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Animal Instincts (Chapter Nineteen)

If you find yourself weakened, leave. Get away as fast as you can. Only after you've rebuilt your strength should you return.

My mom almost died of shock when I called to tell her my news. The line went completely silent for several minutes before Jonathan came around and revived her.

I heard him say, "Gloria, Gloria, are you okay? Do you need to go to the hospital? You fainted."

"Naomi's getting married," she told him, trying to catch her breath.

"To a man?" he asked.

I scowled.

"Yes," my mom said. "A man. Royce Powell, actually."

"You're kidding," Jonathan gasped.

"How could I joke about something like this?"

"Mom." I pinched the bridge of my nose. "Focus on me. Your only daughter."

"Is this because of the triplets?" she asked.

Like I really needed a reminder that I might be pregnant. Thanks, Mom. I'd managed to block all thoughts of babies and diapers from my mind until now. Was I pregnant? So far I hadn't had any signs. Why couldn't I have a normal period? I had no idea when I should start.

I'd had no unusual cravings-for food, that is. Sexually, I was craving some pretty kinky stuff. My breasts weren't tender and my stomach was as flat as ever. Weren't those the only signs for the first month?

I knew so little about kids. Maybe I should have gotten a book on the subject or something.

"Well," my mother prompted. "Is it because of the triplets?"

"Of course not. There are no triplets. And he loves me."

She paused. "Do you love him?"

I wasn't ready to answer that, so I said, "Mom, you're losing focus again. I'm getting married. You're going to have a new son-in-law. Don't you want to meet him?"

"Dear God, yes. You have to bring Royce over tomorrow for a relaxing family dinner. I need to talk to him. He's got to be some sort of magician, making you forget about Richard and take another marital plunge."

My hand tightened on the phone.

"I need to give him my treat-her-right speech," Jonathan added, his voice floating over the line.

God save me. And God save Royce.

The next morning, Royce showed up at my apartment with an odd gleam in his eyes. I nervously let him inside, but kept my face toward the door, afraid to look at him again. What was going on in his head? Had he changed his mind about me? No, surely not. Look how hard he'd fought for me. Was he going to try and convince me to fly to Las Vegas?

Deep breath in, deep breath out. I turned to him, about to demand to know what was going on, but he was on one knee. "Ohmygod." My own knees almost buckled.

"Naomi," he said, holding up a black velvet box with a simple but elegant platinum diamond resting in the center.

"Ohmygod," I said again. This would make it official. Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod.

"Will you marry me?" he asked.

I'd already said yes, so I hadn't expected him to do anything like this. Warm tears filled my eyes. How could one man be so wonderful? How could one man be so giving and charming and loving?

He was almost too good to be true.

Wait. Wasn't that a bad thing?

I gave him my trembling hand, anyway. He kissed my palm before sliding the ring on my finger. The platinum looked good against my pale complexion. I twisted the band with my fingers, and it slid easily because I was sweating.

Royce stood, his eyes intent and filled with so much love and desire my stomach clenched. "It looks good on you here," he said, "but I want to see how it looks on you in bed."

Slowly I grinned. Now there was something guaranteed to drown out my fears.

Having spent the day in bed, Royce and I arrived at my mom's five minutes late for dinner. Yes, late. And I didn't even feel guilty. For the occasion, my mom had donned a formal, black sequined dress, two strands of pearls and all of her rings. Jonathan wore a suit and tie.

Royce and I were in jeans and T-shirts. "I thought this would be a relaxing family dinner," I said.

"I never thought this day would come," my mom said, grabbing Royce by the arm and leading him inside. "So excuse me for wanting to celebrate. Royce, come in, come in. I'm so pleased to finally meet you. Naomi has told me so much about you."

"Anything good?" he asked with a chuckle.

"Well, no," she admitted, "but you can't be all bad if you won her hand in marriage." She barely paused for breath. "I'd be so thrilled if you called me Mom. You are going to treat my baby right, aren't you?"

"Without a doubt."

The delicious scent of fresh-baked foods filled the house. I inhaled deeply and my mouth watered. I might be a nervous wreck, but I hadn't lost my appetite.

"Naomi!" Jonathan pulled me to him for a hug. "So glad to see you."

I returned the gesture, still not knowing what to make of his behavior lately. I continue to have no clue what he was doing with Nora.

He drew back, smiling, and turned his attention to Royce.

"It's nice to meet you," he said, holding out his hand. He and Royce shook.

"You, too. I've, uh, heard a lot about you."

"Did Naomi mention I'm a therapist? I'd be happy to give you both premarital counseling. Not enough couples do that, you know? Which is why divorce is so prevalent."

"We don't need counseling," I said. "Really. We get along very well."

Disappointment washed over Jonathan's features. "I doubt you've overcome all your relationship fears, Naomi, and being as Royce is nearing forty-you are under forty, aren't you?"

"Yes," Royce answered, clearly fighting a grin.

"And hasn't ever been married," Jonathan finished, "I think it's safe to say you could both use some professional help before you say your vows."

I rubbed my temple. Dear Heavenly Father. Strike me down. A jew locusts will do the trick. Or a plague.

"My Lord," my mom suddenly cried. "Your ring. Look at your ring, Naomi. It's lovely. Not at all like that fifty-pound monstrosity Richard gave you. I know how you hated that thing. Didn't it cause carpal tunnel syndrome? This one is perfect. It's a good size, but won't cause any muscle damage."

I almost covered my hand; it felt odd having people stare at one finger as if it were a priceless object. But I didn't. I allowed Mom and Jonathan to look, oohing and aahing. Royce had picked the perfect ring for me, and I was proud of it. Proud of him.

"Naomi," Jonathan said, "you really should consider keeping a wedding journal."

I'd seen brides writing in their wedding journals, and had always thought it kind of silly. I wasn't a sentimental person. I didn't want to write about my feelings. "We'll see," I said noncommittally.

"You'll be so happy you did," my mom said. "You'll be able to savor the memories forever."

"And work through some of your problems," Jonathan added.

"Everything smells wonderful, Mrs.-Mom." Royce wound his arm around my waist, drawing me into the warmth and strength of his side. "Is it time to eat?"

"Yes, but…I thought we'd all sit and talk first. Have a drink, maybe. Oh, maybe I'll break out my own wedding journal that Jonathan gave me when he proposed. We can read some of the passages."

I massaged my neck.

"First, we have some questions for Royce," Jonathan said, giving her a pointed stick-with-the-plan glance. "We'd really like to get to know him better."

"Please, guys. No." I almost groaned. "No interrogation."

Royce laughed, taking everything in stride. "A chat would be nice." He gave me a comforting squeeze.

Sometimes, having him near me was the equivalent of swallowing a bottle of Xanax. I began to relax, all my troubles seeming to dissolve. Maybe because he smelled so good. Or maybe because I knew what he looked like underneath his clothes. Pure sex. Maybe because I knew he was mine.

For the moment, a fearful voice piped in.

I gulped. Stupid fears. We adjourned to the study, Royce and I taking the couch. Jonathan poured everyone a brandy. I accepted my glass and pretended to sip. No way I'd bring up pregnancy after the triplet fiasco.

"Royce, dear," my mom said. "I'm dying to know how you convinced my sweet Naomi to marry you."

"He sexed me up hard core, if you want the true version." My strategy was simple. To be so blunt my parents would decide not to ask another question. They might ask something I didn't want to answer.

My mom flushed, and Jonathan coughed and looked away. Royce pressed his lips together to smother a laugh.

"I'm glad to see I'm not the only one on the receiving end of that sharp tongue of hers," he said. "She isn't afraid to speak her mind, is she?"

"Is that the reason you picked her out of all the other applicants, then?" Jonathan asked. "Her… bluntness?"

"Naomi didn't have to fill out an application." He was a little embarrassed, I could tell. His cheeks were flushed and his voice cracked. "She became the only possible choice the first moment I saw her."

My chest constricted, just like it always did when he said such sweet things. Even my inner Tigress purred like a contented kitten.

What are you going to do when he realizes he's fooling himself?

The ugly question whispered across my mind. Another fear. I hurriedly shoved it aside, refusing to dwell on it.

My mom's hands had gone to her mouth, and I think there were tears in her eyes. "That's the most romantic thing I've ever heard. Did you hear that, Jonathan? Did you hear what he said about my baby?"

Yes, definite tears. As I watched, she crumbled in her seat, uttering great, gushing sobs. Snot soon poured out of her nose and heart-wrenching cries exploded from her mouth. I scrambled to my feet and raced to her. My heart thundered in my chest. "Mom, what's the matter?"

"Don't do it, darling. Don't marry him."

I shook my head, unsure I'd heard her right, and clutched her knee. "I thought you wanted me to get married and give you grandchildren."

"You really should become a lesbian and do the artificial insemination thing. You won't get hurt that way."

"Mom," I said, helplessly looking to Royce.

"He'll cheat on you like the rotten dog he is." Her head popped up and she glared over at Jonathan. "They all cheat. And I hope they all burn in hell like the male prostitutes they are."

"What are you talking about?" Jonathan sputtered as he stood. "Gloria, what's wrong with you? I'm seriously considering doing a mental evaluation on you. I've never cheated. Whatever gave you that idea?"

Sparks of fury lit inside me. "You've been going over to your secretary's house," I said, pointing to his chest. "You've been coming home late, lying to my mom about your whereabouts. You've been making secret phone calls, and your dirty clothes smell like another woman's perfume."

"I-I can explain." He held out his hands, the desperate gesture of an innocent man.

"I'll just bet you can," my mom shouted. "I bet your car broke down and you had to wait for the mechanic. I bet a client swore to kill himself if you didn't stay and talk to him. I bet someone stole the money out of your wallet and that's why you're always short on cash. Is that right? Is any of that right?" By that point, she was screaming.

"No," he said, shaking his head. His skin was so pallid I could see blue veins. "That wasn't what I was going to say."

Shaking, I crossed my arms over my chest. That's when I felt a quiet presence behind me. Royce placed his hands on my shoulders and massaged the knotted muscles. I drew in an unsteady breath. I wanted to jump between them, but didn't. They needed to battle it out.

"Tell me the truth, Jonathan. I deserve that much, at least."

He slowly walked to her and dropped to his knees. "Gloria, I can't believe you'd think that about me. Why didn't you come to me? Why didn't you say something?"

"I shouldn't have to," she sobbed. "You should never have lied to me."

"You're right, and I'm sorry. So sorry."

She blew up again. "So you did it? You're admitting you slept with Nora?"

"No."

"No?" I said, eyes narrowing. Forget staying out of it. "You went over to her house." I'd never been in a fistfight before, but how complicated could picking up the lamp he'd bought my mom for her birthday and bashing him in the head be?

Jonathan sighed warily and got to his feet. "Give me a minute."

"You'd better be packing your bags," I said.

"Sweetheart, you're making this harder for your mom," Royce whispered. "Calm down." He kissed my cheek and nuzzled my ear with his nose. "She needs your support right now."

I drew in a shuddering breath. Royce was right. My mom needed me, and I was going to be there for her, hold her up emotionally for as long as necessary. I drew her to me and wrapped my arms around her. "I'm so sorry, Mom," I said. "So very sorry."

She wiped her nose on my shirt.

"This is what I've been doing," Jonathan said, striding back into the room. He handed my mom a glass bottle of what looked like oil. "Making you the perfect perfume."

"What?" I said, just as my mom said, "Perfume? For me?" She sniffed the bottle.

"Nora told me about this place she goes to, Body Electric," he rushed, "and how they make custom scents. I know how much you love lilies, and I wanted you to have your own scent. Something no one else in the world has."

I covered my mouth with a shaky hand.

"And I know how much you hated the lamp I bought you for your birthday. I know you wanted something romantic. I thought-I thought there was nothing more romantic than giving you your own perfume. Gloria, it's called. It's not perfected yet, not quite right, but… "

"I…I love it," she said, more tears swimming in her eyes. She clutched the bottle to her chest. "Oh, Jonathan."

"None of the scents were right. None of them were good enough, so we kept trying. I'm so sorry you thought I was cheating on you. I'd never do that, Gloria. Never. I shouldn't have lied, but I wanted it to be a surprise. I know how much you love romantic surprises."

Shame washed through me. My mom threw herself in his arms. I closed my eyes and buried my head in Royce's shirt. Dear God, I'd almost broken up my parents' marriage. For nothing. Nothing! Tears streamed down my cheeks. Jonathan loved my mom, had been faithful to her all along.

They had the kind of marriage I'd always wanted for myself, but hadn't thought truly existed. And I'd almost destroyed it. "I'm such an idiot," I said brokenly. "This is my fault."

"You did what any other daughter would have done," Royce said, kissing my temple. While he spoke, his hands moved up and down my back.

"Don't make excuses for me." I pulled away from him and dragged my feet to my mom and stepdad. They were kissing and hugging and crying all at once. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. Please say you'll forgive me."

Jonathan didn't look at me, but reached out and gripped my arm. He tugged me into their loving circle. The tears poured from my eyes. I'd almost ruined him, and he forgave me so quickly and easily. He'd always been that way. He'd tried to be a father to me, but I'd always held a little resistance against him.

"Well, then. Now that that's settled." My mom disengaged from us and wiped one of her hands on her dress. She still clutched the bottle in the other, holding it tight to her chest. "It's time to eat. Royce," she said, as if we hadn't all engaged in an emotional breakdown, "I hope you like glazed ham."

"I-love it?" He glanced at me, clearly confused by her sudden change from psycho-wife to mushy-wife to perfect hostess.

Feeling giddy all of a sudden, I laughed and launched myself in his arms, planting a hard kiss on his lips. "God, I lo- like you." I lost my smile. What are you doing, dummy? "I really like you."

He chuckled and held me tight. "I'll get you to admit it yet."

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