Hidden star, p.16
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       Hidden Star, p.16
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         Part #1 of Stars of Mithra series by Nora Roberts
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  “Well, say hello to him in hell.” Cade struggled to focus on Bailey again. Her brows were drawn together in concentration. “You need your glasses for close work, honey.”

  “Quiet. Let me stop the bleeding before I call for an ambulance.”

  “I’m supposed to tell you it’s just a flesh wound, but the truth is, it hurts like hell.”

  “I’m sorry. So sorry.” She wanted to lay her head on his shoulder and weep, just weep. But she continued to make a thick pad out of what she’d torn from his shirt and pressed it firmly against the long, deep gash. “I’ll call for an ambulance as soon as I finish bandaging this. You’re going to be fine.”

  “Call Detective Mick Marshall. Be sure to ask for him, use my name.”

  “I will. Be quiet. I will.”

  “What in the world is going on here?”

  The voice made him wince. “Tell me I’m hallucinating,” he murmured. “Tell me, and I’m begging you, tell me that’s not my mother.”

  “Good God, Cade, what have you done? Is this blood?”

  He closed his eyes. Dimly he heard Bailey, in a firm, no-nonsense voice, order his mother to call an ambulance. And, gratefully, he passed out.

  He came to in the ambulance, with Bailey holding his hand, rain pattering briskly on the roof. And again in the ER, with lights shining in his eyes and people shouting. Pain was like a greedy beast biting hunks out of his arm.

  “Could I have some drugs here?” he asked, as politely as possible, and went out again.

  The next time he surfaced, he was in a bed. He remained still, eyes closed, until he tested the level of pain and consciousness. He gave the pain a six on a scale of ten, but he seemed to be fully awake this time.

  He opened his eyes, and saw Bailey. “Hi. I was hoping you’d be the first thing I’d see.”

  She got up from the chair beside the bed to take his hand. “Twenty-six stitches, no muscle damage. You lost a lot of blood, but they pumped more into you.” Then she sat on the edge of the bed and indulged in a good cry.

  She hadn’t shed a tear since she fought to stop the bleeding as he lay on the floor. Not during the ambulance ride, speeding through the wet streets while lightning and thunder strode across the sky.

  Or during the time she spent pacing the hospital corridors, or during the headachy ordeal of dealing with his parents. Not even when she struggled to tell the police what had happened.

  But now she let it all out.

  “Sorry,” she said when she’d finished.

  “Rough day, huh?”

  “As days go, it was one of the worst.”

  “Salvini?”

  She looked away toward the window where the rain ran wet. “He’s dead. I called the police. I asked for Detective Marshall. He’s outside waiting for you to wake up, and for the doctors to clear him in.” She stood, straightened the sheets. “I tried to tell him everything, to make it clear. I’m not sure how well I did, but he took notes, asked questions. He’s worried about you.”

  “We go back some. We’ll straighten it out, Bailey,” he told her, and reached for her hand again. “Can you hold up a little longer?”

  “Yes, as long as it takes.”

  “Tell Mick to get me out of here.”

  “That’s ridiculous. You’ve been admitted for observation.”

  “I’ve got stitches in my arm, not a brain tumor. I’m going home, drinking a beer and dumping this on Mick.”

  She angled her chin. “Your mother said you’d start whining.”

  “I’m not whining, I’m…” He trailed off, narrowed his eyes as he sat up. “What do you mean, my mother? Wasn’t I hallucinating?”

  “No, she came over to give you a chance to apologize, which apparently you never do.”

  “Great, take her side.”

  “I’m not taking her side.” Bailey caught herself, shook her head. Could they actually be having this conversation at such a time? “She was terrified, Cade, when she realized what had happened, that you were hurt. She and your father—”

  “My father? I thought he was off fly-fishing in Montana.”

  “He just got home this morning. They’re in the waiting room right now, worried to death about you.”

  “Bailey, if you have one single ounce of affection for me, make them go away.”

  “I certainly will not, and you should be ashamed of yourself.”

  “I’ll be ashamed later. I’ve got stitches.” It wasn’t going to work. He could see that plainly enough. “All right, here’s the deal. You can send my parents in, and I’ll square things with them. Then I want to see the doctor and get sprung. We’ll talk to Mick at home and square things there.”

  Bailey folded her arms. “She said you always expect to have your own way.” With that, she turned and marched to the door.

  It took a lot of charm, arguments and stubbornness, but in just over three hours, Cade was sinking onto his own sofa. It took another two, with the distraction of Bailey fussing over him, to fill Mick in on the events since Thursday night.

  “You’ve been a busy boy, Parris.”

  “Hey, private work isn’t eating doughnuts and drinking coffee, pal.”

  Mick grunted. “Speaking of coffee.” He glanced toward Bailey. “I don’t mean to put you out, Miss James.”

  “Oh.” She got to her feet. “I’ll make a fresh pot.” She took his empty mug and hurried off.

  “Smooth, Mick, very smooth.”

  “Listen.” Mick leaned closer. “The lieutenant’s not going to be happy with two corpses and two missing diamonds.”

  “Buchanan’s never happy.”

  “He doesn’t like play cops like you on principle, but there’s a lot of bad angles on this one. Your lady friend waiting four days to report a murder’s just one of them.”

  “She didn’t remember. She’d blocked it out.”

  “Yeah, she says. And me, I believe her. But the lieutenant…”

  “Buchanan has any trouble with it, you send him my way.” Incensed, Cade pushed himself up and ignored the throbbing in his arm. “Good God, Mick, she watched one of her brothers murder the other, then turn on her. You go to the scene, look at what she looked at, then tell me you’d expect a civilian to handle it.”

  “Okay.” Mick held up a hand. “Shipping off the diamonds.”

  “She was protecting them. They’d be gone now, if she hadn’t done something. You’ve got her statement and mine. You know exactly how it went down. She’s been trying to complete the circle since she came to me.”

  “That’s how I see it,” Mick said after a moment, and glanced down at the canvas bag by his chair. “She’s turned everything over. There’s no question here about self-defense. He broke a pane out in the back door, walked in, waited for you.”

  Mick threaded a hand through his wiry hair. He knew how easily it could have gone down another way. How easily he could have lost a friend. “Thought I told you to put in an alarm.”

  Cade shrugged. “Maybe I will, now that I’ve got something worth protecting.”

  Mick glanced toward the kitchen. “She’s, ah, choice.”

  “She’s certainly mine. We need to find M. J. O’Leary and Grace Fontaine, Mick, and fast.”

  “We?”

  “I’m not going to sit on my butt.”

  Mick nodded again. “All we’ve got on O’Leary is there was a disturbance in her apartment, what looks like a whale of a fight, and her running off with some guy wearing a pony tail. Looks like she’s gone to ground.”

  “Or is being held there,” Cade murmured, casting a glance over his shoulder to make certain Bailey was still out of earshot. “I told you about the message on Bailey’s recorder.”

  “Yeah. No way to trace a message, but we’ll put a flag out on her. As for Fontaine, I’ve got men checking her house in Potomac, and we’re hunting down her place up in the mountains. I should know something in a couple hours.”

  He rose, hefted the bag, grinned. “Meanwhile, I get to
dump this on Buchanan, watch him tap dance with the brass from the Smithsonian.” He had to chuckle, knowing just how much his lieutenant hated playing diplomat with suits. “How much you figure the rocks are worth?”

  “So far, at least two lives,” Bailey said as she carried in a tray of coffee.

  Mick cleared his throat. “I’m sorry for your loss, Miss James.”

  “So am I.” But she would live with it. “The Three Stars of Mithra don’t have a price, Detective. Naturally, for insurance purposes and so forth, the Smithsonian required a professional assessment of market value. But whatever dollar value I can put on them as a gemologist is useless, really. Love, knowledge and generosity. There is no price.”

  Not quite sure of his moves, Mick shifted his feet. “Yes, ma’am.”

  She worked up a smile for him. “You’re very kind and very patient. I’m ready to go whenever you are.”

  “Go?”

  “To the station. You have to arrest me, don’t you?”

  Mick scratched his head, shifted his feet again. It was the first time in his twenty-year career that he’d had a woman serve him coffee, then politely ask to be arrested. “I’d have a hard time coming up with the charge. Not that I don’t want you to stay available, but I figure Cade’s got that handled. And I imagine the museum’s going to want to have a long talk with you.”

  “I’m not going to jail?”

  “Now she goes pale. Sit down, Bailey.” To ensure that she did, Cade took her hand with his good one and tugged.

  “I assumed, until the diamonds were recovered…I’m responsible.”

  “Your brothers were responsible,” Cade corrected.

  “I have to go with that,” Mick agreed. “I’m going to take a rain check on the coffee. I may need to talk to you again, Miss James.”

  “My friends?”

  “We’re on it.” He gave Cade a quick salute and left.

  “Timothy can’t hurt them now,” she murmured. “But whoever hired him—”

  “Only wants the diamonds, not your friends. Odds are Grace is up in her mountain hideaway, and M.J. is out busting some guy’s chops.”

  It almost made her smile. “You’re right. We’ll hear from them soon. I’m sure of it. I’d know if something had happened to them. I’d feel it.” She poured a cup of coffee, then left it sitting untouched. “They’re the only family I have left. I suppose they’re the only family I’ve had for a long time. I just pretended otherwise.”

  “You’re not alone, Bailey. You know that.”

  No, she wasn’t alone. He was there, waiting. “You should lie down, Cade.”

  “Come with me.”

  She turned, caught the fresh cockiness of his grin. “And rest.”

  “I’m not tired.”

  Her smile faded, and her eyes went dark and serious. “You saved my life.”

  He thought of the way she’d leaped onto Salvini’s back, biting and scratching like a wildcat. “I’d say it was a toss-up as to who saved whom.”

  “You saved my life,” she said again, slowly. “The minute I walked into yours. I’d have been lost without you. Today, you shielded me, fought for me. Risked your life to protect mine.”

  “I’ve always wanted to slay the dragon for the damsel. You gave me the chance.”

  “It’s not white knights or Sam Spade.” Her voice went rough with emotion. “It was real blood pouring out of you. My brother who turned a knife on you.”

  “And you,” he reminded her. “You’re not responsible for what he did, and you’re too smart to believe you are.”

  “I’m trying to be.” She turned away for a moment, until she had her courage in place. “If it had gone the other way, if it had been you who died, who else could I blame? I came to you. I brought this to you.”

  “It’s my job.” He rose, winced only a little. “Are you going to have a problem with that? What I do for a living? The risks involved with it?”

  “I haven’t thought that far.” She turned back, faced him. “What you’ve done for me comes first. I’ll never be able to repay you for a moment of it.”

  In an impatient movement, he scooped the hair out of his face. “You’re going to tick me off here, Bailey.”

  “No, I’m going to say what I have to say. You believed me, right from the first. You took me into your home. You bought me a hairbrush. Something so simple, hundreds of others would have overlooked it. You listened to me and promised to help. You kept your promise. And today it almost killed you.”

  His eyes went sharp. “Do you want me to tell you I’d die for you? I suppose I would. Would I kill for you? Without question. You’re not a fantasy to me, Bailey. You’re what made reality snap into place.”

  Her heart fluttered into her throat and swelled. He was angry with her again, she noted. His eyes were impatient in his bruised face. His arm was bandaged from elbow to shoulder and had to be painful.

  And he was hers, without question, for the taking.

  “I guess I’m trying to figure out why.”

  “You want to be reasonable where reason doesn’t fit. It’s not a piece of the puzzle, Bailey. It’s the whole puzzle.” Frustrated, he dragged a hand through his hair again. “Love was the first Star, wasn’t it? And so is this.”

  That simple, she realized. That powerful. Pressing her lips together, she took a step toward him. “I’m Bailey James,” she began. “I’m twenty-five and live in Washington, D.C. I’m a gemologist. I’m single.”

  She had to stop, pace herself before she babbled. “I’m neat. One of my closest friends says neatness is a religion to me, and I’m afraid she may be right. I like everything in its place. I like to cook, but don’t often, as I live alone. I like old movies, especially film noir.”

  He was grinning at her now, but she shook her head. There had to be more to her than that. “Let me think,” she muttered, impatient with herself. “I have a weakness for Italian shoes. I’d rather do without lunch for a month than a nice pair of pumps. I like good clothes and antiques. I prefer buying one good thing than several inferior ones. That same friend calls me a retail snob, and it’s true. I’d rather go rockhounding than visit Paris, though I wouldn’t mind doing both.”

  “I’ll take you.”

  But she shook her head again. “I’m not finished. I have flaws, a lot of flaws. Sometimes I read very late into the night and fall asleep with the light on and the TV going.”

  “Well, we’ll have to fix that.”

  He stepped toward her, but she stepped back, held up a hand. “Please. I squint without my reading glasses, and I hate wearing them because I’m vain, so I squint quite a lot. I didn’t date much in college, because I was shy and studious and boring. My only sexual experience has come about recently.”

  “Is that so? If you’d shut up, you could have another sexual experience.”

  “I’m not done.” She said it sharply, like a teacher chastising a rowdy student. “I’m good at my work. I designed these rings.”

  “I’ve always admired them. You’re so pretty when you’re serious, Bailey. I’ve got to get my hands on you.”

  “I’m not without ambition,” she continued, sidestepping his grab for her. “I intend to be successful in what I do. And I like the idea of making a name for myself.”

  “If you’re going to make me chase you around the sofa, at least give me a handicap. I’ve got stitches.”

  “I want to be important to someone. I want to know I matter. I want to have children and cook Thanksgiving dinner. I want you to understand that I’ve tried to be sensible about this, because that’s the way I am. I’m precise and I’m practical and I can be very tedious.”

  “I’ve never spent such a boring weekend in my entire life,” he said dryly. “I could barely keep my eyes open.” When she chuckled, he outmaneuvered her and pulled her into his arms. And swore as pain radiated straight up to his shoulder.

  “Cade, if you’ve opened those stitches—”

  “You’re so prec
ise and practical, you can sew me back up.” He lifted her chin with his fingers, smiled. “Are you finished yet?”

  “No. My life isn’t going to be settled until M.J. and Grace are back and I know they’re safe and the Three Stars are in the museum. I’ll worry until then. I’m very good at worrying, but I believe you already know that.”

  “I’ll write it down in case it slips my mind again. Now, why don’t you take me upstairs and play doctor?”

  “There’s one more thing.” When he rolled his eyes, she drew in a breath. “I love you very much.”

  He went very still, and the fingers on her chin tightened. Emotions poured through him, sweet and potent as wine. There might not be stars in her eyes, he thought. But her heart was in them. And it belonged to him.

  “Took you long enough to get to it.”

  “I thought it was the best place to finish.”

  He kissed her for a long, gentle time. “It’s a better place to start,” he murmured.

  “I love you, Cade,” she repeated, and touched her lips to his again. “Life starts now.”

  Epilogue

  One Star was out of his reach, for the time being. He’d known the moment it was placed in the hands of the authorities. He hadn’t raged or cursed the gods. He was, after all, a civilized man. He had only sent his quivering messenger away with a single icy stare.

  Now, he sat in his treasure room, gliding his finger over the stem of a golden goblet filled with wine. Music poured liquidly through the air, soothing him.

  He adored Mozart, and gently followed the strains of the music with his hand.

  The woman had caused him a great deal of trouble. Salvini had underestimated her, had claimed she was nothing more than a token, a pet of his late father’s. With some brains, of course, and undeniable skill, but no courage. A quiet mouse of a woman, he’d been told, who closed herself off with her rocks and minded her own business.

  The mistake had been to trust Salvini’s estimation of Bailey James.

  But he wouldn’t make that mistake again. He chuckled to himself. He wouldn’t be required to, as Ms. James and her protector had dealt so finally with Timothy Salvini.

  And with that convenience, there was nothing to link him with the stones, with the deaths. And nothing to stop him from completing his plan—with some adjustments, of course. He could be flexible when it was necessary.

  Two Stars were still free, still lost or wandering. He could see them if he closed his eyes, pulsing with light, waiting for him to take them, unite them with the third. Embrace their power.

  He would have them soon enough. Whoever stood in his way would be removed.

  It was a pity, really. There had been no need for violence. No need for a single drop of blood to be spilled. But now that it had, well…

  He smiled to himself and drank deep of warm red wine. Blood, he thought, would have blood.

  Three women, three stones, three Stars. It was almost poetic. He could appreciate the irony of it. And when the golden triangle was complete, when the Three Stars of Mithra were his alone, and he could stroke them as they sat on the altar, he would think of the women who’d tried to turn his destiny aside.

  He would remember them with some fondness, even admiration.

  He hoped he could arrange for them all to die poetically.

 
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