EXCERPT – MEN UNDER FIRE

Sergeant Nick Welby forced himself to look up at the plane roaring above him and ignore his primitive instinct to break into a run. His heart punched against his chest in painful thuds. A Boeing 737—not enemy fire. Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood—not Afghanistan.

He took a calming breath and then another. The hipster neighborhood, filled with buzzing cars and rushing crowds, ratcheted his already revved-up nervous system, making every sound and movement chafe against his jangled nerves like an open wound.

Talley, Nick’s military partner, a bomb-sniffing canine, strained against her lead.
The golden lab, like him, was tense and hyper-alert, waiting for disaster to strike. Both he and his dog were on sick leave. A month had helped to heal their physical injuries, but neither had made progress in calming their stress reactions. They both saw and felt danger everywhere, every day.

He stared up at the refurbished warehouse situated on the waterway to Puget Sound. Adrenaline surged through his body at the idea of walking into the unknown building. He was sweating heavily, as if he were still in the heat of the Registan desert instead of the August summer day in the Northwest.

A white-and-black sign hung on the warehouse: Grayce Walters, DVM, Animal Acupuncturist. He bent and petted the attentive dog. Talley’s soft chocolate eyes echoed the feelings stuck in his throat. “I don’t like it any better than you do, but this doctor will help you.”

Nick didn’t have a lot of hope for his own recovery, but he couldn’t let his partner suffer. Doc Samson, the Welby family’s veterinarian, had sworn by the amazing skill of this doctor. He paused and blew the air out of his constricted lungs and then pulled the door open. He’d do anything to help his partner heal from the IED explosion that had almost taken both their lives, even walk into this dangerous unknown.

# # #

Nick’s mind and body were at ease after the hour with Dr. Walters. Doc Samson was right-on—the tiny woman had special gifts. Having been raised on a horse farm, Nick had immediately recognized the veterinarian’s intuitive connection in relating to and comforting animals.

Simply being in Dr. Walter’s presence was restorative, as evidenced by Talley sleeping soundly on the floor. As Talley’s handler, he was connected to the dog at a level most people couldn’t understand. When his partner relaxed, he felt the same.

Dr. Walters looked up from her note taking. “I’d like to treat Talley once a week for the next three months. You live in Auburn. Will it be a problem to drive into Seattle?”
“Not a problem, ma’am. I’d do anything for this dog.”

She leaned across her desk. “Do you swim, Sergeant?”

“Yes, ma’am.” He didn’t get what swimming had to do with acupuncture.

“I’d like you and Talley to start swimming in a lake or deep river. It’s important you do it together.”

“Lake Young is close by our family farm. Talley and I can swim there.”

“Water will soothe Talley’s ratcheted up nervous system.”

Why did he feel as if the doctor wasn’t talking just about Talley?

“Don’t do any training around the swimming. Talley needs a real break from her work. Her senses, especially her focus and her nose, are working overtime. She’ll have a break in the water.”

He nodded. “It will be great to swim after our morning runs.”

“Sounds like we’ve got a plan. Let’s see how the swimming works.” Dr. Walters stood from her desk and walked toward the door. “I can hear that my assistant is back. She’ll make your appointment for next week.”

Talley woke up with the doctor’s movements. With her front paws planted forward, the usually hyper dog stretched her spine and then slowly hoisted herself to follow Dr. Walters. He couldn’t explain exactly what had happened, but like Talley, he felt a deep sense of relaxation. For the first time since he had arrived stateside, he could breathe calmly and catch glimpses of the contented man before the war. He and a tranquil Talley followed the doctor to the outer office.

Dr. Walters stopped suddenly in the doorway. A young, curvaceous woman was balanced on a stool, reaching into cupboards, as she sang the painful lyrics from Nirvana’s song “Sliver.”

When she stretched her entire body forward, her short, black skirt inched higher, giving him an incredible view of her sweet, rounded backside. He swore under his breath at the tempting sight. She wore fishnet tights and thigh-high boots that were right out of every red-blooded male’s fantasy.

His whole body tightened, not in danger but in hunger. Lust and need hummed through him, an invigorating feeling that he hadn’t experienced in a very long time.

He and Dr. Walters stood frozen. Dr. Walters didn’t want to startle her assistant. Nick didn’t budge as he reveled in the almighty view.

As if sensing his stare, the young woman turned and jumped off the stool in one graceful movement despite her high-heeled boots. She turned and faced them with a big smile. She had no idea what fantastic torture he suffered. Her tight World of Warfare T-shirt hugged her amazingly stacked body. Heat and anticipation drummed through his body.

Her dark, slanted eyes and her full lips matched her perfect body. He couldn’t believe there could be such a beautiful woman. Dumbstruck by her appeal, he stood and stared.

She stared back as if trapped in their electric connection.

“Hollie, can you make an appointment for Talley and Sgt. Welby?”

Dr. Walter’s voice startled him to attention. He had been overcome by his primeval response to the young woman, despite Dr. Walter’s presence.

Her name was Hollie—a prickly flower, like her piercing above her eyebrow; her red lips vibrant and lush like the berries in the long winter months.

Hollie turned toward Dr. Walters. “How long will you want to see them?”

“I’d like to see Talley once a week for the next twelve weeks.” Dr. Walters smiled at him before walking back into her office. “You’re in good hands now. I’ll see you and Talley next week.”

Hollie then bent and petted Talley’s head. The golden lab, usually fully on guard, didn’t flinch or react to Hollie’s touch. In fact, Talley leaned into her hand. It appeared both he and Talley felt the same about Hollie. Nick watched her black-painted nails rub along Talley’s head.

“She’s a beauty.” Hollie’s voice was low and caring.

Nick couldn’t believe he was about to say aloud: You’re the beauty. His entire world was spinning sideways—first the acupuncture by Dr. Walters and now this incredible woman.

“What day next week works for you, Sgt. Welby?” Her voice was husky and sexy as hell. He was a goner. How could this woman get any better?

He stepped toward her. His need to get closer was overpowering. “Call me Nick.”

Hollie had a flush of pink on her cheeks as if she could read his thoughts, his needs. Her clothes and stance were bold, but there was something vulnerable in her eyes. She fluttered her thick eyelashes, and the moment was gone. “Nick, Dr. Walters has openings next Tuesday afternoon.”

He angled his body into a protective but possessive posture—unbelievable for him since he never got near to anyone. You never knew who had a bomb strapped under their clothes. With this woman, he couldn’t stop himself from wanting to touch her, to run his hands through her long, dark hair. “Talley and I can come back whenever. We’re flexible.” Suddenly the words rang true. He might be able to break away from his lonely, rigid schedule to make room for…

He tried to not stare at her chest but at the World of Warfare logo with the mystical fairy creature. He pointed to the character on her T-shirt. “Galachel?” He liked that she hadn’t chosen one of the avenging, angry, war-hungry goddesses.

Hollie’s perfect skin reddened. She whispered in shock, “You know Galachel?

He looked at her chest again. Oh man, he shouldn’t have done that. “Are you a girl gamer?”

Her striking eyes flashed. “Yeah. What about you?”

“I played a lot when I was deployed. Not much else to do on the off hours.”

“Yeah, I played more when I was…” She stopped herself and looked down. “It must have been hard…you know, being away…” Her voice got quiet, filled with sympathy.
Did she know about the IED explosion? He didn’t want her to think of him as wounded. He didn’t like thinking of himself as wounded. “Talley and I should be heading out. But we’ll see you next Tuesday.”

And like a good soldier, he knew it was time to retreat.