Hidden Moon (Chapter 5)

He released me before I could pull away – would I have pulled away? – then sketched a quick bow and strolled back in the direction we'd come. In seconds he'd disappeared around the bend; I continued to stand in the street staring after him like a fool.

You'd think I'd never been kissed before. Of course I hadn't been kissed like this.

I lifted my hand, which glistened in the silvery moonlight – moist from his tongue, a slight scrape from his teeth, a darker mark where he'd pulled the skin into his mouth and sucked. Before I knew what I meant to do I put my own mouth where his had been, my lips moving against my skin, capturing the dampness he'd left behind.

A car went by, the harsh lights washing over me, making me drop my arm and hurry through the gate to the front door. I found my key and let myself in, moving through the front hall and into the kitchen without bothering to turn on a light.

I'd lived in this house all of my life – excluding the four years I'd spent at college and the four years I'd lived in Atlanta. Dad had never changed a thing, leaving it exactly the same as it had been on the day my mother died. If I stayed I was going to have to do something – at least paint, perhaps gut the place.

Tossing my purse onto the counter, I stood in the darkness and thought about dinner in an attempt to keep myself from thinking about Malachi Cartwright. I gave up on both. I wasn't hungry, and I couldn't stop thinking about him.

What kind of man kisses a woman's hand? A gentleman in a historical romance novel.

What kind of gentleman uses his tongue and teeth to arouse during such a kiss? None I'd ever read about.

Perhaps that was because life wasn't a romance novel. I'd learned that the hard way in Atlanta. I couldn't forget it just because I'd returned to Lake Bluff.

Exhausted and deep down horribly lonely, I climbed the steps to my room. I flicked on the light and got an offended meow from the dappled cat that had been sleeping on my pillow.

Oprah – who'd arrived one sunny Christmas morning during my talk-show-host phase – blinked at me in disdain, then shot her back leg up and began to clean her butt.

"Hey, not on my pillow." I crossed the room and yanked the thing out from under her. She tumbled onto the floor and walked away haughtily as if she'd meant to do that.

The two of us shared the house, although sometimes I got the feeling she was only tolerating me until someone better came along, then I'd be out on my ear.

Though I knew I should eat, watch television, read a book, do something other than work and sleep or I'd be falling back into the same pattern that had contributed to the host of bad decisions I'd made in Atlanta, I threw off my clothes and tumbled into bed, not even bothering with pajamas.

I dreamed the moon became a mist and curled in through my window. Smooth and gray, it floated over me, settled upon me, and gave me peace.

In the depths of the night I sighed, felt the mist on my skin, a cool velvet rain bringing with it the scent of the midday sun beating on freshly turned earth and the moon shining across the water at midnight.

I rolled across the sheets and my body came alive. The hand where he'd kissed me throbbed; the ache that had begun at the touch of his mouth intensified. I was alone yet not alone, visited by both the mist and the moon.

I touched myself, drawing my fingertips across my belly, down my thighs, then up to my breasts. The chilly vapor followed, trailing moisture in its wake.

My nipples hardened; I writhed against the bed, wanting, needing, something more. The sensation I'd first experienced only hours ago – his mouth on my hand, his teeth, his lips – came again against my breast.

Glancing down, I watched as the mist took the shape of a man, lips locked to my nipple as he suckled. I could feel the heat of his mouth, the press of his tongue, the sharp, stinging sensation as he marked sensitive flesh with his teeth.

My moan of arousal drew me from the dream. My skin tingled; I could barely stand to have the sheets rub against it. I was perched on the edge of orgasm, so frustrated I wanted to sob. Why couldn't the dream have lasted just a little while longer?

The shade clacked against the window, and I turned my head. I could have sworn I saw mist disappearing over the sill.

Slowly I got out of bed, then walked across the room and glanced outside, expecting to see a light smoky dew shrouding the grass, the trees, the sky. Fog often rolled in over the mountains. But there was nothing.

I'd dreamed the mist, just as I'd dreamed the sex. No kidding.

I didn't sleep very well for the rest of the night – probably because I'd slammed shut the window and the room had become stuffy and uncomfortable even without my clothes. My father had never installed air-conditioning, believing it a vulgar waste of money, but I would have to.

By 6:00 a.m. I stood beneath a tepid shower, hoping the lack of warmth would put an end to the lingering throb of arousal I couldn't seem to shake.

I stepped out of the shower, dried off, then reached for the hair dryer. One glance into the mirror and I dropped the apparatus into the sink at the sight of the hickey on my breast. Then my eyes narrowed; I leaned in close and tsked. "Birthmark."

I'd had the thing since I was born – a small, brownish pink circle on the underside of my left breast, right where the mist that had become a man had suckled me.

"Bizarre," I murmured, and rubbed my thumb over the discoloration. At the first touch my breasts seemed to swell, the nipples tingling. I really needed to get laid; however, considering my recent issues with men, that wasn't going to happen.

Instead of drying my shoulder-length hair, I scraped it into a knot and secured it at the back of my head with pins. The style always made me look like an accountant or maybe a district attorney. But right now I needed to get out of this house where every breath I took reminded me of something that hadn't happened yet seemed so very real.

I grabbed another suit, a matching set of heels, then paused before putting them on. Just because my father had worn a suit every day of his life didn't mean I had to. In fact, it would be better to draw attention to the contrasts between him and me, lest people think they were getting the same mayor in a different package.

I pulled out khakis, a sky blue top, and boring but comfortable flats in the same shade as the pants and put them on.

Oprah squalled from the kitchen, reminding me of the second reason for her name – she never shut up – and I hurried downstairs where she circled an empty food bowl. I dumped dry cat food into it, the ping of the cereal-like Xs a cadence that harked back to high school.

Every morning I'd fed Oprah, grabbed my backpack, and raced out the front door to pick up Grace. Dad always let me drive the car to school, which was located a mile outside of town to accommodate the kids who lived in the nearby mountains.

He had walked to work – come rain or come shine – both to clear his head and to give people a chance to approach him on a more casual basis than an appointment at town hall. I'd tried to follow his lead, but so far no one had come to talk to me on my morning or evening jaunts, except Balthazar.

I filled Oprah's water bowl as I munched on a piece of dry toast. Though it was early yet, I headed for work. I had nothing better to do.

My job was time-consuming. I'd known that when I'd taken it. I'd lived with the mayor all my life, which meant I'd been pretty much on my own. The long hours, the nights my dad hadn't come home until I was asleep, the emergencies that had called him away, seemingly whenever I'd needed him.

As a teen I'd believed that everyone else was more important, that Lake Bluff held a place in his heart I never could, and with a childish resentment, I'd sneered at both the town and the office, refusing to entertain the idea of ever living here or sitting behind the mayor's desk.

The streets of Lake Bluff were a little busier today than yesterday, a trend that would continue for the next week. The drugstore on the corner – an old-fashioned pharmacy where the pharmacist knew everyone's ailments and dealt with the customers directly instead of through an assistant – was open.

In this family business, the pharmacist's wife ran the front register, his children the lunch counter, where people could buy tuna salad and a cherry soda, or hot-fudge sundaes and chocolate malts, made with real malt.

No superstore invasion in Lake Bluff, at least not yet. I hated to think what would happen then. There were far too many guns sprinkled throughout this town for it to be a peaceful transition. Folks in Georgia didn't take kindly to their livelihoods being undercut by anyone, let alone a big-money corporate conglomerate from far away.

I would have walked right past Lake Bluff Drug and Sundry as I did every morning, glancing in the window, waving to Mrs. Charlesdown and whichever one of her six children had drawn the short straw and wound up working the counter that day, except customers began to shoot out the door at an alarming rate.

Even that might not have made me do anything except question the leader of the pack but for the shrill scream that split the growing warmth of the sunny morning.