Key of light, p.19
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       Key of Light, p.19

         Part #1 of Key series by Nora Roberts
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  friends, and . . . oh, my God.”

  Light slanted across both paintings as they stood propped carelessly against the wall just where Flynn had left them. Her heart squeezed with admiration and envy at the sight.

  She walked toward them slowly, as she might a lover who both dazzled and titillated. Her throat ached as she knelt on the floor in front of them.

  “They’re beautiful,” Zoe said from behind her.

  “They’re more.” Gently, Malory lifted the portrait of Arthur, tilting it toward the light. “It’s not just talent. Talent can be technical, achieve a kind of perfection of balance and proportion.”

  She came close to that, she thought, when she painted. Fell just short of technical perfection. And miles away from the magic that made an image art.

  “It’s genius when you’re able to take that talent beyond technique and into emotion,” she continued. “To message, or just to simple beauty. When you have that, you light up the world. Can’t you feel his heart pounding?” she asked as she studied the young Arthur. “His muscles quivering as he takes the hilt? That’s the power of the artist. I’d give anything—anything—to be able to create like this.”

  A shiver ran through her, twin snakes of hot and cold. For a heartbeat her fingers seemed to burn. And for that heartbeat something inside her opened, and lit, and she saw how it could be done. Must be done. How she could explode on canvas into art.

  The knowledge filled her to bursting, left her breathless.

  Then was gone in an instant.

  “Mal? Malory?” Zoe crouched down, took her shoulders. “What’s wrong?”

  “What? Nothing. I got dizzy for a second.”

  “Your eyes went funny. They went huge and dark.”

  “It must’ve been the light.” But she felt strangely queasy as she pulled her purse over and took out her magnifying glass.

  Using the natural light, she began a slow, careful study of each painting.

  There was the shadow, just the hint of a form lurking deep, deep in the green of the forest. And two figures—a man and a woman—watching the boy, the sword, the stone, from the far background. From a chain at the woman’s waist hung three gold keys.

  “What do you think?” Dana demanded.

  “I think we’ve got a couple of choices.” Considering them, Malory sat back, rolled her shoulders. “We can convince Brad and Jordan to have these sent to experts for verification of whether or not it’s the same artist. And by doing so, we risk this entire business getting out.”

  “What’s the other choice?” Zoe asked her.

  “We can take my word for it. Everything I know, everything I’ve studied and learned tells me the same person painted both of these. The same person who painted the portrait at Warrior’s Peak.”

  “If we go with that, what do we do with it?” Dana demanded.

  “We figure out what the paintings are telling us. And we go back up to Warrior’s Peak. We ask Rowena and Pitte how at least two of these works were done more than a century apart.”

  “There’s another part that goes with that,” Zoe said quietly. “We accept the magic. We believe.”

  “I always have time to entertain three handsome men.” Rowena all but purred it as she showed Flynn, Brad, and Jordan into the parlor where the portrait of the Daughters of Glass dominated.

  She paused, waiting until all attention was focused on it. “I assume the painting interests you, Mr. Vane. Your family has quite an extensive and eclectic art collection, I’m told.”

  He stared at the portrait, at the figure carrying both a short sword and a little dog. Zoe’s eyes stared back at him. “Yes, we do.”

  “And has the interest passed down to you?”

  “It has. As a matter of fact, I believe I own another painting by this artist.”

  She sat, a secret smile playing around her mouth as she spread the long skirts of her white dress. “Is that so? What a small world.”

  “It gets smaller,” Jordan put in. “I seem to have another painting that may be by this artist.”

  “Fascinating. Ah.” She gestured as a servant rolled a cart in. “Coffee? I assumed you’d prefer it to tea. American men aren’t much on tea, are they?”

  “You don’t ask about the subject of the other paintings.” Flynn sat beside her.

  “I’m sure you’ll tell me. Cream, sugar?”

  “Black. Seems a waste of time when I’m pretty sure you already know. Who’s the artist, Rowena?”

  She poured the coffee with a steady hand, taking the liquid to within a half inch of the rim while her gaze stayed level with Flynn’s. “Did Malory ask you to come here today?”

  “No. Why?”

  “The quest is hers, as are the questions. Such matters have rules. If she asked you to represent her, that’s a different thing altogether. Did you bring your dog?”

  “Yeah, he’s outside.”

  Her face went wistful. “I don’t mind if he comes in.”

  “White dress, big black dog. You might want to rethink that. Rowena, Malory didn’t ask us to come, but she and the others know we’re helping them look into things. It’s okay with them.”

  “But you didn’t tell them you were coming to speak with me. Men often make the mistake of assuming that a woman wishes to be relieved of responsibilities and details.” Her face was open and friendly, her voice carrying the lilt of a laugh. “Why is that?”

  “We didn’t come here to discuss male-female dynamics,” Jordan began.

  “What else is there, really? Man to man, woman to woman, certainly,” Rowena continued with an elegant spread of her hands. “But it all comes down to people, what they are to each other. What they’ll do for and to one another. Even art is only a representation of that, in one form or another. If Malory has concerns or questions about the painting or paintings she must ask. You won’t find the key for her, Flynn. It’s not for you.”

  “I dreamed I was in this house last night. Only it wasn’t a dream. It was more.”

  He watched her eyes change, go dark with shock. Or something else, something bigger.

  “Such a dream isn’t unusual under the circumstances.”

  “I’ve only been in the foyer and in two rooms in this place. Or had been until last night. I can tell you how many rooms are on the second floor, and that there’s a staircase on the east side leading to the third that has a newel post carved like a dragon. I couldn’t see it well in the dark, but I felt it.”

  “Wait. Please.”

  She rose quickly and hurried from the room.

  “This is some strange deal you’ve got going here, Flynn.” Jordan poked at the pretty cookies arranged on a glass plate. “There’s something familiar about that woman. I’ve seen her somewhere before.”

  “Where?” Brad demanded.

  “I don’t know. It’ll come to me. Hell of a looker. A face like that, you don’t forget. And why should she freak over you having a dream? Because freak’s just what she did, in her own classy way.”

  “She’s afraid.” Brad walked closer to the portrait. “She went from sly to scared in a heartbeat. She knows the answer to the paintings, and she was having a good time toying with us about that until Flynn dropped his dream adventure on her.”

  “And I didn’t even get to the best part.” Flynn got to his feet to explore the room before Rowena got back. “Something’s off here.”

  “You just getting that, son?”

  Flynn spared a glance at Jordan as he opened a lacquered cabinet. “Not just the already established ‘off.’ That’s a woman in control,” he said with a jerk of his thumb toward the doorway. “Cool, confident, sure of herself. The woman who just took a flyer out of here wasn’t any of those things. Man, there’s some high-class booze in here.”

  “Would you care for a drink, Mr. Hennessy?”

  Though he winced a little, Flynn turned toward the doorway and spoke equably to Pitte. “No, thanks. A little early for me yet.” He closed the cabinet. “How
’s it going?”

  Rowena laid a hand on Pitte’s arm before he could respond. “Finish it,” she ordered Flynn. “Finish the dream.”

  “Let’s talk quid pro quo.” Inclining his head, Flynn walked back to sit on the sofa. “You want to hear about the rest of the dream, and we want to know about the paintings. I show you mine, you show me yours.”

  “You bargain with us?”

  Flynn was amazed at the stunned outrage in Pitte’s voice. “Yeah.”

  “It’s not permitted.” Again Rowena laid a hand on Pitte’s arm. But from the hot, impatient look he sent her, Flynn didn’t bank on her restraining him for long. “We can’t give you answers just because you ask. There are limits. There are paths. It’s important that we know what happened to you.”

  “Give me something back.”

  Pitte snapped something out, and though the language was a mystery to Flynn, he recognized an oath when he heard one. Following it was a bright flash, an electric slice through the air. Warily, Flynn looked down at his lap, and the banded stacks of hundred-dollar bills that now rested there.

  “Ah. Nice trick.”

  “You’ve got to be kidding.” Jordan had already leaped forward and now reached down and plucked up a stack of bills. He fanned them, then patted them against his palm as he stared at Pitte. “Definitely time for some answers.”

  “Do you require more?” Pitte demanded, and Rowena turned on him with a kind of stunning female fury.

  The words they hurled at each other were unintelligible. Gaelic, Flynn thought. Maybe Welsh. But the gist was clear enough. Their temper rocked the room.

  “Okay, take five.” With three determined strides, Brad moved forward, stepped between them. “This isn’t getting us anywhere.” His voice was calm and controlled, and had both of them snarling at him. Still, he stayed where he was and glanced back at Flynn. “Our host just pulled . . . how much?”

  “Looks like about five thousand.”

  “Five grand out of thin air—and boy, have I got some stockholders who’d like to talk to you. He seems to think you want cash for information. Do you?”

  “Tough as it is to turn down five thousand magic dollars, no.” It stung, he could admit it, but Flynn set the stack on the table. “I’m worried about three women who haven’t hurt anyone, and I’m a little worried about myself. I want to know what’s going on.”

  “Tell us the rest, and we’ll tell you what we can. Tell us freely,” Rowena added as she moved back to Flynn. “I’d prefer not to make you tell us.”

  Irritated now, Flynn leaned forward. “Make me?”

  Her voice was winter cool against the heat of his when she spoke. “My dear, I could make you quack like a duck, but as I imagine your brave and sensible friend would say, such an incident wouldn’t accomplish anything. You think we wish harm to you, or to your women? We don’t. We wish harm to none. That I can tell you freely. Pitte.” She shifted, angled her head. “You’ve insulted our guest with this crass display. Apologize.”

  “Apologize?”

  “Yes.” She sat again, brushed at her skirts. Waited.

  Pitte bared his teeth. He tapped his fingers restlessly on his thighs. “Women are a plague to man.”

  “Aren’t they just?” Jordan agreed.

  “I’m sorry to have offended you.” Then he flicked a wrist. The money vanished. “Better?”

  “There’s no reasonable way to answer that question, so I’ll ask one instead. Who the hell are you people?” Flynn demanded.

  “We’re not here to answer your questions.” Pitte walked over to the silver pot, poured coffee into a Dresden cup. “Even a journalist—which I warned you would be an annoyance,” he added as an aside to Rowena—“should be aware of certain rules of behavior when invited into someone’s home.”

  “Why don’t I just tell you who you are,” Flynn began, then broke off as the delighted bark banged into the room seconds before Moe arrived. “Oh, shit.”

  “There he is!” Rowena simply spread her arms in welcome, and had them full of dog when the women walked into the room. “How nice, how lovely. It’s like a party.”

  “Sorry to burst in on you this way.” Malory scanned the room, then zeroed in on Flynn. “But there’s an issue of certain people thinking they should take over from the womenfolk.”

  “That’s not exactly true.”

  “Really? And what would be exactly true?”

  “Just following a lead, that’s all. You were busy rushing into business partnerships, buying houses.”

  “I’ve been rushing into a lot of things lately. Maybe we should debate the fact that I rushed you into bed.”

  The twin claws of embarrassment and annoyance pricked him as he got to his feet. “Sure, we can do that. Maybe we can find a more appropriate time and place for it.”

  “You want to talk about appropriate when you and your testosterone team try to take over my responsibilities, my business? Just because I’m in love with you, just because I sleep with you, doesn’t mean I’ll sit back and let you run my life.”

  “Who’s running whose life?” Frustration had him flinging out his arms. “You’re the one who has mine mapped out. I’m in this, Malory, whether I want to be or not. And I’m here to find out what that means. And if it’s heading where I think it is, you’re out. All of you.” He shot scathing looks at Dana and Zoe. “Out.”

  “Who made you boss?” Dana demanded. “You couldn’t tell me what to do when I was ten. You sure as hell can’t pull it off now.”

  “Oh, you watch me. You made it seem like a game.” He shot the accusation at Rowena. “Even some sort of romantic quest. But you didn’t tell them what might be at stake.”

  “What are you talking about?” Malory jabbed at his shoulder.

  “The dreams.” Ignoring Malory, Flynn continued to speak to Rowena. “They’re warnings, aren’t they?”

  “You never finished telling us. Perhaps everyone should sit down, and you can start from the beginning.”

  “You had a dream? Like mine?” Malory jabbed at him again. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

  “Just shut it down a damn minute.” Out of patience, he nudged her onto the couch. “Just be quiet,” he ordered. “I don’t want to hear anything out of you until I’m finished.”

  He started at the beginning, with him wandering the house, with the sensation of being watched, stalked. He related the experience on the parapet, the fear and pain, and ended with his waking in his own bed, drenched with rain.

  “He—it—wanted my soul, was letting me know that that could be the price for being in this.”

  “This isn’t the way.” Pitte clamped a hand on Rowena’s and spoke to her as if no one else was in the room. “This can’t be the way. They aren’t to be harmed. That was the first and most sacred promise.”

  “We can’t know. If we’re not allowed behind the Curtain, we can’t know what situation now exists. If he’s broken the vow, he must believe he can escape the consequences. He must believe . . . they are the ones,” she said in a whisper. “It can be done, and they can succeed. He’s opened the Curtain to stop them. He’s come through.”

  “If they fail—”

  “They cannot fail.” She spun around, her face set with purpose. “We’ll protect you.”

  “Will you?” Shaken, Malory folded her hands on her lap, squeezing her fingers until the pain cleared her head. “The way you protected the Daughters of Glass? Teacher and warrior. Somehow, you are.” She got up, walked to the portrait. “You’re here,” she said, gesturing to the couple in the background. “And here, in this room. In this place. And you think that what’s there, in the shadows of the trees is here too. You don’t show his face.”

  “He has more than one.” Rowena spoke in a matter-of-fact tone that was utterly chilling.

  “You painted this, and the two that we have.”

  “Painting is one of my passions,” Rowena confirmed. “One of my constants. Pitte.” She turned to him. “The
y know this much.”

  “I don’t know a damn thing,” Dana declared.

  “Step over here, to the cynical side of the room,” Jordan invited.

  “It’s what Malory knows that matters now.” Rowena held out a hand. “All that I have will be used to keep you safe.”

  “Not good enough.” Flynn shook his head. “She’s out of it. They’re all out of it. You want your money back, we’ll—”

  “Excuse me, I can speak for myself. This isn’t a matter of a refund, is it?” she asked Rowena. “There’s no turning back, no saying, uh-oh, the stakes are higher than I realized, game over.”

  “The agreement was made.”

  “Without full disclosure,” Brad put in. “Whatever sort of contract these women signed with you won’t hold up legally.”

  “The issue isn’t legal,” Malory said impatiently. “It’s moral. And more than that, it’s destiny. As long as I am, as long as I know, I’m part of it. Until the four weeks are up. And if I find the first key, one of them is next.” She looked at Dana and Zoe. “One of them will be at risk for the next phase of the moon.”

  “Yes.”

  “You know where the keys are,” Flynn exploded. “Just hand them over. End this.”

  “Do you think, if that were possible, we would remain in this prison?” In a gesture that mirrored both disgust and bitterness Pitte flung out his arms. “Year by century by millennium, trapped in a world not our own. Do you think we live with you out of choice? That we place our fates, the fates of those in our charge, in your hands because we wish it? We are bound here, bound by this single task. And now so are you.”

  “You can’t go home.” After the boom of Pitte’s, Zoe’s quiet voice was like a hammer blow. “We are home. You had no right to trick us into being part of this without telling us the risks.”

  “We didn’t know.” Rowena spread her hands.

  “For a couple of gods, there’s a hell of a lot you don’t know and can’t do.”

  Pitte’s eyes went to smoke as he rounded on Flynn. “Perhaps you’d like a demonstration of what we can do.”

  Fists already clenched, Flynn stepped forward. “Bring it on.”

  “Gentlemen.” Rowena’s heavy sigh was like a flood of cool water, designed to lower the rising temperature of the room. “The male, regardless of his origins, remains woefully predictable in some areas. Your pride and manhood aren’t at risk here, in either case. Flynn, whatever the world, there are laws woven through the fabric of it.”

  “Rip the fabric. Break the law.”

  “If it were within my power to hand out the keys at this moment, it would solve nothing.”

  “They wouldn’t work,” Malory stated and earned a nod of approval from Rowena.

  “You understand.”

  “I think I do. If this spell . . . is it a spell?”

  “That’s the simplest word for it,” Rowena agreed.

  “If it’s to be broken, it has to be by us. Women. Mortal women. Using our brains, our wits and energies, our resources in our world. Otherwise, no key opens the box. Because . . . we’re the real keys. The answer’s in us.”

  “You’re so close to where you need to be.” Emotions storming across her face, Rowena rose, laid her hands on Malory’s arms. “Closer than any have come before.”

  “But not close enough, not yet. And half my time is gone. I need to ask you some questions. In private.”

  “Hey, one for all here,” Dana reminded her. Malory sent her a silent plea. “Okay, okay. We’ll wait outside.”

  “I’ll stay with you.” Flynn laid a hand on Malory’s shoulder, but she shrugged it off.

  “I said this was private. I don’t want you here.”

  His face went blank and cold. “Fine, then, I’ll get out of your way.”

  With obvious regret, Rowena gave Moe a little nudge to send him along. She frowned at the sharp slam of the door behind Flynn. “Your man has a sensitive heart. More easily bruised than yours.”

 
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