Chapter Three

A Tigress never lets anyone get the upper hand in a conversation; she never lets someone else have the last word. Otherwise, she becomes a receptacle for her opponent's emotional garbage.

"So, when are you going to make a move on your new boss?"

"Ha, ha," I said, giving my cousin Kera my best don't-go-there frown.

My other cousin opened her mouth to say something flippant. I knew Melody's comment would be flippant because everything out of her mouth was something only a smart-ass would say. I shot her a death-ray glare.

It worked. Actually worked. Tell-it-like-it-is Mel remained silent. Perhaps I really was getting good at that I'll-eat-you-alive expression.

I eased back in my seat. Sunlight streamed through the pink kitchen curtains, surrounding the table in a haze of warmth. The scent of coffee filled the air. As we did every Monday morning before rushing off to work, or school in Mel's ease, we sat at Kera's kitchen table, feasting (or gagging) on whatever food she had prepared.

Kera owned a catering business and was trying to put together a cookbook of fresh, exotic recipes. Normally she was an amazing cook, but those "exotic" recipes of hers were pure crap and killed all hint of her talent.

On the Kera Diet, I'd lost eight pounds. And I needed all the pounds I could get. Don't hate me, but I'm one of those women who really doesn't have to watch what she eats. I'm thin, too thin if you ask me, and I always have been. There's a downside, just so you know. Being called Bones. Having small breasts. Looking malnourished. My stepdad actually counseled me on eating disorders once.

This morning we were safe with bagels and blueberry muffins. Store-bought. Kera hadn't had time to prepare anything exotic, thank God. I don't think I could have handled another breakfast like last week's. A strawberry-barbecue-and-blue-cheese ostrich egg omelet. Just the memory upset my stomach.

"Well?" Kera said. "Are you making a move on him or not?"

"I'm not attracted to Royce," I told her, hoping I sounded convincing. (I didn't.) "Therefore, I'm not making a move on him. And what's up with him and his wife applications?"

"He's eccentric and looking for love," Kera said, as if that explained everything.

Mel took a sizable bite of her bagel, chewed, swallowed. "He's a man. Men like naked photos and will do anything to get them. End of story."

Now that made sense.

Mel and Kera were identical twins, but they were different in so many ways. Kera had been born with an angel on her shoulder. Mel had been born with the devil on hers.

Mel had thick streaks of bottle-red running throughout her blond hair. She also sported several tattoos and piercings. In contrast, Kera appeared delicate, practically angelic. Both women were five-four with petite bodies and bright blue eyes.

"Did you drool over him during your meeting?" Mel asked.

"No. Of course not." Did liars go straight to hell or were they granted some sort of immunity? It wasn't like liars were murderers or anything. "Why would you ask me something so ridiculous?"

Eyes twinkling, Mel slathered cream cheese over her bagel. "You've been drooling over his picture all morning."

I gasped. "That is sooo not true."

"Oh please. I could bathe in the puddle you've created. A long, leisurely bath, at that." She raised our copy of the Tattler, "But, if you insist you're not attracted to him, I'll just get rid of this." She cast a meaningful glance at the trash can and eased to her feet.

Quick as a snap, I grabbed her arm and snatched the tabloid. "Give me that." As if I hadn't stared at it for the last hour, I studied the large black-and-white photo gracing the front page.

Royce had his arm around a leggy brunette, a slight smile curling his lips. The caption underneath read, "Son of multimillionaire Elliot Powell caught with Gwendolyn Summers. Has Royce found his bride already?"

The article vaguely mentioned the two were at some sort of charity gala for kids with cancer, and I had to wonder which was the real Royce. The womanizer I suspected him to be-wife applications, for God's sake-or the Good Samaritan who donated money and time to charity?

I sighed. To my consternation, the last two weeks had passed with amazing speed, and most of my nights had been filled with images of Royce and me cavorting like sex-starved nymphs who had only a few days to live.

I couldn't banish the man from my mind.

After getting a new driver's license and finding a new tube of Chocolate Mystique lipstick-which had taken four hours and six different stops-I should have been happy. Instead, I thought of nothing but Royce. And that made me... unhappy.

He'd sent me a check, as promised, with a note attached that said if I had any trouble finding the right lipstick to let him know and he'd have one made. How sweet was that? I wouldn't have taken him up on it, but still. I was on the road to obsession, almost to the point where Royce would need a restraining order against me.

I knew better than to let myself desire the man. Yes, Royce was handsome (okay, deliciously gorgeous), but he was a Triple C, just like Richard. Plus, he apparently wanted a wife. I never wanted to get married again.

Did my body care about that? Noooo.

Each evening before I went to bed, I made a list of the reasons why I shouldn't be attracted to Royce, why I shouldn't want to rip the clothes from his body and have my wicked way with him. In fact, I'd made several lists.

None of them helped.

"Look, even if I did drool over him," I told my cousins, "Royce is a man. That means he's only interested in women who are not boobularly challenged."

Frowning, Mel brandished the butter knife she held through the air. "Boobs so don't matter anymore. Flat is in. Flat is the new black."

My brows arched. "Then why is the implant business booming? Why are push-up bras in such demand?"

She obviously didn't have an answer, so she shook her head and said, "Forget boobs. You said he kept staring at your lips."

"I had dirt on them." I'd noticed the moment I returned home and had almost died of embarrassment. I'd also wished Royce to everlasting hell for not telling me.

"He probably wanted to lick the dirt away. The fact is, you've got yourself a pair of hooker lips. The man wanted them all over his body, is my guess."

"I'll concede that he might, might have liked my lips, but he couldn't care less about the rest of me." He hadn't even asked me out after I'd fallen into his crotch. Not that I would have said yes, I quickly reminded myself.

"Sure, you're not pretty in the classic sense, but that doesn't mean you're dog food."

I almost choked on my muffin. When I regained my voice, I said, "Gee, thanks Mel. I feel so much better about myself now. In fact, my self-esteem has suddenly skyrocketed."

"You're misunderstanding." Mel sighed, the breathy sound layered with exasperation. "Your look is fragile, like a cameo. Something most women can never achieve. You've got the kind of appeal that forces a man's protective instincts to surface."

Kera grinned slowly. "She's right. And I think you're a closet sex kitten, Naomi."

Closet sex kitten. Meeeeoooow. No one had ever accused me of that before. In fact, Richard had accused me of being sexually repressed. This inner Tigress thing must be paying off. "Okay, say a miracle happens and Royce wants me like a sailor on leave. What should I do?"

"Marry him," Kera said.

"Rock his world," Mel said, "then toss him out like a piece of rotting, stinking garbage."

Kera gasped and lost her smile. "One-night stands are stupid, not to mention potentially damaging both physically and emotionally."

"She's been free from Richard the Bastard's clutches for six months now and she hasn't gone on a single date. We might as well take her to the local shelter and buy her a few cats. She needs to get laid, not wallow in another bad relationship."

"Hello." I waved my index finger at them. "Hi. I'm right here. In the room with you."

They shrugged simultaneously.

"I swear," I grumbled, "Royce had to be a hemorrhoid in another life because he's already a pain in my ass. I can answer my question myself, thank you. Royce is a client, and I do not get involved with clients. It's bad for business."

Kera, ever the romantic, piped in. "Who cares about business when love is at stake?"

"Who the hell mentioned love?"

She ignored me. "That kind of thought process might just keep you from experiencing something completely wonderful."

I gagged.

"Love is amazing," she said defensively. "A gift. I know you think marriage is an institution for the insane, but one day I'm going to willingly commit myself. I'm going to walk down the aisle with a radiant smile. And I'll be holding flowers, lots and lots of flowers. Silver-tipped roses with pink baby's breath."

I watched in horror, unable to administer a verbal vaccine as the wedding bug sunk its claws into Kera. Her eyes glazed with dreamy expectation; her lips lifted with longing. I could almost see and hear her thoughts.

Was that a baby crying?

"I wish I were in love right now," she said, confirming my suspicions.

Mel rolled her eyes. "How are we related?"

Still smiling that dreamy smile, Kera propped her elbow on the table and flicked me a glance. "Since Naomi doesn't want to marry Royce, I'm sure she won't mind hearing that I filled out one of his applications."

"What?" I shouted. "When?"

"A few days ago."

"No you did not." Mel leaned back in her chair, her expression one of complete shock. "You did, didn't you? You're not lying. Why didn't you tell us?"

"I knew you'd make fun of me." Kera's grin turned to pure wickedness. "But I couldn't help myself. That man is male perfection, and I know I could fall in love with him."

"Love," I scoffed, but my disdain was more from the image of Royce and Kera living happily ever after than from my hatred of the emotion. I was beginning to believe love had been created by the devil himself. What better way to get people to make fools of themselves?

Kera pushed a honey-colored tendril of hair from her forehead. "One day we'll all find men who love us, who we can trust with our hopes and dreams. Men who-"

My laugh cut her off. "The idea of a loving, caring, trustworthy male is too ludicrous to contemplate even for a second."

"Hear, hear," Mel seconded. She'd experienced her fair share of broken hearts. In fact, she'd inflicted her fair share of broken hearts, but that was beside the point. We were man bashing, not airing our own dirty secrets.

"There's nothing special about love. It sucks and it's messy." I hated to disillusion Kera, but she needed to know the truth. The longer she drifted through life thinking her true love waited just beyond the corner, the more she risked getting hurt.

And, to be honest, I hated the thought of Kera's sweetheartedness being obliterated by a walking penis.

"I refuse to believe love means nothing," she said. "Just because you thought you were in love with Richard the Bastard doesn't mean you had actually found your true love. Your soul mate is out there, Naomi, just waiting for you to find him."

Lord, I hoped not.

However, a wave of trepidation washed over me as Royce's perfectly chiseled face filled my mind. I quickly brushed the sensation-and the image-aside. I didn't believe in soul mates. Not anymore. My mom had thought my real dad was her soul mate the entire ten years they'd been married. That's why she took him back every time he hit her. Every time he cheated on her. Still, I couldn't deny that when I'd fallen into Royce's arms, the contact had been electric; something I'd never experienced before. Not even with my ex.

But that didn't mean Royce was my soul mate.

"So, when do you see the delectable Mr. Powell again?" Kera asked.

I lifted my shoulders in a shrug, trying to act casual. "Tomorrow." Oh, God. Tomorrow. I gulped. I wasn't sure I would survive our next meeting.

Mel nibbled on the edge of her bagel. "Mmm, I'll want all the delectable details, of course."

With the word delectable ringing in my mind, my gaze strayed once more to the newspaper photo. I just couldn't help myself. The camera had managed to capture Royce's raw masculinity, but the film failed to reveal the blatant sexuality that oozed from his every pore.

"I can give you all the details right now," I told them, using my next words as a vow to myself. "Nothing's going to happen between Royce and me because I won't let it."

Circling a fingertip over the rim of her glass, Mel said, "Whatever you say, you dirty sex kitten."

I pinched the bride of my nose. I wished to God I could add Royce's name to my To Be Avoided list. He was causing trouble already. Truly, a smart woman would have called him and ended all association. But with my new motto-I'll Plan a Party in Your Ass if the Price Is Right-I had to stick it out.

"I, for one, am grateful Royce entered your life. He's causing your sex drive to finally kick into gear." Mel drained the last of her juice. "About time, too."

"Hey, did you read this part? I missed it earlier." Kera suddenly grabbed the paper. She hooked a lock of hair behind her ear. "Royce actually lists the qualities he wants in his wife."

"I've read it." I grabbed another muffin, mimicking: "She must share my interest in backgammon. She cannot complain too much. If she doesn't speak at all, even better. And she absolutely must love the color green." Disgusted, I shook my head. "That's either meant to be a joke or the man needs intense psychotherapy."

"You know," Kera said, brightening, "we need a list like this."

"A stupid one?" I asked.

Kera pursed her lips. "No, a list of requirements."

"What for? Mel's taken. I'm not looking. And you, well, all you have to do is breathe to gain a man's attention." Which was true. She and Mel might be identical, but there was an innocent sensuality to Kera that somehow personified the term wet dream. Men went crazy for her.

"Actually, I'm a free woman now," Mel said, not an ounce of remorse in her tone. "So I'm on the prowl."

I couldn't hide my surprise. "What happened to Harry? Last I heard, you two were hot and heavy."

"I dumped him. He kept asking to borrow my panties." She shook her head, blond hair dancing with the movement. "It wouldn't have been so bad, except he wanted them so he could wear them."

Nose crinkled, Kera wiggled until her legs were folded under her. "I never liked him. He was too...funky."

"What kind of name is Harry Johnson, anyway?" Mel said. "What could I use as an endearment? Woody?"

"I think Harry Johnson is a great name," I said, deadpan. "As long as he's got a father named Peter and a brother named Dick."

Mel chuckled. "Let's not talk about Harry, Harry, the Panty Wearer, okay?"

"I'd rather talk about our list." Propping her elbows on the tabletop, Kera regarded us with expectation. "I want to make one with our top ten requirements for Mr. Right."

"That sounds fun," Mel replied dryly. She clapped her hands with mock excitement.

"A Mr. Right list has been done by every woman in America and they all say the same thing," I said, then rattled off the usual handsome, charming, blah, blah, blah. "What we need is a list for Mr. Wrong."


"Like how to spot a loser..." Mel nodded, getting into the game. "I love it. Let's do it!"

Kera said, "We all know how much you like to make lists, Naomi, so you're in charge of writing everything down."

Getting into the spirit of things myself, I stood, gathered a sheet of paper and a pencil and plopped back down at the table. "Ready."

"I know what number one should be," Kera said. "Unemployed."

"That's so cliche." Pensive, Mel tapped a finger on her chin. "We have to think creatively." Pause. Gasp. "Number one should be a man who says we'd look great in our clothes if we'd just lose ten pounds."

"Bastard," I growled. I'd heard the opposite from Richard, but I completely understood the sentiment. You'd look great if you'd just put on some weight, Naomi. Have you ever considered a boob job, Naomi? Your ass bone is killing me, Naomi, maybe you should get off my lap and sit over there. "That's perfect."

"The man I dated before Harry had a lazy eye," Mel said. She licked her lips, snagging a bagel crumb. "Make that number two. A man with a lazy eye."

"There's nothing wrong with a lazy eye," I said, meeting her gaze.

"There is when one eye stares at your boobs and the other at your crotch."

"Okay, okay." Kera uttered a chuckle. "Number three. A man who thinks quality time is a quickie during commercials."

I lifted my orange juice in salute. "Hear, hear."

"Number four." Mel folded her arms over her stomach. "A man who tells you he can't go out in daylight with you because he's too sensitive to the sunlight, but later you find out he only said that because he's married with four children and-"

"Whoa, there. Rein it in," I said on a laugh. She was growling with the force of her increasing fury. I eased back in my seat and propped the notepad in my lap. "I think lying bastard will cover number four."

She drew in a deep breath, then another. More calmly, she said, "With this year's crop, I think we need to add men who belch and scratch in public. And never shave! I hate the way beard stubble burns my cheeks."

"Excellent," I said, writing in her requirements. But I have to admit, I kind of like the feel of beard stubble. Okay, I really like to feel a man's stubble. It makes for some delicious friction. Maybe I'd cross that one out when I was alone.

"What about a man who can't listen?" Kera glanced around the table, waiting for nods of approval.

"That works for me," Mel said. "I once dated a man who fell asleep every time I opened my mouth. Well, unless I was using my mouth to-"

"We get the picture, and it's a bit too vivid." Kera shook her head and rolled her eyes.

Mel shrugged. "Your loss. What number are we on?"

My gaze scrolled down the list. "Seven. I've got it covered, though. A man who thinks the perfect birthday present is allowing you to put the dishes off for a day."

Both women stared over at me with wide eyes. A tinkling laugh escaped from Mel's lips. How could such an angelic sound come from such a devilish woman? "You're kidding, right?" she demanded.

"I wish."

"Did Richard the Bastard give you that extra special gem of a gift?"

"On more than one birthday."

"How has that man's karma not killed him?" Scowling, she pounded her fist on the tabletop, causing glasses to shake and juice to splatter. "In Naomi's honor, I say we add any man whose name begins with R."

That eliminated Royce, I thought happily. I was not upset. Really. "I second that," I said, adding it to the list, circling it and putting three stars beside it.

"I third." Kera tapped her chin with a manicured finger. "I also say we add a man who refuses to wear a condom because it inhibits his pleasure."

"Oh, that's good. That's very good." I gave the list another glance; "Okay," I said, "we need one more requirement, then we'll have ten." When no one answered, I said, "What's it gonna be, girls?"

Mel jumped up. I could practically see the lightbulb shining over her head. "I know! A man who leaves you unsatisfied in bed, concerned only with his own orgasm."

I smiled. "Well, I do believe we've just eliminated every man on the planet earth."