Key of light, p.15
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       Key of Light, p.15

         Part #1 of Key series by Nora Roberts
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  come-ahead gesture with his free hand.

  She wound her way through the desks and the din. When she stepped through the open office door, she saw with some relief that he hadn’t been talking to himself, but on a speakerphone.

  Out of habit, she closed the door behind her, then looked toward the sound of heroic snoring to see Moe sprawled belly-up between two filing cabinets.

  What did you do about a man who brought his big, silly dog to work with him? she wondered. Maybe more to the point, how did you resist such a man?

  Flynn held up a finger to signal one more minute, so she took the time to study his work area. There was a huge corkboard on one wall, jammed with notes, articles, photographs, and phone numbers. Her fingers itched to organize it, as well as the maze of papers on his desk.

  Shelves were full of books, several of which seemed to be law and medical journals. There were phone books for a number of Pennsylvania counties, books of famous quotations, movie and music guides.

  In addition to the Slinky, he had a yo-yo and a number of warlike action figures. There were several plaques and awards—to the paper and to Flynn personally, stacked together as if he hadn’t gotten around to hanging them. She didn’t know where she would have hung them either, as what little wall space he had was taken up by the corkboard and an equally large wall calendar for the month of September.

  She turned around when he ended the call. Then stepped back as he moved toward her.

  He stopped. “Problem?”

  “No. Maybe. Yes.”

  “Pick one,” he suggested.

  “I got a tingle in my stomach when I saw you in here.”

  His grin spread. “Thanks.”

  “No. No. I don’t know if I’m ready for that. I have a lot on my mind. I didn’t come here to talk about that, but see—I’m already distracted.”

  “Hold that thought,” he told her when his phone rang again. “Hennessy. Uh-huh. Uh-huh. When? No, that’s no problem,” he continued and scribbled on a pad that he unearthed from the rubble. “I’ll take care of it.”

  He hung up, then unplugged the phone. “It’s the only way to kill the beast. Tell me more about this tingle.”

  “No. I don’t know why I told you in the first place. I’m here about Jordan Hawke.”

  “What about him?”

  “He bought a painting from The Gallery about five years ago—”

  “A painting? Are we talking about the same Jordan Hawke?”

  “Yes. It’s of young Arthur about to draw the sword from the stone. I think—I’m nearly sure—it’s by the same artist as the painting at Warrior’s Peak and the one your other friend owns. I need to see it again. It was years ago, and I want to be sure I’m remembering the details of it correctly and not just adding them in because it’s convenient.”

  “If you’re right, it’s an awfully big coincidence.”

  “If I’m right, it’s not a coincidence at all. There’s a purpose to it. To all of it. Can you get in touch with him?”

  Because his mind was racing through the details and possibilities, Flynn filled his hands with the Slinky again. “Yeah. If he’s traveling, it might take a while, but I’ll track him down. I didn’t know Jordan had ever been in The Gallery.”

  “His name’s not on our client list, so I’m assuming this was a one-shot deal. To my mind, that only makes it more important.”

  Excitement rose in her throat and bubbled out in her voice. “Flynn, I nearly bought that painting myself. It was beyond my budget at the time, but I was doing some creative math to justify the purchase. It was sold on my morning off, just before I was planning to go to James to ask him if I could buy it on a payment plan. I have to believe all this means something.”

  “I’ll get in touch with Jordan. My take would be he bought it for somebody. He’s not much on stuff, unlike Brad. He tends to travel light and keep the acquisitions to a minimum.”

  “I need to see the painting again.”

  “Got that. I’m on it. I’ll find out what I can today and fill you in over dinner tonight.”

  “No, that’s not a good idea. It’s a really, really bad idea.”

  “Dinner’s a bad idea? People have embraced the concept of the evening meal throughout history. There’s documentation.”

  “Us having dinner is the bad part. I need to slow things down.”

  He set the toy down. He shifted his body, and when she would have countered to keep that distance between them, he grabbed her hand, tugged her forward. “Somebody rushing you?”

  “More like something.” Her pulse began to skip—in her wrists, in her throat, even at the back of her suddenly shaky knees. There was something about that cool calculation that came into his eyes, the sort that reminded her he tended to think two or three steps ahead. “Look, this is my problem, not yours, and . . . Stop,” she ordered when his free hand cupped the back of her neck. “This is hardly the place for—”

  “They’re reporters.” He inclined his head toward the glass wall between his office and the newsroom. “As such, they’re aware that I kiss women.”

  “I think I’m in love with you.”

  She felt his hand jerk, then go limp. She saw the amusement and purpose on his face slide into blank shock. And twin demons of hurt and temper stabbed at her heart.

  “There. Now I’ve made it your problem too.” She pushed back from him—a simple matter, as he was no longer touching her.


  “I don’t want to hear it. I don’t need to hear you tell me it’s too soon, too fast, you’re not looking for this level of a relationship. I’m not stupid. I know all the brush-off lines. And I wouldn’t be in this position right now if you’d taken no for an answer in the first place.”

  “Wait a minute now.” Panic washed over his face, into his voice. “Let’s take a second here.”

  “Take a second.” Mortification was quickly outweighing the hurt and the anger. “Take a week. Take the rest of your life. Just take it someplace where I’m not.”

  She stormed out of his office. Since bloodcurdling terror still had a grip on him, he didn’t consider going after her.

  In love with him? She wasn’t supposed to fall in love with him. She was supposed to let him seduce her into bed, be sensible enough to keep things simple. She was supposed to be careful and practical and smart enough to keep him from falling in love with her.

  He’d worked it all out, and now she was messing up the plan. He’d made himself very specific promises when his engagement had fallen apart. The first of which was to be sure he didn’t put himself in that position again—a position where he was vulnerable to someone else’s whims and wishes. To the point that his own ended up shattered around him.

  His life was nothing like he’d thought it would be. Women—his mother, Lily—had shifted the lines on him. But damn it, he liked his life now.

  “Women.” Disgusted, he dropped into the chair behind his desk. “There’s no figuring them.”

  “MEN. They want everything their way.”

  Dana lifted her glass of wine in Malory’s direction. “Sing it, sister.”

  Hours after she’d stalked out of Flynn’s office, Malory was soothing her wounded pride with a nice Pinot Grigio, female companionship, and salon treatments in the comfort of her own home.

  There were a number of things to discuss, but she couldn’t think about paintings and keys and destiny until she’d vented her spleen.

  “I don’t care if he is your brother. He’s still a man.”

  “He is.” Dana looked mournfully into her wine. “I’m sorry to say, but he is. Have some more potato chips.”

  “I will.” With her hair pulled back from a face coated with a green-clay refining mask, Malory sipped and munched. She studied the folds of tinfoil Zoe was layering in Dana’s hair. “Maybe I should have highlights too.”

  “You don’t need them,” Zoe told her and painted another section of Dana’s hair. “You need shaping.”
  “Shaping involves scissors.”

  “You won’t even know I’ve cut it, except it’ll look and feel better.”

  “Let me drink a little more first. And see how it looks after you’ve whacked at Dana’s.”

  “Don’t say ‘whack’ in a sentence about my hair,” Dana cautioned. “Are you going to tell us what you and Flynn fought about?”

  Malory sniffed. “He just wants sex. Typical.”

  “Pig.” Dana reached into the chip bowl. “I really miss sex.”

  “Me too.” Zoe set another square of foil. “Not just the sex part, but the leading up to it and the coming down from it parts. The excitement and the nerves and the anticipation beforehand. Then all that skin and movement and discovery during, and the full and floating feeling after. I miss that a lot.”

  “I need another drink.” Malory reached for the bottle. “I haven’t had sex in four months.”

  “Got that beat.” Dana raised her hand. “Seven and a half and counting.”

  “Sluts,” Zoe said with a laugh. “Try a year and a half.”

  “Oh, ouch.” Dana took the bottle, topped off her glass and Zoe’s. “No, thanks all the same, but I don’t think I want to try a year and a half of celibacy.”

  “It’s not so bad if you keep busy. You’re set for a while.” Zoe patted Dana on the shoulder. “Just relax while I take off Malory’s mask.”

  “Whatever you do to me, make sure I’m gorgeous. I want Flynn to suffer the next time he sees me.”


  “It’s really sweet of you to do all this.”

  “I like it. It’s good practice.”

  “Don’t say ‘practice’ when I’ve got a headful of tinfoil,” Dana complained around a mouthful of chips.

  “It’s going to be great,” Zoe assured her. “I want to have a full-service salon, and I need to be sure I can handle all the treatments I want to offer. I looked at this wonderful building today.”

  Her face went wistful as she cleaned and blotted Malory’s skin. “It’s way too big for what I need, but it was just great. Two stories with a big attic space. A frame house right on the border of business and residential on Oak Leaf Drive. It’s got a wonderful covered porch, even a garden in the back where you could set tables and benches. High ceilings, solid hardwood floors that need work. The rooms all sort of tumble into each other on the first floor. A really nice flow of space that keeps it all intimate.”

  “I didn’t know you were looking at houses,” Malory said.

  “I’m just looking. This is the first place I’ve seen that caught at me. You know?”

  “Yeah, I know. If it’s too big, and you really love it, maybe you could get somebody to take part of it for another business.”

  With the mask removed, Zoe began to stroke on a moisturizer. “I thought of that. Actually, I have this wild idea. Don’t tell me I’m crazy until I finish. Each of us said what we really wanted was to have our own place.”

  “Oh, but—”

  “Not till I’m finished.” Zoe cut Malory off as she dabbed on eye cream. “The lower floor has two wonderful bow windows. Perfect for displays. There’s a central hall, and on each side are those nice rooms. If someone was interested in opening a tasteful gallery for art and local crafts, she couldn’t find a better place. At the same time, on the other side of that hall there’s a wonderful set of parlors that would make a terrific bookstore, with room for a hip little bistro or tearoom.”

  “I didn’t hear anything about a salon in there,” Dana pointed out, but she was listening.

  “Upstairs. When someone comes in to get her hair or nails done, or enjoy any number of our wonderful treatments and services, she’ll have to pass by the gallery and the bookstore, coming and going. Perfect time to select that lovely gift for Aunt Mary, or pick up a book to read while she’s being combed out. Maybe even have a nice glass of wine or cup of tea before heading home. It’s all there, in one fabulous setting.”

  “You really have been thinking,” Malory murmured.

  “I sure have. I even have a name for it. ‘Indulgence.’ People need to indulge themselves from time to time. We could do packages and cross-promotions. I know it’s a big idea, especially when we haven’t known each other very long. But I think it could work. I think it could be great. Just look at it before you say no.”

  “I’d like to see it,” Dana said. “I’m miserable at work. And what’s the point of being miserable?”

  Malory could almost see the energy and enthusiasm for the idea pumping off Zoe in waves. There were a dozen rational comments she could make to point out why it wasn’t just a big idea but a messy one.

  She didn’t have the heart to do that, but she felt obliged to ease carefully back. “I don’t want to muck things up, but I’m pretty sure I’m going to be asked to come back to The Gallery. In fact, my old boss called this afternoon and asked if I’d come in and speak with him tomorrow.”

  “Oh. Well. That’s great.” Zoe stepped behind Malory’s chair, began to run her fingers through Malory’s hair to get a feel for the weight and the lines. “I know you love working there.”

  “It was like home.” Malory lifted a hand, covered one of Zoe’s. “I’m sorry. It did sound like a good idea. A fun one, but—”

  “Don’t worry about it.”

  “Hey.” Dana waved a hand. “Remember me? I’m still interested. I can take a look at the place tomorrow. Maybe we can make it work between the two of us.”

  “Great. Mal, let’s wet down your hair.”

  She felt too guilty to argue, and with her hair dampened, she sat stoically while Zoe snipped.

  “I’d better tell you both why I went by the newspaper this morning to see Flynn, to whom I’m no longer speaking.”

  Zoe continued to snip as she told them about the painting in The Gallery and her belief that it was done by the same artist.

  “You’ll never guess who bought it,” she continued. “Jordan Hawke.”

  “Jordan Hawke?” Dana all but squeaked. “Goddamn it, now I want chocolate. You must have some.”

  “Emergency supply, deli drawer of the fridge. What’s the problem?”

  “We were semi-involved a million years ago. Damn it, damn it, damn it,” Dana repeated as she yanked open the drawer and found two bars of Godiva. “Godiva’s your emergency chocolate?”

  “Why not have the best when you’re feeling your worst?”

  “Good point.”

  “You were involved with Jordan Hawke?” Zoe wanted to know. “Romantically?”

  “It was years ago, when I was still young and stupid.” Dana unwrapped the bar, took a big bite. “Bad breakup, he took off. End of story. Bastard, creep, asshole.” She took another bite. “Okay, I’m done.”

  “I’m sorry, Dana. If I’d known . . . Well, I don’t know what I’d have done. I need to see the painting.”

  “Doesn’t matter. I’m over him. I’m so over him.” But she picked up the chocolate bar again, had another bite.

  “I have to say something, and you might want the second emergency bar after I do. I can’t buy coincidence on this. I can’t rationalize it all. The three of us—and Flynn, your brother. Now Flynn’s two best friends. And one of those friends is a former lover of yours. That makes a very tight circle.”

  Dana stared at her. “Just let me go on record as saying I really hate that part. Do you have another bottle of this wine?”

  “I do. Rack above the fridge.”

  “I’ll either walk home or call Flynn to pick me up. But I’m planning on being toasted by the time I leave.”

  “I’ll drive you home,” Zoe offered. “Go ahead and get toasted—as long as you’re ready to leave by ten.”

  “YOUR hair looks fabulous.” Swaying a little from trying to keep Dana company with wine consumption, Malory waved her fingers at Dana’s new hair.

  The subtle blond highlights accented Dana’s dusky skin tone and dark eyes. And as a result of whatever els
e Zoe’s magic fingers had done, the long, straight sweep looked sleeker, glossier.

  “I’ll have to take your word. I’m pretty blind.”

  “Mine looks fabulous too. Zoe, you’re a genius.”

  “Yes, I am.” Flushed with success, Zoe nodded at both of them. “Use that night cream sample I gave you for the next couple of days,” she told Malory. “Let me know what you think. Come on, Dana, let’s see if I can pour you into the car.”

  “ ’kay. I really like you guys.” With a drunk and sentimental smile, Dana threw her arms around each of them. “I can’t think of anybody I’d rather be in the big mess with. And when it’s over, we should have hair and drinking nights once a month. Like a book club.”

  “Good idea. ’Night, Mal.”

  “You want some help with her?”

  “Nope.” Zoe wrapped a supporting arm around Dana’s waist. “I’ve got her. I’m stronger than I look. I’ll call you tomorrow.”

  “Me too! Did I tell you Jordan Hawke is a jerk?”

  “Only about five hundred times.” Zoe guided Dana toward the car. “You can tell me again on the drive home.”

  Malory closed the door, carefully locked it, then wove her way to the bedroom. Unable to resist, she stood in front of the mirror and experimented with the new cut, tossing her hair, tilting her head at different angles.

  She couldn’t tell, not exactly, what Zoe had done, but whatever it was, it was right. Could be, she mused, it paid to keep her mouth shut for a change instead of directing the hairdresser’s every snip.

  Maybe she should feel guilty and drink wine every time she visited the salon.

  She could try the combination in other areas of her life. The dentist, ordering in restaurants, men. No, no, not men. She scowled at herself in the mirror. If you didn’t direct men, they directed you.

  Besides, she wasn’t going to think about men. She didn’t need men. She didn’t even like men at the moment.

  In the morning, she would spend an hour working on the puzzle of the key. Then she would dress, very carefully, very professionally. A suit, she decided. The dove gray with the white shell. No, no, the red. Yes, the red suit. Powerful and professional.

  She raced to the closet, scanned her wardrobe, which was arranged precisely according to function and color. With the red suit in hand, she danced back to the mirror, held it in front of her.

  “James,” she began, trying out a sympathetic yet aloof expression, “I’m so sorry to hear that The Gallery is going to hell in a handbasket without me. Come back? Well, I don’t know if that’s possible. I have several other offers. Oh, please, please, don’t grovel. It’s embarrassing.”

  She fluffed her hair. “Yes, I know Pamela is the devil. We all know that. Well, I suppose if things are that bad, I’ll have to help you out. Now, now, don’t cry. Everything’s going to be fine. Everything’s going to be perfect again. Just as it should be.”

  She snickered and, pleased that all would soon be right with her world again, turned away to prepare for bed.

  She undressed and lectured herself into putting her clothes away instead of just throwing them around the room. When she heard the knock on her front door, she was wearing only a white silk sleep shirt. Assuming it was one of her friends who’d forgotten something, she turned off the locks and opened the door.

  And blinked at a grim-faced Flynn.

  “I want to talk to you.”

  “Maybe I don’t want to talk to you,” she responded, trying to enunciate each word instead of slurring them together.

  “We need to work this out if we’re going to . . .” He took a good look at her, the wonderfully tumbled hair, the glowing face, the slim curves under clingy white silk. And the vague and glassy look of her eyes.

  “What? You’re drunk?”

  “I’m only half drunk, which is completely my business and my right. Your sister is fully drunk, but you’ve no cause for concern as Zoe, who is not in any way drunk, is driving her home.”

  “It takes countless beers or an entire bottle of wine to get Dana completely
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