The Awakening Page 27

James pushed forward, displaying his savage teeth, his eyes staring at her with a certain cunning viciousness. His head pushed hard against her legs, nearly knocking her to the ground, clearly a signal to go where he wanted. His tongue deliberately licked across her bare thighs, a slow, painful threat. The raspy papillae on the big cat’s tongue could draw blood if he chose.

Maggie shuddered visibly, his touch making her feel ill. The idea of going anywhere with him was terrifying.

The bear lay on its side on the ground, panting. The wind stilled. The rain began its slow, steady drizzle all over again. Maggie and the leopard stared at each other in the darkness, the heavy green canopy and thick layers of mists and clouds overhead blocking out the moonlight. There was complete silence, the hush of expectancy. Maggie’s heart beat out a rhythm of fear.

Without warning a black panther exploded out of the foliage, moving with the force of a freight train, slamming into the spotted leopard so hard he knocked the cat off his feet. The night erupted into violence. Monkeys shrieked loudly, scrambling from branch to branch overhead. Birds took flight despite the darkness. The spotted leopard rolled, leaping to his feet to avoid the panther’s teeth going for a suffocating hold on his throat.

The ears on the black panther were twisted so the backs were visible from the front, signaling aggression as he faced the wary spotted leopard. His mouth snarled, revealing the sharpened canines. Fights between male cats were often to the death, and Maggie backed away, screening her body in the leaves of the ferns, her horrified gaze fixed on the two combatants.

The panther attacked with blurring speed. Grace and flexibility combined with strong muscles to twist and turn, leap and rake, change direction in midair. The battle was brief but fierce, each cat going for a death grip on the other’s throat.

The spotted leopard was knocked off his feet a second time, rolling, shifting shape as he did so, as if the blow had been so hard he no longer could hold the feline form. James ran, his back to her, naked, displaying the same muscular build she was beginning to recognize as characteristic of Brandt’s people.

Maggie watched as the black panther shifted shape, almost running as he did so, easily and so quickly she could hardly believe her eyes. Brandt caught the fleeing man by his hair and brought him up short. Brandt’s lip curled into a snarl of menace. She could see the cold fury on Brandt’s face. “Did you think we wouldn’t figure out who was helping the poachers, James? Your stench is all over the poachers’ camp.”

“I was investigating them,” James denied, his gaze shifting away from Brandt toward Maggie. “I wouldn’t betray the animals to poachers!”

Brandt’s heavy fist connected solidly with James’s shoulder. “Don’t you look at her. You look at me if you want to live beyond this moment.”

Maggie shrank at once into the deeper cover of the foliage, not because she was embarrassed at being naked—she seemed to have lost all inhibitions here in the jungle—but because the idea of James looking at her body sickened her. And because it seemed to antagonize Brandt further to see another man looking at her.

James immediately complied. That frightened Maggie, the swift compliance, as if James knew Brandt really meant he might end the other man’s life. She pressed a shaking hand to her mouth. Conditions in the rain forest were extremely primitive. There were no policemen on the corners, and Brandt and his people had no allegiance to any local government. Isolated, they lived by the swift, lethal law of the jungle.

“I swear to you, Brandt, I wasn’t helping the poachers. I should have shifted my shape and helped the woman with the bear but the violence, the scent of her being so ripe, and the blood kept me from thinking straight.”

Brandt cuffed James so hard he rocked back on his heels. “Don’t you blame Maggie for your lack of control. We always can think straight. You wanted something that didn’t belong to you, James. You watched her when Drake was bringing her through the forest. They smelled you. I smelled you. Your stench is outside our home. What did you think would happen when you were finished? Were you going to kill her?”

“No!” Maggie was gratified to see the man look shocked, even horrified at the idea. “I don’t know what I thought. That she’d prefer me, want me instead.”

“You know you can’t steal someone else’s mate, James.” Brandt cuffed the man a second time, an expression of disgust on his face. “Get out of here, present yourself to the council, and tell them what you did, If you don’t, James, I’ll consider you my enemy and I’ll hunt you down.” He shoved the other man away from him, his golden eyes glittering with menace. “You know me. I’ll hunt you down until I find you.”

James stumbled, took a few steps forward, glancing back over his shoulder. “I swear I wasn’t going to harm her, Brandt. I wouldn’t do that to one of our women.”

Brandt watched the man go before turning his attention to Maggie. He could breathe again, think again, now that Maggie was safe. He stalked her across the small space. “You said you’d be waiting for me,” he reprimanded, caging her body between his hard, masculine frame and a tree trunk. He was stark naked. There was a long, thin, angry red streak across his belly. Her eyes followed the laceration with dismay and she found herself staring at his thick erection.

“You can’t possibly be aroused,” she whispered. “You could have been killed.” She was fascinated by him, by the thickness, the shape of him. Without thought she brushed her hand along his shoulder, touched the edge of the wound on his belly, and stroked her fingers over his heavy staff.

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