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Key of Knowledge, Page 2

Nora Roberts

  “I said I was grateful,” Zoe shot back, then took a deep breath. “I’m sorry,” she said to the room in general. “It’s been one of those days. And I’m nervous on top of it. I hope I haven’t held anything up.”

  “Not at all.” Rowena brushed a hand over her shoulder as a servant came to the archway and announced dinner. “There, you see? Right on time.”

  IT wasn’t every day you ate rack of lamb in a castle on a mountaintop in Pennsylvania. The fact that the dining room had twelve-foot ceilings, a trio of chandeliers sparkling with white and red crystal drops, and a ruby granite fireplace big enough to hold the population of Rhode Island certainly added to the perks.

  The atmosphere should have been intimidating and formal, yet it was welcoming. Not the sort of place you’d chow down on pepperoni pizza, Dana reflected, but a nice ambience for sharing an exquisitely prepared meal with interesting people.

  Conversation flowed—travel, books, business. It showed Dana the power of their hosts. It wasn’t the norm for a librarian from a small valley town to sit around and break bread with a couple of Celtic gods, but Rowena and Pitte made it seem normal.

  And what was to come, the next step in the quest, was a subject no one broached.

  Because she was seated between Brad and Jordan, Dana angled herself toward Brad and spent as much of the meal as possible ignoring her other dinner partner.

  “What did you do to make Zoe mad?”

  Brad flicked a glance across the table. “Apparently, I breathed.”

  “Come on.” Dana gave him a little elbow poke. “Zoe’s not like that. What did you do? Did you hit on her?”

  “I did not hit on her.” Years of training kept his voice low, but the acid in it was still evident. “Maybe it annoyed her that I refused to muck around in her engine, and wouldn’t let her muck around in it either, as we were both dressed for dinner and were already running late.”

  Dana’s eyebrows rose. “Well, well. Seems she got your back up, too.”

  “I don’t care to be called high-handed and bossy just because I point out the obvious.”

  Now she smiled, leaned over and pinched his cheek. “But, honey, you are high-handed and bossy. That’s why I love you.”

  “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” But his lips twitched. “Then how come we’ve never had wild and crazy sex?”

  “I don’t know. Let me get back to you on that.” She speared another bite of lamb. “Guess you’ve been to a lot of snazzy dinners like this, in snazzy places like this.”

  “There is no other place like this.”

  It was easy for her to forget that her buddy Brad was Bradley Charles Vane IV, heir apparent to a lumber empire that had built one of the country’s largest and most accessible home improvement and supply chains, HomeMakers.

  But seeing how smoothly he slid into this sort of sophisticated atmosphere reminded her that he was a great deal more than just the hometown boy.

  “Didn’t your dad buy some big castle place in Scotland a few years back?”

  “Manor house, Cornwall. And, yeah, it’s pretty incredible. She’s not eating much,” he murmured and gave a little nod toward Zoe.

  “She’s just nervous. Me too,” Dana added, then cut another bite of lamb. “But nothing kills my appetite.” She heard Jordan laugh, and the deep male sound of it cruised along her skin. Deliberately, she ate the lamb. “Absolutely nothing.”

  SHE was spending most of her time ignoring him, and taking swipes with whatever time she had left over. That, Jordan thought, was Dana’s usual pattern when it came to him.

  He should be used to it.

  So the fact that it bothered him so much was his problem. Just as finding a way to make them friends again was his mission.

  They’d once been friends. And a great deal more. The fact that they weren’t now was his fault, and he would take the rap for it. But just how long was a man supposed to pay for ending a relationship? Wasn’t there a statute of limitations?

  She looked incredible, he decided as they gathered back in the parlor for coffee and brandy. But then, he’d always liked her looks, even when she’d been a kid, too tall for her age and with that pudge of baby fat still in her cheeks.

  There was no baby fat in evidence now. Anywhere. Just curves, a lot of gorgeous curves.

  She’d done something to her hair, he realized, some girl thing that added mysterious light to that dense brown. It made her eyes seem darker, deeper. God, how many times had he felt himself drowning in those rich chocolate eyes?

  Hadn’t he been entitled to come up for air?

  In any case, he’d meant what he’d said to her before. He was back now, and she was just going to have to get used to it. Just as she would have to get used to the fact that he was part of this tangle she’d gotten herself into.

  She was going to have to deal with him. And it would be his pleasure to make sure she had to deal with him as often as possible.

  Rowena rose. There was something in the movement, in the look of her, that tickled something at the edge of Jordan’s memory. Then she stepped forward, smiled, and the moment passed.

  “If you’re ready, we should begin. I think it’s more suitable if we continue this in the other parlor.”

  “I’m ready.” Dana got to her feet, then looked at Zoe. “You?”

  “Yeah.” Though she paled a bit, Zoe clasped hands with Dana. “The first time, all I could think was don’t let me be first. Now I just don’t know.”

  “Me either.”

  They moved down the great hall to the next parlor. It didn’t help to brace himself, Jordan knew. The portrait swamped him, as it had the first time he’d seen it.

  The colors, the sheer brilliance of them, the joy and beauty of subject and execution. And the shock of seeing Dana’s body, Dana’s face—Dana’s eyes looking back at him from the canvas.

  The Daughters of Glass.

  They had names, and he knew them now. Niniane, Venora, Kyna. But when he looked at the portrait, he saw them, thought of them as Dana, Malory, and Zoe.

  The world around them was a glory of sunlight and flowers.

  Malory, dressed in a gown of lapis blue, with her rich gold curls spilling nearly to her waist, held a lap harp. Zoe stood, slim and straight in her shimmering green dress, a puppy in her arms, a sword at her hip. Dana, her dark eyes lit with laughter, was gowned in fiery red. She was seated and held a scroll and quill.

  They were a unit in that moment of time, in that jewel-bright world behind the Curtain of Dreams. But it was only a moment, and even then the end was lurking.

  In the deep green of the forest, the shadow of a man. On the silver tiles, the sinuous glide of a snake.

  Far in the background, under the graceful branches of a tree, lovers embraced. Teacher and guard, too wrapped up in each other to sense the danger to their charges.

  And cannily, cleverly hidden in the painting, the three keys. One in the shape of a bird that winged its way through the impossibly blue sky, another reflecting in the water of the fountain behind the daughters, and the third secreted among the branches of the forest.

  He knew Rowena had painted it from memory—and that her memory was long.

  And he knew from what Malory had discovered and experienced, that moments after this slice of time, the souls of the daughters had been stolen and locked away in a box of glass.

  Pitte lifted a carved box, opened the lid. “Inside are two disks, one with the emblem of the key. Whoever chooses the scribed disk is charged to find the second key.”

  “Like last time, okay?” Zoe gave Dana’s hand a hard squeeze. “We look together.”

  “Okay.” Dana took a slow breath as Malory stepped up, laid a hand on her shoulder, then Zoe’s. “Want to go first?”

  “Gosh. I guess.” Closing her eyes, Zoe reached into the box, closed her hand over a disk.

  With her eyes open and on the portrait, Dana took the one that remained.

  Then each held her disk out.

ell.” Zoe stared at her disk, at Dana’s. “Looks like I’m running the anchor lap.”

  Dana ran her thumb over the key carved in her disk. It was a small thing, that key, a straight bar with a spiral design on one end. It looked simple, but she’d seen the real thing—she’d seen the first key in Malory’s hand, burning with gold, and knew it wasn’t simple at all.

  “Okay, I’m up.” She wanted to sit, but locked her shaky knees instead. Four weeks, she thought. She had four weeks from new moon to new moon to do if not the impossible at least the fantastic.

  “I get a clue, right?”

  “You do.” Rowena took up a sheet of parchment and read:

  “You know the past and seek the future. What was, what is, what will be are woven into the tapestry of all life. With beauty there is blight, with knowledge, ignorance, and with valor there is cowardice. One is lessened without its opposite.

  “To know the key, the mind must recognize the heart, and the heart celebrate the mind. Find your truth in his lies, and what is real within the fantasy.

  “Where one goddess walks, another waits, and dreams are only memories yet to come.”

  Dana picked up a snifter of brandy, drank deep to untie the knots in her belly. “Piece of cake,” she said.

  Chapter Two

  “MCDONALD’S introduced the Big Mac in 1968.” Dana swiveled lazily in her chair at the library’s resource desk. “Yes, Mr. Hertz, I’m positive. The Big Mac went system-wide in ’68, not ’69, so you’ve had a year more of the secret sauce than you thought. Looks like Mr. Foy got you on this one, huh?” She laughed, shook her head. “Better luck tomorrow.”

  She hung up the phone and crossed the Hertz/Foy daily bet off her list, then meticulously noted today’s winner on the tally sheet she kept.

  Mr. Hertz had nipped Mr. Foy at the end of last month’s round, which netted him lunch at the Main Street Diner on Mr. Foy’s tab. Though for the year, she noted, Foy was two points up, so he had the edge on bagging dinner and drinks at the Mountain View Inn, the coveted annual prize.

  This month, they were neck and neck, so it was still anybody’s game. It was her task to officially announce the winner each month, and then, with a great deal more ceremony, the trivia champ at year’s end.

  The two had kept their little contest going for nearly twenty years. She’d been part of it, or had felt like part of it, since she’d started her job at the Pleasant Valley Library with her college degree still crisp in her hand.

  The daily ritual was something she would miss when she turned in her resignation.

  Then Sandi breezed by with her bouncy blond ponytail and permanent beauty-contestant smile, and Dana thought there were certain things she would definitely not miss.

  The fact was, she should have given her two weeks’ notice already. Her hours at the library were down to a stingy twenty-five a week. But that time could be put to good use elsewhere.

  She’d be opening her bookstore, her part of Indulgence, the communal business she was starting with Zoe and Malory, in just a couple of months. Not only did she have to finish organizing and decorating her space in the building they’d bought, but she had to deal with ordering stock.

  She’d applied for all the necessary licenses, had already combed through publishers’ catalogues, fantasized about her sidelines. She would serve tea in the afternoon, wine in the evening. Eventually she would hold elegant little events. Readings, signings, appearances.

  It was something she’d always wanted to do but had never really believed she could accomplish.

  She supposed Rowena and Pitte had made it possible. Not only because of the twenty-five thousand in cold, hard cash they’d given her and the others as an incentive to agree to the quest, but also by putting her together with Malory and Zoe.

  Each of them had been at a crossroads of sorts the first night they’d met at Warrior’s Peak. And they’d made the turn, chosen the path to follow together.

  It wasn’t nearly as scary thinking of starting her own business when she had two friends—two partners—doing the same thing.

  Then there was the key. Of course, she couldn’t forget the key. It had taken Malory nearly all of the four weeks allowed to find the first. And it hadn’t been all fun and games. Far from it.

  Still, they knew more now, more about what they were up against, more about what was at stake. That had to be an advantage for this round.

  Unless you considered that knowing where the keys came from, what they did, and who didn’t want them found had absolutely nothing to do with finding one.

  She sat back, closed her eyes, and pondered the clue Rowena had given her. It had to do with the past, the present, and the future.

  Big help.

  Knowledge, naturally. Lies and truths. Heart and mind.

  Where one goddess walks.

  There’d been a goddess, a singing goddess, in Malory’s clue. And Malory—the art lover who’d dreamed of being an artist—had found her key in a painting.

  If the other two followed the same theme, logic dictated that she, the book lover, might find hers in or around books.

  “Catching up on your sleep, Dana?”

  Dana’s eyes snapped open, stared directly into Joan’s disapproving ones. “No. Concentrating.”

  “If you’ve nothing better to do, you can help Marilyn in the stacks.”

  Dana pasted a sunny smile on her face. “I’d be happy to. Should I ask Sandi to take over the resource desk?”

  “You don’t seem overrun with questions and requests.”

  And you don’t seem overrun with paperwork and administrative duties, Dana thought, since you’ve got so much time to crawl up my butt. “I’ve just completed one involving private enterprise and capitalism. But if you’d rather I—”

  “Excuse me.” A woman stopped at the desk, with her hand on the arm of a boy of about twelve. The grip made Dana think of the way Flynn held Moe’s leash. With the hope that she could keep him under control and the certain knowledge that he would bolt at the first opportunity.

  “I wonder if you could help us. My son has a paper due . . . tomorrow,” she added with heated emphasis that had the boy hunching his shoulders. “On the Continental Congress. Can you tell us which books might be the most helpful at this stage of the game?”

  “Of course.” Like a chameleon, Joan’s cold fish of a face warmed into smiles. “I’d be happy to show you several sources in our U.S. history section.”

  “Excuse me.” Unable to help herself, Dana tapped the sulky boy on the shoulder. “Seventh grade? Mrs. Janesburg, U.S. history?”

  His already pouty bottom lip drooped even further. “Yeah.”

  “I know just what she looks for. You put in a couple of solid hours on this, you can ace it.”

  “Really?” The mother laid a hand on Dana’s, gripped it like a lifeline. “That would be a miracle.”

  “I had Mrs. Janesburg for U.S. and world history.” Dana winked at the boy. “I’ve got her number.”

  “I’ll leave you in Ms. Steele’s capable hands.” Though her smile remained in place, Joan spoke through gritted teeth.

  Dana leaned forward, spoke to the boy in a conspiratorial whisper. “She still get teary-eyed when she teaches Patrick Henry’s ‘Give me liberty’ spiel?”

  He brightened up considerably. “Yeah. She had to stop and blow her nose.”

  “Some things never change. Okay, here’s what you need.”

  Fifteen minutes later, while her son checked out his books with his brand-new library card, the mother stopped back by Dana’s desk. “I just wanted to thank you again. I’m Joanne Reardon, and you’ve just saved my firstborn’s life.”

  “Oh, Mrs. Janesburg’s tough, but she wouldn’t have killed him.”

  “No. I would have. You got Matt excited about doing this paper, if for no other reason than making him think he’d be pulling one over on his teacher.”

  “Whatever works.”

  “My sentiments exactly. Anyway, I
appreciate it. You’re wonderful at your job.”

  “Thanks. Good luck.”

  She was wonderful at her job, Dana concurred. Goddamn it, she was. The evil Joan and her toothy niece were going to be sorry when they didn’t have Dana Steele to kick around anymore.

  AT the end of her shift she tidied her area, gathered up a few books she’d checked out, then hefted her briefcase. Another thing she would miss, Dana thought, was this end-of-the-day routine. The putting everything in order, taking a last look around the stacks, the tables, the sweet little cathedral to books before the walk home.

  She would also miss being just a short, pleasant walk from work to her apartment. It was only one of the reasons she had refused to move in with Flynn when he’d bought his house.

  She could still walk to Indulgence, she reminded herself. If she felt like a two-mile hike. Since that was unlikely to happen, she decided she should appreciate what she had now, while she still had it.

  She liked the predictability of her habitual route home, the things she saw season by season, year by year. Now, with fall in full swing, the streets were full of golden lights that streamed through the blaze of trees. And the surrounding mountains rose up like some fabulous tapestry woven by the gods.

  She could hear kids, freed from school and not yet locked into the homework hour, shouting as they raced around the little park between the library and her apartment building. The air was just brisk enough to carry along that spicy scent from the bed of mums planted outside the town hall.

  The big round clock on the square announced it was 4:05.

  She struggled against a wave of resentment when she remembered that, pre-Joan, it would have read 6:35 on her way home.

  Screw it. Just appreciate the extra time, the lovely walk on a sunny afternoon.

  Pumpkins on the porches, goblins hanging from branches though it was weeks before Halloween. Small towns, she mused, prized their holidays. The days were getting shorter, cooler, but were still warm enough, still long enough to bask in.

  The Valley was at its best in autumn, she decided. As close to picture-perfect as Anywhere, America, could get.

  “Hey, Stretch. Carry those for you?”

  Her pretty bubble of contentment burst. Before she could snarl, Jordan snatched the load of books away, tucked them under his own arm.

  “Give me those.”

  “I’ve got them. Terrific afternoon, huh? Nothing like the Valley in October.”

  She hated that his words mirrored the ones that had played through her mind. “I thought the name of the tune was ‘Autumn in New York.’ ”

  “And it’s a good one.” He tipped up the books to read the spines. She had one on Celtic lore, one on yoga, and the latest Stephen King novel.


  It was like him, just exactly like him, to home in on the one thing that she found moderately embarrassing. “So?”

  “Nothing. Just can’t see you assuming the dragonfly position or whatever.” He narrowed his eyes, and something appealingly wicked moved into the blue. “On second thought . . .”

  “Haven’t you got anything better to do than skulking around the library waiting to accost and annoy me?”

  “I wasn’t skulking, and hauling your books isn’t accosting.” He matched his stride to hers with the ease of long familiarity. “It’s not the first time I’ve walked you home.”

  “Somehow I’ve managed to find my way without you the last several years.”

  “You’ve managed a lot of things. How’s your dad doing?”

  She bit back a vicious remark because she knew, for all his many flaws, that Jordan asked the question out of a sincere concern. Joe Steele and Jordan Hawke had gotten on like white on rice.

  “He’s good. He’s doing good. The move to Arizona was what he needed. He and