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Animal Instincts (Chapter Four)

A Tigress marks her territory and cuts down anyone who dares enter. Poachers must learn the error of their ways or they will continue to enter the forbidden land, hoping to find a wounded cat to enslave. Fight. Never give an inch.

The resonant vibrato of the doorbell sounded, capturing my attention.

Who could that be? Because I'd agreed not to take on any new clients, I had nothing to do for the rest of the day and had decided to work out to my favorite T-Tapp DVD (I hoped to build some muscle tone), so was dressed in cutoff shorts and a sports bra.

Frowning, I padded across the shiny wood floor. I didn't want to deal with guests.

The bell sounded again. And again. And again. My frown became a scowl. Did people really think ringing the bell over and over like that would make me open the door faster? All it did was irritate the hell out of me.

I glanced through the peephole. When I saw who stood in the hallway, the breath caught in my lungs. I froze. Shit. Shit! Royce Powell was here. Visiting me.

"Oh, my God," I gasped out, hand tightening on the doorknob. What was he doing here? I looked horrible. No makeup. Hair a wreck. "Shit."

He rang the doorbell again, but I didn't open the door. I'd let him think I was gone. Yes, I decided, nodding. That was a good plan. He'd go away.

"I know you're there, Naomi," he said on a laugh. "Open the door, you little potty mouth."

I ducked away from the peephole, realized what I'd done and straightened. He could hear me, but he couldn't see me. I gazed through the hole again and gulped. Had he appeared so rugged and sexy the last time I'd seen him?

A shiver stole over me, and I forced myself to think of a turkey-and-cheese on rye. My diversion tactic didn't work. A hard knot formed in my throat, even as a delicious warmth spread through my stomach.

How pathetic was I? Acting like a sex-starved… Hey! I was a sex-starved woman and he was total eye candy, so I had every right to lust after him. All it meant was that I was a normal, healthy woman. Nothing to be ashamed of. Nothing to get in a panic over. I straightened my shoulders. What did it matter if he saw me looking my worst? Seeing disgust in his eyes as he looked at me might do me some good, help rid me of my growing obsession with him. At least I didn't have dirt on my face this time.

I pasted on a false smile and opened the door. The scent of man and sandalwood instantly wafted to my nostrils. My eyes gobbled him up. Royce wore a dark blue suit that probably cost more than I made in a year. No predictable tie hung from his neck. Instead, the top two buttons of his shirt were open, revealing a small patch of dark, bronzed skin.

A casual appearance, really, on any man except Royce.

His midnight brows winged in amusement. "Do I pass inspection?"

That hard knot of embarrassment fell from my throat and into my stomach, obliterating all hint of tingling warmth. "I wasn't staring at you," I said, scouring my mind for a plausible explanation. "I was lost in thought about something completely unrelated to you." Genius, Naomi. You idiot.

His eyes gleamed bright and he coughed. Hoping to cover a laugh? "I see."

I scowled. "How did you get my address? And what are you doing here? Our meeting isn't today."

His gave a casual shrug. "It's not hard to find someone these days, and my schedule cleared. I'm not due back in the office until tomorrow and thought we could spend the day together, as promised. Talk business." With a pointed stare, he asked, "Are you going to invite me in?"

Royce. Inside my home. Alone. With me. A resounding No! almost roared past my lips. I bit it back. There wasn't a polite way to refuse him.

Damn it.

"Fine. Whatever." I sighed, letting him know-discreetly, of course-that I wasn't exactly pleased with the idea.

A wide smile lit his face. "Well, which is it? Your tone says no but your lips say yes."

It didn't bode well for either of us that I wanted to strangle him and de-pants him at the same time. In lieu of an answer, I stepped back, allowing him to breeze past me. It was only then, as his body brushed innocently against mine, that I realized my nipples were hard. Really hard. As in, could-poke-his-eyes-out hard. And because of my sports bra, he would have to be blind not to notice.

Royce wasn't blind.

I barely managed to stop myself from cursing. I slapped my hands over my breasts as if the desperate action could make me magically disappear. "I'm not dressed properly."

It was such an obvious statement, I expected him to give a flippant "no shit" reply.

Instead, he turned and flashed me another wicked grin. "I noticed. Don't change on my account." His eyebrows wiggled suggestively in a way that would have made me laugh in a different situation. "I like you this way."

Then his gaze turned bold and assessing, and my heart hammered in my chest as if a little elf had suddenly decided to use the organ for drum practice. Royce didn't look disgusted by my appearance as I'd hoped-and dreaded, I admit. No, he truly did look admiring.

My knees almost collapsed. "I'll just be a moment," I muttered, pivoting. I paused. With my back to him-I didn't have the courage to face him again-I motioned to the left with a wave of my hand. "Have a seat in the living room."

A light pad of footsteps echoed behind me as I stomped to my room. I peeled off the spandex and shorts, letting the ultra-tight material sink to the floor. As fast as my hands could work, I pulled on a pair of black slacks and a tailored white blouse.

I anchored the long length of my dark hair in a tight, no-nonsense twist. As a lowly party planner/former doormat, I wasn't generally seen as a serious entrepreneur, so I used every trick I knew to make myself appear stern and unbending.

My gaze scanned my room, searching for my black shoes. I only had one pair, and at the moment, they were nowhere to be seen. I darted about, furthering my search. After a few minutes, I gave up. I didn't like leaving Royce unsupervised, and I refused to wear brown shoes with black pants. A fashion diva I wasn't, but even I had standards. I'd go barefoot. At least my toes were painted a pretty metallic blue. Yes, blue. I'm not the pink-polish kind of girl.

I headed back into the living room, not ready to face my nemesis but knowing I had no other choice.

"Royce," I said, my tone just as no-nonsense as my hair. He was seated on the couch, looking decadent against the red satin pillows. I claimed the chair across from him. "I don't mean to be rude, but you shouldn't be here. This is my home, not my place of business. Besides, our appointment is scheduled for tomorrow."

He leaned back in a carefree pose, watching me, studying. "I decided to change it."

No, no, no, I thought, I won't have any of that Triple C behavior in my house. "You can't just change your mind at whim," I told him, exasperated. "What if I had other plans today?"

"Do you?"

Not wanting to answer, I glanced away. My eyes focused on the Mr. Wrong list sitting mere inches from Royce's view. Crap! Had he read it? My cheeks heated at the thought.

"Well?" he asked.

"Well, what?" What I really wanted to say was "If you read that list I'm going to flay the skin from your bones and feed your organs to my neighbor's cat."

"Do you have plans today?" he asked again.

"Yes." No.

"Try again, T-Tapp. You planned to stay in, admit it."

I uttered a soft growl. "It doesn't matter if I did or didn't. Our appointment is tomorrow."

"I know, and I'm sorry." His relaxed stance never wavered. He looked as if he had every right to lounge on my couch like a king expecting his every sensual command to be heeded. "I spent the last two weeks trying to work a deal that never panned out, and I'm on edge. I thought spending the day with you would help wind me down."

Wind him down? What, was I so boring that being with me acted as a sedative? "You could have called first," I said sweetly. Okay, I had grumbled, and I wasn't sweet about it. "A little warning would have gone a long way."

He chuckled. "Your enthusiasm is touching. It really is. I don't think I've ever felt so welcome."

"I'm sorry," I said on a sigh. I really needed to show this man I possessed some professionalism. So far, he'd only seen my worst.

"You were desperate to go over your list of questions last time we were together, so I assumed you'd be happy to see me." He rose from the couch, closed the distance between us in three quick strides and knelt at my feet. Suddenly we were eye to eye.

I straightened in my seat. Red alert! Turkey on rye. Turkey on rye.

He clasped my chin in his deliciously calloused hands and tilted my head up. "Your schedule is clear, Naomi, and so is mine. I didn't think it would be a problem. If you want me to leave, tell me to leave and I'm gone."

Up close, he was even more handsome. Bright blue eyes that were flecked with ribbons of darker indigo. Lush, soft lips that would look even better attached to my body. Long, spiky lashes that cast shadows on his cheeks, blending with his slight beard stubble. My defenses melted. Client? Who cared. Triple C? Bring ' em on. Royce just, well, he smelled so good. So masculine.

A deep, primal part of me responded to him, wanted more of him. A part of me did miss the touch of a man, the kissing and the tasting. The heat and the passion.

No, I didn't want him to leave.

I cleared my throat. "You're the boss, right? If you want to work today, we'll work today." Jerking from his touch before I did something stupid like jump into his arms and demand he find my nearest G-spot, I swiftly maneuvered to my feet.

"Let's go to the kitchen," I said. The dangerously small width of air that separated us wasn't nearly enough for my peace of mind. "Would you like something to drink?" I didn't wait for his answer. I just strode away, forcing him to follow or be left alone.

He followed.

Once the kitchen counter stood between us, I felt myself begin to relax, regain control. Even when he sat at the bar stool, watching me, filling me with an achiness I didn't want to acknowledge, I didn't lose my calm.

I concentrated on rifling through the drawer stuffed with miscellaneous items. When I found a blank notebook, I set it in front of me, almost as a shield.

"As you mentioned, I do have a list of questions-"

He cut me off. "Why don't you sit over here?" He gave the stool beside him a pat. When I didn't move, just blinked over at him, he added, "That way I won't have to strain to hear you."

"Your hearing is fine."

"What was that?" he asked, cupping his hand over his ear.

"I said your hearing is fine."

"Speak a little louder." He was clearly struggling not to grin. "I can't hear you."

I regarded him for a long, silent moment. "You are such a faker," I uttered on a sigh, dragging my feet to the chair, making sure our knees didn't touch. Making sure no part of us touched, for that matter. I scooted back as far as I could go. Why he wanted me to sit by him, I didn't know. Was he just trying to be friendly? Did he hope to relax me? Was he attracted to me?

I cleared my throat. "Question one."

He didn't cut me off this time. Oh no. My words simply tapered off, lingering unfinished in the air as he leaned over, diminishing the distance between us. He sniffed the air at my neck.

"What are you doing?" I asked, hating the breathless quality that had entered my voice.

Instead of answering, he asked a question of his own. "What's that smell?"

I froze. What? Did I really smell so distasteful he had only to lean in my direction to catch a putrid whiff of me? I stayed the urge to break his freaking nose for pointing out my stinkiness.

He sniffed again. "I can't place it."

"How bad is it?" I asked, my cheeks heating.

"It's good. Some kind of flower."

My first thought: Hurray! I don't stink.

My second: Ohmygod!

Was he making a pass at me? Cranky, bitter little me? Yes, had to be. Excitement unfurled through my veins-not that I'd acknowledge it. This was shocking, really. Maybe my hooker lips truly were irresistible. Maybe-

Wait. Hold everything. I was studying Royce's features. They were blank, no hint of a leer. No hint of desire. Only curiosity. I must have misread his intentions. My (unacknowledged) excitement died a slow death. According to the Tattler, he might have a girlfriend. Gwendolyn Summers, to be exact. Of course he wasn't hitting on me.

"Does the perfume have a name?" he asked.

"I'm not wearing perfume. You either smell my shampoo or my deodorant." I bit my lip as soon as the last word left my mouth. Maybe saying he smelled my deodorant was tantamount to telling him he smelled my BO.

The notebook balanced on my knees plopped to the ground, providing a much needed distraction. I bent down and picked it up, never once looking at him as I settled back into place. I clutched the notebook to my chest. "Okay, let's get to question one."

"Your eyes are silver," he said suddenly, as if the color were some kind of surprise. "A liquid silver, really."

I gulped, hard. Shook my head. Okay, what the hell was going on here? One minute it seemed like he was hitting on me, the next it didn't and the next it did again. Was he or wasn't he? "They're gray," I finally responded.

"They're beautiful."

"Thank you," I said, my heart skipping a beat. Turkey on rye. "Now, question one. How many guests do you plan to invite to your mother's party?"

He watched me silently for several seconds and must have decided I'd cut off his most precious appendage if he uttered another compliment, because he shrugged and said, "Fifty. Maybe a hundred or two."

"Well, that certainly narrows it down, doesn't it?" I replied dryly, making a notation. "I'll need a list of each individual name and address."

"How soon do you need it?"

"Sometime within the next few days would be great. You know," I said as a thought occurred to me, "once we go over the details, should I call your mom for approval of our choices?"

"Absolutely not." His tone was firm, unbending. "She'll second-guess everything."

"Technically, she is the one who hired me."

"I tried to hire you, but you never returned my calls. More than that, I'm the one paying you."

I ignored the censure in his tone about the unreturned calls. "That's good enough for me. She'll never hear a peep from me." Moving on. "Is there a specific caterer you'd prefer?"

"No. Whoever you normally use will be fine."

"Excellent." Deep breath. Let it out. We had a nice business rhythm going, those trickles of sexual attraction dissolved. I'd ask Kera to cater the party on the condition she use only the food items I approved. Which meant nothing exotic would be on the menu. "What about decorations? Will your mom want something simple, elegant or traditional party style?"

He rubbed his temple and sighed. "Elegant, most likely."

That had been my guess, though sometimes clients surprised me. I once planned a bachelorette party for a seventy-three-year-old woman. She'd wanted strippers, condom hats and zucchini trays. "Is there a particular symbol or theme she prefers? Anything she collects? Loves?"

"Jewelry. She can't get enough of it."

I paused, pen poised over notepad, as images drifted through my mind. "You know, I could make the location look like a jewelry box." Last time I'd shopped for decorations, I'd seen giant faux diamond rings. They would make excellent centerpieces.

Royce's dark brows arched, hiding under the inky fall of hair on his forehead. "You can do that? Really?"

"I can do whatever you want."

His eyes flashed with sudden heat, and I kicked myself for uttering such a suggestive comment. Any man would have reacted to it. It wasn't me.

"Let's leave the decorations open for right now," he said.

"While I like the jewelry box idea, I'm not one-hundred-percent sold on it yet."

I nodded, making another notation. I really, really wanted this party to be my best ever. Something people would remember and talk about for months afterward. I tapped the pen on my bottom lip and said, "All right, next on the list is location." Another tap. "Have you decided where you'd like the party to be located?"

He didn't answer.

Another tap. "Royce?" I looked up and my tapping stilled. His gaze was fastened on my mouth. Had the pen left a smudge? Was a crumb from breakfast hovering on the edge of my lips? My tongue slipped out to wipe away whatever it was. No taste of ink. No crumbs.

His eyes flashed with blue fire again.

Maybe… maybe it had nothing to do with ink or crumbs. Maybe Mel had been right before, and he wanted my hooker lips all over him. I inhaled a shaky breath, pretending the strange heat growing inside me didn't exist.

He started leaning toward me. Closer. Closer still. He's probably dating that supermodel, I reminded myself. "Royce?" I asked again, a bit hoarse. Where was my inner Tigress when I needed her to claw out a man's eyes? Surely I hadn't caged her and thrown away the key. "Royce."

He blinked, but didn't remove his gaze from my mouth. "Yes?"

"Have you decided where you'd like the party to be located?"

When he still didn't answer, when he tried to close the space between us a second time, I said, "Royce!" I snapped my fingers in front of his face. "You need to stop that."

"What?" He paused.

"Staring. It makes me uncomfortable."

"Sorry," he grumbled, at last removing his gaze and directing it over my head. "Just for the record, I wasn't staring. I was thinking about something totally unrelated to you."

My mouth fell open. He was lying, just like I'd lied to him earlier. That meant… Good Lord, that meant he'd almost kissed me. My nipples hardened at the thought, and I had to clear my throat. What about his supposed girlfriend, the whore of Babylon? Was he hoping to cheat on her with me? To have a fling with me, then marry the girl he found worthy of him? Bastard!

My fingers tightened around the pen, nearly snapping it in two. "Have you thought about where you want to hold the party?" The words emerged clipped, layered with a hint of anger.

"No," he said, seeming a little surprised by my vehemence, "I haven't."

Great. With this type of help, the party was sure to be a success. "There are several places I've used before. I'm positive you'll find one of them satisfactory."

"I'm sure I will."

"Give me just a moment," I said, jolting up. "I've already made a list. It's in my room."

My steps hurried, I sailed to my bedroom and rooted inside my briefcase. After finding what I needed, I rushed back into the kitchen and plopped onto my seat. One by one I tapped off the. names listed.

"The botanical gardens."

He shook his head. "No."

"The Mansion on Turtle Creek."

"No."

"Omni at Park West."

"No."

"The Adolphus."

"No."

"The Hilton. The Hyatt Regency. Four Seasons."

"No. No. No."

My jaw clenched so tightly I felt the burn all the way to my teeth. "None of these places will work?"

Again, "No."

Why the hell not?

"If you'll put together a list of places you find suitable-" damn him "-I'll visit each one and let you know which will work for a party the size you're planning." Not that I knew what size party it was going to be with an answer like Maybe fifty, or a hundred or two.

"Then," I finished, "I'll put together another list, as well, and we can compare."

"Sounds good." He paused and studied me, his eyes blank, giving no hint of his thoughts. "I have a question for you now."

I almost shuddered. The last time he'd asked me a question in that tone, I'd had to promise to turn other clients away. "Shoot."

"What's your home number?"

I frowned. "I keep my business and private life separate. It's the reason my home number isn't listed on my card. My cell phone is always turned on during business hours."

When he remained silent, I added, "There's no reason for you to have access to my personal line."

"I disagree. Since I'm paying triple your normal rate, I expect you to be at my beck and call. If I need you to look at a potential location at four in the morning, I want to be able to get a hold of you."

The only place I could think of that was open at four in the morning and equipped for a party was the all-nude, all-the-time strip club a few streets over. "Very well," I answered, even though I knew a true Tigress wouldn't have acquiesced so easily.

Just because I gave in didn't mean I did it gracefully, though. With jerky movements, I wrote down the required number and shoved the pad and pen at him. "I'll need your home number as well. Just in case I need to get a hold of you at four in the morning," I added with a false, bite-me smile.

He didn't balk as I expected-but then, when did he ever? He grinned as if I'd given him exactly what he wanted and plucked the pen from my hand. His fingertips brushed my knuckles. Slivers of sexual awareness pulsed the length of my arm and sparked electric currents through my veins.

He didn't seem the least affected by the touch, I noted irritably.

"This is a direct line." He tore the bottom half of the page from the notebook and handed it to me. "You can reach me without having to go through Ms. Carroll."

"Who?"

"My assistant."

Ah, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. I almost French-kissed the number. "Thank you."

"You're welcome." He scanned the paper I'd handed him, nodded and tucked the sheet of paper in his jacket pocket. "Any other details we need to go over right now?"

"No." Now he would leave, I thought, and wanted to jump and shout with joy. Okay, that was a lie. I still wasn't ready for him to leave-even though he might have a girlfriend. He was fun to talk to, with a dry sense of humor I enjoyed. Plus, I liked looking at him.

"Good." He stood, took my hand and tugged me to my feet. "Now that business is over, let's get something to eat. I'm starved. Do you like Chinese? We can call in an order and have it delivered."

"Eat?" With Royce? Here? Alone? My stomach growled at the same time an ache throbbed between my legs. Ayes from my stomach and a yes from my libido. "No." From my common sense. We could sit and chat, but a meal provided a sense of intimacy I knew I wasn't ready for. "No, thank you. I don't think that's a good idea," I said with a bit more force than necessary.

At least a small part of me recalled my rules.

Royce was so close I feared he might hear the wild rhythm of my heart. He grinned. "I heard your stomach growl. If you were any hungrier, I'd worry you were about to gnaw off my arm."

"You're hard of hearing, remember? My stomach did not growl. Your ears must have been ringing because of your inner-ear problem. And just so you know, I had a big breakfast." As a preventive measure, I eased out of his grasp and shifted out of reach. "Really big." My stomach chose that moment to growl again. "So big I may not be able to eat ever again."

He crossed his arms over his chest, causing his shirt to tighten over his well-defined, corded muscles. Holy Lord, he had the body of a Trojan warrior. I shivered. I'd always felt small around men. Now, standing in front of Royce, that feeling jumped to the next level. I felt as if I were a tiny speck consumed by the raw power he emitted. We weren't touching, yet his broad shoulders all but surrounded me.

"Either you don't like Chinese or you're pretending not to be hungry so you won't have to eat with me." His voice dropped to that husky whisper. His eyelids lowered to half-mast. "Which is it?"

"I don't like Chinese?" I hadn't meant to phrase it as a question.

"Then we can cook something here."

I gulped back my panic. "I don't like home cooking, either. It upsets my stomach."

His brows arched. "If I asked you to have drinks with me, you'd say… "

"I don't drink. Alcohol makes me loopy."

"I was referring to water."

"I'm allergic. Besides, I have a ton of stuff to do."

"Like what?"

"Just stuff. Lots and lots of stuff."

His eyes narrowed. I watched a strange, unreadable light enter them, giving the blue a deep, greenish hue that seized attention. He surprised me by stepping toward me, leaning down and whispering in my ear, "I think you're afraid I plan to kiss you."

Royce's words rocked my already shaky composure. "Do you?" I asked on a wispy catch of breath, my gaze searching his.

He slowly smiled. "Yes. I do."

Ohmygod. Thinking that he desired me was completely different from actually hearing him admit it. Different and horrible and heady and mind-boggling and amazing. That delicious heat sprang to life again and my mind instantly recognized it as dangerous. Fight it. Fight it, damn you.

"What about your girlfriend?" I gulped.

He frowned. "I don't have a girlfriend."

"Gwendolyn Summers," I reminded him.

He waved away my words. "A friend, nothing more. Now you, I'd like to be more."

My stupid, dumb-ass knees weakened. He didn't have a girlfriend…he wanted me to be more than a friend…he wanted to kiss me. All of that combined had my equally dumb-ass hormones screaming for a taste of him.

"Now," he said, his voice dropping to that husky whisper, "about that kiss."

"I've already made a list of why we shouldn't," I rushed out, then cringed, realizing I'd just admitted to pondering such an event. Conclusion: all of me is a dumb-ass.

His features lit; obviously he'd caught the implication of my words. "What's reason number one?"

"We work together."

"So do lots of couples," he said. "Two?"

"It wouldn't be wise."

"The best things in life never are. Three?"

"I'm not interested in getting involved with you or anyone else right now." Rotten, rotten lie. I wanted to get naked with him ASAP, and that was pretty involved, to my way of thinking.

"I don't believe you," he said.

Smart man. "Believe what you want. That doesn't change the facts. I don't want you. I never will."

"You're lying again," he said in a singsong voice. "I can tell."

My mouth dropped open and I gazed up at him with incredulity. "You can't tell. There's no way you can tell."

He ignored me. "Let's make a new list, hmm?" He leaned toward me and his breath caressed the sensitive hollow of my cheek.

My knees weakened again. I would have stepped away from him, but I would have fallen. "About what?"

"Exactly why we should kiss. I'll help you with reason number one."

I barely had time to register the fact that Royce's mouth was descending to mine before he was there, kissing me. Slowly at first, simply exploring and testing. His tongue brushing mine, rolling over it, pushing against it. He tasted so freaking good, like heat and man and something all his own.

Of their own will, my arms skidded up his incredibly strong, corded-with-muscles chest and anchored around his neck. My fingers inched into his silky hair. The world around me faded.

I knew only the heady throb working through my body, pooling between my legs. Had the good Lord suddenly summoned me to heaven? I wondered, dazed. How else would I have reached the corridors of paradise so quickly?

"Your lips are softer than I imagined," he said, low and husky.

"You imagined them?" I couldn't help but ask.

"A thousand times these past two weeks. A thousand more if you count the last-" He stopped.

"The last what?" Snared by his sensual appeal as I was, I nuzzled his nose with mine, breathing in his scent, absorbing his heat. I couldn't force myself to move away.

"Nothing." His tongue swept inside my mouth as his arms caressed their way down my waist, locking me in place, arching my hips forward. When I liquefied against him, his grip tightened, held me up and let me sink even deeper into his embrace.

"Oh, my God," I said as his erection rubbed against me.

"No. Royce."

The kiss gained speed, going from sultry to wild in mere seconds. I moaned. My nipples-my ever traitorous nipples- hardened and I meshed them into his chest. The strength and warmth of Royce radiated from his clothing and nearly singed every inch of my body.

It had been so long since I'd been kissed. So damn long. But never like this. Never with this intense yearning for more. This need. The past six months had been difficult, and at times, lonely, but I had coped, had thought I'd properly insulated myself against man's dangerous allure.

Now I wondered why I'd so stubbornly fought my hormones.

Royce's mouth continued to take possession of mine. One of his hands tangled in my hair, the other gripped my butt and pulled me deep, deep into the hard length of his erection. My excitement expanded, nearing the point of eruption, and my breathing became shallow, erratic.

"Oh, my Royce," I breathed with a smile.

He chuckled against my mouth. The slight pause in our kiss nearly caused me to scream in frustration. No more teasing, no more joking. I ground myself against him, worked his tongue with mine.

He licked and nipped, and his beard stubble tickled me, sending delicious sensations down my spine. "Next time I promise to shave," he said, his breath fanning my skin.

I didn't know why he thought he needed to shave, but Lord, I hoped he didn't.

He groaned low in his throat. "I meant to go slow with you. Damn it, I'm going to go slow if it kills me." He sucked in an uneven breath before his lips found mine again, slow and gentle this time. Reverent. Worshipping.

This was a kiss of promise, the kind women dreamed about, but rarely experienced. I'd never experienced it, that was for sure, and it scared me. He suddenly tasted like turkey and cheese on hated rye.

I cupped his jaw and pulled away. My semi-panicked gaze searched his face. I saw passion, tenderness and growing concern.

"Is something wrong, sweetheart?"

My eyes widened. Sweetheart. He'd freaking called me sweetheart. A cold sweat broke out all over my body. Why would he call me sweetheart, unless… "I didn't fill out an application," I said, my voice trembling.

A blank screen suddenly shuttered over his eyes. A silent moment ticked by, then another. He stepped away from my touch and crossed his arms over his chest. He was going for a pose of casual disregard, but a bead of sweat trickled from his temple, ruining the effect. Too, the lines around his mouth were taut. Desire still held him in its clasp.

"That's good," he said, no emotion in his voice. "I didn't ask you to."

A shudder, this one having nothing to do with desire, racked me. He didn't want me to fill the damn thing out because-I could only guess at the answer, and I didn't like it. Either he viewed me as so far beneath him I was non-bridal material, which offended me in an ironic sort of way, or he already knew he wanted a commitment from me.

Commitment…just the word made me want to vomit. Commitment with a client-I think I really did throw up in my mouth a little. Being tied down to someone wasn't what bothered me. It was the thought of being tied to someone who would one day treat me badly, one day lose all interest in me, one day stop loving me.

One day make me feel like I was worth less than garbage.

Richard had treated me very well in the beginning of our relationship. He'd catered to my every need. He'd done everything in his power to ensure my happiness. How quickly that had faded once he had me tied to him.

Maybe I was assuming too much here, though. Maybe Royce called every woman sweetheart. Maybe he didn't see me as bride material, but as the perfect candidate for some sort of bizarre sexual ritual he'd picked up on his many travels. A ritual I was perfectly willing to experience.

Wasn't I? I was so confused at the moment.

"What do you want from me?" I asked softly.

He gave no reply. But a muscle ticked in his jaw, I noticed.

"You're a handsome man, Royce, and you have money. You can have any woman you want. Why make them fill out applications? Are you that desperate to get married?"

The ticking branched to his eyes. Combined with the fury now flickering in his gaze, it made him appear truly menacing. A man who made his enemies tremble with fear and his lovers shiver with desire. "That's not your concern, Naomi." Pause. "Is it?"

Undeterred, I persisted. "A new reality show? You wanted to build a portfolio of naked pictures? You're tired of online dating?"

Silence. Heavy, stilted silence.

Finally, watching me all the while, he said, "Maybe it was forced on me. Maybe I offered up a challenge-think you know so much about what I need, then find me the perfect girl-and someone took the initiative. Maybe, when the applications started pouring in, I realized I'm getting older and I've never been in love. Maybe," he ended in a quiet tone, "I saw my chance."

My blood alternately turned hot and cold. Even if he hadn't liked the situation at first, he'd just admitted he was seriously considering those stupid applications now That he was looking for a wife. "So you really mean to do it? You really mean to choose a bride?"

He shrugged. "Maybe. Maybe not."

I gulped. "Either way, I'm not the one for you." My head fell forward and I stared down at my hands. "I don't want your love or a ring. And I-" Come on. Just say it. "And I don't want your kisses."

His expression darkened, and his lips edged into a fierce frown. "I don't recall asking for your love or your hand in marriage."

Ouch. "I've been in love before," I explained, to ease the sting of my words. "I didn't like it."

He reached out slowly, giving me every opportunity to run away. Stupid me, I didn't. One more touch would be okay. I could handle one more touch. His fingers closed around my wrists gently and tugged, maneuvering me back into a kissable position.

"I liked the taste of you," he said. "A lot." He trailed feathery kisses along the length of my jaw and I liquefied again. Even my Tigress purred her enjoyment. He licked the seam of my lips. "And I think you liked the taste of me. A lot."

A sharp lance of desire warred with a cold knot of regret. "No," I forced myself to say. "No."

He looked disbelieving and aroused and oh, so tempting all at once. "Yes," he said quietly. "You want my kisses."

"Despite what you said, I think you want more than a kiss. I can't give more." Each point of contact between us sent heated blood pounding through my veins like an awakened river.

Thankfully he dropped his arms to his side and shoved both of his hands into his pockets. "You wanted to give me more. I felt how your body responded. Another minute or two and we would have been on the floor, naked."

I didn't refute it. Couldn't, for that matter. He would have seen the lie in my eyes had I tried. Desire this intense couldn't be hidden, and I knew it. "So what?" I said, suddenly defensive. "A girl has the right to change her mind."

"You're right," he said, using that quiet tone again. "A girl can change her mind."

Smart, smart man. Diabolical, but smart. He'd just issued an invitation I had trouble resisting: change your mind again and kiss me.

"I'm sorry." I swallowed, forcing the words out. "I'm truly sorry I let things get out of hand. I am not a tease, really." I twisted the hem of my shirt between unsteady fingers. "I'm not sure what happened to me; I've never acted like this before."

He pushed a hand through his hair, his body relaxing. "Finally, words I like."

I frowned. "What does that mean?"

His lips inched up in a smug, half grin. "Figure it out. If you've never acted this way before, it means I'm the only man-"

I slapped a hand over his mouth, cutting off his words. Damn me and my big mouth. Why not just admit I was desperate for him, too, while I was at it?

He pried my hand from his face and I saw he was still grinning. His fingers curled around mine, squeezed, then released me. "If I did it once, you can damn well count on me doing it again."

I felt the color drain from my face. He was right. Shit, he was right. Before I had time to work up a good panic, he added, "Get used to the idea of me kissing you, Naomi. Looks like it's inevitable."

"Wanna bet?" my Tigress growled before I could stop her. Well, well, well. She'd finally decided to do something besides purr.

Challenge gleamed in Royce's eyes. "You enjoy losing, Naomi?"

"I wouldn't know," I said with bravado. "I've never lost."

A wicked glint lit his eyes. "Well, sweetheart, I'll try to make your first experience as pleasurable as possible for you." His sultry threat rang in my ears long after he strode away and slammed the door.

true

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