The Awakening Page 24

Her body was wondrously sore from their continual lovemaking, and Maggie wanted a long soak in a hot bath. The air, as always was sultry, but the thought of hot water was more than she could resist. In the bathroom she lit a single candle to fill the room with aromatic spice. The flame produced a soft flickering luminosity that danced on the walls. The water lapped soothingly at her sore body like a thousand healing tongues. She could see a dark smudge on the side of her hip where his fingers had dug into her curves in the deep throes of his passion. Her breasts were tender and slightly burned, matching her chin, from the shadow on his jaw. Even the insides of her thighs held the evidence of his possession. Deep inside her she still felt him. Still craved him.

She fell asleep there in the hot water, dreaming of Brandt and his hard, capable body thrusting deeply into hers. Her body clenched, tightened; she thrashed, bumping her head on the tub. Maggie woke, blinked drowsily, and rubbed at her head. As she patted her skin dry with a towel, she noticed how tender she was. Her skin felt raw and inflamed. It was painful to pull on her clothes but she did, worried Brandt might need her.

Maggie paced restlessly across the tiled floor. She was feeling sick to her stomach and there was a strange roaring in her head. She clutched her head, trying to massage her temples. The throbbing was increasing so that her head pounded and ached. Her bones felt too big for the confines of her skin. It felt as if her head might burst to accommodate the expanding skull. Was this what Brandt had worried about? Had it started? Experimentally she ran her tongue along her teeth to feel if they were sharper.

Staggering a little under the weight of the pain, Maggie went to the bedroom, certain that when she lay down she would feel much better. She tried to rest, but the pressure of the mattress was too much to bear. As she sat up she felt a strange rippling of muscles across her belly, in her arms. When she looked down at her skin, something moved.

Maggie thought she screamed. Her muscles contorted, rippled, and knotted right under her horrified stare. She could see something running beneath her skin, something like a parasite, raising her skin as the thing rushed beneath the surface. Her heart rate accelerated and her mouth went dry. All at once her clothes were too tight, too constricting. The material hurt her skin. Alarmed, she tore off her jeans, flinging them away from her.

Fire raced through her belly and her legs went rubbery. She fell to the floor. “Brandt!” She screamed his name, her one hope in the midst of insanity. His name came out somewhere between a cough and a grunt. Her throat was closing on her, swelling, changing, so that her vocal cords weren’t working.

The Han Vol Dan was upon her and she was alone and terrified. Her body writhed, a rush of adrenaline pumping through her system like an erupting volcano. Her skin felt raw, oversensitized. The merest touch on her body hurt. Maggie struggled to control her fear, to think while she could. She had to rid herself of her clothes before she no longer had fingers. Tears were running down her face as she stripped off her blouse and underwear. She couldn’t bear to look at her contorting body. She had thought it would be a quick change, not a vicious assault on her muscles.

She crawled across the floor to the balcony door. The confines of the house were so stifling, she could hardly breathe. Maggie didn’t want to look at her hand as she reached up to slide the door open but she couldn’t help herself. Her hand was curved, knotted, knuckles extended.

She managed to get the door open and dragged herself onto the balcony.

A wave of fur broke through her skin as her spine seemed to bend and crackle, a thick matting of reddish hair with rosettes stretching endlessly. For a moment she was caught between human and beast, half and half. She could only wonder at the mystery of such a thing, how it could be that it had never been discovered, but then she was absorbed in the takeover of her body by the animal inside of her.

She heard the noise of it—bones cracking, muscles snapping, tendons popping—as her body was reshaping. The sounds were horrifying, but the wildness caught at her, her senses heightening. The night rushed at her, into her, a world she hadn’t known existed.

There was a long silence while the wind held its breath. Then the rain fell from the sky, drops landing on the cat sprawled on the balcony, panting so heavily. Maggie lifted her head and looked around her. Without moving her head, she could detect motion in the trees in a visual field of nearly 280 degrees. The shock was enormous to her, her mind nearly numb as she attempted to comprehend what had happened. She could think, but she was trapped in a body not her own, one totally alien to her. And deep within her, something wild and ruthless was striving to blend with her.

The leopard came to its feet. Easily. Gracefully. Nothing awkward about the way the animal moved. The leopard was built for total awareness, with grace and intelligence. Deep within the animal’s body, Maggie had only one goal. To get out of the rain forest. To return to civilization where nothing like this could ever happen again. It wasn’t interesting or fun—it was terrifying beyond belief. Maggie Odessa would be lost in the forest, but the leopard had senses far beyond her own. Leaping from the balcony, making her way down the network of tree limbs, she ran fast, utilizing the unique radar in the cat’s whiskers to help her find her way.

She had no idea how to get back into her own skin, her own form. This leopard’s body could not be hers. Worst of all, the female was spreading her tantalizing chemical signals throughout the forest as she raced away from the sanctuary of the house to find the borders of the forest. The leopard was in the throes of sexual awareness, rubbing on trees, scent marking, and scratching. Maggie was horrified when she suddenly became aware that the animal and she were both in need of a male.

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