A Liar’s Moon
Strength of the Pack, Book 2
by Joy Lynn Fielding
eBook ISBN: 978-1-62740-925-4
A handsome stranger walks into the diner where Jason Nichols works. The first time he speaks to Riley Clark, Jason falls in love. By the time he sleeps with Riley, he’s head over heels. But Riley is a man on a mission—to expose the secret Jason’s pack is protecting.
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Riley had a smile plastered to his face as he opened the door to the motel lobby. He might hate everything he’d seen so far about this one-horse Colorado town, but if he was going to get the information he needed, he’d have to suck up to the locals.
“Can I help you, son?”
Something in the gaze of the gray-haired woman behind the desk made Riley think everything about him was being carefully observed and catalogued. He couldn’t blame her for that, because there was no telling who might be passing through and what they might want.
“Riley Clark,” he said. “I’m booked for a week, maybe longer if I need it.”
Given that his car was the only one out there in the parking lot, he figured now that an advance booking hadn’t been strictly necessary. But there was only one motel in town and as he couldn’t afford the rates charged by the hotel, he hadn’t been able to take the risk of not getting a room.
“I’ve got you,” she said, nicotine-stained finger stabbing on a penciled entry in the page of an honest-to–God, spiral-bound appointment book. She turned to take a metal key from a row of hooks behind the desk. He knew he’d left civilization some miles back, but he hadn’t realized he’d moved thirty years into the past when he’d passed the sign welcoming him to Elk Ridge.
“Room seven,” she said. “What brings you to Elk Ridge, son?”
He gave a smile, the one he’d been practicing in the mirror. It made him look bashful, yet a little proud at the same time. “I’m writing a travel guide to this part of the country,” he said. “Trying to get tourists to come off the beaten track a little and find the real America.”
Her eyebrows rose and he saw the calculation in her eyes. He was pretty pleased with his cover story. It meant he could poke around and ask questions without raising suspicion. It also meant every business owner in the place would be dying to talk to him.
“When you made your booking, I forgot to mention we’ve got a special offer going,” she said apologetically. “Three nights for the price of two.”
“Thanks,” he said, biting back a smile.
He picked up the key, shouldered his bag, and walked out into the sunshine.
* * * *
Jason slid the chicken breast next to the collard greens and put the loaded plate in the serving hatch, ready for Sam to take it to Ms. Taylor. The plate looked kind of empty to him without any sweet potatoes, but it was the way Ms. Taylor liked it. She’d smile at Jason and murmur something about watching her weight, though Jason couldn’t see she needed to worry about that. According to Bryce, she was the hottest fifty-year-old in town. Jason couldn’t really comment on that, seeing as how his idea of hotness had a flatter chest and a dick, but she was a nice lady who always made sure to compliment him on his food.
And that was the last ticket done. The lunchtime rush had finished an hour ago, but there were always a few stragglers who came in late and Ms. Taylor was usually the latest of those. Jason took off the bandana he’d been wearing to keep the sweat from his eyes and rubbed his hand through his curly hair. He was hot and tired, and ready to head home just as soon as three o’clock came. Matt had insisted at least two of the pack patrol their territory every night since Cale and his pack had attacked them. Although Jason knew his alpha was right to do so, it didn’t make it any easier to spend the night roaming the woods and hills around the ranch with every sense alert before coming in to do a full morning shift at the diner. And then he had to return home to cook supper for a pack of hungry wolves every night. Some days he didn’t know why he bothered, because they all scoffed down whatever he made so fast it was like they didn’t even taste it. But then Tristan or Jesse would look at him with an expression of wonder when they tried something new that they liked, and it made everything worthwhile.
He glanced up as the swing door from the diner opened and Sam Fawcett’s brunette head poked through. “Jason, honey, can you watch the place for ten minutes? I want to look in on Natalie and check she has everything she needs.”
“Sure thing,” he agreed, wiping his hands on the dishcloth and following her out. Sam was his boss and so her question was not really a request, but even if it had been, he’d have been happy to comply. He too had been wondering how Natalie was. She was the full-time waitress here, and at six months pregnant had suddenly called in sick last week and hadn’t been in since. Sam hadn’t given Jason any details—and he was glad about that because he was happy to live in ignorance when it came to that kind of thing—but he knew Sam was worried about her.
“Take her a cupcake?” he suggested. “Double chocolate raspberry’s her favorite.”
“She can’t eat that alone,” Sam said. “She’d feel rude.”
Jason bit back a smile as he picked out from the glass-fronted counter two of the cakes he’d made that morning. He boxed them up and handed them to Sam.
“Thanks, honey,” she said.
As she disappeared out of the front door, she passed a youngish blond guy in a brown leather jacket who was just on his way in. The guy took his shades off and looked around curiously as he entered the diner, but Jason could see nothing on his face to give away what he thought about what he saw. It wasn’t the fanciest place, but they cooked good, honest food.
The guy wandered over to the counter, his eyes fixed on the blackboard behind Jason which listed today’s specials.
“You still serving lunch?” he asked, changing the direction of his gaze to look at Jason. And when he did, Jason went from idly wondering who this guy was, because he was definitely new to Elk Ridge, to feeling as if the whole world had crashed to a halt around him. There was something in those blue-gray eyes that was like nothing Jason had ever seen before.
“Uh, sure,” he stammered at last, through a dry mouth. He’d completely forgotten what the question had been but figured his answer would be the same in any case. There was no way he’d ever be able to refuse this man anything.
“Cool,” the guy said. “I’ll take the baked pesto chicken and an orange juice.”
“Sure,” Jason said, and didn’t have a clue what he was agreeing to.
“Should I just sit anywhere?” the guy asked, turning round and gesturing at the almost empty diner.
“Uh, yeah, please,” Jason stumbled. “I’ll bring it out to you when it’s ready.”
And with that he bolted for the kitchen.
* * * *
With a smile at the middle-aged blonde woman who was pretending to eat her meal but was really checking him out, Riley took a seat in the corner. From there he’d be able to see everyone who came and went. Not that he thought that was going to be many people. The place was empty apart from him, the cougar, and a young couple who were blushing and whispering into one another’s ears without taking any notice of anything around them.
It was pretty much what he’d anticipated from a one-horse town like this, though the specials the place offered had piqued his interest slightly. He’d expected the usual desultory diner fare, and while there was plenty of that on offer, there were some rather more interesting dishes too. Well, if he did end up staying here the whole week—and God help him if he had to—at least he might not overdose on burgers. Just so long as the cook was a bit more with it than the server had been. He’d seemed to be slow-witted. It was a shame, because without that slack-jawed blankness, he would have been attractive—long, lean body, dark curly hair and brown eyes that should sparkle with intelligence.
Speaking of the server, he’d just come out again and was heading over toward Riley. That had been quick. Except, Riley suddenly noticed, there was no plate in his hands.
“Jason, dear.” The cougar was trying to get the guy’s attention.
“Just one moment, please, Ms. Taylor,” he said. His cheeks were burning a dull red by the time he got to Riley’s table. “I’m sorry,” he said. “But—er—I didn’t write your order down. Could you repeat it, please?”
If Riley really had been writing a travel guide, he wouldn’t be able to recommend this place to anyone, even though it was kind of them to take on the local guy with problems. “Baked pesto chicken and orange juice,” he said. And then he remembered he was here to make nice with the locals. “Please,” he added, and smiled, trying to look friendly and approachable and just the kind of person everyone would want to talk to.
The smile that lit Jason’s face in return was a fucking revelation—he was gorgeous, with dimples showing in his cheeks as he smiled. If only the guy wasn’t on the slow side, Riley would be hitting that so damn hard.
“Thanks,” Jason said, and retreated. He was waved down by Ms. Taylor, who seemed intent on speaking to him at some length. Jason gestured toward Riley and excused himself swiftly, leaving Ms. Taylor staring after him in disappointment. Just as he reached the counter, she tilted her head to one side. Riley was damn sure she was checking out Jason’s ass. Which, yeah, was definitely worth checking out.
Looking up once Jason had disappeared into the kitchen, he found Ms. Taylor’s eyes on him. Well, he’d had enough practice at fending off approaches from men and women over the years, and if he was going to find out about this town and their pack, he needed to start talking to people. He got up from his table and went over to her.
“Would you mind if I joined you?” he asked. “It’s kind of lonely, sitting on my own in a strange place.”
“By all means,” the blonde said. “I’m Nerissa Taylor.”
“Riley Clark,” he responded. He was interested to see that what just a few minutes earlier had been speculation in her eyes as they’d raked over his body seemed to have changed and lost its sexually charged edge. He wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or insulted.
“You’re new to Elk Ridge, then?” she asked. “I’d remember if I’d seen you before.”
He nodded. “Got into town an hour ago,” he said. “I’m staying at the motel.”
“Well, you picked the best place in town to eat,” she assured him. “Jason’s cooking is just wonderful, and if you want anything not on the menu, he’s always happy to oblige.”
Was he, indeed?
“Oh, not like that,” she protested, and Riley evidently needed to work harder on controlling his expression. “Not that I wouldn’t, but Jason’s not like that.” Her eyes were suddenly shrewd on his and he began to reassess his first opinion of her. She might be a cougar, but she was smart and quick as well. “But I think you know that, from the way you were checking him out.”
He choked. At least that explained why she’d lost interest in him, but he was definitely going to need to work on his game face if he’d been caught out so swiftly. In his defense, he hadn’t counted on someone like this Jason guy being around—he’d thought Elk Ridge would be full of rednecks and cowboys. Not that he objected to a cowboy in the least, but in his experience they generally they weren’t too keen on gay ex-models, ex-actors, or ex-singers. Or any one of the rest of that list of ex- things he was. He refused to let the thought sting and turned his mind back to what he currently was—an investigative journalist with the possibility of the biggest scoop since Watergate. Or Britney. Whatever. It would make his career, and he needed to focus.
“So, Ms. Taylor,” he began.
“Nerissa,” she corrected.
He smiled, hoping he looked charming. And then a glass of juice was placed next to his elbow and he couldn’t help looking up at Jason with a real smile. The guy was lean, but tall. Of course, some people would say that to Riley everyone was tall, but he didn’t reckon five ten was short, exactly. It was just that six one was taller.
“Your meal should be—give me ten minutes,” Jason blurted out in a rush, and bolted back toward the kitchen like there was something after him.
“You seem to have made quite an impression on Jason,” Nerissa said.
“He’s not always like that?” Riley’s ears—and another part of his anatomy—pricked up at that. If Jason really wasn’t as slow as he’d seemed, then maybe Riley could have a little fun while he was here.
“He can usually string a sentence together,” she said. “As for forgetting an order, I’ve never known it happen before. So tell me, Riley, what are you doing in Elk Ridge?”
He made sure to tell her his entire cover story, because he had the feeling this lady knew everyone. “And so I’m spending some time here, finding out just what would bring tourists a little off the beaten track to see real life,” he concluded. “Real ranches, not dude ones, and hiking somewhere that’s not crowded with other people.”
“Sounds admirable,” she said. “But do you think we’ve got enough to offer them?”
He couldn’t help the grin that broke from him as he surveyed her really rather sumptuous figure, shown off to advantage by a black dress that was way too fine for lunch at a small town diner.
“You know precisely how I meant that, Riley Clark,” she scolded him, but there was laughter in her eyes. She wasn’t immune to admiration from a man, even if that man was gay as could be.
“I was hoping that’s what the town can tell me,” he said. “I mean, when I was researching towns around here for a starting point, I read you’ve got your own shifter pack. That’s going to bring in shifters looking for a place to vacation, if they know there’s no prejudice here. There isn’t any, is there?”
Nerissa raised the napkin from her lap and folded it carefully before placing it very precisely on the table. Her lips were pursed slightly and Riley wondered if his question had been too pointed.
“Sorry,” he said, with what he hoped was a scapegrace grin. “Sometimes I get so enthusiastic about a subject I just charge in and ask tactless questions.”
“I can see that,” she said, looking at him steadily. “You might want to ease back a bit on that if you want people here to talk to you.”
His chastened expression was genuine. “Sorry.”
“It’s a good town here,” she said. “There’s a few folks haven’t taken too well to the pack, but most of us don’t even think of them as shifters. They’re part of this town too, you know, and I don’t care for the way you seem to mark them out as different.”
Holy crap. He’d nearly blown this thing before he even got started. “I’m sorry,” he said as sincerely as he knew how. “I guess I’m looking at this in terms of groups who might want certain vacations—young singles, families, older people. To me shifter was just another category. I didn’t mean anything more than that.”
“Well, good,” she said, and her teasing smile was back. “So just how can I help you, Riley?”
* * * *
Jason fiddled with the green beans once more, ensuring that they looked perfect on the plate. He had no idea what it was about that guy that had stolen all his higher brain functions. Sure, he was handsome—make that very handsome. His short and spiky blond hair and his battered leather jacket and Aviator shades made him look like a much better-looking Tom Cruise from Top Gun. And if Jason started thinking about the volleyball scene and that blond guy in a starring rôle, shirtless and sweating, just a pair of dog tags against his doubtlessly broad and tanned chest, he’d never be able to set foot outside the kitchen, let alone take the guy his meal.
Jason wasn’t immune to attractive guys. Truth to tell, he fell in love with at least three movie stars a year. But he’d never met anyone in real life who’d had anything approaching this effect on him. He swallowed hard, then picked up the plate and marched out with it, his heart pounding.
The guy was still sitting with Ms. Taylor. They were laughing together, and Jason’s heart stopped at the sight. He wasn’t sure whether it was due to crushing disappointment at the way they were flirting with one another, or simple appreciation at the picture before him. The guy had been like every wet dream Jason had ever had—and as he was a twenty-seven-year-old virgin, that was quite a few—when he was just ordering food. When he laughed, he turned out to be utterly, breathtakingly gorgeous. His blue-gray eyes were dancing with humor as he leaned in close and said something to Ms. Taylor, who tapped him reprovingly on the arm in a way that somehow managed to be encouraging.
Jason took a deep breath and made his way over to their table. He shouldn’t be surprised, and he definitely shouldn’t be disappointed. The chances of some gorgeous stranger turning up in the diner in Elk Ridge were low enough. The chances of that gorgeous stranger turning out to be gay were infinitesimally smaller. And Ms. Taylor did like to flirt. He would drop off the plate and go back to the kitchen and leave them to it while he waited for Sam to return so he could go back to the ranch and forget whatever stupid sudden hope had raised itself in his heart.
“Jason, dear,” Ms. Taylor greeted him. “I’d like you to meet Riley Clark. Riley, this is our Jason Nichols, who cooks like an angel.”
Jason flushed as he put the plate down in front of Riley. “Enjoy your meal,” he muttered, finding sanctuary in clichés.
“Could I get a refill on the juice?” Riley asked. He was smiling up at Jason in a way that had Jason’s heart beating unevenly.
“Sure,” he said. Instead of fetching the jug from the fridge, he picked up Riley’s glass and took it back to the counter so he could take a moment and remember how to breathe. There was a slight smear on the rim of the glass where Riley’s mouth had been. Once Jason had noticed it, he couldn’t stop looking at it and wondering just how that mouth would feel on something other than a glass. Something like Jason’s lips, for example.
For God’s sake, what was wrong with him? He determinedly straightened his shoulders, composed himself again, and took the filled glass back to Riley.
“Would you like anything else, Ms. Taylor?” he asked.
“I’m fine, dear,” she said, a smile curving her lips as she watched Riley’s reaction to Jason’s food.
“My mouth just had an orgasm,” Riley murmured in awe after he’d swallowed his mouthful. And damn it, that really wasn’t helping Jason one little bit. Riley glanced up at him. “Did you cook this?”
Jason nodded. “I should—” he said uncertainly, gesturing back toward the kitchen.
Ms. Taylor grabbed his hand. “Oh no, you don’t,” she said. “Riley is writing a travel guide and wants to know all about Elk Ridge and, much as I’d like to help him out, I have a date.” She stood and smoothed down her black dress, causing Jason to glance away because it was kind of tight and clingy. “I was telling him it would be easiest for him to learn about the town if he was shown around by someone who lives here. Don’t you agree, Jason?”
Jason nodded. “Sounds like a good idea,” he said, and then ground to halt as he realized.
“I’ll leave my money by the till,” Ms. Taylor called on her way out, sounding way too cheerful for someone who’d just set Jason up.
“I’m sorry,” he started, not daring to look at Riley’s face, because if he did, he knew he’d lose the power of speech. “You don’t have to just because she—”
“Like you said, it’s a great idea,” Riley said.
When Jason raised his gaze, Riley smiled at him. There was something in his eyes that set Jason’s heart racing. “I’m beginning to think this town has more to offer than I first thought,” Riley said.
Jason stared at him, not sure whether he was being flirted with, or made fun of. The bell over the door jangled and he looked up to find Sam was back. He excused himself, only for Riley to call after him. “Pick you up here tomorrow at three? That’s when your shift ends, isn’t it?”
Was nothing sacred when it came to Ms. Taylor? “Fine,” he managed, and fled past a surprised-looking Sam into the sanctuary of the kitchen.
* * * *
Riley returned to the motel feeling very pleased with his day’s work. He had put his cover story out there in a perfectly natural way, and then there was arranging to hook up with Jason. He seemed shy, but cute. Very cute. Especially when he smiled.
Riley shook his head to clear his mind. Thinking like that might be pleasant, but it wasn’t going to get his job done. He got some ice from the machine and cracked open a soda before sitting down at the desk in his room. Like the rest of the place, it had seen better days, but all he needed was space for his laptop and, right now, his notepad. Because while Riley was all about convenience whenever possible, he also knew that paper couldn’t be hacked. Some things it was better to use a pen and paper for. It could always be burned afterward.
He wrote Sheriff Matt Urban, Alpha, in the middle of the first page, and drew a circle around it. Then toward the edge of the paper, he wrote down the only other two names he had—Tristan and Bryce. Urban had gone public about being a shifter when he’d stood for sheriff, but try as he might, Riley hadn’t been able to find mention of another shifter in Elk Ridge anywhere. Not newspapers, social media, or even police records. Though if Urban was sheriff, maybe that explained the latter. None of the Colorado shifter councils had dealings with the alleged pack, either. If it wasn’t for Nerissa Taylor’s unwitting confirmation, he might think there was no pack here and that his source had been wrong.
The only other thing Riley had been able to find was the Twitter account of a teenager, Tristan, who lived in Elk Ridge. He mainly tweeted aimless chatter about his classes, but every now and then he’d retweet something about shifter rights. There were also some rueful complaints about a Bryce and his ongoing sexual conquests, all couched in a way that made it clear Tristan was very close to this guy, though not in a romantic way. It was a bit of a reach, but right now it was all he had. Even if Tristan turned out not to be a shifter, the fact he was a political ally meant he’d probably be friends with the local pack.
Ms. Taylor’s defensive reaction had been interesting and unexpected. He wasn’t sure why she’d been so firm with him—it wasn’t like he was a bigot. He believed shifters should have equal rights. But if this pack was keeping a secret like he thought it was, they deserved to get outed. If they were left alone to make their bid for power according to their own agenda, they’d whip up shifters all over the country into a frenzy that would result in riots, and all sorts of political compromises having to be made.
Not that he kidded himself he was doing this out of some sort of civic duty. He was doing this because it was his last chance before he got sacked from the paper for being as damn useless at being a journalist as he was at everything else he’d ever tried. His editor had made that perfectly clear when she’d assigned him to this story. Karen hadn’t even called him into her office to brief him, but had stood at his desk, in full hearing of everyone in the newsroom, and told him that this was his last chance. Either he dug up something in Elk Ridge, or he was gone. The Daily Sentinel was not a charity, apparently, and only employed real journalists.
Riley drew a deep breath and pushed those thoughts away, because otherwise he’d end up sitting in the dark, clutching a bottle of beer and hating himself. Instead he sat and stared at his piece of paper, wondering where to begin. He then realized there was only one place to begin and that was with the one shifter he’d so far identified.
He’d do nothing more today. That would allow time for news of the travel writer to get about, so that people would be more likely to talk to him. Tomorrow morning he’d go and see Matt Urban.
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