Key of light, p.17
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       Key of Light, p.17
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         Part #1 of Key series by Nora Roberts

  Oh, my God, she thought. I’m going to open my own business.

  “It won’t be anything as grand as The Gallery. Smaller, more . . .” She nearly said “accessible,” then managed to backtrack. “Low-key,” she continued. “I’m going to focus primarily on local artists and craftspeople.”

  “Malory, you must be aware how much time and energy that sort of thing consumes. And more, the financial risk involved.” There was no doubt about it, James was panicking.

  “I know. I don’t seem to be as worried about taking risks as I used to be. In fact, I’m excited by the prospect of taking them. But thank you, thank you so much for all you’ve done for me. I really have to go now.”

  She got up quickly, afraid she would change her mind. Here was her safety net, spread out, ready to catch her. And she was swinging out beyond it to where the ground was very hard, and very far away.

  “Malory, I wish you’d take some time to think this through.”

  “Do you know what happens when you always look before you leap?” She reached out and touched his hand before hurrying toward the door. “You hardly ever make the jump.”

  SHE didn’t waste time. Malory hunted down the address Zoe had relayed, and pulled into a double driveway behind Dana’s car.

  Good location, she decided, sliding practical Malory back into place. There would be some pedestrian traffic, and reasonable parking for people who needed it.

  The house was charming. Homey, she thought. And the three of them working together could certainly perk it up. Paint the porch, plant some trailing vines. Zoe probably already had a horde of ideas on that.

  The walkway needed to be repaired or replaced. She noted that detail down on the clipboard she’d brought with her. Window boxes? Yes, planted seasonally.

  And wouldn’t it snazz up the entrance to have a stained-glass window replace the clear one over the front door? Something designed specifically for them. She had some contacts in that area.

  Still making notes, she opened the front door.

  The foyer could be a showcase for all three businesses. Yes, there was a way to do that with clever placement and displays, keeping it friendly and informal while advertising their goods and services.

  The light was good, the floors a treasure once they were refinished. The walls, well, paint would solve that.

  She wandered through, delighted with the rooms. They did seem to tumble together, she thought. Just as Zoe had said.

  An excellent way to blend businesses.

  After filling pages with notes she strolled back, just as Dana and Zoe came down the stairs.

  “Eventually, I’d like to refit the master bath with a Swedish shower and aromatherapy station,” Zoe was saying. “But for now . . . Malory, hi.”

  “Hi.” Malory lowered her clipboard. “I’m in.”

  “I knew it!” With a whoop, Zoe flew down the stairs and grabbed her. “I just knew it. Did you see? Have you been through? Isn’t it great? Isn’t it perfect?”

  “Yes, yes, and yes. I haven’t been upstairs yet, but down here . . . I love it,” she said.

  Dana stood on the stairs, her lips pursed in speculation. “Why’d you change your mind?”

  “I don’t know. At least I don’t know in any reasonable, logical sense. When James offered me my job back, with a raise, I thought, thank God, everything’ll be back to normal now.”

  She let out a breath and, hugging the clipboard to her chest, spun in a circle. “Then, I don’t know, I heard myself telling him I couldn’t come back, I was starting my own business. I guess I realized I don’t want everything to be back to normal. I want to do this, and I want to do it with both of you. That’s all I know.”

  “We’ve all got to be really sure. Zoe, tell her what you told me. About the house.”

  “Well, the owner’s willing to rent it, but they’re looking for a buyer. The fact is, it makes more financial sense to buy it.”

  “Buy it?” The gorge she was leaping across suddenly widened. “How much?”

  Zoe named a price, then hurried on when Malory paled. “But that’s just the asking price. Plus, I’ve been doing some figuring, and if you compare the mortgage payment at current interest rates over a thirty-year term to the proposed monthly rent, it’s not that much more. And it’s equity. It’s an investment. Then there’s the tax break.”

  “Don’t get her started on the tax break,” Dana warned. “Your brains will start leaking out of your ears. Just take my word for it, she’s got it covered.”

  “We need a lawyer to draw up a legal partnership,” Zoe continued. “Then we pool our money. We have enough for the down payment, especially once we negotiate the asking price down. And still there’s enough left over to hold us. We’ll take a loan for the property and the start-up costs. We can do it.”

  “I believe you. I think that’s why my stomach hurts.” Malory pressed a hand to it, then looked at Dana. “Buy?”

  “God help us. Buy,” she agreed.

  “I guess we should shake or something.” Zoe held out a hand.

  “Wait, before we do, I should tell you something.” Malory cleared her throat. “I had sex with Flynn last night. Three times.”

  “Three?” Dana abruptly sat down on the stairs. “Ah, go, Flynn?”

  “You’re okay with that?”

  “I’m his sister, not his mother.” But she rubbed at her temple. “Weren’t you drunk last night?”

  “No, you were. I was just buzzed. I’ll add that being aware I was buzzed, he attempted, pretty strongly, to be a gentleman and step back.”

  “That’s so sweet,” Zoe offered.

  “Even after I got naked and jumped him.”

  “That’s . . . Wow!”

  With a laugh, Malory patted Zoe’s shoulder. But Dana remained silent. “I didn’t get naked and jump him just because I was buzzed and well, horny. I’m in love with him. I don’t have the whys on that any more than I know why I want to own this house with the two of you. It just is, from somewhere deep inside me. It just is. I’m in love with him, and I’m going to marry him.”

  “Malory! This is wonderful.” Leading with her romantic heart, Zoe flung her arms around her friend. “I’m so happy for you.”

  “Don’t hand out the orange blossoms yet. I still have to convince him he can’t live without me.” She stepped forward. “I’m in love with him, Dana.”

  “I’m getting that.”

  “I know this might complicate our friendship, and any business relationship we might plan on having.”

  “And if it does?”

  “Then I’m sorry. I’ll back out of the friendship. I’ll back out of the business plans. But I’m going to keep Flynn, whether he likes it or not.”

  Dana’s lips twitched as she got to her feet. “I guess he’s toast. We going to shake hands on this deal and get us a lawyer or what?”

  Chapter Twelve

  SHE didn’t know what she was feeling. She wasn’t sure what she was doing. But little snags like that had never stopped Dana before.

  The minute she could manage it, she tracked down Flynn.

  She missed him at the paper, followed his trail to the vet’s, where she was told she’d missed him and Moe by fifteen minutes. The irritation of that had her deciding she was angry with him, though she had no concrete reason to be.

  But by the time she arrived at his house, she was enjoying her temper.

  She slammed the door and stalked into the living room, where both her brother and his dog were sprawled out like the dead.

  “I need to talk to you, Casanova.”

  “Don’t yell.” Flynn remained on the sofa. On the floor beside him Moe whimpered. “Moe needed his shots. We’ve both been traumatized. Go away. Come back tomorrow.”

  “Now, right now, before I find a sharp implement to stick in your rump. What’s the idea of banging Malory when you know perfectly well she has to keep her mind on the goal?”

  “I don’t know. Might’ve had something to
do with my tripping and falling over her naked body. And it wasn’t banging. I object to the term ‘banging,’ which is beside the fact that it’s none of your goddamn business.”

  “It’s my business when she’s just become my business partner. When prior to that we were partners of another sort, and it’s my business because I like her a lot, and she’s in love with you. This shows a remarkable lack of taste, but is nonetheless the way it is.”

  Guilt crept slyly into his belly. “It’s not my fault she thinks she’s in love with me.”

  “I didn’t say ‘thinks.’ She’s not an idiot, despite her lousy taste in men. She knows her own mind and heart. And if you’re not taking her feelings into consideration before you unzip your fly—”

  “For Christ’s sake, give me a break.” He sat up now, dropped his head in his hands. “She won’t listen to me. And she did the unzipping.”

  “You were just an innocent bystander.”

  “There’s no point in blasting me about this. I’ve spent considerable time blasting myself, for all the good that’s done. I don’t know what the hell to do.”

  She sat on the table, leaned toward him. “What do you want to do?”

  “I don’t know. She sent me flowers.”

  “Excuse me?”

  “She sent me a dozen red roses this morning. The card said, ‘Think of me.’ How the hell could I not think of her?”

  “Roses?” The idea just tickled her. “Where are they?”

  He squirmed. “Um. I put them up in the bedroom. Goofy. This role reversal, it’s just not right. It’s not natural. I think it flies in the face of countless rules of scientific order. I need to put things back on track. Somehow. Back on track. Stop grinning at me.”

  “You’re hooked.”

  “I am not hooked. And that’s another term I object to. Someone with a degree in library science should be able to find more appropriate terms.”

  “She’s perfect for you.” She kissed his cheek. “Congratulations. I’m not mad at you anymore.”

  “I don’t care who you’re mad at. And it’s not a matter of who’s perfect for me. I’m not perfect for anyone. I’m a slob. I’m inconsiderate and selfish. I like having my life loose and unstructured.”

  “You’re a slob, no question. But you’re neither inconsiderate nor selfish. It’s that inconsiderate and selfish bitch Lily who put that in your head. If you buy that, you’re just stupid.”

  “So, are you wishing a stupid slob on your new pal?”

  “Maybe. I love you, Flynn.”

  “Man, I’m getting a lot of that lately.” He tapped a finger on her nose. “Love you, too.”

  “No. Say: ‘I love you.’ ”

  “Come on.”

  “All three words, Flynn. Choke them out.”

  “I love you. Now go away.”

  “I’m not finished.”

  He groaned and fell back on the couch. “We’re trying to take a nap here, for our mental health.”

  “She never loved you, Flynn. She liked who you were in the Valley. She liked being seen with you, and she liked picking your brain. You may be stupid, but you’re pretty smart in some areas. She used you.”

  “And that’s supposed to make me feel better. Knowing I let myself be used?”

  “It’s supposed to make you stop blaming yourself for what happened with Lily.”

  “I’m not blaming myself. I hate women.” He showed his teeth in a vicious smile. “I just want to bang them. Now will you go away?”

  “You’ve got red roses in your bedroom.”

  “Oh, man.”

  “Hooked,” she repeated and drilled a finger in his belly.

  He took the sisterly poke like a man. “Let me ask you something. Did anybody like Lily?”

  “No.”

  He hissed out a breath, stared up at the ceiling. “Just checking.”

  The knock on the door had him cursing and her bounding up. “I’ll get it.” She sang it out. “Maybe it’s more flowers.”

  Amused, she pulled open the door. And it was her turn to curse, with more imagination and viciousness than Flynn had managed.

  “Hey, nice mouth, Stretch.”

  Jordan Hawke, handsome as the devil and to Dana’s mind twice as evil, gave her a wink and strolled back into her life.

  She considered, for one brief, heady moment, tripping him. She grabbed his arm instead, imagined twisting it into cartoon taffy. “Hey. Nobody asked you in.”

  “You living here now?” He shifted his body in a slow, easy move. He’d always had moves. At six three he had five inches on her. She’d once found that fact exciting, but now it was simply irritating.

  He hadn’t gotten fat, or ugly, or fallen victim to male-pattern baldness. And wasn’t that just too damn bad? No, he was still lanky and gorgeous, and all that thick black hair remained sexily rumpled around a tanned, rawboned face set off by sizzling blue eyes. His mouth was full and sculpted and, she had reason to know, very inventive.

  It curved now in a lazy, mocking smile that made her want to bloody it.

  “Looking good, Dane.” He smoothed a hand over her hair, and had her head jerking back before she could stop herself.

  “Hands off. And no, I’m not living here. What do you want?”

  “A date with Julia Roberts, a chance to jam with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, and a really cold beer. How about you?”

  “To read the details of your slow, painful death. What are you doing here?”

  “Annoying you, apparently. But that’s just a side benefit. Flynn home?”

  He didn’t wait for an answer, but stepped away from her and headed for the living room. Moe roused himself, sent out a halfhearted growl.

  “That’s it, Moe,” Dana said cheerfully. “Sic ’im.”

  Obviously unconcerned about being attacked by an enormous mass of canine, Jordan crouched down. “So this is the famous Moe.”

  Veterinary trauma forgotten, Moe scrambled up. He charged, flopped both front paws on Jordan’s shoulders, and gave him a welcoming kiss.

  Dana could only grind her teeth as Jordan’s laugh joined Moe’s happy bark.

  “You’re a big guy, aren’t you? Look at that face.” He rumpled Moe’s fur, scratched his ears, then glanced over at Flynn. “How’s it going?”

  “Okay. Didn’t know you were coming so soon.”

  “Had some time. Got a beer?”

  “Sure.”

  “I hate to interrupt this emotional, heartfelt reunion.” Dana’s voice was an ice pick aimed at the nape of Jordan’s neck. “But what the hell’s he doing here?”

  “Spending some time with friends, in my hometown.” Jordan got to his feet. “Still okay to bunk here?”

  “Absolutely.” Flynn unfolded himself from the couch. “Man, it’s good to see you.”

  “Same here. Big house. Great dog. Bad couch.”

  With a laugh, Flynn swung his arms around his oldest friend. “Really good to see you.”

  For a moment, just an instant, as she watched the two grown men hug, Dana’s heart softened. Whatever else she could say about Jordan Hawke—and the list was long—he was and had always been Flynn’s. As much brother, she supposed, as friend.

  Then those hot blue eyes met hers and baked her heart hard again.

  “How about that beer, Stretch? We can play catch-up and you can tell me how you got roped into looking for imaginary keys.”

  She shot her brother one accusatory look, then jerked her chin up. “Unlike the two of you, I actually have things to do.”

  “Don’t you want to see the painting?”

  That nearly stopped her, but giving in to curiosity would’ve spoiled her exit. She continued to the door and strode out without a backward glance.

  She had things to do, all right. The first of which was to carve a wax doll in Jordan’s image and stick pins in sensitive areas.

  “Did you have to piss her off?” Flynn demanded.

  “My breathing pisses her off
.” And knowing that put a little hole in his gut. “How come she’s not living here? The house is big enough.”

  “She won’t.” With a shrug, Flynn led the way back to the kitchen. “Wants her own space and blah-blah. You know Dana. Once her mind’s set you can’t move her with a forklift.”

  “Tell me about it.”

  Because Moe was dancing around, Flynn dug out a dog biscuit and flipped it to him before getting the beers. “You brought the painting?”

  “Yeah. I don’t know what it’s going to tell you.”

  “Me either. I’m hoping it tells Malory something.”

  “So when am I going to meet this Malory?” Jordan leaned back against the counter.

  “I don’t know. Soon.”

  “I thought there was a deadline on this deal,” Jordan said.

  “Yeah, yeah. We’ve still got a couple weeks.”

  “Problem, pal?”

  “No. Maybe. We’ve gotten tangled up, and it’s getting really serious really fast. I can’t think.”

  “What’s she like?”

  “Smart, funny, sexy.”

  “You put sexy third.” Jordan gestured with his beer. “That’s serious. What else?”

  “Goal-oriented, I’d say.” He began to pace. “With a kind of tidy nature. Honest. Not much game-playing there. Grounded. You could say she’s grounded, which is why her getting wound up in this key business makes it all seem possible. She’s got blue eyes. Big blue eyes,” Flynn sighed.

  “Again, the physical falls well down the list. You’re stuck on her.”

  Uneasy, Flynn lifted his beer. “There are degrees of being stuck.”

  “True enough, but if she’s got you this worried I’d say you’re already in to your knees, and sinking. Why don’t you give her a call? She can come get a look at the painting, and I can get a look at her.”

  “Let’s give it till tomorrow.”

  “You’re scared of her. Make that up to your waist and sinking.”

  “Shut up. I just think it’d be smart for Brad to bring his painting over, let the three of us give them both a good look. See what we come up with, without the female element.”

  “Works for me. You got any food around here?”

  “Not really. But I’ve got all the takeout and delivery places on speed dial. Take your pick.”

 
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