Key of light, p.12
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       Key of Light, p.12

         Part #1 of Key series by Nora Roberts
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  “Slim’s enough to keep me going.” He dipped a plastic fork into the fast-food potato salad. “And I wanted to see if Brad’s moving in yet.” He looked across the ribbon of water to the rambling two-story frame house on the opposite bank. “Doesn’t look like it.”

  “You miss him.”

  “You got that right.”

  She plucked a blade of grass, ran it idly through her fingers. “I have some friends from college. We were so close, and I guess we all thought we’d be close forever. Now we’re all scattered and hardly see each other. Once or twice a year if we can all manage it. We talk on the phone or through E-mail now and then, but it’s not the same. I miss them. I miss who we were when we were friends, and that telepathy you develop so that you know what the other’s thinking, or what she’d do in some situation. Is it that way for you?”

  “Pretty much.” He reached over, toyed with the ends of her hair in the same absent way she toyed with the blade of grass. “But we go back to being kids together. None of us are big on phone calls. Maybe because Brad and I end up on the phone through most of our workday. E-mail does the job. Jordan, he’s the E-mail king.”

  “I met him for about ninety seconds at a book signing, in Pittsburgh, about four years ago. All dark and handsome, with a dangerous gleam in his eye.”

  “You want dangerous?”

  It made her laugh. He was sitting on a ratty blanket eating bucket chicken while his big, silly dog barked at a squirrel that was ten feet up a tree.

  Then she was flat on her back, his body pressed to hers, and the laugh died in her throat.

  His mouth was dangerous. Foolish of her to have forgotten that. However affable and easy he appeared on the surface, there were storms inside him. Hot, whippy storms that could crash over the unwary before they could think about taking shelter.

  So she didn’t think at all, but let it rage. And let that secret part of herself, that part she’d never risked exposing, slide out. And take, even as it was taken.

  “How’s this working for you?” he murmured as he fixed that amazing mouth on her throat.

  “So far, so good.”

  He lifted his head, looked down at her. And his heart shuddered in his chest. “Something here. Some big something here.”

  “I don’t think—”

  “Yes, you do.” Impatience, potent and unexpected, snapped out. “You may not want to think—I’m not real keen on it myself, but you do. I really hate using the obvious metaphor, but this is like turning a key in a lock. I can hear the goddamn click.”

  He pushed up, dragged an unsteady hand through his hair. “I’m not ready to hear any goddamn click.”

  She sat up quickly, brushed fussily at the front of her shirt. It threw her off balance that she could find his temper both irritating and arousing at the same time. “You think I want to hear one? I’ve got enough on my mind right now without you clicking around in my head. I need to find the first key. I’ve got to work this out. I need to find a job. And I don’t even want a stupid job. I want . . .”

  “What? What do you want?”

  “I don’t know.” She scrambled to her feet. There was a fury inside her. She didn’t know where it came from or where it needed to go. Turning away, she stared at the house across the river, folded her arms firmly over her chest. “And I always know what I want.”

  “You’re one up on me there.” He rose, but didn’t go to her. Whatever was pumping inside him—anger, need, fear—was too unstable to risk touching her.

  The breeze was playing with the ends of her hair, as he had. All those tumbling clouds the color of old gold, like something out of a painting. She looked so slim, so perfect, standing there, half turned away from him while the dying sun shot a thin line of fire along the rise of western hills.

  “The only thing I’ve been absolutely sure I wanted . . . ever,” he realized, “is you.”

  She glanced back as nervous wings began to stir in her belly. “I don’t imagine I’m the only woman you’ve wanted to sleep with.”

  “No. Actually, the first was Joley Ridenbecker. We were thirteen. And that particular desire was never fulfilled.”

  “Now you’re making a joke of it.”

  “I’m not. Not really.” He stepped toward her and his voice was gentle. “I wanted Joley, as much as I knew what that meant at thirteen. It was intense, even painful, and kind of sweet. Eventually I found out what that meant. I wanted other women along the way. I even loved one, which is why I know the difference between wanting a woman, and wanting you. If it was just sex, it wouldn’t piss me off.”

  “It’s hardly my fault you’re pissed off.” She scowled at him. “And you don’t look or sound as if you are.”

  “I tend to get really reasonable when I’m seriously annoyed. It’s a curse.” He picked up the ball Moe spat at his feet, then threw it with a strong whiplash of arm. “And if you think it’s a joy to be able to see both sides of an argument, to see the validity on each end, let me tell you, it’s a pain in the ass.”

  “Who was she?”

  He shrugged, then picked up the ball Moe returned, threw it again. “Doesn’t matter.”

  “I’d say it does. And that she still does.”

  “It just didn’t work out.”

  “Fine. I should be getting back now.” She walked back to kneel on the blanket and tidy the remains of their impromptu picnic.

  “That’s a skill I admire, and nobody does it like a woman. The implied ‘fuck you,’ ” he explained, then shot the ball in the air for Moe once more. “She left me. Or I didn’t go with her. Depends on your point of view. We were together the best part of a year. She was a reporter for the local station, moved up to weekend anchor, then evening anchor. She was good, and we got to have all these arguments and discussions over the impact and value of our particular news medium. Which is sexier than it may sound. Anyway, we planned to get married, move to New York. Eventually, on the moving part. Then she got an offer from an affiliate up there. She went. I stayed.”

  “Why did you stay?”

  “Because I’m George fucking Bailey.” The ball burst out of his hand again like a rocket.

  “I don’t understand.”

  “George Bailey, giving up his dreams of travel and adventure to stay in his hometown and rescue the old savings and loan. I’m no Jimmy Stewart, but the Dispatch sure as hell turned out to be my savings and loan. My stepfather, Dana’s dad, had been ill. My mother shifted some of the responsibilities of editor in chief to me. I assumed it was temporary, until Joe got back on his feet. But the doctors, and my mother, wanted him out of the cold winters. And they wanted, deserved, to enjoy a retirement period. She threatened that if I didn’t take over for her at the paper, she would shut it down. My mother doesn’t make idle threats.”

  With a humorless laugh, he tossed the ball again. “You can bet your ass she doesn’t. A Flynn runs the Valley Dispatch or there is no Dispatch.”

  Michael Flynn Hennessy, she thought. So Flynn was a family name and a legacy. “If she knew you wanted something different . . .”

  He managed to smile. “She didn’t want something different. I could’ve gone, just kicked the dust off my heels and gone with Lily to New York. And all the people who work at the paper would’ve been out of a job. Half of them, maybe more, wouldn’t have been picked up by whoever started another paper. She knew I wouldn’t go.”

  He studied the ball in his hand, turned it slowly, spoke softly. “She never did like Lily anyway.”

  “Flynn—”

  He gave in to Moe’s desperate excitement and heaved the ball. “Before I make it sound pitiful and pathetic—I did want to go, then. I loved Lily, then. But I didn’t love her enough to pack up and go when she gave me the ultimatum. She didn’t love me enough to stay, or to give me the time to work things out here and meet up with her.”

  Then you didn’t love each other at all, Malory thought, but she remained silent.

  “Less than a month after she’
d landed in New York, she called and broke our engagement. She needed to concentrate on her career, couldn’t handle the stress of a relationship, much less a long-distance one. I should be free to see other people and make a life, while she was going to be married to her job.

  “And in six months she was married to an NBC news exec and moving steadily up the ladder. She got what she wanted, and in the end so did I.”

  He turned back to Malory. His face was calm again, the deep green eyes clear as if the fury had never been behind them. “My mother was right—and I really hate that part. But she was right. This is my place, and I’m doing exactly what I want to do.”

  “The fact that you see that says a lot more about you than about either one of them.”

  He threw the ball one last time. “I made you feel sorry for me.”

  “No.” Though he had. “You made me respect you.” She rose, walked to him and kissed his cheek. “I think I remember this Lily from the local news. Redhead, right? Lots of teeth.”

  “That’d be Lily.”

  “Her voice was entirely too nasal, and she had a weak chin.”

  He leaned over, kissed her cheek in turn. “That’s a really nice thing to say. Thanks.”

  Moe raced back and spat out the ball on the ground between them. “How long will he do that?” Malory asked.

  “For all eternity, or until my arm falls off.”

  She gave the ball a good boot with her foot. “It’s getting dark,” she said as Moe raced happily off. “You should take me home.”

  “Or I could take Moe home and we could—ah, I see by the way your eyebrows have arched and your lip has curled that your mind is in the gutter. I was going to say we could go to the movies.”

  “You were not.”

  “I certainly was. In fact, it so happens I have the movie section in the car, for your perusal.”

  They were all right again, she realized, and wanted to kiss him—this time in friendship. Instead, she fell into the rhythm and played the game out. “You have the entire paper in the car, because it’s your paper.”

  “Be that as it may, I’ll still let you pick the flick.”

  “What if it’s an art film with subtitles?”

  “Then I’ll suffer in silence.”

  “You already know there aren’t any such films playing at the local multiplex, don’t you?”

  “That’s neither here nor there. Come on, Moe, let’s go for a ride.”

  IT had done her good, Malory decided, to step away from the puzzle and the problems for an evening. She felt fresher this morning, and more optimistic. And it felt good to be interested in and attracted to a complicated man.

  He was complicated, she thought. Only more so because he gave the impression, at least initially, of being simple. And so that made him yet another puzzle to solve.

  She couldn’t deny that click he’d spoken of. Why should she? She wasn’t a game player when it came to relationships—she was cautious. It meant she needed to find out if the click was merely sexual or tangled around something more.

  Puzzle number three, she decided as she hunkered down to continue her research.

  Her first phone call of the morning left her stunned. Moments after hanging up, she was tearing through her old college textbooks on art history.

  THE door of the Vane house was wide open. A number of burly men were hauling furniture and boxes in, or hauling furniture and boxes out. Just watching them gave Flynn a backache.

  He recalled the weekend years before when he and Jordan had moved into an apartment. How they, with Brad’s help, had carted a secondhand sofa that weighed as much as a Honda up three flights of stairs.

  Those were the days, Flynn reminisced. Thank God they were over.

  Moe leaped out of the car behind him and without waiting for an invitation raced straight into the house. There was a crash, a curse. Flynn could only pray that one of the Vane family antiques hadn’t bit the dust as he hurriedly followed.

  “Jesus Christ. You call this a puppy?”

  “He was a puppy—a year ago.” Flynn looked at his oldest friend, currently being greeted by and slobbered on by his dog. And his heart simply sang.

  “Sorry about the . . . was that a lamp?”

  Brad glanced at the broken china scattered in the foyer. “It was a minute ago. All right, big guy. Down.”

  “Outside, Moe. Chase the rabbit!”

  In response, Moe let out a series of barks and bombed out the door.

  “What rabbit?”

  “The one that lives in his dreams. Hey.” Flynn stepped forward, crunching broken shards under his feet, and caught Brad in one hard hug. “Looking good. For a suit.”

  “Who’s a suit?”

  He couldn’t have looked less like one in worn jeans and a denim work shirt. He looked, Flynn thought, tall and lean and fit. The Vanes’ golden child, the family prince, who was as happy running a construction crew as he was a board meeting.

  Maybe happier.

  “I came by last evening, but the place was deserted. When did you get in?”

  “Late. Let’s get out of the way,” Brad suggested as the movers carried in another load. He jerked a thumb and led the way to the kitchen.

  The house was always furnished, and made available to execs or visiting brass from the Vane corporation. Once it had been their home in the Valley, a place Flynn had known as well as his own.

  The kitchen had been redone since the days when he’d begged cookies there, but the view out the windows, off the surrounding deck, was the same. Woods and water, and the rising hills beyond.

  Some of the best parts of his childhood were tied up in this house. Just as they were tied up in the man who now owned it.

  Brad poured coffee, then led Flynn out on the deck.

  “How’s it feel to be back?” Flynn asked him.

  “Don’t know yet. Odd, mostly.” He leaned on the rail, looked out beyond.

  Everything was the same. Nothing was the same.

  He turned back, a man comfortable in his frame. He had a layer or two of big city on him, and was comfortable with that as well.

  His hair was blond that had darkened with the years, just as the dimples in his cheeks were closer to creases now. Much to his relief. His eyes were a stone gray under straight brows. They tended to look intense, even when the rest of his face smiled.

  Flynn knew it wasn’t the mouth that showed Brad’s mood. It was the eyes. When they smiled, he meant it.

  They did so now. “Son of a bitch. It’s good to see you.”

  “I never figured you for coming back, not for any length of time.”

  “Neither did I. Things change, Flynn. They’re meant to, I guess. I’ve been itchy the last few years. I finally figured out I was itchy for home. How are things with you, Mr. Editor in Chief?”

  “They’re okay. I assume you’ll be subscribing to our paper. I’ll make arrangements for that,” he added with a grin. “We put up a nice red box next to the mailbox on the road. Morning delivery out here usually hits by seven.”

  “Sign me up.”

  “I will. And I’m going to want to interview Bradley Charles Vane IV at his earliest convenience.”

  “Shit. Give me a while to settle in before I have to put on my corporate hat.”

  “How about next Monday? I’ll come to you.”

  “Christ, you’ve become Clark Kent. No, worse, Lois Lane—without the great legs. I don’t know what I’ve got going on Monday, but I’ll have my assistant set it up.”

  “Great. How about we grab some beer and catch up tonight?”

  “I can get behind that. How’s your family?”

  “Mom and Joe are doing fine out in Phoenix.”

  “Actually, I was thinking more about the delicious Dana.”

  “You’re not going to start hitting on my sister again? It’s embarrassing.”

  “She hooked up with anybody?”

  “No, she’s not hooked up with anybody.”

  “
She still built?”

  Flynn winced. “Shut up, Vane.”

  “I love yanking your chain over that one.” And with a sigh, Brad was home. “Though it’s entertaining, that’s not why I asked you to come out. There’s something I think you’re going to want to see. I did some thinking when you told me about this deal Dana and her friends got themselves into.”

  “You know something about these people up at Warrior’s Peak?”

  “No. But I know something about art. Come on. I had them put it in the great room. I’d just finished uncrating it personally when I heard you drive up.”

  He walked along the deck, around the corner of the house to the double glass doors bordered by etched panels.

  The great room boasted a towering ceiling with a circling balcony, a generous fireplace with hearth and mantel of hunter-green granite framed in golden oak. There was space for two sofas, one in the center of the room, the other tucked into a cozy conversation area along the far wall.

  More space spilled through a wide arch, where the piano stood and where Brad had spent countless tedious hours practicing.

  There, propped against the hearth of a second fireplace, was the painting.

  The muscles in Flynn’s belly went loose. “Jesus. Oh, Jesus.”

  “It’s called After the Spell. I got it at an auction about three years ago. Do you remember I mentioned I’d bought a painting because one of the figures in it looked like Dana?”

  “I didn’t pay any attention. You were always razzing me about Dana.” He crouched down now, stared hard at the painting. He didn’t know art, but even with his limited eye, he’d have bet the farm that the same hand had painted this that had created the painting at Warrior’s Peak.

  There was no joy or innocence here, however. The tone was dark, a kind of grieving, with the only light, pale, pale light, glowing from the three glass coffins where three women seemed to sleep.

  His sister’s face, and Malory’s, and Zoe’s.

  “I have to make a phone call.” Flynn straightened and dug out his cell phone. “There’s someone who has to see this right away.”

  Chapter Nine

  SHE didn’t like to be told to hurry, especially when she wasn’t given a good reason why. So, on principle, Malory took her time driving to the Vane house.

  She had a lot on her mind, and a little drive in the country was just the ticket, she decided, to line those thoughts up in some organized fashion.

  And she liked tooling along in her little car over the windy road that followed the river, and the way the sun sprinkled through the leaves overhead to splatter patterns of light on the roadbed.

  If she could paint, she would do a study of that—just the way light and shadow played on something as simple and ordinary as a country road. If she could paint, she thought again—which she couldn’t, despite all the desire, all the study, all the years of trying.

  But someone sure as hell could.

  She should’ve tried to track down Dana and Zoe before driving out here. Really, she was supposed to be working with them, not with Flynn. He was . . . like an accessory, she told herself. A really attractive, sexy, interesting accessory.

 
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