If you allow another animal to have power over you, you will slowly sink back to life as a dependent cub. Your emotions will not be your own. Your activities will not be your own.
A little over A week passed, and I used the time to get used to being a girlfriend. Royce came to my apartment every evening. First, we'd work on party preparations. Then, we'd make-uh, have sex.
He didn't ask me to marry him, but each night I went to bed in his arms (happily content, thank you very much) and mulled the idea over in my mind. I still broke out in a cold sweat, and I still wanted to vomit. Just not as badly as before.
I wasn't the marrying kind of gal. Royce had never done anything to deserve my distrust, but still, doubts were stubborn things. Royce was a man. A beautiful, virile man desired by legions. Women of every age went crazy for him. And I had to wonder how long his fascination with me would last. One month? Two? Or until after vows were spoken?
Was happily-ever-after truly possible? I just didn't know. Before, I would have said hell no. Now... Mel and Colin were dating, much to Kera's glee. Mel had been unable to resist him that night at the club, and now they couldn't keep their hands off each other.
Would they last, though?
After breakfast with the twins, I'd climbed in this cab and was now headed toward Powell Aeronautics. Royce had offered me the use of one of his cars, but I hadn't accepted. I was holding part of myself back, determined to depend on him as little as possible. I'd buy a car soon, and then there'd be no need to borrow his.
When the cab stopped, I stepped onto the sidewalk and removed my sunglasses. The sun beat down, blinding me for a moment. I blinked rapidly, adjusting to the light, and pushed into motion. Like a steady heartbeat, my high heels thumped with every step I took. The security guard, Johnny, knew me by sight now and let me pass without a qualm.
Upstairs, Elvira, Mistress of the Damned, was boxing her belongings, and a tall, lanky, very feminine man was unboxing his. Today, Elvira wore a clean-lined black suit. Her hair was slicked back in its usual twist, but though she wore a bit more makeup than usual, she looked paler than ever.
Her lips pinched together when she spotted me. I wouldn't have been surprised if her nails elongated like a cat's. "What's going on?" I asked.
"I've been relocated," she said stiffly. "As I'm sure you planned."
"I'm taking her place," the man said, excitement bubbling from him as he fingered the necklace hanging around his neck.
He had painted his nails pink. Smiling, he held out his hand and we shook. "I'm Weston Cross. Oh, it's so wonderful to meet you." He tapped a finger to his glossed lips. "You're Naomi, right?"
"I recognize the lips."
My features crinkled with my confusion. Royce had transferred Elvira and brought in an obviously gay man? For me? I couldn't help it. I grinned. What a darling, wonderful man.
"Wipe that smirk off your face," Elvira snapped. "So what if you won this round. Royce will hire me back when Idiot Cross messes everything up."
"Look, Elvira," I said, and she gasped. "Royce is never going to be yours. Deal with it."
Weston clucked under his tongue. "Should I ring security and have you escorted out, Elvira?"
Scowling, she grabbed her box and stormed out of the office.
"You're my hero," Weston said, grinning over at me. "Mr. Powell told me to let you go in without notice if you ever came up. So go on. Go in."
Practically floating, I entered Royce's office.
Royce glanced up from his desk when he saw me. He smiled in welcome, radiating warmth. "Naomi. What a pleasant surprise."
"As if you didn't know I'd stop by," I said dryly. "You're the one who programmed the BlueJay, gifting me with such a harmonious reminder that we were meeting today."
"Well, I'm glad you finally decided to heed it." His eyes twinkled with mischief. "Would you care for something to drink?"
"No, thank you." I settled in my chair, took out my notebook and pencil, and set my briefcase aside. "You've put this off long enough, and we're running out of time. Only a few weeks left till the party. You must choose a location. I need to get the invitations printed ASAP."
At that, I glanced up. "You have? Remember you promised I wouldn't have to fly," I told him.
His smile widened. "I haven't forgotten."
"Then where will it be?"
"The Palace Hotel."
"Thank God," I muttered under my breath. I'd planned parties there before, so I knew the exotic hotel intimately. "I'll have to make sure the ballroom isn't already booked. We waited so long-"
"I've, uh, already booked it."
Something in his tone caused my back to straighten. My eyes narrowed on him. "How long ago did you book it?"
His cheeks brightened a little. "That's not important," he said.
"Uh, yes." I crossed my arms over my middle. "It is. When?"
"I booked it the day we decided on the Arabian Nights theme."
I could have gotten mad. I should have gotten mad. Honestly, though, I liked that he'd gone to so much trouble to take me on those trips. Maybe that wasn't the politically correct reaction, but I'd gotten multiple orgasms out of the deal, so who was I to complain? Still...
"You deserve some type of punishment," I said.
"So come by my house tonight and make me pay," he said, a seductive edge underlying the words. "I'll finally give you your present. And while you're there," he added, regarding me intently, "I want you to think about moving in."
Everything inside me froze, warmed, then froze again. So far, he hadn't pushed me for more. A part of me had known it was coming, that it was only a matter of time. "Royce-"
"Hear me out. I'm not asking you to marry me. When you're with me, I'm happy. When we're apart, I'm not. I don't mind going back and forth between our apartments, but I'd rather have you near me all the time."
"It's too soon."
"It's not too soon. Not when I love you."
Only the sound of my shallow breath emerged. No, no, no. I didn't want to hear those words again. Not now.
"I love you, Naomi," he said again.
"Don't say that." I had trouble drawing in a breath. "I don't want to hear those words. Love only complicates things."
"I love you, Naomi," he repeated, ignoring my words. "I do. I think I loved you the first moment I saw you. Since that day, I haven't been romantically involved with another woman. Only you." He moved from the desk and knelt in front of me. Reaching up, he caressed the softness of my cheek. "I love you. I love you so much I'm miserable without you."
By far, it was the most beautiful thing I'd ever heard. And the most painful. I couldn't give him the words back. I just couldn't. That would mean trusting him completely, forsaking my fears, and taking a dangerous, uncertain plunge. "Royce, I don't know what to say." My voice quivered.
"Say you'll give me a chance. Say you'll think about my offer."
Not knowing if I could tell him what he wanted to hear, I could only nod.
"Ah, such enthusiasm," he said, shaking his head and grinning. "But it's good enough for now. You'll come over tonight?"
I gulped and nodded. I could give him that at least, no matter how much the prospect scared me.
At the moment, though, I wanted to rush home, to bury myself under a mound of covers and think about nothing at all. Not Royce. Not moving in with him. Not his words. But I wouldn't. That wasn't the way I lived my life anymore. "About your offer... Give me a little time. Okay? I'll think about it. I promise."
"All right." Leaning down, he whispered in my ear, "While you're thinking about it, I want you to remember the way I made love to you against the wall in Colorado. I want you to remember the way I tasted between your thighs at the cabin."
My chin snapped up. He tugged me to my feet and gave me a gentle push, easing me into the hall. Then he promptly shut the door in my face.
Every muscle inside my body tensed. I went from conflicted to sexually charged to frustrated in less than one point two seconds. He'd done that on purpose, the jerk. Now I would be able to imagine nothing else but the way he kissed me. The way he used his tongue on me. The way he loved me.
I scowled all the way home.
Security allowed me to go to Royce's apartment without question or comment, even though I'd never been there before. I guess Royce had told them to expect me, had shown them my picture, or something.
All afternoon, I'd thought of only two things: living without Royce and actually living with him. I didn't want to do either, not permanently, but I had to choose one. Anything less was unfair to Royce. I realized that now. Unfortunately, I was no closer to a decision than I'd been earlier. My pro-and-con list balanced out equally.
Unlimited sex with Royce.
Spending more time with Royce.
Eating breakfast off Royce's chest.
Worrying about what Royce was doing if he came home late.
Worrying if Royce still loved me every second of every day.
Worrying if Royce would get tired of me sooner rather than later.
How did a person conquer their deepest fears? I'd searched my Tigress manual, but all I'd come up with was that I needed to kill them and feast on their remains. That didn't really answer my question, though.
After four hard knocks, Royce opened the door. When he spotted me, he smiled that seductive smile of his that drove me wild.
"Come in." He motioned backward with a wave of his hand.
"Thank you." I glided past him. I'd never been here, but I'd wondered about his place of residence. I drank in the details. The walls of the living room were painted in classic ivory. A white Tergal scarf was draped over each of the five windows. At first glance, every piece of furniture appeared to be the same monochrome shade of white. Yet at closer inspection, I saw pillows with cream-colored beaded jackets, wraps with eggshell trimming.
Behind the couch was a long, narrow table of dark wood. A chandelier boasting hundreds of tiny crystal raindrops hung over it. Chinese root tables flanked each side of the couch. It was a room that spoke of wealth, not comfort. I didn't like it.
"Who decorated this place?" I asked, not even trying to hide my distaste. Nothing about the place fit with Royce's open personality.
"It, uh, lacks warmth."
"So does she, for the most part. Fixing the place up made her feel wanted, so I let her do it." He clasped my hand in his. "Come on. I'll show you the rest."
I eagerly followed as he led me through a generously proportioned kitchen. High marble counters were scrubbed clean. No dishes sat in the sink. No pots or pans were out of place. In fact, the area looked as if it had never seen a meal prepared.
Next, he showed me the game room. It was nothing like the rest of the apartment. It had a dark, comfy couch, a large-screen television and more stereo equipment than I'd ever seen in one room. All of those gave it a nice, "lived in" feel. He spent most of his time in here, was my guess, and I doubted his mom had decorated it.
"And this," he said, "is my bedroom."
It, too, suited him, boasting deep blue and gold colors that spoke of warmth and masculinity. The decadent four-poster bed held my attention longest. Glossy wood, rumpled sheets. How I would love rolling naked on those Egyptian cotton sheets.
Sandalwood scented the air. Just the smell of it turned me on.
We strolled back to the living room hand in hand. I loved the feel of my hand in his. Where I was soft and small, he was callused and strong. A delicious contrast.
"Where's my present?" I said. Was I too eager? Too go-get-it-now-or-I'll-die? "You promised to give it to me if I came over."
He grinned. "Give me a minute." He raced away and disappeared into the hall. He soon reappeared holding a medium-sized red box. "For you."
Too large to be a ring. Too small to be... anything else. My hands were shaky as I accepted the box and hesitantly lifted the lid. When I saw what was inside, I gasped. A glass orchid with blue petals sat in the center of pale green foam. It was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen, delicate and almost dreamlike.
"I-I don't know what to say. I love it."
"I had it made for you."
The dainty petals glistened from the overhead light, shining like pearls. As I looked at it, my defenses crumbled faster than I could patch them. I gulped past the lump in my throat and forced myself to look up at him. "I'll, uh, have the party invitations printed and mailed ASAP," I said, bringing us back to the business at hand. I think I was pretty close to bursting into tears.
He drew me into his arms, but I kept the box between us as a shield.
His gaze was heavy-lidded and focused on my mouth. "You're pale all of a sudden. Why?"
My heart was inexplicably in my throat. "I-I have to tell you something."
Something hard and cold flicked in his eyes, followed quickly by determination. He pried the box from my fingers and set it on top of the coffee table. In the next instant, he had me pinned to the wall, his mouth on mine, his tongue taking possession. That's all it took. One touch, one caress and I wanted him with an urgency that never seemed to leave me. My bones began the slow process of liquefaction. Unable to stand on my own, I let him hold me up. Kiss me. Devour me.
A shiver rippled over me as his thighs trapped me further. I breathed in his scent, warm and male and all Royce.
His tongue battled mine. Hard. Quick. I didn't think I'd ever get enough of him.
"Royce," I said.
"No talking." He slowed the kiss down, making it soft and gentle. I pressed deeper into him. His arms braced around me, familiar anchors. He tasted hot, like sunshine and rain mingled together. His fingers cupped my jaw.
"Love you." His lips lowered to mine, still a gentle conqueror, savoring the taste of me, taking time to explore every hollow of my mouth.
I shoved away from him.
"What's wrong?" he said, his expression filled with concern.
Everything! I almost shouted. Absolutely everything. How could I tell him he threatened me in a way no other man had? What a mess I had gotten myself into and now, I realized, it was do or die time. I had climbed out on a limb, and I was holding the saw. I had a choice-cut myself down or continue to dangle there.
The fire in his eyes vanished, leaving only that cold blue shield I'd seen moments ago. "If you're going to do this," he said softly, "you might as well do it while we're comfortable." He pulled me onto the couch.
I dragged in a deep breath and let it out. What the hell was I going to say to him? "I-"
He didn't even let me get the second word out before he said, "Damn it, Naomi. I can't believe you're going to push me away." Jumping up, he paced the room, stalking from one side to the other. "That's what you're about to do, isn't it? Tell me we're over?"
Sweat beaded on my palms. My throat was so constricted I couldn't get a word out. What would my inner Tigress do? What would she say? She'd never let a man tame her, that was for sure.
Marriage doesn't have to be about taming or changing, my mind whispered. It can simply be about love. Some men can remain faithful. Let him try and prove it.
"We belong together," Royce continued, barely sparing me a glance. "You love me. You may not admit it to yourself, but you do. You love me. You don't kiss a man like that unless you care for him."
"I do care for you." There. I'd said something. "I care for you a lot."
He didn't seem to hear me. "I can't believe you're willing to give up what we have because you're afraid. Well, I can't make a guarantee about the future. No one can. But I'm willing to try."
"So am I." The words left my mouth before I could stop them, and there was no taking them back at that point. I wanted him, and if I had to marry him to keep him, I would. Would I regret it later? Maybe. Would I be hurt in the end? Probably.
Did I want to give him up? No.
Relationships were about give and take. I couldn't take everything from him and give nothing in return.
"So am I," I repeated.
He whipped around and pinned me with a wide-eyed stare. "What did you say?"
Gathering my courage and forcing my fear at bay, I smiled shakily. "I'm willing to give it a try."
"What are you willing to try, Naomi?" There was fear in his eyes and a tentative kind of happiness. "Spell it out for me."
"Marriage." I closed my eyes, squeezing the lids tightly shut. "Marriage to you."
He watched me, still not approaching me. "Are you sure that's what you want? That you're not doing it because it's what I want?"
"Yes." No. "I'm sure." Kind of.
Finally he closed the distance between us and bent between my legs. He ran his hands up my thighs. "How long of an engagement do you want?"
He chuckled. "That's what I'd thought you'd say. That's a point we'll have to negotiate, then, because I want a one-day engagement."
Little flutters of fear and dread mingled in my chest. "No way. I can't plan a wedding in one day." My fingers gripped the fabric of my pants, twisting. "I need at least a year." Yes, a year sounded good. Surely I could conquer my doubts in twelve months.
"Sweetheart," he said, his hands spanning the width of my stomach. His thumbs caressed back and forth. "I don't want to give you time to change your mind."
That was a very real possibility, and I couldn't deny it.
"I would never hurt you, never cheat on you. Let me prove it. I want to be with you, Naomi, and only you."
He kissed me then and the heat of his mouth sizzled hotter than flames. Rational thought skidded to a halt. My senses reeled. I felt transported on a soft wispy cloud of desire. Inch by inch, he was tearing down the stones I'd worked so hard to erect against him.
"I can't believe this," I said, pulling away and going cold with shock. "Shit. I'm getting married again."
His lips lifted in a slow, satisfied, triumphant grin.
I felt so vulnerable at that moment, but I knew that I wanted him. "Okay," I said. "We'll do the deed the day after your mom's party." Maybe that was for the best. Less time to worry. Less time to panic.
Leaning toward me, he softly kissed my lips. "You won't be sorry. I swear to you now, you won't be sorry I have to go out of town for the next week, but when I get back-"
A cold chill slithered down my spine. God, the wifely what's-he-doing-while-he's-away worry had started already. "You're going out of town again?" I tried not to pout, tried not to cry. "So soon?"
"I'm looking at another plane." He kissed both of my hands. "You can come with me."
"No." I shook my head. "I have to stay here and plan the we-event."
I only prayed I could go through with it when the time came.