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Hidden Moon (Chapter 10)

"Can wolves climb trees?"

"None that I've ever heard about," Grace said.

"You think our tourist was lying about the wolf?"

"Could be, but then how do you explain the severe throat trauma?"

"I don't. You going to talk to the guy again?"

"First thing tomorrow."

"And this?" I pointed at the tiny piece of wood.

"I'll be asking him about that, too."

"You going to tell him to leave town?"

Her eyebrows shot up. "Why would I do that?"

"If he's some neo-Nazi nut job, maybe he's here because of the Gypsies." He had been hiking awfully close to their camp.

"Shit," Grace muttered.

"Yeah."

We both lifted our glasses and drained them. I poured another round.

"All I need are Nazis. I have enough trouble with the Klan."

"Since when do you have trouble with the Klan?"

"This is Georgia, Claire. There's always trouble with the Klan."

"What kind of trouble are we talking about?"

"The usual horseshit – flaming crosses on the lawns, egged windows, nasty notes."

"Here?"

She put her fingers to her forehead and rubbed. "Yes, here. This kind of stuff has been going on for decades."

"Not when my dad was in charge."

"Yes, when your dad was in charge, and mine, too. We had enough crosses on our grass that sometimes we barely had any grass."

"I never knew that."

"My dad was good at camouflaging things. Why do you think he was constantly planting flowering bushes in the center of the yard?"

"I thought it was a Cherokee thing."

"It was." Her eyes met mine. "Partly. The Klan didn't much care for a Native American sheriff, or maybe it was the African-American part they objected to. Nor did they appreciate the lily-white daughter of the mayor and the not-so-white daughter of the head cop being best friends."

I took another gulp of wine. How had I not known this? What else had been going on around here that I'd been oblivious to?

"And now?" I asked. People had to be more enlightened these days. They just had to be.

"Haven't had a good cross burning in quite a while."

"Always a plus."

"Things have been better. Which is why this" – she turned the swastika-marred wood over in her fingers – "is so bothersome. The Klan doesn't care much for Jewish people, either."

"Do they like anyone?"

"White people. Protestants. Who only play with other white Protestants."

"Booooring," I said. "Considering their outfits, I always figured they were short on imagination."

"And style."

"As well as brains." I flicked one finger at the chip. "That looks like a talisman or an amulet, maybe a charm. I'll do some checking."

Before I'd landed the producer's job, I'd spent some time as a researcher. I hadn't been half-bad at it.

"What kind of wood is that?" I asked.

"Seems like it came from the apple tree. If it hadn't been for the symbol, I'd have thought a chunk had just fallen off on its own. The tree must have been struck by lightning – there's a big black scorch mark on the trunk – but managed to survive. Sometimes nature is amazing."

Grace shoved the wood into a pocket and picked up her glass again. "This is nice," she said.

"Yeah. I missed you."

Her face, which had been open and relaxed, tightened. "You had a weird way of showing it."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Friends don't leave town without a good-bye. Best friends don't stop calling; they write more often than a card at Christmas."

"I know. I'm sorry. This place, my dad, the people – " I took a deep breath, remembering how stifled I'd felt here. "I wanted to start a new life."

"And I was part of the old one." I nodded. "So what changed?"

"Me."

The word fell between us, a bridge to a secret I didn't want to share.

"What happened in Atlanta, Claire? What made you run back here to hide?"

"I hardly think being the mayor is a good way to hide."

"You know what I mean."

I did. Only Grace would know that something had changed in me. Only Grace would have the guts to ask, and only with Grace would I feel compelled to tell her everything.

"I trusted someone and he hurt me."

"Join the club," she muttered.

I hadn't realized how much my leaving and not coming back had bothered her. I should have. Grace was difficult to say the least, a pain in the ass to be truthful. I doubted people were beating down her door applying for the position of best friend. Around here, I doubted she got many dates, either.

Sleeping with the head cop might have perks, but in macho-man land, which we were smack-dab in the center of, it was probably more embarrassing than anything. That Lake Bluff had a female mayor and a female sheriff was downright progressive, but that didn't mean the guys in town wanted to be seen with us.

Which was probably another reason I'd come home. I wouldn't have to worry about being pursued. Or at least I hadn't been worried until Malachi Cartwright showed up.

"I checked the police reports," Grace said quietly.

My gaze flicked to hers. At first I thought she meant in Atlanta, and my heart thundered, though I wasn't sure why. She wouldn't find anything. Then I realized she was talking about Cartwright and his merry band of Gypsies.

"What did you find?"

"Nothing unusual for towns where a festival is being held and a lot of out-of-towners have shown up." She took a sip of wine. "Fights. Assault. Reports of strange things going bump in the night."

"Like wolves?"

"Some. Plus huge bats, wild cats, zombies, ghosts, and, in one case, a dragon."

"You don't consider that unusual?"

"Not with all the drinking and revelry."

"Hmm."

"While I was at it, I checked the police reports in Atlanta."

My heart, which had just begun to slow, sped up again. "The Gypsies were in Atlanta?"

"No," she said, "you were."

"You think I was arrested?"

"I was hoping you filed a report on what happened to you."

I shook my head. I couldn't.

"When you say someone you trusted hurt you, you don't mean your feelings."

"Why not?" My voice shook. Damn. I didn't want to talk about this.

"I know you," she said. "You were going to take Atlanta, then the world, by storm. Now you turn up here, and you don't leave."

"Maybe I like it here."

Grace gave me a skeptical look over the rim of her wineglass and waited.

Sitting on the porch with my childhood home behind me, the forest in front of me, and my best friend next to me, I did the one thing I'd been told I needed to do to heal but had been unable to. I talked about it.

"I was dating a nice man who worked in the governor's office," I began.

"Nice ones are always trouble. They're either boring or not really very nice at all." She tilted her head. "Which was he?"

"Not very nice at all."

"That's what I thought."

"We'd gone out a few months. Three, maybe four. Dinner. Movie. Political soirees."

Grace let her eyes close and her head fall back. "Snore."

My own laughter surprised me. Usually when I thought about that night, I was paralyzed by both fear and disgust. I certainly wasn't laughing.

"I invited him back to my apartment for a drink."

We'd walked in; I'd shut the door, opened my mouth to ask what he'd like, and discovered that what he liked was me.

My chest hurt; I wasn't breathing. I took in a deep, full lungful of air, which caught in the middle.

"Take your time," Grace said in a soothing voice she had no doubt perfected for use with trauma victims.

"There isn't all that much to tell," I managed. "He thought I asked him in for more than a drink."

"But you hadn't."

"No," I said slowly, trying to recall what I'd been thinking, feeling.

Maybe I had meant to have sex with him. Maybe he'd sensed that and just jumped the gun. I couldn't remember anymore what I'd felt for Josh Logan before that night in my apartment.

"Go on, Claire," Grace murmured. "You can trust me."

My eyes met hers, and I knew that she was right. Grace might have been annoyed that I'd left, might still be a little annoyed, but she loved me. She'd do anything for me. I'd never had another friend like her and I never would. Old friends truly were the best friends. They knew you when – and they liked you anyway.

"He…" I began, and choked as if something had blocked my throat.

Grace shoved my wine into my hand. "Drink." She pounded on my back a few times for good measure.

When I'd stopped coughing, taken a sip of wine, then several breaths, I tried again. "We had sex and then he left."

"That's not what happened."

"Were you there?"

"You wouldn't be shaking, choking, and stuttering if all that had happened was sex."

"Extremely bad sex," I muttered.

"He raped you."

I jerked, sloshing wine over the side of the glass. Dark red drops cascaded down my hand and dripped onto the deck. I watched them roll over my skin and thought of Snow White's mother pricking her finger while sewing and letting the droplets fall upon the white linen. The strangest images came to mind when I was trying to deny the truth.

"He was my… boyfriend." Or near enough. "I invited him in."

"For alcohol, not sex. You told him no?"

"I – I think so. Everything's fuzzy."

"You struggled?"

"A bit." I'd had to wear long-sleeved blouses in the midst of a scorching Atlanta summer until the bruises on my arms went away. "Obviously not enough."

"It wasn't your fault," Grace said.

Deep down, I knew that was true. But higher up, near my head, I couldn't get past the sense that I'd brought what had happened on myself, that I'd led Josh on, given him false signals. I'd liked him, been attracted to him. I would have had sex with him eventually. So what was the big deal?

God, I sounded like every other date rape victim on the planet. I hated myself.

"Why didn't you file a report?"

"I couldn't."

"Of course you could. You want him out there doing that to someone else?"

My gaze lifted. "He isn't like that."

"Sounds to me as if he's exactly like that."

"He was moving up in the governor's office. There was talk he might even be the next governor." I took a deep breath. "I didn't think anyone would believe me. I figured they'd chalk my story up as one more scum ex-girlfriend scamming for her few minutes of fame."

"You don't think this will come back to bite you on the ass later?"

"How? I never told anyone but you and a therapist. I doubt she'll say anything. You plan on going to the tabloids with this, Grace?"

"You didn't see a doctor?"

"Why? A couple of bruises. I lived."

"Diseases. Pregnancy. You moron."

"Thanks. That helps."

"You need to see a doctor."

"He used a condom."

"In other words, he planned it."

"Men carry condoms in their wallets. It's what they do."

Of course Josh's condom hadn't been in his wallet; it had been on his cock. Talk about being prepared.

"It's behind me now," I said. "I want to forget."

"Which is why you ran home."

"I didn't run anywhere. My father died. Lake Bluff needed a mayor. I accepted."

"You are so full of shit I'm surprised you don't smell."

"And once again… thank you. That helps so much."

"You haven't forgotten, Claire. I saw you tonight with Cartwright. You were scared half to death." Her face darkened, and she stroked the butt of her gun. "Did he try to do more than kiss you?"

"No. Not really."

He'd grabbed me, made me feel trapped. That's what had started the flashback. Until then, I'd been enjoying myself. A lot.

"Cartwright's out of your league."

I stiffened, insulted, but she continued.

"Guys like him pick a woman in every town. They have their fun, then leave at the end of the week."

Sounded good to me. No commitments. No need to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Just a little horizontal mambo and away they went, never to be seen or heard from again. I wondered if I could find that kind of deal more than once a year.

Grace watched me closely. "You wanna talk about Atlanta some more?"

I shook my head. I'd talked and talked about it with a therapist – or at least I'd talked as much as I was going to. Talking hadn't done much good.

Grace stood, picking up her glass and the bottle. "I should go."

"Sure." She was disappointed in me. I couldn't blame her. I was disappointed in myself.

Grace would not only have arrested Josh; she would also have carved him a new hole – right where his uncontrollable penis used to be.

Standing abruptly, I grabbed my glass and led the way inside.

We set everything on the counter. Grace touched my arm. "If you want to talk again, I'm here. Any time. Day or night. If you want to file a complaint, I can help you."

"It's a little late for that."

She went to the front door and glanced at me over her shoulder. "It's never too late."

"I just want to forget, Grace."

"Looks like that's really working out well for you," she said, and closed the door behind her.

She was right. I hadn't moved past that night. My life had become divided into before and after. If I'd truly forgotten, I'd have… well, forgotten.

What had happened with Josh would forever be a part of who I'd become. It had been a life-altering experience, because here I was, right back where I'd started, and I didn't even mind.

I returned to the kitchen, planning to load the dishwasher and recork the wine. I'd just lifted both goblets when a tiny tap made me glance up.

A man peered through the sliding glass doors.

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