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Hidden Moon (Chapter 37)

I turned to check on Malachi and reared back with a cry. He was right next to me, and I hadn't even heard him move. His fingers crushed my wrist as he yanked me to him.

Bones shifted beneath the surface; his nose and mouth merged outward. But it wasn't the physical changes that frightened me so badly I couldn't think, let alone breathe; it was the change in his eyes. Looking into them, I saw an entirely different being from the one who'd been there before.

"I've waited aeons for this," he murmured, his voice much lower, a growl that rumbled from his chest like an earthquake, skating across my skin like ice.

Leaning over, he pressed his nose to my hair and inhaled. "It's you," he said, and then he licked my neck.

I began to struggle, but that only made him laugh. "The more you fight, the faster your blood rushes through your veins. You flush. I can smell the fear."

He traced his teeth where his tongue had been. Then he ran a fingertip, which seemed to have sprouted a claw, from my jaw to my collarbone and with a downward slice, cut my shirt wide open. My bra lay in two identical halves, my breasts spilling upward like a sacrifice. There wasn't a scratch on me. I got the feeling he'd done this before.

His breath warmed my icy skin. He brushed his lips just above my heart, gently, almost reverently, and then he whispered, "Claire," in a voice so broken my heart seemed to thump once and then stop. "You have to run." He pressed his cheek to my skin. "I want to do such terrible things."

He'd released my wrist to wrap his arms around my waist, and I couldn't help but run my hand over his hair. "Shh," I murmured. "I'm here."

"You can't stay." He shoved me away, skittered into the shadowy corner of the cage. I glanced at the doorway as a shadow slid toward the moon.

"I'm trapped," I said. "Just like you."

"Oh, God." His voice wavered between man and beast. "It's coming. I'll kill you, Claire. I'll drink your blood as your life fades. I'd rather be dead, but I won't be able to stop myself."

"That won't be you." I swallowed, pushing aside the images his words conjured. "You can't blame yourself. I won't blame you. I won't hate you." I'd be dead, but that was beside the point.

For whatever reason he'd done what he'd done, he'd healed me. He'd given me back myself. What I'd begun to feel for him over the past few days had been more than I'd ever felt for anyone. If I was going to die soon, I wanted him to know the truth.

"I love you, Mal."

"What?" His voice sounded more human than animal.

"I love you; I know you love me."

I "I – " He broke off, shoving a misshapen hand through his seemingly longer hair.

I inched closer. "You were willing to curse yourself to an eternity as a monster, and all of your people, too, for me."

"I couldn't – I can't – " He moaned, a growl of pain from his soul. "But I will."

"Focus on me, not the moon, not that thing whispering inside of you."

"Claire," he snarled. "You have to stay away."

"No." I suddenly knew with a clarity I'd never felt before what I had to do to save him and therefore myself. "I have to be near you."

"The smell of your blood makes me want you."

"I want you, too." I let my fingers trail over his hand. There was fur there; his nails had lengthened even more.

"I'll hurt you."

"Love is stronger than hate. Hate made you like this. She didn't love you."

"I couldn't love her. I couldn't love anyone. She said I wasn't capable of it, and that made me a beast."

"You love me; that makes you a man."

I hoped I was right, that he did love me. That love would be enough to fight what hate had done to him.

In that instant, the Earth moved between the sun and the moon, and the warehouse went eerily red, like a wash of blood across the sky. Malachi jerked out of my grasp; a horrific howl split the night, so close, so loud, my ears rebelled. Then the shriek of rending cloth seemed to sizzle along my nerve endings. It took everything I had not to cower in a corner as far away from what Mal might become as I could get.

But I stayed put. If he was going to kill me, he could do it over there as easily as he could do it right here. I couldn't escape, and in truth, I didn't want to. I would not let that witch win.

Murmuring his name, I reached out to cup his still-changing face. He growled, but at least he didn't bite me, then slowly I leaned forward, and I kissed him.

His skin felt as if snakes were writhing beneath my fingertips. At the touch of my mouth against his, everything stilled, and I knew that what I was doing was right.

I lifted my lips and whispered, "Kiss me back."

I waited, hoping, praying, near to begging, and at last, when he pressed his lips to mine with the fervor I craved, his mouth had re-formed into that of a man.

I kissed him, held him, murmured to him as the Earth shadowed the moon. Thankfully this eclipse would be one of the shortest ever recorded – in the vicinity of twenty minutes. If it had been one of the longer ones – where the moon could be hidden for hours – I don't know what I would have done, except died.

Malachi broke away, breathing heavily; when he spoke, his voice was again a growl, and despair pulled on me like the tide.

"I can't do this. The lust is calling the beast."

"Not lust." I tangled my fingers in his hair, which was only hair, not fur, beautiful, black and curling over my wrists in a wave. "Love. Tell me you love me, Mal."

"I – I – "

The rest of the words were drowned out in a bestial roar. He knocked me onto my back, leaping on top of me and tearing at my clothes.

Closing my eyes, I concentrated on the good times when this gentle man had touched me and made me whole. I wouldn't let this be hate; between us there would only be love.

"Mal," I whispered, and pressed my mouth to his cheek, felt the bone shift beneath my lips. "Love me. Just love me."

He quieted; his hands went from hurtful to helpful, removing my clothes until I was as naked as he. We kissed, our tongues tangling together as our bodies did, too, and when I ran my palms over his back, urging him without words to make what we felt true, there was nothing left of the animal, neither within nor without.

He came into me murmuring my name. I wrapped myself around him, holding him close, opening myself, giving him all that I had.

His body was granite-hard, straining against me, striving for completion. I traced my fingers over his cheekbones, his neck, his chest, terrified I'd feel him shifting, catching my breath with wonder when he did not.

Suddenly the light changed, the pulsing red fading toward silver as the eclipse neared an end. Mal stiffened, groaned, and threw back his head.

I had an instant of total terror, thinking he'd shift while he was still inside me and then –

My mind rebelled at the image.

But instead of something horrible, something wonderful happened. He gathered me close, holding me as the orgasm took me, spreading from where we joined outward, until I tingled even to my toes.

"I love you, Claire," he said in a voice that was purely human. "I'll love you until the day that I die."

On the final word I felt him pulse and come, giving himself to me as no one else ever had before.

And in that instant, the moon burst free of every shadow.

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