Read The Star King Online

Authors: Susan Grant

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #Fantasy

The Star King (3 page)

BOOK: The Star King
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You're not going to die.


The Balkanor angel. He recognized her sweet, husky voice in his head.


"My beloved," he whispered. No longer able to open his eyes, he felt her warm arms around him, comforting him, filling him with a bliss he never imagined, holding him to this side of life.


Her presence wavered.


I don't know how or where to find you," he cried, his pride secondary to having her at his side. "Don't leave. I need you." But-she slipped from his grasp. Great Mother, he'd lost his brother, and now the woman. "I will find you. I swear it." Someone—his surgeon, perhaps—laid a cool cloth over his forehead and soothed him in worried tones. Despite the doctor's ministrations, Rom chanted his promise until he could speak no more. "I will find you."


* * *


I will find you.


Jas tightened her embrace. "I'm right here." She pressed her cheek to his, relishing the prickly roughness of stubble on his otherwise smooth, tawny skin.


Don't leave.


"I won't," she assured him in his language. But in a rush of hot, dry wind, his presence evaporated, draining her heart of its newfound joy. She clutched the air, crying out, "No, don't leave!"


"Hey, hey. No one's going to leave you. Lieutenant."


Someone clamped a mask over her mouth and nose. "She's conscious! I need the C-collar—now!"


With an enormous effort, she opened her eyes, blinking to clear the shadow floating in front of her, squinting until the blurred shape became a young black medic


dressed in U.S. Air Force combat fatigues. "Oh—" The world roared back. Chaos. The rhythmic thunder of chopper blades. Saudi desert heat. Turbulence. Pain streaked outward from the right side of her forehead as she fought rising nausea.


The medic leaned closer, patting her on the cheek. His voice eased into a honeyed Southern accent. "That's it. Keep those gorgeous eyes wide open for me." He lifted the oxygen mask from her mouth and clamped a neck brace over her throat. Peering at his watch, he held her wrist between his fingers. Then he pressed the microphone attached to his headset to his lips. "Say again? Yeah, blood pressure's ninety over fifty.


"I bailed out, didn't I?" Her words were slurred. "Don't remember."


"Shot down .. . friendly fire." His voice was drowned out by the incessant drumming of the rotor blades.


She tried to sit up, but was strapped firmly to a litter. "I saw someone out there. A man. He's hurt—we have to go back." The medic pressed his hand onto her shoulder and squeezed. "No," she persisted. "We talked... and he said. . . and then we—" She swallowed hard. How in the world was she going to explain that he needed her, that she needed him, when she hardly understood it herself? "Just don't leave."




She beseeched him with her eyes as he settled the oxygen mask over her mouth and nose, silencing her.
she screamed silently.


"Ma'am, we circled the site. If there'd been anyone else, we would've seen them." His tone was gentle, not condescending. "Breathe deep and slow. There you go. You'll feel better in no time."


"Don't need to feel better," she mumbled into the mask. "Don't want to forget." Groggy, she closed her eyes.


Don't go. I need you.
The lyrical, exotic words swirled like dust motes in the hazy place between wakefulness and sleep. Then the blackness closed in, and she was helpless to stop it.


Chapter Two


Nineteen years later


"True love? Oh, spare me." Jas pulled her hand away from the palm reader only to have the woman yank it back. "Isn't there a money line?" she asked brightly, "Ought to be, Tina. Much more practical, I think. Tell me about the big collector who'll walk in and buy out my paintings so I can live in Sedona like Betty here."


"Open your hand, dear."


The adobe walls of the softly lit art gallery radiated coolness and muffled the street noises so that all she heard was her own pulse—and the drumming of her fingers as Tina made her way back to her love line. "I could use a weather forecast," Jas ventured. "My son and I are going camping next week."


"Mrs. Hamilton. .." The aged fortune-teller pursed her lips, the mirth in her eyes magnified by her thick spectacles. Then she lifted her exasperated gaze to Betty, Jas's friend and agent, and the owner of the chic gallery. "Artists are supposed to be intuitive, open-minded, and
are they not?"


"Supposed to be." Betty winked at Jas, then turned her mischievous brown eyes back to the palm reader. "I simply don't know what to say about this one. But her paintings sell, and sell well, mind you. So"—she sighed—"I put up with her." Chuckling, Betty arranged a tray with chocolate biscuits and a pot of espresso and carried it to the table, while Tina .resumed her study of Jas's palm.


"Your love line runs steady and does not branch out. A rarity. It means one man, one love. A love everlasting." Tina's voice dropped lower. "He is your soul mate, you see. You have loved him in the past and will love him again, for your souls are forever intertwined."


Every muscle in Jas's body went rigid. The chimes near the entrance tinkled as the wind hissed down from the surrounding hills, whispering over her bare arms with a lover's touch.
will find you.
Swamped by an inexplicable feeling of deja vu, of longing, Jas inhaled and exhaled several times through her nose to calm herself, a technique she'd learned from yet another one of Betty's octogenarian New Ager pals. Instinctively her eyes sought an enormous painting, her most recent, into which she had poured all the passion of her wounded soul. It held hues of gold, amber, rich sienna. Sand. Sky. The hush of deepening twilight as the first stars of evening glittered in cool desert air.


The mysterious dream had awakened her the night she'd painted it, and she'd worked through the following day and night, trying to re-create the harsh splendor of


the landscape, while lingering desire thrummed deep inside her, more powerful than ever, along with the sense that she'd left someone behind. But whom? Upon waking, she sometimes recalled a man with enigmatic golden eyes, but his features were always blurred, as if she were viewing him through frosted glass.


It was the only aberration of her otherwise wholly rational mind.


"Jasmine." Tina tapped a roughened fingertip on the heel of her palm. "Pay attention."


Jas blinked at the mild rebuke. "Yes, ma'am."


She spoke gently. "There has been heartache and disappointment .in your past, yet this pain will continue to make you stronger, strength you will need for your true love. He will require the full power of your spirit, your faith ... your flesh."


Jas snorted. "Tell
to my one and only"—she glanced at her Marvin the Martian wristwatch—"who happens to be in Las Vegas, as we speak, honeymooning with his new pregnant twenty-year-old wife."


"Jock was not your true love."


"Yeah: I finally figured that out." She no longer loved Jock. And she certainly didn't miss him. It had been six months since they divorced, and over two years since they'd last slept together, had sex, or whatever that joyless coupling that had characterized their marriage was called.


Jas spread her free hand on the table
"True love's a myth, a fairy tale."


"You did not always think this way," Tina said softly. "You


Jas clenched her hand into a fist. She'd let magic derail her life once. Once. She was smarter now.


As calmly as she could, she stood. Bewildered, Tina let her shake her hand. «Thank you, really," Jas said, pumping the elderly woman's arm. "I'm open to palmistry and all that, but love's not my favorite subject these days. Why don't you join Betty and me for lunch later at Tomasita Grill?" She kept up her chatter as she helped Tina up and escorted her to the front entrance. When the door closed, she leaned her forehead against the cool, smooth wood.


"I'm sorry," she heard Betty say.


"Don't be." Jas walked back to the table and helped herself to another biscuit. "I hope I wasn't too rude."


"She didn't think so." Betty regarded her tenderly. "She knows it's been tough for you lately—the twins off to college, the divorce. Before you know it, life will be back the way it was before." She squeezed her shoulder. "Have another espresso."


"What I need is a shot of tequila. Hold the lime and the salt. Shoot, hold the glass. Just pour it down my throat."


"Your show's opening brought in thirty-five thousand dollars and an invitation from the governor's wife to paint a mural in their dining room. If you want to drink yourself into a stupor, you may do so with my blessing. I'll celebrate with you—in spirit, of course."


Jas grimaced. Problem was, the thought of drinking herself into a stupor was actually appealing. She hadn't had herself a good drunk in nearly twenty years, an inhibitions-be-damned, bed-spinning drunk—not since her air force fighter pilot days, and that seemed like a hundred years ago. Even without imbibing a drop back then, she'd been drunk on innocent, youthful exuberance, the joy of believing the rest of her life stretched gloriously ahead of her.


I'd do anything to feel that way again.


She shoved aside the dangerous and unexpected yearning. She had a nice life: friends, a job she enjoyed. Two healthy children. She was happy—or at least she was supposed to be, she thought guiltily—and she refused to waste another minute longing after some elusive sense of completion that existed only in her imagination. Concrete goals, not wishes, were what kept her life nice and orderly.


And uninspired.


Jas groaned. "I think I need a vacation."


Her statement left Betty speechless. Heck, it left her speechless, too. She never took vacations.
You're indispensable; everyone needs you.
That mantra had echoed inside her since childhood. She'd practically raised her three sisters, while her parents had buried themselves in research at the university.


"You certainly deserve a vacation," Betty said carefully. "Take as long as you like."


Jas mulled over her half-finished canvases propped up at home in Scottsdale, the ones she hadn't had the heart lately to complete. The thought made her stomach bum. She had a responsibility to produce. "I'll let you know what I decide," she said quietly.


A trilling invaded the silence. "Dam phone again," Betty said, and hurried into her office, leaving Jas alone with four walls of her own paintings. The colorful canvases magnified and reflected back her most intimate passions, her fears, her pain and frustration, as if she were seeing herself turned inside out. The crash had done this to her, she thought. Turned her inside out, made her art, her dreams, more vivid than her life. She wasn't sure where or when she'd hit her head that day, but by the time she had come to in the chopper, everything had changed.


The brass wind chimes above the front entrance tinkled, drawing her out of her thoughts. "Hey, Mom!" Jas's son strode across the gallery. Grinning, his dark brown hair damp against his forehead, Ian swept her up into a high-spirited, one-armed hug.


She inhaled his warmth and life, and the smells of motor oil, dust, and leather, the result of his newly acquired and sporadically running 1984 Harley. "I didn't expect you, sweetie."


"I snagged an earlier flight, dropped my bags at home. Sorry I missed the opening," he added with genuine regret.


She ruffled his hair. "You'll catch it next time." She feigned nonchalance, for Ian's sake, but it hurt that Jock had scheduled his wedding on the weekend of the opening of the most important show of her career, forcing Ian and Ilana to be with him, not her. "So did you have a good time?"


"You mean in Vegas?" His hazel eyes clouded over. "Dad's wedding?" He looked as if he'd rather talk about something else, anything else. "It was okay. For a Las Vegas quickie."


"Jas!" Betty hung up the telephone and hurried toward them. «That was Dan."


Jas smiled with a mental image of Dan Brady's easy grin. The man was good-hearted, nice-looking, and Ian's former economics professor. He'd also been the one who'd gotten Ian avidly interested in finance after a failed air force prescreening medical exam ended her


son's dream of becoming a pilot. Grateful, she had cautiously let Dan into her life—on a wholly platonic level. He patiently assumed that her reluctance to date him stemmed from the recent breakup of her marriage, and she didn't correct him. It was as close to the truth as she dared get. "I thought he drove home last night," she said. "Since he's still here, let's invite him to lunch—"


"He called from Tempe, Jas. He wants us to turn on the radio."


Only then did Jas notice that Betty's skin looked unusually pale against her gray-threaded black hair. A quiver of worry tightened Jas's stomach. "Why? What's wrong?"


"Just turn it on." Clearly agitated, Betty gripped the edge of the table to steady herself. Mystified, Jas exchanged glances with Ian and flicked on the radio, wondering who had died, or what plane had crashed, or where a major earthquake had struck. Her heart sped up. Grace, her little sister, was visiting San Francisco—


"This is Kendall Smith, live at the White House with this breaking story. President Talley will now address our stunned nation."


"My fellow Americans," the president's voice cut in. «Today is a day we will remember for the rest of our lives, the day that changed the course of human history forever, the day we were given undeniable proof of our neighbors in the galaxy."


The president was briefly drowned out by a crackle of static, drawing Jas's gaze to the cloud-sprinkled sky outside. Her emotions swirled in a storm of skepticism and disbelief—and raw, primitive fear. On the heels of that eerie vulnerability, her long-ago, discarded dream of going into space flared to life in a burst of unadulterated, almost childlike excitement. Out of breath, she turned up the volume to hear the president over the hammering of her pulse, then joined Betty on a Navajo-print settee.


"This morning at three-fourteen
Eastern Standard Time, as most of you slept, the United Nations received a transmission from an individual stating, in English, that he was the commander of a fleet of spacecraft. Extraterrestrial spacecraft. Every listening post around the globe, both civilian and military, has confirmed that the transmission originated from a craft in orbit around the planet Jupiter. I repeat, the transmission has been confirmed."


Outside, a car roared out of the parking lot; another slammed on its brakes. There was muffled shouting, a woman and a baby crying, dogs barking.


Ian wore a look of intense concentration, but the usually unflappable Betty appeared stricken. Jas took her friend's icy hand in her own and squeezed it.


"As a result of the commander's conversation with me, my military advisers, and the other world leaders, I have approved his request to pursue a formal diplomatic and, I emphasize, a nonadversarial relationship with Earth. Negotiations will commence with utmost vigilance. I have placed our military forces on the highest state of alert. In light of this, I ask you, as your president, to remain calm, to set the example for the rest of world. Let us see this as a glorious new beginning." Obviously moved, the president cleared his throat. "The beginning of an era of promise and prosperity beyond our greatest hopes, for all the people of Earth ... and the generations yet to come."


Jas shot to her feet. How her fellow human beings might react to this news troubled her far more than the headline itself. "Betty, where's your gun?"


"Locked in the office."


"Give me the key."


Jas ensured that the handgun and bullets were in the drawer Betty indicated, then carefully, methodically locked each window and the rear door. As she flew past Betty's telephone, she snatched it off its base and punched in her daughter's number in Los Angeles, praying the call would go through. Endless ringing. Her sense of helplessness skyrocketed.


"Mom, Ilana's still with Dad in Las Vegas."


Jas shot her son a grateful glance and returned the telephone to its cradle.
Stay with your father,
she willed her daughter.
Stay safe.


"I think it's best we go to your place," Jas told Betty. She herded the woman and Ian into her Range Rover, then drove to the ranch in the forests above Sedona, while she rather guiltily wrestled with her exhilaration over what clearly alarmed the rest of the world.


That night, they watched the news: scenes of fear-fed hysteria and jubilant celebration, a pair of mass suicides, evangelists proclaiming the end of the world was upon them, and those who preached acceptance and love, even of the aliens—or
as the extraterrestrials referred to themselves.


By morning. President Talley had declared martial law, which included a dusk-to-dawn curfew. The ensuing footage of National Guard tanks rumbling down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan and along the Highway 1 in Santa Monica was almost surreal. And the images were daunting enough to keep her independent and headstrong daughter Ilana in Las Vegas, rather than risking a return to her UCLA dorm.


At the end of the second day, when it appeared that the roads were safe for travel, Jas made sure Betty was secured in her home and left with Ian for Scottsdale. Traffic was horrendous, with fender-benders, stalled National Guard Humvees, and roadblocks slowing progress every few miles. Once home they immediately headed for the couch and CNN.


"In a stunning announcement this afternoon," an exhausted correspondent rasped, "the ten astronauts stationed aboard the international space station offered to meet with the
The lone woman on board, Japanese scientist Keiko Takano, delivered the following statement: 'Because Earth must be protected from unknown diseases and unintentional contamination, we humbly ask to act as Earth's emissaries by meeting with our visitors face-to-face.' "


Intense debate and speculation ensued. "A noble and visionary sacrifice," some called it. "Suicide," others said. In the end, the request for the gathering was approved, and the astronauts were picked up by one of the
ships and whisked farther into space than any human had ever been.


"Approximately ten hours ago," the reporter announced, "the astronauts boarded the
command vessel for a historic summit. The transmission sent back to Earth was viewed by world leaders, military and intelligence experts, and selected members of the United Nations before being released." A checkerboard of NASA publicity photos popped into view—nine men and one woman of various nationalities. On the screen, the reporter held his hand to his ear and nodded. Then journalistic poise fled as his eyes lit up. "The pictures are coming through now."


Jas stared, unblinking, at a video, both ordinary and


extraordinary, of a group of people smiling and shaking hands.
Shaking hands!
"My God," she murmured. Tears of disbelief and joy blurred her vision as she struggled to distinguish between the astronauts and the
When the differences sank in, they weren't in any way like those she had anticipated. In fact, she was a bit embarrassed. Dressed in ill-fitting, standard NASA-issue jumpsuits. Earth's astronauts looked like their hosts' poor country cousins. The
wore sumptuous, silver-trimmed indigo uniforms, and their bronzed amber skin and fair hair imparted an air of prosperity and robust health.


"Mom, they-look human," Ian said, his voice full of wonder.


Jas squinted past the congenial group in the foreground to a tall figure in the back, a
man dressed in casual clothing. He wore a loose shirt tucked in form-fitting pants, and knee-high boots that appeared broken-in, as if he actually worked in them, unlike the shiny boots of the others. His arms crossed over his chest, he was viewing the proceedings with a look of vague disdain and aristocratic boredom, as if he knew he could run the show better but chose not to interfere. He came across as arrogant as hell. Or maybe he was just confident—or possessed of some kind of inner strength.


She had to laugh at herself, at what she was thinking, but he was so damned good-looking that she couldn't pull her gaze away. He had great cheekbones, and a long, straight nose. His hair color was strange, though— nutmeg, yet not quite, and several shades darker than that of the blond Scandinavian types surrounding him. Amusement softened his countenance as one of the indigo-clad diplomats veered in his direction. Remarkable, but me closer the approaching
officer came to the tall man the less godlike he appeared, turning shorter, stockier, and coarser-featured in comparison. Judging by the uniformed man's ill-disguised intimidation, he too, sensed the other man's superiority. The
officer's spine was stiff when he spoke.


The space rebel cocked his head to listen. At the same time, he glanced directly into the camera with eyes as pale and brilliant as gold. Jas froze. The air whooshed out of her lungs. Her skin tingled and her pulse kicked into overdrive. She knew that man, those eyes. He was the man from her dream.


She'd never been able to see his face. She leaned forward and took a closer look. At the very edges of her mind, memories teased her—memories that felt as if they belonged to someone else. She heard whispers,
whispers, his breath hot against her ear:
want to make love with you.
Her entire body screamed.
Yes, yes, yes,
though she knew he hadn't actually spoken, and that she had never known his touch. A fact with which her heart vehemently disagreed. The group on-screen now resembled players in a game of musical chairs as the uniform-clad
and the astronauts took seats, leaving her spaceman with none. His warm gaze turned to ice. Shoulders squared, dignity intact, he turned on his heel and left. Gasping, she battled the ludicrous urge to find a way to follow.

BOOK: The Star King
3.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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