Chapter One

A true Tigress knows how to strut her stuff. She walks with her head held high, her breasts pushed forward and wears an expression that says, "I'll eat you alive."

I'm a doormat.

There. I admitted it. If people want to wipe their muddy boots on the rug that is my life, I'm likely to welcome them with a smile and thank them afterward. Knowing this, some people might lose all respect for me. In my defense, let me just say I'm getting better. Stronger. More assertive.

I'm unleashing my inner Tigress.

Unfortunately, I've kept her on a tight leash today. So far the score is not in my favor. Life 5. Tigress 2.

Again, in my defense, let me say that Life is a mean, mean bitch.

I replayed the last section I'd read of Unleashing the Tigress Within through my mind as the chrome-and-glass building that housed Powell Aeronautics came into view. My upcoming meeting would go wonderfully, I assured myself; as a Tigress, I would allow nothing less.

Determined, I raised my chin and squared my shoulders against the cab's seat, effectively displaying my breasts to their best advantage. But try as I might, I couldn't get the cannibalistic expression down.

Of course, when you have lips as full and seemingly collagen-injected as mine-okay, maybe not so seemingly-the only expression they're good for is "I charge two hundred dollars an hour." Which, if you think about it, could imply I want to eat someone alive.

For Brad Pitt, I'd be willing to work something out.

For everyone else, well...I shrugged. Sorry, but all they'll get is the expression.

I pursed my lips, relaxed them. Pursed. Relaxed. Trying to find the perfect menacing facial cast. When I noticed the cabdriver staring at me through the rearview mirror, I turned my reddening face toward the window. I should have practiced at home, but I'd received an impromptu call from my ex-husband-may he die and burn in hell for all eternity- and that had consumed my spare time.

"I want to give us another try," he'd said. He usually called once a month with the same speech. He just couldn't stand the thought of a woman not wanting him. "I love you, babe. I swear I do," he'd finished.

Yeah, and my breasts are double-D delights of pleasure.

They're not, in case anyone is wondering. I'm barely, barely a B-minus.

I'm proud of myself. I'd told him I hoped he became intimately acquainted with a flesh-eating bacteria that ravaged his entire body slowly and painfully, beginning with his favorite appendage, and hung up. (The first point to go on my scorecard.) I suspect and hope my Tigress is as mean a bitch as Life, but I haven't interacted with her enough yet to know for sure.

Anyway, while Richard and I were together, he cheated on me. Like the good little girl I am, I let the first time slide. Fight for your marriage and all that bullshit. Boys will be boys, right? Never mind that they're male whores.

Oopsie. Is my bitterness showing?

The second time he cheated, I left him for all of four weeks. I'm embarrassed to admit he romanced me back. I mean, he tattooed my name on his ass. Who can resist that? So what that my name rests next to his first wife's.

The third time he cheated, well, I moved out for good and filed for divorce. That was six months ago. Being a divorce lawyer-aka scum of the universe-himself, he'd known exactly how to work the system and had ended up with everything while I had nothing.

If you want to know where depraved murderers get their ideas, I think I know. From scorned women. What I could have done with a curling iron and an ice pick...

Well, that's a moot point now.

Richard's call had been the perfect beginning to my increasingly horrendous day. Earlier this morning I'd been fired from one of the biggest jobs of my almost nonexistent party-planning career. All because I'd refused to give the owner of Glasston Industries a "private party"-his words, not mine- in the back of his luxury sedan.

My dismissal came after I'd already spent four weeks planning Glasston's annual employee banquet.

Four long, torturous, I-want-to-kill-myself weeks!

At the disgusting offer, my inner Tigress had emerged unbidden and I'd quickly introduced Mr. Glasston's groin to my knee. (My second point.) Needless to say, they didn't part on good terms. Before he could have me arrested for assault, I had jumped in this cab, buckled up and prepared to meet my next client. That's when I found a piece of rotten food stuck to the seat belt. At least, I hoped it was food. I did not want to contemplate what else the non-removable grease stain could be from.

Grease-or whatever-was the least of my problems, though. When I'd first entered the cab, I'd thought the driver had a horrible case of gas. Wrong. That noxious scent of dog poop wafting through the cab, well, it came from my shoes. I'd probably stepped in a steaming pile on my trek to Glasston Industries. I only hoped I'd left a souvenir on Mr. Glasston's trousers.

Is it horrible of me to wish he and Richard would rot in hell together?

Okay, wait. I'm beginning to sound bitter again. I don't want to be a bitter woman. Really. I want to be strong. Strong women are happy. And I desperately want to be happy.

Needing a mental boost, I dug in my briefcase and gripped my copy of Unleashing the Tigress Within. My twin cousins, Kera and Mel, had given me the book for my thirty-first birthday two months ago, and with its guidance I was becoming a stronger, happier woman.

A woman in control of her destiny.

A woman who didn't let a little bad luck bring her down.

Everything will work out, Naomi. Just you wait and see. The cab came to an abrupt stop. I handed the driver a ten. "Keep the change," I said, then drew in a deep breath and pushed open the door.

As I stepped onto the sidewalk, a young man grabbed the leather strap of my purse and tore off in a sprint. I screeched and leapt after him. Except, only four steps into my pursuit, the three-inch heel of my left shoe snapped and I toppled face-first. Dark strands of hair clouded my vision and air abandoned my lungs in a mighty heave. My briefcase skidded across the concrete.

It was early July and a typical Dallas morning: sweltering, dry and miserable. The heated pavement burned raw scratches on my knees.

The thief disappeared around the corner and no one even tried to stop him. I think one woman actually said, "Did you see that guy's butt? So cute!"

As I lay sprawled, quite a few people rubbernecked as they walked by; others simply stopped, stared and snickered. Cheeks burning, I jackknifed to my feet. And practically fell again when one of my injured knees buckled in protest.

It would have been nice if the cabby had gotten out and helped me. But a harried blond woman jumped over me and settled herself inside the taxi before I could even blink. The damn car whizzed away, leaving me in a cloud of exhaust. Choking, I bent and gathered my things. At least I'd left my maxed out credit cards at home. Not the case with my (now missing) lipstick and oil-control powder.

Damn it! I did not need this.

Limping and dirty, I somehow collected my wits enough to make it inside the Powell building. Despite being robbed, I had to act confident and assured. This job was too important.

Disregarding the curious stares of the businessmen and women in the lobby, I searched for and found the bathroom. Women filled the space to capacity, their loud, cackling voices more annoying than the thick haze of forbidden cigarette smoke.

I coughed and shoved my way into one of the cramped stalls, locked the door behind me and tossed my stained jacket in the trash can. I leaned my head against the cool, polished wood. A part of me wanted to sob great buckets of tears. Another part of me wanted to attack something. Just fling myself at the next person I saw and dine on the carnage.

I had to find a happy medium. Approaching a potential employer looking like a feral-but sensitive-beast wasn't good business. Taking a deep breath, I closed my eyes and mentally chanted, I'm in a meadow of happiness. I'm in a meadow of happiness.

Why hadn't I kicked off my shoes and chased that purse-stealing bastard down?

I'm in a meadow of happiness.

Why hadn't I reported Mr. Glasston's disgusting proposition?

I'm in a freaking meadow of happiness!

Why hadn't-

My eyelids popped open and my fists clenched. The meditation my stepdad had taught me was only increasing my agitation. Better to stop now before I started screaming/crying/ performing kung fu against the stall walls. My stepdad is a psychiatrist, but his methods rarely work for me. I don't know why I keep trying them.

"I can do this. I can."

Liar, my Tigress said, and I snapped, Bitch. God, maybe on top of it all I'm schizophrenic.

Forcing my muscles to relax, I slipped out of the stall. My gaze automatically scanned the crowded bathroom, taking in previously missed details. Every woman present wore some type of green. There were pea-green blazers, lime-green skirts, olive-green blouses.

I felt like I'd just stepped into an avocado salad.

Why green? I wondered, gazing down at my own brown, calf-length skirt. Then I uttered a dejected sigh. What the hell did it matter? Even if I'd known green was the current fashion trend, I no longer owned any clothes in that color. Lately I only wore browns, blacks and whites. Business colors. Boring colors.

Another item for my growing Why My Day Sucks list.

With the mirror overly crowded, there simply wasn't enough room to fix my hair, so I left it alone, pinned haphazardly at the base of my neck, errant strands floating down my temples. I was, however, determined to make it to my meeting without limping.

After I cleaned my disgustingly ripe shoes, I spent ten minutes banging, scraping and clawing them to a similar height. Finally they were both completely flat. I wouldn't limp, that was for sure, but I now looked like a twelve-year-old. At five-three, I needed every extra inch I could get.

The bathroom was growing more crowded by the second. Feeling the walls close in around me, I squeezed my way out. A security guard with burly shoulders and a belly that hung over the waistband of his pants stood in the lobby, just in front of the elevator entrance. When I tried to pass him, his arm shot out, blocking my way.

"Applications are at the front desk, miss," he said.

I almost said, "Thank you, I'll head over there immediately," but I stopped myself in time. I'm confident. I'm assured. "I'm not here to apply for a job." Actually I was, but not the kind he was talking about. I made a point of straightening my shoulders to the self-help manual's specifications. "I have an appointment with Royce Powell."

The guard snorted. "Try it on someone else. I'm not buying your particular brand of bull."

My jaw dropped, then closed with a snap. "I'm telling the truth."

"Hey, either you mail in your application like the others, or I put your name on the bad-girl list and you won't be considered for the position."

Normally I would have been cowed by such a patronizing tone. After all, I'd had years of practice with both my real father (may he twist painfully in his grave) and Richard (may he meet his maker soon and twist painfully in his grave). But, as I've already mentioned, I'm in the process of becoming a new woman. A new woman who wouldn't take this kind of crap from a man.

And, to be honest, the thought of being on that bad-girl list kind of excited me.

"Listen," I said, using one finger to poke him firmly in the chest. "This hasn't been a good day. I suggest you move before you get hurt."

He laughed. Actually laughed! "I ain't movin', lady."

"Get. Out. Of. My. Way." Every word held an iron edge.

"Not gonna happen." He gave me a cocky grin, revealing crooked, yellowing teeth. "I wouldn't let you pass now if God Himself shoved me aside."

At that moment, something odd came over me. The guard suddenly represented everything that had gone wrong today, yesterday, all of my life. Getting past him wasn't just necessary for obtaining a job. It was vital for my peace of mind. Can someone say meow?

"I might not be able to arrange God's intervention," I told him, "but I could certainly shove my foot up your ass."

Surprise flickered over his weather-roughened features a split second before he frowned. "God, I hate premenstrual women," he grumbled.

"If you want premenstrual, I'll give you a premenstrual bitch slap. What do you think of that?"

"You tell 'em, honey," someone yelled.

I turned. Almost every woman from the bathroom stood behind me, lined up like a St. Patrick's Day parade. Empowered by their support, I spun back around, absolutely certain I now wore an "I'll eat you alive" expression.

The guard took a precautionary step backward.

"You have exactly two seconds to get out of my way," I ground out, "or you're going to regret it. I spoke with Linda Powell three days ago-"

"Linda Powell?" Sheer terror clouded his eyes and he stepped aside. "Why didn't you say so? Take the express elevator. Nineteenth floor."

Shocked by my success, I could only blink up at him. The women behind me acted instantly, surging forward. Unprepared for movement, I was propelled past the guard and into the elevator. I managed to right myself before I kissed the carpet.

"I spoke with Linda Powell," several women shouted at once. "I did. I swear."

"Back off, ladies," I heard the guard say, just as the doors closed around me.

As I rode up the many flights, my hands began to sweat and my heartbeat quickened. I don't hate heights. I simply hate the knowledge that I could plummet to my death at any moment. Thankfully, the elevator didn't crash and I made it to the office with a few minutes to spare, one of the advantages of being a perpetual early bird.

A woman wearing a stiff black tailored suit manned the reception desk. Her black hair was slicked back from her face, not a single strand free. The bun was so tight, in fact, her eyes slanted upward. Her pale, pale skin (even paler than mine and I'm practically albino) gave her an eerie, almost vampiric appearance.

"Is this Royce Powell's office?" I asked, just to be sure.

"Yes." The severe, frowning woman glanced up through the black fringe of her lashes. "And you are?"

"Naomi Delacroix. I'm here to see him."

She gave me a once-over and obviously found me lacking. Her frown deepened. "Applications are supposed to be mailed, not personally delivered."

Application? Lord, what was it with the people in this building? Royce Powell had called me months ago-okay, he'd called me several times over the last few months, but I'd ignored him and never phoned him back. I hadn't had the courage to face the devastatingly sexy man I'd met only once, but had dreamed about countless times. Sadly, though, I'd work with the devil at this point. (If you're reading this, Mr. Satan, I have good rates. Just FYI.)

Anyway, when Linda Powell had called me a few days ago, I hadn't ignored her, and she'd requested that I meet with her son to see if I was the "right person" to plan her sixtieth birthday party. I tried to explain this to Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. "Look, I don't need an application. I'm-"

"Honey, everyone needs one and you can pick yours up downstairs. In fact," she said, her eyes narrowing, "how did you get past Johnny?"

"I walked." For emphasis, I waved one arm through the air. "Look, I believe I explained that I don't need an application. I already have the job." Well, that wasn't a complete lie, but almost. No terms had been reached, no contract signed. "What I need now is to speak with Mr. Powell."

"There's no need to become violent."

"Uh, excuse me?" Was the woman on drugs? "I'm not violent."

"Tell that to the murderous gleam in your eyes."

I gritted my teeth. "If you'll just tell Mr. Powell I'm here-"

"For the love of God, I'll get you an application." She pushed to her feet. "Wait here. And don't touch anything while I'm gone."

"But I'm not here to apply..." My voice tapered off when I found myself completely alone. Wait. Uh-oh. What if the applications were for the position of party planner and all those women downstairs were my competition? I gulped.

Moments later, a blue packet of papers was thrust in my direction. "Here. Fill this out and mail it in."

I glanced over the application. Favorite hobbies. Information on last boyfriend. Sexual habits. What the hell? I was not filling that out. Not knowing what else to do with it, I stuffed it in my briefcase. "Is this for the party planner gig or a regular office job?"

She snorted. "That isn't an application for employment, chickie. It's for the position of Mrs. Royce Powell."

I took a moment to breathe, positive I had misheard. "Excuse me?"

"Oh, please. Don't pretend you're not here to marry him. The Tattler broke the story a few days ago. Women have been swarming in ever since."

"He's taking applications for a wife? Seriously?" What kind of man expected women to fill out a questionnaire to be his life partner? It was so unbelievably egotistical.



And yet, it fit so perfectly with my day.

Like I ever wanted to get married again. Like I wouldn't rather sign up to be a contestant on Fear Factor and eat rotten bugs wrapped in pig uterus and smothered in a nice cow-blood sauce.

I strove for a calm, rational tone. "I'm here to discuss the details of Linda Powell's birthday party. Nothing more."

That earned me a raised brow. "Name?"

I'd already told her, but I smiled politely. Now we were getting somewhere. "Naomi Delacroix."

One long, bloodred nail (authentic coloring, do you think?) ran down a calendar printout. "Well, well, well. What do you know? You're not listed."

My smile slipped a notch. "I assure you, I do have an appointment. Monday. Eleven o'clock."

"Oh, I believe you." Her sarcasm was as sharp and biting as fangs sinking into my vein. "A magic fairy must have sneaked inside and erased your name."

Maybe her lover the devil had done it, I thought, my smile fading even more. "Please check again."

"I don't think so. Just have a seat over there," she said, pointing to a stiff, uncomfortable-looking chair. "I'll call you if Mr. Powell can work you in. And by the way," she added with an evil smile, "you have a streak of dirt on your cheek."

"Thank you for telling me." Bitch. "I truly appreciate it." My own smile dissolved completely, but I didn't immediately clean my face. I waited until she turned, then scrubbed both cheeks with a vengeance.

Why hadn't the cab just run over me when it had had the chance? That would have saved me a lot of trouble. Would have been more merciful, too.

Legs stiff, I strode to my designated seat and waited like a naughty child for punishment. I would have liked to go home and indulge in an extra-large, thick-crusted pepperoni pizza dripping in grease with a side of gooey chocolate-chip cookies. And a box of Krispy Kremes. And a bag of Doritos. And a large Cherry-Vanilla Coke. What did I care about cholesterol and clogged arteries when my sanity hung in the balance?

Time ticked by and my butt began to throb. I couldn't get comfortable. The chair had no padding and, each time I shifted my weight, my ass bones ground into the faux leather.

Just as I was shifting yet again, a woman with shoulder-length silver hair and a regal air that shouted "pedigree," glided through the doorway, looking neither right nor left. An expensive, perfumed breeze brushed my face as she passed. When Elvira noticed the newcomer, she shot to her feet, her features tight with disgust. And just a hint of fear.

"No need to announce me," the older woman said in a tone that left no room for argument. "I can see myself in." With that, she sidestepped the freshly polished desk.

"I'm sorry, Mrs. Powell, but I can't let you do that." Elvira held out a hand, blocking the woman's path. "Give me a minute and I'll tell him you're here."

The two faced off. Nails were bared. Hair stood on end. If either woman's expression grew any hotter, the fire alarms were going to erupt. Right about then, I forgot about my ass pain, forgot about my sucky day. All I needed was a bowl of Orville Redenbacher's best and a scorecard. This scene had definite ass-kicking potential and, if anyone deserved to have their ass kicked, it was Elvira.

Go, old lady. Go!

"I do not need to be announced to see my own son," Mrs. Powell barked. She was scarier in person than she'd sounded on the phone. If I were Elvira, I would have backed away long before now. "Move out of my way this instant or you'll regret it."

Elvira licked her lips and crossed her arms. "I'll only take a second. You can sit in the waiting room-with the other lady who doesn't have an appointment." Without waiting for a reply, she picked up the phone. "Mr. Powell. Your mother-"

Mrs. Powell didn't wait. She shouldered her way past the desk and stalked down the hall.

Dark storm clouds settled over Elvira's features and she barked into the receiver. "It's too late. She's on her way." She slammed the phone down.

And just like that, the showdown was over, leaving me to wait.

And wait. And wait.