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Authors: Christine Feehan

Tags: #Romance, #Fiction, #General

Wild Rain (3 page)

BOOK: Wild Rain
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Rio cradled the rifle on his shoulder, his targets already chosen, and squeezed off two deadly accurate rounds in answer. He followed with a burst of fire, laying down rapid cover as he scooted back to follow the cats. His pursuers wouldn’t be able to cross the river, and with two dead or wounded, they would drop the search for the moment. But they would be back and bring reinforcements. It was a way of life. Not one he had necessarily chosen, but it was one he accepted.

Scattered shots zinged through the shrubbery, angry bees without aim. The river drowned out the threats hurled at him, the promises of retribution and blood. He shouldered his rifle and slipped into deeper forest, allowing the creeping greenery to shield him.

Rio set a hard pace. The storm was dangerous, the wind threatening to topple more than one tree. The cats shared his life, but had the freedom to go their own way. He expected them to seek cover, to ride out the storm under protection, but they stayed close to him, occasionally taking to the trees to travel along the highway of interlocking branches. They looked at him expectantly, wondering why he didn’t join them, but eventually settled into his steady, ground-eating rhythm.

Miles of rain-soaked travel passed. Close to home, Rio was beginning to relax when Fritz raised his head, suddenly alert, swerving to brush the man who instantly stilled, becoming nearly invisible, a shadow among the tall trees. Behind him, the second cat slunk to the ground, frozen, a statue with glowing eyes. Rio hissed softly between his teeth and made a small circular motion with one hand. Fritz immediately disappeared into the forest, moving cautiously, halting beside a tree. The animal circled the large trunk once, then, like a silent wraith, returned to the man. Together, all three approached, making no more noise than the single clouded leopard had. Taking no notice of the ferocious storm raging around him, Rio made a thorough inspection of the tree. A rope reached from one trunk to another.

“It isn’t a garrote,” he murmured aloud to the cats. “It’s just a piece of rope, not even hidden. Why would they give away their presence like this?” Puzzled, he examined the ground, clearly expecting a trap of some kind. It was impossible to find a track in the soaked vegetation. He signaled the animals to spread out and continued with more caution along the faint trail.

Rio was always careful to use different routes to reach the tree beside the river. If someone did a thorough inspection of the tree, they would most likely find the claw marks of a leopard, or think any scarring had been caused by the makeshift ladders, pegs, going up the tree to a wild honeybee nest. He left little or no sign, and always carried the pulley system away with him. Still, if his route had been compromised, it was possible the rebels had sent an assassin to circle ahead and lie in wait for him. Although his identity was a mystery, he had been at the top of the hit list for a long time.

His home was deep in the interior of the rain forest. He used many different routes to get there, often taking to the trees to leave no trail, but still, someone could have found him had they been persistent enough. He was more than adept at tracking and a few of his kind sold out if the money was good enough.

Roots from the trees were tall and fanned out wide, taking in considerable territory as if claiming it. The large networks of roots created a mini jungle. Along the trunks hundreds of other species of plants and mold grew to create a myriad of colors. In the tremendous deluge the fungi growing on fallen, rotting logs glowed in the dark with eerie luminous greens and whites. Rio’s restless gaze observed and catalogued the phenomenon, dismissed it as unimportant until he registered a small smear on a log, then a tiny print on a root. A twist of his fingers sent a silent signal to the cats. The animals quartered the area, crisscrossing back and forth, hissing and spitting in warning.

He approached his home from the south, knowing that was the side most blind and therefore most vulnerable should the enemy be lying in wait. The house was built into the trees, a structure running along the higher, thicker branches, up off the ground and not easily seen in the thick foliage. Over the years fungi and creeping orchids covered the walls of his home, making it nearly invisible. He had encouraged the growth of thick vines to further hide the house from prying eyes.

Rio lifted his head to scent the air. With the rain it should have been impossible to detect the faint odor of wood burning, but he had an acute sense of smell. He was seventy-two hours without sleep. Two weeks of bone-weary, hard travel. A knife had sliced across his belly and still burned like a hot poker. A bullet shaved skin from his hip. Neither wound was noteworthy. He certainly had suffered worse over the years, but left untreated too long in the forest such injuries could spell disaster. He squared his shoulders and stared up at his home with hard resolution.

In spite of the river flooding, in spite of all his careful precautions, it appeared as though the enemy had circled around to get in front of him and lay in wait in his own home. A very stupid and costly mistake.

The cats approached from either side, slinking along the ground, moving toward the trees where the house was located. Rio shrugged out of his pack, easing it onto the ground against a thick tree trunk. All the while he stayed low, knowing he would be difficult to see in the driving rain. The wind howled and moaned through the trees, shaking leaves and hurling small twigs and branches in every direction. He remained still, studying the house for a long moment. A thin trail of smoke rose from the chimney to be dissipated quickly in the high canopy. A dim flickering light cast from a low fire onto the woven blankets hanging over the windows could be glimpsed through the ever-moving foliage. There was no movement in the cabin. Whoever had been sent to assassinate him was either certain he was still a good distance away, or they had set an enticing trap. Rio hissed between his teeth to draw the attention of the cats, gave a hand signal, a quick flick with his fingers and the three of them, like dark phantoms, scouted the ground below the trees for whatever tracks the fierce rain had not obliterated.

They moved in an ever-tightening circle until they gained the large network of roots and branches. Rio’s muscles bunched, contracted, rippled beneath the layer of skin as he leapt into the tree, landing in a crouch with perfect balance. The cats crept silently into the thick network of tree branches to gain the verandah. The branches were slick from the downpour, but the trio of hunters maneuvered up to the house with familiar ease. Rio tested the door. Finding resistance, he drew the knife from the leather sheath concealed between his shoulder blades. In the flash of lightning, the long, wicked razor-sharp metal gleamed brightly. He slipped the blade in the crack of the door and slowly, inch by inch, forced the heavy metal bar on the inside upward.

As the door opened, then closed furtively, the sudden cold draft sent the flames of the fire blazing high, dancing and crackling before settling back down. Rio waited a heartbeat for his eyes to adjust to the change in lighting. He moved stealthily across the wide expanse of floor, carefully placing his feet, avoiding every squeaking board. A shadowy figure moved restlessly on the bed.

Rio went to the floor, on his belly even as the wildness flared in him, ripping through his body, heightening his senses. His skin itched, his bones aching and his muscles contorting. He fought it back, forcing his brain to work, to think, to reason when his body sought to embrace the change. For a moment his hand rippled with life, with fur, fingers bursting as claws clicked on the wooden floor, then retracted painfully.

He remained motionless, flat on the floor, knife in his teeth, trying to breathe through the pain, breathe away the urge for transformation. The cats separated without visible instruction, both low to the floor, two sets of burning eyes on the figure beneath the blanket. Rio could make out the shotgun against the wall beside the bed, within easy reaching distance. In the fireplace the log disintegrated into bright red coals. Light flared in the room, illuminated the bed briefly and was gone.

Chapter Two

RACHAEL came awake, instantly aware of impending danger. The smell of wet fur mixed with the scent of something feral, something dangerous. There had been no sound, but the feeling was so overwhelming she instinctively reached for the shotgun. Fingers circled her wrist in a vise-like grip, crushing bone against tendon. The shotgun was torn from her hand easily, her attacker strong beyond her wildest imagining. She jerked her captured wrist toward her as if to struggle against his hold. Simultaneously, she brought up her left hand, gripping the short rattan-filled stick and slamming it with sickening force against her assailant’s head. She rolled sideways away from him to drop to the floor, the bed between them.

To her horror, Rachael landed inches from glowing red eyes, hot breath in her face, gaping, hideous jaws filled with teeth coming straight at her. Not just any teeth, she was staring at what looked like a saber-toothed tiger. Thrusting the stick between the dripping fangs, she scrambled away, desperate to reach the fireplace and a weapon, any weapon to defend herself. A hand grabbed at her, missed, slid off her legs. She nearly made it across the room, reaching out for the heavy metal poker just inches from her fingers. Another step, a lunge and she’d have a chance. Something caught her ankle in a savage trap, tearing at her flesh, dragging her down, slashing mercilessly with sharp teeth.

Rachael imagined it was like being hit by a shark. Hard. The force of a freight train. She could hear someone swearing, animals breathing loudly, a terrible chuffing noise. Something hissed. Panic overwhelmed her, nearly shutting down her brain. Red-hot pain shot through her entire body, the agony taking her breath away. Gathering itself for another attack, a second leopard leapt at her. Gritting her teeth, Rachael threw herself forward, a scream ripping her throat as the lance-like teeth pierced and shredded flesh to crunch on bone. Her fingers curled around the poker, swinging it at the animal with desperate strength. A hand caught her wrist, abruptly stopping the vicious cut in midair.

A man loomed over her, dark and powerful, his face that of an avenging devil, thrust close to hers. To her horror the face contorted, fur bursting through skin, teeth filling the strong jaw. A leopard’s hot breath blew in her face, the teeth at her throat. Not a small, clouded leopard, but a huge black leopard. The leopard’s gaze fixed on her with merciless intent. Rachael saw the piercing intelligence in the brilliant yellow-green eyes. The haunting stare, smoldering with fire, with deadly danger, was etched into her mind. She closed her eyes, willing herself to faint, yet she could not shut out the focused stare.

Rio struggled against the beast rising in him. Too many wounds, too many days without sleep made it difficult to maintain control. He fought the change before he could make a kill. He breathed in and out. Drew the air deeply into his lungs. Forced the wildness in him back down, to settle somewhere deep inside until he was once again completely ruled by his brain and intelligence.

“Release,” he snapped. The cats obeyed, letting go of his assassin’s leg, dropping to the floor, still on guard. “Now you. Give it to me.”

Rachael was incapable of letting the poker go. Her fingers were locked around it, her mind numb with horror. She could only stare at him in shock. Terror held her mute. “Damn you, drop it,” he hissed, increasing the pressure on her wrist, knowing he could easily snap the bone if she continued to resist. His free hand clamped around her throat like a vise, instantly cutting off her air, elbow digging into her breast, knee across her thighs. His body effectively pinned hers to the floor with his superior weight. “I could break your neck,” he pointed out. “Drop it.”

Rachael would have cried out, screamed for help, for salvation, just screamed for the hell of it. She was more afraid of the man, or whatever he was, than the cats and their evil eyes. He’d successfully choked off all sound, but the pain radiating up her leg seemed to engulf her so that she had the incredible sensation of melting into the floor.

Rio swore again as he felt her go limp beneath him, the poker clattering to the floor. He shoved it out of her reach and as he did so, his hand encountered a warm, sticky substance. Instantly his hands moved down her leg. He muttered an expletive at his find. Clamping a hand over the wound, he jerked her leg into the air. “Don’t you faint on me. Is there anyone else here? Answer me, and you’d better tell the truth.” He was fairly certain they were alone, someone else surely would have revealed their presence during the short but intense fight. The house held no other human scent, but he wanted no more surprises.

A shudder ran through her body, trembling in reaction to the terrible wound on her leg. There was hard authority in his voice. A distinct merciless edge that carried inherent danger. “No.” She managed to gasp out the word through her bruised throat.

Rio signaled to the clouded leopards. “I hope to hell you’re telling me the truth because they’ll kill anyone they find.”

He applied a field tourniquet quickly, knowing the animals would alert him if they found another intruder. He couldn’t imagine who would be stupid enough to send a woman after him. Rio lifted her with ease, carried her to the bed and set her on it. She didn’t look capable of murdering anyone, her face white and her eyes too big for her face. He shook his head and went to work on the ugly wound in her leg. The puncture wounds were deep and had done considerable damage. The cat had savaged the leg as she’d tried to get away, tearing deep gouges out of her flesh, an unusual wound for a clouded leopard to make. It was an ugly mess and needed more skill than he possessed.

Rachael could barely breathe through the pain. In the darkness, the man looming over her appeared invincible. His shoulders were wide, his arms and chest powerful. He carried most of his upper body weight in sheer muscle. There were bloodstains on his clothes. Blood trickled from the ugly gash near his temple. He was drenched, his clothes torn and soaked completely through. Water dropped from his hair onto her leg as he bent over her, the droplets cold on her hot skin. He had a dark shadow along his jaw and the coldest eyes she’d ever seen on a human... or a beast. Brilliant yellow-green eyes.

BOOK: Wild Rain
12.78Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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