Secret star, p.11
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       Secret Star, p.11

         Part #3 of Stars of Mithra series by Nora Roberts
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  She hummed in her throat, not at all sure she liked being deciphered so easily. “Aren’t you observant….”

  “That’s my job.” He pulled into his driveway, turned to her. “It shouldn’t bother you.”

  “I haven’t decided if it does or not. Did you become a cop because you’re observant, or are you observant because you’re a cop?”

  “Hard to say. I was never really anything else.”

  “Not even when you were young Seth Buchanan?”

  “It was always part of my life. My grandfather was a cop. And my father. My father’s brother. Our house was filled with them.”

  “So it was expected of you?”

  “It was understood,” he corrected. “If I’d wanted to be a plumber or a mechanic, that would have been fine. But it was what I wanted.”

  “Why?”

  “There’s right and there’s wrong.”

  “Just that simple?”

  “It should be.” He looked at the ring on his finger. “My father was a good cop. Straight. Fair. Solid. You can’t ask for more than that.”

  She laid a hand over his. “You lost him.”

  “Line of duty. A long time ago.” The hurt had passed a long time before, as well, and left room for pride. “He was a good cop, a good father, a good man. He always said there was a choice between doing the right thing or the wrong thing. Either one had a price. But you could pay up on the first and still look yourself in the eye every morning.”

  Grace leaned over, kissed him lightly. “He did the right thing by you.”

  “Always. My mother was a cop’s wife, steady as a rock. Now she’s a cop’s mother, and she’s still steady. Still there. When I got my gold shield, it meant as much to her as it did to me.”

  There was a bond, she realized. Deep and true and unquestioned. “But she worries about you.”

  “Some. But she accepts it. Has to,” he added, with the ghost of a smile. “I’ve got a younger brother and sister. We’re all cops.”

  “It runs through the blood,” she murmured. “Are you close?”

  “We’re family,” he said simply, then thought of hers and remembered that such things weren’t simple. They were precious. “Yes, we’re close.”

  He was the oldest, she mused. He would have taken his generational placement seriously, and, when his father died, his responsibilities as man of the house with equal weight.

  It was hardly a wonder, then, that authority, responsibility, duty, sat so naturally on him. She thought of the weapon he wore, touched a fingertip to the leather strap.

  “Have you ever…” She lifted her gaze to his. “Have you ever had to?”

  “Yes. But I can still look myself in the eye in the morning.”

  She accepted that without question. But the next subject was more difficult. “You have a scar, just here.” Her memory of it was perfect as she touched her finger just under his right shoulder now. “You were shot?”

  “Five years ago. One of those things.” There was no point in relaying the details. The bust gone wrong, the shouts and the electric buzz of terror. The insult of the bullet and the bright, stupefying pain. “Most police work is routine—paperwork, tedium, repetition.”

  “But not all.”

  “No, not all.” He wanted to see her smile again, wanted to prolong what had evolved into a sweet and intimate interlude in a darkened car. Just conversation, without the sizzle of sex. “You’ve got a tattoo on your incredibly perfect bottom.”

  She laughed then, and tossed her hair back. “I didn’t think you’d noticed.”

  “I noticed. Why do you have a tattoo of a winged horse on your butt, Grace?”

  “It was an impulse, one of those wild-girl things I dragged M.J. and Bailey into.”

  “They have winged horses on their—”

  “No, and what they do have is their little secret. I wanted the winged horse because it was free. You couldn’t catch it unless it wanted to be caught.” She lifted a hand to his face, changed the mood subtly. “I never wanted to be caught. Before.”

  He nearly believed her. Lowering his head, he met her lips with his, let the kiss spin out. It was quiet, without urgency. The slow meeting of tongues, the lazy change of angles and depths. Easy sips. Testing nibbles.

  Her body shifted fluidly, her hands sliding up his chest to link at the nape of his neck. A purr sounded in her throat. “It’s been a long time since I necked in the front seat of a car.”

  He nudged her hair aside so that his mouth could find that sweet, sensitive curve between neck and shoulder. “Want to try the back seat?”

  Her laugh was low and delighted. “Absolutely.”

  The need had snuck up on him, crept into his bloodstream to stagger his heart. “We’ll go inside.”

  Her breath was a bit unsteady as she leaned back, grinned at him in the shimmer of moonlight. “Chicken.”

  His eyes narrowed fractionally, making her grin widen. “There’s a perfectly good bed in the house.”

  She made a soft clucking noise, then, chuckling, rubbed her lips over his. “Let’s pretend,” she whispered, pressing her body to his, sliding it against his. “We’re on a dark, deserted road and you’ve told me the car’s broken down.”

  He said her name, an exasperated sound against her tempting lips. It was only another challenge to her.

  “I pretend I believe you, because I want to stay, I want you to…persuade me. You’ll say you just want to touch me, and I’ll pretend I believe that, too.” She took his hand, laid it on her breast and felt the quick thrill when his fingers flexed. “Even though I know that’s not all you want. It’s not all you want, is it, Seth?”

  What he wanted was that dark, slippery slide into her. His hands moved under her shirt, found flesh. “We’re not going to make it into the back seat,” he warned her.

  She only laughed.

  He wasn’t sure if he felt smug or stunned by his own behavior when he finally unlocked his front door. Had he been this randy as a teenager? he wondered. That ridiculously reckless. Or was it only Grace who made such things as making desperate love in his own driveway one more adventure?

  She stepped inside, lifted the hair off her neck, then let it fall in a gesture that simply stopped his heart. “My place should be ready by tomorrow, the next day at the latest. We’ll have to go there. We can skinny-dip in my pool. It’s so hot out now.”

  “You’re so beautiful.”

  She turned, surprised at the mix of resentment and desire in his voice. He stood just inside the door, as if he might turn at any moment and leave her.

  “It’s a dangerous weapon. Lethal.”

  She tried to smile. “Arrest me.”

  “You don’t like to be told.” He let out a half laugh. “You don’t like to be told you’re beautiful.”

  “I didn’t do anything to earn how I look.”

  She said it, he realized, as if beauty were more of a curse than a gift. And in that moment he felt a new level of understanding. He stepped forward, took her face gently in his hands, looked deep and long.

  “Well, maybe your eyes are a little too close together.”

  Her hitch of laughter was pure surprise. “They are not.”

  “And your mouth, I think it might be just a hair off center. Let me check.” He measured it with his own, lingering over the kiss when her lips curved. “Yeah. Just a hair, but it does throw things off, now that I really look. And let’s see…” He turned her head to each side, paused to consider. “Yep. The left profile’s weak. Are you getting a double chin there?”

  She slapped his hand away, torn between insult and laughter. “I certainly am not.”

  “I really should check that, too. I don’t know if I want to take this whole thing any further if you’re getting a double chin.”

  He grabbed her, tugging her head back gently by the hair so that he could nibble freely under her jaw. She giggled—a young, foolish sound—and squirmed. “Stop that, you idiot.” She let out a sh
riek when he hauled her up into his arms.

  “You’re no lightweight, either, by the way.”

  Her eyes went to slits. “Okay, buster, that’s all. I’m leaving.”

  It was a delight to watch him grin—that quick, boyish flash of humor. “I forgot to tell you,” he said as he headed for the stairs. “My car’s broken down. I’m out of gas. The cat ate my homework. I’m just going to touch you.”

  He’d made it up two steps when the phone rang. “Damn.” He brushed his lips absently over her brow. “I have to get that.”

  “It’s all right. I’ll remember where you were.” Though he set her down, she didn’t think her feet hit the floor. Love was a cushy buffer.

  But her smile faded as she saw his eyes change. Suddenly they were flat again, unreadable. She knew as she walked across the room toward him that he’d shifted seamlessly from man to cop.

  “Where?” His voice was cool again, controlled. “Is the scene secured?” He swore lightly, barely a whisper under the breath. “Get it secured. I’m on my way.” As he hung up, his eyes skimmed over her, focused. “I’m sorry, Grace, I have to go.”

  She moistened her lips. “Is it bad?”

  “I have to go,” was all he’d say. “I’ll call for a black-and-white to take you back to Cade’s.”

  “Can’t I wait here for you?”

  “I don’t know how long I’ll be.”

  “It doesn’t matter.” She offered a hand, but wasn’t sure she could reach him. “I’d like to wait. I want to wait for you.”

  No woman ever had. That thought passed quickly through his mind, distracting him. “If you get tired of waiting, call the precinct. I’ll leave word there for a uniform to drive you home if you call in.”

  “All right.” But she wouldn’t call in. She would wait. “Seth.” She moved into him, brushed her lips against his. “I’ll see you when you get back.”

  Chapter 9

  Alone, Grace switched on the television, settled on the sofa. Five minutes later, she was up and wandering the house.

  He didn’t go in for knickknacks, she mused. Probably thought of them as dustcatchers. No plants, no pets. The living room furniture was simple, masculine, and good quality. The sofa was comfortable, of generous size and a deep hunter green. She would have spruced it up with pillows. Burgundy, navy, copper. The coffee table was a square of heavy oak, highly polished and dust-free.

  She decided he had a weekly housekeeper. She just couldn’t picture Seth wielding a polishing rag. There was a bookcase under the side window and, crouching she scanned the titles. It pleased her that they had read many of the same books. There was even a gardening book she’d studied herself.

  That she could see, she decided. Yes, she could see Seth working out in the yard, turning the earth, planting something that would last.

  There was art in this room, as well. She moved closer, certain the watercolor portraits grouped on the wall were the work of the same artist who had done the cityscape and rural scene in his bedroom. She searched for the signature first, and found Marilyn Buchanan looped in the lower corner.

  Sister, mother, cousin? she wondered. Someone he loved, and who loved him. She shifted her gaze and studied the first painting.

  Seth’s father, Grace realized with a jolt. It had to be. The resemblance was there, in the eyes, clear, intense, tawny. The jaw, squared off, almost chiseled. The artist had seen strength, a touch of sadness, and honor. A whisper of humor around the mouth and an innate pride in the set of the head. All were evident in the three-quarter profile view that had the subject staring off at something only he could see.

  The next portrait was a woman, perhaps in her forties. It was a pretty face, but the artist hadn’t hidden the faint and telltale lines of age, the touches of gray in the dark, curling hair. The hazel eyes looked straight ahead, with humor and with patience. And there was Seth’s mouth, Grace thought, smiling easily.

  His mother, she concluded. How much strength was contained inside those quiet gray eyes? Grace wondered. How much was required to stand and accept when everyone you loved faced danger daily?

  Whatever the amount, this woman possessed it.

  There was another man, young, twenty-something, with a cocky grin and daredevil eyes shades darker than Seth’s. Attractive, sexy, with a dark shock of hair falling carelessly over his brow. His brother, certainly.

  The last was of a young woman with a shoulder-length sweep of dark hair, the tawny eyes alert, the sculpted mouth just curved in the beginnings of a smile. Lovely, with more of Seth’s seriousness about her than the young man. His sister.

  She wondered if she would ever meet them, or if she would know them only through their portraits. Seth would take the woman he loved to them, she thought, and let the little slice of hurt pass through her. He would want to—need to—bring her into his mother’s home, watch how she melded and mixed with his family.

  It was a door he’d have to open on both sides in welcome. Not just because it was traditional, she realized, but because it would matter to him.

  But a lover? No, she decided. It wasn’t necessary to share a lover with family. He’d never take a woman with whom he shared only sex home to meet his mother.

  Grace closed her eyes a moment. Stop feeling sorry for yourself, she ordered briskly. You can’t have everything you want or need, so you make the best of what there is.

  She opened her eyes again, once more scanned the portraits. Good faces, she thought. A good family.

  But where, Grace wondered, was Seth’s portrait? There had to be one. What had the artist seen? Had she painted him with that cool cop’s stare, that surprisingly beautiful smile, the all-too-rare flash of that grin?

  Determined to find out, she left the television blaring and went on the hunt. In the next twenty minutes, she discovered that Seth lived tidily, kept a phone and notepad in every room, used the second bedroom as a combination guest room and office, had turned the tiny third bedroom into a minigym and liked deep colors and comfortable chairs.

  She found more watercolors, but no portrait of the man.

  She circled the guest room, curious that here, and only here, he’d indulged in some whimsy. Recessed shelves held a collection of figures, some carved in wood, others in stone. Dragons, griffins, sorcerers, unicorns, centaurs. And a single winged horse of alabaster caught soaring in midflight.

  Here the paintings reflected the magical—a misty landscape where a turreted castle rose silver into a pale rose-colored sky, a shadow-dappled lake where a single white deer drank.

  There were books on Arthur, on Irish legends, the gods of Olympus, and those who had ruled Rome. And there, on the small cherrywood desk, was a globe of blue crystal and a book on Mithra, the god of light.

  It made her tremble, clutch her arms. Had he picked up the book because of the case? Or had it already been here? She touched a hand to the slim volume and was certain it was the latter.

  One more link between them, she realized, forged before they’d even met. It was so easy for her to accept that, even to be grateful. But she wondered if he felt the same.

  She went downstairs, oddly at home after her self-guided tour. It made her smile to see their coffee cups from that morning still in the sink, a little touch of intimacy. She found a bottle of wine in the refrigerator, poured herself a glass and took it with her into the living room.

  She went back to the bookcase, thinking of curling up on the couch with the TV for company and a book to pass the time. Then a chill washed over her, so quick, so intense, the wine shook in her hand. She found herself staring out the window, her breath coming short, her other hand clutched on the edge of the bookcase.

  Someone watching. It pounded in her brain, a frightened, whispering voice that might have been her own.

  Someone watching.

  But she saw nothing but the dark, the shimmer of moonlight, the quiet house across the street.

  Stop it, she ordered herself. There’s no one there. There’s nothin
g there. But she straightened and quickly twitched the curtains closed. Her hands were shaking.

  She sipped wine, tried to laugh at herself. The late-breaking bulletin on the television had her turning slowly. A family of four in nearby Bethesda. Murdered.

  She knew where Seth had gone now. And could only imagine what he was dealing with.

  She was alone. DeVane sat in his treasure room, stroking an ivory statue of the goddess Venus. He’d come to think of it as Grace. As his obsession festered and grew, he imagined Grace and himself together, immortal through time. She would be his most prized possession. His goddess. And the Three Stars would complete his collection of the priceless.

  Of course, she would have to be punished first. He knew what had to be done, what would matter most to her. And the other two women were not blameless—they had complicated his plans, caused him to fail. They would have to die, of course.

  After he had the Stars, after he had Grace, they would die. And their deaths would be her punishment.

  Now she was alone. It would be so easy to take her now. To bring her here. She’d be afraid, at first. He wanted her to be afraid. It was part of her punishment. Eventually he would woo her, win her. Own her. They would have, after all, several lifetimes to be together.

  In one of them he would take her back to Terresa. He would make her a queen. A god could settle for no less than a queen.

  Take her tonight. The voice that spoke louder and louder in his head every day taunted him. He couldn’t trust it. DeVane steadied his breathing, shut his eyes. He would not be rushed. Every detail had to be in place.

  Grace would come to him when he was prepared. And she would bring him the Stars.

  Seth downed one last cup of sludgy coffee and rubbed at the ache at the back of his neck. His stomach was still raw from what he’d seen in that neat suburban home. He knew civilians and rookie cops believed the vets became immune to the results of violent death—the sights, the smells, the meaningless waste.

  It was a lie.

  No one could become used to seeing what he’d seen. If they could, they shouldn’t wear a badge. The law needed to retain its sense of disgust, of horror, for murder.

  What drove a man to take the lives of his own children, of the woman he’d made them with, and then his own? There’d been no one left in that neat suburban home to answer that question. He knew it would haunt him.

  Seth scrubbed his hands over his face, felt the knots of tension and fatigue. He rolled his shoulders once, twice, then squared them before cutting through the bull pen, toward the locker room.

  Mick Marshall was there, rubbing his sore feet. His wiry red hair stood up like a bush that needed trimming from a face lined with weariness. His eyes were shadowed, his mouth was grim.

  “Lieutenant.” He pulled his socks back on.

  “You didn’t have to come in on this, Detective.”

  “Hell, I heard the gunshots from my own living room.” He picked up one of his shoes, but just rested his elbows on his knees. “Two blocks over. Jesus, my kids played with those kids. How the hell am I going to explain this?”

  “How well did you know the father?”

  “Didn’t, really. It’s just like they always say, Lieutenant. He was a quiet guy, polite, kept to himself.” He gave a short, humorless laugh. “They always do.”

  “Mulrooney’s taking the case. You can assist if you want. Now go home, get some sleep. Go in and kiss your kids.”

  “Yeah.” Mick scraped his fingers through his hair. “Listen, Lieutenant, I got some data on that DeVane guy.”

  Seth’s spine tingled. “Anything interesting?”

  “Depends on what floats your boat. He’s fifty-two, never married, inherited a big fat pile from his old man, including this big vineyard on that island, that Terresa. Grows olives, too, runs some cattle.”

  “The gentleman farmer?”

 
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