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Novel: Savage Nature - Chapter 11

He saw her head snap around and she stiffened, looking into the swamplands to their left. He looked carefully to the right in case she glanced at him. Yeah. He knew. There were two of them running together. He was definitely outnumbered, and if they came at him en masse, which was proving to be likely, someone was going to get hurt. Drake risked a quick glance at her face. She’d gone pale. Her mouth set in a firm line and her shoulders straightened. He followed her gaze to the trunk in front of her. He’d bet his last dollar she had guns in that trunk. So his little guide was prepared to defend him. Warmth poured into him. “Hang on.” She sounded grim. He took the hint and grabbed for safety. The boat turned abruptly, skimming through the thick carpet of duckweed into another canal. Reeds divided the narrow lane of water, taking them away from the swamp where the large cats, in a relay, had followed. A roar of fury sent birds screeching into the air—a male leopard venting. His eyes met Saria’s. “What the hell was that?” Surely the question had to be asked. “There are bad things in the swamp,” she explained. “Don’ worry. I know my way around.” “I can see that. I’m not worried, Saria. I’m quite capable of taking care of myself—and you—if there’s need,ront he assured. “And I hired you as a guide, not to put yourself in danger. If we get into trouble out here, I want you to cut and run.” She made some sort of sound that ended in a cough. He was fairly certain she’d hissed the word “bullshit” under her breath, but she covered the slip nicely. “Now, cher,” she soothed.“I wouldn’ have much business if I left my customers in the swamp to be eaten by gators, would I?” She sounded as if he wasn’t quite bright. “I see your point,” he said, and couldn’t help laughing. She laughed with him. “I’m glad we’re in agreement. The last three I left for alligator bait turned me in to the Better Business Bureau. Some trivial matter like losin’ a leg or arm, nothin’ big, you understand?”
“Imagine turning you in for a little thing like that.” The boat swerved again and they skimmed through a thin point in the weeds, taking them back across to the main channel. Without warning the water changed to a glossy dark blue. They were in open water and the lake was beautiful at night. She pointed to a small, inviting cove. “See that little beach there? People swim there all the time. One of the biggest gators I’ve ever seen uses that area all the time to sun himself. His territory is just to the left. They’re crazy to bring their kids here.” “Has anyone tried to trap him?” “Trap him?” she echoed. “We don’ relocate gators, Drake. We live off them, but yeah, we’ve all tried to get him. He’s smart. He takes the bait, bends the hooks, steals the bait and leaves us all lookin’ foolish.” There was respect in her voice. A bluish gray settled around the trunks of the trees lining the shore, the muted color a cloak of mystery. It was difficult for anything to penetrate too far behind that thick veil. He studied the terrain as the boat swept around a curve and stands of cypress gave way to oak and pine. The trees sheltered a long, Victorian-era inspired chateau. Pale blue trimmed in white, the house blended with the gray-blue fog pouring in from the bayou. The wraparound porch was inviting and the balconies on the second story were large, enticing any visitor to sit and watch the water flowing over the rocks. Hammocks were slung in the trees a few feet from the water’s edge in the cool of the shade trees. He could hear bullfrogs and crickets calling in invitation. Saria beamed at him. “Isn’t it a jewel? Miss Pauline Lafont runs the inn now. It was her grandmother’s home first. Her mother turned it into a bed-and-breakfast and Miss Pauline has made a lot of improvements.” “It’s everything you said it was,” Drake agreed. Mostly the house had privacy. The place was old-style elegance, an era long gone. Quiet, hidden, an inviting jewel, just as Saria had promised when he’d contacted her through her guide advertisement. “Perfect,” he added with satisfaction. He hadn’t yet told Saria he’d rented the entire bed-and-breakfast for two weeks with the intention of bringing his team in the moment he found anything. And he knew he was going to find something. He’d stumbled onto a shifter’s lair right there in the middle of the Louisiana swamp. They were every bit as elusive and secretive as the shifters in the rain forests throughout the world—but it all made sense now. Dke waited patiently as he was introduced to the woman whose family had owned the beautiful Victorian-style home for a hundred years. Pauline Lafont was a small woman with laugh lines around her eyes and a ready smile. He liked her instantly. “Would you like the grand tour?” she asked graciously. “I’d love it, ma’am,” he said, meaning it. “The house is amazing.” It was essential that he knew the layout of the house. Every nook and cranny, every hiding place, where Pauline Lafont slept and lived when she was not interacting with her guests. “I’ll leave you in Miss Pauline’s hands,” Saria said. “But I’ll be back at dawn to pick you up.” He was reluctant to allow her out of his sight. If the leader of the leopard’s lair knew she was close to the emerging of her leopard, he might not let her anywhere near Drake. “Can you just stay here so we can get an early start? It might be easier. In any case I’ll want to go into the swamp at night.” “I’ve already arranged with Miss Pauline to stay,” Saria admitted, “but I need a few more things from home. I’ll be here before first light if I can’t make it back tonight.” He couldn’t kidnap her, as much as he wanted to. Instead, he locked his gaze with hers, knowing his eyes had gone pure cat, mesmerizing, holding her to him through sheer willpower. She had to have read the hunger in him, the urgent need, he couldn’t suppress it, even when he told himself she needed—even deserved—a courtship. Even a male leopard courted his mate carefully. Bands of color widened, and heat leapt between them. Pauline cleared her throat. Saria blinked rapidly and looked away. There was color in her cheeks. “Miss Pauline,” she said, not risking another glance at Drake. “I’ll be back as soon as possible.” Saria turned away from them, keeping her head down to avoid looking at Drake. “Saria,” he said softly, unable to just let her go.
She stopped, but didn’t turn her head. “Be careful. And come back to me.” He said it deliberately, using a velvet purr mixed with a steely command. “I will.” Her voice was barely above a whisper. He felt that soft sound vibrate through his body. His fingers curled tightly into his palms as she walked way, Pauline trailing after her. His leopard was close—too close. He could feel the stiletto-like claws puncturing his palms. He breathed the animal away. Pauline walked Saria to the door and stood for a minute watching her run lightly down to the dock. “She’s a smart girl that one,” she announced, obviously sensing his interest. Pauline Lafont, he decided, was an incurable romantic and the moment he’d displayed his interest in Saria, she began planning. At least someone was on his side. “And sweet.” “Very competent in the swamp,” Drake said. “I was surprised by her. She’s very well educated, yet she chooses to stay here. I would have thought most of the young people would look elsewhere for employment.” Saria hadn’t looked back at him. He knew, because he watched her all the way to the boat. She hadn’t so much as glanced ov er her shoulder.