Animals of every species sense those who are weaker than themselves. They sense it-and attack. A Tigress must never let down her guard. She must realize danger lurks behind every bush, deep in every shadow and around every corner.
Shaking with the force of my sudden nervousness, I slowed my pace as I entered Royce's office. Why was I nervous? I thought in the next instant. The man was, well, a man. He wasn't God (as he'd reminded me himself yesterday) or even a superhero. Unless he rescued small children from burning buildings and I just didn't know it. With his Triple C attitude, though, that was highly unlikely. However, I could easily picture him ordering said children to jump out a window, landing mat optional.
Anyway, he didn't decide the fate of my world.
He stood at the bar. Not a flicker of emotion crossed his features as he said, "Have a seat." His tone was stiff. With a wave of his hand, he indicated a chair. Even his motions were stiff.
Watching him warily, I smoothed my skirt and eased down.
He shifted from one foot to the other (stiffly), then poured himself a drink (even more stiffly), downed it (still more stiffly). Poured two more. "Would you care for anything?" Yep, stiff.
"No, thanks." The slightest bit of alcohol always went straight to my head. Probably because of my "delicate bone structure," as my mom would say. Or, as my stepdad would say, because of my "horrendous eating disorder."
"I'll drink yours, then." He gulped back both drinks, slammed the glasses on the bar and bowed his head. He stayed that way, silent, unmoving, for a long while.
"Next time, please tell your assistant I'm expected," I said, just to cut through the tension. I tried for a professional tone, rather than censuring.
"I told her this time," he replied, confused. Still stiff, though.
My eyes narrowed. That bitch! She'd lied to me about not being on the precious list. I should have told Colin to go ahead and fire her.
"I didn't mean to shout at you," Royce said, finally, blessedly relaxing. He sighed and his shoulders slumped slightly. "I... apologize."
The apology sounded strained, a bit forced, but I didn't care. I was surprised he'd even made the effort. Disciples of evil that they were, most men wouldn't have. "Apology accepted."
He pivoted on his heel and stalked to his desk, where he sat on the corner, his gaze locking with mine. I shifted in my seat. His expression was curiously blank, as if masking an emotion he didn't want me to see. Anger? Disinterest? Irritation?
"What do you think of Colin?" he asked mildly. "The man you were flirting with outside my office."
Forget anger, disinterest and irritation. The man was positively livid with jealousy. Jealousy. About me. His eyes blazed with it, the blue irises resembling vivid sapphires. I shook my head in amazement, feeling just a little giddy.
No, not giddy, I told myself sternly. I was angry. Definitely angry. I forced myself to frown as I crossed my legs and folded my arms together. "I wasn't flirting." Did I sound properly offended he'd imply such a thing? "And just so you know, he seems very pleasant."
"Pleasant?" Royce growled. "What does that mean?"
"Exactly what I said. Pleasant."
"Pleasant agreeable or pleasant I want to go on a date with this man?"
"What does it matter?"
"Answer the damn question."
"I did." Don't laugh, don't laugh, don't laugh. You're pissed, remember? "I said he was pleasant and that's what I meant."
Royce clenched the edge of his desk and his knuckles turned white. "What. Kind. Of. Pleasant? You should know, the man likes women and lots of them."
"That makes him better suited for me than you." My traitorous lips twitched at the corners. This situation called for fury, damn it. I mean, how dare he question me about my intentions toward another man. Royce and I had kissed once. That didn't give him exclusive rights to me.
I still wanted to smile.
"He's never been in a lasting relationship."
"Good for him." I paused, savoring my next words. "I liked him."
"You liked him?" The words left his mouth with so much force I almost flew backward.
"Yes. He was nice. And pleasant."
For a moment, I thought I saw Royce's eyes glow bright red, thought I saw steam coming from his nostrils. Then he scrubbed a hand down his face. "You're doing this on purpose, aren't you?"
"Listen," I said, determined to stop this line of conversation before I started dancing on his desktop. Maybe stripping. "I'm not interested in dating him. Really. But I'm not interested in dating you, either, remember?"
His hands dropped to his side and he frowned. "Why not?"
"We went over this yesterday. You're just not my type, okay?" God, I was such a liar. Lately I lied to everyone. My cousins, Royce. Myself.
"I'm honest, honorable and not looking to simply get laid. When I kiss you, you burn up. What part of that is not your type?"
Yes, Naomi, do tell us the answer to that, my hormones piped in. "There's one quality you didn't mention, and it immediately throws you out of the running."
He crossed his arms over his chest, tightening the fabric of his jacket over his biceps. "And what's that?"
"You have a penis," I said, squirming in my seat. Just saying the word in front of him made me hot.
"A penis? Baby, that's something you should be thanking me for."
Typical male response.
He worried two fingers over his jaw. Yet, even with the movement, there was something so... still about him. "Is this your way of giving me the brush-off?"
"I'm not trying to throw you over for Colin, if that's what you mean. If I was attracted to him, I could have asked him out months ago at his sister's wedding reception." Which I still didn't recall seeing him at. "You attended that party, too, by the way."
He lost his air of irritation and his expression became guarded again.
"Don't worry if you can't remember seeing me there." Bastard. "You were too busy helping your-" whore "-date put the tissue back in her bra."
He almost choked at that bit of information. When he stopped coughing, he said, "I remember you," surprising me.
As if. "You don't have to pretend. It won't hurt my feelings if you don't remember me."
"Ha! Seriously, work on the lying. You suck at it. I remember you, okay?"
My gaze slitted up at him, narrowing my field of vision to him. Only him. "Prove it."
"Okay." His expression darkened in challenge. "You had the saddest eyes I'd ever seen with dark shadows under them. And you kept glancing at the door, as if you couldn't wait to get away from the crowd. You were wearing a light green dress that hit just below your knees. Your hair was pulled back in the same twist you're wearing today. You spent over an hour making sure all the kids were having fun, and you made sure every woman had a dance partner. Every woman but yourself."
My mouth dropped open in shock and I think my heart skipped a beat. He did remember me. The knowledge was astonishing. Surreal. Almost more than I could take in. And so utterly wonderful I couldn't quite catch my breath.
"I nearly approached you that day," he said softly.
My eyes widened. He'd wanted to talk to me? Me? "Did you want to talk to me about...your mom's party?"
"Please." He crossed his ankles, the action casual, but the intense gleam in his eyes was anything but calm. "I wanted to talk to you just to hear your voice. I even took a step toward you, but you saw me coming and bolted."
I gasped. "I did not bolt."
"You did, too." A deep, rumbling laugh escaped him. "I've replayed it in my mind a thousand times."
Those words were familiar. He'd said them to me before...when he'd kissed me, that he'd imagined my lips a thousand times. I gulped. This conversation was having a strange effect on my equilibrium. Had I been standing, I would have collapsed to the floor.
If I wasn't careful, I'd offer this man my life, my heart and my soul on a silver platter, room service available 24-7. He and his confession were that dangerous.
"Were you afraid of me?" he asked. "Is that why you ran?"
"I'm telling you, I did not run."
"Whatever you say, Jackie Joyner," he said, his singsong tone contradicting his words.
I stomped my foot, drawing on frustration and anger to distance myself. To strengthen my resolve. Richard the Bastard had been sweet in the beginning, too, saying all the right things. Remember that.
Royce grinned slowly, smugly. "You want that drink now?"
"You obviously suffer from a severe brain disorder because your memory is warped. I did not run away from you."
"Naomi Delacroix, afraid of me. Then. And now." Features pensive, he tapped his chin with his finger. "I wonder why. Intense attraction? Unquenchable desire?"
If he only knew the truth of those words. I had run from him that night. There. I admit it. I'd seen him walking toward me- though I hadn't thought he actually meant to talk to me-and everything inside me, everything I'd thought bludgeoned to death by Richard the Bastard, had sparked to instant life. Attraction, yes. Desire, most definitely. Both more intense than anything I'd ever known. My mouth had gone dry, my limbs had begun shaking. My blood had heated, swimming through my veins and burning everything it touched.
I'd run. As fast as my feet would carry me.
I hadn't been able to handle him then. Hell, I was barely handling him now. I didn't want him to see me as a coward, though, therefore I would never, ever admit that I'd purposefully escaped him. Right now, I wanted this man to see me as a strong, capable woman who met her challenges head-on.
One day, that description might even be true.
"So, why did you want to see me today?" Good. Bring it back to business.
He tilted his chin, silently acknowledging my abrupt change of subject. Half turning, he reached out and grabbed a small square item. He thrust it at me. "Here. This is yours."
I gazed down at it, confused. "What is it?"
"A state-of-the-art BlueJay PDA. I almost bought you a Palm Pilot, but I decided to go this route instead. I'll be able to call you and send you e-mail with it. Plus, I've taken the liberty of programming appointment times for us, and this will give you periodic reminders." His eyes gleamed brightly. "You'll never forget a meeting again."
"How...sweet of you to get this for me." Without giving it another glance, I stuffed the stupid thing in my briefcase- where it would most likely remain for the next few months. "Is that our only business today?"
"No." Royce searched through the papers strewn across his desk and lifted a solitary sheet. I wondered if I could sneak a peek at some of those applications/porn. Why I cared to see them, I didn't know-okay, I hoped to incinerate them with my eyes. I leaned to the side...could almost see...
"This," he said, turning back to me and holding the page out, "is a list of possible locations for the party."
I straightened quickly and tried to appear innocent. I hadn't seen a single application, damn it.
He smiled and rubbed a hand down his jaw. I couldn't help but notice how clean-shaven it was. "I know how much you appreciate lists," he said.
"Thank you." I clasped the offered page, recalling I had something for him as well. With my free hand, I rooted through my briefcase. When I found what I was looking for, I slid it out. "Here's my own list of locations, just as promised. We might have some of the same places marked." I gave his list a once-over.
A startled gasp parted my lips. What the hell? "A cabin in Colorado?" I gazed up with wide eyes. "A resort in Maine? A cottage in Connecticut? But I only work in the Dallas area."
He shrugged innocently. "My mother will only turn sixty once, and I want to celebrate right."
"Surely you can find a place here. What about your home? Or Linda's?" I asked, a desperate quality entering my voice.
"I'll consider my place if the sites I have listed don't pan out. We need to check them out ASAP."
"Okay, well, I'll make a few calls, search the Internet, and-"
"No, I believe in a personal touch. So we'll visit them personally. Starting with the cabin in Colorado."
"And just how do you plan to get us there?" Don't say we'll fly. Don't say we'll fly.
"I'll fly us, of course."
"Of course." My fingers curled around the arm of the chair, clenching so tightly my knuckles turned white. All color drained from my face. "What do you plan to fly us in?" Don't say airplane. Don't say airplane.
"A Cessna Turbo 210," he replied, a proud grin lighting his features. "It's the Ferrari of small aircraft."
"How-lovely." I swallowed back bile.
Dread. Panic. Terror. All three blasted through me. I hated planes with a passion. Always had.
He caught my alarm, paused and studied me. "Is there a problem, Naomi?"
I felt a scream of fear lodge in the back of my throat but somehow managed to silence it. "Can't you be content with one of the hotels I've mentioned?" My voice was weak, shaky.
"Don't look so scared." He reached out and squeezed my shoulder, his hand strong and hot and infinitely tender. "I've had my pilot's license for years. I'll get us there and back safely."
"Why don't you view the cabin alone?" I gulped. "You can take pictures while you're there, maybe measure the dimensions. I'll go over your notes and let you know if it will actually work."
I didn't add that the sites he'd listed would be suitable over my cold, dead body. The only location I would approve was in Dallas.
"I don't think so." He went behind his desk and eased into his seat, a satisfied glint in his sexy blue eyes. He looked as calm and relaxed as a man who'd just finished a vigorous bout of lovemaking. Destroying my sense of safety must make for a real orgasmic moment.
"You have to go with me, sweetheart," he said. "What if I forget something?"
I straightened hopefully. "I'll make you a list of the things you need to do. That way, you won't forget anything."
"There's no need for a list. Not when I have you."
"No, you don't, but I'm not going to explain it at the moment."
"You're willing to put my life at risk just so I can look at a stupid cabin?"
"Yes. We leave on Saturday. Six sharp. I expect you to be ready."
Triple Cs needed to rot in hell for all eternity. "How long will we be gone?" I ground out.
"One night." He grinned, and that single action was loaded with all kinds of sensual meaning. "Two if you insist."
In a cabin.
I shivered. If I survived the plane crash I knew was coming, I'd never be able to resist him. He'd try to kiss me, judging by that wicked twinkle, and I'd offer my lips on a bed of silk, judging by the ache between my legs, and then we'd tear each other's clothes off and do all kinds of naughty things to each other. I bet he'd even bring a wall harness and try to tie me up like the kinky little sex puppet I suspected he was.
What woman could truly say no to that?
His gaze raked over me. "Why do you still look so pale? Are you going to be sick?"
Deep breath in. Slowly let it out. I needed to find a calm center, my meadow of happiness. No, I needed my inner Tigress. Where the hell was she? This entire situation could be resolved with a little of her clawing, growling and screaming. Was the bitch taking a nap?
"I'll need my own room in the cabin," I said.
"Of course." He worked a hand over his jaw. "But that's not what has you worried. I've never seen you so pale. Besides being afraid of how I make you feel, you wouldn't happen to be afraid of flying, would you?"
My entire body stiffened. "I'm not afraid of anything."
"Okay, so you're afraid of flying." He shrugged. "Why?"
"I'm not afraid," I insisted. "It's just that flying is for birds, angels and drug users."
"I'd never let anything happen to you. If I thought for a second that it was dangerous, I wouldn't let you step foot inside a plane. They're safer than cars, honey."
"I'd still prefer to drive."
"No, I'm going to prove to you just how safe planes really are."
"Before I forget," he said, "here are the names and addresses of the party guests, as you requested." He handed me a stack of papers.
Fifty to two hundred guests turned out to be 375.
"Do you really want to fly this many people to another state?" I held up the list as if it were exhibit A. "You need to rethink this trip."
"No, I don't, and yes, I will fly that many people to another state if I want," he said, silencing my protest. "I don't want to hear anything else about it. I'll pick you up at six and you'll be ready just like a good little girl. I've already programmed this into your BlueJay."
Scowling, I stuffed the stupid list in my briefcase. "My fee increases every time I get on an airplane. Did I forget to mention that fact?"
"Yes, you did." A lazy, crooked smile slanted his lips. "But it's not a problem."
"Do you ever have a problem?" I grumbled.
"Actually, yes. Failure to comply with my orders is a major problem."
Typical of a Triple C.
I shook my head in exasperation and lifted a large book from my case. I wanted to change the subject before I really did throw up. "I have a book of sample invitations for you to go over." As I spoke, I flipped through the tract, revealing page after page of invitations. "As you can see, there are many colors and fonts to pick from, as well as designs."
He groaned. "Can't you pick something? I know nothing about fonts and colors and designs unless they come with propellers or a jet engine."
I liked, really liked, damn it, that this gorgeous, put-together man so easily admitted he lacked knowledge about something.
My ex-may he soon discover tiny worms have invaded his body and are slowly eating him alive-once told me God made men so perfect because He'd wanted to make up for the inadequacies of women.
Richard the Bastard had said this the day after our divorce had been finalized, and I'd fallen on my knees in thanks that I'd gotten out of that living hell when I had. I'm pretty sure my real dad said something similar to my mom. Many times. While cheating on her. Sometimes I wasn't sure what was worse. Richard's cheating, or my dad's. To both men, family had meant nothing.
"What if I make the wrong choices, Royce? Linda is your mother. I don't know her, therefore I don't know her tastes."
"I trust you." He held up his hands, palms out. "I'll love your choices, I swear."
"But will Linda? I mean-"
"Naomi," he said, beseeching.
I sighed. "All right."
One of his eyebrows quirked in the middle and his grin returned. "All right what? Let me hear the words."
"All right. I'll do it." I uttered another sigh. Giving in did not mean I'd reverted to former doormat behavior. I was simply doing something nice for my (sexy) client. "We need to firm up the theme. Jewelry box is first on the list."
"What else is on the list?"
"Something elegant. Something nostalgic."
"Nostalgic." He rubbed the back of his neck and sighed. "Like what?"
"What if we recaptured her youth with an 1800s setting?"
"That'd be great, except she grew up a hundred years after that."
"Whatever. I could do the Care Bear party she never had as a child." If Mrs. Powell had ever been a child, that is. She might have sprung fully formed from the devil's thigh. "I could do something romantic like Arabian Nights, with veils and magic lamps. I could do a jungle theme, even, with animal prints and drums."
"I like the Arabian Nights thing," he said. "And yes, I'm man enough to say that."
He was all man. "Will your mother like it, though?"
"She'll love it. That's the one. It has my approval."
My heart gave a strange little leap. Already I pictured the scene in my mind, loving the bold colors, the bed of satin floor pillows-with Royce lounging on them, eating grapes from my hand-and the thought of magic at every corner.
"Will the guests have to dress up?" he asked, a hint of something wicked in his eyes.
"As in, formally?" I stared up at him, trying to figure out what he was thinking. "Or in costume?"
I bit my bottom lip, letting it slid from my teeth. "Do you want them to?"
"That depends. Will you come as a belly dancer?"
"No." I pressed my lips together to keep from smiling. I should have known his thoughts were lascivious.
"Then, no," he said on a sigh. "No costumes."
My gaze swept over him. Perhaps I'd spoken too hastily. I could very easily see him in a sheik costume, king of the desert. I'd be his harem girl, of course, and he'd command me- Whoa, girl. Don't go there. Not here. I cleared my throat. "Once you decide on a location, I'll print a sample invitation for your approval."
"Sounds good." He stretched his legs out in front of him, right beside my legs. So close I could feel the heat of them. "Now, tell me about the caterer you've chosen."
"Cinderella Catering." I smiled slowly as an idea formed. I'd forgotten about the caterer. "You should know they're located solely in Dallas," I said. "They have no other affiliations and will be unable to work in another area. Especially out of state."
He covered his mouth with his hand. Hoping to hide his grin? "You're tenacious, I'll give you that. But I refuse to be concerned about losing the caterer until that time comes."
"There may not be another caterer available by the time you decide, and if that happens, I am not throwing a few pizzas in the oven and calling it good."
"Once again, we'll be concerned about that when and if the time comes."
Determined, my life at stake, I persisted. "The longer you wait to choose the party's location, the harder it will be to hire a new caterer and book the site."
"That's why we're leaving this Saturday."
Damn him! He had an answer for everything. "For the record, I want it noted that I do not agree with this plan of action."
"So noted," he said behind his hand. Yep. He was definitely hiding a grin. "Now, that's enough talk about the birthday party for today." He cast a glance to the wall clock. He dropped his hand, revealing his lips and a smile, but the smile quickly vanished. "Unfortunately, it's too late to go to lunch."
"So eat in."
"I don't have time." He leveled me with a frown and glanced at his watch. "I have a meeting in ten minutes."
My back tensed and straightened at his I-blame-you tone. "That's not my fault."
"It is," he grumbled, "but I forgive you."
I choked out a dry laugh. "Gee, thanks, Royce. I wouldn't have made it through the rest of my day without knowing you forgave me for something that wasn't my fault."
He chuckled, his good humor restored for a reason only he understood. "Ah, I love a woman with spirit. What do you have on under that jacket?"
"Excuse me?" The abrupt switch of topics gave me a momentary pause. My fingers sought the lapels of said jacket and drew them tight.
"What do you have on under that jacket?" he repeated.
I frowned and shifted in my seat. "Nothing."
"Mmm," he drawled, a teasing light making his eyes sparkle like sapphires. "Very interesting. And unexpected. But I must admit, I like it. There's something so sexy about a woman daring enough to go in the buff underneath her clothes."
I shifted again, becoming more turned on by the second. "I meant I have on nothing that concerns you."
If I didn't stop this line of conversation, I'd soon be offering to show him what I wore under my jacket. The most daring part of me, a part I hadn't known existed until he'd entered my life, was responding to his words, making me ache and tingle, begging me to go for it. "We need to keep this meeting strictly professional."
"Like we can't be professional naked."
My lips pursed in pure vexation. He spotted the action, and the teasing light fizzled from his eyes as a hot, blazing fire kindled in their blue depths. "I swear I get hard every time you move your lips."
I watched, transfixed, mesmerized, as his gaze traveled over my body in a bold assessment, stopping for a long moment at my bare calves. It felt as if his hands rather than his eyes skimmed over me. And I knew what was coming next. Oh, I dreaded, craved and hungered for what was coming next.
"C'mere," he said, the word a seductive whisper.
Remain strong! my inner Tigress cried.
Where have you been? I mentally shouted at her. Everything about Royce, from the look on his face to the way his body leaned forward as if poised to attack, was a guarantee he planned to kiss me senseless. Again.
I might hate myself later, but I couldn't allow it. Our first (shatteringly exquisite) kiss had been our last. He was too sexy, too potent, and he wanted too much from me. More than that, I wanted him too much.
"I can't," I said, trying to impress upon my sex-starved body the importance of those words. "Besides, you don't have time. Your meeting, remember?"
"Yes, you can," he said, his voice a throaty, heady murmur that seduced me. Lured me. "And I'll always make time for this."
So will I, I thought, my lids lowering to half-mast.
What are you doing? my inner Tigress snapped. Think about the consequences of your actions. Triple Cs are trouble. Pure trouble.
My body said: I don't care. Kiss Royce. Pleeeease.
Royce clicked under his tongue. "If you won't come to me, I'll come to you." He rose. Before taking the steps that brought us together, however, he strode to the door and clicked the lock in place.
Uh-oh. I gulped.
My mind and body continued their war, and I didn't know what to do. Well, I knew what I should do. It was just a matter of doing it, of getting my ass out of the office and away from Royce.
"I gave you plenty of time to run," he said, stalking toward me. "Yet here you remain."
My eyes followed his every movement with horrified fascination and, seconds later, he was in front of me, reaching down and clasping my hands. In one gentle tug, he pulled me to my feet. Even now, I didn't try to escape, didn't utter a protest, but kept my hands cradled in his.
Leap out the window, my inner Tigress cried. You aren't ready to face such a powerful Tiger.
I frowned. I thought a true Tigress never backed down from a fight.
Don't you know anything? When she's in heat, she avoids everything male. Now run!
If only being with him like this didn't feel so right. If only his hands weren't so warm, so callused. Did he work on the planes himself? The thought of him dressed as a mechanic, oil streaking his arms and face... Holy Lord, fantasy overload.
"What type of flowers does your mother like best?" I asked in one last desperate attempt to prevent what I knew-and secretly hoped-was coming. I'd already proven I didn't have the willpower to run. Words were my only hope. "Maybe I'll scatter petals across the floor and tables." And maybe he could have sex with me on those petals. I uttered a nervous laugh. "They'll fragrance the air very nicely."
"Use orchids." His voice became a husky whisper, deep, low, seductive. "I finally figured out what you smell like. Orchids and honeysuckle."
His seduction was melting my resolve, drugging me. Kiss me, I beseeched with my eyes.
Stop that, I commanded them. No beseeching!
"Every time I'm near you, I drown in your scent," he muttered. "But I've told you that, haven't I?"
"Did I tell you how sexy your lips are? I can't keep my eyes off them. I want them all over me."
Damn it all to hell.
He nuzzled the side of my cheek with his nose. Nipped with his teeth.
Oh, yeah. He nipped again. Just... like... that.
I sighed, melting. Lust zinged through me, hot and wild. My body trembled, totally and completely winning the battle against my mind. I really, really wanted Royce to kiss me again.
I knew how he affected me, so I knew to guard my emotions. Right? Yes. Right. That meant I could allow myself to kiss him again. Maybe then I could finally get him out of my system and walk away a stronger woman-Tigress-better equipped to resist him later. Right? Yes. Right.
In a hidden corner of my mind, I admitted I'd been waiting for this moment since I had stepped into his office, uncaring of the consequences. He drew me, tempted me.
"You still haven't run," he said softly. His hands slid up my arms, onto my waist and to the small of my back, enfolding me. I sank into him, my chest pressing against his, my legs cradled by his.
His warm breath fanned my cheek until finally his mouth settled over mine. His tongue thrust out, licking, tasting. He teased me with flicks and nibbles, and it wasn't enough. I needed hard and rough and pure passion.
I bit his bottom lip; I coasted my hands up his back, gripped his head and ground him against me. He got the point. His mouth slanted over mine, his tongue thrusting deep, thrusting as hard as I desired. I purred, kissing him with all my pent-up longing. My tongue battled his, retreated, then went back for another delicious skirmish. His coffee-flavored taste intoxicated me.
Royce's sultry attack continued until my head felt wonderfully groggy from lack of air. My nipples were hardened little points, and my heart was thundering inside my chest, erratic and undeniably fast.
He jerked his mouth from mine. I growled my disappointment, my need. I wasn't finished with him. This was the last kiss I was going to allow between us, and, by God, it was going to last a long, long time. My hands tightened on him, holding him, locking him in place.
"See?" he panted. "We're good together." Between each word, he planted hot little kisses along my cheek, my jawline and my neck. "So good."
"No." I had to deny his words. The principle of the matter and all. "We suck together."
"What a little liar you are. I like your idea, though. We should do more sucking." His strained chuckle breezed against my lips, but his laughter soon ceased and he gave me another earth-shattering kiss. "I want you, Naomi."
His words were even headier than his kisses.
"Let's forget the rest of the world and go to my place. Just you and me."
"What about your meeting?"
"I-" My refusal, or agreement, wouldn't form as I battled the seductive fog woven through my every thought.
His movements clipped, Royce set me at arm's length, an emotion I couldn't decipher shining in the depths of his eyes, lines of tension tightening his features. He waited. Simply waited for my agreement. He wouldn't do more, wouldn't touch me again, until I uttered my capitulation.
I opened my mouth, but no sound formed. Why couldn't I say yes? Why couldn't I say no? I wanted both options too much, damn it.
He continued to look at me. He knew exactly what his silence did to me, too. It gave me time to imagine all the things we could be doing to each other. Stripping slowly. Touching and tasting. Shuddering with an exquisite, I've-found-the-gates-of-paradise orgasm. Or two.
A sultry shiver racked my spine, and I fought the urge to grip his chin and jerk him back to me for another kiss. Better leave now-you're already too far over the edge.
"I need to go home," I said, finally finding my voice, though it was no more than a desperate whisper. "My home. Alone."
His phone suddenly buzzed. "Mr. Powell. Donovan is here to see you."
Royce stormed to his desk and jabbed a button. "I need a few more minutes." He released the button and said to me, "You want me. I see the desire in your eyes."
"So?" he asked, incredulous. He stepped around his desk, closing the distance between us again. "So you want to walk away from that? Pretend there's nothing between us? Well, I won't let you."
He must have changed his mind about waiting for my consent because he suddenly reached behind my head, clutched the hair at my nape and, in one swift movement, jerked me back into his embrace.
I didn't try to deny him. I couldn't. Our tongues met in a tangled clash, hot, wet. Wild. The kiss went on and on, pure passion.
It was a mistake, unbuttoning his shirt, but I did it anyway. Was helpless to do anything else. I had to touch him. My hands dipped inside the material. Warm skin. A small patch of soft, downy chest hair. How could I have known he'd feel so good? So much like a warrior? All muscle, like velvet poured over hot steel.
With a rough push, Royce sent my jacket whipping to the ground. The brown material pooled at our feet. Next he jerked at the buttons on my blouse, shoved the folds aside and got his first glimpse of my green satin bra.
He rumbled low in his throat, primal, eager man. He looked at the bra. Looked at me. Looked at the bra. All the while, the blaze grew hotter and hotter in his eyes. "Green. Yes, you want me." He shoved the satin aside, exposing the peaks of my nipples. His breath caught. "You have the most perfect nipples I've ever seen. They're pink and ripe as little berries."
I licked my lips. "Stop saying things like that."
"Why? Because they excite you?" With a sultry chuckle, he kissed me, cupped one of my breasts, kneaded it, rolled the nipple between his fingers. At the first expert touch of his palm, I groaned. I couldn't believe we were doing this in his office, where anyone outside the door could hear us.
His lips tore from mine, and he arched me backward, letting his hot tongue tantalize my nipple. One hand moved over me, skimming the swell of my hips. "Don't think of anything except how I make you feel," he murmured against my heated flesh.
He sucked my nipple into his mouth. My body jerked and I almost came right then. My hands slid through his hair, clasping him to me in a tight, you're-not-going-anywhere grip.
He sucked harder.
I gasped, arching my back farther, wanting more, needing more-until the phone buzzed, allowing a single, solitary thought to slip unbidden into my mind: This is more than a kiss, Naomi. You're about to step straight into a sexual relationship. With a client.
"Mr. Powell," Elvira said.
My blood went from molten to ice cold in mere seconds. How could I have let this happen? I'd thought to allow myself one last kiss, yet this was so much more. I'd known better, known this would be the result, but I hadn't let common sense prevail.
I wrenched away, disengaging from him completely, panting. "I, um, have to stop now."
The phone buzzed. "Mr. Powell?"
The fine lines around Royce's eyes and mouth were already taut, but they tightened further. I could tell he wanted to grab me, to tumble me back into his embrace. But he must have read my determination to resist him in the hard stance of my body.
"I'll let you go for now, but we're not finished, Naomi." Aroused fire beamed from his eyes as he took a menacing step toward me. Another. "In fact," he purred dangerously, "we've only just begun."
With shaky limbs, I whirled away from Royce and righted my clothing. I picked up my jacket from the floor and slipped my arms through the openings. "Lucky us, we found the beginning and the end in the same day. I just... l can't be with you," I said. It was a plea for him to understand.
"Can't." His expression lost some of its heat. In fact, he looked positively arctic. "Or won't?"
The phone buzzed yet again. "Mr. Powell?"
He stormed back to his desk, slammed a finger into a button and barked, "I said I need a goddamn minute. I'll let you know when to send him in."
"Well?" he said to me.
He wanted to hear that my lips ached for the return of his, that I felt lost and unsure without his arms around me. It was true, but I couldn't say it aloud. If he knew how close I was to giving in, he'd pounce and I wouldn't be able to deny him. And I could wave my rules goodbye.
I didn't turn to face him when I said, "Won't."
A heavy pause.
"I don't understand you," he said, exasperated and angry. "I don't understand how you can be so hot for me, then turn so cold."
This time, I did face him. I whirled, glaring, pointing at his chest. "That's right. You don't understand me because you don't know me. You don't know my life. You don't know my past. I won't get involved with you, Royce."
His features softened just as the sunlight streaming in from the window hit him at the perfect angle, casting him in a glowing halo. "I know you're strong and honest and you fight for what you want. Well, fight for me."
I almost-almost, damn it-capitulated then and there. I swear, I was changing my mind lately more than I changed my underwear. Those words of his...that quiet beseeching...I don't think I'd ever heard anything quite so beautiful. He was the first person ever to call me strong. And I responded to that on a primal level.
"I can't," I whispered, and saying it was even harder than pulling away from him had been.
"Why not?" He threw his hands in the air. "Help me understand, so that I can help you accept what's between us."
How easy he made it sound. How tempting. Work through your concerns and we can be together. I closed my eyes, as one horrible fear after another flitted through me. The way men cheated and lied and lost interest in their woman. The late-night phone calls, the "business trips."
"Tell me," he said softly.
If I told him about Richard the Bastard's infidelity, I'd also have to admit to my own stupidity. My own weakness. How many times had I taken Richard back? How many times had I allowed him to treat me like garbage? Royce had just admitted he thought of me as strong and capable, a fighter. I absolutely did not want him to change his view. Did not want him to see me as a doormat.
"There's nothing to tell," I said, staring down at my intertwined hands. "I'm just not interested."
"Is this a game?" He scowled over at me. "Are you playing hard to get, trying to tie me in knots so you're all I can think about? If so, it's worked. I admit it, you're always on my mind. I dream about you, crave you constantly."
I wanted to cover my ears. I wanted to run. I wanted to stay. "Don't tell me that." I shook my head, strands of hair falling at my temples. "Don't say stuff like that."
"Why not? It's true."
"I'm unavailable to you," I said, desperate to believe anything but what he was saying. Capitulation was not an option for me. Not with this man, and not about the future. Because he affected me more than even Richard had, that made him far more dangerous. "You're simply responding to the challenge. That's all."
"You're wrong. I want to marry you. And that has nothing to do with you being a challenge."
My stomach dropped. I think my vision went black for a moment. My throat closed up and all I could say was, "You want to marry me?" The words emerged as nothing more than a croak.
"You've only known me a few weeks, and you want to marry me?" Louder now. "You've never been on a date with me, and you want to marry me?" Louder still.
"Yes." He said it so simply, so easily. "I've dreamed about you for six months, Naomi. After Daisy Phillips' reception, I called you to ask you out. You never returned my calls. So I admit, in a moment of desperation I had my mother ask you to plan her party. It was the only way I could think of to get you in my life."
Dear God. I covered my face with my hands, trying to drag air into my too-tight lungs. A loud roaring filled my ears; my stomach cramped. What kind of sick, alternate world had I slipped into?
Things began to click into place. That day in his office, when he'd spoken on the phone about "the one," who he would win, he'd been talking about me, I realized. A merger of sorts, he'd said, meaning marriage.
"Do-do you love me?" I asked, unable to face him.
Another pause, this one heavier, deeper. Then, "Yes. I do."
"This is crazy, Royce. You have to see how crazy this is."
He crossed his arms over his chest and tilted his chin to the side, regarding me, studying me, gauging exactly what he would reveal. "This company thrived under my father's care, yes, but I doubled its profits by acting on my instincts. They've never steered me wrong, and right now I know, know, you're the woman for me."
"You're just desperate to get married. Any woman will do."
"Is that so?" He ran his tongue over his teeth. "Then why the hell haven't I chosen one of the applicants?"
I placed a trembling hand over my mouth and simply blinked at him. Yes, I'd known he desired me-the way he kissed me was proof of that. Hell, the erection he still sported was proof of that. I'd even suspected, yesterday in my apartment, that he wanted a commitment from me. Hearing it, though, having it confirmed... This was ludicrous. Love?
He cut me off with a stiff shake of his head. "Don't say no. Just say you'll think about it."
Think about it? I'd be able to think of nothing else for the rest of my life. Any decision I made would be the wrong one, and I suspected I'd always wonder what would have happened if I'd gone the other way.
"I want you in my life, Naomi, and I'm willing to do whatever it takes to convince you of that fact."
His sweetness, his willingness to fight for me, beat at my resolve harder than anything else had. But- No! my mind screamed in the next instant. He's dangerous. You'll get hurt. He's a man. He'll cheat. I had to combat him, had to continue to resist, and there was only one way to do that. I couldn't think of him as Royce Powell, sexy man of my dreams. I had to think of him as simply a man, a cheating, lying bastard of a man.
"I-never-want-to-get-married," I shouted. "Never ever, ever." For emphasis, I stomped my foot. "Never!"
Unperturbed, he shook his head. "You don't mean that."
"Like hell I don't. I wouldn't get married if aliens invaded our planet and the only way to escape a deep body probing was to marry the leader. Do I make myself clear?"
"You're exaggerating, trying to push me away for whatever reason. I can still see the fear in your eyes."
"What will it take to make you realize the only way to get me down an altar is to carry my cold, dead body in a casket?"
He regarded me silently for a moment. "You're telling me you have no interest in love? No interest in a white gown, a diamond ring and a church filled with family and friends oohing and aahing?"
I nodded with determination. I didn't even have a slight pang of doubt. "That's right." Been there, almost killed myself because of that.
"You won't mind if I laugh in your face, will you? I know women, and I know they dream about a splashy wedding, about having an adoring husband and bearing his children." He held out his arms, a wide open invitation for me to peruse him at my leisure. "Well, here I am, willing to give you those things. And you still want to tell me no?"
"That's right," I said again, unwavering.
"Unbelievable." He shook his head in exasperation.
"This has all been very interesting," I said, smoothing down my skirt. "You've given me the men are from Mars example I've always wanted, so now I'll give you a women are from Venus example. I promise you on all that is holy that I'm. not holding out for a ring. In fact, I don't even want to be a bridesmaid."
He shook his head. "I don't believe you."
How could I explain it in terms he'd understand? "I do not want a man. Period. No men. Men make me sick. Men bad. Gag, gag, gag."
He regarded me, his eyes growing wide. "Wait. You don't like men?"
Finally. Contact. "No."
"Well, why the hell didn't you tell me that sooner?"
"We work together, for one thing. Personal business isn't something co-workers need to discuss."
"I didn't realize." Shaking his head again, he fell into the chair behind him. "I'm sorry."
"Yes, well, now you know the truth."
"Have you always felt this way?"
"No," I answered, again opting for the truth. "Just the past six months."
"There were no signs. I mean-" he plowed a hand through his hair and glared at me in accusation. "You kissed me. Twice. I thought you liked it. You seemed to like it. It's the blondes, isn't it? The twins in the pictures on your coffee table. I should have guessed. But how could I have known?"
Had we just entered the twilight zone? "What the hell are you talking about?"
"You prefer women to men," he said. "It's nothing to be ashamed of, I just didn't realize. You seemed to like- Oh, shit."
Argh. This was too much. Both of my hands, which were now fisted, went to my waist. He thought I was seeing two women, twins at that. What was it with men and twins? "I'm not gay, Royce. If a woman isn't interested, it doesn't mean she's gay."
A long, protracted silence filled the space between us.
His features gradually relaxed. "So you're not... "
"Damn it," he said, suddenly losing all traces of relaxation. "You said you wanted nothing to do with men, that men made you sick. Earlier you mentioned hating everything with a penis. What else was I supposed to think?"
"Maybe that I'm not interested in a relationship, like I've been trying to tell you. Or maybe that I want to live alone, without a man's interference. Or maybe I simply want nothing to do with romance. Especially with a Triple C."
A glaze of puzzlement washed over him, halting the tirade I knew was coming. "What the hell is a Triple C?"
"Corporate. Controlling. And completely wrong for me." Okay, so it had been and a total Commando, but this was my phrase and I could change it if I wanted.
His brows arched, almost hitting his hairline. "I'll admit to being corporate. But controlling? Wrong for you? I don't think so. I happen to be a WHP."
I crossed my arms over my chest and rolled my eyes ceilingward. "Explain please."
"Willing. Horny. And Perfect for you."
Not to mention egotistical. "Is that so?"
He crossed his own arms over his chest, mimicking my battle stance. "Yeah, that's so."
"This isn't a game, Royce. I'm truly not out to catch a man. Any man. Even a WHP. That's all there is to it."
His lips lifted in a slow, knowing grin, his eyes sparkling like sapphires. "Now, I happen to know that's a lie." He studied me in an openly assessing way, like he possessed X-ray vision and could see to my very soul.
I shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other. "You keep saying you know when I'm lying," I said, hating how my voice trembled. I knew I was lying, that I wanted him in a very bad way, but there was no way he could know it. Right?
"Your list. I might have forgotten about it for a moment, but now that I've remembered-"
"Do the words what to look for in Mr. Wrong ring a bell? If you're trying to avoid Mr. Wrong, you're trying to find Mr. Right."
Sparks of anger lit inside me, but those sparks died a quick death as amusement grew. I laughed. I just couldn't help myself. The situation was too funny. Too sweet. My gaze zeroed in on his clean-shaven jaw, and I laughed even harder.
"You shaved," I said. The knowledge sent me doubling over as another wave of laughter swept through me. "I get it now. Number four. Mr. Wrong never shaves his beard."
Royce stiffened and his gaze slitted. "What's so funny about that?"
"Nothing, if it were my list."
"Of course it's yours. It was in your home."
"No. Sorry." More laughter. "It belongs to my cousins, Kera and Mel. The blond twins in the photo."
The clock ticked. Four minutes of complete silence passed. Okay, so I was still laughing and the sound of it echoed off the walls. The man had made a sweet, sweet fool of himself. I was entitled to a little amusement.
Royce ran a hand down his face. He pushed out a deep breath and peeked at me over his fingers. "Are you sure that isn't your list?"
"Swear to God."
"But I fit none of the requirements for Mr. Wrong."
"Not my list," I said again, still grinning.
"I can't believe this is happening," he muttered. "Are you absolutely one-hundred-percent positive it isn't yours?"
"Yeah," I answered again.
"But you love lists."
"That's why I was the designated writer. For the twins."
"Wonderful. Just fucking wonderful. I stood a chance of winning the list's owner. Now, well- Shit."
In a flash, I froze, losing my burst of humor. What if... No.
I didn't want to contemplate such an event. My mind wouldn't let the thought die, however.
I gulped back the sudden lump in my throat. "Since you're so fascinated with that list," I said, judging my words carefully. I gazed down at my shoes, using one to scrape the toe of the other. "You might be interested in knowing that Kera, one of the twins, sent you an application. She's smart and beautiful and she's looking for love." Rigid with an emotion I didn't want to name, I waited for his reply.
"Sounds great." His tone didn't reveal a hint of his inner thoughts. Nor did his now blank expression. "I'll put hers at the top."
I didn't want to analyze why my heart suddenly squeezed painfully in my chest.