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Novel: Savage Nature - Chapter 2

The night had been warm and humid and she hadn’t been able to sleep. She was so upset at the way her family treated her—as if she didn’t exist, as if she was beneath notice. She’d cooked and cleaned and taken care of their father, but like him, her brothers must have blamed her for her mother’s slow sink into depression and then death. She hadn’t known her mother when she was the vibrant woman they all remembered; she’d been too young when she’d died. At ten, she’d been resentful of their relationships when she felt as if she didn’t quite belong. She had gotten up and opened her window to let in the comforting sounds of the swamp—a world she could always count on, one she loved. The swamp beckoned to her. Saria hadn’t actually heard her brothers leave the house, they all moved in eerie silence—they had most of their lives—but when, resentful and hurt, she’d gone out her window to find solace in the swamp as she had hundreds of nights, she caught sight of them slipping into the trees. She followed, staying well back so they wouldn’t hear her. She had felt so daring and a little superior. Her skills in the swamp were already impressive, and she was proud of herself for being able to track them without their knowing.
That night had turned into a surreal nightmare. Her brothers had stripped. She’d sat up in a tree with her hands over her eyes wondering what they were up to. Who would take their clothes off in a swamp? When she’d peeked through her fingers, they were already shifting. Muscles contorted grotesquely, although later she’d admitted they’d all been fast and smooth at it. Fur covered their bodies and they were horrifyingly real as leopards. It was just—scary gross. They had made those same noises as she heard tonight. Chuffing. Rasping, sawing coughs. They’d stretched tall and raked the trees with claws. The two smallest had gotten angry and erupted into a furious fight, swiping at one another with claws. The largest roared in fury and cuffed both hard enough to send them rolling, breaking up the fight. The sound of that ferocious roar had shaken her to her very core. Her blood went ice cold and she’d run all the way back to the house and hid under her covers, her heart pounding, a little afraid she was losing her mind.Leopards were the most elusive of all large cats and the true shifters were more so, keeping the knowledge even from family members who couldn’t shift—such as Saria. She’d tried to find out about them, but there were only obscure references in the library. She had convinced herself she’d made up the entire thing, but there had been other signs she couldn’t altogether ignore, now that she had seen them. Her father often rambled on in his drunken state, and she had listened carefully to the strange references he made to shifters. Surely they couldn’t really exist, but sometimes her father made random remarks about running free as he was meant. He’d stumble off to bed and then next morning there would be rake marks on the side of the house, or even in his room. He would be sanding the wood down and resealing it when she woke up. If she asked about the scratches, he refused to answer her. Sitting in the swamp with only the night to protect her, she knew a leopard was a cunning predator and once on the hunt, he would find her. She could only hope he hadn’t noticed those first few flashes of her camera and come looking. It seemed like hours before the natural rhythm of the swamp began to come back to life, insects humming and the movements reassuring if not comforting as creatures once again began to carry on with their lives. She stayed very still while the terrible tension drained out of her. The ghost cat was gone. She was certain of it.

She immediately left the safety of the cypress swamp and made her way to Fenton’s Marsh. Her mouth was dry, her heart pounding in terror at what she might find, but she couldn’t stop herself. The body lay half in, half out of the water, right at the edge of the marsh. She didn’t recognize the man. He appeared to be between thirty and forty, now lifeless and bloody. He’d been stabbed in the stomach, but he’d died from a suffocating bite to his throat. She could see the puncture wounds and the raking claw marks clearly on the body. Blood leaked into the water all around him, drawing insects and interest from alligators. She pressed her fingers to her eyes for a moment, sickened that she didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t go to the police. Remy was a homicide detective. He was the police. And could she turn in her own brothers? Would anyone even believe her? Maybe this person had done something terrible and given one of her brothers no choice. Saria made her way home slowly, dread filling her as she tied up her boat and stepped onto the dock. She stood for a moment, observing her home. The bar was dark, as were the house and store, but she knew with that strange warning radar she always seemed to have that she was not alone. She circled the house, determined to avoid her brothers. As she reached for the back door, it jerked inward and her oldest brother filled the doorway, towering over her, a handsome, dark-haired man with serious, watchful green eyes. Startled, she stepped back before she could stop herself. She knew he would catch the fear flickering in her eyes before she had a chance to cover it up. Remy’s eyes narrowed, inhaling, as if drawing her fear into his lungs. He swallowed whatever he’d been about to say, concern replacing impatience. “Are you hurt?” He reached to take her arm, to draw her into the house. Saria stepped back out of reach, her heart pounding. Remy frowned and raised his voice. “Mahieu, Dash, get out here.” He didn’t take his eyes from her face. He didn’t even blink. “Where have you been, cher?” His tone demanded an answer.He looked so big. She swallowed, refusing to be intimidated. “Why would that suddenly matter? You never wanted to know before.” She gave a little casual shrug. There were no footsteps—her brothers moved silently, but both Mahieu and Dash stood shoulder to shoulder behind Remy. She could see their eyes moving over her, taking in every detail of her no doubt pale face. “Were you with someone tonight, Saria?” Remy asked, his voice gentle—too gentle. He reached out and just as gently caught her arm when she shifted as if she might run. She wanted to cry at the gentleness in his voice, but she knew Remy could go from gentle to lethal in moments. She’d seen him handle suspects on more than one occasion. Nearly all of them fell for his gentle routineished he was really all that kind and caring with her, but until recently, none of her brothers had noticed her.
She scowled at him. “That’s none of your business, Remy. Nothing I did mattered to you while I was growing up, and there’s no need to start pretending it does now.” He looked shocked. She saw it on his face right before he went all Remy on her, no expression whatsoever. His eyes went flat and hard, kicking her accelerated heartbeat up another notch. “That’s a hell of a thing to say to me. We practically raised you. Of course we’re goin’ to be concerned when you stay out half the night.” “You raised me?” She shook her head. “No one raised me, Remy. Not you. Not Dad. I’m a little too grown for any of you to suddenly decide you’re goin’ to start wonderin’ what I’m doin’. And just for your information, since you know so damned much about me, I go out into the swamp nearly every night. I have since I was a kid. How the hell did you possibly miss that with all your concern?” Dash studied her face. “You tangle with somethin’ out in the bayou, Saria, or someone?” Her heart jumped. Was that a taunt? She didn’t know if there was some double implication. She took another step back. “If I had a problem with someone, I’d take care of it myself, Dash. Why are you all suddenly interested in my life?” Remy rubbed the bridge of his nose. “We’re famille, cher. If you’re in trouble . . .” “I’m not,” she interrupted. “What’s this all about, Remy? Really? Because none of you have ever questioned where I’ve been or whether or not I was capable of takin’ care of myself. I’m at the bar alone for days at a time. None of you ever questioned whether that was dangerous or not, although I was underage runnin’ it.” Her three brothers exchanged long, sheepish looks. Remy shrugged. “Maybe we didn’t, Saria, but we should have. I was sixteen when you were born, feelin’ my oats, cher, burnin’ through my youth. You were a babe. So maybe I didn’t pay attention the way I should have, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t mine. Famille is everythin’.” “While you all were out feelin’ your oats, I was takin’ care of our drunken pere every night. Paying bills. Runnin’ the store. Makin’ sure he ate and had clean clothes. Orderin’ for the store. Fishing. You know. Grown-up things. Keepin’ the place runnin’ so you could all have your fun.” “We should have helped you more with Pere,” Remy admitted