Read The Star King Online

Authors: Susan Grant

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

The Star King (31 page)

BOOK: The Star King
8.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub


While they held the candles together, the woman leaned closer, inspecting the flame. Then she cupped her gnarled hands over the candles. Her eyes took on that faraway, wisdom-of-the-ages look, reminding Jas of Tina, the elderly New Ager who'd once read her palm. "Very fortunate," the little sparrow whispered. "Yes, good future ... long life . . . many descendants. Your progeny will travel to many worlds."


Jas averted her eyes. Apparently psychic abilities were not this ancient's strength.


"All done," the woman called out cheerily.


"One moment," Rom said. "I want her to have this." He twisted off his treasured signet ring and pushed the chunky band onto Jas's left index finger. "Take my ring."


Touched profoundly, Jas clenched her hand until the ring pinched her flesh. Then she crushed her fist protectively to her breasts. Solemn and silent, Rom leaned forward and kissed her, his mouth sweet and warm and tender. "I love you," they whispered to each other.


The woman plucked a handheld computer from the folds of her dress and punched several keys. Entering the event in a galactic database? Then she spread a comfortably normal looking piece of paper and two pens on the table. Unable to make out the runes, Jas let Rom guide her hand to the proper place to sign. Then they were back out in the filtered and thin night air.


Jas tried not to dwell on why Rom was in such a hurry, striding through the underground village and uphill to the docks. It was more crowded in the main part of the station. People who passed them made their support of Rom known: "Unity is victory!" "Without victory there is no survival!" The words had become the new battle cry to defeat Sharron's uprising.


Ahead were the docks. Outside an enormous battle cruiser waited, its gleaming hull glowing in the Wheel's reflected light. Soldiers lined both sides of the corridor leading to the hatch. They watched her with tender understanding, having already bidden good-bye to then-own wives. Joren, Gann, and Muffin stood off to the side—with Rom's father, stoic in his resigned despair, his face drawn. He pointedly sought eye contact with her and nodded, giving her his silent respect, but making no move to steal what little time she had left with his son. With sudden clarity—and surprising empathy—she realized how much pain he must feel at losing the same child twice.


Ten feet away from the onlookers, Rom stopped and drew her close. Jas felt sluggish, numb, as if she were trapped in a nightmare. Tomorrow Rom wouldn't be with her, but now he was. She hugged him with all her might, laying her head against his shoulder as she closed her eyes.


"Be happy," he whispered.


She pushed away, trembling, and dragged her fingertips down his cheek. "Come back to me."


He swallowed hard. Haltingly, he began to speak in English. "Jasmine Boswell Hamilton B'kah. I... love ... you." Then he kissed her, drawing away slowly.


When she opened her eyes he was striding up the gangway into the ship. The soldiers followed; then the hatch snapped shut. Somehow she managed to keep her composure through the rumbling of thrusters. As the ship streaked away, she felt suddenly faint. Joren and Lord B'kah blurred. She wobbled and Gann steadied her, escorting her away quickly, protecting her from questions and condolences with his large frame. He brought her to a room. His quarters? Hers? She didn't know ... or care. She began to shake. Gann caught her before she crumpled to the floor. He propped his back against the wall and supported her crosswise across his lap, holding her to his chest. Shoulders heaving, she cried until it hurt. Sometime later, how much later she didn't know, she heard deep voices. Muffin. Gann. "Have news ... Balkanor is destroyed. . .. No survivors .. ."


My God.
Rom was dead.


He was never coming back to her.


A low, keening cry tore from the depths of her soul. Gann hugged her while she wept anew—for Rom, for her for all they had lost, and for the sacrifice he'd made for his people. When she finally collapsed into exhausted sleep, she did so protected by her star king's loyal knight.


Chapter Twenty


"Three hundred and fifty thousand—yes, that's the sale price." Standing on the rear steps of the Rivas-Blackwell Gallery, a cordless telephone pressed to her ear, Betty glanced questioningly at Jas.


Not now,
Jas mouthed. Her Range Rover took up Betty's narrow parking space and half the one next to it. She sought refuge behind the mechanical hulk, slipped on a pair of dark sunglasses, muting the surrounding sun-splashed maze of narrow alleys and fountain-filled courtyards, and unlocked the trunk. Rom's heavy signet ring—her wedding ring—swung beneath her blouse on its long chain. The familiar way it thumped between her breasts had become as reassuring and essential as her heartbeat.


"Fabulous. I'll have it shipped Tuesday." Betty rounded the comer near the hood. "Pardon? You'd like to speak to her?"


Jas quickly buried her head and shoulders in the trunk. "She's still in Washington," Betty improvised. "But I'll let her know you called."


Jas pantomimed a thank-you. The artwork she'd created on her space travels had found a market—a lucrative market—and she was grateful for the success, but as for chatting with buyers and fans, some days were better than others, and today was not one of the good ones. A week of translating Basic to English for the Senate trade hearings had worn her out. Regardless, she'd eagerly volunteered to repeat her duties as freelance translator in two weeks for the United Nations. The ache inside her wasn't as sharp when she kept busy, unlike those devastatingly lonely first months home when she'd lived as a recluse in the guest cottage on Betty's forested property.


"I thought you were going directly home after the airport," Betty scolded, hanging up the phone.


"I did—for all of five minutes." Jas hoisted a carton of art supplies she'd purchased in Scottsdale and laid it on the pavement. "But Ian was gone who-knows-where, and the house felt too dam empty. So here I am, on your doorstep again. I'll cook dinner."


Betty suppressed a smile and moved aside a paint-speckled tarp covering canvases in the back of the Range Rover. "I'll let you cook. But only if you have something finished for me—" The woman sucked in a small breath, as she saw one of the paintings. "Oh, hon ..."


Jas's face heated, and she rose to her feet. "It's Rom," she said slowly. It was the cherished work she secretly carted around with her.


* * *


Betty studied her intently. "Has anyone else seen this?"


"Only him. When I first painted it." Jas stared at the lovingly applied daubs of pigment that depicted Rom sleeping in their bedroom on Mistraal. He was sprawled on his stomach, arms flung above his head, bedsheets and discarded clothing twisting over and under his long, muscular legs, barely covering his buttocks. Marigold yellow, dusty rose ... bronze leaf and cinnamon—the light of Mistraal's savanna flowed over his sculpted back, highlighting his smooth skin, and glinting golden where his beard stubble caught the first hints of dawn. Jas closed her eyes, remembering how the cool, fresh air had flooded the chamber that morning, waking Rom, the way he'd rolled onto his back and given her his sleepy, sexy smile.


"I like the way it makes me feel," she admitted in hushed tones. "So I keep it close by."


Awe tinged Betty's voice. "By far it is your best work." She returned the painting to its hiding place, respectfully tucking Rom away as if he were a treasured remnant of history, a long-dead warrior.


Jas ground her teeth. Frustration at the unfairness of it all turned her constant heartache to anger. "The
triumphed—because of
The invasion of Balkanor had been devastating for both sides, and the sparse details of the ensuing war were only now making their way to Earth. She slammed the trunk closed. "He saved his people, Betty. He should be alive to savor his victory."


Betty spoke with patience and empathy. "I know it hurts, Jas. It will for some time yet. But you are stronger now than before you left. And maybe more content"


Jas shot her a startled glance.


"You took a risk, Jas. You defied expectations, and you traded mediocrity for the unknown. In return you found self-respect... and true love."


Jas held her friend's wise gaze. "I suppose I'll have to keep telling myself that," she whispered.


The distant thunder of motorcycles sliced through Sedona's perfectly still late-afternoon air. "It's Ian," Jas said, her mood lightening. Two Harleys roared into the parking lot. Her son lifted his visor and waved. Both riders looked dusty and tired, as if they'd been riding for hours.


Betty raised a brow. "Who's his friend?"


"Haven't a clue," Jas murmured. The helmeted stranger swung one long leg over his seat and stood. His leather-clad, athletic body elicited a shiver of desire, something she hadn't felt since Rom. She shoved her hands deep in the pockets of her jeans. "Here to see Sedona?" she asked him as casually as she could manage.


"No"—he removed his helmet—"I am here to see my wife."


At the sight of his golden eyes and tousled nutmeg hair, Jas's emotions whipped into a maelstrom. "Rom!" She choked. Her vision tunneled. Suddenly there wasn't enough air to breathe. Gasping, she sat hard on the curb, spilling the contents of her purse. Black spots whirled in front of her eyes as she watched her lipsticks roll down the asphalt slope. Then the spots turned to blobs that blotted out her vision, and someone was shoving her head between her legs.


* * *


When she came to, she was lying on her back on the pavement. Shivery hot and vaguely nauseated, she opened her eyes. Rom was crouching over her. He looked stricken as he smoothed her hair off her forehead. "I apologize for shocking you so," he said in Basic.


She squeezed her eyes shut. Upon opening them, he was still there. She made a small cry and flew upward, nearly knocking him backward. His arms locked around her. She hugged him as hard as she could, her kisses frantic, landing everywhere but his lips. He steadied her by pressing his wide palms to either side of her face, then covered her mouth with his. His kiss was deep and utterly tender. Dizzy, she sighed, and he lifted his head, regarding her with moist eyes. "Oh, Rom... oh, my love," she whispered fervently. Their mouths came together, this time hungry and fierce.


As the reality of his appearance sank in, her relief slid into disbelief. How could he be alive and she not know it? She tore her lips from his. "The war was over months ago," she said in a gasp.


"I came as soon as I could. I was wounded early in the invasion, then captured. I was as good as dead by the time I was rescued and brought home."


"Why didn't I know? I thought there were no survivors. Why didn't anyone tell me?"


"I asked my father not to."


"What!" she blurted, incredulous.


"I was in a coma. I woke blind and unable to move my legs. I didn't want you to feel obligated to a husband who was unable to protect you."


She took a closer look at him. Beneath his black leather jacket and chaps, he was thinner. The hollows under his cheekbones were more pronounced. Her heart twisted, and her joy boomeranged into white-hot fury. She slammed her fists onto his chest. "You had no right to make that decision alone. I'm your wife. I should have been at your side." She was crying now, speaking half in English, half in Basic, pummeling him with her fists. "I've been going through hell—"


He caught her wrists in his big hands. "Jasmine, listen to me."


"—bawling my eyes out every night!" She tried to scoot backward, but he held on to her wrists and came up on his knees. She shoved away from him, landing on her rear, her legs sprawled on the pavement. Her voice shook. "I thought you were dead."


His eyes were tortured, sorrowful. "I know, angel."


She crawled back into his arms, and he clutched her as if he'd never let go. "Why didn't you call?" she demanded, her tone softer.


"You are so good at heart, Jas, so loyal. I feared that the very qualities I admired in you would bind you to me ... whether or not I could be a true husband to you."


She rested her cheek against his shoulder. The scent of dusty sun-warmed leather mingled with his clean, masculine scent.


"My father brought me back to Sienna to recuperate. As I mended, so did our differences." He compressed his lips. "It has not been an easy road. We are both hardheaded men."


She huffed. The ends of his mouth lifted in the barest hint of a smile. But it faded when his eyes flooded with obvious pain. "By all that is holy, I miss you, Jas. I
you. 'Don't fear happiness,' you told me on Mistraal. Those words came to haunt me day and night, until finally ..
. finally
I saw that I'd fallen back into my old ways—the ways of my father, and those who preceded him. My warrior's stubborn pride in not contacting you was the same unenlightened adherence to tradition that made the
Vash Nadah
brittle. That's why we nearly shattered with our first true challenge—a blunder I vow not to repeat." He gripped her shoulders. "I will begin by addressing the custom of arranged marriages for rulers. I hereby choose love instead.


"Come home with me to Sienna," he beseeched her, "so that we may wed formally. But be warned—the ceremony lasts six days. And not all is feasting and merrymaking. There are passages from Treatise of Trade to memorize, rituals to perform—"


"Rom." She framed his face with her hands. "No matter how many times and how many ways you propose, my answer will always be yes."


He stood, pulling her into his arms. A teary smile graced Betty's face while she applauded. Sniffling, Jas introduced them, then peered at her two road-weary motorcyclists. "Now why don't you gentlemen explain where you've been?"


The men exchanged glances. Ian spoke first. "Rom called before you got home—yesterday morning, early— and left about a million messages on the machine. He couldn't figure out why you wouldn't answer him—why you kept saying the same thing over and over every time." He grinned affectionately at Rom. "Mr. High Tech's first encounter with an answering machine."


Rom hooked his thumbs in the waistband of his snug jeans and shrugged.


"You understand English?" Jas asked.


"Most," Rom answered in kind. "Speak is much hard .. . harder."


"So I star-69'd him, called him back, then told him you were in Washington and that he ought to come over. The next thing you know I was teaching him to ride. I knew you weren't coming home until today, and, uh, we ended up camping overnight in the canyon." Ian shrugged guiltily. "We should have called."


Rom grazed his knuckle along her jaw. "My wrong. I ask Ian for time to know me more, so he will allow me to be husband to his mother."


Before she could say anything, Ian piped in. "It was a great trip. We talked. Most of the night, actually." Again he cast Rom an admiring gaze. Her joy-filled heart skipped a beat. They'd become confidantes.


"After I graduate," Ian went on, "he's going to teach me the family business."


"The 'family business'?" she repeated numbly, her mind reeling.


Rom replied in Basic: "Ian is my stepson. A good and loyal lad whom I'd be proud to call my heir, should he desire such an onerous hallmark. But you and I will talk further on this topic another time." He unsnapped the saddlebag on his bike and tossed her a leather jacket, helmet, and boots. "Tonight we will sleep in the desert, under the stars. Our long overdue wedding night."


His gaze turned dark and sexy, and anticipation trilled through her. "Then tomorrow, or maybe the next day," he added pointedly, "we will travel to see your daughter. But first we will celebrate." He raised the lid of a cooler just high enough for her to see the glint of ice chips and bottles. "Red Rocket Ale," he said with a wink.


She threw her head back and laughed. He grabbed her around the waist and spun her around. When her feet touched the ground, he murmured into her hair, "I apologize for the pain I caused you. I admit I have much to learn about being a husband."


She smiled through her tears and hugged him back. "Don't worry, Rom. You'll have a lifetime to get it right."

BOOK: The Star King
8.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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