land like a mother. If Luke Meza thought she was small town, well, maybe he was right. However common, she was proud of her heritage, and however sordid, she wasn’t ashamed of her past.

Sighing, she adjusted her gun strap, which felt like it was burning a diagonal mark across her chest. His smile faded as his eyes followed her movements, reminding her that it wasn’t necessary for them to have similar interests.

They didn’t even have to like each other.

Shay wished she’d dressed with a little more care this morning, because it was hot. In mid-April, the weather was usually cool, especially in the higher elevations, but today a Santa Ana wind was blowing, bringing an increased fire hazard and warm, dry conditions.

Her sweatshirt had been abandoned in the truck, leaving her clad in a thin cotton tank top. The black lace push-up bra she was wearing underneath had gone great with the satin camisole from last night, but it was hardly appropriate for hiking.

The sheriff must have thought so, too, because he tore his gaze away from her chest. “How much farther?”

With trembling hands, she took the GPS tracker out of her pack to double-check Hamlet’s location. He was still near the top of the ridge, probably sleeping in a shady nook, awaiting sunset. “Only another half mile.”

She’d explained how the tracking system worked when they’d dropped by base headquarters, a small stucco building where she compiled research and studied wildlife data. It was there that she’d nursed an eight-week-old lion cub back to health after his mother had been killed by local ranchers. The cub had been reintroduced to the wild when they’d found a surrogate mother lion and added him to her litter.

To Shay’s amazement, Hamlet had not only lived, he’d thrived.

It had been a risky experiment, but a young lion couldn’t survive on his own until he was several years old, and prolonged contact with humans would only reduce his chances.

Shay had been careful not to treat him like a pet during the time they’d spent together. To do so would have been dangerous for both of them. But he’d been irresistibly cute! Maybe she’d spoken too softly, touched him too lovingly.

Had she done something to assuage his fear of humans? Did he remember her still?

Over the past five years, she’d seen Hamlet on a regular basis. After he’d survived into adulthood, Shay and her fellow research biologists had collared him with the GPS device. He’d been tracked and tranquilized for routine checkups. Just last year, she’d cleaned his teeth.

And now she would kill him.

“We’ll have to go slower as we get closer, and move as quietly as possible,” she said. “If he spooks, we’ll never catch up to him.”

“Why don’t you use dogs?”

Mountain lions could be treed fairly easily. In California, it was illegal to hunt lions for sport, but in other parts of the country the practice was widespread. And unfair to both animals, in her opinion. “Hunting dogs are a risk to the lions, and vice versa. Besides, this is a wildlife preserve. Wild animals avoid places domestic animals have been.”

He studied her face, then her rifle, and she knew he was wondering if she had the heart to shoot it. “How big is this lion?” he asked warily.

“Almost two hundred pounds at his last weigh-in.”

Before they’d set out, Luke had put on his gun belt. Now he placed his hand on the holster, eyeing the trail ahead of them with some trepidation.

Shay wanted to smile, because his Ruger 9mm was no match for Hamlet. Luke was probably good with his weapon, but it was designed for close range. If Hamlet got within fifty yards of them, he could move faster than any man’s hand.

She approved of his caution, however. A person would have to be stupid not to be afraid of a lion Hamlet’s size. That was why she was glad Garrett hadn’t come along. “I know the area pretty well,” she said, to calm herself as well as him. Emotional baggage or not, this was nerve-wracking business. “His mother used to live here. There’s a low hill directly across from the den we can use for cover. From there it’s an easy shot.”

He grunted at her oversimplification. “How many times have you done this?”

“Killed a lion? Never. But I’ve tracked and tranq’d plenty.” Taking another gulp of water, she bolstered her courage. “Ready?” She wiped the sweat from her forehead. “I want to get this over with.”

Queen’s Den wasn’t so much a cave as a sheltered rock outcropping with enough brush to hide the comings and goings of its inhabitants. Hamlet had been born and first captured at this place; now his life had truly come full circle.

Shay would much rather have tranquilized him and let the veterinary scientists at UC Davis handle a more humane euthanasia, but that was against policy. Several years ago, two victims were attacked by the same lion on the same day. The incident was unprecedented, but it created a scandal within the Department of Fish and Game. The warden was accused of dragging his feet, and the “shoot to kill” solution implemented afterward was very much a political maneuver.

It was up to her to make Hamlet’s passing as peaceful as possible.

Peering across a grassy, sun-drenched clearing, Shay attached the scope and lined up her shot. She was lying on her belly along the slope of the hill, ants crawling up her arms, pebbles digging into her elbows. A strand of hair fell into her eyes. She blew it out of her face.

“Okay,” she whispered, signaling Luke.

He had the stronger arm, so he threw the lure. The fist-sized balloon of deer blood exploded on impact, splattering a cluster of rocks below the den. Flattening himself next to her on the slope, he cupped his hands over his ears and waited.

Her heart roared with trepidation. Sweat stung her eyes.

For a long moment, she thought Hamlet wasn’t going to come out. A sated lion didn’t always answer the call of the lure, and it would be too risky to go in after him.

Then she saw him, moving stealthily, so low to the ground he was almost crawling. She couldn’t pull the trigger too early or he would bolt, but her body was taut as a wire, her finger screaming to flex.

Wait for it, she told herself. Just wait for it.

Hamlet had excellent eyesight, but he didn’t see them. Lifting his nose in the air, he didn’t smell them either, for they were downwind. He only caught the scent of the lure, and walked right into its heady trap.

He came out into the clearing, muscles rippling beneath his tawny coat. Her heart jumped into her throat. He was immense. A healthy male in his prime, two hundred pounds of pure, unadulterated power.

He could close the gap between them in about fifteen seconds.

Beside her, Luke’s attention was rapt. Intuition told her he was sharing this experience with her, feeling the same conflict she was. They were in awe of the lion’s presence, exhilarated to be in such an intense, dangerous situation, and disturbed that a magnificent animal had to die this way.

Blood thundering in her ears, she lined him up in the crosshairs, stroking her finger over the trigger, waiting for the perfect opportunity…

And when she had it, she took the shot. Straight through the heart.

Hamlet fell like a titan.

Stumbling forward, he lost his footing and collapsed in a boneless heap. He didn’t get up. It had been quick and easy and virtually painless, just how Shay wanted it, but she wasn’t proud or satisfied or even numb.

She was devastated.

Rolling away from the rifle, she clenched her hands into fists and pressed them to her stomach, trying not to sob.

Luke tore his gaze from Hamlet’s lifeless form. “What happened?” he asked, instantly alert. Taking her by the wrists, he pulled her hands away from her body, searching for injuries. “Are you hurt?”

She shook her head, unable to speak. Unable to breathe.

His hold on her wrists loosened. Her lungs expanded and contracted, releasing her from panic’s grip.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, gentling his voice.

She closed her eyes, seeing the cub Hamlet had once been. Batting at dragonflies, leaping through foxtails. Falling asleep in the cradle of her arms, just like her brother, Dylan, had done so many times, so many years ago. “I

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