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Animal Instincts (Chapter Six)

A Tigress is a predator and by definition a predator is one that preys and destroys, feeding on others to sustain strength. Don't just take a bite of your opponent. Devour him whole.

The next afternoon, I strode into Cinderella Catering. Kera was behind the only desk, looking as fresh and pretty as a summer bouquet as she spoke with a customer about appropriate finger foods for an anniversary party.

I motioned that I'd wait. She nodded, and I claimed a seat at the couch. I gazed out the shop window, watching people stroll by. Mainly businessmen and women, with the occasional hand-holding couple thrown in the mix. My chest was not aching with jealousy. Nor was I imagining Royce holding my hand.

A few minutes later, Kera and I were alone and she joined me at the sitting area.

"Weren't you supposed to have lunch with Mr. Wonderful today?" she asked.

"His name is Mr. Unacceptable, and we had a change of plans," I said, answering as vaguely as I could. I still hadn't told my cousins I'd met with Royce yesterday instead. After the non-birthday party-and after I'd eaten enough penis cake to give me nightmares for a year-I'd waved them goodbye and rolled myself to bed, intent on forgetting all my troubles.

I hadn't, of course. No, I'd dreamed of Royce. Dreamed of his penis (bad Naomi), a flesh-and-blood penis, not sugar-and-vanilla, and all the things I wanted to do to it. All the things I wanted it to do to me.

Sometimes I'm such a naughty girl.

When I'd taken my morning shower, I'd pictured Royce there with me, lathering me with soap. While I dressed, I pictured Royce playfully trying to remove each item. With his teeth. While I ate a bowl of chocolate ice cream for breakfast, I pictured myself eating it off his chest. While I strolled down the sidewalk to this very shop, I pictured him tugging me to a secluded, shadowy corner and ravaging my breath away.

Why was I letting that diabolical, evilly sexy man affect me so strongly? It wasn't as if I'd never been kissed before. It wasn't as if I'd never seen a handsome man before. Uh, hello, I'd watched every Brad Pitt film ever made. Several times each. Who the hell did Royce think he was, anyway, barging into my home, playing a round of tonsil hockey, then storming away with a delicious, I'll-kiss-you-again challenge?

"Lord, I'm so jealous of you," Kera said, a wistful edge in her voice. She drew her knees to her chest, and rested her elbows on them and her cheek on her upraised palm.

"You? Jealous of me? Whatever for?"

"Whatever for?" my cousin repeated, her wistfulness twisting into incredulity. "Because you're working for the most beautiful man in the world, a beautiful man determined to pop the question to a lucky lady in the very near future. You have access to him, which gives you the edge. Women everywhere would peel the flesh from your bones and feast on your rotting carcass for a chance like that."

"One, that's gross. Two, there's no edge to being the party planner. I'm the hired help. And three, I'm not going to bore you with all the reasons I gave you before for not wanting to be with him. Reasons that still stand."

"Whatever. I've just never seen you this affected by a man. Your cheeks flush every time his name is mentioned, and your eyes glow. Literally glow. I think Royce could be the one. Your one."

I fought the urge to cover my ears. "Don't say that. Not ever again."

"I bet he meets every requirement on the list. The Mr. Right list every woman supposedly has," she added, "and not the Mr. Wrong list we thought up."

I pushed through my growing panic and hurriedly changed the focus of our conversation. "Speaking of Mr. Right, are you still on the lookout for the future Mr. Kera Gellis?"

"Of course," she said, allowing the change without protest. "I even have a prospect in mind."

My back straightened and my brow furrowed. "Who?" If she said Royce, I was going to hurt her. "As of yesterday, you weren't seeing anyone."

"I'm still not. But George Wilben has caught my interest." He was Kera's next-door neighbor and (in my opinion) not the best choice of man for Kera. Not that she was too good for him, but she was a social butterfly and George would never be able to keep up. "He copped a feel this morning."

"Of what?"

Kera's large blue eyes sparkled with mischief. "My butt."

"He didn't!" George looked like the quintessential computer nerd. Glasses. Tall, lanky body. Mussed brown hair that always blocked his vision. The only difference was, George knew nothing about computers. He was an actor for the local community theatre:

Go figure.

"He most certainly did," Kera said, smiling. "He took a squeeze, too. I knew he'd cave in and go for it sooner or later. I feel his gaze on me every time I walk by him."

"We're talking about the guy who hasn't taken off his sweater vest since the great heat wave four years ago, right?"

"That's the one."

"He squeezed your ass? Really?" I still couldn't picture it.

"Well, maybe I turned around and asked him to do it," Kera said with a smile.

I chuckled again. "You're incorrigible, you know that?"

"Absolutely." Kera's grin widened. "Mel must be rubbing off on me." She sighed, losing a little of her humor. "If George doesn't ask me out soon, I'll have to ask him out."

"You're that interested?"

"Well, yeah. I like the way he looks at me. More than that, I realized that I like the way I feel when he looks at me."

I knew her, knew what she was really saying. She wanted a man who made her feel worshipped. She deserved it; so did every woman, for that matter. Was something like that possible, though? I didn't think so. I'd never seen it. Even the most passionate of marriages usually ended in divorce. The hotter the spark, the quicker it died, right?

With that cheerful thought, I decided it was time to get down to business. "How's your schedule looking for the third weekend in September?" I asked.

"Open, why?"

"I want you to cater Linda Powell's party. I already have Royce's approval."

"Cool." Thoughtful, she twirled a strand of hair around her finger. "You know, in the last six months, I've had more business than my parents ever did. And they ran this place for twenty years."

"It's because you're the best caterer in town." When she wasn't trying new, exotic recipes, that is.

"No." She shook her head. "It's because you send all your customers my way."

"And they love me for it. You've never disappointed." I reached into my briefcase, withdrew three sheets of paper, saw that one was the application packet for Royce's bride, and hurriedly shoved it back inside. Cheeks heating, I handed the correct papers to Kera. "Here's a list of possible themes, as well as a list of acceptable food items. You'll notice the Powells are very adamant in their desire for plain fare," I added quickly.

Her features fell, giving her expression a cute little pout. "Are you sure? I've got a new recipe-"

"I'm sure!"

She shrugged her shoulders daintily. "There's no accounting for taste," she said, her gaze traveling over the list. "You and Royce are considering going with a jewelry-box theme?"

"Considering, yes. Royce says it's the one thing his mother loves." I paused, hesitant. "Do you like it?"

"No, I don't like it. I love it," she said, making me smile in relief. Her features brightened, illuminating the angelic roundness of her face. "Perhaps I can make hors d'oeuvres that look like necklaces and earrings."

I nodded my approval. "That's the spirit, though we're not one-hundred-percent settled on that theme yet. Give me a couple of days to firm it up."

Kera folded the papers and stuffed them in her apron pocket. "I hate to change the subject back to the one you want to avoid, but I'm dying to ask. Have you filled out an application to become Mrs. Royce Powell yet?"

"No." I glanced away from her. "Of course not."

"Do you plan to?"

"What kind of question is that? Absolutely not."

"Then why do you have one in your bag?"

My cheeks heated so much I might have set off a fire alarm had one been nearby. Damn it, I hadn't wanted anyone to see the application Elvira had given me-but I hadn't had the strength to throw it away. "Royce's assistant gave it to me by mistake, that's all."

Watchful, searching, she made a tsking sound under her tongue. "You kept it when you could have thrown it away. Why did you keep it, Naomi?"

As if I wanted to analyze myself that deeply. I didn't know why I was having trouble parting with the stupid thing, and I didn't want to know. The answer might scare me. Perhaps that meant I was the kind of person who pulled the covers over my head if I heard a strange noise in the middle of the night instead of calling 911, but I didn't care.

My cell phone chose that moment to burst forth with a string of high-pitched rings, saving me from having to answer her. God bless technology.

"Hang on a sec," I said, leaning down and unsnapping the front flap of my case. I withdrew my phone and placed it at my ear. "Events by Naomi."

"Where are you?" an angry male voice ground out. "I tried you at home. Many times. Obviously you weren't there."

Recognition came instantly, as did the tingling surge of excitement. The warm rush of desire. Royce.

"I'm at Cinderella Catering," I told him, commanding my heart rate to slow. "Good news. They've agreed to cater the party."

"What are you doing there? You were supposed to meet me for lunch. Have you forgotten?"

"No." Frowning, I glanced up at Kera, who was watching me with unconcealed interest. "We met yesterday instead. I thought-"

"So don't think. We met yesterday in addition to our lunch today. I expect you to be at my office in ten minutes."

"But I-"

"Ten minutes, Naomi."

"Will you just listen to-" I needn't have bothered trying to explain myself. The other line had already clicked, signaling its abrupt disconnection.

My teeth ground together in annoyance, anticipation and disgust at my reaction to simply hearing his voice. I threw the phone back in my briefcase, wishing it were Royce's head so I could toss it to the ground and stomp on it. Maybe even give it a hard kick between the eyes (while wearing steel-toed boots) for good measure.

I liked to think it took great lengths to shatter my composure. (Hey, there's nothing wrong with lying to oneself.) Yet it seemed as if Royce had only to open his mouth and my patience immediately flew out the window. Damn Triple C.

I directed a disgruntled look to my cousin. "I've got to run. Duty calls."

Her features were lit with interest. "Bachelor of the Year?"

"None other," I said with a grimace.

"So you met with him yesterday, hmm?" She crossed her arms over her chest and stared over at me, eyes narrowed. Her lips twitched, ruining her efforts to appear angry.

"Yes. I met with him." I offered no more.

"I don't recall hearing anything about this."

Giving Kera a quick hug, I said, "Should we have your ears tested, then?"

"You better spill the details tonight. Try to clam up and I'll sic Mel on you."

I gave a mock shudder. "What a cruel, cruel woman you're becoming."

"Hey," she said, eyes twinkling with the same wicked glint Mel's sometimes had, "you didn't happen to bring your green handcuffs, did you? Mel will be disappointed if you don't use them soon."

"No, I didn't bring them." Thank God. "I didn't know I'd be seeing Royce today."

"Keep them in your briefcase. That way, you'll always be prepared."

My brows arched as I pretended confusion. "Think I'll need to perform a citizen's arrest for his bad attitude?"

She snorted. "Hello, you can cuff him to his desk and have your naughty way with him."

I had to completely blank my mind before delicious images invaded. Images of Royce lying on his desk and me crawling over him, running my tongue over every inch and hollow. Damn it!

Gathering my composure, I stepped outside, throwing over my shoulder, "I'll see you tonight." As the door closed, I glanced at my wristwatch. I only had nine minutes and five seconds to get to Royce's building.

Realizing it would be faster to cut through the city streets on foot rather than let a cab maneuver through traffic, I raced down the pavement. My slightly heeled brown shoes thumped against the ground. The sound echoed loudly in my ears. Why was I rushing around like an idiot?

Jump through the fiery hoop, little kitty, Royce mocked inside my mind.

Can I do it naked? my hormonal doormat responded, while the Tigress in me growled, Why don't I hill you both, instead?

Along the way, I rammed into a portly gentleman holding a box of doughnuts. Uttering a hasty apology, I helped him rescue the now dirty pastries, then picked up my bag and hurried on.

I hate, hate, hate being late. Always have. I think the need to be on time had been ingrained in me since birth. My mom, who was always late, said I'd arrived two weeks ahead of schedule, that I'd walked and talked early and that I'd begun my terrible twos-whatever that meant-when I was only one.

Knowing each step brought me closer to Royce made my stomach churn with anxiety. It wasn't that I feared he would fire me. Quite the opposite, at this point. All too well I recalled his assurance that he planned to kiss me again.

With twenty-three seconds to spare, I rushed into the chrome-and-glass building and pushed my way through another green-clad crowd of women. I wondered briefly if I was the only one wearing camouflage panties and a green satin bra. Probably not. I wouldn't doubt that some of these women had a tattoo of the Jolly Green Giant.

This time, the guard let me pass without a word. I wanted to stick my tongue out at him and shout, "Ha! Ha!" but refrained. I was a Tigress, not a child. Sometimes. I headed straight for the express elevator.

A resonant chime signaled my arrival to the nineteenth floor. I stepped past the sliding doors, trying to prepare myself for the battle I knew was to come. For strength, I took a deep, fortifying breath. I'm a Tigress, I'm a Tigress, I'm a Tigress.

At the front desk, I faced down Royce's assistant. Ms. Carroll, aka Bride of Satan. Elvira's dark brown eyes clawed me like talons, all the more menacing in light of that vampiric complexion.

"I need to see Mr. Powell," I told her, using my most competent tone.

Matte gold lips twisted in feigned affability. "Do you have an actual appointment this time?"

"Yes."

"Well, what do you know?" She smoothed a hand over her perfect hair. "Once again your name isn't on his agenda. Would you care to explain this phenomenon?"

Not again! Why hadn't Royce told her I was expected?

"If you'll let Royce know I'm here," I said, each syllable crisper than the last, "I'm sure he'll be happy to explain this 'phenomenon.'"

"Royce, hmm?" She stood, fingers splayed wide across her desk. "When did you two become so close? Or are you his flavor of the week and I just didn't know it?"

Flavor of the week? I wanted to ask Elvira just how many women she'd seen come and go in Royce's life. The more women, the more he would remind me of my ex. And my dad. And the less tempted I would be by him. I didn't, though. Instead I said, "Just tell him I'm here. Please."

"Go to hell."

My inner Tigress crouched into attack position and I found myself saying, "I have a question for you." I placed my hands on the desk and inched forward. Eye to eye. "Are you jealous because you're three hundred years too old for him or are you simply a spiteful woman?"

"How dare you?" She gasped, my words having pushed her over the edge of tolerance. "I'll have you know I've worked here for six years. You'll be gone soon. Your kind always is. But I'll always be around."

"My kind? Just what the hell is that supposed to mean?"

"Cheap. Easy. And completely forgettable."

Now my Tigress spread her claws and growled low in her throat. I ran my tongue over my teeth and leaned even closer to Elvira. "You actually think he likes your type better? Cold. Evil. And leader of the undead."

"Why you little bitch." Her teeth bared, she flew around the desk, meaning to launch herself on top of me.

I fisted my hands, waiting, readying to strike.

"That's enough, Ms. Carroll," a male voice suddenly boomed.

Elvira stilled abruptly. She blinked, collecting her wits-if she had any, that is. Her pale complexion turned ashy as she backtracked to her desk. I whipped around.

A handsome man in his early thirties faced me. The rich baritone of his voice held an edge of unmistakable steel. With jeans that hugged his hips and a too-tight white T-shirt, he looked rugged and completely out of place in the formal office setting.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Phillips," Elvira said.

Phillips… the name was familiar to me. Wait, wasn't he the one Royce had spoken to on the phone the first day I'd come in? They'd discussed some sort of merger.

Mr. Phillips gave her a look that clearly said, "I'll deal with you later," then turned his attention to me. I applauded anyone who could intimidate the indomitable assistant.

"No need for you to have interfered," I told him. "I had the situation under control. Ms. Carroll wouldn't have hurt me."

"It wasn't your life I feared for," he muttered, glancing from Elvira to me. "On behalf of the staff here, I'd like to apologize for what just happened. I promise you, we do not usually act so unprofessionally or physically threaten our guests." His tone became scolding.

Lately I'd been the queen of unprofessional. Elvira had nothing on me.

"Come on." He placed a hand on my lower back and led me to a secluded corner. His gaze raked over me before settling on my lips. I was used to being sized up by businessmen, but I wasn't used to all this blatant attention to my mouth. Most people tried to be discreet.

He grinned slowly, causing his green eyes to crinkle at the corners.

In appearance, his appeal rivaled Royce's. He possessed the same strength, the same inner power, except for some reason this man didn't have any effect on my senses. Why? I mused. Why was that? How could my testosterone immunity be vanquished to the point that I wanted Royce (desperately) but not this equally handsome man? It made no sense.

He held out his hand and we shook, and I was glad to notice I wasn't swampy today. Nor did I experience the electric shock I received every time Royce touched me. "Colin Phillips," he said.

"Naomi Delacroix."

"I know. You're the one driving the big guy crazy." His smile became sheepish, revealing even, white teeth. "It's a pleasure to finally meet you in person."

When he didn't seem inclined to let go of my hand, I gently extracted it from his grasp. "I'm not driving anyone crazy who wasn't already insane."

Colin tilted his chin to the side as he considered my words, amusement in his gaze. He nodded. "Good point." His gaze raked over me once more. "I can see what's had Royce so wrapped up for so long. You've got a classic charm."

My ears perked at that. Not at the compliment, though that was nice. "Wrapped up for so long? How long? Wrapped up in what way?"

He ignored my questions. "I apologize again for Ms. Carroll's rudeness. I'll personally make sure she's let go."

In all honesty, I would have loved to see that bitch punished. However, as much as I hated to admit it, the woman had bills to pay just like I did. I couldn't be responsible for putting another human being in the poorhouse-which begged the question: was she even human? No matter. "It's fine. Really. I'm fine."

He chuckled, a warm, rich sound. "Were the situation reversed, she would demand your head on a pike. You realize that, don't you?"

"Actually, I think she'd demand my limbs removed one by one while she watched, but hey, you know her better than I do."

He pressed his lips together to smother another laugh. "I'm sure you don't recall, but we've met-no, met isn't the right word. We've been in the same room together. Before today."

A complete switch of topics, but I could handle it. I flipped through my mental files and drew a blank.

He must have read the confusion in my eyes because he added, "About six months ago. You planned my sister's wedding reception."

"The Phillips-Howard wedding, right?" There, that was much better than saying, I don't remember seeing you. Ever. The reception had been the very first event I'd planned on my own, as a business owner. I remembered seeing Royce there, the first time I'd laid eyes on him in person. I'd been newly divorced and my gaze had eaten him up. Many times. He'd been as sexy then as he was now, and I hadn't been immune. But this man… I honestly didn't recall seeing him.

"Yes," he said. "That's the one."

"How is she?" I asked. "Your sister, I mean." Over the past few months, Daisy Phillips-Daisy Howard, I guess she is now-had sent several other clients my way. I was beyond grateful. Hell, I was grateful she'd hired me in the first place. I was an unknown but she'd heard me talking to Kera at Cinderella Catering, had (thankfully) liked what she'd heard and asked me to put a list of ideas together. I did and she signed me on. One of the best days of my life.

"Blissful," he said. "She just found out she's pregnant."

A little pang swept through my chest, but I tamped it down. Once, I'd wanted children. "That's wonderful. Tell her congratulations for me."

"I'll do that." With barely a breath, he added, "Is there something I can help you with, or do you need to see Royce?"

"Royce, I'm afraid. I'm helping with his mother's birthday party." Then, realizing what I'd just admitted, I clamped my lips tight. The party was supposed to be a surprise. Had I just blown it?

Stupid, stupid, stupid.

"Don't worry," Colin said, catching my distress. "I'm on the guest list."

My dismay faded and I grinned. "Thank God."

"Daisy still talks about how wonderful you are. So does Royce, for that matter," he muttered.

I blinked. "What was that?"

"Daisy. She sings your praises all the time."

Had he or had he not just said Royce talked about how wonderful I was? I hadn't thought Royce noticed me that night. Not the way a man notices a woman he wants to bed, that is. He sure hadn't acted like it that first day in his office. Yes, he had called me a few times after the reception, but that had been strictly business. Hadn't it?

My chest constricted with… hope? Fear? "You said something else," I insisted. "Something about Royce."

He shook his head. "No, I didn't."

Yes, he had, but I decided to let it slide. I didn't know if I truly wanted to hear the answer.

Perhaps I'd set Mel up with Colin. He seemed nice enough, and she'd go wild for his non-lazy eyes. I thought Kera was more his type, but she was now interested in her neighbor.

Just then, a hard, uncompromising form came up behind me. Two hands anchored on top of my shoulders. I didn't need to see who it was to know. I felt who it was, experiencing warm, electrical currents through my entire body.

Royce.

My clothes and skin soaked up the delicious heat of him, the erotic scent of him.

"I said ten minutes, Naomi. Not eleven. Not twelve. You're late." He didn't wait for a reply, just sailed past me and inside his office, forcing me to follow.

"Please tell Daisy I said thank you for all her praise and recommendations," I told Colin over my shoulder. What was wrong with Royce? I didn't understand that man. Not even a little bit. "That means a lot to me."

"You bet," Colin said.

With that, I nodded goodbye, pasted a professional smile on my face and curbed the urge to flip Elvira off as I skipped past her astonished face.

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