Christine Feehan

Wild Rain

The second book in the Leopard People series, 2004

Chapter One

THE small launch chugged up the fast-moving river at a pace that allowed the group of travelers to see the surrounding forest. Thousands of trees competed for space, as far as the eye could see. Creeping vines and plants hung low, some sweeping the water's surface. Brilliantly colored parrots, lorikeets and kingfishers flitted continually from branch to branch, so that the foliage appeared to be alive with movement.

'It's so beautiful here,' Amy Somber said, turning away from the forest to look at the others. 'But all I can think about is snakes and leeches and mosquitoes.'

And the humidity,' Simon Freeman added, unbuttoning the top two buttons of his shirt. 'I'm always sweating like a pig.'

'It is oppressive,' Duncan Powell agreed. 'I feel like I'm suffocating.'

'That's strange,' Rachael Lospostos said. And it was strange. The humidity didn't bother her at all. The heavy trees and creeping vines sent blood singing through her veins, making her feel more alive than ever. She lifted the heavy mass of thick dark hair from her neck. She'd always worn it long in memory of her mother, but had sacrificed it for the sake of a very good cause-saving her own life. 'I really love it here. I can't imagine anyone lucky enough to live here.' She exchanged a small smile of camaraderie with Kim Pang, their guide.

He nodded toward the forest and Rachael caught a glimpse of a noisy troop of long-tailed macaques leaping from branch to branch. She smiled as she heard the rasping call of the sap-sucking cicadas even above the roar of the water.

'I like it too,' Don Gregson admitted. He was the acknowledged and respected leader of their group, a man who often visited the rain forest and raised funds for medical supplies for regions in need.

Rachael stared into the rich, lush forest, longing growing in her with a strength that shook her. She heard the continual call of the birds, so many of them, saw them flitting from branch to branch, always busy, always in flight. She had a mad desire to dive out of the boat and swim away to disappear into the dark interior.

The boat hit a particularly choppy wave and threw her against Simon. She had always had a good figure, even as a young girl, developing quickly with lush curves and a woman's generous body. Simon pressed her close when he caught her courteously, her breasts mashing against his chest. His hands slid down her spine unnecessarily. She dug her thumb into his ribs, smiling sweetly as she extracted herself from his arms.

'Thanks, Simon, the currents seems to be getting stronger.' There was no annoyance in her voice. Her expression was serene, innocent. It was impossible for him to see the smoldering anger at the way he took every opportunity to touch her. She glanced at Kim Pang. He saw everything, his expression every bit as tranquil as hers, but he had noted the position of Simon's roving hands. 'Why is the river becoming so wild and choppy, Kim?'

'Rain upriver, there is much flooding. I warned you, but Don consulted with another and was told the river was passable. As we get farther upriver, we shall see.'

'I thought a series of storms was coming,' Don defended. 'I checked the weather this morning.'

'Yes, the wind smells of rain.'

'At least with the wind blowing so hard, the bugs leave us alone,' Amy said. 'I am waiting for the day I don't have fifty bites on me.'

There was a long silence while the wind tugged at their clothing and whipped through their hair. Rachael kept her gaze on the shore and the trees with their branches raised to the rolling clouds. Once she saw a snake coiled around a low-lying branch and another time she spotted flying fox hanging in the trees. The world seemed a rich and wonderful place. A place far from people. Far from deceit and treachery. A place in which one might be able to vanish without a trace. It was a dream she meant to make a reality.

'The storm is coming. We have to take shelter fast. If we're caught on the river, we could all drown.' Kim Pang delivered the ominous warning, startling her. She'd been so absorbed in the forest she hadn't been paying attention to the darkening sky and spinning clouds.

A collective gasp of alarm went up from the small group and instinctively they huddled closer together in the power launch, hoping Kim could get them upriver before the storm broke.

A surge of adrenaline rushed through Rachael's bloodstream, triggering a rush of hope. This was the chance she'd been waiting for. She lifted her face to the sky, smelled the storm in the wild wind and felt droplets on her skin.

'Be careful, Rachael,' Simon advised, tugging at her arm, wanting her to hang on to the edges of the boat as they whipped through the choppy water toward the encampment upriver. He had to shout the words to be heard above the roar of the water.

Rachael smiled at him and obediently caught at the boat, not wanting to appear different in any way. Someone was trying to kill her. Maybe even Simon. She wasn't about to trust anyone. She'd learned that lesson the hard way, more than once before it sank in, and she wasn't about to make the same mistakes again. A smile and a word of warning didn't mean friendship.

'I wish we'd waited. I don't know why we listened to that old man saying today was the best day for travel,' Simon continued, yelling the words in her ear. 'First we wait through two nearly clear days because the omens were bad and then on the word of some man with no teeth we just all climb in the launch like sheep.'

Rachael remembered the old man with shifty eyes and great gaps where his teeth should have been. Most of the people they met were friendly, more than friendly. Laughing and always willing to share everything they had, the people along the river lived simply yet happily. The old man had bothered her. He sought them out, talking Don Gregson into leaving in spite of Kim Pang's obvious reluctance. Kim had nearly backed out of guiding them to the village, but the people needed the medicine and he guarded it carefully.

'Is the medicine worth money to the bandits?' She shouted the question to Simon above the roar of the river. Bandits were reputed to be commonplace along the river systems of Indochina. They had been warned by more than one friendly source to be cautious as they continued upriver.

'Not only the medicine, but we are too,' Simon confirmed. 'There's been a rash of kidnappings by some rebel groups to supposedly raise money for their cause.'

'What's their cause?' Rachael asked curiously.

'To get richer.' Simon laughed at his own joke.

The boat bumped over the water, jarring them all, shooting sprays of water into their faces and hair. 'I hate this place,' Simon complained. 'I hate everything about this place. How could you want to live here?'

'Really?' Rachael looked into the jungle as they rushed by. Tall trees, so many blurring together she couldn't tell one from the other, but they looked inviting. A refuge. Her sanctuary. 'It's beautiful to me.'

'Even the snakes?' The boat pitched wildly and Simon grabbed for a hold to keep from being thrown overboard.

'There are snakes everywhere,' Rachael replied softly, unheard above the roar of the river.

She had been careful to disappear from her home in the States, had planned out each step carefully, with patience. Knowing she was watched, she had gone casually to the department store and paid a huge sum of money to a stranger to walk out wearing her trendy clothes, dark glasses and jacket. Rachael paid attention to details. Even the shoes were the same. The wig was perfection. The woman strolled slowly along the street, window- shopping, picked a large store, changed clothes in the rest room and walked away a good deal wealthier than she had ever imagined. Rachael should have disappeared without a trace right then.

She purchased a passport and identification in the name of a woman long deceased and made her way to a different state, joined a church group on a medical relief tour of the remote areas of Malaysia, Borneo and

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