His environment was warm and cozy. He wasn’t alone. He could hear the other inside him, whispering, soft little growls and encouragement. The need for freedom, the promise of a life that had been lived one cycle already and had been incredible. And then the squeezing came, hard shoves, the walls of his cocoon closing around him, twisting in waves to push him out, expel him from the warmth of his home into cold air and bright lights. At once scents assailed him. He couldn’t sort out all the different smells, but the other could. Blood. People. Hospital. The other remembered the smells even when he didn’t.
He felt hands on him, shaking him, poking, a sharp prick, he pried open his eyes and looked around this new environment.
“My God, Ryan, he looks like a skinned rat. He’s so ugly. He’s skinny and useless to us.” The voice was resentful, filled with loathing.
He understood the words, or maybe the other did, but he knew the woman was talking about him. He looked like a rat. And rat wasn’t good, not if that voice meant anything.
“Ssh, Cathy,” another voice cautioned. “Someone will hear.”
“We can’t take it home with us.”
“We can’t leave it here,” the deeper voice said.
“On the way home, I’m finding a dumpster,” the higher pitched voice hissed. “I’m not getting stuck with that ugly thing.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Cathy,” Ryan said, “We can’t take a chance we’ll be caught. We’ll take him home and hire someone to look after him. You’ll never have to see him.”
“This is your fault. Daddy warned me not to marry you. He said your genes weren’t strong enough to produce one of the special ones. I didn’t want to get pregnant and have that thing growing in my body, but you insisted I had to carry it. Now you deal with it.”
“Fine. I’m naming him Jake after your grandfather.” There was malice in Ryan’s voice. “Your father never did think I was good enough for him, and he won’t like having my whelp named after his father instead of him.”
“Name it any damn thing you want, just keep it away from me.”
The hatred and loathing in the cold voice, gave the infant—newly named Jake Bannaconni—the chills, but he refused to cry.
The sharp pointed shoe caught Jake in the stomach and doubled him over. He should have been faster. He had the reflexes. The other warned him, but he had wanted to be held, had gone looking for her. She was his mother after all. The mothers on the television and out in the play yard held their sons, but she kicked him hard, her voice screaming for Agnes.
“Get this horrid brat out of my sight. Ugly little rat.” Cathy yanked him up by one arm, held him dangling in the air and beat him with her stiletto heel, smashing the shoe into him over and over, his face, his belly, his groin, his thighs, anywhere she could land a blow with his squirming body. Rage and hatred fused together on her cold face.
Deep inside him, he felt something wild unfurl, and his fingers curled under, as did his toes. The other hissed to him, cautioned him. Take it. Let her hit you. Hide what you are. She wants what you are. Hide. Hide. He breathed away the fire building in his belly and the itch running under his skin.
Mommies weren’t like this on television or the movies. There was no cuddling. There were no hugs and kisses. Slaps and kicks was all he would get from his mother. He watched her on television sometimes, the parties and fundraisers. She looked so different, smiling for the cameras, clinging to Ryan’s arm, stroking his face as if she loved him so much, but behind closed doors, there was cruelty and hatred and deceit from both of them. Over time, they taught him to separate reality from fantasy.
“We absolutely can’t keep a governess or whatever you call that woman, who beats the crap out of our kid. She put out cigarettes on him,” Ryan complained. “There are burn marks on his hands. Sooner or later one of the tutors will see and report it.”
Jake stayed quiet, very still. He’d perfected the art of sliding silently into a room without their knowledge and listening to the conversation. Most of what they said was still over his head, discussions about business and taking over companies- but he understood the basic truth that lay at the foundation of every meeting. Money was important. Power was important. They had it and he needed it. Agnes wasn’t putting cigarettes out on him. Cathy was. Her lovers did sometimes, just to please her. She could make them do anything she wanted no matter how cruel or humiliating. He knew them by sight, by scent and someday he would ruin them. Money. Power. That was what they had and he needed.
“Nobody cares, Ryan,” Cathy said, annoyed with the conversation.
“Someone is going to see those burns and a reporter will get hold of it. We’ll be front page news.” Ryan swung around, pointing a finger at her, his voice hardening.
“I let you do what you want within reason, Cathy, but you aren’t going to ruin us with your senseless little games.”
Cathy stabbed her cigarette into the tray. “Really?” Both eyebrows shot up. A crafty expression crossed her face and Jake’s stomach tightened. “We might get some great publicity, Ryan, if we can work it right. Our little boy beaten and abused by a trusted member of our household. Tears in front of the camera, me leaning on you, we photograph so well together. A close-up of our child in the hospital looking frail. We could run with that a long time. I could host a charity event for battered children. It would open more possibilities, and get us some great press.”
“Agnes will be prosecuted and put in jail. She knows quite a bit about us.”
“Don’t be stupid. If we do this, Agnes has to disappear.”
“Cathy, you can’t be serious.”
Cathy rolled her eyes. “You’re such a sniveling coward, Ryan. Do you think I’m going to let her talk to the police? Or the press? Hardly.”
Ryan turned his head slowly, something feral and predatory in his eyes. Cathy stiffened and lowered her eyes. “We have a very good arrangement, my dear, but perhaps you need another lesson in respecting your husband.”
Jake felt his heart hammering loudly. He had never considered his father dangerous, but that look, that small movement, just a flexing of muscles showed that beneath the seeming apathy, Ryan was every bit as cruel or even more so than Cathy. He’d given himself away.
Cathy pushed a hand through her hair. “No, no of course not, honey. I’m sorry.”
She was genuinely afraid. Jake, hidden as he was, could scent her fear permeating the room.
The tension drained from Ryan and he forced a smile, but his eyes were flat and cold. “How are you going to keep the kid from talking?”
Cathy visibly relaxed, and, even in the shadows, Jake felt the impact of evil. “He won’t talk. I can guarantee that. I have to plan this very carefully. We need a few warning signs, some things we can have on record we discussed with the doctors, expressed our concerns, but no one can substantiate.” She rubbed her hands together. “This is good, Ryan. Maybe that skinny little rat will be worth something to us after all.”
Instinctively Jake knew he was in for trouble. He had already made up his mind to survive, to beat them at their own game. He could be stronger. He’d seen how to do it. He had to be smarter and faster and more ruthless than any of them. He couldn’t stop them yet, but he could endure and that too, would strengthen him.
He opened his hand and looked at the burns there. He had let her and her friend put out their cigarettes on him. He had been fast enough to get away, but he hadn’t been stupid about it and he needed to remember this one moment, to mark the occasion so he would know he could be smarter, use his brains to defeat them. Down in his room, when he was certain he was alone, he took out a knife and slowly drew it over his thigh, making the first of many marks to prove to himself, to remind himself that he had deliberately taken their punishment, that he allowed it.
Jake watched helplessly as Cathy and Ryan killed Agnes. They took tremendous pleasure in it. And they hurt her for a long time before they killed her. He was tied up and forced to watch as they systematically beat to death the woman who had raised him. Agnes had been cruel at times and apathetic at others, but at least she’d taken care of him. He knew what was coming next, because Cathy had told him what would happen to him. She’d smiled as she told him.
Jake spent the next two weeks in the hospital when they were through beating him and he never once denied the allegations brought against his former nanny. She’d disappeared after viciously beating their son, Cathy and Ryan claimed.
The police tried to question him, but he was broken, his bones and, even for a time, his spirit. He could only lie in bed helpless, pain shaking him, cruelty destroying him, remaining absolutely silent, knowing they would kill him if he said anything. He wasn’t strong enough yet. He had to push harder. He had to dig deeper. He had so much to learn and he had lots of time, lying in bed while his ribs and arms healed, to formulate a plan.
The reporters came and went. The doctors and nurses felt sorry for Cathy as she quietly and beautifully wept for the cameras and her audience, clinging to her handsome, adoring husband. She played out her role, lavishing attention on the unresponsive boy, her money and her celebrity affording her prime time coverage. She sought out every possible advantage, leading charities and organizations as long as she could headline and get the television time. Everyone believed her, not because of the evidence of Jake’s body, but because of the money and her acting skills. Jake had to admit she was mesmerizing. She could get almost anyone to do what she wanted. He needed those skills now that he knew what he was dealing with.
Cathy was nervous and upset. Jake Fenton, her grandfather was coming for another visit. He always insisted on talking alone with Jake, and Cathy didn’t like it. She despised her grandfather and even talked about trying to have him killed, but she was afraid of him. Young Jake didn’t understand why she was afraid. Fenton lived several states away in Texas, but she always dressed Jake just so and acted completely different, as if she cared about him in front of his grandfather.
She hissed instructions to young Jake, reminding him to mind his manners, to keep his mouth shut, not to answer any questions about Cathy or Ryan or their personal lives. She threatened him with dark punishments if he dared disobey her. Jake found the entire matter of his Grandfather quite interesting. What did the old man have that frightened Cathy? What did she want from him that made her try to look so respectable and sweet?
Fenton never bought her lies. He smiled and made nice with Cathy and Ryan, but Jake could smell the pretense flowing from one to the other and he could see the contempt in the old man’s piercing gaze. Fenton always insisted he talk alone with young Jake and Jake enjoyed the long conversations, but the aftermath was always hell. Cathy and Ryan used a whip on him to beat him into submission and attempt- to force every word of the conversation between the old man and their son out of him. Jake became very adept at making up stories and telling them straight-faced, looking the two of them right in the eye. And then he would go to his room and mark his victory permanently into his skin, the pain clearing the rage and anger from his belly, replacing it with cold resolve.
Books. The huge library in his home others rarely entered was a treasure beyond measure. Jake spent most of his time in the library reading in the quiet haven of the room his parents never entered. He read every book on the shelves, regardless of subject, his photographic memory soaking up the knowledge and details and filing them away for future reference.
He learned to stay silent and in the background. He’d slip away from Bridget, the latest nanny, and pad silently through the house, finding each occupant’s location, sneak up on them until he was close enough to touch them, but never let them know he was near.
He discovered insider information on stocks. Ryan was extremely intelligent and adept at knowing other people’s weaknesses. Jake learned a lot by watching him, the small smile that others took at face value, but Jake came to know signaled Ryan was about to strike and strike hard. Descended from a powerful family with tremendous banking connections, Ryan’s expertise in handling the diversity of companies they owned and his political connections were both extremely valuable.
Jake’s conversations with Grandfather Fenton about stocks and bonds and the financial books he’d read in the library helped him to understand and assimilate the information he gathered when spying on his father.
Today, as Jake crept though the house, he found Cathy with her personal trainer in the exercise room. They rarely used the equipment so much as they used one another. He learned a lot in that room and then further explored the subject with the books he found in the library and the information on the computer. Sex was simply another weapon to be used, like money to gain power. He resolved to learn everything he could about sex so he could be really good at it. There was no point in having a weapon at his disposal, unless he could wield it effectively.
Jake began to work out, to use the powerful muscles running beneath the skin in his thin arms and legs. He used every machine, studying the exercise manuals and DVDs carefully and following the instructions, careful never to get caught. Each day, every day, Jake prowled his family’s home, observing, listening reading…learning more and more. Everything he filed away, all for one purpose.
One day, when the time was right, he was going to beat his parent’s at their own game. He would take over every single one of their companies, ruin them financially, expose them to the world for what they were. He would make absolutely certain they knew that the child they had beaten so often, thinking him a victim, was really the strong one, really the predator.
Jake stood very still as Josiah Trent, his parent’s best friend and sometime partner, walked around him, sniffing the air. Deep inside, the other reacted, roaring with rage, raking at Jake, closer to the surface than he’d ever been, demanding to be set free. His skin itched. His muscles ached. His jaw and the inside of his mouth felt small, as if there was no room for his teeth, but he held on grimly, pushing at the other to stay still.
His mind was strong and disciplined now and instinctively he knew he was in more danger than he’d ever been before. Trent was looking for the other. Those sharp eyes and that bulbous nose wanted to find the beast living inside of Jake. Cathy’s breathing was ragged and eager and her body seemed aroused as Trent walked in circles around Jake.
Jake had made one too many mistakes, moving too fast, jumping too high, showing his emerging skills rather than hiding behind the façade of the weak, useless book worm his mother always called him. He had known he couldn’t ever let them become suspicious, but now he had slipped up and they’d brought in Trent, hoping that Jake was, after all, what they had bred him to be. He would rather die than let them know the truth. That would be allowing them to win.
He clenched his aching teeth and endured the poking and prodding from Trent. The man was a giant, with powerful muscles and glaring eyes. He looked at everyone as if they were beneath him, especially Jake. He made a sound of disgust.
“Useless,” he pronounced. “He’s useless, Cathy. I told you not to bother having a child with that gutless wonder you married.”
“He has money, connections and the right bloodline,” she hissed. “And you didn’t do any better. I don’t see that your daughter has any special talents.”
“Better than this disgusting little runt,” Trent snapped and shoved at Jake. “At least she can produce a whelp eventually. I’ll find her the right man.”
Jake allowed himself to stumble, savage triumph nearly shaking him. Josiah Trent had dismissed him, never once suspecting the other who raged so close to the surface. Trent wasn’t nearly as powerful as Cathy and Ryan believed him to be. His was the other family with the ‘superior’ bloodline, yet he could no more sniff out the truth than Cathy and Ryan could with him living right under their roof. It was a huge lesson. Trent was all bluff, his demeanor and act of superiority fooling even the two people Jake viewed as powerful.
“We need a shifter,” Trent said. “A true shifter with the nose and the cunning for business, not some scrawny little wimp that everyone will walk on.”
A shifter. At last Jake knew what they were after. He had to find the meaning, and if a shifter was that important to them, he had to make certain they never suspected that he was one—if he was. He would spend every hour in the library hunting down the meaning until he knew exactly what he was looking for. He would learn about his other and what he could do, why he was so important to them.
Cathy ran her hand suggestively down Trent’s arm. “Maybe we should have tried together.” Her voice purred and invited.
Trent looked her up and down, scorn in his eyes, contempt curling his lips. “Not if this is the kind of whelp you produce.” Abruptly he spun away and stalked from the room.
Cathy turned on Jake, furious that he’d witnessed her humiliation, furious all over again that he wasn’t the child she had set out to create. She swung her open hand at his face. Reflexes had him jumping out of the way. Instantly her face darkened. Cathy was furious and Jake could smell her hatred. The fetid scent permeated her entire body right along with her cloying perfume. He had moved away too fast to allow her to slap his face, his reflexes taking over before he could stop them. Most of the time he stood stoically under her assault, but sometimes, he gave himself away without thinking.
Now he knew he had enraged her when he’d dodged her too quickly. Deep inside, the other stretched and unsheathed claws, fighting for supremacy even when they both knew, he had to stay hidden. The other was the special prize Cathy had wanted all along. Jake was certain if she ever found out what was inside of him, he’d be locked away with no chance of escaping ever. He pushed the beast down, willing to take Cathy’s fury, her punishment, to look weak and frightened in order to carry out his plan. He wasn’t that far away from success. A few more years, a lot more knowledge and he’d break free.
“What did he say, Cathy?” Ryan stepped quietly into the room and Jake’s heart began to pound. There was a look on his face, that small secret smile that terrified Jake now.
“This runt dared to be disrespectful to me,” Cathy snarled. “He’s useless to us in every way, Ryan.”
Jake found himself dragged down to his bedroom in the basement and tied to a pole where first Ryan caned him and then in her fury, Cathy took over beating him with the thick cane. The other snarled and fought him for supremacy until Jake was choking on the rumbles backing up in his throat. His skin itched worse than the blinding pain across his back and legs.
“Enough,” Ryan eventually decreed. “You’re going to kill him and we don’t have Agnes to blame this time.”
With one last vicious cut, Cathy threw the cane and swept out ahead of her husband, leaving Jake sagging, gasping for breath, unable to control the rising beast. Sliding his bound hands down the pole, he managed to drag the knife from inside his boot, cut the bonds around his wrist and then slashed a deep cut across his thigh. He had allowed them to beat him. It was his choice, not theirs. He was bigger, stronger, smarter, he just chose not to show them. Sobbing, he buried his face in the mattress, trying desperately to breathe through the pain.
His muscles contorted. The itch increased as something live moved under his skin. His fingers ached, his knuckles throbbed. He looked at his hands where knots formed, thick and aching along the backs of his hands. The pads of his fingers hurt. His body bent forward and he went to the floor. He found himself on all fours, head down, jaw painful. His muscles contracted and locked, and once again his body contorted. His face felt funny, jaw elongating, teeth bursting through his gums.
Another sob escaped his throat, but it came out a rumbling growl. Tawny fur burst through the pores of his skin, darker rosettes sprang along his back and legs. Roped muscles rippled beneath the pelt while his skull widened and thickened. Wildness rose in him and he recognized and embraced the gift, no longer afraid of it. He accepted his other half, opening himself so the other could consume him.
He thought he would disappear, but he found he was not wholly human, not wholly leopard, but a separate entity altogether with the characteristics of both and the ability to use his brain and the leopard’s senses. A steel framework of muscles ran through his body and he stretched. His bones ached and cracked in his spine, and then became supple. His body was sore from the beating, from the change, but the strength pouring into him was worth every second of pain.
The leopard lifted his head and scented the air. He could hear the whisper of voices, smelled blood and evil, and he knew in that moment that he was ten times more dangerous than the two upstairs were—that he was capable of killing and that they had created a monster, never realizing what they were unleashing with their hatred and cruelty.
Jake shifted back, falling naked to the floor, his back screaming in pain, hot tears flowing down his face, sobbing for the little boy he should have been and never would be. Afraid for what he had become and what he might do. He reached up and gripped the mattress, pulling his fingers across it, leaving long thin tears from razor sharp claws.
“It’s good to see you, Jake,” Jake Fenton said and held out his hand.
The smile was genuine. His great-grandfather really was happy to see him. Lies had a distinctive scent Jake had come to recognize. Jake Fenton lied when he smiled at Cathy or Ryan, but he always sought out young Jake and sat down to converse with him. Jake genuinely liked him and in a way it was frightening. The old man was the only person kind to him, or that ever seemed to care. And Jake scented death on him. He didn’t want to care about Fenton, he didn’t trust caring. He didn’t trust anyone, but he couldn’t help himself. He liked the old man. He enjoyed their brief times together even though it always meant a severe beating after he left.
Fenton frowned and turned Jake’s hand over, examining his arms before Jake could pull away. “What the hell happened to you? How did you get all these scars, just since the last time I visited? And don’t say you’re clumsy, Jake. You aren’t clumsy.” The old man’s eyes were shrewd.
Jake glanced around to make certain they were alone. He shouldn’t have worried. He would have been able to catch the scent of his enemies had they been close. Cathy despised the old man and Ryan never went near him. There was secret pleasure in knowing his great-grandfather only came to visit him. Fenton lived in Texas and didn’t really care for Chicago, but every now and then he’d take a trip to see Jake.
It was Fenton who insisted on the best tutors and it was Fenton who would talk openly about stocks and bonds with him. He insisted Jake learn languages from an early age and usually spoke in a variety of foreign languages to Jake, explaining to him that to do commerce in other countries, one had to know customs and languages. He spoke of his land and how he knew there was oil on it, but they’d been unable to find it. Cathy and Ryan made fun of him, calling the acreage Fenton’s Folly, but Jake loved hearing the excitement in old man’s voice when he spoke of finding the huge resource some day. Fenton wasn’t as interested in the money as he was the actually thrill of finding new reserves. And that told Jake that Cathy and Ryan were wrong about the old man—he hadn’t thrown his money away, he had so much he didn’t need more.
“Jake, the scars? Is it that worthless son of a bitch Ryan? Or my granddaughter? She has a streak of cruelty in her. I never believed that nanny of yours beat you. I can’t imagine Cathy not knowing everything that goes on in her household.”
“Forget about it, Grandfather,” Jake said quietly, his gaze meeting Fenton’s. “I’m handling it.”
The old man shook his head and dropped down into a chair, looking around the library, his gaze wandering from book to book. Jake already had learned the value of silence and just waited while Fenton obviously made a decision. When he looked up at Jake, he showed every one of his eighty-seven years.
“Have you heard anyone speaking of the leopard people?”
Jake’s heart jumped, and he didn’t answer right away, afraid of a trap. He could smell lies and it occurred to him that his great-grandfather might be able to as well. “Tell me.”
“You must never reveal any of what I’m about to tell you. Not to anyone. Especially not to your parents or the Trents.”
Jake drew in a deep breath, his heart pounding hard. This was it. This was his moment to learn, to become more powerful. “I promise.”
Fenton leaned forward and lowered his voice. “The leopard people aren’t a myth anymore than the oil on my property is. I know the oil is there even though I can’t find it just as I know there are shifters in our bloodline even though I can’t shift. I have met a true shifter once. They’re a separate species, not fully human yet not fully animal either. They are both.”
Jake moistened his lips. Did the old man know about him? Suspect? Was he looking to trick Jake? He pressed his lips together to keep silent, but his heart raced as his great-grandfather glanced at him sharply.
“There are a few shifters left in the Borneo rainforest, men and women who live with honor, who keep to the old ways. Find them, Jake, learn from them. They are true to their nature, not the corrupt, twisted beings our bloodlines produce.” He sighed heavily. “It’s my grandfather’s fault. He kidnapped a woman from the forest and forced her to marry him. In those days, women didn’t have many rights and no one helped her. He had discovered the secret and knew with the traits of the species, we could gain wealth and power. And he wanted it. He was ambitious and he wanted it.” He hung his head, running his hand over his face. “Our bloodline carries the epitome of cruelty. You don’t want to live like them. You must take care to keep yourself decent. The genes are strong in you and with them come responsibility.”
Jake felt his belly knot into tight hard lumps of protest. “I have to be whatever it takes to get away from them.”
Fenton sighed and leaned back in his chair. “Have you ever studied breeding? Breeding anything at all, cattle, dogs, whatever. You can breed good or bad traits into a line. You have to take care, watch what you do or you end up with very bad blood. Leopards are cunning creatures. You hunt a leopard in the wild and they’re one of the few predators that will circle around to stalk and kill their hunter. They can be cruel and fierce and bad-tempered. But they’re also cunning, sharp, and intelligent. Read up on them, Jake, and then you’ll have an idea what any of us with shifter genetics contends with. We don’t have to shift to feel the effects.”
“Can you really not shift?” Jake asked. He kept his eyes downcast, his face still, afraid he’d give away his excitement. “I know you said you couldn’t, but you know so much.”
The old man shook his head. “I really can’t. The leopard is there inside me. I reach for it, but shifting eludes me. I traveled to the rainforest when I found the diaries my grandfather kept and I met some of the people. They aren’t like us. We’re abominations in comparison. Cathy, my own granddaughter, is a sick, twisted being, cruel beyond measure, and I know I’m responsible. I married a woman to further the bloodline. Don’t do that. Don’t continue this experiment. It’s dangerous and the people we create are dangerous.”
“Like me,” Jake said quietly.
Fenton stared at him.
“You know what they’re like behind closed doors yet you left me here with them,” Jake accused, voicing the reason he didn’t trust the old man. “They would have let me go.”
“Never. They would have fought to keep you because they have to present a certain picture to the outside world.”
“They hate me.”
“They fear you.”
Jake’s golden gaze jumped to his great-grandfather’s face and burned there, a fixed focus while his heart pounded. It was true. They feared him. And they should, because some day he was going to be stronger, faster, smarter, and much, much crueler than they’d ever dreamt of being—and he was going to tear their world apart.
Jake Fenton was dead and young Jake felt as if he was the only one mourning the man. Cathy and Ryan hadn’t bothered to go to the funeral, but they sat in the lawyer’s office, waiting hopefully for an inheritance, although both had loudly speculated that Fenton had used up every penny on acquiring more and more worthless land. When the news came, Ryan and Cathy were stunned and pleased. Fenton owned several companies and even more stocks. They inherited two construction companies outright and between the two of them what appeared would be the majority of stock in a chain of major hotels.
Young Jake was given three companies, a mediocre plastics plant that barely kept its head above water, a company called Uni-Diversified Holding and a corporation that was a parent company for several smaller businesses. He also inherited Fenton’s Folly which was a huge tract of land in Texas no one wanted, two corn farms and several other tracts that appeared to be swampland in other states. Stocks were in his name as well as a sizable cash inheritance, although Cathy and Ryan received the bulk of the money.
The lawyer went on to explain that there were a couple of absolute conditions that had to be met. No one could contest the will or they would forfeit their portions immediately. Cathy and Ryan could not inherit from Jake even should he die, nor could he ever sell to them or give them anything of Fenton’s. If he did die before his fiftieth birthday and he had no children, the land, money and stocks would be put in a trust for a list of charities and an immediate investigation into Jake’s death would take place. At that time, two letters would be opened that Jake Fenton wrote that might aid the investigators.
Young Jake noted that Cathy looked quite pale, but she didn’t say a word. The tension in the room was palatable. They had lost their whipping boy. He had a place to go, money, and he was of age. There was little they could do about it. Fenton had outmaneuvered them. Without a word to him, his enemies left the lawyer’s office.
Jake remained, accepting the letter Fenton had left carefully detailing his future plans for his corn fields and how he meant to use them for plastic. He had detailed business plans for the little plastics company. And there was one more thing. Uni-Diversified Holdings held enough stocks that when coupled with Jake’s personal stock, Jake became the majority stockholder in the companies his parents owned.
The corporation was an umbrella for several foreign businesses that were proving to be emerging as strong moneymakers. Jake was instantly a multimillionaire and well on his way to his first billion.
Jake found the Texas ranch to be a kind of paradise. The leopard could run free through the numerous trees and wild foliage his grandfather had encouraged to grow. The house was enormous, a mansion by even Texas standards with a library most cities would envy. He continued his studies in languages as well as business, hiring his own tutors, studying each company he owned and listening carefully to those Fenton had trusted to run them.
He went out each night running in his leopard form, the acres of land protecting his secrets from outsiders. For the first time he tasted freedom and he smelled—oil. The scent was strong beneath the land in numerous places and he knew when he told the drillers where to dig, they would strike black gold.
Jake wasn’t content with others handling his business. He studied his grandfather’s plans for each business and where he expected to take the companies in the years to come. He found that if he attended the board meetings his ability to scent lies and fear came in handy. Very quickly, Jake made a name for himself as a man to contend with. He rarely spoke, mainly he listened, but when he wanted something done, nothing stood in his way.
His developing magnetic personality and his ability to mesmerize individuals soon allowed him access to every kind of information he could want. When he couldn’t talk his way into a circle, he could buy his way in. He found he was irresistible to women and he fostered that, making certain he knew every way of keeping a woman wanting him, willing to do anything for him.
The first oil well hit immediately. At the same time his venture into plastics took off making him a huge player in the industry. If anyone underestimated him because of his age, they quickly revised their opinion. He was ruthless and calculating and not afraid to make enemies, although he was careful to cultivate friendships and alliances.
He continued with his great-grandfather’s tradition of acquiring land, always inspecting the entire acreage first, using his leopard to scent oil or natural gas. He picked up large tracts in North Dakota where he suspected oil and miles of land in the Appalachians where he scented natural gas reserves. It mattered little that everyone around thought he made bad investments, he knew the oil and gas was there for discovery and when the time was right, he would find it.
He added to the ranch, picking up more and more land to give his leopard a sanctuary. He ran almost nightly as a leopard, needing the release, finding he felt caged. Always he studied, building his bank of knowledge, always toward the same end. Power. Money. Becoming so strong no one could ever make him a victim again. Waiting to for the right moment to take down his enemies.
“Hello Alice,” Jake said softly—too softly.
She gasped and spun around. His secretary. Bitch spy. He smelled his father all over her. She sat at his desk, trying to get into his computer. He’d known the moment he’d recruited her, Ryan’s stench permeating her body.
“I needed to get the Kalwaski file,” she said hastily, her face flaming red. “You asked for the reports and I accidently ruined my copy.”
“And you didn’t think to call me?” He sniffed the air, scenting the lie. He’d been more than careful not to give her anything at all damaging or important. He trusted no one and she was relatively new. Now she’d proved to be in the enemy camp as he’d suspected. He stalked her around the desk.
Alice tried to hit the power button to turn off his computer, but he was faster, and far stronger. “Bad, bad girl, Alice. Industrial espionage is such a nasty and dangerous business.”
She burst into tears and threw herself forward, into his arms, running her hands down his chest to the zipper of his slacks. “I’ll do anything you want.”
He slapped her hands away, disgusted. “I’m sure you would. Your kind usually do, but you don’t tempt me in the least, not with another man’s stench all over you.”
She went white, her eyes widening in horror. “What are you going to do?”
He knew he looked murderous. He felt murderous. Not at her, she was a pawn, manipulated by a master. Ryan and Cathy used sex to control others, and in truth, he wasn’t above doing so himself, but not with her, not with someone so deceitful and under his father’s thumb. No, there were other ways.
“I’m going to turn you over to the police.” He let that sink in.
Her sobbing grew louder. Time stretched out while Alice became more desperate. “Please, Mr. Bannaconni, please don’t do that. I’m sorry. Really sorry. Your father…”
“Ryan, or Bannaconni, but never my father,” he interrupted, his voice a merciless whip.
She flinched visibly. “I couldn’t say no.”
He knew how his father mesmerized people, especially women, using a combination of sex and cruelty to keep them hypnotized. No, she probably couldn’t say no. Ryan was shrewd and cunning, a shark with his handsome face and abundance of money. Jake’s little secretary would have been overwhelmed by his attentions. She would have done anything for him.
“I don’t suppose you could have,” he murmured.
Alice collapsed into a chair. “I’ve never done anything like this before in my life, Mr. Bannaconni. I swear I haven’t, and I’ll never do it again.”
That smelled like the truth. “Ryan manipulates women,” Jake said softly, tilting her chin so she looked into his eyes. He stared at her without blinking, focusing on her completely, dropping his voice to a low, soothing note. “He preys on young vulnerable women, so many of them, using sex to get his way.”
She wiped at the tears still streaming down her face. “He’s married, he told me he could never leave her, but he was so unhappy.”
“Of course he did. He tells them all that. And then he gets them to spy for him.”
“On his own son?”
“We don’t claim the relationship.” He leaned his hip against the desk. “Maybe you should pass him information.”
“Mr. Bannaconni,” Alice gasped, shaking her head. “I’m sorry. I really am.”
He tapped his finger on the desk as if just considering the idea. “I know you are. I’m not going to have you prosecuted, but maybe we can find a way to save your job and reputation as well. Maybe we can feed Ryan a few things that won’t harm us and yet will satisfy him. Although,” he looked at her sternly, “you might want to quit sleeping with him and ask for a good sum of money instead.”
He allowed a small smile to touch his mouth. Alice never noticed that it didn’t reach his eyes. She was the first of many such recruits.
Jake took his first trip to the Borneo rainforest to find his heritage. The rainforest overpowered him, a seductive mistress, beckoning him with mystery and promise. He never expected to feel peace, or solace, but the network of tree branches in the canopy formed a highway where he could run and perfect his skills as a leopard. Trees competed for every inch of space. The floor was surprisingly open, yet vines and flowers draped every tree branch and brightly colored birds were in constant motion.
There in the forest he could barely contain the wildness raging within him. The change swept through him before he had a chance to think, the dangerous animal bursting free, stretching the roped muscles and leaping into the limbs over head. Bands of light poured like gold from the sky down through the trees to light up the foliage and cages of roots. There was no silence in the jungle as he first thought. The rainforest was alive with sound, rustles and chirps and loud calls. The other creatures knew he was there, a stranger walking their land and almost immediately he was joined by the keepers of the forest.
The leopard people were secretive and territorial, but they recognized him as one of their own. One of them, a man named Drake Donovon who had been recently injured and walked with the help of crutches, watched over him. Jake didn’t kid himself that it was friendship. Drake was a powerfully built man, as the others were, carrying most of his strength in his chest, shoulders and arms, and he had piercing eyes that could look through a man and judge him. Jake didn’t want him seeing to his soul. Drake wouldn’t find it like the others in his village. He was flawed, a child shaped and molded into a monster.
He had long since perfected the art of subjugation, and he pushed down his dominant personality in order to gain the knowledge from the others he needed. The leopard people had a code they lived by, even with their animal traits ingrained so deep. In spite of himself, Jake found he admired them. They had quick tempers and could be very jealous, so much so that Jake rarely saw one of their children or females, but they were also men who risked their lives to rescue kidnap victims along the waterways and return them safely to their homes.
Jake found he was reluctant to leave. He wanted to establish ties to the community so in the end, he helped to fund their cause, pouring his money into their network of businesses, strengthening their abilities to purchase up to date weapons and much-needed medical supplies. Money was the only thing he had to offer and he was more than willing to part with it in order to keep the door held open for his return.
He had it all—and he had nothing. Nothing. Everything he wanted was finally in place. He could take down the companies of his enemies, sell them off piece by piece and make another fortune. Jake sat in his private jet and looked around at the luxuries his money had bought him and he knew it was all worthless. He was alone. He would always be alone. He could have nearly any woman he wanted—but he wanted none of them—not permanently. His life was empty. Yes. He could avenge his childhood and he could ruin his enemies, but once that goal was achieved, what would he have left? Absolutely nothing. Just like he had now.
The pull of the rainforest was irresistible and Jake found that even with nightly runs on his Texas ranch, he was becoming an insomniac. He spent most of the night working in his office or pacing the floors of his home after running free. He knew he needed something more in his life, but he didn’t know what and even if he knew, he didn’t know how to get the things he’d talked about with Drake Donovon, so here he was, back in Borneo to talk to a total stranger about what life really meant.
He took a trip down the Amazon into the interior and the moment he stepped out of the boat he inhaled deeply. Already the animals and birds were announcing his presence to the others, but… There was something wrong.
Jake tossed his backpack aside and took off running deeper into the forest, leaping over fallen trunks, avoiding vines and the grasping flowers roping the trees. He stripped as he ran, as he’d learned from many years of practice. His muscles moved like molten steel, flowing beneath his skin, the wild beast already breaking free. He wanted the other’s senses, welcomed them, embracing the change as he kicked off his shoes and paused only to toss his jeans aside.
His body bent, bones and sinew popping, lengthening, shifting until his other burst free, going to all fours, still running, sheer adrenaline and joy pouring into him. The lure of staying in his leopard form was tremendous. He didn’t have to worry about life or his decisions or what kind of monster he was. He only had to run free and lead a simple, full existence surrounded by the beauty of the forest. He could lose himself in the other.
The scent of blood and smoke and death assailed his nostrils as he ran, his whiskers were radar antenna, bouncing information to him so that his brain flooded with stimuli. Drake Donovon. If there was fear, it wasn’t coming from Drake. Only defiance, fury, rage pouring from him and filling the night around him. The sounds of taunting laughter, hard fists hitting flesh, fresh blood bursting into the air so that the forest erupted into more shrieks of alarm.
Jake raced along the forest highway, high above in the trees, ignoring the screaming monkeys and the cry of the birds. He coughed once, twice, warning Drake of his coming. In his life, Jake had never once stood for another. He fought his own battles and never asked or expected help. He didn’t have friendships or trust any other being. Drake had given him information, but he hadn’t offered friendship, nor would Jake have accepted it, yet Jake didn’t hesitate anymore than the leopard rushing toward three men with guns.
One stood over Drake’s bloody form, beating him methodically with a thick cane.
“Where are they? Tell me where they are!”
The man kicked at Drake’s injured leg and for the first time Drake screamed. Something ugly and deep burst free in Jake and launched himself at Drake’s assailant, going instinctively for the kill, raking with sharp claws at the jugular as he knocked the man flat.
Gunfire erupted, kissing the leopard’s shoulder, but Jake was already in motion, as fluid as water, using the dead body as a springboard to take the second man from the side, sinking teeth deep into the throat. The third man stumbled backward as another leopard rushed him from the trees. A third landed on his back, slashing and tearing.
Jake shifted to his human form and knelt beside Drake, running a hand over his damaged, bloody body. For the first time he knew someone other than himself mattered to him, but he still didn’t understand why, only that he was grateful he was capable of the feeling.