The Awakening Page 6

Leaves rustled high in the trees above her head, and she glanced up. Something moved, something large but very silent. She continued to stare into the thick foliage, straining to make out a shape, a shadow. Anything that might make the leaves flutter in the night air against the wind. Was it a large snake? A python perhaps—they grew to enormous sizes.

She felt a dark premonition of danger, of something dangerous hunting her. Stalking her. Watching her intently with a fixed, focused stare. Defensively she put a hand to her throat as if warding off the strangling bite of a leopard. Maggie took a cautious step backward, toward the safety of the house, her gaze never leaving the tree above her head.

The wind plucked at the trees, stirred and shifted the leaves. Her heart slammed hard against her chest as she found herself falling into the hypnotic gaze of a large animal. She had always been fascinated with large cats, but every encounter had been in a controlled environment. This leopard, a rare black panther, was free, wild, and on the hunt. The stare was terrifying, unnerving. Power and intelligence shone in those unblinking golden eyes. Maggie couldn’t look away, caught in the gripping intensity of the focused stare. She knew from her vast experience with exotic cats that the leopard was one of the most cunning and intelligent predators in the forest.

A single sound escaped her, a soft moan of alarm. Her tongue darted out, traced her suddenly dry lips. Maggie knew better than to run—she didn’t want to trigger an attack. She took another step backward, felt for the door. All the while her gaze was locked with the panther’s. The cat never looked away from her, a hunter beyond measure, a fast, efficient killer that was concentrated on prey. She was the prey. She recognized danger when she saw it.

He could hear her heartbeat, the fast acceleration that signaled intense fear. Her face was pale, her eyes wide as she stared deep into his. When her small tongue touched her lush bottom lip, he nearly fell out of the tree. He could almost read her thoughts. She believed he was hunting her, stalking her. She believed he was hungry. And he was. He wanted, needed to devour her. Just not in the way she thought.

She backed inside the house, slammed the door shut solidly. He heard the bar slide into place. Brandt remained very still, his heart hammering out his joy. She was his now. It was only a matter of time. The intensity of his need for her shocked him. The instinctual drive for a mate went far beyond anything he had ever experienced.

The night was falling. His time. It belonged to him, to his kind. He listened to the whispers as his world stirred to life. He heard the softest calls, knew every creature, every insect. Knew who belonged and who did not. There was a natural rhythm to life and he was in the midst of a change. Disturbing, disquieting, but he was determined to exert his discipline and handle it as he did all things, with iron control.

He shifted, roped muscles rippling beneath the thick fur as he padded in silence along the heavy branch, intent on following her progress as she moved from room to room. He couldn’t take his eyes from her, drinking in the sight of her, torturing his body, his senses, with her. She moved him as nothing ever had. She stole his breath and aroused his body to such a fever pitch of excitement he found himself enthralled.

Nothing stood between them but his honor. His code. Nothing. No time or distance. He had resolved that issue with his cunning intelligence. He lifted his head and forced his body to take in air, to read the night, to know he was in control in the midst of the upheaval. His body was different. Heavy with need, throbbing, aching. Every sense was alive. Every cell needed. Hungered. His head roared and ached, an uncomfortable state for one of power and discipline.

Maggie leaned against the door for a long time. She had been crazy to come here to this far-off place with danger at every turn. Her heart was racing and her blood rushed madly through her body. Yet a small smile touched her mouth in spite of the adrenaline pumping through her. She couldn’t remember feeling so alive before. She wasn’t even certain she had been afraid, she was so excited. It was as if she had been walking through life asleep to all the possibilities. Now, here, in the primitive jungle, every sense was enhanced and on fire.

She stepped away from the door, looked up at the ceiling with its fans and wide beams. This house suited her with its wide-open spaces and interesting carvings. She began to walk through it, confident that there were no animals in her home. It was exhilarating to feel as if she had closed out all danger and left it on the other side of the door. She picked up her packs and began an inspection of the downstairs. The rooms were large and each had the same high ceiling and sparse furniture, all made with a hard, dark wood. Curiously, in two of the bedrooms she discovered claw marks, as if some very large cat had marked the wall up near the ceiling. Maggie stared at the marks, puzzled by how they had been put there.

In the large kitchen she found a note on the small refrigerator penned in a masculine scrawl explaining how the lights worked and where to find everything she might need for the first night in her family home. There was a bowl of fresh fruit left for her and she gratefully ate a juicy mango, her parched throat savoring the sweetness. She touched the large, looping letters of the note in a silent thanks with a caressing fingertip, strangely drawn to the handwriting. She turned the note over and over, brought it to her nose, inhaling the scent. She could actually smell him. Brandt Talbot, the man who had written the note, had lived in the house.

He was everywhere. His scent. He seemed to envelop her with his presence. Once she was aware of him, she realized his touch was everywhere. He lived in the house. The polished wood and gleaming tiles had to have been his doing. The artwork, which appealed to her, had to be his.

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