When two primal jungle animals come face-to-face, they will fight until the weaker one admits defeat. A true Tigress meets every challenge with wit, cunning and blood instinct.
I spent the next hour perched in that stiff-backed chair from hell, reading old issues of City Girl. I really enjoyed the article titled Breasts: To Buy or Not To Buy. My own were small. I often called them "the Wonders." (I wondered if they were even there.) Obviously after reading the article, I was leaning toward buying.
I only wish there'd been an article on BOTOX. I had already passed the dreaded three-oh and was beginning to notice fine lines. I'm too young for lines of any kind. And, I admit, I like to look my best at all times. I'm not vain or anything like that. It's just, when I first found out Richard had cheated on me, I'd felt so...ugly. So unwanted and unnecessary. So disposable. Like a filthy piece of garbage that smelled rotten and oozed disgusting black stuff.
I didn't like feeling that way-for obvious reasons-and still had to fight for every scrap of self-confidence I could get.
I shifted in my chair yet again.
Finally-thank you, Lord, finally-Elvira, Handmaiden of Lucifer, approached me. "Are you Naomi?" she asked, as if I hadn't already given her my name. Twice. When I didn't reply fast enough, she added snidely, "Well, are you?"
I knew she hadn't forgotten me so soon, so I stubbornly refused to answer.
She got the hint. "Your name isn't listed," she grumbled, her pale, matte-finished lips thin with irritation. "However, Mr. Powell will see you anyway."
It pained me to say, "Thank you," but I said it with a straight face. I even threw in, "I appreciate your efforts on my behalf," though it nearly killed me to utter the words in a civil tone.
I was striving so diligently to appear forgiving and professional because, as I mentioned earlier, I really needed this job. My bills were stacking up and I did not like the thought of losing my bottom-level apartment and having to move back in with my mom and stepdad. Especially since Jonathan enjoys psychoanalyzing my every action. Like I really need to know the reason I ran away from home at the age of sixteen was because my mom hadn't breast-fed me. I love the man, but please. I'd run away (for all of six hours) because my mom hadn't let me date Aarin Bower, the hottest boy to attend my high school. Duh.
"Follow me," Elvira said, turning in one fluid motion.
"Follow me," I silently mimicked.
She flicked me a narrowed, backward glance.
My eyes widened innocently. What? I mentally projected. She bared her teeth in a scowl before turning back around. Obviously, the woman had unleashed her own inner Tigress long ago.
I marched behind her, remembering to keep my shoulders squared and breasts pushed forward. Wits, cunning and blood instinct. I'd wield all three from this point on.
My shoes sank into the plush off-white carpet. A starched, almost sterile aroma clung to the air, as if the office lacked any type of personal touch. Judging from the employees I'd met so far, maybe that was a good thing.
Elvira swung open the heavy double doors, holding them forward and out of the way while I glided past. In the next instant, Royce Powell came into view-and the rest of my day tumbled straight into the deepest, darkest depths of hell. My eyes met his and my step faltered. I stumbled. (And this time, it had nothing to do with my shoes!)
I steadied myself, fighting the urge to drop everything I was doing and simply nibble on him. Really, truly nibble. As in, sink my teeth into naked flesh. Run my tongue over every inch and hollow. This is why I hadn't returned his calls. This is why I hadn't wanted to meet with him in person. With only a look, he sizzled my hormones and knocked me out of my comfort zone.
He probably didn't remember (or maybe he did, since he'd called me?), but we'd crossed paths six months ago at the first party I'd planned on my own. We hadn't spoken, but he'd glanced in my direction once or twice, and I'd salivated.
The man was absolutely, one hundred percent edible.
After years and years of dealing with Richard, aka Whore Hound from Hell, I liked to think of myself as immune to testosterone. But this man radiated sex like a blinking neon sign that said, "Come get a piece of this." I felt like a big, fat sexual appetizer screaming for a little down-and-dirty attention. I had the urge to slowly strip and swing from a pole. Maybe offer to give him a lap dance.
How pathetic was I?
Royce Powell was in his mid-thirties, possibly early forties. He had bronze skin. Electric, pale blue eyes-that were watching me intently. My stomach clenched. Did I still have dirt on my face? His nose was straight, his lips full, soft and completely kissable. A shadow of dark stubble lined his jaw, giving him a rugged quality that only added to his appeal. His broad shoulders were encased in an expensive Italian suit.
He was a combination of George Clooney shaken together with Josh Wald and a splash of Brad Pitt on the side. Did I mention how much I love to look at Brad Pitt? Maybe I'm not so immune to testosterone, after all.
Royce offered me a sexy smile of greeting.
My senses reeled and my mouth went dry; a lump formed in my throat. That smile... it was lethal. Pure lady-killer. Run, my mind shouted. Get out of here.
Where were my wits? My cunning? My blood instinct?
I would soon be chatting with this perfect man, maybe even shaking his perfect hand. At the thought, my nervous system kicked into high gear. How could I shake his hand when my own felt like a swamp? I had to do something to calm my nerves. But what? My stepdad's advice to "picture those who make you nervous completely naked" didn't apply here.
I slapped a polite smile on my face and decided then and there to think of him as a turkey-and-cheese-on-rye sandwich. I did not like turkey and cheese. I hated rye.
He rose, his gaze lowering and lingering on my lips, and held out one hand. We shook. When he pulled back, he wiped his palm on his slacks before reclaiming his seat.
My professional expression never wavered.
I cleared my throat. "I realize I'm seeing you later than scheduled," I said, just in case Elvira, Queen of the Damned, hadn't let him know of my early arrival, "but I'd like it noted that I did, in fact, arrive on time." Tardiness was one of the biggest sins in the world, in my estimation.
His smile grew wide with amusement. "So noted."
My knees almost buckled. His smile was bad enough, but throw in that voice and good God! Its deep, husky timbre flowed as smooth and rich as expensive brandy. He'd spoken only moments before, but he hadn't spoken like this. All husky and low, as if he were lying in bed after a vigorous session of sex. Raunchy, I-screamed-my-brains-out sex.
He watched me for a long, silent moment. Then, "Please-" he motioned with his chin "-have a seat."
Nodding, I eased down and set my briefcase aside. "I hope you don't mind my asking, but where's your mom? I didn't see her leave."
He didn't seem put out by my question; in fact he appeared even more amused by me. "She went out the side door."
"Oh." Smart woman. She wouldn't have to deal with Elvira again. "I spoke with her over the phone last Friday," I said, getting down to business. I'm calm. I'm professional. "I'm not sure I fully understood the facts. She wants me to plan a surprise party, doesn't she?"
"Yet she also stated that the party was to be given in her honor."
"Don't try to understand her. It will only drive you insane." He didn't offer any other information. He just gave me another of those I'm-the-best-lay-you'll-ever-have smiles.
Was the ground shaking? "When I spoke with her, we didn't have a chance to discuss my fee." The most important matter, to my way of thinking.
"Money isn't a problem," he said, his eyes again roving to my mouth.
My cheeks heated. I had to get to a mirror ASAP and make sure I still didn't have dirt on my face. "I can't in good conscience continue until we've agreed upon-"
"Whatever the party costs," he interjected, silencing my protest, "I'll pay it."
Was he that enthused about celebrating his mom's next step closer to death's door? Or did he love her so much he wanted the woman happy, whatever the cost? "Mr. Powell, that's not a wise thing to tell a woman who hasn't yet named her price."
"True." He chuckled. "Why don't you work out the specifics and fax me an estimate."
I nodded. "Excellent."
"Good. Now, please, call me Royce. And I'll call you Naomi."
My name on his lips somehow seemed too sensual, like a mating call of some sort-a mating call my sexually bankrupt body definitely heard. I clamped my mouth shut before I did something stupid, like say out loud that yes, I'd have his babies. I managed another nod.
A high-pitched beep sounded a split second before I heard Elvira, Harpy of Doom, say, "Mr. Powell, Mr. Phillips is on line one."
Royce rubbed a hand down his suddenly weary face. "Will you excuse me for a moment?" he said to me. "I have to take this."
"Of course. Should I wait in the lobby?"
"No, stay where you are." He picked up the phone and swiveled his chair so that I saw only its back and the top of his dark head. "Do you have the figures yet?" Pause. He growled low in his throat. "That's why you called? Yes." Pause. "The one." Pause. "Yes. Glad." Pause. "You know I'll do what it takes to win."
Glad about what? Win what? Man, listening to a phone conversation when you could only hear one side of it sucked. Big-time.
"I'm in a meeting right now." Pause. "Yes." Pause. "Goodbye. Idiot," he muttered. He spun around and replaced the phone, his gaze on me, going all intent again. "Sorry. I'm in the middle of an acquisition, a merger of sorts." He waved his hand through the air. "Anyway, I wish I had more time to meet with you today," he said, with what sounded like genuine regret in his voice, "but unfortunately, I have appointments lined up all morning and I can't get out of them. Why don't I call you in a few days and we'll set up another meeting?"
At his words, a fine mist of red shrouded my vision. Yet despite my anger, my first instinct was to politely accept his offer and leave. Just like in the lobby, however, I squashed the urge to capitulate. I would not be a doormat. Not anymore. I'd spent cab money, had my purse stolen and had waited for over an hour. I wasn't leaving without finishing this meeting.
My fists tightened on the armrests of my chair. I'm a Tigress. "Mr. Powell, we haven't gone over a single detail yet."
"I want you to call me Royce, remember. Mr. Powell makes me sound like my father. And we'll have to go over the details another day."
"Royce." Be strong. Assert yourself. "I waited out there for over an hour."
"I only learned of our meeting a few moments before you stepped inside my office. I apologize for any inconvenience you've suffered."
Inconvenience? That red mist shrouding my vision became a boiling inferno. His apology didn't bring back my jacket or my favorite tube of lipstick. Teeth grinding together, I said, "Can't you spare ten minutes? That's all it will take. I have a list of questions-"
"My mother's visit threw me off schedule, and I'm afraid I can't even spare five." O-kay. Message received. Obviously, he was giving me the brush-off. He wasn't going to hire me and was eager to get rid of me. I found myself reaching out and lifting a notepad from the edge of his desk. I began itemizing my time, my purse, my lipstick (with twenty dollars extra tacked on for sentimental value), a new pair of shoes and, what the hell, a dry-cleaning bill.
"What are you doing?" He tapped the shattered edge of a pencil against his knee.
"I generally build the meet-and-greet into my original costs, but I'm making an exception for you. Here's my invoice for today's meeting." I ripped off the paper and handed it to him.
His eyes gleamed with curiosity as he read it. That curiosity was quickly replaced by amusement. "Lipstick?"
"My purse was stolen outside the building and my favorite tube was inside."
He frowned, losing all hint of amusement. "I'll have security look into it. That will not happen again."
Pause. Then, "Is it okay if I mail you a check?" he asked.
"Yes." Like I'd ever see the money. "Of course."
"I'll make time for you another day, you have my word. In fact, I'll devote a full day to you and the party."
Liar, I wanted to say. "Fine," I said, giving up.
Exhibit A, my inner Tigress said. You're a weakling. Fight. Make him talk to you now. Don't let him kick you out like this.
"I'm so glad you'll make time for me," I added, ignoring my Tigress. "That's great. Wonderful." I handed him a business card, confident I'd never hear from him again. "Here's my number. Call me when you're ready to get together."
He took it, giving the surface a cursory glance. "On second thought, I do have something I want to go over before you leave."
"Won't that take up too much of your precious time?" I mentally patted myself on the back for that one, even while I kicked myself for such blatant sarcasm. The man had many influential friends who might one day need a party planner. But damn it, my knees still ached.
"For this, I'll make an exception," he said. "I have a stipulation you need to agree to before I officially hire you."
Officially hire me? I gulped. O-kay perhaps he did plan to get in touch with me later on. Oopsie. "Stipulation?" I asked, breathless.
"Prerequisite. Condition. Term."
"Thank you, but I know what a stipulation is."
"While you're working for me," he continued smoothly, "I want my mother's party to be your first and only priority."
Every muscle in my body stiffened. I should have realized this the moment I stepped inside the office, but it just now hit me. The man is a Triple C. Corporate. Controlling. And a total Commando. "I'm sure, as a businessman, you understand my unwillingness to allow someone to take my business decisions away from me."
"Yes," he conceded, but didn't rescind his request.
Make that Triple C slash Single B. Bastard. "I promise you, I'm quite capable of handling several functions at once."
"I didn't say you weren't."
"Never have I allowed one event to overshadow another." Not that I'd ever had enough events at one time to worry about it.
"I don't doubt your ability."
I nearly stomped my foot in vexation as he waited patiently for my agreement. "If you're going to insist on this-"
"-then I suppose I'm forced to accept." I truly hoped one day soon someone would put Royce Powell in his place. Under a woman's three-inch spiked heel!
As if he read my thoughts, he flashed me a not-in-this-lifetime grin.
My blood instinct must have finally kicked in because my palm itched to slap it right off him. Jonathan, my stepdad, would have told me this rare bout of violence was because my teenage need to rebel was resurfacing, or something equally stupid.
"So we have a deal?" Royce asked.
"First, I have a stipulation of my own," I said. "I expect dou-triple my normal fee because I'll be turning clients away. It's only fair."
He wasn't balking? Why wasn't he balking? His easy acquiescence shocked me and nearly toppled me out of my chair. Maybe I should have asked for more. "So I'm officially hired, without having faxed an estimate and at triple my normal fee?"
"Yes. Don't forget, I have your first invoice." He waved the paper I'd given him. "Shall we triple it now or later?"
"Later is fine." I almost hugged him. Almost. "Whenever you're free, give me a call. There are certain details we'll need to go over before I can begin preparations." With nothing left to say, I stood.
He ran a finger over the calendar on his desk and frowned. "Well, damn. For the next two weeks, I'm booked. I'll be in Arizona acquiring a Piper Dakota-an airplane," he explained, "and I can't reschedule. How about Tuesday, the sixteenth? Twelve o'clock?"
When I nodded, he added, "Well have lunch at Mykal's."
"That's fine," I said, not the least surprised he could get a reservation at the famous Italian restaurant on such short notice. It usually took two months for the little people, if they got in at all. I should know.
He rose and stepped around the desk, holding out his hand, intending to shake.
Forgetting I now wore flats, I attempted to take the steps that brought us together. Only, the heel of one shoe knocked the toe of the other. Without warning, I stumbled straight into him.
Not again! My momentum pushed him back against his desk. I landed with both hands clutching the hard muscles of his thighs, my head perilously close to his crotch.
His arms wrapped around my waist to steady me. I should have jumped away, but I didn't. I lingered... and lingered. My gaze remained glued on the center of his pants, widening as he-no, surely not. He was not getting an erection. His slacks were not inching toward my face.
With a gentle tug, he forced me to stand, though he didn't completely release me. His hands tarried on my arms, warm and callused and oh, so delicious. The scent of unadulterated sin enveloped me. His eyebrows furrowed together and I could tell he didn't know quite what to do with me.
As reality settled in, I jolted away from him. Holy Mother of God, what was wrong with me? I'd come so close to making this man-this ultra-rich, ultra-sexy man with lots of influential friends-a eunuch. And I'd enjoyed it. I needed to be committed.
"I'm so sorry." When I noticed the papers that had been neatly stacked upon his desk were now scattered across the floor, my mortification increased. Only me. This would only happen to me.
I placed my briefcase aside and crouched down, gathering the papers and photos. All of the pictures were of women, and strangely, every woman wore green-or nothing at all.
"I'm so sorry," I told him again, chin canting to the side. Was that woman slathered in green pudding? And was she actually licking her own arm? What kind of kinky shit was this man into? "I didn't-"
"It's all right," he said, his tone pleasant, not the least put out.
I relaxed the tense grip I had on the stack of papers/porn. "Did I damage anything important?" My god, that woman was bending over and eating from a box of Lucky Charms.
"No." He chuckled. "The most important item is still intact."
I felt a blush creep from my forehead to collarbone. I forgot Royce's implication, though, when I spotted the photo of the woman naked and spread-eagle on a lush pile of leaves.
"Here. No reason for you to do that," he said. He bent and gently swiped the items from my hands, his fingers brushing mine. "I'll get those later."
His touch startled me. Electrified me. I jolted away from him for the second time as if he were some type of radioactive waste. Turkey on rye. Turkey on rye. My hands shook as I picked up one of the photos still lying on the floor. In it, a female crouched on all fours, a pair of green cat ears peeking from her blond hair.
"It's my fault," I said, staring at the photo, "so I'll help pick up." What would I find next? Naked green mud wrestling?
"No. I mean it. That's not necessary." This time his answer was curt, almost angry sounding, and he ripped the picture away from my grip.
What had I done now?
It was then I realized exactly what I'd held. Applications from all of the women who wanted to be Mrs. Powell. No wonder he was trying to get rid of me. He didn't want me to see the naked candidates.
I uttered a raspy, embarrassed cough. "I guess this is goodbye, then." Straightening, I spun around and raced for the exit.
"Yes?" I stopped, but didn't turn back. Had he felt the same flare of awareness that had nearly incinerated me? Would he ask me out? I'd have to turn him down, of course. He was a client. Only once before had I dated a client. Richard. The effects of that relationship had taught me three valuable lessons I'd never, ever forget.
One: no sleeping with clients.
Two: no getting naked with clients.
Three: no doing the nasty tango all night long with clients.
Yet I couldn't stop the rush of pleasure that hit me at the thought that such a magnificent man might be attracted to me. Tense, I gripped the fabric of my skirt and waited for his next words.
"What's your favorite color?" he asked.
Unexpectedly, my heart sank. I admit it. I'd wanted him to ask me out. Just because I planned to say no didn't mean an invitation was unwelcome.
"Naomi?" he said again.
I realized I hadn't answered him. "My favorite color is blue. Why?"
"No reason." There was an edge of satisfaction in his voice.
I started for the door again.
I paused. Anticipation rushed through me. This was it. The next words out of his mouth would be an invitation to dinner. I knew it. I felt it. "Yes?" The word emerged as a breathless whisper.
"Don't forget your briefcase."