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Hidden Moon (Chapter 12)

I don't know how much time passed as we kissed and then kissed some more. He touched me nowhere but my neck, my mouth, yet my entire body hummed at the nearness of his.

My breasts ached; my legs wobbled. I was damp, desperate. "Bedroom," I managed against his mouth.

He stepped back and I nearly fell. "Not yet."

"What?"

"Too soon." He brushed my hair out of my face. "You aren't ready."

I felt more ready than I'd ever been.

"I thought I was the one calling the shots."

"To a point. I am not going to do anything foolish."

The double entendre of his words made me flush. His turning me down when my body screamed for a release I hadn't had in… I forget, made me angry.

"Fucking the forbidden is already foolish," I snapped.

"I haven't fucked you." He opened the sliding glass door and slipped through, pulling it closed behind him.

Right before the latch clicked, I heard him murmur, "Yet."

I reached for the handle, yanked the door open, got tangled in the curtains, and impatiently shoved them aside; then I stood staring at the empty deck, the deserted yard, the silent wood.

To disappear that quickly Cartwright would have had to vault over the edge and sprint into the trees. Even then, he'd have to be very, very fast. Guess he couldn't wait to get away.

I went inside, checked all the windows and doors. By the time I reached my room and completed my nightly tossing-Oprah-off-the-pillow ritual, I was calmer.

Malachi had been right to say no. I wasn't ready. Although –

As I stepped out of my clothes and pulled on a nightgown, I let my hands drift over my breasts, let my fingers trail between my legs.

I felt ready.

But the body was different from the mind. I might want him more than I'd ever wanted anyone, physically, but mentally… I wasn't sure.

I had a difficult time waking up the next morning. My head heavy, my eyelids stuck together; I felt dopey yet strangely on edge.

When the shower spray hit my body, I yelped as if the droplets were electrical charges. The water pressure had never bothered me before – except for a lack of it – now the pounding set my teeth on edge.

I didn't want liquid cascading over my skin; I wanted his hands sliding down my arms, up my rib cage, cupping my breasts, thumbs tracing the nipples.

My head fell back; the water beat on my throat; my own hands followed the path my mind made. It had been a long time since I'd done this, too.

As my skin hummed again as it had hummed last night, I slipped my fingers between my legs and began to finish what a mere kiss had started.

The combination of the memories, the pounding spray, and the rhythmic press of my own hand made me come gasping in less than half a minute.

To my amazement, the self-inflicted orgasm did little to diminish the frustration I'd awoken to, a feeling that hung around me like Pigpen's cloud of dust throughout the day, making me jumpy and far too short with everyone I met.

The Full Moon Festival officially opened with a short ceremony in the town square at 9:00 a.m. I was set to give a welcome speech; the high school band would play "Georgia on My Mind," and we'd be off and running with a sidewalk sale by all the local merchants, as well as the first show by the Gypsies that evening.

Instead of a suit or slacks, I donned a mint green dress that complemented my figure, the waist nipped in, the skirt full and fabulous, the hemline hitting just below the knees. When this dress was accented with my grandmother's pearls and pumps in the same shade, I resembled June Cleaver with a French twist.

I'd just finished my speech and stepped back from the podium to light applause from the fifty people who'd bothered to show up when a stray breeze caught the skirt and made it billow nearly to my waist.

The warm air on my bare legs, the brush against the still-damp crotch of my panties, made me cry out in both arousal and alarm. I slapped my hands against the fluttering material and glanced up to check how many people had noticed.

Luckily, the band had started to play the Ray Charles classic as soon as I'd finished, and no one heard my outcry. A few people smiled at my discomfiture, but not maliciously. Everyone had an embarrassing moment or two in their past.

Then I noticed a man dressed in black and white walking away from the crowd. Even without the long dark hair and lithe, almost-catlike gait, I'd have recognized Malachi Cartwright. He stood out like a crow among peacocks.

Had he been listening to my speech? I'd passed my gaze over the crowd before, during, and after the welcome, but I hadn't noticed him.

The last notes of the song faded and what was left of the crowd, mostly the parents of the band members, clapped.

I hung around to make sure everything was being broken down and put away before I headed for the office.

"Lovely performance," Joyce said as I entered.

"The band's really coming along."

"I meant your Marilyn Monroe imitation." She waved at my skirt.

My face heated. "I was going for June Cleaver."

"Unless you were auditioning for Leave It to My Beaver, you missed by a mile."

"Leave it to what?"

"Porn," she said simply, and tapped a few keys on her computer. "Actually has a plot. June and Ward enjoy a rare weekend without the kids and – "

"Stop." I slapped my hands over both sides of my head. "My ears. Are they bleeding?"

"Just because I'm old doesn't mean I'm dead."

I wasn't sure how old Joyce was, and I'd never had the guts to ask. I always figured she was near my dad's age, give or take.

"You aren't that old," I said.

She lifted her hands, palms out. "The pickings around here are mighty slim at any age."

True. And for someone nearing Social Security, probably even more so. Joyce was out of luck unless she wanted to date See, Hear, or Speak No Evil. I wrinkled my nose. Forget about Have No Fun.

"How come you never married, Joyce?"

Her head came up; her eyes widened. "Me?"

"Yes, you. You obviously liked kids or you wouldn't have been a teacher."

Joyce snorted. "Honey, in my day, you were a nurse or you were a teacher. I preferred a career choice that didn't involve blood." She pursed her lips. "Though I have to say, being a phys ed teacher, I saw my share of it."

"You didn't like kids?"

"I liked you." Joyce smiled.

I smiled back. "Thanks."

I don't know what I'd have done as a teen without Joyce. There'd been things I couldn't ask my dad. Things Grace hadn't known. But Joyce had always been available. And while she'd often mothered me when I didn't want her to, she'd also been a friend when I needed her to be, and that was something I'd always be grateful for. I wanted her to be happy.

"Wasn't there ever anyone you considered marrying?" I pressed.

Joyce stared at her desk and I knew.

"Dad."

She shrugged. "He never saw anyone but your mom. Even after she was gone."

"I'm sorry – "

"No." She held up a hand. "I could have pushed it. Could have talked him into marrying me on the loneliness factor alone, but I didn't want to be second all my life. Here" – she waved a hand at the desk, the office – "I was first. He depended on me. He needed me, and no one else."

"I feel the same way. I couldn't do this without you, Joyce."

"Thanks, girl. That means a lot."

"Where do you go when you… go?" I asked.

"The ladies' room."

"Not that kind of go. Sheesh. I mean when you disappear sometimes."

She faced her desk. "I don't know what you mean. Now, did you want to borrow that video? Because from where I'm sitting, you could use a little excitement in your life."

My mind went immediately to the excitement I'd had in my life last night, and I had to turn away so she wouldn't see me smile. "I'll be fine."

For the first time in a long time, I actually thought I might be.

With the festival begun I was both busier and less busy than usual. Citizens didn't stop in for a chat or even make an appointment. They had too much to do. However, tourists wandered through, as if the town hall were part of a guided tour.

Many of them wanted to meet the mayor and thank me for the lovely event, then ask questions about Lake Bluff, the mountains, and the history of both.

After the fifth family had traipsed through my office, I called for Joyce. "Next year we hire someone to do tours and speechify about historical…" I waved my hand. "Stuff."

"Got it," she said, and made a note on her ever-present notepad. "Think you'll be here next year?"

"Huh?" I glanced up from the mountain of crap on my desk, which appeared to have grown since yesterday.

"Balthazar is determined, and it isn't like you wanted to be the mayor."

"Who said I didn't?"

"Your dad."

Guilt and sorrow flooded me. I missed him. I should have stayed and taken over the job as he'd wanted me to. If I had, I never would have met Josh and –

Straightening my spine, I lifted my chin. "I don't plan on leaving anytime soon."

"Even if Balthazar wins?"

"I don't plan on letting Balthazar win."

Joyce grinned. "He'd be so proud."

I let myself bask in the notion of my dad at last being proud of me.

He'd always hoped I would take over for him, been very disappointed that I would rather eat dirt, and while I'd been too caught up in my own plans to worry about his feelings at the time, now that he was gone, I wished I'd been a better daughter. I'd try to make amends by keeping the town he'd adored safe from idiots like Balthazar Monahan.

"I hear you made the council vote last night," Joyce said.

"So?"

"I don't think they've actually voted in years."

"Is that bad?"

"No. Your dad was a good guy, but sometimes he slacked off on things."

"He did?"

I'd never heard that before.

"Everyone does if they can get away with it. Jeremiah was good with people. He listened to them. They liked him and trusted him."

"Unlike me."

"Where'd you get that?" Joyce asked. "Everyone likes you fine."

"They don't trust me. No one talks to me like they talked to him."

"They will. The people know you can do this job, or they wouldn't have asked you to take over."

"How can they know?"

"The apple doesn't fall far from the tree, Claire. No matter how hard you might have wanted it to."

I suddenly felt lighter, happier, than I had in months, maybe years. In Atlanta I'd always been seen as less than I could be; here I was seen as more than I was.

I glanced at the clock. Not quite noon. No one had come through the door for fifteen whole minutes. "I'm going to try and get a little work done," I said.

"Hold your calls?"

"Unless it's an emergency, yes."

I headed directly for the Internet. I could rationalize all that I wanted to, but deep down I knew that the discovery of a swastika-bearing chunk of wood could not be good. I needed to find out what it meant. I had to protect this town and its people at all costs. They'd put their trust in me, and I wouldn't let them down.

I found out all sorts of things I really didn't want to know about the Nazis. Was there anything good to know about them?

However, under "Origin of the Swastika" I discovered something else. The sign dated from prehistoric times and was an Icelandic symbol of both protection and rebirth.

My search for totems, charms, and amulets made of wood caused thousands of sites to spill onto my screen. The first ones referenced Native American tribes – Inuit and Ojibwe specifically, but nothing on the Cherokee.

The second set referenced Wicca. Spells, natural cures, good luck, bad luck, and anything in between.

I rubbed my forehead. This wasn't going anywhere.

My phone rang, the shrill brring slicing through the lovely quiet of my office. I shot a glare at Joyce through the glass.

She motioned furiously for me to answer, and I remembered that I'd told her to interrupt only in the case of an emergency. I snatched up the phone. "Claire Kennedy."

"Get your butt to the hospital."

"Grace?" I asked, but she'd already hung up.

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