Key of valor, p.14
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       Key of Valor, p.14

         Part #3 of Key series by Nora Roberts
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  A homey send-off, he thought, and one he could get used to. He wrapped his arms around her, pulled her close, then took the kiss several layers deeper.

  Her eyes were blurry when he let her go—something else, he decided, that he could get used to. “Thanks for breakfast. See you later.”

  She waited until he’d strolled out before she let out a long breath. “Wow. That oughta hold me.”

  A glance at the stove clock had her moving quickly to put the kitchen back in order. It was time, she thought, to get to those errands.

  Or rather, to start down the path she’d decided to take first.

  Armed with her chart and her notes, she got in her car and drove toward her past.

  Maybe this was part of the quest, she decided, dealing with and understanding the past while building a future. Or maybe it was just something she had to do to understand the route to the key.

  Either way, she was heading to what had once been home.

  She’d traveled these roads before, Zoe remembered, but always with some reluctance and not a little guilt. This time, she hoped, she was heading toward discovery.

  THE hills were almost colorless now, just the drab grays of denuded trees, the dull, dead browns of fallen leaves. And those trees speared up into a dreary November sky.

  She turned onto the back roads, following the winding, narrow ribbon through fallow fields, past little houses planted on tiny lawns.

  Every mile took her back.

  She’d walked this road, many times. Early mornings when she’d missed the school bus because she’d been unable to get everything done in time. She had run across that field, a shortcut, and could remember how green it had smelled in early summer.

  Sometimes she’d raced across the field when she sneaked out to meet James, raced with her heart flying in front of her in the soft spring air to where he’d parked on the side of the road to wait for her.

  The fireflies had danced in the dark; the high grass had tickled her bare legs. She’d believed everything was possible then, if you only wanted it hard enough.

  Now she knew the only things that were possible were what you worked for. And even when you did, they could slip away from you.

  She pulled to the side of the road, not far from where a boy had waited for her. And ducking through the wire fence, she walked across the fallow field toward the woods.

  They’d been her woods as a child. Her forest, full of quiet and secrets and magic. They’d been hers still as she’d grown older. A place to walk, to think, to plan.

  And it was there, she believed, on a red blanket spread over pine needles and crunching leaves, that she’d conceived the child who had changed the course of her life.

  There were still paths beaten through the trees, she noted. So there were still children who played here, or women who walked, men who hunted. It hadn’t really changed. Maybe that was the point. The forest didn’t change, not as quickly, not as overtly, as what and who walked in it.

  She stood still for a moment, breathing in the quiet, the November scents of rot and damp. Trying not to think, she let her instincts choose her direction.

  Loss and despair, joy and light. She’d known all of those here. Blood from the loss of innocence? Fear of the consequences, hope that love would be enough?

  She sat on a fallen log and tried to visualize the roads of her life that led from here, and the key that waited on one of them.

  She heard the tap of a woodpecker, and the sigh of wind through empty branches.

  And then she saw the white buck standing, watching her with eyes of sapphire blue.

  “Oh, my God.” She sat where she was, afraid to move. Afraid to breathe.

  Both Malory and Dana had seen a white deer, she remembered, what Jordan had called a traditional element of a quest. But they’d seen the buck at Warrior’s Peak, not in a narrow strip of West Virginia woods.

  “This means I was right, I was supposed to come here. It must mean I’m right. But what do you want me to do? I want to help. I’m trying to help.”

  The buck turned his head and walked away down the rough path. With her knees trembling, Zoe rose to follow.

  Had she once dreamed of this? she wondered. Not this exact thing, not of following the path of a white buck, but of magic and wonder and the wish to do something important.

  Dreamed, she admitted, of doing something that would take her away from here, away from the tedium and the despair of not being able to see the world beyond these woods.

  Had she looked to James for that? Had she loved him, or simply seen him as an escape?

  She stopped, pressed a hand to her heart in a kind of shock. “I don’t know,” she whispered. “I really don’t know.”

  The buck looked back at her, then gathered himself, leaped over the rocky banks of a small creek, and bounded away.

  Hoping that she understood, Zoe took the left fork, walked out of the woods and onto the packed gravel of the trailer park.

  Like the woods, it had changed little. Different faces, perhaps, different units here and there. But it was still lined with homes that would never grow roots.

  She heard radios, televisions—the hum and blare of them dancing out of windows—the sound of a baby crying in short, fitful wails, and the gun of an engine as someone drove out of the park.

  Her mother’s place was a dull, pale green, with a white metal awning over the side door. The car parked next to it had a dented fender.

  She hadn’t taken the summer screen off the door yet, Zoe noted. It would make a harsh squeaking sound when you opened it, a slapping sound as you let it go. She climbed the stacked cinder blocks her mother used as steps, and knocked.

  “Come on in. I’m setting up.”

  The screen squeaked as Zoe opened it, and the inner door stuck a bit as she turned the knob. She gave it a little shove, and let the screen slap closed behind her as she went inside.

  Her mother was in the kitchen, where she made her living. The short counter by the stove was crowded with bottles, bowls, a plastic box full of colorful rods for setting a perm, a stack of hair towels, frayed at the ends from countless washings.

  The coffeepot was on, and a cigarette smoked in an ashtray of green glass.

  She looked too thin, was Zoe’s first thought, as if life had carved her down to the bare essentials. She wore snug jeans and a skinny black top that only emphasized the sharp angles. Her hair was cut short, and she was wearing it in a hot red these days.

  Her bedroom slippers scuffed the floor as she poured coffee with her back to the door. And were worn, Zoe knew, for comfort.

  She was setting up to do a perm, and would be on her feet for a while.

  The television across in the living area was tuned to one of the morning talk shows that seemed to thrive on anger and grief.

  “You’re running early or I’m running late,” Crystal said. “I haven’t had my second cup of coffee yet.”


  Mug in hand, Crystal turned.

  She’d made up her face already, Zoe noted. Her lips were red, her lashes thick with mascara. Despite the cosmetics, her skin looked tired and old.

  “Well, hell, look what the wind blew in.” Crystal lifted the mug and drank as her gaze slid past her daughter. “You bring the boy?”

  “No. Simon’s in school.”

  “Nothing wrong with him?”

  “No, he’s doing fine.”

  “With you?”

  “No, Mama.” She stepped over, kissed Crystal’s cheek. “I had something I had to do out this way, and I thought I’d come see you. You’ve got an appointment coming?”

  “ ’Bout twenty minutes.”

  “Can I have some coffee?”

  “Help yourself.” Crystal scratched her cheek as she watched Zoe reach overhead for another mug. “You just happened to have business out here? I thought you were starting your big fancy place over there in Pennsylvania.”

  “I am, though I don’t know if I’d call it big and
fancy.” She kept her voice upbeat and struggled to overlook the suspicion, and the criticism, in her mother’s. “Maybe you could drive over sometime and take a look. We should be open in just a few more weeks.”

  Crystal said nothing. Zoe hadn’t expected her to. She just picked up the cigarette and took a long drag.

  “How’s everybody?”

  “Getting on.” Crystal shrugged a shoulder. “Junior’s still working for the phone company, doing right well. He knocked up that woman he lives with.”

  Zoe’s cup clattered against the counter. “Junior’s going to be a daddy?”

  “Seems like he is. Says he’s gonna marry her. I expect she’ll make his life a misery.”

  “Donna’s all right, Mama. They’ve been together more than a year now. They’re going to have a baby,” Zoe said softly, and smiled at the idea of her baby brother being a father. “Junior was always good with babies. He’s got a gentle way with them.”

  “Like a baby’s just gonna make everything all peaches and cream. ’Least Joleen’s not looking to start popping them out right off.”

  Determined, Zoe kept the smile on her face. “Are she and Denny settling in all right?”

  “They both got work and a roof over their heads, so they got nothing to complain about.”

  “That’s good. And Mazie?”

  “Don’t hear from her much now she’s got that place of her own down in Cascade. Thinks she’s pretty high and mighty since she went to business school and works in an office.”

  What made you so sour? Zoe wondered. What turned you so hard? “You should be proud, Mama. Proud that all four of your children are making their way. You gave us the means to.”

  “Don’t see any of them coming around here thanking me for working my ass off more’n twenty-five years so they could have food in their bellies and clothes on their backs.”

  “I’m here to thank you for it.”

  Crystal let out a snort. “What do you want?”

  “I don’t want anything. Mama—”

  “You couldn’t get away from here fast enough. Nothing was ever good enough for Queen Zoe. Got yourself pregnant from that highfalutin Marshall boy thinking you’d buy your way into the good life. He shook you off right quick, didn’t he, and what’d you do but take off hoping to land in another pot of gold.”

  “Some of that’s true,” Zoe said calmly, “and some of it isn’t. I wanted to get away from here, I wanted something better. I’m not ashamed of that. But I never thought of my baby as a ticket to a better ride. I worked hard for you, Mama, and I worked hard for Simon and for myself. And I made something. I’m still making something.”

  “That don’t make you better. That don’t make you special.”

  “I think it does. I think it makes me better than the people who don’t buckle down and take care of their own. That’s what you did. You took care of your own, the best you could, and that makes you special. I know how hard it is to raise a child,” she continued while Crystal stared at her. “How hard, and how scary it is to raise that child, and worry about him and work to figure out how to pay the bills and just keep it all going with nobody to help.”

  Another car started up, with a frantic backfire. “I only have Simon, and there were times I just didn’t know what I was going to do next, times when I didn’t know how I’d make it to the next morning, much less the next week. You did it with four of us. I’m sorry if I made you feel I didn’t appreciate it. Maybe I didn’t appreciate it enough when it was going on. I’d like to thank you for it now.”

  Crystal stubbed out her cigarette, folded her arms across her chest. “You pregnant again?”

  “No.” With a laugh, Zoe rubbed her hands over her face. “No, Mama.”

  “You just stop in here, out of the blue, to say thanks?”

  “I can’t say I knew that’s what I had in mind when I got up this morning, but yes. I just want to say thanks.”

  “You always were a strange one. Well, you said it. Now I’ve got a customer coming in.”

  Zoe let out a little sigh of defeat and set her coffee mug in the sink. “I’ll see you Christmas, then.”

  “Zoe,” Crystal said as she turned for the door. After a brief hesitation, Crystal stepped over, gave Zoe an awkward hug. “You always were a strange one,” she repeated, then walked back to the counter and began separating rods.

  With tears pricking her eyes, Zoe stepped out, let the screen door slap shut behind her. “ ’Bye, Mama,” she mumbled, and walked back toward the woods.

  She didn’t know if she’d accomplished anything more than a kind of backtracking, but it felt right—just as the brief, self-conscious hug from her mother had felt right. She’d taken a step toward healing a personal wound, and finding the key.

  She had to understand herself, didn’t she? She had to understand why she’d made the choices she’d made, and where they had led her, before she would understand what choice she had to make to find the key.

  Eager to move forward, she hurried down the path. She would drive to Morgantown, go by the rooms she’d rented, go by the salon and the store where she’d worked, the hospital where Simon was born. Maybe there was unfinished business there, too, something to resolve, something to see.

  She’d lived there nearly six years, the first years of her son’s life. But she hadn’t forged any strong ties. Why was that? She’d been friendly with the people she’d worked with, had spent time with her neighbors and a couple of other young mothers.

  She’d had relationships with two men while she’d lived there, men she liked. But it was all so transient.

  Because, she realized, that had never been her place. It hadn’t been a destination but a stopping-off point.

  She hadn’t known it then, but she’d been heading to the Valley. To Malory and Dana. To the Peak, to the key.

  Had she been heading to Bradley, too, and was he to be as essential to her life as the rest?

  Or was he just another crossroads, there to lead her from one point to the next?

  Move forward, she told herself. Move forward and see.

  She checked her watch, measuring the time it would take her to drive, to spend the time she needed in Morgantown, then get home again.

  She should be able to manage it and still get back before Simon got home from school. But she should stop and call, just in case. She should let Dana and Malory know she wouldn’t be in to work.

  She would go in early the next day to make it up, and she could work that night on the slipcovers for the sofa, maybe swing by HomeMakers at some point the next day and pick up the shelving she wanted. If she could get that together, and the next shipment of her supplies came as scheduled, she could . . .

  Her busy thoughts trailed off as she stopped and turned in a circle.

  She’d detoured off the path, she realized, which served her right for letting her mind wander. The undergrowth was thicker here, and armed with thorns that would play hell with her pants and jacket if she wasn’t careful.

  She looked up to try to judge her direction by the sun, but the sky had gone to pewter, with a few angry clouds crawling across the dull plate of it.

  She would just go back the way she’d come for a bit, she decided. It hardly mattered, as the woods were no wider than a football field, creating a wedge between the field and the trailer court.

  Annoyed with herself, she stuffed her hands in her pockets and started back. The air had chilled while she walked, and the scent it carried was more of snow than rain. She walked quickly, in a hurry to be on her way as much as to keep warm.

  The trees looked bigger, closer together than they should have, and the shadows much too long for so early in the day. There was no tapping woodpecker now, no rustling from squirrels running about their business. The woods had gone quiet as a tomb.

  She stopped again, baffled that she should be so disoriented in a place where she’d run tame as a child. Things changed, of course, everything changed. But hadn’t it struck her when sh
e’d come into it how little this place had changed?

  Her stomach dropped as she stared down at the long, deep shadows crossing her path.

  How could there be shadows when there was no sun to cast them?

  As the first flakes of snow fell, she heard the low, throaty growl from deeper in the trees.

  Her first thought was bear. There were still bear in these hills. As a child she remembered seeing their tracks and their droppings. Once in a while they would wander into the court at night and bang around in the garbage if it hadn’t been stored properly.

  Even as her heart fluttered at the base of her throat, she ordered herself to be calm. A bear wasn’t interested in her. She had no food, she posed no threat.

  She simply had to get back to the court, or out to the field and her car.

  She walked backward for a time, scanning the trees in the direction of the growl. And began to wade through a creeping fog that was edged with blue.

  Turning on her heel, she walked quickly now through the thickly falling snow, and dug in her back pocket for her penknife.

  As weapons went, it was pitiful, but she felt better with it in her hand.

  She heard the growl again, closer, and on the other side. She quickened her pace to a jog and gripped her shoulder bag with her free hand. It had weight and a long strap. It could suit up as another weapon if necessary.

  She set her teeth to keep them from chattering. Around her the snow fell so fast and hard, it filled in her footprints almost as soon as they formed.

  Whatever stalked her matched her pace, turned as she turned. It had her scent, she knew. Just as she had its—strong and wild.

  Briars seemed to spring up, straight out of the ground fog to block her path, with stems thick as her wrist, with thorns that glinted like razors.

  “It isn’t real. It’s not real,” she chanted, but those thorns tore at clothes and flesh as she fought through them.

  And now she smelled her own fear, and her own blood.

  A vine whipped up like a snake to wrap around her ankle and send her face-first onto the ground.

  Panting, she rolled onto her back. And saw it.

  Perhaps it was a bear, but not one that had ever wandered these woods or foraged for food in the garbage.

  It was black as the mouth of hell, with eyes of poisonous red. When it snarled, she saw teeth long and sharp as sabers. As she hacked desperately at the vine with her pocketknife, it rose on its hind legs and blocked out the world.

  “You son of a bitch. You son of a bitch.” Tearing free of the vine, she sprang to her feet and began to run.

  It would kill her. Tear her to pieces.

  She sucked in the breath to scream as she darted left, and let one rip. She heard its answering call behind her, and it sounded like laughter.

  Not real, not true, she thought frantically, but deadly all the same. It toyed with her, wanting her fear first, and then . . .

  She was not going to die here. Not this way, not on the run. She was not going to leave her child without a mother to satisfy and amuse some hell-bent god.

  She bent down, scooped up a fallen branch on the fly, then spinning around, she held the branch like a club and bared her own teeth.

  “Come on, you bastard. Come on, then.”

  She held her breath and reared back as it lunged.

  The buck came out of nowhere, one high leap out of the air. The rack speared into the bear’s side, gored it. The sound of rending flesh and the furious howl was horrible. Blood gushed, splattering red over white as it turned to swipe the buck with those vicious claws.

  The buck made a sound that was almost human as his white flank bloomed with blood, but he charged again, rack to claw, pivoting to range his body in front of
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