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Hidden Moon (Chapter 21)

"Dinna be afraid."

I started up, grasping at the covers, yanking them to my chin, even as I recognized the voice, as well as the man thrown into midnight silhouette by the light of the moon through my open window.

"What are you doing here?" My fear had turned to fury. "How did you get in?"

"The window was open."

I frowned, trying to remember. Had it been? Maybe. But –

"This is the second floor."

"Did you think someone could not get in if they were of a mind to?"

I'd thought exactly that. The house was big in the way of old houses, the ceilings high, which put the second story much farther off the ground than most second stories. There was no convenient drainpipe near my window, and only slick, painted wood surrounded it.

"You couldn't have climbed," I murmured. "That's impossible."

"Obviously not, since here I am."

His accent pronounced, his words had gone formal in a way that made me remember English was not his first or his only language.

"Why are you here?" I asked. "Did you find Josh?"

He hesitated, then sighed. "No."

"Not a trace?"

"Blood from his nose led to his car." He spread his hands wide.

"Never mind. Grace will take care of him tomorrow."

"Men like that… They have a way of slipping out of trouble."

"Not this time," I said.

He tilted his head, and the moon glanced off the cross tangling in his hair, nearly blinding me. "Why do you wear a crucifix in your ear?" I asked.

His lips curved. "Where should I wear one?"

"Most Catholics wear a crucifix around their neck."

"I said we were baptized Catholic."

"But you really aren't?"

"What else would we be?"

"Question with a question," I muttered.

"What's so wrong about answering a question with a question?"

"It makes you look guilty."

"I wasn't aware you suspected me of anything."

"I'm just making conversation." What else was I supposed to do when a man climbed in my window in the middle of the night?

Actually, I knew what I was supposed to do, especially with him, but I wasn't sure I was ready to do it.

Malachi seemed to sense my unease, because he stayed near the window, even leaning against the sill, a picture of tranquility, no threat to me at all.

"We've always worn the symbols of the people who inhabit the land around us," he said.

"Why?"

"To avoid persecution."

"People aren't persecuted for their religion anymore."

He smiled at me as a father might smile at a foolish but dear child. "Do you think if your townsfolk knew we were worshipping the moon and the fire, they'd be so quick to flock to our show and give us their hard-earned money?"

Probably not. But –

"They wouldn't persecute you."

"You saw what happened in the drugstore with Sabina."

I had.

Silence fell between us. I could feel him staring at me, even as I stared at the shaft of moonlight spilling through the window and spreading across the rumpled quilt on my bed.

"Claire?"

I glanced up and found myself captured by what I saw in his eyes. He wanted me, but he wouldn't make the first move. He wouldn't make any move. That would have to come from me.

There was power in that, control, strength, everything that had been taken from me by Josh Logan. I wanted it back.

Tonight I would take it, by taking Malachi.

In truth, this man should have terrified me. He'd broken Josh's nose, picked him up easily and shaken him like a doll. Malachi's physical strength was superior not only to mine but also to that of anyone I'd ever known. However, he'd used his strength to defend me; he'd never used it against me, and I didn't believe he would.

I'm not sure why I trusted him, why I felt as if I knew him, as if I'd always known him, why the sight, the scent, the taste of him seemed familiar, but it did.

I crossed the floor. He continued to lean against the windowsill, his fingers gripping the wood. He'd said he wouldn't touch me unless I asked, unless I begged.

I stopped in front of him, my bare feet framed by his black boots. I held out my hand, and when he put his palm against mine, I urged him to stand.

Our bodies were a wisp apart. If I swayed just a little…

His breath caught as my dream-hardened nipples brushed his chest. My head tilted back. "Kiss me," I whispered.

Our lips met; he tasted like the mist – a cool, damp rain. I wanted to draw him inside and feast on the flavor. My teeth nipped, then laved the tiny hurt before I sucked on his tongue until he groaned.

I expected him to take me in his arms, but he didn't, touching me nowhere beyond the kiss. His control was nothing short of phenomenal. When the man made a vow, he kept it.

I lifted my mouth only centimeters from his and whispered, "Touch me everywhere."

His lips curved, the movement a ghost against mine. "Do you have rope?"

"Huh?"

"I promised you could tie me up. Then you'd have no need to be afraid."

I inched back. "I'm not afraid."

"No?"

"No," I said firmly.

And I wasn't – a miracle. What did I know about this man beyond what he'd told me? None of it might be true. But he'd had every chance to hurt me, to take me and force me the way Josh had. Instead he'd been patient and kind. He'd protected me.

I wanted to give him something. Like me.

Taking his hand, I led him to my bed.

I had to see his body in the moonlight, the way I'd seen it as he'd come out of the lake. I'd wanted to touch him then, to run my hands and then my mouth over every inch. Now I could.

As I reached for the top button on his shirt, his gaze remained on my face, both gentle and heated at the same time. Slowly I released each one, revealing inch after glorious inch.

The shirt fluttered to the ground, and I learned his shape with my lips, the rise of a nipple, the curve of his waist, the hard sear of ribs beneath the sleek expanse of skin.

The band of his trousers hung loose from wear, so I lowered myself to the floor and dipped my tongue beneath it while he shuddered.

The screech of his zipper rang loudly in a room where the only sound was the steadily increasing pace of our breath. One tug and his pants pooled near his ankles, caught on the tops of his boots.

He kicked them off, and they landed with twin thuds against the wall; his socks followed, as did the discarded slacks.

I gazed all the way up his body, fascinated with the play of light through the window. The shadows of the trees chased the moon's glow across his skin, turning him into a statue both bronze and silver.

His head thrown back, his hair swirled across his shoulders. His earring swayed, mixing with the strands. His hands clenched and unclenched at his sides while he waited with complete trust for my next move.

I just looked at him, memorizing this moment forever.

On my knees in front of him, the position should have been one of submission, but it wasn't. I was completely clothed; he was completely at my mercy – naked and aroused, the most intimate part of him bared to me. Leaning forward, I closed my mouth over his tip.

He didn't groan, moan, or make any sound at all beyond a soft sigh. He didn't grab my head and show me what to do or mutter instructions about speed, pressure, technique. He did nothing that every other man of my acquaintance had ever done in a situation like this. Malachi Cartwright just let me be.

I took my time, learning everything about him. His taste, his texture, the shape and length of him. How he fitted best, when he didn't, what made him swell and nearly come. I took him to the edge, retreated, then took him to the edge once more. And through it all, he never touched me. Not once.

It was the best sex I never had.

I increased the speed and pressure, but at the last instant he backed away. I reached for him, but he stayed me with a slash of his hand.

His shoulders heaved as he fought free of the tide. I sat on the bed. "You didn't have to stop," I said.

"I did, or there'd be nothing left for you."

"I don't mind."

He lifted a brow. "You're not ready?"

I hesitated. I'd enjoyed being in control. Was I ready for him to be?

"Shall I get the rope then?"

I couldn't help but smile. He was so easy with me, with this. I wished that I could be.

"Lie back, Claire; I want to do something for you."

For me, not to me. I did as he asked.

His shadow blotted out the light, and for an instant I became almost overwhelmed with bad memories. But he murmured to me as he might murmur to his horse, soft words in the language of the Rom, with perhaps a little Gaelic thrown in, and soon all I knew was him.

He went down on his knees, nudged my legs apart, leaning over to lift the hem of my top and press his mouth to my stomach. The muscles fluttered to life.

Tracing his palms over my hips, down my flanks, he then ran his thumbs up my quivering thighs, sliding them outward across the sensitive line where pelvis and leg became one.

I opened to him, and his mouth came down hot and hard upon me, just like the dream, except he wasn't made of mist and I still wore all my clothes. The thin cotton of my pajama bottoms didn't provide much of a barrier, which was just fine with me. He continued to put pressure right where I needed it the most until he had me begging, just as he'd promised. I was the one who pushed off the pants, kicking at them frantically until they hung from one ankle.

Then his mouth and his tongue were doing innovative things as I tangled my fingers in his hair and held on. His earring tickled the inside of my thigh, and my breath caught between a laugh and a moan. I shifted just enough so that at the next stroke of his tongue I was no longer able to laugh or moan, only come.

He didn't stop, pushing harder, stroking longer, drawing out the orgasm until I didn't know if there had been one or perhaps two, and I didn't really care.

When the tremors died, he pressed a kiss to my stomach, just below my belly button, before inching back. My hands slid limply to the mattress, and I opened my eyes.

Mist swirled through the room, so thick I could no longer see anything.

Not even him.

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