Secret star, p.12
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       Secret Star, p.12

         Part #3 of Stars of Mithra series by Nora Roberts
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  “Oh, he’s got more going than that. Lots of interests, spread out all over hell and back. Shipping, communications, import-export. Lots of fingers in lots of pies generating lots of dough. He was made ambassador to the U.S. three years ago. Seems to like it here. He bought some nifty place on Foxhall Road, big mansion, likes to entertain. People don’t like to talk about him, though. They get real nervous.”

  “Money and power make some people nervous.”

  “Yeah. I haven’t gotten a lot of information yet. But there was a woman about five years ago. Opera singer. Pretty big deal, if you’re into that sort of thing. Italian lady. Seems like they were pretty tight. Then she disappeared.”

  “Disappeared.” Seth’s waning interest snapped back. “How?”

  “That’s the thing. She just went poof. Italian police can’t figure it. She had a place in Milan, left all her things—clothes, jewelry, the works. She was singing at that opera house there, in the middle of a run, you know? Didn’t show for the evening performance. She went shopping on that afternoon, had a bunch of things sent back to her place. But she never went back.”

  “They figure kidnapping?”

  “They did. But then there was no ransom call, no body, no sign of her in nearly five years. She was…” Mick screwed up his face in thought. “Thirty, supposed to be at the top of her form, and a hell of a looker. She left a big pile of lire in her accounts. It’s still there.”

  “DeVane was questioned.”

  “Yeah. Seems he was on his yacht in the Ionian Sea, soaking up rays and drinking ouzo, when it all went down. A half-dozen guests on board with him. The Italian cop I talked to—big opera fan, by the way—he didn’t think DeVane seemed shocked enough, or upset enough. He smelled something, but couldn’t make anything stick. Still, the guy offered a reward, five million lire, for her safe return. No one ever collected.”

  “I’d say that was fairly interesting. Keep digging.” And, Seth thought, he’d start doing some digging himself.

  “One more thing.” Mick cracked his neck from side to side. “And I thought this was interesting too—the guy’s a collector. He has a little of everything—coins, stamps, jewelry, art, antiques, statuary. He does it all. But he’s also reputed to have a unique and extensive gem collection—rivals the Smithsonian’s.”

  “DeVane likes rocks.”

  “Oh, yeah. And get this. Two years ago, more or less, he paid three mil for an emerald. Big rock, sure, but its price spiked because it was supposed to be a magic rock.” The very idea made Mick’s lips curl. “Merlin was supposed to have, you know, conjured it up for Arthur. Seems to me a guy who’d buy into that would be pretty interested in three big blue rocks and all that god and immortality stuff that goes with them.”

  “I just bet he would.” And wasn’t it odd, Seth mused, that DeVane’s name hadn’t been on Bailey’s list? A collector whose U.S. residence was only miles from Salvini, yet he’d never done business with them?

  No, the lack was too odd to believe.

  “Get me what you’ve got when you go on shift, Mick. I’d like to talk to that Italian cop personally. I appreciate the extra time you put into this.”

  Mick blinked. Seth never failed to thank his men for good work, but it was generally mechanical. There had been genuine warmth this time, on a personal level. “Sure, no sweat. But you know, Lieutenant, even if you can tie this guy to the case, he’ll bounce. Diplomatic immunity. We can’t touch him.”

  “Let’s tie him first, then we’ll see.” Seth glanced over, distracted, when a locker slammed open nearby as a cop was coming on shift. “Get some sleep,” he began, then broke off. There, taped to the back of the locker, was Grace, young, laughing and naked.

  Her head was tossed back, and that teasing smile, that feminine confidence, that silky power, sparkled in her eyes. Her skin was like polished marble, her curves were generous, with only that rainfall of hair, artfully draped to drive a man insane, covering her.

  Mick turned his head, saw the centerfold and winced. Cade had filled him in on the lieutenant’s relationship with Grace, and all Mick could think was that someone—very likely the cop currently standing at his locker whistling moronically—was about to die.

  “Ah, Lieutenant…” Mick began, with some brave thought of saving his associate’s life.

  Seth merely held up a hand, cut Mick off and walked to the locker. The cop changing his shirt glanced over. “Lieutenant.”

  “Bradley,” Seth said, and continued to study the glossy photo.

  “She’s something else, isn’t she? One of the guys on day shift said she’d been in and looked just as good in person.”

  “Did he?”

  “You bet. I dug this out of a pile of magazines in my garage. None the worse for wear.”

  “Bradley.” Mick whispered the name and buried his head in his hands. The guy was dead meat.

  Seth took a long breath, resisted the urge to rip the photo down. “Female officers share this locker room, Bradley. This is inappropriate.” Where was the tattoo? Seth thought hazily. What had she been when she posed for this? Nineteen, twenty? “Find somewhere else to hang your art.”

  “Yes, sir.”

  Seth turned away, then shot one last look over his shoulder. “And she’s better in person. Much better.”

  “Bradley,” Mick said as Seth strode out, “you just dodged one major bullet.”

  Dawn was breaking when Seth let himself into the house. He’d gone by the book on the case in Bethesda. It would close when the forensic and autopsy reports confirmed what he already knew. A man of thirty-six who made a comfortable living as a computer programmer had gotten up from his sofa, where he was watching television, loaded his revolver and ended four lives in the approximate space of ten minutes.

  For this crime, Seth could offer no justice.

  He could have headed home two hours earlier. But he’d made use of the time difference in Europe to make calls, ask questions, gather data. He was slowly putting together a picture of Gregor DeVane.

  A man of wealth he had never sweated for. One who enjoyed prestige and power, who traveled in exalted circles, and had no family.

  There was no crime in any of that, Seth thought as he closed his front door behind him.

  There was no crime in sending white roses to a beautiful woman.

  Or in once being involved with one who’d disappeared. But wasn’t it interesting that DeVane had been involved with another woman? A French-woman, a prima ballerina of great beauty who’d been considered the finest dancer of the decade. And who had been found dead of a drug overdose in her Paris home.

  The verdict had been suicide, though those closest to her insisted she had never used drugs. She had been fiercely disciplined about her body. DeVane had been questioned in that matter, as well, but only as a matter of form. He had been dining at the White House at the very hour the young dancer slipped into a coma, and then into death.

  Still, Seth and the Italian detective agreed it was quite a fascinating coincidence.

  A collector, Seth mused, switching off lights automatically. An acquirer of beautiful things, and beautiful women. A man who would pay double the value of an emerald to possess a legend, as well.

  He would see how many more threads he could tie, and he would, he decided, have an official chat with the ambassador.

  He stepped into the living room, started to hit the next switch, and saw Grace curled upon the couch.

  He’d assumed she’d gone home. But there she was, curled into a tight, protective ball on his couch, sleeping. What the hell was she doing here? he wondered.

  Waiting for you. Just as she said she would. As no woman had waited before. As he’d wanted no woman to wait.

  Emotion thudded into his chest, flooded into his heart. It undid him, he realized, this irrational love. His heart wasn’t safe here, wasn’t even his own any longer. He wanted it back, wanted desperately to be able to turn away, leave her and go back to his life.

It terrified him that he wouldn’t. Couldn’t.

  She was bound to get bored before too much longer, to lose interest in a relationship he imagined was fueled by impulse and sex on her part. Would she just drift away, he wondered, or end it cleanly? It would be clean, he decided. That would be her way. She wasn’t, as he’d once wanted to believe, callous or cold or calculating. She had a very giving heart, but he thought it was also a restless one.

  Moving over, he crouched in front of her, studied her face. There was a faint line between her brows. She didn’t sleep easily, he realized. What dreams chased her? he asked himself. What worries nagged her?

  Poor little rich girl, he thought. Still running until you’re out of breath and there’s nothing to do but go back to the start.

  He stroked a thumb over her brow to smooth it, then slid his arms under her. “Come on, baby,” he murmured, “time for bed.”

  “No.” She pushed at him, struggled. “Don’t.”

  More nightmares? Concerned, he gathered her close. “It’s Seth. It’s all right. I’ve got you.”

  “Watching me.” She turned her face into his shoulder. “Outside. Everywhere. Watching me.”

  “Shhh… No one’s here.” He carried her toward the steps, realizing now why every light in the house had been blazing. She’d been afraid to be alone in the dark. Yet she’d stayed. “No one’s going to hurt you, Grace. I promise.”

  “Seth.” She surfaced to the sound of his voice, and her heavy eyes opened and focused on his face. “Seth,” she said again. She touched a hand to his cheek, then her lips. “You look so tired.”

  “We can switch. You can carry me.”

  She slid her arms around him, pressed her cheek, warm to his. “I heard, on the news. The family in Bethesda.”

  “You didn’t have to wait.”

  “Seth.” She eased back, met his eyes.

  “I won’t talk about it,” he said flatly. “Don’t ask.”

  “You won’t talk about it because it troubles you to talk about it, or because you won’t share those troubles with me?”

  He set her down beside the bed, turned away and peeled off his shirt. “I’m tired, Grace. I have to be back in a few hours. I need to sleep.”

  “All right.” She rubbed the heel of her hand over her heart, where it hurt the most. “I’ve already had some sleep. I’ll go downstairs and call a cab.”

  He hung his shirt over the back of a chair, sat to take off his shoes. “If that’s what you want.”

  “It’s not what I want, but it seems it’s what you want.” She barely lifted a brow when he heaved his shoe across the room. Then he stared at it as if it had leaped there on its own.

  “I don’t do things like that,” he said between his teeth. “I never do things like that.”

  “Why not? It always makes me feel better.” And because he looked so exhausted, and so baffled by himself, she relented. Walking to him, she stepped in close to where he sat and began to knead the stiff muscles of his shoulders. “You know what you need around here, Lieutenant?” She dipped her head to kiss the top of his. “Besides me, of course. You need to get yourself a bubble tub, something you can sink down into that’ll beat all these knots out of you. But for now we’ll see what I can do about them.”

  Her hands felt like glory, smoothing out the knotted muscles in his shoulders. “Why?”

  “That’s one of your favorite questions, isn’t it? Come on, lie down, let me work on this rock you call a back.”

  “I just need to sleep.”

  “Um-hmm.” Taking charge, she nudged him back, climbed onto the bed to kneel beside him. “Roll over, handsome.”

  “I like this view better.” He managed a half smile, toyed with the ends of her hair. “Why don’t you come here? I’m too tired to fight you off.”

  “I’ll keep that in mind.” She gave him a push. “Roll over, big boy.”

  With a grunt, he rolled over on his stomach, then let out a second grunt when she straddled him and those wonderful hands began to press and stroke and knead.

  “You, being you, would consider a regular massage an indulgence. But that’s where you’re wrong.” She pressed down with the heels of her hands, worked forward to knead with her fingertips. “You give your body relief, it works better for you. I get one every week at the club. Stefan could do wonders for you.”

  “Stefan.” He closed his eyes and tried not to think about another man with his hands all over her. “Figures.”

  “He’s a professional,” she said dryly. “And his wife is a pediatric therapist. She’s wonderful with the children at the hospital.”

  He thought of the children, and that was what weakened him. That, and her soothing hands, her quiet voice. Sunlight filtered, a warm red, through his closed lids, but he could still see.

  “The kids were in bed.”

  Her hands froze for a moment. Then, with a long, quiet breath, she moved them again, up and down his spine, over his shoulder blades, up to the tight length of his neck. And she waited.

  “The youngest girl had a doll—one of those Raggedy Anns. An old one. She was still holding it. There were Disney posters all over the walls. All those fairy tales and happy endings. The way it’s supposed to be when you’re a kid. The older girl had one of those teen magazines beside the bed—the kind ten-year-olds read because they can’t wait to be sixteen. They never woke up. Never knew neither one of them would get to be sixteen.”

  She said nothing. There was nothing that could be said. But, leaning down, she touched her lips to the back of his shoulder and felt him let loose a long, ragged breath.

  “It twists you when it’s kids. I don’t know a cop who can deal with it without having it twist his guts. The mother was on the stairs. Looks like she heard the shots, starting running up to her kids. After, he went back to the living room, sat down on the sofa and finished it.”

  She curled herself into him, hugged herself to his back and just held on. “Try to sleep,” she murmured.

  “Stay. Please.”

  “I will.” She closed her eyes, listened to his breathing deepen. “I’ll stay.”

  But he woke alone. As sleep was clearing, he wondered if he’d dreamed the meeting at dawn. Yet he could smell her—on the air, on his own skin where she’d curled close. He was still stretched crosswise over the bed, and he tilted his wrist to check the watch he’d neglected to take off.

  Whatever else was going on inside him, his internal clock was still in working order.

  He gave himself an extra two minutes under the shower to beat back fatigue, and when shaving promised himself to do nothing more than vegetate on his next personal day. He pretended it wasn’t going to be another hot, humid, hazy day while he knotted his tie.

  Then he swore, scooped fingers though his just-combed hair, remembering he’d neglected to set the timer on his coffeemaker. The minutes it would take to brew it would not only set his teeth on edge, they would eat into his schedule.

  But the one thing he categorically refused to do was start the day with the poison that simmered at the cop shop.

  His mind was so focused on coffee that when the scent of it wafted like a siren’s call as he came down the stairs, he thought it was an illusion.

  Not only was the pot full of gloriously rich black liquid, Grace was sitting at his kitchen table, reading the morning paper and nibbling on a bagel. Her hair was scooped back from her face, and she appeared to be wearing nothing more than one of his shirts.

  “Good morning.” She smiled up at him, then shook her head. “Are you human? How can you look so official and intimidating on less than three hours’ sleep?”

  “Practice. I thought you’d gone.”

  “I told you I’d stay. Coffee’s hot. I hope you don’t mind that I helped myself.”

  “No.” He stood exactly where he was. “I don’t mind.”

  “If it’s all right with you, I’ll just loiter over coffee awhile before I get dressed. I’ll get myself back to
Cade’s and change. I want to drop by the hospital later this morning, then I’m going home. It’s time I did. The cleaning crew should be finished by this afternoon, so I thought…” She trailed off as he just continued to stare at her.

  “What is it?” She gave an uncertain smile and rubbed at her nose.

  Keeping his eyes on hers, he took the phone from the wall and punched in a number on memory. “This is Buchanan,” he said. “I won’t be in for a couple hours. I’m taking personal time.” He hung up, held out a hand. “Come back to bed. Please.”

  She rose, and put her hand in his.

  When clothes were scattered carelessly on the floor, the sheets turned back, the shades pulled to filter the beat of the sun, he covered her.

  He needed to hold, to touch, to indulge himself for one hour with the flow of emotion she caused in him. Only an hour, yet he didn’t hurry. Instead, he lingered over slow, deep, drugging kisses that lasted eons, loitered over long, smooth, soft caresses that stretched into forever.

  She was there for him. Simply there. Open, giving, offering a seemingly endless supply of warmth.

  She sighed, shakily, as he stroked her to helpless response, moving over her tenderly, his patience infinite. Each time their mouths met, with that slow slide of tongue, her heart shuddered in her breast.

  There were the soft, slippery sounds of intimacy, the quiet murmurs of lovers, drifting into sighs and moans. Both of them were lost, mired in thick layers of sensation, the air around them like syrup, causing movement to slow and pleasure to last.

  Her breath sighed out as he trailed lazily down her body with hands and mouth, as her own hands stroked over his back, then his shoulders. She opened for him, arching up in welcome, then shuddering as his tongue brought on a long, rolling climax.

  And because he needed it as much as she, she let her hands fall limply, let him take her wherever he chose. Her blood beat hot and the heat brought a dew of roused passion to her skin. His hands slicked over her skin like silk.

  “Tell me you want me.” He trailed slow, open-mouthed kisses up her torso.

  “Yes.” She gripped his hips, urged him. “I want you.”

  “Tell me you need me.” His tongue slid over her nipple.

  “Yes.” She moaned again when he suckled gently. “I need you.”

  Tell me you love me. But that he demanded only in his mind as he brought his mouth to hers again, sank into that wet, willing promise.

  “Now.” He kept his eyes open and on hers.

  “Yes.” She rose to meet him. “Now.”

  He glided inside her, filling her so slowly, so achingly, that they both trembled. He saw her eyes swim with tears and found the urge for tenderness stronger than any other. He kissed her again, softly, moved inside her one slow beat at a time.

  The sweetness of it had a tear spilling over, trailing down her glowing cheek. Her lips trembled, and he felt her muscles contract and clutch him. “Don’t close your eyes.” He whispered it, sipped the tear from her cheek. “I want to see your eyes when I take you over.”

  She couldn’t stop it. The tenderness stripped her. Her vision blurred with tears, and the blue of her eyes deepened to midnight. She said his name, then murmured it again against his lips. And her body quivered as the next long, undulating wave swamped her.

  “I can’t—”

  “Let me have you.” He was falling, falling, falling, and he buried his face in her hair. “Let me have all of you.”

  Chapter 10

  In the nursery, Grace was rocking an infant. The baby girl was barely big enough to fill the crook of her arm from elbow to wrist, but the tiny infant watched her steadily with the deeply blue eyes of a newborn.

  The hole in her heart had been repaired, and her prognosis was good.

  “You’re going to be fine, Carrie. Your mama and papa are so worried about you, but you’re going to be just fine. She stroked the baby’s cheek and thought—hoped—Carrie smiled a little.

  Grace was tempted to sing her to sleep, but knew the nursing staff rolled their eyes and snickered whenever she tried a lullaby. Still, the babies were rarely critical of her admittedly poor singing voice, so she half sang, half
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