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Novel: Savage Nature - Chapter 9

She felt a sudden surge of power running beneath Drake’s skin. Her eyes jumped to his face. He was looking at Dion, not Robert, and there was something very deadly in his expression. “Saria.” His voice was very soft. “If you’re afraid of them, you don’t have to go with them.” He knew. She had thought she’d been so clever and careful. She’d hidden terror from her own brothers, from her neighbors, and yet this total stranger within minutes of meeting her, knew. She forced a smile, a little impressed that he was obviously willing to fight off both brothers on her behalf. “No, even though they clearly have forgotten their manners, they’re friends.” Maybe if she said it enough times, both sides would stop posturing and play nice. Ignoring Dion’s hand, she stepped around Drake, or nearly did. He shifted his weight slightly, cutting her off. His fingers just barely trailed down her arm to her wrist, settling with infinite gentleness. “You’re absolutely certain, Saria? I assure you, there’s no need to protect me.” He gave her a faint grin. Her heart nearly stopped and then began pounding. He was so gorgeous. And the way he touched her, feather-light—she felt it all the way to her bones. Heat rushed through her veins and she swallowed hard, trying not to give in to sheer physical attraction.

“You’re wrong about that,” Dion said, glaring at the sight of Drake’s fingers loosely forming a bracelet around Saria’s wrist. She followed his annoyed gaze and had to fight to keep from blushing as she pulled away and very firmly stepped around Drake. “You could have used the phone, Dion,” she said, “if it was so necessary to get in touch with me.” She walked ahead of him, but stopped where she could keep an eye on Drake and Robert. If the twins had planned some underhanded sneak attack on her customer, she was going to let them know once and for all that she could take care of her own. “Do your brothers know what you’re doin’?” Dion hissed between clenched teeth. “That man is dangerous, Saria. You’re in over your head.” She tapped her fingers on her thigh, wholly aware of Drake’s interest. She was careful not to look at him. “This isn’t any of your business, Dion, nor is it my brothers’ business. I’m a licensed guide. In case you haven’t noticed in the last few years, it’s how I make my livin’.” Dion shook his head, stepping closer to her and lowering his voice another octave. “Not with this man. If he wants a guide, I’ll do it for you. You have no idea what you’re dealin’ with.” “So tell me,” she challenged. “He didn’t roll over and play scared when you and your brother tried double-teaming him?” Fury burned through her. “If you know somethin’ about this man, tell me now.” “I’ve been around men like him, Saria. You haven’t. He’s too still. He didn’t even blink when we came up on him, and believe me, cher, normal men fear us.” She believed him. Robert and Dion were built strong and could fight fiercely. Others left them alone, knowing if you fought one, you’d be fighting the other. She shrugged one shoulder. “Then I guess I’ll be safe out in the swamp with him.” Drake could hear the whispered conversation rather easily, as did his leopard. His cat was already far too close to the surface and once again he found himself struggling to keep the animal under control. Saria was surrounded by leopards, and if he hadn’t known it before, he sure as hell knew it now: he didn’t want any male, in any form near her. The Lanoux twins, as well as the man in the shadows, whoever he’d been—and Drake couldn’t tell until he managed to get over there and nose around—were certainly leopard. The older gentleman—Amos Jeanmard, she’d called him—who was watching them from the path with interest, was a leopard as well. He had stumbled into a real shifter lair where not one but several families grouped together to form a loose coalition. He hadn’t known one existed outside of the rain forest. He inhaled the scent of males in their prime, furious that another male had entered their realm. An outsider, possibly a rogue. He had no fear of them—both he and his leopard had been fighting since he was a child—but he hadn’t shifted in a long while. The surgeon had been adamant that he take it slow and allow his leg to fully heal before he tried shifting again. That mattered little to his cat. His animal raged, throwing himself at Drake, but Drake had been an alpha for many years, running teams of male leopards in the rain forest, where their primitive natures often edged out the civility of their human side. It took strength, patience and discipline to control them—all of which he had in abundance. More than anything, he had to get Saria away from the males. If he read her correctly—and he was very good at reading people—she was as independent as they came. Ignoring the others, as well as the older man coming up behind him, he sent her a small, taunting smile. “If your man objects to you showing me around, Ms. Boudreaux, perhaps you could recommend another guide.” Saria turned, color creeping up her neck. He found it charming, even alluring, and he felt a bit guilty for manipulating her aolor swept into her face. Her eyes glittered, more amber than brown. “Monsieur Lanoux is not my man. I’m your guide, Mr. Donovan, and no one is takin’ the job from me.” She pushed past Dion, stalking toward him, her shoulders stiff with outrage. She actually shoved against Robert as she passed him, her shoulder hitting his. She was a little thing, but solid, and she had surprised, even shocked, the male. She rocked him, Drake saw with satisfaction. His grin widened, and he allowed admiration to flair for a moment in his eyes. He loved her accent and he noted it got stronger when she was angry, something well worth remembering. Saria picked up his bag and pointed the way into the grove with it. At the same time, she glared at the brothers. “I’m quite capable of keeping us safe in the swamp.”

“Your brothers . . .” Dion began. “Mind their own business, as you should,” she snapped back. “Good evening, Mr. Jeanmard,” she greeted the older man as she continued walking down the winding path into the trees. She was magnificent. Drake found himself smiling even as he recognized the newcomer was definitely leopard. He followed Saria, resisting the cat’s desire to roar his triumph to the other males. Sometimes, my friend, using brains is far better than brawn, he soothed his cat. We’re close now. It will be soon. The swamp called to the wildness bred into his bones. “What was that back there?” he asked, knowing she would wonder if he didn’t. “Are they upset because you got the work instead of them?” “I take customers into the swamp all the time,” she said. “I don’ know what got into them. They aren’t related to me and we don’t date, so don’ worry about it.” Drake glanced to his right without turning his head. Dion Lanoux paced beside them several yards away, winding in and out of the thicker stand of trees. To his left, Robert Lanoux did the same thing. There was no doubt their cats had scented his. This was going to be one very interesting investigation. More than anything else, he needed to find out just how big the lair was, how many members, and if one of them had become a serial killer. He glanced at the woman leading the way through the grove. She walked with confidence, but she was nervous. Twice her hand brushed the hilt of the knife and she sent several surreptitious glances into the surrounding trees. “I don’t want to make trouble for you,” he said. She sent him a quick glance over her shoulder. Yeah. She knew the Lanoux brothers were in the grove pacing along beside them and she didn’t like it one bit. She had to be the female his cat had reacted to. It made sense. He was reacting to the woman. The men were edgy with a stranger in their midst. That might be natural, but to actually challenge one wasn’t—unless a female was close to the emerging. The Han Vol Dan, the period of time when a female shifter’s leopard as well as the woman were both ready to mate at the same time, was the most dangerous time for all shifters. The male cats became edgy and restless, combative and difficult to control. Drake studied Saria. There was no sign of a cat now, nothing that gave away that a female leopard could be hiding beneath all that glorious skin. It took him a good few minutes bee he realized everything in him, every cell, every muscle, everything he was, reached for her. Saria Boudreaux belonged to him, and he was going to have to steal her right out from under the noses of every single male in what looked as if it could be a considerable lair. And he had to do it right in the middle of a murder investigation. No small task, but there was no question he was looking forward to it. “What?” Saria glanced at him over her shoulder again.He was grinning, he couldn’t help himself. It felt damned good to be alive. “Nothing. Just enjoying the evening—and the company. You live in a beautiful place, Saria.” She sent him a faint, pleased smile. “It is, isn’t it? Not many people appreciate it.” He followed her contentedly, and with the danger pacing close and the night closing in, he felt  right at home.