Drew considered herself a hunter, even though she'd never killed. She was always searching for the perfect wildlife shot, which explained why at the moment she was lost in a South American jungle.
If she'd paid closer attention to her guide and less to the almost magical pull of her camera lens, she wouldn't be in such danger right now. Panic nearly set in, but she forced herself to remain calm and focus on finding some indication of which way to travel.
She heard a cry -- something between a feline shriek and a human bellow. Her heart skipped a beat. Dangerous animals stalked this wilderness, yet she'd never heard any beast sound quite like this.
Over and over the cries tore through the jungle. Drew sensed desperation in that voice. Overcome by curiosity, she ventured toward, rather than away from the sound. She pushed herself through a tangle of vegetation into a clearing. Her eyes widened.
Buried chest deep in quicksand struggled a creature unlike anything she'd ever seen. Its face looked both human and feline. Though built like a man, it was covered in a leopard pelt. Its sinewy arms and long, clawed fingers stretched toward the overhanging branch of a nearby tree, but it couldn't quite reach it. The harder it fought for freedom, the deeper it sank.
Torn between pity and fear, Drew realized this beast would soon die a horrible death. It paused for a moment, its chest heaving. Clearly it was losing strength. She had no way of knowing how long it had been trapped there, fighting for freedom.
At that moment it caught sight of her. Drew momentarily forgot to breathe. Even from a distance she saw keen intelligence and sensitivity in its greenish-yellow eyes.
It didn't utter a sound, but something in its expression told her that even if it could speak it wouldn't ask for her help. If this creature understood pride, if it sensed its own mortality, she couldn't leave it to die.
She was probably risking her life. Once free, this creature could tear her apart. Its -- his -- powerfully muscled body, clawed hands and gleaming fangs marked him as a predator. She didn't have a weapon to defend herself, yet she approached.
He watched her warily.
"Easy," she said, her heart pounding. She slipped off her backpack and gear and placed it on the ground. "I just want to help you. Can you understand me?"
Except for a low growl, he didn't reply but stared at her.
She stepped closer, careful not to get too near the pit. How could she reach him?
She pulled off her belt and tossed it to him. He grabbed hold and she tried to heave him out. Lord he was heavy, and with the pull of the quicksand she wasn't sure she could free him. He tried pulling himself out, but only succeeded in dragging her closer to the pit.
"No, don't!" she said and released the belt.
He fell deeper into the quicksand. A low moan of despair escaped his throat. Again their gazes locked and the expression in his eyes tugged at her heart.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I'm sorry. Maybe I can bring the branch closer to you."
She jumped up and after a couple of tries caught hold of the overhanging branch. She pulled down as hard as she could while the creature in the pit stretched his long arms upward. He caught hold of the branch and it creaked beneath his weight. Inch by torturous inch he dragged himself higher, his claws sinking into the bark. The branch looked close to snapping.
Drew bit her lower lip. He had to make it this time. He had to!
As he emerged from the quicksand, she stared in fascination. Beneath the smooth, leopard like pelt, he had the form of an athletic man -- a lean waist, long legs of chiseled muscle, and a tight, perfect ass. He was also completely naked.
Finally he reached the side of the pit. Only when he grasped her ankle did she realize she'd stayed far too close to this creature.
Now that he had her, what was to stop him from tearing her to pieces? He looked partly human, but would he react like one?
She gave a sharp cry as he tugged her to the ground. Instead of harming her, he collapsed on top of her, still panting from his narrow escape, his big, rock-hard body half draped over hers.
Drew lay frozen, her heart pounding. Beneath the layer of sand and mud, his pelt felt smooth and his body quite warm.
After a few moments, his breathing evened out and he lifted his head to stare into her eyes.
Drew swallowed, unsure of what to do. She wondered if he could talk. There was only one way to find out. "Can you understand me?" she asked.
He didn't reply, but continued watching her. Those wide set greenish eyes were intelligent. She sensed he knew what she said but was unable or unwilling to respond, at least not in words.
He pushed himself to his knees, and when she tried to rise as well, he placed a hand on her stomach.
Drew's pulse raced and she remained still, half raised on her elbows. She glanced at the large, hairy hand, waiting for his claws to tear through her clothes and flesh. Though firm, his touch didn't hurt and after a moment his hand moved slowly up her torso. As it passed between her breasts, her nipples tightened and tingled. Finally he paused, his hand curved lightly around her throat.
"You're not going to hurt me, are you?" she continued softly, her voice steadier than she felt.
He tilted his head slightly to the side and his eyes narrowed.
"Listen, I saved your life, now let me go." She tried to edge away, but his grip tightened a bit on her neck. She swallowed hard, but spoke calmly and sternly. "Let me go."
His hand left her and she stood. He rose with her and she realized just how tall he was. He had such broad shoulders and his muscles were well developed. If not for the black and tan pelt and the feline cast to his face, she would have sworn he were human.
"I have to go," she said, then muttered, "Not that I know where. I'm completely lost." Her gaze locked on his and she edged away. Just when she thought he might let her leave, he growled, grasped her by the waist and hauled her over his shoulder. He slung her backpack over the other shoulder.
Screaming, Drew pounded her fists against his muscular back and taut buttocks. She tried to kick her legs, but he held her fast. The strength in his long, lean body was more animal than human and despite her struggles, she knew she couldn't fight him. Her blows must have annoyed him because he growled more savagely and shook her a bit, but she continued fighting until exhaustion overcame her. Panting, her head pounding from her dangling position, she lay like a rag doll.
He carried her for what seemed like miles before he entered the mouth of a cave, partially concealed by vegetation. Inside they traveled down a corridor so dark that Drew was unable to see. Finally the corridor opened to a rocky chamber. Light shone in through a hole in the top of the cave. Her captor lowered her onto a bed of leaves covered by an animal skin. She expected a foul stench, but instead it smelled earthy and faintly musky -- not at all unpleasant.
Glancing around, she noticed a leather bag and several wooden bowls half filled with colorful dyes by the bed. Toward the center of the cave a fire pit surrounded by rocks contained the ashes of wood. Jungle scenes of naked people, great cats and other animals covered one of the rock walls.
After a moment the numb fear wore off and she leapt to her feet only to be once again hauled into the beast's embrace. His arms wrapped around her and their gazes locked. Those greenish-yellow eyes bore into her, sending a shiver through her that wasn't completely one of fear.
"Get your paws off me," she said in a tone that usually sent men running.
But this wasn't a man.
She kicked him hard and he grunted and pushed her onto the bed. He covered her body with his, pressing her into the leaves. She'd expected him to react in anger, but those penetrating eyes continued staring into hers, wary yet calm. Purring softly, he tilted his head to the side in a manner she was beginning to find rather attractive.
"What do you want?" she asked, frustrated. Was this his way of thanking her for helping him out of the pit? If so, she could live without his gratitude.
That purring echoed in her head, making her drowsy. Damn, she could scarcely stay awake. Those greenish-yellow eyes swallowed her, and at the moment she didn't mind being devoured. Before she knew what was happening, that soft purring lulled her to sleep.