Liar, Liar, Hearts Desire

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Cleo Morgan is a liar.

And they’re not little, white liars but big, black whoppers. She’s lying to everyone in her hometown, letting them believe she still works for a reputable paper when, in reality, she’s sold her soul to The Inside Word, a tell-all supermarket tabloid no one wants to admit they read.

She’s lying to Alec Ramirez, the tabloid’s star reporter, who is training her to write their kind of story their way. He doesn’t know the woman who’s been arrested for murder in the story they’re covering is her mother. Or that Cleo is conspiring with her old boyfriend to steal that story out from under him and using it to buy her way back into her old life.

And she may be lying to herself that leaving Alec behind when she goes will be easy. Because she absolutely, unequivocally, beyond the shadow of any doubt does not want him in her life on a permanent basis.

 

 
 

Excerpt:

Chapter 1

     Mundane. Routine. Dull. As boring as watching grass grow. That’s how most reporters felt about press conferences.

     Twenty-four hours ago, Cleo Morgan would have agreed with them, but this wasn’t going to be an ordinary press conference. This time, she’d cringe over every question the reporters fired at the D.A., every textbook, evasive answer, waiting  for some bomb to drop that would rip open her heart. Because the person they’d arrested for the murder of high-rolling, Las Vegas casino owner Sebastian Koblect was Annaliese Carson.
     Cleo’s mother.
     Cleo wasn’t normally prone to claustrophobia, but the powers-that-be had picked one of the smaller rooms in the Clark County government center. They should have known better, Cleo thought as the man in front of her stepped back unexpectedly, forcing her to fall back to keep her toes from being trod on. Sebastian Koblect’s death was national news; therefore, so was the arrest four days later. 
    Half a step into her retreat, she came up against a solid, male chest. The chest belonged to Alec Ramirez, her colleague at The Inside Word.
     “How you holdin’ up?” he murmured into her ear.
     “It’s too warm.” Her underarms were slick with perspiration.
     “Too many people in here,” he said.
     Ya think? was on the tip of her tongue, but she bit it back. He was only trying to be supportive. Logically, she knew it wasn’t his fault that half the time he annoyed the shit out her. She understood the reasons behind that: he was the star reporter at a tabloid, which represented everything she didn’t want to be but was on the road to becoming.
     It was the other half of the time that was inexplicable. The moments when she wanted to kiss him senseless and ravish him to within an inch of his life. Or better yet, have him ravish her.
     Not that she’d been in a ravishing sort of mood since the arrest the previous day. Which only made Alec look even better since he’d spent last night holding her as she slept. Yeah. Saint Alec. Who’d a thunk it?
     The last thing she’d expected when she’d accepted a job at a tabloid was to find a man like him. Smart, sexy, principled, even funny sometimes. He was also annoyingly tenacious, righteous in his defense of his employer, and had a nose for a story. How she’d gotten away with all the lies she’d told him—like the one that Annaliese wasn’t her mom—now that was a miracle.
     “You holding it together?” Saint Alec asked.
     She nodded, but it was a lie. She was holding it together only because she’d wrapped all her emotions in cotton batting and shoved them down a deep well.
     A stir started near the front of the room, and moments later, the district attorney took the podium. He ignored the TV cameras and, after introducing himself, thanked the police and the state forensic lab for their investigation which led to this quick arrest.
     Here it comes. Cleo took a deep breath and held it.
     “After questioning, Annaliese Carson was arrested and is currently being held in the Clark County jail,” the DA said to the crowd of reporters. “Annaliese Carson, forty-five years old, is being charged with the first degree murder of casino owner Sebastian Koblect. Ms. Carson is a former showgirl and is currently employed by El Dorado Casino as a choreographer. No bond has yet been set. Because this is a continuing investigation, we will not be able to release specific details of this case.”
     After his statement, he took questions, warning them again he could discuss few details. Several reporters called out questions, but a man’s voice—one Cleo recognized and had dreaded hearing—rose above the cacophony, as if he was entitled to a response. “How well did the suspect know the victim?”
     Cleo wished she could disappear or at least hide behind Alec, but that would risk drawing attention.
     “Ms. Carson has been an employee of the casino for more than twenty years,” the DA said. “She has allegedly had a long and volatile relationship with Mr. Koblect.”
     “Volatile?” Cleo whispered, shocked out of her desire to hide, nearly shocked out of the cotton batting she’d tried to wrap around her emotions. “No.” The choice to characterize Annaliese’s relationship with Sebastian as volatile told her too clearly that the case was going to turn into a circus freak show with Annaliese cast as the star freak.
     Alec gave her shoulder a sympathetic squeeze. She twitched, wanting to shrug it away, wanting to deny the need for it, but sympathy was going to be a rare commodity in the coming weeks.
     “Don’t throw the switch on her yet,” he murmured. “Not until you’ve talked to the lawyer.”
     She closed her eyes and took a breath, silently thanking him for the reminder.
     The district attorney left the podium, and people started moving toward the exits. With Alec at her back, Cleo held her ground and let the crowd move around her.     Where was Annaliese right this moment? Visions from every prison movie she had ever seen crowded her mind. She wanted to believe the county jail was different, but she didn’t have any images on tap to back up that hope.
     “Cleo.”
     It was the same voice that had asked the question earlier.
     She should have let the crowd sweep her toward the exit.
     “Martin,” she said flatly as she turned toward him.
     Sun-bleached hair, perfectly capped teeth, and an expensive casual suit. That was Martin Howard Prescott the third. One of the star reporters at The Tucson Sun, the paper that had hired her when she’d offered them the exposé she’d written that had eventually netted the paper a Pulitzer nomination. Until a few short weeks ago, when she’d handed in her notice there, Martin had also been her lover.
     Was it odd she missed The Sun more than she missed him?
     Alec’s hand tightened on her arm. “Buck up, Princess,” he whispered in her ear. “Put on your smiley face.”
     His support was suddenly annoying because it reminded her of another secret she was keeping from him. Lies, lies, lies. It seemed as if that was all that came out of her mouth these days. She restrained herself from digging an elbow into his ribs, but his suggestion was exactly what she needed to stiffen her spine.
     She forced a smile. “Martin,” she said again, sounding less like he was a member of a firing squad.
     “I wondered if I’d see you here.” He leaned in and kissed her cheek. “Once a reporter, always a reporter, eh?” he said as though they hadn’t been colluding to screw her current employer out of an important story… had it only been yesterday?
     She didn’t have the emotional resources to deal with him, but somehow she had to rise to the occasion. She didn’t need Alec guessing that she’d known Martin was in Las Vegas. “I… Yes, I suppose so.” And then, her mind blanked and she stood speechless, staring as he smiled—and then winked—at her.
     Once again, Alec came to her rescue, clearing his throat in a not-so-subtle reminder of her manners.
     “Oh,” Cleo said. “Martin, this is Alec Ramirez. Alec, this is Martin Prescott.”     “Alejandro Ramirez,” Alec clarified as he extended his hand.
     The smile on Martin’s face dialed down into the “polite” realm with a dash of chilly thrown in. “Martin Prescott the third.”
     She blinked. They weren’t going to have a territorial dispute, were they? Then again, it felt good to show Martin he wasn’t without competition, both personally and professionally. Heaven knew nothing else about the day she was having felt remotely good.
     She took a moment to evaluate the two men as they sized each other up. If Martin represented all that was golden, Alec was his antithesis with his dark hair, dark eyes, and Latino coloring. If she were casting a movie, Martin would be played by Brad Pitt in his prime; Antonio Banderas would get Alec’s role.
     She followed the urging of her inner devil and tucked her fingers into the crook of Alec’s arm. After the way her relationship with Martin had ended, with him throwing epithets like gold digger and parasite at her, she couldn’t stop the sweet thrill of vindication from tripping through her when Martin’s eyes flicked down, taking in the connection.
     Another lie. She and Alec weren’t going to last beyond their time in Las Vegas.
     “So you worked with Cleo in Tucson?” Alec asked as if Martin were so inconsequential she’d never mentioned him.
     She could have kissed him.
     “Uh, yes. We were colleagues.” Martin glanced at her. “And friends. Very good friends.”
     Alec looked down at her. “I’m sure you’d love to catch up with your friend, lambchop, but we really need to pick up the release and”—he glanced at his watch—“get to that interview we scheduled.”
     Lambchop? She dug her fingers into the soft spot inside his elbow. He didn’t grimace, but his jaw muscles clenched, so feigning a happy smile wasn’t too difficult for her. “Of course.” She turned her attention to Martin. “It was good seeing you. Maybe I’ll run into you again before you leave.”
     “I’ll make sure of it,” Martin said. “Are you staying here at El Dorado?”
     “No!” She should have said that more quietly.
     “We have private accommodations,” Alec said.
     Cleo tensed, but Alec didn’t elaborate. She should have known he wouldn’t. Whether he’d told the home office or not, he was too canny a reporter to let the competition know they were staying at Annaliese Carter’s condo.
     Martin didn’t even spare Alec a glance. “You’ve got my number, Cleo. Call me. I’ll buy you a drink and we can catch up.”
     There was a slight stress on “catch up” that she hoped Alec missed, though God knew the man didn’t miss much. She opened her mouth to respond, but Alec pulled her away with an apology so brief it bordered on rude. Not that she was sorry, but she couldn’t let him get away with it. God, they had a strange relationship. “Why’d you do that? Now he’s going to think you felt threatened.”
     “Should I be?” Alec snagged the written release and hustled her out the conference room door.
     “Were you?”
     “I asked first.”
     She made an exasperated noise. He was so childish. And she was so grateful because it put some normalcy into her life and gave her an excuse to act like a shrew.
     “Actually, I was protecting The Word’s interest in you,” Alec said. “If old Martin figures out you’ve got a connection to Annaliese, he’ll be all over you like stink on shit.”
     “Oh wow. That makes me feel so special.” She shouldn’t feel disappointed. He was right, but somewhere deep inside, in a dark corner of her psyche she refused to acknowledge, she’d wanted his motivation to be more personal. When had she gotten so needy? And wanting it to be personal was hardly smart. Not when, given half a chance, she’d stab him in the back, so she could salvage her career.
     They’d just exited the building when he caught her arm and turned her, trapping her between him and the iron handrail at the top of the steps. “You are special. You’re an exceptionally talented investigative reporter. The Word needs more people like you.” His words were all business, but even though he wasn’t pressing up hard against her, his proximity felt anything but professional. “The Sun was crazy to let you get away. And so was Martin.”
     His gaze bored into hers, and in that moment, she didn’t doubt he meant it on both a professional and a personal level. Even her good angel was humming “Viva Las Vegas.”     Okay, so maybe she didn’t have that big a problem with having a Las Vegas fling.
     They had an hour to kill until her appointment with Annaliese’s lawyer. Alec suggested they talk to a few people, but Cleo knew she wouldn’t be any good at her job until she’d spoken to Danny Bonner and, depending on what he said, maybe not even then. Instead, she countered his suggestion with a proposal that they get a late lunch, preferably somewhere off the Strip where she’d be less likely to run into anyone who knew her.
     They found a little spot where she ordered a club sandwich, but when it came, she took one bite then picked at the fries.
     Alec eyed her over his chicken fried steak. She could practically see the gears turning in his head, but she had no idea what he was thinking.
     Hopefully, none of her lies were unraveling.
     Lies like the ones she’d told him about Annaliese being her mother’s sister. Or that the picture he’d found on the wall of Annaliese’s condo of Annaliese and a ten-year-old Cleo, both dressed as Vegas showgirls, was really Annaliese with her dead daughter Patty. The last had been a stupid lie, but she’d panicked. Now she had to live with it. It was a shaky house of cards she’d built.
     “So…” Alec said after he’d swallowed a bite. “Old Martin. Is he any good in bed?”
     Cleo nearly choked on a fry. She coughed and sputtered until Alec reached over and gave her a couple slaps on her back.
     “Rap on the table twice if I need to dust off the Heimlich maneuver.”
     She held her hands up to fend him off. When she could finally speak, her voice came out sounding rusty. “You want to know if he’s good in bed? Why? Are you thinking about dating him?”
     “Nah.” He grinned. “Even if I were into men, he’s too rich and too privileged. Mostly, I was looking for something to get your mind off Annaliese.”
     She barked a laugh. He’d certainly done that, even if she’d nearly choked to death in the process. But those few moments not thinking about her troubles had felt wonderful. Like a vacation in Cancun. She decided to let him continue distracting her. “What do you mean, ‘too privileged’?”
     He stole one of her fries. “He’s used to getting what he wants. And don’t kid yourself.” He wagged the fry at her like a pointy finger. “He wants you.”
     She made a disparaging noise. “No, he doesn’t.”
     He took a bite then talked around it. “He’s going to try to lure you back to The Sun. You see if he doesn’t. And now that he’s seen me, he’s going to try twice as hard because guys like him don’t like losing to guys like me.”
     She ruthlessly ignored the twinge of guilt that came with Alec’s too-accurate prediction. Except it wasn’t a prediction. He was a day too late for that. “You think you’re less than him?”
     “Hell, no.” Before he popped the rest of the French fry in his mouth, he met her eyes. “But he does.”     She should have known. Alec didn’t have an insecure bone in his body. “You’re dreaming. You’re fabricating a competition with Martin, so you’ll feel you’ve won when I go back to Denver.” If she went back to Denver.
     “Hide and watch, sweetheart. He’ll make a move, and I’m willing to bet money his first move is to try to get you back in his bed.”
     “You don’t have to worry about that.” Martin was too smart to make that his first move. Besides, she had no interest in going back to him. But The Sun . . . that was a different story. Yesterday, she’d thought it was a possibility, but today . . .? It was hard to calculate the odds when Annaliese’s arrest colored her every thought.
     “So he’s crap in bed,” Alec said. “Good to know.”
     “What is this fixation you have with his sexual performance?”
     “So he wasn’t crap?” He stole another fry. “You had lots of screaming orgasms with him?”
     She narrowed her eyes at him. “I’m not really a screamer.”
     “Maybe not yet.” The corners of his lips tilted up. “I could fix that.”
     Cleo rolled her eyes.
     “So no screaming orgasms with Marty. Did you have any at all with him?”
     “Yes. Of course I did.” She let a hint of a smile touch her lips as she picked up the catsup bottle, flipped the lid open, and poured a puddle on the edge of her plate. “But maybe not as many as he thinks.”
     It was Alec’s turn to choke. After a couple of coughs, he said, “You faked your orgasms?”
     She gave him a “well, duh” look. “Any woman who says she’s never faked an orgasm is lying.” He looked as if he was about to protest, so she said, “And please don’t say no one’s ever faked one with you. Let’s not have a Harry-Met-Sally moment because it doesn’t always have to do with how competent the guy is in bed.” Her own sexual deficiencies notwithstanding, growing up as Annaliese’s daughter, she’d been exposed to a lot of graphic conversations among the showgirls that backed up her opinion.
     He didn’t look convinced. “Oh? What does it have to do with?”
     “Sometimes we’re not in the mood, but we still want to please our guy. Sometimes we’re in the mood, but we lose it somewhere along the way, and we know it’s not going to happen. Sex takes a lot of effort when you’re not ‘feeling’ it, and we get tired and want to move things along.” She shrugged. “So we fake it.”
     “You’re shattering my illusions but, you know,”—he wagged his half-eaten fry at her—“this might make an interesting story. Why Women Fake It and How to Tell.
     “Yeah.” In her mind, she could actually see the banner headline. It was exactly the sort of thing she expected from a tabloid. “Good luck with the last part.”
     “Not going to share the trade secrets, huh?”
     “You don’t really want to know. Besides, every woman’s different.”     “I have noticed that.”
     She’d bet he had. He had enough of a bad boy way about him that women probably fell at his feet everywhere he went. Lord knew it hadn’t taken her long to start having hot, steamy, lust-filled fantasies with him in the starring role.

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