Key of valor, p.11
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       Key of Valor, p.11

         Part #3 of Key series by Nora Roberts
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  “It circles around,” he said with a nod. “And it intersects.”

  “And because it does, are you the choice I’m supposed to take or the one I’m supposed to turn away from?”

  He smiled, but it was sharp and it was fierce. “Try to turn away.”

  She shook her head. “And if I turn toward you, and something starts between us, something real, what happens if I have to choose again?”

  He laid his hands on her shoulders, slid them up until they framed her face. “Zoe, something’s already started between us, and it’s very real.”

  She wished she could be so sure.

  When she rode home through the night sprinkled with the light of a quarter moon, nothing seemed quite real.

  Chapter Eight

  CHAMPAGNE and lobster and limos, oh my,” Dana exclaimed as they maneuvered the wrought-iron baker’s rack they’d bought into its place in their communal kitchen.

  “Very classy,” Malory agreed. “Maybe Brad will give Flynn lessons on how to prepare dinner for a woman.”

  “That’s part of the problem. I’m the beer, burger, and station-wagon type. It was wonderful, absolutely wonderful, but the way a really good dream is.”

  “What’s wrong with that?” Dana demanded.

  “Nothing.” Zoe puffed out her cheeks, slowly expelled air. “But I’m starting to get some very serious feelings about him.”

  “I repeat. What’s wrong with that?”

  “Let’s see, where should I start? We’re barely from the same planet. I’m trying to get a business started, which is going to involve every minute I can squeeze out of the day, and that’s after raising Simon, for about the next ten years. I have three weeks left to find the last key to the Box of Souls, and if we were playing Hot and Cold right now, I’d have frostbite on my ass.”

  “You know, you never hear about people getting frostbite on the ass,” Dana commented. “I wonder why that is.”

  She selected one of the fancy tins of tea she’d decided to carry and set it on a shelf of the rack. Turned her head this way, that way to critique its position.

  “On a more serious note.” Malory’s voice was dry as she placed a hand-thrown bowl from her new stock on a shelf. “Neither the business nor Simon is a reason not to have a man in your life, if you’re attracted to the man. If you believe he’s a good man.”

  “Of course I’m attracted to him. A woman in a coma would be attracted to him. And he is a good man. I didn’t want to believe he was, but he’s a very good man.”

  Zoe put one of her scented candles on the shelf. “It would be less complicated if he wasn’t. Then I could probably carve out just enough time for a hot, sweaty affair, and we’d both walk away from it without any regrets.”

  “Why are you already thinking about walking and regrets?” Malory asked her.

  “I’ve had one constant in my life, and that’s Simon. I’ve got another now, with both of you. They’re both like miracles. I’m not banking on a third.”

  “And people call me pessimistic,” Dana muttered. “Okay, here’s an idea.” She set another canister on the rack. “Consider Brad a big boy, so if you both decide to have that hot, sweaty affair, you’re both responsible for the outcome. Oh, and don’t forget to fill us in on all the deets. Next, remember that you may be up to bat for this round of the quest, but the three of us are still a team, which means you’re not the only one courting frostbite at the moment.”

  “Good points,” Malory agreed as she put a hand-painted tray on the rack, then nodded in approval at the apothecary bottle of hand lotion Zoe added. “I think it’s time for an official meeting. We’ll put six very good heads together and see what kind of storm we can come up with.”

  “Maybe it’ll break the logjam in my head.” Zoe added a dish of fancy soap, another candle, then stepped back as Malory set a long, slim vase and a pair of white porcelain candleholders on the rack.

  “Not such a jam,” Dana disagreed. “You’re pursuing theories, thinking things through, lining things up. It’s taking on form, like this rack. A little here, a little there, then you step back and look at the whole, see what needs to be added or adjusted.”

  “I hope so. Needs books,” Zoe commented, with a nod toward the rack.

  “First shipment next week.” Dana moved beside her, rested an elbow on Zoe’s shoulder. “Jeez, I know it’s just a kitchen rack, but, damn, it looks terrific.”

  “It looks like us.” Pleased, Malory slid an arm around Zoe’s waist. “And you know what’s going to look even better? When people start buying.”

  UPSTAIRS , Zoe stood on the stepladder to hang the storage cabinets above her shampoo bowls. As she worked, she ticked through the chores she’d set for herself that week.

  She needed to log some more time on the computer. Not only for research but to try her hand at designing the menu of services for the salon and day spa.

  She wondered if she could get paper close to the same color as her trim. Something distinctive.

  And she was going to have to decide, once and for all, on her prices. Did she undercut the rates of her competitor in town by a few dollars, or did she charge a few dollars more and make a reasonable profit?

  She was using higher-end products than the other salon in town, and they cost more money. She was certainly offering her customers a more attractive atmosphere.

  And the other salon didn’t serve the customers—clients, she corrected, “clients” was more sophisticated. The other salon didn’t serve its clients iced mineral water or cups of herbal tea as she planned to do. And it didn’t give them a heated neck roll filled with relaxing herbs while they had their nails done.

  She hung the cabinet, swiped her forearm over her brow, and started to back down the ladder.

  “What a wonderful color.”

  Caught off guard, Zoe grabbed the ladder and stared down at Rowena.

  “I didn’t hear you . . .” Pop out of thin air?

  “Sorry.” Rowena’s eyes danced as if she guessed Zoe’s thoughts. “Malory and Dana told me to come right up. I’ve been downstairs admiring what you three have done. I wanted to see your space. As I said, the colors are wonderful.”

  “I wanted them to be fun.”

  “You’ve succeeded. And what did I interrupt?”

  “Oh, I was just finished. Storage cabinets, for shampoos, conditioners, that sort of thing. My shampoo bowls will go right here.”

  “Ah.”

  “And, well, the stations for the stylists.” She gestured. “The stationary hair dryers over there, the reception counter, the waiting area. I’m going to put in a sofa, a couple of chairs, a padded bench. And that room that angles off down there, that’s for nails. I ordered this heated massage chair for what I’m calling the Indulgence Pedicure. The standard pedi will be good, but this one’s going to be a knockout. It’ll include—you couldn’t possible care.”

  “On the contrary.” Rowena wandered over to look at the area, then moved through to another room. “And this?”

  “One of the treatment rooms. Massages or facials. Across the hall’s for the wraps. I’m going to offer a detoxifying wrap and a really terrific paraffin job. And I’m using the big bathroom for exfoliating treatments.”

  “It’s very ambitious.”

  “I’ve been planning it in my head for a long time. It’s hard to believe it’s really happening. We plan to open by December first. Rowena, I haven’t neglected the key. I just haven’t figured it out.”

  “If it was easy, it wouldn’t be important. You know that,” Rowena added, giving Zoe an absentminded pat on the shoulder as she wandered back to the main salon. “None of this was easy.”

  “No, but it was just work. Step by step.” She smiled a little as Rowena turned, lifted a brow. “Okay, I get it. Step by step.”

  “Tell me, how’s your son?”

  “Simon’s fine. He’s with a friend today. We had dinner at Bradley’s last night.”

  “Did you? I’m sure t
hat was enjoyable.”

  “I know there are things you can’t tell me, but I’m going to ask anyway. It’s not for me that I’m asking. I’m not afraid to take my lumps.”

  “No, I don’t imagine you are. You’ve had plenty of them.”

  “No more than my share. I agreed to do this thing, just like Malory and Dana did. But Bradley didn’t sign on. I want to know if something’s making him have feelings for me, feelings I’m supposed to use to find the key.”

  Rowena stopped at a mirror, fussed with her hair in a timeless female gesture. “Why would you think that?”

  “Because he’s infatuated, with the painting, with Kyna’s face in his painting, and I just happen to look like her.”

  Rowena plucked a bottle of shampoo from a carton, examined it. “Do you think so little of yourself?”

  “No. I’m not saying he couldn’t be, that he isn’t, interested in me. In who I am. But the painting was the start of it for him.”

  “And he bought the painting, chose his path. The path led to you.” She replaced the bottle. “Interesting, isn’t it?”

  “I need to know if the choice was his.”

  “I’m not the one to ask. And you’re not ready to believe him, should he answer.” She took out another bottle, opened it to sniff. “You want me to promise you he won’t be hurt. I can’t do that. And I believe he would be insulted if he knew you asked such a thing.”

  “Then he’ll have to be insulted, because I had to ask.” Zoe lifted her hands, let them fall. “It probably doesn’t matter. Kane’s hardly bothered with me. We thought he would come out, guns blazing, but he’s barely flicked at me, like he would a fly. He doesn’t seem to be very concerned that I’ll find the key.”

  “And so by ignoring you, he erodes your self-confidence. You make it easy for him.”

  Zoe was surprised by Rowena’s dismissive tone. “I didn’t say I was giving up,” she began, then stopped, let out a breath. “Jesus, he’s got a better handle on me than I realized. He’s playing me. Most of my life people either ignored me or told me I couldn’t do what I wanted to do most.”

  “You’ve proved them wrong, haven’t you? Now prove him wrong.”

  A few miles away, at the Main Street Diner, Brad shifted so Flynn could slide into the booth beside him. Across the table, Jordan had his long legs stretched out and was already studying the two-sided laminated menu.

  “That menu hasn’t changed in about sixty years, pal,” Flynn pointed out. “You ought to have it down by now. Got held up,” he added and since Brad’s coffee was already there, helped himself to it.

  “How come you always sit beside me and drink my coffee? Why don’t you ever sit over there and drink his?”

  “I’m a sucker for tradition.” He smiled up at the waitress as she sidled over with a mug and the coffeepot. “Hi, Luce, I’m going to have the meat loaf sandwich.”

  She nodded, noted it down. “Heard you were down at the council meeting this morning. Anything up?”

  “Just the usual hot air.”

  She snickered, glanced at Jordan. “How about you, big boy?”

  When she walked off with their orders, Flynn settled back, twitched his head toward Brad. “So, did you hear that Mr. Bigshot Vane here sent a mile-long limo to pick up his date for dinner last night?”

  “No shit? Show-off.”

  “It was only half a mile long, and how the hell do you know?”

  “Nose for news.” Flynn tapped a finger on the side of his nose. “My sources, however, were unable to confirm if said show-off scored.”

  “I took the kid in Smackdown, but he whipped my ass in Grand Theft Auto.”

  “Struck out with the mother,” Jordan concluded. “I bet the kid got one large charge out of riding in that limo.”

  “He did. So did Zoe. Did you hear what she said the other day? She’s never lain in a hammock?” His face clouded as he took his coffee back from Flynn. “How can somebody go their whole life and never lie in a hammock?”

  “And now you want to buy her one so she can lie in it,” Flynn decided.

  “I guess I do.”

  “Which makes you, let’s see”—Jordan stared at the ceiling—“oh, yes, that would be toast.” Then he sobered. “She’s a terrific woman. She deserves a break, somebody to take some of the weight.”

  “Working on it. With your mother, if somebody had come along who was serious about her, would that have bothered you?”

  “I don’t know. Nobody ever did—or she didn’t let anybody. I can’t say for sure. I guess it would have depended on who it was, and how he treated her. You that serious?”

  “It’s heading that way, for me.”

  “That brings us back around,” Flynn commented. “The three of us, the three of them. Pretty damn tidy.”

  “Maybe sometimes things are meant to be tidy.”

  “I know all about that. I happen to be engaged to the queen of neat. But I think it’s something we have to think about. What part you’re meant to play in this production we’re in,” Flynn stated matter-of-factly.

  He let that stew while their sandwiches were served.

  “I’ve been thinking about it,” Brad said. “It seems to me most of the clue deals with things that happened to her, or things she did before she met me. But those things brought her here. Then if we assume I’m part of it, those same clues could apply to things that happened to me, or things I did, before I met her. Those things brought me back here.”

  “Different paths, same destiny.” Jordan nodded. “It’s a theory. Now your paths have crossed.”

  “What you do now, that’s a question,” Flynn put in. “But also where. The goddess with a sword indicates a battle.”

  “She won’t be fighting it alone,” Brad promised. “The sword’s sheathed in the paintings. In mine it’s sheathed and placed with her in the coffin, and in the one at the Peak it’s sheathed and at her hip.”

  “It’s sheathed in the stone in the portrait Rowena did of Arthur, too. The one I bought,” Jordan added.

  “She never had a chance to draw it.” Brad brought the image of the still, white face in the painting into his mind. “Maybe we’re supposed to give her that chance.”

  “Maybe Malory should take another look at the paintings,” Flynn suggested. “See if she missed anything. I don’t—”

  “Hold that thought,” Jordan told him as his cell phone beeped. He flipped it out, smiled at the number on his read-out. “Hey, Stretch.” He lifted his coffee. “Uh-huh. It so happens my associates are with me in my office at the moment. I can do that,” he said after a minute, then tipped the phone away from his ear.

  “Meeting, six o’clock, Flynn’s place. I have nods of assent,” he said into the phone. “That works for me. Zoe’s making chili,” he told his friends.

  “Tell Dana to tell Zoe I’ll pick her up.”

  “Brad says to tell Zoe he’ll pick her up. We were going to swing by and give you guys a hand this afternoon . . . Okay, I’ll just see you at home, then. Oh, hey, Dane? So, what are you wearing?”

  He grinned, then shoved the phone back in his pocket. “Must’ve gotten disconnected.”

  WHILE the chili was simmering, Zoe spread her notes and papers over the kitchen table. The house was quiet for a change. It was time to take advantage of it.

  Maybe she’d tried to be too organized, mimicking Malory’s style. Or she’d depended too much on books, trying to follow Dana’s lead. Why not try impulse and instinct with this task as she did with other projects?

  What did she do when she wanted to pick new paint for the walls, or new fabric for curtains? She spread out a bunch of samples and flipped through them until something popped out at her.

  And then she knew.

  Here she had her own carefully written notes, copies of Malory’s, of Dana’s. She had Jordan’s detailed flow of events, and the photographs Malory had taken of the paintings.

  She picked up the notebook she’d bought the day after he
r first visit to Warrior’s Peak. It didn’t look so shiny and new now, she thought. It looked used. And maybe that was better.

  There was a lot of work inside this notebook, she reminded herself as she flipped pages. A lot of hours, a lot of effort. And that work, those hours, that effort, had helped both Malory and Dana complete their parts of the quest.

  Something in here was going to help her complete her part, and finish it.

  She opened the notebook at random, and began to read.

  Kyna, the warrior, she’d written. Why is she mine? I see Venora, the artist, in Malory, and Niniane, the scribe, in Dana. But how am I a warrior?

  I’m a hairdresser. No, hair and skin specialist—must remember to pump that up. I worked for it. I’m a good worker, but that’s not the same as fighting.

  Beauty for Malory, knowledge for Dana. Courage for me. Where does the courage come in?

  Is it just living? That doesn’t seem like enough.

  Considering, Zoe tapped her pencil on the page, then earmarked it by folding down a corner. She flipped through the section until she came to a blank sheet.

  Maybe just living is enough. Didn’t Malory have to choose to live in the real world—sacrificing something of beauty, and Dana had to learn to see the truth, and live with it? Those were essential steps in their quests.

  What’s mine?

  She began to write quickly now, trying to see the pattern, trying to form one. As the ideas and possibilities clicked in her mind, she wore her pencil down, tossed it aside, and reached for another.

  When that went dull, she pushed away from the table to take the pencils to the sharpener.

  Satisfied with the points, she stuck one behind each ear and turned to the stove to stir the chili and think.

  Maybe she was on the right track, maybe she wasn’t—and she sure as hell couldn’t see the end of the road. But she was moving somewhere, and that was important.

  With her mind wandering, she lifted the spoon to taste, then stared at the dull reflection in the range hood.

  Her hair was a long spill down her shoulders, adorned with a wide gold band with a dark center stone, diamond-shaped. Her eyes were more gold than brown. Very clear, very direct.

  She could see the green of her dress—a dark forest color, and the brown leather of a strap over her shoulder. The silver glint of a sword hilt at her hip.

  There were trees, misted with morning, pearly gleams from dewed leaves, wavering beams of early sunlight. And through the trees were paths.

  She could feel the smooth wood of the spoon handle in her hand, smell the steam from the simmering pot.

  Not a hallucination, she told herself. Not imagination.

  “What are you trying to tell me? What do you want me to see?”

  The image moved back, so Zoe saw the whole of her—the slim build, the booted feet. For another moment they stood, staring at each other. Then the figure turned, walked through the mist, into the forest, and with a hand on the hilt of her sword, strode down a rough path.

  “I don’t know what that means. Damn it.” Frustrated, Zoe rapped a fist against the range hood. “What the hell does that mean?”

  With a sharp twist of her wrist, she turned off the burner. She’d just about reached the end of her patience when it came to gods.

  BRAD pulled up in Zoe’s driveway a little earlier than he needed to. He imagined men who were riding on that fast wave of love, lust, infatuation—whatever the hell he had—tended to be early to see the women with whom they were obsessed.

  It didn’t surprise him to see Zoe step out of the house before he could do more than turn off the ignition. He’d been around her long enough to know she was
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