The Awakening Page 26

To her surprise, the leopard faltered, the front legs wobbling unsteadily. She somersaulted over a small branch, skidding along the ground. Maggie lay flat out, hearing the ominous creaking and pops that accompanied change. “Not now,” she groaned, the sound emerging from the leopard’s throat as a grunting cough.

It wasn’t as painful, or maybe it hadn’t ever been. Maybe she had been so frightened that it had seemed painful because she had expected it to hurt. She itched, her skin erupting with fur one moment, then smooth and bare the next. She found herself sitting on the ground, stark naked. Maggie leapt up quickly, afraid of insects burrowing into her skin.

With a little sigh she began to jog toward the house. She knew her way now—she had the same abilities as the leopard, she had had only to acknowledge them, accept them, and learn to use them. She had to cross her arms over the fullness of her breasts as she hurried, the jolting as uncomfortable in her chest as the ground was on her bare feet. The leopard form was designed for easy movement through the jungle, while her present form was a nuisance. Sharp leaves and bark lacerated her tender skin. She hardly noticed the discomfort as she pushed hard to get back to the house, wanting to track Brandt.

The noise stopped her cold. A high keening sound, the moan of an animal in pain. She had heard it many times, but this time she inhaled the scent of blood. Without conscious thought, Maggie turned toward the sound. She had to go to the injured animal—the sound tugged at her.

The bear was much smaller than she had expected, with smooth jet-black fur. It had a beautiful white crescent marking its chest. Its long tongue was lolling out of its mouth. She couldn’t help but notice the long and pointed claws it used for ripping into the bark of trees to uncover insects and honey. The bear was whimpering in fear and pain. It swung its head toward her as she emerged from between two trees and attempted to roll to its feet, but instead thrashed dangerously. She could see the thick blood coating the bear’s left side. The ground was dark with it.

Maggie lifted her hand and went completely still, keeping her distance prudently. “Be calm, little one, I’m going to help you.” She needed her backpack, her medical supplies. She could tranquilize the bear and see to the wound, but she wasn’t certain the animal would survive while she raced to the house. The sight of the small bear in such distress angered her. She knew they were a rarity even in the wilds.

Above her head, some fifteen feet up, she saw the branches of the tree were bent and broken to form a nest. The bear must have tried to make it to its resting place. From the nest the bear would have a good view of the forest floor. She could see the hairless soles of the sun bear’s feet and the sickle-shaped claws as it lay panting, watching her with tragic eyes.

The bear suddenly reared up, tried to charge, but was prevented from reaching her by the savage wound in its side. It fell back helplessly, baring teeth at her in warning. “I’m going to help you,” she promised. “Just give me a couple of minutes to get my things.” How far was she from the house? A distance still, she was certain.

Maggie swung away from the unfortunate creature, knowing the best thing to do was to get her supplies as quickly as possible. The bear made a second pitiable attempt to rise, this time whining at her, a clear call for help. The sound tore at her heart. The bear was clearly afraid, straining to pull its weight into cover. She caught the scent of another large cat as she turned back toward the sound of the distressed bear. A leopard was in the vicinity, a male, and he was stalking prey.

Maggie lifted her head to test the wind, much as the agitated bear was doing. She knew immediately this animal was more than a beast, he was part of the community Brandt lived in. And he knew Brandt had staked his claim. James. The idea of meeting him filled her with trepidation. His very scent offended her in some strange way.

Had he come to help? Maggie hesitated, aware she was completely naked and extremely vulnerable. She hadn’t been afraid of the wild animals in the forest, or the dark, or even the wounded bear, but knowing another man, whatever form he took, was stalking her, filled her with fear.

She turned to escape. If James was coming to help the sun bear, he didn’t need to find her there. She could get to the house and return with supplies, fully dressed. She took two steps, and the large cat broke through the heavy foliage.

Chapter 8

Maggie’s breath caught in her throat. The spotted leopard was large and heavily muscled. It tore through the thick undergrowth no more than six feet from her. Blazing yellow-green eyes focused on her, the pupils dilated and fixed. She could feel danger emanating from the male, see the piercing intelligence. Instinctively she stepped back, recognizing the smoldering tension in the eyes.

The animal growled a warning, and Maggie glanced behind her to see where the bear was. Her gaze shifted only for a moment, but the cat had inched forward so that it was only a foot from her. The male stared, wrinkled his nose, curled his upper lip, and grimaced with an open mouth, a wide yawn. Maggie recognized the classic Flehmen response of the male to a female.

She tilted her chin in challenge. “You think I don’t know who you are? I can smell you. Whatever you’re thinking about doing, you can forget it.” She took a breath, hissed his name with disgust. “James. Change your form and help me save this bear.” She was almost more furious than she was afraid. Maggie realized he had followed her deliberately. Brandt had attempted to warn her earlier that James wasn’t “right.” His scent bothered her, as if she detected a depravity within him. “I know you understand me. We’re the protectors of the forest. Before anything else we have to help these creatures survive.” She could only hope he had been indoctrinated since his birth and would respond.

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