Key of valor, p.12
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       Key of Valor, p.12

         Part #3 of Key series by Nora Roberts
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  dependable.

  She was also loaded with a backpack, an enormous shoulder bag, and a huge cooking pot.

  “Let me give you a hand,” he called as he climbed out of the car.

  “I don’t need a hand.”

  “Yes, you do, unless you’ve got an extra one stuffed in that bag.” He took the pot, mildly surprised when she tried to tug it back.

  “You know, once in a while, it’d be a nice change if you actually listened to what I say.” She yanked open the back door of his big, shiny SUV and tossed the backpack inside. “Even nicer might be if you bothered to ask instead of just ordering, or assuming.”

  “Why don’t I just give this back to you.”

  She yanked the pot out of his hands, then bent to wedge it on the floor of the back.

  “I didn’t ask you to come by here and pick me up. I don’t need to be picked up and hauled around. I have a car.”

  Love, lust, infatuation, he thought, they could all be put in the backseat, just like the chili, when irritation took the driver’s seat.

  “You were on the way. It didn’t make sense to take two cars. Where’s Simon?”

  “He’s having dinner and staying the night with a friend. Should I have checked with you first?” She stormed around the car, then just balled her fists when he beat her there and opened the door for her. “Do I look helpless? Do I look like I can’t figure out how to open a damn door on some fancy car?”

  “No.” He slammed it shut. “Go ahead,” he invited, and stalked around to the other side.

  He waited until she’d whipped the seat belt across, shoved the buckle into place. “Would you like to tell me what crawled up your ass?” He spoke in the most pleasant tone, the same dangerously pleasant tone his father used when he was about to slice an opponent into small, bloody pieces.

  “My ass is my own business, and so are my moods. I’m in a bad mood. I have them. If you think I’m sweet and accommodating and easy to manipulate, you’re mistaken. Now are you going to drive this car, or are we just going to sit here?”

  He turned the car on, threw it in reverse. “If you’ve formed the impression that I believe you to be sweet, accommodating, or easy to manipulate, you’re the one who’s mistaken. What you are is prickly, stubborn, and oversensitive.”

  “You would think that, wouldn’t you, just because I don’t like being told what to do, how to do it, when to do it. I’m just as capable and as smart as you are. Maybe more, since I didn’t grow up having somebody catering to my every wish and demand.”

  “Now just a damn minute.”

  “I’ve had to fight for everything I’ve got. Fight to get it,” she snapped out, “and fight to keep it. I don’t need somebody coming along on his white charger, or his limousine, or his big Mercedes, and rescuing me.”

  “Who the hell’s trying to rescue you?”

  “And I don’t need some—some Prince Charming–looking man coming around trying to get me stirred up either. If I want to sleep with you, I will.”

  “Right now, honey, take my word, I’m not thinking about sex.”

  She sucked in air and gritted her teeth. “And don’t call me honey. I don’t like it. I especially don’t like it in that snotty private-school tone.”

  “ ‘Honey’ happens to be the most polite thing I can currently think of to call you.”

  “I don’t want you to be polite. I don’t like you when you’re polite.”

  “Is that so? Then you’re going to love this.”

  He whipped the car to the curb, ignored the furious blast of horns behind him at the move. He hit the buckle of the seat belt with one hand, grabbed her sweater with the other. He yanked her forward, then knocked her back against the seat again with a kiss that had nothing to do with romance and everything to do with temper.

  She shoved, she struggled, she steamed. In those few furious moments, it was her strength pitted against his, and the point was made, brutally, that she was outgunned.

  When he released her, snapped his belt back into place, her breath was ragged.

  “Fuck Prince Charming.” He swung away from the curb.

  No, he didn’t look like a storybook character now, she thought. Unless it was one of those warlord figures who blazed through villages taking exactly what they wanted. The kind who dragged a woman up onto his horse and rode away with her while she was still screaming.

  “I thought you weren’t thinking about sex.”

  He spared her one hot look. “I lied.”

  “I’m not going to apologize for the things I said. I’ve got a right to speak my mind. I’ve got a right to be irritable and angry.”

  “Fine. I’m not going to apologize for what I just did. I’ve got the same rights.”

  “I guess you do. I wasn’t really mad at you. I am now, but I wasn’t. I was just mad in general.”

  “You can either tell me why, or not.” He pulled up at Flynn’s. Waited.

  “Some things that have happened. I’d rather get into it all with everyone, all at once. I’m not going to apologize,” she said again. “If you keep getting in my way, you’re going to make the handiest target.”

  “Same goes,” he said, and got out of the car. “I’m carrying your goddamn pot.” He yanked open the door, hauled it up. “Deal.”

  She stared at him, standing there in the brisk fall evening, in his gorgeous overcoat, holding her big stewpot. And looking, she thought, as if he’d just as soon dump the contents over her head as not.

  She let the laugh bubble in her throat, then let it out as she retrieved the backpack. “It’s kind of nice, when I’m being a jackass, to have somebody kick and bray right along with me. That pot’s pretty full. Mind you don’t tip it and spill chili on that lovely coat.”

  She started toward the door. “Fuck Prince Charming,” she said and laughed again. “That was a good one.”

  “I have my moments,” he muttered and followed her inside.

  WHEN the chili was simmering on Flynn’s new stove, Zoe looked around the living room. Malory’s touch was everywhere now, she noted. The tables, the lamps, the vases and bowls. The art on the walls or set around the room. There were fabric swatches on the arm of the couch and what looked like antique fireplace tools standing by the hearth.

  There was a scent of fall flowers and of female.

  Zoe remembered the first time she’d come into this room. Two short months—a lifetime—before. There’d been nothing but the big, ugly couch, a couple of crates standing in for tables, and some boxes yet unpacked.

  The couch was still ugly, but the fabric swatches told her Malory was going to deal with that. As she would, in her organized and creative way, deal with the rest of the house.

  She and Flynn had become a couple, Zoe thought, and were making the house into a home.

  A reminder of how they’d come to this point hung over the mantel. Zoe moved closer, looking up at the portrait Malory had painted while under Kane’s spell. The Singing Goddess, standing near a forest while her sisters looked on. It was brilliant and beautiful, and full of innocent joy.

  And the key that had been on the ground at Venora’s feet had been pulled out of the painting, brought into three dimensions by Malory’s will, and used to open the first lock.

  “It looks good there,” Zoe said. “It looks right there.”

  She turned back. They were waiting for her, she knew, and she had to struggle against nerves. Both Malory and Dana had taken their turn at the head of a meeting. Now it was hers.

  “I guess we’d better get started.”

  Chapter Nine

  I brought all my notes,” she began, “in case we need to look through them. Or in case I get turned around and need them. I spent most of last week thinking about this on my own and not talking about it with everyone, not very much. I think that was a mistake. Or maybe not a mistake, but it’s time to do this now.”

  She blew out a breath. “I’m not real good at this kind of thing. I’m just going to say
the things I think, and y’all can pitch in whenever.”

  “Zo?” Dana picked up a beer from the table, handed it to her. “Relax.”

  “Trying to.” She took a quick sip. “I think Kane hasn’t pushed at me very hard so far because he just sees what’s on the surface. We learned from everything that happened before that he doesn’t really understand what we are, inside. I think that’s why he hates us. He hates us,” she murmured, “because he can’t see what we are, and he can’t get a good hold on what he can’t see.”

  “Well put,” Jordan said, which helped her relax a little more.

  “Here’s what I think he sees with me. A woman from a . . . ‘disadvantaged’ is what they call it. A disadvantaged childhood. Poor is what it is, but people don’t like saying ‘poor.’ I don’t have much formal education. I got pregnant when I was sixteen, and I made a living doing hair. Mostly doing hair, with some waitressing and whatnot thrown in to make ends meet. I don’t have Malory’s class and culture.”

  “Oh, really, that’s—”

  “Wait.” Zoe held up a hand to halt Malory’s sharp protest. “Just hear me out. I don’t have that, and I don’t have Dana’s education or confidence. What I’ve got is a strong back and a son to raise. All of that’s true. But all of that isn’t, well, all. And here’s what he doesn’t see, or understand.”

  She sipped again to wet her throat. “Determination. I didn’t settle for being poor. I wanted more, and I found ways to get more. Then there’s my word. I made a promise that night up at the Peak, and when I make a promise, I keep it. And I’m no coward. I think Kane has barely bothered with me because he doesn’t see that, and even more because he’s had enough time to watch me, or study me, or whatever the hell he does, and he was smart enough to figure out I might think less of myself, and my chances of doing this if he made it seem like he wasn’t all that worried about me.”

  She took a deep breath. “That’s his mistake. He’s not going to win by making me feel I’m not worth the fight.”

  “You’re going to kick his ass,” Dana stated.

  Her eyes brightened, and though she didn’t realize it, her smile was a warrior’s. “Oh, I’m going to kick his ass, and when I’m done, I’m going to squeeze his balls blue.”

  Deliberately, to make her grin, Flynn crossed his legs protectively. “Any specific angles on how you’re going to go about that?”

  “A couple. With Dana and Malory, they had to take steps, make choices, even sacrifices. They reflected the clue, and . . .” She glanced back at the portrait. “And the goddess they stood for. So, I have to think how what I’ve done, or have to do, reflects mine. The puppy and the sword. That’s what she has in the painting at the Peak. She nurtures and she defends, I guess. I’ve got a son I’ve been nurturing and defending for more than nine years.”

  “Not just him,” Jordan put in. “Your nature is to nurture and defend anyone you care about, anyone who needs it. It’s instinctive, and that makes it one of your strengths. Another thing Kane wouldn’t understand about you is you care about the women in that painting, care enough to go to the wall for them.”

  “Friendship,” Brad added with a gesture toward the painting. “Family, and the preservation of those things. Those are essential elements in your life.”

  “I guess we’re on the same page, then, because I was thinking that one of the basics of the quests, so far, has been living life the way you really want to live it, taking whatever steps and risks you need to, being willing to sacrifice and work to make it happen.”

  It sounded good when she said it out loud, Zoe decided. It sounded solid. “For me, I decided to have a child. A lot of people told me I was making a mistake, but I knew in my heart I wanted the child, and I wanted to do right by him. I left home because I knew I’d never be able to do right by him if I stayed. I was scared, and it was hard. But it was right for me, and for Simon.”

  “You chose the path,” Brad said quietly.

  “I chose it. And there was some of that loss and despair that Rowena talked about in the clue. You can’t raise a child without some loss and despair. You sure as hell can’t raise one alone without them. But you get all the joy, too, and the pride and the wonder. I chose to come here to the Valley because that was what I wanted for myself and for Simon. Then I had to decide if I was going to keep plugging away for a paycheck or take a chance and make something of my own. I didn’t have to do that one alone, and see, those other choices made it so I didn’t have to.”

  She crouched down to take some papers from her backpack. “See this? I made this up. It’s like a chart, kind of a map.”

  She handed it to Malory first. “See, there’s where I grew up—not all that far from here, really. Only about sixty miles across the state line. And there’s the names of my family, and people who had an impact on me—one way or the other. Then I sort of routed out other places I lived, and worked, and the names and all that. Until I ended up here, with all of you. See, I was thinking, some of it’s just living. What you do, and what happens to you while you’re doing it.”

  Malory raised her eyes from the chart, met Zoe’s. “You worked at HomeMakers.”

  “Just part-time. Three nights a week and Sunday afternoons, for about three months before Simon was born.” She turned to Brad. “I didn’t even think about it before. Just didn’t.”

  “What store?”

  “The one outside of Morgantown, off Highway 68. They were really good to me there. I was six months along when I went in looking for the extra work. I went into labor working cash register number four. I think that means something. I went into labor when I was working for you.”

  He took the chart as it was passed to him, looked at it, noted dates. “I was in that store doing some troubleshooting in March of that year.” He tapped the chart. “I remember it because someone came into the meeting apologizing for being a few minutes late. It seemed one of our cashiers had gone into labor and he’d wanted to be sure she got off to the hospital safely.”

  The chill that danced through Zoe wasn’t fear. It was excitement. “You were there.”

  “Not only there, but when I came back to finish up the next day, it turned out I’d won the baby pool. I’d taken a boy, seven pounds, and gone with twelve hours of labor.”

  She let out a shaky breath. “Pretty close.”

  “Close enough to earn me a couple hundred dollars.”

  “That is way spooky,” Dana commented “Where do we go with it?”

  “Some of it’s going to be where Zoe and I go with it.” He looked back at the chart. “You didn’t go back to work at the Morgantown store.”

  “No. I picked up a few extra hours a week at the salon where I was working, and they let me bring the baby in. As friendly as they are at HomeMakers, you can’t work the cash register with a baby under the counter.”

  He’d been there, Zoe thought again. Their paths had crossed at the most important moment of her life. “I didn’t want to spend the money for a sitter,” she continued. “More, I guess, I wasn’t ready to let him out of my sight.”

  Brad studied her face, trying to imagine her—imagine both of them on that day, nearly ten years before. “If I’d done my tour of the floor sooner rather than later, I might have seen you, spoken with you. I decided to do the offices and take the meetings first. One of those little choices that change what comes after for quite some time.”

  “You weren’t meant to meet then.” Malory shook her head. “I know it goes back to sounding like destiny and fate, but those shouldn’t be discounted. Even with our choices. You weren’t meant to meet until you were both here. Paths, crossroads, intersections. Zoe’s got them there on her chart.”

  Malory eased forward, tilting her head so she could read it along with Brad. “You could add your roads on there, Brad. From the Valley to Columbia, back to the Valley, to New York, to Morgantown, wherever else, then back here. You’d find other intersections and crossroads. And for both of you they’ve led her
e. It’s not just geography.”

  “No.” Brad tapped a finger on the names Zoe had listed near her hometown. “James Marshall. Is that Simon’s father?”

  “In the technical sense. Why?”

  “I know him. Our families did some business. We bought some land from his father, though the son ran the deal. A nice chunk of commercial property near Wheeling. I closed the deal before I left New York. It was one of the levers I used to move back here and take over this area.”

  “You met James,” Zoe whispered.

  “Met him, and spent enough time with him to know he doesn’t deserve you, or Simon. I need another beer.”

  Zoe stayed where she was a moment. “I’m going to check on the chili. Just, ah, give me a few minutes, and I’ll dish it up.”

  She hurried toward the kitchen. “Bradley.”

  He kept walking, then yanked open the refrigerator, got his beer. “Is that why you were pissed when I picked you up?” he demanded. “You’d made your chart, started thinking it through and saw just how tight the connection is with me?”

  “Yes, that was part of it.” She linked her fingers, then pulled them apart. “It’s like another brick, Bradley, and I haven’t figured out if it’s like having that brick put down on a walk to give me a good, solid path or like having it mortared into a wall that’s closing me in.”

  He stared at her, astonished fury pulsing around him. “Who’s trying to close you in? That’s a hell of a thing to put on me, Zoe.”

  “It’s not you. It’s not about you. It’s about me. What I think, what I feel, what I do. And damn it, I can’t help it if it makes you mad that I have to decide if it’s a wall or a walk.”

  “A wall or a walk,” he repeated, then took a slug of beer. “Christ, I actually understand that. I’d rather I didn’t.”

  “It made me feel pushed, and I get mad when I’m pushed. It’s not your fault or your doing, but it doesn’t feel like it’s mine either. I guess I don’t like dealing with what’s not my fault or my doing.”

  “He was a stupid son of a bitch for letting you go.”

  She let out a sigh. “He didn’t let me go. He just didn’t hold on to me. And that stopped making me mad a long time ago.” She moved to the stove, took the lid off her pot. “There was something else that happened. I’m going to finish making this meal, and I’ll tell you and the others about it over dinner.”

  “Zoe.” He touched her shoulder, then opened a cupboard to look for plates. “About those bricks? You can always knock a wall down, and build a nice walk out of it.”

  THEY ate in the kitchen, crowded around the table, as the dining room was a long way from meeting Malory’s standards. Over beer and chili and hot bread, Zoe told them about what she’d seen in the steamy shower mirror and the range hood.

  “I thought I imagined it the first time. It just seemed too strange not to be my imagination—and it was only for a couple of seconds. But today . . . I saw her,” Zoe confirmed. “I saw her where I should’ve been.”

  “If Kane’s trying another angle,” Dana began, “I’m not following it.”

  “It wasn’t Kane.” Zoe frowned down at her plate. “I don’t know how to explain how I’m so sure it wasn’t, except to say it didn’t feel like him. There’s a feeling when he touches you.”

  She lifted her gaze, met Dana’s, then Malory’s for confirmation. “Maybe not as it’s happening, but after, and you know. It wasn’t from him. It was warm,” she continued. “Both times it was warm.”

  “Rowena and Pitte may be adding a few flourishes.” Flynn spooned up more chili. “They said Kane had broken the rules with Dana and Jordan, so they compensated.”

  “It may cost them,” Jordan added.

  “It may. So it could be they’ve decided to compensate more. In-for-a-penny sort of thing.”

  “Doesn’t play for me,” Bradley disagreed. “If they were going to go over the line again, this soon in Zoe’s quest, why not do something solid, something tangible? Why so cryptic?”

  “I don’t think it was from them either.” Zoe pushed food around on her plate. “I think it was from her.”

  “From Kyna?” Fascinated, Malory sat back. “But how? They’re powerless.”

  “Maybe she is. We don’t know how all this works, really, but say she is. Her parents aren’t. I started thinking what if someone had Simon trapped somewhere? I would just about go crazy. If there was a way to get him out, I’d do anything I could.”

  “It’s been three thousand years,” Flynn pointed out. “Why wait?”

  “I know.” Zoe took a piece of bread, broke off a chunk. “But time’s different for them, right? Didn’t Rowena say that? And besides, maybe there wasn’t anything that could be done before this, before Kane changed things by spilling blood, mortal blood.”

  “Keep going,” Jordan prompted when she stopped. “Spin it out.”

  “Well. If Kane changed the nature of the spell by breaking the rules of it, and if that opened—well—like a chink in the curtain, wouldn’t loving parents try to send some light through that chink? They wanted me to see her. Not just in a
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