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Nights in the swamp were often sultry. Heat and moisture drifted through the cypress groves and clung to the long shawls of lacy Spanish moss hanging from crooked branches. The long-fringed drapes swayed in the slight breeze, adding a macabre feel to the already eerie night. Frogs chorused loudly, hundreds of them, calling out joyously while raccoons slipped noiselessly down to the duckweed-filled water to wash their paws. Two bull alligators challenged for territory, their bellows reverberating through the air.
Sonia Lopez followed the narrow game trail, the one she'd widened over the last few weeks that led deeper into the swamp. Insects droned all around her, a loud cacophony of sound. None stopped when she stepped lightly along the ground, a tribute to the fact that she'd spent every night for the last two months learning every inch of the piece of swamp that belonged to her. She owned forty acres and wanted to become acquainted with all of it. For this. She'd known it was coming, and she was very, very glad she'd prepared.
"We're almost there," she whispered softly. "Hold on. I know it's hard."
Something moved beneath her skin, a wave that pushed outward and then slid away, leaving behind a horrible itch that made her want to scratch until she bled. Her joints ached. She burned in her most feminine core, a savage, brutal need driving her deeper and deeper into the swamp. She was on fire. Every part of her, her body so sensitive, clothing hurt. Every movement brushed streaks of fire from her breasts to her sex. She ached. She needed. The only safe place she had was the swamp.
The grunt of a wild boar had her quickening her step. She had to get to the very heart of the swamp where she'd constructed a small blind, just big enough so she could have a thin mattress, strip, leave her clothing in relative safety and shift. Hurry. Hurry. Hurry. The words thundered in her ears accompanied by the drumming of her heart.
Sonia had allowed her leopard to run free when there was opportunity, ever since that first, shocking, terrifying appearance when the cat had saved her life. It had never been like this. This . . . this . . . necessity. She breathed deep as her joints began to pop. Her knuckles were on fire, the ache becoming a terrible pain that wouldn't let up. "Wait. Just try for me, Gatita. Just try to hang on. We're close."
She didn't dare let her cat loose anywhere near civilization. Not now. Not ever, but now was the most important. Gatita was definitely in heat. That meant Sonia was in heat and couldn't be any place a man might be. She didn't trust herself. She had had no idea the heat would be so intense, such a terrible force driving her beyond all endurance.
Her leopard was in need, and if the way her body was burning was any indication, her cat was going up in flames. She tried running, but stumbled when her toes began to curl down. The blind was just ahead and she threw herself forward those last few feet, tugging her shirt over her head and pulling off her shoes. Her jeans were next. She was usually good about folding clothes and being neat, but there was no time. Her female was in trouble, and Sonia was driven to help her.
Nothing had prepared her for the brutal hunger, the need filling her mind and body until she wanted to scream. Nothing helped. She'd tried. Toys. Fingers. She'd given up, sobbing, standing under the cold of the shower until she realized that wouldn't help. Nothing would help. And it was far worse for Gatita.
She found herself on her hands and knees, breathing as deeply as possible to ease the pain of the shifting. Her skull hurt, feeling too tight. Her jaw, her toes and fingers. Every muscle and joint. Still, the pain helped her forget, for that one terrible moment, the relentless hunger swamping her.
Shifting only took seconds now that she'd practiced, but those seconds were excruciating. Then her leopard was there, sleek, agile and beautiful. She was on the smaller side, her fur thick with so many black rosettes that one appeared to touch another from her head to the top of her tail. Her coat looked black with traces of thin, gleaming golden rings appearing to streak around the black. All leopard patterns were unique, but Sonia was a little vain about her cat's fur. She thought Gatita was beautiful and her fur different and rare. Of course, that meant she had to be more protective than ever.
There had been no time to gather clothes and shove them into the pack to put around Gatita's neck, so she knew she would have to get the leopard to return to the blind where she'd set up the small mattress for the cat to rest on after her run. She urged the leopard back into the swamp, whispering encouragement.
"Run it off, peque–o Gatita, for both of us, run it off."
Gatita had never been in heat before. Sonia knew it could last a week or even a few days longer than that. It was going to be hell for both of them. She'd known she'd have to face the female's heat sometime, but she hadn't thought about the possibility that what her leopard felt she would feel.
Letting Gatita run free was a little on the dangerous side. As a rule, Sonia knew she had no trouble controlling her, but right now, she could barely control herself. Every cell in her body demanded she find a man. Any man would do at this point. She had taken time off work, avoided town and wished she'd thought to board up her home with steel plates on the windows and doors so neither of them could escape. Letting the leopard run in the swamp was better than both suffering and tearing up the house she was working so hard to restore.
Gatita ran through the swamp, leaping over rotting tree trunks covered with moss. The fog had begun to drift in, fingers of mist creeping through the trees, adding to the mystery and beauty of the land. An owl screeched as it missed its prey. The two alligators continued to bellow and posture.
Sonia, hidden deep in the leopard, cautioned her to stay away from the water's edge. The big bull alligator would defend his territory. He was nearly thirteen feet long and up to any challenge from an upstart coming into his world. The male had twelve females in his three-mile range, and he wasn't going to give even one of them up. Her leopard didn't need to be food for any of them, especially when the male was so aggressive.
The little female placed her paws delicately on the damp leaves and vegetation making up the swamp floor. Leaping effortlessly over the termites eating the rotting trunks, she landed in absolute silence. Sonia admired the way Gatita could be so utterly quiet as she moved through brush and trees so fast. She'd constructed the blind as close to the middle of the swamp that she called her own as possible, giving the leopard as much of a territory as she could.
Her property included a good forty acres of land, mostly swamp no one wanted, and was ideal for her. She had the road to the front of her property, swamp to the back of her property, fanning out to meet the edges of two other properties, one just swamp land and one her neighbor, a huge piece of property that seemingly had endless acres of swamp. That gave her leopard a good-sized territory to roam.
Gatita rubbed her head and body everywhere, all over the trees and bushes. She scent-marked and called loudly for a mate. There was nothing Sonia could do about that. She knew the sound would travel for miles, but she couldn't force the heat-driven cat to stop vocalizing her need.
Abruptly, Gatita halted and then lifted her muzzle into the air. Every whisker reported back to her, a radar telling her everything about the neighborhood, who was in it and where. The whiskers could even extend over her mouth to give her the exact location and distance of her prey or enemy so she could deliver a killing bite.
Without warning, Gatita let out a distinctly different call, one that sent chills down Sonia's spine. It wasn't the fact that the noise was like a rusty saw going through a block of wood, it was the fact that the little female leopard was calling out to something . . . or someone.
What are you doing? Sonia hissed, but she knew. The female had come across the scent of a male in his prime. He had marked the territory for his own. What were the odds? Louisiana didn't have leopards, did it? Granted, she didn't know that much about the state, or the swamp she had just moved to, but she'd been certain there were no leopards. There might be a mountain lion or two, but certainly not a leopard.
She found herself tense, worried for her female. The last thing she wanted was a fight between her leopard and a male cougar. She should have checked the area much more carefully. She'd fallen in love with the house. She'd needed a place for her leopard. The house and land were perfect for them both, and, most importantly, the seller had wanted out. She'd fallen into the best job possible for her. Everything had seemed so right, but her female couldn't fight a male and win.
Let's go back, she whispered. Turn around.
Gatita ignored her and rubbed and sprayed all along the trees, leaving her alluring scent for males to find her. Every six or so minutes she called out as she moved through the swamp. The third time Gatita called, a sawing roar filled the swamp in answer, nearly stopping Sonia's heart. There was no mistaking that sound. It was a leopard. The call was very distinctive. By the sound of it, the animal wasn't small.
Heart pounding, she tried to exert some control over the little female, but the cat was too far gone, too in need from her heat. In all her wildest imaginings, Sonia had never once considered this scenario. She'd been afraid the female might get loose around people, that a hunter might discover her. She'd feared that she might react to the cat's heat and attack some innocent man at a bar, which was the reason she'd holed up at her house. But the last thing she'd thought of was that a male leopard might be close by-close enough to hear Gatita calling out in need and readiness.
The little hussy continued her call as she rubbed her scent over every tree and bush in the vicinity. Sonia knew the moment the big male parted the brush to discover her little female. Gatita swung around to face him, hissing a warning, but then rubbing seductively along a tree trunk to entice him.
He was big. Roped muscles moved beneath the thick coat of fur. There were a few scars on him, declaring him a veteran fighter. Sonia took a breath as she studied him from behind the eyes of her female. He was definitely in his prime. Gatita was pleased, practically vibrating with excitement.
A mate worthy of us. Her purring was more felt than heard. Her words, not words but images and the feeling of intense satisfaction.
Sonia knew there was no point in protesting. Gatita deserved a mate. More, the heat was intense, burning the two of them until they both thought they might go insane. Sonia hadn't known a drive could be so powerful. She tried not to think about the problems that could arise from this pairing.
She knew it was too late to stop the two leopards from mating. The male had the scent of the ready female, and he wouldn't give her up. That was evident in the way he took charge, close, but not too close. He patiently followed her when she moved away from him. She played like a seductive kitten, and the large cat watched, moving closer to her, rubbing his fur along hers and shouldering her. Rather than rebuff him, Gatita nuzzled him back.
Her female moaned softly and rolled onto her back, legs in the air. She came to her feet, her rump raised, her long tail lashing as she presenting her alluring body to the male. She brushed her head and body on everything she could, providing him with temptation. She approached him, signaling he was her choice. She rubbed her face along his, nuzzling him repeatedly. He responded, rubbing his scent all over her. They moved off together again, going deeper into the swamp, the male allowing the female to lead him.
He chuffed. She answered. She moved a few steps from him and crouched. The male was on her before Gatita could rebuff him, a common practice with females. As the male extended his back, leaning over the female, Sonia retreated to give them privacy. The male took the female without hesitation, moving in her over and over. Eventually he let out a long growl just before sinking his teeth into the female's shoulder, holding her in place.
The male held her still for several long moments, and then he released her from his teeth and simultaneously leapt away. She growled and swiped at him with her paw, ran a few feet and collapsed, her sides heaving. The male approached her cautiously. When she showed no signs of attacking him, he rubbed his face over hers and then, while she slept, paced around her, scent-marking the trees, making certain that any other male leopard knew this was his territory and his female.
The big male rubbed his face over Gatita's, nuzzling her several times. She rose, and the two of them started all over again. They found a small stream that trickled through the swamp and both drank and rested between their rough sex. As the night began to wane, the female led the male back toward the blind Sonia had set up so they could rest after the female's run.
Gatita collapsed on the mattress, shifting as she did so. Sonia found herself completely naked, the terrible burning hunger not in the least assuaged. Every cell in her body was on fire. She needed a man more than she needed air to breathe.
It was still dark. All around her the cacophony of insects was so loud it drowned out everything, until she heard the exhale. Her body stiffened. She felt the focused stare. Her heart nearly stopped beating and then began to pound. Her mouth went dry. Very slowly she turned her head and found herself staring into the eyes of the huge male.