Cooper Sullivan met Lillian Chance as an eleven year old. Sent to his grandparents for the summer, Cooper is angered by his parents’ insensitive attitude, and initially ignores any attempts from his grandparents to connect. He meets Lil, and even though she is a girl, he is fascinated by her way of life on a farm, her relationship with her parents, and her ability to do things as well as boys does. They become firm friends, and Cooper connects with his grandparents like he never could with his own. For the rest of his teens, Cooper returns each summer, and he and Lil stays best friends for years. As it sometimes is with best friends of different genders, they fall in love when Cooper returns as a young man. Even though Cooper has dropped out at college and plans to become a police officer, and Lil is on her way to college, they stumble through their feelings, and at the end of the summer promise correspondence and meeting up at times. Their last few days together are marred when they discover a woman’s body on a trail. Mauled by a cougar, it is later established that the cougar didn’t kill her, and the killer is never caught.
Their promises to continue their relationship ends abruptly when Cooper tells Lillian a few months later that they have both grown apart, and they are going into separate directions, that it is the best decision for them. Angered, hurt and humiliated, Lil walks away, never questioning why Cooper had deliberately broken her heart.
Years later, Lil, now a doctorate, returns to Black Hills to continue working in her Wildlife refuge. Her mother tells her that Coop has returned. Claiming that she doesn’t care, she knows she cares. When she sees him face to face at the refuge for the first time in years, she attributes her heartache just as a reaction to seeing him again.
Lillian is very much annoyed with Cooper when he announces to go camping with her when he finds out that she is tracking a cougar. She agrees to have him come along, reluctantly, and together they travel to their old spot where they had once found the victim. Lil sets a cage to keep the cougar until she can tag him, and they go lower down to make their camping spot for the night. The cougar is captured, but before Lillian can get to it, someone else does, and she arrives to find the magnificent animal dead. She blames herself for this death, refusing to believe that she wasn’t responsible. With Lil safely with the police, Cooper returns to their campsite to pack up their things, finding their campsite shattered. Lillian’s father arrives, and after their discussion Coop promises to take care of Lillian.
Cooper starts staying over at Lil’s cabin at the refuge – on her couch, annoying her endlessly. Their attraction remains, creating some awkward moments for both of them, as they still refuse to acknowledge their true feelings. A dead wolf is found thrown over the gate of the refuge one morning, showing that the killer is still on the loose and effectively spooking the interns at the refuge.
Cooper does some independent investigation, and finds that a previous intern, Caroline, went missing after she finished her stint at the refuge. He finds out about her relationship with Ethan Howe, and links him to her disappearance, and manages to link him with the murder of Melissa Barrette, the girl they found nearly ten years ago.
Another hiker is found murdered, and the police and FBI start searching for Ethan in earnest. It seems he is always one step ahead, laying false trails, and hiding effectively in the many caves of the Black Hills. He threatens Lil via email once, but the lead is a dead end as it was sent from a house where Ethan had broken in to.
Cooper and Lil finally start dating again, but she is reluctant to fully allow herself to love him. He knows this, and they finally start to see each other’s viewpoints from the time their relationship ended. As they move towards ultimate reconciliation, Ethan kidnaps Lil’s mother, and drags her into the Hills. After a taunting phone call, Lil starts tracking him, calling Cooper to follow.
With the entire refuge in uproar, the remaining workers set the cougar free that imprinted on Lil as a cub. Babies, as well as some humans start to search for Lil. Cooper steers from the human group to follow the cat, and together they start looking for Lil.
Meanwhile, after Lil lets Ethan set her mother free, she runs away from him. He follows, thinking it a great sport. He eventually catches up to her, with Cooper on their trail. Just as Ethan wants to kill Cooper, Baby attacks, killing Ethan. The cat defies science by not attacking either Lillian or Cooper so close to a kill, and neither eating Ethan – meaning he killed him only to save Lil.
I really enjoyed this book. I found out so many things I did not know before about cougars, tigers and panthers. As always, Nora Roberts does thorough research for her books, and I truly appreciate that. The female lead character, Lil, was so well developed. She is strong and able, and didn’t allow heartache to get in the way of success. Her passion for nature conservation endeared her to me, as well as the doctorate she worked so hard for (doing a BSc is difficult enough)
Initially Cooper had a lot of potential. He ended up a bit lamely (to me), for breaking off his relationship with the love of his life without sharing the true reasons to her – how selfish. He manages to redeem himself by loving his grandparents so completely, but I felt some derision towards him for seeming very chauvinistic at times.
All in all, this is a fantastic read – and I would recommend it to most people.