bottle-fed him,” she whispered, feeling like a fool.



He looked around in confusion. “The lion?” he said, his tone incredulous. “You bottle-fed that beast?”

She laughed so she wouldn’t cry. “He was just a baby then.”

His expression softened as he checked on Hamlet, making sure he was still down. Rather than reproaching her for the misplaced compassion, he rubbed his thumb over the bones in her wrist and let her hands go.

“You’re some crack shot,” he said admiringly, and she burst into tears.

They waited at a safe distance for the helicopter to land.

Luke felt the strange urge to comfort her while two men from UC Davis rolled Hamlet into a body bag and hefted him aboard the craft. Although Shay had remained stone-faced, for the most part, at the sight of a dead woman, she’d fallen apart after the lion went down.

He’d also been shaken by the incident. Judging by what he’d seen this morning, getting mauled by a lion was a horrible way to die, and when he’d caught his first glimpse of Hamlet creeping across the meadow, he’d been damned scared. He wasn’t comfortable putting his life in a stranger’s hands, let alone a tree-hugging Barbie who’d been partying all night, but her trigger finger hadn’t wavered and her aim was true.

Gazing upon the lion’s prone form, with Shay weeping silently beside him, he’d felt his own measure of sadness. Unlike humans, animals killed without malice. Luke’s ancestors would have mourned the loss of this rogue lion’s spirit.

The helicopter would take Hamlet all the way to UC Davis for analysis. His coat bore no trace of blood, but Shay said all cats were fastidious. Either way, forensics would tell the tale. His teeth, claws, fur, and stomach contents would be tested for human tissue.

She waved at the pilots as they lifted off, her expression sober. When the noise faded and the wind from the rotor died down, she surprised him by taking his hand.

And just like that, the mood changed. One moment he was lost in contemplation, a thousand miles away, the next he was right there beside her, having a very physical, very inappropriate response to the feel of her palm sliding against his.

“Thanks,” she said, nibbling on her lower lip.

She had a lush mouth, ripe for kissing, and if she didn’t know the effect it had on men, she was a fool.

Luke had to force himself not to jerk his hand from hers. His reaction was immediate and visceral. He wanted her. Her face was smudged with dirt and her tank top damp from sweat, but he wanted her. Wanted to press her down to the ground and make her dirtier, pull off her top and make her sweatier.

“What are you thanking me for?”

She blinked her wet-lashed eyes. “For not being like Garrett.”

“What’s Garrett like?” he asked, although he knew.

Proving she wasn’t a fool, she pulled away from him. “Never mind,” she said, picking up her rifle and adjusting her pack.

For a moment, he was sorry he’d been so abrupt. Her doelike innocence might be feigned, but her love for animals was genuine and her shooting skills were impeccable. Maybe lust had tainted his perception, changing a simple gesture of gratitude into what seemed like a blatant come-on.

Luke wasn’t a trusting soul, for good reason. He’d been blindsided before.

Whatever her intention, he couldn’t afford to be distracted by her. The bond they’d forged over the course of the morning had caught him off guard. Yeah, he felt an instant connection to her, an almost irresistible sexual pull, but he wasn’t going to act on it. He didn’t need any extra complications right now. Her relationship with Jesse Ryan, a suspect, was more than enough incentive to keep his distance.

They headed back down the canyon in silence. It seemed as though several days had passed since Luke was woken up by the emergency telephone system at the station. Having no interest in securing permanent lodgings in Tenaja Falls, he’d been bunking at the fire-house like a vagabond. He had plenty to do before he called it a day, including interviewing the man who’d reported the body and talking to the coroner about the autopsy.

He wouldn’t have believed it was only midafternoon if the sun wasn’t beating down on the top of his head.

Being from Vegas, the heat didn’t bother him, and although he was no outdoorsman, he found his surroundings remarkably peaceful. The vegetation was green, the air was fresh, and the nearby brook bubbled pleasantly. He also enjoyed a strenuous workout, and Shay Phillips could hike her curvy little butt off.

When she stopped midstride, he almost lost his footing. “I’ll catch up with you in a minute,” she said, skirting around him.

He waited while she ducked behind some bushes.

“I have to pee, Meza.” She fiddled with the tab of her jeans. “Give a girl some privacy.”

“Oh. Right.” Turning on his heel, he went on ahead without her.

He hadn’t gone far before he realized he had no idea where he was. She’d been following a trail of some fashion, but damned if he could see it. The ground beneath him was strewn with oak leaves, and there was no discernible path. Gnarled tree trunks loomed close, their sharp-edged branches reaching out to snag at his clothing. When the underbrush began to snarl around his feet, he had to admit he’d made a wrong turn.

It was embarrassing, really. He hadn’t been on his own for five minutes, and he was already lost.

Looking around the shady glen he was standing in for a familiar landmark, he noticed a rock wall he didn’t remember passing. It was cracked and moss-covered, seeping with moisture. At the base, behind a waist-high bush, one of the fissures widened to a good-sized hole.

If he wasn’t mistaken, it was some kind of cave.

His heart rate kicked up, blood surging with adrenaline. He squinted into the dark confines, almost certain he could see something in there.

Something… wriggling.

The sound of leaves crackling behind him made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up in awareness. He put his hand on his gun, wondering if Yesenia Montes had been given a similar warning before the lion pounced.

Shay had expected Luke to walk a few feet down the trail and wait for her there, so she was surprised when she couldn’t find him. Tracking his footsteps, she realized he’d wandered off in the wrong direction.

Smothering a smile, she followed his obvious path through the thick sagebrush. When she heard a surprised shout, she started running, panic flooding her system.

He was on the other side of an enormous oak, back pressed against a flat rock formation, pointing his 9mm handgun at a ferocious, menacing, terrifying…


“Don’t shoot it,” she cried out, holding a hand over her heart. She was weak with relief, giddy from too little sleep and too much stress, all of her emotions on edge. Apparently, the skunk had startled him, and she couldn’t help but laugh at the picture he made.

He cast a withering glance in her direction. “I wasn’t going to,” he said, holstering his weapon.

With Shay standing behind the female skunk, trapping her in, and Luke blocking the front of her den, the protective mama did what nature deemed appropriate. Turning around, she raised her tail.

“Oh, no,” she gasped. She tried to tell him not to move, but she couldn’t quite get the words out.

When he sidestepped, the spray hit him full-on, with absolute precision.

Shay clapped a hand over her mouth, snorting with laughter. Taking affront, the mother skunk whirled around and sprayed again, coating Shay in the most noxious substance on earth. With a final twitch of her tail, she darted past Luke into the shelter of her den.

Shay’s amusement cut off like a switch. The stench was overwhelming; she couldn’t breathe, let alone laugh.

“Come on,” she choked, gesturing for him to follow. Crashing through the brush, she made her way toward the water, trying to see through stinging eyes.

She dropped her gear at the edge of Deep Creek, shed her boots and socks, and jumped in. Luke did the same, wading in after her.

The water brought instantaneous relief.

Ducking her head under, she scrubbed at her face and arms, hoping the smell wouldn’t linger on her skin. She’d known dogs who’d been skunked, and with or without tomato juice, sometimes their fur carried the scent for

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