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Novel: Savage Nature - Chapter 4

He frowned. Saria wasn’t dramatic either. This strange conversation was completely out of character for her sunny personality. She feared very little. She had five very large brothers who would probably skin someone alive if they tried to hurt her. They’d grown up rough, big strong boys who had turned into formidable men. He couldn’t imagine why she wouldn’t go to Remy. He had been head of the family since her father’s death some years earlier. “Should I be afraid for you, Saria?” he murmured, lowering his voice even more and pressing his ear to the screen. The situation would have seemed surreal and dramatic had it been someone else, but Saria had to be believed. “Somethin’ bad is happenin’ out in the bayou, Father, but I can’t call the police. We need someone else. If you can get this letter out without anyone from here knowin’, he’ll do something. Please, Father Gallagher, just do this for me.” “I give you my word I won’t tell anyone, unless,” he emphasized, “I think it is necessary to save your life.” There was another small silence. A rustle of paper. “That’s fair. Please be careful, Father,” Saria whispered and pushed the flat envelope through the opening. “No one can see you with that. Not in this parish. Not in this ward. You have to take it far from here to mail it.”

Father Gallagher took the envelope, noting it was sealed. “Say three Hail Marys and the Lord’s Prayer,” he whispered, reminding her to keep up the charade of confession if she wasn’t actually going to confess any sins. He waited, but she stayed silent, and he blessed her, tucking the envelope into his robes. Saria crossed herself and left the confessional, going up to the front pew to kneel before the altar. There were several people in the church and she took a slow, surreptitious look around, trying to see if anyone could have followed her. She didn’t see anyone suspicious, but that didn’t mean anything. Most of the people she knew attended the church and could pretend, as she had done, that they had legitimate business there. Just a short distance away, the Lanoux twins lit candles. Dion and Robert had recently lost their grandmother, and it stood to reason they might be in church. Both men were stocky with roped muscles and dark, thick curly hair. Handsome men, they had quite the reputation as ladies men in the community. She’d found both of them to be gentlemen beneath their rough-and-tumble ways and she liked them both. Armande Mercier sat beside his sister, Charisse, fidgeting while she prayed piously in the second-to-last pew. Charisse’s head was bent, eyes closed, lips moving, yet twice when Armande sighed heavily and ran his finger around his shirt collar she sent him a sharp glare. He sent Saria a glance and quickly looked away, unusual for Armande. He was probably the biggest flirt in the ward. She found him selfish but charming, and he definitely protected his sister, whom Saria was quite close to. Saria’s brothers often gave Armande a free beer when he came to their bar, feeling sorry for him having to take care of his tyrant of a mother and his extremely shy sister. The two elderly women in the back were well known to her as was the older man, Amos Jeanmard, sitting in the corner, his walking stick close. She had gone to school with his daughter, Danae, and knew his son, Elie, who was older by a few years. She knew them all, just as they knew her. They’d always been friends and neighbors—members of one of the seven families on the edge of the swamp where she resided. She’d gone to their homes, attended weddings and funerals with them. They supported her family bait shop and grocery store. Many of them were customers of the small store and bar the Boudreaux family owned. Now, they terrified her. She had even grown to fear her own kin. She made the sign of the cross and left the church, anxious to be gone before Father Gallagher was finished hearing confession. She didn’t know if she could face him and not give herself away. The stress was getting to her, and her stomach had begun churning. She ran lightly down the steps and headed back toward the dock where she’d left her boat.The night seemed darker, the shadows longer, reaching for her as she hurried toward the grove that would provide the shorter route back to the dock. Quickly, she moved along the narrow path through the thick stand of trees. The hairs on the back of her neck stood up, goose bumps raised along her arms and she shivered, cursing under her breath as she hesitated, nearly turning back toward the lights of town muted by the fog. As if on cue, the rain began to fall, a downpour of warm drops that soaked her instantly. The deluge drove her into the grove where the overhead canopy might protect her a little from the onslaught. She hurried along the path, head up, searching for anything that might be causing her warning radar to go off. A large shadow shifted in the trees. Her heart jumped and then began pounding. Something seemed to move, pushing against her flesh from the inside out, leaving behind an itch as it receded. Her skin felt tight and her jaw ached. She became aware of her hands hurting. She looked down to see her fingers curled tightly, sharp nails pressing into her palm. Behind her, cutting off her escape to town, she heard a soft chuffing noise and her blood ran cold. Her heartbeat accelerated out of control, thundering in her skull. Her breath came in ragged gasps. She took a cautious step toward the dock, her hand slipping the knife from her belt. The hilt felt solid in her palm and she curled her fingers tightly around it like a talisman. Her own brothers wouldn’t kill her, would they? Her mouth was dry. She tried to listen as she hurried, but her own heart and her gasping breath filled her ears, the thunder a terrible roaring, drowning out everything else. The veils of Spanish moss swayed, creating an eerie, ghostlike presence in all the trees. The branches, twisted and gnarled, reached out in the dark like ghoulish hands. She’d never been afraid in the rovf trees along the river. She’d never feared alligators or the swamp even at night. She was careful, as her father had taught her, yet now terror gripped her. She knew better than to run, knew it would trigger the leopard’s instincts, but she couldn’t stop herself from picking up her pace, moving as fast as she could through the pouring rain without actually running. She heard a whoosh, like the rush of a freight train. Something hit her from behind, slamming into her back so hard, she felt as if her bones had shattered. The heavy weight of it drove her down so she hit the ground hard, landing with her hands pinned under her, the knife still firmly in her grip, but completely useless. She felt hot breath on the back of her neck and tensed, ready to fight. The thing was far too heavy to push up. She couldn’t get her knees under her, and the moment she started to struggle, it sank teeth into her shoulder. Saria opened her mouth to scream, but got a mouthful of mud. Tears burned her eyes as she waited for it to kill her. Claws gripped her hips hard, warning her not to move. She went still beneath the heavy weight. For a moment neither moved. Very slowly she turned her head. The leopard shifted to bring his head beside hers. She found herself staring into yellow-green eyes. Wide and unblinking, the thing stared back at her. There was intelligence there, and a warning. Breath blew hot against her skin.

She shuddered as the large head drew near her face. The mouth yawned wide and she closed her eyes, certain those terrible teeth would close around her face. The rough tongue lapped once over her face, removing the stream of tears. She drew in a breath and then felt fire raking down her back, ripping through her shirt. She screamed again, struggling to throw him off. His claw dug into her flesh and carved four deep grooves from her shoulder blades to  her waistline.