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Novel: Savage Nature - Chapter 10

SARIA and Drake were being followed right out into the swamp, and their trackers weren’t being subtle about it. His cat, always lethal, stretched languidly, claws out, ready for battle—even eager for it. For a few moments, Drake could only stand very still and fight the internal battle for supremacy. His cat became agitated as it scented the males racing along the banks beside him. The leopard went from mildly irritated to furious feline in a matter of minutes. Drake turned his face up to the sky. The clouds rolled overhead, a turbulent blend of heat and moisture, threatening to break open. The weather suited his mood, stormy and unpredictable. He couldn’t allow his leopard to emerge, not there on the boat with Saria so close to danger. Not with male leopards prowling the water’s edge looking for a fight with him. He forced down the need to shift, using every bit of discipline and control he’d learned over the years to restrain his angry cat. The ache in his jaw receded, but his bones hurt, particularly his injured leg. He shifted his weight to ease the burden on it while he drew in several deep breaths to chase away the mad desire to shift. He pushed the leopard back even more. His knuckles were on fire and the ends of his fingers throbbed. A soft growl escaped and he sensed Saria stiffen and throw him a look. He pretended great interest in his surroundings. The boat skimmed over the soft green carpet of duckweed, taking him deeper into the misty swamp. Leaves had begun to fall away, making branches reach low over the dark waters, like large bony fingers ready to drag the unwary into the alligator-infested canals and bayous. They passed grass prairies as the moon rose, throwing a silvery glow across the dark waters. Cypress and willows hung over the banks. Tupelo gums rose up through the tangled vines and vegetation on the swamp floor. Egrets preened their white plumage, looking like no more than stick shadows against the dark sky. Towering thunder clouds promised more rain, turning the sky even grayer. He used his cat’s vision to pierce the veil, spotting a nutria watching them pass. An otter sat on a log, but his attention was centered in the grove of cypress trees on the edge of the swamp. It didn’t surprise Drake when a large buck leapt off the bank and raced for safety, startled, no doubt, by the leopards following the progress of Saria’s boat. Drake looked for landmarks, but there were none. “You seem to know your way around, yet there’s little to tell you which direction to go.” “You don’ ever want to come back here without a guide,” she cautioned. “I’m not just sayin’ that to you so I can work. Most of these areas are leased and they’ll shoot to protect their lands. They earn their livin’s out here by trappin’ , huntin’ and fishin’ . It’s a hard, satisfyin’ life, but we get poachers and a few others that have business they don’t want anyone to know about. That threatens our way of life.”

“I hear you,” he said to appease her. He could see she was genuinely worried—and ordinarily she had reason to be. But he was leopard and he could find his way anywhere—even in her swamp. He had supreme confidence in himself. As if reading his thoughts, she continued with her warnings. “A lot of the land is spongy, and one misstep and you’d fall through.” He spotted a large cat moving fast through the trees near the bank and hid his smile. Leopards had an instinct about foot placement. They could swim and they were good arboreal travelers as well. He could maneuver the swamp as well as any native. The landscape was beautiful. The trees, half submerged in water, rose up bare, twisted, bony and gnarled, the branches stretching up and out with great sheets of moss cloaking them. He kept his eyes on the leopard. Shifters could sustain speed and travel much longer periods of time than a large cat could, but still, not miles and miles, not in that form. Sure enough, one cat skidded to a halt and another who’d been waiting took up the chase. The word was out and the lair was calling in its defenders. He had to turn away to hide his grin. They should have just asked Saria where she was taking him and saved them all so much trouble. Still, they would have followed to ensure the safety of the female. He would have. In any case, he was going to have company tonight. They knew exactly what he was, they would have scented the leopard in him and the fact that he wasn’t intimidated wouldn’t sit well with them, not with a female involved. He glanced at his watch. He had a satellite link-up with Jake Bannaconni soon. He’d cut it close, catching the last barge, but he’d stopped off just to make one last trip to the surgeon. He was going to shift as soon as he had an opportunity. His leopard had been patient enough. Both of them were withering without being able to be true to their wild nature. Mist gathered, moving in slowly through the stick-figure trees, thickening into a heavy veil of gray. Sounds changed the deeper they penetrated the swamp. He caught a glimpse of a hunter’s camp, a small snug building used while fishing and trapping. The cabin represented a vanishing way of life, men living off the land, independent and fiercely proud. Families still tight-knit, hardworking people who supported each other to survive. He looked from the cabin to Saria’s face as she stood, one hand resting lightly on the helm. Her hair blew around her face, yet there was an elegant, regal quality to her in her simple blue jeans and face scrubbed clean of makeup. She embodied the spirit of nature to him. Strong yet fragile. Independent and still vulnerable. Elusive and so tempting. Her lips were slightly parted, her eyes shining. The wind put color in her cheeks. She glanced at him and laughed, clearly enjoying the ride over the water. The sound carried on the wind and became part of the rhythm of the swamp for him.His body reacted immediately, hardening on the outside, melting soft on the inside. He’d never quite experienced the sensation of need before—and need was definitely part of what he was feeling. She moved him. The stillness of her. The simplicity and complexity of her. Saria’s laughter was pure magic, wrapping him up in her spell. “Are you from a large family?” He’d overheard the remark about her brothers, plural, so she had more than one. “Yes and no.” She gave a casual shrug, maybe too casual. He went instantly on the alert. Her gaze had touched his and jumped away. She stared out over the water. She hadn’t changed her stance, but he felt her withdrawal into herself. She wasn’t thrilled talking family. Was it the natural reticence of their kind, or something more sinister? “I’ve got five brothers but I’m eight years younger than my next siblin’ . My mom died a couple of years after I was born, and before I really had a chance to know any of them, they were all workin’ away from home. They sent money of course, but I wasn’t really raised with them, so in some ways I’m an only child.”“That must have been lonely.” She frowned, shaking her head. “Sometimes, when they were home and would talk together, not really noticin’ I was around, I felt left out, but for the most part, I had a great childhood.” She sent him a grin. “I just did whatever I wanted.”

He fell halfway in love with her for that grin of sheer camaraderie, as if she expected him to fully understand her way of life. He couldn’t help but send her an answering smile. She was beautiful, giving him that little insight to who she was and what she needed. He tucked the information somewhere into his soul where he could never lose it. After walking through life these last couple of years feeling as though he were dead inside, she’d certainly awakened him wi th a vengeance.