Read Star Online

Authors: Danielle Steel



Danielle Steel

Chapter 1

The Birds Were Already Calling To Each Other In The Early morning stillness of the Alexander Valley as the sun rose slowly over the hills, stretching golden fingers into a sky that within moments was almost purple. The leaves on the trees rustled gently in the barest breeze as Crystal stood silent in the damp grass, watching the brilliant sky explode in shimmering colors. For brief moments, the birds stopped singing, almost as though they, too, were in awe of the valley's beauty. There were lush fields, rimmed by rugged hills where their cattle wandered, grazing. Her father's ranch covered two hundred acres, its fertile earth yielding corn, walnuts, and grapes, with the cattle they bred bringing in their greatest profit. The Wyatt Ranch had been profitable for a hundred years, but Crystal loved it not for what it brought them but for what it was. She seemed to commune silently with spirits only she knew were there as she watched the tall grass rustle softly in the breeze, and felt the warmth of the sun shine down on her wheat-colored hair, as she began to sing softly. Her eyes were the color of the summer sky, her limbs long and graceful as she suddenly began to run, pressing the damp grass beneath her feet as she headed toward the river. She sat on a smooth gray rock, feeling the icy water dance over her feet as she watched the sunlight reach the rocks. She loved watching the sun come up, loved running in the fields, she loved just being there, alive and young and free, at one with her roots, and with nature. She loved to sit and sing in the quiet mornings, her full voice billowing around her, magical even without music. It was as though there was something special about singing then, with only God to hear her.

There were ranch hands who herded her cattle, and Mexicans who tended the corn and the vineyards, her father overseeing all of it. But there was no one who loved the land as dearly as she, or her father, Tad Wyatt. Her brother, Jared, helped him after school, but at sixteen he was more interested in borrowing her father's pickup and going to Napa with his friends. It was a fifty-minute drive from Jim Town. He was a good-looking boy with his father's dark hair, and a knack for taming wild horses. But neither he nor her sister, Becky, had Crystal's lyrical beauty. Today was Becky's wedding day, and Crystal knew that her mother and grandmother were already busy in the kitchen. She had heard them as she slipped away to watch the sun come up over the mountains. Crystal waded out into the stream, the water rushing to her thighs as she felt her feet go numb and her knees tingle, and she laughed aloud in the summer morning, pulling her thin cotton nightgown over her head and tossing it onto the bank. She knew there was no one to watch her as she stood gracefully in the stream, totally unaware of how startlingly beautiful she was, a young Venus springing forth from the stream in the Alexander Valley. From the distance she looked every bit a woman, as she stood holding her long pale blond hair on top of her head with one hand, as the curves of her exquisite body were swallowed slowly by the icy water. Only those who knew her well realized how young she was. To a stranger she looked full-grown, eighteen or twenty, her body ripe, her eyes huge and blue as she looked up at the early morning sun and squinted happily at the sunshine, her shimmering nakedness seemingly carved out of the palest pink marble. But she was not a woman, she was a girl, not yet fifteen, although she would be fifteen that summer. She laughed to herself as she thought of them looking for her, coming to her room to wake her so she could help them in the kitchen, her sister's fury to find her gone, her grandmother clucking in toothless irritation. As usual, she had escaped them. It was what she liked best, fleeing from tedious obligations and running loose on the ranch, wandering through the tall grass, or into the woods in the winter rains, or riding bareback singing to herself as she rode clear over the hills to the secret places she had discovered on long rides with her father. She had been born here, and one day, when she was very old, as old as Grandma Minerva and even older than that, she would die here. Every inch of her soul loved the ranch, and this valley. She had inherited her father's passion for the land, for the rich brown earth, and the lush green that carpeted the hills in the springtime. She saw a deer standing nearby, and she smiled. There were no enemies in Crystal's world, no dangers, no secret terrors. She belonged here, and never doubted for a moment that she was safe here.

She watched the sun rising in the sky, and walked slowly back to the riverbank, stepping over the rocks easily with her long legs, until she reached her nightgown and pulled it over her head and let it cling wetly to her body as her mane of pale blond hair fell far past her shoulders. She knew it was time to go back, they would be furious by now. Her mother would already have complained to her father. She had helped make twenty-four apple pies the day before, she had baked bread, dressed chickens, helped to cook seven hams, she had stuffed fat ripe tomatoes with basil and walnuts. She had done her share, and she knew there was nothing left to do except fret and get in the way, and listen to Becky shout at her brother. She had plenty of time to shower and dress and get to the church by eleven. They didn't need her, they only thought they did. She was happier roaming the fields and wading in the stream in the morning daylight. The air had already grown warmer and the breeze was dying down. It was going to be a beautiful day for Becky's wedding.

She could see their house in the distance as she heard her grandmother's voice calling shrilly for her from the porch outside the kitchen. Crystal! ' The word seemed to reverberate everywhere as she laughed and ran toward the house, looking like a long-legged child, with her hair flying out behind her.

Crystal! Her grandmother was standing on the porch as she approached. Grandma Minerva was wearing the black dress she wore when she had serious work to do in the kitchen. She had a clean white apron over it, and she pursed her lips angrily as she saw Crystal gamboling toward her, her white cotton nightgown glued damply to her naked body. There was no artifice to the girl, there were no wiles, there was only that staggering natural beauty she was still unaware of. In her own mind, she was still a child, and aeons away from the burdens of being a woman. Crystal! Look at you! You can see right through that nightgown! You're not a child anymore! What if one of the men sees you?

It's Saturday, Grandma ' no one's here. She smiled openly into the weathered old face with a broad grin that evidenced neither embarrassment nor contrition.

You should be ashamed of yourself, and you should be inside getting ready for your sister's wedding. She muttered disapprovingly as she wiped her hands on her apron. Running around like a wild thing at sunrise. There's work to do here, Crystal Wyatt. Now get inside and see what you can do to help your mama. Crystal smiled, and ran around the wide porch to climb easily into her bedroom window, as her grandmother slammed the screen door and went back to helping her daughter in the kitchen.

Crystal stood alone in her room for a moment, humming to herself as she peeled off her nightgown, and tossed it easily into a damp heap in the corner, as she glanced up at the dress she would be wearing to Becky's wedding. It was a simple white cotton dress with puffed sleeves and a little lace collar. Her mother had made it for her, as simply as she could, with no frills, no added adornments to enhance her already striking beauty. It looked like a dress for a child, but Crystal didn't mind. She could wear it to church socials afterward. They had bought plain white pumps in Napa, and her father had bought her a pair of nylon stockings in San Francisco. Her grandmother had grumbled disapprovingly over those as well, and her mother had said she was too young to wear them.

She's only a child, Tad. It always annoyed Olivia when he spoiled their youngest daughter. He was always bringing her treats, or something foolish to wear from Napa or San Francisco.

It'll make her feel special. Crystal was the child he had adored since she was born, there was a place in him that ached each time he saw her. As a baby she had had a halo of platinum hair and eyes that looked right into his as though she had something special to say to him and no one else. She was a baby born with dreams in her eyes, and a magical quality about her that made people stop and stare. They had always stared at Crystal. People were drawn to her, to some quality deep within as well as to her beauty. She looked like no one else in the family, she was unique, and she was the music in her father's heart. It was he who had chosen her name the first time he had seen her nestled in Olivia's arms only moments after she was born. Luminous and perfect. Crystal. The name suited her to perfection, with her bright clear eyes and the soft platinum hair. Even the children she had played with as a child had known she was special, different in some intangible way. She was freer and brighter and happier than they were, never governed entirely by the rules and limitations set on her by others, like her nervous, always complaining mother, or her far less beautiful older sister, or the brother who teased her mercilessly, or even the stern grandmother who had come to live with them when Crystal was seven, when Grandpa Hodges died in Arizona. Only her father seemed to understand her, only he knew how remarkable she was, like a rare bird one had to allow to fly free from time to time, soaring high over the ordinary and the mundane. She was a creature delivered to him straight from God's hand, and he always broke the rules for her, gave her little gifts, made exceptions for her, much to everyone else's annoyance.

Crystal! It was her mother's sharp voice outside her door, as she stood in the room she had shared with Becky for almost fifteen years. The door opened before she had time to answer, and Olivia Wyatt stood glaring at her in nervous disapproval. Why are you standing there like that? She was naked and beautiful, and Olivia didn't like to see it. She didn't like to think of her that, already well into womanhood, yet with the innocent eyes of a child as she turned to look at her mother, in the blue silk dress she was going to wear to Becky's wedding. She had covered it with a clean white apron, just like Grandma Minerva's. Cover yourself! Your father and brother are up! She eyed Crystal sternly, and pressed the door closed behind her, as though they were standing just outside, waiting to see Crystal's naked young body. In truth her father would only have admired her, startled to see her as more of a woman than she truly was, and Jared would have been, as always, indifferent to his sister's striking beauty.

Oh Mama ' She knew how angry her mother would have been if she could have seen her standing naked in the stream only moments before. They're not going to come in here. She smiled with an innocent shrug, as Olivia scolded.

Don't you know there's work to do? Your sister needs help with her dress. Grandma needs help carving the turkey and slicing the hams. Don't you ever make yourself useful, Crystal Wyatt? They both knew she did, but seldom to the women of the house, and always to her father. She preferred riding the tractor with him, or helping him herd the cattle when he was short of men. She worked tirelessly in brutal rainstorms bringing stray calves in, and she had a gift of gentleness with all their livestock. But that meant nothing to her mother. Get yourself dressed, and then, glancing at the clean white dress hanging on her closet door, wear your blue gingham till we leave for church. You'll get your dress dirty helping Grandma in that.

As her mother watched her, Crystal slipped into her underwear, and pulled her old blue gingham dress over her head. For an instant, it made her look like a child again, but her womanhood was already too advanced to be denied even by the faded gingham. She hadn't buttoned it yet, when the door flew open, and Becky exploded into the room, chattering nervously and complaining about her brother. She had brown hair like her mother's and wide-set brown eyes. There was a handsome plainness to her face, and her body was long and slim not unlike Crystal's, but there was nothing remarkable about her features, and her voice was pitched in an anguished whine as she told Olivia that Jared had soaked all the towels in the ranch's only bathroom.

I can't even dry my hair decently. He does it every day, Mama! I know he does it on purpose! Crystal watched her silently almost as though they had never met. After living side by side for almost fifteen years, the two girls were more strangers than sisters. Rebecca was cut in her mother's mold, the brown hair and brown eyes, the nervousness, the constant complaining. She was marrying the boy she had fallen in love with when she was Crystal's age, and she had waited for him through the war. Now almost exactly a year after he had come home safely from Japan, she was marrying him. And at eighteen, she was still a virgin. I hate him, Mama! I hate him! She was referring to her brother, as her long brown hair hung damply down her back, and tears stung her eyes as she looked angrily at her mother and sister, berating Jared.

Well, you won't have to live with him anymore after today. Her mother smiled. They had had a long talk the day before, wandering slowly past the barn, as her mother explained what Tom would expect of her on their wedding night in Mendocino. Becky had already heard about it from friends, several of whom had gotten married within months of their sweethearts' return from the Pacific. But Tom had wanted to find a job first, and Becky's father had insisted that she finish high school. She had accomplished that five weeks before, and now on a bright, sunny day in late July, her dreams would come true. She was going to be Mrs. Thomas Parker. It sounded very grown up, and more than a little scary. And secretly, Crystal wondered why her sister was marrying him. With Tom, Becky would never go farther than Booneville. Her life would begin and end right there, on the ranch where they had grown up. She loved the ranch, too, far more than the others did, and she wanted to settle here one day after she'd seen a piece of the world. She dreamed of other places, other things, other people than the ones she had grown up with. She wanted to see just a little bit more of the world than the patch of land bounded by the Mayacama Mountains. There were photographs of movie stars tacked to Crystal's walls, Greta Garbo and Betty Grable, Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable. There were photographs of Hollywood and San Francisco and New York, and once her father had shown her a postcard of Paris. She dreamed at times of going to Hollywood and becoming a movie star. She dreamed of going to mystical places, like the ones she whispered about with her father. She knew they were only dreams, but she loved to think about them. And she knew with all her heart that she wanted more than a life tied down to a man like Tom Parker. Their father had offered him a job on the ranch, because he hadn't been able to find work elsewhere. He had left high school to enlist after Pearl Harbor. And Becky had waited patiently, writing to him every week, and waiting months sometimes for his letters. He had seemed so grown up when he came back, so full of stories about the war. At twenty-one, he was a man, or at least Becky thought so. And now, a year later, he was going to be her husband.

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