Excerpt from The Christmas Leopard by Lynne Connolly

Copyright © Lynne Connolly, 2014

Sandi dropped the tessera into place.

“Fuck, no!” Fabrizio’s low curse alerted her.

She lifted her head and blinked.

At the edge of the room stood a large cat. Large was probably an underestimate. It was huge. She watched it, holding her breath when its sides rippled in movement. It could rip her apart.

She’d just dropped into Looking Glass Land. Or Saturnalia.

“Oh my God, it’s the biggest leopard I’ve ever seen!”

Gianni snapped into action. “Get around her other side, Fabrizio. And strip, fast. I need your energy.”

She felt rather than heard Fabrizio move, sliding quickly across the room to stand next to her. “Don’t move, Sandi. It’s waiting for you. You called it, so you’re the target. If you want us to get you out of this, do exactly what we tell you. I know telling you to ask no questions is like asking Dita to leave her corset off, but please try. We don’t have any time to waste.”

A breath of air told her Gianni was on her other side. Fabrizio, busy taking his clothes off—WTF?—glanced at him once. Gianni put his hand on her shoulder and chanted something in a language she didn’t know. It wasn’t Italian, or Latin.

The animal snarled, its lip curling above huge ivory fangs.

“Listen, Sandi.” Gianni’s voice came in softly. “This is real, understand? You’ve invoked a demon and it takes the form of a great cat. We can get you out of this. But only if you do as we say.”

Sandi nodded.

“Take off your clothes. I need your essence, love.”

“What?” She was startled enough to turn and stare at him.

Bare-chested, Gianni was every woman’s dream; strong and lean, with no spare flesh anywhere about him. His biceps flexed as he slowly lifted his arms and traced symbols in the air. “That should hold it for now. But to banish it I need to do more. If we move out of this space, within three feet of the pavement, it will kill us all.”

The animal moved, its black spots rippling along its fur as it slunk around them, trying to find a way in.

Gianni’s breath fell hot on her neck. “This is basic, primitive magic. I need to join with you and Fabrizio. Both of you at the same time. Then I’ll take the energy I need from you both. It’s an ancient ritual of my people.” He glanced at Fabrizio. “Our people.”