Excerpt Reveal – Serene by Diana Nixon

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May 11, 2018 by ceresbooksworld

SERENE

By Diana Nixon

Shattered Series, # 3

I used to think that my life was a picture of perfection. I had everything a twenty-five-year-old woman could wish for: a loving family, friends, a dream job and a fiancé who thought the world of me.
Until the day I lost it all… Including my ability to see.
The car accident took away not just my vision, but also a part of me that I was sure I would never be able to get back.
And then I met him… Stanley Burke. A kind of a man I thought didn’t exist anymore: understanding, loving, supportive and generally too good to be true.
Without effort, he breathed life into my frozen heart, making it beat faster than ever before.
He became a light that my eyes would never see again. He made me feel things that were long lost and forgotten.
Only I couldn’t give him what he deserved.
Because in my pitch-dark world, there was no place for love…
“I’ve never been so scared of losing someone in my entire life… Then again, I’ve never had anyone as important as you are to lose…”

 

PROLOGUE

2 years ago

 

“Emery Ryan, you are one hell of a sister. You know that, right?”

She laughed. “Love you too, Ivy. But this dress does make you look fat.”

“What on earth is wrong with you today?” I stared at my sister, not sure if her spitefulness was caused by the baby growing in her belly, or because of our grandma’s genes; the woman never missed her chance to show just how much of a pain in the neck she was, and Emery just had to be so much like her.

“Get pregnant and you will know the answer. Do you think it’s easy to be swollen, hungry day and night, cry over every stupid thing, feel like you want to have a nap right after you wake up, and, which is the worst of the worst, stay sober for nine freaking months?”

“Said a mother of two, expecting her third child.”

“I love my kids, but I swear, right after I see this sweet baby,” she caressed her belly gently, “I’m gonna throw a slumber party and drink all the Sambuca in the house. Speaking of which, I should probably text Mr. Ryan to stock the bar.” She took her phone and started typing a new text message to her husband, mumbling, “Only two more months to wait. I can do that, right?

I chuckled. “I still can’t believe Mike agreed to take your name. What the hell did you do to make him change his name?”

She puffed. “Me? Nothing. But he’s the best man in the world, right?”

I rolled my eyes and took off the dress that according to my sister, made me look too fat. Not that I agreed with her, but considering her state, arguing with her was a lost cause. Nothing that I was going to say was safe. Everything could and would be taken the wrong way. I had seen my sister pregnant, twice, and I knew exactly what it was like for everyone to be around her. She got easily offended by everything, and I mean everything, even if people were not talking to her directly. She just thought it was her duty to tell them off, and then start crying over her spilled juice or Cinderella losing her shoe in a cartoon.

“You would make the devil kiss the ground you walk,” I said. “But unlike Mike’s dad, who looked like his son just confessed he was a unicorn, I was not even a bit surprised when he said he was going to change his name.”

“Do you really believe I was going to say ‘yes’ to becoming Mrs. Dickmaster?”

“But his mother once did.”

“Poor woman. I can’t even begin to imagine what she must have felt when the priest asked her about the name she was going to take after the wedding.”

Giggling, I put on another dress and turned to Emery to hear what she thought about it.

– Jeez, Ivy, just put on jeans and a shirt and be done with it. You are going to a farm, not a prom.

– So what? I don’t want Kean’s parents to think I don’t respect them. Showing up in jeans to a pre-wedding dinner, even if it’s taking place on a farm, isn’t very classy.

– Whatever. Really. I’m giving you ten more minutes to decide about the outfit. And I, meantime, better go make myself a sandwich. The baby and I are starving. Do you have cheese in the fridge?

– Have no idea.

– Do you even know where the kitchen is?

– I do, but I don’t remember the last time I went there. You know how little time I spend at home.

I was working as a graphic designer for one of Washington PR companies. I always loved drawing and never let a pencil out of my hand. Whenever a new idea popped into my head, I put it on paper and gave it life. So, when the time to choose my future came, I didn’t hesitate even for a second. Graphics became my life.

I could spend days and nights in my office, working on a new project. Every small detail mattered: lines, colors, light, shades. So, if I didn’t like something, I would stay awake all night long and never once remember about food or rest until I’m satisfied with the result of my work. My coworkers called me a coffee maniac, because without coffee, I was like a walking zombie, grumpy and generally absent-minded. No one would be surprised to see me coming to work in my pj’s; they would immediately know that I was running out of coffee supply.

But today coffee was not what I was missing. I looked at the framed picture standing on my bedside table and smiled. Today I was going to see him…

Kean and I met about a year ago. He was looking for a PR company to help him promote his newly opened talent agency, and I was supposed to draw a few banners for him. Back then, I thought it was love at first sight. He asked me out and a couple of months later, I found a small velvet box with a beautiful ring in it, standing next to my laptop. We were supposed to get married in two days, and I felt like the happiest woman in the world, ready to start my new life, as Mrs. Kean Ross.

I looked at my reflection in the mirror and nodded approvingly. I decided on wearing light-blue pants and a creamy blouse with three-quarter sleeves. End of June in Washington this year was suffocating hot.

The farm where Kean’s parents lived was to the north of the city and even though he moved out of there right after high school graduation, he loved the place. His parents, Meggie and Sean didn’t argue when we decided to have the wedding ceremony in Washington, but as for the pre-wedding dinner location, it was one thing that couldn’t be changed. Meggie promised to cook her signature dishes and my mom said she would take care of the desserts.

I hadn’t seen Kean for almost a week and missed him like hell. He was out to L.A. and I couldn’t wait to dive into his embrace again. The mere thought of it made my heart miss a beat.

“I’m ready to go,” I said, walking into the kitchen.

Emery was sitting on one of the barstools, with a giant sandwich in one hand and a spoon full of strawberry ice cream in her other hand. I was tempted to say something funny about her eating habits, but I wanted to live.

“What?” She asked with her mouth full of food. “The baby is just like his mother – never knows what he wants.”

“I see. Well, I hope both of you will be happy tonight. After all, family gatherings never happen without lots of food.”

She smiled and nodded. “You are right. It’s time to go.” She left her half-eaten sandwich on a plate and put the box of ice cream back into the fridge. Then she turned around and looked at me from head to toe. “Nice pants. Though I liked the first dress more.”

“But you said it made me look fat!”

“Did I? Never mind, you know how often I change my mind these days. Last night I woke up Mike in the middle of the night because I wanted a banana, and I wanted it now. He went to the store, and by the time he returned, I realized that I wanted a pineapple.”

“Poor Mike.”

“Poor me. The third pregnancy is killing me.”

“You were saying the same thing during the first and the second pregnancies too,” I said, following her out of the kitchen. “Don’t worry, Sis, no woman ever stayed pregnant forever.”

“Thank God.” She took a deep breath and sat on a chair in the hallway to put on her shoes. “I hope Kean’s flight will not be delayed, otherwise I’m gonna kill someone even before the dinner begins. You know how much I hate waiting. And waiting for you two to join in the ‘fun’ is hell on earth. Mom is going to lecture me on how to treat a newborn again, as if it’s the first time I’m gonna be a mother. And Meggie will no doubt start showing Kean’s childhood pictures. As if I haven’t heard yet how adorable her son was in his twos. I mean, what the hell happened to her adorable little boy?”

“He met my eldest sister.”

“Very funny, Ivy. We both know that Kean’s attitude has nothing to do with me.”

There was no love lost between my sister and my future husband. I didn’t get it, but every time they met something weird happened, as if someone pushed the ‘be a royal ass’ button and they started arguing over every small thing, even if their opinion about it was equal.

“Courage, Sis. The night is going to be awesome.”

She grimaced, took her car keys and kissed me on the cheek, saying, “Hope my navigator doesn’t break again, or I would get stuck in the middle of the road to only God knows where. What’s the name of the place again?” She took her phone to check on the map.

“It’s Blue Water Lake farm.”

“Right.” She found the needed map, studied it for a few silent moments, then nodded and said, “Ok, I’ll see you later, doll.”

 

As always, Dulles International Airport was overcrowded. People were coming and leaving, greeting and saying goodbye. The place looked like a noisy beehive, but it didn’t bother me. I loved airports, as well as traveling. The promise of new exotic places was always alluring. I loved flying, watching the change of the view beneath the plane, and the clouds surrounding it when it got really high in the sky. Somehow it made me feel like I was about to touch the heavens. Watching the planes taking off the ground and then leaving tracks in the sky, I always wondered about the people they were taking away from here and now. Who were they? What were they thinking? Did they have a fear of height?

But today, the only question I had in my head was, “How long exactly is it going to take Kean to show up?”

I waited patiently for him to go through a passport control and smiled from ear to ear when he waved at me, pushing through the crowd.

I moved forward, intending to meet him halfway, when suddenly I felt someone’s hand on my elbow.

“Sorry, Miss, you dropped this…”

My eyes looked at the stranger whose rich voice sounded like the most exciting music in the world. I had always harbored a soft spot for voices like his – that made you want to touch them, feel their softness on your skin, dive into their depth and stay there for at least a little while. I didn’t even look at what I must have dropped that made the man approach me, because I couldn’t take my eyes away from the deep hazel and honey stare that he graced me with. Somehow, it looked like a perfect addition to its owner’s voice, magnetic and intense. His eyes shone like a polished sunstone and hid a secret that I suddenly wanted revealed. It pulled me with its mystery that I somehow knew would open the door to a different world; the world I had never been to before.

The connection between us was barely a fraction of a second, but in that short period of time something inexplicable happened, as if we shared a very intimate bond the existence of which had been unknown until this very moment.

Then he broke the eye contact and cleared his throat, saying, “The hairclip. I thought it was yours.” The low rumble of his voice was like a lullaby that could take you to the universe where sound was power and make you do dangerous things. Where the hell did that thought come from, Ivy? I quickly lowered my eyes and only then did I look at the small thing that he was holding in one hand: a multicolored butterfly-shaped hairpin. It was a birthday gift from my grandma.

“It is mine. Thank you.”

The stranger smiled with the corners of his lips but didn’t rush with giving the lost thing back to me. He gave my hair a thoughtful look and said, “Liquid sunshine… Leave it like it is – long and loose.”

The way the words were said made my cheeks blush. It’s not like I was falling into the trap of his obvious attractiveness, but it was really hard to ignore it.

“Sweetheart, is everything all right?” Kean walked over to me and put one hand around my shoulders in a protective aka ‘she’s mine’ manner.

I swallowed hard. “Yes. I dropped my hairclip and this man found it.” Again, my eyes met those with a dazzling glow of brown with a seductive gold shade dancing around its edge. I wondered if those eyes got dim and dark when the man got angry or, well, excited…

“How very nice of him,” Kean snapped, breaking the intense silence.

The stranger must have heard something in my fiancé’s words that made his smile widen.

“Have a wonderful day, Miss,” he said, ignoring Kean’s presence. Giving me another thoughtful look, he turned around and started to walk away with a firm, confident tread. I breathed a sigh of relief. Somehow, his presence made my nerves go on high alert.

“Hey,” I turned to Kean and placed a soft kiss on his lips. “How was your flight?”

“Long and boring.”

I giggled, knowing how much he hated planes. “At least now that you are back, you can think about something more pleasant than long flights.”

His eyes were still focused on something behind me, or to be exact – on someone. I knew that look in his eyes. It was not the first time that I watched jealously boiling in them.

He took his time sending invisible daggers into the stranger’s back, then he finally looked at me, and said, “What were you saying?”

“Never mind. Our families are waiting for us on the farm. Shall we go?”

“Yeah, sure. Is your sister going to bless us with her priceless presence?”

“Of course. She wouldn’t have missed the dinner for the world.”

“I hope she leaves her attitude at home, at least for one dinner.”

“Only if you do the same.”

“Hardly possible. You know how much she loves driving me up the wall.”

“Ugh, why don’t you two give me a break? At least for one dinner?” We walked to the exit, Kean took my hand in his and I felt my body relaxed. “I love you guys, but sometimes you make me regret having a sister and a fiancé who hate each other to death.”

“Sorry, baby. I’ll try to avoid her as much as possible.”

I made a face. “There’s no need to avoid her. Just try to be more…patient with her. You know how sensitive she is now.”

“Fine. I’ll try my best.” He bent down and gave me a quick kiss. “Now tell me, are you ready to become Mrs. Ross?”

“I think I will need a little more time to get used to my new name.”

“I’m not taking yours, if this is what you are hinting at. My name it Kean, not Mike, remember?”

“I love your name, and I love you.”

He smiled with that familiar smile that always made me feel so helpless against him. “Love you too.”

We stopped at my car, I waited for Kean to put his suitcase in the trunk and then got into the passenger seat, letting him take the wheel.

He turned on the radio and we sped away from the airport, ready to face whatever our pre-wedding dinner was about to throw our way.

It had always been easy to be around Kean. I was sure he was my soulmate, always ready to support and appraise my new projects and never let me down. I had no doubt he would make a perfect husband for me. When with him, I always felt calm and secure.

I turned my head to the left and smiled at him, saying, “Can you believe the big moment is going to happen in two days?”

He smiled too. “I’ve been waiting for this moment to happen for months. I can’t wait to put a wedding band on your finder.”

“Sounds so very selfish, Mr. Ross.”

He took my hand in his and kissed the back of my palm, saying, “I want you to be mine forever.”

“Likewise.”

Our eyes stayed locked for no more than five seconds, but it was more than enough to miss the truck running straight at our car.

Distance was all that mattered.

Kean pushed the brake pedal and roughly turned to the right trying to avoid the crash, but the distance between the two cars was too short to finish the maneuver successfully.

The lights of the bright-red truck were blinding. I gasped and shut my eyes tight.

I prayed.

I barely had time to scream before the airbags pinned me to my seat. I felt like my lungs didn’t have enough room to take a breath.

Our car flipped over and then the hell started.

I don’t remember how much time passed before the car came to a complete stop. But when it happened, my bones and muscles felt like they had been locked in a tiny box.

Silence… It scared me even more than the pain I could so clearly feel all over my body. My consciousness was drifting in and out, which was not good. I tried to turn my head, probably trying to see if Kean was okay, but my neck hurt so bad, I felt tears running down my cheeks. The taste of blood and tears filled my mouth; the surroundings got too blurry to see anything.

I panicked.

I tried to move again, but it felt like my whole body was paralyzed. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see steam filling the inside of the car through the smashed windows. The smell of it was so intense, that I started coughing.

I tried to scream for help.

But no sound came out of my mouth.

Trapped in a steel prison, I was helpless. My vision kept switching from darkness to blinding light, as if everything happening around me wasn’t real; as if it was just a part of the game that I didn’t know how to play but kept hoping for victory.

But the victory turned out to be the biggest loss of my life…

 

CHAPTER ONE

Present Day

Stanley

I stared at the pool of water flooding my bathroom and cursed aloud. The shit was getting real…

Taking a phone out of my ankle-drenched pants, I called my secretary, who just happened to be my right hand, and asked her to send someone to my apartment and fix the damn pump. Dealing with my pissed-to-the-bone neighbors from downstairs was the last thing I needed right now.

I picked up a razor swimming by my feet and put it next to the washstand. I was running late for work, but I couldn’t let my apartment suffer the same misfortune as the Titanic.

The stream of water running from the broken pump just had to intensify. “Fucking great…”

I took one of the towels and tried to tuck it into a hole that looked like it was getting bigger with every passing second. The truth was I had no idea how to fix pumps, and even being a plastic surgeon and seeing blood and flesh on a daily basis, I freaked out every time something in my apartment broke. Not because I couldn’t organize a fart in a baked bean factory, rather because I didn’t have time to fix it.

My new job in Washington, D.C. took most of my time. At times I felt like sending it all to hell and going back to Pittsburgh, where everything about my existence felt so much easier. Then I remembered about my dream to have a private plastic surgery clinic, put on glasses and gloves and smiled at the patient lying on the operating table, waiting for a surgical miracle to happen.

Just a few more days, I thought to myself. I needed to wait just a few more days to make my big dream come true.

About two years ago, an old friend of mine invited me to join in the team of surgeons in a hospital in Washington. I jumped at the opportunity, packed my bags, and left the city that had been my home for twenty-eight years.

To be honest, I still had trouble getting used to my new life. And the apartment I lived in wasn’t helping. Maybe it was just a stupid coincidence, but the place and misfortune were no doubt besties. The apartment was spacious and situated just a few blocks away from work, but luck clearly hated the place, and so did I. Every once in a while, another shit happened.

First, it was something small, like a hole burned in my shirt, ten minutes before leaving for work. I immediately remembered my sister’s words who once said that my wardrobe wouldn’t survive moving to Washington and away from Mom who always took care of everything and never once said that I was a big boy now and should have learnt how to use an iron. Instead, I made sure I had enough shirts for another lifetime or so.

Then it was an electric kettle breaking early in the morning and leaving me with no much-needed coffee. Needless to say, I forgot about the broken kettle right after I left the apartment, and the next ten mornings the story repeated. No amount of cursing would help me fix the damn thing. Finally, Emery, my secretary, realized that something was wrong with me. I barked in response to everything she was saying and never once cared to apologize. She bought two new kettles for me, because I couldn’t hold a scalpel in my hand and get shit done half asleep, or worse – pissed, or which was the worst of the worst – both half asleep and pissed.

Then, a few months later, when having a date with a sexy as hell brunette, my bed broke with a loud cracking sound just when I was about to come and, I swear, my tool had never experienced more shock. I was sure it would never work again, but thank God, my fears were not confirmed. I bought a new king-size bed and swore off bringing dates home.

But the real ‘fun’ started when my neighbors from downstairs decided to remodel their apartment. By day five I felt like jumping from the mere sound of a drill connecting with the wall. Earplugs didn’t help a damn thing. On the contrary – I didn’t hear my alarm clock going off and was like two hours late for work. That’s why I gave up fighting the noise and for another two weeks or so I woke up with the feeling that someone was trying to break into my apartment, because the fucking noise from downstairs was a real pain in the ass.

A new day didn’t promise any trouble, but knowing how much of a bitch my fate could be, anything was possible. And considering the amount of water on my bathroom floor, today was not my lucky day.

A loud knocking on the door interrupted my thoughts and I rushed to the hallway, hoping to see a locksmith standing behind the door. Then again, I remembered about my fate being a bitch…

“Mrs. Quin, what a pleasant surprise! What can I do for you?” I smiled as fucking politely as possible. But judging by my neighbor’s face, she didn’t give a shit about my good manners.

“Make sure you send me a check for my ruined bedroom walls.”

Apparently, the water leakage did a lot more harm than I expected.

“Do you even know how much time it took me to redecorate the room?

I snorted. “Oh, trust me, I can give you the exact number of hours you spent redecorating it. I counted every second of them.” I thought there was no point in trying to keep this conversation on a safe side anymore.

Her face turned red.

“I’ll send you a bill later today, Mr. Burke. Have a nice day.”

“You two, Mrs. Quin.” For a second, I thought to leave all the taps in the apartment open and let the water avenge the noisy hell I’d been living in for the past couple of weeks, but then my common sense stopped me. After all, I didn’t have another place to move to, not right now anyway, so I’d better pay the damn bill.

I shut the door behind my angry neighbor and signed. Too bad nice days felt like unwelcome guests at my life party.

I had to wait for almost thirty more minutes before the locksmith showed up and fixed the pump. I paid him for his work and asked for his phone number, just in case I have another water leakage in the place. Then I got dressed in a pair of jeans and a shirt and went to my about to be opened clinic.

The place was almost ready to see its first patient. Just a few more things needed to be done before next Monday’s grand opening party.

“Stanley, you really need to call your sister back,” Emery said, bringing me a cup of steaming coffee. The woman was a true gift from heaven. If she didn’t have a husband and three kids, I swear, I would marry her.

“I will. As soon as I’m done with my coffee.” I smiled and took the cup from the tray.

“You seem to be enjoying a short break before the big day.”

“I would have enjoyed it if bad luck gave me a break.”

“Speaking of bad luck… Mike’s parents are coming to visit us this weekend, so I will most likely need to stay at home to play a perfect wife game, God help me. Do you think you can handle finishing the last preparations before the opening day without me?”

“Sure,” I said as enthusiastically as possible.

“Right…” She gave me a doubtful look. “Anyway, I’ll keep in touch, so if anything urgent happens, call me, okay?”

I nodded in response. Emery and I both knew that without her, I was like a lost dog, sitting on the sidewalk and watching people passing by with my eyes full of unhidden misery. When in a surgery, I was a pro, but when it came to finding a pen in my own office, I was as hopeless as my attempts to learn how to use an iron.

Emery – on the contrary – knew everything about everything. Even the color of the flowers I sent my last date. Well, technically, she sent them, and I didn’t even bother to ask if those were roses or something else. Not that I didn’t care about the girl I truly enjoyed spending time with, but the patient on the operating table was going to bleed to death if I answered her call, so I asked Emery to send her flowers and a note with my apologies for ignoring her.

She waited patiently for me to finish my coffee, took the tray with the empty cup away and said, “Now, take a phone and call Crystal. She said if you don’t call her back within an hour, she will never call you her brother again.”

I smiled. It was so much like her.

I loved my little sister. I knew she would never waste her breath on blind threats and if she wanted to talk to me, I’d better find a moment to comply with her wish. No flowers would ever save my ass if I dared to ignore her.

For almost a year, she’d been happily married to one of my best friends, Liam. And I, in turn, couldn’t be happier for her. She deserved to be happy and considering Liam was the only man she ever wanted and needed in her life, I didn’t have a choice but to accept him as my brother-in-law. I dialed Crystal’s number and waited for her to pick up the phone.

“What’s up, man?” Liam said into the handset.

I looked at my phone, checking if the number I dialed was correct. “Where’s Crystal?” I asked worriedly. “Is she all right?” It didn’t matter how old she was, I never stopped worrying about her. Even the fact that she was a married woman now didn’t change how I felt about protecting her from all the evil in the world.

Liam chuckled. “Better than ever. Actually… We have some news for you.”

I heard Crystal saying something in the background.

“Good news I hope?”

“Wait, I’m switching to a speakerphone,” Liam said.

“We are having a baby!” My sister shouted.

“A what?”

“A baby, big brother, A BABY! An adorable little creature who, in most cases, makes a woman want to call you right after the labor is over, because she’s sure she would never be able to become slim again without surgical help.”

I knew how much she loved kids and how obsessed she was with the idea of having her own little troublemakers.

But…

“You knocked her up?” I asked, knowing that Liam could still hear me.

He laughed. “Crystal and I are married, remember? Isn’t it enough to get your permission to have a baby?”

“God, I think I need more time to get used to the idea of my little sister being married to someone I know so well.”

He laughed even harder. “I thought you were happy for us.”

“I am happy, guys. I’m just kidding.” No matter how much I knew about Liam’s past and his numerous love adventures, I knew he loved my sister too much to betray her trust.

“So I thought.”

“Do you know if it’s a girl or a boy?”

“Not yet,” Crystal said. “I’m having my first ultrasound in a week. Hope they tell me it’s a girl.”

“Hope they tell you it’s a boy,” Liam corrected. “I have no idea how to bring up girls.”

It was my turn to laugh. “Hope you get what you really deserve, man.”

“Hey, aren’t you supposed to play for my team?” He said, offended.

“Nope. In this particular case, I’m team Crystal.”

“Traitor.”

“Better tell me, are you guys coming to my clinic opening party? Oh, wait, is Crystal allowed to travel by plane?”

She spoke again, “I’m feeling great, and I would never miss watching your big dream come true. So, yes, we will be there on Monday. Elizabeth, Kameron and Jeff are coming too.”

“Good. I’ve missed you all like hell.”

Liam spoke, “Just don’t tell me Washington is lacking pretty female patients dying to spend extra time with Dr. Stanley Burke.”

“No, but I’m missing my pack.”

“We miss you too, big brother,” Crystal said. “But on Monday night, we will rock your pitiful life, I promise you that.”

Smiling, I said, “Can’t wait.”

We talked for a few more minutes and then Emery said I needed to sign for another delivery, so I ended the call and got back to my duties.

Plastic Surgery Clinic of Stanley Burke had been my dream for as long as I could remember. I studied like crazy and worked my ass off to make it come true. And now, walking down the hall that led to my newly equipped surgery room, I couldn’t but admit that it was worth it.

Medicine was my life. I always knew who I wanted to be when growing up, and I never regretted my choice. It wasn’t just about making women’s tits bigger. It was more like creating a new piece of art. Each and every one of my patients mattered. I respected their decisions to change certain parts of their bodies, but never once did I agree to perform an operation simply because someone didn’t like the shape of their ears. I studied every case precisely, thinking about every small detail of the future operation and its result. I didn’t just want my patients to be happy with it, I wanted it to be perfect in every meaning of the word, look both good and as natural as possible.

 

The rest of the day was busy, but not eventful. Emery and I went through my schedule for the next week; there were a few operations that needed to be well planned. Then I met with the staff of my clinic and told them more about the opening day. There were about twenty people working for me now and I felt like a kindergartener, responsible for everything they were going to do while in the clinic. Some of them I knew from the hospital I worked in before opening my own clinic, others were complete strangers but with good recommendations. I hoped we would make a perfect team.

I was about to go home and order something delicious from my favorite Italian restaurant, when Emery showed up in my office.

“Do you have any plans for tonight?” She asked.

I shrugged. “Nothing interesting. Why?”

“I thought maybe I would give your stomach a break from ordered food and spoil you with something home-made. What do you say?”

“Uh, you know me so well. Do you really believe I can say ‘no’ to such a tempting invitation?”

She smiled. “I’ll call Mike and tell him to put one more plate on the table. The kids will be happy to see you.”

“Are they still angry at me for playing Santa for Christmas?”

Emery laughed. “Maybe just a little.”

“I should have thought twice before accepting your invitation.” The amount of work wouldn’t let me take even a few days off to visit my family in Pittsburgh, so I had to stay in Washington. Emery said there was no way I would spend Christmas Eve alone, so I ended up playing Santa at her place. At times I felt like I was her fourth child who couldn’t find a sock without her help. She was just a few years older than me, and technically couldn’t be my mom, but I appreciated her concern. Especially when it came to my food allowance.

“Don’t be ridiculous. You did a great job,” she said.

“Yeah, until Kelly pulled my fake beard and Paul and Jesse started crying, because my whole Santa thing was as fake as my beard.”

“Hope next time, you will do better.”

“Next time? God forbid. I swore off role games, remember?”

“No role games tonight, I promise.”

“Okay, then. I’m in.”

“Only one warning… My sister is staying with us for the weekend. And she’s… Well, never mind. I’m sure you two will get along well together.”

I didn’t know much about Emery’s sister. For some inexplicable reason, she didn’t like talking about her. Either because their relationship left much to be desired, or because there was something she wouldn’t tell me about her. The only thing that I knew about Ivy Ryan is that she loved drawing.

Emery and I arrived at her place around seven in the evening. She lived in a cottage in Petworth that reminded me of the neighborhood where my parents and I used to live before they moved to the lake house not far away from Pittsburgh, and me – to Washington. Crystal hated the idea of living alone in a big house, but Liam’s presence significantly improved her mood. Now both of them lived there.

“Hey, Doc,” Jesse – Emery’s eldest son said.

His mother gave him a disapproving look. “For you, he’s Mr. Burke.”

“Right, I forgot. Hey, Mr. Doc.”

I smiled and high-fived the kid. He was ten, but I swear, sometimes I felt like he could assist me during my operations, considering how many books he had read about different kinds of surgeries. His mother didn’t approve of his reading choices, thinking he was too young for medical books, but I told her to give him a break. When I was his age, I could spend hours sitting in a library, reading medical dictionaries and textbooks.

“Uncle Stan!” Kelly ran up to me and jumped into my open arms. Being a middle child, she thought no one ever paid any attention to what she was doing, because her parents were either too busy lecturing Jesse about his behavior – not that he ever listened to their lectures – or taking care of her little brother, Paul.

“Well, hello there, princess. How have you been doing?”

“I’ve made a lilac cake for you. Wanna see it?”

“Mmm, lilac cake? Sounds delicious.”

“I want a piece too,” Paul said. He was two and looked so much like his mother: with big blue eyes that contrasted with his dark-brown hair. Jesse and Kelly, on the contrary, took most of their features from their father. Their eyes were of a light shade of brown, combined with a bush of sandy hair.

“Give Stanley a break, kids,” Mike said, coming to greet me.

“It’s okay. I can handle them.”

Mike chuckled. “Good luck.”

Kelly spoke again, “I promised to give him a piece of my lilac cake.” I put her down, she took me by the hand and pulled me upstairs.

“Don’t eat too much lilac cake, Stan. Leave some space in your stomach for Emery’s lasagna,” Mike said. “I’ll go help her with the dinner.”

And so, Kelly got my full attention. Jesse and Paul stayed in the living room to watch a cartoon.

Kelly and I came to one of the bedrooms, and she told me to wait there while she ‘warms up’ the cake. I nodded and sat on a small couch near the window. She disappeared behind the door.

I looked around the room and saw a suitcase standing near the bed. I thought for a moment and realized that it must have been Ivy’s room where Kelly told me to wait for her.

I stood up and was about to leave the room, hoping its owner wouldn’t get angry for my unexpected ‘break in’, when the door to the bathroom opened and a girl in her late twenties walked into the bedroom. She walked to the mirror way too fast, and I didn’t get a chance to see her face. As if she didn’t notice my presence, she took a hairbrush and started combing her long dark-blond hair. Though I wasn’t sure about the color, her hair was still wet after the shower.

But it was her body that I couldn’t take my eyes off…

She was wearing a set of black lingerie that left so little for my imagination. I felt like all the air had been knocked out of my lungs. Around five feet and three inches, she wasn’t of Victoria’s Secret angels standards, but what I could see in front of me looked even better, with just enough curves in the right places to drive any sane man crazy. Drops of water glistened on her back and I suddenly wanted to come closer and swipe them with my palms, letting them rest on her ivory skin a little longer than needed. All the inappropriate thoughts started to flood my mind, taking me away from here and now, way too fast.

All of a sudden, she asked, “How old are you Dr. Burke?” She had a creamy voice that reminded me of a feather touching your skin with its softness.

“Um… Thirty-one. Why?”

“Well, I’m sure a man your age has seen enough half-naked women not to stare at one of them as if it were the first time he saw nothing but lingerie to cover a woman’s body. And considering what you do for a living, lingerie rarely stands in your way to a good view.”

She was still with her back to me, and I didn’t see her face, but I knew that she was smiling at that moment. Too bad from where I was standing I couldn’t see her reflection in the mirror.

“How do you know my name?” I asked, still too stunned to think straight. My eyes took their time to run up her legs and then stopped at a perfectly shaped ass. I was not even a bit ashamed of staring at it so openly. After all, I was a plastic surgeon. I could always use my professional interest as an excuse.

“I didn’t need you to introduce yourself to know that it was you.” She put the hairbrush down and reached for the robe hanging on a nearby chair. She put it on and I immediately regretted the change of the view. “Your cologne,” she said, still facing the mirror. “I can feel its notes every time my sister comes back from work. Light and watery, with citrus accords and lime. I like the combination.”

“Are you a perfumer?”

“No. But I have a good sense of smell. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to get changed for dinner.”

“Of course.” I gave her one more look and left the room, a bit disappointed to not see her face. But she was going to join us for dinner and I couldn’t wait for it to begin.

 

ADD on GOODREADS: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/38460710-serene

 

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