When the jungle's leaves and bushes are too thick, quickly chop them down so that you can see your path more clearly.
Music blared from speakers hanging overhead. Undulating bodies littered the floor as men and women clanged together. Smoke and chatter wafted all around us. We'd been here only ten minutes and I already wanted to leave.
Why had I agreed to come?
Desperate for a little alone time, I made a quick trip to the ladies' room, where I attempted to force my skirt to elongate. Mel had given me the dress at my non-party. It was short, tight and green, and it barely concealed my ass. I felt like a piece of candy on display at a day care. Worse, I felt as if I had a neon sign around my neck that read Free, Take One.
Several men had already attempted to take me up on the unintentional offer.
The bathroom was growing more crowded, women flocking inside to check their hair and makeup. With a sigh, I maneuvered back to the table and reclaimed my seat. Mel and Kera were surrounded by admirers. Nothing new. Men loved the whole idea of twins. Double the love, or something like that.
Colin stood watch at both girls' sides, frowning at any man who glanced their way. He sometimes looked to the door, as if he couldn't wait to leave. Kera had invited him to join us, much to Mel's chagrin.
Women brushed against him, flirted with him and smiled at him, but he ignored them. And that surprised me. The only woman he seemed to notice was Mel. He didn't just notice her, either. He watched her through eyes filled with longing and desire. Mel pretended not to notice, but she constantly darted stealthy glances his way.
"Colin," Kera said. "Why don't you ask Mel to dance? She could use the exercise."
Mel ignored her and pushed a shot glass in my direction. Her red bangs appeared ultra-bright in the strobe light. Her top was cropped just under her breasts, showcasing her tanned, flat stomach and the tattoo of stars around her belly button. "Drink."
I shook my head no. Ginger ale was my drink of choice tonight-for reasons I wasn't sharing with my cousins. I grabbed onto my half-full (bet you expected me to say half-empty) glass. "I've already got a drink."
"You need alcohol. You look like Death in a Green Dress."
"Then why the hell did you insist I wear this?"
"I thought it would look good on you. I can admit when I'm wrong." She pushed another drink at me, and I shook my head. "If you won't drink, eat something."
My stomach growled at the word eat. I was hungry. Famished, actually. I hadn't eaten since breakfast and the thought of buffalo wings made my mouth water.
I waved the waitress/bartender/whatever the hell she was over and ordered two dozen. The wings arrived soon after. Thick red sauce dripped from each boneless delicacy. I ate the first one slowly, the tangy flavor exploding on my tongue. The rest, well, I shoveled them in like a Hoover. Mel tried to steal one, but in my starved haze, I stabbed her hand with my fork. The men at our table cheered me on.
"Maybe you've had enough, Naomi," Kera said, grinning. "You've got sauce around your lips."
Cheeks reddening, I rubbed my napkin over my mouth. A man chose that moment to scoot in beside me. "What's your name, sugar?" he asked.
Why did men insist on calling women by food endearments? Sugar. Sweet cakes. Honey pie. Richard the Bastard had called me by other women's names. Royce called me sweetheart, as if I actually held a special place in his heart, so it meant something when he did it. I think my inner Tigress would have preferred Sex Goddess of Wet Dreams, though. That had a nice ring to it.
I cast a glance in my new admirer's direction. "You may call me Your Highness," I said. "Or Empress Beauty."
He chuckled. I wasn't kidding.
"I love a woman with a healthy appetite." He leaned into me, pretending he couldn't speak over the loud music. "The way you ate those wings, well, it turned me on. You're not going to run to the bathroom and throw them up, are you? Some women do that."
I studied his face and frowned. He was cute, with brown hair and big puppy-dog brown eyes. He was a little older than most of the other people in the bar, I noticed, which screamed midlife crisis. Suspicious, I peeked at his left hand. His fingers were wrapped around a beer and the beer was resting on the tabletop. Sure enough, his fourth finger possessed the telltale white band left by a ring, where the skin around that symbol of lifelong commitment had tanned. Either he was recently divorced or he'd removed his ring for tonight.
My inner Tigress suddenly roared to life, demanding that I claw out the man's stomach and present it to the women at my table for consumption. Ah, she'd become vicious. I liked that.
"Where have you been?" I muttered to her.
Midlife Crisis heard me and assumed I'd been speaking to him. "I've been waiting for you, sugar."
"You married?" I asked him innocently.
He had the audacity to stare me dead-on and say, "Never wanted to take the plunge. I guess I just never met the right woman." His voice dipped as low and seductive as he could make it. "You?"
"I haven't met the right woman, either."
He blinked, but then his lips stretched wide in a grin. "You like women? Well don't worry, I'm open-minded. I'm all about equality."
"I'm not sleeping with you," I snapped.
"No, she's not," a deep, rich, familiar voice said.
I spun in my seat, my eyes going wide, my heart racing.
"Royce," Colin said, relief heavy in his tone. "About time you got here."
Royce shot Midlife Crisis a pointed stare. "If you want to live, I suggest you leave."
Midlife paled and scampered away.
Royce was here. Actually here. Shock and pleasure wound through me, tightening around every limb, cell and hollow of my body. Richard had never come home early for anything, had never acted eager to see me.
I stood, my knees unsteady. "What are you doing here? Why aren't you in Florida?"
His arm wrapped around my waist, as strong and warm as I remembered. He pulled me into his side and kissed my temple. "I came back early. Colin called me and told me you were coming here. Since I love the music," he said dryly, "I decided to come, too."
"The music, hmm." I bit my lip, wanting to prompt him for more of an admission. I couldn't help it; I loved his sweetness and I wanted him more in that moment than I ever had before. "That's all?"
His eyes flared with heat and fire and possessiveness. "Maybe the real reason is I missed you like hell."
I leaned more snugly against him and breathed in his sandalwood scent. "How was your trip?"
"Miserable. Like I said, I missed you." He nuzzled my cheek with his nose.
A shiver stole through me, warm, delicious. "You didn't get married or anything like that, right?"
"I thought about you every second of every day, and ended up walking out on a roomful of buyers in the middle of a meeting. What do you think?"
God, I wanted him. Reaching up, I caressed a fingertip down his cheek. He sucked in a breath.
I think Kera said, "How adorable." I think Mel chimed in with, "Do it on the table, why don't you. I don't mind being a voyeur."
"Let's dance," Royce said on a husky chuckle.
He led me onto the crowded dance floor, maneuvering us through bumping and grinding bodies. Colin dragged Mel onto the dance floor, too, I noticed, and she didn't protest. She actually slid her arms around him and pressed her body into his.
Smoke wafted around us, arms flew toward us. The music belted out a fast, writhing rhythm, but Royce held me tightly and we swayed slowly. I loved being in his arms.
"I'm glad you came," I admitted.
Gently he smoothed my hair from my temples. Another of those wonderful shivers raced through me. "I do believe that's the first time you've ever admitted to any type of affection for me."
"Yeah, well. Don't get used to it."
His fingers trailed down my shoulder to the curve of my waist, stopping at the hem of my ultra-short dress. "It drives me crazy when you wear green," he said, his voice dropping an octave. "The only thing I like better is when you're wearing nothing at all."
I stared into his eyes, those gloriously blue, heartwarming eyes. This man was tearing me apart inside, but I couldn't walk away from him. "What am I going to do with you, Royce?" I whispered.
His arms tightened around me and smoothed a path up my bottom and to the small of my back. "Love me. Trust me."
I shook my head almost violently. My stomach cramped with enough force to make me gasp. I stilled. My blood went cold even as my skin heated several degrees. "I think I'm going to be sick," I said. I flattened a hand against my stomach, trying to tamp down another cramp.
He frowned. "What I said wasn't that bad."
"No, really. I think I'm going to be sick," I said, then hunched over and threw up boneless wings all over his expensive Italian loafers.
Loud, nefarious ringing penetrated the darkness blanketing my mind-and it wasn't from my hidden BlueJay. The screeching thundered in my ears with deafening intensity. I hadn't drunk any alcohol, but I felt hungover.
The ringing continued.
Damn phone. I blindly reached out, meaning to pound it into a thousand tiny pieces, but I found nothing but air. By the time I sat up, my lips bared in a scowl, the ringing had ceased, going silent. With a sigh, I laid my heavy head back on the pillow and burrowed deeper in the covers.
God, my brain ached. My stomach still felt queasy. "Death by chicken wing," I muttered. I had already spent most of the night hunched over the toilet, throwing up. I wanted to die, but sometime during the night, I'd decided to be brave and live. I thought now that I had made the wrong choice.
Another bout of ringing erupted.
Jumping up from the bed-anything to make the noise stop- I tripped over the tangled sheets. It had to be another reporter from the Tattler. They'd called me all night long, in between bouts of vomiting, wanting to know about my (alleged) relationship with Royce, when my triplets were due and if Royce and I had set a date for our wedding. I hadn't spoken with them myself, but had heard their questions over my answering machine.
I'd had enough. I planned to tell this reporter exactly what he could do with himself. Rot in hell! Sprawled out across the floor, I made a grab for the receiver. "Hello." My voice was croaky, as if I'd spent the night sucking on Brillo pads.
"Naomi, darling? That you?"
Mom. If I hadn't felt like killing myself already, I would have then. "Yeah. It's me," I said. "Barely."
"Darling, you sound horribly sick."
"Oh, dear. I'd thought you were lying when you said you were sick at my house, but you were telling the truth, and now you're even worse, and that makes me the worst mom in the world for-"
"I was lying," I interjected. "I'm just a little out of sorts right now."
Pause. "Good, then. I won't keep you long. I just have to get a few things off my chest before I burst. Now that you know about Rachel, Jonathan really wants you to meet her. I'll let you know when and where. And-and I've decided we were wrong, that Jonathan just isn't the type of man to cheat on me."
"No, no. He's an honest man. And so sweet. He brought me flowers yesterday and we spent a romantic evening together, dinner, wine, the works."
Most likely the romantic night had been born of Jonathan's guilt. Why couldn't my mom see that?
My stomach chose that moment to cramp again, and I moaned. "Do you see what that kind of talk does to me, mom? It makes me want to throw up."
"Want me to come over and take care of you? I'll bring soup. I think I have a can of chicken noodle here. If not, I'm sure I have tomato."
"Oh, God." I pressed my lips together to keep from barfing right then and there. "Are you trying to kill me? No soup. No mention of soup ever again. I'll be fine. People don't die from food poisoning."
"Yes, they do," she said matter-of-factly. "All the time."
Great. "Thanks, Mom. I really needed to hear that."
"Are you sure you don't want me to come over?"
"I'll let you get some rest."
"Wait." I fought through the pain long enough to say, "I know you want to think the best of Jonathan. So do I. But I also wanted to think the best of Richard."
"This isn't the same thing. They aren't the same man."
"That's where you're wrong. They are the same man. Every man ever born is the same man." Except Royce. Maybe. "Don't you remember Daddy? I was only a child, but I remember his late nights, his 'female business associates.'" While my mom pretended not to notice. "And you saw how I made excuses for my husband. You saw how I suffered, so why are you putting yourself through the same thing?"
"We have no proof," she said defensively.
"I saw him, okay. I saw him with a woman."
Silence. A horrified gasp. A sob. "Who? What did they do? What did she look like?"
I scrubbed a hand down my face. This was not a good time for this conversation, but there was no help for it. "It was Nora Hallsbrook, his secretary."
"What did they do?" she repeated brokenly.
"Talked, smelled oils."
"That's...that's all? Nothing sexual?"
"No. Not this time, but-"
My mom cut me off with a shaky, relieved breath. "Well, then, there you have it. He's not sleeping with her. They were working."
"At her home? With massage oil?"
"They are not sleeping together," she said, a desperate edge to her voice.
"I've got to go, dear."
I stared down at the phone and shook my head. Why did women in love insist on making excuses for their men? Even women who'd been burned in the past, like my mom had?
"Your mom reminds me of mine."
I spun around, which was a mistake. My stomach cramped yet again, doubling me over. I clutched my side, croaking out, "What are you doing here?"
"I couldn't leave you, not like this," Royce said. "I tried to turn your ringer off, but your phone resisted me every step of the way. Stubborn, like its owner. And I didn't want to answer and give the Tattler something more to talk about. Come on, I'll help you back into bed."
He closed the distance between us and curled his arm around me. He'd actually stayed to take care of me. Only men in movies did that. Richard would have taken off, claiming he couldn't afford to catch whatever I had. In that moment, I slipped a little further under Royce's spell.
Unemotional fling. Apparently I'd still never had one.