Authors: Liza Street
The Sierra Pride, Book 3
By Liza Street
Miranda Hsin is a grad student with a goal: grab her mountain lion samples and get the hell out of the woods. She doesn’t mind nature and she’s great at tracking her quarry, but there’ve been some strange footprints—barefoot human footprints—in a stretch of forest that should be free of people. She’s used to having all the answers, and suddenly she’s without a clue.
In danger of being banished from his pride, Gabriel Fournier came to the forest to forget his brother’s mate. Now he’s finally got his eye on a woman who can make him forget all about Hera, and Gabriel has a chance at happiness…if only the two of them can put enough faith in their love to shake off Miranda’s advisor, a woman intent on using Gabriel as a science project.
Content warning: This sexy shapeshifter novelette includes a happily-ever-after as well as explicit love scenes and naughty language. It is intended for adults.
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The Sierra Pride Series:
Fierce Player (August 2016)
Fierce Dancer (September 2016)
Fierce Informer (October 2016)
Fierce Survivor (November 2016)
Fierce Lover (December 2016)
Gabriel would give anything to get out of his own head. Even as a lion, though, his thoughts churned. Every part of him wanted to be with Hera.
Hera, his brother’s mate.
His large paws made no noise as he paced over fallen pine needles. All he could think about was how he’d pressed against her, finally, victorious at being close to her. When Blake had interrupted, Gabriel had said, “Just showing her how to throw darts,” and his hand had skimmed along the top of her back pocket.
He’d wanted her then, and he wanted her still.
But nobody thought she should belong to him. It wasn’t right—even Gabriel knew it wasn’t right—but that didn’t stop the craving he had to press his lips against hers, rub his cheek against hers, drink in her scent.
Her scent still lingered on him, despite numerous dips in mountain streams still running low from the drought.
Now, though, there was a new distraction. Someone was following him.
He’d purposefully fled to the far reaches of the Sierras, way out of the range of Yosemite tourists and random hikers. Far from people. And fuck it all if someone hadn’t come after him.
He tried to ignore the hope in his heart, that it was one of his brothers coming to tell him that everything was all right. That he wasn’t banished from the pride, that he was still their alpha and they still loved him, that they understood. Nobody had banished him—he’d left voluntarily because damn it, he’d screwed up, even though it wasn’t his fault Hera got to him like she did. He’d never asked for it. And there she was, living in his family’s house, fucking his brother in the room across the hall.
Mountain lion shifters could hear
Every moan, every gasp of delight, every whispered endearment.
Now he could hear the soft footsteps of someone approaching, trying not to be seen. It wouldn’t be one of his brothers—they would’ve called him out on his bullshit already, told him to stop shifting so much, that it wasn’t good for his mind to stay so long in cat form.
If it wasn’t his brothers, then it had to be some stupid hiker who thought it would be cool to see a mountain lion in the wild. Or a hunter? He sniffed the air, but he couldn’t scent anything like gunpowder or metal. A bowhunter? Nobody would be that big of a dumbass.
The thing was, whoever was following him was doing it with purpose, and they were skilled. He hated that the hiker was so close to the stash of clothes he’d left in an abandoned hunting shack. He’d tried to hide his tracks at first, hoping to dissuade some dumb fuck who’d happened upon a lion trail and thought it would be cool to follow it. It hadn’t worked, which meant the person was determined and skilled.
He snorted. A part of him was curious, but his Aunt Nan had always talked about curiosity and the cat. Besides, he didn’t have the patience for this bullshit.
He had one thing a human would never have in these mountains: speed. Coiling back on his haunches, he sprang forward and sprinted through the woods.
Miranda set down her hiking pack and leaned it against a boulder. The big cat had been spooked and was running—she saw how its footfalls came farther apart, and there were no signs of fleeing prey, so it wasn’t hunting. He’d probably sensed her following, and she was lucky he hadn’t turned around to confront her. She’d have to be more careful.
Hell’s balls. She should give this one up, she thought, rubbing at her aching shoulders. The pack was damn heavy, full of all kinds of research equipment, and this lion obviously wanted to be left alone. But she’d been out in the field for months without any signs of cougars—no tracks, no scat, no kills, nothing.
Give up? No, Miranda Hsin wouldn’t give up. This research was important. She needed to know the size of the home range of each individual cougar, and she’d collect samples which could then be shared with other geneticists. It would help with conservation efforts.
She only needed to get close enough for a photograph, and hopefully gather a DNA sample from a hair snare to add to her collection. That was it, and she didn’t think it was too much to ask.
It would have been a lot easier if she hadn’t left her other two team members behind. She’d gotten tired of the way they kept eyeing each other. Miranda had started feeling like a third wheel, like her presence was the only thing stopping the other two from hooking up…and she started to feel like soon, they wouldn’t let her presence stop them. The sexual tension had been high. She’d known she was right when she suggested they split up to continue collecting samples, and neither of them had complained.
They’d come out with two satellite phones, so Miranda had taken one and left the other with them. Now Miranda was blissfully alone.
Heaving the hiking pack back onto her shoulders, she set off once more. She didn’t go too fast—she didn’t want the cougar to feel cornered in any way.
The woods were peaceful, and quiet. Perhaps too quiet. She glanced at the ground. The tracks were still distanced well apart. Feeling reassured, she followed them.
When the sun was high overhead, she stopped for another rest. There was no way she’d catch up with the cougar today, and she had to eat to keep up her strength for more hiking. Already she was skinny enough that her friends had been pushing her to eat more. She wasn’t interested in food, though. She was interested in success.
She hated that she had so much to prove. She hated that she cared. And even though she usually loved being out in the field, right now she was mad at herself and she hated this damn forest and these damn mountains and every damn fly and gnat that had ever lived.
She inhaled a granola bar and a sandwich she’d made before packing up her campsite this morning, chasing it down with water. Break over—it was time to get back to work.
The forest was still quiet—the only wildlife making noise was far, far off. Frightened away by Miranda? She didn’t think so.
Next to a tall pine, the tracks stopped. She held her breath and backed slowly from the trunk. No doubt the cougar was up above her somewhere. Shit. She should have had her walking stick out, but after her lunch, she’d collapsed it and put it in her pack. Stupid, stupid, stupid. She eased the pack from her shoulders. If the cougar pounced, she’d swing her pack at it. The pack had the added benefit of making her look bigger when she held it over her head.
But nothing pounced. She raised her head, scanning the trees above her, looking for a flash of tawny gold, a thick tail, anything. But there was no cougar.
After getting out her walking stick, she circled around the trees. Then she widened her circles, looking up at the limbs for the cougar, and looking down at the ground for its tracks. Nothing. She continued to widen her search, not understanding where the cougar could have disappeared to. Sure, it was possible it had leaped from tree to tree, but why would it do such a thing?
She looked down, scanning for prints again, and then she found them.
Footprints. Not cougar footprints,
What the hell? She’d thought she was the only human around for miles. This wasn’t exactly prime hiking territory; it was too far from anything.
And the idea of being around a human—well that, right now, was far more frightening than being alone with the cougar. Cougars, she understood. Humans, however, were unpredictable.
And human footprints…this human wasn’t wearing
. There was obviously something wrong with this human.
It was already getting dark, the sun dipping behind the trees, and she’d need to set up camp soon. Should she do it here, so close to fresh human tracks? Or should she risk going farther into the wilderness, hoping to put distance between her and the barefoot stranger?
The footsteps were going one way. She probably had another thirty minutes of daylight left. If she hoofed it for twenty, she could get camp set up in ten. She’d rather put a full thirty minutes between her and Barefoot—actually, she’d rather hike all night—but it would be worse to not get a good campsite, and hell’s balls if she was going to use a headlamp or a light source of any kind. It would draw Barefoot right to her.
She hiked as long as she could, counting by nines to quell her rising panic. Thirty-six. Forty-five. When she’d reached five hundred fifty-eight, she found a flat area to set up her tiny, one-person tent. She’d forgo a hot meal tonight and munch on another granola bar. Sliding into her tent, she brought her pack inside with her and found her satellite phone. She dialed by touch and got out her GPS device.
The other line rang once before someone picked up. “This is Dr. Gutierrez.”
“Dr. Gutierrez! It’s Miranda. I’m checking in—”
A loud hissing noise issued from the satellite phone, and Miranda yanked it away from her ear until it quieted.
“Dr. Gutierrez? Are you there?”
A click, and then the satellite phone expressed more static. Miranda scowled at it. It figured the phone would go on the fritz right when she had something to report. But then Dr. Gutierrez’s high voice came on. “Ms. Hsin? Is that you?”
Miranda had told her thousands of times to call her Miranda.
didn’t exactly roll off the tongue, and Dr. Gutierrez never pronounced it correctly, anyway. Miranda wished they’d call each other by their first names, like she knew other PhD candidates did with their advisors. But Dr. Gutierrez was old-school, a woman in science who demanded respect. At least she gave respect, too.
Still, it was a little lonely, being so formal.
“Yes, it’s me, Miranda. I wanted to check in with my coordinates.”
It was their safety procedure. Gutierrez wasn’t going to forbid Miranda from being on her own out in the field, but she insisted on knowing Miranda’s whereabouts. Miranda rattled off the numbers listed on her GPS.
“How are the samples?” Dr. Gutierrez asked.
“I, uh, I have a few.” Miranda winced. She hated sounding like she didn’t know what she was doing. She tried again. “I collected a new one today and I’m tracking the cougar to get a visual.”
“How long do you think you’ll be?”
“I don’t know. As long as it takes. I just…” Finally, Miranda realized her problem. She didn’t want to get off the phone because despite the fact that she enjoyed solitude, she was also spooked after seeing those footprints.
“Is there something else?” Dr. Gutierrez sounded impatient.
“It’s probably nothing,” Miranda said, “but it was so strange. I was tracking a cougar, but then I lost it. Then, about thirty feet away, I found human tracks.”
“Yes, quite fresh.”
“Could be a hiker,” Dr. Gutierrez mused.
“Nope, I don’t think so.”
Dr. Gutierrez paused. “Why not?”
“The person wasn’t wearing shoes.”
Dr. Gutierrez’s tone became brisk and serious. “Tell me the exact location of the tracks.”
“I don’t know, exactly. I didn’t think to write them down.” What a strange idea. Miranda was tracking cougars, not crazy people. But she could hear Dr. Gutierrez’s disapproval through her silence on the other end of the line. “They’re about a twenty-five minute hike east of this location.”
“Thank you, Ms. Hsin. If you find any more human prints, call me immediately.”
Dr. Gutierrez hung up without a goodbye. Miranda stared at the phone in her hand, its outline barely visible in the darkness. If only, just once, Dr. Gutierrez gave Miranda some sign of approval. Praise for a job well done. Encouragement for all the work Miranda was doing out here in the field. Sometimes Dr. Gutierrez’s brusque manner sparked all of Miranda’s feelings of inadequacy, igniting them. Miranda would never get a good paper written. She’d never have her name listed as first author. Miranda’s dad would never know, or care, about the new things Miranda was discovering.