Key of valor, p.10
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       Key of Valor, p.10

         Part #3 of Key series by Nora Roberts
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  “Simon, you’re supposed to knock. Moe!”

  The dog had already made a dash for the great room and the sofa.

  “He’s all right,” Brad told her as Moe leaped on the cushions and stretched out like a furry sultan. “We’re getting used to him around here.”

  “We brought you a present.” Dancing in place, Simon thrust the box into Brad’s hands. “Mom and I made it.”

  “Yeah? Let’s go back to the kitchen and open it up. Just let me get your coats first.”

  “I can do it. I know where they go.” Simon yanked off his jacket and bounced on his toes until Zoe handed him hers. “Don’t open it until I’m there.”

  “Okay.”

  “I want to thank you for sending the car,” Zoe began as they started toward the kitchen. “Simon’s never going to forget it. It was a big thrill for him.”

  “Did you enjoy the ride?”

  “Are you kidding?” She let out a laugh that was still tinged with wonder. “It was like being a princess for twenty minutes. Except we played with all the buttons and the television, so I guess it was more like being a kid for twenty minutes. But you didn’t have to do something like that, go to all that trouble.”

  “It wasn’t any trouble. I wanted to do it. I knew Simon would get a kick out of it, and I didn’t want to worry about you driving home in the dark. And,” he added as he pulled a bottle out of a silver bucket, “I wanted you to be able to relax and enjoy this really nice champagne.”

  “Oh. Even without the note you sent it would be hard to argue about all that.”

  “Good.” He released the cork with a cheerful little pop and was pouring the second flute when Simon ran in with Moe behind him.

  “You gotta open the present now. It’s a homewarmer present.”

  “Housewarming,” Zoe corrected, and hooked her arm, the way she often did, around Simon’s shoulder. “A belated one, to welcome you back to the Valley.”

  “Let’s see what we’ve got.” He undid the bow, feeling a bit foolish, since he already knew he would save the lacy white ribbon and the little spray of tiny red flowers she’d tucked into it. She’d stamped or stenciled silhouettes of those flowers on the simple brown box, and had nestled the gift inside on a bed of white tissue sprinkled with glitter.

  “You sure know how to wrap a present.”

  “If you’re going to give somebody a gift, you should take the time to make it nice.”

  He took out the tri-colored candle in a squat, clear jar. “It’s great.” He sniffed. “Smells terrific. You made this?”

  “We like to make stuff, right, Mom? See you have to melt the wax and then add the smelly stuff and junk. I picked out the smells.”

  “For the holidays,” Zoe explained. “The top layer’s apple pie and the middle’s cranberry, with Christmas tree at the bottom. There’s a tile in there to set it on. The bottom of the jar gets hot.”

  He took out the white tile with cranberries painted on each corner.

  “Mom painted the berries, and I put the glaze stuff on.”

  “It’s terrific.” He set the tile on the counter and the candle on top. Then bent down to hug Simon. When he straightened, he grinned at the boy. “You may want to look away.”

  “How come?”

  “I’m going to kiss your mother.”

  “Gack.” Though Simon covered his face with his hands, there was a warmth in his belly.

  “Thank you.” Brad laid a light kiss on Zoe’s lips. “All clear, kid.”

  “Are you going to light the present?” Simon demanded.

  “I am.” Brad took a long, slim tool out of a drawer and lit the wick. “Looks great. Where did you learn to make candles?”

  “Just something I picked up. I’ve been experimenting. I’m hoping to get good enough to carry a line of candles and potpourri and that kind of thing in the salon.”

  “I would carry something like that at HomeMakers.”

  Zoe stared at her candle. “You would?”

  “We’ll be stocking a lot more items like decorative candles after the expansion. You’ll have to show me some of the others you’ve done, and we’ll talk.”

  “Is it okay if I go in the game room?” Simon asked. “I brought back Smackdown, so we can have our rematch.”

  “Sure. There’s another game loaded. You can switch it.”

  “Are you going to come play now?”

  “I’ve got to start putting dinner together, but you can go work up an appetite. I want you hungry. I had the frog legs flown in special.”

  “Uh-uh.”

  “Giant frog legs. From Africa.”

  “No way.”

  “Or we can just have steak.”

  “Frog steak!”

  “Naturally.”

  On a mock scream, Simon tore out of the room.

  “You’re awfully good with him,” Zoe said.

  “He makes it easy. Why don’t you sit down and—” He broke off when Simon’s shouted “Holy cow!” burst out of the game room. “He found the new game.”

  “Bradley.”

  “Hmm?”

  “I have to ask you for a promise. Don’t say all right yet,” she cautioned, turning her glass round and round by the stem as she studied his face. “It’s important, and if you take the time to think about it first, I’ll believe you’ll keep your word.”

  “What do you want me to promise, Zoe?”

  “Simon—he’s so attached to you. He’s never had . . . somebody like you pay attention to him, not this way. It’s getting so he’s depending on you paying that attention. I need you to promise that whatever happens with us, whatever way it turns out, you won’t forget him. I’m not talking about riding in limos. I’m asking you to promise that you won’t stop being a friend to him.”

  “He’s not the only one who’s attached, Zoe. I can make you that promise.” He offered his hand. “You’ve got my word.”

  She took his hand, squeezed it as the tension that had built inside her while she made her request dissolved again. “All right. Well.” She looked around the kitchen. “What can I do?”

  “You can sit down and drink your champagne.”

  “I ought to be able to help with those African frog legs.”

  He cupped the back of her neck with his hand, kissed her, not quite so lightly, not quite so casually as he had when Simon had been in the room. “Sit down, and drink your champagne,” he said again, flicking a finger at her earlobe. “Nice earrings.”

  She gave a quick, baffled laugh. “Thanks.” Though she still felt as if she should be helping, she perched on a stool at the bar. “Are you really going to cook?”

  “I’m going to grill, which is entirely different. All the Vane men grill. If they didn’t they’d be drummed out of the family.”

  “You’re going to grill? In November?”

  “We Vanes grill year-round, even if we have to chip through the ice, brave blizzards, risk frostbite. However, it happens I have this very handy deal right here on the range.”

  “I’ve seen those in magazines.” She watched him fire up the built-in grill on the stovetop. “And on TV, on some of the cooking shows.”

  He tucked potatoes already wrapped in foil around the flame. “Just don’t tell my father I used this instead of standing outside like a man.”

  “Lips are sealed.” She sipped champagne while he went to the refrigerator and pulled out a tray of hors d’oeuvres. “You made these?”

  He considered for a moment as he set the platter on the counter in front of her. “I could lie and really impress you, but instead I’ll dazzle you with my honesty. They’re from Luciano’s, and so’s the chocolate bomb for dessert, and the lobster tails.”

  “Lobster tails? Luciano’s?” She selected one of the canapés, slipped it between her lips, and moaned as the flavors melted on her tongue.

  “Good?”

  “Amazing. It’s all amazing. I’m trying to figure out how Zoe McCourt came to be sitting here drinking cha
mpagne and eating canapés from Luciano’s. It doesn’t seem real. You are trying to dazzle me, Bradley. And it’s working.”

  “I like seeing you smile. Do you know the first time you really smiled at me? When I gave you a stepladder.”

  “I smiled at you before that.”

  “Nope. Not really. God knows I wanted you to, but you seemed set on misunderstanding and taking offense at every second word out of my mouth.”

  “That’s—” She cut herself off, then let out a laugh. “Probably true.”

  “But I cagily won you over, or started to, with a fiberglass stepladder.”

  “I didn’t know it was a ploy. I thought it was considerate.”

  “It was a considerate ploy. You need more champagne.”

  She debated with herself while he went to get the bottle. “You intimidated me.”

  “Excuse me?”

  “You intimidated me, still do, a little. And the house intimidated me. The first time I came here, to meet Malory, and saw you. I walked into this big, beautiful house, and there was the painting you’d bought.”

  “After the Spell.”

  “Yes. It was such a shock to see that, and to be here. My head was spinning. I said something about having to get back home for Simon, for my son, and you looked down at my hand, saw I wasn’t wearing a wedding ring.”

  “Zoe—”

  She shook her head. “And you got this look on your face. It set me off.”

  “Apparently you started misunderstanding me right from the get-go.” As an afterthought, he topped off his own glass. “I’m going to tell you about the painting, and that’s going to give you a very big advantage in this relationship we’re starting.”

  Dating. Relationship. Her head was going to start spinning again. “I don’t know what you mean.”

  “You will. When I saw that painting for the first time, well, that was a stunner. There’s Dana, my best friend’s kid sister. Someone I cared about a great deal.”

  He leaned against the bar, casually elegant in his black sweater, with her homemade candle flickering between them. “Then there was Malory. Of course, I didn’t know her yet, but there was something that made me stop and think, made me look a little closer.”

  He paused, and tucked two fingers under Zoe’s chin. “Then there was this face. This incredible face. I could hardly breathe for looking at it. I was undone by that face. I had to have that painting. I’d have paid anything for it.”

  “It’s part of the connection.” Her throat was dry, but she couldn’t lift her glass to drink. “You were meant to have it.”

  “That may be true. I’ve come to believe it’s true. But that’s not the point I’m making. I had to have the painting because I had to be able to look at that face. Your face. I knew every angle of it. The shape of the eyes, the mouth. I spent a lot of time studying that face. Then you walked into the room that day, and I was staggered. She woke up, and she walked out of the painting, and there she is.”

  “But it isn’t me in the painting.”

  “Ssh. I couldn’t think. For a minute I couldn’t hear anything but my own heart beating. While I was trying to think, while I was trying not to grab you just to convince myself that you weren’t going to vanish like smoke, everyone was talking. I had to speak to you, to pretend everything was normal when the world had done a very fast one-eighty on me. You can’t imagine what was going on inside me.”

  “No. I guess—no,” she managed.

  “You said you had to get home for your son, and you might as well have stabbed me in the throat. How could she belong to someone else before I get a chance? So I looked down, saw you weren’t wearing a ring, and I thought, Thank God, she doesn’t belong to someone else.”

  “But you didn’t even know me.”

  “I do now.” He leaned in, took her lips with his.

  “Man. Are you going to do that all the time now?”

  Brad eased back, brushed a kiss against Zoe’s forehead, then turned to Simon. “Yes. But I don’t want you to feel left out, so I’ll kiss you, too.”

  Simon made spitting noises and danced to safety behind his mother’s stool. “Kiss her if you’ve got to kiss somebody. Are we going to eat soon? I’m starving.”

  “Big fat steaks about to go on the fire. So, kid, how do you like your frog?”

  AFTER dinner, and the video rematch, after Simon’s eyes drooped shut as he sprawled on the game room floor, Zoe let herself slide into Brad’s arms. Let herself float into the kiss.

  There was magic in the world, she thought. And this night had been some of hers.

  “I have to take Simon home.”

  “Stay.” He rubbed his cheek against hers. “Just stay, both of you.”

  “That’s a big step for me.” She rested her head on his shoulder. It would be so easy, she knew, to stay. To just let herself be held this way. But big steps should never be easy.

  “I’m not playing games with you, but I have to think about what’s right.” For all of us, she thought. “I meant what I said about wondering how I’ve ended up here. I have to be sure about whatever happens next.”

  “I’m not going to hurt you. I’m not going to hurt either of us.”

  “I’m not afraid of that. No, that’s a lie. I am. But I’m afraid I could hurt you. I didn’t tell you what happened last night. I didn’t want to talk about it in front of Simon.”

  “What is it?”

  “Can we go in the other room? In case he wakes up.”

  “It was Kane,” Brad said as he walked her into the great room.

  “Yes.” And she told him.

  “Is that what you wanted, Zoe? To live in New York, work in a high-powered job?”

  “Oh, I don’t know about New York. Could just as easily have been Chicago, or Los Angeles, anyplace that seemed important. Anyplace that wasn’t where I was.”

  “Because you were unhappy, or because there were things you wanted to do?”

  She started to answer, then stopped. “Both,” she realized. “I don’t know that I thought about being unhappy, but I guess I was a lot of the time. The world just seemed so small and set where I lived. The way I lived.”

  She looked out the windows, across the lawn to the dark ribbon of river. “But the world isn’t small, and it’s not set. I used to think about that, to wonder about all that. The people and the places out there.”

  Surprised at herself, she turned back to see him watching her, quiet and steady. “Anyway, that’s off the track.”

  “I don’t think so. What made you happy?”

  “Oh, lots of things. I don’t mean to sound like I was sad all the time. I wasn’t. I liked school. I was good in school. I liked learning things, figuring things out. I was especially good with numbers. I did Mama’s books and her taxes. I took care of the bills. I liked doing it. I thought maybe I’d be a bookkeeper, or even a CPA. Or work in banking. I wanted to go to college, and get an important job, move to the city. Have things. Have more, that’s all. Have people respect me, even admire me, because I knew how to do things.”

  She gave a little shrug, wandered to the fireplace. “Used to irritate my mama, the way I talked about it, and how I was fussy about what belonged to me because I wanted to keep it nice. She said how I thought I was better than anybody else, but that wasn’t it.”

  Her brows drew together as she stared at the flames. “That wasn’t it at all. I just wanted to be better than I was. I figured if I was smart enough, I could get that good job and move to the city, and nobody’d look at me and think, There’s that trailer trash from over in the hollow.”

  “Zoe.”

  She shook her head. “People did think that, Bradley. They did because it was true enough. My daddy drank too much and ran off with another woman, left my mother with four children, a stack of bills, and a double-wide. Most of my clothes were what somebody’d given us out of charity. You don’t know what that’s like.”

  “No, I don’t. I don’t know what it’s like.”
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  “Some people give you things out of goodness, but a lot of them do it so they can feel superior. So they can sit smug and say, Look what I did for that poor woman and her children. And you see it on their faces.”

  She glanced over at him, her cheeks flushed with the heat of both pride and shame. “It’s hateful. I didn’t want anybody giving me anything. I wanted to get it for myself. So I worked, and I squirreled money away, and I made big plans. Then I got pregnant.”

  She looked back toward the archway to make certain Simon was still out of earshot. “Didn’t realize I was until I was into my second month. Thought I had the flu or something. But it didn’t go away, so I went to the clinic and they told me. I was about nine weeks already. God, nine weeks along, and too stupid to know it.”

  “You were a child.” And one he ached for. “You weren’t stupid, you were a child.”

  “Old enough to get pregnant. Old enough to know what that meant. I was so scared. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I didn’t tell my mother, not right away. I went to the boy. He was scared, too, and maybe he was a little angry. But he said we’d do the right thing. I felt better after that. I felt calmer. So I went home and told Mama.”

  She drew a deep breath, pressed her fingers to her temples. She hadn’t meant to speak of all of this, but now that she’d begun, she would finish. “Oh, I can still see her, sitting there at the table with the fan blowing. It was hot, awfully damn hot. She looked at me, and leaned over and slapped me.

  “I don’t blame her for that,” she said when Brad swore. “I didn’t blame her then, I don’t blame her now. I’d been sneaking out behind her back to be with that boy, and now I had to pay the price for it. I don’t blame her for the slap, Bradley, I had it coming. But I blame her for after. For finding satisfaction in knowing I’d gotten in trouble, the same as she had with me. For making sure I knew I was no better than she was, for all my ideas and plans. I blame her for making me feel cheap, and making the baby I was carrying into a punishment.”

  “She was wrong.” It was said simply, in a matter-of-fact tone that had Zoe’s breath hitching. “What happened with the father?”

  “Well, he didn’t do the right thing, as he’d called it. I don’t want to talk about that right now. There’s this business in my clue about forks on the path. I chose my direction back then. I quit school, and I went to work. I got my GED and my beautician’s license, and I left home.”

  “Wait.” He held up a hand. “You went out on your own, alone, when you were sixteen? And pregnant. Your mother—”

  “Didn’t have any say in it,” she interrupted. She turned, facing him with the fire snapping behind her. “I left when I was six months gone because I was not going to raise my baby in that goddamn trailer. I took my direction,” she said, “and maybe that path started me on the road to the Valley, and the Peak, and all of this.”

  Maybe she had to say it all, she thought now. Maybe she’d needed to go back, step by step so she could see it all.

  And so he could.

  “I wouldn’t be here if I’d chosen another, if I hadn’t loved a boy and made a baby with him. I wouldn’t be here if I’d gone on to college and gotten that good job, and flown off to Rome for the week. I have to figure out what that means, about the key. Because I gave my word I’d try to find it. And I have to figure out if that’s why I’m here, with you. Because God knows, it doesn’t make any sense for me to be here otherwise.”

  “Whatever brought you here, it makes perfect sense.”

  “Were you listening?” she demanded. “Did you hear a word I said about where I came from?”

  “Every word.” He crossed to her. “You’re the most amazing woman I’ve ever met.”

  She stared at him, then lifted her hands in exasperation. “I don’t understand you at all. Maybe I’m not supposed to. But there’s something we both have to consider. Because the world isn’t small, and it isn’t set. And, Bradley, there isn’t just one world for us to worry about here.”

 
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