A Gentle Kind of Strength

ManLoveRomance Press LLC

Heat Rating: Sizzling
Word Count: 57,000
3 Ratings (4.3)

A police K9 handler believes he's lucky when a romance starts with the local veterinarian, but then his canine partner is injured in the line of duty.

Sergeant Ray Lerner is a veteran sheriff's department K9 handler. Damien Federov is the veterinarian caring for Harley - Ray's canine partner. When taking a man as a lover, Ray's always been confident. Around Damien, Ray becomes uncharacteristically shy and tongue-tied. When Damien begins their romance, Ray knows he's lucky.

His obsession with a past tragedy blinds Ray to everything he has with Damien. When Harley is injured on duty, his life is in Damien's hands. As Ray sits vigil, he has one final chance to allow Damien in all the way, or risk losing everything important, in a single night.

A Gentle Kind of Strength
3 Ratings (4.3)

A Gentle Kind of Strength

ManLoveRomance Press LLC

Heat Rating: Sizzling
Word Count: 57,000
3 Ratings (4.3)
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Excerpt

Chapter 1:
An Appointment With The Vet Shouldn't Be So Complicated

"Come on, goofball," Ray said, attaching the short loop-leash to Harley's choke chain collar. The big German shepherd jumped down from the backseat of the crew cab pickup. He still surprised Ray with his agility, despite his huge size.

Harley walked obediently on Ray's left side, tail curled up over his back, tongue flopping happily from the side of his mouth. Ray gave the pet hospital's waiting room a quick glance before letting Harley enter.

"Hi, Ray," the receptionist, Valene, greeted him. "What are we seeing Harley for today?"

He headed for a chair in the far corner, putting some space between the small dogs and cats, and Harley. He was no danger to the small animals, but pet parents saw exuberant curiosity in such an enormous package, and reacted protectively, so Ray always just gave them space.

"Just his annual physical," replied Ray. "His shots need updating. He might need his teeth cleaned. I'm pretty sure he's still in great health, though."

After some clicking of the keyboard, Valene said, "Got it. It should just be a few minutes."

The smaller pets and their parents were called back, probably for appointments with one of the other two veterinarians in the practice. A few more patients entered, including a stocky pit bull. Ray was wary of the dog at first. Harley showed interest in what he considered a potential new friend. There was no telling what kind of owner the pit bull's mom was, but the dog was well behaved, despite his excitement.

Luisa, a vet tech, appeared from behind a nearby examining room door. "Good morning, Ray," she greeted, smiling warmly even before she opened the door. "Come on in."

Ray's last sight of the pit was of it on its back, paws in the air, grinning happily at the two young children rubbing his tummy. "It's always good to see a responsible pit bull owner," he said to Luisa.

"That's Mrs. Shelby and Rocket," Luisa replied. She'd worked at the pet hospital so long, she knew the life stories of all the regular clients, as well as she knew her own family's. "All her dogs are rescues, and she trains them up right. So, how is Harley today?"

Ray commanded Harley to step onto the stainless steel examination table. He was quick to comply, just like he was climbing onto a large animal weight scale. "He's fine. Runs me ragged, as always. We're here for his health certification and his shots." Luisa activated the table so Harley began to rise up from the floor. Ray touched him, talked to him, reassured him everything was okay, keeping Harley from jumping to the floor.

When the tabletop reached a comfortable height, Luisa gave Harley a quick exam, checking his eyes and ears, and combing through his fur for parasites. She smiled through the entire procedure; her love for her job and her patients was practically tangible. She typed some notes on a computer screen, then turned her ubiquitous, authentic smile on Ray. "Doctor D will be in in just a minute."

"Doctor D?" A small knot of anxiety began to form deep in Ray's stomach. Only specific vets, rigorously vetted and approved by the department, could certify Harley's health. It would be inconvenient to have to come back on another day. That was assuming another vet with this practice could meet the National Police Dog Foundation's qualifications. Harley was disciplined enough he behaved himself for any veterinarian, but he actually liked Dr. Federov - a little.

Hell. Ray liked Dr. Federov. Obviously, that fact couldn't have any influence on what he had to do now. It had taken Ray the whole damn week to get control of his anticipation, and now his disappointment was like an adrenaline crash. It hurt, he realized, physically hurt. How stupid was that?

"Doctor Federov," Luisa said reassuringly, her smile was knowing, but it didn't fade by a single watt. "His last name was a problem for some pet parents to say, so we started calling him Doctor Damien. After the first few patients' parents called him Doctor D, it stuck with the staff, too."

"Oh," Ray said lamely. Critical parts of his brain had gone numb, while others showered the inside of his skull with sparks.

Luisa disappeared back into the mysterious depths of the animal hospital. The last thing Ray needed was for the staff to realize he had a thing for Harley's doctor. What made it worse was the blasé use of a nickname for Damien Federov, DVM.

He lowered Harley back to the floor, sitting down on the wooden bench to wait nervously. And a little excited. Harley settled onto his stomach, giving a loud groan. Ray battled to regain his equilibrium. He needed to prepare himself - again - for his encounter with Doctor Federov, without transmitting his agitation down the leash. Damien was a damn good vet; Harley sort of liked him, and shouldn't lash out just because his handler was nursing a crush.

A soft knock on the door was Ray's only warning before Damien-Doctor Federov-peered in. He found Ray's gaze and held it. Damien's blue eyes and wide smile were warm and friendly. Ray always primed himself for these first few moments in Damien's presence, but the vet's smile still made his world tilt. He automatically returned Damien's smile. Ray's heart raced, spreading a pleasant warmth all through his system. He was clumsy as he got to his feet, his weak knees making it hard to stand.

Damien greeted Harley next, entering the room slowly and quietly. Ray had always admired how Damien was able to keep Harley from seeing him as aggressive or threatening. Damien's hands looked strong and capable, everything about him was self-assured and graceful.

"How's our hero, Harley, today?" Federov asked. He called all the K9s heroes, and was sincere about it.

"He just needs his annual certification, and some vaccinations updated," Ray replied in a rush, hoping he didn't sound breathless and eager.

The doctor read the computer screen, his gorgeous blue eyes moving rapidly behind his dark-rimmed glasses. Ray's gut tightened, and he swallowed hard. There was a time he would have considered the thick rims, and small, square lenses of Damien's glasses to be dorky. On Damien, they were sexy as hell.

"His rabies is still good," Federov said quietly, as Ray lifted Harley back onto the table. "He just needs all the other nasties. We can't have such a social boy getting kennel cough and parvo, can we?"

Harley sat on the examining table, rigid with tension. As a healthy dog, his vet visits were infrequent, and always involved the dreaded rectal thermometer and needle sticks. Harley knew exactly what to expect from Doctor Federov, so his defensiveness simmered just below the surface.

"How are things with you, Sergeant Lerner?" Damien asked casually, leaning a hip against the counter. He gently stroked Harley's chest with an open palm but his gaze rested steadily on Ray.

The interest in him personally startled Ray. "Same as always," he replied, searching for a way to keep the topic focused solely on Harley. One of the things he admired about Damien was the way he kept Harley so calm, minimizing the threatening feel of the office. The bitch of it was, Ray was forced to carry on a conversation with someone who made his dick wake up and express interest. "Vista goes to hell every weekend, and I get a lot of overtime taking Harley to an endless stream of drug searches. How 'bout you? Did you start work at the animal shelter on Pendleton?" Ray immediately regretted his question. He was interested in the answer, but it unnerved him to have Damien's direct attention, to be under such intense scrutiny.

"I did," replied Damien with keen pleasure. He scratched Harley with both hands now. Despite his personal delight, Damien's manner and his voice kept the energy in the room calm and relaxed. "I love it. A few of the Marines do volunteer work there. You were right, their manners and personalities are a lot like cops. I also got home for a visit."

"How did that go?" The fact Ray was genuinely interested meant he was so screwed.

Damien's smile was always wide and bright. It transformed his handsome face, turning his expression warm and approachable. "It's easy to forget how damn hot it gets there! It's warm here, too, but Vegas is a whole other level."

Two years ago, Damien had been invited to buy out the partnership of the veterinarian who was retiring from the hospital's practice.

"Do you miss home?" Ray hoped for a particular answer, even though it shouldn't matter to him.

"I miss being close to my family, but then again, communication is so seamless these days," Damien replied. Harley relaxed enough to drop down onto his belly. "I have friends here, though. And owning at least a percentage of my own practice was always my endgame. It helps that I stepped right into an existing, beneficial relationship with all the local law enforcement and military."

The retired vet had spent thirty years as one of the few who oversaw the health of the working K9s in San Diego County. The practice had searched far and wide for a doctor with Damien's particular skill sets, locating him close-by, in Las Vegas.

"I love to visit Vegas," said Ray. Harley was relaxed enough to lay over on his side now. He looked up at Damien, encouraging more scritches on his chin and belly. "But it's always good to come home. I saw the world in the Marine Corps, but there was never any question that I'd come home to San Diego." He placed his own hand on Harley's side, petting gently in a burst of affection.

"I don't blame you." Damien fell quiet. With one hand he played with Harley's mouth and ears. It had taken Ray a couple of visits to realize that Damien had already started the exam, disguising it with the show of affection. He was getting a look at Harley's mouth, teeth, and ears-each of which gave valuable insight into a dog's health-and Harley was none the wiser.

At the feel of Damien's finger brushing lightly against one of his own, Ray's heart slammed against his ribs once, almost painfully, then lost rhythm. It took all of Ray's self-discipline not to jerk his hand back, and give away the powerful attraction he'd been hiding. He looked down at Damien's hand resting alongside his own in Harley's fur. The world around Ray fell away, leaving him excruciatingly aware of their closeness, imagining he still felt Damien's touch.

Thankfully, Damien looked oblivious to Ray's internal struggle as he took a good look inside Harley's ears, under his eyelids, and at his gums. "He needs his teeth cleaned," he said softly. "Make an appointment to bring him back next week and we'll get that taken care of." He went quiet for several moments.

Damien's finger brushed against Ray's again, just the lightest of touches. He couldn't look away from where their fingers curled into the black fur of Harley's saddle. Damien's hands were graceful; his long, narrow fingers were elegant. Not perfect, though, Ray mused. Damien sported several scars on his hands. Ray looked a little closer, seeing subtle scars, pale and smooth, on Damien's arms. He wanted to know the stories behind each of the marks.

"Looks like you've been tagged a few times," Ray said. It was a dangerous fucking thing to do, but he surrendered to his craving. Ray lifted his other hand, running the tips of his fingers over a shiny scar on the tanned skin of Damien's forearm.

"Yeah." Damien chuckled warmly. He stilled under Ray's touch, but didn't move away. "I sacrifice some protection by wearing short sleeves. But I hate it when fabric bunches around my elbows." He wrinkled his nose for a fleeting moment, his expression emphasizing his distaste.

Ray knew he was being ridiculous, but something in his chest quivered pleasantly, sending a rush of warmth flooding through him. He was charmed by Damien's expressive features. His reaction to Ray's touch meant he wasn't uncomfortable with the touch of another man.

Shutting down that line of thought before it got out of control, Ray reminded himself the odds were that Damien was just open-minded and tolerant. There was very little chance he was gay.

His pleasure faded as disappointment lanced through Ray's chest, snapping him out of his stupor. With a new awareness he gave Damien's white lab coat a closer look. Ray was helpless to ignore the bulge of Damien's bicep. Most veterinarians wore long-sleeved white coats. Damien's had short sleeves, his name tastefully embroidered over the left breast in dark blue thread. It was a shade of blue that perfectly matched the color of his scrubs.

Realizing with a start he was still touching Damien's warm skin, Ray was mortified. Abruptly, he pulled back his hand. "I guess scars come with the territory, huh?" He gave a self-conscious chuckle, keeping the focus on Damien's scars, so Ray could evade his gaze.

"I've thought about covering up a few with tattoos, like you've done." Damien inclined his head toward one of Ray's forearms.

"Ink isn't for everyone." Ray extended both arms, displaying them for Damien's inspection. He ricocheted between savoring Damien's attention, and alarm at being figured out. "It does go hand-in-hand with being a Marine, though." He chuckled at the echo of his own earlier words, "And to a lesser degree, a cop." Ray didn't like to explain his largest, most obvious scar, or the tattoo that covered it.

Damien smirked, trapping Ray's gaze and heating his blood. "I didn't say I don't have any tattoos," he said playfully. "I just don't have one over a visible scar. Yet."

Ray didn't know how to reply, or if he even should. It felt like they were flirting with each other, but he knew that couldn't be right. Ray was flirting, despite his better judgment, but Damien was just being friendly.

None of that stopped Ray from envisioning Damien's body as the AO of an extremely thorough recon mission. It was mission-critical for Ray to locate Damien's hidden tattoos. He'd have to inspect them quite closely, for accurate future identification.

Damien's sure, capable hands smoothly inserted the eartips of his stethoscope, pressing the chest piece against Harley's ribcage. "Heart and lung sounds are great." Damien slung his stethoscope around his neck, letting it hang by its rubber tubing. Ray's fingertips tingled at the vivid memory of Damien's warm, silky skin. He'd enjoyed touching Damien, however briefly, and wanted to do it again. Hell, he'd flirted with Harley's doctor. Both were very bad, bad ideas, so it was definitely time to get this appointment over with, and for Ray to get the hell out of there, before he made a fool of himself.

"So, what shift do you work these days?" Damien's persistent personal interest was so unexpected, Ray felt wrong-footed. Maybe this was all an overture of friendship. Ray quickly dismissed that idea; Damien was just being polite.

"Swing shift." Ray kept his answer light and friendly. It was time to pull back from the engagement, and execute a polite egress. "Fifteen hundred to twenty-three hundred. I'm the senior patrol sergeant in Vista, so I get Saturday and Sunday off." Why in the hell had Ray volunteered info when he was supposed to be disengaging?

"So, when do you guys hold training?" Damien leaned casually against the work counter, directly meeting Ray's eyes.

"Once a week." It was embarrassing, how eagerly he seized anything that might extend his time with Damien. He'd come here today, determined to be professional and keep his distance, but that obviously went to hell as soon as Damien had entered the room. "We rotate through different times, so guys with different schedules can make at least three sessions per month." He hesitated for just a moment. "You should come check it out. See some of your patients in action. We train way back in the hills of Miramar." With clients who were active duty military working dogs, Damien knew the shorthand name for the Marine Corps Air Station in the city of Miramar.

"Are you and Harley competing in the regional trials a couple weeks from now?" Damien wasn't persistent. He was fucking tenacious.

Ray shifted his weight uncomfortably. The competition was a big deal for police and military K9s in California, Arizona, and Nevada, so it was heavily promoted. It made sense that Damien would have heard about it through a couple of handlers. "Yeah, we'll be there."

"Defending your title?" Damien's teasing grin made Ray's stomach quiver.

Damien's thick, glossy black hair would feel so fucking nice, sliding through Ray's fingers and against his palms. Exhaling a resigned sigh, Ray said, "Might as well paint targets on our backs, since everyone seems to be gunnin' for us this year." Harley had taken the Top Dog title in last year's trials. Ray grinned ruefully.

"I certainly can't miss that, then, can I?" Damien gestured toward a surprisingly still-relaxed Harley. "Let's get him muzzled, so we can finish up and you can get out of here."

As he took the canvas muzzle from Damien's outstretched hand, Ray almost asked him if he was interested in…what? Getting a drink, sometime? Inwardly, Ray rolled his eyes in disgust. Once the soft muzzle was on, Harley knew exactly what was up. At least it forced Ray to focus on holding him secure while Damien completed the invasive parts of the examination. The muzzle was just a precaution, anyway. Harley had never bitten anyone, outside of sanctioned training, or an on-duty apprehension. Damien finished things up by administering the vaccinations, and Ray really couldn't blame Harley for feeling a little snippy during this part.

When Harley was back on his feet and free of the muzzle, he gave himself a vigorous shake. It involved every part of his body, from nose to tail, and clearly communicated his disgruntlement, louder than a shout. Ray reattached the loop-leash, prepared to flee the room as fast as humanly possible. "So, I guess we'll see you two weeks from this Saturday?" He shouldn't back Damien into a corner, but Ray had a torrid love affair with danger. A life spent in the Marines, and as a cop, was proof of that.

"I wouldn't miss it," Damien replied, blessing Ray with one of his blood-heating smiles. "I'm looking forward to seeing you again."

Ray didn't even start to relax until he was back in his truck, engine running. "What an idiot," he muttered to himself. Damien's parting words meant he was looking forward to seeing Ray and Harley, as a team. Ray gave himself a mental ass kicking for getting all worked up, like a hormonal teenager. It was a nice fantasy, but that's all it was. Even if Dr. Damien Federov was gay-which the odds did not favor-he was just plain out of Ray's league.

Just as Ray was about to put the truck in gear, the ringing of his cell phone spilled from the stereo speakers, filling the cab. He glanced at his dash to determine if he wanted to answer. As soon as he saw the name, Ray thumbed the button to answer.

"Nate, my friend," he greeted. Behind him, Harley whined. "What's up?" Nathan Santiago was the swing shift patrol sergeant in San Marcos, sister city to Ray's own beat of Vista. He was only two years older than Ray, but he had ten years of seniority. Nate remained one of Ray's mentors, despite the close friendship they'd developed.

"Buenos dias, Harley." Nate's deep voice boomed from the speakers. At the sound of his name, Harley quieted. "Hey, man, this is Tina's weekend with the kids. Are we doin' somethin'?" Nathan and his wife had divorced amicably five years ago. They passed their teenaged kids back and forth in a pretty standard arrangement. Tina was remarried, but Nate seemed to enjoy being a single father.

"Of course." Ray would need the distraction after his disastrous encounter with Dr. Federov. "What were you thinking?" Their friendship worked because they were both social, shared several interests, but neither of them were excessive drinkers. There were a couple of dive bars they'd visit a few times a month, but the meat markets of the dance clubs were a no-go.

"Come over tomorrow afternoon, and we'll grill some steaks, have a few beers," suggested Nathan.

"Sounds perfect," Ray eagerly replied. "I'll text you when I'm leaving, you can give me a list of what you need me to bring."

"It's a plan," Nathan said, almost before Ray was finished talking. "Adios, Harley."

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