The Awakening Page 15

Brandt turned away from her, walking once more, taking her with him, unable to look into her frightened eyes. He kept her hand firmly in his. He had fallen for that tenderhearted young woman he had read so much about. Like a drowning man, he had clung to every scrap of information he could ferret out about her. His emotions were already involved, and each moment spent in her company or simply observing her drew the net tighter around his heart. She didn’t know him other than as a man who tricked her, brought her to foreign soil, and attempted to seduce her into accepting him. He detested the fear and uncertainty in her eyes.

Maggie bit down on her lower lip, a sharp bite to give her courage to spar with him. “Why do you do that, Brandt? Deliberately keep me off balance? I know you brought me here, I just haven’t figured out your real motive. I don’t have enough money to make it worth your while. I’m not beautiful or famous. Why don’t you just tell me the truth?”

“I have been telling you the truth. You aren’t listening to the truth.” There was no impatience in his voice. He kept walking, veering slightly along a faint path.

Maggie could hear the continual roar of a large body of water. She glanced back in the direction they had come and saw only forest, no path, no house. She was well and truly lost, dependent on Brandt to return her home safely. Her fingers were tangled with his. She told herself she didn’t want to bother with a struggle in the heat and the humidity, but the truth was, she liked the feel of him strong and protective beside her.

“I’m listening,” she said, because she could feel the heat wave starting in the pit of her stomach, spreading like a wildfire through her blood. “Tell me about the change.” Something was happening deep inside of her. Something she didn’t understand or want. She tightened her fingers around his, holding on to the only security she had while her body went up in flames. She didn’t look at him, but stared into the trees ahead of them, trying to ignore the sensations assaulting her.

“Let me finish the story, Maggie. The ritual of promise is a wedding of sorts. Two lost hearts bound together as one. The story goes that cats have nine lives. The male is reborn remembering what came before. He must find his mate. No other will do. He must recognize her and lay his claim before the onset of the Han Vol Dan. Before the change overtakes her. The ritual of promise occurs when the two live in close proximity and the male recognizes the reborn female. Or, if the soul is new, when the male recognizes his mate at an early age.”

“How can he do that?”

His eyes moved over her again. Moody. Brooding. Dark with some hidden mystery. “The aura of the woman or child calls to him, melds with his. The elders can see the two colors merge. The little girl was recognized and promised in the ritual. But the poachers had their revenge. They had been tracking the couple, trying to find their home, wanting to be rid of them. A very clever trap was set.”

Maggie could feel the acceleration of her heart. Of his heart. She could hear them both pounding, remembering, reliving the terror. Her mouth went dry and she shook her head. “Don’t tell me any more. I don’t want to hear.”

“Because you know. You were there when they came with their guns and their torches. When your father woke your mother and bundled you up and put you in her arms. When he kissed you for the last time and turned to fight the mob, to hold them back to give your mother a chance to save you. You remember his change, the way his fur felt against your skin. And you remember your mother’s sobs as she wept and ran with you through the forest away from the village that was already being burned.”

He turned up her hand, brought her knuckles to the warmth of his mouth. “I remember it vividly, every detail, Maggie, because my mother died that night, too—oh, not right away; she lingered for months before her physical body gave up.” He couldn’t feign his sadness. It was as real as her own. She saw it in his eyes, and his poet’s heart wept.

She did remember the frightening, nightmare images—a leopard leaping, snarling, a mass of teeth and claws cutting a path while they ran with dizzying speed. She remembered her mother flinching as a shot reverberated. Her mother ran several yards, staggered, recovered valiantly, and continued. Maggie pressed a hand to her mouth. Memories? Were they real? Could her mother have run through the forest in the dead of night, away from all she had known? Away from her husband and people? Run with a terrible wound draining the life from her?

She dragged in her breath. “And she took me to Jayne. Jayne Odessa.”

“A very wealthy woman who had never had children and had always wanted them. Who was your mother’s friend and shared her concerns for the rain forest and endangered species. Who knew nothing about what your mother was, only that she loved her and would do anything to keep you safe. She witnessed your mother’s death and she took you back to the United States and legally adopted you.”

Chapter 5

Maggie stood absolutely motionless. It was insanity to believe anything Brandt Talbot said, yet she knew it was true. She did have memories of that night. And Jayne Odessa had spoken often of a friend she loved very much who had died violently, tragically. A woman named Lily Hanover. The two women had worked tirelessly to preserve the rain forest and all the endangered species within it. Saving the environment had been the cause that had brought Jayne and Lily together. But Jayne had never told Maggie that Lily was her mother.

Brandt caught her chin. “Don’t feel sad, Maggie. Your parents loved you very much and they loved each other. Few people ever have that in their lifetime.”

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