Hidden star, p.1
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       Hidden Star, p.1
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         Part #1 of Stars of Mithra series by Nora Roberts  
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  Chapter 1

  Cade Parris wasn’t having the best of days when the woman of his dreams walked into his office. His secretary had quit the day before—not that she’d been much of a prize anyway, being more vigilant about her manicure than maintaining the phone logs. But he needed someone to keep track of things and shuffle papers into files. Even the raise he offered out of sheer desperation hadn’t swayed her to give up her sudden determination to become a country-and-western singing sensation.

  So his secretary was heading off to Nashville in a second-hand pickup, and his office looked like the ten miles of bad road he sincerely hoped she traveled.

  She hadn’t exactly had her mind on her work the past month or two. That impression had been more than confirmed when he fished a bologna sandwich out of the file drawer. At least he thought the blob in the plastic bag was bologna. And it had been filed under L—for Lunch?

  He didn’t bother to swear, nor did he bother to answer the phone that rang incessantly on the empty desk in his reception area. He had reports to type up, and as typing wasn’t one of his finer skills, he just wanted to get on with it.

  Parris Investigations wasn’t what some would call a thriving enterprise. But it suited him, just as the cluttered two-room office squeezed into the top floor of a narrow brick building with bad plumbing in North West D.C. suited him.

  He didn’t need plush carpets or polished edges. He’d grown up with all that, with the pomp and pretenses, and had had his fill of it all by the time he reached the age of twenty. Now, at thirty, with one bad marriage behind him and a family who continued to be baffled by his pursuits, he was, by and large, a contented man.

  He had his investigator’s license, a decent reputation as a man who got the job done, and enough income to keep his agency well above water.

  Though actual business income was a bit of a problem just then. He was in what he liked to call a lull. Most of his caseload consisted of insurance and domestic work—a few steps down from the thrills he’d imagined when he set out to become a private investigator. He’d just cleaned up two cases, both of them minor insurance frauds that hadn’t taken much effort or innovation to close.

  He had nothing else coming in, his greedy bloodsucker of a landlord was bumping up his rent, the engine in his car had been making unsettling noises lately, his air conditioner was on the fritz. And the roof was leaking again.

  He took the spindly yellow-leafed philodendron his double-crossing secretary had left behind and set it on the uncarpeted floor under the steady drip, hoping it might drown.

  He could hear a voice droning into his answering machine. It was his mother’s voice. Lord, he thought, did a man ever really escape his mother?

  “Cade, dear, I hope you haven’t forgotten the Embassy Ball. You know you’re to escort Pamela Lovett. I had lunch with her aunt today, and she tells me that Pamela just looks marvelous after her little sojourn to Monaco.”

  “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he muttered, and narrowed his eyes at the computer. He and machines had poor and untrusting relationships.

  He sat down and faced the screen as his mother continued to chatter: “Have you had your tux cleaned? Do make time to get a haircut, you looked so scraggly the last time I saw you.”

  And don’t forget to wash behind the ears, he thought sourly, and tuned her out. She was never going to accept that the Parris life-style wasn’t his life-style, that he just didn’t want to lunch at the club or squire bored former debutantes around Washington and that his opinion wasn’t going to change by dint of her persuasion.

  He’d wanted adventure, and though struggling to type up a report on some poor slob’s fake whiplash wasn’t exactly Sam Spade territory, he was doing the job.

  Mostly he didn’t feel useless or bored or out of place. He liked the sound of traffic outside his window, even though the window was only open because the building and its scum-sucking landlord didn’t go in for central air-conditioning and his unit was broken. The heat was intense, and the rain was coming in, but with the window closed, the offices would have been as airless and stifling as a tomb.

  Sweat rolled down his back, making him itchy and irritable. He was stripped down to a T-shirt and jeans, his long fingers fumbling a bit on the computer keys. He had to shovel his hair out of his face several times, which ticked him off. His mother was right. He needed a haircut.

  So when it got in the way again, he ignored it, as he ignored the sweat, the heat, the buzz of traffic, the steady drip from the ceiling. He sat, methodically punching a key at a time, a remarkably handsome man with a scowl on his face.

  He’d inherited the Parris looks—the clever green eyes that could go broken-bottle sharp or as soft as sea mist, depending on his mood. The hair that needed a trim was dark mink brown and tended to wave. Just now, it curled at his neck, over his ears, and was beginning to annoy him. His nose was straight, aristocratic and a little long, his mouth firm and quick to smile when he was amused. And to sneer when he wasn’t.

  Though his face had become more honed since the embarrassing cherubic period of his youth and early adolescence, it still sported dimples. He was looking forward to middle age, when, with luck, they’d become manly creases.

  He’d wanted to be rugged, and instead was stuck with the slick, dreamy good looks of a GQ cover—for one of which he’d posed in his middle twenties, under protest and great family pressure.

  The phone rang again. This time he heard his sister’s voice, haranguing him about missing some lame cocktail party in honor of some bigbellied senator she was endorsing.

  He thought about just ripping the damn answering machine out of the wall and heaving it, and his sister’s nagging voice, out the window into the traffic on Wisconsin Avenue.

  Then the rain that was only adding to the miserably thick heat began to drip on the top of his head. The computer blinked off, for no reason he could see other than sheer nastiness, and the coffee he’d forgotten he was heating boiled over with a spiteful hiss.

  He leaped up, burned his hand on the pot. He swore viciously as the pot smashed, shattering glass, and spewing hot coffee in all directions. He ripped open a drawer, grabbed for a stack of napkins and sliced his thumb with the lethal edge of his former—and now thoroughly damned to perdition—secretary’s nail file.

  When the woman walked in, he was still cursing and bleeding and had just tripped over the philodendron set in the middle of the floor and didn’t even look up.

  It was hardly a wonder she simply stood there, damp from the rain, her face pale as death and her eyes wide with shock.

  “Excuse me.” Her voice sounded rusty, as if she hadn’t used it in days. “I must have the wrong office.” She inched backward, and those big, wide brown eyes shifted to the name printed on the door. She hesitated, then looked back at him. “Are you Mr. Parris?”

  There was a moment, one blinding moment, when he couldn’t seem to speak. He knew he was staring at her, couldn’t help himself. His heart simply stood still. His knees went weak. And the only thought that came to his mind was There you are, finally. What the hell took you so long?

  And because that was so ridiculous, he struggled to put a bland, even cynical, investigator’s expression on his face.

  “Yeah.” He remembered the handkerchief in his pocket, and wrapped it over his busily bleeding thumb. “Just had a little accident here.”

  “I see.” Though she didn’t appear to, the way she continued to stare at his face. “I’ve come at a bad time. I don’t have an appointment. I thought maybe…”

  “Looks like my calendar’s clear.”

  He wanted her to come in, all the way in. Whatever that first absurd, unprecedented reaction of his, she was still a potential client. And surely no dame who ever walked through Sa
m Spade’s hallowed door had ever been more perfect.

  She was blond and beautiful and bewildered. Her hair was wet, sleek down to her shoulders and straight as the rain. Her eyes were bourbon brown, in a face that—though it could have used some color—was delicate as a fairy’s. It was heart-shaped, the cheeks a gentle curve and the mouth was full, unpainted and solemn.

  She’d ruined her suit and shoes in the rain. He recognized both as top-quality, that quietly exclusive look found only in designer salons. Against the wet blue silk of her suit, the canvas bag she clutched with both hands looked intriguingly out of place.

  Damsel in distress, he mused, and his lips curved. Just what the doctor ordered.

  “Why don’t you come in, close the door, Miss…?”

  Her heart bumped twice, hammer-hard, and she tightened her grip on the bag. “You’re a private investigator?”

  “That’s what it says on the door.” Cade smiled again, ruthlessly using the dimples while he watched her gnaw that lovely lower lip. Damned if he wouldn’t like to gnaw on it himself.

  And that response, he thought with a little relief, was a lot more like it. Lust was a feeling he could understand.

  “Let’s go back to my office.” He surveyed the damage—broken glass, potting soil, pools of coffee. “I think I’m finished in here for now.”

  “All right.” She took a deep breath, stepped in, then closed the door. She supposed she had to start somewhere.

  Picking her way over the debris, she followed him into the adjoining room. It was furnished with little more than a desk and a couple of bargain-basement chairs. Well, she couldn’t be choosy about decor, she reminded herself. She waited until he’d sat behind his desk, tipped back in his chair and smiled at her again in that quick, trust-me way.

  “Do you— Could I—” She squeezed her eyes tight, centered herself again. “Do you have some credentials I could see?”

  More intrigued, he took out his license, handed it to her. She wore two very lovely rings, one on each hand, he noticed. One was a square-cut citrine in an antique setting, the other a trio of colored stones. Her earrings matched the second ring, he noted when she tucked her hair behind her ear and studied his license as if weighing each printed word.

  “Would you like to tell me what the problem is, Miss…?”

  “I think—” She handed him back his license, then gripped the bag two-handed again. “I think I’d like to hire you.” Her eyes were on his face again, as intently, as searchingly, as they had been on the license. “Do you handle missing-persons cases?”

  Who did you lose, sweetheart? he wondered. He hoped, for her sake and for the sake of the nice little fantasy that was building in his head, it wasn’t a husband. “Yeah, I handle missing persons.”

  “Your, ah, rate?”

  “Two-fifty a day, plus expenses.” When she nodded, he slid over a legal pad, picked up a pencil. “Who do you want me to find?”

  She took a long, shuddering breath. “Me. I need you to find me.”

  Watching her, he tapped the pencil against the pad. “Looks like I already have. You want me to bill you, or do you want to pay now?”

  “No.” She could feel it cracking. She’d held on so long—or at least it seemed so long—but now she could feel that branch she’d gripped when the world dropped out from under her begin to crack. “I don’t remember. Anything. I don’t—” Her voice began to hitch. She took her hands off the bag in her lap to press them to her face. “I don’t know who I am. I don’t know who I am.” And then she was weeping the words into her hands. “I don’t know who I am.”

  Cade had a lot of experience with hysterical women. He’d grown up with females who used flowing tears and gulping sobs as the answer to anything from a broken nail to a broken marriage. So he rose from his desk, armed himself with a box of tissues and crouched in front of her.

  “Here now, sweetheart. Don’t worry. It’s going to be just fine.” With gentle expertise, he mopped at her face as he spoke. He patted her hand, stroked her hair, studied her swimming eyes.

  “I’m sorry. I can’t—”

  “Just cry it out,” he told her. “You’ll feel better for it.” Rising, he went into the closet-size bathroom and poured her a paper cup of water.

  When she had a lapful of damp tissues and three crushed paper cups, she let out a little jerky sigh. “I’m sorry. Thank you. I do feel better.” Her cheeks pinkened a bit with embarrassment as she gathered up the tissues and mangled cups. Cade took them from her, dumped them in the wastebasket, then rested a hip on the corner of his desk.

  “You want to tell me about it now?”

  She nodded, then linked her fingers and began to twist them together. “I— There isn’t that much to tell. I just don’t remember anything. Who I am, what I do, where I’m from. Friends, family. Nothing.” Her breath caught again, and she released it slowly. “Nothing,” she repeated.

  It was a dream come true, he thought, the beautiful woman without a past coming out of the rain and into his office. He flicked a glance at the bag she still held in her lap. They’d get to that in a minute. “Why don’t you tell me the first thing you do remember?”

  “I woke up in a room—a little hotel on Sixteenth Street.” Letting her head rest back against the chair, she closed her eyes and tried to bring things into focus. “Even that’s unclear. I was curled up on the bed, and there was a chair propped under the doorknob. It was raining. I could hear the rain. I was groggy and disoriented, but my heart was pounding so hard, as if I’d wakened from a nightmare. I still had my shoes on. I remember wondering why I’d gone to bed with my shoes on. The room was dim and stuffy. All the windows were closed. I was so tired, logy, so I went into the bathroom to splash water on my face.”

  Now she opened her eyes, looked into his. “I saw my face in the mirror. This ugly little mirror with black splotches where it needed to be resilvered. And it meant nothing to me. The face.” She lifted a hand, ran it over her cheek, her jaw. “My face meant nothing to me. I couldn’t remember the name that went with the face, or the thoughts or the plans or the past. I didn’t know how I’d gotten to that horrid room. I looked through the drawers and the closet, but there was nothing. No clothes. I was afraid to stay there, but I didn’t know where to go.”

  “The bag? Was that all you had with you?”

  “Yes.” Her hand clutched at the straps again. “No purse, no wallet, no keys. This was in my pocket.” She reached into the pocket of her jacket and took out a small scrap of notepaper.

  Cade took it from her, skimmed the quick scrawling writing.

  Bailey, Sat at 7, right? MJ

  “I don’t know what it means. I saw a newspaper. Today’s Friday.”

  “Mmm. Write it down,” Cade said, handing her a pad and pen.

  “What?”

  “Write down what it says on the note.”

  “Oh.” Gnawing her lip again, she complied.

  Though he didn’t have to compare the two to come to his conclusions, he took the pad from her, set it and the note side by side. “Well, you’re not M.J., so I’d say you’re Bailey.”

  She blinked, swallowed. “What?”

  “From the look of M.J.’s writing, he or she’s a lefty. You’re right-handed. You’ve got neat, simple penmanship, M.J.’s got an impatient scrawl. The note was in your pocket. Odds are you’re Bailey.”

  “Bailey.” She tried to absorb the name, the hope of it, the feel and taste of identity. But it was dry and unfamiliar. “It doesn’t mean anything.”

  “It means we have something to call you, and someplace to start. Tell me what you did next.”

  Distracted she blinked at him. “Oh, I… There was a phone book in the room. I looked up detective agencies.”

  “Why’d you pick mine?”

  “The name. It sounded strong.” She managed her first smile, and though it was weak, it was there. “I started to call, but then I thought I might get put off, and if I just showed up… So I waited i
n the room until it was office hours, then I walked for a little while, then I got a cab. And here I am.”

  “Why didn’t you go to a hospital? Call a doctor?”

  “I thought about it.” She looked down at her hands. “I just didn’t.”

  She was leaving out big chunks, he mused. Going around his desk, he opened a drawer, pulled out a candy bar. “You didn’t say anything about stopping for breakfast.” He watched her study the candy he offered with puzzlement and what appeared to be amusement. “This’ll hold you until we can do better.”

  “Thank you.” With neat, precise movements, she unwrapped the chocolate bar. Maybe part of the fluttering in her stomach was hunger. “Mr. Parris, I may have people worried about me. Family, friends. I may have a child. I don’t know.” Her eyes deepened, fixed on a point over his shoulder. “I don’t think I do. I can’t believe anyone could forget her own child. But people may be worried, wondering what happened to me. Why I didn’t come home last night.”

  “You could have gone to the police.”

  “I didn’t want to go to the police.” This time, her voice was clipped, definite. “Not until… No, I don’t want to involve the police.” She wiped her fingers on a fresh tissue, then began to tear it into strips. “Someone may be looking for me who isn’t a friend, who isn’t family. Who isn’t concerned with my well-being. I don’t know why I feel that way, I only know I’m afraid. It’s more than just not remembering. But I can’t understand anything, any of it, until I know who I am.”

  Maybe it was those big, soft, moist eyes staring up at him, or the damsel-in-distress nerves of her restless hands. Either way, he couldn’t resist showing off, just a little.

  “I can tell you a few things already. You’re an intelligent woman, early-to-mid-twenties. You have a good eye for color and style, and enough of a bankroll to indulge it with Italian shoes and silk suits. You’re neat, probably organized. You prefer the understated to the obvious. Since you don’t evade well, I’d say you’re an equally poor liar. You’ve got a good head on your shoulders, you think things through. You don’t panic easily. And you like chocolate.”

  She balled the empty candy wrapper in her hand. “Why do you assume all that?”

  “You speak well, even when you’re frightened. You thought about how you were going to handle this and went through all the steps, logically. You dress well—quality over flair. You have a good manicure, but no flashy polish. Your jewelry is unique, interesting, but not ornate. And you’ve been holding back information since you walked through the door because you haven’t decided yet how much you’re going to trust me.”

  “How much should I trust you?”

  “You came to me.”

  She acknowledged that, rose and walked to his window. The rain drummed, underscoring the vague headache that hovered just behind her eyes. “I don’t recognize the city,” she murmured. “Yet I feel I should. I know where I am, because I saw a newspaper, the Washington Post. I know what the White House and the Capitol look like. I know the monuments—but I could have seen them on television, or in a book.”

  Though it was wet from incoming rain, she rested her hands on the sill, appreciated the coolness there. “I feel as though I dropped out of nowhere into that ugly hotel room. Still, I know how to read and write and walk and talk. The cabdriver had the radio on, and I recognized music. I recognized trees. I wasn’t surprised that rain was wet. I smelled burned coffee when I came in, and it wasn’t an unfamiliar odor. I know your eyes are green. And when the rain clears, I know the sky will be blue.”

  She sighed once. “So I didn’t drop out of nowhere. There are things I know, things I’m sure of. But my own face means nothing to me, and what’s behind the face is blank. I may have hurt someone, done something. I may be selfish and calculating, even cruel. I may have a husband I cheat on or neighbors I’ve alienated.”

  She turned back then, and her face was tight and set, a tough contrast to the fragility of lashes still wet from tears. “I don’t know if I’m going to like who you find when you find me, Mr. Parris, but I need to know.” She set the bag on his desk, hesitated briefly, then opened it. “I think I have enough to meet your fee.”

  He came from money, the kind that aged and increased and propagated over generations. But even with his background, he’d never seen so much in one place at one time. The canvas bag was filled with wrapped stacks of hundred-dollar bills—all crisp and clean. Fascinated, Cade took out a stack, flipped through. Yes, indeed, he mused, every one of the bills had Ben Franklin’s homely and dignified face.

  “I’d have to guess about a million,” he murmured.

  “One million, two hundred thousand.” Bailey shuddered as she looked into the bag. “I counted the stacks. I don’t know where I got it or why I had it with me. I may have stolen it.”

  Tears began to swim again as she turned away. “It could be ransom money. I could be involved in a kidnapping. There could be a child somewhere, being held, and I’ve taken the ransom money. I just—”

  “Let’s add a vivid imagination to those other qualities.”

  It was the cool and casual tone of his voice that had her turning back. “There’s a fortune in there.”

  “A million two isn’t much of a fortune these days.” He dropped the money back in the bag. “And I’m sorry, Bailey, you just don’t fit the cold, calculating kidnapper type.”

  “But you can check. You can find out, discreetly, if there’s been an abduction.”

  “Sure. If the cops are involved, I can get something.”

  “And if there’s been a murder?” Struggling to stay calm, she reached into the bag again. This time she took out a .38.

  A cautious man, Cade nudged the barrel aside, took it from her. It was a Smith and Wesson, and at his quick check, he discovered it was fully loaded. “How’d this feel in your hand?”

 
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