So Many Men…

Excerpt from So Many Men… a Harlequin Blaze September 2005 release:somanymen

ISBN-10: 0373792069
ISBN-13: 978-0373792061

Book two in the Sexual Healing Series

Chapter One

How many men could one woman handle? Tess McClellan inhaled a deep breath as the Miami Dolphins scored a touchdown on the TV and chaos erupted around her. A dirty gym sock flying by her head and the ringing of the doorbell added to the commotion, drawing loud hales for the pizza deliveryman.

“Sorry, Tess, I was aiming for Ramon.” The owner of the sock grinned sheepishly at her.

Tess shook her head and extricated herself from the couch, amidst the objections of no less than three of her male companions who were using her as a pillow. She glanced around at the group of men, all her exlovers. She had loved each one heart and soul, loved them still in fact.

Why then this growing dissatisfaction?

“Where you going, sweetheart? The game’s just getting good.” Ramon, her most recent ex, tugged at her hand, urging her back to the couch.

“I…I need some fresh air.”

“I’ll come with you.” He set down his beer, but she shook her head.

“Don’t get up. They’re starting again.” She nodded toward the TV. “I’ll be right back.”

“You sure?” Ramon asked, but his attention had already riveted back to the action on the screen.

Tess sighed. Lately, this need for distance from her minions, as her sisters had dubbed her collection of men, gnawed at Tess more and more. She let her gaze drift over the half dozen men sprawled around her living room. They’d do anything for her. She had but to insinuate a need and they fought over who would fulfill it, whether it be picking up her dry cleaning, cooking her dinner or fixing her broken toilet. And this was only half of them.

What woman would complain?

“Hey, Tess, we’re a little short on the pizza. Can you kick in?” Nate set a towering stack of pizza boxes on the coffee table already strewn with beer cans and half-filled bowls of chips. The men tore at the boxes with ravenous delight.

Tess glanced at the young Hispanic delivery guy standing wide-eyed by the door, then back at her own guys as they vied to see who could stuff an entire slice of pizza into his mouth first. Okay, maybe there was some reason for her dissatisfaction.

She turned to the newcomer. “Hold on just a second.”

With a shake of her head she walked to her bedroom, reminding herself of all the good her guys had done for her lately. Just that morning, Ramon had stored a week’s worth of meals in her freezer, Gabe had fixed the broken shelf on the bookcase in her bedroom and Evan had finished scheduling her staff at the nursery for the upcoming week.

By the time she’d paid for the pizza she’d never eat, her heart swelled with warmth for all of them. Each one of them had been there for her, and if she needed them, they’d be there again. In a heartbeat.

The delivery guy nodded his thanks, then beat a hasty retreat. She stood in the door and breathed in the heavy Miami air. The humidity still curled her hair, even this late in September.

Closing the door, she turned to her entourage. “I’m going out back to get a little air.”

A couple of them bobbed their heads, but between the pizza and the game, they hardly seemed to notice her. She did a quick scan of them, assessing the various emotions each felt. They all seemed content to one degree or another.

All was well. That meant she’d done her job. And though no deep emotion currently ran through the group—other than for how the Dolphins were faring—she felt no concern. This was the way it always was—the lull between lovers.

She headed through the kitchen toward the back door, bent on a few moments of solitude on the shaded deck, even if it meant frizzing her hair in the remaining afternoon heat.

As she swept by the kitchen table, she grabbed the newspaper. Maybe she could see a movie. Of course, it wouldn’t be as much fun by herself. Where was Erin? Her younger sister had made her presence way too scarce since their oldest sister, Nikki, had moved out.

“I don’t need Erin.” Tess assured herself as she settled in the padded lounger one of her guys had given her—she forgot which one—last year for her birthday. She opened the paper. “Now, what’s going on in the world?”

But instead of the headline news, she’d grabbed the community section. She skimmed the list of upcoming events. Maybe she needed a little community involvement—a new charity to distract her. She hadn’t volunteered for anything in quite a while. Maybe that was what was eating at her.

She scanned the options. United Way…Friends of the Elderly… Dade County Women’s Club–a women’s club? What did they do? Make a Wish Foundation…

She bit her lip. A women’s group? That would mean no men. No testosterone, no dirty socks flying about, no paying for pizza she’d never eat…

Maybe that was what was troubling her—what this…emptiness in her life was. With her mother traveling abroad with her latest lover and her sisters tied up in their respective lives, was Tess merely craving female companionship?

But would she find friends in the Dade County Women’s Club? A feeling of trepidation stole over her. Memories of high school flashed through her mind. She hadn’t intentionally set out to date the head cheerleader’s boyfriend, or the senior class president, or the star quarterback. She hadn’t realized the power of her smile or even of an interested glance.

She hadn’t known then that she had the McClellan gift of sexual healing.

The animosity of every female in school quickly had clued Tess in though, that she was…different. As much as she’d tried, she couldn’t make up for the continued interest of guys. She’d never had a girlfriend and after a time, she’d given up. She’d had her sisters, after all, and she’d liked having so many male companions. And as she’d grown up, she’d enjoyed them as lovers.

But now something was wrong. The disquiet she’d experienced lately rippled through her. Did the women’s club hold the answer to what was missing from her life? That group wouldn’t have any men to distract her. Maybe she’d find acceptance among her female peers and she’d be giving to her community, something she’d always found fulfilling in the past.

She read the announcement again. There was a luncheon on Sunday–tomorrow.

Should she go?

“Josh, go long.” A muffled yell filtered through the window, followed by a crash and the tinkling of broken glass.

She folded the paper and tucked it under her arm as she rose to investigate the latest upheaval in her home.

A testosterone-free afternoon.

How could she resist?

* * *

“Are you sure you want to do this?” Nate peered at her through the open car window, his dark eyes questioning.

She buckled her seat belt, then gripped the wheel, ignoring the tightening in her gut and the alarming urge to invite him along. She’d gotten way too used to having her own little entourage escort her everywhere. “I’m sure. I’ll be fine. It’s just a luncheon. Should be fun. I’ll be back before you know it.”

“Okay, Josh and I are going to hit a few balls on the courts.” His shoulders eased in a slight shrug. “If you need anything, just call.”

“I’ll be fine,” she reiterated, a nervous smile tugging at her lips. Was she reassuring him–or herself? “It’s just a meeting of the Dade County Women’s Club. What could happen?”

He stepped away from the car, frowning. “Not sure why you think you need to rub shoulders with those women, but knock ‘em dead.”

“Thanks, Nate. I should be back in plenty of time for dinner.”

“We’ll heat up one of Ramon’s specialties.”

The sun glanced off a bumper in front of her a short while later. A panhandler peered at her from a street corner, looking downtrodden and wearing too many layers of clothing in the heat. Her heart gave a little squeeze. She didn’t have time now, but she’d bring him some food on her way back.

Lifting her chin, she gripped the wheel and focused on the road. She could do this. She’d walk into this meeting with her head held high. Without a man in sight she shouldn’t have any problems striking up friendships with the club members.

A short time later, she took a deep breath as she pushed through the doors at the Hennesy Hotel. Soft music filled the lobby. She followed a sign and the murmur of voices to a meeting room. With her stomach flip-flopping and a smile plastered across her face, she strode into the room.

“Good afternoon, may I help you?” A petite woman sitting at a table inside the door greeted her.

“Um, yes, I’m here for a luncheon with the Dade County Women’s Club.”

“Are you a visitor?” A wide smile broke across the woman’s face. “We’re always excited to have new people.”

“I saw your meeting announced in the community calendar. I thought I’d come see what you were all about.”

“Welcome. This is our monthly member luncheon, where we hold our meeting and enjoy visiting with one another.”

“I think that I might be interested in joining, if that’s okay.” The words surprised Tess, even as they left her own mouth. She’d meant only to check them out.

“Of course it’s okay. We’d love to have you.” The woman extended her hand to Tess. “I’m Cassie Aikens, Program Chair.”

Smiling, Tess pumped her hand. “Tess McClellan. I’ve never actually done anything like this before.”

“Attended a luncheon?”

“Joined a women’s group.” She’d done it again—committed herself before she’d had a chance to think it through. Yet something about this woman encouraged Tess in a way she’d never hoped to be.

“It’s a lot of fun. I’ll introduce you to Terry Kingsley when she gets here. She’s this year’s Membership Chair.”

“That would be great.”

Another woman entered the room and greeted Cassie. Her gaze shifted over Tess, who smiled. The newcomer was an attractive woman, with every blond hair in place. Tess, with her tangle of red waves, couldn’t help but feel a little tug of envy.

“Hi April, this is…”

“Tess McClellan.” Tess extended her hand.

“Tess has come to visit with us and maybe join our group,” Cassie said, adding to the introduction.

“April Emerson. How nice to meet you.”

“April’s our President. This is her fifth year. We all love her so much, we won’t let her step down.”

April’s shoulders relaxed and the smile she directed at Cassie seemed genuine. She handed Cassie a crisp twenty-dollar bill. “It smells wonderful, Cassie. Did you order the chicken amandine?”

“With asparagus and those seasoned potatoes you like.” She handed April her change, along with a ticket-like receipt.

April glanced around at the tables of chattering women. “Looks like almost everyone’s here. We should start soon. I think I’ll go get my food and sit.”

“We’re missing Terry. I want to introduce her to Tess, so we can get her signed up. We haven’t had a new member in a long while.”

April’s gaze again swept over Tess. “No, we haven’t.” Turning abruptly, she addressed Cassie, “Why don’t you finish up, then get your own food? I’d like to get started on time for a change.”

Cassie frowned. “Sure. I guess I’m pretty hungry. If Terry comes, she can find me.”

April left and Cassie shook her head. “She’s normally more friendly. She’s just going through a rough time right now.”

“Oh. Here–” Tess pulled her wallet from her bag “I need to pay. There will be enough food, right?”

“Don’t worry about that. We always order a few extra meals for guests or speakers.” Cassie took Tess’s money, then handed her a receipt.

“Speakers? Who do you usually have?”

“Let’s see, last month a couple of women from the Garden Society did a nice talk on indoor gardens. And today we possibly have someone from Project Mentor. They’re on the schedule, but there’s a chance they might not show.” She shrugged. “It’s a new nonprofit organization, run entirely by volunteers. They take the big brother-big sister thing a little further— Look at me running on. We should grab our food. April will start before we get through our entrees.”

Closing the money box, Cassie motioned Tess toward several banquet tables laden with fresh bread, salads and serving dishes steeped in tempting aromas that made Tess’s stomach growl.

The food tasted as heavenly as it smelled, almost as good as one of Ramon’s creations. Tess swallowed a savory mouthful of the chicken and smiled as Cassie nodded in her direction. Her new acquaintance had led her to a table not far from the front, where a podium stood.

The women at her table had acknowledged her with cursory nods as Cassie had left to find a vacant seat nearby. Tess did her best to blend in as the women chatted to each other. She waited patiently for an opening in the conversation where she might add something witty or entertaining.

“Kevin is teething and he drools nonstop. Everything goes straight into his mouth and he soaks his little T-shirts right through, even though I keep a bib on him.” The brunette to her left leaned toward the woman beside her.

Not much Tess could add there. Frowning, she focused on the plump redhead to her right. “Then Daddy said he had corns on top of his corns and he would not walk another step. I thought Mamma was going to skin him, right there. I have never seen her so angry.”

“Mmmm, this asparagus is to die for,” Tess commented to no one in particular.

The others continued discussing teething babies and parents with foot problems. How could she jump in on any of these conversations? They were all talking about families—normal families.

What did Tess know about that?

In near desperation, she glanced across the table to where two women sat in deep conversation. “And he hates school. Doesn’t care for his teacher at all. It’s a battle to make him go every day. He complains about everything. He won’t do his homework. We have a teacher’s conference scheduled this week and I just dread it.”

Who was Tess kidding? She had nothing in common with these women. She could no more relate to their issues than they could relate to hers.

You see, I have this problem. I tend to collect men, first as lovers, whom I heal through sexual encounters, then as friends who stay on long after the loving. My sisters fondly call them my minions, because they do everything for me. I so much as hint at a need and it’s filled. But they can’t fill one of my most pressing needs—the need for female companionship. And though some may say that I do them all a great service in healing them, I feel I can do more to help my community. This is where you ladies come in.

Right, that would go over like a lead balloon. Why had she come? What made her think she could do this? Tess shook her head and looked over at Cassie. She waved and Tess relaxed a little. She’d made at least one connection, and that was better than she’d done all through high school and college combined. Maybe there was hope.

Cassie’s gaze swung to the door, and her smile faded. A sudden taut silence filled the air and Tess turned to see April glaring toward the back of the room. Tess followed the glare to a dark-haired man, standing just inside the door.

He was solid, with a strong build and virile presence that rolled over Tess in waves. Her gaze traveled up his length to lock with his. His eyes and hair were a nondescript brown and his features more angular than she preferred, but still she was entranced and surprised at her own reaction. Certainly, catching a man’s attention had never been a problem for her, but never before had she experienced this inexplicable draw. She braced her hands on the table and fought the urge to go to him.

Still, he held her transfixed and it took all her concentration to turn toward the front of the room. Her back ramrod straight, April moved to the podium, her expression heavy with censure as she glanced at Tess. A sense of bewilderment stole over Tess. What had angered April? Tess took a deep breath and struggled not to look at the man whose presence spiked the tension in the room.

The microphone came to life as April tapped it. “Excuse me, everyone, I hope you’ve all had enough of this delicious meal. If not, please feel free to help yourselves to seconds. There’s plenty.”

She paused, but everyone remained seated, either with sated appetites, or apprehension over the obvious discord now present. She resumed speaking, “It seems we have a speaker who has arrived ahead of schedule, so I suggest we commence with that part of our program and leave the reading of the minutes and the business portion until later.”

A murmur of assent rippled through the crowd. The redhead beside Tess raised her hand. “I move we save the minutes and business part of our meeting until after our speaker.”

April smiled sweetly at the woman. “Thank you, Jen. Always nice to have you keeping us on track.” She addressed the group. “Are there any seconds?”

Someone seconded the motion, then it passed with a unanimous vote. April cleared her throat. “So, with no further ado, here’s Dr. Mason Davies to discuss his Project Mentor.”

She walked stiffly to her seat as Dr. Davies strode up the aisle. He moved with a forceful grace, even though tension radiated from the tight set of his jaw and shoulders. He paused when he passed April’s table. “Thank you.”

April stared at him evenly, but made no comment as he continued to the podium. He adjusted the microphone, then let his gaze scan the room. “I’d like to thank you all for having me here today. I appreciate your time and consideration—especially your consideration. I won’t beat around the bush. I’ve come here to ask for your help.”

The low timbre of his voice vibrated through Tess, filling her with surprising swirls of awareness. His gaze again scanned the crowd, before coming to rest on her. Heat rose in her face as, spellbound, she couldn’t look away.

Who was this man?

“For those of you who aren’t familiar with Project Mentor, it’s a program of volunteers working to help at-risk teens and children who have been exposed to drug abuse and/or HIV in their families. It’s a nonprofit organization sponsoring workshops and other events designed not only to help relieve some of the immediate burdens these kids face, but also to help them plan for their futures.

“These kids are the unfortunate victims who fall between the cracks at school and in our communities. They struggle with issues no child should have to deal with, yet they live it. Some of these kids don’t know what it’s like to eat three square meals a day, have proper medical and dental care, or attend school on a regular basis. Many of them have given up by the time they reach us.”

He paused, his passion for this project reached out to Tess and empathy swelled through her, for the children, for this man who cared enough that he faced this roomfull of less-than-welcoming women. He and April certainly had some issues to work out. The pressure between the two of them was nearly a physical thing.

“What exactly is it that you’re asking of us, Dr. Davies?” The question came from one of the women at April’s table.

“That’s an excellent question. Our hope…is that you’ll lend us a hand with some fund-raising.”

“What kind of fund-raising?” another of April’s group asked.

“That would be ultimately for you to decide, but at Project Mentor we had talked about a big gala or ball where the proceeds would go toward creating a youth center. We would, of course, welcome all youths, but our focus is on the ones we find through the free clinic we established two years ago in downtown Miami.

“Even though that clinic has experienced great success, we have seen more and more patients strung out on drugs and with HIV. When children are involved, our choice in the past has been to help the parents as best we could, then send them back to deal with their families as best they could. Unfortunately, they often don’t deal well with the added pressure of raising children, especially teens.

“Though we have a mentoring program in place for these kids, we’re finding it isn’t enough. There’s a real need to provide a feeling of community for them, a sense that they belong somewhere. If we don’t supply that connection, they find it in gangs or other unfavorable settings. A youth center would help prevent that.”

Tess glanced around expectantly, subduing the urge to jump to her feet and volunteer the group. She hadn’t yet officially joined their ranks, so it wasn’t her place to say anything. Surely, these women would put aside their differences for this higher purpose.

April straightened in her seat, though she remained closed off, her arms folded across her chest. “Why can’t your group arrange this ball on its own?”

“You ladies are known for your fund-raising abilities. We could make an effort, but all of us have careers in addition to our volunteering with the project. We simply don’t have the resources or connections you do. The gala is guaranteed success if the Dade County Women’s Club is associated with it.”

Silence reigned over the room. April uncrossed her arms and sat forward. “I don’t see how we would have the time to help you. We have several other projects we’re currently tied up with and our own gala event not far around the corner.”

Disbelief flashed through Dr. Davies’s eyes. “But that’s nearly nine months away. Surely you’d have time to handle this event.”

April rose, her eyes narrowed. “I don’t think so. There’s a lot that goes into planning any event as you so clearly point out, but I can’t speak for the entire group.” She gestured to the tables around her. “What do you think? Can we help Dr. Davies with his project?”

Tess stiffened at the note of warning in her voice. She held her breath as not a soul offered an opinion. How could these women just sit there? Did April swing so much clout that she could cow everyone into not helping?

Fisting her hands in her lap, Tess fought the urge to offer her services. She didn’t even know these women. Why would they listen to her? Acting against April would most likely cost Tess any chance at making friends. And so much for service work with the group.

She glanced up to find his gaze on her and froze.

His dark eyes beseeched her. She wasn’t even a member. What could she do? Surely one of the other women would say something.

“I see.” The defeat in his voice cut deep. “Then I won’t be taking any more of your time.”

Tess took another deep breath as he exited, but it did little to ease the knot of regret forming in her stomach. She stared at the empty doorway. The man had left. There wasn’t anything she could do about it now. Besides, chances were another group would come to his aid. If he was a doctor, he must have all kinds of connections.

The women’s club seemed to have other charities it was involved in. Surely she’d find another project she’d feel good about helping with. And there was the added bonus of making women friends. She’d come here to get away from men. She sipped her water and tried to relax. With the good doctor gone, now maybe she could get on with building some kind of relationship with her own kind.

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