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Hidden Moon (Chapter 20)

Cartwright was out the door and down the back steps before I could catch up. "Wait!"

"He'll be getting away."

"It isn't as if I don't know where he lives, as you said. Where he works and where he plays, too. He won't get away."

Cartwright paused with his long fingers curled around the wooden handrail, the white moons of his nails stark against the darker shade of his skin. "I'd feel better if I found him now."

I stared at the prehistoric trees, and I remembered what was out there. "There's – uh – a presumably rabid wolf on the loose."

Cartwright turned to look at me. "I thought there were no wolves in these woods."

"Someone neglected to tell that to the wolf."

His lips twitched. "Has anyone seen the beast?"

"I have."

"You?" His lighter expression turned dark. "When?"

"Earlier tonight. I nearly ran it over on the road near your camp."

"I suppose it was hanging about because of the menagerie," he murmured.

"Or your people. You need to be careful. Grace is going to go out with a hunting party tomorrow."

"Is she now?" He seemed amused again.

"She's the best tracker in town."

"She will be hunting in the daylight?"

"It's kind of hard to hunt at night. Illegal, too, I think, though I doubt that would affect Grace."

"As long as they don't muck about near the lake once the sun has set, I give my permission."

Permission? I opened my mouth to ask what in hell he was talking about, then remembered the Gypsies' weird contract with Lake Bluff.

"Why does she have to stay away once the sun's set? You got a few vampires in your caravan?"

"I haven't seen a vampire in years," he said wistfully, then laughed at my expression. "We have shows at night. I don't think it would be safe to have people with guns traipsing around the lake."

That made sense. Or at least more sense than his harboring vampires. "Grace will track the thing down tomorrow. I'm sure of it."

Cartwright grunted, obviously unconvinced.

"Maybe you should wait here," I said. "Grace will want to talk to you."

"I'm sure she will." He straightened his shoulders, as if preparing for a battle. "But she knows where I live, work, and play. She can find me."

"She won't be happy."

"Right now, I'm not happy." He suddenly touched my cheek. Strangely, I didn't flinch, nor was I possessed by the sudden urge to back away; instead I leaned into him, needing his warmth and comfort. "I swear no one will ever hurt you while I'm here."

Before I could make any comment, he disappeared into the night.

I stared after him, wondering where he was going, if he really thought he'd find Josh, who'd no doubt arrived in a BMW and was driving it hard all the way back to Atlanta. Knowing him, he'd have the authorities here by tomorrow with an arrest warrant for Malachi Cartwright.

"Damn," I muttered. If they arrested the Gypsy leader, would the rest of the Gypsies continue to perform? If they didn't, our festival was ruined.

And I couldn't believe I was worrying about that at a time like this, but someone had to. I guess it was my job.

A howl burst from the trees, drifting toward the bright silver moon. I stood on the porch and waited for another, but none came.

A few minutes later, my doorbell rang and I went inside, closing and locking the glass door behind me.

Grace stood on the doorstep attired in her uniform, though her blouse was buttoned crooked and her shoes weren't tied. Her hair wasn't braided, either, and it hung past the base of her spine, making her appear younger than I knew her to be. Maybe she had been asleep.

"I've been dying to arrest this guy." She shouldered her way inside. "Where is he?"

"Gone."

"Don't bullshit me, Claire; it's late."

"I wish I was bullshitting. We thought he was unconscious, turned our backs, and poof. Malachi went to look for him."

Her eyebrows shot up. "Malachi, is it?"

Oops.

"Seems silly, not to mention ungrateful, to keep using his last name after what he did for me."

"I suppose." Grace reached for her shoulder mike. "I'll get an APB out on Logan."

"No. Don't."

"Claire." Her voice held a warning note. "You are going to prosecute this dickhead. We can definitely get him for assault after this."

"I am. I promise. But could we skip the all points bulletin? I really don't think Lake Bluff, or me for that matter, needs the attention we'd get if this hits the wires. Can we keep it quiet, at least until the festival is over?"

Grace contemplated me for several seconds. "All right. I'll call the Atlanta PD in the morning. They can pick him up on the Q.T."

"Thanks. Is everything set for tomorrow?" Grace stared at me blankly. "The wolf hunt?" I reminded her.

"Oh yeah. I got hold of everyone after you left." She glanced at her watch, winced. "We're meeting at Lunar Lake at four a.m."

"I heard something howling right before you got here."

Her head lifted. "Where?"

I pointed in the direction of the mountains.

"You sure?"

"No."

Instead of getting annoyed, which was what I expected, Grace merely nodded. "Howls are weird that way. Can't pinpoint their location unless you're a wolf. And two can sound like a dozen."

"But one just sounds like one, right?"

"Right."

"One is what I heard."

"Good. We don't need a pack out there. I'd have to call the DNR." She made a face. "I'd like to avoid that if possible."

No one cared much for the hunting and fishing police – aka the Department of Natural Resources – and those who hunted cared for them least of all. Probably because sportsmen, and -women, were throwbacks to a time when hunting and fishing kept a person alive, and pioneer spirits like those became seriously annoyed when someone tried to regulate them.

"Is Cartwright coming back?" Grace asked. "You should probably tell him what's going on, let him know we'll be in the area tomorrow."

"I already did."

"And?"

"He said as long as you're gone by dusk, you have his permission."

"I don't think I need his permission."

"The contract," I reminded her.

"Extenuating circumstances outweigh a contract. There's a potentially rabid wolf roaming the forest. Cartwright will just have to lump it."

"You're sure? Maybe I should have Catfish take a look at that contract."

Catfish Waller was the only lawyer left in Lake Bluff. There wasn't much call for legal advice in a town that existed on tourism. Sure there was the occasional personal injury or real estate disagreement. But the big cases were found in the big city, which was where all of our lawyers had gone – except for Catfish.

Seventy if he was a day, Catfish spent his free time, which meant most of his time, smoking a cigar on the front porch of his combination office and living quarters. He'd never been married, probably because no one could stomach the cigar.

"No need to bother Catfish," Grace said. "I know what I'm talking about."

Grace headed for the front door, pausing with her hand on the knob to glance at me. "You gonna be okay?"

"Sure."

Her head tilted, and her blue-black hair swung across her hip. "Seriously. Do you want me to stay? We could make popcorn. Watch movies."

I smiled. "Thanks. But you need to be sharp tomorrow. Or as sharp as you can be on the small amount of sleep you're going to get, thanks to me."

Grace shrugged. "I've made do with less. If you're scared, I'm right here."

And she would be; I knew that, had always known it. Even though she'd been hurt when I left, angry when I came back, if I needed her, she would be there. No matter what.

"Grace," I began, "I should have kept in touch after I left."

"Yes, you should have."

"I'm sorry. It was just… I wanted to make a new life."

"And I was part of the old one. We already had this talk. I get it."

I put a hand on her arm. "I was wrong. You were the best friend I ever had. The best friend I'll ever have."

"Yes, I am."

I laughed. "So, we're best friends again?"

"No." Grace opened the door and stepped outside as my heart took a dive toward my feet. "We were always best friends, Claire. That never changed, even when you did."

I waited until she started the squad car, then backed down the drive and onto the road before I went to bed.

I didn't think I'd sleep. Having my nightmare show up on the doorstep should have been… well, my worst nightmare. But it had turned out okay. In fact, I felt like I'd faced my demon and survived.

Sure I'd frozen when the going got tough, but with a little help from Malachi I'd managed to keep from retreating into a corner and talking to myself. I'd taken steps to end Josh's days of

freedom. I'd make certain he hurt no one else, and I'd prevent him from assuming a position of trust and power in my home state. All in all, a good night's work.

I fell asleep the moment my head hit the pillow, or at least I thought I did. Because, what happened after the mist drifted in my window again felt very real.

I lay on the bed as the fog spilled over the sill, crept across the floor, across me. The cool, gentle trail was a touch upon my naked body, making me writhe and thrash and beg for more. I floated above myself, a voyeur, yet I could feel every stroke.

My nipples pebbled; my breasts swelled; my legs fell open so the mist could swirl across the damp, red curls. I felt the lap of a tongue just once, and I arched off the bed, my body bowing, straining for a release that was so close I heard it humming just out of reach.

The mist retreated as if it were being sucked out the window by a whirlwind.

"No," I said, and the sound of my own voice woke me up.

I'd kicked off all the covers, but I wasn't naked as I'd been in the dream. However, my body was perched on the edge of orgasm, skin tingling, chest heaving, mind whirling as wildly as the mist had.

Something shifted at the foot of the bed. A set of yellow eyes seemed to hover a few inches above the mattress, and I gasped. Oprah jumped to the floor and stalked away, disgusted with me.

I didn't blame her. These erotic dreams were becoming as bad as the nightmares.

The wind blew in the window, fluttering the curtains. Wait a second…

The window had been open in my dream, but I thought it had been closed when I went to bed.

Slowly I turned my head in that direction.

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