The warm wind gently carried the message through the lush vegetation
of the rain forest, traveled high into the dense canopy that shrouded
the jungle in mystery. Wild honeybees built combs just beneath
the crown, out of reach of most of the animals. If they heard
the wind whispering, they ignored the tales to go about their
business. Birds of every kind, parrots clothed in a riot of color,
helmeted hornbills and falcons picked up the gossip and conveyed
it swiftly on bright wings, shrieking with delight throughout
the forest. Noisy troops of long-tailed macaques, gibbons and
leaf-eating monkeys heard and leapt from branch to branch joyfully,
shouting with anticipation. The orangutans moved cautiously through
the trees in search of ripe fruit, edible leaves and flowers,
maintaining dignity in all the fuss. Before long, the news was
everywhere. There were few secrets in the community and everyone
had been waiting with concern.
heard the news long before her scent reached him. Brandt Talbot
shrank into the heavy vegetation, his chest tight and his body
taut with sudden anticipation. She was here at long last. In his
domain. Within his grasp. It had been a long hunt to find her,
nearly impossible, yet he had managed it. He had deliberately
lured her to his lair and she had come. He was so close, he had
to use iron self control to keep from moving too quickly. He couldn't
spook her, couldn't tip his hand, allow her to realize for one
moment that the net was closing around her. It was essential to
close every avenue, drive her to the center of his domain and
cut off each escape route.
strategy had been planned for years. He had time to plan while
he searched the world for her, while he reviewed every document
in his hunt for his prey. When he was certain he had the right
woman, the one woman, he put his plan into action.
moved swiftly through the thick fauna, silently but quickly, effortlessly
leaping over fallen trees as he made his way toward the outer
edges of the jungle. A rhinoceros grunted nearby. Deer scrambled
in fear as they caught his scent. Smaller animals scurried out
of his way and birds fell quiet at his approach. The monkeys retreated
to the higher reaches of the canopy but they, too, remained hushed,
not daring to raise his ire as he passed beneath them.
was his kingdom and he seldom flaunted his power, but every species
was aware interference would not be tolerated. Without his constant
vigilance and his continual care, their world would soon disappear.
He watched over and protected them and asked little in return.
Now he demanded complete cooperation. Death would come silently
and swiftly to any who dared defy him.
was different the moment Maggie Odessa set foot into the jungle.
She was different. She felt it. Where the heat on the coast had
been oppressive, stifling, within the forest, that same heat seemed
to envelope her in a strange perfumed world. With each step that
took her into the deeper interior, she became more aware. More
alert. As if awakening from a dream world. Her hearing was much
more acute. She could hear separate insects, identify the trilling
sounds of birds, the cries of monkeys. She heard the wind rustling
in the branches overhead and smaller animals scurrying among the
leaves. It was strange, yet exhilarating.
Maggie had first learned of her inheritance, she had thought to
sell it off without seeing it, out of respect for her adopted
mother. Jayne Odessa had been adamant that Maggie never enter
the rainforest. Jayne had been frightened by the very idea of
it, repeatedly begging Maggie to promise that she would never
put herself at risk. Maggie loved her adopted mother and didn't
want to go against her wishes but after Jayne's death, a lawyer
had contacted Maggie to inform her that she was the daughter of
a wealthy, couple, naturalists, who had died violently when she
was a child and that she had inherited their estate deep in the
rainforests of Borneo. The temptation was too much to resist.
Despite the promises Maggie had made to her adoptive mother, she
had journeyed halfway around the world to look for her past.
had flown into the small airport and rendezvoused with the three
men sent by the lawyer to meet her. From there they'd traveled
in a four-wheel drive utility vehicle for an hour before they
left the main highway and took a series of unpaved roads leading
into deeper forest. It seemed as if they had bumped over every
rut and pit in the dirt road. Eventually they had parked the vehicle
to proceed on foot, a prospect Maggie hadn't been happy about.
The humidity was high and she knotted her khaki shirt around her
backpack as they trekked into deeper forest.
The men seemed enormously strong and well prepared. They were
well-built, quiet when they walked, intensely alert. She had been
nervous at first but once they were walking along the trail in
deeper jungle, everything seemed to change, she felt as if she
were coming home.
she followed her guides, winding deeper into the darkened interior,
she became aware of the mechanics of her own body. Of her muscles,
the way they moved sleekly, easily, her strides almost rhythmic.
She didn't stumble, she didn't make unnecessary noise. Her feet
seemed to find their own placement over the uneven ground. Maggie
became aware of her own femininity. Sleek with sweat, small beads
ran in the valley between her breasts, her shirt plastered to
her skin. Her long, thick hair, her one call to glory, was heavy
and hot against her neck and down her back. She lifted the heavy
mass, the simple act suddenly sensual, lifting her breasts beneath
the thin cotton tee, her nipples rasping gently on the material.
Maggie twisted her hair with the expertise of practice, fastening
the thick rope to her head with a jeweled stick.
that the heat and primitive jungle should suddenly make her conscious
of her body. The way she moved, her hips gently swaying, almost
an invitation, as if she knew someone was watching, someone she
wanted to entice. In her entire life, she had never been a flirt
or a tease, yet now the temptation was overwhelming. It was as
if she had come to life, here in this dark, overgrown place with
vines and leaves and every kind of plant imaginable.
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.
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 were trembled. A strange elation
swept through her. Life pulsed in her veins. An awakening.
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 tee-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.
examined her feelings, and was shocked. She was aroused. Totally
aroused. She had always thought she was a bit on the androgynous
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
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.
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 spoors everywhere." He cleared
his throat, glanced at the other men, then back at her. "What
do you do in the big city, Miss?"
was startled that he asked her a question. None of the men encouraged
much conversation. "I'm a veterinarian for exotic animals.
I specialize in felines."
had always been drawn to the wilds, studying and researching everything
she could find on rainforests, 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 the
place she had always longed of seeing.
had dreams of the rainforest. She had never played with dolls
like other little girls, but 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.
men exchanged a brief long 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?"
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 bit 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
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
it always this dark in the forest?" Maggie persisted. What
landmarks were they navigating by? There were so many trees. Ironwood
and Sandalwood. Ebony and Teak. So many different kinds. There
had been numerous fruit trees like coconut palms and mango and
banana and orange along the outer perimeters. She recognized the
various types of trees, but couldn't tell how 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 little
awed of 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.
could tell they didn't want to converse. It wasn't exactly as
if they were being rude to her, but she could tell when she addressed
them directly they were uneasy. Maggie shrugged carelessly. She
didn't need conversation. She had always been comfortable with
her own company and there were so many intriguing things in the
forest. She caught a glimpse of a snake nearly as thick as a man's
arm. There was a tiny spot of spectacular color that turned out
to be a frog of some sort on a tree. And so many lizards she lost
count. It should have been immensely difficult spotting such creatures.
They blended with the foliage, yet somehow she could see them.
Almost as if the jungle was changing her in some way, improving
her sight, her ability to hear and smell.
silence took hold of the forest. Insects ceased their endless
hum. Birds abruptly stopped their continuous calls. Even the monkeys
ceased all chatter. The stillness disturbed her, sent a chill
cascading down her spine. A single warning was shrieked high in
the canopy, an alert of danger, and Maggie knew instantly that
it was danger to her. The hair on the back of her neck raised
and she nervously turned her head from side to side as she walked,
her eyes restlessly probing the thick foliage.
apprehension must have communicated itself to the guards. They
tightened up the distance between them, one dropping back behind
her, urging her to move more quickly through the forest.
heart accelerated, her mouth went dry. She could feel her body
begin to tremble. Something moved in the deep foliage, large,
heavily muscled, a shadow in the shadows. Something paced along
beside them. She couldn't really see it, yet she did, the impression
of a large predator was there, an animal stalking her silently.
She felt the weight of an intent, focused stare, the unblinking
eyes of something savage. Something was fixated on her. Something
we safe?" She asked the question softly, moving closer to
course we're safe, Miss," one of the men replied, a tall
blond with dark, brooding eyes. His gaze slid over her. "Nothing
would attack so large a party."
group wasn't that large. Four people tramping on a nonexistent
path toward an uncertain destination. She didn't feel all that
safe. She had forgotten what the third man's name was. It suddenly
bothered her. Really bothered her. What if something did attack
them and the man tried to protect her and she didn't even know
who he was?
glanced back. The trail had disappeared completely behind them.
She lifted her chin, another shiver finding its way through her
body. Something watched and waited to attack. Were they walking
into an ambush? She didn't know any of the men. She was trusting
a lawyer she knew very little about. She'd investigated him, of
course, to insure he was legitimate, but that didn't mean she
hadn't been deceived. Women disappeared every day.
Odessa?" It was the tall blond. "Don't look so frightened.
Nothing is going to happen to you."
managed a small smile. His reassurance didn't take away her fear
of the unknown, but she was grateful he had noticed and had tried.
"Thank you, the forest went so quiet all of a sudden and
it feels so
" Dangerous. The word was in her
mind but she didn't want to speak it aloud, to give it life. Instead
she matched her stride to the blond. "Please call me Maggie.
I've never been very formal. What's your name?"
hesitated, glanced toward the left into the heavy foliage. "It's
Maggie, Drake Donovan."
you been to the village often?"
have a home there," he admitted. "We all have homes
Relief swept through her. She felt some of the tension leave her
body. "That's reassuring. I was beginning to think I had
inherited a small hut in the middle of the forest or maybe at
the top of one of the trees." Her laughter was low. Husky.
blinked in shock. There it was again. She never sounded
like that, yet twice now her voice had become an invitation. She
didn't want Drake Donovan to think she was coming on to him. What
in the world had gotten into her? Something was happening to her,
something she didn't like at all. She knew it was wrong, everything
about it felt wrong, yet her body was raging at her with an urgent,
several yards away, through the thick foliage, Brandt feasted
his eyes on her. She was everything and more than he had expected.
She wasn't tall, but he hadn't expected her to be. Her body was
curvy, lush breasts and hips, a small waist, strong legs. Her
hair was thick and luxurious, a wealth of red-gold silk. Her brows
were reddish, her eyes as green as the leaves on the trees. Her
mouth was a sinful temptation.
was oppressively hot and she was sweating, a dark vee down the
front of her shirt, darkening the area around her high, firm breasts.
There was a damp line down her back, drawing attention to the
sweep of her back, the curve of her hips. Her jeans rode low on
her hips, exposing an enticing expanse of skin and revealing her
belly button which he found exceedingly sexy. He longed to capture
her right there, drag her away from the other men and claim what
belonged to him. He had taken far too long in finding her and
the Han Vol Dan was nearly upon her. He could tell. The
others could tell. They tried not to look at what didn't belong
to them, but she was so naturally sensuous, so alluring and compelling,
the men were reacting with the same ragged hunger as he felt.
Brandt felt bad for them. They were doing him a favor, despite
the danger to all of them from the overpowering emotions. He had
been tracking poachers when she had arrived and the men had gone
to meet her in his stead, to bring her to him.
rain began, great sheets of it, working to penetrate the heavier
foliage above them, sending the humidity up another notch. The
downpour bathed the forest in iridescent colors as the water blended
with light to make prisms so that rainbows washed across the vine-draped
trees. The woman, his mate, Maggie Odessa, turned her face
up in delight. There was no grumbling, no squeals of shock. She
raised her hands over her head in silent tribute, allowing the
water to cascade over her face. She was rain-wet. The drops ran
down her face, her lashes. All Brandt could think of was that
he needed to lap every drop from her face. To taste her petal
soft skin with the life giving water running over it. He was suddenly
thirsty, his throat parched. His body was heavy and painful and
a strange roaring started in his head.
tee-shirt was white and instantly soaked through in the sudden
deluge, rendering the material nearly transparent. Her breasts
were outlined, full, intriguing, a swell of lush creamy flesh,
her nipples darker and twin hard buds of invitation. The richness
of her exposed body drew his gaze like a magnet. Beckoned him.
Mesmerized him. His mouth went dry, and his heart hammered out
an urgent tattoo.
glanced back at Maggie, his gaze lingering for a hot, tension-filled
moment on the sway of her breasts.
warning rumbled deep in Brandt's throat. The growl was low, but
in the silence of the forest, it carried easily. He coughed, the
peculiar, grunting cough of his kind. A threat. A command. Drake
went ramrod stiff, jerked his head around, peering uneasily into
gaze followed Donavon's to the thick vegetation. There was no
mistaking the sound of a large jungle cat.
tossed her the backpack. "Put on something, anything to cover
yourself." His voice was clipped, almost hostile.
eyes widened in amazement. "Didn't you hear that?" She
held the pack in front of her, shielding her breasts from their
view, shocked that the men seemed more concerned with her body
than with the danger approaching them. "You had to have heard
that. Maybe we should climb a tree or something."
is a leopard, Miss Odessa. They climb trees quite easily. And
running doesn't do a bit of good if they've decided to make a
meal of you." Keeping his back to her, Drake shoved his hand
through his wet hair. "Just put on something else and we'll
like naked women?" Maggie quipped, as she hastily pulled
on her khaki over-shirt to cover her tee-shirt. If she didn't
make light of the situation she might panic.
First choice every time, you might want to remember that,"
Drake said, his voice tinged with humor. "Are you decent?"
buttoned the khaki shirt, right over the soaking wet tee. The
air was thick, the scent from so many flowers almost cloying in
the oppressive humidity. Her socks were wet, her feet becoming
uncomfortable. "Yes, I'm decent. Are we even close yet?"
She didn't want to complain but she suddenly felt irritable and
annoyed with everything and everyone.
didn't turn around to check "It's a bit farther, do you need
was very aware of her escorts watching the heavy foliage warily.
Once her breath caught in her throat. She could have sworn she
saw the tip of a black tail twitching in the bushes a few yards
from where she stood, but when she blinked, there were only the
darker shadows and endless ferns. As hard as she tried, she could
see nothing in the deeper shadows, but the impression of danger
rather keep going," she admitted. She felt very out of sorts.
One moment she wanted to entice the men to her, the next she wanted
to snarl and rake at them, hiss and spit at them to go away from
go then." Drake signaled and they were once more on the move.
The three men were carrying guns, slung carelessly across their
backs. Each of them had a knife strapped to his waist. None of
them had touched the weapons, not even when the large cat had
made its presence nearby known.
pace the men set was grueling. She was tired, wet, sticky and
far too hot and most of all, her feet hurt. Her hiking boots were
good ones, but not as broken in as she would have liked. She knew
there were blisters forming on her heels. She was growing hungrier
by the moment. Maggie wasn't about to complain. She sensed the
men weren't pushing her to be cruel, or to test her endurance,
but for some other reason that had to do with safety. She complied
as best she could, hurrying along the trail in the sweltering
heat, wondering why the jungle felt so close and where the trail