Key of light, p.13
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       Key of Light, p.13

         Part #1 of Key series by Nora Roberts
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  Boy, she loved accessories.

  Not a productive train of thought.

  She switched the car radio off, steeped herself in silence. What she needed to do was find Dana and Zoe, tell them what she’d discovered. Maybe if she said it all out loud she, or they, could decipher what it meant.

  Because at the moment she didn’t have a clue.

  All she knew, in her gut, was that it was important. Even vital. If not the answer, it was one of the bread crumbs that would lead to the answer.

  She turned off the road and onto the private lane. No gates here. No circling walls. The Vanes were certainly wealthy enough to rate them. She wondered why they hadn’t chosen to buy Warrior’s Peak instead of building by the river, closer to town.

  Then the house came into view and answered her question. It was beautiful, and it was wood. A lumber baron would hardly build or buy in stone or brick. He would, as he had, build to illustrate the art of his product.

  The wood was honey gold, set off by copper trim that had gone dreamy green with age and weather. There was a complex arrangement of decks and terraces, skirting or jutting from both stories. Half a dozen rooflines peaked or sloped, all with a kind of artful symmetry that brought harmony to the whole.

  The grounds were informal, as suited the site and the style, but she imagined that the placement of every shrub, every tree, every flower bed had been meticulously selected and designed.

  Malory approved of meticulous design and execution.

  She pulled up beside a moving van and was about to step out when she heard the wild, delighted barking.

  “Oh, no, not this time. I’ve got your number, buddy.” She reached into the box on the floor beside her and pulled out a large dog biscuit.

  Even as Moe’s homely face smooshed against the car window, she rolled it down. “Moe! Get the cookie!” And threw the dog biscuit as far as she could manage.

  As he raced in pursuit, she nipped out of the car and made a dash for the house.

  “Nice job.” Flynn met her at the door.

  “I’m a quick study.”

  “Counting on that. Malory Price, Brad Vane. Already called it,” Flynn added in subtle warning as he saw the interest light in Brad’s eye.

  “Oh? Well, can’t blame you.” Brad smiled at Malory. “It’s still nice to meet you, Malory.”

  “What are you talking about?”

  “It’s guy-speak,” Flynn told her, and dipped his head to kiss her. “Just bringing Brad up-to-date. Dana and Zoe on the way?”

  “No. Dana’s working, and I couldn’t reach Zoe. I left messages for both of them. What’s this all about?”

  “You’re going to want to see it for yourself.”

  “See what? You drag me out here—no offense,” she added to Brad, “you have a beautiful house—without any explanation. And I was busy. The time factor—”

  “I’m starting to think time’s a real factor.” Flynn tugged her along toward the great room.

  “Excuse the disorder. I’ve got a lot going out, a lot coming in today.” Brad kicked aside a chunk of broken lamp. “Flynn tells me you managed the art gallery in town.”

  “Yes, until recently. Oh, what a fabulous room.” She stopped, absorbed the space. It needed paintings, sculpture, more color, more texture. Such a wonderful space deserved art.

  If she’d had a free hand and an unlimited budget she could’ve made this room a showcase.

  “You must be eager to unpack your things, settle in, and . . . oh, my God.”

  The shock struck the instant she saw the painting. The stunning blast of discovery pumped straight into her blood, had her fumbling her glasses out of her purse and going down to her knees in front of it for a closer study.

  The colors, the brushstrokes, the technique, even the medium. The same. The same, she thought, as the other. The three main subjects, the same.

  “After the theft of the souls,” she stated. “They’re here, in this box on the pedestal in the foreground. My God, look at how the light and color seem to pulse inside the glass. It’s genius. There, in the background, the two figures from the first painting, with their backs turned here. They’re leaving. Banished. About to walk through that mist. The Curtain of Dreams. The keys.”

  She scooped her hair back, held the mass of it in one hand as she peered more closely. “Where are the keys? There! You can just see them, on a chain the female figure holds in her hand. Three keys. She’s the keeper.”

  Wanting to see more detail, she fished a small silver-handled magnifying glass out of a felt bag in her purse.

  “She carries a magnifying glass in her purse,” Brad uttered in amazement.

  “Yeah.” Flynn grinned like a fool. “Isn’t she great?”

  Focused on the painting, she shut out the comments behind her and peered through the glass. “Yes, yes, it’s the same design of key. They’re not worked into the background the way they are in the other painting. Not symbolism this time, but fact. She has the keys.”

  She lowered the glass, eased back slightly for an overview. “The shadow’s still in the trees, but farther back now. You can barely see his shape. His work’s done, but still he watches. Gloats?”

  “Who is he?” Brad wanted to know.

  “Quiet. She’s working.”

  Malory slipped the glass back into its pouch, then returned it to her purse. “Such a sad painting, such grief in the light, in the body language of the two as they step toward that curtain of mist. The main subjects in their crystal coffins look serene, but they’re not. It’s not serenity, it’s emptiness. And there’s such desperation in that light inside the box. It’s painful, and it’s brilliant.”

  “Is it the same artist?” Flynn asked her.

  “Of course. This is no student, no mimic, no homage. But that’s opinion.” She sat back on her heels. “I’m not an authority.”

  Could’ve fooled me, he thought. “Between you and Brad, I figure we’ve got all the authority we need.”

  She’d forgotten Brad, and flushed a bit with embarrassment. She’d all but lapped the painting up, kneeling before it like a supplicant. “Sorry.” Still kneeling, she looked up at him. “I got carried away. Could you tell me where you acquired this?”

  “At auction, in New York. A small house. Banderby’s.”

  “I’ve heard of them. The artist?”

  “Unknown. You can just make out a partial signature—an initial, really. Might be an R, or a P, followed by the key symbol.”

  Malory bent lower to study the lower left corner. “You had it dated, authenticated?”

  “Of course. Seventeenth century. Though the style has a more contemporary feel, the painting was tested extensively. If you know Banderby’s you know it’s both meticulous and reputable.”

  “Yes. Yes, I know.”

  “And I had it tested independently. Just a little habit of mine,” Brad added. “The results coincided.”

  “I have a theory,” Flynn began, but Malory waved him off.

  “Can I ask you why you bought it? Banderby’s isn’t known for its bargains, and it’s an unknown artist.”

  “One reason is I was struck how much the middle figure resembled Dana.” It was true enough, Brad thought, if not the whole truth. “The overall painting, the power of it, caught me first, then that detail drew me in. And . . .” He hesitated, his gaze tracking across the painting. Then, feeling foolish, he shrugged. “You could say it spoke to me. I wanted it.”

  “Yes, I understand that.” She took her glasses off, folded them and, slipped them carefully back in their case, then slid the case into her purse. “Flynn must have told you about the painting at Warrior’s Peak.”

  “Sure, I told him. And when I saw this, I figured—”

  “Ssh.” Malory tapped him on the knee, then held up a hand for him to help her to her feet. “It has to be a series. There’s another painting that comes before or after or in between. But there have to be three. It’s consistently three. Three keys, thr
ee daughters. The three of us.”

  “Well, there are five of us now,” Brad put in. “But, yeah, I follow you.”

  “You followed me when I said the same damn thing a half hour ago,” Flynn complained. “My theory.”

  “Sorry.” This time Malory patted him on the arm. “It’s all tumbling around in my head. I can almost make out the pieces, but I can’t quite see the shape, or where they go. What they mean. Do you mind if we sit down?”

  “Sure. Sorry.” Immediately, Brad took her arm, led her to a sofa. “Can I get you something to drink?”

  “Got any brandy? I know it’s early, but I could really use just a little brandy.”

  “I’ll find some.”

  Flynn sat beside her as Brad left the room. “What is it, Mal? You look a little pale all of a sudden.”

  “It hurts me.” She looked toward the painting again, then closed her eyes as tears gathered in them. “Even as it dazzles my mind and my spirit, it hurts to look at it. I saw this happen, Flynn. I felt this happen to them.”

  “I’ll put it away.”

  “No, no.” She caught his hand, and the contact comforted her. “Art’s supposed to touch you in some way. That’s its power. What will the third be? And when?”

  “When?”

  She shook her head. “How flexible is your mind, I wonder? I’m just starting to find out how flexible mine is. You’ve told Brad all of it?”

  “Yeah.” Something here, he realized as he watched her. Something she wasn’t quite sure she could say. “You can trust him, Malory. You can trust me.”

  “The question will be if either of you will trust me after I tell you both what I found out this morning and what I think it means. Your old friend might politely nudge me out the door and bolt it behind me.”

  “I never lock beautiful women out of the house.” Brad walked back in with a snifter of brandy. He handed it to her, then sat on the coffee table, facing her. “Go ahead, knock it back.”

  She did just that, downing the brandy as she might a quick dose of medicine. It slid smoothly down her throat and soothed her jittery stomach. “It’s a crime to treat a Napoleon that carelessly. Thanks.”

  “Knows her brandy,” he said to Flynn. Color was seeping back into her cheeks. To give her a chance to recover more fully, he rapped Flynn with his elbow. “How the hell did you manage to get a woman with taste and class to look twice at you?”

  “I had Moe knock her down, pin her to the ground. Better, Mal?”

  “Yes.” She blew out a breath. “Yes. Your painting’s seventeenth century. That’s absolutely conclusive?”

  “That’s right.”

  “I found out this morning that the painting at Warrior’s Peak is twelfth century, possibly earlier but no later.”

  “If you got that from Pitte or Rowena—” Flynn began.

  “No. I got that from Dr. Stanley Bower, of Philadelphia. He’s an expert, and a personal acquaintance. I sent him scrapings of the painting.”

  “How’d you get scrapings?” Flynn wanted to know.

  More color rose in her cheeks, but it wasn’t the brandy that caused it. She cleared her throat, fussed with the clasp of her purse. “I took them when you went up there with me last week. When you and Moe distracted them. It was completely inappropriate, absolutely unethical. I did it anyway.”

  “Cool.” Pure admiration shone in Flynn’s tone. “So that means either Brad’s experts or yours is off, or you’re wrong about both being done by one artist. Or . . .”

  “Or, the experts are right and so am I.” Malory set her purse aside, folded her hands tight in her lap. “Dr. Bower would have to run more complex and in-depth tests to verify the date, but he wouldn’t be off by centuries. I’ve seen both paintings, up close. Everything I know tells me they were done by the same hand. I know it sounds crazy. It feels crazy, but I believe it. Whoever created the portrait at Warrior’s Peak did so in the twelfth century, and that same artist painted Brad’s five hundred years later.”

  Brad slid his gaze toward Flynn, surprised that his friend wasn’t goggling, or grinning. Instead, Flynn’s face was sober and considering. “You want to believe that my painting was executed by a five-hundred-year-old artist?”

  “Older, I think. Much older than that. And I think the artist painted both from memory. Rethinking bolting the door?” Malory asked him.

  “I’m thinking both of you have gotten caught up in a fantasy. A romantic and tragic story that has no basis in reality.”

  “You haven’t seen the painting. You haven’t seen The Daughters of Glass.”

  “No, but I’ve heard about it. All accounts place it in London, during the Blitz. Where it was destroyed. Most likely answer is that the one at the Peak is a copy.”

  “It’s not. You think I’m being stubborn. I can be,” Malory admitted, “but this isn’t one of those times. I’m not a fanciful person either—or I haven’t been.”

  She shifted her attention to Flynn, and her voice grew urgent. “Flynn, everything they told me, everything they told me and Dana and Zoe that first night was absolutely true. Even more amazing is what they didn’t tell us. Rowena and Pitte—teacher and warrior—they’re the figures in the background of each painting. They were there, in reality. And one of them painted both those portraits.”

  “I believe you.”

  Her breath shuddered out in relief at Flynn’s simple faith. “I don’t know what it means, or how it helps, but learning this—and believing it—is why I was picked. If I don’t find the key, and Dana and Zoe don’t find theirs after me, those souls will keep screaming inside that box. Forever.”

  He reached out, ran a hand over her hair. “We won’t let that happen.”

  “Excuse me.” Zoe hesitated at the entrance to the room. She was hard-pressed not to rub her hands over the satiny trim, or kick off her shoes to slide barefoot across the glossy floors.

  She wanted to rush to the windows and study every view.

  “The men outside said I should come right in. Um, Flynn? Moe’s out there rolling around in something that looks a lot like dead fish.”

  “Shit. Be right back. Zoe, Brad.” And he ran outside.

  Brad got to his feet. He wasn’t sure how he managed it when his knees had dissolved. He heard his own voice, a bit cooler than normal, a bit stilted, over the roar of blood in his head.

  “Come in, please. Sit down. Can I get you something?”

  “No, thanks. Sorry. Malory, I got your message and came right out. Is something wrong?”

  “I don’t know. Brad here thinks I’ve slipped a few gears, and I don’t blame him.”

  “That’s ridiculous.” In her instant leap to defend, she forgot the charm of the house, the aloof charm of the man. Her cautious and apologetic smile turned into a chilly scowl as she strode across the room to Malory’s side. “And if you said any such thing, you’re not only wrong, you’re rude.”

  “Actually, I didn’t get around to saying it yet. And as you don’t know the circumstances—”

  “I don’t have to. I know Malory. And if you’re a friend of Flynn’s, you should know better than to upset her.”

  “I beg your pardon.” Where had that stiff, superior tone come from? How had his father’s voice popped out of his mouth?

  “It’s not his fault, Zoe. Really. As to being upset, I don’t know what I am.” Malory shoved back her hair and, rising, gestured toward the painting. “You should take a look at this.”

  Zoe moved closer. Then clutched her throat. “Oh. Oh.” And her eyes filled with hot tears. “It’s so beautiful. It’s so sad. But it belongs with the other. How did it get here?”

  Malory slipped an arm around her waist so they stood joined together. “Why do you think it belongs with the other?”

  “It’s the Daughters of Glass, after the . . . the spell or the curse. The box, with the blue lights. It’s just the way you described it, from your dream. And it’s the same—the same . . . I don’t know how to say it. It’s
like a set, or part of a set, painted by the same person.”

  Malory glanced over her shoulder at Brad, cocked a brow.

  “Are you an art expert?” Brad asked Zoe.

  “No.” She didn’t bother to look at him, and her tone was flat. “I’m a hairdresser, but I’m not stupid.”

  “I didn’t mean to imply—”

  “No, you meant to say. Will it help you find the key, Malory?”

  “I don’t know. But it means something. I have a digital camera out in the car. Can I take some pictures of it?”

  “Be my guest.” Brad jammed his hands into his pockets as Malory hurried out and left him alone with Zoe. “Are you sure I can’t get you something? Coffee?”

  “No, I’m fine. Thank you.”

  “I, ah, came in on this after the first reel,” he began. “You might give me a little time to catch up.”

  “I’m sure Flynn will tell you everything you need to know.” She crossed the room, using the excuse of looking out for Malory as a chance to see the lovely river view.

  What would it be like, she wondered, to be able to stand here whenever you wanted, to see the water and the light, the hills? Liberating, she imagined. And peaceful.

  “Malory just told me she believes the Daughters of Glass exist, in reality. In some reality. And that the people you met at Warrior’s Peak are several thousand years old.”

  She turned back, didn’t so much as blink. “If she believes that, she has good reason. And I trust her enough to believe it too. Now would you like to tell me I’ve slipped a couple of gears?”

  Irritation flickered over his face. “I never said that to her. I thought it, but I didn’t say it. I’m not saying it to you either.”

  “But you’re thinking it.”

  “You know, I only have two feet, but I’m managing to stay on the wrong one with you.”

  “Since I doubt we’re going dancing anytime soon, I’m not really worried about your feet. I like your house.”

  “Thanks, so do I. Zoe—”

  “I’ve done a lot of business at HomeMakers. I’ve found good values and excellent customer service in the local store.”

  “Good to know.”

  “I hope you’re not planning on making any major changes there, but I wouldn’t mind a little more variety on the seasonal stuff. You know, bedding plants, snow shovels, outdoor furniture.”

  His lips twitched. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

  “And it wouldn’t hurt to add a couple more cashiers on Saturdays. There’s always a wait at the checkout.”

  “So noted.”

  “I’m starting my own business, so I pay attention to how things run.”

  “Are you opening your own salon?”

  “Yes.” She said it firmly, despite the way her stomach muscles clutched. “I was looking at space before I got Malory’s message to come out here.”

  And why didn’t Malory come back in? She was running out of steam now that her temper had leveled off. She didn’t know what to talk about with a man who lived in a house like this, one who helped run an enormous national conglomerate. If “conglomerate” was the word for it.

  “In the Valley?”

  “What? Oh, yes, I’m looking for a place in town. I’m not interested in a mall space. I think it’s important to maintain a good downtown, and I want to be close to home so I can be more available to my son.”

  “You have a son?” His gaze zeroed in on her left hand, and he nearly sighed with relief at the lack of a wedding ring.

  All Zoe saw was the quick look. She straightened her shoulders, stiffened them. “Yes. Simon’s nine.”

  “Sorry it took me so long,” Malory apologized as she came back in. “Flynn’s got Moe tied to a tree in the side yard. He’s hosing him down, for all the good that’s going to do. He’ll just be a wet incredibly smelly dog instead of only an
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