Monday, January 17, 2011
Leona turned in a slow circle to examine all angles in the dressing-room mirror. The dress was red as sin and rode her curves like a jockey. Its bodice gave the illusion she had more up top than Nature had provided. She pulled her thick ebony hair into an upsweep to test the effect. Nice, but would it stop a man dead in his tracks? Only one way to find out.
She stepped out of the dressing room. “How about this one?”
The look in Brand’s eyes answered all her questions and sparked a couple of naughty ones. His gaze started at her legs and worked its hungry way up her body, over her faux bustline to her face. He didn’t growl, as a wolf might have; he made one of those high-pitched sounds bats used when hunting prey. “That one’s definitely a keeper.”
“It’s a little short for a formal party.”
“I wasn’t thinking about the party.”
His expression made it clear what he’d been thinking of. Leona’s thoughts had been running in similar channels since she and Brand started dating. She turned in a slow, enticing circle just to hear his high-pitched whistle again. Her mind calculated how quickly she could get this dress off her body. She suspected Brand was figuring the same.
“None of this is about the party, is it?” she teased him. “You just wanted a fashion show.”
“I want to see you outshine every other woman at Hancock’s gala. If I wanted a fashion show I’d have had you model lingerie.”
“That can be arranged.”
“I was counting on it.”
What’s happened to me? Leona wondered. Where was the suspicious, hard-edged reporter? “Leona” and “soft” had never belonged in the same sentence before. One look at Brand and the razor-clawed panther turned into a purring kittycat. Not that she minded. “Okay, this one goes into the buy pile. You don’t have to foot the bill for this.”
“As I told you from the beginning, my motives are entirely selfish. Let’s see the blue number again. I think that’s our party dress.”
She grinned at him. “Our?”
“Yours. It wouldn’t look as good on me. I don’t have the legs for it.”
“Your legs are just fine.” So was his butt, his arms and his lips. Leona, you stupid cat, she chided, you’ve fallen for a man again. What’s wrong with you? She swept back into the dressing room. “Be right out.”
One quick change later Leona emerged, this time sheathed in a shimmering gown the blue of tropical skies. Brand had wandered off. Leona raked her gaze over the shop’s interior. She didn’t find Brand. She did find disaster.
Oh Bast. Devon Hancock.
Before she could duck back into the dressing room, he spotted her. He started across the floor. Leona held her ground and kept her claws retracted for the time being. “Devon. What a surprise.”
His gaze took her in just as Brand’s had, minus her tingly response. She’d walked away from Devon long ago, once she stopped being such a foolish, star-struck kitten. Thank Bast for the lack of lingering after-effects.
“Holy scat, Leona,” he said. “You look fantastic.”
“Thanks.” And you sound different, she thought. “I hope you’re not looking for a dress.”
He chuckled. “Not for myself. Wouldn’t that be a hoot, though? Show up in a ball gown and tell Daddy I’ve gone swishtail. No, I don’t think so. That’d be mean. Funny, but mean.”
Really? It sounded like just the kind of stunt he’d liked to pull back when she’d known him. Back when they’d both been young and stupid. She managed to hide her surprise. Like “Leona” and “soft,” “Devon” and “mature” had never been known to mingle. Wonder who she is, Leona thought. Who made a wolf out of the puppy?
The answer glided to his side like Death on padded paws. The woman took his arm in a proprietary grip and regarded Leona out of hooded emerald eyes. Her voice was a throaty purr with a razor in it. “Did I hear you say Leona?”
At that moment Brand returned, with a selection of clutch purses. He held one up to Leona’s dress. “Yes, this should work. I’ll leave the shoes to you.” He pretended he only now noticed Devon. “Well. Mr. Hancock. Fancy meeting you here.”
Devon drew himself erect. “Likewise, Mr. Wayne.”
While the males postured and puffed out their chests, the females sized each other up. Another cat, Leona saw. What was it with Devon and cat-tail? This one, however, wasn’t any empty-headed kitty. Something about this one sent Leona back to the ancestral jungle, and life-or-death fights over prey.
But not over Devon. That was long over. She slid her arm around Brand’s waist to make that clear. The other cat noted the action and relaxed somewhat. An uneasy truce grew between them.
“Honey,” Devon started in, “this is Leona Lane, my – ”
“Old friend,” Leona cut in smoothly. She smiled at the other woman, who bared her teeth in response.
“Uh, yeah. Leona, Mr. Wayne, this is Rakshashi, my fiancée.”
Leona barely hid her gasp. Devon’s intended failed at hiding her own. “Well,” Brandon said. “It appears congratulations are in order.”
“You could say that. You mind keeping it quiet? I intend to announce it at the party.” Devon smiled viciously. “Daddy doesn’t know yet. I want it to be a surprise.”
“You’ve succeeded,” Rakshashi muttered. She was clearly in shock.
“Yeah. Oh scat. I’m sorry, darling. I was going to ask you at lunch.” He folded his body around her smaller form, the wolf in full protection mode. “Would you two excuse us? We need to talk.”
“Yes,” Rakshashi said. “That would be wise.”
The couple hurried away. Leona watched the retreat with a number of wild emotions swirling through her brain. Regret, however, was not among them. “Some things don’t change,” she murmured. “Like him. Never thinks things through. I hope he realizes what he’s let himself in for.”
“And you don’t mean only marriage,” Brand said. “You know who she is, don’t you?”
Leona nodded. “Shere Khan’s daughter. Devon’s really stepped in it. All four paws.”
He looked at her thoughtfully. “Sounds like quite a story.”
“I’m sure there is, but I won’t be telling it. Devon’s a beta wolf shoved in an alpha suit. He never deserved to be raked over the coals. I’ll leave that to Maggie.” And leave Maggie to face the wrath of the tigress. The notion cheered her immensely. “Now him, on the other hand … ”
She nodded toward the far side of the floor, and the tiger pawing distractedly through a rack of cocktail dresses. Somehow she doubted he was a swishtail either. Not with that tense body language, or the bulge of the gun beneath his jacket.
Brand nodded fractionally. “The one who’s been following us all morning?”
“I make it my business to notice.”
“Same here.” She leaned in close to him. From a distance they looked like no more than a couple in love. She whispered in his ear. “I could do with a bite of lunch myself. Or a bite of something. Let me get out of this and we’ll take off. Let’s see what our shadow does.”
For anyone with a book ready to go, Amazon.com and Penguin Publishing are running their Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award again. Published authors can enter. You have to join CreateSpace, but that's no big deal. I entered two years ago and made the semifinals. I don't expect to get anywhere this year, but I'm using the deadline to motivate myself into whipping an old (non-romance) fantasy ms. into shape. They start taking entries next week. Info is available at www.createspace.com/abna. If anyone wants to give it a shot, let me know how it goes.
Posted by Pat C.