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Hidden Moon (Chapter 7)

I spent the rest of my day in the office (a lot of signatures), meeting with constituents (a lot of placating), taking and making phone calls (a lot of headaches).

Joyce was in and out so often, I lost track of whether she was in or out. I wondered where she went when she went, but never got a chance to ask her.

I never got a chance to break for lunch, either. So when Grace showed up around suppertime, I welcomed her with a sigh of relief – until she spoke.

"I hear you and Malachi, call me Mal, Cartwright were chatting it up on Center Street this morning."

I dropped my pen. "Who've you been talking to?"

She lifted a brow. "Who do you think?"

"Balthazar." I hadn't noticed him hanging around earlier, but the newspaper office had a lovely view of the entire main drag.

Grace took a seat. "He's a bastard, no doubt about it. Heard you had a conversation with both of them outside your house last night, too."

"Sheesh, is nothing private around here?"

Grace laughed. "You're kidding, right?"

I hadn't been, but I knew what she meant. Small towns thrived on gossip – a blessing because it was hard for people to get away with anything, a curse if you were the one trying to.

"Did you come over to give me a hard time?" I asked. "Because you'll need to get in line."

"Rough day?"

"No more than any other." I shoved a loose pin into my hair, hissing as it scratched my skull.

"I've been meaning to ask you, why did you take the job anyway?"

"Seemed like the thing to do at the time."

"Not the best reason for a life-changing decision."

"I know."

"You don't have to stay," she said.

She was right, but where would I go? Back to Atlanta?

I suppressed a shudder. Never.

"Balthazar would be happy to take over for you," Grace continued.

"Not in this lifetime."

The jerk had aroused my competitive nature. I hadn't wanted the job when I'd taken it, had been trying to avoid becoming the mayor all of my life. But now I suddenly didn't want him to have it, even if it meant I was stuck here. Somehow being stuck here didn't seem so bad anymore.

"That's what I like to hear in a mayor." Grace slapped her palms against the knees of her tan slacks and stood. "Now, we need to take a ride to the lake."

"What did they do now?" I asked, even as my heart lurched in completely inappropriate anticipation.

"I didn't say we were going to talk to the Gypsies. You just jumped to that hopeful conclusion."

"Then what are we going there for? And why do I have to tag along?"

"A tourist was hiking the lake trail at dusk last night and ran into a wolf."

"That's impossible," I said, even as I heard again the long, low howl streaming toward the moon.

"I know that, and you know that, but tell the guy from Topeka. He doesn't believe me. Can't say I blame him, considering the mess that was made of his throat."

I pushed back from my desk so fast my rolling chair kept rolling and slammed into the wall. "He was attacked?"

"Wolf." She held up one finger. "Tourist." She held up another, then smacked them together. "Not a good combo."

"Where is he?"

"In the hospital. Where do you think? He's been stitched and bandaged and given antibiotics, but we're going to have to find that wolf or he'll need rabies shots, too."

"How are we going to find a wolf in the Blue Ridge Mountains? They aren't exactly contained."

The range began as a narrow strip in Pennsylvania and extended all the way through Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas to Georgia. Though only a few miles across in their northern region, once the Blue Ridge hit our state they widened to sixty miles in certain areas.

"The tourist wasn't a complete moron. He had a gun. Said he shot the thing. I should be able to track it without too much trouble."

I had no doubt she would. Grace had learned that skill before she entered kindergarten; she'd only gotten better since then.

"I still don't understand why you need me." Not that I'd let her go without me, but I was curious.

"We neglected to read past the first page of our contract with the Gypsies. The second page gives them temporary ownership of the lake while they're here."

My eyes narrowed. "Joyce!" I bellowed.

"Save your breath. She left."

The woman was never around when I needed her. I was going to have to find out why.

"What the hell does temporary ownership mean?"

"They have the rights of owners during the duration of their performances. In other words, we'd be trespassing if we went searching for the wolf. I don't have the time or the inclination to screw with a warrant. And they made a particular point that they wanted outsiders nowhere near 'their land'" – she made quotation marks in the air with her forefingers – "until opening night."

"Fishy," I observed.

"Damn straight."

"Still don't understand why you need me."

"Cartwright seems to have a thing for you."

"You want me to ask him for permission to search?"

She shrugged. "That or distract him while I do it anyway."

I stared at her for several seconds. "It's good to have a plan."

"I heard something funny last night," I admitted as Grace drove an unmarked squad car toward the lake.

"Funny ha-ha or funny weird?"

"Definitely not ha-ha," I muttered. "A howl. And it wasn't a coyote, at least not the first one. Later there were coyotes."

"Is any of this supposed to make sense?"

Quickly I told her what had happened the previous night; I didn't leave anything out except the sudden and overwhelming attraction I'd felt for Cartwright. It wasn't relevant.

"Could have been a dog," she murmured. "Hell, our wolf attack is most likely a dog."

"Because?"

"Putting aside that there hasn't been a wolf in these mountains forever, there isn't a documented case of a wolf attacking a human unless the animal was starving, rabid, or a wolf-dog hybrid."

"Have you been reading the Trivial Pursuit cards again?"

"Why bother when you're not here to beat?"

"I'm here now."

"You won't stay."

I frowned. "Why do you keep saying that?"

"You weren't meant to live in Lake Bluff, Claire. You were meant to live on Fifth Avenue."

I glanced out the window, where the sun was falling down behind the mountains, shooting tendrils of red, orange, and pink across the Great Blue Hills of God.

"I never liked Fifth Avenue," I said.

"Never?"

"Well, maybe the first time. I did find some really great shoes."

"Shoes," Grace snorted. "You're such a girl."

"You say that like it's a bad thing."

"Can be," she said slowly, staring at me with a combination of sympathy and understanding that made me wonder if she'd learned mind reading from her great-grandmother.

I turned away, mentally rolling my eyes at the thought. Mind reading was as impossible as fortune-telling and happy endings.

Seconds later we slid to a stop near the caravans and got out of the car. The wagons seemed as empty as the land surrounding them. The bonfires were banked, indicating an eventual return. But right now there didn't appear to be a living soul anywhere in the vicinity.

"Stay here in case someone comes back," Grace said, already moving toward the trees.

"What if they do?"

"Stall them. I won't be long."

Before I could argue, she stepped between two pine trees and disappeared into the steadily descending dusk.

I wasn't there two minutes when I began to get squirrelly. Where had all the people gone? When would they return? What would they think if they found me here? What would they do?

To distract myself I began to walk around the camp, studying the wagons. Mostly tableaux of the moon, the stars, and fire, they were works of art in both carving and painting.

I reached the last wagon in the circle. Beyond that the animal cages faced away from the living quarters, perhaps so their occupants could enjoy the view of a forest they would never be allowed to roam.

While I'd strolled, the sun had gone down, spreading spidery tendrils of shadow across the land. However, enough light remained on the western horizon so that the clearing wasn't completely dark, but it would be soon.

I headed toward the nearest animal wagon, both excited to discover what lay inside and a bit scared for the same reason.

"Lions and tigers and bears, oh my." They wouldn't really be transporting any of those, would they? Tingling in anticipation, I rounded the corner. The wagon was empty.

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