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Key of Knowledge

Nora Roberts

  Chapter One

  DANA Steele considered herself a flexible, open-minded woman, with no less than her fair share of patience, tolerance, and humor.

  A number of people might have disagreed with this self-portrait.

  But what did they know?

  In one month’s time, her life had, through no fault of her own, taken a sharp turn off its course and into territory so strange and uncharted she couldn’t explain the route or the reason even to herself.

  But wasn’t she going with the flow?

  She’d taken it on the chin when Joan, the malicious library director, had promoted her own niece by marriage over other, more qualified, more dependable, more astute, and certainly more attractive candidates. She’d sucked it up, hadn’t she, and done her job?

  And when that completely undeserved promotion had caused a squeeze resulting in a certain more qualified employee’s hours and paycheck being cut to the bone, had she pummeled the despicable Joan and the incessantly pert Sandi to bloody pulps?

  No, she had not. Which in Dana’s mind illustrated her exquisite restraint.

  When her greedy bloodsucker of a landlord raised her rent to coincide with her pay cut, had she clamped her hands around his scrawny neck and squeezed until his beady eyes popped?

  Again, she had demonstrated control of heroic proportions.

  Those virtues might’ve been their own reward, but Dana enjoyed more tangible benefits.

  Whoever had come up with that business about a door opening when a window closes hadn’t known much about Celtic gods. Dana’s door hadn’t opened. It had been blown clean off its hinges.

  Even with all she’d seen and done, with all she’d been a part of over the last four weeks, it was hard to believe that she was now stretched out in the backseat of her brother’s car, once again heading up the steep, winding road to the great stone house of Warrior’s Peak.

  And what waited for her there.

  It wasn’t storming, as it had been on her first trip to the Peak after receiving that intriguing invitation for “cocktails and conversation” from Rowena and Pitte—an invitation that had gone out to only two other women. And she wasn’t alone. And this time, she thought, she knew exactly what she was in for.

  Idly, she opened the notebook she’d brought along and read the summary she’d written of the story she’d heard on her first visit to Warrior’s Peak.

  The young Celtic god who would be king falls for a human girl during his traditional sojourn in the mortal dimension. (Which I relate to spring break.) Young stud’s parents indulge him, break the rules and allow him to bring the maid behind what’s called either Curtain of Dreams or Curtain of Power, and into the realm of the gods.

  This is cool with some of the gods, but pisses others off.

  War, strife, politics, intrigue follow.

  Young god becomes king, makes human wife queen. They have three daughters.

  Each daughter—demigoddess—has a specific talent or gift. One is art, or beauty, the second is knowledge or truth, the third is courage or valor.

  Sisters are close and happy and grow to young womanhood, tra-la-la, under the watchful eye of the female teacher and the male warrior guardian given the task by god-king.

  Teacher and warrior fall in love, which blinds the eye enough that it isn’t kept sharp on the daughters.

  Meanwhile, bad guys are plotting away. They don’t take to human or half-human types in their rarefied world, especially in positions of power. Dark forces go to work. A particularly evil-minded sorcerer (probably related to Library Joan) takes charge. A spell is cast on the daughters while teacher and warrior are starry-eyed. The daughters’souls are stolen, locked in a glass box, known as the Box of Souls, which can only be opened by three keys turned by human hands. Although the gods know where to find the keys, none of them can break the spell or free the souls.

  Teacher and warrior are cast out, sent through the Curtain of Dreams into the mortal world. There, in each generation three human women are born who have the means to find the keys and end the curse. Teacher and warrior must find the women, and these women must be given the choice of accepting the quest or rejecting it.

  Each, in turn, has one moon phase to find a key. If the first fails, game over. And not without penalty—each would lose an undisclosed year of her life. If she succeeds, the second woman takes up the quest, and so on. An annoyingly cryptic clue—the only help teacher and warrior are allowed to give the three lucky women—is revealed at the start of the four-week cycle.

  If the quest is completed, the Box of Souls will be opened and the Daughters of Glass freed. And the three women will each be awarded a cool one million dollars.

  A pretty story, Dana mused, until you understood it wasn’t a story but fact. Until you understood you were one of the three women who had the means to unlock the Box of Souls.

  Then it just got weird.

  Add in some dark, powerful sorcerer god named Kane who really wanted you to fail and could make you see things that weren’t there—and not see things that were—and the whole business took on a real edge.

  But there were good parts too. That first night she’d met two women who had turned out to be really interesting people, and soon she felt as though she’d known them all her life. Well enough, Dana reminded herself, that the three of them were going into business together.

  And one of them had turned out to be the love of her brother’s life.

  Malory Price, the organized soul with the artist’s heart, not only had outwitted a sorcerer with a few thousand years under his belt but had found the key, opened the lock, and bagged the guy.

  All in less than four weeks.

  It was going to be hard for Dana and their pal Zoe to top that one.

  Then again, Dana reminded herself, she and Zoe didn’t have the distraction of romance to clog the works. And she didn’t have a kid to worry about, as Zoe did.

  Nope, Dana Steele was footloose and fancy-free, with nothing to pull her focus away from the prize.

  If she was next at bat, Kane had better set for the long ball.

  Not that she had anything against romance, she mused, letting the notebook close as she watched the blaze and blur of trees through the window. She liked men.

  Well, most men.

  She’d even been in love with one, a million years ago. Of course, that had been a result of youthful stupidity. She was much wiser now.

  Jordan Hawke might have come back to Pleasant Valley, temporarily, a few weeks ago, and he might have wheedled his way into being part of the quest. But he wasn’t a part of Dana’s world any longer.

  In her world he didn’t exist. Except when he was writhing in pain and agony from some horrible freak accident or a debilitating and disfiguring illness.

  It was too bad that her brother, Flynn, had the bad taste to be his friend. But she could forgive Flynn for it, and even give him points for loyalty, since he and Jordan and Bradley Vane had been pals since childhood.

  And somehow or other, both Jordan and Brad were connected to the quest. It was something she would have to tolerate for the duration.

  She shifted as Flynn turned to drive through the open iron gates, angled her head so that she could look up at one of the two stone warriors that guarded the entrance to the house.

  Big, handsome, and dangerous, Dana thought. She’d always liked men who were—even if they were sculptures.

  She scooted up, but kept the long length of her legs on the seat—the only way for her to ride comfortably in the back of the car.

  She was a tall woman with an amazon’s build that would’ve suited that stone warrior. She combed her fingers through her long swing of brown hair. Since Zoe, the currently unemployed hairdresser and Dana’s new best friend,
had styled it and added highlights, it fell into that casual bell shape with little or no help from Dana. It saved her time in the morning, which she appreciated, as morning wasn’t her best time of day. And the cut was flattering, which suited her vanity.

  Her eyes, a deep, dark brown, locked on the elegant sprawl of black stone that was the house at Warrior’s Peak. Part castle, part fortress, part fantasy, it spread over the rise, speared up into a sky as clear as black glass.

  Lights shimmered against its many windows, and still, Dana imagined, there were so many secrets in the shadows.

  She’d lived in the valley below for all the twenty-seven years of her life. And for all of them, the Peak had been a fascination. Its shape and shadow on the rise above her pretty little town had always struck her as something out of a faerie tale—and not the tidied-up, bloodless versions either.

  She’d often wondered what it would be like to live there, to wander through all the rooms, to walk out on the parapet or gaze down from a tower. To live so high, in such magnificent solitude, with the majesty of the hills all around and the charm of the woods only steps beyond the door.

  She stirred herself now, shifting around so her head was between Flynn’s and Malory’s.

  They were so damn cute together, she thought. Flynn with his deceptively easygoing nature, Malory with her need for order. Flynn with his lazy green eyes, Malory with her bright, bold blue ones. There was Mal, with her stylish coordinated outfits, and Flynn, who was lucky if he could put his hands on a pair of matching socks.

  Yes, Dana decided, they were perfect for one another.

  She thought of Malory as her sister now, through circumstance and fate. And really, wasn’t that how Flynn had become her brother all those years ago when her father and his mother had married and merged families?

  When her dad had gotten sick, she’d leaned hard on Flynn. She supposed they’d leaned hard on each other more than once. When the doctors had recommended that her father move to a warmer climate, when Flynn’s mother had shoved the responsibility of running the Valley Dispatch into Flynn’s hands and he’d found himself the publisher of a small-town paper instead of living his dream of honing his reporting skills in New York.

  When the boy she’d loved had left her.

  When the woman he’d intended to marry had left him.

  Yeah, they’d had each other—through thick and thin. And now, in their own ways, they each had Malory. It was a nice way to round things out.

  “Well.” Dana laid her hands on their shoulders. “Here we go again.”

  Malory turned, gave Dana a quick smile. “Nervous?”

  “Not so much.”

  “It’s either you or Zoe tonight. Do you want to be picked?”

  Ignoring the little flutter in her stomach, Dana shrugged. “I just want to get going on it. I don’t know why we have to go through all this ceremony. We already know what the deal is.”

  “Hey, free food,” Flynn reminded her.

  “There is that. Wonder if Zoe’s here yet. We can dive into whatever our hosts, Rowena and Pitte, picked up in the land of milk and honey, then get this show on the road.”

  She climbed out the minute Flynn stopped the car, then Dana stood with her hands on her hips, studying the house while the ancient man with a shock of white hair hurried up to take the keys.

  “Maybe you’re not nervous.” Malory came to stand beside her, linked arms. “But I am.”

  “Why? You dunked your shot.”

  “It’s still up to all of us.” She looked up at the white flag with its key emblem that flew atop the tower.

  “Just think positive.” Dana drew in a long breath. “Ready?”

  “If you are.” Malory held out a hand for Flynn’s.

  They walked toward the huge entrance doors, which swung open at their approach.

  Rowena stood in the flood of light, her hair a firestorm falling over the bodice of a sapphire velvet dress. Her lips were curved in welcome, her exotic green eyes bright with it.

  Gems sparkled at her ears, her wrists, her fingers. On a long braided chain that hung nearly to her waist was a crystal as clear as water and as fat as a baby’s fist.

  “Welcome.” Her voice was low and musical and seemed to hold hints of forests and caves where faeries might dwell. “I’m so pleased to see you.” She held out her hands to Malory, then leaned forward and kissed both of her cheeks in turn. “You look wonderful, and well.”

  “So do you, always.”

  With a light laugh, Rowena reached for Dana’s hand. “And you. Mmm, what a wonderful jacket.” She skimmed her fingers along the sleeve of the butter-soft leather. But even as she spoke, she was looking beyond them and out the door. “You didn’t bring Moe?”

  “It didn’t seem like quite the occasion for a big, clumsy dog,” Flynn told her.

  “It’s always the occasion for Moe.” Rowena rose on her toes to peck Flynn’s cheek. “You must promise to bring him next time.”

  She slid her arm through Flynn’s. “Come, we’ll be comfortable in the parlor.”

  They crossed the great hall with its mosaic floor, moved through the wide arch to the spacious room glowing from the flames in the massive hearth and the light of dozens of white candles.

  Pitte stood at the mantel, a glass of amber liquid in his hand. The warrior at the gate, Dana thought. He was tall, dark, dangerously handsome, with a muscular and ready build that his elegant black suit couldn’t disguise.

  It was easy to imagine him wearing light armor and carrying a sword. Or sitting astride a huge black horse and wearing a cape that billowed at the gallop.

  He gave a slight and courtly bow as they entered.

  Dana started to speak, then a movement caught the corner of her eye. The friendly smile vanished from her face, her brows beetled, and her eyes flashed pure annoyance.

  “What’s he doing here?”

  “He,” Jordan said dryly as he lifted a glass, “was invited.”

  “Of course.” Smoothly, Rowena pressed a flute of champagne into Dana’s hand. “Pitte and I are delighted to have all of you here tonight. Please, be at home. Malory, you must tell me how plans are progressing on your gallery.”

  With another flute of champagne and a gentle nudge, Rowena had Malory moving toward a chair. After one look at his sister’s face, Flynn chose the better part of valor and followed them.

  Refusing to retreat, Dana sipped her champagne and scowled at Jordan over the crystal rim of her glass. “Your part in this is finished.”

  “Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. Either way I get an invitation to dinner from a beautiful woman, especially if she happens to be a goddess, I accept. Nice threads,” he commented and fingered the cuff of Dana’s jacket.

  “Hands off.” She jerked her arm out of reach, then plucked a canapé from a tray. “And stay out of my way.”

  “I’m not in your way.” His voice remained mild, and he took a lazy sip of his drink.

  Even though Dana wore heeled boots, he had a couple of inches on her. Which was just one more reason to find him irritating. Like Pitte, he could have posed for one of the stone warriors. He was six-three, every inch of it well packed. His dark hair could’ve used a trim, but that slightly curly, slightly unkempt, slightly too long style suited the power of his face.

  He was, always had been, lustily handsome, with blazing blue eyes under black brows, the long nose, the wide mouth, the strong bones combining in a look that could be charming or intimidating depending on his purpose.

  Worse, Dana thought, he had an agile and clever mind inside that rock-hard skull. And an innate talent that had made him a wildly successful novelist before he’d hit thirty.

  Once, she’d believed they would build a life side by side. But to her mind he’d chosen his fame and his fortune over her.

  And in her heart she had never forgiven him for it.

  “There are two more keys,” he reminded her. “If finding them is important to you, you should be grateful for hel
p. Whatever the source.”

  “I don’t need your help. So feel free to head back to New York anytime.”

  “I’m going to see this through. Better get used to it.”

  She snorted, then popped another canapé. “What’s in it for you?”

  “You really want to know?”

  She shrugged. “I couldn’t care less. But I’d think even someone with your limited sensitivity would be aware that you bunking at Flynn’s is putting a crimp in the works for the turtledoves there.”

  Jordan followed her direction, noted Flynn sitting with Malory, and the way his friend absently played with the curling ends of her blond hair.

  “I know how to keep out of their way, too. She’s good for him,” Jordan added.

  Whatever else she could say about Jordan—and there was plenty—she couldn’t deny that he loved Flynn. So she swallowed some of the bitterness, and washed the taste of it away with champagne.

  “Yeah, she is. They’re good for each other.”

  “She won’t move in with him.”

  Dana blinked. “He asked her to move in? To live with him? And she said no?”

  “Not exactly. But the lady has conditions.”

  “Which are?”

  “Actual furniture in the living room and he has to redo the kitchen.”

  “No kidding?” The idea had Dana feeling both amused and sentimental at once. “That’s our Mal. Before Flynn knows it, he’ll be living in an real house instead of a building with doors and windows and packing boxes.”

  “He bought dishes. The kind you wash, not the kind you chuck in the trash.”

  The amusement peaked, bringing shallow dimples to her cheeks. “He did not.”

  “And knives and forks that aren’t plastic.”

  “Oh, my God, stemware could be next.”

  “I’m afraid so.”

  She let out a roll of laughter, toasted to her brother’s back. “Hook, line, and sinker.”

  “That’s something I’ve missed,” Jordan murmured. “That’s the first time I’ve heard you laugh and mean it since I’ve been back.”

  She sobered instantly. “It didn’t have anything to do with you.”

  “Don’t I know it.”

  Before she could speak again, Zoe McCourt rushed into the room, steps ahead of Bradley Vane. She looked flustered, irritated, and embarrassed. Like a sexy wood sprite, Dana thought, who’d had a particularly bad day.

  “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry I’m late.”

  She wore a short, clingy black dress with long, snug sleeves and an abbreviated hem that showcased her slim and sinuous curves. Her hair, black and glossy, was short and straight with a long fringe of bangs accenting long-lidded amber eyes.

  Behind her, Brad looked like some golden faerie-tale prince in an Italian suit.

  Seeing them together made Dana think what a stunning couple they made—if you didn’t count the frustration emanating from Zoe, or the uncharacteristic stiffness in Brad’s stance.

  “Don’t be silly.” Rowena was already up and crossing to them. “You’re not at all late.”

  “I am. My car. I had trouble with my car. They were supposed to fix it, but . . . Well, I’m very grateful Bradley was driving by and stopped.”

  She didn’t sound grateful, Dana noted. She sounded pissed, with that hint of the West Virginia hills in her voice giving the temper a nice little edge.

  Rowena made sympathetic noises as she led Zoe to a chair, served her champagne.

  “I think I could’ve fixed it,” Zoe muttered.

  “That may be.” With obvious gratitude, Bradley accepted a drink. “But you’d have ended up with grease all over your dress. Then you’d have needed to go home and change and you’d’ve been even later. It’s hardly a slap in the face to accept a ride from someone you know who’s going to exactly the same place at the same time.”