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Hidden Moon (Chapter 16)

We didn't get far before Cartwright stopped the horse with a soft cluck of his tongue. He'd probably been doing that the entire night, so what had seemed to be silent communication was anything but. Regardless, the show had been beyond impressive. What was a guy like him doing in a place like this?

I shifted, the movement bringing me more firmly against Cartwright. Either the performance had excited him or I did.

I tried to inch away, but his arms tightened. "Don't."

The band began to play softly, a waltz, smooth and sweet. I glanced toward the ring, but our mad dash had taken us several yards into the forest and I could see only trees.

"The show," I began.

"Nothing but a bird act. They fly to and fro. You aren't missing a great deal."

"Considering what I saw already, I'd have to say that I am."

"Did you like it, then?"

"Very much. Why do you stay?"

His body tightened against mine. "What do you mean?"

"You could perform in New York. Las Vegas. Even on television. Or you could train animals and give up performing."

"No," he said quietly. "I could not."

I waited for him to explain, but he didn't.

"You enjoy wandering the country in a wagon?"

Cartwright shrugged, the movement rubbing his chest against my back. I resisted the urge to curve against him like a cat rolling in sun-warmed grass. "Wandering is what we do. The Rom are not welcome in this world."

"Sometimes you talk like you're stuck in the seventeenth century."

"Sometimes I feel as though I am."

"Your horse is beautiful."

"He is. Did you know that the Rom believe a white horse is touched by magic?"

"You think he's magic?"

He chuckled. "When Benjamin flies through the air with such ease, I wonder if the angels carry us."

I couldn't help but snort. I'd never been one to believe in such things.

"In truth," he continued, "animals with white coats are best for performances like mine because the chalk I use on my feet, which helps me keep my balance, doesn't show. If you ever go to a circus, you'll notice the ring stock is usually white, perhaps gray."

His hands, which had rested lightly at my waist, holding me safely astride, slipped around to rest on my stomach. I forgot all about white horses and magic.

When he leaned forward, his breath brushed my ear. I shivered, and not from the slight mist that had begun to swirl in off the lake.

His lips pressed against the curve of my neck, taking a bit of me between his teeth, gently nibbling, sucking. The sensation was glorious, both sharp and tender, causing my body to tremble against his.

Benjamin shifted and I jumped, but Cartwright soothed me with soft murmurs and gentle touches until I quieted along with the horse.

My head fell back against his shoulder, and I stared at the slice of sky visible through the tall canopy of trees – navy blue punctured by glistening sparkles of white and the silver sheen of a rising moon covered with mist.

His fingers traced my rib cage, my collarbone; my blouse gaped open. How had he gotten the buttons undone so fast?

I didn't care, enjoying the drift of the night along my heated skin. His palms cupped my breasts through the bra, and my nipples tightened as he rubbed the center of his hand against them in slow, firm circles.

"This is crazy," I whispered. "Anyone could see."

"Everyone is watching the show."

For an instant I thought the show was us, then I heard the distant music, a smattering of applause, and I understood what he meant. We were alone in the forest. Just him and me.

And Benjamin.

"Tell me what you want."

His thumbs and forefingers rolled my nipples through the fabric and I moaned. I would have been mortified if I hadn't been so aroused that I had no room to feel anything else.

His breath warmed my ear; his tongue flicked the lobe. "Where shall I touch you? How hard?" His thumbnail flicked the tip of one breast. "Or how soft?" His forefinger ran gently across the swell of the other. "Anything you want of me, Claire, you've only to ask."

I wanted to see him. To touch the chest he'd displayed beneath the harsh fluorescent lights. But I couldn't find the words, so I shifted until we were face-to-face.

He steadied me, settling my knees over his thighs, unbuttoning the last few buttons of his shirt when I tugged at them, murmuring nonsense words to the horse when the animal shuffled nervously.

I couldn't tear my gaze from the angles and planes of his chest. The moonlight sprinkled through the trees, sparkling like fairy dust across his earring. Shadows scampered along his skin. I wanted to trace them with my tongue.

His flesh was cool from the fog that crept around us yet warm with the blood pulsing beneath. I scored his collarbone with my teeth, flicked his nipple with my tongue, caught the scent of the lake either on his skin or in the air, and licked him, just to see.

He tasted of both summer and winter; I wanted to rub my face against him and remember his flavor, his scent, forever.

He leaned back, his neck bowed, face open to the night, and let me do whatever I wanted.

Most men would have been unable to keep themselves from touching me, from grabbing my head, showing me what they wanted, forcing my mouth down, down, down until –

I sat up. Hell. I needed to keep my mind on this man, this moment, no other.

His skin glistened with the moisture left by both my mouth and the mist. His black pants were tight, tighter still at the juncture of his thighs.

"Do you want to touch me?"

My gaze lifted. His eyes were so dark, with just a tiny speck of silver, a reflection of the moon, at their center.

"Not" – I swallowed – "yet."

"May I touch you?"

I hesitated. How far was I going to let this go? How far could it go in the forest, on the back of a horse? I didn't think very far, so I nodded.

He reached out, running one finger down my cheek, across my lips, his fingernail scraping the lower one before tracing my chin, my neck, the swell of my breast above my bra, then beneath it.

Suddenly my clothes were too tight. I wanted to be naked in the night, feel the air caress my body, right before he did.

There was something incredibly erotic about the mist on my face, the wind in my hair, the distant drift of the music, and the murmur of the crowd. We were alone yet not alone. I didn't feel trapped as I had in the past, and I wasn't sure if that was because of him or me or the great outdoors. I only knew that I didn't want this to end. Not yet.

His eyes held mine as his finger rolled in a slow circle around my nipple. "May I keep touching you?" he whispered.

In answer, I let my head fall back, offering him more of me. His hands pressed against my shoulders, lifting me to him like an offering beneath the moon. My legs slid open farther; his erection pressed against me right where I needed it to, and I crossed my ankles at the small of his back. If I fell, then so did he.

I waited for his fingers to fumble at the catch of my bra; instead his dark hair sifted across my chest as he mouthed me through the fabric.

Pressing him closer, I tangled my fingers in the soft, curling strands. His tongue swept beneath the edge, and heat shot from my breast to my groin. I tightened my legs, pulling myself more firmly against him. His fingers moved to my bra strap; in just an instant, he'd free me to the night, to him, take me in his mouth, and suckle me as I came writhing in his arms.

He inched back, and I nearly shrieked in disappointment, thinking it was over, and I hadn't even started.

"Shh," he murmured, the sound but a breeze across my damp skin.

Then I heard it, a rustle, a footfall. Someone was coming.

Cartwright cursed; I wanted to. Quickly we rearranged our clothing, or at least I did. His shirt had flown onto a nearby bush and lay there like a flag.

"Ruvanush?" a man called.

"What's that mean?" I whispered.

"My title. Leader, elder."

"Elder?"

"The translation is vague. It means I give the orders and they obey."

"Feudal much?"

He frowned, but before he could answer what hadn't really been a question, the call came again, closer this time.

"Ruvanush?"

"What is it?" Malachi asked.

Whoever was out there knew better than to show himself. He murmured something in their language, and Cartwright muttered several words in that language himself. From his tone, they weren't endearments.

"I must go." He jumped from the horse, then lifted his arms for me.

"Now?"

The question was as stupid as I was. I flushed, happy for the trees, the night, the mist; he couldn't see.

My body screamed for release; my mind spun at the combination of lust and embarrassment.

I scooted off the horse. It was a long way down, and I slammed into Cartwright awkwardly rather than sliding gracefully.

He caught me, holding on when I tried to duck under his arm and run away.

"I'm sorry, but they need me. I'm – " He took a deep breath, then let it out on a sigh. "The leader. You know how that is."

I did. If someone had called, if someone had needed me, I would have had to go, regardless of what I'd been doing. Or whom.

"I should get back," I said. I had to call Grace, find out what had happened on her little jaunt into the woods. I was surprised I hadn't heard from her already.

"Yes," he said, obviously distracted. "I will see you later."

I turned toward the lights and the music, figuring Cartwright would follow me to my car, maybe kiss me good night. I was trying to figure out how to avoid that – all I needed was for the townsfolk to catch a glimpse of me swapping spit with a stranger – when the sound of hoofbeats had me spinning in the other direction.

Just in time to see Malachi Cartwright and his horse disappear.

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