Secret star, p.13
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       Secret Star, p.13

         Part #3 of Stars of Mithra series by Nora Roberts
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  murmured, until Carrie’s baby owl’s eyes grew heavy.

  Even when she slept, Grace continued to rock. It was self-serving now, she knew. Anyone who had ever rocked a baby understood that it soothed the adult, as well as the child. And here, with an infant dozing in her arms, and her own eyes heavy, she could admit her deepest secret.

  She pined for children of her own. She longed to carry them inside her, to feel the weight, the movement within, to push them into life with that last sharp pang of childbirth, to hold them to her breast and feel them drink from her.

  She wanted to walk the floor with them when they were fretful, to watch them sleep. To raise them and watch them grow, she thought, closing her eyes as she rocked. To care for them, to comfort them in the night, even to watch them take that first wrenching step away from her.

  Motherhood was her greatest wish and her most secret desire.

  When she first involved herself with the pediatric wing, she’d worried that she was doing so to assuage that gnawing ache inside her. But she knew it wasn’t true. The first time she held a sick child in her arms and gave comfort, she’d understood that her commitment encompassed so much more.

  She had so much to give, such an abundance of love that needed to be offered. And here it could be accepted without question, without judgment. Here, at least, she could do something worthwhile, something that mattered.

  “Carrie matters,” she murmured, kissing the top of the sleeping baby’s head before she rose to settle her in her crib. “And one day soon you’ll go home, strong and healthy. You won’t remember that I once rocked you to sleep when your mama couldn’t be here. But I will.”

  She smiled at the nurse who came in, stepped back. “She seems so much better.”

  “She’s a tough little fighter. You’ve got a wonderful touch with the babies, Ms. Fontaine.” The nurse picked up charts, began to make notes.

  “I’ll try to give you an hour or so in a couple of days. And you’ll be able to reach me at home again, if you need to.”

  “Oh?” The nurse looked up, peered over the top of wire-framed glasses. The murder at Grace’s home, and the ensuing investigation, were hot topics at the hospital. “Are you sure you’ll be…comfortable at home?”

  “I’m going to make sure I’m comfortable.” Grace gave Carrie a final look, then stepped out into the hall.

  She just had time, she decided, to stop by the pediatric ward and visit the older children. Then she could call Seth’s office and see if he was interested in a little dinner for two at her place.

  She turned and nearly walked into DeVane.

  “Gregor?” She fixed a smile on her face to mask the sudden odd bumping of her heart. “What a surprise. Is someone ill?”

  He stared at her, unblinking. “Ill?”

  What was wrong with his eyes? she wondered, that they seemed so pale and unfocused. “We are in the hospital,” she said, keeping the smile on her face, and, vaguely concerned, she laid a hand on his arm. “Are you all right?”

  He snapped back, appalled. For a moment, his mind seemed to have switched off. He’d only been able to see her, to smell her. “Quite well,” he assured her. “Momentarily distracted. I didn’t expect to see you, either.”

  Of course, that was a lie, he’d planned the meeting meticulously. He took her hand, bowed over it, kissed her fingers.

  “It is, of course, a pleasure to see you anywhere. I’ve come by here as our mutual friends interested me in the care children receive here. Children and their welfare are a particular interest of mine.”

  “Really?” Her smile warmed immediately. “Mine, too. Would you like a quick tour?”

  “With you as my guide, how could I not?” He turned, signaled to two men who stood stiffly several paces back. “Bodyguards,” he told Grace, tucking her hand into the crook of his arm and patting it. “Distressingly necessary in today’s climate. Tell me, why am I so fortunate as to find you here today?”

  As she usually did, she covered the truth and kept her privacy. “The Fontaines donated significantly to this particular wing. I like to stop in from time to time to see what the hospital’s doing with it.” She flashed a twinkling look. “And you just never know when you might run into a handsome doctor—or ambassador.”

  She strolled along, explaining various sections and wondering how much she might, with a little time and charm, wheedle out of him for the children. “General pediatrics is on the floor above. Since this section houses maternity, they wouldn’t want kids zooming down the corridors while mothers are in labor or resting.”

  “Yes, children can be quite boisterous.” He detested them. “It’s one of my deepest regrets that I have none of my own. But having never found the right woman…” He gestured with his free hand. “As I grow older, I’m resigned to having no one to carry on my name.”

  “Gregor, you’re in your prime. A strong, vital man who can have as many children as he likes for years yet.”

  “Ah.” He looked into her eyes again. “But there is still the right woman to be found.”

  She felt a shiver of discomfort at his pointed statements and intense gaze. “I’m sure you’ll find her. We have some preemies here.” She stepped closer to the glass. “So tiny,” she said softly. “So defenseless.”

  “It’s a pity when they’re flawed.”

  She frowned at his choice of words. “Some of them need more time under controlled conditions and medical care to fully develop. But I wouldn’t call them flawed.”

  Another error, he thought with an inner sense of irritation. He could not seem to keep his mind sharp with her scent invading his senses. “Ah, my English is sometimes awkward. You must forgive me.”

  She smiled again, wanting to ease his obvious discomfort. “Your English is wonderful.”

  “Is it clever enough to convince you share a quiet lunch with me? As friends,” he said, lacing his smile with regret. “With similar interests.”

  She glanced, as he did, at the babies. It was tempting, she admitted. He was a charming man—a wealthy and influential one. She might, with careful campaigning, persuade him to assist her in setting up an international branch of Falling Star, an ambition that had been growing in her lately.

  “I would love to, Gregor, but right now I’m simply swamped. I was just on my way home when I ran into you. I have to check on some…repairs.” That seemed the simplest way to explain it. “But I’d love to have a rain check. One I’d hope to cash in very soon. There’s something concerning our similar interests, that I’d love to have your advice on, and your input.”

  “I would love to be of any service whatsoever.” He kissed her hand again. Tonight, he thought. He would have her tonight, and there would be no more need for this charade.

  “That’s so kind of you.” Because she felt guilty for her disinterest and coolness in the face of his interest, she kissed his cheek. “I really must run. Do call me about that rain check. Next week, perhaps, for lunch.” With a final, flashing smile, she dashed off.

  As he watched her, his fisted fingers dug crescents into his palms. Fighting for control, he nodded to one of the silent men who waited for him. “Follow her only,” he ordered. “And wait for instructions.”

  Cade didn’t think of himself as a whiner—and, considering how well he tolerated his own family, he believed himself one of the most patient, most amiable, of men. But he was certain that if Grace had him shift one more piece of furniture from one end of her enormous living area to the other, he would break down and weep.

  “It looks great.”

  “Hmm…” She stood, one hand on her hip, the fingers of the other tapping against her lip.

  The gleam in her eye was enough to strike terror in Cade’s heart and had his already aching muscles crying out in protest. “Really, fabulous. A hundred percent. Get the camera. I see a cover of House and Garden here.”

  “You’re wheedling, Cade,” she said absently. “Maybe the conversation pit did look better facing the o
ther way.” His moan was pitiful, and only made her lips twitch. “Of course, that would mean the coffee table and those two accent pieces would have to shift. And the palm tree—isn’t it a beauty?—would have to go there.”

  The beauty weighed fifty pounds if it weighed an ounce. Cade abandoned pride and whined. “I still have stitches,” he reminded her.

  “Ah, what’s a few stitches to a big, strong man like you?” She fluttered at him, patted his cheek and watched his ego war with his sore back. Giving in, she let loose a long, rolling laugh. “Gotcha. It’s fine, darling, absolutely fine. You don’t have to carry another cushion.”

  “You mean it?” His eyes went puppylike with hope. “It’s done?”

  “Not only is it done, but you’re going to sit down, put up your feet, while I go get you an icy beer that I stocked in my fridge just for tall, handsome private investigators.”

  “You’re a goddess.”

  “So I’ve been told. Make yourself at home. I’ll be right back.”

  When Grace came back bearing a tray, she saw that Cade had taken her invitation to heart. He sat back on the thick cobalt-blue cushions of her new U-shaped sofa arrangement, his feet propped on the mirror-bright surface of the ebony coffee table, his eyes shut.

  “I really did wear you out, didn’t I?”

  He grunted, opened one eye. Then both popped open in appreciation when she set the loaded tray on the table. “Food,” he said, and sprang for it.

  She had to laugh as he dived into her offer of glossy green grapes, Brie and crackers, the heap of caviar on ice with toast points. “It’s the least I can do for such an attractive moving man.” Settling beside him, she picked up the glass of wine she’d poured for herself. “I owe you, Cade.”

  With his mouth half-full, he scanned the living room, nodded. “Damn straight.”

  “I don’t just mean the manual labor. You gave me a safe haven when I needed one. And most of all, I owe you for Bailey.”

  “You don’t owe me for Bailey. I love her.”

  “I know. So do I. I’ve never seen her happier. She was just waiting for you.” Leaning over, Grace kissed his cheek. “I always wanted a brother. Now, with you and Jack, I have two. Instant family. They fit, too, don’t they?” she commented. “M.J. and Jack. As if they’ve always been a team.”

  “They keep each other on their toes. It’s fun to watch.”

  “It is. And speaking of Jack, I thought he was going to give you a hand with our little redecorating project.”

  Cade scooped caviar onto a piece of toast. “He had a skip to trace.”

  “A what?”

  “A bail jumper to bring in. He didn’t think it was going to take him long.” Cade swallowed, sighed. “He doesn’t know what he’s missing.”

  “I’ll give him the chance to find out.” She smiled. “I still have plans for a couple of the rooms upstairs.”

  It gave Cade his opening. “You know, Grace, I wonder if you’re rushing this a little. It’s going to take some time to put a house this size back in shape. Bailey and I would like you to stay at our place for a while.”

  Their place, Grace mused. Already it was their place. “It’s more than livable here, Cade. M.J. and I talked about it,” she continued. “She and Jack are going to her apartment. It’s time we all got back to our routines.”

  But M.J. wasn’t going to be alone, Cade thought, and thoughtfully sipped his beer. “There’s still somebody pulling the strings out there. Somebody who wants the Three Stars.”

  “I don’t have them,” Grace reminded him. “I can’t get them. There’s no reason to bother with me at this point.”

  “I don’t know how much reason has to do with it, Grace. I don’t like you being here alone.”

  “Just like a brother.” Delighted with him, she gave his arm a squeeze. “Listen, Cade, I’ve got a new alarm system, and I’m considering buying a big, mean, ugly dog.” She started to mention the pistol she had in her nightstand, and the fact that she knew how to use it, but thought that would only worry him more. “I’ll be fine.”

  “What does Buchanan think?”

  “I haven’t asked him. He’s going to come by later—so I won’t really be alone.”

  Satisfied with that, Cade handed her a grape. “You’ve got him worried.”

  Her lips curved as she popped the grape into her mouth. “Do I?”

  “I don’t know him well—I don’t think anyone does. He’s…I guess self-contained would be the word. Doesn’t let a lot show on the surface. But when I walked in yesterday, after you’d gone upstairs, he was just standing there, looking up after you.” Now Cade grinned. “There was plenty on the surface then. It was pretty illuminating. Seth Buchanan, human being.” Then he winced, tipped back his beer. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to—”

  “It’s all right. I know exactly what you mean. He’s got an almost terrifying self control, and that impenetrable aura of authority.”

  “It seems to me that you’ve managed to dent the armor. In my opinion, that’s just what he needed. You’re just what he needed.”

  “I hope he thinks so. It turns out he’s just what I needed. I’m in love with him.” With a half laugh, she shook her head and sipped her wine. “I can’t believe I told you that. I rarely tell men my secrets.”

  “Brothers are different.”

  She smiled at him. “Yes, they are.”

  “I hope Seth appreciates just how lucky he is.”

  “I don’t think Seth believes in luck.”

  She suspected Seth didn’t believe in the three Stars of Mithra, either. And she had discovered that she did. In a very short time, she’d simply opened her mind, stretched her imagination and accepted. They had magic, and they had power. She had been touched by both—as had Bailey and M.J. and the men who were linked to them.

  Grace had no doubt that whoever wanted that magic, that power, would stop at nothing to gain them. It wouldn’t matter when they were in the museum. He would still crave them, still plot to possess them.

  But he could no longer reach the stones through her. That part of her connection, she thought with relief, was over. She was safe in her own home, and would learn to live there again. Starting now.

  She dressed carefully in a long white dress of thin watered silk that left her shoulders bare and flirted with her ankles. Beneath the flowing silk she wore only skin, creamed and scented.

  She left her hair loose, scooped back at the sides with silver combs, her mother’s sapphire drops at her ears, gleaming like twin stars. On impulse, she’d clasped a thick silver bracelet high on her forearm—a touch of pagan.

  When she looked into the mirror after dressing, she’d felt an odd jolt—as if she could see herself in the glass, with the faint ghost of someone else merged with her.

  But she’d laughed it off, chalked it up to nerves and anticipation, and busied herself completing her preparations.

  She filled the rooms she’d redone with candles and flowers, pleased with the welcome they offered. On the table by the window facing her side garden she arranged the china and crystal for her meticulously plotted dinner for two.

  The champagne was iced, the music was on low and the lights were romantically dimmed. All she needed was the man.

  Seth saw the candles in the windows when he pulled up in the drive. Fatigue layered over frustration and had him, in the dim light of the car, rubbing gritty eyes.

  And there were candles in the windows.

  He was forced to admit that for the first time in his adult life he didn’t have a handle on himself, or on the world around him. He certainly didn’t have a handle on the woman who had lit those candles, and who was waiting in that soft, flickering light.

  He’d moved on DeVane on pure instinct—and part of that instinct, he knew, was territorial. Nothing could have been more out of character for him. Perhaps that was why he was feeling slightly…out of himself. Out of control. Grace had become a center, a focal point.

  Or was it an

  Hadn’t he come here because he couldn’t keep away? Just as he had dug into DeVane’s background because the man roused some primal defense mechanism.

  Maybe that was how it started, Seth admitted, but his cop’s instincts were still honed. DeVane was dirty. And with a little more time, a little more digging, he would link the man with the deaths surrounding the diamonds.

  Without the diplomatic block, Seth thought, he had enough already to bring the man in for questioning. DeVane liked to collect—and he collected the rare, the precious, and frequently those items that held some whiff of magic.

  And Gregor DeVane had financed an expedition the year before to search for the legendary Stars. A rival archaeologist had found them first, and the Washington museum had acquired them.

  DeVane had lost more than two million dollars on the hunt and the Stars had slipped through his fingers.

  And the rival archeologist had met with a tragic and fatal accident three months after the find, in the jungles of Costa Rica.

  Seth didn’t believe in coincidence. The man who had kept DeVane from possessing the diamonds was dead. And so, Seth had discovered, was the head of the expedition DeVane had put together.

  No, he didn’t believe in coincidence.

  DeVane had been a resident of D.C. for nearly two years, on and off, without ever meeting Grace. Now, directly after Grace’s connection with the Stars, the man was not only at the same social function, but happened to make a play for her?

  Life simply wasn’t that tidy.

  A little more time, Seth promised himself, rubbing his temples to clear the headache. He’d find the solid connection—link DeVane to the Salvinis, to the bail bondsman, to the men who had died in a crashed van, to Carlo Monturri. He needed only one link, and then the rest of the chain would fall into place.

  But at the moment, he needed to get out of the stuffy car, go inside and face what was happening to his personal life.

  With a short laugh, Seth climbed out of the car. A personal life. Wasn’t that part of the problem? He’d never had one, hadn’t allowed himself one. Now, a matter of days after he’d met Grace, it was threatening to swallow him.

  He needed time there, too, he told himself. Time to step back, gain some distance for a more objective look. He’d allowed things to move too fast, to get out of control. That would have to be fixed. A man who fell in love overnight couldn’t trust himself. It was time to reassert some logic.

  They were dynamically different—in backgrounds, in life-styles and in goals. Physical attraction was bound to fade, or certainly stabilize. He could already foresee her easing back once the initial excitement peaked. She’d grow restless, certainly annoyed with the demands on his work. He would be neither willing nor able to spin her through the social whirl that was such an intricate part of her life.

  She was bound to look toward someone else who would. A beautiful woman, vital, sought-after, flattered at every turn, wouldn’t be content to light a candle in the window for many nights.

  He’d be doing them both a favor by slowing down, stepping back. As he lifted a hand to the gleaming brass knocker, he refused to hear the mocking voice inside his head that called him a liar—and a coward.

  She answered the knock quickly, as if she’d only been waiting for it. She stood in the doorway, soft light filtering through the long flow of white silk. The power of her, pure and pagan, stopped his breath.

  Though he kept his arms at his sides, she moved into him, and ripped at his heart with a welcoming kiss.

  “It’s good to see you.” Grace skimmed her fingers along his cheekbones, under his shadowed eyes. “You’ve had a long one, Lieutenant. Come in and relax.”

  “I haven’t got a lot of time. I’ve got work.” He waited, saw the flicker of disappointment in her eyes. It helped justify what he was determined to do. But then she smiled, took his hand.

  “Well, let’s not waste what time you’ve got standing in the foyer. You haven’t eaten, have you?”

  Why didn’t she ask him why he couldn’t stay? he wondered, irrationally irritated. Why wasn’t she complaining? “No.”

  “Good. Sit down and have a drink. Can you have a drink, or are you officially on duty?” She walked into the living area as she spoke, then drew the chilling champagne from its silver bucket. “I don’t suppose one glass would matter, in any case. And I won’t tell.” She released the cork with an expert’s twist and a muffled, celebratory pop. “I’ve just put the canapés out, so help yourself.”

  She gestured toward the silver tray on the coffee table before moving off with a quiet, slippery rustle of silk to pour two flutes.

  “Tell me what you think. I worked poor Cade to death pushing things around in here, but I wanted to get at least the living space in order again quickly.”

  It looked as if it had been clipped from a glossy magazine on perfect living. Nothing was out of place, everything was gleaming and lovely. Bold colors mixed with whites and blacks, tasteful knickknacks, and artwork that appeared to have been selected with incredible care over a long period of time.

  Yet she’d done it in days—or hours. That, Seth supposed, was the power of wealth and breeding.

  Yet the room didn’t look calculated or cold. It looked generous and
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