Stars of Mithra Box Set: Captive Star\Hidden Star\Secret Star (5 page)

BOOK: Stars of Mithra Box Set: Captive Star\Hidden Star\Secret Star
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“You don't have a name, you have initials.”

“In the second place,” she said, ignoring him, “if a man like you got his hands on a hundred thousand, he'd just lose it in Vegas or pour it down some stripper's cleavage. Since I don't intend for that to happen to my money, I'm offering you a thousand.” She smiled at him. “With that, you can have yourself a nice weekend at the beach with a keg of imported beer.”

“It's considerate of you to look out for my welfare, but you're not really in the position to negotiate terms here. You want help, it'll cost you.”

She didn't know if she wanted his help. The fact was, she wasn't at all sure why she was wrangling with him over a fee. Under the circumstances, she felt she could promise him any amount without any obligation to pay up if and when the time came.

But it was the principle of the thing.

“Five thousand—and you follow orders.”

“Seventy-five, and I don't ever follow orders.”

“Five.” She set her teeth. “Take it or leave it.”

“I'll leave it.” Casually he picked up the stone again, held it up, studied it. “And take this with me.” He rose, patted his back pocket. “And maybe I'll call the cops on your fancy little phone after I'm clear.”

She fisted her fingers, flexed them. She didn't want to involve the police, not until she'd contacted Bailey. Nor could she risk him following through on his threat to simply take the stone.

“Fifty thousand.” She bit the words off like raw meat. “That's all I'll be able to come up with. Most everything I've got's tied up in my business.”

He cocked a brow. “The finder's fee on this little bauble's got to be worth more than fifty.”

“I didn't steal the damn thing. It doesn't belong to me. It's—” She broke off, clamped her mouth shut.

He started to sit on the edge of the bed again, remembered what had happened before, and chose the arm of the chair. “Who does it belong to, M.J.?”

“I'm not spilling my guts to you. For all I know you're as big a creep as the one who broke down my door. You could be a thief, a murderer.”

He cocked that scarred eyebrow. “Which is why I've robbed and murdered you.”

“The day's young.”

“Let me point out the obvious. I'm the only one around.”

“That doesn't inspire confidence.” She
brooded a moment. How far did she dare use him? she wondered. And how much did she dare tell him?

“If you want my help,” he said, as if reading her mind, “then I need facts, details and names.”

“I'm not giving you names.” She shook her head slowly. “That's out until I talk to the other people involved. And as for facts and details, I don't have many.”

“Give me what you do have.”

She studied him again. No, she didn't trust him, not nearly as far as she could throw him. If she ever got the opportunity. But she had to start somewhere. “Unlock me.”

He shook his head. “Let's just leave things as they are for the moment.” But he rose, walked over and shut off the television. “Where'd you get the stone, M.J.?”

She hesitated another instant. Trust wasn't the issue, she decided. He might help, if in no other way than just by providing her with a sounding board. “A friend sent it to me. Overnight courier. I just got it yesterday.”

“Where did it come from?”

“Originally from Asia Minor, I believe.” She shrugged off his hiss of annoyance. “I'm not telling you where it was sent from, but I will tell you
there had to be a good reason. My friend's too honest to steal a handshake. All I know is it was sent, with a note that said for me to keep it with me at all times, and not to tell anyone until my friend had a chance to explain.”

Abruptly she pressed a hand to her stomach and the arrogance died out of her voice. “My friend's in trouble. It's got to be terrible trouble. I have to call.”

“No calls.”

“Look, Jack—”

“No calls,” he repeated. “Whoever's after you might be after your pal. His phone could be tapped, which would lead them back to you. Which leads them to me, so no calls. Now how did your honest friend happen to get his hands on a blue diamond that makes the Hope look like a prize in a box of Cracker Jack?”

“In a perfectly legitimate manner.” Stalling, she combed her fingers through her hair. He thought her friend was male—why not leave it that way?

“Look, I'm not getting into all of that. All I'm going to tell you is he was supposed to have his hands on it. Look, let me tell you about the stone. It's one of three. At one time they were part of an altar set up to an ancient Roman god. Mith
raism was one of the major religions of the Roman Empire—”

“The Three Stars of Mithra,” he murmured, and had her eyeing him first in shock, then with suspicion.

“How do you know about the Three Stars?”

“I read about them in the dentist's office,” he murmured. Now, when he picked up the stone, it wasn't simply with admiration, it was with awe. “It was supposed to be a myth. The Three Stars, set in the golden triangle and held in the hands of the god of light.”

“It's not a myth,” M.J. told him. “The Smithsonian acquired the Stars through a contact in Europe just a couple months ago. My friend said the museum wanted to keep the acquisition quiet until the diamonds were verified.”

“And assessed,” he thought aloud. “Insured and under tight security.”

“They were supposed to be under security,” M.J. told him, and he answered with a soft laugh.

“Doesn't look like it worked, does it? The diamonds represent love, knowledge and generosity.” His eyes narrowed as he contemplated the ancient stone. “I wonder which this one is?”

“I couldn't say.” She continued to stare at him, fascinated. He'd gone from tough guy to scholar
in the blink of an eye. “But apparently you know as much about it as I do.”

“I know about Mithraism,” he said easily. “It predates and parallels Christianity. Mankind's always looked for a kind and just god.” His shoulders moved as he turned the stone in his hand. “Mankind doesn't always get what it wants. And I know the legend of the Three Stars. It was said the god held the triangle for centuries, and holding it tended the world. Then it was lost, or looted, or sank with Atlantis.”

For his own pleasure, he switched on the lamp, watched the stone explode with power in the dingy light. “More likely it just ended up in the treasure room of some corrupt Roman procurer.” He traced the facets with his thumbs. “It's something people would kill for. Or die for,” he murmured. “Some legends have it in Cleopatra's tomb, others have Merlin casing it in crystal and holding it in trust until Arthur's return. Others say the god himself hurled them into the sky and wept at man's ignorance. But the smart money was that they'd simply been stolen and separated.”

He looked up, over the stone and into her eyes. “Worth a fortune singly, and within the triangle, worth immortality.”

Yes, she could admit he fascinated her, the way
that deep, all-man voice had cooled into professorial tones. And the way he stroked the gleaming diamond as a man might stroke a woman's gleaming flesh.

But she shook her head over the last statement. “You don't believe that.”

“No, but that's the legend, isn't it? Whoever holds the triangle, with the Stars in place, gains the power of the god, and his immortality. But not necessarily his compassion. People have killed for less. A hell of a lot less.”

He set the stone on the table between them, where it glowed with quiet fire. It had all changed now, he realized. The stakes had just flown sky-high, and the odds mirrored them.

“You're in a hell of a spot, M.J. Whoever's after this won't think twice about taking your head with it.” He rubbed his chin, his fingers dancing over the shallow dimple. “And my head's awfully damn close to yours just now.”

 

He couldn't believe how poor his luck was. His own mistake, he told himself as he calmed himself with Mozart and Moët. Because he tried to keep his distance from events, he'd had to count on others to handle his business.

Incompetents, one and all, he thought, and
soothed himself by stroking the pelt of a sable coat that had once graced the shoulder of Czarina Alexandra.

To think he'd enjoyed the irony of having a bounty hunter track down the annoying Ms. O'Leary. It would have been simpler to have her snatched from her apartment or place of business. But he'd preferred finesse and, again, the distance.

The bounty hunter would have been blamed for her abduction, and her death. Such men were violent by nature, unpredictable. The police would have closed the case with little thought or effort.

Now she was on the run, and most certainly had the stone in her possession.

She would turn up, he thought, taking slow, even breaths. She would certainly contact her friends before too much longer. He'd been assured they were admirably loyal to each other.

He was a man who appreciated loyalty.

And when Ms. O'Leary attempted to contact her friends—one who had vanished, the other out of reach—he would have her.

And the stone.

With her, he had no doubt he would acquire the other two stars.

After all, he thought with a pleasant smile. Bailey James was reputed to be a good friend, a com
passionate and intelligent woman. Intelligent enough, he mused, to have uncovered her stepbrothers' attempt to copy the Stars, smart enough to thwart them before they had made good on delivery.

Well, that, too, would be dealt with.

He was sure Bailey would be loyal to her friend, compassionate enough to put her friend first. And her loyalty and compassion would deliver the stones to him without much more delay.

In exchange for the life of M. J. O'Leary.

He had spent many years of his life in search of the Three Stars. He had invested much of his great wealth. And had taken many lives. Now they were almost in his hands. So close, he thought, so very close, his fingers tingled with anticipation.

And when he held them, fit them into the triangle, set them on the altar he'd had built for them, he would have the ultimate power. Immortality.

Then, of course, he would kill the women.

A fitting sacrifice, he reflected, to a god.

Chapter 4

H
e'd left her alone. Now she had to consider the matter of trust. Should she believe he'd just go out, pick up food and come back? He hadn't trusted her to stay, M.J. mused, rattling the hand cuffs.

And she had to admit he'd gauged her well. She'd have been out the door like a shot. Not because she was afraid of him. She'd considered all the facts, all her instincts, and she no longer believed he'd hurt her. He would have done so already.

She'd seen the way he dealt with the gorilla
who broke in her door. True, he'd had his hands full, but he'd handled himself with speed, strength, and an admirable streak of mean.

It galled to admit it, but she knew he'd held back when he tangled with her. Not that it excused him trussing her up and tossing her in some cheap motel room, but if she was going to be fair-minded, she had to say he could have done considerable damage to her during their quick, sweaty bout if he'd wanted to.

And all he'd really bruised was her pride.

He had a brain—which had surprised her. That was, she supposed, a generalizing-from-a-first-impression mistake she'd fallen into because of his looks, and that sheer in-your-face physicality. But in addition to the street smarts she would have expected from his type, it appeared Jack Dakota had an intellect. A good one.

And she didn't believe he did his reading in the dentist's office. A guy didn't read about ancient religions while he was waiting to have his teeth cleaned. So, she had to conclude there was more to him than she'd originally assumed. All she had to do was decide whether that was an advantage, or a disadvantage.

Now that she'd calmed down a little, she was certain that he wasn't going to push himself on
her sexually, either. She'd have given odds that little interlude had shaken him as much as it had shaken her. It had been, she was sure, a misstep on his part. Intimidate the woman, flex the testosterone, and she'll tell you whatever you want to know.

It hadn't worked. All it had done was make them both itchy.

Damn, the man could kiss.

But she was getting off track, she reminded herself, and scowled at the ridiculous movie he'd left blaring on the television.

No, she wasn't afraid of him, but she was afraid of the situation. Which meant she didn't want to sit here on her butt and do nothing. Action was her style. Whether the action was wise or not wasn't the point. The doing was.

Shifting to her knees, she peered at the handcuffs, turning her wrist this way and that, flexing her hand as if she were an escape artist preparing to launch into her latest trick.

She tested the rungs on the headboard and found them distressingly firm.

They didn't make cheap hotels like they used to, she thought with a sigh. And wished for a hairpin, a nail file, a hammer.

All she found in the sticky drawer of the night
stand was a torn phone book and a linty wedge of hard candy.

He'd taken her purse with him, and though she knew she wouldn't find that hairpin, nail file or hammer inside, she still resented the lack of it.

She could scream, of course. She could shout down the roof, and endure the humiliation if someone actually paid any attention to the sounds of distress.

And that wouldn't get her out of the cuffs, unless someone called a locksmith. Or the cops.

She took a deep breath, struggled for the right avenue of escape. She was sick with worry for Bailey and Grace, desperate to reassure herself that they were both well.

If she did go to the police, what kind of trouble would Bailey be in? She had, technically, taken possession of a fortune. Would the authorities be understanding, or would they slap Bailey in a cell?

That, M.J. wouldn't risk. Not yet. Not as long as she felt it was remotely possible to even the odds. And to do that, she had to know what the hell she was up against.

Which again meant getting out of the room.

She was considering gnawing at the headboard with her teeth when Jack unlocked the door. He
flashed a quick smile at her, one that told her he had her thoughts pegged.

“Honey, I'm home.”

“You're a laugh riot, Dakota. My sides are aching.”

“You make quite a picture cuffed to that bed, M.J.” He set down two white take-out bags. “A lesser man would be toying with impure notions right about now.”

It was her turn to smile, wickedly. “You already did. And you'll probably have a scar on your bottom lip.”

“Yeah.” He rubbed his thumb gingerly over the wound. It still stung. “I'd say I deserved it, but you were cooperating initially.”

That stung, too. The truth often did. “You go right on thinking that, Jack.” She all but purred it. “I'm sure an ego like yours requires regular delusions.”

“Sugar, I know a delusion from a lip lock. But we've got more important things to do than discuss your attraction for me.” Pleased with that last sally, he reached into one of the bags. “Burgers.”

The smell hit her like a fist, right in the empty stomach. Her mouth watered. “So are we going to hole up here like a couple of escaped con
victs—” she rattled her chain for emphasis “—and eat greasy food?”

“You bet.” He handed her a burger and took out an order of fries designed to clog the arteries and improve the mood. “I think better when I'm eating.”

Companionably, he stretched out beside her, back against the headboard, legs extended, food on his lap. “We've got us a serious problem here.”

“If
we've
got us a serious problem here, why am I the only one with handcuffs?”

He loved the sarcastic edge in her voice, and he wondered what was wrong with him. “Because you'd have done something stupid if I hadn't left you secured. I'm looking out for my investment.” He gestured with the rest of his burger. “And that's you, sugar.”

“I can look out for myself. And if I'm hiring you, then you should be taking orders. The first order is unlock these damn things.”

“I'll get to it, once we set up the ground rules.” He popped open a paper package of salt, dribbled it on the fries. “I've been thinking.”

“Well then.” She munched bitterly on an over-cooked burger between two slices of slightly
stale bun. “Why am I worried? You've been thinking.”

“You've got a sarcastic mouth. But I like that about you.” He handed her a tiny paper napkin. “You got ketchup on your chin. Now, somebody put the pressure on Ralph—enough that Ralph falsified official paperwork and put my butt in a sling. He wouldn't have done it for money—not that Ralph doesn't like money,” Jack continued. “But he wouldn't risk his license, or risk me coming after him, for a few bucks. So he was saving his skin.”

“And since Ralph is a pillar of the community, no doubt, this narrows down the list?”

“It means it was somebody with punch, somebody who wasn't afraid old Ralph would tip me off or go to the cops. Somebody who wanted you taken out. Who knows you've got the rock?”

“Nobody, except the person who sent it to me.” She frowned at her burger. “And possibly one other.”

“If more than one person knows a secret, it isn't a secret. How did your friend get the diamond, M.J.? You can't keep dancing around the data here.”

“I'll tell you after I clear it with my friend. I have to make a phone call.”

“No calls.”

“You called Ralph,” she pointed out.

“I took a chance, and we were mobile. You're not making any calls until I know the score. The diamond was shipped just yesterday,” he mused. “They tagged you fast.”

“Which means they tagged my friend.” Her stomach turned over. “Jack, please. I have to call. I have to know.”

The emotion choking her voice both weakened and annoyed him. He stared into her eyes. “How much does he mean to you?”

She started to correct him, then just shook her head. “Everything. No one in the world means more to me.”

“Lucky guy.”

It wasn't the response she'd wanted or expected. Fueled by frustration and fears, she grabbed his shirt. “What the hell's wrong with you? Someone tried to kill us. How can we just sit here?”

“That's just why we're sitting here. We let them chase their tails awhile. Your friend's on his own for now. And since I can't picture you falling for some jerk who can't handle himself, he should be fine.”

“You don't understand anything.” She sat
back, dragged her fingers through her hair. “God, this is a mess. I should be getting ready to go in to work now, and instead I'm stuck here with you. I'm supposed to be behind the stick tonight.”

“You tend bar?” He lifted a brow. “I thought you owned the place.”

“That's right, I own the place.” It was a source of pride. “I like tending bar. You have a problem with that?”

“Nope.” Since the topic had distracted her, he followed it. “Are you any good?”

“Nobody complains.”

“How'd you get into the business?” When she eyed him owlishly, he shrugged. “Come on, a little conversation over a meal can't hurt. We got time to kill.”

That wasn't all she wanted to kill, but the rest would have to wait. “I'm a fourth-generation pub owner. My great-grandfather ran his own public house in Dublin. My grandfather immigrated to New York and worked behind the stick in his own pub. He passed it to my father when he moved to Florida. I practically grew up behind the bar.”

“What part of New York?”

“West Side, Seventy-ninth and Columbus.”

“O'Leary's.” The grin came quick and close to dreamy. “Lots of dark wood and lots of brass.
Live Irish music on Saturday nights. And they build the finest Guinness this side of the Atlantic.”

She eyed him again, intrigued despite herself. “You've been there?”

“I downed many a pint in O'Leary's. That would have been ten years ago, more or less.” He'd been in college then, he remembered. Working his way through courses in law and literature and trying to make up his mind who the devil he was. “I was up there tracing a skip about three years ago. Stopped in. Nothing had changed, not even the scars on that old pine bar.”

It made her sentimental—couldn't be helped. “Nothing changes at O'Leary's.”

“I swear the same two guys were sitting on the same stools at the end of the bar—smoking cigars, reading the
Racing Form
and drinking Irish.”

“Callahan and O'Neal.” It made her smile. “They'll die on those stools.”

“And your father. Pat O'Leary. Son of a bitch.” Steeped in the haze of memory, he shut his eyes. “That big, wide Irish face and wiry shock of red hair, with a voice straight out of a Cagney movie.”

“Yeah, that's Pop,” she murmured, only more sentimental.

“You know, when I walked in—it had been at least six years since I'd walked out—your father grinned at me. ‘How are you this evening, college boy?' he said to me, and took a pint glass and starting building my beer.”

“You went to college?”

His hazy pleasure dimmed considerably at the shock in her voice. He opened one eye. “So?”

“So, you don't look like the college type.” She shrugged and went back to her burger. “I build a damn good Guinness myself. Could use one now.”

“Me too. Maybe later. So this friend of yours, how long have you known him?”

“My friend and I go back to our own college days. There's no one I trust more, if that's what you're getting at.”

“Maybe you ought to rethink it. Just consider,” he said when her eyes fired. “The Three Stars are a big temptation, for anyone. So maybe he was tempted, maybe he got in over his head.”

“No, it doesn't play like that. but I think someone else might have, and if my friend found out about it…” She pressed her lips together. “If you wanted to protect those stones, to make certain they weren't stolen, didn't fall as a group into the wrong hands, what would you do?”

“It isn't a matter of what I'd do,” he pointed out, “but what he'd do.”

“Separate them,” M.J. said. “Pass them on to people you could trust without question. People who would go to the wall for you, because you'd do the same for them. Without question.”

“Absolute trust, absolute loyalty?” He balled his napkin, two-pointed it into the waste can. “I can't buy it.”

“Then I'm sorry for you,” she murmured. “Because you can't buy it. It just is. Don't you have anyone who'd go to the wall for you, Jack?”

“No. And there's no one I'd go to the wall for.” For the first time in his life, it bothered him to realize it. He scooted down, closed his eyes. “I'm taking a nap.”

“You're taking a what?”

“A nap. You'd be smart to do the same.”

“How can you possibly sleep at a time like this?”

“Because I'm tired.” His voice was edgy. “And because I don't think I'm going to get much sleep once we get started. We've got a couple hours before sundown.”

“And what happens at sundown?”

“It gets dark,” he said, and tuned her out.

She couldn't believe it. The man had shut down
like a machine switched off—like a hypnotist's subject at the snap of a finger. Like a… She scowled when she ran out of analogies.

At least he didn't snore.

Well, this was just fine, she fumed. This was just dandy. What was she supposed to do while he had his little lie-me-down?

M.J. nibbled on the last of her fries, frowned at the TV screen, where the giant lizard was just meeting his violent end. The cable channel had promised more where that came from on its Marathon Monsters and Heroes Holiday Weekend Festival.

Oh, goody.

She lay in the darkened room, considering her options. And, considering, fell asleep.

And, sleeping, dreamed of monsters and heroes and a blue diamond that pulsed like a living heart.

BOOK: Stars of Mithra Box Set: Captive Star\Hidden Star\Secret Star
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