Key of valor, p.2
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       Key of Valor, p.2
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         Part #3 of Key series by Nora Roberts

  “Because we’re a team.”

  “Yeah, we’re a great team.”

  She paused at the open gates of Warrior’s Peak.

  The gates were flanked by two stone warriors, hands ready on the hilts of their swords. They looked so fierce to her, so formidable. Connections? she thought. What connection could someone like her have to warriors at the gate?

  Still, taking a deep breath, Zoe drove through.

  “Holy cow,” Simon said beside her.

  “And then some.”

  She understood his reaction to the house. Hers had been the same wide-eyed, slack-jawed stare the first time she’d seen it up close.

  Though “house,” she supposed, was too ordinary a word for the Peak. Part castle, part fortress, it stood high over the Valley, rose up like the majestic hills and ruled them. Its peaks and towers were made of black stone with gargoyles perched on eaves as if they might leap, not so playfully, at their whim. It was a massive place, surrounded by lush lawns that slid into thick woods gone shadowy with evening.

  High on the topmost tower flew a white flag with the emblem of a golden key.

  The sun was setting behind it, so the canvas of the sky was streaked with red and gold, adding yet another layer of drama.

  Soon the sky would be black, Zoe thought, with only the thinnest sliver of moon. Tomorrow was the first night of the new moon, the beginning of her quest.

  “It’s really something inside, too. Like something you’d see in a movie. Don’t touch anything.”


  “I’m nervous. Give me a break.” She drove slowly toward the entrance. “But, really, don’t touch anything in there.”

  She stopped the car, and hoped she wasn’t the first, or the last, to arrive, then took out a lipstick to replace what she’d worried off since leaving home. Automatically, she flicked her fingers over the ruler-straight ends of the hair she now wore shorter than her son’s.

  “You look good, okay? Can we go?”

  “I want us to look great.” She caught his chin in her hand, and used the comb she’d plucked out of her purse to tidy his hair while he crossed his eyes at her. “If you don’t like what they give us for dinner, just pretend to eat it, but don’t say you don’t like it, or make those gagging noises. I’ll fix you something else when we get home.”

  “Can we go by McDonald’s?”

  “We’ll see. We’re fine. We’re great. Okay.” She dropped the comb back in her purse and started to open the car door.

  The old man who greeted guests and took care of their cars was there to do it for her. He always made her jump. “Oh. Thank you.”

  “My pleasure, Miss. Good evening to you.”

  Simon gave him a long study. “Hi.”

  “Hello, young master.”

  Liking the title, Simon grinned at him and walked closer. “Are you one of the magic people?”

  The creases in the old face deepened and shifted into a broad smile. “It might be I am. What would you think of that?”

  “Sweet. But how come you’re so old?”


  “It’s a good question, Miss,” he said in response to Zoe’s horrified hiss. “I’m so old because I’ve had the pleasure of living a long time. I wish you the same pleasure.” He leaned down with a creak of bones until his face was level with Simon’s. “Would you like to know a true thing?”


  “We’re all of us magic people, but some know it and some don’t.”

  He straightened again. “I’ll see to your car, Miss. Have a nice evening.”

  “Thank you.” She took Simon’s hand and walked to the portico and the twin entrance doors. They opened before she could knock, and there was Rowena.

  Her flame-tipped hair tumbled gloriously over the shoulders of a long dress the green of forest shadows. A silver pendant hung between her breasts, its clear center stone winking in the sparkling light of the entrance hall.

  As always, her beauty was a quick shock, like an electric jolt.

  She held out a hand in welcome to Zoe, but her eyes—a bolder, richer green than her gown—were all for Simon.

  “Welcome.” There was a lilt to her voice, echoing those of the foreign lands Zoe had once longed to see. “It’s good to see you again. And such a pleasure to meet you, Simon, at last.”

  “Simon, this is Miss Rowena.”

  “Just Rowena, please, for I hope we’ll be friends. Come in, won’t you?” She kept Zoe’s hand in hers, and touched the other to Simon’s shoulder.

  “I hope we’re not late.”

  “No, not at all.” Rowena stepped back, leading the way over the tile floor with its colorful mosaics. “Most of the others are here, but Malory and Flynn haven’t yet arrived. We’re in the parlor. Tell me, Simon, do you like calf’s liver and brussels sprouts?”

  He made gagging noises before he remembered his mother’s order, but even as he caught himself Zoe was flushing. And Rowena’s laugh flowed around them. “Since I feel exactly the same, it’s fortunate they’re not on the menu tonight. Our latest arrivals,” she announced as she stepped into the parlor. “Pitte, come meet young Master McCourt.”

  Simon slid his gaze up to his mother, nudged her with his elbow. “Master,” he said with great satisfaction, out of the corner of his mouth.

  Rowena’s lover matched her in looks. His powerful warrior’s build was garbed in an elegant dark suit. His mane of black hair swept back from a strong face where the bones seemed carved under the flesh. His eyes, a brilliant blue, studied Simon as he lifted one elegant brow and extended a hand.

  “Good evening, Mr. McCourt. And what can I offer you to drink?”

  “Can I have a Coke?”


  “Please, be at home.” Rowena gestured.

  Dana had already risen to cross the room. “Hey, Simon. How’s it going?”

  “Fine. Except I lost a buck because that guy and Brad are wearing suits.”

  “Bad luck.”

  “I’m going to go talk to Brad, okay, Mom?”

  “All right, but—” She sighed as he dashed off. “Don’t touch anything,” she added under her breath.

  “He’ll be fine. How about you?”

  “I don’t know.” She looked at her friend, one of the people she’d come to trust completely. The dark brown eyes looked back at hers with an understanding that only one other person could have. “I guess I’m a little wound up. Let’s not think about it yet. You look great.”

  It was perfectly true. The dense brown hair fell in a sleek, swinging bell two inches below Dana’s strong chin. It was a good look for her, if Zoe, who’d styled it, said so herself.

  It relieved her that Dana had chosen a brick-colored jacket over the more formal black.

  “Even better,” she added, “you look happy.” She lifted Dana’s left hand to admire the square-cut ruby. “Jordan has great taste in jewelry, and in fiancées.”

  “Can’t argue with that.” Dana glanced back toward the sofa, where Jordan and Pitte were talking.

  They looked, she thought, very much like the warriors who flanked the gates. “I got me a big, handsome guy.”

  They looked wonderful together, Zoe thought. Dana’s sexy amazon build, Jordan’s tall, muscled frame. Whatever happened, or didn’t, Zoe was glad they’d found each other again.

  “I thought you would enjoy a glass of champagne.” Rowena stepped over, offering Zoe bubbling wine in a carved crystal flute.


  “Your son is beautiful.”

  Nerves took a backseat to pride. “Yes, he is. The most beautiful thing in my life.”

  “That makes you a wealthy woman.” Rowena touched a hand to her arm and smiled. “He and Bradley appear to be fast friends.”

  “They hit it off,” Zoe agreed.

  She didn’t know what to think about it; it seemed so unlikely. Yet there they were, huddled together across the room, obviously in some deep discuss
ion. The man in the elegant slate-gray suit and the boy in his dark brown one that was already—God—a smidgeon too small for him.

  It seemed odd that Simon should be so easy with the man while she was so uneasy with him. She and her son were usually in tandem.

  Then Brad glanced over and his eyes, nearly the exact color of his suit, met hers.

  Oh, yeah, she thought, there was the reason. This was the only person of her and Simon’s acquaintance who could have bats doing cartwheels in her stomach with just one look.

  He was too handsome, he was too rich, he was too everything. Way, way out of your league, Zoe, and we’ve already been there once.

  Bradley Charles Vane IV made James Marshall look like a yokel, in every possible way. The Vane fortune, built with lumber, spreading its commerce across the country with its top-rated HomeMakers chain of stores, made Brad a powerful and privileged man.

  His looks—the dark gold hair, the sooty eyes and sorcerer’s mouth—made him, in her opinion, a dangerous one. He had the toned, rangy build made for those designer suits. Long legs that she imagined could eat up ground quickly on his way out the door.

  Plus, she found him unpredictable. He could be arrogant and cool one minute, hot and bossy the next, then surprisingly sweet.

  She didn’t trust a man she couldn’t predict.

  Yet she trusted him with Simon, so that was another puzzle. He would never hurt her boy. She was down to the gut certain of that. Nor could she deny that he was good with him, good to him.

  Still, when Brad rose to walk toward her, every muscle in her body went tight.

  “Doing okay?”

  “I’m fine.”

  “So, you told Simon what was going on.”

  “He has a right to know. I—”

  “You might want to stop the leap down my throat so I can tell you I agree with you. He not only has the right, but his mind’s bright and agile enough to deal with it.”

  “Oh.” She stared down into her glass. “Sorry. I’m a little nervous.”

  “Maybe it’ll help to remember you’re not in this alone.”

  As he spoke there was a commotion in the hall. An instant later, Moe, Flynn’s big black disaster of a dog, bounded into the room. He gave a delighted bark, then charged toward the tray of canapés on a low table.

  Flynn and Malory rushed in in his wake, followed by a laughing Rowena. There were shouts, more barks, and one unfortunate crash.

  “In fact,” Brad added as he watched the ensuing chaos, “you’ll be lucky to find five minutes to be alone with this crew.”

  Chapter Two

  IT turned out that Zoe was the one who had to pretend to eat. Not because of the food, but because she simply couldn’t relax. It was difficult to swallow when your stomach was tied up in one hard and messy knot.

  She’d eaten in this dining room before, with its soaring ceilings and roaring fire. She knew how lovely everything looked under the lights of the chandeliers and the glow of candles.

  But this time she knew without a doubt the way the evening would end. It wouldn’t be a matter of a lottery. It wouldn’t be the luck of the draw, with her and Malory and Dana reaching into the carved box to see which one of them pulled out the disk with the emblem of the key inscribed on it.

  Both Malory and Dana had taken their turns, and had succeeded, against what Zoe had come to realize were astronomical odds. They had found their keys. They’d triumphed, and two locks had been opened.

  She’d helped them. She knew she’d contributed ideas, support, even comfort. But when push came to shove, she understood that the burden had been on each of them, in turn. In the end, both Malory and Dana had had to reach deep inside themselves every bit as much as they’d had to reach for the tangible key.

  Now it was her burden, her risk. Her chance.

  She had to be brave enough, smart enough, strong enough, or everything they’d done before her would be for nothing.

  It was difficult to swallow even wonderfully prepared roast pork when that was stuck in her throat.

  Conversation flowed around the table, as if it was just a normal dinner party with sociable friends. Malory and Flynn sat directly across from her. Malory had scooped her hair up and back so that the burnt-gold curls tumbled behind and left her girl-next-door face unframed. Her big blue eyes were full of excitement and laughter as she spoke about the work they were doing on Indulgence.

  Every now and again Flynn would touch her—the back of her hand, her arm—in a casual glad-you’re-here, glad-you’re-mine kind of way that warmed Zoe’s heart.

  To keep her mind occupied with easier things, she decided she would have to talk him into letting her have a go at his hair. It was a great, rich brown with hints of chestnut, very full and thick. But with a few snips here and there, she could improve the cut and still leave him with that easy, tousled look that suited the lean lines of his face, the shape of those dark green eyes.

  Letting her mind wander, she mentally clipped and styled her way around the table.

  She jolted when Brad nudged her foot under the table. “What?”

  “You’re needed on this planet.”

  “I was just thinking, that’s all.”

  “And not eating,” he pointed out.

  Annoyed, she stabbed a bite of pork. “Yes, I am.”

  Her voice was tight, her body stiff. He couldn’t blame her. But he thought he knew one sure way of loosening her up again. “Simon seems to be having the time of his life.”

  She glanced over. Rowena had placed Simon beside her, and even now they were holding what appeared to be an intense, almost intimate conversation while Simon plowed through the food on his plate.

  There’d be no need for that stop at McDonald’s, Zoe thought with a smile.

  “He makes friends easily. Even with magic people.”

  “Magic people?” Brad repeated.

  “That’s how he thinks of them. He’s taken all this in, and thinks it’s cool.”

  “It is cool. Nothing much cooler for a kid than the battle between good and evil. A little more problematic for you.”

  She stabbed another slice of pork, moved it from one side of her plate to the other. “Malory and Dana did it. So can I.”

  “That’s my take.” He continued to eat as she frowned at him. “So, have you ordered the replacement windows for Indulgence yet?”


  He nodded as if that were news to him. He didn’t think she would care for the fact that he’d given instructions at HomeMakers that he was to be notified whenever she came in or placed an order. “Some of the trim’s going to have to be replaced. I can swing by and help you with that.”

  “You don’t have to bother. I can do it.”

  “I like to work with wood when I have a chance.” He smiled easily, in a look that was casual, friend to friend. “It’s in the blood. How about the lighting? Did you decide?”

  He’d succeeded in distracting her, he noted. She might not have been thrilled to have been hooked into a conversation with him, but she wasn’t thinking about the key right now. And she was eating.

  He was crazy about her. Or maybe just plain crazy. It wasn’t as if the lady gave him any encouragement. She’d been prickly and cold since the first time he’d met her, nearly two months ago. Except for the single time he’d managed to catch her off guard and kiss her.

  Nothing cold or prickly about that interlude, Brad remembered, and hoped she’d been just as surprised and unnerved by the experience as he had been.

  Even now, if he let himself, he could build a very entertaining fantasy about doing little more than pressing his lips to the base of that lovely, long neck.

  Then there was the kid. Simon had been the big bonus prize in this particular box of Cracker Jacks. Fun, bright, interesting, the boy was a complete pleasure. Even if he hadn’t been attracted to the mother, Brad would have spent time with the son.

  The problem was, Simon was a lot more cooperative about spending
time with him than Zoe was. So far. But Bradley Charles Vane IV had never given up on anything he wanted without a fight.

  As he saw it, there were a number of battles about to be waged, and he intended to take an active part in all of them. He was here for her, and she’d just have to get used to it. He was here to help her. And he was here to have her.

  Her brows drew together, and whatever she’d been saying about wiring and lighting systems dribbled to a halt. “Why are you looking at me like that?”

  “Like what?”

  She leaned toward him just a tad—away, Brad noted, from her son’s sharp ears. “Like you’re about to take a bite out of me instead of what’s left of your scalloped potatoes.”

  He leaned toward her, close enough to see her flinch. “I am going to take a bite out of you, Zoe. Just not right here and now.”

  “I’ve got enough to think about without worrying about you.”

  “You’ll have to make room.” He laid a hand over hers before she could draw away. “And think about this. Flynn was part of Malory’s quest. Jordan was part of Dana’s. Do the math, Zoe. We’re the only ones left.”

  “I’m really good at math.” She tugged her hand free because the contact made her twitchy. “And the way I count it, I’m the one who’s left.”

  “I guess we’ll see who’s better at adding and subtracting very soon.”

  He left it at that and finished his wine.

  BACK in the parlor, where they found coffee and wedges of apple pie thick enough to make even Simon’s eyes bug out, Malory rubbed a comforting hand up and down Zoe’s back. “Are you ready for this?”

  “I’ve got to be, don’t I?”

  “You’ve got us all with you. We’re a good team.”

  “The best. It’s just that I thought I’d be prepared. I’ve had the most time to get prepared. I didn’t think I’d be this scared.”

  “It was easiest for me.”

  “How can you say that?” Baffled, Zoe shook her head. “You went into this knowing almost nothing.”

  “Exactly. And you’ve got everything we’ve learned and experienced in the last two months running around in your head.” Her smile sympathetic, Malory gave Zoe’s hand a squeeze. “Plenty of it’s scary. And there’s more. When we started this we weren’t as involved. With each other, with Rowena and Pitte, with the daughters. Everything matters more now than it did two months ago.”

  Zoe let out a shaky breath. “You’re not making me feel any better.”

  “I don’t mean to. You’ve got a big load to carry, Zoe, and sometimes you’re going to have to carry it yourself, no matter how much we want to take some of it off your hands.”

  Malory looked up, pleased to see Dana coming toward them.

  “What’s up?” Dana asked.

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