Secret star, p.17
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       Secret Star, p.17

         Part #3 of Stars of Mithra series by Nora Roberts
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  “Do you think this ends it?”

  She leaned over, took up her clippers and snipped off wilted blooms. They faded all too quickly, she thought. And that left an ache in the heart. “I think you already ended it.”

  “Don’t turn away from me.” He took her arm, hauled her toward him, as panic and fury spiraled through him. “You can’t just turn away. I can’t—” He broke off, his hand lifting to lie on the bruise on her cheek. “Oh, God, Grace. He hurt you.”

  “It’s nothing.” She stepped back quickly, nearly flinching, and his hand fell heavily to his side. “Bruises fade. And he’s gone. You saw to that. He’s gone, and it’s over. The Three Stars are where they belong, and everything’s back in its place. Everything’s as it was meant to be.”

  “Is it?” He didn’t step to her, couldn’t bear to see her shrink back from him again. “I hurt you, and you won’t forgive me for it.”

  “Not entirely,” she agreed, fighting to keep it light. “But saving my life goes a long way to—”

  “Stop it,” he said in a voice both ragged and quiet. “Just stop it.” Undone, he whirled away, pacing, nearly trampling her bedding plants. He hadn’t known he could suffer like this—the ice in the belly, the heat in the brain.

  He spoke, looking out into her woods, into shadows and cool green shade. “Do you know what it did to me, knowing he had you? Knowing it. Hearing your voice on the phone, the fear in it?”

  “I don’t want to think about it. I don’t want to think about any of that.”

  “I can’t do anything but think of it. And see you—every time I close my eyes, I see you the way you stood there in that hallway, blood on your dress, marks on your skin. Not knowing—not knowing what he’d done to you. And remembering—half remembering some other time when I couldn’t stop him.”

  “It’s over,” she said again, because her legs were turning to water. “Leave it alone.”

  “You might have gotten away without me,” he continued. “You took out a guard twice your size. You might have pulled it off without any help from me. You might not have needed me at all. And I realized that was part of my problem all along. Believing, being certain, I needed you so much more than you could possibly need me. Being afraid of that. Stupid to be afraid of that,” he said as he came up the steps again. “Once you understand real fear, the fear of knowing you could lose the most important thing in your life in one single heartbeat, nothing else can touch you.”

  He gathered her to him, too desperate to heed her resistance. And, with a shuddering gulp of air, buried his face in her hair. “Don’t push me away, don’t send me away.”

  “This isn’t any good.” It hurt to be held by him, yet she wished she could go on being held just like this, with the sun warm on her skin and his face pressed into her hair.

  “I need you. I need you,” he repeated, and turned his urgent mouth to hers.

  The hammer blow of emotion struck and she buckled. It swirled from one of them to the other in an unbridled storm, left her heart shaken and weak. She closed her eyes, slid her arms around him. Need would be enough, she promised herself. She would make it enough for both of them. There was too much inside her that she ached to give for her to turn him away.

  “I won’t send you away.” Her hands stroked over his back, soothed the tension. “I’m glad you’re here. I want you here.” She drew back, brought his hand to her cheek. “Come inside, Seth. Come to bed.”

  His fingers tightened on hers. Then gently lifted her head up. It made him ache to realize she believed there was only that he wanted from her. That he’d let her think it.

  “Grace, I didn’t come here to take you to bed. I didn’t come here to start where we left off.”

  Why had he been so resistant to seeing what was in her eyes? he wondered. Why had he refused to believe what was so blatantly real, so generously offered to him.

  “I came here to beg. The third Star is generosity,” he said, almost to himself. “You didn’t make me beg. I didn’t come here for sex, Grace. Or for gratitude.”

  Confused, she shook her head. “What do you want, Seth? Why did you come?”

  He wasn’t sure he’d fully realized why until just now. “To hear you tell me what you want. What you need.”

  “Peace.” She gestured. “I have that here. Friendship. I have that, too.”

  “And that’s it? That’s enough?”

  “It’s been enough all my life.”

  He caught her face in his hands before she could step away. “If you could have more? What do you want, Grace?”

  “Wanting what you can’t have only makes you unhappy.”

  “Tell me.” He kept his eyes focussed on hers. “Straight out, for once. Just say what you want.”

  “Family. Children. I want children and a man who loves me—who wants to make that family with me.” Her lips curved slowly, but the smile didn’t reach her eyes. “Surprised I’d want to spoil my figure? Spend a few years of my life changing diapers?”

  “No.” He slid his hands down to her shoulders, firming his grip. She was poised to move, he noted. To run. “No, I’m not surprised.”

  “Really? Well.” She moved her shoulders as if to shrug off the weight of his touch. “If you’re going to stay, let’s go inside. I’m thirsty.”

  “Grace, I love you.” He watched her smile slide away from her face, felt her body go absolutely still.

  “What? What did you say to me?”

  “I love you.” Saying it, he realized, was power. True power. “I fell in love with you before I’d seen you. Fell in love with an image, a memory, a wish. I can’t be sure which it is, or if it was all of them. I don’t know if it was fate, or choice, or luck. But it was so fast, so hard, so deep, I wouldn’t let myself believe, and I wouldn’t let myself trust. And I turned you away because you let yourself do both. I came here to tell you that.” His hands slid down her arms and clasped hers.

  “Grace, I’m asking you to believe in us again, to trust in us again. And to marry me.”

  “You—” She had to take a step back, had to press a hand to her heart. “You want to marry me.”

  “I’m asking you to come back with me today. I know it’s old-fashioned, but I want you to meet my family.”

  The pressure in her chest all but burst her heart. “You want me to meet your family.”

  “I want them to meet the woman I love, the woman I want to have a life with. The life I’ve been waiting to start—waiting for her to start.” He brought her hand to his cheek, held it there while his eyes looked deep into hers. “The woman I want to make children with.”

  “Oh.” The weight on her chest released in a flood, poured out of her…until her heart was in her swimming eyes.

  “Don’t cry.” It seemed he would beg after all. “Grace, please, don’t. Don’t tell me I left it too late.” Awkwardly he brushed at her tears with his thumbs. “Don’t tell me I ruined it.”

  “I love you so much.” She closed her fingers around his wrists, watched the emotion leap into his eyes. “I’ve been so unhappy waiting for you. I was so sure I’d missed you. Again. Somehow.”

  “Not this time.” He kept his hands on her face, kissed her gently. “Not ever again.”

  “No, not ever again,” she murmured against his lips.

  “Say yes,” he asked her. “I want to hear you say yes.”

  “Yes. To everything.”

  She held him close in the flower-scented morning where the stars slept behind the sky. And felt the last link of an endless chain fall into place.

  “Seth.”

  He kept his eyes shut, his cheek on her hair. And his smile bloomed slow and easy. “Grace.”

  “We’re where we’re supposed to be. Can you feel it?” She drew a deep breath. “All of us are where we belong now.”

  She lifted her face, found his mouth waiting. “And now,” he said quietly, “it begins.”

 
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