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Novel: Savage Nature - Chapter 16

She had to know about the shifters. Her family had lived in the area for a hundred years and obviously had lived beside the shifter families. They’d intermingled. She’d said her sister had married into one of the families—the Merciers. Was it possible her brother-in-law or a nephew had been present and she was destroying the evidence to cover up for them? It made sense. Family was family and no doubt they’d been protecting their own for hundreds of years—just as the lairs in the rain forest did.Pauline shined her flashlight down in the trees where the fight had taken place. Two alligators, no doubt drawn by the scent of blood, slithered back into the water as the light hit them. She studied the splashes of blood before going back up to the house and retrieving a long hose. Again, she took her time, the shotgun in her fist as she sprayed down the areas where the battle had taken place. She was very thorough about it, obviously determined to remove all traces. She methodically wound up the hose, picked up the garbage sack containing Drake’s clothes before she took one last look around, nodded her head in satisfaction and went back into the house. Drake nearly turned away to go back inside, but he caught movement out of the corner of his eye. Someone else had been observing Pauline. The shadowy figure was in the trees and the wind was blowing away from Drake so he couldn’t pick up a scent. His cat raised no alarm either, but there was no doubt something—someone—was in the tree just down at the water’s edge, closest to the dock. Drake eased his muscles into a slow, loose stretch. Every wound pulled, reminding him stitches didn’t work well if he had to shift again. He kept his gaze riveted to the branch that had barely moved. It had gone quiet again. An alligator bellowed somewhere across the lake. The reeds shimmered like a wave. The leaves in the tree did the same. Whoever it was, he moved with the wind, inching his way down the tree to the ground. The shadowy figure was smaller than he expected, crouching low, holding a rifle in one hand and a small case in the other. He reached under the balcony railing for the gun he’d taped there earlier. He was betting he was a better shot, but still, arrogance could get one killed. Had Robert Lanoux come back to finish the job? Robert was a large man with plenty of muscle. The figure crouching near the tree seemed too small. He eased the safety off and waited. Saria Boudreaux sprinted toward the trees nearest the inn, staying low and out of the sliver of moonlight. Even in the rain he recognized her easily with just that small glimpse. His heart stuttered as she slipped into the darker shadows, watching the house and the cypress grove. He pulled on the soft cotton drawstring trousers and a loose shirt from his bag as a precaution. Saria had been angling toward the trees closest to his room. He had no idea what she was up to, but he didn’t want her seeing the evidence of a leopard fight.
It took her a few minutes before she raced to the tree just to the side of his balcony, the one he’d marked where the branch hung far enough over that he could jump into it without trouble. She used a strap around her neck and shoulder to free her hands from the case and rifle and she went up the tree fast. She was an adept climber and quiet, spidering up the branches easily and climbing high to reach parallel with the second story of the inn. He waited, heart in his throat, terrified she might fall, as she scooted out along the high branch. She got her feet under her and he could feel his mouth go dry and his pulse pound. He didn’t dare call out to her, afraid she might lose her balance if he surprised her. She crouched low and sprang toward his balcony. He leapt forward as well. She caught the balcony at the same time he caught both her wrists. She looked up at him, shocked, her eyes going wide. He could see the golden flecks in the dark of her eyes had nearly taken over, blotting out all that chocolate. Her female cat was close to the surface, and his leopard scented her again, that beautiful, alluring fragrance that nearly had pushed him over the edge.He pulled her easily onto the balcony. “Good evening. Nice of you to come calling,” he greeted, setting her on her feet. “You were supposed to be asleep,” she accused, sounding annoyed. “Were you planning on crawling into bed with me, or shooting me?” he asked. She gave a little sniff. “Shootin’ you might just be the best solution. I’m leanin’ in that direction.” He reached out, spanning her throat with the palm of his hand, tipping up her chin. “For future reference, Saria, you might remember, I can smell lies.” She blinked. Frowned. “No one can do that.” “Don’t bet on it.” Every breath he drew into his lungs was all Saria. She was potent, ripe, a woman so seductive she was impossible to resist, yet completely unaware of her allure. She studied his face, unsure whether to believe him. In the end she capitulated, not taking any chances. “I came to protect you. There’s been strange things happenin’ around here and everyone is a little on edge. I thought it best to look after you. You’re payin’ enough money to support me while I try to sell my photographs for a couple of months or more, if I’m careful. I’m not losin’ you to some ghost cat.” He released her slowly and stepped back, afraid if he didn’t, he might yank her into his room and throw her right down on the bed. He’d had enough dreams about doing just that. The rain had plastered her shirt to her skin and he could see her nipples like two hard pebbles inviting attention. His leopard snarled when he turned away from her. He had to breathe deep to hold the animal at bay. “Baby, I don’t need protecting. Do I look like a city slicker to you?” He was both pleased and outraged at the same time. He liked the idea that she’d wait all night on his balcony to make certain he was safe, but he was appalled that she might think he was unable to defend himself. e’d obviously returned to her home to get more weapons. “I don’ mean to offend you,” she said. “There’s been . . .” She trailed off. He swung around to face her again, understanding dawning. “You sent the letter to Jake.” She went very still. Too still. He saw her hands tighten on the rifle. Her face paled. He smelled fear. The tip of her tongue moistened suddenly dry lips. “Who’s Jake?” “I told you, Saria, I can smell lies. You had Father Gallagher deliver a letter to a priest in Texas with instructions to give the letter to Jake Bannaconni. Why didn’t you just mail it? And why didn’t you sign it?” “I shouldn’t have sent the letter,” she said. “It was silly of me. If you came all this way because of that letter, I can only apologize and give you back your money.” “Are you telling me you didn’t find dead bodies that looked as if a leopard had killed them? A leopard and a man?” She shook her head but refused to answer aloud. Her gaze shifted away from his. Drake took the weapon out of her hands and set it carefully just inside the door of his room, against the wall, out of her reach. “Honey, you don’t want to lie to me. Why didn’t you just send the letter directly to Jake?” She pressed her lips together nervously, and glanced at the tree as if she might fling herself back over the balcony. As a precaution, Drake shackled her wrist with gentle fingers. “Are you afraid of me? Or of someone out there?” He didn’t want to interrogate her, he wanted to hold her and comfort her.At his touch she went very still, a wild animal cornered and looking for a way out. She was both very vulnerable and dangerous. Her cat was close, Drake could tell by the glow in her skin, the gold taking over her eyes and the wild, feral scent she gave off. His leopard prowled and his own body was as hard as a rock. Her leopard would protect her from any danger. And in truth, she could easily leap off the balcony and land without harming herself whether she knew it or not. He had to be careful. A female leopard was unpredictable at best, and close to the Han Vol Dan, she could be terribly edgy and moody, one moment receptive, a seductive kitten, and the next all teeth and claws. “Saria,” he prompted gently. “You needed help. I’m here to help you. Let me.” He didn’t think she would answer. She didn’t look at him, but out into the night. Rain poured over them, but neither made a move to go indoors. She sighed and shrugged her shoulders. “I’ll take you to Fenton’s Marsh. That’s where I saw the bodies, but by now, the alligators have them. You’re not goin’ to find anything to help you one way or the other.” Her words tumbled out in a rush, a concession.“I work for Jake, Saria. If you knew enough to contact him, you know what we’re dealing with here.” He had to tiptoe around the subject, feel her out, see how much she really knew without scaring her off. She suddenly raised her head and looked him directly in the eye. Her eyes gleamed gold in the night. His leopard lunged for her, desperate for her. He had to breathe away the change, all the while keng his gaze locked with hers. She was so close, so still. So very dangerous and she didn’t even know it.
“Are you one of them?” Her voice was almost a purr. “A shifter?” He kept his voice gentle and stayed absolutely still. There was nothing more dangerous than a female leopard close to emerging, but not yet receptive. “Yes.” He waited a heartbeat. Two. “As are you.” She frowned, shook her head and stepped back, away from him. He didn’t let go of her wrist, but instead moved with her. “Didn’t you know? Surely your family talked to you about it? Isn’t the reason you hesitated going to the police because you realized whoever killed those men could be someone you know?” “I’m not,” she denied. She looked confused.Even frightened. “I’m not a shifter.” This was going to be far more complicated than he’d first imagined. She seemed to know little of shifters. He could see the genuine shock and denial when he told her she was a leopard. The idea was frightening to her. He was in uncharted territory. He could handle alpha males in their prime, but a woman on the verge of the Han Vol Dan was altogether a different matter. “Come inside, Saria, and dry off. It’s late and we have to be up early,” he coaxed. “At least be comfortable while we talk. I’ve got a dry T-shirt and you can get under the covers while we talk. I’ll stay on the other side of the room if it makes you feel better.” “You could give me back my rifle.” “I think we’ll be better off with just the knife you’re carrying.” She managed a small smile, shrugged, a small feminine lift of her shoulder that tightened his body to the breaking point, before she stepped inside his room. At once, her scent filled the air, the alluring fragrance of wild, rain, temptress, uniquely Saria. He drew her deep into his lungs, fighting to hold on to sanity. She didn’t quite trust him, but she had confidence, he had to give her that