I CAME HOME to escape one hell and stepped straight into another. I guess I deserved it. I had walked out at eighteen and never looked back.
The Cherokee call the mountains where I was born Sah-ka-na-ga, or the Great Blue Hills of God. I'd always thought the phrase an exaggeration; now I wasn't so sure. In my present state of mind, the Blue Ridge Mountains did seem a little bit like heaven.
"But then, a lake of fire looks good compared to this," I muttered, scowling at the mess that nearly obscured the top of my desk.
"Have you ever seen a lake of fire? It isn't pretty."
To my surprise, Grace McDaniel stood in the doorway.
We'd been best friends in high school. Then I'd gone to college and taken a job at a television station in the big, bad city of Atlanta, while she'd stayed behind.
Grace was now the sheriff in Lake Bluff, and I was the mayor. Talk about the sins of the fathers ... .
Phones rang in the outer office. My assistant had informed me I had three people waiting, before she'd taken off to God knows where to do Lord knows what.
Everyone said Joyce Flaherty had been the assistant to the mayor since there'd been a mayor in Lake Bluff, Georgia. Considering the town had been settled by the Scotch-Irish well before the Revolution, that would make Joyce downright supernatural. If the statement had been true.
In reality, Joyce had been my father's right hand during the thirty-plus years he'd been in charge here and now she was mine. The woman had an annoying habit of doing my job, then telling me about it later. But she knew the job so much better than I did.
"Problem?" I asked.
Grace didn't often show up at my office; she called, left a message, sent a report. We'd been friends, but now ... Well, Grace seemed a little pissed at me, and I wasn't sure why.
"You might say that," she murmured in a slow, smooth southern accent. I hadn't realized how much I'd missed the cadence--one I'd trained out of my own voice years ago--until I'd come home.
Grace glanced over her shoulder, then stepped into my office and shut the door. I waved at an empty seat, but she shook her head and began to pace, her nervous energy crackling in the small, enclosed space.
Grace was the least likely small-town cop you'd ever come across. Tall and strong, like the Scottish ancestors we both shared, she also possessed the high cheekbones and stick-straight ink black hair of the Cherokee who'd roamed these mountains for centuries before they'd been dragged west during the embarrassment we've all come to know as the Trail of Tears.
The slightly smoky shade of her perfect skin also hinted at the intermingling with a slave or two somewhere on that family tree. A common enough occurrence in these parts, since the Cherokee had once owned African-American slaves, too.
Grace could have been a fashion model, but she was as unaware of her beauty as I was unaware of how to be the mayor. And she loved Lake Bluff more than she loved anything or anyone; she'd never leave it like I had.
Suddenly she stopped pacing and rested her palms on the front of my desk. "You need to come with me."
A thinker and doer, Grace made a decision and then she executed that decision. Sometimes--hell, most times--I wondered why she wasn't the mayor. Except in Lake Bluff, people followed the path of their parents, and if they didn't want to, they got out of town.
"There's a caravan of Gypsies camped at the lake," Grace said.
I blinked. "I'm sorry. I thought you said 'caravan of Gypsies.'"
Her lips curved. "Nothing wrong with your hearing."
The way she said it made me think there was something wrong with other parts of me. There was, but Grace didn't know that. No one did.
"Claire." Grace sighed. "What happened to you in Atlanta? You used to understand sarcasm, give as good as you got. You used to be fun."
"Now I'm the mayor," I muttered.
"There you go." My eyes met hers and she winked. "We'll have you back to yourself in no time."
I'd never be the self I'd been before I'd left, but maybe I could at least stop jumping at shadows now that I was home.
The shrill brrrring of the phone made me start up from my chair, heart pounding.
Grace made an impatient sound. Had she ever been afraid of anything in her life?
"Don't answer it," Grace ordered. I lifted a brow. "You'll only have to deal with some bum-fuck nonsense, and I need you to come with me."
"Bum-fuck nonsense?" God I'd missed her.
Grace shrugged. "You know how it is around here. Jamie's cow got into Harold's corn. Lucy's cat beat up Carol's dog. Some dumb-ass kid got his head stuck between the bars of the jungle gym and screamed bloody murder for an hour."
"That sounds more like your bum-fuck nonsense than mine." I stood, relieved when my phone stopped ringing at last and went to voice mail.
"Fine." Grace opened the door. "Then you won't have to listen to someone whine about their property lines, their taxes, or the unfairness of the city bylaws."
That would be my bum-fuck nonsense all right.
Pausing at Joyce's desk, I scribbled a note, checked my cell phone to make certain it was on, and jerked a thumb toward the rear exit.
We'd almost reached the back door when someone called, "Mayor?" I began to turn, and Grace shoved me between the shoulder blades.
I stumbled in my off-white pumps, the perfect complement to my pale peach summer suit, then nearly fell on my face when the back door burst open, spilling us into the summer sun.
"Ah." Grace cast an amused glance around the parking lot. "Remember when we smoked pot out here in high school?"
"What?" She slid dark sunglasses over her light green eyes.
"Someone might hear you."
"So what if they did? It's not like we got high yesterday. We were sixteen."
"It would leave a bad impression," I said stiffly. "You're supposed to be the law around here."
"You want me to arrest myself for something I did ten years ago? Sorry, but the statute of limitations on that crime is over."
Grace set off, her long, lithe legs eating up the distance more quickly than mine ever could. Not that I was short, just shorter, three inches shy of Grace's five-ten. And I wasn't lithe by any means; I was more ... round. Not fat--at least not yet. But I had to work at it--low-fat yogurt, low-fat dressing, dessert only on very special occasions, like the Second Coming.
Grace reached the squad car and slid behind the wheel. I clambered into the passenger seat, snagging my hose on the door and cursing.
"If you didn't wear the stupid things," Grace muttered, "you wouldn't ruin them. This isn't Atlanta."
I glanced at Grace's tan slacks and equally tan blouse, complete with a stylish Lake Bluff Sheriff's Department patch.
"Don't say it," she warned.
"That someone in an outfit like this has no business giving fashion advice."
"Okay." I faced front. "I won't say it."
Grace gave me a long look over the top of her sunglasses; then she just drove.
I'd returned to Lake Bluff three weeks ago for my father's funeral. He'd only been fifty-five, and while he'd never watched his weight, or his intake of cigarettes andwhiskey, his death had still been a shock. That I'd agreed to remain and fulfill the rest of his term as mayor had been an even bigger shock, yet here I was.
I stared out the window as we left town and headed onto the highway that led to Lunar Lake. The present incarnation of the town had sprouted on a hill a few miles from the lake--hence its name. No matter where you stood in Lake Bluff, the view was incandescent.
The majority of the population--just under five thousand souls--made their living in the shops, restaurants, and small, quaint hostels that lined the main streets. A goodly portion of that living came to us during our yearly Full Moon Festival.
People traveled from miles around to enjoy the weeklong celebration, which culminated on the day and night of August's full moon with a parade, picnic, and fireworks. We were expecting a huge turnout this year, since a rare total lunar eclipse would take place that night.
Each year two to four lunar eclipses occurred, but only during a small percentage of them would the Earth totally cut off the sun's light from the moon.
As far as I knew, the Full Moon Festival had never coincided with such an event. Therefore not only would we be hosting the usual summer tourists, but also stargazers--amateur and professional--would arrive to observe nature's performance. Since many of the scheduled events took place at the lake, I understood Grace's concern about the Gypsies.
We wound down the two-lane highway--paved with asphalt, surrounded by gravel--into the valley where Lunar Lake gleamed.
In between the rich evergreen of the trees, the sun sparked golden shards off the clear surface. On theother side of the valley, the mountains rose toward a sky the same shade as the lake.
"So"--I turned away from the sight--"do you get a lot of Gypsy caravans through here these days?"
Grace pulled onto the hard-packed dirt trail that led to the lake. "Not a one."
"Are there any Gypsies left?"
"I think they went extinct about the same time as the Indians."
"More sarcasm," I said. "Goody."
Her lips twitched, but she didn't crack a smile. She so rarely did. "Gypsies are everywhere, Claire. Most people just don't notice them."
We came around the curve in the road, and Grace slammed on the brakes. For an instant I thought we'd traveled back in time--Romania in the 1700s perhaps?
I don't know what I'd expected to find. Tents? Hippie throwbacks? A homeless convention? I had definitely not expected to see a jumble of horse-drawn wagons and a crowd of brightly dressed ... Gypsies.
"Well, you said there were still Gypsies," I murmured.
Grace glared at me, or at least I thought she glared. I couldn't see her eyes past the tough-cop sunglasses.
As soon as we'd come into view, everyone stilled. When Grace and I climbed out of the squad car, they stared at us as keenly as we stared at them.
They appeared as if they'd escaped from the Disney version of Hunchback of Notre Dame. The men wore black pants and colorful blousy shirts; the women, long rainbow-hued skirts and white peasant-style blouses with scarves covering their heads. Gold bracelets, beaded chains, and hoop earrings sparkled everywhere.
Several wagons were fitted with bars, and animals paced inside, though the conveyances were too far away, the forest too thick and shadowed, to determine any species. The horses that drew the wagons were huge--Clydesdales maybe, though they didn't resemble the Budweiser crew, except in size. These were dappled gray instead of brown and upon closer inspection possessed broader chests and stockier rumps.
"Lake Bluff Sheriff's Department." Grace removed her sunglasses, hooking the earpiece in her shirt before striding forward with her hand on the butt of her gun.
Those nearest to her shrank back. The babble of another language rose from the ones behind them.
"Bull in a china shop," I muttered. I might have changed, but she hadn't.
Putting on my best CNN anchor smile, I moved up beside her. "I'm Claire Kennedy, mayor of Lake Bluff. Can I ask what you're doing here?"
The babbling slowed to a trickle, although everyone continued to stare. A few actually made the sign of the cross, or near enough. If I didn't know better, I'd think they were afraid of me. Or maybe they were just afraid of Grace.
"Take your hand off your gun," I whispered.
"You're scaring them."
"Scared of the sheriff is a healthy thing to be."
I pressed my lips together. At my change in expression the indecipherable babble started up again. I raised my voice. "Is there anyone in charge?"
"Someone who speaks English?" Grace added.
"That would be me."
A ripple began near the back--sound, movement,an aura of deference as they bowed their heads. The crowd parted and a man appeared.
"Holy shit," Grace murmured.
I choked, not just at her words but also at the sight of him. "Holy shit" about summed it up.
He wore the black pants common to the other men and shiny knee-high black boots, but his chest was bare and shimmering with sweat or lake water, hard to tell without a taste.
I blinked at the thought, a type I hadn't had for a very long time.
Smooth, bronzed skin flowed over lean muscles and a ridged abdomen. A breeze blew in from the mountains and he tensed, biceps flexing, at the sudden chill in the air.
But it wasn't just his body that left me speechless. With eyes like blood beneath the moon and a face that was all sharp edges at the cheeks, chin, and nose, how could I be faulted for staring?
Someone handed him a towel, and he rubbed the cloth over his chest, the movement both efficient and suggestive. My stomach skittered, and I had to force myself not to look away from his suddenly amused gaze and follow the path of his hands.
He lifted the towel to his slightly curling ebony hair, just long enough to brush the spike of his collarbone. When he scrubbed at it, droplets flew, and the strands played peekaboo with the silver cross dangling from his left ear.
He threw the cloth behind him as if expecting someone to catch it, which they did, before handing him an impossibly white shirt. While he drew it over his head, I glanced at Grace, who rolled her eyes.
"Sheriff," he greeted, with an accent so Irish I smelledclover. "Mayor Kennedy. I'm Malachi Cartwright." He bent slightly at the waist. "Call me Mal."
"No need to get chummy," Grace said. "You won't be staying."
Cartwright's eyebrows lifted, along with one corner of his mouth. "Won't we now?" he murmured.
Copyright © 2007 by Lori Handeland.