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The warm wind gently carried the message through the lush vegetation of the rain forest, traveled high into the dense canopy that shrouded the jungle in mystery. Wild honeybees built combs just beneath the crown, out of reach of most of the animals. If they heard the wind whispering, they ignored the tales and went about their business. Birds of every kind, parrots clothed in a riot of color, helmeted hornbills and falcons, picked up the gossip and conveyed it swiftly on bright wings, shrieking with delight throughout the forest. Noisy troops of long-tailed macaques, gibbons, and leaf-eating monkeys heard and leapt from branch to branch joyfully, shouting with anticipation. The orangutans moved cautiously through the trees in search of ripe fruit, edible leaves, and flowers, maintaining dignity in all the fuss. Before long, the news was everywhere. There were few secrets in the community and everyone had been waiting with concern.
He heard the news long before her scent reached him.
Brandt Talbot shrank into the heavy vegetation, his chest tight and his body taut with sudden anticipation. She was here at long last. In his domain. Within his grasp. It had been a long hunt to find her, nearly impossible, yet he had managed it. He had deliberately lured her to his lair and she had come. He was so close, he had to use iron self-control to keep from moving too quickly. He couldn’t spook her, couldn’t tip his hand, allow her to realize for one moment that the net was closing around her. It was essential to close every avenue, drive her to the center of his domain, and cut off each escape route.
His strategy had been planned for years. He had had time to plan while he searched the world for her, while he reviewed every document in his hunt for his prey. When he was certain he had the right woman, the one woman, he put his plan into action using his lawyer to draw her into the rain forest, into his territory.
He moved swiftly through the thick fauna, silently but quickly, effortlessly leaping over fallen trees as he made his way toward the outer edges of the jungle. A rhinoceros grunted nearby. Deer scrambled in fear as they caught his scent. Smaller animals scurried out of his way and birds fell quiet at his approach. The monkeys retreated to the higher reaches of the canopy but they, too, remained hushed, not daring to raise his ire as he passed beneath them.
This was his kingdom and he seldom flaunted his power, but every species was aware interference would not be tolerated. Without his constant vigilance and his continual care, their world would soon disappear. He watched over and protected them and asked little in return. Now he demanded complete cooperation. Death would come silently and swiftly to any who dared defy him.
Everything was different the moment Maggie Odessa set foot into the jungle. She was different. She felt it. Where the heat on the coast had been oppressive, stifling, within the forest that same heat seemed to envelop her in a strange perfumed world. With each step that took her into the deeper interior, she became more aware. More alert. As if awakening from a dream world. Her hearing was much more acute. She could hear separate insects, identify the trilling sounds of birds, the cries of monkeys. She heard the wind rustling in the branches overhead and smaller animals scurrying among the leaves. It was strange, yet exhilarating.
When Maggie had first learned of her inheritance, she had thought to sell it off without seeing it, out of respect for her adoptive mother. Jayne Odessa had been adamant that Maggie never enter the rain forest. Jayne had been frightened by the very idea of it, repeatedly begging Maggie to promise that she would never put herself at risk. Maggie loved her adoptive mother and didn’t want to go against her wishes, but after Jayne’s death, a lawyer had contacted Maggie to inform her that she was the daughter of a wealthy couple, naturalists who had died violently when she was a child, and that she had inherited their estate deep in the rain forests of Borneo. The temptation was too much to resist. Despite the promises Maggie had made to her adoptive mother, she had journeyed halfway around the world to look for her past.
Maggie had flown into the small airport and rendezvoused with the three men sent by the lawyer to meet her. From there they’d traveled in a four-wheel-drive utility vehicle for an hour before they left the main highway and took a series of unpaved roads leading into deeper forest. It seemed as if they had bumped over every rut and pit in the dirt road. Eventually they had parked the vehicle to proceed on foot, a prospect Maggie hadn’t been happy about. The humidity was high and she knotted her khaki shirt around her backpack as they trekked into deeper forest.
The men seemed enormously strong and well prepared. They were well built, quiet when they walked, intensely alert. She had been nervous at first, but once they were walking along the trail in deeper jungle, everything seemed to change; she felt as if she were coming home.
As she followed her guides, winding deeper into the darkened interior, she became aware of the mechanics of her own body. Of her muscles, the way they moved sleekly, easily, her strides almost rhythmic. She didn’t stumble, she didn’t make unnecessary noise. Her feet seemed to find their own placement over the uneven ground.
Maggie became aware of her own femininity. Small beads of moisture ran in the valley between her breasts, sleek with sweat, her shirt plastered to her skin. Her long, thick hair, her one call to glory, was heavy and hot against her neck and down her back. She lifted the heavy mass, the simple act suddenly sensual, lifting her breasts beneath the thin cotton tee, her nipples rasping gently on the material. Maggie twisted her hair with the expertise of practice, fastening the thick rope to her head with a jeweled stick.
Strange that the heat and primitive jungle should suddenly make her conscious of her body. The way she moved, her hips gently swaying, almost an invitation, as if she knew someone was watching, someone she wanted to entice. In her entire life, she had never been a flirt or a tease, yet now the temptation was overwhelming. It was as if she had come to life, here in this dark, overgrown place with vines and leaves and every kind of plant imaginable.