Key of light, p.14
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       Key of Light, p.14

         Part #1 of Key series by Nora Roberts
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  incredibly smelly one. He said to ask if you had any shampoo or soap you could spare.”

  “I can come up with something. Go ahead and take your pictures.”

  Malory aimed the camera, waited until Brad’s footsteps receded. “Talk about gods,” she murmured to Zoe.

  “What?”

  “Bradley Charles Vane IV. His kind of looks just smack a woman right in the hormones.”

  “Looks are genetic.” Zoe very nearly sniffed. “Personality and manners are developed.”

  “It was one fine day in the gene pool when he was made.” She lowered the camera. “I gave you the impression he was giving me a hard time. Really, he wasn’t.”

  “Maybe, maybe not. But he’s an arrogant snob.”

  “Wow.” Malory blinked at the vehemence in Zoe’s voice. “I didn’t get that. I can’t imagine Flynn being friends with anyone who fits the snob category. Arrogant is debatable.”

  Zoe jerked a shoulder. “I’ve run into his type before. They’re more interested in looking good than in being human. Anyway, he’s not important. The painting is.”

  “I think it is. And what you said about them being a set, part of a set. I think that’s true, and there’s at least one more. I have to find it. Something in them, or about them, is going to point me toward the key. I’d better hit the books.”

  “Want some help?”

  “All I can get.”

  “I’ll head back now. There are a couple of things I need to do, then I’ll swing by your place.”

  ABOUT the time Brad unearthed a bottle of shampoo he heard a car start. He went to the window, cursed under his breath as he watched Zoe and Malory head down his lane.

  As far as first impressions went, he’d made a complete mess of it. He didn’t usually alienate women on sight. But then again, the sight of a woman didn’t usually slam into him like a hard, sweaty fist. Considering that, he supposed he could be excused for not being at his best.

  He went downstairs, then detoured back into the great room instead of continuing to the outside. He stood staring at the painting as he had the first time he’d seen it at the auction house. The way he’d stared at it countless times since he’d acquired it.

  He’d have paid any price for it.

  It was true enough what he’d told Malory and Flynn. He’d bought it because it was magnificent, powerful, compelling. He’d been intrigued by the one figure’s face, its resemblance to his childhood friend.

  But it had been another face in the painting that had dazzled him, consumed him. Undone him. One look at that face, Zoe’s face, and he’d fallen unreasonably in love.

  Strange enough, he thought, when the woman had simply been a figure in a painting. How much more complicated and impossible was it now that he knew she was real?

  HE thought about it while he put some of his house in order. He continued to think about it later when he and Flynn climbed up to sit on the wall surrounding Warrior’s Peak.

  They each opened a beer and studied the exotic silhouette etched against a gloomy sky.

  Lights glowed against the windows here and there, but as they drank their beers in silence, they saw no figure pass behind the glass.

  “They probably know we’re out here,” Flynn said after a time.

  “If we take your girlfriend’s theory to heart, and label them Celtic gods with a few thousand years under their belts, yeah, pretty safe bet they know we’re out here.”

  “You used to be more open-minded,” Flynn noted.

  “Ah, no. Not really. Jordan would be the one inclined to bite on this kind of a story line and run with it.”

  “You see him lately?”

  “A couple months ago. He’s been doing a lot of traveling, so we don’t manage to get together as often as we used to. Fuck it, Flynn.” Brad flung an arm around Flynn’s shoulder. “I’ve missed you assholes.”

  “Same goes. You going to tell me what you thought of Malory?”

  “Classy, intellectual, and very, very hot—despite her dubious taste in men.”

  Flynn tapped the heels of his ancient tennis shoes against the stone of the wall. “I’m about half crazy about her.”

  “Serious crazy, or let’s mambo crazy?”

  “I don’t know. Haven’t figured it yet.” He studied the house, and the quarter slice of moon that drifted over it. “I’m hoping it’s door number two, because I’d just as soon not get serious crazy at this point.”

  “Lily was a social-climbing opportunist with a great rack.”

  “Jesus, Vane.” He wasn’t sure whether to laugh or give his friend a hard shove off the seven-foot wall. So he did neither and only brooded instead. “I was in love with her. I was going to marry her.”

  “Now you’re not and you didn’t. Lucky break for you. She wasn’t worthy, Flynn.”

  Flynn shifted. He couldn’t see Brad’s eyes clearly. Their color blended into the night. “Worthy of what?”

  “Of you.”

  “That’s a hell of a thing to say.”

  “You’ll feel better about the whole thing once you admit I’m right. Now back to current affairs. I liked her—your Malory—if you’re keeping score.”

  “Even though you think she’s whacked.”

  Boggy ground, Brad mused, even when you were walking it with a friend. “I think she’s found herself in extraordinary circumstances and she’s caught up in the mystique. Why wouldn’t she be?”

  Flynn had to smile. “That’s just a diplomatic, bullshit way of saying she’s whacked.”

  “You once punched me in the face for saying Joley Ridenbecker had beaver teeth. I’m not heading meetings on Monday with a black eye.”

  “See, you are a suit. If I admit that Joley did indeed have teeth like a beaver, will you believe me if I tell you I’ve never known anyone with less of a whack quotient than Malory Price?”

  “Okay, I’ll take your word. And I’ll admit the whole thing about the paintings is intriguing.” Brad gestured with the beer, then drank again. “I’d like to get a look at the one in there myself.”

  “We can go up, knock on the door.”

  “In the daylight,” Brad decided. “When we haven’t been drinking.”

  “Probably better.”

  “Meanwhile, why don’t you tell me more about this Zoe?”

  “Haven’t known her long, but I did some background checking. On her and Mal. Just in case Dana was getting sucked into some weird-ass scam. She moved to the Valley three years ago, with her kid.”

  “Husband?”

  “Nope. Single parent. Looks like a good one to me. I met the kid. He’s bright, normal, appealing. She worked at Hair Today, girly hair place on Market. Word is she’s good at her profession, personable with customers, reliable. Got canned the same time Malory did, and around the same time they cut Dana’s hours at the library to the bone. Another weird coincidence. She bought this little cardboard box of a house when she moved here. Apparently she’s done most of the fixing-up work herself.”

  “Boyfriend?”

  “Not that I know of. She . . . wait a minute. You ask two questions. Husband, boyfriend. My razor-sharp reporter’s instinct leads me to the conclusion that you’re thinking of the mambo.”

  “Or something. I should get back. I’ve got a hell of a lot to do in the next couple of days. But there’s this one thing.” Brad took another pull on the bottle. “How the hell are we going to get off this wall?”

  “Good question.” Flynn pursed his lips, studied the ground. “We could just sit here and keep drinking until we fall off.”

  Brad sighed, drained the bottle. “There’s a plan.”

  Chapter Ten

  MALORY was barely out of the shower when she heard the knock on her front door. She belted her robe, snagged a towel, and wound it around her hair as she hurried to answer.

  “Tod. You’re up and about early.”

  “On my way to the coffee shop to ogle the nine-to-fivers before heading to work.” He peered ov
er her right shoulder, her left, then gave her a leer. “Got company?”

  Malory swung the door wider in invitation. “No. All alone.”

  “Ah, too bad.”

  “You’re telling me.” She tucked up the ends of the towel more securely. “Want coffee here? I’ve already put the pot on.”

  “Not unless you can offer me a skinny mocha latte and a hazelnut muffin.”

  “Sorry, fresh out.”

  “Well, maybe I should just give you the good news, then be on my way.” Still, he flopped into a chair.

  “Oh! New boots?”

  “Fabulous, aren’t they?” He stretched out his legs, turned his feet right and left to admire them. “They’re killing me, of course, but I couldn’t resist them. I made a quick run through Nordstrom’s on Saturday. Darling, you’ve got to go.” He sat up, grabbed her hand as she curled on the end of the sofa. “The cashmere! There’s a cowl neck in periwinkle that’s calling your name.”

  “Periwinkle?” She sighed, long and deep, like a woman under the hands of a skilled lover. “Don’t say periwinkle cashmere when I’m in the middle of a shopping moratorium.”

  “Mal, if you don’t treat yourself, who will?”

  “That’s true. That’s so true.” She bit her lip. “Nordstrom’s?”

  “And there’s a twinset in a strong peachy pink that was made for you.”

  “You know I have no defense against twinsets, Tod. You’re killing me.”

  “I’ll stop, I’ll stop.” He held up his hands. “But on to our morning bulletin. The Pamela has stepped in deep and stinky doo-doo.”

  “Oh, boy.” Malory wiggled into the cushions. “Tell me everything. Don’t spare the details.”

  “As if. Okay. We got in a Deco bronze—female figure wearing a flapper-style dress, feathered headband, pearls, gorgeous open-toed shoes, trailing a long scarf. She’s absolutely charming. Witty, terrific details, with this sly ‘let’s you and me Charleston, big boy’ smirk on her face. I fell in love.”

  “Did you call Mrs. Karterfield in Pittsburgh?”

  “Ah, see!” He shot a finger in the air, as if proving a point. “Naturally you would assume that, or would have done so personally had you still been in charge. Which you should be.”

  “Goes without saying.”

  “I did, of course, call Mrs. Karterfield, who, as expected, asked us to hold it for her until she could come down personally to see it. Next week. And what happens when our darling Mrs. Karterfield from Pittsburgh comes into The Gallery to see a Deco figure?”

  “She buys it. And often at least one other piece. If she comes in with a friend, which is usually the case, she harangues her companion until she buys something too. It’s a good day when Mrs. Karterfield comes to town.”

  “Pamela sold it out from under her.”

  It took Malory ten seconds to find her voice. “What? What? How? Why? Mrs. K’s one of our best customers. She always gets first look at Deco bronzes.”

  His lips folded into a thin, derisive smile. “A bird in the hand. That’s what the twit told me when I found out. And how did I find out? I’ll tell you,” he said with a triumphant ring in his voice. “I found out when Mrs. K came in unexpectedly yesterday afternoon to see it. Just couldn’t wait, she told me. And she brought two friends. Two, Mal. I could cry.”

  “What happened? What did she say?”

  “I took her over to see it, and there’s a Sold sign tucked under the base. I assumed it was a mistake, but I went to check. Pamela sold it that morning, apparently while I was in the back on the phone trying to soothe Alfred because Pamela the Putrid had accused him of overcharging for the crating for the marble nudes.”

  “Alfred? Overcharging?” Malory pressed her hands to her temples. “I can’t keep up.”

  “It was horrible, just horrible. It took me twenty minutes to talk him down, and even then I wasn’t sure he wouldn’t stomp in and beat her with his hammer. Maybe I should’ve let him,” Tod considered, then waved the thought away with both hands. “Anyway, while I was busy with Alfred, Pamela sold Mrs. K’s Deco to a stranger. To some fly-by-night, some wanderer in off the street!”

  He flopped back, splaying a hand over his chest. “I still can’t believe it. Mrs. K was, naturally, very upset, and demanded to see you. Then I had to tell her you weren’t with us any longer. And the doo-doo hit the fan. Big time.”

  “She asked for me? That’s so sweet.”

  “It gets sweeter. Pamela came down. And they got into it. Boy, did they. Mrs. K asking how an item on hold for her could be sold. Pamela getting snippy and says how it’s not gallery policy to hold a piece without a cash deposit. Can you imagine?”

  “Cash deposit?” Horrified, Malory could only goggle. “From one of our oldest and most reliable clients?”

  “Exactly! Then Mrs. K’s all, Well, I’ve been patronizing The Gallery for fifteen years, and my word has always been good enough. And where is James? And Pamela’s, I beg your pardon, but I’m in charge here. And Mrs. K shoots back that if James has put a moron in charge he’s obviously gone senile.”

  “Oh, go, Mrs. K!”

  “Meanwhile, Julia runs into the back and calls James to let him know there’s a big, fat problem. Pamela and Mrs. K are practically coming to blows over the bronze when he comes rushing in. He’s trying to calm them both down, but they’re too into it. Mrs. K’s saying she won’t deal with this woman. I loved the way she said it. This woman. It sang. And Pamela’s saying The Gallery’s a business and can hardly run on one customer’s whim.”

  “Oh, my God.”

  “James is frantic, promising Mrs. K he’ll sort all this out, but she’s furious. Her face is positively puce. She tells him she won’t set foot in the place again as long as that woman is associated with The Gallery. And, you’ll love this—if he let a jewel like Malory Price slip through his fingers he deserves to go out of business. And with that she sails out the door.”

  “She called me a jewel.” Delighted, Malory hugged herself. “I love her. This is good stuff, Tod. It’s really started my day off on a high note.”

  “There’s even more. James is pissed. When’s the last time you’ve seen James pissed?”

  “Um. Never.”

  “Bingo.” Tod punched a finger in the air. “He was pale as a sheet, his mouth was all tight and grim. And he told Pamela between clenched teeth”—Tod clamped his together to demonstrate—“ ‘I need to speak with you, Pamela. Upstairs.’ ”

  “What did she say?”

  “Well, she stormed up, and he went behind her. Then he closed the door, which was very disappointing. I couldn’t hear much of what he said, even though I went up and lurked around hoping to. But you could hear her clearly enough when she started raging. I’m making something out of this place, she tells him. You said I was in charge. I’m tired of having Malory Price thrown in my face every time I turn around. Why the hell didn’t you marry her instead of me?”

  “Oh.” Malory thought about that scenario for a couple of seconds. “Eeuuw.”

  “Then she started crying, saying she was working so hard and nobody appreciated her. And she ran out. I barely scrambled away in time. It was all so exhausting, yet oddly exhilarating.”

  “Crying? Damn it.” A little worm of sympathy crawled into Malory’s chest. “Were they I’m-really-hurt-and-sad tears, or were they just I’m-really-pissed-off tears?”

  “Pissed-off tears.”

  “Okay, then.” She squashed the worm without mercy. “I’m probably going to hell, right, for getting such a charge out of all this?”

  “We’ll get a nice little condo together. But while we’re still shuffling on this mortal coil, I think James is going to ask you to come back. In fact, Mal, I’m sure of it.”

  “Really?” Her heart gave a quick leap. “What did he say?”

  “It’s not so much what he said, as what he didn’t say. He didn’t go running after the weeping Pamela to dry her beady eyes. In fact, he stayed for the rest
of the day, going over accounts. And he looked grim when he left. Absolutely grim. I’d say Pamela’s reign of terror is at an end.”

  “This is a good day.” Malory let out a long sigh. “A really good day.”

  “And I’ve got to get started on it. Not to worry,” he said as he got up. “I’ll keep you updated with bulletins. Meanwhile, the painting you were wondering about? The portrait?”

  “The what? Oh, yes. What about it?”

  “Remember how we both thought there was something familiar about it? It came to me. Do you remember, about five years ago, the oil on canvas, unsigned? Young Arthur of Britain, on the verge of drawing Excalibur from an altar of stone?”

  Chilly fingers brushed the nape of her neck as the painting floated into her mind. “My God. I remember. Of course I remember. The color, the intensity, the way the light pulsed around the sword.”

  “Definitely the same style and school as the one you showed me. Might be the same artist.”

  “Yes . . . yes, it might. How did we acquire it? Through an estate, wasn’t it? In Ireland. James went to Europe for several weeks to acquire. That was the best piece he brought back with him. Who bought it?”

  “Even my razor-sharp memory has its limits, but I looked it up. Julia sold it to Jordan Hawke. The writer? Local boy, or was. Lives in New York now, I think.”

  Her stomach did a long, slow roll. “Jordan Hawke.”

  “Maybe you can contact him through his publisher if you want to talk to him about the painting. Well, got to run, sugarplum.” He leaned down to give her a kiss. “Let me know the minute James calls you to grovel. I want all the deets.”

  THERE were half a dozen people at keyboards and phones when Malory reached the third level of the Dispatch, where Flynn had his office. She saw him immediately, through the glass walls.

  He paced back and forth in front of a desk, tipping a bright silver Slinky from one hand to the other. And appeared to be holding a conversation with himself.

  She wondered how he could stand the lack of privacy while he worked, that constant sensation of being on display. And the noise, she thought. With all the clacking, ringing, talking, and beeping, she would go mad trying to formulate a single creative thought.

  She wasn’t sure whom to speak with. No one looked particularly like an assistant or secretary. And despite the retro toy that Flynn was currently playing with, it suddenly dawned on Malory that he was a busy man. An important man. Not a man she should pop in on without notice.

  As she stood, undecided, Flynn sat on the corner of his desk, pouring the Slinky from right hand to left and back again. His hair was mussed, as if he’d spent some time playing with it before he’d gotten hold of the toy.

  He wore a dark green shirt tucked into casual khakis and very possibly the oldest athletic shoes she’d ever seen.

  There was a quick tingle in her belly, followed by a helpless little thud just under her heart.

  It was all right to be attracted to him, she told herself. That was acceptable. But she couldn’t let this move to the level it was headed for so quickly. That wasn’t smart, it wasn’t safe. It wasn’t even . . .

  Then he looked out through the glass, his eyes meeting hers for one fast, hot beat before he smiled. And the tingle, the thud, became more intense.

  He flicked his wrist and the Slinky fell back into itself, then he gave her a
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