Key of valor, p.16
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       Key of Valor, p.16

         Part #3 of Key series by Nora Roberts
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  “You can’t help it, and why should you? Besides, it suits you. It wouldn’t have suited her, and I needed to see her, to talk to her. There were things I needed to say that I couldn’t have said with you there. Or with Malory or Dana either. I needed to go back there for myself, and for the key. It was for me to do.”

  “What if you hadn’t gotten out again?”

  “I did. I’m not going to say I wasn’t scared when it all started to happen. I’ve never been so scared.” Instinctively, she rubbed her arms as if chilled. “It was like an ambush, the way everything changed, the way he came at me. It was almost like a storybook, and that’s what made it so frightening.”

  She looked past him now, back to where she’d been. “Lost in the woods, and being hunted by something . . . not human. But I fought back. That’s what I was supposed to do. In the end, I hurt him more than he hurt me.”

  “You beat him with a stick.”

  “It was bigger than a stick.” Her mouth curved a little as she saw the temper was easing on his face. “It was a good, sturdy branch about this thick.” She demonstrated by holding her hands apart. “And between being scared and spitting mad, I whaled the hell out of him. Of course I don’t know how it would’ve turned out if the buck hadn’t waded in. But I don’t have to, because he was there, and Kane was there. That tells me I did something right by being there.”

  “Don’t go back alone, Zoe. I’m asking you. I walked in here tonight fully intending to tell you. But I’m asking.”

  She picked up a cookie, broke it in two, then offered him half. “I was thinking I’d drive into Morgantown tomorrow, go by the place where I lived, where I worked, where Simon was born. Just see if that’s the next turn. If I could get going first thing in the morning, I could get back by around two, three at the latest, then squeak out a little time at the salon. Maybe you could go with me.”

  He simply pulled out his cell phone, punched in a number. “Dina, it’s Brad. Sorry to call you at home. I need you to clear my schedule for tomorrow.” He waited a beat. “Yeah, I know. Reschedule it, will you? I have some personal business to take care of, and it’s going to take most of the day. I should be able to swing in after three. Good. Thanks. ’Bye.”

  He clicked the phone off, tucked it away. “What time do you want to leave?”

  Oh, you are a very special man. “About quarter to eight? As soon as Simon goes to school.”

  “All right.” He bit into the cookie. “I guess you need to go back up, finish the sewing.”

  “Not just yet. I thought I’d take a break. Do you want to sit on the couch and neck while we pretend to watch TV?”

  He caressed her cheek. “I definitely do.”

  ZOE walked into Indulgence the next afternoon carting an enormous box. She dumped it inside the door and looked around.

  Malory and Dana had been busy in her absence. There were paintings on the walls, and what she recognized as a batik. The table she’d refinished stood along the short wall on the left of the door and held one of her candles, a tall teardrop-shaped paperweight of icy blown glass, and a trio of books tucked between bookends in the shape of more books.

  Someone had installed the new ceiling light and laid a pretty rug, dancing with poppies.

  Delight and guilt tangled inside her. She pushed up her sleeves, preparing to dive into work as she searched out her friends.

  She didn’t find them in Malory’s section, but her jaw dropped as she wandered through. It had been two days since she’d taken a look at the main level, but it didn’t seem possible so much could have been done in that time.

  Paintings, pencil sketches, sculptures, and framed prints decorated the walls. A tall, narrow case held a collection of glass art, a low, long one displayed colorful pottery. Rather than a counter for transactions, Malory had chosen an antique desk for the first showroom. She’d kept the counter in the second, where she would offer gift-wrapping services.

  There were shipping cartons yet to be opened, but it was clear that Malory’s vision was focused. Zoe smiled when she saw there was already a slim Christmas tree, with handcrafted ornaments hanging on the boughs.

  She circled around, moving through the kitchen and into Dana’s store.

  Books lined more than half the shelves. An old breakfront held teacups, coffee mugs, tins.

  All this, and she hadn’t been there to share in the fun or help with the work.

  Hearing the floor creak overhead, she dashed for the stairs and up them.

  “Where is everybody? I can’t believe what y’all got done while I . . .”

  She trailed off, stunned speechless when she saw her salon.

  “We couldn’t wait.” Dana swiped a hand over her cheek, then patted the chair she and Malory had just assembled. “We thought we’d have them all done before you got back. Just about made it.”

  Slowly, Zoe crossed the room, ran a hand over the cushy leather of one of her four styling chairs.

  “And they work. Look.” As Malory pumped her foot on the circle of chrome at the base of the chair, it rose. “It’s fun.”

  “Hey.” Dana dropped into the chair, spun it. “This is fun.”

  “They came,” was all Zoe could say.

  “Not only that, but look over there.” Malory pointed to the three glossy shampoo sinks. “They installed them this morning.” She dragged a dazed Zoe over, and turned on the water. “See? They work, too. It’s a beauty parlor.”

  “I can’t believe it.” Zoe sat on the floor, covered her face with her hands, and burst into tears.

  “Oh, honey.” Instantly, Malory untied the kerchief from her head and offered it as a hankie.

  “I have shampoo sinks. And chairs,” Zoe sobbed into the colorful square of cotton. “And—and you have paintings and statues and carved wooden boxes. Dana has books. Three months ago I had a lousy job working for a woman who didn’t even like me. Now I have chairs. You put them together for me.”

  “You refinished the table,” Malory countered.

  “And found the baker’s rack for the kitchen. Worked out all the track lighting, regrouted the bathrooms.” Dana bent down to pat Zoe’s head. “We’re in this together, Zoe.”

  “I know, I know, that’s just it.” She mopped her face. “It’s beautiful. All of it. I love it. I love you. I’m okay.”

  She sniffled, then let out a long breath. “God, I want to shampoo somebody.” Laughing now, she sprang up. “Who wants to go first?” At the shout from downstairs, she shook her head. “Shit. Forgot. That’s the boy from the flea market with my sofa. I paid him twenty dollars to haul it over here. I have to help him bring it up.”

  When she ran out, Malory turned to Dana. “She’s got a lot building inside there.”

  “Yeah, she does. I wonder if any of us considered the pressure there’d be on the one who went last. Then you add in how close we are to finishing this.” She held out her arms to encompass the salon. “She’s got to be ready to pop.”

  “Let’s make sure we’re there when she does.”

  They went down to lend a hand with the sofa. When it was in place, Malory stepped back, cocked her head.

  “Well . . . it’s nice and long. And . . .” She searched for something else positive to say about the dull brown object. “It has a nice high back.”

  “ ‘Ugly as homemade sin’ is the term you’re after,” Zoe supplied. “But just you wait.” She started to open the box she’d brought up with her, then stopped. “Go on downstairs till I’m done.”

  “Done what?” Dana kicked the couch lightly. “Burning it?”

  “Go on. Give me ten minutes.”

  “I think it’s going to take longer,” Malory warned.

  The minute she was alone Zoe set to work. If there was one thing she knew, she told herself, it was how to go about making silk purses out of sows’ ears.

  When the transformation was complete, she stepped back, hands on hips.

  And by God, she’d done it again. She went to the top o
f the stairs to call down.

  “Come on up. Tell me what you think and be honest.”

  “The burning idea wasn’t honest enough for you?” Dana asked. “Mal and I can do it for you if you’re running short of time. Don’t you have to get home for Simon?”

  “No. I’ll tell you about that after.” She grabbed Dana’s hand, then Malory’s, and pulled them back into the salon.

  “My God, Zoe. My God, it’s beautiful.” Astonished, Malory walked over to study the sofa. The dull brown lump was now a charming seat blooming with deep pink hydrangeas on a soft blue background. The cushions were plumped, and cheerful bows encircled the arms.

  “It’s more of a miracle,” was Dana’s take.

  “I want to make a couple of footstools, use the same fabric, or maybe one of the accent colors. Then I’m going to get some padded folding chairs and make covers for them—just a drape thing, like you see at weddings, with a bow on the back.”

  “Maybe you could knit me a new car while you’re at it,” Dana suggested.

  “It looks great, Zoe. Now are you going to sit down on it and tell us what happened today?”

  “I can’t sit yet. You sit. I want to see how somebody looks on it.”

  She wandered, studying the sofa from different angles. “It’s just the way I wanted it to look. Sometimes I get a little spooked, because everything’s going so right for me. And I start worrying that because it is, I’ll mess up with the key. I know how stupid that sounds.”

  “Not really,” Dana told her as she snuggled into the couch. “I tend to worry about what’s going to mess up when things are at their best.”

  “I thought—I hoped—that I might feel something by going back to Morgantown. I, well, we went by my old apartment, and the salon where I worked. The tattoo parlor. Even went into HomeMakers. But it wasn’t like yesterday. There wasn’t this sense of urgency or understanding.”

  She walked back to sit on the floor in front of the sofa. “It was good to see some of it again, to remember. But it didn’t grab at me. I lived there nearly six years, but it was—I realized it was like a transition. I never meant to stay. I worked there and I lived there, but my mind was always looking ahead.

  “To here, I guess,” she said quietly. “Where we were going to go, as soon as I could make it happen. Simon was born there, and that was the biggest thing in my life. But nothing else I did there, nothing else that happened to me there, was all that important. It was just . . . a gathering place.”

  “Then that’s what you found out,” Malory said. “The key isn’t there for you. If you hadn’t gone, spent the time looking, you wouldn’t know that.”

  “But I still don’t know where it is.” Frustrated, she tapped a fist on her knee. “There’s this sense inside me that I should be able to see, that I’ve got my head turned, just a little, in the wrong direction, and I’m worried that I’ll be going along, doing what I have to do just every day, and miss it because I don’t just turn my head and look in the right place.”

  “We all got discouraged, Zoe,” Dana reminded her. “We all looked in the wrong direction.”

  “You’re right. It’s just that so much is happening on this side, it makes what’s happening on the other seem so little. This place, and how I feel about it—how I feel about you. It’s so big. Then I think how am I supposed to pull this key out of the air—then the next minute I know I can. I know I can if I only look the right way.”

  “You’ve been back to where you started,” Malory reminded her. “And you’ve looked at where you waited, isn’t that a way to describe your time before coming here?”

  “I guess it is.”

  “Maybe you should look where you ended up. Where you are now.”

  “Here, you mean? Do you think it could be here, in this house?”

  “Maybe, or somewhere else important to you. Someplace you had, or will have, that moment of truth. That decision.”

  “All right.” Thoughtfully, Zoe nodded. “I’ll try to focus on that for a while. I’ll work here while Simon’s with Brad.”

  “Brad has Simon?” Dana echoed.

  “That’s the other thing.” She shot Dana a baffled look. “We’re coming back and I said something about picking him up from school, bringing him back here with me—trying to work out how I was going to manage this and that, and Brad says he’ll pick him up. Saying no, that’s all right, doesn’t make a damn bit of difference. He’ll pick him up at school, take him to HomeMakers for a bit, then over to his place, as it appears they’ve made some arrangement to play video baseball anyway. And why don’t I just do whatever I have to do, and he’ll drop Simon home about eight. Oh, and don’t worry about dinner,” she added with an airy wave of her hand. “They’ll order pizza.”

  “Is that a problem?” Malory asked.

  “Not a problem so much. It sure won’t be for Simon, and I could use the time. But I just don’t want to start depending on somebody. It’s just another way to get into trouble. I don’t want to start depending on him. I don’t want to be in love with him. I don’t want that, and I can’t seem to help it.”

  With a sigh, she rested her head on Malory’s knee. “What am I going to do?”

  Malory stroked her hair. “Whatever comes next.”

  Chapter Twelve

  ZOE stayed behind after her friends had gone home. She wanted to feel the building around her, the way she’d felt the woods the day before. What had it been about this house that had pulled her?

  She’d been the one to find it. She’d been the one to crunch the numbers, even though a part of her hadn’t believed she could make it work.

  Still, despite the doubts, despite the odds, she’d pursued it, had plotted out in her head what had been a kind of fantasy at first. A kind of hope that had become her reality.

  She’d been the first one of the three of them to walk through it, to begin to see what could be done. How it could be done. To stake a claim, she supposed, as she trailed her fingers over the wall in the central hall of the second floor.

  Hadn’t she stood here while the realtor had been yammering away about potential and commercial value and interest rates and known this was the place to build her future? She’d seen the dull beige walls, the chipped molding, the dusty windows, and had envisioned color and light and possibilities, if only she dared risk it.

  Didn’t that make it a moment of truth?

  The house was one more thing that had drawn her together with Malory and Dana, that had made them a unit. Just as the quest united them. As they were each a key. Interlocked in the search for those answers to yesterday and tomorrow.

  Kane had come here, to tempt and threaten both of her friends. Would he come here to tempt and threaten her? Her fear of him was a living thing that beat inside her.

  She stood at the top of the stairs, looking down at the door. She had only to walk down the steps, go through that door, and step back into a world she understood and recognized and, to some extent, controlled.

  Cars driving by on the street, people passing on the sidewalk. Ordinary life, going its ordinary way.

  Inside she was alone, just as she’d been alone in the woods. Just as she was alone every night when she turned off the lamp beside her bed and laid her head on the pillow.

  Those were her choices, and she couldn’t fear what she had chosen to do with her life.

  She turned away from the steps, turned away from the door and the world outside it, and walked the silent hall of what she’d claimed as hers.

  Ice skated along her skin as she approached the door to the attic. They’d all avoided going up there since Malory’s experience. Nor did they talk about it. It was a portion of the house that had ceased to exist for them, one they had—in a very real way—surrendered.

  Wasn’t it time to take it back? If the house was to be theirs, completely theirs, they couldn’t pretend a part of it didn’t exist.

  Malory had reached her decisive moment there, and had won. Yet they had deserted
this field as if they’d suffered a loss.

  It was time to change that.

  She reached out, turned the knob. Opened the door. It helped to flick the switch—an ordinary, everyday act. The light was more comforting than the dark, and that was human. But she walked up, struggling not to bolt when the stairs creaked under her weight.

  Dust tickled her nose, and she could see it spin in motes in the shaft of light from the bare bulb. The place needed a good cleaning, and among the abandoned items the previous tenants had left behind, there was considerable trash that could be turned to treasures.

  A dresser that needed to be stripped or painted, lamps without shades, a rocking chair with a broken runner, boxes gathering dust, books gathering mildew.

  Spiders had been busy up here, she noted, and mice were likely making cozy nests inside the unfinished walls. It needed to be swept out. Traps should be set. This was good, practical storage space going to waste.

  She remembered what it had been like filled with blue mist, and a cold that chilled to the bone.

  Better, she reminded herself, to remember there had been victory here. Nevertheless, she walked to the window and shoved it open to let the chilly evening air chase the musty smell away.

  Being up here, alone, was a major step, she decided. Not only a kind of reclamation but proof to herself that she wouldn’t be blocked by fear. Next time, she promised herself, she would bring a broom, a dust cloth, and a scrub bucket. But for now she could take the time to look through what had been left behind and see what could be kept and used, and what needed to be hauled away.

  There was an old birdcage that could be cleaned up and painted. She would find a use for that. And the metal pole lamp, the lopsided end table. The books were likely full of silverfish, so she made a mental note to take a look, box up whatever was too far gone, and cart it away herself to spare Dana the distress.

  She found an ancient Raggedy Ann doll with a torn shoulder. Someone had loved it once, she thought. Maybe with a good wash and a few stitches someone would love it again. She tucked it in the crook of her arm as she pushed through boxes, shoved pieces of furniture out of the way.

  She considered the long oval mirror with beveled edges a treasure. Yes, it needed resilvering, but it was a really nice shape. They could hang it from a ribbon in the central area or, better yet, use it in place of the medicine cabinet in the powder room on the main floor.

  With the doll still resting in her arm, she tilted the mirror against the wall and stepped back to visualize.

  She saw herself in the flyspecked glass, standing in the hard, unfiltered light, dust in her hair, on her cheek, with a wounded rag doll cradled in her arm.

  Like the mirror, like the doll, she mused, she wasn’t anything special to look at, at the moment. But potential was the important thing. She was looking a little tired around the eyes, but that was nothing a ten-minute break with cucumber eye pads wouldn’t fix. She knew how to buff herself up, appearance wise. That was just routine, and a few tricks of the trade.

  And she knew how to keep herself in tune inside, too. As long as she considered herself a work in progress, she wouldn’t stop trying to learn, to become, to make more of herself.

  She wasn’t a sad Raggedy Ann who needed to be tended to. She knew, very well, how to tend to herself and those who needed her.

  Kyna needed her, she thought. Kyna and her sisters needed her to find the last key to unlock their prison. She couldn’t, wouldn’t, give up until she’d done everything possible.

  “Whatever it takes,” she said aloud. “I won’t walk away.”

  The glass misted as she watched, a thin sparkle dancing over the pocked surface. Through it she saw herself. Then it was no longer her but a tall, slim young woman in green robes, a puppy in the crook of her arm and a sword at her side.

  Fascinated, she stepped forward, reached up to touch her fingers to the mirror. And watched them slide into the glass. Shocked, she snatched them back, fisted her hand over her speeding heart.

  The image in the glass remained, looking back at her. Waiting.

  She wanted to bolt, could feel her legs tense for the rush to the door and away. But hadn’t she just promised? Whatever it takes. Closing her eyes for a moment, she struggled to steady herself. What Malory had told her about Brad applied to just about everything there was in life, didn’t it? You just did what came next.

  Zoe gathered her courage, clutched the doll for comfort, and walked into the mirror.

  She stood with her sisters under the bright wash of sunlight with the scent of the garden rioting in the air. Birds sang in a kind of desperate joy that lifted her heart.

  In her arm, the puppy wriggled and twisted himself to lick her jaw. She set him down to romp for a bit and joined her laughter with her sisters’.

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