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Animal Instincts (Chapter Ten)

Just as a Tiger searches for and uses your weaknesses against you, you must find and use his against him. Exploiting a weakness can make the difference between victory and defeat.

I spent the next day, Friday, on the phone.

Royce called me. Richard did, too.

I told Richard to die and go to everlasting hell. I hung up on Royce without a word. He called me back, and I said, "Nice photo of you with Gwendolyn. Your non-girlfriend. Did you ask her to marry you, too?"

He laughed. Actually laughed. "She's a friend, nothing more. We do the charity circuit together. I'd love for you to be my date from now on. Are you interested?"

He sounded so sincere, but then, Richard had always sounded sincere as well.

I told Royce, "No thanks," and ended the call, not knowing what to think. Should I believe him? And why the hell was I so concerned? We weren't in a relationship-I'd made sure of that.

I avoided my mom's "did you find anything" call. I avoided Jonathan's "how do you feel" call. I did answer Jennifer's "would you like to go on a date" call and explained the kiss I'd planted on her. She took it well.

Through it all, my BlueJay never shut up. It continued to beep and beep and beep.

Finally I drop-kicked the little bastard out the window, taking immense satisfaction when I heard it shatter. Feeling better, I dialed every number on Jonathan's cell-phone bill, giving everyone the same story. "Your number was on my caller ID. Who are you and why did you call this number?"

The responses were wide and varying. Only two disturbed me, however. Jonathan had called Nora Hallsbrook, his secretary, numerous times during the middle of the night. He'd also phoned a local beauty salon six times. Body Electric. That meant only one thing: the lying little prick was having phone sex with his slutty secretary, then paying for her beauty appointments.

How cliche. How infuriating! I knew he hadn't called the salon to book an appointment for my mom. She wouldn't have been able to talk about anything else.

As mad as I was at my stepdad, though, I was also deeply hurt and feeling unbelievably betrayed. He was supposed to be different than my father. He was supposed to guard our family unit. He was supposed to love my mom, cherish her. He was supposed to love me.

I pinched the bridge of my nose. I would have liked a copy of Johnnie's Visa bill to see exactly what he'd purchased for Nora. Tanning? Laser body hair removal? Total body rub to assuage the guilt she felt for helping destroy a marriage?

I'd seen Nora on numerous occasions. She was a semi-attractive woman in her early forties with big, ratted hair and lots of makeup, but she wasn't the woman I'd seen in those photos, the young woman with the child. Could Jonathan be seeing two women on the side? It wasn't too far-fetched. Richard, may he fall into the ocean and be torn apart by a pack of wild, vicious, man-hungry sharks, had had booty available in every apartment building and housing unit in every city in the United States.

God, what was I going to tell my mom? Nothing, I decided in the next flash. Not yet. I shouldn't go to her without concrete proof. Otherwise, she might blow off everything I said. Make excuses for Jonathan and wallow in disbelief.

Like I had done for so many years. Like she had done before.

Jumping up, I raced to my kitchen and grabbed my phone book. Proof. Oh yeah, I'd get her proof. I looked up the address for both Nora and the salon. Just as I finished writing them down, my phone rang.

Caller ID showed Powell, Royce. I grabbed the phone and barked, "What?"

"I've decided whether or not you go with me, I'm not going to escort Gwen to any more events. I only want to go with you."

My skin tingled at the sound of that rich, husky promise. His words shouldn't matter, but they did. I might be an idiot (again), but I believed him (kind of). Dumb ass, my Tigress said. Was I just like my mom?

"Are you hungry?" he asked.

"No, sorry," I said, regret pounding through me. "I'm busy."

"Doing what? Working on my mother's party?"

"Actually, no. Now isn't a good time to talk. I'm on my way out."

"Where's your BlueJay? I programmed a meeting today and it should have been beeping all morning. You should be on your way to my office."

"Hmm, well, I haven't heard a thing." A knock sounded at my door. I pushed out a frustrated sigh, hating to end the conversation, but knowing I needed to, and walked into the living room. "I'll talk to you later. We need to discuss tomorrow's trip to Colorado and the fact that I still don't want to go." I hung up before he could utter a single protest and tossed the phone on my couch.

From the coffee table, I snatched up my keys and purse-I had yet to replace the stolen one, so I had to make do with this old, ugly white one. Right now I wore brown pants and a white top. Brown sandals, perfect for the two-mile walk ahead. My hair was in its usual twist. Hopefully I presented a completely unnoticeable and unmemorable package.

Without stopping to check who wanted to visit with me, I jerked open my door, ready to send whoever it was scurrying.

I stopped dead in my tracks instead.

Royce smiled down at me. He wore jeans and a black T-shirt. The material clung deliciously to his biceps and pecs, outlining every ridge and peak. I'd never seen him dressed so casually, and the sight made my mouth water. My nipples immediately took notice, jumping up to say, Hi, Royce. We love you and really want to introduce ourselves to you properly.

"I worked late last night, and I took the day off because I'd planned to meet with you today," he said, pocketing his cell. Still smiling-perhaps because he'd caught a glimpse of my naughty nipples-he said, "I'm going with you, wherever it is you're going in such a hurry."

I fought a shiver of anticipation. The thought of spending the day with him appealed to me in so many ways. I'd get to hear his voice, feel his warmth, even stare at him if I wanted. I'd also get a distraction that I, Detective Delacroix, couldn't afford.

"No, you're not." I scooted around him, doing my best not to touch him, and locked the door. Not sparing him a glance, I stalked toward the main lobby. I loved having a bottom-level apartment. No stairs or elevator for me, thank you.

"Where we going?" He was barely a step behind me.

As I pretended to ignore him, I felt the heat of him all the way to my bones. I stopped before going outside. The scent of sandalwood taunted and teased my nose. "You're not going to get rid of me," he said, before I could tell him to go away.

"Royce-"

"Naomi. I'm coming. End of conversation."

If I didn't invite him to come with me, I realized, he'd follow me and draw all kinds of unwanted attention my way. He was just too damn noticeable with that sexy, recognizable face of his. I'd rather deal with a distraction than the possibility of being spotted by my prey.

"Can you be sneaky, Royce? Can you blend into a crowd?"

"Yes," he answered, his forehead furrowed in confusion.

"Do you have a car with you?"

"Yes."

"Fine, you can come." Silver lining: I wouldn't have to walk, nor would I have to pay for a cab if I changed my mind about walking. I hated cabs, hated buses more, but I didn't yet have the money to fix my jalopy. "We're going to a salon on Main Street. Body Electric."

"The joy in your voice is making me feel all warm inside."

"Then my day is complete," I said with a sarcastic edge.

He snorted.

Lord, he was even sexy when he snorted. I felt myself melting, my bones liquefying in anticipation of a touch. Already my hands itched to explore him. Itched to touch his skin, itched to wrap around his-

"What are you having done at the salon? You're perfect just the way you are."

I tossed him a frown before pushing open the door. He was doing it again. Being sweet and irresistible, making me go disgustingly gooey inside. "Don't be nice to me, okay?" I'd already established I couldn't resist him physically, but I really needed to resist him emotionally. He made that extremely difficult with his devilish, charming personality.

"What?" He gave a choked little laugh. "Why?"

"Just because." Bright sunlight and sweltering heat hit me full force, and I was suddenly thankful he'd insisted on coming. I would have hated to spend more than a few seconds in this heat.

Beside me, bushes swayed together despite the fact that there was no wind. Odd. But then I spotted the shattered remains of my BlueJay, forgot about the ghost bushes, and steered Royce away, trying to direct his attention somewhere else. "Uh, to answer your first question, I'm not having anything done. I just want to look around. Where's your car?"

Without a word, he sauntered to a black stretch limo and opened the passenger door. Such wealth and luxury appeared odd in front of my modest apartment building, with its un-mowed, brittle grass and peeling stucco.

Royce waved me inside. "After you."

I remained in place, floundering in a puddle of shocked awe. "Are you trying to impress me? Because it's working."

"Actually," he said, a sheepish grin on his gorgeous face, "I just wanted my hands free."

Yippee, my nipples cried.

I hope he plays with us first, my thighs chimed in.

"Damn it!" I muttered. I had to get my thoughts under control. I might-might-believe him about Gwendolyn Summers, but I was on a mission to save my mom. Nothing else mattered at the moment, not even pleasure.

"What?" Royce asked, all innocence.

"You better keep those hands to yourself." I slid inside the car… and felt like all my troubles instantly melted away. Luxurious air-conditioning enveloped me. The seats were so plush and perfect I couldn't help but revel in their delicious decadence. Soft as clouds they were. I could have sunk into a coma of bliss.

Royce scooted inside until our shoulders brushed. A shiver rolled down my spine.

"Body Electric," he told the driver. Seconds later, the limo eased into motion. "Want to tell me what's bothering you?" he asked me. "You've got shadows under your eyes, and you're unusually pale."

I didn't want to talk about my cheating stepdad, so I said, "Did you see the article about me in the Tattler?"

"Well, yeah. I think everyone in Dallas saw it."

"They called me an alien. I should sue."

He uttered a short, booming laugh. "On what grounds?"

"I'm sure my attorney could think of something." My head lolled back on the pillow rest. "I'm surprised no one was waiting outside my apartment, snapping pictures of us as we walked out."

"They were."

I jerked upright and stared wide-eyed at him. "What!"

"There was a woman behind the bushes. She had a camera aimed right at us."

"And you didn't say anything? Argh. I can't believe this." I slapped his thigh. "You better do something. Pay her to give you the film or threaten to get her fired. Just do something. Anything! I do not need another hideous picture of me circulating. The last one nearly killed my mother."

Royce wrapped his fingers around mine and leaned toward me, bringing with him that delicious sandalwood scent. "I'll take care of it, okay?" He kissed my temple before settling back in his seat. "No worries." He didn't release my hand.

That single kiss affected me deeply and unequivocally, but the fact that he kept our fingers linked meant more. I yearned to melt into him, to absorb his strength, his complete ease with our being together. But I remained where I was. I would not rely on a man for anything. Especially not comfort. That's where dependency began. I didn't allow myself to consider the fact that I was relying on him to fix the little unwanted photographer problem.

"Thank you," I said stiffly.

"You're very welcome," he replied, using the same rigid tone. "Now, why don't you tell me why you want to look around this salon."

I shrugged. "I want to see what type of services they offer." It was the truth. I didn't tell him that I also wanted to speak with the employees and find out if Nora had visited.

"Why?" he persisted.

Ignoring his question, I shifted and faced the opposite window. Trees and cars whizzed past. The people in those cars strained, trying to see inside the limo, but the darkened windows blocked us from view. "Do you think you could get me a list of their employees?" If Nora wasn't the other woman, that employee list would give me somewhere else to look.

"Absolutely," Royce said. "Just tell me why you want it."

"Well," I said, turning to him, a lie forming in my mind, "my mother is a twin, and they were separated at birth. She's been searching for her sister all her life and I suspect one of the employees is that twin. And now, with my mother dying of cancer-" I pretended to wipe away a tear "-I want to give her this gift."

"How tragic," Royce said dryly. "Did you know your voice creeps higher when you're lying?"

Damn it, my mom had warned me about that betraying fact. I crossed my arms over my chest and frowned.

"Maybe a better gift for your dying mother would be grandchildren," he suggested.

My lashes sprang up and I was given a full-on view of his amusement. "You are so not funny." But I was covered in a cold sweat by the time the limo stopped in front of a white stucco building.

"We're here." Royce didn't wait for the driver, but opened the door himself and emerged. He held out a hand for me.

The dry heat clamped tight fists around me as I stepped out.

"Do we need to be incognito here?" he asked. When my brow crinkled in confusion, he added, "Before we left your apartment, you asked me if I knew how to be sneaky."

Oh, yeah. "I don't want them to know my name, but they can know yours."

He nodded. "Let me do the talking."

We entered side by side. A long desk loomed in front, manned by several young, attractive women. Too young for Johnnie, that was for sure. While he might be willing to destroy his marriage, I didn't think he'd be willing to destroy his practice for an underage hottie.

But what did I truly know about men?

"How can we help you?" the only blonde asked.

"I'm Royce Powell, and I need to speak with the owner." He voice reeked of suave authority. "My fiancee isn't sure which salon she wants to use the day of our wedding. I'm here to see what type of services can be provided so my little sugar bottoms feels extra special that day."

My stomach dropped at the word fiancee-then twisted at sugar bottoms. Sugar bottoms, indeed.

"Money is not an object," Royce continued. "We'll want the works, of course."

I could be mistaken, but I think dollar signs flashed in the blonde's eyes.

"Right this way," she said. "Brenda is in her office, and I know she'd love to speak with you."

"While my dear, sweet snookie wookie is busy chatting," I said, "I think I'll have a look-see around, 'kay?" Without waiting for consent, I sailed past the desk and down a long hallway.

"I'll come with you," one of the girls said, at my side in the next instant.

For the next twenty minutes, I scoped out the entire salon, meeting and speaking with the employees. The masseuse, the aromatherapist. The nail tech, the facial tattoo artist. The tanning specialist. I asked all of them the same question: "Is my Aunt Nora, Nora Hallsbrook, a client here? Because if she's not I want to get her in ASAP. She'd love this place."

Confirming all my fears, each one answered, "Yes, she's a regular."

Jonathan the Jerk was paying for Nora's days of pampering while he treated his own wife like a bothersome insect. He was going to suffer. I was going to make him suffer. Once I returned from Colorado, I would follow him with a camera and catch him in the act. Then I would help my mom take him for everything he owned.

Fucking bastard!

When my tour ended, I strode to the front entrance. Royce was waiting at the door, and the pert receptionist was flirting with him, running her fingertip over his arm as she spoke. She was wearing a green bracelet, I noticed with a scowl.

To my surprise, Royce discreetly moved his arm. He even stepped away from her. His shoulders were stiff, and he radiated a discomfort that helped extinguish the raging fury in my blood.

"Snoogie bear," I called. "I'm back."

His gaze snapped up, colliding with mine, and he smiled with relief. "Sugar bottoms. Did you see everything you needed to see?"

"Yes." I tried to walk to him, but I suddenly couldn't move my feet. They were frozen in place. As I stood there, my gaze still locked on Royce, something… odd welled up inside me. Something sad and vulnerable. Tears sprang into my eyes.

In three quick strides, Royce was at my side, his arm slipping around my waist. I let him wrap himself around me. I hated all men at the moment, but I let him. My Tigress seemed to be on hiatus, and I didn't have the strength to protest or push away his comforting touch.

Maybe, deep down, I didn't really want to protest. Royce wasn't like Richard the Bastard. Royce wasn't like Jonathan the Jerk. Royce said sweet things and wanted to be around me. He didn't flirt with pretty receptionists. Royce called me just to hear my voice and made me feel important and needed.

"Come on," he said gently. "Let's get you home." He led me to the limo. We didn't speak the entire drive. I was grateful. I didn't know what was wrong with me, didn't know why my emotions had chosen that moment to overtake me.

"We're here, sweetheart."

I pushed open the door and tried to step outside, but he stopped me with a hand on my wrist. He held out the list I'd wanted with the other hand.

I grabbed it and ran inside the building before I burst into tears.

I cried most of the night, and my tears only made me angrier. At Jonathan. At myself. At Royce and Gwendolyn. I believed Royce one moment, I didn't the next. Did that make me as foolish as my mom? Worse, did that make me the same foolish Naomi I'd been before?

No, surely not. None of the above meant I trusted Royce completely.

Cheating… Why did men do it? Why did any man think it was okay to trample on a woman's heart by lying to her and giving the best of himself to a woman other than his wife? It wasn't okay. It wasn't acceptable. It was disgusting and disrespectful, vile and wretched.

When Royce arrived the next morning, my eyes were still red and puffy. I hated that I was leaving town. There was so much I needed to do: follow Nora, take pictures of her with my stepdad and, of course, the most important item on my list, kill Jonathan.

Maybe I needed this trip, though. Royce always proved a good distraction. Plus, my mom kept calling me, and I kept ignoring her. I'd even turned off the ringer. I couldn't lie to her and tell her I'd found nothing, but I couldn't tell her what I had found. Not yet. Not while she could deny it.

I pulled open the front door to see Royce. He held out what must have been four dozen orchids, a mixture of yellow, white, pink and blue petals. Blue? Caught off guard, I was momentarily incapable of speech.

"For you," he said. "I know blue is your favorite color, so I had some of the petals dyed."

I'm sure my expression was horrified as I accepted the bouquet, holding it in my hands like it was a stink bomb about to go off. Richard the Bastard always brought me flowers-always red roses-when he'd done something wrong.

My heart fluttered, though, because this felt different. Royce had gone to so much trouble, had thought about my individual tastes. And he'd done it to make me feel better, I suspected, not to throw me off the scent of his bad behavior.

"I had to search the whole damn state for those," he told me.

"They're beautiful," I said softly. "Thank you."

"If you start crying, I'll be forced to cut out my heart and give it to you. How are you feeling?"

"Better." I pushed out a breath and gazed down at the dewy, sweet petals. "Thank you for, well, everything."

He grinned, a bit of self-deprecation hanging at the edges of his lips. "I was going to give you a list of to-do chores, but everything on the list was raunchy and I'd rather wait until you're receptive to give you something like that."

I laughed; I just couldn't help myself. And it felt good, forgetting my troubles, releasing my tension and simply enjoying him.

"Are you going to invite me in?" Royce asked gently. "I have another present for you."

"Oh, sure. Come in. What kind of present?" I couldn't hide my excitement.

He brushed past me, turned, then placed a brand new Blue-Jay in my free hand. "For you."

Damn it all to hell!

"I noticed yours had sprouted wings and flown itself out of your window, so I thought you'd like another one."

"Gee, thanks."

"You ready to go?"

"Let me put these in water first." Without a backward glance, I strode away.

Once in the kitchen, I stuffed the BlueJay under a stack of magazines (never to look at it again!) and arranged the orchids in my favorite crystal vase. A fresh, dewy scent washed over me.

I closed my eyes and savored it, holding my breath for as long as I could, then releasing it.

I liked that Royce had gone to so much trouble for me. But I hated it, too. I was beginning to feel all mushy inside.

Frowning, I practically shoved the arrangement onto the table as a centerpiece, then moved the pink carnations my stepdad had sent me this morning to the counter. I don't know why I'd kept them. To remind me he was really a turkey-on-rye sandwich hidden in a Krispy Kreme coating, perhaps. The note attached had congratulated me on landing such a lucrative job and hinted that I needed to fill out an application for the position of Mrs. Royce Powell. He also apologized for pushing me to get back together with Richard. How could he be so sweet, yet treat my mom so badly?

"Who sent you those?" Royce asked from behind me. He was suddenly so close I could feel the heat of him. His arms reached out and anchored on the counter in front of me, trapping me with his body. Surrounding me.

I swallowed. I shivered.

I licked my lips and perhaps-and this is not a confession- arched my back slightly and allowed the best part of him to rub against the crease of my bottom. Tendrils of desire unfurled, wrapping and winding around me. My defenses were down, and I didn't know whether it was because I'd been through an emotional wringer the last few days or because I was destined to respond to Royce no matter what. Either way, I wanted him.

Maybe I needed to rethink my sexual time line. Maybe being with him before his mom's party wasn't such a bad idea.

"Who, uh, sent me what?"

He leaned forward, his sandalwood fragrance wafting around me as surely as his heat. He pointed and said, "Those," in a tone that reeked of anger and attitude.

What was this? Another bout of jealousy? "None of your business," I said, turning my head to see how my words affected him. Right before my eyes, Royce's seemingly casual facade mutated into black fury he couldn't hide.

"Who's sending you flowers, Naomi? Are you seeing someone else?"

I studied the hard line of his jaw. He'd been jealous at the thought of me flirting with Colin, but this was different. This was more potent. Raw. Like before, a part of me reveled in the thought that this man, this wonderfully sexy man, felt strongly enough about me to harbor feelings of possessiveness.

Maybe I was playing with fire by goading him, but I kind of liked the thought of being burned. "Like I told you, Royce, it's none of your business."

"Who is he? I have a right to know. Are you seeing someone else?"

I pressed my lips together, refusing to answer. A pulse ticked in Royce's temple. If his teeth clenched any tighter, I feared his jaw would break. Was it cruel of me to enjoy this so much? My ex-may he become stranded on a deserted island, his only companion a legion of man-hungry bees-had been a jealous man, but it had been an accusing, projecting I-know-you're-cheating-on-me jealousy, not a possessive one.

Feeling bold and dangerous, I plucked a petal from one of the carnations and breathed in its scent, pretending fascination with the flower. "They're beautiful, aren't they?"

Royce clasped my arm and spun me all the way around, effectively gaining my undivided attention. The petal floated unheeded to the floor. Heat fairly sparkled in his eyes.

"Are you seeing someone else?" he asked again, each word bit out.

"And if I am? You've been seen with Miss Summers."

"That's not an answer, and I explained about Gwen. I've already called her and told her I won't be escorting her again. Now, are you seeing someone else?"

"No," I sighed, inexplicably relieved he'd done as promised and told Gwennie goodbye. "Are you happy now?"

He released me, suddenly relaxed and completely at ease. "Who are they from?" he asked curiously, as if he hadn't been on the verge of eruption.

"My stepdad."

"Good." He tucked a stray tendril of dark hair gently behind my ear; his fingers lingered at the rise of my cheek, caressing the skin there. "I refuse to share." Then, "Get your stuff and we'll head out." He didn't give me time to disagree, he simply exited the kitchen.

He refused to share me.

I gripped the counter behind me and frowned. That was just the kind of thing a domineering Triple C would say. How macho. How revolting.

How sweet.

I heaved a deep exhalation. You don't like to share, either, Naomi. Remember? And there will always be other women vying for Royce's attention. How long do you think he'll retain this attraction to you and you alone?

My frown deepened into a scowl and I stomped to my room. I shouldn't want to be with him, not this much, and his legendary conquests shouldn't matter to me. Again, not this much.

As I gathered my bag and briefcase, a sense of unease stretched and awoke inside me, obliterating all other thoughts. I was about to board a plane, aka a flying instrument of death. My stomach bottomed out, leaving a hollow ache in my side.

A bit shaky, I trudged through the apartment in search of Royce.

He was lounging across the bright red cushions on my couch, looking at home as he waited for me. His expression warmed when he spotted me. "All set?"

I managed a convincing nod. I'd rather face the burning pits of hell than step one foot inside an airplane. Maybe I should have had Jonathan hypnotize me for this. Not that it had ever worked before, but I was desperate.

"You're going to have fun, I promise," he said.

With the erratic pounding of my heart, the ride to the airport proved maddening. Royce talked the entire time, asking me about my fears, trying to comfort me with statistics and a list of requirements for all his mechanics and planes. He'd even brought charts for me to view. I didn't say a word. I was simply too nervous to make conversation.

When we reached our destination, a quiet ring sounded in my ears. I shook my head to clear the noise, but it persistently remained. I hadn't brought that stupid BlueJay, had I? "What's that ringing?" I asked raggedly. "Do you hear ringing?"

"No. Sweetheart, it's going to be okay," Royce said. "I promise. I hate that you're so afraid."

As we walked down a winding corridor hand in hand-I didn't even try to pull away-I cast a sidelong glance at his profile. He seemed in perfect control. Our steps echoed throughout the empty hangar. The closer we came to the plane, the stiffer I became. I squeezed his hand, hoping to make him stop, or at the very least, slow him down. I thought I could do this.

I couldn't.

The ringing in my ears increased in volume, a frantically rising crescendo of string instruments. "Please, Royce. Choose somewhere here in Dallas to host the party."

He didn't stop, didn't pause for that matter, just continued to guide me down the corridor. "We've got to conquer this fear of yours. I have to travel, it's part of my job, and I want you to be able to go with me. Once we're in the air, you're going to love it. I know you will."

"Please," I repeated, a bit more desperately.

"Sweetheart," he said, glancing in my direction. "Do you trust me? You have to know I would never let you get hurt."

"Can't we drive? I'm sure it won't take us long." Sweat beaded on my forehead.

He laughed, a husky laugh he tried to squelch. "That's a twelve-hour drive. No," he said, shaking his head, "we'll fly." That said, he tossed me a wink.

As if winking at me solved all my problems!

"It'll be fun," he said. "You'll see."

I knew I'd have more fun strapped naked on top of a cab going two miles per hour through downtown traffic.

"Once you've flown in a plane like this one, you'll never want to touch the ground again."

He didn't understand. I had to make him understand. The only word to escape my constricting throat, however, was "Please." The ringing in my ears was so loud now, I could barely hear myself. The desperate plea finally stopped him in his tracks. There was an edge of disconsolateness in my voice this time, along with cold-blooded fear.

He looked down, his eyes filling with concern. "It's going to be okay," he repeated. And I knew he kept repeating the same phrases to drill them into my mind. "I'd never let anything happen to you."

"You're right, okay, about me being afraid. I-I hate planes," I whispered. The knuckles clasping my overnight bag turned white with the force of my grip.

"I can see that." Using the tip of his finger, he lifted my face until our gazes locked. "Want to tell me why?"

Where was my Tigress when I needed her? I bit my lip, hard, the action close to drawing blood.

"If you don't stop that, I'm going to kiss you so I can ease the sting your teeth are inflicting."

Looking away, I said, "It's not the plane. Not really. It's the fear of crashing."

He enfolded me in his arms, causing the ringing to subside. I buried my head in the hollow of his neck. His hands caressed my back, offering comfort. "You're more likely to be in a car accident than a plane crash."

"You told me that before, but now I want you to tell that to everyone who's ever been in a plane crash."

"Have you ever flown before?"

"Yes. Once."

"And you didn't die."

"No, but the wheels twisted on takeoff and we had to fly around for hours, getting rid of fuel. I've never been so scared in my life."

"But you did land safely."

"Yes," I admitted.

"With me as the pilot and having checked the plane myself, nothing bad will happen this time."

"I-I just can't. I had to be heavily sedated last time, and even that didn't stop my panic."

"It's okay to be afraid. I'll be with you. Right beside you the entire ride."

"I can't do it."

"Yes, you can." Pulling away, he left one arm draped possessively around my shoulders. He began walking again, slowly this time. I didn't protest, just let him lead the way. "The best medicine for fear is confrontation."

Confrontation. That word made me queasy. Still, I pushed a puff of air past my lips. "You're right," I said. "I know you're right, but that doesn't stop me from wishing you were wrong."

He didn't reply, giving me time to overcome my riotous fears.

"I'll do it." I forced myself to say the words. "I will. I'll do it."

The hand at my shoulder tightened. "Good girl. Come on," he said, quickening his pace and forcing me to keep up. "It's not as bad as you think." Unfortunately, we had reached the plane. The death trap.

How could something so heavy stay in the air? Small as it was, it looked like it weighed a gazillion pounds, with a heavy white metal body and wide expanse of wings.

"Let me prove how safe it is. You'll love every second in the air so much you'll beg me to take you again."

Not in this lifetime.

The terror I had managed to set aside while snuggled in the crook of his arm reared its ugly head again, stronger than before, mocking my determination to push onward. That terrible ringing erupted in my ears once more, so loud I almost screamed in fright.

Blood rushed from my head, running like ice through my veins. The overnight bag I held fell from my cold, clammy fingers and thumped to the ground. For the space of a heartbeat, the world around me disappeared, replaced by bright, blinking lights. Then the blackened tar beneath my feet shifted, consuming my vision, squelching all hint of light. Why did I feel like I was falling slowly, falling down?

The next thing I knew, I was flat on my back, everything quiet. I searched through a dark mist for Royce.

"Naomi," I heard him call. It sounded as if he stood at the end of a long, narrow tunnel. "Talk to me, sweetheart."

The heavy shroud around my mind began to recede and the fog clouding my thoughts thinned. Suddenly, I saw Royce. He was staring down at me, his features drawn tight with worry.

Why was he worried? I blinked in confusion. Slowly comprehension dawned. And with it came mortification.

Holy Mother of God, I'd fainted. Never in my life had I done anything so childish. My inner Tigress finally decided to show herself, only to roar in displeasure. Displeasure with me, not Royce. Weakling, she said.

"Come on. Talk to me," Royce said again.

"I'm all right," I assured him, my voice little more than a whisper.

When I tried to sit up, he gently held me down. "Not yet. You shouldn't move. I'm calling the paramedics. Hang on."

"No." Stronger now, I squeezed his hand. "I'm fine. Really."

"I don't believe you." The anxiety darkening his eyes warmed me. Seeing it made me feel as if a blanket had been placed over my body, heating my flesh, giving me strength. Tentatively, I reached up, touched the side of his cheek with my fingertips.

"I'm not hurt. I promise."

After a terse nod, he replaced his cell phone in his bag and helped me to my feet. Thankfully, I felt no ill effects from my rendezvous with the ground. I tried to smooth the wrinkles from my slacks.

"We can stay," he sighed, surprising me.

I brightened instantly. "Really?"

"Damn it." He jerked a hand down his face. "It was like watching you in slow motion as your knees buckled and you plummeted to the ground. I wasn't able to do anything except catch you and lower you the rest of the way." He massaged his neck. "I'll get your bag and take you home."

"No." The intensity of that one word shocked him, as well as myself, but something had just hit me with the force of a jackhammer. I was acting like the old Naomi, the doormat afraid of the world. I wasn't that woman anymore, and that meant I had to be strong. "I can do this. I can. It's time to conquer my fear, just like you said. Besides, my inner Tigress will kill me if I don't."

That gave him pause, and he blinked down at me. "Your inner Tigress?"

"That's right." A slow smile spread, and I was sure it lit my entire face. "My inner Tigress. She's fierce and bloodthirsty and brave."

He spread his fingers over my head, feeling for a bump. "I think you hit your head a little too hard."

"Careful, or I might have to scratch you to death."

"I might let you, but it depends on where you want to scratch me," he muttered. He frowned and shook his head. "I'm taking you home, Naomi. No," he said when I opened my mouth to protest. "The thought of watching you faint dead away once more makes me shudder. I'll help you overcome your fear another way."

"Please, Royce."

"I said no arguments. That means no pleading, begging, crying or cajoling. And no wetting those luscious lips."

I planted my fists on my hips, my determination increasing with every second that passed. "Either you go with me or I pay someone else to take me and go alone. That's your choice."

"Damn it, Naomi." He let out a forceful breath. "How do you feel about riding in a large company jet instead of a small aircraft?"

I mulled it over, then nodded. I could pretend the large jet was a hotel room and hopefully forget I was soaring thousands of feet in the air, ready to crash at- "Uh, much better."

"My crew can have it ready to go in half an hour if you don't mind waiting."

The force of my relief was almost tangible. "But what about you? Do you mind not being the pilot?"

"I mind-I wanted to impress you, but I'll live through it."

He hustled me inside an air-conditioned room, then made a quick call.

It didn't take the thirty minutes he'd predicted. His flight crew had the Gulfstream ready in twenty. And, God help me, I boarded it.

Once inside the large craft, Royce gave me a tour. I couldn't help but gasp at the luxury. A soft, ivory wraparound couch graced the front entrance. A large-screen television was positioned overhead, perfect for viewing from a reclining position.

There was an office fully equipped with chairs, table and drawing board. Next, I entered a bathroom that was larger than mine at home. And last…the bottom of my stomach dropped out. My eyes widened as I took in the bedroom. It had a small, comfortable-looking mattress and glossy headboard with silk sheets and a soft comforter. The room was used for napping, I was sure, but that didn't matter to my brain.

I pictured Royce there, naked and beckoning me over with a seductive motion of his finger. I'm pretty sure I spent more time imagining Royce naked than I did anything else. If only I could get paid for fantasizing about him… Oh well. On with the fantasy: His bronzed skin glistened against the soft, white sheets. His entire body was hard. Hot. Ready. He continued to motion me over with a crook of his finger, wicked intent in his eyes.

I gulped.

"Let's get ready for takeoff." The real-life Royce placed one hand on my waist, and the contact sent currents of desire down my spine.

I didn't move. Couldn't. My gaze slashed up and collided with his. How could I get so worked up, so quickly?

He sucked in a breath. "Or if you'd rather wait and do other things," he murmured, "I'm all for that."

We stayed completely still for a moment, each lost in our own thoughts, thoughts that were too naughty to voice. Thankfully-and with much effort-I collected my wits. This wasn't the time; this wasn't the place. Distance. I needed distance. I stepped back, trying to act annoyed, though I was tempted to take what he offered. Always tempted.

"Not on your life," I managed. "I want to get this flight over with."

His fiery stare lingered on my lips for a long while. "Too bad. Maybe next time."

Taking my hand, he led me to the wraparound sofa and latched my seat belt into the proper hook. My body began to tremble. I was careful to keep my expression blank, passive, lest he tried to halt the trip. I had to prove to myself that I could do this. That fear didn't rule me.

"It takes courage to face your fear," he said. "I'm proud of you."

"Thank you." I was proud of myself, too.

After several minutes, the engines roared to life and the plane jostled, going slowly at first, then picking up speed as it moved down the runway. The captain said something over the speaker. My ears were ringing again, so all I heard was "Mmmm-mm mmmm-mmm."

"If the plane collides with the ocean, there's a very good chance the sharks will eat me alive."

"We're not flying over an ocean. We're flying over mountains."

"Even worse! Mountains have bears." I clutched Royce's hand and stiffened-if it was possible to become any more rigid than I already was. I looked ahead, knowing my complexion grew greener by the second. Silver lining: green was Royce's favorite color. I probably seemed like a goddess of beauty to him. "What if the pilot doesn't see one because the snowcaps look like clouds and he slams us right into it?"

"Then I swear to God I'll fire him." Royce clasped my chin and lowered his head. His lips met mine; his tongue swept inside without waiting for permission.

Hmm, delicious. My fears slowly diminished as thoughts of crashing were replaced with thoughts of sweaty bodies, tangled limbs and gasping pleasure. Royce tasted like pure sin today, hot and masculine with a dash of the forbidden. Maybe his saliva possessed an addictive chemical and that's why I couldn't get him out of my mind.

It was possible.

Within minutes, we were soaring through the air. To be honest, I barely noticed that we had taken off. Who cared, anyway? If I died today, it would be with a smile on my face. Royce certainly knew how to kiss.

Oh, did he know how to kiss.

He used his entire body. His hands. His chest. His legs. His masculinity consumed me, making me feel as if his whole existence was centered around me. Maybe it was. What a refreshing change from Richard's how-far-can-I-get-my-tongue-down-your-throat-before-I-can-get-into-your-pants kisses.

His hand moved to my breast, plumping and kneading. He groaned. I moaned. The sounds traveled over me, heating my blood. How easy it would be for him to shove down my pants and take me, I thought dazedly. How easy…and how wonderful. I spread my legs, about to beg him to touch me there. I ached so, so much.

He suddenly tore away, completely releasing me. His hands fisted at his sides. His breathing was shallow, quick, just like mine.

"One day soon, Naomi, I'm going to show you just how much pleasure I can give you. And neither one of us will be able to walk for a week."

true

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