Secret star, p.16
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       Secret Star, p.16
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         Part #3 of Stars of Mithra series by Nora Roberts
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  nothing left of you but madness.”

  He struck her, hard enough to knock her back against the wall, to have pain spinning in her head. “Your friends will die tonight.” He smiled at her, as if he were discussing a small mutual interest. “You’ve already sent them to oblivion. I’m going to let you live a long time knowing that.”

  He took her by the arm and, pulling open the door, dragged her from the room.

  “He’ll have surveillance cameras,” Seth said as they prepared to scale the wall at the rear of DeVane’s D.C. estate. “He’s bound to have guards patrolling the grounds.”

  “So we’ll be careful.” Jack checked the point of his knife, stuck it in his boot, then examined the pistol he’d tucked in his belt. “And we’ll be quiet.”

  “We stick together until we reach the house.” Cade went over the plan in his head. “I find security, disarm it.”

  “Failing that, set the whole damn business off. We could get lucky in the confusion. It’ll bring the cops. If things don’t go well, you could be dealing with a lot more than a bust for a B and E.”

  Jack issued a pithy one-word opinion on that. “Let’s go get her out.” He shot Seth one quick grin as he boosted himself up. “Man, I hope he doesn’t have dogs. I really hate when they have dogs.”

  They landed on the soft grass on the other side. It was possible their presence was detected from that moment. It was a risk they were willing to take. Like shadows, they moved through the starstruck night, slipping through the heavy dark amid the sheltering trees.

  Before, on his quest for the Stars and the woman, he’d come alone, and perhaps that arrogance had been his defeat. Baffled by the sudden thought, the quick spurt of what some might have called vision, Seth pushed the feeling aside.

  He could see the house through the trees, the glimmer of lights in windows. Which room was she in? How badly was she frightened? Was she hurt? Had he touched her?

  Baring his teeth, he bit off the thoughts. He had to focus only on getting inside, finding her. For the first time in years, he felt the weight of his weapon at his side. Knew he intended to use it.

  He gave no thought to rules, to his career, to the life he’d built step by deliberate step.

  He saw the guard pass by, only a yard beyond the verge of the grove. When Jack tapped his shoulder and signaled, Seth met his eyes, nodded.

  Seconds later, Jack sprang at the man from behind, and with a quick twist, rammed his head into the trunk of an oak and then dragged the unconscious body into the shadows.

  “One down,” he breathed and tucked his newly acquired weapon away.

  “They’ll have regular check-in,” Cade murmured. “We can’t know how soon they’ll miss his contact.”

  “Then let’s move.” Seth signaled Jack to the north, Cade to the south. Staying low, they rushed those gleaming lights.

  The guard who escorted Grace back to her room was silent. At least two hundred and fifty pounds of muscle, she calculated. But she’d seen his eyes flicker down over her bodice, scan the ripped silk that exposed flesh at her side.

  She knew how to use her looks as a weapon. Deliberately she tipped her face up to his, let her eyes fill helplessly. “I’m so frightened. So alone.” She risked touching a hand to his arm. “You won’t hurt me, will you? Please don’t hurt me. I’ll do anything you want.”

  He said nothing, but his eyes were keen on her face when she moistened her lips with the tip of her tongue, keeping the movement slow and provocative. “Anything,” she repeated, her voice husky, intimate. “You’re so strong, so…in charge.” Did he even speak English? she wondered. What did it matter? The communication was clear enough.

  At the door to her prison, she turned, flashed a smoldering look, sighed deeply. “Don’t leave me alone,” she murmured. “I’m so afraid of being alone. I need…someone.” Taking a chance, she lifted a fingertip, rubbed it over his lips. “He doesn’t have to know,” she whispered. “No one has to know. It’s our secret.”

  Though it revolted her, she took his hand, placed it on her breast. The flex of his fingers chilled her skin, but she made herself smile invitingly as he lowered his head and crushed her mouth.

  Don’t think of it, don’t think, she warned herself as his hands roamed her. It’s not you. He’s not touching you.

  “Inside.” She hoped he interpreted her quick shudder as desire. “Come inside with me. We’ll be alone.”

  He opened the door, his eyes still hungry on her face, on her body. She would either win here, she thought, or lose everything. She let out a teasing laugh as he grabbed for her the moment the door was locked behind him.

  “Oh, there’s no hurry now, handsome.” She tossed her hair back, glided out of his reach. “No need to rush such a lovely friendship. I want to freshen up for you.”

  Still he said nothing, but his eyes were narrowing with impatience, suspicion. Still smiling, she reached for the heavy cut-crystal atomizer on the bureau. A woman’s weapon, she thought coldly as she gently spritzed her skin, the air. “I prefer using all of my senses.” Her fingers tightened convulsively on the bottle as she swayed toward him.

  She jerked the bottle up and sprayed perfume directly into his leering eyes. He hissed in shock, grabbed instinctively for his stinging eyes. Putting all her strength behind it, she smashed the crystal into his face, and her knee into his groin.

  He staggered, but didn’t go down. There was blood on his face, and beneath it, his skin had gone a pasty shade of white. He was fumbling for his gun and, frantic, she kicked out, aiming low again. This time he went to his knees, but his hands were still reaching for the gun snapped to his side.

  Sobbing now, she heaved up a footstool, upholstered in white, tasseled in gold. She rammed it into his already bleeding face, then, lifting it high, crashed it onto his head. Desperately she scrabbled to unstrap his gun, her clammy hands slipping off leather and steel. When she held it in two shaking hands, prepared to do whatever was necessary, she saw that he was unconscious.

  Her breath tore out of her lungs in a wild laugh. “I guess I’m just not that kind of girl.” Too frightened for caution, she yanked the keys free of his clip, stabbed one after the other at the lock until it gave. And raced like a deer fleeing wolves, down the corridor, through the golden light.

  A shadow moved at the head of the stairs, and with a low, keening moan, she lifted the gun.

  “That’s the second time you’ve pointed a weapon in my direction.”

  Her vision grayed at the sound of Seth’s voice. Clamping down hard on her lip, she cleared it as he stepped out of the shadows and into the light. “You. You came.”

  It wasn’t armor he wore, she thought dizzily. But black—shirt, slacks, shoes. It wasn’t a sword he carried, but a gun.

  It wasn’t a memory. It was real.

  Her dress was torn, bloody. Her face was bruised, her eyes were glassy with shock. He’d killed two men to get this far. And seeing her this way, he thought it hadn’t been enough. Not nearly enough.

  “It’s all right now.” He resisted the urge to rush to her, grab her close. She looked as though she might shatter at a touch. “We’re going to get you out. No one’s going to hurt you.”

  “He’s going to kill them.” She forced air in and out of her lungs. “He’s going to kill them no matter what I do. He’s insane. They’re not safe from him. We’re none of us safe from him. He killed you before,” she ended on a whisper. “He’ll try again.”

  He took her arm to steady her, gently slipped the gun from her hand. “Where is he, Grace?”

  “There’s a room, through a panel in the library, down the stairs. Just like before…lifetimes ago. Do you remember?” Spinning between images, she pressed a hand to her head. “He’s there with his toys, all the glittering toys. I stabbed him with a dinner knife.”

  “Good girl.” How much of the blood was hers? He could detect no wound other than the bruises on her face and arms. “Come on now, come with me.”

/>   He led her down the stairs. There was the guard she’d seen before. But he wasn’t standing now. Averting her eyes, she stepped around him, gestured. She was steadier now. The past didn’t always run in a loop, she knew. Sometimes it changed. People made it change.

  “It’s back there, the third door down on the left.” She cringed when she caught a movement. But it was Jack, melting out of a doorway.

  “It’s clear,” he said to Seth.

  “Take her out.” His eyes said everything as he nudged her into Jack’s arms. Take care of her. I’m trusting you.

  Jack hitched her against his side to keep his weapon hand free. “You’re okay, honey.”

  “No.” She shook her head. “He’s going to kill them. He has explosives, something, at the house, at the pub. You have to stop him. The panel. I’ll show you.”

  She wrenched away from Jack, staggered like a drunk toward the library. “Here.” She turned a rosette in the carving of the chair rail. “I watched him.” The panel slid smoothly open.

  “Jack, get her out. Call in a 911. I’ll deal with him.”

  She was floating, just under the surface of thick, warm water. “He’ll have to kill him,” she said faintly as Seth disappeared into the opening. “This time he can’t fail.”

  “He knows what he has to do.”

  “Yes, he always does.” And the room spun once, wildly. “Jack, I’m sorry,” she managed before she spun with it.

  He hadn’t locked the door, Seth noted. Arrogant bastard, so sure no one would trespass on his sacred ground. With his weapon lifted, Seth eased the heavy door open, blinked once at the bright gleam of gold.

  He stepped inside, focused on the man sitting in a thronelike chair in the center of all the glory. “It’s done, DeVane.”

  DeVane wasn’t surprised. He’d known the man would come. “You risk a great deal.” His smile was cold as a snake’s, his eyes mad as a hatter’s. “You did before. You remember, don’t you? Dreamed of it, didn’t you? You came to steal from me before, to take the Stars and the woman. You had a sword then, heavy and unjeweled.”

  Something vague and quick passed through Seth’s mind. A stone castle, a stormy sky, a room of great wealth. A woman beloved. On an altar, a triangle wrenched from the hands of the god, adorned with diamonds as blue as stars.

  “I killed you.” DeVane laughed softly. “Left your body for the crows.”

  “That was then.” Seth stepped forward. “This is now.”

  DeVane’s smile spread. “I am beyond you.” He lifted his hand, and the gun he held in it.

  Two shots were fired, so close together they sounded as one. The room shook, echoed, settled, and went back to gleaming. Slowly Seth stepped closer, looked down at the man who lay facedown on a hill of gold.

  “Now you are,” Seth murmured. “You’re beyond me now.”

  She heard the shots. For one unspeakable moment everything inside her stopped. Heart, mind, breath, blood. Then it started again, a tidal wave of feeling that had her springing off the bench where Jack had put her, the air heaving in and out of her lungs.

  And she knew, because she felt, because her heart could beat, that it hadn’t been Seth who’d met the bullet. If he had died, she would have known. Some piece of her heart would have broken off from the whole and shattered.

  Still, she waited, her eyes on the house, because she had to see.

  The stars wheeled overhead, the moon shot light through the trees. Somewhere in the distance, a night bird began to call out, with hope and joy.

  Then he walked out of the house. Whole. Tears clogged her throat and were swallowed. They stung her eyes and were willed away. She had to see him clearly, the man she had accepted that she loved, and couldn’t have.

  He walked to her, his eyes dark and cool, his gait steady.

  He’d already regained control, she realized. Already tucked whatever he’d had to do away in some compartment where it wouldn’t interfere with what had to be done next.

  She wrapped her arms around herself, hands clamped tight on her forearms. She’d never know that one gesture, that turning into herself and not him, was what stopped him from reaching for her.

  So he stood, with an armspan of distance between them and looked at the woman he accepted that he loved, and had pushed away.

  She was pale, and even now he could see the quick trembles that ripped through her. But he wouldn’t have said she was fragile. Even now, with death shimmering between them, she wasn’t fragile.

  Her voice was strong and steady. “It’s over?”

  “Yeah, it’s over.”

  “He was going to kill them.”

  “That’s over, too.” His need to touch her, to hold on, was overwhelming. He felt that his knees were about to give way. But she turned, shifted her body away, and looked out into the dark.

  “I need to see them. Bailey and M.J.”

  “I know.”

  “You need my statement.”

  God. His control wavered enough for him to press his fingers against burning eyes. “It can wait.”

  “Why? I want it over. I need to put it behind me.” She steadied herself again, then turned slowly. And when she faced him, his hands were at his sides and his eyes clear. “I need to put it all behind me.”

  Her meaning was clear enough, Seth thought. He was part of that all.

  “Grace, you’re hurt and you’re in shock. An ambulance is on the way.”

  “I don’t need an ambulance.”

  “Don’t tell me what the hell you need.” Fury swarmed through him, buzzed in his head like a nest of mad hornets. “I said the damn statement can wait. You’re shaking. For God’s sake, sit down.”

  When he reached out to take her arm, she jerked back, her chin snapping up, her shoulders hunching. “Don’t touch me. Just…don’t.” If he touched her, she might break. If she broke she would weep. And weeping, she would beg.

  The words were a knife in the gut, the deep and desperate blue of her eyes a blow to the face. Because he felt his fingers tremble, he stuffed them into his pockets, took a step back. “All right. Sit down. Please.”

  Had he thought she wasn’t fragile? She looked as if she would shatter into pieces with one hard thought. She was sheet pale, her eyes enormous. Blood and bruises marked her face.

  And there was nothing he could do. Nothing she would let him do.

  He heard the distant wail of sirens, and footsteps from behind him. Cade, his face grim, walked to Grace, tucked a blanket he’d brought from the house over her shoulders.

  Seth watched as she turned into him, how her body seemed to go fluid and flow into the arms Cade offered her. He heard the fractured sob even as she muffled it against Cade’s shoulder.

  “Get her out of here.” His fingers burned to reach out, stroke her hair, to take something away with him. “Get her the hell out of here.”

  He walked back into the house to do what needed to be done.

  The birds sang their morning song as Grace stepped out into her garden. The woods were quiet and green. And safe. She’d needed to come here, to her country escape. To come alone. To be alone.

  Bailey and M.J. had understood. In a few days, she thought, she would go into town, call, see if they’d like to come up, bring Jack and Cade. She would need to see them soon. But she couldn’t bear to go back yet. Not yet.

  She could still hear the shots, the quick jolt of them shuddering through her as Jack had taken her outside. She’d known it was DeVane and not Seth who had met the bullet. She’d simply known.

  She hadn’t seen Seth again that night. It had been easy to avoid him in the confusion that followed. She’d answered all the questions the local police had asked, made statements to the government officials. She’d stood up to it, then quietly demanded that Cade or Jack take her to Salvini, take her to Bailey and M.J.

  And the Three Stars.

  Stepping down onto her blooming terraces, she brought it back into her head, and her heart. The three of them stand
ing in the near dark of a near-empty room, she with her torn and bloody dress.

  Each of them had taken a point of the triangle, had felt the sing of power, seen the flicker of impossible light. And had known it was done.

  “It’s as if we’ve done this before,” Bailey had murmured. “But it wasn’t enough then. It was lost, and so were we.”

  “It’s enough now.” M.J. had looked up, met each of their eyes in turn. “Like a cycle, complete. A chain, with the links forged. It’s weird, but it’s right.”

  “A museum instead of a temple this time.” Regret and relief had mixed within Grace as they set the Stars down again. “A promise kept, and, I suppose, destinies fulfilled.”

  She’d turned to both of them, embraced them. Another triangle. “I’ve always loved you both, needed you both. Can we go somewhere? The three of us.” The tears had come then, flooding. “I need to talk.”

  She’d told them everything, poured out heart and soul, hurt and terror, until she was empty. And she supposed, because it was them, she’d healed a little.

  Now she would heal on her own.

  She could do it here, Grace knew, and, closing her eyes, she just breathed. Then, because it always soothed, she set down her gardening basket, and began to tend her blooms.

  She heard the car coming, the rumble of wheels on gravel, and her brow creased in mild irritation. Her neighbors were few and far between and rarely intruded. She wanted no company but her plants, and she stood, her flowers flowing at her feet, determined to politely and firmly send the visitor away again.

  Her heart kicked once, hard, when she saw that the car was Seth’s. She watched in silence as it stopped in the middle of her lane and he got out and started toward her.

  She looked like something out of a misty legend herself, he thought. Her hair blowing in the breeze, the long, loose skirt of her dress fluttering, and flowers in a sea around her. His nerves jangled.

  And his stomach clutched when he saw the bruise marring her cheek.

  “You’re a long way from home, Seth.” She spoke without expression as he stopped two steps beneath her.

  “You’re a hard woman to find, Grace.”

  “That’s the way I prefer it. I don’t care for company here.”

  “Obviously.” Both to give himself time to settle and because he was curious, he scanned the land, the house perched on the hill, the deep secrets of the woods. “It’s a beautiful spot.”

  “Yes.”

  “Remote.” His gaze shifted back to hers so quickly, so intensely, he nearly made her jolt. “Peaceful. You’ve earned some peace.”

  “That’s why I’m here.” She lifted a brow. “And why are you here?”

  “I needed to talk to you. Grace—”

  “I intended to see you when I came back,” she said quickly. “We didn’t talk much that night. I suppose I was more shaken up than I realized. I never even thanked you.”

  It was worse, he realized, that cool, polite voice was worse than a shouted curse. “You don’t have anything to thank me for.”

  “You saved my life and, I believe, the lives of the people I love. I know you broke rules, even the law, to find me, to get me away from him. I’m grateful.”

  The palms of his hands went clammy. She was making him see it again, feel it again. All that rage and terror. “I’d have done anything to get you away from him.”

  “Yes, I think I know that.” She had to look away. It hurt too much to look into his eyes. She’d promised herself, sworn to herself she wouldn’t be hurt again. “And I wonder if any of us had a choice in what happened over that short, intense period of time. Or,” she added with a ghost of a smile, “if you choose to believe what happened, over centuries. I hope you haven’t—that your career won’t suffer because of what you did for me.”

  His eyes went dark, flat. “The job’s secure, Grace.”

  “I’m glad.” He had to leave, she thought. He had to leave now, before she crumbled. “I still intend to write a letter to your superiors. And you might know I have an uncle in the Senate. I wouldn’t be surprised, when the smoke clears, if you got a promotion out of it.”

  His throat was raw. He couldn’t clear it. “Look at me, damn it.” When her gaze shot back to his face, he curled his hands into fists to keep from touching her. “Do you think that matters?”

  “Yes, I do. It matters, Seth, certainly to me. But for now, I’m taking a few days, so if you’ll excuse me, I want to get to my gardening before the heat of the day.”

 
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