The Awakening Page 2

Shorter trees vied for sunlight with the tall trees. They were draped with liana vines and creeping plants of various shades of green. Wild orchids hung above her head and rhododendrons climbed as high as some of the trees. Flowering plants grew on the trees, stretching for the sunlight that managed to make its way through the heavier canopy. Brightly colored lorikeets and other birds were in constant motion. The raspy call of insects was a noisy hum that filled the forest. The air was sweet with perfumed flowers that teased her senses. It was an exotic, erotic setting where she knew she belonged.

Maggie tilted her head back with a small sigh, rubbing at the sweat on her throat with the palm of her hand. Her lower body felt heavy and restless with each step she took. Needy. Wanting. Her breasts were swollen and achy. Her hands trembled. A strange elation swept through her. Life pulsed in her veins. An awakening.

It was then she became aware of the men. Watching her. Hot eyes on the movements of her body. The curve of her hips, the thrust of her breasts straining against the fabric of her T-shirt. The rise and fall of her breath as she walked along the narrow path. Ordinarily, knowing that she was being watched would have embarrassed her, yet she felt wanton, almost an exhibitionist.

Maggie examined her feelings, and was shocked. She was aroused. Totally aroused. She had always thought she was a bit on the asexual side. She never noticed men the way her friends did, never really was attracted to them. They certainly didn’t find her attractive, yet now she not only was aware of her own sexuality but was reveling in the fact that she was turning men on. She frowned, puzzling over the unfamiliar feelings. It didn’t feel right to her. She wasn’t attracted to the men, even as aroused as her body was. It wasn’t the men. It was something deep within her she couldn’t comprehend.

She moved along the path, feeling eyes caressing her body, feeling the weight of stares, hearing the heavier breathing of the men as she went deeper into the darkened interior of the forest. The jungle seemed to close behind them, vines and bushes spreading across the trail. The wind gusted, heavy enough to drop leaves and small twigs onto the forest floor. Flower petals, vines, and even a few smaller branches settled onto the ground so that it looked as if it hadn’t been disturbed in eons.

Her eyes were seeing details differently, much more sharply, catching movement she shouldn’t have been able to notice. It was exhilarating. Even her sense of smell seemed enhanced. She was trying to avoid walking over a beautiful white lacy plant that seemed to be everywhere. It gave off a pungent odor. “What is this on the ground?” she ventured to ask.

“A type of fungi,” one of the men answered gruffly. He had introduced himself merely as Conner. “Insects love it. They end up spreading its spores everywhere.” He cleared his throat, glanced at the other men, then back at her. “What do you do in the big city, miss?”

Maggie was startled that he asked her a question. None of the men had encouraged much conversation. “I’m a veterinarian for exotic animals. I specialize in felines.”

Maggie had always been drawn to the wilds, studying and researching everything she could find on rain forests, animals, and plants. She had worked hard to become a veterinarian of exotic animals, hoping to practice in the wilderness, but Jayne had been so unwavering, resolute in her determination to keep Maggie close, she had eventually settled for working for the zoo. This had been her big chance to go to the place she had always longed to see.

Maggie had dreams of the rain forest. She had never played with dolls like other little girls, but with plastic animals, lions and leopards and tigers. All the big cats. She had an affinity for them; she knew when they were in pain or upset or depressed. Felines responded to her and she had quickly acquired a reputation for her ability to heal and work with exotic cats.

The men exchanged a brief look she couldn’t hope to interpret. For some reason their reaction made her uneasy, but she persisted in attempting to converse now that he’d given her an opening. “I read that there are rhinoceros and elephants in this forest. Is that true?”

The man who called himself Joshua nodded abruptly, reached back, and took her backpack out of her hand as if the weight of it was forcing them to slow down. She didn’t protest because he didn’t so much as break stride. They were moving fast now.

“You’re certain of where you’re going? There’s really a small village where there are people around? I don’t want to be left all alone with no one to help me if I get bitten by a snake or something.” Was that her voice? Throaty? Husky? It didn’t sound like her.

“Yes, miss, there’s a town and supplies.” Conner’s tone was guarded.

A ripple of unease went through her. She struggled to tame her voice, make it once more her own. “Surely there’s another way to get there without going on foot? How do they bring in supplies?”

“Mules. And no, to reach your home and the village, you must walk.”

“Is it always this dark in the forest?” Maggie persisted. What landmarks were they navigating by? There were so many trees. Iron wood and sandal wood. Ebony and teak. So many different kinds. There had been numerous fruit trees such as coconut palms and mango and banana and orange along the outer perimeters. She recognized the various types of trees, but couldn’t tell what the men were using to identify the actual trail. How could they tell where they were going or how to get back? She was intrigued and a bit awed by their ability.

“The sunlight has little chance to penetrate the thick branches and leaves above,” came the answer. No one slowed the pace, no one even glanced at her.

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