Secret star, p.14
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       Secret Star, p.14

         Part #3 of Stars of Mithra series by Nora Roberts
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  welcoming. Soft surfaces, soft edges, with touches that were so Grace everywhere. Antique bottles in jewel tones, a china cat curled up for a nap, a lush, thriving fern in a copper pot.

  And flowers, candlelight.

  He looked up, noted the unbroken gleam of wood circling the balcony. “I see you’ve had it repaired.”

  Something’s wrong, was all she could think as she stepped forward and handed him his glass. “Yes, I wanted that done as soon as possible. That, and the new security system. I think you’ll approve.”

  “I’ll take a look at it, if you like.”

  “I’d like it better if you’d relax while you can. Why don’t I bring dinner in?”

  “You cooked?”

  Now she laughed. “I wouldn’t do that to you, but I’m an expert at ordering in—and at presentation. Try to unwind. I’ll be right back.”

  As she glided out, he looked down at the tray. A silver bowl of glossy black caviar, little fancy bites of elegant finger foods. He turned his back on them and, carrying his glass, walked over to study her portrait.

  When she came back, wheeling an antique cart, he continued to look at her painted face. “He was in love with you, wasn’t he? The artist?”

  Grace drew a careful breath at that cool tone. “Yes, he was. He knew I didn’t love him. I often wished I could have. Charles is one of the kindest, gentlest men I know.”

  “Did you sleep with him?”

  A chill snaked up her spine, but she kept her hands steady as she set plates on the candle-and flower-decked table. “No. It wouldn’t have been fair, and I care about him too much.”

  “You’d rather sleep with men you don’t care about.”

  She hadn’t seen it coming, Grace realized. How foolish of her not to have seen this coming. “No, but I won’t sleep with men who I could hurt like that. I would have hurt Charles by being his lover, so I stayed his friend.”

  “And the wives?” He did turn now, eyes narrowed as he studied the woman instead of the portrait. “Like the woman who was married to that earl you were mixed up with? Didn’t you worry about hurting her?”

  Grace picked up her wine again, quite deliberately cocked her head. She had never slept with the earl he’d mentioned, or with any other married man. But she had never bothered to argue with public perception. Nor would she bother to deny it now.

  “Why would I? I wasn’t married to her.”

  “And the guy who tried to kill himself after you broke your engagement?”

  She touched the glass to her lips, swallowed frothy wine that burned like shards of glass in her throat. “Overly dramatic of him, wasn’t it? I don’t think you’re in the mood for Caesar salad and steak Diane, are you, Lieutenant? Rich food doesn’t set well during interrogations.”

  “No one’s interrogating you, Grace.”

  “Oh, yes, you are. But you neglected to read me my rights.”

  Her frigid anger helped justify his own. It wasn’t the men—he knew it wasn’t the men he’d very deliberately tossed in her face that scraped at him. It was the fact that they didn’t matter to him, that somehow nothing seemed to matter but her.

  “It’s odd you’re so sensitive about answering questions about men, Grace. You hadn’t troubled to hide your…track record.”

  “I expected better from you.” She said it softly, so he barely heard, then shook her head, smiled coolly. “Foolish of me. No, I’ve never troubled to hide anything—unless it mattered. The men didn’t matter, for the most part. Do you want me to tell you that you’re different? Would you believe me if I did?”

  He was afraid he would. Terrified he would. “It isn’t necessary. We’ve moved too fast, Grace. I’m not comfortable with it.”

  “I see.” She thought she did now, perfectly. “You’d like to slow things down.” She set her glass aside, knowing her hand would start to shake. “It appears you’ve taken a couple of those giant steps while I’ve had my back turned. I really should have played that game as a child, so I’d be more alert for sudden moves.”

  “This isn’t a game.”

  “No, I suppose it isn’t.” She had her pride, but she also had her heart. And she had to know. “How could you have made love with me like that this morning, Seth, and do this tonight? How could you have touched me the way you have—the way no one ever has—and hurt me like this?”

  It was because of what had swamped him that morning, he realized. The helplessness of his need. “I’m not trying to hurt you.”

  “No, that only makes it worse. You’re doing both of us a favor, aren’t you? Isn’t that how you’ve worked it out? Break things off before they get too messy? Too late.” Her voice broke, but she managed to shore it up again. “It’s already messy.”

  “Damn it.” He took a step toward her, then stopped dead when her head whipped up, and those hot blue eyes scorched him.

  “Don’t even think about touching me now, when those thoughts are still in your head. You go your tidy way, Lieutenant, and I’ll go mine. I don’t believe in slowing down. You either go forward, or you stop.”

  Furious with herself, she lifted a hand and flicked a tear off her cheek. “Apparently, we’ve stopped.”

  Chapter 11

  He stood there wondering what in the hell he was doing. Here was the woman he loved, who—by some wild twist of fate—might actually love him. Here was a chance for that life he’d never allowed himself, the family, the home, the woman. He was pushing them all away, with both hands, and couldn’t seem to stop.

  “Grace…I want to give us both time to consider what we’re doing, where this is going.”

  “No, you don’t.” She tossed back her hair with one angry jerk of her head. “Do you think because I’ve only known you a matter of days that I don’t understand how your head works? I’ve been more intimate with you than I’ve been with anyone in my life. I know you.” She managed a deep, ragged breath. “What you want is to get that wheel back under your hands, that control button back under your thumb. This whole thing has run away from you, and you just can’t let that happen.”

  “That may be true.” Was true, he realized. Was absolutely, mortifyingly true. “But it doesn’t change the point. I’m in the middle of an investigation, and I’m not as objective as I need to be, because I’m involved with you. After it’s done—”

  “After it’s done, what?” she demanded. “We pick up where you left off? I don’t think so, Lieutenant. What happens when you’re in the middle of the next investigation? And the next? Do I strike you as someone who’s going to wait around until you have the time, and the room, to continue an on-again, off-again relationship with me?”

  “No.” His spine stiffened. “I’m a cop, and my work takes priority.”

  “I don’t believe I’ve ever asked you to change that. In fact, I found your dedication to your work admirable, attractive. Even heroic.” Her smile was thin and brief. “But that’s irrelevant, and so is this conversation.” She turned away, picked up her wine again. “You know the way out.”

  No, she’d never asked him to change anything. Never questioned his work. What the hell had he done? “This needs to be discussed.”

  “That’s your style, not mine. Do you actually think you can stand here, in my home…” Her voice began to hitch and jerk. “In my home, and break my heart, dump me and expect a civilized conversation? I want you out.” She slammed her glass down, snapping the fragile stem of the glass, splattering wine. “Right now.”

  Where had the panic come from? he wondered. His beeper went off and was ignored. “We’re not leaving it this way.”

  “Exactly this way,” she corrected. “Do you think I’m stupid? Do you think I don’t see that you walked in here tonight looking to pick a fight so that it would end exactly this way? Do you think I don’t know now that no matter how much I gave you, you’d hold back from me, question, analyze, dissect everything? Well, analyze this. I was willing to give more, whatever you wanted to take. Now you can spend the
rest of your life wondering just what you lost here tonight.”

  As his beeper sounded again, she swept by him, wrenched open the front door. “You’ll have to answer that call of duty elsewhere, Lieutenant.”

  He stepped to her, but, though his arms ached, he resisted the need to reach out. “When I’m done with this, I’m coming back.”

  “You won’t be welcome.”

  He could feel himself step up to a line he’d never crossed. “That isn’t going to matter. I’m coming back.”

  She said nothing at all, simply shut the door in his face and turned the lock with a hard, audible click.

  She leaned back against the door, her breath shallow now, and hot, as pain swept through her. It was worse now that the door was closed, now that she had shut him out. And the candles still flickered, the flowers still bloomed.

  She saw that every step she’d taken that day, and the day before, all they way back to the moment she’d walked into her own home and seen him coming down the stairs toward her, had been leading to this moment of blind grief and loss.

  She’d been powerless to stop it, she thought, to change what she was, what had come before or what would come after. It was only fools who believed they controlled their own destiny as she’d once believed she controlled hers.

  And she’d been a fool to indulge in those pathetic fantasies, dreams where they had belonged together, where they’d made a life together, a home and children together. Where she’d believed she was only waiting for him to finally make all those longings that had always, always, been one handspan out of her reach, come true.

  The mythical power of the stones, she thought with a half laugh. Love, knowledge and generosity. Their magic had been cruel to her, giving her that tantalizing glimpse of her every desire, then wrenching it away again and leaving her alone.

  The knock on the door had her closing her eyes. How dare he come back, she thought. How dare he, after he’d smashed all her dreams, her hopes, her needs. And how dare she still love him in spite of it.

  Well, he wouldn’t see her cry, she promised herself, and straightened to scrub her hands over her damp cheeks. He wouldn’t see her crawl. He wouldn’t see her at all, because she wouldn’t let him in.

  Resolutely she headed for the phone. He wouldn’t be pleased when she called 911 and reported an intruder, she mused. But it would make her point. She picked up the receiver just as the sound of shattering glass had her whirling toward her terrace doors.

  She had time to see the man burst through them, time to hear her alarm scream in warning. She even had time to struggle as thick arms grabbed her. Then the cloth was over her face, smelling sickeningly of chloroform.

  And she had time only to think of Seth before her world spun and went black.

  Seth was barely three miles away when the next call came through. He jerked up his phone, snarled into it. “Buchanan.”

  “Lieutenant, Detective Marshall again. I just heard an automatic come through on dispatch. Suspected break-in, 2918 East Lark Lane, Potomac.”

  “What?” For one stunning moment, his mind went blank. “Grace?”

  “I recognized the address from the homicide. Her alarm system’s been triggered, she didn’t answer the check-in call.”

  “I’m five minutes from there.” He was already swinging around in a fast, tire-squealing turn. “Get the two closest black-and-whites on the scene. Now.”

  “I’m already on it. Lieutenant—”

  But Seth had already tossed the phone aside.

  It was a new system, Seth told himself, fighting for calm and logic. New systems often had glitches.

  She was upset, not answering her phone, ignoring the confusion. It would be just like her. She was even now defiantly pouring herself another glass of champagne, cursing him.

  Maybe she’d even set off the alarm herself, just so he’d come streaking back with his stomach encased in ice and his heart paralyzed. It would be just like her.

  And that was one more lie, he thought as he careened around a corner. It was nothing like her at all.

  The candles were still burning in her windows. He tried to be relieved by that as he stood on the brakes in her driveway and bolted out of his car. Dinner would still be warm, the music would still be playing, and Grace would be there, standing under her portrait, furious with him.

  He beat on the door foolishly, wildly, before he snapped himself back. She wouldn’t answer. She was too angry to answer. When the first patrol car pulled up, he turned, flashed his badge.

  “Check the east side,” he ordered. “I’ll take the west.”

  He turned on his heel, started around the side. He caught the glimmer of the blue water in her pool in the moonlight, and the thought slid in and out of his mind that they’d never used it together, never slipped into that cool water naked.

  Then he saw the broken glass. His heart simply stopped. His weapon was in his hand and he was through the shattered door, with no thought to procedure. Someone was shouting her name, racing from room to room in blind panic. It couldn’t be him, yet he found himself on the stairs, short of breath, ice cold, dizzy with fear and watching a uniformed cop bend to pick up a scrap of cloth.

  “Smells like chloroform, Lieutenant.” The officer hesitated, took a step toward the man clinging to the banister. “Lieutenant?”

  He couldn’t speak. His voice was gone, and every sweaty hour of training with it. Seth’s dulled gaze shifted, focused on the face, the portrait. Slowly, and with great effort, he widened his vision again, pulled on the mask of control.

  “Search the house. Every inch of it.” His eyes locked on the second uniform. “Call in for backup. Now. Then make a sweep of the grounds. Move.”

  Grace came to slowly, with a roll of nausea and a blinding headache. A nightmare, still black at the edges, circled dully, like a vulture patiently waiting to drop. She squeezed her eyes tighter, rolled her head on the pillow, then cautiously opened them.

  Where? The thought was dull, foolish. Not my room, she realized, and struggled to fight off the clinging mists that clouded her brain.

  It was satin beneath her cheek. She knew the cool, slippery feel of satin against the skin. White satin, like a bride’s dress. Baffled, she skimmed her hand over the thick, luxurious spread of the huge canopied bed.

  She could smell jasmine, and roses, and vanilla. All white scents, cool white scents. The walls of the room were ivory and had a sheen like silk. For a moment, she thought she was in a coffin, a huge, elaborate coffin, and her heart beat thick and fast.

  She made herself sit up, almost afraid that her head would hit the lid and she would find herself screaming and clawing for freedom as she smothered. But there was nothing, only that fragrant air, and she took a long, unsteady breath of it.

  She remembered now—the crash of glass, the big man in black with thick arms. She wanted to panic and forced herself to take another of those jerky breaths. Carefully, hampered by her spinning head, she slid her legs over the edge of the bed until her feet sank into thick, virginal white carpet. She swayed, nearly retched, then forced her feet over that sea of white to the door.

  She went slippery with panic when the knob resisted her. Her breath came in ragged gulps as she fought and tugged on the knob of faceted crystal. Then she turned her back, leaned against it and made herself survey what she understood now was her prison.

  White on white on white, blinding to the eye. A dainty Queen Anne chair brocaded in white, filmy lace curtains hung like ghosts, heaps of white pillows on a curved white chaise. There were edges of gold that only enhanced the avalanche of white, elegant furniture in pale wood smothered in that snowfall.

  She went to the windows first, shuddered when she found them barred, the slices of night beyond them silvered by the moon. She saw nothing familiar—a long roll of lawn, meticulously planted flowers and shrubs, tall, shielding trees.

  Wheeling, she saw another door, bolted for it, nearly wept when the knob turned easily. But beyond
was a lustrous bath, white-tiled, the frosted-glass windows barred, the angled skylight a soaring ten feet above the floor.

  And on the long gleaming counter were jars, bottles, creams, powders. All her own preferences, her scents, her lotions. Her stomach knotted greasily.

  Ransom, she told herself. It was a kidnapping, someone who believed her family could be forced to pay for her safe return.

  But she knew that was a lie.

  The Stars. She leaned weakly against the jamb, pressed her lips together to keep the whimper silent. She’d been taken because of the Three Stars. They would be her ransom.

  Her knees trembled as she turned away, ordered herself to calm down, to think clearly. There had to be a way out. There always was.

  Her alarm had gone off, she remembered. Seth couldn’t have been far away. Would he have gotten the report, come back? It didn’t matter. He would have gotten it soon enough. Whatever had happened between them, he would do everything in his power to find her. From duty, if nothing else.

  In the meantime, she was on her own. But that didn’t mean she was defenseless.

  She took two stumbling steps back when the lock on her door clicked, then forced herself to stop, straighten. The door opened, and two men stepped inside. One she recognized quickly enough as her abductor. The other was smaller, wiry, dressed in formal black, with a face as giving as rock.

  “Ms. Fontaine,” he said in a voice both British and cultured. “If you’d come with me, please.”

  A butler, she realized, and had to swallow a bubble of hysteria. She knew the type too well, and she assumed an amused and annoyed expression. “Why?”

  “He’s ready to see you now.”

  When she made no move to obey, the bigger man stepped in, towering over her, then jerked a thumb toward the doorway.

  “Charming,” she said dryly. She took a step forward, calculating how quickly she would have to move. The butler inclined his head impassively.

  “You’re on the third floor,” he told her. “Even if you could somehow reach the main level on your own, there are guards. They are under order not to harm you, unless it’s unavoidable. If you’ll pardon me, I would advise against risking it.”

  She would risk it, she thought, and a great deal more. But not until she had at least an even chance of success. Without so much as a flick of a glance at the man beside her, she followed the butler out of the room and down a gently lit corridor.

  The house was old, she calculated, but beautifully restored. At least three stories, so it was large. A glimpse at her watch told her it had been less than two hours since she was drugged. Time enough to drive some distance, she imagined.

  But the view through the bars hadn’t been countryside. She’d seen lights—city lights, houses through the trees. A neighborhood, she decided. Exclusive, wealthy, but a neighborhood.

  Where there were houses, there were people. And where there were people, there was help.

  She was led down a wide, curving staircase of gleaming oak. And saw the guard at the landing, his gun holstered but visible.

  Down another hallway. Antiques, paintings, artwork. Her eye was expert enough to recognize the Monet on the wall, the porcelain vase from the Han dynasty on a pedestal, the Nok terra-cotta head from Nigeria.

  Her host, she thought, had excellent and eclectic taste. The treasures she saw, small and large, spanned continents and centuries.

  A collector, she realized with a chill. Now he had her, and was hoping to trade her for the Three Stars of Mithra.

  With what Grace considered absurd formality, under the circumstances, the butler approached tall double doors, opened them, and with seamless expertise bowed slightly from the waist.

  “Miss Grace Fontaine.”

  Seeing no immediate alternative, she stepped through the open doors into an enormous dining room with a frescoed ceiling and a dazzling trio of chandeliers. She scanned the long mahogany table, the Georgian candelabra gaily lit and spaced at precise intervals down its length, and focused on the man who rose and smiled charmingly.

  Her worlds overlapped—reality and fear. “Gregor.”

  “Grace.” Elegant in his tux, diamonds winking, he crossed to her, took her numb hand in his. “How delightful to see you.” He tucked her arm through his, patted it affectionately. “I don’t believe you’ve dined.”

  He knew where she was. Seth had no doubt of it, but his first fiery urge to rush to the elegant estate in D.C. and tear it apart single-handedly had to be suppressed.

  He could get her killed.

  He was certain Ambassador Gregor DeVane had killed before.

  The call that interrupted his scene with Grace had been confirmation of yet another woman who had once been linked to the ambassador, a beautiful German scientist who had been found murdered in her home in Berlin, the apparent victim of a bungled burglary.

  The dead woman had been an anthropologist who had a keen interest in Mithraism. For six months during the previous year, she had been romantically linked with Gregor DeVane. Then she was dead, and none of her research notes on the Three Stars of Mithra had been recovered.

  He knew DeVane was responsible, just as he knew DeVane had Grace. But he couldn’t prove it, and he didn’t have probable cause to sway any judge to issue a search warrant into the home of a foreign ambassador.

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