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Novel: Savage Nature - Chapter 13

Jake swore under his breath. “He’s one of the best we’ve got. I want to send the boys to back you up. And damn it, Joshua is family. Our family.” “I’m telling you, I don’t doubt him. I don’t want you to think he wouldn’t die to protect Emma, the children or you for that matter. He’s a good man. I just want to find out a little more about his father’s family before I put him in a bad position. We should send word to Rio and ask him to do a little research for us.” Rio Santana was the leader of a team of shifters in Borneo. They traveled around the world wherever they were needed. Drake trusted Rio implicitly. “Maybe we should pull out of there, regroup and come back in force,” Jake suggested. Drake cleared his throat. “I can handle it, Jake. There’s no need unless one of the leopards here has been killing innocents.” “What aren’t you telling me, Drake?” Drake cursed under his breath. There was no getting anything past Jake. The man was as shrewd as they came. “There’s a female close to the Han Vol Dan. I caught her scent and my cat went crazy.” “And?” Jake prompted. “So did I.” That said it all. Everything. A warning. A challenge. Jake went silent. Drake refused to be drawn in. He stayed utterly still, staring out over the water. Darkness had long since settled. Bullfrogs called back and forth. Crickets sang insistently. The heat in his veins crackled with the same powerst Jakethe veins of lightning lining the black clouds tumbling in the sky.
“Drake, if you’re dead, she isn’t going to do you any good.” “I won’t be the one dead.” “If these people are her family and try to protect her, she isn’t going to be thrilled with you killing them,” Jake cautioned. Drake found himself smiling, and some of the tension eased in his gut. He had come from the Borneo rain forest in order to teach Jake the way of the shifter—and keep him calm and under control. It took a great amount of discipline and power to keep a male leopard under control, and Drake was renowned for his control, holding together teams of shifters in tense situations, yet his own student was now cautioning him. “I guess she won’t be,” Drake admitted. “I’ll call you when I’ve checked out the body.” “The boys are on standby, Drake. Use them if you need them. And let me know if I can send Joshua. In the meantime, I’ll contact Rio.” “Give my love to Emma.” Drake hung up the phone as he studied the layout of the grounds below the balcony. He had to know how the shifters would come at him and he had to be prepared. He didn’t have a lot of time for recon. Saria had left him an hour ago, heading back to her home. He was reluctant to let her go, but there was no reason he could give to keep her there, and it was just as well that she wasn’t in the middle of whatever battle was coming. He didn’t want her to be afraid of him. He took a breath and leapt over the balcony to the ground below. Landing in a crouch, his legs acted like springs, absorbing the shock. It was the first time he’d really tested his leg to see if it would hold up to the rigorous needs of a shifter.As tests went, the drop was a fairly good one, as he’d been on the second story. He landed a little harder than usual, which didn’t surprise him, as he was out of practice, but the surge of wildness rising like a tidal wave did. Beneath his skin, fur rippled and itched. His jaw ached with the need to accommodate the change. He wasn’t going to be able to wait. His cat needed—and so did he. Elation swept through him. He didn’t want to be cautious or patient. He wanted the absolute freedom his leopard provided. No, he needed the freedom to let his real nature out, that savage, primal nature that was more instinct than reason. He had been forced to suppress it for too long, and his entire body ached with urgency. Bones hurt. Muscles throbbed. He dragged his shirt over his head and hastily bent to remove his shoes. Already his knuckles bent and the tips of his fingers burned as the skeleton designed for maximum flexibility lying dormant along his human frame stretched in anticipation. He clawed his shoes off and reached to peel back his jeans, shrugging out of them fast as the heat took him. Bones cracked. Muscles contorted. The wrenching, painful experience felt wonderful, a release, that first overwhelming flush of freedom. Pain stabbed through his leg, robbing him of breath, but even that was welcome as he felt the bone shifting, reshaping, finally complying with his leopard’s demand. His heart stuttered and deep inside he felt claws unsheathe, felt his feral nature leap to the forefront. He leapt toward it, embracing that side of him, grateful he was alone with no young males to keep in line. This first emergence after so long deseved to be untamed, uncontrollable, a rough, fierce—even violent shifting of pure foolishness. He went to the ground, to all fours, letting the pain and beauty of the change take him. Roped muscles slid over his entire frame, his muzzle extended, mouth filling with teeth. Strong muscles and sinew formed over bones in a loose, supple, very pliable structure, giving him his graceful, feline sinuous movement. Fire pierced his leg, ran from hip to paw, flames licking over his bones, as they shrieked and protested that reforming, but he gloried in the ability, no matter what the cost to him. His fur went damp and dark as his body shuddered, trying to overcome the twisting of that last bone. At last he stood, fully formed, a large, heavily muscled leopard, shaking itself, feeling every individual muscle, savoring the moment as it slowly absorbed the fact that after more than two years of not being able to shift—of believing it would never happen again—he had done it. He was large for a leopard—most shifters were quite a lot larger than their wholly animal counterparts—but he weighed in close to two hundred pounds of solid muscle. Even for his kind, that was a large leopard. Each leopard had a unique spotted coat, a beautiful blend of golden fur splashed liberally with dark rosettes so that when they remained stationary, the pattern created an optical illusion of moving spots. Thick, but loose, the coat provided ample protection in a ferocious fight. Drake was a vicious, skilled fighter, very experienced, and bore the scars to prove it. He was abnormally strong in a world of shifters who had enormous strength. Deep inside where Drake really lived, at the very heart of him, was a smoldering fire the others caught glimpses of through his blazing green eyes. His piercing intelligence always shone there, revealing the cunning, shrewd mind. His leopard wanted to run, to hunt, to find his mate. The fierce need shook him, as the animal leapt free now, the scent of other males uppermost in his mind while the black fury of a male in his prime seeking his mate raged in his heart.
Drake allowed the leopard to run for a short time, stretching his legs, feeling the sheer freedom of the animal form, but he controlled where the beast was going, refusing to allow him to track after Saria. Before all else, he had to establish his territory, mark it well and often, claiming the land around the inn, so he had a legitimate claim should any male challenge him. That would happen. They would send their fiercest fighter. He would have to fight and take care not to kill his opponent in the heat of battle—just in case the challenger was someone related to Saria. His leopard understood and immediately set about claiming every square inch of land they went through. He took his time, although he did feel a sense of urgency, but he was determined to make his claim on as much territory as thoroughly as possible. He raked trees, he scent-marked, he rolled in an ever-widening circle, covering all of the land surrounding the inn to the water’s edge. There was no evidence of any other leopard and he hadn’t expected it. Each of the families claimed their leased lands if they followed true to the shifter way of life. They would edge one another’s territories and even share a corner or two, but they would avoid contact within those territories. He pushed his claim into the surrounding swamp, taking note of the terrain. His leopard stored every smell, each shape of every branch. He climbed trees and left his scent along the twisted limbs, testing each for strength and also hiding places. He had come to find a killer and now everything had changed. Hewas here to claim a mate. Courtship with a female leopard was dicey at best. Like the cat, the human counterpart could be moody, temperamental and wildly seductive. Add in a killer and an entire lair of male leopards and he was in for a rough ride—just what his cat needed. The leopard explored deeper and deeper into the swamp, penetrating into the interior and marking a larger and larger territory. He knew when the first wave of defenders came, his claim would enrage them. These shifters may not have been born in the rain forest, but the rules and instincts would be close if not the same. He circled back toward the inn, committing every square inch of new territory to memory, burning the map of the swamp into his mind. His leopard’s radar let him know where every creature was far before he encountered it. The animal instincts guided him over treacherous ground, easily finding solid land to maneuver. His ultimate goal was to claim Fenton’s Marsh. No other leopard should have set foot on the property, but according to the mysterious letter, that was where the leopard was making its kills. He made his way back to the inn where he leapt into the trees, using the branches as an arboreal highway from one tree to another until he was beside the two-story structure. His balcony presented a tricky jump, but he made it—which meant other leopards could do so as well. Reluctant to shift back into his human form, Drake paced across the balcony for several minutes before leaping to the roof. Again, it was a difficult maneuver, but he had to know how the other leopards might come at him. Satisfied he’d done all he could as a leopard, he padded on cushioned paws back into his room to shift in the security of isolation. Pain streaked up his bad leg, robbing him of breath as his bones reformed with a wrenching crack. He lay on the hardwood floor for several long minutes, struggling for air, a fine sheen of sweat coating his body. When the pain ebbed a bit, he pushed himself up and tested his ability to put weight on his bad leg. He needed to be fit if he was going to fight a challenger and he couldn’t be seen limping. That fact that Saria had somehow noticed bothered him. He had been so certain he was walking without favoring the injured leg. If she could tell, when he was keeping it under control, an alert leopard certainly would sp ot the weakness.