Hidden Moon (Chapter 8)
Now a lot of things can splash in the water. Fish jump. Turtles flop. In certain areas, alligators wind their way through the deep. But not here. In the winter these mountains saw snow. Not a lot, but enough to keep the alligators away.
Sadly, the volume of that splash had sounded more alligator than fish or turtle. I glanced again at the empty cages. Were the Gypsies out chasing escaped wild animals? Would Grace run into more than a wolf?
I suddenly wished I'd asked for a radio and, while I was at it, a gun.
Drawn toward the water, I moved past the living quarters until I stood at the top of the sandy incline that led to the lake.
The moon hadn't risen, or if it had, the silvery glow wasn't visible past the towering trees. The surface of the lake resembled an unbroken sheet of black glass.
Then a ripple began near the center; tiny circles spread wider and wider as it rolled toward the shore.
Panic gripped my throat. I fought the urge to run back to the car and drive away.
"Stop it," I muttered. There was nothing in a lake that could hurt me.
Unless we had a lake monster.
The thought should have made me laugh. Most reports of such things were merely sightings of muskellunge or bass large enough to have been birthed in radioactive waste.
However, standing out here, alone in the night where I didn't belong, I understood how people could believe in monsters.
Whatever had caused the swell broke the surface. At least six feet long, it streamed toward the sand in a smooth flowing motion, like a dolphin wiggling and wagging its seemingly spineless body beneath a late-summer sky.
The monster reached the shallows and rose, emerging inch by inch, until it became a man. Water flowed over broad shoulders, trailed down a smooth chest, twirling past a ridged belly, then trickling lower.
Malachi Cartwright lifted his hands and slicked his hair out of his eyes, the movement causing his biceps to flex, his abs to harden.
I couldn't speak, couldn't move, could only stare. It had been a long time since I'd seen a naked man, and I'd never seen one like this.
He tilted his face upward, breathing in deeply as if trying to draw the very essence of the night within.
I perched at the top of the incline; with no moon, no stars, no streetlights, I remained shrouded in shadow. Frozen, fascinated, I hovered.
The moon burst over the trees, cascading across the water like the sun. When it hit him he sighed like he'd found an oasis in the middle of the desert.
The silvery glow sparkled on the droplets of moisture still running down his skin, making them resemble the melting wax of a pure white candle.
I don't know how long we stood there, him bathing in the light, me watching him do it, but eventually he lowered his head, then began to slog through the knee-deep water toward the shore, and he saw me. Now that the moon was up, the entire clearing was awash with silver.
I could do nothing but stare into his dark, endless eyes as he crossed the sand, climbed the incline, and kissed me.
I shouldn't have been surprised. What did I expect when he'd caught me peeping at him while he was… bathing? Swimming? Performing some pagan ritual beneath the moon?
Whatever he'd been doing, I shouldn't have been watching, but once I'd seen him I hadn't been able to stop.
His lips were cool. Moist and sweet, they captured mine. Droplets of water fell from his body, pattering around us, as if we kissed beneath a springtime rain.
He plucked the pins from my hair and filled his hands with the length, his fingers tightening on my scalp as he tilted my head so he could delve more deeply within. My heart skittered a bit at being held captive, but there was also arousal, a sensation so barren in my life, I couldn't pull away, seduced by the possibilities it presented.
His tongue met mine with a force and a boldness that increased both the arousal and the fear. I tamped down on the latter, focused on the former, learning the contours of his mouth with my own.
He nipped my lip, both pleasure and pain, and I gasped, the sound stark against the gentle lap of the waves. His hands moved from my head to my shoulders, before sliding down my back as he crushed me against him.
Water dampened my top, the chill causing my nipples to peak. The lake was fed by an underground spring that ran down the mountain. Even at the height of summer the water was just above icy, which meant most tourists liked to look at the place but not touch. Cartwright obviously had no problem with the temperature of the water, if the erection pressing against me was any indication.
His mouth trailed down my jaw, my collarbone; then his teeth tugged at the neck of my top. One hand slid over my waist, then upward, cupping my breast, a thumb scraping over the nipple before he did some fancy twist, baring me to the night and his tongue.
I panicked, shoving at his chest, kicking at his shins. I couldn't seem to get the word "no" past the alarm closing my throat. Not that "no" had done me any good in the past.
He released me instantly, and I fell, sitting down hard in the sand. Scraped by his beard, my chin burned. My eyes teared, both embarrassment and dread combined. The night brushed my skin, turning the moisture left by his mouth to ice. I glanced down; my breast still hung out, the moonlight causing my pale skin to glow almost translucent.
I yanked my top back in place, then hugged myself tightly and prayed I wouldn't cry.
"I – I'm sorry," I managed, even though my therapist had stressed I had nothing to apologize for in a situation like this.
Cartwright stared toward the lake, and the moon glistened off his body, turning the bronze skin silver. He seemed carved in alabaster, a beautiful pagan god abandoned by the shore. Although I doubted any statue would be carved with an erection of that size.
He didn't make any move to cover himself, but I hadn't seen any clothes nearby, not even a towel. I suppose he'd thought himself alone, protected from trespassers by a contract clause and common decency.
"Why did you come here if not for this?"
I winced at the harsh, angry tone. "I didn't. I – "
"What?" He whirled toward me, and I cringed, hating myself for it but unable to stop.
He froze at my movement, then lowered the hand he'd raised in agitation. "I wouldn't hurt you, Claire."
It was the first time he'd said my name. Too bad I couldn't enjoy the way the word rolled off his tongue. Couldn't sit here and dream about the way his tongue had rolled over mine, because the fear I'd fought for so long was back, and I didn't know how to make it go away.
I got to my feet. I had to get out of here.
"Wait." He took a step forward.
I couldn't help it. I ran blindly, mindlessly, for the cover of the trees. Before I even got close, he caught me, grabbing my arm and spinning me around.
My momentum made me stumble, my palms coming to rest against his chest, so soft, so smooth, so hot. I jerked them back as if scalded.
His fingers tightened, his gaze lowering to my mouth. My breath caught, afraid he'd kiss me again, afraid that he wouldn't.
"Don't," I said.
"Don't what?" he murmured. "Don't kiss you? Or don't even dare to touch you? I suppose you're too high-class to consort with the likes of me. The mayor and the Gypsy horse trainer. Your family would be none too happy about that."
"I don't have any family," I whispered, then wished I hadn't. He could rape me, kill me, then toss me in the lake. There'd be no one to care.
"Get your hands off her, Cartwright."
Except for Grace.
"Hold them up where I can see them. Do it slow."
He complied, lifting his arms until his palms were level with his shoulders. His gaze left mine and shifted past my shoulder. "Shall I reach for the sky, Sheriff?"
I sidestepped, then turned. Grace stood at the edge of the forest, weapon drawn and pointed at Cartwright.
Her eyes remained steady on him yet her mouth pinched with annoyance. "Out of his reach. Now."
The sharp snap of her voice made me take several quick steps in her direction.
"I thought you had more sense," she said.
I had, too. For future reference, when a naked guy climbs out of the lake, I should run, not let him kiss me. Especially when anything beyond a kiss made me dissolve into a quivering, sniveling mess. However, Cartwright couldn't have known that.
"It's not his fault," I blurted.
"What isn't?" Grace asked, keeping her gun right where it was.
"He kissed me and I – "
My eyes met his. He lifted a brow.
"I let him."
"Oh no. Horrors. Then you said, 'Stop,' and he didn't." She lowered her gun. His erection shriveled. "That's unacceptable."
Her gaze flicked to me, then away. "It's acceptable?"
"Claire…" Grace's voice took on a distinct tenor of irritation.
"I mean, I didn't say no. Not exactly. I was – "
Entranced. Seduced. Then terrified.
The latter was common enough, the former something new. I wanted to explore those feelings, but after this fiasco, I doubted I'd get the chance, and that was probably for the best.
As Cartwright had so strangely put it: The mayor and the Gypsy horse trainer – what could ever come of that?
"May I lower my hands?" Cartwright asked.
Grace glanced at me; I nodded. She shrugged and holstered her weapon. "How did you come to lose your clothes, Cartwright?"
"I'd think you'd be callin' me Malachi now that we're so well acquainted." He headed down the incline toward the lake, where he snatched a towel from behind a rock and secured it around his hips with a sharp tug.
Grace didn't comment, waiting for him to answer the original question.
"I came to be without clothes because I was bathing. I didn't expect visitors."
"And the rest of your party?"
He pointed. We followed the long line of his bare aim.
The lake was a puddle of melted black wax – murky, still. On the opposite side, tiny flickers of flame danced with human-shaped shadows. They hadn't been there before.
"What are they doing?" I asked.
"Communing with nature."
"When you say communing…" Grace looked him up and down. "You mean naked?"
He shrugged. "What other way is there?"
"You've got a caravan of naked Gypsies dancing around the communal fire?"
"Is that a problem?"
"Well…" Grace paused. "There are laws about that sort of thing."
"We have little use for laws."
"Oh, really? And why is that?"
Cartwright lifted his face to the sky, staring at the stars that had just begun to twinkle against the cover of night. "In the year 1530, England passed a law that made it illegal to be a Gypsy. The law wasn't repealed until 1784, making our very existence a crime for over two hundred and fifty years."
"You can't not be what you are," I said. "That's like making it illegal for someone to have dark hair."
"The English weren't the only ones," he murmured. "The Nazis declared Gypsies nonhuman and tried to exterminate us along with the Jews. We lost over four hundred thousand in their camps."
I hadn't studied WWII more than marginally, and I didn't remember this tidbit. But I did know that Hitler had ordered more than Jews into the camps. Nuns, priests, those with mental problems, as well as anyone who disagreed with him too strenuously, were rounded up, shoved on a train, and shipped to various outposts in Hell.
"You can see, Sheriff," Cartwright continued, "why we don't trouble ourselves overmuch with laws."
Grace contemplated him with a lot less suspicion and a lot more compassion than before. "You do this dance every night?"
"No. Tomorrow night we'll perform. Tonight we ask the gods for protection and success."
"What gods?" Grace inched closer. She'd always been fascinated with the old ways, and not just those of the Cherokee.
Cartwright's gaze flicked from Grace to me and back again, assessing. "We're Catholics in truth. Every one of us baptized as such."
"I bet the Church just loves it when you worship naked in the night," Grace murmured.
His lips tilted. "I dinna think they know."
I bet not. At least the days when such practices would be punished by a bonfire – of people – were past, although I had no doubt excommunication was still alive and kicking people when they were down.
"This is a ritual of our ancestors, nothing more," he explained. "Some people put flowers on graves, eat turkey at Thanksgiving, or cut down trees like these" – he swept his arm out to indicate the towering spruce – "and drag them into their homes for decoration. We dance beneath Alako – god of the moon, defender of all Gypsies, the one who takes our souls at death."
"And the fire?" I stared at the images of the moon, the stars, and the flames on their wagons. I guessed they were more than just decorations.
"Fire purifies, heals, protects." He glanced across the water. "Fire punishes evil."
Punishing the evil with fire sounded like the Inquisition. Another really fun group on history's hit parade. I liked to imagine them dancing barefoot in Hell along with the Nazis.
Grace fingered her gun again. "You been punishing any evil ones with fire, pal?"
"The Rom are not animals. We leave that to our tormentors. Will you become one of them, Sheriff?"
"No." Grace paused. "I have no problem with nudity, but you can't be running around like this all over the mountain. People will freak."
"There's a reason we asked for the contract we did."
I recalled the bizarre clause that was supposed to keep locals away from the lake until opening night. I'd wondered what the Gypsies were hiding; I hadn't figured it was a pagan moon and fire ritual.
"After tonight, we'll perform," he repeated. "When the full moon comes – " He broke off, frowning for several seconds before he finished. "We will leave."
I had a feeling he'd been about to say something else, but what? We'll sacrifice a chicken. A goat.
I choked and Cartwright's gaze came to rest on me consideringly. I had to look away.
When I did, my eyes caught on the cages, and I remembered what I'd been doing right before he'd emerged from the water. "Did you take your animals across the lake, too?"
"The cages are empty."
He muttered something in Romani, then strode away.
"What do they have in those cages?" Grace whispered.
I shragged. I hadn't seen anything.
Cartwright disappeared around the edge of the nearest wagon just as the call of something big, with teeth, echoed through the night.