Key of valor, p.13
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       Key of Valor, p.13

         Part #3 of Key series by Nora Roberts
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  painting but more personally.”

  “To see her in you,” Bradley finished. “To look in the mirror, and see her in you.”

  “Yes.” Zoe let out a relieved breath. “Yes, that’s how it feels to me. It’s like they wanted her to tell me something. She can’t just say, ‘Oh, Zoe, the key’s under the planter of geraniums on the porch,’ but it’s like she’s trying to show me something I have to do or somewhere I have to go to find it.”

  “What was she wearing?”

  “Jesus, Hawke.” Dana jabbed him hard.

  “No, seriously, let’s look at the details. Was she dressed the way she is in the paintings?”

  “Oh, I see.” Zoe pursed her lips. “No. She was wearing a short dress, dark green.” She closed her eyes to bring it back. “And boots. Brown boots that came right up to the knee. She had on the pendant, the one the legend says her father gave each of them, and this little headband, I guess they call it a circlet? A gold Wonder Woman sort of thing with a diamond-shaped jewel in the center. Dark green, like the dress. And the sword at her hip. Oh!”

  Her eyes popped open again. “She had one of those . . .” Impatient with herself she waved a hand back between her shoulder blades. “Quivers. That’s what it is, the thing for arrows. And there was a bow strapped over her shoulder.”

  “Sounds like the lady was going hunting,” Jordan concluded.

  “Into the forest,” Zoe continued. “She took the path into the forest to hunt. A hunt’s like a quest.”

  “Maybe the forest in the quest is more literal than we assumed,” Dana considered as she ate. “I’ll do some research on forests—books and paintings—as well as the local woods around the Valley. Something might pop.”

  “If you can describe the scene to me, I can try to sketch it,” Malory suggested. “It might help for all of us to see it as you did.”

  “All right.” Zoe gave a decisive nod. “That feels positive. It’s been like time slipping away from me, but this feels positive. She had such strong, sad eyes,” she said quietly. “I don’t know how I could live with myself if I didn’t help her.”

  SHE was lost in thought as Brad drove her home, and stared up at the waxing moon. It seemed as if she could almost see it growing fuller and whiter, marking her time.

  “I don’t know that I ever paid attention to the phases of the moon before. You just looked up, and it was full or a sliver or cut in half. I never thought to notice whether it was getting bigger or smaller. But now I don’t think I’ll ever not know. I’ll know just where the moon is in its cycle, without ever looking at the sky.

  “I’ve got less than three weeks left.”

  “You’ve got a chart, you’ve got a sketch. You’ve got a vision. You can’t put the puzzle together without the pieces. You’re gathering the pieces.”

  “I’m counting on it. It helped, talking it through, but it’s all running around in my head now. And nothing will settle long enough for me to pick it apart again. I can’t bend words into answers the way Dana does, or draw out images into answers like Malory. I have to, I don’t know, get my hands around it, and work it into place. I don’t have anything to get my hands around yet. It’s frustrating.”

  “Sometimes you have to walk away from the pieces. Then come back and walk around them, look at them from a different angle.”

  He pulled into her drive. “I’m staying here tonight.”


  “You’re not staying here alone, without even Simon in the house in case something happens.” He got out, took her pot from the back of the car. “I’ll sleep on the sofa.”

  “I’ve got Moe,” she began as the dog jumped up to race to the door.

  “Last time I checked, Moe couldn’t dial a phone or drive a car. You might need someone to do both.” He paused by the door, waiting for her to unlock it. “You’re not staying here alone. I’ll sleep on the sofa.”

  “There isn’t—”

  “Don’t argue.”

  Jiggling her keys, she took a good, hard look at him. “Maybe I like to argue.”

  “There wouldn’t be any point in it, but if that’s what you want to do, let’s do it inside. It’s dark, it’s getting cold, and Moe’s becoming a little too interested in what’s left in this pot.”

  She opened the door and headed straight to the kitchen. “Just set that down. I’ll take care of it.” She got out one of the storage containers she used for leftovers, then shrugged out of her coat, tossed it over a kitchen chair. “It may not have occurred to you that I let Simon spend the night with a friend because I wanted some time alone.”

  “It occurred to me. I’ll stay out of your way.” He took off his own coat, then picked up hers. “I’ll go hang these up.”

  Saying nothing, she began transferring leftover chili to the container.

  He meant it for the best, she knew. And it wasn’t as if she minded having a strong, capable man in the house. She simply wasn’t used to having a strong, capable man in the house. Especially one who told her what was going to be done.

  That was part of the problem, she considered, sealing the container. She’d been piloting her own ship for so long that having anyone take the wheel, however well intentioned, put her back up.

  If that was a flaw in her character, she was entitled to a few flaws.

  Part of the problem, she thought again as she took the pot to the sink to wash it. The other part, and the bigger chunk of the problem, was having a man she was attracted to in the house when there was no nine-year-old buffer between them.

  And that, she realized, setting the pot to drain, was just dead stupid.

  She went into the living room. He was sitting in a chair, paging through one of her magazines. Moe, having given up hope of chili, was sprawled over his feet.

  “If you want reading material,” she began, “I can do better than a magazine on hairstyles.”

  “It’s okay. Great-looking models. Can I ask you a couple of questions? The first has to do with the availability of a blanket and pillow.”

  “I happen to have those items in stock.”

  “Good. The other, brought to mind by this redhead with the eyebrow ring is . . . just how do I put this?”

  “You’re interested in an eyebrow ring?”

  “No. No, I’m not. But it happens that some time ago, I noticed . . . you were wearing these jeans that rode a little low and this shirt that rode a little high, so I couldn’t help but notice you had this silver bar—that you had your navel pierced.”

  She cocked her head. “That’s right.”

  “I wondered if you always wear it.”

  She kept her expression very sober, very serious. “Sometimes I wear this little silver hoop instead.”

  “Uh-huh.” Unable to help it, he glanced at her belly, imagined. “Interesting.”

  “Before I came to the Valley, I worked a second job at a body-piercing and tattoo parlor. I was putting away all I could for a down payment on a house. As an employee, it was free, plus it helped in dealing with customers if you’d gone through it yourself. And no,” she added, reading his thoughts, “the only body parts I was willing to have pierced were my belly button and my earlobes. Do you want something to drink? A snack?”

  “No, I’m fine.” Unless he counted the saliva that wanted to pool in the back of his mouth. “Tattoos? Did you get one?”

  She smiled now, friendly as a Sunday school teacher. “I did. Just a little one.”

  She knew he was wondering what, and more, where. She would just let him wonder for now. “You don’t have to sleep on the couch, Bradley.” She watched his eyes narrow and focus on her face, and even from three feet away, felt his body tense. “There’s no need for that when there’s just the two of us here.” She waited one long beat. “You can use Simon’s bed.”

  “Simon’s bed.” He repeated it, as if speaking a foreign language. “Yeah. Right. Good.”

  “Why don’t you come on upstairs, and I’ll show you where everythi
ng is?”

  “Sure.” He set the magazine aside, gave Moe a nudge to roll him over and off his feet.

  “There are plenty of clean towels in the bathroom closet,” she began, enjoying herself as she started upstairs. “And I’ve got an extra toothbrush in there that you can use.”

  He kept his hands at his sides as he walked up behind her, and tried not to torture himself with images of tattoos and belly rings. He failed miserably. “I’ve got a staff meeting at eight-thirty in the morning, so I’ll be out of your way early.”

  “I’m an early riser, so you won’t bother me.”

  She nudged open the door of Simon’s room. There were bunk beds with navy-blue spreads, and bright red curtains at the window. Shelves painted to match the spreads were full of the things boys collected. The action figures, the books, the rocks and model cars. A red desk, Simon-sized, was under the window and held a Superman lamp, schoolbooks, and more of the flotsam and jetsam of a young boy.

  It was neat but far from regimented, with a corkboard loaded with drawings and photographs and pictures cut out of magazines. There were shoes that had been kicked off, ball caps hooked on the posts of the top bunk, a book bag on the floor with some of its contents spilling out. And a scent, faint, of wildness that was all boy.

  “It’s a great room.”

  “We have a go-round periodically on cleaning it. I won the last one, so it’s still in pretty good shape.”

  She leaned back against the doorjamb. “No problem sleeping in here?”

  “No, this is fine.”

  “I appreciate you being a gentleman, not trying to take advantage of the situation and putting any moves on me.”

  “I’m staying because you shouldn’t be alone, not to take advantage of anything.”

  “Mmm-hmm. I just wanted to be sure of that, and since I am, I’m going to tell you something. I’m not a gentleman.” She stepped forward and pressed her body hard against his. “I’m going to take advantage of the situation.” She clamped her hands on his butt, squeezed. “And I’m putting the moves on you. What’re you going to do about it?”

  His system spiked; his pulse scrambled. “Weep with gratitude?”

  Laughing, she bit down on his bottom lip. “Cry later. Get your hands on me,” she demanded and ravished his mouth. “All over me.”

  He fisted his hand in the back of her sweater, anchoring himself before he jumped out of his own skin. The taste of her, hot, ripe, flooded him, even as that tight, sexy body pressed and pumped against him.

  Then his hands rushed under the sweater to take the long, smooth back, the dip of waist, the subtle flare of hip. More, his frantic brain could only think. More.

  She arched and purred as his hungry lips fed off her throat.

  His belly jumped when she dragged at the buckle of his belt.

  “It’s been a while for me.” Her voice was thick, her fingers busy. “You’ll have to excuse me for being in a hurry.”

  “No problem.” In one fast move, he swung her around until her back was against the wall. “That’s really no problem.”

  He yanked the sweater over her head, and tossed it aside. His hands were on her breasts before it hit the floor.

  Gasping, she worked her hands between them, fighting to keep her mouth on his as she hurried to unbutton his shirt. God, she wanted the feel of him against her. The feel of him inside her. Her skin was alive again, the blood running hot under it, her heart pounding in a rhythm she’d forgotten could be so fast, so hard, so thrilling.

  Desperate, she pushed his hand down, held it firmly between her legs. Her head fell back, exposing the line of her throat to his lips, his teeth, her hips moving as she pressed his hand to denim, and the heat under it.

  It was like holding raw nerves. Nerves with edges of jagged glass. They scraped at his own, all but tore him open. And the scent of her, something exotic that whispered of midnights, shadows, secrets, slithered through his system like a drug. Until everything he touched, tasted, everything he knew was Zoe.

  The need for her was like a lightning strike to the heart.

  He yanked at the button on her jeans, dragged the denim down. Even as she struggled to step clear he was plunging his fingers into the heat. He watched the shocked pleasure rush over her face as she poured into his hand.

  “Don’t stop.” Her mouth was frantic and fevered under his, and her nails scraped wickedly down his back before digging into his hips.

  She rode it, that wild whip of sensation that snapped through mind and body, rode it shuddering and craved more. It burned through her, fueled her until she thought she would go mad from the sheer force of her own greed.

  She ground herself against him in urgent demand, and cried out when he drove, hard and deep, inside her. And still it wasn’t enough. Her hips pistoned in a brutal bid for speed, she groaned her desire for it over the sharp sound of flesh striking flesh, striking the wall, striking flesh.

  He rode with her, in that fast, sweaty race toward release until his vision blurred and his blood screamed. Then drove them both, quivering, to the finish.

  Her heart was still thundering when she dropped her head to his shoulder. She gulped air, felt it catch, then tear its way into her lungs and out again.

  She was, she realized dimly, naked, sweaty, and pinned to the wall outside her son’s room. She should be horrified. She wasn’t, she thought. In fact, she was delighted.

  “You okay?” His voice was muffled, and she felt his lips move against her hair.

  “I think I was a lot better than okay. I think I was fantastic.”

  “You were. You are.” He’d just taken her against the wall. Or she’d taken him. “Can’t think yet,” he admitted, and braced a hand against the wall so he could remain upright. “You went for the hoop today.” He ran his other hand down her body until he could skim a finger over the ring in her belly button. “It’s so fucking sexy. I had no idea.”

  He eased back just enough to watch her laugh. “We moved pretty quick. I seem to have missed your tattoo.”

  Dazzled, delighted, she touched his hair. “You’re a funny guy, Bradley Charles Vane IV. All worked up over belly rings and tattoos.”

  “I never had this reaction to them on anyone else. Where is it?”

  “I’ll show you. First, I ought to tell you I’m not finished using you tonight.” She leaned in, ran her tongue in a slow, wet line along the side of his throat. “But you may want to lie down for the next round.”

  “Am I still standing?”

  She laughed again, then eased around him, tapping a finger to her left shoulder blade as she walked toward the room across the hall.

  “Wait.” He put a hand on her arm, coming close behind her to study the image. “It’s a faerie.”

  “That’s right. Sometimes she’s a good faerie.” Zoe looked over her shoulder, a small smile playing around her lips. “Sometimes she’s wicked. Why don’t you come in here with me and see just which she is tonight?”

  Chapter Ten

  ZOE faced the day with energy to burn and fresh ideas springing inside her head. While the coffee brewed, she hummed and scrambled some eggs.

  There was a man in her shower, she thought with a mile-wide grin. A gorgeous man who’d kept her busy half the night. She didn’t know the last time she’d felt so . . . healthy on less than four hours’ sleep. Her body felt wonderfully loose and limber, and so did her mind. She was damn sure she could tackle anything that came her way, one-handed.

  People who said sex wasn’t important, she decided, obviously weren’t having any.

  She piled eggs onto a plate, added a slice of toast just as she heard Brad walking into the room. “Right on time,” she said and turned to offer the plate.

  “You didn’t have to fix me breakfast.”

  “Don’t want it?” She picked up a fork, scooped up some eggs.

  “I didn’t say I didn’t want it.” He grabbed the plate from her, then the fork. “You having any?”

Maybe.” She stepped forward, opened her mouth.

  Willing to join the playful mood, he fed her a bite of eggs while they stood in front of the stove.

  “Go ahead and sit down,” she told him, and poured the coffee. “Eat while it’s hot. You said you had an early meeting.”

  “Maybe I should cancel it.” He leaned over to press his lips to the base of her neck. “We could have breakfast in bed.”

  “The only way you get breakfast in bed around here is if you’re sick.” She eased away so she could lay a hand on his brow. “Nope. Eat, go home and change, and get to work.”

  “You’re awfully strict. But you make really good scrambled eggs. You got plans for the day?”

  “This and that.” She snagged a piece of toast, then sat across from him to butter it. “Next time you get a chance, you’ll have to come by Indulgence. We’re down to the details, and it’s really starting to shine.”

  “That’s the first time you’ve asked me to come by.”

  “It’s the first time I’ve slept with you, too.”

  “I like to see it as a pattern emerging.”

  “Might be.”

  “I’m not interested in being with anyone else. Not in bed, not over morning eggs.”

  “I don’t sleep around,” she said in a serious tone.

  “That’s not what I said, and not what I meant.” Reminding himself to be patient, he took her hand firmly. “I’m telling you that you’re the only woman I’m interested in. Got that?”

  “I’m being—what did you call it—prickly and oversensitive.”

  “Yeah, but you still make great eggs.”

  “I’m sorry. This sort of thing hasn’t been . . . I was going to say a priority for me, but the fact is it just hasn’t been. Period. I’m feeling my way.”

  “Try this: ‘Bradley’—by the way, my mother’s the only other person that always calls me Bradley. It’s kind of nice. Anyway, ‘Bradley, I’m not interested in anyone else either.’ ”

  Her smile bloomed. “Bradley, I’m not interested in anyone else either.”

  “That works for me.”

  It was working for her, too. And that was just a little scary. “You said once I should ask you why you came back to the Valley. I’m asking you.”

  “Okay.” He picked up the jar of strawberry preserves she’d set out and spread some on his toast. “HomeMakers is more than a business. It’s more than tradition. It’s family. If you’re a Vane,” he said with a shrug, “it’s HomeMakers.”

  “Is that what you wanted?”

  “Yeah, good thing for me. There were a lot of things to learn, to understand, to train for. I had to go out of the Valley to really get my teeth into the organization, to see it as a whole, beyond its beginnings.”

  She studied him. He was dressed casually, and his shirt was a bit wrinkled from her hands, from lying on the floor all night. Still, he exuded power and confidence. The kind, she supposed, that was bred in the bone.

  “You’re proud of it. Of your family, and the beginnings.”

  “Very much. It’s grown, and it’s still growing. We’ve done some really good things—again, not just business. Programs, projects, the layers my grandfather and my father built onto the base of it. I wanted to come back here, to the start, and make something for myself. I intend to make a mark, and I intend to make it in the Valley.”

  He set his coffee aside. “And I’d better get to it. Are you heading out now?”

  “Soon. I’ve got some chores and errands.” She picked up his plate before he could and took it to the sink, then turned to face him. “You’ll make your mark, Bradley. You’re the kind of man who does. The Valley’s lucky to have you back.”

  For a moment he was simply speechless. “That’s the nicest thing you could say to me. Thanks.”

  “You’re welcome. Now go to work,” she told him, and kissed him. “And make your mark.”

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