Feral Heat

Page 36

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Out here Jace could get his breath, but it was still tainted with the heavy smoke. Marlo lay unmoving, and Jace couldn't tell whether he was breathing.
He got his jaws around the man's shirt and neck again and scrambled off the wreckage to the ground. Once he felt the dirt under his feet, he ran, loping almost sideways as he dragged Marlo with him. Marlo's feet bump-bumped over the dry Texas grasses.
When they were about fifty feet from the plane, the fire caught the fuel's fumes and exploded. Fire washed over Jace, who threw himself on top of Marlo. Jace smelled his fur burning and drew in a lungful of volcanic air. Burning metal rained around them, sparking on the dry grass, which obligingly caught fire.
Jace hauled himself up, knowing he was on fire, and dragged Marlo down into the sparse rocks that lined a shallow wash. The wash was dry, no water under the blank blue sky, but it might protect them from the flames.
Jace dropped Marlo and rolled over the rocks, writhing desperately to grind out the fire in his fur. Marlo lay unmoving, bloody and burned, but he didn't smell dead.
Now that he wasn't burning alive and could breathe, Jace noticed all the hurts in his body, cuts from crawling out of the plane, abrasions and rawness from shielding Marlo. His left paw hurt like hell, a stinging pain that meant he'd cut himself deeply.
Jace rose stiffly from his crouch in the wash and looked around. The plane burned by itself in the middle of nothing. West Texas sprawled around them, empty as far as Jace's leopard eyes could see. Someone likely owned this land, maybe it was part of a gigantic ranch, but out here, entire counties might have only a handful of houses in them.
Jace shook himself, aching all over, but he considered himself lucky. He hadn't broken anything as far as he could tell, and though chunks of his fur had burned off and his skin smarted, he would heal.
His left paw hurt like hell, though. The last thing he remembered was clutching Deni's bracelet as the plane hit the earth. Jace flexed the pads of his empty paw and looked back at the burning wreck. He'd dropped the bracelet. Deni's bracelet, which he'd promised to keep safe for her. No.
He started to run back toward the plane before his leopard brain stopped him. Let it go. The mate bond wrapping him whimpered. That bracelet had been part of her, and she'd entrusted it to him.
Let it go. Think. Survive.
Jace was free. No one knew where he was. When humans came to find the plane, they wouldn't even know he'd been in it. He'd been smuggled goods. Shifters, including Deni and his family, would think him dead inside it. Deni would cry. So would his dad.
Grief bit at Jace, but in his cat form, survival came first. He scanned the ground again. The first thing he noticed was a coyote, thin-legged and mangy, waiting to see if the two from the wreck would die. Easier pickings than rabbits the coyote had to chase.
Dark specks appeared in the sky as well, circling higher as they spotted Jace looking at them. Turkey buzzards, big and black, they also waiting to see whether they'd feast today. This was the kill-or-be-killed wild out here, no rules in sight.
Jace snarled and rushed at the coyote. The flea-bitten beast snarled in response but fled. Not far, though. Out of reach of Jace's charge, the coyote stopped and waited.
Jace growled his challenge. In spite of being half-burned and thrown around a wreck, Jace felt strong, more so than he had in a long time. The pain of his Collar was completely gone, and in fact, he couldn't even feel the Collar biting into him anymore. He shook himself again and sat down to let his back paw reach up to his neck to scratch.
He stopped. His delicate back toes didn't find a chain, burned or loose, or tight and whole. He swiped his neck with a front paw, with the same result.
Jace told himself to shift, to make sure, and he would-when he could remember how to. The leopard wanted to stay in this form, so Jace was staying in this form.
He writhed around, trying to find the Collar with each of his paws in turn, probably to the amusement of the coyote. Actually, the coyote didn't care-he was simply waiting to see whether Jace would be food or danger.
No, wait-the coyote had vanished. Damn him, he'd been sneaking up on Marlo while Jace went through his contortions. The coyote darted in, ready to drag Marlo-or pieces of him-away to his pack.
Jace went for the coyote. Ears up, paws moving in perfect rhythm, Jace rushed the scavenger. He didn't snarl or make any noise-he didn't have to.
The coyote barely got away from Jace's striking paw. Jace caught his tail with a claw, causing the coyote to yelp and run. Jace chased him, the leopard rejoicing in the hunt, until he realized that the buzzards had taken the opportunity to land near Marlo and see if there were any good pickings.
Jace turned and barreled toward the birds, who flapped away with slow disdain. He snarled this time, making his fur stand up so he'd be large and menacing.
He knew for certain that his Collar was gone when he finally stopped and planted himself near Marlo. He'd been ready to kill the coyote and savage its body, and the Collar hadn't tried to stop him. Jace had mastered the meditation technique, yes, but out here, chasing away scavengers while trying to stay away from a burning plane, he hadn't exactly been meditating.
The Collar was gone. Completely. It must have fallen off in the wreckage or while Jace had been dragging Marlo away from it.
That meant that somehow in the burning mess that had been Marlo's airplane, Jace's Collar had slipped off, every link of it, without hurting him and without making the world spin into insanity.

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