Key of valor, p.18
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       Key of Valor, p.18

         Part #3 of Key series by Nora Roberts
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  house she’d saved for and was paying for every month with her hard-earned money. It seemed to Zoe that if both a trip back to her roots and an exploration of the attic at Indulgence could churn up power and forces, then scrubbing her own kitchen floor might do the same thing.

  She tidied her papers, shut off the laptop, and got out her scrub bucket.

  She’d picked this house first because she could afford it. Barely. And she’d known, just as she’d known when she stepped into the house that had become Indulgence, that this was her place. The home she would make for Simon.

  It hadn’t been much to look at then, she recalled as she soaped the floor on her hands and knees. Dirt-brown paint and a weedy yard hadn’t added up to much of a presentation. Inside, the carpets were worn and the plumbing questionable, the kitchen linoleum a disgrace and the walls pocked with nail holes.

  But the size had been perfect and the price right.

  She’d scraped, she’d painted, she’d dug, she’d planted. She’d scavenged from yard sales and flea markets, and even the town dump.

  She hadn’t slept much back then, either, she recalled as she sat back on her heels. But it had been worth every hour. She’d learned a lot about herself and what she could do.

  Smiling, she ran a finger over the shining square of vinyl. She’d laid that floor with her own hands. She’d watched for sales and had hunted up the clean white pattern at HomeMakers.

  She’d bought the exterior and interior paint at HomeMakers, too, she realized. And some of the plumbing supplies, as well as the light fixture in the upstairs bath.

  In fact, there wasn’t a room in the house that didn’t owe something to HomeMakers. That had to mean something.

  It had to mean Bradley.

  He was everywhere she looked, Zoe mused. And even when she wasn’t thinking of him, he was in there, circling around in her mind. Being involved with him was thrilling, and just a little frightening. But being in love with him . . . that was just impossible.

  More, it was dangerous for him. She hadn’t missed what Pitte had said. The more she cared about Bradley, the more he could be hurt. She didn’t question that he was part of the quest, that he would be a part of her life somehow. But she wouldn’t let her own fantasies about what could be, if only things were just a little different, put him in Kane’s path.

  It was enough to have a man like him care about her, and care so much for her son. She wouldn’t be greedy and ask for more.

  With the floor done, she glanced at the clock on the stove. It was nearly three-thirty in the morning. She had a spotless kitchen, a balanced checkbook, a menu design, and a price list. But if she’d taken another step toward the key, she didn’t know it.

  She decided to get a little sleep and start fresh in the morning.

  BRADLEY sat by the red glow of the campfire and drank lukewarm beer. The temperature didn’t matter. When you were sixteen it was all about the beer. His father would skin him if he found out—and he nearly always found out. But nothing could spoil the freedom of a hot summer night.

  He didn’t intend to sleep. He was going to smoke another cigarette, drink the rest of his beer, and just be.

  It had been Jordan’s idea to camp up here in the hills, close to the shadows of Warrior’s Peak. The spooky old place had always pulled at his friend, so he was forever making up stories about it and the people who might have lived or died there.

  And Brad had to admit that the house was fascinating to look at. Interesting to think about. When you did, you had to wonder who the hell would build such a big-ass monster on a mountaintop in Pennsylvania. It was kind of creepy, but cool.

  Still, he would leave the Peak to Jordan. He much preferred the rambling wooden house by the river. Even when he thought about moving to New York after college, or traveling around, he couldn’t really imagine living anywhere but the River House.

  Not for keeps.

  But college, New York, and for keeps were all a lifetime away. A million summers away. Right now, he liked being exactly where he was, a little buzzed on beer by a campfire in the woods.

  Being so high in the hills only added to the adventure of driving up there with Jordan and Flynn, climbing over the high stone wall like a gang breaking into prison instead of out.

  He had to work on Monday. Good old B. C. didn’t tolerate malingerers. Vanes pulled their weight, even during summer vacation, and that was okay. But he had the whole weekend to hang out with his friends. To tromp around in the woods, in the wild grass, to know there was no one to tell them not to.

  He understood all about responsibility—to family, to the business, to the Vane name. One of these days he would make his own mark—like his grandfather, like his father had. But sometimes a guy just had to get away from all that and have a beer, a couple of burnt hot dogs, and a night around a campfire with good friends.

  He didn’t know where the hell they’d gone off to, but he was too lazy to find out. He sipped the beer, ignoring the little voice in his head that said he didn’t actually like the sharp, yeasty taste all that much. He smoked a cigarette and watched the fireflies put on their nightly light show.

  The hoot of an owl was just creepy enough to give him a thrill, and the steady hum of insects added a nice backdrop to his thoughts about how soon he might talk Patsy Hourback into the backseat of his car. So far she was being very strict about limiting their activities to tonsil-diving kisses and the occasional tantalizing handful of breast—on top of her shirt.

  He really wanted to get that shirt off Patsy Hourback.

  The trouble was, she wanted him to say he loved her first, and that was just way too intense. He liked her, a lot, and he had a serious case of lust going for her, but love? Jesus.

  That was scary, long-time-in-the-future stuff. He didn’t love Patsy, and didn’t see his feelings going in that direction. When he took that fall it would be . . . later—that was for sure. It would be a hell of a lot later, and with someone he couldn’t quite see yet. Someone he didn’t even want to see yet.

  He had a lot of things to do first, a lot of places to go.

  But meanwhile, his just-in-case condom was burning a hole in his wallet, and he really wanted a shot at Patsy Hourback.

  He finished the beer and contemplated having the second of his share of the six-pack. But it wasn’t much fun drinking it by himself.

  The rustle in the brush made him grin. “That must’ve been the longest piss in history, especially when you’ve got that little dick to work with.”

  He waited for the rude comment or insult, then frowned when the woods settled into silence again. “Come on, guys, I heard you out there. You don’t come back, I’m going to drink the rest of the beer myself.”

  The answer was another rustle, from the opposite direction. He felt a chill creep up his spine, but defended his manhood by reaching for the second beer. “Yeah, that’s going to scare me. Jesus, it must be Jason in his hockey mask! Help, help. You two are so lame.”

  He snorted, popped the top on the beer, and took a long swallow for form.

  The growl came out of the dark, and was wet and hungry.

  “Cut it out, Hawke, you asshole.” But the order squeezed out, thin and jumpy, from a throat that had snapped shut. His hand inched along the ground in search of one of the sharpened sticks they’d used to roast the dogs.

  The scream ripped through the silence, horrible and packed with fear and pain. Brad shot to his feet, the stick clutched in his hand like a sword. He whirled in a circle, fear gnawing at his belly as he searched the shadows.

  For a long, long moment, there was no sound but his own raging heart.

  When the scream came again, it was his name.

  Fireflies flashed in mad flicks of light as Brad sprinted toward the sound. It had been Flynn’s voice, a desperate high-wire sound of terror, of agony, that couldn’t have been faked. There was another call, equally urgent. This one from Jordan, from behind him, and it seemed to shatter the night.

bsp; Torn, panicked, he spun back. A thrashing sounded in the dark, rushed toward him with a force that couldn’t have been human. Suddenly the night was full of sound. The wind roared through the trees, limbs crashed to the forest floor around him. And cries came from every direction at once. As he ran, the summer heat turned to bitter, biting cold and a mist spilled over the ground, rising like a river until it was nearly to his knees.

  Fear was wild in his belly—for his friends, for himself.

  He burst out of the trees into the high grass that spread beneath the spears and towers of Warrior’s Peak.

  The moon, fat and full, rode overhead. In its light he saw his friends, sprawled in that high grass. Torn to pieces. Mindless prayers ripped from his throat as he raced forward.

  He slipped on blood, and worse, went down on his hands and knees in a gruesome skid near Flynn’s body. His stomach heaved as he clutched at his friend and his hands came away wet and warm.

  The blood dripped from Brad’s fingers in the clear light of that perfect white moon.

  “No.” He said it softly, in a voice that shook. Closing his eyes, he gathered himself, dug as deep as he could. “No.” His voice strengthened as he opened his eyes and forced himself to look again. “This is bullshit.”

  While Brad stared, fighting grief and fear, Flynn turned his head on his torn neck and grinned. “Hey, asshole. Guess what? You’re next.”

  Though his heart scrambled inside his chest, Brad pushed to his feet and repeated. “Bullshit.”

  “It’s really gonna hurt.” Still grinning, Flynn rose. There was a chuckle, hideously juicy, as what had been Jordan did the same. They started toward him in lurching steps.

  “We’re all meat,” Jordan said, and winked at Brad with the single eye that remained in its socket. “Nothing but meat.”

  He could smell them, smell the death, as they closed in. “You’re going to have to do better, Kane. A hell of a lot better, because this is bullshit.”

  It did hurt, a shocking, stunning pain that radiated from his chest to every cell of his body. Brad bore down on it, used it, and forced his lips into a smile as he stared at the horror-movie images of his friends.

  “You guys are seriously messed up.” He managed what passed for a laugh, fought not to pass out.

  And woke shuddering with cold in his own bed.

  Rubbing a hand on his throbbing chest, he sat up, took a deep gulp of air. “Well, it’s about fucking time.”

  “SO, we really looked gross?”

  Flynn offered Brad a sunny smile. They sat with Jordan at Brad’s kitchen table. He’d waited until morning to call, though it had been a very long two hours alone with the images of his experience chasing through his head.

  He’d told them nothing but that he needed them to come. And, of course, they had.

  Now, in the bright light, with the scent of coffee and toasted bagels, the entire experience seemed overblown and sloppy. Too many nightmares piled into one, in Brad’s opinion, for it to hold solid.

  “Let’s see, most of your throat was gone, and a good part of your chest was missing. And you,” he said to Jordan, “your left eye was dangling pretty effectively out of its socket, and some of your face was torn away.”

  “Could only be an improvement,” Flynn commented.

  “I think I slipped on some of your brains,” Brad told him. “Not that you’ll miss them.”

  “Flynn slips on his own brains half the time,” Jordan shot back. He studied Brad over the rim of his mug. “You hurt?”

  “Chest throbbed like a bitch for about an hour, and I came back with the mother of all headaches, but that’s about it.”

  “So the question hangs, how did you get back?”

  “First, I had more time to prepare, knowing what happened to each of you. More time to figure out what might be coming and what to do about it. I had this little thing going in my head, what you could call a key word that I had planted there to snap me out. It worked.”

  Flynn bit into bagel. “And the word is?”

  “ ‘Bullshit.’ It’s crude,” he continued as Flynn sprayed crumbs. “And it’s human and to the point. And the other thing is, well, he was sloppy. I can’t say it wasn’t effective, especially at first. I felt sixteen. Hell, I was sitting by the campfire, drinking warm beer and thinking about Patsy Hourback’s body.”

  “She did have a great body,” Jordan recalled.

  “Anyway, I was pretty obsessed with Patsy that summer. Actually I was mostly obsessed with sex, but Patsy was the headliner. So in the beginning of it, I was back there, in the woods by the Peak. Then Flynn starts screaming like a girl—”

  “How do you know it wasn’t Jordan?” Insulted, Flynn sulked over his bagel. “How come I have to scream like a girl?”

  “Take it up with Kane,” Brad suggested. “At that point, I was just whacked out. You were both screaming and calling for me. But it started to go off, just a little. The wind, the fog, the cold. It was overkill, and it started to click in my head. When I saw you, the two of you lying there, I lost it again for a minute. Then I was sliding on Flynn’s brains, or maybe his intestines.”

  “Trying to eat here,” Flynn complained.

  “It was too much, you know? And it wasn’t holding. I wasn’t sixteen anymore, not in my head. He’d lost the grip, I guess you could say. And I knew it was him. I knew it was bullshit.”

  Brad rose to get the coffeepot. “Going over it for the last couple hours, I figured out what he was trying to do.”

  “Separate us,” Jordan said.

  “Got it in one. Isolate me—sitting alone while you two are off together. Then finding you mauled when you’d been calling to me for help.”

  “Then having us turn on you,” Flynn finished. “The zombie twins. Pits us against you. How are you going to trust, much less work with, a couple of guys who try to eat your brains? I’ve seen the movies,” he added. “That’s what zombies do.”

  “He wanted me to feel alone and alienated, and threatened.”

  “Maybe worse,” Jordan added. “If you hadn’t yanked yourself out, we might have done some damage. When he tries for you again, he’ll be more direct.”

  “That’s okay.” Brad picked up his coffee. “So will I.”

  “I think you need more than your dashing good looks when you’re taking on a sorcerer, pal,” Flynn pointed out.

  Nodding, Brad picked up the knife beside his plate, flipped a thumb over the tip. “Even sorcerers bleed.”

  “Are you planning on telling Zoe what happened?” Jordan asked.

  “Yeah. We stick together on this, until it’s done. I thought I’d run by Indulgence this morning.”

  “She’s not going in until afternoon,” Flynn told him. “Malory said she had things to take care of at home first.”

  “Even better.”

  HE finished up a call on his cell phone as he pulled in behind her car, then took a minute to plug in the new appointment on his Palm Pilot. Thinking of the meeting with his architect, the expansion plans, and the changes he wanted to implement in the design, he walked to the front door and knocked.

  All of that dropped right out of his head when she answered.

  She was wearing jeans ripped at both knees and one of those belly-baring tops. It was the bar today, he noted. That erotic little silver bar glinting in her navel.

  Her feet were bare, with toes painted an Easter-egg pink, thin and enormous silver hoops swung at her ears. And she held a rag that smelled strongly of lemon.

  “I’ve been cleaning,” she said quickly. “I just finished in the bedroom.” As if realizing she held her polishing rag, she stuffed it into her back pocket. “I needed to have some time around here before I went in today.”

  “Okay.” He stepped in, managed to take his eyes off her long enough to look around the living room. Every inch of wood gleamed, every piece of glass sparkled. “You’ve been busy.”

  “Cleaning gets my mind going, and I was thinking about the house. Th
at maybe the house is part of it. And if I took the time, paid attention to it, to everything in it, things might—What is it?” Flushing a little under his unblinking stare, she rubbed at her cheek. “Is my face dirty?”

  “Your face is perfect. It’s the most perfect face I’ve ever seen.”

  “That’s nice to hear after I’ve been chasing dust bunnies.”

  “Simon in school?”

  “Yes.” Her eyes widened as she recognized the glint in his. “Well, for heaven’s—it’s almost ten in the morning. Don’t you have to work?”

  “I do.” He stepped forward as she backed up. “But I made a little time because I needed to talk to you. Looks like talk’s going to have to wait.”

  “We can’t just . . .” Could they?

  “I bet we can. Let’s try this.”

  He scooped her right up, and her stomach did a long, lovely roll as he started back toward her bedroom.

  “Golly.” She couldn’t quite stop the nervous giggle. “Just like in a romance novel. Except I’d be wearing something sexier than old jeans.”

  She smelled of her furniture polish and ripe plums. “There’s nothing sexier than old jeans when you’re in them.”

  “Oh, that’s good.” Delighted, she nuzzled his neck. “That’s really good.” She nipped at his earlobe. “I’ve got laundry going. It sort of backed up on me the last few days. So . . . I’m not wearing anything under these jeans.”

  He turned his head, looked into her laughing eyes. “Oh, yeah, then talk definitely has to wait.”

  Her arms linked around his neck as he laid her on the bed, and she drew him in, welcoming. “This must be my reward for doing all my chores,” she murmured.

  “I’ve thought about making love with you again ever since I made love with you.”

  He took her lips with his, rubbed gently, then sank deep.

  It was like her own personal miracle, Zoe thought as she let herself float on the moment. Being swept up and away by a man who could make her feel as precious as diamonds.

  He kissed her as though he could spend his life doing nothing else but mating his lips and hers. He would spend time in the warmth even when she could feel the need for heat pulsing from him. The quiet joy of it, of him, wound around her heart in soft, silky ribbons.

  He touched her as though her body was a delicate treasure he would never tire of exploring. Each caress with those marvelous hands soothed, stirred, and promised. The sweet wonder of it slid through her blood like wine.

  Here, in the morning sunlight, was patience that glided over her in long, almost lazy strokes. She let herself rise under them and drift down again as the world outside went on its busy way without her.

  Stealing time for each other added a gauzy layer to intimacy.

  He toyed with flesh exposed by ripped denim, skimmed his fingers along where her blouse rode up. Heard the low sound of arousal as he traced the silver bar. When his lips nibbled down her throat, she turned her head and sighed.

  All the worries, all the fatigue that had dogged her melted away.

  He could feel her yield to him, to the pleasure, hear her breathing thicken as he took his time. Could she know what it meant to him to be with her like this, with the sun streaming through the windows and the house empty and quiet around them?

  Could she know how much he needed her when he was only beginning to understand it himself?

  He hadn’t known until that moment just how much he had to give, so desperately wanted to give. What he was, what he had, what he felt, what he imagined. His mouth covered hers again, and he offered all.

  Her heart bounded into her throat, her hands clutching his shirt as emotions engulfed her. More than pleasure, more than the promise of it flooded through those seductive sensations. Trembling, she slipped under.

  This was what he needed—the utter surrender to each other. Where there was no one and nothing but the two of them. “I want to look at you.” He rained kisses over her cheeks before easing her top over her head. “Just to look at you.”

  Watching her, looking into those heavy, dazed eyes, he slid the denim down.

  Smooth skin and subtle curves, long, almost balletic limbs. Those slumberous eyes and that siren’s mouth. She was, he thought, such a fascinating combination of the fragile and the exotic.

  Bending, he pressed his lips to the top of her thigh, gliding them slowly down over sensitive flesh as she shuddered.

  He teased closer to the heat with his tongue. “I want you to lie there. And let me do things to you.”

  She couldn’t have stopped him. She was already steeped in need, awash in sensation. When the first shock of heat slammed through her, she wrapped her
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