The Morning After

Excerpt from The Morning After a Harlequin Blaze August 2005 release:morningafter

ISBN-10: 037379200X
ISBN-13: 978-0373792009

Book one in the Sexual Healing Series

Chapter One

SHE WASN’T A ONE-NIGHT wonder after all. Euphoria filled Nikki McClellan Sunday morning as the aroma of fresh coffee and the clatter of dishes roused her from a languorous sleep.

This was a Sunday for the record books.

True to his word, Brad Turner was making her breakfast to celebrate their first night together as lovers. A profound relief poured through her. At long last, she’d kept a man until morning.

The intense Miami sun peered through a crack in the curtains. It promised to be another scorching June day, but today she could face anything. With a smile, she slipped from the bed, then stole into the shower. Humming softly, she lathered herself, then let the warm rivulets rinse her. This morning her luck had changed. If she played her cards right, she might finally have the lasting relationship she’d always longed for.

As she exited the bathroom, she breathed deeply the scent of the bacon and eggs she could almost hear sizzling. Tying her robe snugly, she padded barefoot down the hall to the kitchen. Thank goodness neither of her sisters seemed to be stirring.

“You adorable ma–” She stopped in her tracks.

A tray laden with bacon, eggs, hash browns, fresh fruit, coffee and croissants graced the center of her breakfast counter. A folded sheet of paper sat beside it, her name scrawled across its front.

Brad was nowhere to be seen.

Disappointment choked her as she sank onto one of the bar stools. “Well, at least this one left a note.”

Sighing, she unfolded the paper.

Dearest Nikki,

Last night was the most amazing night of my life, but I’m sure you get that all the time. No one has ever made me feel that way. Sex with you was like a spiritual experience, and I’m sitting here in awe, still trying to figure out exactly what happened.

All I know is that last night somehow changed my life. I feel as if I could go out and conquer the world. So that’s what I’m off to do. I’ve never felt so sure of myself. You did that for me. You’re a goddess and I only wish I was worthy of you. I will always cherish the memory of our time together.

With deepest gratitude,

Brad

“Gratitude?” she ground the word through her teeth. “Oh, hell, at least the man can cook.”

“WOULD YOU LIKE SOME TEA and honey cakes, dear?” Sophie Patterson, Nikki’s aunt, set a tray filled with the steaming brew and sweet smelling cakes on the low coffee table before them the following Thursday.

Nikki rubbed her stomach. She’d managed to finish off the entire meal Brad had left, then she’d spent the rest of the weekend and a good part of the week eating through her misery. Still, she felt a little hollow and the best place for filling up was at her aunt’s. It was also the best place for getting advice.

She shook her head. “You’d think all this rejection would have spoiled my appetite.”

“Actually, I would be a bit surprised if you weren’t hungry.” The late afternoon sun played across Sophie’s loose hair, illuminating an ample sprinkling of white in the dark strands.

Nikki gave her aunt a curious glance, but refrained from commenting. Though Sophie often spoke in riddles, she always had a way of easing whatever troubles might drop Nikki on her doorstep.

Cradling the warm mug, Nikki settled back into the soft cushions of the couch. It was a sturdy old couch, much like the house and Sophie herself. In a world full of chaos and constant moves, Sophie and her Victorian with its wraparound porch had long been a sanctuary to Nikki and her sisters, Tess and Erin. It was the closest thing to home the girls had ever known.

But not for long. Their days in the apartment they shared were numbered. The one thing their mother had done right was to set up an investment fund for each of the girls at birth. In spite of the stock market’s many ups and downs, the funds still managed to accrue a tidy annual yield. With help from that, an unexpected inheritance and the income Nikki had generated since purchasing her animal clinic last year, she’d amassed a down payment and the excellent credit she needed to buy a home of her own.

She glanced at her watch. She’d have to leave soon to meet with her real estate agent. Since Nikki opened the clinic half the day on Saturday, she took off Thursday afternoons. For the past three weeks, she’d spent her free afternoons house hunting. She hadn’t had much luck in her search, but maybe today would be different.

Sophie settled beside her, nodding at her own cup. “It’s a special herb blend. It’ll chase those blues away.”

Nikki breathed in the steam before taking a long swallow. She’d learned long ago not to ask too many questions about Sophie’s brews. If her aunt said the tea would help, Nikki meant to drink every drop.

“I just don’t get it,” she said, her throat tightening. “Am I such a loser? These guys really like me. You know, I can usually tell what they’re feeling…”

She stopped. Though Sophie had been the first one to point out Nikki’s empathic nature back in the days of her childhood, they hadn’t spoken about it much since then. Perhaps her aunt thought she sounded like some babbling fool.

“You’re wondering why you don’t know in advance that they’re leaving.”

“Well, actually, it’s gotten pretty predictable. You’d think I’d get a clue.”

“It isn’t easy, being empathic. Emotions can be misleading and fickle. It’s difficult to tell what you’re tapping into.”

“What is it about me that sends them all running afterwards? It isn’t as though I’m trying to tie any of them down. I’d just like a guy to stick around for a little bit.”

“You’re looking at it all wrong. It isn’t that they’re rejecting you. It’s that they’re embracing the world and all it has to offer.” Sophie set her mug on the table, then offered the plate of cakes. “Try a honey cake, dear. It’ll sweeten your disposition.”

Nikki frowned. She wanted to rave and cry. Life was so unfair. She couldn’t seem to keep a guy and Tess collected them like baubles. “I don’t feel like sweetening my disposition. I want to scream. I’m a good person. I make a decent living and I don’t think I’m so hard on the eyes. All I ask for is a little bit of happiness.”

“Ah, that you’ll have in spades, love.”

Moisture swelled in Nikki’s eyes. “When?”

Sophie patted Nikki’s knee. Her shoulders heaved in a big sigh. “I guess it’s time. I had hoped to coax that sister of mine into telling all of you girls, but she’s always been a little…”

“Flighty? Fickle? Self-indulgent? You can say it, Sophie. It isn’t as though I haven’t figured that out for myself.” The bitterness inside Nikki grew.

She had managed to forget about her mother for a short period of time. Thinking of her now brought on a fresh wave of misery. If only Maggie had been able to settle for just one great love, Nikki wouldn’t have grown up feeling like such a vagabond. Instead, Maggie—daughters in tow–had roamed from lover to lover, home to home.

“You’ve never understood her, Nikki. She’s a free spirit it’s true, but she’s got a huge heart.”

“That she wants to share with as many men as humanly possible?”

“Actually, that’s about the gist of it. But what you don’t understand is that she has a special gift she’s granting to each and every one of them.”

“Oh, I know about her ‘gift’ all right.”

“I don’t think so. You don’t understand. How can I explain it? You see, you have this very same gift, love, only in you it seems to be much stronger. It takes a little longer for your mother’s magic to work, but with you…well, it seems you’re a one shot wonder.”

“I could have told you that.” Nikki stood, then began pacing. Her vision blurred and she blinked to clear the unwanted moisture from her eyes.

“I don’t mean that in a bad way, dear. It’s quite a marvel, actually. I remember your great-aunt Emma was the same way. Does take some getting used to, but she lived a long love-filled life.”

“Getting used to?” Nikki stared at her aunt in disbelief. “You’re kidding, right? Because I don’t think I can get used to the idea that the rest of my life will consist of a string of one-night stands. I’ll become celibate first.”

“No, dear, that would be most unfortunate. You have a gift. To keep it to yourself would be a terrible mistake.”

Nikki stopped to stare again at her aunt. “I have the mystifying ability to send men running from my bed. How can you call that a gift?”

“Sit beside me. I’m getting a sore neck looking up at you.” Sophie patted the cushion.

With a shake of her head, Nikki settled on the sofa again. Her stomach grumbled and she took a bite of cake.

“I’d wager that each and every one of them left hearty and hale and a world better for sharing your bed.”

Nikki snorted indelicately. “The only one who left a note said he was ready to go out and conquer the world.”

“Exactly.” Sophie beamed.

“Well, great. That makes it all better.”

“You make it all better. You see, the women of this family all share the gift.” Grooves formed between her brows. “The gift does impact one’s life, it’s true. Relationships can be very short term, especially in your case and that takes maintaining a certain attitude–the ability to let go when the time comes. The empathic nature can be a terrible burden. Seems the most damaged are drawn to us. But the reward…”

Bliss lightened her expression. “Well, hopefully you’ll experience it for yourself. The reward is beyond description. It’s priceless to give so selflessly–to change a life, or even save one–with the gift.”

“Sophie, you’ve gone on and on, but you haven’t really told me. What exactly is this gift?”

Sophie took a deep breath and faced her niece. “I’m surprised you haven’t figured it out. It’s the gift of sexual healing, of course.”

SOPHIE WAS NUTS. NIKKI frowned into her rear view mirror as she braked at a stoplight. Sexual healing? Impossible. Ridiculous. Who’d ever heard of such a thing? Sounded like the kind of harebrained excuse her mother might have dreamed up, but how could Sophie buy into it?

Her aunt had been disappointed when Nikki had scoffed at her explanation. Then Nikki had graciously excused herself for her appointment. She was a little early, but for some reason, she found the possibility that there might be a small bit of truth to Sophie’s tale most upsetting. Did this mean she was doomed to flit from man to man, following her mother’s rootless path?

God knows, Tess seemed headed that way. Erin was another story, though. Her romantic pursuits had been very low-key up to this point. Yet, Sophie had said they’d all inherited the gift. Would they all end up alone in the end?

Exhaling to rid herself of the unsettling feeling, Nikki checked her directions before focusing on the neighborhood around her. The best way to combat this new upset was to concentrate on putting down roots of her own. And this area, Coral Gables, looked like a great place to do just that. She was meeting her agent here at the first house they were viewing. The house was in an established tree-lined neighborhood with wide boulevards and lots of green space. No wonder Coral Gables was called “The City Beautiful.” Even better, it was a short commute to her clinic and she’d always loved this area.

Tess and Erin would, too.

Nikki drove past a curious mixture of Colonial, French, Dutch and Chinese style houses, some with ornate entryways. This area certainly had a flavor all its own. A bicycle path wound alongside the road. She turned onto a quiet side street.

“This must be it. Five-eighty-nine Chestnut Lane,” Nikki murmured to herself as she pulled up in front of a two-story house.

She glanced up and down the quiet street. Ginger Parker, her agent, was nowhere to be seen. Nikki left the engine running. Cool air hissed through the air conditioning vents as the sun beat down around her car. Shifting forward, she peered at the house.

She liked it immediately.

It had a classic look, with bay windows across the front and wide dormers below the sloped roof. Barrel tile covered the surface and an archway to one side appeared to lead to an inner courtyard. Ferns, palm leaves and deep russet and gold flowers hinted at a garden beyond.

She started at a swift rap on her window. She started. A stranger peered in at her. Blond hair swept back from his furrowed brow. Blue eyes narrowed on her. A myriad of emotions seemed to swirl in their depths and foreboding swept over her.

Blowing out a breath, she rolled down her window. “Yes, may I help you?”

“You’re Ms. McClellan?” A roughness edged his voice.

It veiled a deeper vulnerability. Though he was a big man–hearty and hale, as Sophie would say–he somehow seemed…not whole, as if he was broken inside. How this revelation came to Nikki, she couldn’t say, other than the usual way she felt things about people.

And what she felt about this man drew an empathic rush from her heart. He carried a deep sorrow. It pressed him down with a crushing weight.

The stranger cleared his throat. She fumbled to remove her sunglasses, warmth fanning across her cheeks. She’d been staring. “Yes, I’m Nikki McClellan.”

“Mrs. Parker phoned to say she’s been delayed. I thought you might like to wait inside.”

“Oh. You’re the owner?”

He nodded briefly, his expression unchanging. “Dylan Cain, at your service.”

She cut the engine. “Thank you, Mr. Cain.”

Though he stepped back, she was all too aware of his solid presence as she exited the vehicle, then turned to fidget with the lock.

“She shouldn’t be long. You can wait in the study or you’re welcome to have a look around.”

She walked beside him, her chin just topping his shoulder. He was tall, over six feet. Her arms tingled as the sheer vitality of him shimmered over her. She caught his spicy scent and her pulse quickened.

“Is this really a courtyard?” Needing to put some distance between them, she veered away from him, nodding toward the archway. A riot of tropical flowers stirred in the slight breeze drifting through the opening.

“I wanted a home that brought the outdoors in. The courtyard and its gardens are a central feature.” He led her into the refreshing coolness of the garden.

Nikki inhaled a sharp breath. Tall palm trees presided over much of the space, adding needed shade. A large fountain stood amid a circular garden in the courtyard’s center. Water splashed and gurgled from an urn held by a laughing mermaid, while her sisters freed a wide-eyed fisherman caught in his own net. Small buds of yellow, red and orange danced all around the fountain’s rim.

The four corners sported smaller gardens, each with its own theme. A kettle windsock prevailed over what appeared to be a bevy of herbs. Tropical flowers peered between and around huge boulders of varying shapes and sizes on the far side. Another area paid homage to a stand of palms that shaded a cozy hammock and the last paraded flowers in a rainbow spectrum.

“It’s beautiful.” She turned slowly in a circle, breathing in the sweet floral scent.

“Yes, beautiful.” His tone was dark and fluid.

She faced him. Heat shimmered in his eyes as his gaze traveled over her. Awareness warmed her blood. Framed by the tropical garden, he looked like a predator, ready to strike. She took an involuntary step backward.

He straightened and the moment passed. “Every room has a view of the gardens.”

Sunlight filtered through the leafy canopy and winked off the floor-to-ceiling windows and wide French doors that must indeed usher the outdoors in.

“This is incredible,” she murmured. “I’m surprised you can bring yourself to part with it.”

The muscles in his jaw tightened. “It’s time.”

Again, a feeling of empathy swamped her. She stilled the impulse to place a comforting hand on his arm. Whatever ailed this man, he seemed quite inclined to deal with it himself.

“Would you care to see the rest?” He gestured toward a pair of French doors.

“Yes, that would be nice, if you don’t mind.” She followed him into the main entryway.

Jewel-colored light splashed across the wall above her. Opposite, a stained-glass panorama stretched above the heavy oak doors, depicting a mermaid singing to a sea prince.

“Do you prefer to wander on your own, or would you like the guided tour?” Cain asked.

Her glance fell across a side table adorned with an assortment of gilt-framed photographs. The delicacy of the table and its ornate trimmings seemed in contrast to the man’s dark nature. A blond woman with an easy smile peered from one of the frames.

Nikki straightened, suddenly feeling very much like an intruder. “I’d like the guided tour…if I’m not keeping you from anything.”

He gestured with a wide sweep of his arm. “This is the foyer.”

Her gaze again gravitated toward the stained glass window. The mermaid’s wistful expression elicited a strange melancholy in her. Or did the image evoke the emotion in Cain and she was feeling it from him? Why would such a beautiful display cause him sorrow? She frowned. Being empathic wasn’t easy.

She blinked inexplicable moisture from her eyes as his gaze pinned her. “Is it an original?” she asked. “I’ve never seen anything quite like it, or the fountain for that matter.”

“Yes. They were both commissioned.”

He turned stiffly and she followed him into the formal living room off to one side of the entryway. Here, the contrast between the style of furniture and the man seemed even starker. High wing-backed chairs and sofas, dark claw-footed tables and delicate lamps adorned the space. Silk wallpaper with tiny rosebuds covered the walls, one of which featured shiny brass sconces flanking a large oil painting of a Victorian lady meeting her lover.

Nikki couldn’t help but verify her suspicions. “You collect antiques?”

Though his shoulders remained steady, he seemed to sag somehow. “It would appear so.”

“I’m sorry. It’s just a little odd. You don’t seem to be the claw-footed type.” As if she had any idea what type he might be.

His gaze caught hers. For a moment, a storm threatened in his eyes, then he cocked his head and seemed to relax. “Perhaps I’m not.”

“Oh.” She waited with bated breath, but he didn’t elaborate.

Did the woman in the picture collect the antiques and knickknacks? If so, where was she now? Was she the cause of Cain’s pain?

And exactly what would you do about it if she were?

The doorbell saved Nikki from further speculation. Ginger Parker arrived in a bluster of apologies and out of breath, her blue-gray hair tousled by the wind. “I’m so sorry I kept you waiting.”

She patted her hair in place and turned to Cain. “Thank you for letting Ms. McClellan in.”

He nodded toward the study on the opposite side of the foyer. “No problem, I was just working.”

“Oh, well, we’ll let you get back to it, then. Don’t mind us. We’ll just poke around on our own.” Ginger shooed him toward the study.

Dylan hesitated. His gaze swung over his prospective buyer. She was quite attractive with her brown eyes and coffee-colored hair. She had a sturdy build, not too thin, but she seemed unsteady at the moment. He’d made her uncomfortable somehow. She looked…upset.

“Ginger has been through already. She previewed the house a couple of days ago,” he said, wanting to reassure the woman. “You’re in safe hands, Ms. McClellan.”

“Oh, please call me Nikki.”

“Nikki, then.” He extended his hand. “And I’m Dylan.”

“Yes, Dylan it is.” She placed her hand in his.

Warmth surged through him. Not just the tingling heat of sexual awareness, though that was there, too, which surprised him. Sure, on those rare occasions when Steven Benson, his life-long friend, had dragged him out he’d felt the odd passing attraction, but nothing like this.

Earlier in the garden Nikki’s lush figure and sparkling eyes had his mind wandering along lustful paths he hadn’t pondered in a very long time. Now her warmth enveloped him in comfort and ease. As he looked into her eyes, serenity like he had not known these past two years descended on him. Her gaze softened and he could no more look away than he could let go of her hand. He fought the alarming urge to sweep her into his arms.

What had come over him and who was this woman?

Ginger cleared her throat. “Shall we?”

Nikki glanced away, breaking the spell. She pulled her hand from his as pink blossomed in her cheeks. “Yes, of course. So far I love it. It’s certainly more house than I’d anticipated.”

“Let’s start with the study, then we can let Dylan get back to work.” Ginger ushered her client in that direction.

Dylan followed, staring blankly at the papers on his desk. What had he been working on? A haze clouded his mind. He turned and nearly collided with Nikki.

“Now, this is your room.” Appreciation shone in her dark eyes as she took in the solid oak furnishings and cluttered tabletops. Papers and files pertaining to the fraud case he was working on covered nearly every available space.

“I…this is where I work when I’m home. I like it to be…utilitarian.” In fact, it was the one room Kathy had had no interest in.

“Dylan’s an attorney.” Ginger rubbed her hands together. “He’s defending Councilman Weatherby. Imagine, one of Miami’s finest citizens on trial like a common criminal. You’ll get him off, won’t you, Dylan? I can’t believe George has done a dishonest thing in his life.”

“I’m not at liberty to discuss the case. The local media is having a field day with it as it is.”

“Yes,” Nikki cocked her head. “I believe I did read something about it. I’m sorry. I don’t follow the news as closely as I should. I spend my days doctoring furry critters, then fall into bed exhausted at night. I don’t know where the time goes.”

“You’re a veterinarian?” Dylan almost smiled, picturing the lovely brunette with her “critters.”

“Yes, I am. I’ve always gotten along better with animals than people.” She caught her bottom lip between her teeth.

It was a full bottom lip. Luscious. Made for kissing.

“Nikki has her own clinic in Bay Heights,” Ginger said.

Dylan forced himself to look away from Nikki. Guilt filled him. What had made him think of kissing her? Had the woman bewitched him? He cleared his throat. “Bay Heights. That wouldn’t be a far drive.”

“No, not at all.” Nikki turned to Ginger. “I’m anxious to see the rest of the house.”

“Of course you are, hon. Dylan, if you’ll excuse us…”

“Certainly, make yourselves at home. Just let me know if you have any questions.”

Nikki glanced back, smiling as they left the room and he stilled the urge to follow. “Briefs,” he muttered as he sat at his desk. “Where was I?”

He consulted the notes he’d been scribbling when Ginger called. “Right, finance summaries.”

With quick motions, he punched a number into his phone. After four rings the message center on the other end picked up. He waited patiently for the beep, then said, “Evelyn, if you have them ready, I could really use those summaries on the Weatherby finances. In particular, I’m looking for September and October of last year. Give me a call if you have them, or just fax them over. Thanks.”

He exhaled and focused on the file in front of him, immersing himself in his work. The accountants were going over every detail, but he needed to understand where the councilman stood himself. Though all the columns in Weatherby’s P&L added up, Dylan’s sixth sense told him all wasn’t as it appeared to be.

A short while later, Nikki’s musical laughter floated down from the upstairs, shattering his concentration. He tossed down his pen. He had purposely left the office and all its distractions to work at home this afternoon. Now, how was he supposed to get any work done with all of this racket in the house?

After another moment of staring blankly at the page in front of him, he gave up all pretense of working. He stood, then went in search of the pair.

He found them in the guest room. Sebastian, Kathy’s orange tabby, had draped himself unceremoniously across Nikki’s shoulders. Dylan paused a moment, not breathing. Since Kathy’s death, the cat hadn’t let anyone pet him, let alone pick him up–not even Dylan.

Nikki turned. Her smile faded. “Your housemate found us.”

Ginger ruffled the cat’s ear and he hissed at her. “Oh my, he hasn’t any use for me, though he climbed right up there. Seems to have taken a liking to Nikki.”

“He doesn’t like most people.” Dylan took a shaky breath. Showing the house was turning out to be harder than he’d expected. He stepped forward to take the cat, but Sebastian growled and leaped to the floor.

“Ow!” Nikki clamped her hand to her collarbone.

“Did he scratch you?” Dylan asked.

“It’s nothing.”

“It’s bleeding.” Ginger’s eyebrows formed a deep V.

“Let me see.” The softness of Nikki’s hand plagued him as he moved it aside to see the double slash where Sebastian’s claws had marked her. “I’m sorry. I’ll get something for that.”

She waved aside his efforts. “I’m fine. It’s just a scratch.”

“He’s overdue for a clipping. He doesn’t like me handling him and I’ve been so busy lately, I can’t remember the last time I took him in for a grooming.”

“He didn’t mean anything. Bring him by my clinic. We’ll get him clipped and clean for you.” She smiled as the cat rubbed up against her leg. “I’ve always had a way with the four-legged kind.”

“So it seems.” Dylan suppressed the anger rising in him. Why should Sebastian’s reaction to the woman upset him?

Or perhaps it was his own guilty response triggering his feelings.

“Well,” Ginger checked her watch. “If you’ve seen enough, I suggest we move along, Nikki. We have several more homes to visit.”

Relief flooded Dylan. Thank God they were leaving. His insides had been in a tangle since he had first laid eyes on that woman. Now he could get back to work and get on with his life.

Nikki turned slowly around the room until she faced him. Her gaze caught and held his, though her words were directed toward Ginger, “Oh, I don’t think that’ll be necessary. I believe I’m ready to make an offer.”

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