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Hidden Moon (Chapter 22)

I shot into a sitting position, heart racing. Was I dreaming again?

"Malachi?" My voice sounded breathy – scared or satiated? I wasn't sure.

A shape moved in the fog. "I'm here."

I exhaled in a whoosh. "What is this?"

The bed dipped. He drew me into his arms, his skin hot and damp. "Mist."

I'd seen the fog creep over the hills, watched it curl through the trees and settle over the lake. But I'd never seen it creep in a window – except in my sleep. I'd never seen it so thick I could distinguish little beyond the swirl. As I stared at it now, the fog seemed almost otherworldly. I didn't like it.

"From the mountains." Malachi's palm smoothed over my hair. "There's nothing to fear in the mist."

He was right, of course, but that didn't make my heart stop pounding far too fast.

"Hush," he whispered. "We'll rest awhile."

He lifted the quilt, tucked me in, then lay down on top.

I felt slighted. "What's the matter?"

He turned to face me, his eyes endless pools of black in the dim, gray, mist-shrouded room. "If I lie next to you, skin to skin, there'll be no rest for us."

"That's okay."

He put his hand against my cheek. "For now, this is enough. Close your eyes, a ghra."

My eyelids were suddenly so heavy I couldn't keep them open. "What's a ghra mean?"

He hesitated, as if he couldn't quite remember, then whispered, "Pixie. You look like one with your red hair all wild and your mouth so sweet."

Smiling at the image, I let the night slip away.

I awoke just before dawn and lay staring at the ceiling, wondering what had disturbed me. Then I realized it was so many things.

I could see the ceiling. The mist was gone.

I was alone in my bed. The window was closed.

And somewhere, out in the forest, something was howling.

I jumped up, then froze, frowning at my bare legs. I guess Malachi hadn't been a dream after all. Although I had been known to throw off all my clothes in my sleep.

I went to the window, yanked it up, and stuck my head and shoulders through the opening. Out here I could hear the howling so much better.

"More than one," I murmured.

That couldn't be good.

The eastern horizon glowed pink. Very soon the sun would burst over, slanting orange, red, and yellow fire across the mountains and the trees.

I waited, watching, listening, enjoying the cool morning air, sans mist for a change.

Daylight exploded across the sky, and at that very same instant the howling stopped as if the rays of the sun had silenced it.

The sudden quiet after the burst of sound was eerie. My skin prickled, and I pulled my head back into the room.

Grace would be out there now with her handful of hunters. She'd find the wolf, or wolves, and she'd end at least one of our problems.

I glanced around. Not a trace of what happened last night remained. Not his shirt or a sock, not even a note.

I scowled into the vanity mirror. Malachi wasn't the type of man to leave a note; I wasn't the type of woman ' who needed one.

Last night had been about sexual freedom. I'd taken I back my life. I'd done what I wanted to do with the man I'd wanted to do it with, and it had felt…

"Fantastic," I announced, my mood lightening at the memories.

If they'd even happened.

"Don't be ridiculous," I told the brand-new woman in the mirror. "You aren't insane."

Isn't that what all insane people said? Especially when they talked to themselves in the mirror?

AN hour later I walked down Center Street, nodding to the people I met and wondering why everyone kept whispering. I found out soon enough.

I hadn't been at the office five minutes when Joyce barreled in. She saw me at my desk and tossed the Gazette in front of me with such force I had to slap my palms on top of the newspaper to keep it from tumbling off the other side.

"What are you thinking?"

"Not… much," I said slowly. "I haven't had my coffee."

"You've had just about everything else."

"Are you okay?"

"No." She stabbed a finger at the paper.

I glanced down and choked. In the center of the front page was a photo of my house, with Malachi climbing out the window. In a smaller photo below, the photographer had zoomed in and caught the Gypsy leader's disheveled appearance: His shirt hung loose, framing his beautifully sculpted chest; his pants were zipped but not buttoned, and his hair looked as if someone had run her fingers through it in a fit of passion. I guess I hadn't dreamed last night after all.

"I'm going to kill him," I muttered.

"Doesn't seem like you want him dead, seems like you want him naked."

"I didn't mean Mal." Joyce's eyebrows went up at the familiar term of address. "I meant Balthazar. This is his idea, if not his direct handiwork."

"Goes without saying," Joyce agreed. "But what in Sam Hill were you doing letting that guy in your bedroom?"

I hadn't let him in, but that was neither here nor there. "Did you take a look at him?"

"Pretty is as pretty does."

"That's the truth."

"You slept with him?"

"What do you think we did, Joyce, play Monopoly?"

"Ah, hell." She put her fingers in her hair and tugged. "How am I going to spin this so you don't lose your job and ruin everything your father worked for?"

"My private life is private."

Joyce snorted. She was right. I was a politician, or near enough. My private life would never be private.

"If you hadn't slept with him," she continued, "I might be able to make something up."

"I can't think what."

Joyce glanced at the picture again. "You're right. No fixing this." Her eyes lit with an idea. "Gypsies'll be gone in a week. Maybe it'll blow over. As long as you stay away from him from now on."

I went silent.

"Claire?"

"Hmm?"

"You'll stay away from him?"

I took a minute to ponder. "No."

"He's that good?"

I didn't need a minute to answer that. "Yes."

"Hell."

"This picture is going to seem like less than nothing soon enough."

Joyce stilled. "What else did you do?"

I told her about Josh, past and present, as well as the wolf, the missing tourist, and Grace's hunting party. By the time I was done, Joyce's hair was a mess and I was worried she'd make a bald spot somewhere if she kept yanking at it.

"You should have put that bastard away on day one," she said.

"I know."

"I can't wait to see him in cuffs."

I couldn't, either.

"You should have come home right away after that happened, Claire. Come home to the people who love you."

"I didn't want anyone to know."

"By 'anyone' you mean your dad."

"Especially him." The one bright light to his being gone was that he'd never know about Josh.

"He'd have broken out the family shotgun, that's for sure," Joyce said. "I'd have chipped in for the shells."

I smiled. "Thanks, Joyce."

She shrugged. "People in this town stick together. Always have, always will. I'd do anything for you."

"Same goes," I said, amazed to realize I'd do whatever I could not only for her but for anyone in Lake Bluff. Except maybe Balthazar.

"What are you going to do about this?" Joyce lifted the paper.

"Not much I can do, except hold my head up and give Balthazar another piece of my mind." At the rate I was going, soon I wouldn't have any mind left.

I wasn't able to get over to the offices of the Gazette until nearly noon. Joyce wasn't the only one who'd seen the paper. The way my phone rang and my office filled up, I started to think there wasn't anyone in three counties who hadn't seen it.

"Not the image we want to project, Mayor," said the high school principal.

"I realize that."

"Be a little more discreet next time." Then he winked. I nearly fell out of my chair.

Catfish wandered in, chewing on his cigar along with his mustache, and asked, "You wanna sue 'im? I'm game."

I wanted to, but I didn't think I'd win. I also figured a lawsuit would only call more attention to the situation. I said as much to Catfish.

"Most likely, but that don't mean it wouldn't be fun."

The tenor of the visits remained the same. Citizens expressed mild disapproval, then shrugged the whole incident off and went on to ask my advice or suggest an improvement or complain about the same thing they'd been complaining about since my dad was in office.

I guess after the Lewinsky scandal, a photo of the mayor's lover wasn't enough to make people tar and feather me. I couldn't wait to rub that in Balthazar's face.

Except he wasn't in.

"Rushed out right after the fella in the paper came in and shoved him around," said one of Balthazar's underlings, a slimy little man I'd noticed following me on several occasions.

"What fella in the paper?"

"You know what one." He leered. I hadn't seen anyone leer in so long that at first I thought he might be having a stroke. "The Gypsy king." He held up the paper and tapped Malachi's face. "This guy."

"He was here?"

The man squinted at me. "You know, you don't seem all that bright for a mayor."

I ground my teeth together and counted to ten. "What happened?"

"The Gypsy came in and told Balthazar he'd better mend his ways or else. Then Balthazar got in his face."

Uh-oh.

"Gyp shoved him so hard I swear Balthazar flew into the wall. Then he left."

"Balthazar?"

He rolled his eyes. "The Gypsy"

"And where's your boss now?"

"Not sure. He heard the sheriff was huntin' wolves – "

Who'd blabbed that info?

"So he ran over to the station. Called and said he was going to head out and see what he could see."

If Balthazar screwed up Grace's hunt, I wouldn't have to worry about him bothering me anymore. We'd be finding parts of him all over the place.

"Tell Balthazar I want to see him."

"He was within his rights to print that picture." The man's pencil-thin lips curved into something that might have been a smile – on someone with lips. "Besides, everyone's seen it. Not a thing that can be done anyhow."

"Whatever," I muttered.

Back at town hall, I skirted the side of the building until I reached the sheriff's department. Grace not only should be back with news about the wolf, or wolves, but she should also have called Atlanta about Josh.

I was right. She sat in her office, talking on the phone. Whispers and snickers rose as I wound through the desks of the others in the department.

"Save it for high school," I said.

"Doesn't look like you saved it," someone called.

Everyone laughed. Oh yeah, this was great.

Grace saw me through the glass and waved me in, motioning to a chair.

"Uh-huh," she said. "I see."

She lifted the paper, pointed to the photo, wiggled her eyebrows, then shook her finger.

I gave an exaggerated shrug – code for "What can you do?" – then pointed at the phone with a quizzical expression.

She signaled for one more minute and tossed the Gazette into the trash where it belonged.

"Thank you for your help, Detective. I'll be in touch." She put the receiver back on the cradle.

"Are they going to pick up Josh?"

"I don't think so."

"What?" I straightened so fast I banged my tailbone against the back of the chair. "They have to."

"They would, except they can't find him."

"Explain 'can't find.'"

Grace, who'd been staring at the top of her desk, tapping her nails, and working on putting a permanent frown line between her finely arched brows, lifted her head.

"Josh Logan has disappeared."

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