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Secret Star, Page 2

Nora Roberts

  For a ghost, she met his earlier fantasy perfectly. The voice was a purr, hot and husky and stunningly alive. And for the recently departed, she had a very warm flush of temper in her cheeks. It wasn’t often that Seth’s mind clicked off. But it had. He saw a woman, runway-fresh in white silk, the glint of jewels at her ears and a shiny silver gun in her hand.

  He pulled himself back roughly, though none of the shock or the effort showed as he met her demand with an unsmiling response. “I am the police.”

  Her lips curved, a generous bow of sarcasm. “Of course you are, handsome. Who else would be creeping around a locked house when no one’s at home but an overworked cop on his beat?”

  “I haven’t been a beat cop for quite some time. I’m Buchanan. Lieutenant Seth Buchanan. If you’d aim your weapon just a little to the left of my heart, I’ll show you my badge.”

  “I’d just love to see it.” Watching him, she slowly shifted the barrel of the gun. Her heart was thudding like a jackhammer with a combination of fear and anger, but she took another casual step forward as he reached two fingers into his pocket. The badge looked real enough, she mused. What she could see of the identification with the gold shield on the flap that he held up.

  And she began to get a very bad feeling. A worse sinking in the stomach sensation than she’d experienced when she pulled up to the drive, saw the strange car and the lights blazing inside her empty house.

  She flicked her eyes from the badge up to his again. Damned if he didn’t look more like a cop than a crook, she decided. Very attractive, in a straight-edged, buttoned-down sort of fashion. The solid body, broad of shoulder and narrow of hip, appeared ruthlessly disciplined.

  Eyes like that, cool and clear and golden brown, that seemed to see everything at once, belonged to either a cop or a criminal. Either way, she imagined, they belonged to a dangerous sort of man.

  Dangerous men usually appealed to her. But at the moment, as she took in the oddity of the situation, her mood wasn’t receptive.

  “All right, Buchanan, Lieutenant Seth, why don’t you tell me what you’re doing in my house.” She thought of what she carried in her purse—what Bailey had sent her only days before—and felt that unsettling sensation in her stomach deepen.

  What kind of trouble are we in? she wondered. And just how do I slide out of it with a cop staring me down?

  “Have you got a search warrant to go along with that badge?” she demanded.

  “No, I don’t.” He’d have felt better, considerably better, if she’d put the gun down altogether. But she seemed content to hold it, aiming it lower now, no less steadily, but lower. Still, his composure had snapped back. Keeping his eyes on hers, he came down the rest of the stairs and stood in the lofty foyer, facing her. “You’re Grace Fontaine.”

  She watched him tuck his badge back into his pocket, while those unreadable cop’s eyes skimmed over her face. Memorizing features, she thought, irritated. Making mental note of any distinguishing marks. Just what the hell was going on?

  “Yes, I’m Grace Fontaine. This is my property, my home. And as you’re in it, without a proper warrant, you’re trespassing. As calling a cop seems superfluous, maybe I’ll just call my lawyer.”

  He angled his head, and unwillingly caught a whiff of that siren’s scent of hers. Perhaps it was that, and feeling its instant and unwelcome effect on his system, that had him speaking without thought.

  “Well, Ms. Fontaine, you look damn good for a dead woman.”

  Chapter 2

  Her response was to narrow her eyes, arch a brow. “If that’s some sort of cop humor, I’m afraid you’ll have to translate.”

  It annoyed him that she’d jarred the remark out of him. It wasn’t professional. Cautious, he brought a hand up slowly, tipped the barrel of the gun farther to the left. “Do you mind?” he said, then, quickly, before she could agree, he twisted it neatly out of her hand, pulled out the clip. It wasn’t the time to ask if she had a license to carry, so he merely handed her back the empty gun and pocketed the clip.

  “It’s best to keep both hands on your weapon,” he said easily, and with such sobriety that she suspected amusement lurked beneath. “And, if you want to keep it, not to get within reach.”

  “Thanks so much for the lesson in self-defense.” Obviously irritated, she opened her bag and dumped the gun inside. “But you still haven’t answered my initial question, Lieutenant. Why are you in my house?”

  “You’ve had an incident, Ms. Fontaine.”

  “An incident? More copspeak?” She blew out a breath. “Was there a break-in?” she asked, and for the first time took her attention off the man and glanced past him into the foyer. “A robbery?” she added, then caught sight of an overturned chair and some smashed crockery through the archway in the living area.

  Swearing, she started to push past him. He curled a hand over her arm to stop her. “Ms. Fontaine—”

  “Get your hand off me,” she snapped, interrupting him. “This is my home.”

  He kept his grip firm. “I’m aware of that. Exactly when was the last time you were in it?”

  “I’ll give you a damn statement after I’ve seen what’s missing.” She managed another two steps and saw from the disorder in the living area that it hadn’t been a neat or organized robbery. “Well, they did quite a job, didn’t they? My cleaning service is going to be very unhappy.”

  She glanced down to where Seth’s fingers were still curled around her arm. “Are you testing my biceps, Lieutenant? I do like to think they’re firm.”

  “Your muscle tone’s fine.” From what he could see of her in the filmy ivory slacks, it appeared more than fine. “I’d like you to answer my question, Ms. Fontaine. When were you home last?”

  “Here?” She sighed, shrugged one elegant shoulder. Her mind was flitting around the annoying details that were the backwash of a robbery. Calling her insurance agent, filing a claim, giving statements. “Wednesday afternoon. I went out of town for a few days.” She was more shaken than she cared to admit that her house had been robbed and ransacked in her absence. Her things touched and taken by strangers. But she slid him a smiling glance from under her lashes. “Aren’t you going to take notes?”

  “As a matter of fact, I am. Shortly. Who was staying in the house in your absence?”

  “No one. I don’t care to have people in my home when I’m away. Now if you’ll excuse me…” She gave her arm a quick, hard jerk and strode through the foyer and under the arch. “Good God.” The anger came first, quick and intense. She wanted to kick something, no matter that it was broken and ruined already. “Did they have to break what they didn’t cart out?” she muttered. She glanced up, saw the splintered railing and swore again. “And what the devil did they do up there? A lot of good an alarm system does if anyone can just…”

  She stopped her forward motion, her voice trailing off, as she saw the outline on the gleaming chestnut wood of the floor. As she stared at it, unable to tear her eyes away, the blood drained out of her face, leaving it painfully cold and stiff.

  Placing one hand on the back of the stained sofa for balance, she stared down at the outline, the diamond glitter of broken glass that had been her coffee table, and the blood that had dried to a dark pool.

  “Why don’t we go into the dining room?” he said quietly.

  She jerked her shoulders back, though he hadn’t touched her. The pit of her stomach was cased in ice, and the flashes of heat that lanced through her did nothing to melt it. “Who was killed?” she demanded. “Who died here?”

  “Up until a few minutes ago, it was assumed you did.”

  She closed her eyes, vaguely concerned that her vision was dimming at the edges. “Excuse me,” she said, quite clearly, and walked across the room on numb legs. She picked up a bottle of brandy that lay on its side on the floor, fumbled open a display cabinet for a glass. And poured generously.

  She took the first drink as medicine. He could see that in the way she tossed it bac
k, shuddered twice, hard. It didn’t bring the color back to her face, but he imagined it had shocked her system into functioning again.

  “Ms. Fontaine, I think it would be better if we talked about this in another room.”

  “I’m all right.” But her voice was raw. She drank again before turning to him. “Why did you think it was me?”

  “The victim was in your house, dressed in a robe. She met your general description. Her face had been…damaged by the fall. She was your approximate height and weight, your age, your coloring.”

  Her coloring, Grace thought on a wave of staggering relief. Not Bailey or M.J., then. “I had no houseguest while I was gone.” She took a deep breath, knowing the calm was there, if only she could reach it. “I have no idea who the woman was, unless it was one of the burglars. How did she—” Grace look up again at the broken railing, the viciously sharp edges of wood. “She must have been pushed.”

  “That has yet to be determined.”

  “I’m sure it has. I can’t help you as to who she was, Lieutenant. As I don’t have a twin, I can only—” She broke off, her color draining a second time. Now her free hand fisted and pressed hard to her stomach. “Oh, no. Oh, God.”

  He understood, didn’t hesitate. “Who was she?”

  “I— It could have been… She’s stayed here before while I was away. That’s why I stopped leaving a spare key outside. She might have had it copied, though. She’d think nothing of that.”

  Turning her gaze away from the outline, she walked back through the debris, sat on the arm of the sofa. “A cousin.” Grace sipped brandy again, slowly, letting it ease warmth back into her system. “Melissa Bennington— No, I think she took the Fontaine back a few months ago, after the divorce. I’m not sure.” She pushed a hand through her hair. “I wasn’t interested enough to be sure of a detail like that.”

  “She resembles you?”

  She offered a weak, humorless smile. “It’s Melissa’s mission to be me. I went from finding it mildly flattering to mildly annoying. In the last few years I found it pathetic. There’s a surface resemblance, I suppose. She’s augmented it. She let her hair grow, dyed it my color. There was some difference in build, but she…augmented that, as well. She shops the same stores, uses the same salons. Chooses the same men. We grew up together, more or less. She always felt I got the better deal on all manner of levels.”

  She made herself look back, look down, and felt a wash of grief and pity. “Apparently I did, this time around.”

  “If someone didn’t know you well, could they mistake you?”

  “A passing glance, I suppose. Maybe a casual acquaintance. No one who—” She broke off again, got to her feet. “You think someone killed her believing her to be me? Mistaking her for me, as you did? That’s absurd. It was a break-in, a burglary. A terrible accident.”

  “It’s possible.” He had indeed taken out his book to note down her cousin’s name. Now he glanced up, met her eyes. “It’s also more than possible that someone came here, mistook her for you, and assumed she had the third Star.”

  She was good, he decided. There was barely a flicker in her eyes before she lied. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

  “Yes, you do. And if you haven’t been home since Wednesday, you still have it.” He glanced down at the bag she continued to hold.

  “I don’t generally carry stars in my purse.” She sent him a smile that was shaky around the edges. “But it’s a lovely, almost poetic, thought. Now, I’m very tired—”

  “Ms. Fontaine.” His voice was clipped and cool. “This victim is the sixth body I’ve dealt with today that traces back to those three blue diamonds.”

  Her hand shot out, gripped his arm. “M.J. and Bailey?”

  “Your friends are fine.” He felt her grip go limp. “They’ve had an eventful holiday weekend, all of which could have been avoided if they’d contacted and cooperated with the police. And it’s cooperation I’ll have from you now, one way or the other.”

  She tossed her hair back. “Where are they? What did you do, toss them in a cell? My lawyer will have them out and your butt in a sling before you can finish reciting the Miranda.” She started toward the phone, saw it wasn’t on the Queen Anne table.

  “No, they’re not in a cell.” It goaded him, the way she snapped into gear, ready to buck the rules. “I imagine they’re planning your funeral right about now.”

  “Planning my—” Her fabulous eyes went huge with distress. “Oh, my God, you told them I was dead? They think I’m dead? Where are they? Where’s the damn phone? I have to call them.”

  She crouched to push through the rubble, shoving at him when he took her arm again. “They’re not home, either of them.”

  “You said they weren’t in jail.”

  “And they’re not.” He could see he’d get nothing out of her until she’d satisfied herself. “I’ll take you to them. Then we’re going to sort this out, Ms. Fontaine—I promise you.”

  Grace didn’t speak as he drove her toward the tidy suburbs edging D.C. He’d assured her that Bailey and M.J. were fine, and her instincts told her that Lieutenant Seth Buchanan was saying nothing but the truth. Facts were his business, after all, she thought. But she still gripped her hands together until her knuckles ached.

  She had to see them, touch them.

  Guilt was already weighing on her, guilt that they should be grieving for her, when she’d spent the past few days indulging her need to be alone, to be away. To be somewhere else.

  What had happened to them over the long weekend? Had they tried to contact her while she was out of reach? It was painfully obvious that the three blue diamonds Bailey had been assessing for the museum were at the bottom of it all.

  As the afterimage of that stark outline on the chestnut floor flashed into her head, Grace shuddered once again.

  Melissa. Poor, pathetic Melissa. But she couldn’t think of that now. She couldn’t think of anything but her friends.

  “They’re not hurt?” she managed to ask.

  “No.” Seth left it at that, drove through the wash of streetlights and headlights. Her scent was sliding silkily through his car, teasing his senses. Deliberately he opened his window and let the light, damp breeze chase it away. “Where have you been the last few days, Ms. Fontaine?”

  “Away.” Weary she laid her head back, shut her eyes. “It’s one of my favorite spots.”

  She jerked upright again when he turned down a tree-lined street, then swung into the drive of a brick house. She saw a shiny Jaguar, then an impossibly decrepit boat of a car. But no spiffy MG, no practical little compact.

  “Their cars aren’t here,” she began, tossing him a look of distrust and accusation.

  “But they are.”

  She climbed out and, ignoring him, hurried toward the front door. Her knock was brisk, businesslike, but her fist trembled. The door opened, and a man she’d never seen before stared down at her. His cool green eyes flickered with shock, then slowly warmed. His flash of a smile was blinding. Then he reached out, laid a hand gently on her cheek.

  “You’re Grace.”

  “Yes, I—”

  “It’s absolutely wonderful to see you.” He gathered her into his arms, one of which was freshly bandaged, with such easy affection that she didn’t have time to register surprise. “I’m Cade,” he murmured, his gaze meeting Seth’s over Grace’s head. “Cade Parris. Come on in.”

  “Bailey. M.J.”

  “Just in here. They’ll be fine as soon as they see you.” He took her arm, felt the quick, hard tremors in it. But in the doorway of the living room, she stopped, laid a hand over his arm.

  Inside, Bailey and M.J. stood, facing away, hands linked. Their voices were low, with tears wrenching through them. A man stood a short distance away, his hands thrust in his pockets and a look of helplessness on his bruised and battered face. When he saw her, his eyes, the gray of storm clouds, narrowed, flashed. Then smiled.

  Grace took one
shuddering breath, exhaled it slowly. “Well,” she said in a clear, steady voice, “it’s gratifying to know someone would weep copiously over me.”

  Both women whirled. For a moment, all three stared, three pair of eyes brimming over. To Seth’s mind, they all moved as once, as a unit, so that their leaping rush across the room to each other held an uncanny and undeniably feminine grace. Then they were fused together, voices and tears mixing.

  A triangle, he thought, frowning. With three points that made a whole. Like the golden triangle that held three priceless and powerful stones.

  “I think they could use a little time,” Cade said quietly, and gestured to the other man. “Lieutenant?” He motioned down the hall, lifting his brows when Seth hesitated. “I don’t think they’re going anywhere just now.”

  With a barely perceptible shrug, Seth stepped back. He could give them twenty minutes. “I need your phone.”

  “There’s one in the kitchen. Want a beer, Jack?”

  The third man grinned. “You’re playing my song.”

  “Amnesia,” Grace said a little time later. She and Bailey were huddled together on the sofa, with M.J. sitting on the floor at their feet. “Everything just blanked?”

  “Everything.” Bailey kept her hold on Grace’s hand tight, afraid to break the link. “I woke up in this horrible little hotel room with no memory, over a million in cash, and the diamond. I picked Cade’s name out of the phone book. Parris.” She smiled a little. “Funny, isn’t it?”

  “I’m going to get you to France yet,” Grace promised.

  “He helped me through everything.” The warmth in her tone had Grace sharing a quick look with M.J. This was something to be discussed in detail later. “I started to remember, piece by piece. You and M.J., just flashes. I could see your faces, even hear your voices, but nothing fit. He’s the one who narrowed it down to Salvini’s, and when he took me there… He broke in.”

  “Shortly before we did,” M.J. added. “Jack could tell the rear locks had been picked.”

  “We got inside,” Bailey continued, and her tear-ravaged eyes went glassy. “And I remembered, I remembered it all then, how Thomas and Timothy were planning to steal the stones, copy them. How I’d shipped one off to each of you to keep it from happening. Stupid, so stupid.”

  “No, it wasn’t.” Grace slid an arm around Bailey’s shoulders. “It makes perfect sense to me. You didn’t have time for anything else.”

  “I should have called the police, but I was so sure I could turn things around. I was going into Thomas’s office to have a showdown, tell them it was over. And I saw…” She trembled again. “The fight. Horrible. The lightning flashing through the windows, their faces. Then Timothy grabbed the letter opener, the knife. The power went out, but the lightning kept flashing, and I could see what he was doing…to Thomas. All the blood.”

  “Don’t,” M.J. murmured, rubbing a comforting hand on Bailey’s knee. “Don’t go back there.”

  “No.” Bailey shook her head. “I have to. He saw me, Grace. He would have killed me. He came after me. I had grabbed the bag with their deposit money, and I ran through the dark. And I hid down under the stairs. In this little cave under the stairs. But I could see him hunting for me, blood all over his hands. I still don’t remember how I got out, got to that room.”

  Grace couldn’t bear to imagine it—her quiet, serious-minded friend, pursued by a murderer. “The important thing is that you did get away, and you’re safe.” Grace looked down at M.J. “We all are.” She tried a bolstering grin. “And how did you spend your holiday?”

  “On the run with a bounty hunter, handcuffed to a bed in a cheap motel, being shot at by a couple of creeps—with a little detour up to your place in the mountains.”

  Bounty hunter, Grace thought, trying to keep pace. The man named Jack, she supposed, with the bronze-tipped ponytail and the stormy gray eyes. And the killer grin. Handcuffs, cheap motels, and shootings. Pressing fingertips to her eyes, she latched on to the least disturbing detail.

  “You were at my place? When?”

  “It’s a long story.” M.J. gave a quick version of a handful of days from her first encounter with Jack, when he’d tried to take her in, believing her to be a bail jumper, to the two of them escaping that setup and working their way back to the core of the puzzle.

  “We know someone’s pulling the strings,” M.J. concluded. “But we haven’t gotten very far on figuring that out yet. The bail bondsman-cum-black-mailer who gave Jack the fake paperwork on me is dead, the two guys who came after us are dead, the Salvinis are dead.”

  “And Melissa,” Grace murmured.

  “It was Melissa?” Bailey turned to Grace. “In your house?”

  “It must have been. When I got home, the cop was there. The place was torn up, and they’d assumed it was me.” It took a moment, a carefully indrawn breath, a steady exhale, before she could finish. “She’d fallen off the balcony—or been pushed. I was miles away when it happened.”

  “Where did you go?” M.J. asked her. “When Jack and I got to your country place, it was locked up tight. I thought…I was sure you’d just been there. I could smell you.”

  “I left late yesterday morning. Got an itch to be near the water, so I drove down the Eastern Shore, found a little B-and-B. I did some antiquing, rubbed elbows with tourists, watched a fireworks display. I didn’t leave until late today. I nearly stayed over another night. But I called both of you from the B-and-B and got your machines. I started feeling uncomfortable about being out of