Secret star, p.5
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       Secret Star, p.5
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         Part #3 of Stars of Mithra series by Nora Roberts
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  But she regretted this.

  She deeply regretted that his taste was utterly unique and perfect for her palate. That the texture of his hair, the shape of his shoulders, the strong wall of his chest, all taunted her, when she’d only meant to taunt him, to show him what she could offer. If she chose.

  Instead, swept into need, rushed into it by that mating of lips, she offered more than she’d intended. And he gave nothing back.

  She caught his bottom lip between her teeth, one quick, sharp nip, then masked an outrageous rush of disappointment by stepping casually back and aiming an amused smile at him.

  “My, my, you’re a cool one, aren’t you, Lieutenant?”

  His blood burned with every heartbeat, but he merely inclined his head. “You’re not used to being resistible, are you, Grace?”

  “No.” She rubbed a fingertip lightly over her lip in a movement that was both absent and provocative. The essence of him clung stubbornly there, insisting it belonged. “But then, most of the men I’ve kissed haven’t had ice water in their veins. It’s a shame.” She took her finger from her own lip, tapped it on his. “Such a nice mouth. Such potential. Still, maybe you just don’t care for…women.”

  The grin he flashed stunned her. His eyes glowed with it, in fascinating tones of gold. His mouth softened with a charm that had a wicked and unpredictable appeal. Suddenly he was approachable, nearly boyish, and it made her heart yearn.

  “Maybe,” he said, “you’re just not my type.”

  She gave one short, humorless laugh. “Darling, I’m every man’s type. Well, we’ll just chalk it up to a failed experiment and move on.” Telling herself it was foolish to be hurt, she stepped to him again, reached up to straighten the tie she’d loosened.

  He didn’t want her to touch him, not then, not when he was so precariously perched on the edge. “You’ve got a hell of an ego there.”

  “I suppose I do.” With her hands still on his tie, she looked up, into his eyes. The hell with it, she thought, if they couldn’t be lovers, maybe they could be cautious friends. The man who had looked at her and grinned would be a good, solid friend.

  So she smiled at him with a sweetness that was without art or guile, lancing his heart with one clean blow. “But then, men are generally predictable. You’re just the exception to the rule, Seth, the one that proves it.”

  She brushed her hands down, smoothing his jacket and said something more, but he didn’t hear it over the roaring in his ears. His control broke; he felt the snap, like the twang of a sword violently broken over an armored knee. In a movement he was hardly aware of, he spun her around, pressed her back against the wall, and was ravaging her mouth.

  Her heart kicked in her chest, drove the breath out of her body. She gripped his shoulders as much for balance as in response to the sudden, violent need that shot from him to her and fused them together.

  She yielded, utterly, then locked her arms around his neck and poured herself back.

  Here, was all her dazzled mind could think. Oh, here, at last.

  His hands raced over her, molded and somehow recognized each curve. And the recognition seared through him, as hot and real as the surge of desire. He wanted that taste, had to have it inside him, to swallow it whole. He assaulted her mouth like a man feeding after a lifelong fast, filled himself with the flavors of her, all of them dark, ripe, succulent.

  She was there for him, had always been there—impossibly there. And he knew that if he didn’t pull back, he’d never be able to survive without her.

  He slapped his hands on the wall on either side of her head to stop himself from touching, to stop himself from taking. Fighting to regain both his breath and his sanity, he eased out of the kiss, stepped away.

  She continued to lean back against the wall, her eyes closed, her skin luminous with passion. By the time her lashes fluttered up and those slumberous blue eyes focused, he had his control snapped back ruthlessly in place.

  “Unpredictable,” she managed, barely resisting the urge to press both hands to her galloping heart. “Very.”

  “I warned you about pushing the wrong buttons.” His voice was cool, edging toward cold, and had the effect of a backhand slap.

  She flinched from it, might have reeled, if she hadn’t been braced by the wall. His eyes narrowed fractionally at the reaction. Hurt? he wondered. No, that was ridiculous. She was a veteran game player and knew all the angles.

  “Yes, you did.” She straightened, pride stiffening her spine and forcing her lips to curve in a casual smile. “I’m just so resistant to warnings.”

  He thought she should be required by law to carry one—Danger! Woman!

  “I’ve got work to do. I can give you another five minutes, if you want me to wait while you pack some things.”

  Oh, you bastard, she thought. How can you be so cool, so unaffected? “You toddle right along, handsome. I’ll be fine.”

  “I’d prefer you weren’t in the house alone for the moment. Go pack some things.”

  “It’s my home.”

  “Right now, it’s a crime scene. You’re down to four and a half minutes.”

  Fury vibrated through her in hot, pulsing beats. “I don’t need anything here.” She turned, started out, whirling back when he took her arm. “What?”

  “You need clothes,” he said, patient now. “For a day or two.”

  “Do you really think I’d wear anything that bastard might have touched?”

  “That’s a foolish and a predictable reaction.” His tone didn’t soften in the least. “You’re not a foolish or a predictable woman. Don’t be a victim, Grace. Go pack your things.”

  He was right. She could have despised him for that alone. But the frustrated need still fisted inside her was a much better reason. She said nothing at all, simply turned again and walked away.

  When he didn’t hear the front door slam, he was satisfied that she’d gone upstairs to pack, as he’d told her to. Seth turned off the coffeemaker, rinsed the cups and set them in the sink, then went out to wait for her.

  She was a fascinating woman, he thought. Full of temperament, energy and ego. And she was undoing him, knot by carefully tied knot. How she knew exactly what strings to pull to do so was just one more mystery.

  He’d taken this case on, he reminded himself. Riding a desk and delegating were only part of the job. He needed to be involved, and he’d involved himself with this—and therefore with her. Grace’s part of the whole was small, but he needed to treat her with the same objectivity that he treated every other piece of the case with.

  He looked up, his gaze drawn to the portrait that smiled down so invitingly.

  He’d have to be more machine than man to stay objective when it came to Grace Fontaine.

  It was midafternoon before he could clear his desk enough to handle a follow-up interview. The diamonds were the key, and he wanted another look at them. He hadn’t been surprised when his phone conversation with Dr. Linstrum at the Smithsonian resulted in a testimonial to Bailey James’s integrity and skill. The diamonds she’d gone to such lengths to protect remained at Salvini, and in her care.

  When Seth pulled into the parking lot of the elegant corner building just outside D.C. that housed Salvini, he nodded to the uniformed cop guarding the main door. And felt a faint tug of sympathy. The heat was brutal.

  “Lieutenant.” Despite a soggy uniform, the officer snapped to attention.

  “Ms. James inside?”

  “Yes, sir. The store’s closed to the public for the next week.” He indicated the darkened showroom through the thick glass doors with a jerk of the head. “We have a guard posted at every entrance, and Ms. James is on the lower level. It’s easier access through the rear, Lieutenant.”

  “Fine. When’s your relief, Officer?”

  “I’ve got another hour.” The cop didn’t wipe his brow, but he wanted to. Seth Buchanan had a reputation for being a stickler. “Four-hour rotations, as per your orders, sir.”

; “Bring a bottle of water with you next time.” Well aware that the uniform sagged the minute his back was turned, Seth rounded the building. After a brief conversation with the duty guard at the rear, he pressed the buzzer beside the reinforced steel door. “Lieutenant Buchanan,” he said when Bailey answered through the intercom. “I’d like a few minutes.”

  It took her some time to get to the door. Seth visualized her coming out of the workroom on the lower level, winding down the short corridor, passing the stairs where she’d hidden from a killer only days before.

  He’d been through the building himself twice, top to bottom. He knew that not everyone could have survived what she’d been through in there.

  The locks clicked, the door opened. “Lieutenant.” She smiled at the guard, silently apologizing for his miserable duty. “Please come in.”

  She looked neat and tidy, Seth thought, with her trim blouse and slacks, her blond hair scooped back. Only the faint shadows under her eyes spoke of the strain she’d been under.

  “I spoke with Dr. Linstrum,” Seth began.

  “Yes, I expect you did. I’m very grateful for his understanding.”

  “The stones are back where they started.”

  She smiled a little. “Well, they’re back where they were a few days ago. Who knows if they’ll ever see Rome again. Can I get you something cold to drink?” She gestured toward a soft-drink machine standing brightly against a dark wall.

  “I’ll buy.” He plugged in coins. “I’d like to see the diamonds, and have a few words with you.”

  “All right.” She pressed the button for her choice, and retrieved the can that clunked down the shoot. “They’re in the vault.” She continued to speak as she led the way. “I’ve arranged to have the security and alarm system beefed up. We’ve had cameras in the showroom for a number of years, but I’ll have them installed at the doors, as well, and for the upper and lower levels. All areas.”

  “That’s wise.” He concluded that there was a practical streak of common sense beneath the fragile exterior. “You’ll run the business now?”

  She opened a door, hesitated. “Yes. My stepfather left it to the three of us, with my stepbrothers sharing eighty percent between them. In the event any of us died without heirs, the shares go to the survivors.” She drew in a breath. “I survived.”

  “That’s something to be grateful for, Bailey, not guilty about.”

  “Yes, that’s what Cade says. But you see, I once had the illusion, at least, that they were family. Have a seat, I’ll get the Stars.”

  He moved into the work area, glanced at the equipment, the long worktable. Intrigued, he stepped closer, examining the glitter of colored stones, the twists of gold. It was going to be a necklace, he realized, running a fingertip over the silky length of a closely linked chain. Something bold, almost pagan.

  “I needed to get back to work,” she said from behind him. “To do something…different, my own, I suppose, before I faced dealing with these again.”

  She set down a padded box that held the trio of diamonds.

  “Your design?” he asked, gesturing to the piece on the worktable.

  “Yes. I see the piece in my head. I can’t draw worth a lick, but I can visualize. I wanted to make something for M.J. and for Grace to…” She sighed, sat on the high stool. “Well, let’s say to celebrate survival.”

  “And this is the one for Grace.”

  “Yes.” She smiled, pleased that he’d sensed it. “I see something more streamlined for M.J. But this is Grace.” Carefully she set the unfinished work in a tray, slid the padded box containing the Three Stars between them. “They never lose their impact. Each time I see them, it stuns.”

  “How long before you’re finished with them?”

  “I’d just begun when—when I had to stop.” She cleared her throat. “I’ve verified their authenticity. They are blue diamonds. Still, both the museum and the insurance carrier prefer more in-depth verification. I’ll be running a number of other tests beyond what I’ve already started or completed. A metallurgist is testing the triangle, but that will be given to me for further study in a day or two. It shouldn’t take more than a week altogether before the museum can take possession.”

  He lifted a stone from the bed, knew as soon as it was in his hand that it was the one Grace had carried with her. He told himself that was impossible. His untrained eye couldn’t tell one stone from either of its mates.

  Yet he felt her on it. In it.

  “Will it be hard to part with them?”

  “I should say no, after the past few days. But yes, it will.”

  Grace’s eyes were this color, Seth realized. Not sapphire, but the blue of the rare, powerful diamond.

  “Worth killing for,” he said quietly, looking at the stone in his hand. “Dying for.” Then, annoyed with himself, he set the stone down again. “Your stepbrothers had a client.”

  “Yes, they spoke of a client, argued about him. Thomas wanted to take the money, the initial deposit, and run.”

  The money was being checked now, but there wasn’t much hope of tracing its source.

  “Timothy told Thomas he was a fool, that he’d never be able to run far or fast enough. That he—the client—would find him. He’s not even human. Timothy said that, or something like it. They were both afraid, terribly afraid, and terribly desperate.”

  “Over their heads.”

  “Yes, I think very much over their heads.”

  “It would have to be a collector. No one could move these stones for resale.” He glanced at the gems sparkling in their trays like pretty stars. “You acquire, buy and sell to collectors of gems.”

  “Yes—certainly not on a scale like the Three Stars, but yes.” She skimmed her fingers absently through her hair. “A client might come to us with a stone, or a request for one. We’d also acquire certain gems on spec, with a particular client in mind.”

  “You have a client list, then? Names, preferences?”

  “Yes, and we have records of what a client had purchased, or sold.” She gripped her hands together. “Thomas would have kept it, in his office. Timothy would have copies in his. I’ll find them for you.”

  He touched her shoulder lightly before she could slide from the stool. “I’ll get them.”

  She let out a breath of relief. She had yet to be able to face going upstairs, into the room where she’d seen murder. “Thank you.”

  He took out his notebook. “If I asked you to name the top gem collectors, your top clients, what names come to mind? Off the top of your head?”

  “Oh.” Concentrating, she gnawed on her lip. “Peter Morrison in London, Sylvia Smythe-Simmons of New York, Henry and Laura Muller here in D.C. Matthew Wolinski in California. And I suppose Charles Van Horn here in D.C., too, though he’s new to it. We sold him three lovely stones over the last two years. One was a spectacular opal I coveted. I’m still hoping he’ll let me set it for him. I have this design in my head….”

  She shook herself, trailed off when she realized why he was asking. “Lieutenant, I know these people. I’ve dealt with them personally. The Mullers were friends of my stepfather’s. Mrs. Smythe-Simmons is over eighty. None of them are thieves.”

  He didn’t bother to glance up, but continued to write. “Then we’ll be able to check them off the list. Taking anything or anyone at face value is a mistake in an investigation, Ms. James. We’ve had enough mistakes already.”

  “With mine standing out.” Accepting that fact, she nudged her untouched soft drink over the table. “I should have gone to the police right away. I should have turned the information—at the very least, my suspicions—over to the authorities. Several people would still be alive if I had.”

  “It’s possible, but it’s not a given.” Now he did glance up, noted the haunted look in those soft brown eyes. Compassion stirred. “Did you know your stepbrother was being blackmailed by a second-rate bail bondsman?”

  “No,” she murmured.

“Did you know that someone was pulling the strings, pulling them hard enough to turn your stepbrother into a killer?”

  She shook her head, bit down hard on her lip. “The things I didn’t know were the problem, weren’t they? I put the two people I love most in terrible danger, then I forgot about them.”

  “Amnesia isn’t a choice, it’s a condition. And your friends handled themselves. They still are—in fact, I saw Ms. Fontaine just this morning. She doesn’t look any the worse for wear to me.”

  Bailey caught the disdainful note and turned to face him. “You don’t understand her. I would have thought a man who does what you do for a living would be able to see more clearly than that.”

  He thought he caught a faint hint of pity in her voice, and resented it. “I’ve always thought of myself as clear-sighted.”

  “People are rarely clear-sighted when it comes to Grace. They only see what she lets them see—unless they care enough to look deeper. She has the most generous heart of any person I’ve ever known.”

  Bailey caught the quick flicker of amused disbelief in his eyes and felt her anger rising against it. Furious, she pushed off the stool. “You don’t know anything about her, but you’ve already dismissed her. Can you conceive of what she’s going through right now? Her cousin was murdered—and in her stead.”

  “She’s hardly to blame for that.”

  “Easy to say. But she’ll blame herself, and so will her family. It’s easy to blame Grace.”

  “You don’t.”

  “No, because I know her. And I know she’s dealt with perceptions and opinions just like yours most of her life. And her way of dealing with it is to do as she chooses, because whatever she does, those perceptions and opinions rarely change. Right now, she’s with her aunt, I imagine, and taking the usual emotional beating.”

  Her voice heated, became rushed, as emotions swarmed. “Tonight, there’ll be a memorial service for Melissa, and the relatives will hammer at her, the way they always do.”

  “Why should they?”

  “Because that’s what they do best.” Running out of steam she turned her head, looked down at the Three Stars. Love, knowledge, generosity, she thought. Why did it seem there was so little of it in the world? “Maybe you should take another look, Lieutenant Buchanan.”

  He’d already taken too many, he decided. And he was wasting time. “She certainly inspires loyalty in her friends,” he commented. “I’m going to look for those lists.”

  “You know the way.” Dismissing him, Bailey picked up the stones to carry them back to the vault.

  Grace was dressed in black, and had never felt less like grieving. It was six in the evening, and a light rain was beginning to fall. It promised to turn the city into a massive steam room instead of cooling it off. The headache that had been slyly brewing for hours snarled at the aspirin she’d already taken and leaped into full, vicious life.

  She had an hour before the wake, one she had arranged quickly and alone, because her aunt demanded it. Helen Fontaine was handling grief in her own way—as she did everything else. In this case, it was by meeting Grace with a cold, damning and dry eye. Cutting off any offer of support or sympathy. And demanding that services take place immediately, and at Grace’s expense and instigation.

  They would be coming from all points, Grace thought as she wandered the large, empty room, with its banks of flowers, thick red drapes, deep pile carpeting. Because such things were expected, such things were reported in the press. And the Fontaines would never give the public media a bone to pick.

  Except, of course, for Grace herself.

  It hadn’t been difficult to arrange for the funeral home, the music, the flowers, the tasteful canapés. Only phone calls and the invocation of the Fontaine name were required. Helen had brought the photograph herself, the large color print in a shining silver frame that now decorated a polished mahogany table and was flanked with red roses in heavy silver vases that Melissa had favored.

  There would be no body to view.

  Grace had arranged for Melissa’s body to be released from the morgue, had already written the check for the cremation and the urn her aunt had chosen.

  There had been no thanks, no acknowledgment. None had been expected.

  It had been the same from the moment Helen became her legal guardian. She’d been given the necessities of life—Fontaine-style. Gorgeous homes in several countries to live in, perfectly prepared food, tasteful clothing, an excellent education.

  And she’d been told, endlessly, how to eat, how to dress, how to behave, who could be selected as a friend and who could not. Reminded, incessantly, of her good fortune—unearned—in having such a family behind her. Tormented, ruthlessly, by the cousin she was there tonight to mourn, for being orphaned, dependent.

  For being Grace.

  She’d rebelled against all of it, every aspect, every expectation and demand. She’d refused to be malleable, biddable, predictable. The ache for her parents had eventually dimmed, and with it the child’s desperate need for love and acceptance.

  She’d given the press plenty to report. Wild parties, unwise affairs, unrestricted spending.

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