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Animal Instincts (Chapter Sixteen)

When your paws get muddy, emotionally speaking, clean them on your opponent's finest fur. This reveals your complete power, as well as intimidates, and the more intimidated your opponent is, the less likely they are to attack you again.

Royce took care of me all morning, making tea, holding my hair out of the way when needed (i.e. when I vomited) and covering me with blankets while I lay in bed. Despite my abject humiliation and the fact that I was freakishly sick, I loved every minute of it. He was so much better everything than I ever could have predicted. So much more wonderful. So much more giving. So much more kind.

Today, we almost seemed like an old married couple. That should have caused me to puke yet again, but it didn't. I liked that he'd taken a shower at my place. I liked that he'd washed his clothes here-never mind that it was to get rid of stains and smells I'd caused.

His clothes were in the dryer, so right now he was walking around in a pair of sexy black boxers. Did food poisoning cause a fever? Because I was burning up just looking at him. His stomach was ripped with muscle, his skin bronze and beautiful. His legs were long and lean.

I'd seen him naked before, but at the time I'd been looking at him with sex on the brain. Now, without the energy to jump his bones like a wild cowgirl, I could appreciate him like an art connoisseur. And appreciate him, I did. Fluid strength, he was, and all man.

He strode to the edge of my bed and gazed down at me, warmth and tenderness in his blue eyes. His black hair fell at his temples in complete disarray. "You need anything?"

Now there was a loaded question, and one I could interpret in so many ways. "I could use some company," I said.

A hint of satisfaction curled the edges of his lips. "I found your BlueJay under a bunch of magazines-which, by the way, have some great quizzes on relationships. You should read them. Anyway, I left it on your kitchen table. Uncovered."

"You're too good to me," I said dryly.

"You know, we could see this sickness as a sign."

"That it's my time to die?"

He laughed. "That you're pregnant."

I stiffened. "Not another word on that subject," I said. "I don't need the stress of that now."

Slowly he sobered. "Would it really be so bad?"

"I'm not going to answer that." Because if I said yes, I'd be lying. And I didn't want to say no. That would lead to a whole different conversation.

Sighing, he eased down, propping his weight over my legs and onto his elbow. Without his tall, strong body blocking the view in front of me, I was afforded a glimpse of myself in my dresser mirror. I gasped, horrified.

"I'm a hideous beast monster." My hair was messy and tangled. Black mascara smudges coated the skin under my eyes. "You have to leave," I told Royce. "You have to leave right now."

"Don't worry," he said on a laugh. "I'm not going to sell pictures of you to the Tattler."

The entire world could see me like this, but not Royce. Anyone but Royce. "Seriously, you need to go."

"Naomi, sweetheart, you threw up all over me. I think it's a little too late to be worrying about appearances."

Please Lord, I thought then, let me be one of the lucky souls who actually dies from food poisoning. I tossed the cover over my head, shielding my haggard features from his view. "I look so ugly."

He tugged the covers out of my kung-fu grip and cupped my jaw in his hand. "You look like you need me, and I think that's one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen."

Oh. My chin tilted to the side and I found myself feeling all dreamy and goo-goo.

"I got you a present while I was in Florida. You'll have to come to my place if you want to open it, though."

No way was I going to his house. Too personal. Too… tempting right now. What if I never wanted to leave?

But…

"A present? For me?" A shaft of warmth speared me. Like any normal human, I loved receiving gifts. "What is it?" A necklace? An airport snowglobe?

A ring?

"I'm not telling. You'll just have to see for yourself." His hand climbed up my leg and onto my stomach, gently rubbing away any lingering pain. "I found your Tigress book. It makes for some interesting reading. To be honest, I think you've already unleashed yours."

I closed my eyes as I savored the feel of him next to me, touching me. Offering me praise. I simply enjoyed. "What makes you think that?"

"You're strong. You don't take any crap. I'm willing to admit you've left me in a bleeding heap on more than one occasion. I doubt you'd ever let me take you for granted."

I was feeling sublimely peaceful, something I hadn't felt all night. What little sleep I'd had had been constantly interrupted with bouts of sickness and phone calls. Royce's voice drifted in and out of my mind, soft one minute, a little louder the next.

I wasn't sure, but I thought I heard him say, "But even tigresses have mates."

It was the last thing to float through my mind before I sank into a deep slumber.

How many hours passed, I didn't know. I only knew that Royce had taken care of me as I slept another day away, and that my phone was ringing again. So was the BlueJay that had been placed on the nightstand beside my bed. Where was Royce? Groggy, disoriented, but no longer in pain, I lifted the receiver. "Hello."

"Miss Delacroix, please," a sweet female voice said.

I woke up a bit and rubbed the sleep from my eyes. "This is she."

"This is Hannah Carroll from Powell Aeronautics."

"Who?"

"Mr. Powell's assistant."

Elvira, I realized. "Yes?"

"I've been instructed to ask how you're feeling," she said.

My glance shifted to my bedside clock. Nine a.m. I blinked in confusion. I'd slept for nearly the entire weekend. It was no longer Sunday. No, it was now Monday morning-breakfast with the twins. I'd already missed it I realized with disappointment. "I feel fine," I said. And I did. My stomach was empty, and I was a little weak, but that was the extent of it.

"I'm so glad to hear that." Her agreeable tone morphed into one of contempt. "Since you're feeling better, I've been instructed to confirm your appointment with Mr. Powell today at ten-thirty. If, however, you feel bad, I've been instructed to tell you to stay home." Now she sounded hopeful.

"You're mistaken." I rolled to my back, stretching my legs. "I don't have an appointment today."

"You're the one who's mistaken. I actually have you down in the appointment book this time."

"But isn't Royce here, at my place?" I searched every direction, looking for any hint of him. All that remained was the lingering scent of sandalwood.

"No, he is not at your place," Elvira growled. "He's here at the office. Where he belongs."

"Good for him. Goodbye, Ms. Carroll." I inched forward to replace the phone in its cradle, but her frustrated what-kind-of-monster-are-you yelp stopped me. Phone back at my ear, I said, "What now?"

"Because Mr. Powell just arrived back in town, today's schedule is tight. I absolutely cannot squeeze you in at any other time." She added grudgingly, "And he was adamant that he see you today if you were feeling better."

I sat up and propped my elbows on my knees. The thought of seeing Royce again made my heart leap and my blood heat. Sighing, I rested my head in my hands. "I'll be there," I said.

Which didn't give me long to get ready, and I wanted to look my best. I needed to look my best, if only to make up for the fright show I'd been yesterday. If I didn't blot that image out of his mind, I might as well end our association now.

I threw down the receiver, popped out of bed and climbed into the shower. The hot, steamy liquid cascaded over me, washing away all hints of sickness. I brushed my teeth three times and rinsed my mouth with burning, antibacterial mint wash for over two minutes. The bottle claimed thirty seconds would do it, but I wanted to make sure all germs were annihilated.

After I applied makeup, I blew dry my hair until it shone like an evening star, and I hurriedly shimmied into a dark red dress that hugged my curves and hit just below my knees. Not too businesslike, but definitely sexy. To be daring, I forfeited a bra.

Surely a braless woman could replace the memory of a hideous, puking beast monster. Still, I didn't want the rest of Powell Aeronautics to see me braless, so I pulled on a dress jacket. I checked out the finished product in the mirror and nodded with satisfaction. As good as it was going to get.

Time to confront Royce Powell.

Somehow, and Lord only knew how, I managed to make it to Powell Aeronautics with ten minutes to spare.

Elvira spotted me and glared. She looked immaculate behind her desk, as cold as stone and just as hard. She seethed with… jealousy?

Ohmygod. She wanted Royce for her own, I realized. I don't know why I hadn't figured it out earlier. Maybe because she didn't look like the kind of woman who had hormones. Or blood. Or a heartbeat. Still, she obviously viewed me and any other woman interested in him as a threat.

I couldn't help but wonder if she and Royce had ever had a relationship. Office affairs were the most common, after all. If they had, well, I'd-I'd-I didn't know what I'd do. Royce and I had slept together, yes, and he'd asked me to marry him. But I'd said no, so I couldn't really demand he fire his assistant and hire a fat old woman who smelled like mothballs and cheese. Better yet, a fat old man who smelled like mothballs and cheese.

Still, I knew how it felt to yearn for the attention of a man I couldn't have. (See any and all mentions of my marriage to Richard the Bastard for proof).

Be nice, be nice, be nice. Polite smile in place, I glided past her. "Good day to you, my good woman." Her features lit with astonishment, but she didn't try to stop me. I didn't knock on Royce's office door, but swept inside.

When I saw him seated at his desk, head bowed, I came to an abrupt halt. "I believe I have the ten-thirty appointment."

His eyes lifted from the papers on his desk and our gazes met. Blue against gray. Pleasure against pleasure. He offered me a warm, sexy smile. "I'm glad you could make it."

God, he looked good. Really, really good. Instead of skin and boxers, he wore a suit, minus the tie. His white button shirt was open at the collar. His hair looked like rumpled black silk, as if he'd just rolled out of bed.

"How do you feel?" he asked, setting the papers aside. He leaned back in his chair and rested one of his elbows against the armrest.

"Much better. Thank you for taking care of me."

"That was my pleasure."

Pleasure…yes, pleasure. I needed more of it. As I stared over at him, all my desires, all my body's needs, leapt to life. My (bra-less) nipples hardened, my mouth watered. I had to have this man again-and soon.

I wanted Royce in my life. I did. I'd already promised myself I could seduce him, but in that moment I admitted I wanted a sexually exclusive relationship. For as long as I could have him.

"My God," he suddenly breathed.

"What?" Automatically, I stepped back.

"Your dress."

So he'd noticed. Grinning inwardly, I twirled. The red hem danced around my knees. "Do you like it?"

"Darlin'," he said in a delicious Texas accent. "I don't think I've ever seen anything more beautiful." Standing, he propped his palms on the desk. "You're driving me crazy-you know that, don't you?"

"I'm glad."

"Glad?" he asked, incredulous. "You should be apologizing. I left an out-of-state meeting to see you. I think about you all the time. I dream about you."

"Well-" I licked my lips and gathered my courage "-you're driving me crazy, too. Where's my apology?"

"I'm willing to give you anything you want, sweetheart. I just wish you'd ask for more than an apology."

"All right. I have a question for you and I'd like an honest answer," I said, settling in a chair. I set my briefcase at my feet and folded my hands together in my lap. Very prim, very proper. "Have you and Elvira ever slept together?"

His face wrinkled in confusion. "What are you talking about?"

"Your assistant. Have you ever slept with her?"

"Hannah? God, no."

Truth lay in his surprise and intensity, and I found myself breathing easier. "I know it's not any of my business, but-"

"Of course it's your business. Just like any other men in your life are my business." He paused, daring me to contradict him. When I didn't, he added, "There aren't any other men, are there?"

"No, of course not. I can barely tolerate you."

He plopped back into his seat with a snort.

Before the conversation delved into any talk of rings, flowers or babies, I hurriedly changed the subject. I had the information I'd wanted. "Did you sign me up for this appointment because you wanted to give me my present?"

"No." He slowly grinned. "I told you, you have to come to my place for that."

My shoulders slumped a little. "I'm here for business, then. All right, well, I know you're busy, so let's get this over with." I reached in my briefcase, pulled out two pieces of paper and handed them to him. "As you can see I've made an itemized list of things I need to be reimbursed for and things I still need to purchase, with estimated cost, as well as a list of businesses requiring deposits from you. For the first list, I need money. I accept all types of cash. Small bills, large bills, wadded bills. Extra-crisp bills. For the second list, signed checks will work."

Without protest, he opened his wallet and handed me every piece of green paper in it. I inhaled deeply. Ah, the smell of real money.

"That's eight hundred dollars. A little more than you're asking for on your list, but you never know if something will cost more than estimated."

He trusted me with his money, the dear, sweet man. "You'll notice that I need to make a down payment to the caterer as soon as possible so we can concretely reserve the desired date. However, I can't do that until you've decided on a location. Which brings me to my next point of business. Location. Have you chosen yet? The sample invitation is printed and ready for approval." I pulled my notebook from my bag, flipped it open and lifted the invitation. "All it's missing is the address."

He took the sample from me and gave the burgundy coloring and gold lettering a thorough inspection. "Wow. You're good. My mother will like it, too," he added, knowing I'd ask. "As for the location, I don't know yet."

"Why not?" I shoved to my feet, fearing his next words.

"I want to visit a cabin in Oklahoma."

"Out of the question. It's too late in the game."

"We leave in four days. I've already made arrangements."

"But-but-"

"Don't worry. We'll have fun."

"I'm not flying again. I won our bet in Colorado, and you swore I wouldn't have to step foot in another plane. Is that correct?"

"Yes. That's correct."

"Then I don't have to go to Oklahoma. You can't make me."

His lips lifted in another slow smile, this one a wicked grin of pure pleasure. "I can make you. We're driving. It's only a three-hour drive, sweetheart."

I crossed my arms over my chest. I did not want to rough it in some primitive cabin. How sexy could I look then? "My answer is still no."

"I'm afraid you don't have a choice. I'm paying you triple, remember?"

"I refuse to go. Do you understand me?"

"Great. Try to be ready by three on Friday."

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