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By Lisa Kessler, Danielle Poiesz, Theresa Cole
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Lisa Kessler
All rights reserved.
"I'll have an Intimidator with extra bacon and two baskets of Cajun fries." I handed my menu to the waitress, who raised a judgmental brow.
"That's an awful lot of food for a tiny thing like you."
I was actually twenty-five, but without ID to prove it, a truant officer would probably haul me right back to high school.
"Yeah, well, I've got a big appetite so ..." I kept the fact that even though I looked small I could probably wrestle the big guy at the counter to the floor in a heartbeat to myself. I could also eat fast. With any luck, I'd be out of there before the creeps in the matching jumpsuits tracked me down again.
The waitress glanced over to the ladies room and back again. I rolled my eyes. "Look, I'm not binging and purging. Can I just have the burger and fries? Please?" I debated asking for dessert, too, but my order should've been enough food to keep me from getting blood on my hands later.
"Of course." She snatched the menu from me and hustled away before I could give her my drink order.
Great. Oh well, I wasn't thirsty anyway.
After fidgeting with the silverware, unfolding the paper napkin, and placing it in my lap, I glanced around the restaurant. I was running out of things to keep myself busy, and my paranoia grew with every passing second. Sighing, I peered out the window across the parking lot and then up at the dark night sky. No followers. No moon either.
I shivered. The new moon hadn't been my friend in years.
Each new moon night meant waking up someplace I'd never been before, without any memory of how I got there. The sleepwalking started around the time I turned eighteen. At least that's what I hoped it was — it seemed like sleepwalking. But my body only reacted in time with the phases of the moon, Lunar Phases. I'm pretty sure that's where we get the word "lunatic" but don't quote me on that.
Over the years, I learned to deal with "it," but not so much what "it" might be. And last year after a visit to Bellevue, I thought I might finally be getting closer to figuring out this odd monthly cycle of mine, but it only made my world unravel even further.
Then there was the squirrel incident.
My gut retched at the memory, and I checked over my shoulder. New moon nights made me tense, but this one seemed different. Something felt off.
I faced the table again, shaking my head. Nothing looked suspicious. No men in white coats armed with sedatives in the next booth.
Maybe I'd finally lost them.
It wasn't like Bellevue Hospital in L.A. would find me here in The Hot Rod Café in Reno and lock me up while I waited for my bacon cheeseburger and two baskets of fries. They wouldn't come this far. At least I hoped not.
So why did my heart race like crazy?
The bell on the door jingled.
Oh, God. They found me.
The hair on the back of my neck prickled, and my muscles knotted with adrenaline, aching to run, to escape. Cold sweat beaded along my spine as I fought stay in my seat. Forcing my lungs to breathe, I made a conscious effort to keep from hyperventilating and did my best not to let the panic show on my face when I turned around.
A tall, dark-haired man filled the open doorway, wearing blue jeans and a black Aerosmith concert tee. His bright green eyes scanned the restaurant, and I caught myself staring. I couldn't help it.
He was maybe six feet tall, but I sucked at guessing heights. His black leather boots were scuffed — more like hiking boots than biker boots — and he wore a heavy silver chain around his neck with some sort of pendant hanging in the center of his chest. His very well-muscled and very broad chest.
When he looked my way, my jaw snapped shut. His dark hair was messy in that way that looks dangerous on a guy but sloppy on a girl. From under his stray locks, his gaze connected with mine. I was pretty sure I started gnawing at my lower lip. It was a bad habit, but I usually did it when I got nervous. Either way, he took it as an invitation of some sort.
I didn't have a great grasp of what guys considered a "come hither" look, so maybe I gave him one. I'd thought it was a "leave me the hell alone" look, but who knew.
When he got to my table, my gaze caught on the pendant around his neck — a bullet. Or at least it looked like a bullet. Weird. My eyes moved farther up, to see his face. The right corner of his mouth twisted into what might have been a smile, but my alarm bells rang inside. Time to get out of the restaurant.
"Aren't you going to invite me to sit?"
I frowned and rubbed my moist hands against my jeans. "I wasn't planning on it. There are plenty of other tables open."
He glanced around the café and then at me again. My pulse shot up in response.
"You're not at any of the other tables." Even with curls of hair hanging in his face, his emerald eyes bore into me.
"That's the point." Hopefully my voice carried more conviction than I felt. Stupid hormones. Gorgeous or not, I had no idea who he was or why he seemed so intent on my company. I had to get rid of him. "I wasn't looking for company."
He shrugged his broad shoulders. "Neither was I."
"Good, then go sit someplace else."
Oh, thank God. The waitress headed over with a huge tray piled high with my food. Saved by a burger.
He stepped aside to let her work, and when all the baskets were on the table, the waitress straightened and looked at tall-dark-and-handsome at twelve o'clock. He stood there shamelessly while she gave him a slow once-over.
She glanced at me with a wry smile. "Is this gentleman with you?"
I opened my mouth to answer, but he beat me to it.
"Yes, I am." He plopped down across from me in the booth and winked. "Thanks for ordering fries for me, doll."
The waitress seemed satisfied and sashayed back to the kitchen. I glared at my unwanted dinner guest and picked up my one-pound bacon cheeseburger. "I'm not your 'doll,' and these fries are not for you."
"You've got quite an appetite for a little thing."
"Yeah, so I've heard." I shot an evil-eyed glare toward the waitress, couldn't help it.
"So what's your game?" He leaned closer and lowered his voice. "What the hell are you doing here during new moon?"
I almost choked on my burger.
Dabbing my mouth with the napkin, I scooted up in my seat a little. Up close his eyes looked like a dense forest of green. Easy to get lost in them if you looked too long. And I was getting lost. Crap! Focus, Lana.
He couldn't possibly know about me and the new moon. Unless ... But he didn't look like the type who worked in a psych hospital.
I leaned back again and forced my mouth to move. "I don't know what you're talking about."
He pressed his large hands flat on the table, his shoulders tensed, and something in his eyes looked ... confused? "I smelled you from outside the building. Why do you think I came in here?"
Without thinking, I kicked him under the table. Hard. I also took more than a little satisfaction in seeing the surprise on his face. "If you're trying to sweep me off my feet, telling me I stink isn't the way to do it."
He smirked. "If I were trying to sweep you off your feet, you'd be swept. Period." His tone was deep, leaving me unsure if he was threatening or teasing.
"Wow! You've managed to elevate pompous to an art form." I snapped up a few fries and gave him my best get-lost glare. "Leave me alone."
His eyes narrowed on me, but then the door opened and he spun around. Four men in matching gray riot gear came in. The burger I ate turned to stone in my stomach.
I'd seen the leader's face in my rearview mirror before. They were here for me.
My unwelcome companion got up to intercept them. "Can I help you?"
His broad shoulders blocked my view. I hoped that went both ways and the goons couldn't see me either.
The leader came closer. "This doesn't concern you."
I shimmied under the table and slid out of the booth. The head guy rested his hand on his gun. My heart raced. I couldn't let somebody get shot because of me, but my years of self-defense classes didn't really prepare me for a group of armed, trained attackers.
"I think they're here for me."
My dinner date didn't take his attention off the ring leader. "I don't care who they came for. No reason for them to come in here with guns."
The mention of guns sent gasps around the café. I sent up a silent prayer that someone in the bathroom was calling 911.
The leader didn't move. "Step away from the lady."
"Can't help you there. Why don't we take this outside?"
"I don't have time for this, asshole." He nodded his head and his goons lunged forward to grab my protector's arms.
He yanked his arms inward, cracking the goons' heads together with a hollow thump. One of his arms came free and he used it to send another one of the men sailing across the café. The man's head crashed through the pie display case and his body lay limp. My muscled friend punched the second man in the chin, knocking him off his feet.
While he fought, the leader drew his weapon. "Watch out!" I shouted.
He tackled the leader around the waist just as the pistol fired. Screams pierced my ears and glass shattered. Hopefully that meant the bullet exited the building without hitting anyone. One more punch and the man lay motionless on the floor.
My hands trembled at my sides while I kicked the gun away from his fingertips. Cyrus was embroidered on the upper left of his riot gear. He looked much less threatening when he was unconscious. Before I turned to go, I noticed something on the inside of his wrist. I squatted closer. The inside of his wrist had a tattoo, a lion's head with an "N" branded in the center. My chest constricted as I squinted my eyes for a better look. I'd seen that emblem before.
I'm losing it. All I needed was to pass out here in front of all these people. I took a step toward the door when my protector grabbed my hand. The moment I gripped his, he stumbled and glanced at me over his shoulder, frowning.
He blinked and shook it off before I ran toward the exit with him. "Sirens." It took a second before I heard the familiar sound. He had some crazy amazing hearing. "We need to go. Now."
I agreed completely. Dodging glass and bodies, we made it to the door. Outside, I yanked my hand free and glanced at my rental car in the parking lot. At this point, driving probably wasn't a great idea since I could lose consciousness at any time during the new moon. Shit.
"We can't be here when the police arrive."
His voice jarred me from my thoughts and I managed a nod.
"Good." His lip began to curl up into a smile, and then his expression quickly blanked. "Let's run."
I turned to bolt in the other direction, but his large hand caught my arm.
"This way. Away from the city." Electrical pulses shot up my arm, probably shock from almost being shot. Or the new moon working its craziness on me. How long could I run before I blacked out?
Whoever this guy was, his instincts were good. The last thing I wanted was to be sleepwalking in downtown Reno. When we got a few miles from the café, he slowed. I should've been winded, but I wasn't even out of breath.
"Thanks for helping me ditch those guys back there." Brushing my hair back from my face, I stared up at the handsome stranger who just saved my bacon. "I don't even know your name."
"I'm Adam." He offered his hand and I shook it, feeling that same strange tingle.
"Lana. You were pretty amazing tossing those guys around back there."
He shrugged, his muscular shoulders rolling back. "Who were those guys, and why are they after you?"
The image of the tattoo inside the gunman's wrist popped into my head again. What did it mean? I forced my focus back to Adam. I'd have to figure it out later.
"I should be asking you the same question. You came looking for me. Why?" I jammed my hands in my pockets, reminding myself that I had a cylinder of pepper spray and my cell phone. Just in case.
His eyes narrowed. "Because in the past two weeks jaguar shifters have killed humans in my city and left mutilated bodies out in the open. I won't let that happen again."
I took a step back, doing my best to process this crazy talk. "Shifters? You lost me."
"Like you." He crossed his arms over his broad chest. He didn't appear to be joking. "Now why don't you tell me who those men were in the diner?"
"Like me?" I shook my head. Maybe he was drunk. "Look, I'm just passing through. I appreciate your help back there, but I'll be fine. I'm not who you think I am, so you really don't need to get involved."
"Someone tried to shoot me. I'm already involved."
I groaned. "I didn't ask you to protect me."
"You didn't look like you wanted to go with them." He pinned me with his intense gaze.
"I don't know who they are, okay?" My arms felt heavy. Please don't black out now. "Bellevue tried to lock me up for seventy-two hours and ship me to a psych facility back east, so I escaped. I'm guessing they sent these guys to bring me back."
One corner of his mouth twisted up. "Do you really think a hospital would send men with guns to shoot you?" He shook his head, his arms dropping to his sides. "Why are you playing games?"
My head pounded. "I'm not playing anything. In fact, I was minding my own business having some dinner until you barged in like a crazy person."
"Tonight is the new moon, and instead of staying away from people, you're in the middle of a restaurant. If those hired guns hadn't taken you out, my Pack would have."
"What the hell are you talking about?" I frowned. "Your Pack?"
"I should've taken care of you myself. You were in my sector of town, but you don't seem like the others, and now ..." He hesitated, clenching his jaw. "I couldn't do it."
"Couldn't do what?"
His hands dropped to his sides. "Kill you."
I didn't hesitate. I ran faster than I had ever run in my entire life. Without looking back, I pushed my legs harder, fighting to put as many strides between us as possible. The streets gave way to shrubs and trees, blurring as I streaked past them. My lungs burned, but somehow Adam kept up. I ran off the streets, through the sagebrush and rocks, until the city stood miles behind us.
I never knew I could run so far or so fast, but I still couldn't outrun him. When I stopped, he jogged up beside me and frowned.
"You need to shift."
"What?" I huffed.
He tilted his head slightly, and I swear he looked even cuter. The same man who just told me he was supposed to kill me. I wanted to slap myself. Snap out of it, Lana!
His tough guy face faded, and for a moment a flash of compassion shone in his eyes. "You don't know what you are, do you?"
My chest heaved, but for a moment my heart stopped. For the past five years I'd devoted most of my time to searching for answers, terrified of what might be happening to me. Now here I stood in the middle of nowhere with a man who seemed certain he knew the one answer I wanted more than anything.
I shook my head, my voice softer than I intended. "Do you know?"
He nodded, his gaze searching mine. "You're one of the jaguars. A shape-shifter."
My jaw went slack. He must've been joking, but he looked serious. Impossible. A shape-shifter?
No. I was a sleepwalker. That's what all the psychiatrists said. They'd given me prescriptions for Trazodone and Klonopin, and when that didn't help, I had a CAT scan. But instead of finding a brain tumor or telling me I needed surgery, they told me I had a brain anomaly that could lead to schizophrenia and decided I should be institutionalized.
I decided they should take a flying leap.
But a shape-shifter? No way. People didn't turn into animals. Nervous laughter bubbled up from my lips.
He shrugged. "Laugh all you want, but you can see me and it's pitch black out here. How do you explain that?"
I looked around. He was right. We were far from any streetlights or homes and no moon in the sky either. I didn't notice it while I ran for my life, but I still saw my surroundings without even a sliver of moonlight glowing overhead. A chill shot crept down my spine.
"You just ran roughly ten miles at top speed. Marathon runners would be a little winded. How are you feeling?"
Other than the itchy feeling under my skin. I wasn't even out of breath.
"Did you hear the sirens when we left the diner?"
I nodded slowly. "But not until after you told me you heard them."
Excerpted from Moonlight by Lisa Kessler, Danielle Poiesz, Theresa Cole. Copyright © 2013 Lisa Kessler. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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