Moonlight Excerpt – By Lisa Kessler (Opening)
“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’m actually twenty-five, but without my driver’s license to prove it, a truant officer would probably haul me right back to high school.
“Yeah, well I’ve got a big appetite so…” 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?”
“Of course.” She snatched the menu from my hand and hustled away before I gave 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. Sighing, I peered out the window up at the dark night sky. No moon.
Ever since I turned eighteen, my body started reacting to 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. New moon meant waking up someplace I’d never been before, without any memory of how I got there.
Then there was the squirrel incident. My gut retched.
I checked over my shoulder. New moon nights made me tense, but this 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.
So why did my heart race like crazy?
It wasn’t like Bellevue Hospital in Los Angeles 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.
The bell on the door jingled.
Oh God. They found me.
The hair on the back of my neck prickled. My muscles knotted with adrenaline, aching to run. 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 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 single, heavy silver chain around his neck with some sort of pendant hanging in the center of his chest. His well-muscled, toned, and very broad chest.
When he looked my way, my throat closed up. 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’m pretty sure I started gnawing at my lower lip. It’s a bad habit, but I usually do it when I get nervous. Either way, he took it as an invitation of some sort.
I still don’t have a great grasp of what guys consider a “come hither” look.
When he got to my table, I realized that the pendant around his neck was a silver bullet. My gaze moved farther up, to see his face. The right corner of his mouth twinged 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 his dark hair hanging in his face, his green 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.”
The waitress headed over with a huge tray of 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 half-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.
He leaned closer and lowered his voice. “What are you doing here during new moon? Do you have a death wish?”
I almost choked on my burger.
Dabbing my mouth with the napkin, I did my best to hide my shock and scooted up in my seat a little. Up this close, his eyes looked like a dense forest of green. Easy to get lost in them if you looked too long. I was getting lost. Crap!
I leaned back again and forced my mouth to move. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
He leaned across the table lowering his voice. “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.”
His voice lowered. “If I were trying to sweep you off your feet, you’d be swept. Period.”
“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, but 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.
They were here for me.
My unwanted dinner guest got up to intercept them. “Can I help you?”
His broad shoulders blocked my view. I hope 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 the handle of a gun. My heart raced. I couldn’t let somebody get shot because of me.
“I think they’re here for me.”
My dinner date didn’t take his attention off of 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 man in riot gear 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 together, cracking the goons’ heads together with a hollow thump. One of his arms came free and he used it to send one of the men sailing across the café. The goon’s head crashed through the pie display case and his body lay limp. He punched the second man in the chin, knocking him off his feet.
While he fought, the leader drew his weapon. “The gun!” I shouted.
My dinner date 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 punch and the man lay motionless on the floor.
My hands trembled at my sides, adrenaline shooting through my already agitated body. 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.
“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, he kept a grip on my hand and I tried not to notice the contact. “We can’t be here when the police get here.”
I managed a nod.
“Good.” He almost smiled. “Let’s run.”
Hand in hand we ran. Electrical pulses shot up my arm, probably shock from almost being shot. Or it did my skin prickle from the new moon working its craziness on me? How much longer could I run before I blacked out?
I needed someplace remote before I passed out. The last thing I wanted was to be sleepwalking, or whatever happened during the new moon, 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.” 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.
“I’m 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?”
“Look, I appreciate your help, but you don’t need to get involved in this.” I jammed my hands in my pockets, reminding myself of the cylinder of pepper spray and my cell phone. Just in case.
“Someone tried to shoot me. That means I’m already in.”
I groaned. “I didn’t ask you to protect me.”
“You didn’t look like you wanted to go with them.” He crossed his arms over his broad chest, pinning me with his 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 72 hours and ship me to a 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. “What’s up with you? Why are you playing games?”
“You lost me.” 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 new moon and instead of staying away from people, you’re in the middle of a truck stop restaurant. If those hired guns hadn’t taken you out, my Pack would.”
“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, staring at me for a moment before he finished. “I couldn’t do it.”
“Couldn’t do what?”
His jaw clenched like he wasn’t going to answer me. “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 caring 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 been 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 shapeshifter.”
My jaw went slack. He must’ve been joking, but he looked serious. Impossible. A jaguar?
Over the past few years, I visited psychiatrists who prescribed sleeping pills, and when that didn’t help, I even tried a CAT scan. But instead of finding a brain tumor or telling me I needed surgery, they 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 moonlight 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.
It couldn’t be true.
“Do you wake up in strange places after a new moon?”
“How do you know that?” I jammed my hands in my pockets, fingering the tiny canister of pepper spray. “Who are you?”
“I already told you, I’m Adam.” He added without a trace of a smile. “I’m a werewolf.”
“No way.” I kept grasping for some tiny scrap of reality. I pointed at the pendant resting against his chiseled chest. “You wear a silver bullet around your neck!”
He rolled his eyes. “I suppose you think I howl outside Dracula’s castle too, huh? Those are myths, Lana. We get killed the same way any wolf does, it’s just a little tougher because we’re bigger. If I ran in front of a Diesel truck during a full moon, it’d kill me as fast as any silver bullet.”
I shook my head in disbelief, but deep down inside, my heart knew better. He fought those trained men without breaking a sweat. Grown men tossed across the café like they weighed nothing. He heard the police sirens before anyone in the café.
The impossible seemed almost believable. I’d already tried doctors, psychiatrists, and medicine men, and no one came up with a theory that explained my once a month blackouts. As unreal as it sounded, Adam’s explanation made sense.
Or maybe I did need to be heavily medicated and locked up somewhere.
“You turn into a wolf. Seriously?”
He nodded. “Yeah; but only during a full moon.”
“Unbelievable. This is too crazy for me,” I whispered.
He cleared his throat. “I thought you knew what you were, and by the way you fought with me at the café, I was pretty sure you knew what I was too.”
“I fought with you because you bullied your way into sitting at my table and then told me I stunk.”
“I said I smelled you, not that you stunk. Big difference.” His smile faded. “I would have handled everything differently if I’d known. What did you think has been happening to you all this time?”
“I had no idea. Right after my eighteenth birthday, I started waking up in strange places, and I didn’t remember how I got there. Then there was a dead squirrel a couple years ago…” I shuddered at the memory of waking up covered in dried blood.
“No one in your family told you about the change?”
“I don’t know my family.” I gnawed at my bottom lip and stared out into the darkness. “Maybe they were monsters too.”
“You’re not a monster.” A growl rumbled in his chest. “It’s the other half of who you are. Your parents must have been jaguars too.”
“I don’t know anything about them. I grew up in foster homes.” Keeping my voice even, I acted like I didn’t care. I grew up playing the tough kid role, but inside, my stomach twisted at the admission. Saying the words out loud made me feel like I had “unwanted” tattooed across my forehead.
He stared down at me and brought his hand up to cup my face. For half of a second, I thought he might kiss me. And when he didn’t, more than half of me was disappointed.
The man who admitted he was supposed to kill me. I must be insane.
When he stepped back, my skin tingled where he’d touched my face. He stared up at the stars. “I change into a wolf every full moon. My family is also my Pack. We try to live normal lives, but it’s our job to keep those who might reveal us to the humans, out of our territory. A couple of jaguar males came into town a few months ago, and during the new moon they killed and ate two homeless men right outside the library. We can’t live among the humans with that kind of exposure, so we hunted them down and-”
“That’s why you came in the café tonight.” The insane puzzle came together in my head. It shouldn’t make sense, but somehow it did. “You thought I was one of them.”
He nodded and his lips curled into a hint of a smile. “Then I saw you eating a huge burger and I couldn’t figure out what you were up to.”
I felt my cheeks heat and knew I must be blushing. Hopefully he didn’t see as well in the dark as I did. “I’ve been trying to eat larger portions during the new moon so that I’d be full before I passed out.” I crinkled my nose. “No more squirrel incidents.”
Adam laughed, and I enjoyed the sound, surprising myself. “I’m glad you find it funny.”
“I’m sorry.” He chuckled. “If you’ll let me, I’ll watch over you tonight and make sure the jaguar stays away from the city. The others won’t have to know.”
“No. No way.” I shook my head. “If this is real, I might hurt you.”
“Nah, I’m fast. It’ll be okay.” Curls of his dark hair fell over his brow, but it couldn’t hide the spark of adventure burning in his gaze. Did he find dodging a jaguar fun?
“It’s okay, I don’t need it. No one looked out for me before, and I’ve always been all right.” Secretly I wouldn’t mind seeing him again, but life had done a fabulous job teaching me that the only person I could count on in this world was myself.
As if he heard my thoughts, he added, “I won’t let you down.”
I wanted to believe him. “What about the other… Wolves? I’m guessing they won’t be happy to find you helping me instead of… You know… killing me?”
“They don’t have to know.”
I looked up at him, taking in his chiseled features. He looked sincere. Hell he just saved my life.
Not that I had a lot of choices laid out in front of me. My skin crawled and my joints ached. The moment I started to fall asleep I’d be… Well I’d be something else. I couldn’t wrap my mind around actually being a jaguar. Not yet.
Adam took my hand. “You don’t have to be alone, Lana.”
He nailed my weak spot. Here was a guy who knew my deepest darkest secret and he wasn’t running away screaming. In fact, he offered to help me.
Or he could kill me.
But he hadn’t killed me yet, and technically he saved me once already.
I slid my hand into his, and stepped closer until our lips were nearly touching. His warm breath caressed my mouth, and I shivered. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been kissed. Maybe not since high school. This was crazy, but I wanted it. Needed it.
When his lips brushed mine, my heart pounded and the animal inside of me roared for freedom. I moaned; my head spinning as my knees buckled. Adam caught me before I fell and gently laid me down on the grass. I closed my eyes and faded into oblivion.
And the cat took over the night.
“Oh shit, this can’t be happening.” I waited on the other side of a stack of boulders. Her scent was all over me.
I stared down at my hand, opening and closing it. It still looked like my right hand. But this hand had just fucked up my entire world.
On the other side of the rocks, Lana’s curvy body contorted from a woman into a jaguar. The one creature we kept away from the Pack at all costs.
I never should have touched her.
The bushes rustled, and I heard the wet popping sound of joints mutating, but not a single moan or even a soft cry. It hurt like hell when I shifted. How did she get through it so silently?
Careful to stay downwind, I crept around and found a sleek black jaguar with dark eyes – Lana’s eyes – snarling at me, pacing back and forth and swishing her tail. I couldn’t tell if she recognized me, but since Lana didn’t seem to have any memories from the new moon nights as a jaguar, the cat probably didn’t share her human memories either.
The jaguar moved without making a sound. When she turned away from me, I lost sight of her, and she melted into the darkness. I fought the human instinct to run, and concentrated on the scents around me until I caught hers. My wolf senses gave me a view of my surroundings even when I couldn’t see with my eyes.
While the jaguar wandered off into the brush, I went back to collect Lana’s clothes. Her shirt was ripped, but it looked like she got the rest off without too much damage. I left them up on top of a boulder, hoping it’d keep the bugs and snakes out of them, and then headed south following her trail.
Before I caught up with her, the night wind shifted and I stopped. Frowning, I knelt down and took a deep breath. The jaguar scent grew stronger when I got closer to the ground. Lana’s scent? I wasn’t sure. Sagebrush snapped to my right.
Lana hadn’t gone that way. Her scent definitely led toward the south. Every muscle in my body tensed–alert and ready–as I scanned the darkness.
We weren’t alone.
If another jaguar hunted out here, it could see better at night than me. A huge disadvantage. Add to the shitstorm that I didn’t have a weapon, I was miles from the city, and tracking another jaguar during the new moon, I was screwed. I should’ve been calling the Pack for back up.
But I didn’t make the call.
If one of the other Pack members stumbled onto Lana they’d kill her first and ask questions later. I clenched my jaw, pushing the image out of my mind.
A couple more quiet steps to the east, and my brow furrowed. Nothing. No sound; and such a faint scent now, that I couldn’t be sure it wasn’t Lana’s. Did she come this way while I stashed her clothes?
In the distance, bushes rustled toward the south. I waited, staring into the darkness toward the east, but the night remained silent. It had to have been her scent. Our Pack always watched for jaguars and the only one I’d found was Lana.
And now that I touched her, I knew exactly who she was.
My fucking mate.
I shook my head in the darkness. Insane to even consider caring about her, but fate ripped that choice right out of my hands the moment our skin touched.
The Pack would never accept her.
The wind gusted into my face as I squinted into the darkness, listening for the jaguar. I knew I should head back into the city, hell I wanted to turn around and go back, but physically I couldn’t bring myself to leave her behind.
Her eyes haunted me. From the moment she looked up at me in the café, I was lost. Crazy. It was an instant animal attraction. The wolf inside of me wanted to touch her. Maybe the wolf recognized her even before we touched.
Scientists and members of my own pack believed that wolves mate for life, but I did my best to prove them wrong, one girlfriend at a time. The elders in our pack called me stubborn and hardheaded, but the truth was I couldn’t imagine spending my life with one woman.
My life was already complete. I didn’t need a mate to tie me down with children and responsibilities. I trained the horses in my barn, I patrolled the city with the Pack, I drank the occasional beer, and when I could I traveled. If I wanted female companionship it was easy to find at any of Reno’s casinos, and they usually came with no strings attached.
I caught her scent again and made my way west, trailing Lana.
Until she kissed me, it seemed like I pissed her off just by breathing. She kicked me under the damn table. No woman reacted to me like that before, yet here I was following her like some pathetic dog. My freewill battled my instincts.
And my fucking instincts were winning.
I ground my back teeth together and I hopped up on a rock to watch her slinking through the scrub brush below. Just seeing her relaxed some of the tension building inside of me. In the morning we could talk again.
This was insane. What the hell was happening to me?
I didn’t have any mate-for-life wolf instincts. That was nothing but old Pack legends. The stories of finding their mate, their eyes meeting and knowing with a single touch that they’d found the other half of their soul. Bullshit.
I never bought any of that romantic crap. Until it slapped me upside the head.
Maybe it was some sort of cosmic joke. Jaguars were our enemies, trained assassins. They encroached on our territory and killed humans. I was pledged to hunt them and kill them.
Not to help them. Or her.
I looked up at the stars. Just fucking perfect.