Key of light, p.18
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       Key of Light, p.18

         Part #1 of Key series by Nora Roberts
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  “Surprise me. I’ll go get my stuff.”

  IT wasn’t so different from their youth, unless you considered that the living room where they sprawled belonged to one of them rather than to a parent.

  Since the choice had been left to Flynn, they were eating Italian, but the beer had been upgraded to a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue that Brad had brought with him.

  The paintings were propped side by side against the wall while the three of them sat on the floor. Moe took the couch.

  “I don’t know much about art,” Flynn began.

  “But you know what you like,” Brad finished.

  “I wasn’t going to stoop to a cliché.”

  “Actually, it’s a valid statement.” Jordan agreed. “Art, by its very nature, is subjective. Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Can, Dalí’s Melting Watch, da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. It’s all in the eye of the beholder.”

  “As impossible to compare Monet’s Water Lilies with Picasso’s Lady in Blue as it is to compare Dashiell Hammett and Steinbeck. It’s all in the style, purpose, and perception.”

  Flynn rolled his eyes toward Brad. “What I was going to say before the two of you went off on that little intellectual riff is that it seems to me that the same person painted both of these. Or if it was two different people, one was emulating the other’s style.”

  “Oh.” Brad swirled the liquor in his glass and grinned. “Okay, then. I’ll go along with that. And what does that tell us?”

  “It’ll tell us a lot if we have Jordan’s painting tested. We already know the one at Warrior’s Peak and Brad’s were done more than five hundred years apart. We need to know where Jordan’s fits in.”

  “Fifteenth century.”

  Flynn turned his head, stared at Jordan. “You had it dated already?”

  “A couple years after I bought it. I needed to get some stuff insured. Turned out it was worth several times what I paid for it. Kinda weird when you think of it, as The Gallery’s got a rep for being pricey.”

  “Why’d you buy it?” Brad asked him.

  “I don’t know how many times I’ve asked myself that. I don’t even know why I went in there that day. It wasn’t one of my usual stops. Then I saw it, and it just grabbed me. That moment, that breath just before destiny, between innocence and power. He’ll pull the sword free. You know it. And in that moment, the world changes. Camelot’s born, Arthur’s fate is sealed. He’ll unite a people, be betrayed by a woman and a friend, and sire the man who’ll kill him. In this moment, he’s a boy. In the next, he’ll be a king.”

  “Some would argue that he was born a king.”

  Jordan shook his head at Brad’s statement. “Not until he put his hands on the hilt of the sword. He could have walked away from it. I wonder if he would have if he’d known what was coming. Glory and grandeur, sure, and a slice of peace, but then deceit, deception, war. And an early death.”

  “Well, that’s cheerful.” Flynn started to pour another drink. Then he stopped, looked back at the paintings. “Wait a minute. Maybe you’re on to something. In the other, you’ve got the results after that moment of destiny you were talking about. Would the god-king have married the mortal, conceived three daughters, if he’d known their fate? Is it about choices, which direction we take?”

  “And if it is?” Brad put in. “It doesn’t tell us much.”

  “It gives us a theme. And if we make the leap that the paintings are clues to the location of the keys, then we have to follow the theme. Maybe the first is in a place where a decision was made, one that changed the course of lives.”

  “Flynn.” Jordan hesitated, swirled his drink. “You seriously believe these keys exist?”

  “That’s right. And if you guys had been around since the beginning of this, you’d have come around to that by now. There’s no way to explain it, Jordan, no more than you can explain why that boy was the only person in the world who could pull Excalibur from the stone.”

  “How about you?” Jordan asked Brad.

  “I’m trying to keep an open mind. You’ve got to add up the coincidences, or what appear to be coincidences. You and I own those paintings. We’re all back in the Valley, and so are they. Flynn’s involved, personally involved with two of the women who were invited to Warrior’s Peak. Jordan and Dana used to be an item. And I bought the painting because I was caught by that face—Zoe’s face. It just about knocked me on my ass. And let’s keep that little tidbit among the three of us.”

  “You’re interested in Zoe?” Flynn asked.

  “Yeah, which is dandy, since she appears to have taken an instant dislike to me. Which I don’t get,” he added with some heat. “Women don’t dislike me right off the bat.”

  “No, it usually takes a little time,” Jordan agreed. “Then they dislike you.”

  “On the contrary. I’m a very smooth operator. Usually.”

  “Yeah, I remember how smooth you were with Marsha Kent.”

  “I was seventeen,” Brad argued. “Fuck you.”

  “Do you still have her footprint on your ass?” Jordan wanted to know.

  “You still got Dana’s on your balls?”

  Jordan winced. “Tit for tat there. Question. Does that painting look as much like the other two as it does like Dana?”

  “Oh, yeah,” Flynn told him. “Different dos, but the faces are dead on.”

  “No question as to the age on it, Brad?”

  “None.”

  Jordan sat silent a moment, nursing his drink, studying Dana’s face. So still, so pale, so empty. “Okay, I’ll take a side step out of logic and into the zone. There are six of us and three keys. And what, just over two weeks left to find the first one?” He reached for the bottle again. “It’ll be a snap.”

  BEYOND the puzzle to be solved, Flynn thought, it was good to have his friends back. Good to know even as he crawled into bed in the early hours of the morning that Jordan was crawling onto the mattress in the spare room. And Brad was already zonked out on the sofa downstairs, guarded by Moe.

  It had always seemed to him that there’d been nothing they couldn’t do together. Whether it had been fighting off imaginary alien invaders, learning how to unhook a girl’s bra one-handed, or driving cross-country in a secondhand Buick. They’d always come through for each other.

  When Jordan’s mother had died, both he and Brad had been there, holding vigil during those endless nights at the hospital.

  When Lily had dumped him, the one constant Flynn had been sure of was his friends.

  Through good times and not so good times, he thought sentimentally, they’d been there for each other. Physical distance never meant a damn.

  But it was better, a hell of a lot better, to have them here. Since they were, the first key was practically in the lock.

  He closed his eyes and instantly fell asleep.

  THE house was dark, and bitterly cold. He could see his breath puff out in thin white vapors as he wandered aimlessly down dark corridors that turned, that twisted. There was a storm blasting, a crash and boom that shook the air and shot out fast, angry light, zigzagging in the dark.

  In the dream he knew he walked the halls of Warrior’s Peak. Though he could barely see, he recognized it and knew the turn of the corridor, the feel of the wall under his trailing fingers. Though he had never walked there before.

  He could see the rain whipping outside the second-story window, could see the way it glowed blue in the lightning strikes. And he saw the ghost of his own face blurry in the glass.

  He called out, and his voice echoed. On and on, like a rolling wave. There was no one to answer. And yet he knew he wasn’t alone.

  Something walked those halls with him. Lurking just behind. Out of sight, out of reach. Something dark that pushed him on, up the stairs.

  Fear tripped into his heart.

  Doors lined the corridor, but all of them were locked. He tried each one, turning, tugging the knob with fingers gone stiff with cold.

  Whatever stalked him cre
pt closer. He could hear it breathe now, horrible, somehow liquid pulls on the air that merged with his own rapid panting.

  He had to get out, get away. So he began to run, loping through the storm-slashed dark while what pursued him followed, with rapid clicks on the wood like eager claws.

  He burst out onto a parapet, into the storm where lightning speared down and set the stone to smoking. The air burned and froze, and the rain pelted him like shards of glass.

  With nowhere left to run, with fear a cold snake crawling in his belly, he turned to fight.

  But the shadow was so huge, so close. It covered him before he could raise his fists. The cold tore through him, drove him to his knees.

  He felt something ripped from him—wild, unspeakable pain, dull, shocking horror. And knew it was his soul.

  FLYNN woke, shuddering with cold, clammy with the dregs of terror, and with the sun pouring in onto his face.

  Struggling for breath, he sat up. He’d had his share of nightmares, but never one this intense. Never one where he’d actually felt pain.

  Could still feel it, he thought as he gritted his teeth against the sharp stabs in his chest and belly.

  He tried to tell himself it was the combination of pizza and whiskey and late night. But he didn’t believe it.

  As the pain dulled, he slid gingerly out of bed, walked as cautiously as an old man to the bathroom, and turned the shower on hot. He was freezing.

  He reached up to swing open the mirrored medicine cabinet for aspirin and caught a glimpse of his face.

  The pallor of his skin, the glassy edge of shock in his eyes, were bad enough. But they were nothing compared to the rest.

  He was soaking wet. His hair was drenched, his skin beaded with water. Like a man who’d been out in a storm, he thought, and lowered himself to the seat of the toilet as his legs gave way.

  Not just a nightmare. He’d been inside Warrior’s Peak. He’d been out on the parapet. And he hadn’t been alone.

  This was more than a quest for magic keys. More than a puzzle to be solved with the promise of a pot of gold at the end.

  There was something else here. Something powerful. Dark and powerful.

  He was going to find out what the hell was going on before any of them got in any deeper.

  He stepped into the shower and let the hot water beat on him until it penetrated the chill in his bones. Then, calmer, he downed some aspirin, pulled his sweatpants on.

  He would go down and make coffee, then he’d be able to think. Once his head was clear, he would roust both of his friends and get their take.

  Maybe it was time for the three of them to go up to Warrior’s Peak and get the truth out of Rowena and Pitte.

  He was halfway down when the bell rang, and Moe raced out barking like the hounds of hell on speed.

  “Okay, okay. Shut up.” Johnnie Walker hadn’t given Flynn a hangover, but the nightmare had stepped up to the plate and knocked one home. He grabbed Moe by the collar, yanked back as he pulled the door open with his other hand.

  She looked like a sunbeam. It was his only clear thought as he stared at Malory. Dressed in a pretty blue suit that showed off her legs, she smiled at him. Then stepped forward, wrapped her arms around him.

  “Good morning,” she said, and by pressing her lips to his drained even that single thought out of his mind.

  His fingers went limp on Moe’s collar, then fell away from it to lift up, dive into her hair. The aches and dread he’d awakened with fell away as well.

  In that one moment he felt as if nothing would ever be beyond his reach again.

  Moe gave up trying to shoehorn himself between them, and settled on leaping and barking for attention.

  “Christ Jesus, Hennessy, can’t you get your dog to . . .” At the top of the stairs, Jordan trailed off. Below him stood his friend and the woman, bathed in morning sunlight. And drowning in each other.

  The fact was, even when Flynn eased back from the embrace and glanced up, he had the look of a man going under for the third time. Blissfully.

  “Morning. Sorry to interrupt. You must be Malory.”

  “Yes, I must be.” Her brain was a bit muddled from the kiss, but she was pretty sure she was staring up at a great-looking guy wearing nothing but black boxer shorts. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize Flynn had company . . . oh.” Her brain cleared. “You’re Jordan Hawke. I’m a big fan.”

  “Thanks.”

  “Hold it.” Flynn held up a hand as Jordan started down. “Maybe you could go put some pants on.”

  “Sure.”

  “Come on back. I need to let Moe out.” Giving her hand a tug, Flynn managed to dislodge her from the spot she’d frozen in to stare at Jordan. But she dug in again at the living room entrance.

  Brad was facedown on the couch, with one arm and one leg drooping off. He was dressed like Jordan, though his boxers were white.

  It was interesting to note, Malory thought, that the scion of the Vane empire had an excellent butt.

  “Slumber party?” she ventured.

  “Guys don’t have slumber parties. We just hang out. Moe!” Flynn called the dog, who’d wandered in to lick the portion of Brad’s face that wasn’t smashed into the cushions. “Brad’s always been able to sleep through anything.”

  “So it would seem. It’s nice to have your friends back in town.”

  “Yeah.” He pulled her back to the kitchen. Moe beat them to it, and stood dancing at the back door as if he’d been waiting for hours. He streaked out the instant Flynn opened it.

  “Why don’t I make some coffee?” Malory offered.

  “Yeah? You’ll make it?”

  “Just part of the service.” Since the coffee can was already on the counter, she measured enough for a full pot. “If you marry me, I’d make the coffee every morning. Of course, I’d expect you to take out the trash every day.” She tossed a grin over her shoulder. “I believe in sharing household chores.”

  “Uh-huh.”

  “And there’s the unlimited access to sex.”

  “That’s a big plus.”

  She laughed as she measured the water. “I like making you nervous. I don’t think I’ve ever made a man nervous before. Then again . . .” She switched the pot on, turned around. “I’ve never been in love with one before. Not like this.”

  “Malory—”

  “I’m a very determined woman, Flynn.”

  “Oh, yeah, that’s coming through loud and clear.” He stepped back even as she moved in on him. “I just think we should . . .”

  “What?” She trailed her hands up his chest.

  “See? I can’t remember once you start looking at me.”

  “I take that as a good sign.” She touched her lips lightly to his.

  “I’m already making a habit of this,” Jordan said as he came in. “Sorry.”

  “It’s all right.” Malory brushed her hair back as she turned away to find clean coffee mugs. “I just stopped in to ask Flynn to marry me. It’s nice to meet another of his friends. Are you in town for long?”

  “Depends. What did he say when you asked him?”

  “Oh, he has trouble making complete sentences when I bring up love and marriage. Odd, isn’t it, seeing as he’s a journalist.”

  “You know, I’m standing right here,” Flynn pointed out.

  “Is that coffee?” Brad stumbled in, blinked when he spotted Malory, then stumbled back out again. “Sorry.”

  Amused, she wiped out the mugs. “This house is full of attractive men, and I’ve seen all of them without their clothes on. My life has certainly changed. How do you take your coffee, Jordan?”

  “Black’s fine.” He leaned a hip on the counter while she poured. “Flynn said you were smart, funny, and sexy. He was right.”

  “Thanks. I’ve got to run. I’ve got an appointment to sign papers.”

  “For what?” Flynn asked.

  “The partnership papers with Dana and Zoe. I thought Dana told you.”

 
Told me what?”

  “That we’re buying the house, going into business.”

  “What house? What business?”

  “The house on Oak Leaf. And our business. Businesses, I suppose. My gallery, Dana’s bookstore, Zoe’s salon. We’re calling it Indulgence.”

  “Catchy,” Jordan decided.

  “I can’t believe I’m jumping in like this.” She pressed a hand to her stomach. “So unlike me. I’m terrified. Well, I don’t want to be late.” She stepped over, caught Flynn’s baffled face in her hands and kissed him again. “I’ll call you later. We’re hoping you’ll do a story on our new enterprise. Nice meeting you, Jordan.”

  “Really nice meeting you.” He watched her walk down the hall. “Nice legs, killer eyes, and bright enough to light up a cave. You got yourself a live wire there, buddy.”

  His lips were still vibrating from hers. “Now that I’ve got her, what am I going to do with her?”

  “You’ll figure it out.” He moved over to top off his coffee. “Or she will.”

  “Yeah.” Flynn rubbed a hand over his heart. There was a flutter in it. Maybe that’s what came from handling a live wire. “I need more coffee, then I need to talk to you and Brad. You guys aren’t going to believe the dream I had last night.”

  Chapter Thirteen

  “I can’t believe they didn’t show it to you.” Dana dug the key to Flynn’s house out of her purse.

  “Neither can I. I didn’t even think,” Malory added, as annoyance propelled her from the car to Flynn’s front door. “I just assumed Jordan was having it shipped. Plus the three of them were half naked. It was distracting.”

  “Don’t blame yourself.” Zoe gave her a bolstering pat on the back. “And anyway, you’ll get to see it now.”

  “They’re up to something,” Dana muttered. “I can just feel it. When the three of them get together, they’re always up to something.” She unlocked the door, pushed it open. Waited a beat.

  “Nobody’s home.”

  “They were just getting up when I was here a couple of hours ago.” Malory walked inside without a qualm. “And now that I think about it, Flynn did look like he was up to something.”

  “They’ll try to cut us out.” Ready and willing to work herself into a rant on men in general, Dana tossed her keys back in her purse. “It’s typical behavior for their species. Oh, we know better, don’t you worry your pretty head, little lady.”

  “I hate that.” Firing up, Zoe hissed a breath between her teeth. “You know how an auto mechanic always gives you that smirk and says he’ll explain the problem to your husband?”

  Dana sucked air through her nose. “That burns my ass.”

  “If you ask me, that Bradley Vane’s at the bottom of it.” Zoe set her fists on her hips. “He’s just the type to try to run everything and everyone. I pegged him from the get-go.”

  “No, it’ll be Jordan.” Dana kicked a shoe out of her way. “He’s an instigator.”

  “It’s Flynn’s responsibility,” Malory disagreed. “It’s his house, they’re his
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