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Novel: Savage Nature - Chapter 20


“Then I want you. Whatever happens, you’re a man of honor and I can live with that.” She didn’t know what she was giving to him. She was too young and had no idea of the laws of their people. “Once we consummate our relationship, if a man touches you, one of our people, a leopard, he’s challenging me to fight to the death for you, Saria. Understand this. I am leopard, born and bred in the rain forests and even as a man I have the law of that world imprinted into my bones. I live by that law. I would fight for you with the last breath in my body.” She swallowed hard, but she didn’t look away. “As I would you.” “Why? Why tie yourself to someone unknown?” “Who then? The male that attacked me?” “There are others.” “My brothers . . . and that would be eww.” He shook his head, knowing he was killing his chances, but he felt protective toward her and in any case, once she wore his mark—she was his. It mattered little if their relationship was consummated or not. He could wait until she was ready and felt safe merging her life with his, but he wanted her to come to him knowing her options.

He got to his feet and reached down to help her up. “Fenton leased his lands to seven families. I’m betting all seven families are leopard. There must be available males within those families.” She was intelligent and quick. She knew exacty which seven families he was referring to. She knew every family in the swamp and she had to have noticed they stuck together.“Yes, I know all of the available men.” “They’ll all want a chance to see if your leopard will accept them.” “I don’ want them.” She stood close to him, looking him straight in the eye. “But I don’ want you to feel as if this is something you have to do. I don’ belong with any of them. I grew up with them. If I was attracted to one of them, wouldn’t I already feel it?” “You think you could fall in love with a man like me? Male leopards are bossy, arrogant, temperamental and jealous as hell.” A smile teased the edges of her mouth. He could see trepidation in her eyes, but she refused to back down. “I figured as much.” A slow smile began somewhere around the edges of his heart. “You’re sure, because there’s no going back. They’ll smell my scent on you.” “You couldn’t smell his scent,” she pointed out. “He didn’t know what the hell he was doing. No self-respecting leopard would tear your skin like that. He was so busy trying to mark you as property, he neglected to inject his scent into you. Your leopard couldn’t have been close to the surface or his leopard would have reacted.” “I don’ understand,” she said, “but it doesn’t matter.” Her slender arms slid around his neck and she leaned her body against his, lifting her face to his. He felt her soft breasts against the wide expanse of his chest and a small groan escaped as he lowered his head. He took her mouth with more of an edge this time, letting some of his hunger spill out, allowing himself the indulgence of feeding on her sweetness, of taking command of her mouth. He moved her more fully into his arms, the ropes of muscle locking her there, his kiss aggressive and demanding. A part of him still expected resistance, but she melted into him, pliant, all soft skin and heat. She simply opened herself to him and he poured himself inside of her. Whether she could fall in love or not, he knew he could. Whatever strange connection there was between them wasn’t all leopard heat. “Get on the bed, baby. Lie on your stomach.” She shivered, her eyes enormous. This was a huge step in trust. She would be completely vulnerable, but, he realized, she’d been as vulnerable as a woman could be with him earlier and he’d protected her. She looked at him for a long time before she did as he asked. He noticed she was very careful to pull the T-shirt over her thighs. Her silky hair spilled over the pillow, the ragged ends making her look like a pixie princess. Drake crawled on the bed beside her, stretching out, propping his head up with one hand while he massaged the tension out of her with the other. “I need you to tell me everything about the bodies you remember,” Drake murmured, his voice low, almost hypnotic. Her long lashes flickered. She was tensed, waiting for him to hurt her as the other male had done, but he simply massaged the knots in her shoulders while he waited for her response. “I didn’t know any of them. I found the first one a few months ago. I was out in the swamp taking pictures of a family of owls, the mother feeding the babies, and I saw lights over by Fenton’s Marsh. No one goes there. It’s kind of an unspoken rule. We all have kept our word to Jake Fenton and we watch that piece of land for him.” “There’s undeveloped oil there,” Drake said, mostly to see her reaction. “We all figured as much. That’s not our way of life. And I don’ think the body dumped just off the marsh had anything to do with oil either. There were two boats. I thought drugs or gun runnin’ you know. The swamp is isolated and if you know your way around, you could elude law enforcement fairly easily. You can get to the lake, the river or the gulf.” He rolled onto his stomach, settling his chest over her, both hands working on her muscles, his elbows propping him up. He waited until the flare of tension in her receded under his massaging fingers. He wanted her to feel relaxed and unafraid. “So you see lights in the middle of the night, figure drug smuggling, or possibly gun running, and you jump right in your little boat and head over there alone. I got that right, didn’t I? You thought that would be a good decision?” She gave an inelegant snort, half laughter and half derision. “I waited for them to leave, Drake. I wasn’t just goin’ to stick my head in a noose. I didn’t expect to find a dead body.” His fingers gentled, stroked and caressed. No, she hadn’t expected a body, but she’d hauled it out of the water and examined it with alligators around in the middle of the night. He sighed. She was definitely going to give him trouble. “I didn’t know him. He looked about forty. He was in good shape, had a tattoo on the back of his hand. I sketched it. Someone had stabbed him in the stomach, but that wasn’t what killed him. A leopard had bitten his throat and suffocated him. It was a kill bite.” He bunched the T-shirt at the hem and slowly worked it up over her firm, rounded bottom and those intriguing pink-striped boy shorts. Higher still, over her waist and up the expanse of her back until he had the shirt raised to her neck, exposing all that soft skin. Saria swallowed hard and started to turn her head to look at him, but he gently stroked his hand down her hair, preventing her. “And because he was both stabbed and bitten, you were afraid it was one of your brothers,” he ventured. He began idly tracing circles on her back, between her shoulder blades, occasionally sliding caresses over the long, nearly healed furrows.

It took a few moments before she once again began to relax. “I’ve lived here all my life. If I hadn’t accidently seen my brothers shift, I don’ think I would have ever found out about leopards. It seems so far-fetched. Even now I have a difficult time actually believing the entire thing and look what’s happened to me.” “So you didn’t tell anyone.” “No. I know that was wrong, but Remy is a homicide detective. What if it was him? And maybe they had no choice.” He blew warm air over her skin and nuzzled her shoulder over the vicious bite the male leopard had put there. “And the second body?” He brushed little kisses back and forth over the puncture wounds. “That one scared me. It was about two months after the first one and it was a little different. Only one boat and there were beer bottles nearby. I thought maybe they’d come there together, the killer and the victim, friends—and they got into an argument. The first man, I was certain it had something to do with criminal activity, but the second one didn’t look that way, although he was stabbed in the stomach and suffocated with a leopard bite.” Drake felt the tremor that ran through her body. “We’ll figure it out,” he said softly and pressed a kiss into the sweet spot where her shoulder and neck joined. She shivered and he felt the sudden electrical current surge between them. “What happened then?” “I wrote Jake Bannaconni a letter. I tried to word it so that if he really was aware of shifters or was one himself, he would realize what was happening and come out to Fenton’s Marsh and investigate himself. I took the letter to the post office and put it in the outgoing mail. Two days later the letter was pinned with one of my fishin’ knives to the bottom of my pirogue.” “A warning.” “I certainly took it that way. I was angry with myself for not being more careful with the letter. Anyone could have seen it.” He took his time exploring that soft expanse of skin, kissing his way along her shoulder, his teeth teasing, scraping back and forth to send shivers down her spine before nipping gently. “And the third body?” “I couldn’t help watching Fenton’s Marsh, and about two months to the day after the second killing, the third body was there. This time it was in the water, anchored down. No one I recognized as a friend, but I’d seen him before, maybe in the French Quarter. I couldn’t place him, but his face was familiar. I knew I couldn’t just let it go, so I took a letter to the priest and asked him to get it to Bannaconni.” “So the bodies have turned up every couple of months. Could there be others?” “Of course. There’s a lot of water out there and alligators tend to eat anything they can find, especially if it’s rotting meat.”