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Novel: Savage Nature - Chapter 7

It was his leopard; that was the only sane answer. He’d been injured too long ago and his cat had been unable to emerge. Recently the man he chose to work for, well okay—Drake actually winced before admitting it—his friend, Jake Bannaconni, had arranged an operation for him, grafting the bones of his kind to his bad leg in the hopes that he could someday shift. He wasn’t quite healed, and when he was tired he still walked with a limp, but his cat was growing more restless as each day passed, eager to test out the new material in his leg. More and more the leopard fought him to surface. He had purposely asked their guide to find a bed-and-breakfast in a remote area with the idea that he might try to allow the animal side of him freedom—it was that or go insane. He pushed down the voice of his surgeon warning him to take it slow. He’d taken it so damn slow he really was losing his mind, and his poor, unknowing, beautiful guide was in danger of being savaged. He was a man who aumatically noticed everything and there was no way not to watch Saria walk. He felt so damned old and she looked fresh and innocent and so far out of his league it wasn’t funny—but still—she wasn’t wearing a wedding ring and the wildness receded even more. He breathed normally now, years of discipline taking over. The small breeze caressed the wispy ends of her sun-kissed hair and his heart stuttered.

Saria turned her head and looked at him over her shoulder, a slight frown on her face, her eyes assessing him. She slowed her pace. “Are you all right?” He gave her a direct stare, the kind that usually scared the hell out of people. “Why wouldn’t I be?” He was gruffer than he intended but she looked so damn young and innocent and he wasn’t having a great deal of success controlling the images of her naked body writhing under his—and that made him feel like a lecherous old man. “You’re limpin’.” There it was again, that little accent that seeped into his skin and made his cock jerk hard. And he wasn’t limping. No way. He kept his stare steady, regarding her without expression. “I don’t limp.” He walked with ease now, fluid and strong, and damn it all, he’d gone from a lecherous old man to a decrepit one in her eyes. Faced with the sexiest woman alive, he had obviously forgotten suave and power. Her eyebrow raised slightly. A dimple melted into that full, tempting mouth. She gave him a small half smile. “I’m glad we got that straight because the bed-and-breakfast is a distance away. We can cut through town and a sort of Christmas tree forest and maneuver the edge of a cypress grove. That will save a few steps.” He gave her a faint grin, not admitting a thing. “The quicker we get started, the better.” The setting sun dropped a fiery shower of light just before it sank fully into the river, bathing her in red and orange flames. The silken fall of her hair beckoned him, impossible to resist. He reached out and tucked a stray strand behind her ear, his heart pounding. He felt a rush of heat pour through his bloodstream. Blood roared in his ears, thundered in his head. She was potent, no doubt about it. She went completely still when he touched her, but she didn’t bat his hand away as she had every right to do. Her eyes went liquid and she blinked, locking her gaze with his. She looked untamed, unattainable, and everything male in him responded to that challenge. He felt the ripple of response run through his heavily roped muscles, felt the strength and power of his body. She made him wholly aware of his power. He had the ability to leap huge distances with absolute agility. He could land gracefully in either form—cat or man. He could slink like fluid water over the ground, so silent not even the leaves dared move. Like his cat, the sheer power of his muscles enabled him to move fast to control prey. Those same muscles allowed him the stealth of freeze-frame motion, holding completely still until he disappeared into his surroundings. He was power, and in that moment, he knew she was completely aware of it. The gold flecks in her eyes grew until they ringed the darker chocolate. She didn’t look away. Didn’t blink. His body went into overdrive, hard and full and suddenly aggressive. The woman triggered the same reaction in the man as the elusive female of his kind had done to his leopard. He would have to revise his opinion of her. Saria Boudreaux was more than the young woman he first thought h be—much more—and he intended to uncover every secret she had. Saria shivered as she stared into Drake Donovan’s unusual piercing eyes. His steady, direct stare was disturbing. She had the feeling he could see right through her into her deepest thoughts. She blushed at the idea, thankful darkness was falling fast. Drake Donovan was an unusual man. He had stood so still that, although outlined by the river, she had barely managed to see him—and she had unusually good night vision. He seemed to have a trick of disappearing into the background around him. It didn’t make sense that he could fade into his surroundings so easily. He was an impressive if not striking man. His shoulders were wide, his chest thick and muscular. He had the strongest arms of any man she’d met. Ropes of muscle rippled enticingly every time he took a step. He had a wealth of thick blond hair and a face that was carved in strong lines. The moment she laid eyes on him, her heart beat too fast and a million butterflies took wing in her stomach. Even now she felt jittery. She was used to being around men, even being alone with them. She worked the bar, sometimes alone, and she’d never before felt so aware of herself as a woman. She could barely breathe. The heat of the evening seemed just a little worse. She could feel sweat trickling down the valley between her breasts and it was a struggle to keep her breathing even. Every breath she took just brought his wild, unusual scent deeper into her body. She had never been so utterly, acutely aware of a man in her life. He was so silent when he walked she couldn’t stop herself from glancing over her shoulder every now and then to assure herself he was following her. He was the type of man she normally would avoid at all costs. She had seen other women around her succumb to physical attraction, or even genuine love, and all had ended the same way, doormats for demanding, needy husbands. That was so not going to be her. She was not even close to his league and she wasn’t stupid enough to pretend she was. He had a hard-won sophistication about him, and he carried authority as easily as he breathed. Physical attraction died fairly quickly when everyday life set in, and then where would she be? Donovan was the kind of man who ruled everything and everyone in his domain with an iron fist. He wore his blue jeans low on his hips, and his thighs were strong twin columns. She couldn’t help darting a couple of furtive glances at the impressive package in the front. Drake Donovan was perfect as eye candy, but she needed to pull herself together fast. He would eat a woman alive. She searched a little desperately for something to say to him, feeling awkward. “Have you been here before?” She was a professional guide, for heaven’s sake, yet she couldn’t even make small talk. “No.” She swore under her breath. A week with him. An entire week. The money was good, but she couldn’t control her reaction to him and it was very clear he didn’t want to even engage in polite conversation. She bit down hard on her lip and picked up the pace. Another quick glance over her shoulder told her he kept up with her easily.

“You seem a little young to be a guide in the swamps,” Drake said. Saria bit back her first retort. Great. Her first real hot-tie and he thought she was young. She kept her back to him, trying not to stiffen her shoulders. Who cared what he thought? Jt because he was the hottest guy on the planet didn’t mean a thing. She didn’t want anything to do with him, but he could see her as a woman, not some little kid.“I grew up here. If you aren’t familiar with the swamp it can be very dangerous.” She couldn’t help the little bite to her voice. “There aren’t any landmarks out there. If you prefer another guide there are others available. You won’t have any trouble gettin’ anyone with the kind of money you’re payin’.” Like she could afford the loss of income. Pride was a terrible thing, she reminded herself, but she wasn’t going to beg for the job. “When we asked for someone who knew the swamp, plants and wildlife throughout this area, you came highly recommended by several people,” Drake said. “And you did say it was possible we could extend the time if needed.” She couldn’t help risking another small glimpse of him. Mon Dieu, he was beautiful. She could spend a lot of time with him—he was that easy on the eyes. And at least he was talking to her now. “Yes, if you let me know a few days in advance, I can arrange it.” Maybe not. Every time she looked at him she lost her mind. There was something compelling about his eyes, those deep gold-green eyes framed with impossibly long lashes. He had a five-o’clock shadow that made him look even more rugged. She made her way through the small town, avoiding getting too near the church, afraid of running into the priest. She hadn’t been back to confession since she’d given him the letter, and now she didn’t want to chance contact. The long streaks on her back and the bite mark on her shoulder were healing a bit, but they left enough of an ache that, along with the nightmares, she was convinced to mind her own business. She didn’t want Father Gallagher asking her any questions. She’d managed to avoid her brothers, and now, by taking this job, she’d be out in the swamp for at least another week. “You married?” Drake’s voice was very casual. Her heart jumped. “No.” “I didn’t think so. No man in his right mind would let someone like you take strangers out alone i nto the swamp.”