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Hidden Moon (Chapter 3)

"He's got the hots for you," Grace said as we drove away.

I glanced back. Malachi Cartwright stared after us, his dark gaze boring into mine. I quickly faced forward. "No, he doesn't."

" 'Come on by, Mayor Kennedy,'" she mocked, sounding like the love child of Scarlett O'Hara and the Lucky Charms leprechaun. " 'Preferably alone. Without that nasty old sheriff. I'll show you my etchings. I keep them in my pants.'"

"Grace," I protested, barely able to speak past the laughter. "He was just trying to be friendly, and since you were doing your Godzilla-stomps-on-all-the-little-people act – "

"He couldn't keep his eyes off you," she interrupted. "Barely looked in my direction the entire time we were there."

"And I bet you aren't used to that."

"No," she agreed. "But I didn't really want him to look at me. His eyes are…" Her voice faded.

"What?"

"Pure black. Like a demon or something."

"A demon? Have you been hitting the peace pipe again?"

"No one's eyes are pure black," she insisted.

"And neither were his. They were dark brown. It was just a trick of the light."

"Sure it was," she muttered.

I didn't bother to argue with her. Arguing with Grace was never worth the headache that followed.

We reached the town hall, and she let the car idle out front. "You're not coming in?" I asked.

"Nope. Places to go, people to arrest." I got out but leaned back in the window when Grace called my name. "I appreciate your coming along," she said.

"Why'd you ask me?" Her brows lifted above her sunglasses. "It's not like I'd be of any help in a sticky situation." I waved my hand at my suit and heels, which were pretty much ruined after the trek to the lake.

"You might not carry a gun or have much in the way of balls," Grace began.

"Wow, Sheriff McDaniel, you're so PC sometimes, you scare me."

"But," she continued with a scowl, "you've got your father's gift of gab."

Jeremiah Kennedy had been the consummate politician. He'd known everyone's names, where they lived, their dogs, their children and grandchildren. He'd been good at this job in a way I doubted I could ever be.

I was starting to wonder if I was good at anything anymore. In high school I'd been not only a cheerleader but also captain of the debate team and a state champion forensics speaker. The rush I'd felt in front of a crowd had been seductive.

I'd taken my counselor's advice and gone into broadcast journalism, dreaming of a career beneath the bright lights of CNN, only to discover I wasn't pretty enough, talented enough – hell, I wasn't anything "enough" to succeed.

"Except for today," Grace continued, bringing me back to the subject at hand. "That guy made you go all girlie."

"Did not."

Grace ignored me. "I'll run a check on them later. See what you can find out from Joyce."

"Sure." I straightened, and Grace pulled away from the curb.

Grace had never much cared for anything girlie, and that was understandable. She was the youngest of five and the only girl. Her mother had run off when Grace was three, right around the time mine had died on an icy mountain road she had no business being on.

Mama had been from Atlanta, and she'd missed it every day. She'd been a newspaper reporter, and in the late seventies Atlanta was a very exciting place. She'd met my father while doing a story on small-town mayors, and they'd fallen in love. She'd given up the job she adored to come to Lake Bluff, then spent the next four years trying to get away as often as she could – or so I'd heard in whispered snatches of gossip throughout my childhood.

Grace and I had been thrown together, both motherless, both largely ignored by fathers who were devoted to something larger than us.

I'd been as fascinated with Grace's differences as she'd been with mine. Not that she hadn't teased me mercilessly about them, which had, in turn, led to me teasing her just as mercilessly. We'd been like sisters, and I wanted that closeness back more than I'd wanted anything for a long, long time.

Center Street bustled as everyone made last-minute preparations for the festival. Directly across from the town hall, Bobby Turnbaugh, owner of the Good Cookin' Cafe, hung a banner advertising Blue Ridge Dining at Its Finest – Southern Chocolate Gravy and Biscuits.

I made a face. Chocolate gravy and biscuits had never been my idea of fine dining, but my father had always enjoyed them for breakfast.

Bobby lifted a hand. I did the same. We'd dated our junior year, and he'd taught me a few things in the front seat of his daddy's pickup that I had remembered fondly for quite a few years.

Directly next to the cafe was a combination bookstore and souvenir shop, complete with Native American trinkets, Appalachian doodads, and Civil War paraphernalia. On the other side stood a beauty salon, then the Gun and Loan, where firearms could be bought and just about anything else could be borrowed, and a coffee shop that sold the fancy lattes and chai

teas that had become so popular in big towns. No one had thought the Center Perk would take off, but a hundred thousand Starbucks couldn't be wrong.

Farther south, the Lake Bluff Hotel housed a fine-dining restaurant and a higher-class gift shop. Subsequent streets held several bed-and-breakfasts, candle and candy shops, plus various establishments that sold jewelry, knickknacks, and other bright and shiny things. It never ceased to amaze me the amount of junk people bought when they were on vacation.

I let my gaze wander over the quickly moving, industrious citizens, a stark contrast to the lazily milling tourists who had already begun to arrive. I should have asked Grace if she'd sufficiently fortified the local police force with rent-a-cops, but I was certain she knew her job and needed no help from me.

"Claire!"

Joyce's shrill voice hailed me the instant I entered the foyer, echoing throughout the high, domed ceiling.

Town hall had been constructed before the Civil War, back when they'd been able to afford building government offices out of stone and marble. The place was a monstrosity and would last until the end of time.

My assistant hustled to meet me. Nearly six feet tall in her bright white walking shoes, Joyce was as solid as an oak, in stature and temperament. Her hair was shorn close to her head and black as the day she'd been born, courtesy of a standing appointment with Miss Clairol. Joyce dressed like the lumberjack her father had been – jeans, flannel shirts, and boots in the fall and winter, khaki shorts, plaid, sleeveless shirts, and walking shoes in the spring and summer.

She'd started life as a high school phys ed teacher. But when kids became mouthier and a teacher's ability to kick their ass for it became nonexistent, Joyce came to work for the city. She'd never married, devoting herself to this job and my father to the exclusion of all else. There were times I'd wondered if they had a thing going on; I'd decided I didn't want to know.

"Everyone's left." Her mouth flattened in disapproval.

"Who's everyone?"

"I told you there were people waiting to see you, then you snuck out the back door."

Oops.

"I knew you and Grace would be up to your old tricks the minute my back was turned."

I stifled a grin at the memory of some of those old tricks. Although I doubted Grace and I would be sneaking a joint out back or getting sick on cheap wine anytime soon, you never could tell.

For the first time since I'd returned, I felt as if returning might have been a good choice and not the second stupidest thing I'd ever done.

"You have to be above reproach," Joyce said. "The whole town's watching you."

My urge to smile faded. "I know."

When I'd returned for my father's funeral, I hadn't planned to stay, although I hadn't had anywhere to go. I'd recently quit my job as the producer of one of the top Atlanta television stations.

I hadn't been all that broken up about it. I was an adequate producer but not outstanding. I was never going to go any further than I already had, and for the first time in a lifetime, Atlanta did not appeal. The gilded glow I'd placed over the city – because my mother had loved it so – had been tarnished.

"Balthazar was here," Joyce said.

"He's always here."

Balthazar Monahan was a recent transplant from the North. No one knew exactly where he was from; no one knew exactly why he'd come, unless it was to be elected the mayor. He'd been after the job from the day he'd arrived and had not been happy when it was offered to me for the taking.

He'd spent the past three weeks tallying every one of my mistakes, then trumpeting them far and wide, which was easy for him to do since he owned the Lake Bluff Gazette.

"What did he want this time?" I asked.

Joyce shrugged. "He came in as he always does; then when he found out you were gone, he started whispering to the people who were waiting to speak to you."

"Shit," I muttered.

"You can say that again."

"Shit."

Joyce chuckled. "Relax. People have to give you a chance to get used to the job. Being the mayor isn't easy."

"Tell it to Balthazar."

"Won't matter. Man was born to be a pain in the ass."

Joyce had him pegged, but she so often did. I don't know if it was her years as a teacher or her years at the desk in town hall, but she could read people in an instant. Good, bad, ugly – Joyce took one look and knew your heart. Which was why she was still working for me despite her tendency to bitch, moan, and mother.

"Speaking of a pain in the ass," I said, "where did you get the idea of hiring a caravan of traveling Gypsies?"

Her face brightened. "They're here?"

"Do you even read the notes I leave?"

"Sometimes."

I rubbed my forehead. "Why Gypsies?"

"They contacted me."

I let my hand drop back to my side. "They what?"

"The head guy…" Joyce pursed her lips. "A biblical name. It's on the tip of my tongue."

"Malachi Cartwright?"

"That's it. Last book in the Old Testament."

"I don't remember a Book of Cartwright."

"Hardy-har-har. You'd better watch that quick mouth of yours now that you're in politics."

She was right, as usual. My quick mouth had served me well in Atlanta, but here it might get me lynched, or at least recalled.

"Cartwright contacted me," Joyce continued. "Said he'd heard about our festival and wanted to perform. Then" – she jutted out her chin and did a horrible Marlon Brando impersonation – "he made me an offer I couldn't refuse."

"What kind of offer?"

"They perform every night for the entire week and only charge us half the price of everyone else I talked to."

"Why?"

"Didn't ask. Gift horse and all that. You know how close the treasury is to empty."

I did. We needed to make a decent profit on this year's Full Moon Festival or things were going to go badly.

Sometimes I thought I should just turn the office over to Balthazar and let him have the headache since he wanted it so much. Then I remembered – without this job, I'd have nothing.

"Are they any good?" I asked.

"We'll find out."

"You didn't check their references?"

"References?" Joyce began to laugh. "They're Gypsies."

"I got that when I saw the earrings and the horse-drawn wagons, though they seem to be laying it on a little thick."

"Showmanship is the name of the game."

"They could be a traveling band of serial killers," I pointed out.

"Grace will run them through her computers."

"She will, but she could have done that before you hired them and saved everyone some stress."

"I forgot."

Which wasn't like Joyce, but I guess she had to start losing it sometime. Why did it have to be on my watch?

The rest of the day passed in a blur. Since the mayor of Lake Bluff was in charge of pretty much everything municipal that wasn't handled by the sheriff's office, and my only staff was Joyce, I had a full plate.

Every week we had a town council meeting. I didn't think we needed a weekly meeting, but since the all-male, all-ancient membership had nothing better to do, and they'd been getting together every week since time began, I was outvoted.

In the time that I'd been here, the meetings followed the same pattern. They argued; I refereed. We rarely decided anything, and at 9:00 p.m. they adjourned to the American Legion Hall for two-dollar pitchers of Bud Light. They never invited me along. They'd always invited my dad.

Unfortunately for me, tonight was meeting night.

I heard them arguing before I reached the community room. I was tempted to turn right around and leave them to it. Would they even notice if I didn't show up?

"I say we need a new sidewalk in front of the elementary school."

"I say we don't."

"Maybe we should wait awhile and think on it some more. I can see both of your viewpoints."

"We need to lower taxes."

"We have to raise them."

"Now let's not be hasty…"

I took a deep breath and walked in. The room went silent.

"Gentlemen."

"Claire."

Every one of them had known me since I wore diapers. I could hardly insist they call me Mayor Kennedy. That was what they'd called my dad.

My father had secretly referred to his council by the nicknames See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil, and Have No Fun. I hadn't needed to ask who was who. One meeting and I'd easily been able to assign the monikers myself.

"What's on the agenda this evening?" I asked.

"Sidewalks and taxes."

Why had I asked?

"Didn't we discuss sidewalks last week?"

"We didn't decide anything," said Wilbur Mcandless. He'd once owned the hardware store but had left it to his son and now spent his days worrying about sidewalks. I guess someone had to.

Wilbur couldn't make a decision; both sides of every coin always sounded fine to him. Dad probably should have named him Speak Nothing That Ever Helps, but that wouldn't have fitted in with the joke, so Wilbur was Speak No Evil.

"We haven't finished our discussion on taxes, either." This came from Hoyt Abernathy, former president of the Lake Bluff Bank. He liked to talk about money. Incessantly.

Rumor had it that on the day Hoyt had retired from the bank, he'd made a bonfire of every one of his dress shoes, which was why he now wore slippers. Everywhere. It wasn't a bad idea.

I'd identified Hoyt as Have No Fun – to him everything was a disaster of epic proportions. Personally I'd call him Eeyore for the whiny nature of his comments.

"We can't raise taxes!" shouted Malcolm Frasier, not so much because he was angry as because he was deaf. Hear No Evil – or anything else, for that matter.

"Why not?" Hoyt shouted back.

"Folks are hurtin' already. Higher taxes will make them leave Lake Bluff altogether."

"Why would anyone ever leave Lake Bluff?" asked Joe Cantrell, retired fire chief. "It's so wonderful here."

For Joe – or See No Evil – the world was always rosy, an odd outlook for a fire chief. However, there weren't that many fires in Lake Bluff, and the ones that we did have weren't serious. People lived too close together and minded one another's business too well for a fire to ever get out of hand.

The room went silent as all eyes turned to me.

"Oops," Joe murmured.

I wasn't sure what to say. I'd left because I had to. Needed to. Come back for the same reason. But I didn't want to discuss that with them.

I straightened. If I meant to be the mayor and not just play at it, I needed to be the mayor. Now was as good a time as any to begin.

"All right." I rapped my knuckle on the tabletop twice. "We've yapped enough."

"Aye?" Malcolm cupped his ear.

"No more talking!" I shouted. "We vote. Tonight. Make a decision. That's why you were elected."

"A vote?" Wilbur asked. "You sure? We usually just talk about stuff."

"Not anymore," I said. "Gentlemen, grab your pencils."

Fifteen minutes later the old business was settled. New sidewalks in front of the school, since the ones there had crumbled into a hazard, and slightly higher taxes to pay for them.

"That was fun," Joe said. "Let's do it again!"

Wilbur slouched in his chair. "I'm not sure we should have decided on anything so soon."

I ignored them both to ask, "New business?"

Everyone looked around, shrugged.

"We've been so busy worryin' about the old business, we forgot to think up new stuff," Wilbur admitted.

Thank God, although I was certain that wouldn't last. They didn't have much to do except think up stuff.

"Your father never made us vote," Hoyt grumbled.

"Maybe he should have."

All four of them gasped. I tensed, waiting for the lecture. I really had no business criticizing. Dad had done just fine for thirty years.

"We're adjourned," I said.

"What?" shouted Malcolm.

The other three made a beeline for the door, no doubt smelling the Bud already. Malcolm saw them going and took off, too. I glanced at my watch. The meeting had been completed in a half an hour. I was so damn proud of myself I nearly danced. Maybe I could do this job after all. It just might take a little time.

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