Hidden Moon (Chapter 11)

I dropped the glasses. They shattered at my feet. Oprah, who must have been snoozing in the hall, squalled, then thundered up the stairs. The man opened the glass door and stepped inside.

"Are you all right?" Malachi Cartwright knelt and began to pick up the larger pieces.

"What the hell are you doing here?" I demanded.

He tilted his head, and his hair swung back from his shoulders; his earring glinted sharply in the overhead light. With him kneeling at my feet I felt like Cinderella. Too bad I'd learned the hard way that life was not a fairy tale.

Slowly he rose, just as he'd risen out of the water only hours earlier. Except this time he had on all his clothes. Too bad.

The thought was so out of character for me – the new me, the "after" me – I almost laughed. What was it about this man that made me want him? Could it be that he wasn't going to stay?

My therapist had recommended I have sex with someone I trusted. I didn't trust Cartwright. I didn't even know him. But that also meant he didn't know me. That anonymity, the promise that there'd be nothing more than sex between us, was unbelievably appealing.

"I came to see if you were all right," he said. "You seemed upset."

He didn't know the half of it. I liked that in a man.

He stood so close the heat of his body warmed me; I caught the scent of chill lake water and sunshine. The contrast was so enticing I swayed, my body yearning for the promise of his.

Cartwright stepped back, then glanced around helplessly. "Garbage can?" He lifted hands full of shards.

"Oh! Sorry. Under the sink." I opened the cabinet, pulled out the basket. "The cat gets into it otherwise."

The jangle of broken glass sent me to the closet for a broom. Then I gathered the remaining mess and bent to sweep everything into the dustpan.

Black-clad legs appeared in my line of vision. I glanced up to find Cartwright staring down. I was possessed by the sudden urge to press my cheek against his thigh, turn my face, and mouth him through the thin cotton layer of his pants.

I stood so abruptly the glass rattled in the pan; then I marched across the floor and dumped the refuse in with the rest.

When I turned he was right there, and I jumped back, banging my tailbone against the counter. He took the broom, the dustpan, out of my hands, setting them aside.

"Claire," he murmured. "Don't be afraid."

"I – I'm not."

He leaned forward, nuzzling my neck, his breath brushing my collarbone, making me shiver. His mouth slid upward, caressing my jaw, hovering near my ear. "You are," he whispered.

He touched me nowhere, but he was so close everywhere. I found myself straining forward – wanting, needing, desiring him.

His erection brushed my stomach, just a hint, so minute I wasn't even certain he had in truth touched me. He grazed my jugular with his teeth, and I gasped, the sound pure arousal. I wanted to grab his head, pull it to my breast, let him suckle me as he lifted me onto the countertop and plunged into me again and again until we both came screaming.

Whoa! Where had that come from? Even "before," I'd never been one to get naked anywhere but the bedroom. And screaming? Sex wasn't all that.

"I want you more than I've wanted any woman in… aeons." The word whispered across my skin. "But we'll take it as slow as you wish."

I stilled. "What?"

"Some men are animals. I am not."

I shoved at his chest, and he moved away. Stalking to the floor-length windows, I glanced outside where the citronella tapers still blazed merrily, their light not strong enough to penetrate the thick forest surrounding the deck. "You were in the woods."

"Yes," he said simply.

I spun around. "You were listening?"

He spread his long-fingered hands. "I dinna mean to."

"A gentleman would not eavesdrop."

"There are no gentlemen anymore."

He had that right.

"Get out," I said.

Cartwright started toward me, and my eyes widened.

At first I thought he meant to grab me, shake me. It had happened before. But then I realized he meant to leave, just as I'd asked, but I was standing in his way.

I sidestepped, tripping over my own feet, and he steadied me with gentle hands. "I would never have – " He stopped, took a breath, tried again. "I would never have been so forceful with you earlier if I'd known."

"I'm not made of glass," I muttered.

"But you are. Spun fine in fire. Hard enough to keep out the rain and the wind." His knuckle rapped against the pane. "Fragile enough to shatter if handled poorly."

He reached for the handle, and suddenly I didn't want him to go. When I touched his wrist, his gaze met mine. Desire leaped between us, so strong, so strange.

"Fire is sacred to the Rom," he murmured, and his eyes trailed over my red hair.

"I thought it punished evil."

His lips tilted. "That, too. My ancestors worshipped the fire." He lifted his hand slowly and trailed it down my cheek. "As well as the moon."

I couldn't stop staring into his dark, dark eyes. There were secrets there. But I was so tired of being alone, so tired of being scared, so tired of never wanting anyone, and now I wanted him. I couldn't help it. I pressed my mouth to his.

Warm. Sweet. Soft. He let me take the lead, hanging back, making me follow, allowing me to be the aggressor, and I liked it.

I nibbled at his lips, trailed their seam with my tongue, and he opened to me. I tensed just a little, expecting the usual invasion, but none came.

Patiently he waited, letting me kiss him, barely kissing me until it wasn't enough and I just had to taste.

Behind my closed eyelids, images burst free. Cool spring water running beneath a blazing summer sun. Snowflakes drifting through a silvery sky to land atop a field of purple wildflowers.

I wasn't a woman prone to pretty words or beautiful daydreams, yet kissing this man brought to mind all sorts of odd things.

Fire beneath the moon. A rainstorm hitting the pavement after a scorching August day. Steam rising up, drifting past my face.

I pulled away, staring at him wide-eyed, trembling. For the first time in months I wasn't afraid. The arousal had pushed away every shred of fear.

"I will never touch you unless you ask it of me." I saw his lips moving, but his voice was like the wind swirling through my head. "Perhaps you must even beg."

The thought of telling him what I wanted, of never having to fear his pushing me further than I could handle, was seductive. But –

"You can trust me, Claire."

How did he continue to take the words right out of my mouth? Or maybe out of my head? I made a derisive sound.

"You don't think I'm trustworthy?"

I met his eyes. "I don't know you."

"You could tie me up." He leaned forward and I tensed, but all he did was rub his mouth along my forehead, his lips caressing the sensitive skin at my hairline. "Then I couldn't touch you, unless you set me free."

I shuddered at the image, which was far too appealing. "Maybe later," I managed, and he laughed.

"I must go," Cartwright said, but he didn't. He stood with his back to the sliding glass door as I stood so close his chest nearly touched mine every time he filled his lungs with air.

"You'll only be here a week," I said.

"After your festival, we must head for another. In Pennsylvania." His head tilted. "Why?"

"I may not be able to – " I took a breath, let it out. "In a week."

"You think all I care about is sex?"

My eyebrows lifted. Well, yeah. He certainly couldn't care about me. We'd just met.

"You think I have a woman in every town?"

I winced at the echo of Grace's words. Well, eavesdroppers rarely heard good about themselves.

"You think I share my body with them, and then I go away?" I inched back a few steps. "You don't know much about the Rom. We aren't supposed to consort with gadje except for business."

"What's gadje?"

"Those who are not Rom."

"Sounds like a custom from the fifteenth century."

"An ancient custom, to be sure. But one we try to uphold. The outside world has never been kind to us."

I recalled Mrs. Charlesdown accusing Sabina of stealing when the girl had done nothing at all.

"In the old days, people would leave unwanted children near our camp," he continued. "Then, when we took one, adopted him, made him one of us, we were accused of kidnapping."

"So that's how the Gypsies-steal-children rumor got started."

"Yes," he said. "I do not have a woman in every town. I am not supposed to have a woman at all. Or at least not one who is gadje. I would be declared marime. An outcast."

"But you're the leader."

"That doesn't matter." He stared straight into my eyes, then very deliberately lifted his palm to my cheek. "To touch you is forbidden."

"Then why are you here?"

He looked out the window, toward the wood. "I couldn't stay away."

The idea of him being forbidden to touch me, that touching me could get him exiled, or as exiled as one could get in the twenty-first century, was strangely intriguing.

"Kiss me," I murmured, and his gaze returned to mine.

"You accept my offer then?"

I hesitated. Once I did, I'd be committing to more than a kiss. I knew that, despite what he'd promised. But I wanted to heal, to get past what had happened, to move on, and this was the perfect opportunity.

What if I tried to have sex with someone from Lake Bluff and I… couldn't? I wouldn't be able to stay here, either.

But Cartwright was leaving. And best of all, he couldn't tell anyone that he'd touched me or risk being ostracized himself.

I reached past him and yanked the cord on the drapes so that they slid across the window, obscuring us from the rest of the world.

"Kiss me," I repeated. "Then touch me" – I pointed to the curve of my neck – "right here."

He smiled and did exactly that.