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Animal Instincts (Chapter Twenty-one)

A true Tigress-ah, hell. If you don't know by this point, you're not a real Tigress. Take up gardening or something and call it a day.

The day of the party, I managed to pull myself together. Well, on the outside it appeared as if I'd pulled myself together. After hours of trying to find my happy meadow, and failing, I slapped myself across the face and joined Royce here at the hotel. Now I stood beside him, waiting at the door of the ballroom and waving guests inside. FYI, I wasn't dressed like a harem girl, but in a bright red sundress.

I must say, I did a wonderful job on the decorations. The area truly did resemble something out of Arabian Nights. There were belly dancers and magicians and multihued satin floor pillows. Jewels dripped from the tables and walls. Flowers abounded. There was a pink punch waterfall, and I'd even arranged for chocolate fondue. Soft, romantic music played in the background.

Six half-naked men were waiting outside the ballroom by a velvet lounge chair. When Linda arrived, they would place her on the lounge and carry her inside.

Kera and Mel were in their costumes, veils and barely there scarves, and were serving guests drinks and hors d'oeuvres as they meandered through the ballroom. Colin stayed by Mel's side, and neither of them could stop grinning. George Wilben stayed by Kera's, and they couldn't stop grinning.

Love was in the air.

Stomach cramp, stomach cramp.

Royce introduced me as his fiancee instead of the party planner. Everyone smiled at me and I swear to God they looked me up and down, trying to figure out what Royce saw in me, why he'd picked me. Honestly, I couldn't remember myself at the moment.

Stomach cramp, stomach cramp.

When all hundred and something guests had arrived-I'd made Royce narrow the list down-I helped them all find hiding places. Linda would arrive any moment, and this was a surprise party, after all.

"She's here," Royce said, a text message on his cell phone alerting him.

"Quiet everyone," I said.

The murmur of the crowd tapered to silence.

We dimmed the lights, letting the candles flicker and illuminate. A hush went over the crowd, and we even heard Linda giggle outside. Giggle! Royce closed in beside me and chose that moment to kiss me. I was helpless to resist him-I was always helpless to resist him. When his lips were pressed to mine, nothing else mattered but the two of us. Not the past. Not the future. Not the surge of fears that refused to leave me alone.

Gong. Gooong.

The doors were thrown and staunch, sophisticated Linda Powell was carried in by her half-naked slave boys. Royce and I laughingly pulled apart. Linda wore a conservative brown pantsuit, I saw, her silver bob perfectly in place. Her husband trailed behind her, and he was grinning ear to ear.

I watched the byplay, but Royce hadn't taken his eyes off me. "I can't wait to make you my wife tomorrow," he said tenderly.

I stilled, the words pounding through my mind. Wife. Tomorrow. Words I'd managed to push to the back of my mind- well, for a little while, at least. Wife. Tomorrow.

"Surprise!" everyone yelled.

I didn't move, didn't speak.

Even draped across the lounge as she was, Linda acted appropriately shocked. She put her hands over her mouth and muttered, "I can't believe you did this."

Everyone laughed.

Not me. I stared up at Royce now, at his strong chin, his cheekbones, his straight nose. His soft lips. His bright, bright blue eyes. He'd been inside me so many times over the last few weeks I hardly knew who I was without him there.

He kissed me softly on the lips. "I have to speak with my mom. Will you be okay on your own?"

"Yes," I said softly.

He kissed me again, a little harder, and walked away.

I watched him go. I'd tried to deny it, tried valiantly, but I couldn't deny it anymore. Couldn't fool myself, or pretend all I felt was lust. I loved him. I really, truly loved him. In that moment, my entire body pulsed with the knowledge. Roared with it.

My stomach cramped, hard. Love was dangerous. Love was messy, could ruin me. Wife. Tomorrow. WIFE. TOMORROW. All of my fears spoke up at once.

You'll love him forever, but how long will he love you?

He's too good to be true.

He'll get tired of you soon after the wedding.

He'll cheat. Men always do.

Jonathan hadn't cheated on my mom, I reminded myself, desperate. And Royce had done nothing to earn my distrust.

Not yet, that is.

I had trouble drawing in a breath. I felt like I was trapped in a small, airless box, no way out. Spinning round and round, helpless, screaming but remaining unheard. Hurting, sick. Frantic.

You're going to get hurt, and you'll never be able to recover.

Royce travels all the time. He might not mean to, but one day, somewhere, something will happen…

You'll be left as a shell of a woman.

Even now there were women dressed in green and camped outside the hotel.

I couldn't do it, I thought, shaking my head. I just couldn't do it! I couldn't be a forgotten, unwanted wife. Not again. If I hadn't fallen in love with him, maybe I could have gone through with it. If I hadn't given him my whole heart, maybe I could have risked it. Not now. No, not now.

Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod. What was I going to do? How was I going to get out of this? Ohmygod.

"Breathe, Naomi, breathe."

The rest of the party passed in a haze for me. Royce mingled with the crowd, and I stood off to the side, wondering what the hell I was going to do to get out of my own wedding. I couldn't give Royce the chance to break my heart. I couldn't let another man destroy me.

I couldn't live through another divorce.

And that's what will happen if you marry him. He'll divorce you, take you for everything you've worked so hard for.

Shut up, I wanted to scream. The fears… I had to silence them. They'd won. They'd defeated me. I couldn't marry him. Why wouldn't they shut up now?

"Are you okay?" Kera asked, suddenly in front of me and holding out her tray of…whatever it was. It was brown and gloppy. "You look pale."

I ignored the offered food. "I'm fine, thank you. You?"

"I'm good." She paused. "Are you sure you're okay?"

"Yes."

Pause. "Maybe George should-"

"Leave me alone, Kera." I didn't want to see her with George. I didn't want to talk to George. They were a happy couple. At the moment, I hated all happy couples and the people who were part of them. Those people had something I didn't-the courage to work through their fears.

"If you're sure…" Frowning, she padded away from me.

"Are you okay?" Mel asked a few minutes later. She held out her drink tray.

"I'm fine." I ignored the offered drinks.

"Kera says you were short with her."

"I said I'm fine, okay."

She studied me. "What's going on, Naomi? You look like death. Colin can-"

"Leave me alone, Mel. Please." My voice cracked, sounding more tortured than I'd ever heard another human being. I was breaking inside. Crumbling. Dissolving.

Dying.

"Don't talk to Colin. Don't talk to anyone about me."

Without another word, she backed away from me. The traitor walked right over to Colin, even though I'd told her not to, and said something to him. He looked at me and frowned, then walked right over to Royce and said something to him.

Royce, who had been in the middle of a laughing conversation with his mom, turned toward me and frowned. Concern darkened his eyes. In the next instant, he began walking toward me. It happened in slow motion, each step a hollow thud in my ears. My heartbeat quickened its pace and my blood chilled. My skin heated.

Too good to be true.

Cheat.

Hurt.

Heartache.

I didn't give him a chance to reach me. I ran. Just ran. Out of the ballroom, out of the hotel and down the street. I think I heard Royce call my name, but I kept running. I had to get away. Couldn't face him right now.

Toward the end of the block, I was out of breath. Tears burned my eyes and streamed down my cheeks as I hailed a cab.

At home, I quickly changed out of my dress and packed a bag. Royce called six times, but I didn't pick up the phone. The first message was a concerned, "What's going on? Why did you run, sweetheart? Do you need time alone?"

The second: "Call me when you get this, sweetheart. Where are you? I'm worried about you."

By the sixth, he uttered a guttural, "Damn it, Naomi. Call me."

I heard cars in the background, and knew he was on his way to my apartment. He only thinks he loves you, my deepest fears said, still clamoring to be heard. One day he'll be happy you left him.

"Shut up. Shut up, shut up, shut up." Those voices were making me crazy, were spinning my world out of control. I had to get out of here. Had to be alone. Had to find peace.

I went to the only place no one would think to look for me. The airport. I bought the cheapest ticket possible-which happened to be to Oklahoma City, the place Royce had taken me last-and waited in the terminal.

My blood cooled with every second that passed.

When they finally called my flight, I began shaking. I got on the plane, though, one step at a time. You're doing the right thing. A marriage to Royce would never have lasted. I clenched the armrests as we took off and cried silently as we soared through the air. My shaking never ceased, and yes, I threw up in the barf bag. Several times.

Surprisingly, I made it to Oklahoma City alive and well. I plopped in the first unoccupied chair I came to, trying to breathe. Trying to calm my nerves. Now you don't have to deal with Royce. Now he can't hurt you.

"Shut up," I screamed.

Several people whipped around to look at me, but no one approached me or commented. And I found, as I sat there, that the ringing in my ears was slowly dying. My fears were finally quieting.

And for the first time in hours, I began to breathe. In. Out. I took in as much of the precious air as I could. All the while, people maneuvered around my seat, hustling past me. I watched them. Couples, singles, children. They were all headed somewhere, going about their lives and living as best they could.

Yes, they were living.

I hadn't been, I realized in a sudden burst of clarity. Not really. Only with Royce had I come truly alive. In fact, before him, I'd been living in slow motion, going about my daily life but never forging a real future for myself.

Like my fear of flying, my relationship fears had weighed me down and kept me in one place. Always that fear of crashing and burning-in a plane or out. Didn't matter. I'd been afraid. I'd let the fear rule me.

What a coward I was. Not a Tigress. Not even a whole woman.

Did I want to live the rest of my life that way?

No. God, no. Hell, no.

And if I died today, I'd go to my grave with so many regrets. That's what fear/worry/anxiety, or whatever name I wanted to give it, did. Made a person stagnant. I didn't want to be stagnant anymore.

Richard hadn't broken me.

It was true, I realized. I slowly grinned, realizing, too, I hadn't wished my ex to everlasting hell as I usually did when I thought of him. He hadn't broken me. In a way, he was the reason I'd met Royce. If Richard and I hadn't split, I wouldn't have opened my own business. And if I hadn't opened my own business, I wouldn't have met Royce.

Royce… Sweet, tender, loving Royce. He was honorable. He desired me. He loved me. He was nothing like Richard, so why had I let the fears Richard had caused in me affect our relationship?

Coward, idiot, dummy.

"Not anymore," I said firmly, not caring who heard me.

Maybe I couldn't predict what tomorrow would bring, but I knew I would always love Royce. And loving him didn't have to be the bad thing I'd feared. It hadn't been so far. So far it had been wild and wonderful, amazing and joyous.

Being hurt was a part of life. I couldn't keep myself from it, no matter what I did. Without the voice of fear to distract me, I recognized that for fact. Knew it. Allowing myself to experience good things-love-could only help me when the bad times rolled around.

"I'm going to be okay," I told the lady striding past my chair. "I'm really going to be okay."

She gave me an odd look and hurried on.

I stayed at the airport all night, awaiting my morning flight home. I didn't sleep, but remained awake and made a list for Royce. With every item I added, I felt stronger, more assured that I was doing the right thing.

In fact, the only thing left to do was tell him what I'd decided-if he would even speak to me. I wasn't going to be afraid, though. I was marching onward. I'd make him listen if I had to.

No more fears for Naomi Delacroix. I was finally a Tigress. I would tackle life as it came. I would love and be loved.

My return flight was delayed due to rain, and when the death trap did finally take off, the ensuing turbulence almost killed me through a heart attack-and I almost killed the woman seated next to me by squeezing her too tightly. But I made it. I lived. I even flipped the plane the bird as I departed.

I hefted my bag over my shoulder and sprinted down the terminal. Outside, I hailed a cab and climbed inside. "Haul ass!" I told the driver.

He peeled out.

Thankfully Royce's apartment wasn't too far away. When we stopped abruptly, I threw the cabbie a ten and raced inside the building. But…

Royce wasn't home. And he didn't answer his cell.

Think, Naomi. Think. Where was he? I searched my place- nothing. I called his mom-no answer. I called Kera and Mel- no answer. I called Colin-no answer. Not knowing what else to do, I hailed another cab and drove to the church I'd reserved for our wedding. That would have taken place hours ago if I hadn't chickened out.

Maybe he was there, explaining to the guests that I was a flake who'd run out on him.

When I arrived, I threw open the double doors. "Royce," I called. I don't know what I expected to find inside, but what I found wasn't it. "Royce?" My shocked gaze scanned the building and tears welled in my eyes.

Everyone stood in place, and they were staring at me expectantly. There had been no cars in the lot, but everyone was here.

Mel and Kera were at the altar on Royce's left and Colin was on Royce's right. My mom and Jonathan smiled encouragingly at me. Even Rachel was there. And Jennifer. She blew me a kiss. Royce's mom and dad nodded at me, and I noticed they both had tears of happiness in their eyes.

"About time," someone muttered.

"Quiet," someone else scolded.

I clutched a hand over my stomach and stared down the aisle. Royce's expression was neutral and didn't change when our gazes locked. He was in a tux, so unbelievably handsome, while I was in jeans and a wrinkled T-shirt. My hair was in complete disarray.

Determined, I strode to him. Gulping, heart hammering, I handed him the list I'd made. "Here," I said. "This is for you."

He didn't say anything. Just read over it, expression unchanged.

"Why are you here?" I asked him quietly, my gaze never leaving his face.

"I decided to take a chance that you'd come," was his only response. Still no change in his expression. "Why are you here?"

He'd decided to take a chance. God, I loved this man. And I, well… "Didn't you read the list?"

Fierce now, his dark lashes swept up and he met my gaze. "I need to hear you say it, Naomi."

Tears spilled from my eyes. My chin trembled, making speech difficult. "The list tells all the reasons I can't live without you. All the reasons I love you." I was going to take a chance, too. "You're smart. You're honorable. You're funny. You're passionate. And you're… you. You're mine."

I turned to the crowd. "I love this man," I shouted. "I love him, and I want to marry him. I want to have his babies."

Several ohs and sniffles drifted from the crowd.

Royce and I might stumble along the way, but the journey would be worth any hardships. Slowly I faced him. "I love you," I said. "I love you so much, and I want to be with you, as your wife, forever. It might have taken me a little while to figure it out, but I still made it to the church. Consider this my application."

He grinned, his lips inching upward, and he dragged me into his arms with a murmured, "Thank God."

"Do you still want to marry me?" I asked hopefully.

He palmed my cheeks. "Well, your BlueJay says we've got an appointment today."

I grinned, too. "Give me the words."

"Yes, Naomi," he said, placing a soft kiss on my lips. "I still want to marry you. I'm nothing without you. I've loved you from the moment I first saw you. You were wearing green, and I've been obsessed with the color ever since."

His words hit me full force, and I thought back to all the women in green who had camped out in his office. All the women who had sent him pictures of themselves wearing green lingerie-or green body paint. I was the reason for that. Me. I covered my mouth with a shaky hand, more empowered in that moment than I'd been my entire life.

If I'd had any lingering fears about Royce's commitment to me, they vanished instantly. This man loved me so much he remembered the first outfit he'd seen me wear and wanted everyone else in the same color. He was crazy-insane in love with everything about me.

Like I was with him.

I lowered my hand and beamed up at him.

"Then may we at last begin?" the pastor asked on a sigh.

My smiled widened. Royce kissed me again. "You may begin," we said simultaneously.

Epilogue

September 14

Dear Wedding Journal,

Guess what? I've been married a full year now, and I'm happier than ever. Oh, and I'm also pregnant. The first go round was a false alarm-to my and Royce's disappointment. So, after the wedding, Royce and I hit the sheets as much as possible to rectify that.

We've barely gotten out of bed since.

Three months into our marriage, Royce got tired of leaving me to buy planes, so he handed that aspect of the job to Colin. Much to Mel's fury. She soon came around, though, and now travels with him. Yeah, they're still dating. I'm as surprised as you are. I think they got married in Vegas a few weeks ago, but neither one of them will say for sure. They just smile mysteriously. Neither wants to give up the image of being a player, I guess, but neither wants to give up the other, either.

Kera, too, is now married. She and George tied the knot mere weeks after me and Royce. They now have twin girls. Cutest little things ever.

And I'll soon have my own little bundle of joy. I can hardly wait!

I still can't believe I once resisted Royce. Can you? The man adores me. Truly. It's sickening sometimes, the way he loves me. He can't get enough of me. All right, all right. I can't get enough of him, either.

Anytime my old fears try to resurface-which is so rare now, it hardly bears mentioning-Royce spends hours and hours (and hours) reminding me (naked) of all the reasons he loves me.

Is he a dear or what?

Well, I better go. It's my turn to remind him of all the reasons I love him (naked, of course).

About the Author

A native of the central plains, Gena Showalter has always dreamed of being carted away by a savage alien warrior, a mystical Druinn sorcerer, or a king from a far-off planet. Since none of these men have come to claim her, she spends her days weaving stories about them. She is currently hard at work on her next romantic fantasy. Visit her Web site at www.genashowalter.com.

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