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Key of light, p.2
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       Key of Light, p.2

         Part #1 of Key series by Nora Roberts
 

  She’d paid too much for the cocktail suit. Of course. But a woman was entitled to a few weaknesses, she reminded herself as she straightened the slim satin lapels. Besides, the slate blue was right for her eyes, and the tailored lines pulled it all together into a style both professional and elegant. She closed her bag, lifted her chin.

  “Okay, Mal, let’s go drum up some business.”

  She stepped out, forced herself not to tiptoe back down the hall to drool over the paintings.

  Her heels clicked briskly on the tile. She always enjoyed the sound of it. Powerful. Female.

  And when she stepped through the first arch to the right, the thrilled gasp escaped before she could block it.

  She’d never seen its like, in or out of a museum. Antiques so lovingly tended that their surfaces gleamed like mirrors; the rich, deep colors that demonstrated an artist’s flair; rugs, pillows, and draperies that were as much art forms as the paintings and statuary were. On the far wall was a fireplace she could have stood in with her arms stretched out at her sides. Framed in malachite, it held enormous logs that snapped with tongues of red and gold fire.

  This was the perfect setting for a woman who looked like she’d stepped out of a faerie tale.

  She wanted to spend hours there, to wallow in all that marvelous color and light. The uneasy woman who had huddled in her car in the rain was long forgotten.

  “It took five minutes for my eyes to stop bugging out of my head after I walked in.”

  Malory jolted, then turned and stared at the woman who stood framed in the side window.

  This one was a brunette, with dense brown hair skimming between her jawline and shoulders in a stylish swing. She was perhaps six full inches taller than Malory’s compact five-four, and had the lush curves to match the height. Both were set off with trim black pants and a knee-length jacket worn over a snug white top.

  She held a champagne flute in one hand and extended the other as she walked across the room. Malory saw that her eyes were deep, dark brown and direct. Her nose was narrow and straight, her mouth wide and unpainted. The faintest hint of dimples fluttered in her cheek when she smiled.

  “I’m Dana. Dana Steele.”

  “Malory Price. Nice to meet you. Great jacket.”

  “Thanks. I was pretty relieved when I saw you drive up. It’s a hell of a place, but I was getting a little spooked rattling around by myself. It’s nearly quarter after.” She tapped the face of her watch. “You’d think some of the other guests would be here by now.”

  “Where’s the woman who met me at the door? Rowena?”

  Dana pursed her lips as she glanced back toward the archway. “She glides in and out, looking gorgeous and mysterious. I’m told our host will be joining us shortly.”

  “Who is our host?”

  “Your guess is as good as mine. Haven’t I seen you?” Dana added. “In the Valley?”

  “Possibly. I manage The Gallery.” For the time being, she thought.

  “That’s it. I’ve come to a couple of showings there. And sometimes I just wander in and look around avariciously. I’m at the library. A reference librarian.”

  They both turned as Rowena walked in. Though glided in, Malory thought, was a better description.

  “I see you’ve introduced yourselves. Lovely. What can I get you to drink, Miss Price?”

  “I’ll have what she’s having.”

  “Perfect.” Even as she spoke, a uniformed maid came in bearing two flutes on a silver tray. “Please help yourselves to the canapés and make yourselves at home.”

  “I hope the weather isn’t keeping your other guests away,” Dana put in.

  Rowena merely smiled. “I’m sure everyone who’s expected will be here shortly. If you’ll excuse me just another moment.”

  “Okay, this is just weird.” Dana picked a canapé at random, discovered it was a lobster puff. “Delicious, but weird.”

  “Fascinating.” Malory sipped her champagne and trailed her fingers over a bronze sculpture of a reclining faerie.

  “I’m still trying to figure out why I got an invitation.” Since they were there, and so was she, Dana sampled another canapé. “No one else at the library got one. No one else I know got one, for that matter. I’m starting to wish I’d talked my brother into coming with me after all. He’s got a good bullshit barometer.”

  Malory found herself grinning. “You don’t sound like any librarian I’ve ever known. You don’t look like one either.”

  “I burned all my Laura Ashley ten years ago.” Dana gave a little shrug. Restless, moving toward irritated, she tapped her fingers on the crystal flute. “I’m going to give this about ten more minutes, then I’m booking.”

  “If you go, I go. I’d feel better heading back into that storm if I drove to the Valley behind someone else.”

  “Same goes.” Dana frowned toward the window, watched the rain beat on the other side of the glass. “Crappy night. And it was an extremely crappy day. Driving all the way here and back in this mess for a couple of glasses of wine and some canapés just about caps it.”

  “You too?” Malory wandered toward a wonderful painting of a masked ball. It made her think of Paris, though she’d never been there except in her dreams. “I only came tonight in hopes of making some contacts for The Gallery. Job insurance,” she added, lifting her glass in a mock toast. “As my job is currently in a very precarious state.”

  “Mine too. Between budget cuts and nepotism, my position was ‘adjusted,’ my hours trimmed back to twenty-five a week. How the hell am I supposed to live on that? And my landlord just announced that my rent’s going up first of next month.”

  “There’s a rattle in my car—and I spent my auto-maintenance budget on these shoes.”

  Dana looked down, pursed her lips. “Terrific shoes. My computer crashed this morning.”

  Enjoying herself, Malory turned away from the painting and raised a brow at Dana. “I called my boss’s new wife a bimbo and then spilled latte on her designer suit.”

  “Okay, you win.” In the spirit of good fellowship, Dana stepped over and clinked her glass against Malory’s. “What do you say we hunt up the Welsh goddess and find out what’s going on around here?”

  “Is that what the accent is? Welsh?”

  “Gorgeous, isn’t it? But be that as it may, I think . . .”

  She trailed off as they heard that distinctive click of high heels on tile.

  The first thing Malory noticed was the hair. It was black and short, with thick bangs cut so blunt they might have required a ruler. Beneath them, the tawny eyes were large and long, making her think of Waterhouse again, and his faeries. She had a triangular face, glowing with what might have been excitement, nerves, or excellent cosmetics.

  The way her fingers kneaded at her little black bag, Malory went with the nerves.

  She wore red, stoplight red, in an abbreviated dress that clung to her curvy body and showed off terrific legs. The heels that had clicked along the tile were a good four inches high and sharp as stilettos.

  “Hi.” Her voice was breathy and her gaze was already flicking around the room. “Um. She said I should come right in.”

  “Join the party. Such as it is. Dana Steele, and my equally baffled companion this evening, Malory Price.”

  “I’m Zoe. McCourt.” She took another cautious step into the room, as if she was waiting for someone to tell her there’d been a mistake and boot her out again. “Holy cow. This place, it’s like a movie. It’s, um, beautiful and all, but I keep expecting that scary guy in the smoking jacket to come in.”

  “Vincent Price? No relation,” Malory said with a grin. “I take it you don’t know any more about what’s going on than we do.”

  “No. I think I got invited by mistake, but—” She broke off, ogling a bit when a servant entered with another flute on a tray. “Ah . . . thanks.” She took the crystal gingerly, then just smiled down at the bubbling wine. “Champagne. It has to be a mistake. But I couldn’
t pass up the chance to come. Where is everybody else?”

  “Good question.” Dana angled her head, charmed and amused as Zoe took a small, testing sip of champagne. “Are you from the Valley?”

  “Yes. Well, for the last couple years.”

  “Three for three,” Malory murmured. “Do you know anyone else who got an invitation for tonight?”

  “No. In fact, I asked around, which is probably why I got fired today. Is that food just to take?”

  “You got fired?” Malory exchanged a look with Dana. “Three for three.”

  “Carly—she owns the salon where I work. Worked,” Zoe corrected herself and walked toward a tray of canapés. “She heard me talking about it with one of my customers and got bent out of shape. Boy, these are terrific.”

  Her voice had lost its breathiness now, and as she appeared to relax, Malory detected the faintest hint of twang.

  “Anyway, Carly’s been gunning for me for months. I guess the invite, seeing as she didn’t get one, put her nose out of joint. Next thing I know, she’s saying there’s twenty missing from the till. I never stole anything in my life. Bitch.”

  She took another, more enthusiastic gulp of champagne. “And then bam! I’m out on my ear. Doesn’t matter. It’s not going to matter. I’ll get another job. I hated working there anyway. God.”

  It mattered, Malory thought. The sparkle in Zoe’s eyes that had as much fear to it as anger said it mattered a great deal. “You’re a hairdresser.”

  “Yeah. Hair and skin consultant, if you want to get snooty. I’m not the type who gets invited to fancy parties at fancy places, so I guess it’s a mistake.”

  Considering, Malory shook her head. “I don’t think someone like Rowena makes mistakes. Ever.”

  “Well, I don’t know. I wasn’t going to come, then I thought it would cheer me up. Then my car wouldn’t start, again. I had to borrow the baby-sitter’s.”

  “You have a baby?” Dana asked.

  “He’s not a baby anymore. Simon’s nine. He’s great. I wouldn’t worry about the job, but I’ve got a kid to support. And I didn’t steal any goddamn twenty dollars—or twenty cents, for that matter. I’m not a thief.”

  She caught herself, flushed scarlet. “Sorry. I’m sorry. Bubbles loosening my tongue, I guess.”

  “Don’t worry about it.” Dana rubbed a hand up and down Zoe’s arm. “You want to hear something strange? My job, and my paycheck, just got cut to the bone. I don’t know what the hell I’m going to do. And Malory thinks she’s about to get the axe at her job.”

  “Really?” Zoe looked from one face to the other. “That’s just weird.”

  “And nobody we know was invited here tonight.” With a wary glance toward the doorway, Malory lowered her voice. “From the looks of things, we’re it.”

  “I’m a librarian, you’re a hairdresser, she runs an art gallery. What do we have in common?”

  “We’re all out of work.” Malory frowned. “Or the next thing to it. That alone is strange when you consider the Valley’s got a population of about five thousand. What are the odds of three women hitting a professional wall the same day in the same little town? Next, we’re all from the Valley. We’re all female, about the same age? Twenty-eight.”

  “Twenty-seven,” Dana said.

  “Twenty-six—twenty-seven in December.” Zoe shivered. “This is just too strange.” Her eyes widened as she looked at her half-empty glass, and she set it hastily aside. “You don’t think there’s anything in there that shouldn’t be, do you?”

  “I don’t think we’re going to be drugged and sold into white slavery.” Dana’s tone was dry, but she set her glass down as well. “People know we’re here, right? My brother knows where I am, and people at work.”

  “My boss, his wife. Your ex-boss,” Malory said to Zoe. “Your baby-sitter. Anyway, this is Pennsylvania, for God’s sake, not, I don’t know, Zimbabwe.”

  “I say we go find the mysterious Rowena and get some answers. We stick together, right?” Dana nodded at Malory, then Zoe.

  Zoe swallowed. “Honey, I’m your new best friend.” To seal it, she took Dana’s hand, then Malory’s.

  “How lovely to see you.”

  Their hands were still joined as they turned and looked at the man who stood in the archway.

  He smiled, stepped inside the room. “Welcome to Warrior’s Peak.”

  Chapter Two

  FOR a moment Malory thought one of the warriors from the gate had come to life. He had the same fierce male beauty in his face, the same powerful build. His hair, black as the storm, waved back in wings from that strong, sculpted face.

  His eyes were midnight blue. She felt the power of them, a flash of heat along her skin, when they met hers.

  She wasn’t a fanciful woman. Anything but, she told herself. But the storm, the house, the sheer ferocity of that gaze made her feel as though he could see everything in her mind. Everything that had ever been in her mind.

  Then his gaze left hers, and the moment passed.

  “I am Pitte. Thank you for gracing what is, for now, our home.”

  He took Malory’s free hand, lifted it to his lips. His touch was cool, the gesture both courtly and dignified. “Miss Price.” She felt Zoe’s fingers go lax on hers, then Pitte was moving to her, lifting her fingers in turn. “Miss McCourt.” And Dana’s. “Miss Steele.”

  A boom of thunder had Malory jolting, and her hand groped for Zoe’s again. He was just a man, she assured herself. It was just a house. And someone had to get everything back on an even keel.

  “You have an interesting home, Mr. Pitte,” she managed.

  “Yes. Won’t you sit? Ah, Rowena. You’ve met my companion.” He took Rowena’s arm when she came to his side.

  They fit, Malory decided, like two halves of a coin.

  “By the fire, I think,” Rowena said, gesturing toward the fireplace. “Such a fierce night. Let’s be comfortable.”

  “I think we’d be more comfortable if we understood what’s going on.” Dana planted her high-heeled boots and stood her ground. “Why we were asked here.”

  “Certainly. But the fire’s so lovely. There’s nothing quite like good champagne, good fellowship, and a nice fire on a stormy night. Tell me, Miss Price, what do you think of what you’ve seen of our art collection?”

  “Impressive. Eclectic.” With a glance back at Dana, Malory let Rowena lead her toward a chair near the fire. “You must have spent considerable time on it.”

  Rowena’s laugh rippled like fog over water. “Oh, considerable. Pitte and I appreciate beauty, in all its forms. In fact, you could say we revere it. As you must, given your choice of profession.”

  “Art is its own reason.”

  “Yes. It’s the light in every shadow. And Pitte, we must make certain Miss Steele sees the library before the evening’s over. I hope you’ll approve.” She gestured absently at the servant who entered with a crystal champagne bucket. “What would the world be without books?”

  “Books are the world.” Curious, cautious, Dana sat.

  “I think there’s been a mistake.” Zoe hung back, looking from face to face. “I don’t know anything about art. Not real art. And books—I mean, I read, but—”

  “Please, sit.” Pitte nudged her gently into a chair. “Be at home. I trust your son is well.”

  She stiffened, and those tawny eyes went tiger-bright. “Simon’s fine.”

  “Motherhood’s a kind of art, don’t you think, Miss McCourt? A work in progress of the most essential, most vital kind. One that requires valor and heart.”

  “Do you have children?”

  “No. I haven’t been given that gift.” His hand brushed Rowena’s as he spoke, then he lifted his glass. “To life. And all its mysteries.” His eyes gleamed over the rim of the glass. “There’s no need to fear. No one here wishes you anything but health, happiness, and success.”

  “Why?” Dana demanded. “You don’t know us, though you seem to know a great dea
l more about us than we do about you.”

  “You’re a seeker, Miss Steele. An intelligent, straightforward woman who looks for answers.”

  “I’m not getting any.”

  He smiled. “It’s my fondest hope that you’ll find all the answers. To begin, I’d like to tell you a story. It seems a night for stories.”

  He settled back. Like Rowena’s, his voice was musical and strong, faintly exotic. The sort, Malory thought, designed for telling tales on stormy nights.

  Because of it, she relaxed a little. What else did she have to do, after all, besides sit in a fantastic house by a roaring fire and listen to a strange, handsome man weave a tale while she sipped champagne?

  It beat eating takeout while reconciling her checkbook hands down.

  And if she could wheedle a tour of the place, and nudge Pitte toward The Gallery as a vehicle to expand his art collection, she might just save her job.

  So she settled back as well and prepared to enjoy herself.

  “Long ago, in a land of great mountains and rich forests, lived a young god. He was his parents’ only child, and well beloved. He was gifted with a handsome face and strength of heart and muscle. He was destined to rule one day, as his father before him, and so he was reared to be the god-king, cool in judgment, swift in action.

  “There was peace in this world, since gods had walked there. Beauty, music and art, stories and dance were everywhere. For as long as memory—and a god’s memory is infinite—there had been harmony and balance in this place.”

  He paused to sip his wine, his gaze tracking slowly from face to face. “From behind the Curtain of Power, through the veil of the Curtain of Dreams, they would look on the world of mortals. Lesser gods were permitted to mix and mate with those of the mortal realm at their whim, and so became the faeries and sprites, the sylphs and other creatures of magic. Some found the mortal world more to their tastes and peopled it. Some, of course, were corrupted by the powers, by the world of mortals, and turned to darker ways. Such is the way of nature, even of gods.”

  Pitte eased forward to top a thin cracker with caviar. “You’ve heard stories of magic and sorcery, the faerie tales and fantasies. As one of the guardians of stories and books, Miss Steele, do you consider how such tales become part of the culture, what root of truth they spring from?

  “To give someone, or something, a power greater than our own. To feed our need for heroes and villains and romance.” Dana shrugged, though she was already fascinated. “If, for instance, Arthur of the Celts existed as a warrior king, as many scholars and scientists believe, how much more enthralling, more potent, is his image if we see him in Camelot, with Merlin. If he was conceived with the aid of sorcery, and crowned high king as a young boy who pulled a magic sword out of a stone.”

  “I love that story,” Zoe put in. “Well, except for the end. It seemed so unfair. But I think . . .”

  “Please,” Pitte said, “go on.”

  “Well, I sort of think that maybe magic did exist once, before we educated ourselves out of it. I don’t mean education’s bad,” she said quickly, squirming as everyone’s attention focused on her. “I just mean maybe we, um, locked it away because we started needing logical and scientific answers for everything.”

  “Well said.” Rowena nodded. “A child often tucks his toys in the back of the closet, forgetting the wonder of them as he grows to manhood. Do you believe in wonder, Miss McCourt?”

  “I have a nine-year-old son,” Zoe replied. “All I have to do is look at him to believe in wonder. I wish you’d call me Zoe.”

  Rowena’s face lit with warmth. “Thank you. Pitte?”

  “Ah, yes, to continue the tale. As was the tradition, upon reaching his majority the young god was sent beyond the Curtain for one week, to walk among the mortals, to learn their ways, to study their weaknesses and strengths, their virtues and flaws. It happened that he saw a young woman, a maid of great beauty and virtue. And seeing, loved, and loving, wanted. And though she was denied to him by the rules of his world, he pined for her. He grew listless, restless, unhappy. He would not eat or drink, nor did he find any appeal in all the young goddesses offered to him. His parents, disturbed at seeing their son so distressed, weakened. They would not give their son to the mortal world, but they brought the maid to theirs.”

  “They kidnapped her?” Malory interrupted.

  “They could have done.” Rowena filled the flutes again. “But love cannot be stolen. It’s a choice. And the young god wished for love.”

 
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