Sunday, October 28, 2012
Lord (and Lady) of the Jungle
Katrianna leaped forward with a roar of surprise. She’d heard and scented nothing, and she should have. Her attacker locked his legs around her torso and dug his fingers into the skin of her neck.
Human, then, in shape if not species. That she could deal with. She dropped and rolled onto her back, a trick she’d learned from her equine clients. It was not a lion move, and ought to throw her attacker off balance. But not crush him, hopefully. He’d paid for a wrestling match, not a fight to the death.
He responded with his own bend in the rules. She’d been told he’d be wearing a knife as part of his costume, hard rubber instead of sharp steel. He used its hilt to clip her on the side of her head. She snapped automatically. His grip loosened. She rolled free and they broke apart. Both shot to their feet and faced each other.
To give him credit, he looked the part he’d chosen. Over six feet, lean and well-muscled. A tousled mane of black hair set off by gray eyes. His leopard-skin loincloth was made of faux fur. Her nose told her that much. It told her nothing else. Of only one thing she was certain: he wasn’t fully human. Nor was this some simple fantasy to him.
They circled across the floor of the fake jungle, two predators at the peak of their power, seeking an opening. All at once he smiled and tossed his knife away. Kat recognized the gesture as a show of contempt. He was taunting her, trying to goad her into an attack, and her with fangs and claws. Was he bloody insane?
If he does the yell, she thought, I probably will kill him.
He called her a name she hadn’t heard since she’d fled Kenya. Kat bristled and her tail lashed. Lucky guess? Or certainty? Did he have a connection with Mustafa?
All right, then. She leaped.
He met her charge with no attempt at evasion. Instead he caught her and went over backwards. Her own momentum and the lack of resistance threw her off stride. She scrabbled for balance on the polished gym floor beneath the imported leaf litter. By the time she recovered herself, he’d wormed onto her back again. He snaked his arms beneath her forelegs and locked his hand behind her neck.
Panic flashed through her. She recognized the move, knew what he was attempting. His greater-than-human or even shifter strength began to force her head toward her chest. Enough pressure and her neck would snap, as the lion’s had in the book.
No choice, then, but to rewrite the story. Kat flung herself at the wall. Her shoulder hit it hard enough to spark a galaxy of stars behind her eyes. His head did likewise. His hold on her faltered. She threw herself again. This time she made sure his body moreso than hers hit the wall. He reeled on her back. Kat borrowed another trick from her horse clients and bucked him off.
He landed hard but was already scrambling upright when she shoved him back down with a paw on his throat. She let her claws come out, just the tips, and snarled a warning into his face. He gasped out the safe word they had agreed upon. “Kreegah.”
She backed off and shifted, signaling the end of the session. He stayed on the floor. Playing it safe, although that smug grin of his made her want to try another charge.
“You cheated,” he accused, still grinning. “There aren’t any walls in the jungle.”
“My clients don’t normally try to kill me.”
“You had plenty of time to shift and surrender.” He climbed to his feet, keeping well out of her reach. “I want a rematch. We should still have some time left on the clock.”
“No.” She indicated the gym’s jungle dressing. “Half your fee went to set this up. I’ll refund the rest. Get dressed and get out and don’t try to come back.”
The man lost his grin. “We have a contract. I didn’t overstep the rules.”
“I don’t care. I’m breaking it.”
Katrianna sucked in a long, steadying breath. “You called me—” She stopped. Even now she couldn’t say it. “Who told you that name? Was it Mustafa?”
His smile returned. “That would be telling.”
“You’re not human. What kind of shifter are you?”
“That would also be telling.” He must have sensed he was nearing her limits, because he held out his hands in apology. “All right. It was a fair enough fight. I’ll take what I can get.”
“For what it’s worth,” Kat said, “your techniques would have worked on a real lion.”
“But not a shifter,” he said, and rubbed his head where it had hit the wall. “You can think outside the box. I have to remember that.”
You, she thought. Not “us”? “You haven’t answered my questions.”
“I’ll tell you what. If it will set your mind at ease, I’ll answer what questions I can if you’ll have coffee with me. My treat. I paid enough for your services.” Kat snarled. “Your company,” he amended. “I don’t know anyone named Mustafa. Does that help my cause?”
“It’s a start.” If she agreed, she’d have a chance to pry the truth out of him, and claw out any lies. “What’s your name?”
She sniffed at his loincloth. “As in John Clayton, I imagine.”
“No, that’s just coincidence. For now, ‘Clay’ will suffice. You’re Mistress Katrianna?”
“To you, for the rest of the hour, yes. Get dressed. I’ll meet you at the desk.”
“Yes, Mistress.” Both his tone and smile were heavy on the irony. “Don’t you want to hear the yell?”
“Only if you want to die.”
“I’ll meet you in ten minutes.”