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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 rain forest. 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 rain forest was home. Any rain forest; but it was here, in the wilds of Panama, where he had been born. As an adult he’d chosen to make his home in the Borneo rain forest, 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 the 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 T-shirt, but there wasn’t a civilized bone in his body.
“It’s calling to you,” Rio Santano said, glancing around at the few people along the riverbank. “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—were beginning to form bands of 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—very hard to control.
They needed his particular skills on this mission. Conner was born in the Panama rain forest to the tribe of leopard people indigenous to the area, and this gave 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 rain forest, most of it unexplored, even for other shifters, could be difficult to navigate. But the fact that Conner had grown up here and used it as his personal playground meant 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 rain forest.” 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 quickly go septic out here. He peeled off his shirt and bent to take off 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 and hit the thick bushes and ferns below. Orchids and other 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 rain forest 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.