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Hidden Moon (Chapter 4)

As I shut and locked the front door of town hall behind me an hour later, dusk hovered on the horizon. Joyce had left at six, speed walking the mile and a half home as she did every day.

My own commute was considerably less than Joyce's. My father had left me the largest house in Lake Bluff – a white rambling two-story, with a veranda that encircled the first floor, jutting out into a deck that overlooked the backyard. All I had to do to get home was turn in the opposite direction of the Center Street shops and head uphill for three blocks.

The streetlights hadn't come on yet. The setting sun cast tendrils of shadow across the pavement.

My heels clicked, a lonely, somewhat creepy sound emphasizing my isolation, but I had nothing to fear. Crime was virtually nonexistent in Lake Bluff. The only time it did exist was during the festival and it could always be traced to outsiders. There hadn't been a murder here in decades.

So why did I suddenly get the shivers and increase my pace to a brisk power walk?

The mountains rose in the distance, huge and navy blue. Whatever happened, those hills would always be there. The sight of them calmed me.

The sun slipped below the horizon with a near-audible sigh, spreading the grayish haze of early evening over my world.

A pebble tumbled down an incline to my right. My gaze jerked in that direction, and a shadow flitted between the tree trunks. I hesitated, glancing at town hall, which was now farther away than my front door.

Determined, I faced forward and kept walking.

I'd been traveling this path twice a day for nearly three weeks, and I'd never been nervous about it. Of course I'd never felt the presence of anything out there until tonight.

Something howled, the sound sharp and unfamiliar. I'd heard a thousand coyotes in my lifetime, and none of them had ever sounded like that.

"Has to be a coyote," I murmured. Despite the acres of space and the plethora of trees, there hadn't been a wolf in these mountains for a very long time.

The shrill, mournful sound died away. I waited for an answer, but none came.

Strange. When I was a kid and the coyotes howled, there'd always been more than one.

A scritch against the pavement, and I whirled, a scream rising in my throat at the sight of a man only inches away.

"Balthazar." My breath rushed out. "What are you doing here?"

He crowded into my space; he always did. I'd never been certain if he was a close talker or just a jerk who used his size to intimidate.

The man had to be six-five and weigh 270. His barrel chest spread in front of my eyes, covered with a black dress shirt. Several equally black chest hairs poked out between the straining buttons. Balthazar was not only big but extremely hairy.

I inched back, peering up into his large, flaring, also hairy nostrils. The streetlights came on with a tinny thunk, and their reflection gave his brown eyes a golden glow.

He smirked, and I knew in that instant he'd meant to scare me, probably been waiting in the trees for hours until I went home. I'd tried to keep my fear of men hidden, but in the way of wild animals Balthazar had sensed a weakness and exploited it.

"I wanted to get some information on the squatters at the lake."

I scowled. How had he found out so fast?

Just as he'd sensed my weakness, he seemed to sense my question, and answered it in a flat Yankee accent that grated on my nerves more than the mysterious howl had.

"One of my reporters saw you and the chief head thataway." He pointed toward the lake.

Being an equal-opportunity bigot – a racist and a sexist, as well as plenty of other "ists" I hadn't figured out yet – Balthazar had as much use for Grace as he had for me. He constantly referred to her as the police chief, as if the play on words were the funniest thing he'd ever heard. The guy needed to get out more. Way out. Like out of town.

"You were in such a hurry," Balthazar continued, "he decided to follow."

Sometimes Balthazar's reporters seemed more like spies.

"Imagine his surprise," Balthazar continued, "to find Gypsies."

"Imagine mine," I muttered.

His smile deepened, and I wanted to bite my tongue. I could easily see those words as tomorrow's headline.

"The caravan is the entertainment for the festival," I said. "If you want more info, talk to Joyce."

"I'd rather talk to you."

My teeth ground together, making an audible crunch in the suddenly silent night. What had happened to the… whatever had been howling?

I forced my attention back to the problem at hand. "They do old-time Gypsy entertainment – fortune-telling, that kind of stuff."

"If they're just the entertainment, then why did you and the redskin rush out there in the middle of a workday?"

I winced at the term but didn't bother to correct him. Grace was going to kick his ass one day, and I was going to watch, maybe help. It had been a long time since we'd done anything fun together.

Since there was no way I was going to tell Balthazar that Joyce had hired the caravan without my knowledge and Grace had dragged me along to oust them, I lied: "We wanted to welcome the caravan to the neighborhood."

"You've got nothing better to do with your day?"

The entire length of the conversation, I'd been fighting my fear of being alone in the dark with a man. Now I got angry, which was usually how I got into trouble.

"It's nearly nine, and I just left an office I walked into at the same time this morning. Why don't you put that in your paper?"

His mouth tightened, though it was hard to tell, considering the paper-thin line of his lips. His cheeks flushed, making an already ruddy complexion mottled. Fury flashed in his beady dark eyes, and I could have sworn he growled, just as he reached for me.

But before his fleshy fingers closed around my arms and he did whatever it was he planned to do, a howl burst from the trees. The combination of the volume and the proximity made me gasp as my heart threatened to leap out of my chest.

"What the hell is that?" Balthazar muttered.

"Sounds like a wolf." I stared at the thick, dark stand of trees, waiting for the beast to burst forth and end not only our curiosity but also our lives.

I expected Balthazar to scoff, to remind me that timber wolves had been hunted to extinction ages ago and the reintroduction of red wolves had been a failure. The only large wild animals in these mountains were bears and bobcats; neither one of them howled.

When he didn't speak, I risked removing my gaze from the shadows that had begun to swirl and dance with dizzying speed to look at him.

All I saw was his back as he hurried in the other direction. A wave of relief made me dizzier. I didn't even mind being left alone with… whatever – as long as Balthazar was gone.

"Nice doggy," I murmured, and began to inch in reverse. My house was up this hill and around the bend, but I didn't plan to take my eyes off the trees. If I was going to be ripped limb from limb by an animal that shouldn't be here, I planned to see it coming. Too many bad things in my life had blindsided me when my back was turned.

Slowly I crept toward safety, my shoes scuffling on the pavement, my breath harsh and fast in the silence.

The trees rustled. A shadow flitted.

The wind? Or something more substantial and deadly?

I could have sworn eyes stared at me from the depths. I blinked. I couldn't help it. I'd been working all day and half the night; I was tired. When I opened my eyes, the other set was gone.

I turned and smacked into Malachi Cartwright so hard my chest bounced off of his, and I stumbled.

He steadied me, the roughness of his palms scratching against my sleeves. My startled gaze lifted to his face, and the beauty of it captured me.

I'd spent a lot of time around beautiful men and women. Television was full of them. I'd learned quickly that the prettier people were, the less they felt they had to do because of it. Cartwright didn't seem of the same opinion.

With a face and body like his he could have been posing for GQ ads, at the least strutting a catwalk in his underwear. Instead he traveled the country in a wagon, working with animals until his hands were so hard, calluses scraped the fabric of my suit.

"Did you… ?" I paused as an idea flickered. "Is there a wolf in your menagerie?"

"Why do you ask?"

"I heard a howl."

His gaze moved to the trees. "Just now?"

"A few minutes ago. Didn't you hear it?"

He shook his head, but he continued to stare at the forest.

Strange.

"What are you doing here?" I asked.

"I came to see your lovely town."

"Sheriff McDaniel told you not to come at night."

His dark eyes returned to mine. "I don't take orders from Sheriff McDaniel."

I doubted he took orders from anyone. I recalled how whatever he'd wanted – towel, shirt, contract – had appeared in his hand that afternoon. To paraphrase the great prophet Mel Brooks: It must be good to be the king. I smiled at my own, secret wit.

"Do I amuse you then?" Cartwright asked.

Any amusement I'd felt fled. "No."

One thing he didn't do was amuse me. I didn't want to examine what it was he did, because the feelings I had whenever I saw him were almost as scary as the howl of the wolf that couldn't exist.

"You never answered my question," I pointed out.

"Which question was that, darlin'?"

I refused to be charmed by the accent and the casual endearment. "Do you or do you not have a wolf in one of those cages at the lake?"

"I do not."

He continued to stare at the trees as if searching for something, which brought to mind a better question – just in case he'd taken my query in completely literal terms: "Did your wolf get loose?"

"I do not keep a wolf. They're… troublesome."

"In what way?"

"Wolves don't make good show animals. They're too independent to train, and they spook the hell out of the horses."

"You seem to know an awful lot about them for not having one."

At last he stopped staring at the trees. "I'm an animal trainer. Knowing which ones are good and which are bad is what I do."

"I thought there were no good or bad animals, only good or bad masters."

He gave a snort of laughter but didn't elaborate.

"Who was that you were talking to?" he asked.

"Balthazar Monahan. Owns the local newspaper. He'll want to talk to you."

"He can want whatever he likes; that doesn't mean he'll be gettin' it. We prefer obscurity."

I eyed his flamboyant dress, long hair, and the crucifix swinging from one ear. "I can see that."

His full lips curved. "This costume is what people expect."

"How do you get any business without publicity?"

"We've never lacked for work. We choose when and where we perform – midsized venues in places we are interested in traveling to. Like your Full Moon Festival."

Which explained why he'd contacted Joyce. Must be nice to pick and choose when and where and how much you worked.

He lifted his face to the sky. Opening his mouth, he inhaled, as if drinking in the silver light of the moon. When he lowered his head, his eyes appeared again like bottomless black pools. I took an involuntary step back and the reflection shifted, making his eyes just brown once more.

"I'll walk you home," he said.

"Not necessary. I live – " I broke off. Did I really want him to know where I lived?

"Do you think I don't already know?"

Had he read my mind?

"Come along." He headed up the hill. "You shouldn't be out alone at night."

I fell into step beside him. "This is Lake Bluff."

"You believe you're safe here?"

I did. Or at least I had. Safety had been one of the main attractions when I'd said yes to my father's job. That and not having another.

"Do you do double duty as an animal trainer and a fortune-teller?" I asked.

"Only our women possess the sight. Or so they'd like us to believe."

We turned the corner, and my house rose up in front of us. Tall, stately, in the dark with the gibbous moon rising behind it, I could easily imagine it haunted. I shuddered.

"Cold?" Cartwright murmured.

I stared at his back. He hadn't even been looking at me when I'd shivered. I must have made a brrr sound and not been aware of it.

"I'm fine."

He pushed the front gate open with a polite dip of his head. "I'll be sayin' good night then."

"Since when are Gypsies Irish?" I blurted.

His teeth flashed. "Been waitin' all day to ask me that, have you?"

I shrugged.

"You're thinking I'm not a real Gypsy?"

"I wasn't thinking of you at all until you appeared out of nowhere."

Liar. I'd thought of him on and off since I'd met him. How could I not?

The deepening of his smile said he knew I'd lied, and he liked it. I suppose lying was an admirable trait to a Gypsy.

I rubbed my forehead. I was as bad as Balthazar. I knew nothing about Gypsies beyond what I'd seen in the movies and on television.

"We are known as the Rom," Cartwright said. "The term 'Gypsy' came about because people believed we'd come from Egypt."

"You didn't?"

"India, they say, though no one really knows for certain."

"How did you end up in Ireland?"

"I lived in Ireland all my life until… recently. The Rom arrived long ago. When we left our homeland, we spread over the globe – Greece, Russia, Hungary, England, Scotland, and Ireland."

"What about Romania?"

"That would be the Ludar."

"Not Gypsies?"

"We prefer the name Rom. Those in Romania are known as the Ludar, just as the English are called Romnichels; the Serbs, Russians, and Hungarians, the Vlax."

"Are those tribes?"

"In a way. We were one once, but centuries of separation changed us."

I found myself fascinated by the information, as well as the silky roll of his voice. I should go inside, although the only things waiting for me there were my television and an ancient calico cat. I'd rather learn more about Gypsies.

"What are the Irish Gypsies called?"

"Travelers." The gaze he turned on my house was oddly wistful. "We do not like to stay in one place very long."

Grace would say that was because they were running from something or perhaps had something to hide. But maybe they just liked to see the world. It wasn't a crime.

The sharp yip-yahoooo of a coyote to the west was answered by several more to the east. We remained silent until the last vestige of sound died away.

"That wasn't a wolf," Cartwright murmured, "but a coyote."

"I've listened to a hundred coyotes sing to these hills. What I heard earlier was nothing I'd ever heard before."

"It could not have been a wolf," he insisted. "Wolves don't tolerate coyotes in their territory. Where you find one, you will not find the other." The coyotes began to yip again, much closer than before. "If there was a wolf anywhere near here, all the coyotes would flee."

"How do you know so much about them?" I repeated.

His smile was lazy, sexy, and when he reached out, I started so badly I banged my elbow on the fence.

But all he did was take my hand and brush his lips across the surface. Then he glanced into my face, his dark eyes even darker this far from the light.

"I know so much about so many things, Mayor Kennedy," he whispered, and put his mouth against me once more.

This time I felt the scrape of his teeth, the pull of his lips, the flick of his tongue, and a bolt of awareness ran the length of my arm, tightening my nipples and causing a tingle in places that hadn't tingled in a very long time.

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