Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Key of Knowledge k-2, Page 2

Nora Roberts

  “Dont 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, whod had a particularly bad day.

  “Im sorry. Im so sorry Im 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 didnt count the frustration emanating fromZoe , or the uncharacteristic stiffness in Brads stance.

  “Dont be silly.” Rowena was already up and crossing to them. “Youre not at all late.”

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

  She didnt sound grateful, Dana noted. She sounded pissed, with that hint of theWest Virginia hills in her voice giving the temper a nice little edge.

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

  “I think I couldve fixed it,”Zoe muttered. “That may be.” With obvious gratitude, Bradley accepted a drink. “But youd have ended up with grease all over your dress. Then youd have needed to go home and change andyoudve been even later. Its hardly a slap in the face to accept a ride from someone you know whos going to exactly the same place at the same time.”

  “I said I was grateful,”Zoe shot back, then took a deep breath. “Im sorry,” she said to the room in general. “Its been one of those days. And Im nervous on top of it. I hope I havent 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 wasnt every day you ate rack of lamb in a castle on a mountaintop inPennsylvania . 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 ofRhode Island certainly added to the perks.

  The atmosphere should have been intimidating and formal, yet it was welcoming. Not the sort of place youd 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 wasnt the norm for a librarian from a small valley town to sit around and break bread with a couple of Celtic gods, but Rowena andPitte 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 makeZoe mad?”

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

  “Come on.” Dana gave him a little elbow poke. “Zoesnot 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 wouldnt let her muck around in it either, as we were both dressed for dinner and were already running late.”

  Danas eyebrows rose. “Well, well. Seems she got your back up, too.”

  “I dont 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. Thats why I love you.”

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

  “I dont know. Let me get back to you on that.” She speared another bite of lamb. “Guess youve 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 countrys 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.

  “Didnt your dad buy some big castle place inScotland a few years back?”

  “Manor house,Cornwall . And, yeah, its pretty incredible. Shes not eating much,” he murmured and gave a little nod towardZoe .

  “Shes just nervous. Me too,” Dana added, then cut another bite of lamb. “But nothing kills my appetite.” She heardJordan 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 Danas 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.

  Theyd once been friends. And a great deal more. The fact that they werent 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? Wasnt there a statute of limitations?

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

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

  Shed 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?

  Hadnt he been entitled to come up for air?

  In any case, hed meant what hed 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 shed 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 ofJordan s memory. Then she stepped forward, smiled, and the moment passed.

  “If youre ready, we should begin. I think its more suitable if we continue this in the other parlor.“

  “Im ready.” Dana got to her feet, then looked atZoe . “You?”

  “Yeah.” Though she paled a bit,Zoe clasped hands with Dana. “The first time, all I could think was dont let me be first. Now I just dont know.”

  “Me either.”

  They moved down the great hall to the next parlor. It didnt help to brace himself,Jordan knew. The portrait swamped him, as it had the first time hed seen it.

  The colors, the sheer brilliance of them, the joy and beauty of subject and execution. And the shock of seeing Danas body, Danas face—Danas 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, andZoe .

  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 o
f 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.

  Pittelifted 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 Danas hand a hard squeeze. “We look together.”

  “Okay.” Dana took a slow breath as Malory stepped up, laid a hand on her shoulder, thenZoes . “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.

  “Well.”Zoe stared at her disk, at Danas. “Looks like Im 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 shed seen the real thing—shed seen the first key in Malorys hand, burning with gold, and knew it wasnt simple at all.

  “Okay, Im 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

  McDONALDSintroduced the Big Mac in 1968.” Dana swiveled lazily in her chair at the librarys resource desk. “Yes, Mr. Hertz, Im positive. The Big Mac went system-wide in 68, not 69, so youve 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 todays winner on the tally sheet she kept.

  Mr. Hertz had nipped Mr. Foy at the end of last months round, which netted him lunch at the Main Street Diner on Mr. Foys 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 anybodys game. It was her task to officially announce the winner each month, and then, with a great deal more ceremony, the trivia champ at years end.

  The two had kept their little contest going for nearly twenty years. Shed been part of it, or had felt like part of it, since shed 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.

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

  Shed 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 shed always wanted to do but had never really believed she could accomplish.

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

  Each of them had been at a crossroads of sorts the first night theyd met at Warriors Peak. And theyd made the turn, chosen the path to follow together.

  It wasnt 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 couldnt forget the key. It had taken Malory nearly all of the four weeks allowed to find the first. And it hadnt 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 didnt 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.

  Thered been a goddess, a singing goddess, in Malorys clue. And Malory—the art lover whod 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?”

  Danas eyes snapped open, stared directly into Joans disapproving ones. “No. Concentrating.”

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

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

  “You dont seem overrun with questions and requests.” And you dont seem overrun with paperwork and administrative duties, Dana thought, since youve got so much time to crawl up my butt. “Ive just completed one involving private enterprise and capitalism. But if youd 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 Moes 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, Joans cold fish of a face warmed into smiles. “Id be happy to show you several sources in ourU.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 alreadypouty b
ottom lip drooped even further.


  “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 Danas, gripped it like a lifeline. “That would be a miracle.”

  “I had Mrs.Janesburg forU.S. and world history.” Dana winked at the boy. “Ive got her number.”

  “Ill leave you in Ms. Steeles 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 Henrys „Give me liberty spiel?”

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

  “Some things never change. Okay, heres what you need.”

  Fifteen minutes later, while her son checked out his books with his brand-new library card, the mother stopped back by Danas desk. “I just wanted to thank you again. Im Joanne Reardon, and youve just saved my firstborns life.”

  “Oh, Mrs.Janesburgs tough, but she wouldnt have killed him.”

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

  “Whatever works.”

  “My sentiments exactly. Anyway, I appreciate it. Youre 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 didnt have Dana Steele to kick around anymore. * * *

  AT the end of her shift she tidied her area, gathered up a few books shed 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 hed 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.