Chapter Eight

Sometimes, to properly stalk her prey and learn its habits, a Tigress must stealthily approach, watch and gauge before exploding into a rush of amazing speed and attacking. With carefully timed maneuvers, she can deliver the killing blow without her prey ever knowing she was there.

"What do you think of this one?"

I glanced up from the rack of black, brown and navy-blue dress suits. All were ankle length, plain and would conceal every inch of skin, protecting it from a man's naughty gaze. When I saw my cousin's selection, I frowned. "I am not wearing that...that...X-rated napkin."

"What's wrong with it?" Mel gave the green minidress she held a once-over, even brushed her fingers down the split bodice.

"The hem won't cover the edge of my panties and the bodice opens to my belly button. You might not know this, but I'm not planning to make a few extra bucks on the side while I'm gone."

It was Wednesday night and we were hitting the bargain department stores instead of the nightclubs-Mel liked penny beer-all for the sake of my upcoming trip to Colorado with Royce. Apparently, a new shipment of green clothes had arrived only the day before. When Mel and Kera learned of this, they had demanded we go shopping. Being the meek, mild woman that I am, I relented. And my capitulation had nothing to do with wanting to look good for Royce. I swear.

Did the old "fingers crossed" thing still work?

"Try it on, at least," Mel persisted just as the BlueJay in my purse erupted in a series of beeps. "And for God's sake, turn that thing off."

"I can't." Scowling, I dug inside my purse and pounded the stupid thing front and back. It beeped every hour, reminding me of my upcoming trip. Royce, the diabolical son of the devil, had programmed it in such a way that I couldn't turn it off or turn down the volume. Too, the screen continued to flash crap like, "You'll have fun on our trip, I promise."

Once the beeping stopped, I surveyed Mel's choice of ho-wear again. "I'd feel better covered in body paint."

"Now there's an idea," she said with a sly grin.

I rolled my eyes, but couldn't stop my own grin. "Even if I was willing to parade around like a living porno ad, I don't want to wear anything green. I'd just look like a lumpy bowl of pea soup. Or worse, an overused snot rag. I don't care how much Royce likes the color. I'm. Not. Wearing. It."

"What about this one?" Kera held up a conservative mint-green pantsuit. "It's fifty percent off."

"And it's still green," I said, my voice heavy with exasperation. Did they never listen to me?

"Sister dear," Mel said, "she's flying to Colorado -with Royce Powell, I might add-not a summit for sexually repressed librarians."

Kera chuckled. "You're right."

"Think ski bunny," Mel said. "Sexy," she continued. "Wild. Uninhibited."

"I'm not trying to seduce him," I told them.

"Oh, please," both said in unison.

"I'm not. Really." How many lies could one woman tell in a single day before God could no longer forgive her? When I was a little girl, my mom used to tell me the limit was 490 times a day. I think I was dangerously close to reaching that.

"You may not allow yourself to try," Mel said wickedly, knowingly, "but you want to. Bad."

I didn't try to deny it, but I didn't audibly agree with her, either. She took my silence for refusal.

"I thought you had a brain in that skull of yours," she mumbled. "If you don't want to seduce him, we need to get you a prescription for Viagra for women ASAP."

"Maybe we should take her in for a CAT scan," Kera suggested.

"Guys, I'm a hardened bitch with relationship scars. That's all there is to it." I ran my fingertips down the lapels of a wool jacket. "No amount of drugs or medical testing will change that."

"True." Mel.

"You're right." Kera.

Hey, weren't they supposed to defend my character? Weren't they supposed to assure me that I might have internal scars, but an entry in the Bedroom Olympics would do me some good?

"Still," Mel finally said, "I think the whip and feathers we gave you at your non-party will go a long way towards helping you overcome your bitchiness."

An image of Royce tied facedown to my bed, his naked body bared for my viewing pleasure while I whipped him then soothed the ache with feathers-or my tongue-filled my head. My nipples instantly hardened and the juncture between my thighs ached.

"Well, hello ladies." Mel laughed. "Something I said got through to your hormones." She flicked a pointed glance at my breasts.

Cheeks heating, I quickly covered them with my hands. I should have worn a padded water bra-yes, I owned one and I wasn't ashamed. Small-breasted women had to do what small-breasted women had to do to fill out their shirts properly. That would have kept my traitorous nipples hidden.

"So you aren't as immune to him as you would have us believe." Kera lifted a green floral sundress and held it to her petite frame. "Why else would you have kissed him? Twice."

"Shut up," I said.

"We aren't the Tattler. You don't have to deny, deny, deny with us."

"It's obvious you two want each other," Kera continued. She twirled around, the dress she held dancing at her knees. "So what's the problem? Seduce the man, and get it out of your system. Sex doesn't have to be a major commitment."

I knew she didn't believe those words, just as I knew what she was trying to do. Kera thought if I slept with Royce, I would fall in love and suddenly decide I wanted to marry him.

What if she wasn't far off the mark? That's what scared me most. Still, that was no reason to tell the man to read Kera's application. Bad Naomi.

"Sex is a major commitment to Royce," I said. I snatched the dress from her and hung it back on the rack. No green.

"Just because of that article?" Mel asked doubtfully, flipping through another mound of napkins/dresses. "It could have all been a joke, you know. Or even an exaggeration. The media always distorts the news."

"The press was right this time. I know because-" Jeez, it was time I came clean and revealed exactly what was going on. I hadn't told them everything, and they deserved to know. "He proposed. To me."

"Proposed?" In the next instant, Kera grabbed me by the shoulders, spinning me around to face her. "As in, he asked you to marry him?"

I bit my bottom lip. "Well, yeah."

My petite, delicate cousin shook me once, twice. "So what did you say?"

"No, of course."

"No, of course, she says." Kera threw up her hands and swung to face Mel, her blond locks whipping me in the face. "Did you just hear what this foolish woman said? Can she possibly be related to us? Naomi turned down a man who looks like Colin Farrell, is richer than God and finds her so desirable he can't live without her."

"Now wait just a-"

"I'm having trouble believing it myself." Mel tsk-tsked under her tongue. "It's one thing to say you're never going to get married, but it's quite another to actually reject such a man's proposal. Naomi, Naomi, Naomi. Do we need to have you committed for being mentally unstable?"

"I never said anything about him being unable to live without me. He never said anything of the sort, either." Well, he kind of did. He'd said some of the most wonderful things to me, things that continually swept through my mind, weakening my knees. He'd thought about me for six whole months. He'd dreamed about me. He loved me.

"He implied it with his proposal," Mel said. Hooking her red-streaked bangs behind her ear, she leveled a pointed stare at me. "If you won't consider the marriage thing, at least say you'll think about that wild affair with him."

How could I not think about it? My body craved the man like a drug. I leaned against a rack of slacks and the hangers dug into my back. "He'd probably expect to fly to Vegas the moment we slept together."

Mel gently pushed me aside so she could study a pair of hip-huggers. "Just because he expects it, doesn't mean you have to say yes."


"Why don't you introduce him to me?" Kera shifted her weight from one high-heeled foot to the other and eyed me with the same purposeful intent Mel had earlier. "I don't have a stupid rule about dating a client, and I am so ready to fall in love and get married."

My stomach tightened. The same sick, yucky feeling that had washed over me in Royce's office washed over me now. I didn't want Royce for myself, but I damn sure didn't want anyone else to have him either. Not even Kera, whom I loved.

What was it about that man that tied me in so many knots?

"Trust me," I said, trying to act nonchalant and breezy. "You don't want him, Kera. What type of husband would he make, anyway? He obviously travels a lot. He's bossy, arrogant, egotistical, tyrannical and possibly vainglorious. And what happened to George? I thought you were interested in him."

"Maybe I'm more interested in Royce." She expelled a dreamy (fake?) sigh. "He's sooo hot."

Yes. Yes, he was. And his kisses slayed me. Enthralled me. Had me panting for more. Maybe, after I finished planning his mother's party, Royce and I could have some type of fling.

My chin tilted to the side as I considered that scenario. on the beach. Sex on a balcony. Sex in every room of my apartment. Sex, sex, sex. Would he be interested in an affair? He was a healthy man, and he'd said he wanted me in his life. If I made it clear sex was all I could give him, surely he'd relent.

I'd never had a purely sexual relationship before, a relationship where emotions were taboo. Could I handle one? Surely I could. Surely my fears about falling in love with him if we got naked were unfounded.

I had to admit, the thought of touching him at my leisure appealed to me. Tasting him, too. Letting him touch and taste me. A sultry heat invaded my veins, and I licked my lips. A few nights of hot, dirty (unemotional) loving would surely cure me of this obsession for him. Of my need for his naked body straining against mine, slipping and pumping erotically inside me.

Yes, I decided then, already eager to begin. I would seduce him after the party. For my peace of mind, if nothing else. I would sleep with him and keep my heart well guarded. When the passion was sated, he and I would part. Simple. Easy. No one would get hurt.

"Kera," I said. "I want Royce, so you can't have him."

She grinned slowly, as if that was what she'd wanted to hear all along.

Mel muttered, "About time."

In all of my life, I'd been with a total of two men. Number one: Jase Waldren, my high-school crush. After several months of "going steady," he'd taken my virginity in the back seat of his rusty yellow truck and had never called me again. Not that I'd cared. I'd been about as close to orgasm that night as I was to buying a pair of Dolce amp; Gabbana black leather stiletto boots right now.

Number two: my ex-husband. I'd just started working for a local party-planning business, and Richard the Bastard had strolled in looking all suave and self-assured, needing help with a business function. He was a divorce lawyer and ten years my senior. Caught in his charismatic snare, I'd requested that I be assigned to him. I don't know why, but he'd taken an instant liking to me, as well, and had romanced the hell out of me.

We married soon after.

Right after the ceremony, he'd hinted that I needed to quit my job. He hadn't said it in so many words, but he'd wanted me to devote every waking moment to him. So I stupidly did it. I'd loved him and wanted to make him happy. And a small part of me had liked the thought of taking care of him. How romantic it had seemed. Give up everything for love and all that crap. Yeah. Right. I'd known better. My mom had given up her life for my dad, as well.

What had my let-me-please-you personality won me? A husband who had sometimes ignored me, always taken me for granted and never found me good enough. A husband who'd found me lacking and hadn't minded telling me so.

A husband who'd preferred to spread his love all over Texas rather than sleep with his own wife. Yep, I'd known better.

After our divorce, no one had wanted to hire me. I'd not only slept with a big-name client, I'd walked away from a job without notice, as well. What's worse, I'd deserved the lack of confidence from potential employers. How much more stupid could I have been?

I'd been forced to start my own business with what little money I had. I was glad for that now, of course, but six months ago I'd been an emotional wreck, scared of failure and nearing bankruptcy. Perhaps I could have done something different, taken a menial job I'd hate, but I had no skills other than party planning and honestly couldn't see myself doing anything else.

Was history repeating itself? I suddenly wondered.

Here I was again, lusting after a client and determined to have an affair with him. Like Richard, Royce had developed an instant attraction to me, something I just didn't understand. It was too rare. Most men preferred the lithe beauty of Kera or the wild, untamed personality of Mel.

I massaged the muscles in my neck and pretended to study the clothes in front of me. What was it with me and men with names that started with R? If a man's first name started with R, was I destined to find him irresistible?

"Uh, Naomi. Hello?"

Kera's voice penetrated my thoughts. I shook my head, forcing myself to concentrate on her and not the past. "What?"

"You were in some sort of sad, I'm-about-to-cry-or-kill-someone trance. I asked what you were thinking about."

"Richard. Royce. My own stupidity." I waved a hand through the air, effectively cutting off that line of conversation. "It doesn't matter. Mel," I said, "there's a guy I want to introduce you to. He's very cute. Tall, dark hair. Good sense of humor."

Mel's vivid features brightened. "Who is he?"

"His name is Colin Phillips and he works for Royce." I recalled what Royce had told me about the man, that Colin was a love 'em and leave 'em kind of guy. That made him perfect for Mel, who never lasted more than a few weeks in any romantic relationship. She talked a good talk, wanting me to take the marriage plunge, but when it came to herself she was just as anti-marriage as I was.

"Hey." Kera turned away from us to scrutinize a bubble-knit shirt. "I've met Colin. He was at the wedding I catered for that girl, Denise... Danny? What was her name?"

"Daisy." I nodded. "That's the one. His sister."

"You'll like him, Mel," Kera said. "He's more than cute. He's scrumptiously sexy."

Mel crossed her arms over her chest, her red manicured fingernails tapping on her slender biceps. "If he's so sexy, why didn't either of you go out with him?"

"He didn't ask us," I said.

"That's not a point in his favor. In fact, that proves he's a very foolish man."

"You happen to like foolish men," Kera reminded her.

Mel smiled. "You're right. When do I get to meet him?"

"Don't know," I said. "I'll have to work it out somehow."

We resumed our shopping and I soon found a pair of pants I knew both my cousins would approve of. Extra-tight and black, with ribbons of red, pink and yellow orchids sewn up the bottom left seam. I wanted them. Badly. And not because Royce thought I smelled like orchids. They were pretty, that's all. And easily removable.

"This is so cool." Kera clapped her hands, jumping up and down in a little dance. "Oh, I'm so excited for both of you. All right, girls," she said when she settled down. "We came here to shop and that's exactly what we're going to do. Now that Naomi's hormones have decided to come out and play, we need a few more items for her seduction arsenal. Let's get to work."

Later that night, I lay in bed and considered the outfits I'd purchased-one green sundress (Kera insisted), an ice-blue miniskirt with matching tank top, and a blood-red pantsuit- as well as a red lace nightie. And the black pants, of course. What would Royce do when he saw me wearing them?

Would his eyes heat like they did when he wanted to kiss me? Would he become desperate to tear the clothes off me?

The image had me aching again, hungry. I rolled to my side and stared out my bedroom window, drawing in cleansing breaths. The night sky was as black and silky as velvet, the stars tiny pinpricks of diamond light. So beautiful and peaceful. But sometimes I hated these nights alone with nothing to do but think.

I wanted to talk to Royce, to hear his sexy, seductive voice, but that was tantamount to relationship behavior so I nixed that idea immediately. I'd sleep with him, yes. Entrench him in my life and rely on him, no. I wanted to hear his voice so badly, though, that I started trembling. My blood heated, growing hotter and hotter. I moaned.

I decided to call my mom. Yes, my mom. If anything could get my mind off naked bodies and phone sex, she could. Leaning over to my nightstand, I palmed my cordless phone and quickly dialed her number. As I settled back into the covers, she answered.

"Hello?" My mom sounded grumpy and sleepy and wonderful all at once.

I smiled, feeling calmer already. "Hello to you, too."

"Naomi?" There was a pause and I pictured her jolting up.

"Is something wrong? What's wrong? I know something's wrong."

"Nothing's wrong, I swear. I just wanted to hear your voice."

"Gloria, what's going on? What's wrong?" my stepdad said in the background.

"It's Naomi. She says she's just calling to chat."

"To chat? At this hour? Something's wrong. What's wrong?"

My mom sighed. "I don't know. Give me a minute to find out."

"Fine, but I want to talk to her when you're done."

I rolled my eyes. Ah, this crazy couple could always usher me back to a sense of normalcy.

"Now, why don't you tell me what's bothering you, darling," my mom said to me. "You never call this late."

"I need your advice." The words tumbled out of me before I could stop them. "How can a girl know if a man will treat her right? If he'll be faithful to her?"

She gasped with excitement. "Are you thinking about getting married again?"

"No, nothing like that," I rushed out. "I'm just curious about how you knew Jonathan wouldn't turn out like Dad." Slap her around. Cheat on her. Verbally abuse her. How did she ever place her trust in another man's hands?

"I didn't," my mom said. "I couldn't. I could only hope."

I gasped this time. "Mom, I expected you to give me a pep talk. To tell me there's a man out there who will love me and treat me right and never cheat on me."

"You didn't let me finish. There is a man out there for you. Will he treat you right? Not always. Will he cheat? Only time can tell. Things happen and people do change." Her voice raised bitterly. "Even Jonathan and I have our problems."

Every muscle in my body froze at the implication of her words. Was she trying to tell me something? She and Jonathan rarely fought. Mom had probably meant they were having problems about who should do the dishes or something equally innocent. That's all. Over the years, Jonathan had proven himself to be a good guy. Even though I'd accused him for so many years of just pretending. I'd expected him to one day morph into a beast, but he never had. Gradually, my body relaxed.

"Now, Gloria. Naomi doesn't need to know our problems." Static filled the line as my stepdad claimed the phone. "Naomi, Jonathan here. Marriage is a wonderful thing. You know I don't believe in divorce and always discourage my patients from taking that route."

Yes, I'd heard his thoughts on the matter a thousand times over the last few months. He thought I should give Richard the Bastard yet another chance. Maybe I should have told him everything Richard had done to me. Maybe I should have explained just how deeply I'd been hurt. But I hadn't. Yes, I'd given him and my mom a glimpse, but never the harshest of the reality. I hadn't wanted the people I most respected to know how stupid I'd been. How utterly foolish.

"Are you considering going back to Richard?" he asked.

"My answer is the same as the last time you asked me. Hell, no."

"Oh," he said, disappointment loud and clear in his tone.

My hand clenched on the phone and a spark of fury sprang to life. "You're so eager for me to take him back, but you didn't live with him." Perhaps I should forget my pride for a moment and give Jonathan more than a glimpse. "You didn't have to endure total humiliation at his hands. What if I told you Richard had tried to kill me during our marriage?" My tone was hard, unbending, and for the first time in my life, I actually felt like a true Tigress.

"I'd-I'd say you had every right to leave him," Jonathan blustered. "But he didn't. Richard is not a violent man."

"He didn't try to kill me physically, no. He simply tried to kill my emotions. My self-esteem. He cheated on me, Jonathan. Over and over again. He left me broke. He made me feel worthless. Isn't that just as bad?"

Jonathan sputtered. "I'm-I'm sorry, Naomi. I didn't know."

My anger drained away. This man really did love me. He'd raised me from nine on and he'd always treated me like a daughter. He did want what was best for me.

Another burst of static erupted as my mom grabbed the phone. "Naomi, dear. I heard what you said. You did the right thing leaving Richard. I hope he rots in hell."

"Thank you, Mom. That means a lot to me."

"Have you found a new man, then? Is that the reason for this call?"

"No," I lied, and that single word settled like lead in my stomach. Royce was a new man, a new temptation. A new everything.

"I can always tell when you're lying. Your voice gets higher. Meet me at Holy Grounds tomorrow. Eight a.m." She sounded like a drill sergeant, expecting absolute compliance with her orders. "We need some mother-daughter time."

"I will." I didn't even think about refusing. Besides, I wanted to see her. I loved my mom and didn't spend enough time with her. "G'night, Mom."

"Night, dear."

I hung up the phone and flopped onto my bed. I blinked up at the ceiling. All right. Well. Now my long, sleepless night could officially begin.