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~THE AWAKENING: CHAPTER ONE~
Last Updated: April 18, 2012 00:47:04


Fantasy by Christine FeehanThe 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.

He 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.

His 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.

He 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.

This 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.

Everything 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.

When 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.

Maggie 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.

As 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.

Strange, 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.

Shorter 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.

Maggie 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.

It 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.

Maggie 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 comprehend.

She 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.

Her 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?"

Maggie 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."

Maggie 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.

Maggie 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.

The 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?"

The 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 was guarded.

A 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 walk."

"Is 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.

Maggie 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.

Sudden 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.

Her 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.

Maggie's 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 wild.

"Are we safe?" She asked the question softly, moving closer to her guides.

"Of 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."

The 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?

Maggie 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.

"Miss Odessa?" It was the tall blond. "Don't look so frightened. Nothing is going to happen to you."

She 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?"

He hesitated, glanced toward the left into the heavy foliage. "It's Donovan, Miss…er… Maggie, Drake Donovan."

"Have you been to the village often?"

"I have a home there," he admitted. "We all have homes there."
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. Almost seductive.

Maggie 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, primitive need.

From 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.

It 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.

The 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.

Maggie's 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.

Drake glanced back at Maggie, his gaze lingering for a hot, tension-filled moment on the sway of her breasts.

A 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 the bushes.

Maggie's gaze followed Donavon's to the thick vegetation. There was no mistaking the sound of a large jungle cat.

Drake tossed her the backpack. "Put on something, anything to cover yourself." His voice was clipped, almost hostile.

Her 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."

"That 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 be fine."

"Leopards 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.

"Absolutely. First choice every time, you might want to remember that," Drake said, his voice tinged with humor. "Are you decent?"

Maggie 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.

Drake didn't turn around to check "It's a bit farther, do you need to rest?"

She 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 remained acute.

"I'd 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 her.

"Let's 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.

The 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 had disappeared.




CHRISTINE FEEHAN, #1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLING AUTHOR

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