right. And this felt right.
Magnifying glass in hand, I was painting the base when I thought of having objects, everything the woman wanted and needed, pulled down with her. I jotted the idea on my notepad and returned to work.
When the phone beside me rang, my fingers tingled at the sight of 'Toronto Hogs' on the call display. I hadn't expected Filmore to call so soon.
"Congratulations, you've got the job."
"Do you accept?"
"I don't know what it involves."
"I'll give you the details after you've committed."
"How can I take a job I know nothing about?"
Filmore grunted. "I can't tell you everything, but of course you know the situation with Forrest Williams."
"I don't," I said as he started to go on. "You don't? How could you not?" He sounded like I'd admitted to not knowing ice was cold. "He's the best forward in the league. At least he could be." "I told you I don't follow hockey."
But I was starting to remember the incessant news coverage. Put up for trade by his old team earlier in the year, Forrest had been all anyone who cared about hockey could discuss. Team after team had offered him more money than I'd make in ten lifetimes, and he'd chosen Toronto.
"He played well at training camp in September," Filmore said. "Although... no, he did play well. Decently, anyhow. Considering. But he was hurt the last day of camp and he's not been himself since. He's missed nearly a month of games now and we need him healthy. You'll be Forrest's full-time therapist."
'Decently'. 'Hurt'. 'Not himself'. Could the man be any vaguer? "What's wrong with him?" "Now, that I can't tell you until you've agreed," he said, his voice so solid I knew he wouldn't budge. "But I'm told massage will help. You can't speak to the media, or take on any other patients without my permission, and you must be available whenever he needs you. Are you in?"
I'd made my decision after the interview and I saw no reason to change it. "Mr. Filmore, I'm sorry, but--"
"Oh, I didn't tell you the salary, did I?" he said over me. "Fifty thousand."
I'd always been a saver, so I could handle at least six months as a full-time artist. Filmore's offer was a little more than my yearly salary at the clinic, but less than I'd have expected from a professional sports team. And not enough to sway me.
"That's for the first two months. Then we'll renegotiate based on Forrest's progress."
"For two months? Why so high?"
He paused. "Honestly? We don't want you to say no."
My turn to pause. My interview had obviously gone better than I'd thought, but even so, they could have had any massage therapist on the planet, and probably most alien ones, for that price. Why so anxious to get me?
He broke the silence. "Look, I'm paying that kid five point two million a year and he's doing nothing. I'd hire a circus elephant if he thought one would help. Swear to God, a circus elephant. I don't even know if you can fix him, but he thinks you can. Even if you're just a good luck charm, I'll take it."
Three years of college and six years of experience to be a good luck charm. Lovely. I rubbed my forehead. "This doesn't make sense. Why does Forrest think I can help? He hasn't even met me."
He made a disgusted clicking sound. "You really don't follow hockey, do you? I hope he knows what he's doing. You met him today. The guy you massaged? That was Forrest."
Not a fellow job candidate. My client. He'd lied, pretended to be someone he wasn't, but his tension and sadness had been all too real. I'd wanted a chance to help him, and here it was. But he'd lied to me.
When I didn't speak, because I couldn't, Filmore said, "So, fifty grand for two months with Forrest. You in?"
Who said that? What happened to my art career, my decision to leave massage?
Forrest happened. Forrest and the raw pain in his eyes.
"Good. Be here at nine tomorrow morning. You can work with Forrest and then we'll sign the contract. You won't regret this."
No? I was already. But Forrest needed help. Not to mention, fifty thousand dollars in two months? "So, what's wrong with him?"
"Got any experience with groin injuries?"
Only old Mr. Keyes, who'd done the splits on his icy driveway last winter and torn a muscle in his inner thigh. He'd insisted I call him "Wishbone", and though he'd blushed whenever I touched his leg we had managed to heal the damage. "Yes, but not with a pro athlete. Or any athlete."
"Well, you'll get some now."
I bit my lip. Leg muscles healed slowly because they rarely got the rest they needed. Mr. Keyes had agreed to stay off his feet for two weeks, but I doubted Forrest would do the same.
Filmore gave me his private phone number, with an air of offering a fortune beyond imagining, and ended the call with, "See you tomorrow. Just say 'no comment' if anyone bugs you on the way in."
Who was going to bug me? What had I gotten myself into? I sat staring at his number on my notepad. I didn't want it there, interfering with my art. I could call him, say I'd changed my mind. It'd be embarrassing, but I could do it. Quit before I even began and recommit to art. On the other hand, I could help Forrest, and I wanted to. And I could save so much money, have an even better cushion for starting my art career.
I turned my notepad over and tried to lose myself in the vortex piece instead of obsessing over Forrest and my various careers, but I couldn't focus. Not wanting to ruin the piece in my distraction, I checked my email, hoping for jokes from my best friend Jen and fearing anything from Pam.
My twin sister and I hadn't spoken since I'd confronted her on our birthday. Shattering years of family lies and denial, I'd finally told Pam to her face she was an alcoholic. She'd stormed out, but I knew I'd done the right thing. She was losing her life to the booze and I couldn't stand by and watch. Her retort of "I don't see what you're doing with your life that's so much better" had been the catalyst for my decision to focus on my art.
My now-postponed decision.