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~WILD FIRE: CHAPTER ONE~
Last Updated: April 18, 2012 00:52:39


Wild Fire by Christine Feehan

He heard the birds first.  Thousands of them.  All varieties, all singing a different song.  To an untrained ear the sound would have been deafening, but it was music to him.  Deep inside, his leopard leapt and roared, grateful to inhale the scent of the rainforest.  He stepped off the boat and onto the rickety pier, his eyes on the canopy rising like green towers in every direction.  His heart shifted.  It didn’t matter what country he was in—the rainforest was home.  Any rainforest, but here, in the wilds of Panama, he had been born.  As an adult he’d chosen to make his home in the Borneo rainforest, but his roots were here.  He hadn’t realized how much he’d missed Panama.
           
He turned his head, looking around, savoring the mingled scents, and noises of the jungle.  Each sound, from the cacophony of the birds to shrieks of the howler monkeys to the hum of the insects, contained a wealth of information if one knew how to read it.  He was a master. Conner Vega flexed his muscles, a small shrug only, but his body moved with life, every muscle, every cell reacting to the forest.  He wanted to tear his clothes from his body and run free and wild as his nature demanded.  He looked civilized in his jeans and simple tee-shirt, but there wasn’t a civilized bone in his body.
           
“It’s calling to you,” Rio Santana said glancing around at few people along the river.  “Hang on.  We have to get out of sight.  We’ve got an audience.”
           
Conner didn’t look at him or the others maneuvering small boats up the river.  His heart pounded so the blood thundered through his veins, ebbing and flowing like the sap in the trees, like the moving carpet of insects on the forest floor.  The shades of green—every shade in the universe—was beginning to band with color as his leopard filled him, reaching for the freedom of his homeland.
           
“Hang on,” Rio insisted between clenched teeth.  “Damn it, Conner, we’re in plain sight.  Control your cat.” 

The Panama-Colombia leopards were the most dangerous of all the tribes, the most unpredictable and Conner had always been a product of his genetics.  Of all the men on the team, he was the most lethal.  Fast, ferocious, deadly in a fight.  He could disappear into the forest and disrupt an enemy camp nightly until they were so distraught, haunted by a ghostly assassin no one saw, they abandoned their position.  He was invaluable, and yet, volatile, and very hard to control.

They needed his particular skills on this mission.  Being born in the Panama rainforest to the tribe of leopard people indigenous to the area would give them a distinct advantage should they come across the elusive—and very dangerous—shifters.  Conner also gave the team the advantage of knowing the local Indian tribes.  The rainforest, most of it unexplored, even for other shifters, could be difficult to navigate.  But with Conner growing up there and using it as his personal playground, they wouldn’t be slowed down when they needed to move fast.
           
Conner’s head turned in a slow freeze-frame movement indicative of a hunting leopard.  He was close to shifting—too close.  Heat poured off of him.  The scent of the wild animal, a male in his prime, strong and cunning, ripping and clawing to break free permeated the air.
           
“It’s been a year since I’ve been in a rainforest.”  Conner dropped his pack at Rio’s feet.  His voice was husky, almost a chuffing sound. 

“Much longer since I’ve been home.  Let me go.  I’ll catch up with you at the base camp.”
           
It was a small miracle and a testimony to Conner’s discipline that he waited for Rio’s nod of consent before he began to walk fast toward the line of trees near the river.  Six feet into the forest the sunlight became only a few dappled spots on the broad leafy plants.  The forest floor—layers of wood and vegetation—felt familiar and spongy beneath his feet. 

He unbuttoned his shirt, already wet with sweat.  The oppressive heat and heavy humidity took its toll on most people, but to Conner, it was energizing.  The natives wore a loincloth and little else for a reason.  Shirts and pants grew wet fast, chafing the skin, causing rashes and sores that could go septic fast out here.  He peeled off his shirt and bent to unlace his boots, rolling the shirt and pushing it inside a boot for Rio to retrieve.
           
He straightened, inhaling deeply, looking around at the vegetation surrounding him.  Trees rose up to the sky, towering high like great cathedrals, a canopy so thick the rain fought to pierce the various shaped leaves to hit the thick bushes and ferns below.  Orchids, and flowers vied with moss and fungus, covering every conceivable inch of the trunks as they climbed toward the open air and sunlight, trying to pierce the thick canopy.
           
His animal moved beneath his skin, itching as he slipped out of his jeans and thrust them deep in the other boot.  He needed to run free in his other form more than he needed just about anything.  It had been so long.  He took off sprinting through the trees, heedless of his bare feet, leaping over a rotten log as he reached for the change.  He had always been a fast shifter, a necessity living in the rainforest surrounded by predators.  He was neither fully leopard nor fully man, but a blend of both.  Muscles wrenched, a satisfying pain as his leopard leapt to the forefront, taking over his form as his body bent and the ropes of muscles shifted beneath his thick fur.

Where his feet had been, clawed paws padded easily over the spongy forest floor.  He went up and over a series of downed trees and through thick brush.  Ten more feet into the forest the sunlight disappeared altogether.  The jungle had swallowed him and he breathed a sigh of relief.  He belonged.  His blood surged hotly in his veins as he raised his face and let his whiskers act like the radar they were.  For the first time in months he was comfortable in his own skin.  He stretched and padded deeper into the familiar wilderness.
           
Conner preferred his leopard form to that of his man.  He bore too many sins on his soul to be entirely comfortable as a human.  The claw marks etched deep into his face attested to that, branding him for all time.

He didn’t like thinking too much—about those scars and how they happened or why he’d allowed Isabeau Chandler to inflict them upon him.  He’d tried running to the United States, putting as much distance as he could between him and his woman—his mate—but he hadn’t been able to shut out the look on Isabeau’s face when she found out the truth about him.  The memory haunted him day and night.
           
He was guilty of one of the worst crimes his kind could commit.  He had betrayed his own mate.  He hadn’t known she was his mate when he’d taken the job to seduce her and get close to her father, but that didn’t matter. 
           
The leopard lifted his face to the wind and pulled back his lips in a silent snarl.  His paws sank silently into the decaying vegetation on the forest floor.  He moved through the underbrush, his fur sliding silently along the leaves of numerous bushes.  Periodically he stood up and raked his claws down the trunk of a tree, marking his territory, reestablishing his claim, letting the other males know he was home and someone to contend with.  He’d taken this job to stay out of the Borneo rainforest where Isabeau lived.  He didn’t dare go there.  Because he knew if he stayed there, eventually, he’d forget all about being civilized and he’d let his leopard free to find her and she wanted nothing—nothing—to do with him.
           
A low growl rumbled in his throat as he tried to choke off the memories. He burned for her.  Night and day.  It didn’t matter that he’d put an ocean between them.  Distance would never matter, now that he knew she was alive and he’d recognized her.  He had all the traits of a leopard, the reflexes, the aggression and cunning, the ferocity and jealousy, but most of all the drive to find his mate and keep her.  The man in him might understand jungle law was no longer a way his people could live, but here in the rainforest, he couldn’t keep the primitive needs from rising sharp and strong.

He thought coming back to his home would help, but instead, the wildness was on him, gripping him by the teeth, slamming into his body with urgent need until he wanted to rake and claw, to tear open an enemy and roar to the heavens.  He wanted to track Isabeau down and claim her whether she wanted him or not.  Unfortunately, his mate was a shifter as well which meant she shared all the same ferocious traits including fierce abiding hatred. 

He looked up to the towering trees, the thick canopy shutting out the sunlight.  Flowers wound up the tree trunks, a riot of color, vying with moss and fungus, all reaching toward the light above.  Birds flitted from branch to branch, the canopy alive with constant motion, just as the spongy floor was with millions of insects.  Bee hives hung in great chunky masses, hidden by broad leaves and snakes wound around the twisted limbs, nearly impossible to see amidst the multitude of interlocking branches. 

He wanted to drink in the beauty of it all.  He wanted to forget what he’d done to his own mate.  She’d been so young and inexperienced, an easy target.  Her father, a doctor, had been the way into the enemy camp.  Get close to the daughter and you had the father.  It was easy enough.  Isabeau had fallen under his spell immediately, drawn to him not because of his animal magnetism, but because she had been his in a previous life cycle.  Neither had known.

Unfortunately, he’d fallen just as deeply under her spell.  He wasn’t supposed to seduce her or sleep with her.  He’d been obsessed with her, unable to keep his hands off of her.  He should have known.  She’d been so inexperienced.  So innocent.  And he’d used that to his advantage. 

He hadn’t considered anything beyond his own pleasure.  Like what would happen when the truth came out. That she didn’t even know his real name.  That she was a job and her father was the mark.  He groaned and the sound came out a soft rumble.

He had never crossed the line with an innocent woman.  Not once in his entire career until Isabeau—human or leopard.  She had not yet experienced the Han Vol Dan, a female leopard’s heat, nor had her leopard emerged.  It was the reason he hadn’t recognized her as a leopard or as his mate.  He should have.  The flashes of erotic images in his head every time she was close, the way he couldn’t think when he was with her: that alone should have tipped him off.  He was only in his second life cycle and he hadn’t recognized what was in front of him.  The need burning in him so strong, growing stronger each time he saw her.  He’d always been in control, but with her, a wild fire had swept through him, robbing him of common sense, and he’d made the ultimate mistake with a mark.

He’d needed.  He had burned.  He tasted her in his mouth.  Breathed her into his lungs.  He’d slept with her.  Deliberately seduced her.  Reveled in her until she was stamped into his very bones.  He’d given into his instincts and he’d done irreparable damage to their relationship.
Over head a howler monkey screamed a warning and threw a twig at him.  He didn’t deign to look up, merely leapt into the low branches and made his way up the tree.  The monkeys scattered, screaming in alarm.  Conner leapt from branch to branch, climbing his way up to the forest highway.  Branches overlapped from tree to tree, making it easy to navigate through the trees.  Birds took to the air in alarm.  Lizards and frogs scurried out of his way.  A few snakes lifted their heads, but most ignored him as he padded on clawed paws steadily into the interior.

As he made his way deeper into the forest, the sound of water was constant again.  He had moved away from the river, but was coming up on another tributary and a series of three falls.  The pools there were cool he remembered.  Often, when he was young, he’d swum in the pools and dozed on the flat boulders jutting out of the mountain.

The cabin where he was meeting Rio and the rest of the team was just ahead.  Built on stilts, it was positioned in the crook of three trees.   The cabin became part of the network of branches, easy for leopards to access.  In the shadow of the tallest tree he shifted back to his human form. 

To the left of the cabin a neatly pile of folded clothes had been left for him beside a small outdoor shower.  The water was cold, but refreshing and he took advantage of it, scrubbing the sweat from his body and stretching out his muscles after his forest run.  His leopard was nearly humming, happy to be home as he dressed in the clothes Rio had left for him.
           
Conner paused on the small porch in front of the house built into the tree.  He sniffed the air.  He recognized the scents of the four men were inside.  Rio Santano, the man running the team.  Elijah Lospostos, the newest member of the team.  Conner didn’t know him as well as the others, but he seemed extremely capable.  They’d only worked together a couple of times, but the man didn’t shirk and he was fast and quiet.  The other two men were Felipe and Leonardo Gomez Santos from the Brazilian rainforests, a pair of brothers who were brilliant at rescue work.  Neither ever flinched under the worst circumstances and Conner preferred working with them to anyone else.  Both were aggressive and yet had endless patience.  They got the job done.  Conner was pleased they were on board with this mission, whatever it was.  He had a feeling the mission was going to be difficult since Rio had specifically asked for him.

He pushed open the door and the four men looked up with quick smiles.  Serious eyes.  He caught that right away as well as the elevated tension in the room.  His stomach knotted.  Yeah—this was going to be a bad one.  So much for being happy about coming home.
           
He nodded to the others.  “Good to be back.”
           
“How’s Drake,” Felipe asked.
           
Drake was probably the most popular of all the leopards they worked with and often ran the team on rescue missions.  He was the most methodical and disciplined.  Leopard males were notoriously bad-tempered and so many in close proximity could cause outbreaks of anger that quickly escalated, but not with Drake around.  The man was a born diplomat and leader.  He’d been injured so severely during a rescue that he’d had plates in his legs, plates that prevented him from shifting.  Everyone knew what that meant.  Sooner or later, he would be unable to live with the loss of his other half. 
           
“Drake seems to be doing well.”  Drake had gone to the States putting distance between himself and the rainforest in an effort to alleviate the pain of not being able to shift.  He had taken a job with Jake Bannaconni, a leopard unknowning of their ways living in the United States.  Conner had followed Drake to the States and had worked for Bannaconni.  “We had some trouble and Drake was injured again, same leg, but Jake Bannaconni arranged for a bone graft to replace the plates.  We’re all hoping it works.”
           
“You mean Drake might be able to shift again,” Leonardo’s eyebrow shot up and some of the worry in his black eyes receded.
           
“That’s what we’re hoping for,” Conner replied.  He glanced at Rio.  “I wouldn’t have come back with Drake in the hospital but you said it was urgent.”
           
Rio nodded.  “I wouldn’t have asked but we really need you on this one.  None of us is familiar with this territory.”
           
“Have you informed the locals?”  Conner meant the elders of his own village.  They were reclusive and difficult to find, but the leopards could send word when they were passing through one another’s backyards.
           
Rio shook his head. “The client’s representative warned us that a couple of the leopards have gone rogue and now work for this woman.” Rio tossed a photograph on the rough table top.  “They call her mujer sin corazon.”
           
“Woman without a heart,” Conner translated.  “Imelda Cortez.  I know of her, anyone growing up in those parts know her family.  She’s also known as vibora, the viper.  You don’t want anything to do with her.  When they say she has no heart, they mean it.  She’s been murdering the local Indians for years, and stealing their land for her coco-growing.  Rumor has it, she’s been pressing deeper and deeper into the jungle, trying to open up more smuggling routes.”
           
“Rumor is right,” Rio said.  “What else do you know about her?”
           
Conner shrugged.  “Imelda is the daughter of the late Manuel Cortez.  She learned her cruelty and arrogance in the cradle and took over his connections after his death.  She pays top dollar to all the local militia and buys officials like they were candy.”
           
His eyes met Rio’s.  “Whatever the operation is, everyone will be against you.  Even some of my own people will have been bought off.  You won’t be able to trust anyone.  You certain you want to do this?”
           
“I don’t think we have a choice,” Rio replied.  His eyes met Conner’s.  “I understand she’s a man-eater and prefers very masculine, dominant males.”
           
The room went silent.  The tension stretched thin.  Conner’s golden cat’s eyes deepened to pure whiskey, gleaming with some faint threat.  A muscle ticked in his jaw.  “You do it, Rio.  I don’t do that kind of work anymore.”
           
“You know I can’t.  Rachel would kill me and quite frankly, I don’t have the same kind of dominant quality you have.  Women always go for you.”
           
“I have a mate.  She may hate my guts, but I will not betray her anymore than I already have.  No.”  He half turned, ready to leave.
           
“Your father sent much of the information to us,” Rio said, his voice quiet.
           
Conner had his back to the man.  He stopped, closing his eyes briefly before turning back.  His entire demeanor changed.  The leopard blazed in his eyes.  There was a threat in the movements of his body, in the fluid, dangerous glide toward Rio.  The threat was sufficient enough to get the other three men on their feet.  Conner ignored them, stopping just in front of Rio, his golden eyes focused completely on prey.  “My father observed the old ways.  He would not ask outsiders for help.  Ever.  And he has not spoken to me since he disowned me many years ago.”
           
Rio pulled a tanned leather skin from his backpack.  “I was told you wouldn’t believe me and was asked to give you this.  They said you would know what it meant.”
           
Conner’s fingers closed over the thick fur, tunneling deep.  His breath caught in his lungs.  His throat burned raw.  He turned away from the others and stood at the door, breathing in the night air.  Twice he opened his mouth but nothing came out.  He forced air through his lungs.  “What’s the job?”
           
“I’m sorry,” Rio said.
           
All of them knew what a leopard pelt meant and the way Conner held it to him, there was no doubt he knew and loved the owner.
           
“Conner…man…” Felipe started and then broke off.
           
“What’s the job?” Conner repeated without looking at any of them.  He couldn’t.  His eyes burned like acid.  He stood with his back to the others, holding his mother’s pelt against his heart, trying not to let anything into his mind but the job.
           
“Imelda Cortez has decided to run her smuggling routes through the rainforest.  She can’t use her men because they aren’t accustomed to the environment.  The roads turn to mud, they get lost, the mosquitoes eat them alive, and even small cuts turn septic.  She’s lost her a number of her men to injury and disease, and local predators.  Once they’re deep in the forest, they’re easy to pick off with poison darts.”
           
“She needs the cooperation of the Indian tribes she’s been annihilating, but they aren’t too fond of her,” Conner guessed.
           
“That’s right,” Rio said.  “She needed leverage to get them to work for her.  She’s started taking their children and holding them hostage.  The parents don’t want to get their children back in pieces so they’ve been running her drugs through the new routes where it’s unlikely government agents can track or intercept them.  With the children hostage, she has the added bonus of not having to pay her couriers.”  Rio pulled a sealed envelope out of the backpack.  “This came for you as well.”
           
Conner turned then, avoiding Rio’s all too knowing eyes.  He held out his hand and Rio put the envelope in his palm.
           
“I’ll need to know if your father believes our leopard species have been compromised,” Rio said.  “Have the two rogues working for her revealed what they are to her, or are they just taking her money?”
           
Conner looked at him then.  The irises had nearly disappeared in his eyes.  Flames smoldered in the depths.  It would be the height of betrayal for a leopard ever to reveal to an outsider what he was.  He ripped the envelope and pulled out a single sheet of paper.  He stared out it for a long moment, reading his father’s missive.  The night insects sounded overly loud in the small room.   A muscle ticked in his jaw.  The silence stretched. 
           
“Conner,” Rio prompted.
           
“You may want to change your mind about the mission,” Conner said and carefully, with reverent hands, folded and returned the pelt to the backpack.  “It isn’t just a hostage rescue.  It’s a hit as well.  One of the two rogue leopards working for Imelda murdered my mother.  Imelda knows about the leopard people.”
           
Rio swore and crossed to the stove to pour a cup of coffee.  “We’ve been compromised.”
           
“Two of our own betrayed us to Imelda.”  Conner looked up, rubbed at his eyes and sighed.  “I have no choice if we want to make certain our secrets remain just that, to the rest of the world.  It seems Imelda would like an army of leopards.  The elders have moved the location of the village deeper into the rainforest in an effort to prevent her reaching out to others who might want her money.  The only ones who can get to them are the two rogue leopards already working with her, and they would be killed instantly if they dared come near the village.”  He smiled and there was no humor in that flash of white sharp white teeth.  “They would never be that stupid.”
           
“How did your mother die?” Felipe asked, his voice very quiet.
           
There was another long silence before Conner answered.  Outside a howler monkey shrieked and several birds called back.  “According to my father’s letter, one of the rogues, Martin Suma, killed her when she tried to prevent the taking of the children.  She was with Adan Carpio, one of the ten elders of the Embera tribe, and his wife, when Cortez’s men attacked and took the children hostage.  Suma led Cortez’s men and he murdered my mother first, knowing she was the biggest threat to them.”  Conner kept his tone without expression.  “Suma has never seen me if you’re worried.  I’ve been in Borneo long enough to appear as one from that area.  Felipe and Leonardo are from Brazil, Elijah could be anyone, few people have ever seen his face, and you’re from Borneo.  They will not suspect me.  I’ll get into the compound, locate the children and once we move them to safety, I’ll eliminate the three of them.  It’s my job, not yours.”
           
“We go in together,” Rio said.  “As a team.”
           
“You took this assignment in good faith that it was a rescue and it is.  The rest of it, leave to me.”  He turned his head and looked directly at the team leader.  “It’s not like I have a lot waiting for me, Rio, and you’ve got Rachel.  You need to come back to her in one piece.”
           
“This is no suicide mission, Conner.  If you’re thinking along those lines, then we end your participation right here,” Rio said.  “We all go in, we do the job, and we allget out.”
           
“Your elders do not allow retaliation when one of us is killed in our leopard form,” Conner said, bringing up a painful subject.  Rio had been banished from his tribe after tracking down his mother’s killer.
           
“It isn’t the same thing,” Rio said.  “Suma murdered your mother.  A hunter killed mine.  I knew the penalty and I still tracked him down.  This is justice.  He not only murdered a woman of our people, but he betrayed all of us.  He could get us exterminated.  We go in together.  Before anything, the children have to be secured first.”
           
“We’ll need supplies dropped along a prearranged route to move fast.  The team can take the children into the interior until they neutralize Imelda, but not without supplies to feed and care for them until they reach safety,” Conner said.  “I’ll go in, mark the areas from above and you make the drops.  We’ll also want to run a couple of escape lines.  We’ll need to map them out and cache clothes, weapons and food along the routes.”
           
“We’ll have to do it fast.  We’ve got an opportunity for contact in six days.  The chief of tourism is giving a party and Imelda will be there.  We’ve arranged for a Brazilian businessman, Marco Suza Santos, to be invited.  We’re his security detail.  It’s our only chance for an invitation to her place, otherwise we’re going to have to break in.  Not knowing exactly where the children are makes that very risky.”
           
“I take it he’s a relation to you two,” Conner said, glancing at the two Brazilians.
           
“Uncle,” they said together.
           
Conner squared his shoulders and returned to the table.  “Do we have any idea of the layout of Imelda’s compound?”
           
“Adan Carpio  is the man who initiated the original contact with our team,” Rio said.  “He has provided sketches of the exterior, security, that sort of thing, but nothing inside the compound.  He’s trying to get information from some of the Indians who have been servants there, but apparently few ever leave her service alive.”
           
“I know him well, a good man,” Conner said.  “There are few like him in the rainforest.  He speaks Spanish as well as his own language and is easy to communicate with.  If he says something, it’s true.  Take him at his word.  Adan is considered a very serious man in the rainforest hierarchy, very respected by all the tribes including my own.”
           
From a leopard, that was high praise and Rio knew it.  “His grandsons are two of the children taken.  Five hostages were taken, three from the Embera tribe and two others from the Waounan tribe, all sons, daughters or grandchildren of the elders.  Imelda threatened to chop the children into pieces and send them back that way if anyone tries to rescue them, or if the tribes refuse to work for her.”
           
Conner’s breath hitched in his lungs.  “She means it.  We’ll have one shot to get in and get out clean.  Adan knows the rainforest like the back of his hand.  He’s trained Special Forces from several countries in survival.  He’ll stand and be an asset, believe me.  You can trust him.”  He scrubbed his hand over his face.  “The two rogue leopards who betrayed our people—is Adan certain they’re on her payroll or acting independently?”
           
Rio nodded.  “Most of the information on them came from your father…”
           
“Raul or Fernandez.  I haven’t called him father in years,” Conner interrupted.  “I use Vega, my mother’s name.  He may have sent for me, but we aren’t close, Rio.”
           
Rio frowned.  “Can he be trusted?  Would he set us up?  Set you up?”
           
“Because we despise each other?” Conner asked.  “No.  He’s loyal to our people.  I can guarantee his information.  I can also tell you with certainty that he is not our client.  He would never even think to pay for a rescue of these children.  He’s taking advantage of whoever our client is and adding the hit to our work.  And he won’t be working with us or giving us aid.”

There was another long silence.  Rio sighed.  “The names on that list?”
           
“Imelda Cortez is number one.  No one can trust her with the information she has and even if we rescue the children, she’ll be back for more.  The other two names are the two rogue leopards working for her who betrayed our people.”
           
“Those two will recognize us as leopards,” Rio pointed out.  “And they’ll know you’re from this region.”
           
Conner shrugged.  “They’ll recognize your businessman as leopard as well.  Santos is bound to have leopard for security.  He’d be insane not to.  As for me, there are three leopard tribes residing in the Colombia-Panama rainforest, but we don’t mix that much.  The traitors would probably recognize my father’s name as he’s an elder in the village, but I use my mother’s name.  Plus, few people know of me, I lived with my mother apart from our village.”
           
There was a collective gasp.  Mates stayed together—always.  Conner shot them a hard look.  “I grew up despising my old man.  I guess I turned out just like him.”
           
Conner felt the knots in his belly tighten.  They were giving him no choice.  He crossed to the window and stared out into the darkness.  The noose had slipped over his neck and was slowly tightening, strangling him.  If they wanted to get to the compound to rescue the children, he had to charm the socks off Imelda Cortez and get Marco Suza Santos and his security detail invited to her fortress of a home. 
Maybe he’d entertained some romantic notion that he’d go back to Borneo and find Isabeau Chandler, his mate, and she’d forgive him and they would live happily ever after.  There were no happily-ever-afters for men like him.  He knew that.  He just couldn’t accept that he had to let her go. 
           
It was dead calm beneath the canopy, but in the utter darkness, he could still make out the shapes of the leaves, feel the heat seeping into his pores, squeezing his heart like a vise.  He was going to seduce another woman.  Look at her.  Touch her.  Draw her to him.  Betray Isabeau one more time.  It was another sin among so many.

“Can you do it?” Rio asked, evidently following his train of thought.
           
Conner turned his head, a slow animal-like motion.  His eyes held distance.  Self-loathing.  “I was born for the job.”  He couldn’t quite cover the bitterness in his voice.
           
Rio inhaled sharply.  He couldn’t imagine betraying Rachel.  “One of the others can try it.  You can teach them.”
           
Felipe and Leonardo looked at one another.  How did one learn charisma?  Conner had an animal quality about him that they all shared, but his was predominant, inherent, something he was born with and wore on the outside as well as the inside.  He walked into a room and everyone was instantly aware of him.  They didn’t try to hide Conner, rather used his presence to their advantage.  He could look bored, amused, and indifferent all that the same time.
           
For the first time Elijah stirred, drawing attention to himself.  He had a past in the drug industry and knew most of those involved by reputation.  He was also a very dangerous, charismatic man.  “I might be able to help with this matter.  I have a past.  This woman, Imelda Cortez, she will recognize my name if I use it.  Just my presence alone will cast a taint on Santos.”  He cast a quick glance at Felipe and Leonardo.  “I’m sorry, but you know it is the truth.  She will have all of us checked out and my name is known to every law enforcement agency around the world.  She might be interested enough to invite us because I’m there as well.  I can try seduction.”
           
Rio studied him.  Elijah was his brother-in-law.  He had inherited the drug throne his father and uncle had created.  When his father had tried to go legitimate, his uncle had killed him and taken Elijah and Rachel in, raising them under his rule.  Life and death was all Elijah had ever known.  He wasn’t ready yet for such a key position on a mission.  There was no doubt his looks and magnetism would draw Imelda to him, but he didn’t have the charm yet that Conner possessed.  The four scars from a leopard’s claw on the side of Conner’s face only added to his mystique.
           
Rio let himself look at Conner.  He’d been the one to who’d selected Conner to seduce Isabeau Chandler.  And in the end, Rio had been the one to kill her father.  Conner had tried to save him, but Chandler had pulled a gun and tried to protect the leader of a terrorist camp.  He’d given Rio no choice.   Conner was in the line of fire, trying to talk the man down, but the doctor refused to take the out offered to him.  Rio had pulled the trigger and saved Conner’s life, but there’d been no way to save his soul.
Isabeau had been so shocked.  Rio would never forget the look on her face when she realized Conner had used her to gain entrance to the camp.  He cringed every time he thought of it and now he was asking Conner to do the same thing again to another woman.  Imelda was no innocent like Isabeau, but it was still a lousy job anyway he looked at it.
           
Conner shrugged.  “I appreciate the offer Elijah, but there’s no use in both of us losing out.  You still have a chance.  I lost mine a long time ago.  You can’t go to your mate with dirt all over you.  It just doesn’t work out.”
           
“I’m pretty covered in it already,” Elijah pointed out.  “I’ve done things I’m not proud of—things no woman will forgive or overlook.”
           
“All of us have,” Conner said, “but that’s not what I’m trying to tell you.  This is a different situation, and Imelda Cortez is the scum of the earth, but you seduce her and sleep with her, when you do find your mate, you won’t be able to look her in the eye.”
           
Rio opened his mouth, but there was nothing to say.  He could never have gone back to face Rachel with that kind of sin coating his soul black, yet he was asking Conner to once again bear that responsibility.  What he was asking was wrong, but there was no way into the Cortez fortress without an invitation. 
           
“You’ve been there once,” Elijah pointed out.  “It isn’t fair to have you put in that position again.”
           
“I know who my mate is,” Conner said.  “Isabeau Chandler belongs to me.  I won’t have a second chance with her, not after what I did.  I would never take another woman and ruin her chances at her own happiness.  I know all too well how that turns out,” his voice had gone bitter and he made an effort to change his tone, shrugging casually.  “I have nothing to lose, Elijah, and you have everything to lose.  I’ll do this one last time and then if you still want the job and it needs doing, you can make up your mind then.”
           
“If you’re sure.”
           
“It’s my mess.  The man my father accuses of killing my mother is working for Imelda Cortez.  His name along with his partner is on that hit list.  I’m going after both of them.  Imelda wouldn’t tell anyone about the leopard people.  She’d use the information to her advantage, so right now we’ve got the opportunity to contain this.”
           
Rio nodded.  “She’ll be looking for more leopard recruits.”
           
“She won’t find them in our village,” Conner assured. “Raul moved the village deeper into the forest and the two rogues, Martin Suma and Ottila Zorba, are the other two other names on the hit list.  I recognize the name Suma from my village, but don’t remember him.  He didn’t live with us.  His parents took him out of the rainforest.  He must have returned after I left.  Even though Suma killed my mother, he wouldn’t have a way of putting us together.  Zorba isn’t one of ours.”
           
“Eventually,” Rio said, “Imelda will send them to the leopard village to recruit for her.  She’s got money.  Most of those living within the forest don’t give a damn, but some of the younger ones will want the adventure.”
           
“If I don’t get them first, the elders will have them quietly killed before they ever have the chance to speak to the young ones.”  Conner looked around at the team.  “If you’re all certain it’s a go, then let’s get it done.  Do we know what the children look like?  How many females?  How many males?  And be prepared.  Imelda likes to use children to guard her compound.  She often takes young ones, and puts a gun in their hand as her first line of defense.  She knows it’s difficult to for government officials to kill the children.”
             
“You think she’ll have children guarding the hostages?”  Felipe asked.
           
“I’m just saying we’ll run into them and we have to be prepared, that’s all.”
           
Rio handed Conner a bottle of water and tapped the table top with his finger, a slight frown on his face.  “Elijah, is it known that most of your operations are now legitimate?”
           
Elijah shook his head.  “No.  When my uncle was killed it was assumed I had him killed to take over the entire operation for myself.  I’ve been slowly selling off everything I can that was tainted.  I did get out of the drug and gun business.  We were never into human trafficking.  There are rumors, but I’m considered ruthless.”
           
“Then rather than change your name and pass you off as security, let’s use your reputation.  You’ll have to be there as a friend of Santos,” Rio said.  “That will only make her more inclined to think Santos is a big fish.”
           
“That leaves three of us for security detail,” Conner said.  “Will a man like Santos have more?”
           
“As a rule he has a four man team and two dogs,” Felipe said.  “I didn’t want to put any of his regular team in danger.  We wouldn’t be able to let them in on what was going on.”
           
“And your Uncle has agreed to this?” Conner asked.  “Does he have any idea who he’s dealing with?”
           
Felipe nodded.  “He knows.  And he knows she’s a threat to our people.”
           
“So who exactly is our client, Rio?” Conner asked.  “You say Adan Carpio initiated contact.  His tribe wouldn’t know of us.  My father wouldn’t ask for our help.  So who knew about us and how?  I’d like to have all the cards on the table before we go any further.”




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