Authors: Catherine Vale
On The Prowl
Jagged Lovers Book #1
BBW Paranormal Shifter Romance
Copyright © 2015, Wild Hearts Press
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Table of Contents
Addison James sat back, stretching the kinks out of her back. She’d been at her workstation, deep in the confines of the Natural History Museum for hours, alternately staring into her microscope, or poring through the stacks of ancient manuscripts that littered her desk.
“Want some coffee?”
She turned toward the sound of his voice. Daniel Parrish was standing in the doorway of her office, holding a mug of coffee. He held it out to her, and she caught the aroma of his specialty Kona blend. Daniel was very possessive of his coffee, and she knew if he was offering her some from his private stash, she must look like she needed it.
“Thanks, Daniel.” She took the mug, closed her eyes, and took a long sip. It was hot and black, and absolutely what she needed.
“Any luck?” Daniel perched on a stool next to her, thumbing through an open textbook lying on her desk.
“I have a lead, but I’m at a dead end with what I can do here. Everything brings me back to Peru, to Cusco, and the jungle west of the Choquechaca area.” She rubbed her eyes. Everything she’d researched swirled in her mind, frustrating and ephemeral, the answer just out of reach.
“You need a break, Addison. How about we go for a late dinner. My treat.”
Addison looked at Daniel. He was as familiar to her as the tools she used to dissect ancient plants, as much of a feature in her office as her microscope.
“I can’t, Daniel. You know I can’t. I have work to do.” She looked back at her desk. Nestled between books and monographs was a photo of her and twin sister, Grace, taken by their mother just after they’d started primary school.
“What did the doctors say today?” The concern in his voice and in his soft gray eyes was evident, and it tugged at her heart. It would be so easy to let him hug her, to give her the emotional support she craved. But she pushed that aside. They’d had their affair, and as much as she wanted to give in, to go back wouldn’t do either of them any good.
“Grace is holding her own, for the moment. But whatever it is, it’s taking its toll on her, and they’re running out of medications to treat her. Mainly, they’re just trying to keep her comfortable.”
Grace had been feeling unwell for months, suffering a baffling array of symptoms, from joint pain to migraines, unexplained fevers, skin rashes, and muscle weakness. She’d been tested for lupus, Lyme disease, multiple sclerosis, and rheumatoid arthritis. But every test came back negative. And she’d only gotten worse.
She’d finally collapsed during rehearsal. Grace was the lead violinist with the New City Symphony, refusing to miss any rehearsals for the upcoming concert season, even though her fingers were so sore she could barely stand the pain. Addison was the only one who knew how bad it was, who heard every night as her sister cried in her sleep from the pain, as she struggled each day to muster the strength to play her violin.
“What have you found?” Daniel’s voice, the faint French accent, brought her back to the present. She squared her shoulders, meeting his gaze.
It was a relief for Addison to turn back to her books, and her microscope. She was in her element when she was analyzing ancient plants, reading through antique texts of previous expeditions, researching new uses for those plants. And now the desperate search for a cure for her sister now fueled her efforts.
“There’s a species of orchid mentioned in several different publications, going all the way back to one of the Museum’s first expeditions to Peru, in the 1920s. It was already close to extinction, and Merriam brought back a specimen.”
“Merriam?” Daniel leaned over her shoulder, looking at the dusty book she’d pulled from the tottering stacks. “Don’t know that name.”
“He was the first Director of the Museum who took any interest in ethnobotany, Daniel. I can’t believe you don’t know that name.”
Daniel shrugged, in that disarming way he had. “You’re the Museum’s history buff, not me. I love old bones, not old plants. Or old museum directors.”
She giggled and turned back to the book, eagerly turning the pages. The yellowed paper gave off the smell of decay. It was a scent Addison both loved and feared. It spoke of age and accumulated wisdom, but it also spoke of time passing. And now time was passing all too quickly.
“Here.” She pointed to the etching of an elegant flower, its outstretched fringed white petals resembling the wings of a small bird. “He describes an orchid that was used by the Incas to cure myriad disease. They used it in some kind of sacrificial ritual as well, which means it might have had a sedative effect. But here…” She leaned forward. “Here…Merriam describes meeting a shaman who cured—and here’s his exact words—‘many of the natives, who had been taken with a wasting disease, easing them of severe pain, and malingering fever.’ ”
She turned to Daniel. “There are other passages where he goes on to describe how they used the orchid, how he believes they refined it into a tincture.”
Addison closed the book gently, resting her hand on the cracked leather cover. “I think it’s the key to finding a cure for Grace.”
“So you just need to find the orchid. Is it cultivated in any of the botanical collections? Or any private gardens?”
She shook her head, shoulders sagging. “No. Sadly, Merriam’s live specimen was mishandled. It didn’t survive the trip back. And that’s the problem. The preserved specimen in storage is too small, and really too desiccated to be of any use. It’s what I’ve been working with here.” She tipped her head toward the microscope. “That’s the dead end. But it does tell me what I need to do next.”
Daniel looked at her levelly. “You can’t go alone.”
Daniel had always been able to read her like a book. It had been part of the attraction between them, besides the amazing sexual chemistry. Having someone understand her without having to explain herself had been essential, especially when it came to her work. She lived and breathed her work, and she’d found it almost impossible to make polite dinner conversation when she’d tried dating. She lost patience, and her dinner companion lost interest. So she’d stopped dating.
“Are you offering to come with me?” She glanced up at him over the rim of her mug, smiling. “You could visit the newest site while we’re there, get your hands on those old bones you’re so fond of.”
He didn’t return her smile. “I’d be more interested in keeping you out of trouble. You know how dangerous it is down there, especially after the disastrous expedition a couple of years ago.”
The smile faded from Addison’s face, memories rushing in. They’d both lost friends and colleagues when an expedition to a newly discovered ruin in Peru had been massacred.
Addison dropped her eyes, remembering Jeremy and Rachel, interns who she had sent on the expedition. She should have gone herself, should have been in Peru, but she’d felt it was important for them to have the chance to see first-hand this newest discovery. And now, they were dead, and she was here. She didn’t feel guilty—at least, not all the time—but she had a sense she’d cheated death. Since then she’d never worked harder, never took anything for granted.
“It was shifters, the jaguar clans that live in the jungle.” A wave of bitterness swept through her.
Daniel’s laughter made her raise her head. “You really believe in those myths? It’s just lore that’s been perpetuated to keep scientists and ecologists out, so the clear-cutters and raiders can do as they please.”
Addison shook her head. “You know it’s not just lore. There’s evidence…proof. It’s not just a smoke screen set up by raiders or clear-cutters. Shifters exist. It’s not like they’re walking down the street in broad daylight. But they do exist.”
“When I see one, I’ll believe. Until then, call me a skeptic.” His eyes held a challenge, and she knew if she pressed him, she’d end up immersed in an evolutionary argument about shifters. And she didn’t have time for that.
She threw up her hands, giving up. “Fine. You’re just as stubborn as you’ve always been.”
He threw his head back, laughing. “Why would I change? You know me, Addison. I need proof.”
His laugh trailed off and he grew serious. “But I can’t let you go to the jungles of Peru alone, shifters or not. It’s too dangerous…”
“Why? Because I’m a woman?” She glared at him, sudden anger prickling up her spine. Daniel had a chivalrous streak that been the main reason they’d ended their romantic relationship. Addison didn’t mind having a man open a door or occasionally pay for dinner. But she’d bristled at his overbearing and chauvinistic attitude. She wasn’t sure if it was his French upbringing, or just the way he was.
“No. I know better than to say that, even if it is what I’m thinking. Hear me out…” He held up his hand against her imminent protest.
“Anyone going alone is stepping into a dangerous situation. You need someone to watch your back, help when you need it. It’s just common sense. You’d come with me, if I were going, wouldn’t you?”
She frowned, knowing he was right. But it would be a cold day in hell before she told him that.
“Alright. I’m leaving as soon as I can. According to Merriam’s research, the orchid should be blooming now, and that’s when it needs to be picked. I’ve asked for a leave of absence.” She bit her lip. “Can you get the time off? Webster has approved my leave, but I told him it was to spend time with Grace.”
“Don’t worry about me. I’ll take care of it. Webster’s a reasonable boss. Have you checked flights? Sometimes they’re…” He stopped as she held out a sheet of paper.
“Here’s a list of flights, and they’re not too expensive.” She saw his eyes widen. They were outrageous, especially with this short notice, but she’d sell everything if she needed to. She’d do anything for Grace.
“Then let’s get this show on the road.” He looked up, meeting her gaze. And in that she saw the strength and confidence she needed—wanted—to do this. She smiled, knowing her smile held the gratitude she couldn’t express in words. And she knew Daniel saw it as well.
The plane touched down in Peru, in the small town of Cusco, just after dawn. It was rainy and dark. Addison had managed to sleep on a couple of legs of the flights, but she’d been awake since Lima, enduring the four hour layover there, pacing the deserted terminal while Daniel slept on a row of seats. He’d never been able to sleep on planes, and as much as she had wanted someone to talk to, she left him to sleep.
She’d given him a sheaf of papers, photocopies of articles on shifters. He’d taken them with a lift of an eyebrow, stuffing them into his backpack. But she’d seen him reading them on the plane, working his way through the documents.
“So, according to this monograph by this anthropologist…” He flipped back to the beginning “….this Gregory Dukeshire, jaguar shifters were linked to the jaguar worship by the Inca.” He looked at her over his glasses. “They didn’t just worship the jaguar, but it was actually jaguar-shifters they worshiped?”
“It’s more than just worshiping the animal, yes. Dukeshire believes that some of the Inca were able to transform…to shift, either through ritual or by some genetic mutation. It’s those individuals the Inca worshiped, in their shifted jaguar form.”
Daniel removed his glasses, tapping them against the paper. “His research is pretty subjective…”
“But there are others who’ve built on that research, who have come to the same conclusion.” She wasn’t sure how he could refute all the information she’d given him. But that was Daniel; if it wasn’t in front of him, preferably discovered
him in the field, he wouldn’t accept it.
“I’m not ready to buy into this, but I promise to at least keep an open mind.”
She’d left it at that and they’d spent the rest of the flight talking about anything but Grace, or in companionable silence.
The Cusco terminal was deserted. The peak tourist season had ended, and it was on the cusp of the rainy season. They needed to find the orchid and get back before the rain started, or they stood a real chance of becoming stranded. The jungle was difficult enough to travel through. Add in rain and travel and it could become impossible. Being stranded in the jungle was the last thing Addison wanted.
“We need to take a taxi to the truck rental. They have a decent truck, so we should be able to get quite close to the area, before we have to hike in.”
She shifted her backpack to her other shoulder. Daniel stood beside her, pack sitting on the floor beside him. Despite her initial hesitancy—her outright denial—in having him along, his solid presence calmed her emotions, gave her a focus. The customs agents had eyed her briefly, and she felt they were going to question something about her passport, but Daniel had stepped forward. And the men had backed down, gesturing them through security.
“Then let’s get the truck, and a room here in town. We can get some rest, then…”
“No. We get the truck and we get a head start. It’s early; we can go a long way before dark. We can camp in the truck tonight.”
While she spoke, Daniel’s brows drew together, his eyes darkening. She knew the look. He did not like being disagreed with, but in this case, she was not going to back down.
“I know you’re tired, and I’m sorry about that. But we’re up against the clock here. The orchid is going to be hard to find, and we need to be out of here before the rain starts.”
She laid a hand on his arm. “It’s for Grace, Daniel. If it were for any other reason, you know I’d wait.”
He held her gaze for a moment, and then it softened. She felt the muscles relax beneath her hand. Finally he nodded.
“You’re right. It’s for Grace. And it’s your expedition.” He leaned down, planting a kiss on the top of her head. “Lead on, and I’ll follow.”
The taxi ride to the rental agency was brief, and she navigated the rental of the truck in flawless Spanish. They walked into the rental parking lot, the employee pointing to the truck she’d rented.
The truck lacked pretty much every luxury a vehicle could possess, but it did have four-wheel drive and what looked like new tires. Daniel inspected them, the spare, and under the hood, before they drove out of the car lot. There was a brief discussion over who would drive, Addison finally slipping behind the wheel. Daniel stowed their backpacks and they headed out of Cusco.
“You sleep, I’ll drive us out of the city.”
“Do you know where you’re going?” Daniel arranged his long legs on the passenger side.
She glanced sideways at him and laughed. “Are you doubting my navigation skills?”
“Not at all; just curious. I don’t want to have to ask for directions.” He stretched, leaning his head back. “I’m tired enough I might just be able to sleep. Let me know if you get lost.” He closed his eyes and to her amazement, began to snore.
She felt a little guilty, depriving Daniel of his sleep. But anxiety clawed at her spine, urging her forward. Time was running out, for Grace, and for her and Daniel to find the orchid.
The roads began to narrow the further she drove from Cusco. She’d taken a long look at the few notes the previous expedition had sent back. But they had left a voluminous amount of pre-expedition preparation. Addison had found the box in the records department, hastily labeled and stashed on a shelf, as if everyone wanted to forget the entire event. There had been a detailed map of the area, with as much information as was available to the party before they left. She’d pored over the information, creating her own detailed and—
—accurate map and directions.
The landmarks she could see still matched her map and she continued on, finally entering the jungle, the road beginning to rise. It was afternoon when she turned down the last track she’d consider calling a road. The jungle closed in and immediately she was plunged into a premature twilight. The rain had stopped earlier, but the foliage dripped as if it were still raining above them.
Addison pulled the truck over to the side of the track, trying to keep the wheels from slipping in the mud. The truck thudded to a stop and Daniel jerked upright in the seat.
“What the hell?” He stared out the window. “Where are we?”
“We’re just off the last decent road. I didn’t want to drive in any further.”
“Is it still raining?” Daniel opened the door. A spatter of water coated his arm as he craned his neck, looking up at the sky. “I can’t even see.”
He stepped out of the truck. Addison opened her door, stepping out onto the rutted road. The surface was muddy and slippery, and she was glad she’d made the decision to pull over.
“We can’t have a fire. There’s trail mix and protein bars.” Daniel was rummaging through his pack. She’d found a small convenience store on the way out of Cusco and, leaving Daniel asleep in the truck, she’d bought what she hoped would be enough food for the two of them, for at least a week. It would waste time if they needed to come back out of the jungle for supplies. If push came to shove, she’d send Daniel back, even if he dug his heels in and fought the idea.
“I’ll take a protein bar.” She reached across the seat, taking the bar from Daniel. “It should be enough until we can stop, and make a fire.”
Daniel straightened so quickly he banged his head on the roof of the truck. “What do mean, until we can make a fire?” He held a hand to his head. “You’re not planning on hiking anywhere tonight, are you?”
She pulled her pack from the truck, searching for her waterproof jacket. “I am. We still have a few hours of light. We can make it to here, at least.” She held out her map, pointing to the base of the mountain that rose above them.
“You’re crazy, Addison. It’s already dark here, it’s wet. We’re on the level here, and we could sleep in the truck, out of the rain.”
Addison slipped into her jacket, tugging up the zipper. “I’m going on. You can come with me, or stay here.” She held his gaze as she shouldered her pack. “I’d really like it if you would come with me, Daniel.”
“I don’t want to fight with you, Addison. But I do want you to use common sense. Would you have sent Rachel or Jeremy into the jungle under these conditions?”
She resisted the urge to turn away. Instead she lifted her chin. “Low blow, Daniel. Really low.” Slamming the truck door, she glared at him through the window. His look was equally as fierce, but he reached in and grabbed his pack. The sound of the door slamming made her flinch.
He rounded the front of the truck, yanking his pack over his shoulders. “Only because it’s Grace, and because it’s you. Otherwise…” He drew in a sharp breath, biting off the rest of that thought.
“Let’s go then. I’d like to be on higher ground, in case it starts raining. I have no desire to be washed away in the night by a flash flood.”
“Thank you, Daniel.” She caught his arm with her hand. “I know this is hard, that I’m being difficult.”
He made a sound somewhere between a snort and a laugh. “Difficult does not even begin to describe you, now, or any other time.” He looked down at her for a moment and finally she saw the beginning of a smile.
“Let’s go. I’m serious. I don’t want to be hiking in the dark.”
They began walking, the terrain rising as they moved forward. Addison kept pace with Daniel for a few hundred yards, but his long legs soon took him ahead of her and at times she lost sight of him.
There was something of a trail and she wondered if Jeremy or Rachel had walked here, if she was following in their footsteps. Thinking of them was too painful and she guiltily pushed them out of her mind. Better to think of Grace, focus on the task at hand. It was too difficult to think about anything else.
“Daniel?” She looked up, breaking her musings. He’d disappeared into the jungle and she couldn’t even hear his footsteps.
“Daniel!” Pausing on the path, she listened, ears straining for the sound of his voice, or his footsteps. But there was only silence.
Her heart took off, thumping uncomfortably in her chest. She’d been on expeditions before, but never solo. Had Daniel gotten lost, or fallen? Was he injured?
“Daniel!” She wanted to run, to move, anywhere, but she forced herself to remain on the trail. If she panicked and ran, she stood a greater chance of getting lost herself.
She turned in a circle, scanning the dense jungle, looking for anything that didn’t look like dripping foliage. But it was just a sea of wet green everywhere she looked.
Brush rustled ahead on the path and she spun around, anticipating the sight of Daniel, his name already on her lips.
But it wasn’t Daniel. The path was blocked by a jaguar. Addison froze, eyes locked with the cat’s. She wondered briefly if it was a show of dominance to stare down a jaguar, but there was no way in hell she was going to take her eyes off a vicious predator.
Even if she’d wanted to look away, she found she didn’t want to, that she couldn’t. The animal was beautiful, exotic. Its black coat shone in the muted light, brilliant green eyes never leaving hers.
The beast took a step forward, muscles moving smoothly, totally silent as it approached. Addison wanted to step back, to turn and run, but she knew that would be instant death. So she held her ground.
The jaguar approached, teeth exposed, snarling softly. The sound was like velvet over a switchblade, seductive and deadly at the same time. It continued toward her, moving slowly and deliberately. She had the sense that if it were going to attack her, it would have. It seemed, utterly improbably, that it was more curious than hostile.
There were only a few feet separating them, and the jaguar was close enough for her to see the whiskers on its face, and the incredible color of its eyes. It was so close she could even see a small scar, running along the edge of his right eye.
The jaguar stopped, and for a long moment they stood on the path, Addison barely breathing, the jaguar tensed, but still, the only movement its long tail, the end twitching.
Daniel’s voice rang through the jungle, and with a snarl, the jaguar was gone. Addison blinked, suddenly wondering if, through exhaustion and stress, she had simply imagined the creature. Only the echo of the snarl remained, and she thought it was only in her mind.
“Addison. What the hell…” Daniel came into view, emerging from the jungle. “Where have you been? I thought you were lost.”
He took a step closer. “Are you alright? Are you injured?” Dropping his pack, he closed the distance between them.
“I’m fine…did you see it? It was here…there was a jaguar. On the path.” She pointed to where the cat had stood. But there wasn’t even a track on the path, nothing to show there had been a magnificent animal anywhere near.
Daniel looked alarmed, peering into the brush. “You saw a jaguar? Here? We should move on then.” He turned, moving back down the path.
“Where were you?” She hurried to catch up. “I called, and you were gone.”
“I was looking for a place to make camp for the night. I must have gotten too far ahead.” He turned, expression intense. “Sorry I worried you.”
“It’s…okay. I’m fine.”
She labored up the path until Daniel stopped. “There.” He pointed to their left.
Above her she could see a flat spot, almost like a ledge. There was a dark area behind.
“A ledge with an overhang. It’s not exactly a cave.” Daniel pointed. “There’s a way to get up there from here. That’s probably why I didn’t hear you before.”