Secret star, p.4
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       Secret Star, p.4

         Part #3 of Stars of Mithra series by Nora Roberts
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  Her lips moved in what was nearly a pout. A luscious come-on-and-kiss-me pout. He felt the quick, helpless pull of lust, and damned her for it. She moved, sliding off the desk, settling into a chair, taking her time crossing those killer legs.

  “Better?”

  “Where were you Saturday, between the hours of midnight and 3:00 a.m.?”

  So that was when it had happened, she thought, and ignored the ache in her stomach. “Aren’t you going to read me my rights?”

  “You’re not charged, you don’t need a lawyer. It’s a simple question.”

  “I was in the country. I have a house in western Maryland. I was alone. I don’t have an alibi. Do I need a lawyer now?”

  “Do you want to complicate this, Ms. Fontaine?”

  “There’s no way to simplify it, is there?” But she flicked a hand in dismissal. The thin diamond bracelet that circled her wrist shot fire. “All right, Lieutenant, as uncomplicated as possible. I don’t want my lawyer—for the moment. Why don’t I just give you a basic rundown? I left for the country on Wednesday. I wasn’t expecting my cousin, or anyone, for that matter. I did have contact with a few people over the weekend. I bought a few supplies in the town nearby, shopped at the gardening stand. That would have been Friday afternoon. I picked up some mail on Saturday. It’s a small town, the postmistress would remember. That was before noon, however, which would give me plenty of time to drive back. And, of course, there was the courier who delivered Bailey’s package on Friday.”

  “And you didn’t find that odd? Your friend sends you a blue diamond, and you just shrug it off and go shopping?”

  “I called her. She wasn’t in.” She arched a brow. “But you probably know that. I did find it odd, but I had things on my mind.”

  “Such as?”

  Her lips curved, but the smile wasn’t reflected in her eyes. “I’m not required to tell you my thoughts. I did wonder about it and worried a little. I thought perhaps it was a copy, but I didn’t really believe that. A copy couldn’t have what that stone has. Bailey’s instructions in the package were to keep it with me until she contacted me. So that’s what I did.”

  “No questions?”

  “I rarely question people I trust.”

  He tapped a pencil on the edge of the desk. “You stayed alone in the country until Monday, when you drove back to the city.”

  “No. I drove down to the Eastern Shore on Sunday. I had a whim.” She smiled again. “I often do. I stayed at a bed-and-breakfast.”

  “You didn’t like your cousin?”

  “No, I didn’t.” She imagined that quick shift of topic was an interrogation technique. “She was difficult to like, and I rarely make the effort with difficult people. We were raised together after my parents were killed, but we weren’t close. I intruded into her life, into her space. She compensated for it by being disagreeable. I was often disagreeable in return. As we got older, she had a less…successful talent with men than I. Apparently she thought by enhancing the similarities in our appearance, she’d have better success.”

  “And did she?”

  “I suppose it depends on your point of view. Melissa enjoyed men.” To combat the guilt coating her heart, Grace leaned back negligently in the chair. “She certainly enjoyed men—which is one of the reasons she was recently divorced. She preferred the species in quantity.”

  “And how did her husband feel about that?”

  “Bobbie’s a…” She trailed off, then relieved a great deal of her own tension with a quick, delighted and very appealing laugh. “If you’re suggesting that Bobbie—her ex—tracked her down to my house, murdered her, trashed the place and walked off whistling, you couldn’t be more wrong. He’s a cream puff. And he is, I believe, in England, even as we speak. He enjoys tennis and never misses Wimbledon. You can check easily enough.”

  Which he would, Seth thought, noting it down. “Some people find murder distasteful on a personal level, but not at a distance. They just pay for a service.”

  This time she sighed. “We both know Melissa wasn’t the target, Lieutenant. I was. She was in my house.” Restless, she rose, a graceful and feline movement. Walking to the tiny window, she looked out on his dismal view. “She’s made herself at home in my Potomac house twice before when I was away. The first time, I tolerated it. The second, she enjoyed the facilities a bit too enthusiastically for my taste. We had a spat about it. She left in a huff, and I removed the spare key. I should have thought to change the locks, but it never occurred to me she’d go to the trouble of having copies made.”

  “When was the last time you saw her or spoke with her?”

  Grace sighed. Dates ran through her head, people, events, meaningless social forays. “About six weeks ago, maybe eight. At the health club. We ran into each other in the steam room, didn’t have much conversation. We never had much to say to each other.”

  She was regretting that now, Seth realized. Going over in her head opportunities lost or wasted. And it would do no good. “Would she have opened the door to someone she didn’t know?”

  “If the someone was male and was marginally attractive, yes.” Weary of the interview, she turned back. “Look, I don’t know what else I can tell you, what help I can possibly be. She was a careless, often arrogant woman. She picked up strange men in bars when she felt the urge. She let someone in that night, and she died for it. Whatever she was, she didn’t deserve to die for that.”

  She brushed at her hair absently, tried to clear her mind as Seth simply sat, waiting. “Maybe he demanded she give him the stone. She wouldn’t have understood. She paid for her trespassing, for her carelessness and her ignorance. And the stone is back with Bailey, where it belongs. If you haven’t spoken to Dr. Linstrum yet this morning, I can tell you that Bailey should be meeting with him right now. I don’t know anything else to tell you.”

  He kicked back for a moment, his eyes cool and steady on her face. If he discounted the connection with the diamonds, it could play another way. Two women, at odds all their lives. One of them returns home unexpectedly to find the other in her home. An argument. Escalating into a fight. And one of them ends up taking a dive off a second-floor balcony into a pool of glass.

  The first woman doesn’t panic. She trashes her own home to cover herself, then drives away. Puts distance between herself and the scene.

  Was she a skilled enough actress to fake that stark shock, the raw emotion he’d seen on her face the night before?

  He thought she was.

  But despite that, the scene just didn’t click. There was the undeniable connection of the diamonds. And he was dead sure that if Grace Fontaine had caused her cousin’s fall, she would have been just as capable of picking up the phone and coolly reporting an accident.

  “All right, that’s all for now.”

  “Well.” Her breath was a huff of relief. “That wasn’t so bad, all in all.”

  He stood up. “I’ll have to ask you to stay available.”

  She switched on the charm again, a hot, rose-colored light. “I’m always available, handsome. Ask anyone.” She picked up her purse, moved with him to the door. “How long before I can have my house dealt with? I’d like to put things back to order as quickly as possible.”

  “I’ll let you know.” He glanced at his watch. “When you’re up to going through things and doing an inventory to see what’s missing, I’d like you to contact me.”

  “I’m on my way over now to do just that.”

  His brow furrowed a moment as he juggled responsibilities. He could assign a man to go with her, but he preferred dealing with it himself. “I’ll follow you over.”

  “Police protection?”

  “If necessary.”

  “I’m touched. Why don’t I give you a lift, handsome?”

  “I’ll follow you over,” he repeated.

  “Suit yourself,” she began, and grazed a hand over his cheek. Her eyes widened slightly as his fingers clamped on her wrist. “Don’t like to be
petted?” She purred the words, surprised at how her heart had jumped and started to race. “Most animals do.”

  His face was very close to hers, their bodies were just touching, with the heat from the room and something even more sweltering between them. Something old, and almost familiar.

  He drew her hand down slowly, kept his fingers on her wrist.

  “Be careful what buttons you push.”

  Excitement, she realized with surprise. It was pure, primal excitement that zipped through her. “Wasted advice,” she said silkily, daring him. “I enjoy pushing new ones. And apparently you have a few interesting buttons just begging for attention.” She skimmed her gaze deliberately down to his mouth. “Just begging.”

  He could imagine himself shoving her back against the door, moving fast into that heat, feeling her go molten. Because he was certain she was aware of just how perfectly a man would imagine it, he stepped back, released her and opened the door to the din of the bull pen.

  “Be sure to turn in your visitor’s badge at the desk,” he said.

  He was a cool one, Grace thought as she drove. An attractive, successful, unmarried—she’d slipped that bit of data out of an unsuspecting Detective Carter—and self-contained man.

  A challenge.

  And, she decided as she passed through the quiet, well-designed neighborhood, toward her home, a challenge was exactly what she needed to get through the emotional upheaval.

  She’d have to face her aunt in a few hours, and the rest of the relatives soon after. There would be questions, demands, and, she knew, blame. She would be the recipient of all of it. That was the way her family worked, and that was what she’d come to expect from them.

  Ask Grace, take from Grace, point the finger at Grace. She wondered how much of that she deserved, and how much had simply been inherited along with the money her parents left her.

  It hardly mattered, she thought, since both were hers, like it or not.

  She swung into her drive, her gaze sweeping over and up. The house was something she’d wanted. The clever and unique design of wood and glass, the gables, the cornices, the decks and the ruthlessly groomed grounds. She’d wanted the space, the elegance that lent itself to entertaining, the convenience to the city. The proximity to Bailey and M.J.

  But the little house in the mountains was something she’d needed. And that was hers, and hers alone. The relatives didn’t know it existed. No one could find her there unless she wanted to be found.

  But here, she thought as she set the brakes, was the neat, expensive home of one Grace Fontaine. Heiress, socialite and party girl. The former centerfold, the Radcliffe graduate, the Washington hostess.

  Could she continue to live here, she wondered, with death haunting the rooms? Time would tell.

  For now, she was going to concentrate on solving the puzzle of Seth Buchanan, and finding a way under that seemingly impenetrable armor of his.

  Just for the fun of it.

  She heard him pull in and, in a deliberately provocative move, turned, tipped down her shaded glasses and studied him over the tops.

  Oh, yes, she thought. He was very, very attractive. The way he controlled that lean and muscled body. Very economical. No wasted movements. He wouldn’t waste them in bed, either. And she wondered just how long it would be before she could lure him there. She had a hunch—and she rarely doubted her hunches where men were concerned—that there was a volcano bubbling under that calm and somewhat austere surface.

  She was going to enjoy poking at it until it erupted.

  As he crossed to her, she handed him her keys. “Oh, but you have your own now, don’t you?” She tipped her glasses back into place. “Well, use mine…this time.”

  “Who else has a set?”

  She skimmed the tip of her tongue over her top lip, darkly pleased when she saw his gaze jerk down. Just for an instant, but it was progress. “Bailey and M.J. I don’t give my keys to men. I’d rather open the door for them myself. Or close it.”

  “Fine.” He dumped the keys back in her hand, looking amused when her brows drew together. “Open the door.”

  One step forward, two steps back, she mused, then stepped up on the flagstone portico and unlocked her home.

  She’d braced for it, but it was still difficult. The foyer was as it had been, largely undisturbed. But her gaze was drawn up now, helplessly, to the shattered railing.

  “It’s a long way to fall,” she murmured. “I wonder if you have time to think, to understand, on the way down.”

  “She wouldn’t have.”

  “No.” And that was better, somehow. “I suppose not.” She stepped into the living area, forced herself to look at the chalk outline. “Well, where to begin?”

  “He got to your safe down here. Emptied it. You’ll want to list what was taken out.”

  “The library safe.” She moved through, under an arch and into a wide room filled with light and books. A great many of those books littered the floor now, and an art deco lamp in the shape of an elongated woman’s body—a small thing she’d loved—was cracked in two. “He wasn’t subtle, was he?”

  “I say he was rushed. And pissed off.”

  “You’d know best.” She walked to the safe, noting the open door and the empty interior. “I had some jewelry—quite a bit, actually. A few thousand in cash.”

  “Bonds, stock certificates?”

  “No, they’re in my safe-deposit box at the bank. One doesn’t need to take out stock certificates and enjoy the way they sparkle. I bought a terrific pair of diamond earrings just last month.” She sighed, shrugged. “Gone now. I have a complete list of my jewelry, and photographs of each piece, along with the insurance papers, in my safety box. Replacing them’s just a matter of—”

  She broke off, made a small, distressed sound and rushed from the room,

  The woman could move when she wanted, Seth thought as he headed upstairs after her. And she didn’t lose any of that feline grace with speed. He turned into her bedroom, then into her walk-in closet behind her.

  “He wouldn’t have found it. He couldn’t have found it.” She repeated the words like a prayer as she twisted a knob on the built-in cabinet. It swung out, revealing a safe in the wall behind.

  Quickly, her fingers not quite steady, she spun the combination, wrenched open the door. Her breath expelled in a whoosh as she knelt and took out velvet boxes and bags.

  More jewelry, he thought with a shake of his head. How many earrings could one woman wear? But she was opening each box carefully, examining the contents.

  “These were my mother’s,” she murmured, with a catch of undiluted emotion in the words. “They matter. The sapphire pin my father gave her for their fifth anniversary, the necklace he gave her when I was born. The pearls. She wore these the day they married.” She stroked the creamy white strand over her cheek as if it were a loved one’s hand. “I had this built for them, didn’t keep them with the others. Just in case.”

  She sat back on her heels, her lap filled with jewelry that meant so much more than gold and pretty stones. “Well,” she managed as her throat closed. “Well, they’re here. They’re still here.”

  “Ms. Fontaine.”

  “Oh, call me Grace,” she snapped. “You’re as stuffy as my Uncle Niles.” Then she pressed a hand to her forehead, trying to work away the beginnings of a tension headache. “I don’t suppose you can make coffee.”

  “Yes, I can make coffee.”

  “Then why don’t you go down and do that little thing, handsome, and give me a minute here?”

  He surprised her, and himself, by crouching down first, laying a hand on her shoulders. “You could have lost the pearls, lost all of it. You still wouldn’t have lost your memories.”

  Uneasy that he’d felt compelled to say it, he straightened and left her alone. He went directly to the kitchen, pushing through the mess to fill the coffeepot. He set it up to brew and switched the machine on. Stuck his hands in his pockets, then pulled them out.


  What the hell was going on? he asked himself. He should be focused on the case, and the case alone. Instead, he felt himself being pulled, tugged at, by the woman upstairs—by the various faces of that woman. Bold, fragile, sexy, sensitive.

  Just which was she? And why had he spent most of the night with her face lodged in his dreams?

  He shouldn’t even be here, he admitted. He had no official reason to be spending this time with her. It was true he felt the case warranted his personal attention. It was serious enough. But she was only one small part of the whole.

  And he’d be lying to himself if he said he was here strictly on an investigation.

  He found two undamaged cups. There were several broken ones lying around. Good Meissen china, he noted. His mother had a set she prized dearly. He was just pouring the coffee when he sensed her behind him.

  “Black?”

  “That’s fine.” She stepped in, and winced as she took a visual inventory of the kitchen. “He didn’t miss much, did he? I suppose he thought I might stick a big blue diamond in my coffee canister or cookie jar.”

  “People put their valuables in a lot of odd places. I was involved in a burglary case once where the victim saved her in-house cash because she’d kept it in a sealed plastic bag in the bottom of the diaper pail. What self-respecting B-and-E man is going to paw through diapers?”

  She chuckled, sipped her coffee. Whether or not it had been his purpose, his telling of the story had made her feel better. “It makes keeping things in a safe seem foolish. This one didn’t take the silver, or any of the electronics. I suppose, as you said, he was in too much of a hurry, and just took what he could stuff in his pockets.”

  She walked to the kitchen window and looked out. “Melissa’s clothes are upstairs. I didn’t see her purse. He might have taken that, too, or it could just be buried under the mess.”

  “We’d have found it if it had been here.”

  She nodded. “I’d forgotten. You’ve already searched through my things.” She turned back, leaned on the counter and eyed him over the rim of her cup. “Did you go through them personally, Lieutenant?”

  He thought of the red silk gown. “Some of it. You have your own department store here.”

  “I’d come by that naturally, wouldn’t I? I have a weakness for things. All manner of things. You make excellent coffee, Lieutenant. Isn’t there anyone who brews it for you in the morning?”

  “No. Not at the moment.” He set his coffee aside. “That wasn’t very subtle.”

  “It wasn’t intended to be. It’s not that I mind competition. I just like to know if I have any. I still don’t think I like you, but that could change.” She lifted a hand to finger the tail of her braid. “Why not be prepared?”

  “I’m interested in closing a case, not in playing games with you…Grace.”

  It was such a cool delivery, so utterly dispassionate it kindled her spirit of competition. “I suppose you don’t like aggressive women.”

  “Not particularly.”

  “Well, then.” She smiled as she stepped closer to him. “You’re just going to hate this.”

  In a slick and practiced move, she slid a hand up into his hair and brought his mouth to hers.

  Chapter 4

  The jolt, lightning wrapped in black velvet, stabbed through him in one powerful strike. His head spun with it, his blood churned, his belly ached. No part of his system was spared the rapid onslaught of that lush and knowing mouth.

  Her taste, unexpected yet familiar, plunged into him like hot spiced wine that rushed immediately to his head, leaving him dazed and drunk and desperate.

  His muscles bunched, as if poised to leap. And in leaping, he would possess what was somehow already his. It took a vicious twist of will to keep his arms locked at his side, when they strained to reach out, take, relish. Her scent was as dark, as drugging, as her flavor. Even the low, persuasive hum that sounded in her throat as she moved that glorious fantasy of a body against his was a tantalizing hint of what could be.

  For a slow count of five, he fisted his hands, then relaxed them and let the internal war rage while his lips remained passive, his body rigid in denial.

  He wouldn’t give her the satisfaction of response….

  She knew it was a mistake. Even as she moved toward him, reached for him, she’d known it. She’d made mistakes before, and she tried never to regret what was done and couldn’t be undone.

 
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