Hidden star, p.15
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       Hidden Star, p.15
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         Part #1 of Stars of Mithra series by Nora Roberts
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  Grace. She’d have gone to Grace if she could.”

  “Did you recognize who M.J. was with from the description?”

  “No. I don’t know anyone like that, and I know most of M.J.’s friends.” She waded through the destruction of her living room and reached the phone. Her message light was blinking, but she ignored it and hastily punched in numbers. “It’s her machine,” Bailey murmured, and strained while the throaty voice recited the announcement. Then: “Grace, if you’re there, pick up. It’s urgent. I’m in trouble. M.J.’s in trouble. I don’t know where she is. I want you to go to the police, give them the package I sent you. Call me right away.”

  “Give her my number,” Cade instructed.

  “I don’t know it.”

  He took the phone himself, recited it, then handed the receiver back to Bailey.

  It was a calculated risk, revealing Bailey’s whereabouts, but the diamond was going into safekeeping and he didn’t want to put up any impediments to Grace being able to reach them. “It’s life-and-death, Grace. Don’t stay in the house alone. Get to the police. Don’t talk to my brother, whatever you do. Don’t let him in the house. Call me, please, please, call me.”

  “Where does she live?”

  “In Potomac.” Bailey told him when he gently took the receiver away and hung it up. “She may not be there at all. She has a place up in the country, western Maryland. That’s where I sent the package. There’s no phone there, and only a few people know she goes there. Other times she just gets in the car and drives until she sees someplace that suits her. She could be anywhere.”

  “How long does she usually stay out of touch?”

  “No more than a few days. She’d call me, or M.J.” With an oath, she pounced on the message machine. The first voice to flow out was Grace’s.

  “Bailey, what are you up to? Is this thing real? Are we giving smuggling a try? Look, you know how I hate these machines. I’ll be in touch.”

  “Four o’clock on Saturday.” Bailey hung on to that. “She was all right at four o’clock on Saturday, according to the machine.”

  “We don’t know where she called from.”

  “No, but she was all right on Saturday.” She punched to get the next message. This time it was M.J.

  “Bailey, listen up. I don’t know what the hell’s going on, but we’re in trouble. Don’t stay there, he might come back. I’m in a phone booth outside some dive near—” There was swearing, a rattle. “Hands off, you son of a—” And a dial tone.

  “Sunday, two a.m. What have I done, Cade?”

  Saying nothing, he punched in the next message. It was a man’s voice this time. “Little bitch, if you hear this, I’ll find you. I want what’s mine.” There was a sob, choked off. “He cut my face. He had them slice up my face because of what you did. I’m going to do the same to you.”

  “It’s Timothy,” she murmured.

  “I figured as much.”

  “He’s lost his mind, Cade. I could see it that night. Something snapped in him.”

  He didn’t doubt it, not after what he’d seen in Thomas Salvini’s office. “Is there anything you need from here?” When she only looked around blankly, he took her hand. “We’ll worry about that later. Let’s go.”

  “Where?”

  “A quiet spot where you can sit down and tell me everything else. Then we’ll make a call.”

  The park was shady and green. Somehow, the little bench under the spreading trees seemed to block out the punch of the oppressive July heat. It hadn’t rained in days, and humidity hung like a cloud of wasps in the air.

  “You need to have yourself under control when we go to the cops,” Cade told her. “You have to have your mind clear.”

  “Yes, you’re right. And I need to explain everything to you.”

  “I’m putting the pieces together well enough. That’s what I do.”

  “Yeah.” She looked down at her hands, felt useless. “That’s what you do.”

  “You lost your father when you were ten. Your mother did her best, but didn’t have a head for business. She struggled to keep a house, raise a daughter alone and run an antique business. Then she met a man, an older man, successful, competent, financially solvent and attractive, who wanted her and was willing to accept her daughter into his family.”

  She let out an unsteady breath. “I suppose that’s it, cutting to the bottom line.”

  “The child wants a family, and accepts the stepfather and stepbrothers as such. That’s it, too, isn’t it?”

  “Yes. I missed my father. Charles didn’t replace him, but he filled a need. He was good to me, Cade.”

  “And the stepbrothers’ noses were a little out of joint at the addition of a little sister. A pretty, bright, willing-to-please little sister.”

  She opened her mouth to deny it, then closed it again. It was time to face what she’d tried to ignore for years. “Yes, I suppose. I stayed out of their way. I didn’t want to make waves. They were both in college when our parents married, and when they came back and were living at home again, I was off. I can’t say we were close, but it seemed— I always felt we were a blended family. They never teased or abused me, they never made me feel unwelcome.”

  “Or welcome?”

  She shook her head. “There wasn’t any real friction until my mother died. When Charles withdrew into himself, pulled back from life so much, they took over. It seemed only natural. The business was theirs. I felt I’d always have a job with the company, but I never expected any percentage. There was a scene when Charles announced I’d have twenty percent. He was giving them forty each, but that didn’t seem to be the point to them.”

  “They hassled you?”

  “Some.” Then she sighed. “They were furious,” she admitted. “With their father, with me. Thomas backed off fairly quickly though. He was more interested in the sales-and-accounting end than the creative work, and he knew that was my area of expertise. We got along well enough. Timothy was less content with the arrangement, but he claimed I’d get tired of the routine, find some rich husband and leave it all up to them anyway.”

  It still hurt to remember that, the way he’d sneered at her. “The money Charles left me is in trust. It dribbles out to me until I reach thirty. It’s not a great deal, but more than enough. More than necessary. He put me through college, he gave me a home, he gave me a career I love.

  “And when he sent me to college, he gave me M.J. and Grace. That’s where I met them. We were in the same dorm the first semester. By the second, we were rooming together. It was as if we’d known each other all our lives. They’re the best friends I’ve ever had. Oh, God, what have I done?”

  “Tell me about them.”

  She steadied herself, and tried. “M.J.’s restless. She changed her major as often as some women change hairstyles. Took all sorts of obscure courses. She’d bomb tests or ace them, depending on her mood. She’s athletic, impatient, generous, fun, toughminded. She tended bar her last year at college for a lark, claimed she was so good at it she’d have to have her own place. She bought one two years ago. M.J.’s. It’s a pub off Georgia Avenue, near the District line.”

  “I’ve missed it.”

  “It’s kind of a neighborhood bar. Regulars, some Irish music on the weekends. If things get rowdy, she takes care of it herself most of the time. If she can’t intimidate or outyell someone, she can drop-kick them around the block. She’s got a black belt in karate.”

  “Remind me not to cross her.”

  “She’d like you. She can take care of herself, that’s what I keep telling myself. No one can take care of herself better than M. J. O’Leary.”

  “And Grace?”

  “She’s beautiful, you saw that from the sketch. That’s what most people see, and they don’t see anything else. She uses that when she likes—despises it, but uses it.”

  Watching pigeons flutter and strut, Bailey let the memories come. “She was orphaned young, younger than I, and was raised
by an aunt in Virginia. She was expected to behave, to be a certain way, a certain thing. A Virginia Fontaine.”

  “Fontaine? Department stores.”

  “Yes, money, lots of old money. At least old enough to have that luster a century or so of prestige provides. Because she was beautiful, wealthy and from a fine family, it was expected that she would be properly educated, associate with the right people and marry well. Grace had other ideas.”

  “Didn’t she pose for…?” He trailed off, cleared his throat.

  Bailey simply lifted a brow. “For a centerfold, yes, while she was still in college. The Ivy League Miss April. She did it without blinking an eye, with the idea of scandalizing her family and, as she put it, exploiting the exploiters. She came into her own money when she was twenty-one, so she didn’t give a damn what her proper family thought.”

  “I never saw the picture,” Cade said, wondering if he should be feeling regret or gratitude, under the circumstances. “But it created quite a stir.”

  “That’s just what she was after.” Bailey’s lips curved again. “Grace liked creating stirs. She modeled for a while, because it amused her. But it didn’t satisfy her. I think she’s still looking for what will satisfy her. She works very hard for charities, travels on whims. She calls herself the last of the dilettantes, but it’s not true. She does amazing work for underprivileged children, but won’t have it publicized. She has tremendous compassion and generosity for the wounded.”

  “The bartender, the socialite and the gemologist. An unlikely trio.”

  It made her smile. “I suppose it sounds that way. We— I don’t want to sound odd, but we recognized each other. It was that simple. I don’t expect you to understand.”

  “Who’d understand better?” he murmured. “I recognized you.”

  She looked up then, met his eyes. “Knowing who I am hasn’t solved anything. My life is a mess. I’ve put my friends in terrible danger, and I don’t know how to help them. I don’t know how to stop what I’ve started.”

  “By taking the next step.” He lifted her hand, brushed a kiss over the knuckles. “We go back to the house, get the canvas bag, and contact a pal of mine on the force. We’ll find your friends, Bailey.”

  He glanced up at the sky as clouds rolled over the sun. “Looks like we’re finally going to get that rain.”

  Timothy Salvini swallowed another painkiller. His face throbbed so deeply it was difficult to think. But thinking was just what he had to do. The man who had ordered his face maimed, then ordered it tended by his personal physician, had given him one last chance.

  If he didn’t find Bailey and at least one of the diamonds by nightfall, there was nowhere on earth he could hide.

  And fear was a deeper throb than pain.

  He didn’t know how it could have gone so horribly wrong. He’d planned it out, hadn’t he? Handled the details when Thomas buried his head in the sand. He was the one who’d been contacted, approached. Because he was the one with the brains, he reminded himself. He was the one who knew how to play the games.

  And he was the one who’d made the deal.

  Thomas had jumped at it at first. Half of ten million dollars would have set his twin up nicely, and would have satisfied his own craving for real wealth.

  Not the dribs and drabs of their business income, however successful the business. But real money, money to dream on.

  Then Thomas had gotten cold feet. He’d waited until the eleventh hour, when everything was falling into place, and he’d been planning to double-cross his own flesh and blood.

  Oh, he’d been furious to see that Thomas had planned on taking the million-plus deposit and leaving the country, leaving all the risk and the responsibility of pulling everything off on him.

  Because he was afraid, Salvini thought now. Because he was worried about Bailey, and what she knew. Grasping little bitch had always been in the way. But he’d have handled her, he’d have taken care of everything, if only Thomas hadn’t threatened to ruin everything.

  The argument had simply gotten out of control, he thought, rubbing a hand over his mouth. Everything had gotten out of control. The shouting, the rage, the flashing storm.

  And somehow the knife had just been there, in his hand. Gripped in his hand, and already slicked with blood before he realized it.

  He hadn’t been able to stop himself. Simply hadn’t been able to stop. He’d gone a little mad for a moment, he admitted. But it had been all the stress, the sense of betrayal, the fury at being duped by his own brother.

  And she’d been there. Staring at him with those huge eyes. Staring at him out of the dark.

  If not for the storm, if not for the dark, he’d have found her, taken care of her. She’d been lucky, that was all, just lucky. He was the one with the brains.

  It wasn’t his fault. None of it was his fault.

  But he was taking the blame for all of it. His life was on the line because of his brother’s cowardice and the schemes of a woman he’d resented for years.

  He was certain she’d shipped off at least one of the stones. He’d found the receipt for the courier in the purse she’d left in her office when she fled from him. Thought she was clever, he mused.

  She’d always thought she was the clever one. Little Miss Perfect, ingratiating herself with his father, coming back from her fancy college years with honors and awards. Honors and awards meant nothing in business. Shrewdness did. Guts did. Canniness did.

  And Timothy Salvini had all three.

  He would have had five million dollars, too, if his brother hadn’t bumbled and alerted Bailey then lost his nerve and tried to double-cross their client.

  Client, he thought, gingerly touching his bandaged cheek. It was more like master now, but that would change, too.

  He would get the money, and the stone, find the others. And then he would run far, and he would run fast. Because Timothy Salvini had looked the devil in the eye. And was smart enough to know that once the stones were in the devil’s hand, his minion would be of no more use.

  So he was a dead man.

  Unless he was smart.

  He’d been smart enough to wait. To spend hours waiting outside that apartment building for Bailey to come home. He’d known she would. She was a creature of habit, predictable as the sunrise. And she hadn’t disappointed him.

  Who would have thought that someone so…ordinary could have ruined all his plans? Separating the stones, shipping them off in different directions. Oh, that had been unexpectedly clever of her. And extremely inconvenient for him.

  But his job now was to concentrate on Bailey. Others were concentrating on the other women. He would deal with that in time, but for now his patience had paid off.

  It had been so easy, really. The fancy car had pulled up, Bailey had leaped out. And the man had followed, in too much of a hurry to lock the car door. Salvini had located the registration in the glove box, noted the address.

  Now he was breaking the window on the rear door of the empty house, and letting himself inside.

  The knife he’d used to kill his brother was tucked securely in his belt. Much quieter than a gun, and just as effective, he knew.

  Chapter 12

  “Mick’s a good cop,” Cade told Bailey as he pulled into the drive. “He’ll listen, and he’ll clear away the red tape to get to the answers.”

  “If I’d gone straight to them—”

  “You wouldn’t be any farther along than you are now,” Cade said, interrupting her. “Maybe not as far. You needed time. What you’d been through, Bailey.” It sickened him to think about it. “Give yourself a break.” He hissed through his teeth as he remembered how ruthlessly he’d pulled her through the building where it had all happened. “I’m sorry I was so hard on you.”

  “If you hadn’t pushed me, I might have kept backing away from it. Avoiding everything. I wanted to.”

  “It was catching up with you. It was hurting you.” He turned, cupped her face. “But if you hadn’t blo
cked it out, you might have gone straight back to your apartment. Like a homing pigeon, calling in your friends. He would have found you. All of you.”

  “He’d have killed me. I didn’t want to face that. Couldn’t, I suppose. I’ve thought of him as my brother for over ten years, even defended him and Thomas to M.J. and Grace. But he would have killed me. And them.”

  When she shuddered, he nodded. “The best thing you did for all three of you was to get lost for a while. No one would look for you here. Why would they?”

  “I hope you’re right.”

  “I am right. Now the next step is to bring in the cops, get them to put out an APB on Salvini. He’s scared, he’s hurting and he’s desperate. It won’t take them long.”

  “He’ll tell them who hired him.” Bailey relaxed a little. “He isn’t strong enough to do otherwise. If he thinks he can make some sort of deal with the authorities, he’ll do it. And Grace and M.J.—”

  “Will be fine. I’m looking forward to meeting them.” He leaned over, opened her door. Thunder rumbled, making her look up anxiously, and he squeezed her hand. “We’ll all go to the pub, toss back a few.”

  “It’s a date.” Brightening by the image, she got out, reached for his hand. “When this is over, maybe you can get to know me.”

  “Sweetheart, how many times do I have to tell you? I knew you the minute you walked in my door.” He jingled his keys, stuck one in the lock.

  It was blind instinct, and his innate need to protect, that saved his life.

  The movement was a blur at the corner of his eye. Cade twisted toward it, shoving Bailey back. The quick jerk of his body had the knife glancing down his arm, instead of plunging into his back.

  The pain was immediate and fierce. Blood soaked through his shirt, dripped onto his wrist, before he managed to strike out. There was only one thought in his mind—Bailey.

  “Get out!” he shouted at her as he dodged the next thrust of the knife. “Run!”

  But she was frozen, shocked by the blood, numbed by the horrid replay of another attack.

  It all happened so quickly. She was certain she’d no more than taken a breath. But she saw her brother’s face, both cheeks bandaged with gauze, a gouge over his left brow.

  Murder in his eyes, again.

  He lunged at Cade. Cade pivoted, gripped Timothy’s knife hand at the wrist. They strained against each other, their faces close as lovers’, the smell of sweat and blood and violence fouling the air.

  For a moment, they were only shadows in the dim foyer, their breath coming harsh and fast as thunder bellowed.

  She saw the knife inch closer to Cade’s face, until the point was nearly under his chin, while they swayed together on the bloody wood of the foyer, like obscene dancers.

  Her brother would kill again, and she would stand and watch.

  She lunged.

  It was a mindless, animal movement. She leaped onto his back, tore at his hair, sobbing, cursing him. The sudden jolt sent Cade stumbling backward, his hand slipping, his vision graying around the edges.

  With a howl of pain as she dug her fingers into his wounded face, Salvini threw her off. Her head rapped hard on the banister, sent stars circling in her head, flashing like lightning. But then she was up and back at him like vengeance.

  It was Cade who pulled her away, threw her back out of the path of the knife that whistled by her face. Then the force of Cade’s leap sent both him and his quarry crashing into a table. They grappled on the floor, panting like dogs. The uppermost thought in Cade’s mind was to live long enough to keep Bailey safe. But his hands were slippery with blood and wouldn’t keep a firm hold.

  Using all his strength, he managed to twist Timothy’s knife hand, veering the blade away from his own heart, then pushed away.

  When he rolled weakly upright, he knew it was over.

  Bailey was crawling to him, sobbing his name. He saw her face, the bruise just blooming on her cheekbone. He managed to lift a hand to it.

  “You’re supposed to leave the heroics to me.” His voice sounded thready, faraway, to his own ears. “How bad are you hurt? Oh God, you’re bleeding so much.” She was doing something with the fire in his arm, but it didn’t seem to matter. Turning his head, he looked into Salvini’s face. The eyes were on him, dimming but still aware.

  Cade coughed his throat clear. “Who hired you, you bastard?”

  Salvini smiled slowly. It ended in a grimace. His face was bloody, the bandages torn aside, his breathing thin. “The devil” was all he said.

 
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