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Novel: Savage Nature - Chapter 15

Drake reached for calm, fought for control of his leopard. This fight had not been about territory, not with this leopard. It was the female so close to the Han Vol Dan that had triggered the fierce fight. His opponent wanted him dead and his leopard knew it. The need to kill was a living, breathing entity and it took every ounce of discipline Drake had to fight his leopard back. Reason seemed just out of reach for several precious moments—moments while the other cat was without air. “Robert, no!” A second voice rang out, sharp. Insistent. Commanding. “You pull that trigger and I’ll have no choice but to kill you. Back off. He’s gaining control.” “It will be too late.” “That was Dion’s choice.” The voice held authority. Sorrow. The loss of a male in his prime was a blow to any lair. Drake took another firm grip and forced his leopard to back off. The cat did so reluctantly, snarling and growling every inch of the way, raking at Drake, spinning around to face the other leopards in the lair, roaring a challenge, dangerously close to a killing madness. Blood coated his sides and dripped down his flanks, matting in the thick fur, but he snarled and placed each paw carefully, watching his enemies, daring them to move. Two men had shifted back into human form. Drake, through the red haze of madness, recognized Robert Lanoux and the older man, Amos Jeanmard. At a signal from Jeanmard, the other leopards reluctantly faded into the shadows. The retreat helped to calm his leopard a little more, although it paced and went to ground, rose and paced again, never far from his downed opponent. “We need to see to our kin,” Jeanmard said. “Do you have control?” It was a good question. Drake wasn’t certain. He pushed harder at his leopard, fighting now for supremacy. His leopard whirled to face Robert, who had taken a step toward his fallen brother. Drake forced him back until reluctantly the leopard gave ground, one slow inch at a time. He summoned enough restraint to swing the leopard’s head toward the leader of the Louisiana lair and nod. Jeanmard gave a small, formal bow, more an incline of his head than anything else. “Merci, my lair to yours. Go to your brother now, Robert, it is safe to see to his injuries.” Without hesitation, Robert rushed to Dion’s side.Drake’s snarling leopard backed off further, allowing the older man to approach the fallen leopard as well. The two humans crouched beside the bloody, mangled cat, leaving themselves open to attack by the furious leopard. Drake exerted more control, slowly backing away, although watching carefully, not quite as trusting as the two men. Their friends had to be close or they wouldn’t risk their lives so easily. Robert had a gun, a violation of their code. Had he been in the rain forest the repercussions of bringing a human weapon to a righteous leopard fight would have been severe. Drake had no way of knowing what Jeanmard would do to the man. It was a black mark against the entire lair, and Jeanmard in particular. A leader was expected to keep his leopards in line, and Robert had made him lose face. Had a member of Drake’s team done such a thing, the retaliation would have been swift and brutal and public. When dealing with leading alpha males, sometimes the need for complete ruthlessness was absolute. In any case, Robert Lanoux didn’t fight fair or with honor, something Drake would file away.
Drake, snarling and growling every step, backed away, facing toward the cypress grove where he knew other male leopards had retreated to the edge of the water to respect his territory yet protect their leader. Drake saw the clothes he’d left behind from his earlier run, shredded into small strips of cloth. They’d ripped the shirt and jeans completely apart and the shoes hadn’t fared much better. In a fury, the leopard slammed a massive paw across the torn clothing, sending strips of cloth into the air before gathering himself to make the leap into the branch of the tree nearest the house. He gained his balcony and padded inside before going to his belly and slinking back through the open doors to watch and listen, alert to any danger. The leopards shifted into men and hurried out of the trees to aid Jeanmard and Lanoux recover their fallen kin. Dion was lifted up and rushed to a waiting boat. Drake waited a long time after the sounds of the boat retreating in the distance faded, holding himself still. He listened for the whisper of fur against trees, which would tell him he was being hunted. The crickets resumed their symphony. Frogs took up the chorus, calling back and forth. He heard the sound of the slide of an alligator slipping into the water. Pain hit him then, and he didn’t wait, didn’t hesitate, shifting before he could think too much about the cost of the battle on his human body. He found himself on the floor, suppressing a moan. Fire burned over his belly and ribs. His bad leg screamed in protest and there were scores of bite and claw marks over his body. He lay there staring up at the night sky, just as the clouds burst and rain poured over him, washing some of the wildness out of him. His heart beat too fast, and adrenaline poured through his body like the rush of a fireball. He breathed deep to clear his head, to get past the need for violence. A leopard was a perfect killing machine, and blending the cunning and temperament of a leopard with the intelligence of a human, his kind was extremely dangerous under the best of circumstances. He had barely managed to contain his savage beast, but he hadn’t killed—at least he didn’t think so. With a groan he rolled over and pushed up onto his hands and knees, trying to ignore the screaming in his leg. His stomach lurched. He managed to make it to his feet, dizzy and weak. He’d lost more blood than he’d thught. Staggering, he made it back into the room, leaving bloody footprints on the mosaic tiles for the rain to wash away. The hardwood floor in the bedroom wasn’t so lucky; the smears remained as he made his way through to the bathroom. The hot water stung, yet felt good as it poured over him. He stood on shaky legs while the water cleansed away the last of the wildness. He sent up a small prayer that he hadn’t killed Dion. The laws of his world dictated and he was within his rights, but intellectually, he knew Dion was simply trying to protect his world from a rogue—as Drake himself might have done. He might feel regret about Dion if the man didn’t make it, but Dion knew the rules of combat and he’d chosen not to submit until it was nearly too late. All of them knew how difficult it was to control one’s leopard during a challenge. Coupled with a female nearing the emergence, he could hardly be blamed. In spite of every injury, Drake rejoiced that his body had held up, he’d shifted in midair and he’d been damn fast about it. As a first time back after trying out his leg only once, his ability pleased him. He’d kept in shape, working out strenuously after he’d had plates and pins in his leg and couldn’t shift. He’d been determined to stay in fighting shape, although he hadn’t believed he’d ever have the chance to allow his leopard freedom. Jake and his surgeon had brought about a miracle. He’d ended the first battle almost before it had begun through sheer surprise. Drake carefully assessed every aspect of his fighting technique. He’d been fast, but not fast enough. He needed more time for his leopard to run, to once again feel the strength and power in its body. He had experience on the members of the Louisiana lair, but the lair had numbers and if he’d had to fight them all, even one at a time, he would have been in trouble. Dion had scored some heavy gouges and he’d lost blood. Loss of blood meant weakness. Toweling off carefully, he examined every wound. Cats could leave venom behind and infection resulted quickly. That meant the hated burn of the iodine. He poured it liberally into his wounds, breaking out in a sweat as he did so. Cursing with every stitch, he sewed up the three worst wounds, steri-stitched the others before putting an antibacterial ointment on each and covering them with gauze. All in all, he wasn’t in too bad shape. He had no doubt that in the morning he’d feel every bruise, but right now, only sleep mattered. He scrubbed away the evidence of blood, carefully locked up his room and laid down gingerly on his bed. Smiling, fingers linked behind his head, he drifted somewhere between awake and asleep. At once Saria was there, a smile curving her soft mouth, her eyes bright with mischief. He reached for her, wanting to draw her down onto the bed with him. His heart pounded and he tasted desire in his mouth and he groaned with need of her. A single sound escaped. Penetrated his layer of sleep. Not her answering moan, not even a whimper of desire, but a soft whisper of movement. His eyes snapped open and he lay silent, with the taste of her in his mouth and his cat roaring. Something moved out on the lawn. He eased to his feet, conscious that other leopards heard as well as he did. Very carefully, he padded to the French doors on his balcony and opened them enough to allow his body to slip through.
Below him, the yard was mostly shadows, but with his night vision, he could easily make out Pauline Lafont moving around the yard in her bathrobe. She held a shotgun in one hand and a large trash bag in the other.he meticulously picked up every scrap of cloth from Drake’s shredded clothes as well as his shoes and socks. She took her time, making certain to remove every tiny string and thread. He stayed motionless, knowing she couldn’t see him. She wasn’t leopard, he knew that, he would have scented her leopard. She’d been forthcoming with information about the seven families that leased lands in the swamp and he hadn’t scented one lie, but clearly, she was aware of the leopard fight. She must have heard the horrendous noise. Leopards in a fury weren’t quiet about their rage. She had a shotgun for protection, but she didn’t seem too frightened. A woman alone out in the middle of nowhere, far from help, with leopards fighting on her front lawn should have been terrified. Yet Pauline Lafont walked slowly around her property, meticulously removing all evidence of the battle.