Key of valor, p.19
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       Key of Valor, p.19

         Part #3 of Key series by Nora Roberts
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  fingers around the iron bars of the bed and let him take her anywhere he wished.

  Here was glory and wonder. Those hands, so exquisite in their patience, unlocking every secret. That mouth tender and thorough, devouring her by inches. She bowed up as the orgasm catapulted through her, and still he didn’t stop.

  Emotion careened against emotion, feeling against feeling until it seemed her senses were alive with light, her skin shimmering with it. And each time the ache built again, she welcomed it.

  He was lost in her, aware of nothing but what she gave, and what he was compelled to take. Each time her body shuddered, there was more.

  He rose over her. She encircled. He slid into her. She surrounded.

  Slowly, still slowly, to drain every drop of pleasure even as it drenched them. The rise and fall of bodies, the beat of blood, the trip of pulse locked the world outside of that sun-filled room.

  Somewhere time ticked away, cars rumbled past on the street, a dog barked at squirrels in a backyard, but she knew nothing but him. Heard nothing as she teetered on the edge of the world but her name, spoken almost like a prayer.

  Then her own cry of joy as she leaped with him.

  NO one, at any time or in any place, Zoe decided, had ever felt better than she did right here and now. No one had ever been more completely seduced or thoroughly pleasured.

  Drifting in the afterglow, she stroked her fingers through Brad’s hair.

  His head rested between her breasts, and his hand covered hers at her side. It was the sweetest combination of sensations, she’d ever felt.

  “I’m so glad you dropped by,” she said sleepily, and smiled when she felt his lips curve against the side of her breast.

  “Glad you happened to be home.”

  “This is all so . . . gorgeous. Lying here, all naked and satisfied at . . .” She turned her head to check the clock. “Mmm, ten minutes to eleven in the morning. Better than winning the lottery.”

  He lifted his head and grinned at her. “And then some.”

  “You’re so handsome. I keep thinking you look like one of those slick-looking guys in my hairstyle magazines.”

  He grimaced. “Please.”

  “Really. You could use a trim, though.” She spread her fingers in his hair. “I could take care of that for you.”

  “Ah . . . Maybe sometime. Or other.”

  She gave the hair she held a friendly tug. “I’m very good, you know, at what I do for a living.”

  “I’m sure you are. Absolutely.” To distract her, he pressed a kiss to her collarbone, then rolled aside. “I really did come by to talk to you.”

  “You can talk while I give you a trim. Hairdressers are like bartenders. We’re trained to talk and work at the same time.”

  “I bet. But this probably isn’t the best time. We should get dressed.”

  “Coward.” She sat up, wrapped her arms around her updrawn knees.

  “I’ll accept that for the moment.” He rose to find his pants. “Zoe, last night—well, more accurately early this morning—I had an experience.”

  The playful mood vanished as she scrambled to her knees. “Are you hurt? Did he hurt you?”

  “No.” He picked up her top, held it out. “You’re going to need to stay calm while I tell you.”

  He dressed while he related the story.

  Her initial fear had abated. He was unhurt, she could see that for herself. And he was steady, God knew. Maybe just a little too steady.

  “You think he was using Jordan and Flynn against you—or wanted you to think they were against you.”

  “That sums it up.”

  “He doesn’t understand people, or love, or friendship. He doesn’t understand you, that’s for certain, if he thought that would make you feel isolated or frighten you off. It just made you more involved.”

  The faintest smile ghosted around his mouth. “You seem to understand me.”

  She studied his face. “I don’t know that I do, but I do understand how you are with Jordan and Flynn. Why did he pick that night? Because you were young, because it was near the Peak? Everything means something now. We’re so close everything means something.”

  He nodded, pleased that their thoughts were running along the same lines. “I think it was both. While we were young, and more easily molded. Before we knew you or Mal, before Jordan looked at Dana as someone other than Flynn’s sister. That was the night Jordan saw Rowena walking on the parapet at the Peak.”

  He paused, smoothed the cuffs of his shirt. “I was sixteen that night, Zoe. The same age you were when you left home.”

  “Oh.” She wrapped her arms around herself as if she’d just felt a chill. “You think that means something?”

  “I don’t think we can afford to discount anything as coincidence. It was an important night for me, and for Flynn and Jordan. Didn’t seem like it at the time, really. Just one of those reckless summer nights. But we were on that brink where you step away from childhood, toward manhood. You were the same age when you took your step.”

  “It was different for me.”

  “Yeah. But maybe if Kane could have twisted what happened that night, at least in my mind, he could have twisted how I think about it now. And what I did after. How I feel about Flynn and Jordan has a lot to do with why I’m back here, and how I met you.”

  “So if he’d driven a wedge between you, even had them hurt you—well, not them but what you believed was them, it might have weakened what we all have. Or even destroyed it.”

  “I think that was part of the plan.”

  Uneasy, she pressed her lips together. “He failed, so he’ll be angry.”

  “Yeah, he’ll be angry. I don’t think any of us should spend much time on our own for the next few days. I want you and Simon to stay at my place.”

  “I can’t—”

  “Zoe, take a minute.” Already prepared for objections and excuses, he stepped closer and laid his hands on her shoulders. “Whatever has to be done to finish this is going to involve both of us. We should stick together as much as we can. And beyond that, I want you with me. Both of you.”

  “That’s the tricky part. How am I supposed to explain to him that we’re staying with you?”

  “He knows enough about what’s going on to accept it. And do you really think he’s going to object to the idea of easy access to my game room?”

  “No. No, I don’t.” She eased out from under his hands, got to her feet. “Bradley, I just don’t want him . . . I know what this sort of thing is like for a child. After my father left us, there always seemed to be a man moving in for a little while.”

  His face went stony. “This isn’t like that. It’s more important than that on every possible level. Zoe, you and Simon aren’t temporary in my life.”

  Her breath clogged. “You need to slow down.”

  As impatience pumped through him, his voice toughened. “Maybe you need to speed up. You don’t want me to tell you what you mean to me, what I feel for you?”

  “How can either of us think clearly about that?” Desperate for breathing room, she moved over to twitch at the curtains. “You don’t know what I’m going to mean or what you’re going to feel after this is done. We’re caught up in something now, and it—it magnifies everything.”

  “I was caught up in you the first instant.”

  “Don’t do this.” Her breath hitched now as it squeezed around her heart. “You don’t know how this could hurt me.”

  “Maybe I don’t. Tell me.”

  “I can’t do this now.” Though she damned herself for a coward, she turned back toward him and shook her head. “Neither can you. We both have to go.”

  He caught her chin in his hand, laid his lips on hers. “We’re going to talk about this, and a great deal more. But let’s deal with living arrangements for now. If you don’t want to stay at my place, I’ll stay here. But I’d like you to think about doing it my way. I’ll come by after work, and we’ll sort it out.”

/>   Chapter Fourteen

  BY twelve-thirty, Zoe was installing the track lighting in Dana’s bookstore. They’d made the decision to concentrate on one area of the building that afternoon until the final details in that section were complete. In a fast contest of rock, paper, scissors, Dana had won the round.

  “It makes sense to me.” Dana filled a small spin rack with greeting cards. “There’s more room at Brad’s place, and he has a cleaning service. He’s also been known to cook in a pinch. You could concentrate on the key, and your salon, and let everything else go until the end of the month.”

  It was logical, Zoe admitted. It was even sensible. But . . . “It’s not as simple as that. How can I follow through on the idea that my house may be a part of this if I’m not in my house?”

  “Has that taken you anywhere?” Malory asked her.

  “No, it doesn’t seem as if it has, but it’s only been a couple of days since I started working that angle.”

  When this was met with silence, Zoe lowered her arms and sighed. “Okay, I know I should have felt something by now if it was important. But I can’t be positive.”

  “Sounds like avoidance to me,” Dana said out of the side of her mouth.

  In defense, Zoe slanted her a long, steely stare. “It is not avoidance. It’s . . . caution. And it’s not the same as Jordan staying in your apartment while the two of you wait to move up to the Peak, or Malory moving in with Flynn. You’re engaged. And I’ve got Simon to think about.”

  “Brad’s crazy about Simon,” Malory pointed out.

  “I know that.” She lifted her electric screwdriver to finish attaching the track to the ceiling. “But that doesn’t mean we should pack up and move in. I don’t want Simon confused about me and Brad—the sex—or getting used to that big house and all the things, and the attention, and the, well, the everyday accessibility to Brad.”

  Malory stopped shelving books. “Is it just Simon that you don’t want getting confused?”

  “No.” She let out a sigh as she passed Dana the screwdriver. “I’m trying to be comfortable with my feelings, to keep them within reasonable limits. There are a lot of reasons for that.”

  “I’m looking at you, and I’m not seeing a woman who puts limits on herself.”

  Zoe took the light Malory held up, then clicked it smoothly onto the track. “You think I should do this.”

  “I think you should do what makes you happy. And sometimes doing what makes you happy is harder and scarier than doing what’s safe.”

  THOUGH she was a long way from certain about what would make her happy, or what was just going to scare her brainless, Zoe broke routine and picked Simon up from school.

  “I thought I was going over to Mrs. Hanson’s.”

  “I know.” In a now practiced move, Zoe eased her shoulder out of the way as Moe shoved his face through the seats to greet Simon. “I called her. I wanted to talk to you.”

  “Am I in trouble?”

  “I don’t know.” Brows arched, she asked, “Are you?”

  “No, I swear. I didn’t do anything.”

  She parked the car, waved to Mr. Hanson, who was in his front yard raking leaves.

  “Okay, then. Let’s go inside and have a snack and chat.”

  “Moe.” Loving the game, Simon piled out. “Cookie!” he shouted and laughed himself silly as Moe raced like mad for the front door.



  “Do you think, when Moe has to go back home, Flynn will let him come visit?”

  “I bet he will.” She paused at the door while Moe vibrated. “Simon, I know you want a dog of your own. Why haven’t you asked me?”

  “Maybe we can’t afford one yet.”

  “Oh.” On the little clutch in her heart, she opened the door and let Moe bullet toward the kitchen and cookies.

  “They cost money to buy. Even if you get them from the pound, I think you have to pay something. And you gotta buy food for them and toys and stuff. And they need shots from the vet. But I’m saving up so we can get one. Maybe next year we can get one.”

  Not trusting her voice, Zoe nodded. She hung up her coat, and Simon’s, using the time to compose herself. When she got back to the kitchen, Simon had already dumped his book bag on the floor and pulled a biscuit out of the box for the now desperate Moe.

  She poured Simon a glass of milk and got out an apple to slice to keep her hands busy while she talked.

  “You know I’m trying to do something important, trying to find a key.”

  “For the magic people.”

  “Yes, for the magic people. I’m trying really hard, and sometimes I think, well, today I’ll find it. And others, I don’t think that at all. I’m pretty sure I’m going to need help.”

  “Do you need me to help you?”

  “In a way.” She put the apple slices on a plate, added some grapes. “Bradley wants to help me, too. And the magic people told me it’s important that he help.”

  “He’s pretty smart.”

  “You like him a lot, don’t you?”

  “Uh-huh.” He reached for an apple slice as she set the plate down. “You do, too, right?”

  “Yes, I do. Bradley thought he might be able to help me better if we stayed at his house for a little while.”

  His face inscrutable, even to his mother, Simon watched her as he munched apple. “Live there, with him?”

  “Well, stay at his house for a little while. Like a visit.”

  “Moe, too?”

  At the sound of his name, Moe grabbed his beloved tennis ball in his teeth and wedged his wide head under Simon’s arm.

  “Yes, I’m sure Moe could come.”

  “Sweet.” After giving the ball that Moe had dropped at his feet a kick to send the dog chasing it, Simon reached for a grape. “He likes it over there. It’s fun.”

  “We’d be guests, Simon, so you and Moe—” This time she gave the ball a kick. “You’ll have to be on your best behavior.”

  Simon nodded as Moe skidded across the floor, rapped smartly against the back door, then retrieved the ball. “Okay. Will you and Brad sleep in the same bed and have the sex?”

  “What?” It came out in a squeak.

  “Chuck says his parents have it in their bed, and it’s right in the next room. He says his mother makes noises like it hurts.”

  “Oh, my God.”

  Munching grapes, his eyes sharp on his mother’s face, Simon sent the ball and Moe across the room. “Does it hurt?”

  “No,” she said weakly, then cleared her throat. “No, it doesn’t hurt. I think we’d better, you know, pack if we’re—”

  “Then how come she yells and stuff, and makes noises like it does?”

  Zoe could actually feel the blood draining from her face, then flashing back again like fire under the skin. “Well. Um. It’s just that some people get . . .” Oh, please, God, help me out here. “You know how when you’re playing a game or watching one on TV and you’re excited, so you . . . you yell or make noises.”

  “Yeah. Because it’s fun.”

  “Because it’s fun. Sex can be fun, but you have to be old enough, and you need to care about each other and want to share this with each other.”

  “Guys are supposed to wear a condom so you don’t make each other sick or have babies before you want to.” Nodding sagely, Simon finished off the grapes. “Chuck’s father has some in the drawer by his bed.”

  “Simon McCourt, you have no business going into Mr. Barrister’s drawer.”

  “Chuck did. He got one and brought it to show me. They look funny. But Brad has to wear one if he’s going to have the sex with you, so you don’t get sick.”

  “Simon.” She had to close her eyes a moment. “Simon,” she repeated. “We’re not going to stay with Brad so we can have the sex. And when two people, two adults, have the kind of relationship that includes ah, being together that way, it’s very private.”

  “Then Chuck’s mom shouldn’t be s
o loud.”

  Zoe opened her mouth, closed it again, then just laid her head on the table and laughed until she cried.

  WHEN Brad arrived, she had a suitcase packed for each of them, a duffel stuffed with items Simon considered essential to his survival and another filled with what she considered essential to hers. In addition, she had the cooler loaded with perishables from her refrigerator and some of Simon’s favorite cereals and snacks. Beside it was the best part of a twenty-five-pound bag of dog food along with a box crammed with Moe items.

  “Are we going on safari?” Brad asked as he scanned the luggage.

  “You asked for it,” Zoe reminded him.

  He nudged the cooler with his toe. “You know, I actually have food at my place.”

  “This will spoil if it isn’t used. And speaking of spoiling, I don’t want you to feel you have to cater to Simon, or to me, for that matter. He’ll need to have rules and chores just as he does here. If he gets out of line, just let me know and I’ll deal with it.”

  “Anything else?”

  “Yes. I’m happy to fix meals for all of us, and we’ll split the expenses for food.”

  “You want to cook, I’m all for it, but you’re not going to worry about paying for half a loaf of bread.”

  “Don’t you argue. I pay my own way or we don’t go.” She grabbed her coat, shoved her arms through the sleeves. “I won’t pick up after you, but I will pick up after myself and Simon. Whenever you need quiet or privacy, don’t be shy about saying so.”

  “Maybe I should write some of this down.” He patted his pockets as if searching for a notepad. “I’m afraid there’s going to be a quiz.”

  “You may find this hilarious now, but you haven’t lived under the same roof with a nine-year-old boy and a dog before. You may need therapy by the end of the month. So, if you reach a point when you’ve had enough, just say so.”

  “Is that it?”

  “One more thing. Simon and I had a discussion earlier, and I think we need to address—”

  She let it drop as Simon rushed down the stairs with Moe. “Mom, I almost forgot the slime dragon.”

  “Simon, it’s only for a few days. You don’t need to take everything you own.”

  “Let’s have a look.” Brad held out a hand and took the hard plastic dragon. He found the mechanism, pressed it and watched a ribbon of pale green slime slide out of the dragon’s snarling mouth. “Cool.”

  “I give up. Simon, let’s start loading all this in the car.”

  IT took considerable time and persuasion to settle Simon down for the night. Zoe couldn’t blame him for jumping out of his skin with delight and excitement. The room he would use at Brad’s was double the size of the one at home and boasted an entertainment center with its own TV.

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