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Hidden Moon (Chapter 26)

A breeze blew in that smelled of rain. In the distance, thunder rumbled. Malachi was a dark silhouette against a darker, turbulent sky.

I waited for him to come in; instead he captured my hand and drew me out. "Something's coming."

I cast him a quick glance. Something? What an odd way to describe a storm.

We stood at the wooden railing and watched the clouds billow over the mountains, then skate across the tops of the trees. Soon the only illumination came from heat lightning.

I'd always been fascinated by it. The way the sky seemed to flash outward, the fissure opening in the black velvet curtain, allowing the electric sizzle to escape.

"When I was a child," I murmured, "I thought that Heaven was spilling out."

"Perhaps it is."

He laid his hand over mine where it rested on the railing. Our hips and shoulders brushed. The chill of the storm front stirred our hair.

We watched in companionable silence; I couldn't remember feeling this in tune with anyone except Grace. I'd never been this comfortable with a man, ever. What was it about him that made me trust?

The wind picked up; the lightning broke right overhead. "We should go in," I said.

He turned toward me and touched my cheek. I couldn't see his expression, only the slight glint of his eyes. "I don't have to stay."

I smiled, reaching up to brush his partially dried hair back from his brow. He kissed the inside of my wrist. My breath caught. "I want you to."

"Stay?"

"And all that staying implies."

I linked our fingers and led him into the house. Sanity still lingered, and I paused to shut the sliding glass door, then stick the iron bar between the two panels for good measure.

Malachi watched me with somber eyes. "He willna hurt you again. I swear."

"You can't be with me every minute. And you'll be leaving soon."

Something flashed across his face, there and then gone the next instant. I thought it might be regret.

"I don't want him breathing the same air as you."

He'd said that before; the old-fashioned phrase made something warm and solid shift just below my heart.

"And that other one, the big man, with the hairy hands and the big nose he sticks into business he should not."

"Balthazar."

"He will not come near you again, either."

I sighed. Wouldn't that be nice?

"Balthazar lives and works here," I said. "I have to deal with him."

"I wouldn't want your job, Claire."

I remembered how he'd flown over the head of the horse to smack into the trunk of a tree. "I wouldn't want yours, either."

For an instant I thought how different we were, how odd that our lives had crossed, and what a gift that we'd have these few days together.

"Let's not waste any more time," I said.

"I don't want to frighten you."

I stared into the endless darkness of his eyes and told him the truth. "You don't."

"You're too trusting, Claire."

"You plan to hurt me?"

He looked away. "How could you think that?"

"Exactly. So why shouldn't I trust you?"

"Sometimes people are not what they seem."

I knew that better than anyone. Josh had been nothing like what he'd seemed.

But the time had come to move beyond the past. I couldn't let the bastards win. By running back here, I'd done just that, and it hadn't helped. Josh had just followed me.

But I'd stood up to him, and now I needed to stand up to what was left of my fear. I wanted to do that with Malachi.

"I believe you're exactly what you seem," I said. "A man who works hard. Who takes care of his people. Who's honest about what he wants." I stepped closer, leaning up to brush my mouth across his. "And I'm glad what you want is me. I want you, too."

I'd never said that to a man. Not that there'd been all that many, even before Josh. I'd been too busy getting through school, working, trying to make a name for myself. All of which seemed foolish now.

"Come with me."

I led him through the house, shutting off lights as we went so that darkness spread behind us as we continued to walk into the light.

We reached my room, and I flicked off the last switch. Night fell; I could barely see the outline of his face.

Suddenly he jerked his head toward the hall where Oprah's eyes glowed eerily disembodied. The sudden movement caused her to hiss.

I shut the door. "She doesn't care for storms."

"Poor beast," he murmured.

I started toward the bed; anticipation made my heart flutter, then pound. When Malachi hit the light switch and the harsh electric glare flooded the room again, I jumped like Oprah after a loud noise and spun around.

"I want to see you," he said.

That I wasn't ready for. My body wasn't bad, but it wasn't good, either. It certainly wasn't on the caliber of his.

"Please," he continued. "I've been waiting to see the pale moon of your skin and the fire of your hair when I'm inside you."

My moon-pale cheeks blushed fiery red. "I – I can't."

The thought of having sex with the lights brightly shining was too much for me. I couldn't do it. I'd panic at the worst possible moment, and once I did, I doubted I'd ever be able to go through with something like this again.

"You're so beautiful," he murmured. "I just want to gaze at every inch of you."

He started toward me, and I held up my hand in a staying gesture. "I don't want them on!"

I was making a big deal out of something small, but then, Malachi knew why, or at least the root of it. Still, I expected him to turn around and leave. I was too much work. Especially for a man who could have anyone he wanted in any town, anywhere. But Malachi surprised me again.

"That's all right, a stor." The lightning flashed, making the windowpanes glow white. "I swore to you I'd never make you do anything you didn't want to do." He flicked the switch. "I meant that. Would you like me to go?"

Silence descended, broken only by Oprah's muttering on the other side of the door and the distant rumble of thunder. The storm was moving away.

I opened my mouth; I wasn't sure what I meant to say, and a large crack, followed by a bolt of lightning so bright I had to close my eyes, yet still I saw it etched on my eyelids, froze the words in my throat.

Oprah squalled and the scritch-scratch of her claws tearing at the wood floor as she ran to her safe place downstairs seemed almost as loud as the rasp of the startled breath I drew into my lungs.

When I opened my eyes, Malachi stood right in front of me. He smelled like summer rain, new grass, the night, and I knew I didn't want him to go – not now, maybe not ever. I inched closer, resting my cheek against his chest, and his arms came around me so gently I wanted to weep.

Since that would kill the mood even quicker than any panic on my part, I kissed him as passionately as I knew how.

Lip-to-lip, tongue-to-tongue, I tangled my fingers in his still-damp hair, and the curls tumbled over my wrists. The cross that swung from his ear tickled the sensitive V of skin between my thumb and forefinger, and I moaned into his mouth, licked his teeth, backed us up until my thighs hit the bed, then tugged him onto the mattress with me.

We bounced once before he pulled away. "Claire, it doesn't have to be like this."

"Like what?"

"So fast, so – " He broke off.

"Desperate?"

"I know you're not desperate," he said softly. "Neither am I."

No, I was certain he'd had good sex in the last year.

"We'll go slowly." He sat up, bringing my knuckles to his lips and kissing them.

"If I wait too long, I might not go at all."

He dropped my hand and turned away. "Then we shouldn't."

"We should." I touched his shoulder. "I need this. I need you. Mal, please."

His skin twitched beneath my hand, almost a flinch but more likely pain caused by crashing into a tree. The guy probably had bruises everywhere. Maybe I needed to be gentle with him.

The notion intrigued me. What if I treated Mal as if he were the broken one?

Slowly I eased myself into a sitting position, then laid my cheek against his shoulder, pressed my breasts to his back. "Make me forget," I whispered. "Everything but you."

He turned in my arms. Lightning flashed, weaker, hardly a flicker, and in it he appeared anguished. "There's so much about me you don't know."

"I don't want to know. It's just you and me. No one else, nothing else, matters."

He hesitated, seemingly torn, and for an instant I wondered what he might confess. A hundred thousand lovers? Thievery? Murder? STDs?

Crap.

"Do you have a condom?"

"Of course."

Of course. What man wouldn't? Especially a man like him.

And why did that bother me? I certainly didn't have any handy, and I knew better than to sleep with him without one. Desperate passion is one thing, desperate stupidity another.

"Don't leave," I murmured, and I wasn't sure if I meant tonight or next week.

He put his forehead against mine and sighed. "I can't."

He kissed as if he'd been doing it for centuries and getting better with every one. He made love to my lips with varying degrees of pressure, tiny scrapes of his teeth, but no tongue. Not yet.

He touched me nowhere but my face, his long, hard fingers tracing the line of my jaw, his calloused thumbs stroking my cheeks and then my forehead. Who knew being touched on the forehead could be so erotic? Pretty much everything this man did was.

"Touch me," I gasped.

"I am touching you." He kissed my closed eyelids.

I grabbed his hands, pressed them to my quivering stomach. "Everywhere."

He lifted one palm to my chest and pushed me backward until I lay flat against the mattress, then stood and took off his clothes.

The storm had passed leaving only clouds behind. The room was so dark I could only tell what he was doing by the sound of it. For an instant I regretted the necessity of that darkness; I wouldn't mind seeing him. Then the bed dipped, and I sat up.

"Where are you going?" He reached for me; even in the complete darkness he managed to catch hold of my arm.

"I want to feel your skin against mine."

"You will, a ghra. I promise." He pushed me back again. "But let me." His fingers brushed the waistband of my pants, curving beneath; then he ran the smooth surface of his nails along my belly, running his thumb down my zipper and flicking over me just once.

I arched, gasped, and he quickly divested me of every stitch of clothing below the waist.

He went onto his knees to take off my socks. My legs hung over the end of the bed. He kissed his way back, running his tongue up my inner thigh before skipping right over the good part and pressing his mouth to my stomach.

His weight lay over one leg, his skin hot against mine. I draped my ankle over his back, rubbed my heel at the base of his spine, and he scored my skin with his teeth, then swept his tongue into my belly button. I never would have imagined that such a thing could almost make me come.

My shirt went the way of my underwear, and he buried his face between my breasts, filling his hands with their weight, gathering them together so he could flick his tongue back and forth over their tips so languidly I had to bite my lip to keep from ordering him to both hurry up and never stop.

"Your body, so soft and round, I dream of it in the night," he murmured. "I want to see every curve."

I tensed, thinking he meant to turn on the lights again. Despite being aroused so deeply I might have agreed to anything, I still wasn't ready for that.

"Shh." He ran his hands over my arms. "I'll learn all there is to know like this."

He explored every inch of my skin With the tips of his fingers, tracing each curve with the tip of his tongue. He cupped my feet, pressing his thumbs against the arches until I moaned as the tension flowed free. His palms skated across my calves, my thighs, sliding over the hollow at my waist before teasing my breasts until they throbbed.

He nibbled my earlobe. "Turn over, Claire."

I was both relaxed and on edge. Since I didn't want him to stop, I turned over.

Then he started again at my feet and worked his way upward, mouth first this time. I never knew how good it felt to be kissed at the small of your back, to have your shoulders stroked and kneaded while someone sucked on your neck.

The heavy, heated weight of his erection slid along the curve of my rear end, and I rubbed against him. He slipped into me just a little, and I gasped with delight at the sensation. He began to withdraw.

"No." I arched my back, taking him in more deeply.

"A minute," he said, voice hoarse. Then he was gone, and I had never felt so cold and alone.

A rustle, a plastic snap, and he returned, urging me onto my side so he could pull me against him. My back to his front, he curved around me. We fitted together just right.

He moved my hair aside and kissed my ear, his hands still fluttering over me, smoothing down my flank, sweeping up to my breasts, teasing and tempting.

I could see nothing. Even though I knew a night-stand sat here, a chair there, not a shadow remained. The windows didn't shine or reveal a lighter shade of midnight. It was as if Malachi and I had been trapped in a sightless universe where sound and scent, taste and touch were heightened.

His kisses became something more as he took small folds of flesh between his teeth and suckled. My skin seemed on fire, shot through with electricity reminiscent of the vanished lightning.

I rubbed against him again, and suddenly I was on my back as he muttered in three languages. He leaned in and kissed me, hard and fast, his hair brushing my face while his erection jutted against my hip. "I don't think I can wait."

"You don't have to."

I urged him closer, drew him to me, opened myself, and let him in. Yet still he hesitated. "If you're not ready."

"Malachi," I groaned. "I'm so ready I may get there without you if you don't shut up."

His laughter caressed my face, warm and sweet. "Well, then," he said. "We can't have that."

He sank into me, slow but sure. Carefully he braced himself, keeping most of his weight off me. I ran my palms over his biceps, which quivered at my touch.

"I won't break," I whispered, wanting to feel that weight as much as I wanted to feel his heat and his hardness within.

He gave me what I wanted, what I needed, pushing into me, pulling out, slowly coming to rest against me until I didn't know where one of us ended and the other began.

Try as I might, I couldn't see him – not a flicker of movement, not a glint of a reflection in his eyes. Because of that, it seemed as if I were dreaming, as if he were a fantasy, a phantom, the mist.

I did things I never would have done in the light, reaching between us and cupping him, stroking and kneading until he said my name like a prayer or maybe a curse. I sucked on his tongue, scraped my teeth across the throbbing vein in his neck, and then grabbed his hips and pulled him even deeper.

I was in control, and I reveled in it, that power almost as arousing as he was.

He kissed my eyebrow, then leaned his cheek against my hair and whispered, "I canna wait any longer." With nothing more than a catch in his breath, I felt him stiffen, pulse, come.

The rhythmic movements brought an answering response in me. I'd said I wouldn't break, but I hadn't counted on shattering. The best I'd hoped for was being able to get through this without fear.

I cried out, and he continued to move, drawing the tension tighter, making it last seemingly forever.

I ended up wrapped in his arms, the quilt over us both as he murmured words I didn't understand while I drifted away.

We awoke a few hours later and made love again; then I left him sleeping and went to check on Oprah. With the storm past, she had crept from beneath the couch and now snored lustily on top of it.

When I returned to my room, I pulled on a nightgown. Even though we'd touched each other in so many ways, I suddenly felt shy. Foolish, but I couldn't help it. I didn't want to wake up naked in his arms and have him stare at me as if he couldn't recall my name.

Did I really think that would happen? No. But better safe than sorry.

I crawled into bed, keeping to one side and leaving him on the other, fighting the urge to touch him, hold him, or have him hold me. I didn't need to become attached. Even if he remembered my name when the sun shone, he was still leaving in a few days.

So I lay there staring at the ceiling, and I couldn't fall asleep. Until Malachi turned and drew me against him, pressing his face into my hair.

At first I stiffened, waiting for the poke of his erection. Not that I wouldn't mind another round, unless he was so out of it he didn't know who that round was with.

However, his body was warm, soft, or as soft as a body that hard could be. He murmured, "Claire," against my neck, then "a chroi."

"Malachi?" I said softly, but from the steady, deep rise and fall of his chest he was asleep. Snuggling into his embrace, I followed him there.

I awoke to bright sunlight across the bed. Mal's eyes were open. He smiled and touched my cheek.

"What does a chroi mean?"

His smile froze; he snatched his hand back. "Where did you hear that?"

"You murmured it in your sleep, after you said my name. Is it Gaelic?"

"Yes."

He didn't elaborate. I started to wonder if a chroi meant "pig face."

"Mal?"

His eyes met mine. "It means… 'beautiful one.'"

I laughed. "I'm not beautiful."

"Who told you that?" He sat up, and the covers pooled at his waist.

I found myself distracted by the contrast of his copper skin with the white sheets, not to mention the ripples across his abdomen as he moved. He was the a chroi. Much more so than I could ever be.

"Claire?" I lifted my gaze to his face. "Who dared to say you weren't beautiful?"

He seemed awfully angry about it, as if he'd march right out and punch this person in the nose. Remembering his treatment of Josh, he might.

"I only have to look in the mirror to know the truth. On a good day – a really good day – I'm passably pretty." I held up my hand to forestall his arguments. "And that's okay. Once I thought I wanted to be in front of the camera, to be the star. But I wasn't good enough. If I'm honest, I wasn't all that disappointed. I liked running things."

I paused. Maybe that was why being the mayor wasn't the snore fest I'd thought it would be. I was running a lot of things, and I wasn't half-bad at it.

"There's more to beauty than the curve of a cheek or the length of one's hair." Mal began to play with the ribbon that held the neck of my gown closed. "There's loyalty and honor and strength. Caring about people who need you, and not disappointing them. In that regard, you're lovely beyond words."

His eyes met mine as slowly he tugged the ribbon loose until the collar gaped. "You know this covering doesn't cover you very well?"

I glanced down. The silky white material wasn't transparent; however, it did cling like Saran Wrap, revealing the spike of my nipples and the curve of my breasts and belly as if they'd been wrought in plaster.

He cupped me through the material, his dark hand stark against the sheer white. "It only makes me want to take it off you. May I?"

I opened my mouth to say no. It was broad daylight; he'd see every flaw. But suddenly I no longer cared, and wasn't that progress?

"Yes," I whispered, and his eyes widened. He hadn't expected me to agree.

His hand dropped away. "Claire, maybe – "

"I thought you wanted me naked."

"I did. I do."

I reached for the hem.

And the damn doorbell rang.

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