THE BLOW came out of nowhere and knocked Ro to the ground. He’d hit the concrete face-first, resulting in a split lip when he bit down on the soft tissue accidentally. Fresh blood oozed from the gash, and his mouth filled with the metallic taste. His first reaction was fear, but it was quickly replaced with righteous anger as he scrambled to his feet to confront his assailant.
“What the fuck is your problem?” he asked, spitting blood all over the pristine white shirt of Master Tom.
The large man glared at him without any sign of remorse. “How dare you disrespect my apprentice?”
“Are you crazy?”
“Get down on your knees and take your punishment like a man.”
“Like hell I will!”
Tom backhanded him this time, and the brute strength behind two hundred fifty pounds of juiced-up muscle lifted Ro off his feet. His head hit the metal locker with a loud clang, and he began trembling in shock. The smart thing would have been to grovel like the guy asked instead of meeting his rage head-on, but Ro had never backed away from a fight, especially when he was innocent.
Ro’s right fist shot out before he realized what he was doing and connected with a clenched jaw that felt like hard steel. Tom bellowed in outrage and began raining blows over Ro’s naked torso. He tried to protect himself, but he was no match for a man who was at least a foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier. Tom used him like a punching bag, hammering him with unrestrained fury. Unlike stuffed canvas, Ro’s body had no extra layers to buffer the continuous pummeling. He was lean and sinewy strong, but his bones gave out eventually. Ribs cracked and teeth fragmented as Master Tom exacted his revenge. Ro was barely conscious by the time he was thrown out of the club. He managed to unlock his truck and drive home with one eye shut, but he never made it up to his apartment. He passed out as soon as he parked his vehicle.
THE CALL from Donated Dental Services wasn’t that unusual, even though the pink phone slip was marked “urgent.” Scott Gregory had been offering his services to the worthy charitable organization for at least two years, and he found his association with the group to be stress-free and very rewarding. He was making a profound difference in the life of someone without the means to receive any form of dentistry, especially the high-end restorative procedures starting with dental implants. It was his way of giving back to the community that had supported his practice for the last five years.
When he and Robin “Red” Kennedy, his Dom and life partner, who also happened to be a registered dental hygienist, embarked on their professional journey in the Mission District in San Francisco, they had no idea how many of their patients would be willing to cross over from the stuffy offices of the late Dr. Ron Morris at 450 Sutter to the less prestigious address on the fringe of the Castro District. It had been a leap of faith to hope that Scott’s reputation would overcome any trepidation his wealthier patients would have, and he’d been pleasantly surprised when his practice had not only thrived but taken off. What clinched the migration was the valet parking he’d offered, an inspired thought Red had come up with after making a deal with the owner of the public parking lot several blocks away. He’d offered the man and his family free cleanings in exchange for a generous discount whenever patients availed themselves of their services.
Their patient base had grown at a rapid rate, thanks to referrals from neighboring general dentists and enthusiastic recommendations from satisfied patients. The gay community had welcomed them as family, and those in the BDSM lifestyle in need of periodontal work were routinely routed to their fine clinic.
Eventually, Scott and Robin had come to the realization that they needed an associate if they wanted any time off. It was all well and good to be self-employed, but that meant being a virtual slave to a busy schedule. They’d put out the word to the people in the know and waited with high hopes for the right candidate to come along. Finding another qualified periodontist wasn’t that big of a deal, but finding one who was comfortable working with a gay couple living the BDSM lifestyle, not so much. After interviewing and rejecting one candidate after another, they’d almost given up, until the meet and greet at their favorite BDSM club in San Ramon.
Lance Roberts had just moved from the East Coast, and he’d been given Scott’s name by a reputable headhunter trying to find the right match for the thirty-two-year-old determined to start a new life as far away from Manhattan as possible. The agency had not asked what prompted his move, and Lance didn’t volunteer the information. He did tell them he was gay and hoping to partner with another practitioner who was open-minded and more interested in his educational background than his bedmates. Lance had assumed that looking in and around the Bay Area might guarantee a better fit than the one he’d just escaped. The meeting at the club had been as serendipitous as Scott and Red’s first encounter at the same location six years ago.
Finding an associate who not only shared a passion for quality dentistry but also belonged to a segment of society enjoying a lifestyle many would consider deviant was downright miraculous. Scott had taken the chance meeting as a sign from some higher power. It helped that Lance had all the right credentials and radiated confidence in a soft-spoken, dignified manner wrapped up in a blond-haired and blue-eyed package. It was a no-brainer once they’d watched him skillfully execute some of the more complicated procedures routinely performed in their cutting-edge practice. Scott and Robin were more than pleased with their choice, and even long-time patients were beginning to ask about the “new” doctor. If Scott had been an insecure man, he’d have worried, but that former persona had been replaced by a confident owner/practitioner who was happy to share some of the workload with his new associate. He and Robin would finally be able to take the longed-for trip to Europe they’d been putting off for years.
“Are you familiar with Donated Dental Services?” Scott asked as he settled in the leather chair across from Lance. With Red’s permission, he’d commandeered the small office to give the new guy some privacy. Robin hardly ever used the room anyway, and he was delighted to move his things into Scott’s larger office. They’d butted their desks and even got to play footsies once in a while. It was a win-win situation.
“Not really,” Lance replied, looking up from his computer monitor. “What’s involved?”
“DDS is a program put together by dentists and laboratories to help our most vulnerable citizens get the dental care they need but can’t afford. These people routinely slip through the cracks of Medicare and Medicaid and have nowhere else to turn.”
“It sounds like a worthy cause.”
“It is.” Scott passed Lance the phone slip. “I’d like you to take this case since Red and I are leaving in a week, and I’d rather not put them off until our return.”
Lance glanced at the paper. “It does say urgent.”
“Exactly,” Scott replied, nodding. “Their coordinator will go over all the particulars on how the organization works. The short version is we do it all for free.”
“Even if they need a shitload of work?”
“Yup. Consider this your gateway to heaven.”
Lance chuckled softly. “My idea of heaven isn’t exactly conventional.”
Scott grinned back. “I’ll bet there’s a room up there overflowing with the tools of your trade.”
“I wouldn’t mind hooking up with a couple of angels who like to be tied up.”
“Then you’re right on track. A couple of charity cases a year should move you to the head of the line.”
“On the other hand, the kind of playmates I’m looking for might be in the Southern Hemisphere of that celestial universe.”
Scott laughed, delighting in Lance’s brand of humor. “Pretty sure Lucifer could use a helper or two,” Scott teased.
“I’m certain,” Scott replied. “Would you give them a call, please?”
“I’ll get right on it, Boss.”
Scott walked out of the room with a sigh of relief. It was one less thing to deal with before he and Red left town. Issuing orders to an acknowledged Dom felt a little weird, given his own submissive status, but both Red and Lance had assured him that while they were at work he was in charge, no ifs, ands, or buts. It was another sign that this partnership with Lance might work. At present, he was still an employee, but if all went smoothly, he’d become a full-fledged partner after a year. He’d have to come up with a chunk of money to buy into the practice, but Scott wasn’t too worried.
Over the course of the preliminary interviews, he’d learned that Lance had attended some of the finest schools on the East Coast, and even more surprising, he had a father who was a well-known and respected periodontist on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Why he’d chosen to fend for himself instead of walking into an already-established practice remained a mystery, one Scott would ignore until Lance was ready to share. He was his employer, not his therapist, and so long as the man continued to perform his duties to the best of his ability, Scott would respect his privacy. The last thing he wanted to do was poke and prod at old wounds. He, more than anyone, knew that family wasn’t always a source of comfort. He’d learned it the hard way and could appreciate anyone’s struggle to escape from a painful past.
LANCE PICKED up the phone as soon as Scott walked out of his office. He punched in the number on the slip and asked for the lady who’d placed the original call. After introducing himself, he listened to her story, frowning as the scenario became clearer. The patient in question had lost a number of teeth after falling victim to what appeared to be a homophobic attack.
“We thought you’d be more inclined to help him since you are a gay-friendly office and could probably relate.”
“I’m helping because I hate to see anyone in pain,” Lance replied tersely. “The victim’s orientation has nothing to do with it, and you should be more careful about making sweeping statements without any regard to the political and social repercussions.”
Ignoring the apology, Lance asked, “How bad is it?”
“I’m e-mailing the photos right now so you can see for yourself. It was a brutal attack, and he’s lucky to be alive.”
“No doubt,” Lance murmured. The e-mail notification popped up on his screen, and he clicked on the photo and shook his head when he surveyed the damage. Whoever had laid hands on this guy had been intent on destruction. Despite the assorted lumps and swollen lips, Lance could tell the victim was extraordinarily good-looking. The photo must have been taken a day or two after the attack, judging from the colorful bruising. What struck him more than the obvious was the sorrowful expression the camera had captured emanating from beautiful eyes that were the color of caramelized sugar. Who in fuck could be so goddamn heartless? Lance was already sympathetic and couldn’t wait to get his hands on him. “How old is this guy?”
There was a brief pause as the speaker looked through her files. “He’s twenty-five.”
Lance thought he looked younger but didn’t comment. “I can see him at three o’clock.”
“Bless you, Doctor. I’ll give the patient a call.”
“What’s his name?”
“Spell it, please.”
The voice on the other end slowly spelled out the Spanish name.
“Got it,” Lance said, scribbling on the note pad close by. “Does he speak any English?”
“Good. I’ll be in touch as treatment progresses.”
Lance put the phone down, grabbed his insulated lunch bag, and went to find Scott. He was in his office with Robin sharing an enormous taco salad. “Mind if I join you guys?”
“Not at all,” Robin said. “Pull up a chair.”
“Thanks.” Lance grabbed one of the rolling chairs and pushed it toward the opposite end of Scott’s desk. He proceeded to unload his bag and methodically line up his canned drink, sandwich, chips, and apple in a perfectly straight horizontal line with the Pepsi closest to his right hand. The paper napkin came out next, folded in a tight square, and finally a small container of sanitary wipes to use after the meal.
Scott and Robin watched their new associate with interest. They’d heard from Susie, Scott’s assistant and silent partner, who’d picked it up from Lance’s assistant, that he was a tad obsessive about order. Every instrument and supply had to be laid out in a certain way, or nothing would progress any further until the situation was corrected. He never raised his voice or threw a hissy fit, but simply closed his eyes as if counting to ten. If his assistant hadn’t picked up on her mistake, he’d frown and reach for the instrument in question, while patiently explaining why he needed it positioned so precisely. It was one thing to hear about Lance’s quirks, but to witness them firsthand was quite the eye-opener.
“Are you always this organized?” Scott inquired.
Lance looked up from his task and let out what appeared to be an embarrassed laugh. “Don’t mind me; I’m slightly anal about certain things.”
“I guess,” Red agreed. “You’d die if you saw the inside of my car.”
“My obsession with tidiness and order is excessive, I’ll admit,” Lance said, “but I’m working on it.”
“Good to know,” Scott murmured, shooting Red a pointed glance before shoving another forkful of salad into his mouth.
“I spoke to the lady at DDS,” Lance remarked while he unwrapped his sandwich and took a bite.
“And?” Scott replied.
Lance didn’t answer until he swallowed and wiped his mouth with his napkin. “It’s pretty grim.”
He recounted what little he’d gleaned from his contact, and they brought up the images on Scott’s monitor to better illustrate the extent of the damage. “He’s going to need bone grafting, aside from the implants, and possibly a sinus lift.”
“Do whatever it takes to make him whole again,” Scott said, giving Lance carte blanche.
Lance continued to study the photo and shook his head. “Who’s going to restore him?”
“There’s a list of prosthodontists who are part of the program. Trust me, they’ll find someone to help; they always do.”
Never taking his eyes off the screen, Lance observed, “It’s easy to get complacent in San Francisco until you see shit like this. Then you remember that half of the world still hates us because of whom we love. It’s disheartening to think we haven’t made more progress despite the recent court rulings and sudden ‘Coming Out’ of America.”
Scott nodded in assent. “My only consolation is that the incidents are dwindling.”
“That you know of,” Lance disagreed. “I’m sure there are places across the nation where gays are beaten up on a daily basis.”
“You’re probably right, but we’re not in a position to stop it, so it’s pointless to dwell on that issue,” Red countered. “What we can do is contribute in our small way. Restoring this guy back to health is a good start.”
Lance heaved out a frustrated sigh. “I’m pretty sure I can fix him, but it’ll be useless if someone jumps him again.”
“It’s not your job to worry about that,” Scott reminded him.
“I suppose not.”
“Check in with me once you’ve had a chance to examine him.”
“He has an appointment in a few hours.”
“I’ll be here if you want to brainstorm.”
“Thanks,” Lance said, turning his attention back to his meal.