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Hidden Moon (Chapter 31)

"You're sure it was Balthazar?" Grace asked. I'd hurried home, leaving the flaming corpse where it had fallen. I could have called Grace from the car and waited for her to join me, but the idea of sitting on that dark lonely road with Lord only knew what watching me from the woods was too much.

"Believe me, Grace, I've seen the man often enough to recognize his eyes, even in the face of a wolf."

"Well, that's one less missing person." I could hear her getting into the squad car. "And one less headache for you."

"Hey!" I protested. "I wouldn't wish that on anyone."

"I know. But I still find it strange that the dead and undead are all on your shit list."

"Not all. I never met Ryan Freestone."

"Good point. So we're down to two werewolves at least. Unless…" She trailed off. I could hear the distant hum of her tires against the pavement.

"Unless?"

"Unless Balthazar was the original werewolf. He was awfully hairy and a huge pain in the behind."

"You think that might be true?"

"It would certainly make things tidier." She sighed. "So probably not. Life is never that easy."

I heard her stop; a car door opened; then footsteps crunched on gravel. "I'm shining a big spotlight right where you said. Nothing on fire, but…" Crunch. Crunch. "A few ashes. Ground's scuffed. Someone was here."

"Obviously, Grace. I didn't shoot him."

"I'm going to pull my car off the road. Try to track this guy. I'll call you later."

"Hold on. Whoever shot Balthazar could be as nutty as… well, someone who's nuts."

"Seems pretty sane to me. Shoot werewolf with silver. Kaboom. I wish I'd done it."

"Be careful. If he's on the up-and-up, why didn't he stick around for the band, the parade, the salutations?"

"Got me. Now stay inside, and if you hear or see anything hinky, call nine-one-one."

"So one of your officers can become wolf bait?" I asked, but she was already gone.

I'd run home because it felt safer than the car, especially now that my windshield was history. But standing in my kitchen, staring at the sliding glass, I didn't feel so safe anymore.

But where could I go? I didn't think there was any place, anywhere, that was going to be safe from what was out there.

I checked all the doors, all the windows – not that a lock would help, but it wouldn't hurt. Then I got to work.

On the Internet I found all sorts of strange things. As Grace had said, there were shape-shifter legends all over the place. Shamans told of transforming into their spirit animals. Some carried talismans that contained the essence of their other nature. I wished, not for the first time, that I hadn't lost that rune.

Even the Cherokee had a transformation legend, although theirs involved a panther. The Ojibwe told tales of the Weendigo, a werewolf cannibal, and witchie wolves, invisible wolves that guarded the resting places of warriors.

The Navajo believed in skinwalkers, both witch and werewolf, who donned the skin of an animal and became one.

In Haiti they shared the legend of the lougaro, a shape-shifting sorcerer who traveled through the night drinking the blood of children. They also told tales of the Egbo, a leopard society from deepest Africa, which was used to keep the slaves in line by actually turning into leopards on occasion.

When I searched for incidents of miraculous healing, I got a lot of religious Web sites. Made sense.

There was also one site of conspiracy theories where incidents of miraculous healing were proof of aliens, Satan, and complicated government plots.

When I searched for sightings of wolves where wolves weren't supposed to be, I found a Web page on exotic pets. Their theory was that people who had raised wolves from infancy had dumped them when they became too difficult to control.

I was also sent to a Web site on cryptozoology, which studied legendary animals – like Bigfoot. They thought there were werewolves all over the place.

Next, I typed Gypsies into the search engine. I got back a helluva lot.

I made my way to a promising Web site, run by an anthropologist in California writing a book about the legends and folktales of the Rom. She asked for any new tales to be sent to her at an e-mail address provided. A table of contents for the book listed the titles of the chapters she'd already written.

One in particular interested me – "Strigoi de lup" – because loupe meant "wolf" in some language or another, so it followed that lup might be just that in Romani. Wouldn't hurt to ask.

I clicked on the e-mail link, composed my question, and hit send. A creak on the staircase made me tilt my head, my ears crackling as I strained to listen.

While I doubted a werewolf would creep quietly up my stairs – I had firsthand experience that a werewolf would just crash through the window – nevertheless, I was nervous.

I grabbed the phone, stuffed it into my pocket, then glanced around my office for a weapon of some sort.

"Where's a silver candlestick when you need one?" I muttered, though I'd never been able to figure out exactly when such a thing would be needed. Now I knew.

I picked up a crystal paperweight. Beggars couldn't be choosers.

Creeping into the hall, I cursed my father's thrifty nature. After years of nagging, I could no longer leave a room without shutting off a light, so the stairwell was as dark as the first floor below it. Shadows swirled. To me, they all looked like wolves.

I was just turning back to the office when another creak made me hurry forward, skirting as close to the wall as I could, hoping if I couldn't see them, they couldn't see me.

Yeah, that always worked.

Reaching the landing, I peered down the steps.

They were empty.

A scritch from the other direction made me spin.

Oprah sat in the middle of the carpet, blinking solemnly.

Duh. The cat. How could I have forgotten? In my defense, I had been thinking of a hundred other things.

Suddenly Oprah's gaze shifted behind me, and she hissed, then scampered away. I had a really bad feeling something was coming up those stairs. Perhaps something I couldn't see but Oprah sensed.

I wanted to follow the cat to whatever hiding place she'd run to, but I'd let fear drive me from Atlanta. I would not let fear stalk me here.

I spun around to discover Malachi halfway up the steps. I let out the breath I'd been holding in a noisy rush.

The relief I felt not to discover a slavering, snarling man-wolf disappeared as my head went light with delayed reaction.

"Are you crazy?" I held up the paperweight and waved it around. "I could have killed you!"

He approached cautiously. "I don't think that would have killed me."

"Think again," I muttered.

Right now the adrenaline rush was so high, I thought I might fly. I would definitely have caused some damage if I'd put that energy into my pitching arm.

"How did you get in?"

"Did you think any lock could keep me out?"

"You couldn't knock? Ring the bell?"

"I didn't want to wake you."

"Only frighten me half to death." The paperweight dropped from my suddenly limp fingers, and I swayed.

"Claire!" He took the remaining steps at a run, catching me around the waist and dragging me away from the edge.

"I'm okay."

"You're not. What happened?"

"Besides your breaking into my house and scaring the shit out of me?"

"Yes." He stared into my face, frowning. "Besides that."

How did he know? Had he read my mind? Or had he been in the forest earlier with a gun?

No. If Malachi had shot Balthazar, he would have told me so. He knew what Grace suspected, and he hadn't been shocked by it. I told him everything.

When I was through, he carried me to my room, then kicked the door shut behind us. He set me gently on the bed, turned the bedside lamp on low, then lay at my side.

"I could have lost you," he whispered.

"You believe me?"

"I've seen so many things, a stor, so many. A man who turns into a beast?" He lifted one shoulder. "I'm certain it could happen." Malachi gathered me into his arms. "I should never have let you out of my sight."

Oddly, his need to protect me didn't make me want to shriek and break free as it had when my father had tried it. Because something had changed in me? Or because I'd gone out in the big bad world and realized I needed protecting? Perhaps it had happened when I'd come home to be safe and discovered I wasn't.

"You can't be with me every minute," I said. Soon he wouldn't be here at all.

The thought made my throat clench. Oh boy. I hadn't gone and fallen in love with him, had I? That would be stupid. Of course, in matters of men, "stupid" seemed to characterize me.

Malachi's dark eyes stared into mine as if he knew my thoughts. I just wanted him to kiss me, to make me forget.

Did I lean toward him? Did I pucker up? Regardless, he took my face in his big, hard, dark hands and pressed his lips to mine.

He tasted me as if he never had before, nibbling gently, sucking my bottom lip into his mouth, then sweeping his tongue across my teeth. His fingers tangled in my hair; mine tangled in his. My thumb brushed against his earring, and it swung to and fro, catching the lamplight and reflecting sparkles across the ceiling like falling stars.

I tugged at his blousy white shirt until it came loose from his black pants, then ran my hands all over his warm, smooth skin. Maybe my near-death experience had made me bold, or maybe he just did, because I reached between us and cupped him, rubbing my thumb down the length of his erection until he grabbed my wrist. "Keep that up and we'll be done afore we start."

He left me to kick off his boots, lose the pants and socks, then stood at the end of the bed hesitantly. "May I undress you, a chroi?"

His voice was so quiet; his eyes fell as if he expected me to say no, to continue to hide my body from him as if I were ashamed. But I didn't ever plan to be ashamed again.

"Yes," I whispered.

His gaze lifted, both hope and wariness alight in his eyes. "You're sure?"

"Completely."

He sank down on the bed and reached for the buttons of my blouse, opening each one so slowly I wanted to help him. Now that I'd agreed to making love in the light, I wanted it to happen. I wanted nothing to stop us, especially a last-minute panic attack.

When the last fastening opened and my blouse fell away, the heat of his gaze was a caress. He trailed one finger down the center of my stomach, then hooked it in my slacks and flicked the single button at the waistband. He drew the zipper lower, the sound loud in the pulsing silence.

My pants descended, the slither of cloth on skin making me shudder with both reaction and anticipation. Then he bent his dark head and kissed me, hot and eager against the thin nylon of my panties.

I arched, and his mouth became hard, demanding; his beard, rough at the end of the day, added another sensation against the most intimate part of me. My body tightened, and he retreated, hooking his fingers in my underwear and tossing them with the rest of our clothes on the floor.

The only item of clothing that remained was my front-clasp white cotton bra. I wished momentarily that I'd worn sexy underwear, but it was a foolish wish since I didn't own any. I'd never been the type. But perhaps, with him, I could be.

I figured he'd flip the catch, release my breasts, indulge in a little foreplay, and since my body was already singing from the slow, sensual assault of his hands and his mouth, anything he wanted right now was fine with me.

So when he covered my body with his, slipping gently inside, I merely sighed and welcomed him in.

The lamp splashed golden light across his sleek skin; his pupils expanded, blending into the black of his irises. He appeared almost otherworldly. I might have been frightened except this was Malachi, a man who'd been nothing but honest and gentle with me. He'd brought me out of the cold, scary place that had been my life, and despite the strange things going on all around us, I felt stronger, saner, happier, because of him.

His thrusts slowed, as if he wanted to make this last forever. I indulged my need to touch him, running my fingers through his hair, along his face, then spreading my palms across his chest, shoulders, and down the long expanse of his back. I showed him a better rhythm, a little faster, a little deeper, and soon we were both gasping on the edge of the world.

"Claire." He nuzzled my breasts, then seemed to notice for the first time that my bra was still in place.

Shifting his weight, he used one hand to crunch the clasp at the center. The plastic scratched my skin, the sensation sharp, even as the bra slid open, and his hand smoothed over me, cupping me almost reverently, watching himself touch me, the bronze shade of his hand stark against my moon-pale skin.

His fingertip scraped my birthmark, and he tilted his head so the lamplight caught in his eyes and caused a flare at the center like a flashbulb.

Then he lowered his mouth, touched his lips to the mark, and whispered, "It's you."

Though muffled against my skin, his voice sounded anguished, but before I could ask what was wrong, he thrust again, and I forgot everything as the orgasm carried us away.

But it wasn't over quickly; instead he continued to thrust, face now buried against my neck, his hair cascading over my face, the water and earth scent of him filling my senses even as he filled my body again and again with himself.

He pushed me toward the edge, then reached between us and forced me there again with a combination of his fingers and his lips and his tongue. The second time I came crying his name, and when the tremors died away, I barely registered him turning off the lamp and tucking me against him beneath the quilt before I fell asleep.

When I awoke well before the sun did, he was gone, and I wondered for just an instant if he'd been there at all. But I could smell him in the room, on the sheets, on me.

I stretched, my body a little sore, but a sore I wouldn't mind experiencing again and again.

Though I would have liked to remain in bed dreaming a while longer, worry plucked at the edges of my mind.

Grace hadn't called, so as soon as I was dressed I called her, despite the lack of sun on the horizon.

No answer. I tried her cell and her office with the same result. What would I do if something had happened to her?

I grabbed shoes I could use to tramp around the woods should any tramping be needed, but when I headed for the stairs, my computer chimed softly to signal an incoming message.

I hesitated, then decided it could be Grace e-mail-ing me a progress report rather than waking me. As soon as I jiggled my mouse and my computer sprang to life, so did the disappointment.

Not Grace. Instead, the anthropologist had replied to my e-mail:

Ms. Kennedy,

Thank you for your interest in my book. Copies will be available through my Web site for $29.99. To answer your question, a strigoi de lup is a Romanian sorcerer. Usually a pretty young woman in a white dress, she is said to lead the wolves. In some legends she does this by becoming one beneath the light of the moon. She protects her identity by killing anyone who sees her in that form and talks about it.

An interesting legend, but we hadn't had a Romanian sorcerer in these parts in… forever.

I made a copy of the e-mail, tucked it into my pocket, and headed out the door.

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