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Leader of the Pride

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~***~

 

“ Excuse me, sir. Are you Edward Masen?”

Edward turned around to see the young man with accented English approach him in the arrival hall at Lagos Airport.

“I am, yes,” he confirmed.

“Great! My name is Akpofure, but everyone calls me Akpe. I'm here to drive you.”

Edward smiled, grateful. “Wonderful. Thank you for meeting up with me.”

He shook his head with a grin. “It is I who should thank you. We are all so happy to have you here with us.” He gestured with his hand that Edward was to follow him, and he showed him to the parking lot and his car.

They threw the bags in the back before both men climbed inside, and as soon as Edward settled in the seat, he felt how tired he actually was. There had been a layover and delay in Ethiopia, which had culminated in his journey taking fifteen hours from New York to Lagos in Nigeria. The jetlag was horrible, and his yawn couldn't be held in.

It caused Akpe to laugh. “It's okay, Mr. Masen. You can sleep. It will be a few hours before we arrive, and you're not the first tired American I've picked up.”

“Are you sure?” Edward asked him with a sideways glance. “I don't want to be rude.”

“No, go ahead. I am fine with the silence. We can speak later.”

Even feeling somewhat uncomfortable with sleeping while a virtual stranger drove him into the wilderness of the African savanna, Edward slid deeper into his seat before closing his eyes. He was tired enough to immediately fall into a blissful slumber.

It was impossible to tell how long he was asleep for, but when he woke up, it was clear they had driven outside the city limits and were now effectively approaching the plains. The sun was beating down, and the sparse trees provided little shade over the dirt road they were driving on.

Edward rubbed his eyes and sat up straighter.

“Aah, welcome back to the land of the living,” Akpe told him with a grin. “If it weren't for that chainsaw snoring of yours, I'd have thought you left us before your time.”

Not awake enough to reply with a witty comeback, Edward just ran his fingers through his hair and looked around their surroundings.

“It's beautiful out here. How long do we have left?”

“You're in luck, my friend, only a few more minutes now.”

“You mean we are already inside the reserve?” Edward asked.

Akpe nodded. “Yes. We passed the line just recently.” His easy smile fell, and he became serious. “There is no fence, and we're very vulnerable to poachers. An extra set of eyes means so much to us.”

Edward gritted his teeth. “It seriously pisses me off that lowlifes get away with wiping our world clean of so many species we ought to protect.”

“It's very sad, indeed,” Akpe agreed. “The worst, however, is that they get away with their crimes because rich people buy what they sell. Without the market, they would have no business.”

“True. It's a disgusting, vicious cycle of evil. And the wildlife has to suffer because of that greed."

Akpe patted Edward's shoulder to show camaraderie. "But it's people like you who keep this world from falling into complete darkness. As long as there are those who fight on the side of the animal, there is hope."

Edward nodded, although he rarely felt that hope himself. He decided to change the subject to quench his still bubbling anger. “How large is the team working with the lions?”

“Right now?” Akpe asked, and a slow smile spread. “Three. And that includes you.”

“Are you serious?” Edward asked with wide, incredulous eyes. “Three people with me? I thought it was a pride of five lionesses, their cubs, and a coalition of three males. How can three people manage all of that on their own?”

Akpe laughed. “Well, you see, there is a fourth, but she's … special . It's hard to explain. You will meet her when we arrive. But she's American, like yourself.”

Edward furrowed his brow in confusion. “Great. Looking forward to it,” he mumbled as he tried to figure out what could possibly be so special about an American girl working with the care of wild lions.

Finally, they arrived at the reserve's field base, which consisted of two medium-sized wooden houses with a thatched roof.

“This is the base where the team lives when we work closely with the animals. Everything runs on solar power, but only the satellite phone in the working quarters can be used for communication and to reach the central outside the reserve in case of emergencies," Akpe explained. "There are five rooms in total, three of which are shared, but most often we don't fill them all. We prefer to work in small teams to keep from stressing the animals."

Edward nodded in understanding of everything Akpe told him. He had known beforehand that working out in the field would mean being cut off from civilization. It was one of the reasons the job had called to him. He enjoyed solitude and being close to nature more than interacting with people who stressed through their days to get that promotion they really wanted or that raise they had waited for.

In Africa, he'd finally get the chance to do what he loved, which was to work with animals and protect them. He had worked in animal parks before, but that atmosphere had depressed him immensely since the animals’ behaviors clearly showed how unhappy they were with their situation. Their stress and anxiety were always the worst during opening hours with all the screaming children banging on the Plexiglas of their enclosures and adults who did nothing to calm down the children who didn't know better.

He remembered specifically how one Siberian tiger had almost been put down just because a small boy had thrown food at it, and in response, the tiger had displayed aggression, which was actually only an outburst of its anxiety. It had been deemed too dangerous to reside in the park, but in the hour of need, a wildlife reserve had stepped in just before paperwork for the tiger's euthanization could be signed.

Akpe helped Edward with his bags, and just as they closed in on the first house, the door opened up and a blonde woman close to Edward's age stepped outside.

“Akpe!” she called with a pleasant smile. “What are you dragging in now?” she asked teasingly with a French accent.

“Rosa, this is Edward Masen, the new guy,” Akpe introduced. “Mr. Masen, this is Rosalie. She's part of the team you will be working with.”

Rosalie offered her hand and shook Edward's when he accepted hers. “It's a pleasure to meet you, Edward. You can call me Rosa. Everyone around here does.”

“Nicknames are a big thing around here, isn't it?" he asked, and Rosa grinned.

“Welcome to Nigeria. Everyone here goes by nicknames. It's easier to remember anyway. Don't be shocked if people start calling you Ed or Eddie. It's bound to happen, so get used to the idea.”

Edward chuckled. “If it were my choice, I'd prefer Ed. I have bad memories connected to being called Eddie,” he said.

“Can't make that promise. I was actually heading out, so I'll see you at dinner, and I want to hear everything about you then,” she said.

For the first time, Edward noticed the gun belt she had attached around her hips.

It was obvious it wasn't a tranquilizing gun in the holster.

Rosa noticed his staring. “It's a necessity here. Akpe will make sure you get one as well.”

“I'm not exactly comfortable with handling guns,” Edward said with a grimace.

“I'm afraid you don't have a choice. It's for protection, both for yourself as well as the animals. I'm sure Akpe told you of our poacher problem.”

Edward gaped at her in shock. “You mean you shoot poachers with that?”

“If I have to,” she replied. “We use it as a warning first, but if they don't heed it, we ask questions later.” She took notice of Edward's clear unease, and she gave him a sympathetic smile. “Our job is to, first and foremost, protect the animals. The job isn't all perks.”

“Clearly.”

Akpe jumped in then. “Where's Bella? I promised he'd get to meet her.”

'Bella?' Edward thought. Was she the special American girl?

The question made Rosa roll her eyes. “Where do you think she is? She was up at the ass-crack of dawn and left with a bag of food. She hasn't been back yet.”

”Hopefully, she'll join us for dinner. I warned her Edward would arrive today,” Akpe said with a sigh and a shake of his head, and it became obvious that despite his young age, he held a position of authority over the team.

Edward felt momentarily ashamed he hadn't asked more about his traveling companion.

”Yeah, but you see, the thing with Bella is she cares very little about people,” Rosa said with a laugh. ”If the pride needs her, nothing can stop her.”

”Who is this Bella?” Edward asked when he couldn't hold his curiosity in any longer.

Akpe and Rosa exchanged a look before Rosa answered. ”Bella has been with the team the longest. She knows everything about the pride and coalition, but she's got it all in her head and absolutely nothing documented, which is essential for this project. Hence, why you're here. It will be your job to note everything on paper, so the two of you will be working very closely together." She patted him in a friendly way on the shoulder. "I have to warn you, though. Bella is fiercely protective, and she won't allow you near any of the lions unless you convince her you're trustworthy."

“I'm not very good with people,” Edward confessed and rubbed his neck uneasily.

“Neither is she, which means you're already more alike than most,” Rosa assured. “Whatever you do, don't try to charm her. She'll have your balls.”

Edward had no idea what he was supposed to make of this infamous Bella, but from what he'd heard, she scared him a bit. “She sounds lovely,” he commented, sarcastically, and it caused the other two to snort.

“Oh yeah, you two will get along fine … eventually,” Rosa said before she climbed into one of the jeeps. “As I said, I'll see you at dinner, and you'll also get the chance to meet Jasper,” she called out before she started the engine and drove off.

“Why do I suddenly feel as if I am in way over my head?” Edward mumbled to himself.

“You'll be fine,” Akpe reassured him. “Just don't let your uncertainties show around Bella,” he said amused. “She smells fear.”

The afternoon remained rather uneventful, as there was loads of paperwork that needed to be sorted before he could be allowed out into the field, and he was handed the thin folder of info that the team had on the lions.

“This is it?”

Akpe shrugged. “As Rosa said, all the info is in Bella's head. She never writes it down.”

“Where is she anyway? You said she's been away since dawn.”

“She's with the pride,” Akpe replied. “She spends most of her days with them.”

Edward looked at him in confusion. “You mean she just sits and watches the lions day in and day out? Sounds tedious.”

“Oh no,” Akpe disagreed. “Bella doesn't just study the lions. She's with them, and they see her as a member of the pride. Essentially, she is their leader.”

“What?” Edward's eyes widened. “How is that possible? I thought these were wild lions.”

Akpe nodded. “They are, but they didn't start out that way. The five fully-grown lionesses were born in captivity in a breeding farm but fortunately were rescued only a week after their birth. Bella was part of the rescue team, and she took them in, basically raised them.” Akpe pulled a photo down from the pinboard and gave it to Edward. It was a photo of a dark-haired woman lying with her head on a lioness's midsection while four others slept close by. “When they were old enough, they were released out here,” Akpe continued. “All the males in the coalition were born in the wild, but the pride protects Bella, and the males have accepted her as well now. One of the young, the first male born to the pride, is almost at the age where he will break from the pride and find a coalition of his own. He's a key piece to start the re-population of these lions and the apple of Bella's eye.”

“I see.”

Edward rubbed his eyes in both fatigue and frustration. His job, which was supposed to bring him joy and solitude, now appeared a much more momentous task than what he'd first thought. He could only hope that Bella wouldn't become a nut that was too hard to crack.

When dinnertime came around, Rosa returned and she stared in shock at the food Edward had prepared for everyone.

You did all this?” she asked incredulously.

He shrugged, somewhat self-conscious with her gaping stare. “Once all the paperwork was finished, there wasn't much more I could do.”

Rosa eyed the gun in its holster lying on the bench. “You really don't like guns, do you?” she asked him, and he also looked at the gun.

“No, I don't.”

“Why not?”

“I just don't. I'm not a violent person, and I've never seen the appeal of them,” he explained to her as she sat down by the table.

“You know, usually, all of us just heat something quickly in the microwave,” she told him. “How did you even manage to cook all this on that ancient stovetop?”

He chuckled at her. "It's all about not allowing limitations hold you back," he said. "My mom taught me everything I know about cooking, and she's a chef. We both thought I'd become one as well before I realized that animals were what I really wanted to work with."

The door opened and a tall man entered.

“Jazz!” Rosa exclaimed. “Look at all of this! Our new guy apparently used to be a chef-to-be.”

The man looked at Edward and smiled. “Well, I have to say this is a very welcome surprise,” he said and held out his hand for Edward to shake. “Jasper Whitlock at your service.”

“Edward Masen.”

“Pleasure,” he said. “You've certainly made a good first impression on me.” He looked at Rosa. “Bella back yet?”

“I haven't seen her, but I just got back myself.”

“No, she hasn't been around,” Edward answered. “Akpe left half an hour ago to get her to come back for dinner.”

“That's Bella for you,” Jasper commented. “When she's with those lions, everything else ceases to matter, including feeding herself.”

The sound of Akpe's jeep drowned out his words, and Edward felt himself becoming nervous. He would finally meet this Bella, and since he would obviously work a lot with her, he was anxious for this first meeting to go well.

The door opened, and the woman from the photo entered with a serene expression on her face until she spotted him. Her eyes immediately narrowed in caution.

“Who are you?” she asked on guard.

Edward cleared his throat nervously and walked up to her with his hand outstretched. She didn't immediately accept it. “I'm Edward Masen, the new guy.”

She appraised him up and down, and without changing her cautious expression, she took his hand and shook it once. “Right. I'm Bella.”

They stood frozen in silence in front of each other for a tense moment, and then Akpe came through the door.

“Something smells really good in here,” he said with a smile. “I didn't expect you to manage this, Ed.” The nickname had already caught on with the man.

Bella narrowed her eyes. “You cooked?”

He looked at her uncertainly. “Yes?” he said, but it sounded more like a question.

“Why? We usually have our own food ready.”

Edward had no idea why she was so confrontational, but he hoped that answering her questions as truthfully as possible would be the way to go. “Uh, I had extra time on my hands.”

She folded her arms across her chest. “Are you trying to impress us?”

His eyes widened. “No! Not at all. I had extra time. That's all.”

She huffed, not convinced, and moved past him to sit at the table across from Rosa. “Abayomi has made great progress this past week. I'm positive he will break free sometime this month.”

“That is exciting news,” Rosa said and started to serve the side salad to everyone.

Edward felt out of step and didn't keep up with the conversation. He opted to eat in silence until Jasper, who sat across from him and next to Bella, leaned forward. “Don't take it personally,” he said. “She just needs to warm up to you. That's all.”

~***~

Edward hadn't slept at all because of the jetlag, and it was barely dawn when the door opened, surprising him. He was sitting on the porch with a bottle of water, as it was already quite hot outside. He hadn't expected anyone to be up this early.

Bella stepped outside, and while Edward's first intention had been to stay quiet to keep her from noticing him, the plan quickly went down the drain when her eyes found his. She didn't say anything, and the atmosphere became tense immediately.

Edward knew he had to at least try to get along with her since they were colleagues, and even though he hated small talk, he attempted it.

“You're up early.”

“So are you,” she retorted.

He cleared his throat. "Yeah, you know … jetlag," he said. "I'm still on Pacific time."

“Okay,” she answered, her tone indifferent. “I'm gonna go.”

He leaned forward in his chair. “You're going to the pride?”

“Yes, I am.”

He nodded, and she started down the porch steps.

“It's admirable,” he said, and she sighed before she turned back around to face him.

“What is?”

“What you've done for those lions, and how you continue to be dedicated to them, even after all these years.”

She swallowed and gave him a tight smile. “Yes, well, there was a time when I was all they had.” She started to walk again.

In one last attempt, Edward stood up from his chair. “Can I come along?” he called after her, and she froze in her step before slowly looking over her shoulder right at him.

A moment that felt as if it stretched on forever passed as she just stared at him, and then she turned fully to him again, her arms folded across her chest.

“Tell me … Edward, what do you know of lions?” she challenged.

Taken aback by the question, it took a second for him to answer. "I have a Ph.D. in conservation biology, and I've studied large cats in the parks I used to work at in America—"

“I don't doubt you have vast factual knowledge of wild animals,” she interrupted him. “But knowing stuff because you've read it in books or studied animals in captivity means shit out here.” She started to walk back to him. “I bet you know that the cubs are introduced to the pride when they're two months old, and that all lactating females help nurse the young, but did you know that if one lioness has her cubs more than three months after the most recent litter, she won't introduce them to her pride for fear that they will starve to death? And did you know that each time a cub doesn't survive past its one year mark, the entire pride mourns the loss?”

She was almost up on the porch again.

“These animals aren't just species to be studied. They're living beings with feelings, and they should be treated as such.”

Edward furrowed his forehead when he realized the presumptions Bella had made about his character. “I've never believed anything else,” he told her with a hint of anger. He was quite offended that she believed he was the kind of person who only saw the re-population of endangered species as statistics. “Animals aren't treated with the respect they deserve. I hated working at the animal parks. Exotic and wild animals are not supposed to be in cages for the public to view. If I could have had my way, I would have taken every animal home with me when I quit and released them, but realistically, I know they wouldn't have survived in the wild.”

Bella looked at him, not uttering a word, and he continued.

“You know, ever since I arrived, I've been told I need to be careful how I approach you. I get it, okay. You're protective of the lions you rescued, and I have a lot of respect for what you've done for them and achieved out here. But it doesn't give you an excuse to judge me before you actually make an effort to get to know me, and if there's one thing I won't stand for, it's the accusation that I don't care about these animals.”

He finished his rant, and Bella remained silent and stared at him. Then, she wordlessly turned around and started walking. Edward rolled his eyes and sighed in frustration.

“Are you coming or not?”

He whipped his head in her direction in shock, and she looked at him from the driver's side of the jeep. Not wanting to risk her driving off without him, he immediately grabbed his water bottle and nothing else before walking over to the vehicle.

The forty-five-minute-long ride to the edge of the habitat was spent in uncomfortable silence, but neither of them attempted to break it. When Bella finally put on the breaks and shut off the jeep, the only thing she said was that they had to walk the rest of the way.

By that time, dawn had broken, and Edward was grateful it wasn't too hot for a hike, and he guessed that it was the reason Bella always started her day so early.

Edward could see movement in the distance then and one lioness shuffling forward toward the pride's center. Suddenly, Bella stopped him from continuing forward by putting her hand on his chest. The contact shocked him, and he looked at her delicate hand in confusion.

“Stay here. You’re a stranger, and three of the lionesses are expecting, so they're a bit testy, and I'm not in the mood for fleshy bite marks today,” she explained.

He wanted to protest and say that it was impossible to see anything clearly from this distance, but he was also smart enough to shut up. Bella was the one who knew the pride inside out, and he wasn't going to challenge her.

“If you say so,” he said and wandered over to a boulder where he could sit and watch without disturbing.

Bella's eyes narrowed somewhat suspiciously as if she couldn't figure him out any more than he could figure her out, but then she just nodded and turned to approach the pride.

Edward looked on in fascination when she announced her presence to the lions by letting out a melodious whistle. There was an instant reaction from the animals as they raised their heads to look in Bella's direction, and then the one lioness Edward guessed wasn't pregnant started to run toward her.

In awe, Edward witnessed how Bella's entire persona changed. Her face lit up, and she appeared to glow with pure happiness as the lioness jumped up and tackled her to the ground. It was as if they'd been separated for weeks and not just a day. Bella laughed in delight, and the sound caused Edward to smile as well.

It was obvious to anyone who watched the display that the lions loved Bella as much as she loved them, and Edward found himself watching their interaction without becoming bored in the slightest. It was just so pure and beautiful.

Feeling inspired by the sight, Edward brought out his notepad and pen and started sketching what he saw, and the drawing captured the dynamic between the human and the animals in a way notes never could.

Hours passed by in what seemed like the blink of an eye, and Edward continued to observe Bella interact with the lions. They truly treated her like one of their own, until the young male, Abayomi, started to display his dominance with territorial play. Bella wisely backed away but made it appear as if she couldn't be bothered with Abayomi's antics.

She walked back to Edward and sat down next to him without saying anything. She was more relaxed now than she'd been that morning, and her expression was the same serene one he'd seen her wear the day before.

She was stunning.

“I backed away because I want to show them that, eventually, they have to stop looking at me for leadership,” she suddenly said and broke the silence but continued to look at the pride.

Edward, who had been looking at her, startled and realized with dread that his thoughts had wandered to a place that was entirely inappropriate. He couldn't deny that Bella was a very attractive woman, though, and the glow that came from her doing what she loved only added to her appeal.

He cleared his throat. “Yeah, seems wise.”

“It's still important to show that I'm not afraid of Abayomi, though, because if I lose their respect, that is when I'll be in danger. I'm their leader now, but when Abayomi takes over the coalition, I have to be cautious because he might not like my closeness to the lionesses.”

Edward nodded. “Right.”

Bella looked at him. “I thought you were supposed to write stuff like this down.” She eyes his notepad and saw the sketches. “What's that?”

He felt a bit hesitant to show her the drawings, but he did it anyway, and she looked through them in wonder.

“You're very talented,” she mumbled just loud enough for him to hear her.

He realized then what Rosa had meant about the two of them being alike. Bella wasn't much of a people person—she clearly enjoyed the company of animals more—and in order to weed away those she wouldn't want to waste her time on, she projected a hard shell that bordered on being bitchy, but that wasn't who she was.

She was obviously a strong and very independent woman. She knew herself and wasn't interested in putting any energy into being polite to people just because she might hurt their feelings otherwise. Only those stubborn enough, like himself, to show they were worth it were granted the chance to see underneath the staleness.

Edward inhaled deeply. “I think we got off on the wrong foot,” he said, and she turned to look at him again. He held out his hand for her. “My name is Edward Masen. It's nice meeting you.”

For a long moment, she stared at his hand, but then the smallest smile twitched in the corner of her mouth, and she accepted it.

“Bella Swan.”

~***~

The following weeks passed in much the same manner. Bella and Edward got up early and took the jeep to the outskirts of the habitat before walking together to where the pride spent most of their time.

After that first day, though, she slowly allowed him to sit closer and closer to the pride, getting the lionesses used to his presence. She also opened up to him about all the information she had about them in her head, and he eagerly wrote it down. Although, he made sure he didn't write it down in a cold and factual way.

As she had said, the animals were living beings with feelings like any other, and the closer Edward got to Bella, and in turn the pride, he could see that clearly. It made it impossible for him to just write down numbers and statistics, not that he wanted to write down what he saw in that way, anyway.

One afternoon, around the time when the two of them usually made their way back to the base, Bella noticed how one of the expecting lionesses had started to wander off on her own, and she smiled, although her eyes held slight worry in them.

“It's time,” she said with her wistful expression.

Edward gave her a confusing look. “Aren't you happy?”

She blinked. “No, I am. I'm just worried.”

“Of what?”

She swallowed. “The one leaving, that's Naija. This is her third pregnancy, but all her cubs have been stillborn. I just really hope this litter will live.”

He looked at her as she looked at the retreating lion, and then he made up his mind. “Do you want to stay?”

“I do, but aren't you hungry?”

He held up his backpack. “I always pack enough food to last me for the entire day since both you and I have a tendency to forget what time it is,” he said with amusement. “We can go back to the jeep and sit on the back and eat. I'm fine with staying if that's what you want.”

She gave him one of her rare smiles. “Thank you. I really appreciate that. I prefer staying close. I know there's not much I can do, but it calms me to know that I'm not too far away.”

They did as he suggested and went back to the jeep, and while Bella was twitchy and wanted to go back and check on the pride, she logically knew it would take hours before Naija would actually give birth. Labor in lions and other big cats usually took three to five hours before they entered the advanced stages.

The afternoon spilled into nightfall as the sun started to set, and when Akpe came to see why they were taking so long, they explained that the both of them wanted to stay the night and would sleep in the jeep. They had blankets in case the night became cold.

Akpe accepted their explanation and left again.

After having spent every day together for a couple of weeks, Edward and Bella felt comfortable enough around each other to not be awkward anymore, and they easily lay down on their backs in the back of the jeep next to each other.

Despite their close working relationship, they didn’t really know each other particularly well, though, and softly, they started to talk about their life before Africa.

Edward found out that Bella had grown up in Phoenix, and because her personality was much like the one she had today, she didn't have many friends. Not that she'd wanted them. She had always been content as long as she could be close to animals.

While in high school, she had volunteered at an animal shelter, and her passion to help animals in need had only grown from there.

In her late twenties, she had moved to Africa to work on the Reserve, and shortly after that, she had joined the rescue team and became the surrogate mom to five lion cubs.

“My parents hate that I moved here. They had hoped that I would have landed a husband and had two point five kids by this age, but I don't see that as my life goal. If I happen to find a guy and we get married, so be it. If kids happen then that's what happens, but I'm not interested in chasing after it. Once I'm phased out of the pride, I don't have any plans, but I'm not worried either. Maybe I'll move back to America or maybe I’ll stay here.”

For someone who displayed such a hardened surface, Bella had no trouble talking once she got started, and Edward listened intently. Every detail about her fascinated him, and he wanted to learn more.

“What about you?” she asked him.

He shrugged. "I don't know. When I was younger, I thought I wanted to be a vet, but that changed when I understood most jobs meant working at animal parks, and that I wasn't working for the animals like I wanted 'cause I'd still be working under human management whose greed takes precedence over the well-being of the animals," he said. "I know what I'd do if I had unlimited amounts of money, though."

Bella chuckled at the notion. “And what would that be?”

“I'd buy land in Nevada, New Mexico, or Arizona, somewhere far away from the closest civilization, and I'd set up a sanctuary for rescued animals who can't be released into the wild. Give them a sense of freedom while still being cared for like they need, you know?”

Her mouth fell open in surprise at his words. “Are you serious right now?”

He furrowed his brow. “Yeah, why wouldn't I be?”

She half-sat up by supporting herself on her elbows and stared at him in disbelief. “Because you pretty much stole that idea right out of my head. It's actually a bit freaky that we have the same dream.”

Edward laughed incredulously. “It seems you and I have more in common than we first thought.”

He couldn't explain what happened next because suddenly Bella's mouth covered his in an aggressive kiss. His first instinct was to lean away and ask her why, but when she laced her fingers through his hair to hold him in place, he gave up that idea and kissed her back with fervor.

He'd lusted after her from day one, but he had suppressed those feelings and thoughts as he'd assumed she wouldn't appreciate any advances from him and would most likely have kneed him if he'd tried. Her kiss now proved the contrary, though.

However, when she started to pull on his clothes, he couldn't stay silent any longer.

“Bella, do you really want to do this here?”

She laughed at him, but her eyes were dilated with desire. “Why not? Are you afraid an Aardvark will see your butt?”

She had a point, but it wasn't the fear of exposure that caused him to stop. “No, I'm not scared of anyone seeing us. I just didn't think you liked me that way.”

“You know, I thought all guys instinctively knew that sex doesn't always have to involve feelings,” she said and rolled her eyes before she leaned away from him and sat up. “I've lived in Africa for seven years, and I can't exactly say those years have been filled with passionate meetings, and you are one of the few guys I've come across that I feel on the same page with.” She glanced at him sideways with amusement. “But hey, if you'd rather keep this working relationship strictly platonic, who am I to argue?”

His eyes widened, and he started to shake his head. “N-no. That's not what I meant! I want to—I mean, I didn't think that—”

“Shh,” she said and placed her hand lightly over his lips to silence him. “As cute as your nervous rambling is, I believe it keeps us from what we should be doing right now.” She removed her hand and eyed his lips.

He swallowed hard and wet his lips before the both of them once again closed the distance and captured each other's lips.

This time when their clothes were shed, he didn't pause or make a move to pull away. He wanted this, and she obviously wanted it, too, so why shouldn't they?

The feeling of her perspiration-damp skin under his hands drove him crazy, and her moans caused him to believe he wouldn't last particularly long. It had been quite a long time for him as well, and the sensations Bella invoked him were almost new because of that.

Underneath the blanket, everything else ceased to matter except the pleasure they were able to bring each other.

Afterward, they were both breathing hard from exertion, and Edward reveled in the fact that Bella didn't have anything against cuddling. In many

ways, the woman remained an enigma to him because so many aspects of her personality seemed contradictory to each other, but maybe that was why he enjoyed her company so much.

Eventually, they started to get dressed again, and he was relieved there wasn't any awkwardness or air of regret around them. Edward knew, without a doubt, that he would have no trouble falling for Bella Swan, but he didn't want to push her into anything just because they'd shared an intimate moment. He didn't know her well enough to be certain something like that wouldn't cause her to run in the other direction.

Almost right after all their clothes were back on their bodies, both of them heard the sound of an engine disturb the night.

While Edward didn't understand why there was a car driving in the reserve in the middle of the night, Bella did immediately, and she sprang into action toward the bolted box in the jeep where they kept supplies and rifles.

“Edward, please tell me you have your gun with you,” she said and pulled out a box that said Remington 700 in bold.

He scrambled for the holster he hadn't put on and showed it to her.

“Good. Take the wheel and drive as fast as you can.”

“What is going on?” he asked but still did as she told him.

She answered with one word. “Poachers.”

Edward started the engine and pushed down on the gas while Bella set up the rifle on the back and lay down on her stomach for easier access to the aim.

“Are you gonna shoot them?" he yelled back at her, his heart in his throat. He had realistically known that he would, one day, encounter poachers while working in Africa, but it didn't mean he was suddenly comfortable around weapons and that killing poachers wasn't necessarily seen as a crime.

“If they aim at my lions, you bet your ass I'm gonna shoot them,” Bella replied.

He could see the other jeep. They were far ahead and no matter how much Edward punched the gas, it seemed as if they weren't getting any closer.

“Where do you want me to go? To the pride? Or do you want to find Naija?”

Bella gasped. “Oh god, I didn't even think of Naija!” she exclaimed. “She's vulnerable, and if her cubs live they'll take them from her.” She rose on her knees and looked around. “I'll get off here. I know how to get to her lair from here, and if I go by foot, they won't hear me, and I won't lead them to her.”

Before she jumped off the jeep, she looked over her shoulder at him. “You go to the pride and protect them.” He nodded. “And Edward?” He looked into her eyes. “I'm begging you … shoot first. Ask later.”

Unease filled him, but he knew he couldn't afford hesitation, not then, not when the pride was in effective danger.

“I promise.”

“Thank you.”

She jumped out, and he punched the gas again. He reached the habitat and saw the poachers circling the pride with their vehicle, so he reached for his gun. He saw how Abayomi roared and moved back and forth to protect his females, but Edward could see that it wasn't the lionesses who were in direct danger.

It was Abayomi.

He reached for his gun and cocked it like Rosa had taught him, but before he could shoot, the poachers did, and Abayomi roared angrily before falling to the ground.

Enraged by the sight, Edward took aim at the one who had just killed the majestic, young male lion; however, because he wasn't used to guns, he missed. It was enough for the poachers to know they weren't safe to take their prize with them and especially not since more engines could be heard approaching.

Edward could only guess Akpe and the others had also heard the poachers jeep, and he was thankful for the backup.

The criminals took off, and Edward, without caring about shutting off the engine, jumped out and made a run for it toward Abayomi's body. The lionesses were used enough to him by then that they allowed him to be that close, especially since he was associated with Bella.

Rosa, Jasper, and Akpe showed up with a jeep and a motorbike, and Edward gestured in what direction the poachers had gone, and they took up the pursuit.

In defeat, Edward fell to his knees by Abayomi's body, and when he looked at the lion, still so majestic, even in death, he couldn't hold back his tears.

He heard it when Bella came back and realized they hadn't been fast enough because she kicked the door of the jeep close with such force the sound resounded across the plain loudly. Edward knew Abayomi had been very special to Bella, so he could only fathom what she was feeling when he was in such pain himself.

Rising to his feet, he walked over to her where she was leaning against the jeep and taking deep breaths as if to calm herself. He acted on complete instinct when he coaxed her to straighten out and allow him to take her in his arms.

She was stiff, and he could still hear her labored breathing.

“I'm sorry,” he whispered to her.

“I'm not,” she replied through gritted teeth. “I'm not sorry, and I'm not sad. I am pissed, and when the others get a hold of the assholes who did this, I will kill them myself, but not before making sure they wished they'd never been born.”

He leaned away from her and cupped the face, which was now precious to him, in his hands. “Revenge won't make you feel any better.”

“I disagree,” she contended, but her eyes were blank. However, she was holding back her tears.

He kissed her softly and whispered against her mouth. “Grieving isn't a weakness,” he told her. “You're still the strongest woman I've ever known.”

She looked into his eyes, and finally, her tears started to fall and wet his hands. Since he knew it was uncomfortable for her to display the feeling, he once again took her in his arms and allowed her to cry silently against his chest.

He stroked her hair gently, and while her voice was muffled, he could still hear her words.

“If it's the last thing I do, I will make sure they pay for this.”

Edward knew he wouldn't be able to change her mind, and he didn't exactly want to, no matter what he'd told her about revenge. He wanted the criminals to pay as well.

“If you'll let me, I want to help.”

She didn't answer him out loud, but the tightening of her arms around his waist was the only answer he needed to know that she would accept his help. Together, they would bring justice to the mighty, fallen lion, and neither would rest until it was done.