Turn your back, and you will be attacked. Guard yourself constantly. Never relax. Not even while you're alone. At any moment a Tiger, or even another Tigress, could be planning your demise.
Jonathan left the house right on schedule, and Royce and I were right behind him. Mom's eavesdropping proved accurate; he didn't go to his office.
He drove to Nora's.
"That blatant bastard," I growled, reaching for Royce's digital camera.
Nora answered the door wearing jeans and a tank top. Her eighties hair was ratted at her temples, and she wore enough makeup to send a cosmetic company's stock through the roof. She didn't kiss Jonathan when she saw him, but she did hug him and step aside. I snapped a few pictures of Jonathan entering the house.
"That isn't his sister, I take it?" Royce asked.
"Not all men are like that, you know."
I snorted. "Can you prove that?" Without waiting for his answer, I pushed my way out of the car. I stalked toward the small but well-maintained house. I heard another car door slam, heard Royce mutter under his breath, and knew he was following me. It was a workday, so most of the neighborhood residents were gone. No one was mowing their lawn. In fact, the only person out in the open was a young woman on a morning jog.
I smiled hello to her, rubbing my belly to show her I was merely an innocent pregnant female having a nice stroll, and continued on my path to the house, the camera gripped tightly in my hands. I didn't go to the front door, but stalked to the nearest side window.
A dog barked and growled, the sound so menacing I jumped and whirled around, my gaze darting in every direction. There, behind the chain fence, was a Chihuahua. He continued to bark and growl at me.
"Shut up, or you'll be breakfast," I whispered fiercely.
His ears flattened, but he went silent. I breathed a sigh of relief and turned my attention back to the window. The curtains were lacy and split down the middle. By pressing my eye to the glass, I had a perfect view inside. Unfortunately, the living room was empty.
Had those horny cheaters already adjourned to the bedroom?
"I can't believe you're doing this," Royce said from behind me. "I can't believe you dragged me into this."
"I can't believe those two don't even have the willpower for a conversation before jumping into the main event. And dragged you? Please."
Just then, Nora rounded a corner, Jonathan close at her heels. "Wait," I said. "They're coming this way." Nora carried three clear bottles filled with...oil? I gasped. "Those sick, perverted shits. I think they're going to massage each other."
"Come on, sweetheart. You don't need to see that." He tugged on my arm, but I resisted.
"Oh, no. I'm not leaving."
The couple sat on the couch at the far wall, facing me, and I snapped several pictures through the lace curtains. Nora held up one of the bottles and Jonathan sniffed. His nose wrinkled and he shook his head. Nora rubbed some on her arm and he sniffed again. They repeated the exact same action with the other two bottles.
I watched as Jonathan ran a hand through his hair, his expression frustrated. His mouth was moving, but I couldn't hear what he was saying.
"Uh, sugar bottoms," Royce said. "I think we need to go."
"Not yet. They're about to do something. I can tell."
"Sweetie. Maybe you didn't hear me. We need to go."
"Just a min-"
"What are you two doing?" a scratchy female voice snapped.
I whipped around. In my haste, my camera slapped against the window glass with a loud clang. An elderly woman wearing her bathrobe and rollers stood in front of us, her hands on her hips. Her wrinkled eyes were narrowed and her lips were pulled taut. My heart almost leapt out of my chest. I stood frozen, not knowing what to say, not knowing what to do, only knowing that at any moment Jonathan and Nora were going to come sprinting out of that house.
"Nora!" the old woman called. "Nora, get out here. You got peepers."
"Run," Royce shouted. There was laughter in his voice. He grabbed my wrist and we took off in a mad dash.
I was hooting with my own half hysterical, half disbelieving laughter as I grabbed my hat to keep it from flying off my head. My belly bounced up and down with every step.
We jumped into the car-which he'd wisely left running- and peeled out, the tires squealing all the way down the street. From the rearview mirror, I watched Jonathan and Nora stop abruptly in front of the old woman, who was pointing in our direction.
"That was close. Too close," I panted. Another chuckle slipped out. My blood was pumping at lightning speed, and my breath emerged ragged and shallow.
Royce's smile grew wider. "Did you get the evidence you wanted?"
"No. They were doing some sick, pre-sex ritual, I think. Five more minutes and I would've nailed him."
Royce shook his head, causing his fake beard to fall and hang at one side. "Maybe he's not cheating."
"Not cheating!" I lost all traces of humor. "What was he doing at that woman's house, then? Why did he lie to my mom about his whereabouts?"
"Okay, he's cheating. Want me to beat the shit out of him?"
I plopped against the seat rest. "Let me get back to you on that."
On the way home, we stopped at the printer and dropped off the invitation. We received several odd looks because of our attire. "It'll be ready for your approval when you return from Florida," I told Royce.
We arrived at my apartment soon after, and he walked me to my door. I was eager to load the pictures onto my computer and see if there was something in them I had missed at the scene.
"Naomi," Royce said, an odd note in his voice.
I was just about to insert the key in the lock, but I stopped and turned to him. "Yes?" Our gazes locked. He'd removed the beard and his lips were slightly lifted at the corners. I loved- no, hated-loved-hated the way his scent and heat surrounded me every time he was near.
"I'll miss you while I'm gone."
I gulped. I'd miss him, too. Horribly. He made me laugh, made me ache, made my hormones spike. He made me crazy, made me ache, made me feel so wonderfully alive. He confused me, made me ache, branded me, made me ache. Did I mention he made me ache?
He leaned down and lightly brushed his lips over mine. The kiss was soft and sweet and oh, so tender. Filled with promise. I shivered, desperately craving more. Maybe... maybe I'd just invite him in and show him my bedroom. I mean, saying goodbye properly would be okay. If I didn't allow myself to linger in his arms afterward, surely my emotions would be safe. I'd already decided to sleep with him again. Hadn't I? I couldn't remember, I'd changed my mind so many times.
My fingers fisted around the fabric of his shirt, and I opened my mouth to ask him if he wanted to stay.
"I'm dying to have you again," he said, cutting off my words, "but I'm going to wait until you realize this isn't a sexual relationship. This isn't-what did you call it? An unemotional fling."
"I want your affection. I want your trust. You don't have to worry about me," he said. "Ever. There isn't a woman out there who compares to you on any level. I'm not going to be with someone else while I'm gone. I'm not going to have a one-night stand or any type of sexual relationship in Florida."
"How can I be sure?" I asked softly. Dare I admit, desperately?
"It's called trust, baby, and you're just going to have to give me yours. You're the only woman I want. Think about that while I'm gone."
He left me standing there, my fingers tracing my lips, his heady, intoxicating words ringing in my head.
For the next several days, I worked feverishly on the decorations for Mrs. Powell's party, despite the fact that Royce still hadn't approved a location. I didn't think about him-and how he'd abandoned me to go on his trip, how spying on my step-dad had been fun because he'd made it fun. I didn't think about Jonathan, either-and how the pictures revealed nothing sexual had happened at Nora's. Nor did I think about anything related to either of them-like the fact that both men had me tied in knots.
I concentrated only on the party, on the vivid blue, green and violet table drapes, the multi-hued satin pillows I planned to scatter over the floor, and the perfect exotic lanterns I'd rent.
On the fourth (lonely) morning after Royce's departure, I went to Kera's for an impromptu breakfast (at Kera's insistence) only to learn my cousin had prepared one of her new, exotic recipes. Some kind of fried meat with a disgusting egg sauce. I should have called in sick. I was destined to be sick anyway, if I ate that crap.
"So what's going on with you?" Kera asked after taking a huge bite of her meat. She chewed as if it were one of the most delicious things she'd ever eaten. "You've been ignoring us for days."
I started with business. "What kind of food can you make for an Arabian Nights party?"
"Hmm. Let's see... what about ashta with honey, baclawa, kounafa, mafrouki and stuff like that?"
"I'm not sure." I had no idea what any of that stuff was. "They aren't new recipes of yours, are they?"
"No, dummy. They're Lebanese."
"Do you think Royce's trip to Florida was his way of giving you the boot?" Mel asked suddenly, cutting into our conversation.
Business forgotten, my stomach dropped. I hadn't considered that.
"I would sob if Colin dumped me," Kera said, fighting a smile.
"We know." Mel sent me a will-you-shut-her-up gaze.
"No boot," I said firmly. All right, hopefully. Royce had said he wouldn't be with another woman while he was gone. He'd said that he wanted me, that no other woman would do. He'd proven himself trustworthy so far. "I like Royce," I told them, swirling milk in my glass. "And I miss him. I do. More than I should. He's an amazing lover and I-"
Kera: "Wait. Back up. Amazing lover? You told us you'd kissed him, and that's all. You've slept with the guy and this is the first we hear about it?"
Mel: "I should have guessed from the way your skin is glowing."
I plopped my elbows on the tabletop and dropped my head into my upraised hands. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you. I just... I don't know. I wasn't ready to give details."
"Why? I always share my details." Mel again.
"We know," Kera and I said in unison. Over the years, we'd heard all about Mel's love life in vivid description. Way too much description. The girl liked it wild, no doubt about it.
"What if he finds someone else while he's gone?" Mel asked, pouring more of the yellow gravy mix over her meat. "In fact, what if the man comes back married?"
Again, I hadn't thought of that. Nausea churned in my still bottomed-out stomach.
I must have gone seriously pale, because Kera said, "Don't listen to her. The man is obviously in love with you. He asked you to marry him, not some other woman. He'll come back to you. Single," she added with a firm nod.
"So what should I do?" My voice cracked. How long would Royce be content to wait for me? "I'm not ready to give him up. Should I marry him like he wants? He said he won't sleep with me again until we're committed."
"The bastard," Mel said.
Kera's shoulders hunched as she considered my words. Her lips dipped into a soft, little frown. "I honestly don't know what you should do."
"We need to think about this," Kera added. "Why don't we spend the rest of the day and night thinking about Naomi's problem, and we'll meet back here in the morning."
The next morning:
"Okay, I've thought about it." I sat across from my cousins, buttering a piece of toast.
"See, I knew a day and night of reflection was all you needed." Kera passed me the strawberry jelly. Praise the Lord, she hadn't cooked today. "What have you decided?"
I closed my eyes, opened them, preparing myself to remain strong. "I'm going to seduce him until he forgets about any type of commitment issues."
Kera rolled her eyes. "Good luck with that." She munched on a bite of her cereal, thoughtful as she chewed. "In theory, I'm sure ignoring his desire for a commitment seems feasible. But in actuality, you'll start to feel guilty."
"She's right." Mel nodded. "You're better off ending things now."
Now they offered advice. After I'd spent the night agonizing. "I hate how complicated this is."
"You're such a complainer, Naomi." Mel pushed her bowl away. "If Royce were to ask me for advice, I'd tell him to never see you again."
"And that would be the best advice you've given all week," I said with a frown.
"Well, I think you're in lu-ve," Kera sang.
"Me, too. What's so bad about marrying Royce, anyway? I know you think you're not ready. But hey, if it doesn't work out, get a divorce. It's as easy as one, two, three." Mel snapped.
"Divorce isn't easy. It's hard and it hurts and it can turn into a blood bath. Hello, did neither of you pay attention during my divorce from Richard?"
Kera: "If Colin asked me, I'd already be at the altar."
Mel: "Will you shut up about Colin, Kera? I'm sick to death of hearing about him. You're dating him, but he calls me. Comes on to me."
Kera smiled, barely managing to hide her gloating. "He's probably got you confused with me."
"Maybe I should marry Royce," Mel snapped. "Then this entire conversation would be moot. I'd never have to hear about Royce or Colin again, and I could go back to my peaceful existence."
I stiffened, not liking those words at all. "You can't marry Royce. The two of you would never get along."
She ran her tongue over her teeth. "Oh, really?"
"Because you don't play backgammon, that's why. The article in the Tattler specifically stated that Royce wants a woman who plays backgammon."
Mel chuckled. "You'll have to do better than that, Naomi. You don't know how to play backgammon, either, and he asked you to marry him."
"That's not the point."
"What about green?" Mel asked. "Green is my best color, or so I've been told. And Royce's favorite color is green."
"So what?" I said defensively. "He prefers women who don't talk back. You're disqualified for that alone."
Kera tapped her fingernails on the tabletop. "So are you, Naomi. I mean, you could tear the flesh from someone's bones with that razor-sharp tongue of yours. Especially recently." To soften her words, she smiled. "Maybe we should get Jennifer's opinion about your tongue. She would know better than any of us."
We stared at each other for a moment before bursting into laughter. Tears trickled from the corners of Kera's eyes, she laughed so hard.
"Look," Mel said between chuckles. "The point I'm trying to make here is that you don't like the image of Royce with other women. So there's your answer. You want him all to yourself. So take him before it's too late."
Wise words. Could I do it, though? Risk everything?
"Hey!" Kera exclaimed. "Why don't you take on another client? That'll keep your mind off of Mr. Sexy."
"I can't," I said after swallowing a bite of toast.
"Royce dictated at the very beginning that I couldn't work on another project while planning his mother's party. Which makes it impossible to bury myself in work." My legs kicked out and rested on the empty seat across from me. "You and I have discussed the menu. I've ordered the flowers, reserved a DJ. I've already ordered some of the decorations and drafted an invitation. There's nothing left to do now except wait for him to contact me once he's back in town."
"Don't wait for him to call. Take the initiative. Pick up the phone and call him. You have his cell-phone number, right?" Mel downed her glass of apple juice. "Men love phone sex."
I rubbed a hand down my face, considering the idea. "You know, before walking into Royce's office, I had my life mapped out. No men. No relationships. Then Royce rocks my world- several times-and it's changing everything. The jerk."
"Yeah, a real bastard." Kera rolled her eyes. "How dare he change your life for the better."
"Hey! Let's TP the asshole's house tonight," Mel suggested. "We haven't done something like that in years."
Grinning, I shook my head. "I am not toilet papering his home."
"Then we're going club hopping tomorrow night and drowning our sorrows in beer and sexy men."
"Now that I can do," I said.
My phone was ringing when I walked into my apartment. I hurried into the kitchen and picked it up. "Hello."
"Why didn't you tell me you were pregnant?" my mom demanded.
"Wha-What are you talking about?" How did she know about that?
"There's a picture of you in the Tattler with a very large, very pregnant stomach. The article says you're having triplets. The next words out of your mouth had better be that you're getting married, young lady."
"Mom, I'm not pregnant," I said, wishing I knew the truth of those words. "Nor am I getting married." I wished to God I knew the truth of those words, too. "I've got to let you go now. I'm going to sell all of my vital organs on eBay."