Be aware. Always aware. A Tiger will create a distraction on one side of the jungle to better attack you on the other.
Unfortunately, we were still on the plane half an hour later. Silence stretched between us. It had been like that since our kiss had ended, and I didn't know why. I didn't know why he had pulled away, why he was now ignoring me. Had I done something wrong? Did he know something about the plane that I didn't?
Fear slowly began to take root in my mind again. I couldn't fight it. I was soon squeezing my eyes shut, refusing to look out the windows behind or in front of me. Images of blood and death poured through my mind. I jerked completely upright. We were on a path to certain death. Royce remained stiff at my side. He knew the plane was about to crash, the sick bastard, but didn't know how to tell me. That was why he was still so tense.
We were going to die! I just knew it. Big breath in. Big breath out. Big breath in. Big breath out. Dizziness assaulted me.
I forced myself to calm down before I had a major panic attack. I tried to meditate, to imagine a tranquil meadow with lush green foliage, just like Jonathan had taught me. It had never worked before, but this time I actually felt a summer breeze caressing my skin like the brush of a feather. A small measure of peace settled over me-until the aircraft careened and rattled. A loud popping sounded.
I immediately lost that peaceful center. My eyelids flew open; I gripped Royce's forearm, afraid if I didn't, I would fall out the window and spin out of control as I slid down, down, down to the hard surface of the earth.
"Everything's fine," he said. "We hit an air pocket, that's all." He wrapped his arm around my shoulder, but ruined the "calming" action by trying to unbuckle my seat belt.
Panicked, I glued my hand over his. "What are you doing?"
"Getting you comfortable."
I slapped at his wrist. "That will never happen if you don't get your hand off my safety harness."
"Safety harness, hmm?" He chuckled. "Naomi, if the plane were to plummet-"
I gasped. He zipped his lips, but it was too late. The damage was done.
"Oh, my God, oh, my God, oh, my God." I couldn't breathe. Wait. Did I smell smoke? Ohmygod, Ohmygod, Ohmygod. The plane was plummeting and was about to become a fiery ball.
He nuzzled my neck. I didn't relax this time. I couldn't. Everywhere I looked, I saw my own death.
"This worked before," he said.
"Well, it isn't working now."
"There's no reason to worry," he said against my ear. "Nothing bad will happen. I promise."
"How can you promise something like that? Are you psychic?"
"Then shut the hell up."
He did. Probably because I wore an I'll-eat-you-alive-expression. Happy meadow, happy meadow. Where was my freaking happy meadow? I'm not going to die, I chanted. I'm not going to die. I had to kill Jonathan first. Surely God would let me live long enough for that.
After a while, I began to calm down again. Tranquil waters, a happy meadow. I was a strong woman and the plane was gliding smoothly through the air.
Royce must have sensed my new state of serenity because he motioned with a tilt of his chin to the window. "Go on," he said. "Take a peek. This will be like therapy for you."
I'd had all the therapy I could take, thank you, but knew he was right. It took five long, agonizing minutes to work up the courage to look down-with my heart pounding sporadically in my chest all the while-but I finally managed to do it. I looked.
A gasp escaped me and I squeezed my eyes shut. Opened them. Cars lolled along city roads, reminding me of ants meandering atop a hill. Buildings appeared like little more than specks on the horizon.
I wondered where we were so I could chart a rescue mission in my mind. I didn't ask, too afraid I'd jinx myself.
"Okay, that's enough," I said, easing back. "I'm cured."
He chuckled. "While we've got this time to ourselves, why don't you tell me what made you decide to open a party-planning business."
I knew he was only trying to distract me, but I was perfectly willing to go along with his plan. "Nothing glamorous," I said. I wiped my sweaty hands on my slacks. "I was never any good at schoolwork. I hated math, hated writing research papers and studying of any kind, but loved all social events. One day I saw an ad in the paper for an assistant planner, and I knew it was the job for me. And since I'd worked at my aunt and uncle's catering business, it was a good fit." I sighed. "I was developing a good name for myself just before I left the business for a few years."
"Why did you leave?"
"I foolishly thought I needed to be available for my husband twenty-four hours a day. Anyway," I said, not wanting to go down that road, "after my divorce, Kera had taken over the catering business and things just worked themselves out."
"I'm very glad that they did."
"What about you?" I asked. "Why fly instruments of death?"
He shrugged. "At first, it wasn't the planes. I was eight, maybe nine, when my father first took me with him to Powell Aeronautics. I watched the employees jump to do his bidding and knew I'd found my calling. I wanted everyone to take my orders."
"Somehow I'm not surprised," I said dryly, though a chuckle underlined my tone.
"After my first time in a cockpit, bossing people around stopped being my first priority."
"Besides flying planes and bossing people around, what is it that you actually do?"
"Mostly I buy and sell airplanes. My company also sells parts, does title searches and generates daily aeronautic reports. That kind of thing."
"I can't imagine having enough money to buy an entire airplane. A seat belt, maybe, but not much else."
"I always make back double my initial investment, so it's no hardship."
Yeah. No hardship. I could hear the buyer/seller interaction now:
Buyer: You only want a million for the plane?
Seller: Yeah. I paid four mil, but I just don't like the thing anymore.
Buyer: (Chuckles) Well, do you take checks?
No hardship. Yeah, you can bite me.
"Are you purchasing a plane anytime soon?" I asked.
"There's a SJ30-2 I've had my eye on. In fact, you can fly to Florida with me at the end of the month and check it out."
"No thanks." I meant it with every fiber of my being.
A slow grin lifted the corners of his lips. "I might just decide to hold the party in Florida. Then you'd have to go."
"That might put you on my Must Kill list."
His grin became wicked. "I'd rather be on your Must Seduce list."
He was. He was the only name on that list, but he was on it. Not that I'd admit it out loud. "This is a milestone for me, you know. I don't even like to stay in a hotel room that has a balcony. I've never understood my fear of falling, but I've learned to live with it. I'm proud of myself right now. This is the first time I've ever done anything so...scary."
"Except for the fact that you've almost squeezed my wrist off every time the plane jostled and left me with a bloody stump, you've done great."
Soon afterward, we arrived at a private airstrip on the outskirts of Eagle Airport. Thankfully, the plane landed with no complications. Had anything gone wrong, I felt certain I would have done serious damage to the inside of my cheek instead of simply biting it raw. I think I'd already lost enough blood to warrant a transfusion.
With stiff limbs, I stepped out of the death trap and onto the ground. Thank you, God! Royce grabbed my bag, threw it over his shoulder. He shuffled me inside a waiting limousine.
"Now, that wasn't so bad, was it?" He settled in beside me.
"It was quite enjoyable, actually."
A smug gleam lit his features.
"If I were a masochist," I added.
"Ha, ha." Grinning, he shook his head. "We've got a half hour drive ahead of us. The cabin has already been stocked with everything we'll need. All we have to do now is relax."
"Is the cabin isolated?"
"Technically, no. It just seems that way at times. It's about a mile from Mountain Lodge. A resort," he clarified when my expression turned questioning.
"What's the square footage of the cabin?"
"Hmm." I pictured his guests squeezed inside that amount of space, one standing on top of the other. "Forget the cabin for a moment and concentrate on the lodge. Does it have any areas designated for large gatherings?"
His eyes narrowed, blocking out the sudden, suspicious darkening, but he answered me anyway. "Yes."
"Well, the lodge sounds better suited for a party than the cabin does. Let's go there."
Now he frowned. "I prefer the cabin."
We were safely on the ground and my thoughts were clear, focused. So I wasn't taking his crap. "Still," I said, "I'd like to view the resort first, if you don't mind."
"I do mind."
"I didn't want to fly here, but I did. The least you can do is stop at the lodge."
"Damn it, Naomi."
I wasn't backing down, wasn't going to rescind my request.
"Damn it," he said again. "We'll stop at the lodge." He massaged his neck and gazed up at the car ceiling. "I don't know why the hell I'm putting up with your bossiness. I'm in charge here. You work for me."
"I work with you. There's a difference. And just so you know, you're seriously starting to piss me off."
"Well, just so you know, this is the last time you're getting your way."
Jeez, what a sore loser.
"So, what do you think?" Royce asked.
I regarded him for a moment. We were in a secluded corner of a smoke-filled bar, drinking wine and listening to the hum of a saxophone in the background. The area was dim, lit only by candles. We had finished our tour of the lodge only a short while ago.
I didn't want to argue with him, but realized I might have no other choice since the information I was about to give him wasn't what he wanted to hear. "As lovely as this place is," I said, "it simply won't do."
"Have you already made a list as to why not?" Amusement glinted in his eyes. He wasn't angry, at least.
I exhaled a relieved breath. "As a matter of fact," I told him, "I have."
"This, I need to hear."
"This building isn't large enough, for one, and the cabin, which is smaller, won't be, either."
"And two?" He tried to cover his smile with his palm, but I caught the action.
His levity should have ruffled me. After all, if he truly wanted the party here, I had no other choice but to comply. Instead, I felt strangely at ease. The wine, perhaps? Or the company?
"Two," I said, "this is too rustic for our Arabian Nights theme."
"So we'll make it Arabian Nights meets Urban Cowgirl."
"Three," I said, acting as if he hadn't spoken, "I don't want the party held here."
"That's not a reason."
"It is to me. What about flying the guests here?"
"They'll love being flown in my jet, I promise you. And my mother will adore the clean mountain air."
"You can't fit three hundred people in your death trap of a plane."
"We'll cut down the list. Make it a small, private gathering."
He had an answer for everything.
Loud, raucous laughter suddenly rang out. A thirty-something man with long, wavy brown hair stood onstage, tapping on a microphone. "It's time for the karaoke entertainment hour," he said, his voice booming throughout the bar. "I know we've got some eager beavers out there, dying to get up on this stage and belt out a few tunes. Well, tonight's your lucky night. We've got a great selection."
The crowd cheered. Several people even raised their glasses.
One young man stumbled to his feet. His constant swaying and glassy-eyed expression made it obvious he'd had a little too much to drink. "I'll do it." His words were slurred, almost unrecognizable. The girl at his table giggled hysterically, urging him on. "I want to sing a sappy hong."
"Anyone else. Please," the man onstage begged, an edge of desperation evident in the tense profile of his body.
I looked around and noticed that everyone else was doing the same. An instant later, I heard, "I dare you."
I whipped around, staring over at Royce. Surely he'd misspoken. He wouldn't have said-
"I dare you." He gave me a devilish smile.
I wasn't someone who usually responded to dares. I mean, who wanted to run outside naked screaming, "The sky is falling?" I also knew Royce didn't think I'd accept his dare.
My own devilish sense of humor-or maybe the simple desire to prove to him that I truly did possess an inner Tigress- rose within me, insisting I leap out of my seat and pole-vault onto that stage.
I tapped a finger on my chin and regarded him intently. "What do I get if I take you up on your dare?" I asked.
He held out his arms in invitation. "Me."
I should have expected such a reply. Smiling, I shook my head. "Good try. But that prize doesn't appeal to me." Lie. "Name something else."
"A night of wild sex."
"Nope." Bigger lie.
Royce stroked his jaw with deliberate slowness. "Hmm. What will tempt you, Naomi Delacroix?"
"Probably nothing." Biggest lie of all. I refilled my glass and sipped at my wine, savoring the robust flavor, relishing the comforting warmth it gave me. And the courage. "Try and tempt me. Just try."
"What if I promised the party won't be held anywhere that requires stepping inside an airplane?" he said. "Does that appeal to you?"
No more plane rides? I almost did a table dance right then and there. He'd chosen the one prize I could never refuse. Was the embarrassment of missing a note, of watching him snicker at my attempt to sing worth it?
I didn't have to think about it.
"You've got a deal," I said. Then, before I could talk myself out of it, I held out one hand to shake and seal the bargain. His big hand dwarfed my smaller one and his calluses sparked a delicious friction.
"Good luck." He shot a glance through the restless crowd. "This doesn't look like a receptive audience."
He was trying to dissuade me, anything to win the bet. I surprised him by pushing to my feet. "I'll do it," I said, loud enough for the man onstage to hear. I made a face at Royce. Ha! I might make a fool of myself, might have to endure jeers and snickers and catcalls, but I'd be damned if I'd leave this bar a loser.
All at once, the crowd quieted. Every eye in the room found me, riveted by the spectacle I must surely make. My knees began quaking.
A slight brush of Royce's palm against my hip drew my gaze back to him. "What? Wishing you'd kept your mouth closed?" I asked.
His brows rose in mock salute. "Are you sure you want to do this?"
"A bet's a bet, and I simply can't let you win." With that, I pivoted on my heel and strolled to the stage, unwinding the twist in my hair and letting the long, dark tendrils cascade down my shoulders and back.
Though my hand shook, I took the microphone from the announcer's outstretched hand. "Do you have 'Achy Breaky Heart'?"
He offered me a relieved grin. "Never have karaoke night without it."
A few seconds later, music blasted from the speakers, penetrating the sudden silence. The sound continued to climb in volume. Words appeared on a screen just in front of me.
Deciding simply to have fun, I assumed a laugh-with-me-not-at-me pose: one hand on my hip, silly grin on my lips. I began to sing. When the first note left my mouth, all movement in the audience stopped. Even the drunk guy stared up at me like I belonged in an institution.
But I worked the stage like a pro, flipping my hair, copping an attitude and, at last, someone chuckled. That was all it took.
"Oh, yeah," a man yelled. "Give it to me, baby. My heart is hurtin'."
"You can break me anytime," another called.
All around, hands clapped to the beat, urging me on. I went for it, giving the performance my all. I'd never admit it aloud, but I had the time of my life on that stage, belting out the lyrics and strutting my stuff.
When the end arrived, my voice slowly tapered to quiet. I waited for a reaction. Suddenly applause erupted and loud, buoyant cheers peeled like bells. Catcalls and whistling abounded.
I resisted the urge to stick my tongue out at Royce. I'd done it. Really done it. I had won my bet with him. Na, na, na, na, na, na. Take that, Mr. Royce Powell, god of the airplane world and superhero of sexiness.
No more airplane rides!
My grin became a smirk as I looked to Royce. He saluted me with his wineglass.
Intending to gloat, I descended the stage and strolled to him. When I reached the table, he helped me settle into my chair, but didn't wait around to let me wallow in my victory.
"I'll be back in a moment," he said. And before I could protest, he sauntered away. He didn't even send me a backward glance. My lips pursed. How dare that sore loser not lavish me with compliments.
A few minutes later, my shock and anger at Royce's abrupt departure dissolved. I was too busy praying God would make me invisible. A very untidy, very intoxicated man was stumbling my way.
"Hey, baby." He was in his late thirties or early forties, and smelled like he'd just bathed in Jack Daniel's best for at least an hour. He breezed into Royce's vacant chair. His clothes were rumpled, his eyes glassy and red. "You really rocked onstage. I thought you were a real singer or something."
At least he was coherent. Kind of. "Thanks," I said.
"Can I buy you a drink?" While he spoke, his gaze locked onto my breasts, small targets though they were.
"No, I'm not thirsty," I answered. And neither were my breasts. Actually, I really was parched, but I didn't want to invite this man to stay any longer than necessary. Where the hell was Royce?
My unwanted visitor didn't get the hint. He threw an arm over my stool, as if he had every right to invade my space. I'm surprised he didn't try the yawn-and-grab routine. He gave me a lecherous grin, and I shuddered. There was something black lodged between his front teeth and I really, really hoped it was food.
"What's your name?" he asked.
"Naomi." I fanned the air in front of my face before I passed out from the fumes.
"Naaaomi," he said, sounding it out. "Na-oh-me. I'm Doug." He paused. "What's a pretty thing like you doing all alone?"
I tried not to cringe. Really, there was only one way to get rid of a guy like this. "I'm so glad you came over here, Douglas." I planted my elbows on the table and gazed over at him as if he were the most beautiful sight I'd ever beheld. "I've been dying to talk to someone about all the things that have been going wrong in my life lately. My ex-husband Richard, may he choke on his own tongue, get an STD and win a free one-way ticket to everlasting damnation, called me the other day and asked me to get back together with him. As if I need another cheating bastard in my life. One at a time, thank you very much."
Doug tried to interrupt me, but I kept right on talking. "You're probably thinking that the other cheating bastard in my life is my stepdad, and you're right. I do have plans to castrate him, though, don't you worry."
All color drained from Doug's face.
"I bet you're wondering why I haven't done it yet. Killed and castrated him, that is. Well, the answer to that is simple, really. First I've got to find the perfect knife. A regular household blade simply won't do. I really hate cheaters, Douglas, and I think-"
Just as Doug cut into my speech to mutter, "Excuse me, I think I see someone I know," Royce returned. He watched Doug race away through slitted eyes before sinking back into his seat.
"Where were you?" I demanded. "Five more minutes and I might have had to ask Dougie Boy to be the father of my children in the hopes of scaring him away."
"I was getting a room. I don't want to make the drive to the cabin tonight."
My anger faded, replaced by dread-and anticipation. I shook my head. "Wait a sec. Getting a room? As in one?"
"That's right." He reached under the tabletop and slowly, oh so softly, grasped my thigh.
I nearly jumped out of my skin.
He grinned slowly.
"What are you doing?" I asked in a scandalized whisper, looking all around to make sure no one watched us.
"Seducing you." The darkened atmosphere and the corner placement of our table guaranteed privacy from everyone except the person walking directly by. Which happened to be Doug. He stumbled past once, twice, staring at me with jaundiced suspicion.
The third time, he actually stopped at the table. "She plays with knives," he told Royce before racing away.
"She's vicious, I know," Royce said, keeping his eyes on me. "You were adorable onstage."
"Thank you." I tried to push his hand away; I didn't push too hard, though. It felt too good.
He merely moved those naughty fingers of his higher, to a better place. "Where'd you learn to sing country music like that?"
"In the shower." My blood heated, and I so wanted to open my legs and invite him to feel all he wanted.
"We've been building to this point and you know it," he said, getting to the heart of the matter. "Ever since I picked you up this morning, I've wanted to strip you down and taste you. All over."
I swallowed. Hard. There was a reason I needed to tell him no, to wait until after his mom's party, but at the moment I couldn't think of what that reason was.
"I have this fantasy of us in my mind. You ride me and your hair tickles my chest. Your breasts are pushed forward, and you keep screaming my name."
"Do I, uh, have an orgasm every time I scream?" The words escaped on the barest whisper and I was unable to stop them.
He nodded. "Oh, yeah."
My nipples hardened and my heart began a frantic boom-boom rhythm.
"Once we make love, Naomi, you'll only want more," he promised. "Much, much more."
No. He was wrong. I couldn't let myself want more.
He came closer to me, his gaze stroking my face like a caress. "I'll touch you here." He palmed one of my breasts through the fabric of my shirt.
The fingers covering my thigh inched down my calf, not stopping until they reached bare skin. Those naughty fingers tunneled underneath the flare of my pants, then started going higher. Higher still. The material tightened at my knees, not allowing him to go farther.
I almost shouted a string of curses.
My breath hitched in my throat as he abandoned my knee and moved his hand to the waist of my pants, unsnapping the button. His pushed his hand inside, his fingers making dead-on contact with the lacy fabric of my panties.
"I'll touch you here as well," he said, gently stroking the material. Of their own accord, my hips rocked slightly with his touch. "And you'll beg me to take you over the edge."
"I've already decided to sleep with you," I admitted in a whisper. "After the party."
His nostrils flared. "After. Before." Pause. "Now."
Now...so tempting. God, I wanted him. I did. I needed him. "I haven't changed my mind about a relationship." Unlike the way men treated women, I didn't want him to misinterpret what was about to happen. "We can sleep together, but that's it. Nothing more."
His fingers stilled, and I nearly moaned. "Maybe you didn't want a relationship," he said, his expression fierce, "but you're in one, anyway."
"No." I had to stay strong, had to fight my body's needs until he agreed. "I want you. I do. Just-" breathe "-nothing else."
"Well, I want everything. And I want you against a wall." His fingers began their tormenting search again, this time bolder, moving up and down over the now-damp material. "Have you ever fucked against a wall, Naomi?"
He was deliberately being crude, I knew, trying to force me to admit I wanted more than a hard, emotionless screw. It had the opposite effect, however. I ached all over, and hearing him talk like that increased my excitement. Maybe, at heart, I was a bad, dirty girl. A closet sex kitten, like my cousins had said.
"Have you?" he demanded.
Slowly, I shook my head. My experience was limited to the back seat of a Chevy and a cold, forgotten mattress. Don't get me wrong. I've had orgasms and even enjoyed the sex. But this was something altogether more pleasurable.
"I'll press your back against the wall and brace your legs around my waist."
Breathless, I glanced at a wall and pictured exactly what he described. Two naked bodies, straining together, standing up and tangled. My throat constricted. The scene was carnal. Primal. Raw.
I'd die if I didn't experience it.
"All right," I told him, my voice hoarse with longing. "Now. Before the party."
He paused, his eyes widening with disbelief. He hadn't expected me to agree. "What did you say?"
"I said yes. I'm willing to do it against the wall."
A blaze of heat caught fire in his irises, sparking blue flames. Those flames licked at me. His gaze moved over me with blatant possessiveness, and I licked my lips. His nostrils did the flare thing. Royce clasped my hand and jerked me to my feet. I hurriedly buttoned my pants.
No longer concerned about those around me, I raced behind him through the bar, past the reservation desk and into the elevator. Royce quickly punched a button. The doors slid shut. In the next instant, he had me pinned to the corner, plundering my mouth with his tongue, rubbing his erection into the crevice of my legs.
I almost climaxed right then.
A bell sounded. The elevator doors slid open.
It required a conscious effort to tear my mouth from Royce's. He grabbed my hand and dragged me into the hall. "I got the lowest floor I could," he said.
A shiver of anticipation slipped down my spine. Helpless to do otherwise, I kept moving. Okay, so I nearly beat him to the door. Big deal.
He jabbed the passkey into the electronic box. The green light winked its assent. Royce shoved open the door, hustled me inside and let the heavy wood slam behind him.
We were finally alone.
I raced to the bed, trying to shed my top along the way. It took a few minutes for me to notice Royce hadn't followed. I turned and faced him. He had his back to the entrance. He was watching me, a predator-like gleam in his eyes. Without taking his gaze from me, he clicked the lock.
"Now," he said.
"Now," I agreed.
He advanced. I didn't move, just let him come. When he reached me, my head fell backward with the force of his kiss. His tongue dove immediately inside. It was a hard and demanding caress, not meant to be gentle. But then, I didn't crave gentleness. I craved the weight of his body, the sear of his lips, the domination of his hands.
He couldn't be stopped.
I couldn't be stopped.
We were wild for each other.
His hands sifted through my hair and fisted it before he began working at my bra. Next he tackled my pants. Those, too, pooled at our feet. The lights were on. I tried not to let it bother me. I was so thin. Royce didn't seem to mind, though.
He was all over me. I loved every second, every squeeze of his hands, and returned the favor. He was caught in the avalanche of my lust. Again, he didn't seem to mind.
Just when I thought I might collapse, I was lifted in his arms and placed on the bed. The soft mattress cushioned my back.
"Wait!" I shouted. Had he forgotten? I cast a meaningful glance to the wall. A large floral picture hung in the center. I could almost feel the ridges pressed into my back.
Royce gave me a slow, wicked grin of agreement and nodded. "Oh, yeah. The wall."