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Hidden Moon (Chapter 18)

I closed my eyes, then opened them. The wavering white cloud remained, more solid than a fog yet unidentifiable as anything else.

The phone had stopped ringing again. I held my own stupidly against my ear. With stiff movements, I closed it, then shoved it into my pocket, never taking my eyes from the billowing white. Maybe the place was haunted after all.

I wouldn't be surprised. Four thousand Cherokee had died on the Trail of Tears. Why wouldn't some of their ghosts come back here?

I wasn't afraid of spirits. I didn't think. I'd never seen one.

Nevertheless, I held my breath, my entire body tense, quivering as I hovered between flight and fight. How did one fight a specter?

The worry became moot as the wavering mass solidified into a woman, and Grace popped out of the trees wearing nothing but a white cotton robe.

She came to a stop when she saw me in the yard. We stood blinking at each other.

"What are you – ?" we said at the same time, then fell silent.

"Problem?" Grace tilted a brow.

I wasn't sure if she meant in town or with her running around the forest wearing not much more than a bath sheet. It didn't take X-ray vision to see that beneath the robe she was naked.

"Claire?" Grace stalked past me toward the house. "Is there a problem in town?"

"No. I mean yes. Well, not in town."

She cast a withering glance over her shoulder, her dark hair swinging loose, appearing even darker against the white of the robe.

"Focus." She turned the knob.

I frowned. The door had been locked. Or maybe I didn't know how to twist it just right. Old houses were tricky that way.

"I tried to call you," I said. "I heard your cell phone ringing – "

Grace reached into a pocket, then held up her phone and waggled it.

"Why didn't you answer?"

"Must have fallen out. Lucky you called or I might never have found it."

"What were you doing out there?"

Grace disappeared inside, leaving the door open, which I took as an invitation, and I followed her.

The place was much as I remembered – an old house, updated bit by bit over the years. The color of the paint had changed. New carpet brightened the hall, as well as the new furniture in the living room. The hardwood floors shone a bit brighter than they had when Grace's father lived here.

Other than that, the kitchen had been remodeled in the eighties and still sported teal appliances and peach and white vinyl floor tile. Yummy.

Water ran in the small half bath off the hall, then the door opened, and Grace appeared fully dressed in cutoffs and a blue tie-dyed T-shirt. "Want a drink?"

She headed for the kitchen. I had no choice but to join her or stand in the hall alone.

Grace straightened away from the refrigerator, then tossed a beer at my head. I bobbled the can but managed a save. When I popped the top, the beer fizzed up so fast I had to slug some down or make a mess.

Taking a long sip of her own brew, she stared out the dark square of window that overlooked her yard. "I heard something," she said slowly.

"And ran out in your robe?" That wasn't like Grace. Come to think of it, neither was the robe.

She shrugged but didn't elaborate.

"What if what you heard was the wolf?" I pressed.

"I think that wolf is long gone."

"Think again."

In the middle of taking another swig of beer, Grace paused, swallowed loudly, and set the can on the countertop with a click. "You saw it?"

"Yeah."

After I told her what had happened, I half-expected her to grab a gun and barrel into the hills, but she didn't.

"I couldn't find a trace of the thing today," she said, "and no one's seen Ryan Freestone, either. I'm going to have to organize a hunting party."

"When?"

"Tomorrow."

I winced. Grace had been in the public life as long as I had; she knew what I was thinking.

"I'll keep it quiet. We'll leave just after dawn and be out of town before any of the locals are awake, let alone the newcomers."

"Thanks."

"I can't put this off."

"I know."

"I really thought the animal would have disappeared into the mountains by now. Why stay so close to people? That's not like a wolf."

"Could be like a rabid wolf."

"You're just full of good tidings, aren't you?"

I took another swig of beer. "That's me. Susie Sunshine."

Grace snorted. "I'll kill it tomorrow."

"I know," I repeated.

Silence settled over us, not companionable but tense, and I wasn't sure why. I had to break it.

"Place looks almost the same."

"I don't have the time or the money to redecorate much."

"Is that a hint for a raise?"

"I'm always hinting for a raise. Get used to it."

"I didn't mean anything by that," I said. "I don't have the time or the energy to mess with my house, either."

"I – " She broke off, took a sip of beer, glanced up at the ceiling, then sighed. "I've done a bit upstairs."

"Oh?"

"I turned Dad's room into an office and I updated mine."

"Got rid of the *NSYNC poster?"

"Had to. It was embarrassing."

"And the Barney sheets?"

"Those, too."

In truth, Grace's room had never had an embarrassing item in it, unlike mine. Those pom-poms, the unicorns, the pink and white lace – let's not even go there. I slept in the guest room now so as not to become nauseous on a nightly basis.

As a youngster, Grace had collected panthers – her walls papered with magazine photos, dresser and night-stand covered with stuffed replicas and figurines, bookshelf filled with both fact and fiction.

This would seem odd unless you were familiar with ancient Cherokee tradition. In this matrilineal society, Cherokee children were born members of the clans of their mother. There were seven, and Grace had been born to the Blue Clan, otherwise known as the Wild Cat Clan, or the Panther.

She took this membership seriously, partly because in this day and age most Cherokee's knowledge of their clan affiliation had been lost. Very few knew for certain where they'd come from.

"Can I see what you've done?" I asked.

Grace shrugged, then led the way upstairs.

Unlike my house, Grace's had three floors: the main-level living quarters; the second floor, where Grace and her brothers had slept; and the third floor, which had been her father's.

Every door on the second level was closed. I wondered momentarily if her brothers had taken their things or just left them behind to gather dust. The question flew right out of my head when we reached Grace's room and she pushed open the door.

Gone was every trace of her collection, in its stead a slick, modern rendition of a jungle.

The walls had been painted mossy green. The carpet was a thick bed of blue. The bedspread brought to mind a hundred thousand blades of grass marching across the mattress. Pillows like lily pads, muted violet and evergreen, had been tossed about haphazardly. The curtains, drawn closed over the glass, blended into the wall.

Water gurgled – not the drip, drip, drip of a faucet but the smooth tones of a brook or a stream. At first I thought a new-age CD was playing; then I discovered a miniature fountain behind a screen that resembled a swamp shrouded in moss and flowers the shade of the sunset after a hard summer rain.

It even smelled different from the rest of the house – like dried grass and the remnants of lightning. I looked around for candles, potpourri, the little electrical-outlet air fresheners, but I didn't see a single one.

"This is amazing," I said.

"I feel at home here."

The room was beyond soothing. With the green curtains over the windows, the babbling water, the soft colors, the thick, cushy carpet and quilt, I could easily imagine burrowing in – spring, summer, winter, or fall – and sleeping like an exhausted baby.

Maybe I needed to do a little redecorating myself. But what kind of room could I fashion that would make me feel at peace when the real lack of peace rested within me?

Blah-blah-blah. Sign me up for the next Dr. Phil show. I was sick and tired of psychoanalysis. Even my own.

Grace glanced pointedly at her watch.

"Oh! Sorry." I moved toward the door. "I know you have to be on the move early tomorrow."

It wasn't until we'd said our good-byes and I sat in the car that I realized Grace hadn't shown me what she'd done with her father's office.

I glanced toward the lone window on the third floor. Instead of shining brightly with cheery yellow electricity as the rest of the house did, that single window glowed softly, as if lit by a dozen wavering candles.

That wasn't safe. What if Grace went to bed and forgot to put them out?

My hand was on the door handle, as I was thinking I'd just ring the bell and remind her, when Grace appeared in the office window. She leaned down to peer outside. Seeing me, she lifted a hand in farewell, then drew the shade over the glass.

I was antsy on the drive home, and not just because I kept scanning the woods for a deer or a lone wolf. Something about my visit with Grace bothered me, and I couldn't figure out what.

Not the secretive way she'd drawn the shade. It was nighttime; I should close my own shades more often. But why draw a third-floor shade at all? Who was going to see anything unless they had a fire ladder or had learned to fly?

What was she doing up there anyway? Why have an office lit by candles? That was the quickest way to ruin your eyes short of poking them with a stick.

I shook my head. Not my business. Grace had always been a little different, which was why I'd liked her.

I drove past the turn to the lake. All the show lights had gone dark; the place seemed deserted. Had Malachi returned? Where had he gone in the first place?

My car trailed down the streets of Lake Bluff. Any other week but this and we'd have rolled up the sidewalks before the sun set. But during the Full Moon Festival, people strolled around until midnight or later.

The ice-cream shop was open, as were the candy store and the cafe. Couples walked arm in arm eating out of bags of popcorn bought from the brightly lit wagon in the town square. Kids raced across the grass chasing fireflies. A mother pushing a baby stroller window-shopped as she slowly ate an ice-cream cone.

I caught sight of one of Grace's employees and a few rent-a-cops loitering on the street corners. Everything appeared to be under control. I only hoped the noise and the lights and the food – the popcorn and the ice cream as well as the people – didn't attract a wolf.

Since there was nothing I could do about it short of ordering the streets cleared and the doors sealed from the outside, I took comfort from the fact that Grace knew her job, knew what we were up against, and she'd no doubt warned her people.

When I saw two additional guards at the end of Center Street patrolling the small open space between the town and the trees with rifles, I pointed my car toward home. Everything had been done that could be done for now.

Seconds later I turned into my driveway. My house did not look inviting. Since I'd forgotten to turn on a light, it looked downright hostile.

I parked the car in the carport, then sprinted for the door, hoping I'd be able to get it open before my headlights timed out.

I'd just removed my keys from my pocket when the lights went off with a dull thunk. The streetlights didn't penetrate very well up the hill and around the bend; clouds had drifted over the moon. I heard the distant trill of laughter, the slam of a door, but that only served to remind me of how alone I was.

My car's engine made the usual clicking, settling noises that should have been reassuring but weren't. For some reason they sounded like footsteps.

I was being foolish. I knew it, yet my hand still shook as I tried to shove the key into the lock. I dropped the key ring onto the ground, the loud clash against the pavement making me jump, even though I'd been the one to drop the thing in the first place.

With an annoyed sigh, I bent, retrieved the keys, and thrust one into the lock. My front door swung open on more darkness; in the center two glowing yellow eyes made my breath catch before the vicious hiss made me snap, "Oprah! What's the matter with you?"

The slight scrape of something hard against pavement – a shoe or a claw – had me spinning. In that instant before my eyes caught up to my mind, I knew the wolf was behind me, poised to spring and tear out my throat.

Too bad I was wrong.

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