The Awakening Page 14

“Tell me more about my parents.” She was enjoying walking with him too much. Maggie didn’t want to take the chance that she might succumb to the attraction between them. She couldn’t see herself having a hot flaming affair with a jungle lover and walking away unscathed. She was too drawn to Brandt. Too wrapped up in his allure.

He swept a hand through his dark silky hair. “I’d like to tell you a story first. It’s well-known here in the forest. Every villager knows it and it ties into your parents.”

She glanced at him quickly but he was looking at the path, choosing a way opposite of the direction Drake had pointed out as being toward the village. Whatever Brandt Talbot was up to, he had the upper hand. Maggie didn’t care. She was determined to glean as much information from him as she could. “Please do.”

He did glance at her then. She felt the power of his burning gaze, but she kept her face averted and looked as innocent as possible. Brandt shrugged his wide shoulders carelessly. “The village was younger then, with its homes closer together and in a clearing. No one thought they would be in such danger. The village had been large but time and circumstances had dwindled it down to a few pairs. The youngest were already in their thirties. They wanted a child. Everyone in the village wanted it for them. They were a deserving couple, working hard to preserve the forest, braving the poachers, destroying traps, freeing captured animals, striving tirelessly to keep the creatures under their protection safe. And finally the miracle happened.” He smiled as if remembering a wonderful moment.

“The couple was going to have a baby.”

He nodded, the faint smile lingering, reaching his golden eyes so that he took her breath away. “They had a beautiful daughter and they were very happy. The people were excited. Most of the pairs were older and had few children, so they were eager for the ritual of promise.”

Maggie pushed her hair out of her face. Strands were escaping the braid as leaves and twigs caught it and pulled as she passed by. “What is the ritual of promise?”

“These people were not merely human, Maggie, but something much more, a separate species. They were not wholly animal nor wholly man, but something of a mixture. These people were of nature itself, using a normal human form but able to become large leopards, prowling the forest to keep order. They had dominion over other creatures, and with that came inevitable responsibility.”

She had to sneak another look at his face. He was telling her a story, but he was implying the story was much more than that. She couldn’t believe such a tale—she wouldn’t believe it, no matter how charismatic Brandt was.

“Half-human, half-leopard, like the leopard men in the legends?” She tried very hard to keep the skepticism out of her voice. She had spent plenty of time reading and researching on the various tribal beliefs on half-human deities. She had always been somewhat obsessed with the subject.

“Those of this species are able to change shape at will. Not at first; when they’re young, they are regular children. The change comes later. It is known as the Han Vol Dan. The way of the change. They are not half anything but all their own species. They live and work as humans but shift when necessary. They are the guardians of the jungles, of the rain forests. A people as rare as the treasures in their keeping.”

Brandt’s fingers tangled with hers as they moved together in perfect step. Perfect rhythm. There was no stumbling over the uneven ground. No rustling of leaves or snapping of twigs. They moved as a single unit, with natural stealth and complete ease. Unexpectedly he stopped, stepped directly in front of her so that she nearly ran into him.

Maggie had no choice but to tilt her head back and look up at him. Look into his golden eyes. At once she was lost, falling under his spell, her breath leaving her lungs in a rush. Rays of sunlight filtered through the heavy foliage, casting delicate radiance through the shadows, illuminating the brilliance of colors. Birds flitted from tree branch to vine, a flutter of wings overhead. She was aware of life pulsing around them, of the ebb and flow of nature singing, of the sounds of wildlife and water. Until she looked into his eyes.

Her world narrowed to Brandt. To the mysterious secrets swirling in the depths of his eyes. To the burning hunger and need she read there. He looked at her as if she were the only woman in the world. His molten gaze moved over her face slowly, drinking her in. He brought her hand up between them, so that her palm skimmed over the muscles of his chest. Her fingers brushed his chin sending butterfly wings brushing at the pit of her stomach as she felt his mouth moving against the back of her hand. His eyes continued to hold her captive. Maggie was mesmerized, a hunted rabbit caught in the intensity of his stare. He turned her hand over, opened her fingers, and, still holding her gaze, bent his head to scrape his teeth gently in the center of her palm. His tongue swirled, a hot, moist flame, and his sculpted lips completed the brand, pressing, firm yet velvet soft over the pulsing heat.

“I know you don’t understand any of this yet, Maggie, and I thank you for your courage.” His voice wrapped her in intimacy. “I just want you to know I have the advantage of knowing about you, about your life. I know about the time you fell off your bike and had to go to the hospital for stitches. I know about you caring for your mother while she was so ill, coming back from college to stay by her side for two months, nursing her yourself.”

Maggie stared at him with wide, shocked eyes, tried to pull her hand away from his. He merely tugged her closer. “Don’t be afraid of who you are. I’m not. Of course I investigated; I couldn’t afford to be wrong. I know you’ve always loved the forest and the animals in it. So you see, I do know you. I know what kind of woman you are.”

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