Key of light, p.20
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       Key of Light, p.20

         Part #1 of Key series by Nora Roberts
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  “Is he my man?” Before Rowena could speak, Malory shook her head. “First things first. Why was I taken behind the Curtain?”

  “He wanted to show you his power.”

  “Who is he?”

  Rowena hesitated, then when Pitte nodded, continued. “He is Kane, a sorcerer. The dark one.”

  “The one in the shadows, the one I saw in my dream. The stealer of souls.”

  “He showed himself to you so you would be frightened. There’s no need to frighten you unless you can succeed.”

  “Why did he hurt Flynn?”

  “Because you love him.”

  “Do I?” Malory’s voice thickened with emotion. “Or have I been made to think I do? Is that just one more trick?”

  “Ah.” Rowena let out a soft breath. “Perhaps you’re not as close as I thought. Don’t you know your own heart, Malory?”

  “I’ve known him two weeks, and I feel as if my life will never be quite right if he’s not in it. But is it real? At the end of my four weeks, will I still feel that way?” She pressed a hand to her heart. “Or will it be taken away from me? Is it any worse to have your soul taken from you than your heart?”

  “I think not, for one feeds the other. And I can’t give you the answer, because you already have it. If you choose to look.”

  “Then tell me this. Will he be safe if I step away from him? If I close my heart to him, will he be safe?”

  “You’d give him up to protect him?” Pitte asked.

  “Yes.”

  Thoughtful, he walked to the lacquered cabinet, opened it to take out a bottle of brandy. “And you’d tell him this?”

  “No, he’d never—”

  “Ah, so you would deceive him.” With a small smile, Pitte poured brandy into a snifter. “And justify the lie by saying that it was for his own good. Women, whatever their world, are predictable,” he said, with a mocking bow to Rowena.

  “Love,” she corrected, “is a constant force in any universe. Your decisions, your choices, must be yours,” she told Malory. “But your man won’t thank you for any sacrifice you make to protect him.” She gave Pitte a mocking bow in turn. “They never do. Go now.” She touched a hand to Malory’s cheek. “Rest your mind a while, until you can think clearly with it. And you have my word, whatever can be done to keep you, your man, your friends safe will be done.”

  “I don’t know them.” She pointed to the portrait. “But I know those people outside. You should know, if it comes down to a choice, I’ll choose those I know.”

  Pitte waited until they were alone before bringing Rowena a second snifter. “I have loved you through time and through worlds.”

  “And I you, my heart.”

  “But I’ve never understood you. You could have answered her question about love and eased her mind.”

  “She’ll be the wiser, and the happier, for finding the answer herself. How much can we do for them?”

  He leaned down, pressed his lips to her brow. “Our best.”

  Chapter Fourteen

  SHE needed time, Malory admitted. She’d been on a roller coaster since the first of the month, and though there’d been a thrill in riding those fast dips and sharp turns, she needed a break.

  Nothing in her life was the same as it had been, she thought as she let herself into her apartment. She’d always counted on consistency, and that single element had slipped through her fingers.

  Or been tossed aside on impulse.

  She didn’t have The Gallery. She wasn’t completely certain she had her sanity. On one of those dips and turns, she’d stopped being sensible, dependable Malory Price and had become irrational, emotional, fanciful Malory Price—a woman who believed in magic, in love at first sight.

  All right, maybe third sight, she corrected as she closed her curtains and crawled onto her bed. But it was the same thing, essentially.

  She’d taken money that could have seen her through several lean months and invested it in an enterprise with two women she’d known for less than four weeks.

  And trusted implicitly, she decided. Without reservation.

  She was about to embark on a business of her own, without any stock, any solid plan, any safety net. Against all logic, the idea of it made her happy.

  And still her head was pounding, her stomach churning. Over the thought that she might not be in love at all. That the blissful confidence and pleasure she felt in Flynn was only an illusion.

  If the illusion shattered, she was afraid she would grieve for the rest of her life.

  She bunched the pillow under her head, curled into a ball, and begged for sleep.

  IT was sunny and warm when she woke, and the air smelled like summer roses. She snuggled in for a moment. Warm sheets carrying the faint scent of her man, the soft drift of silence.

  She rolled over lazily, blinked. Something odd hung over her mind. Not really unpleasant, just odd.

  The dream. The strangest dream.

  She sat up and stretched, feeling the healthy pull of muscles. Naked, and easy with it, she slid out of bed, sniffed the butter-yellow roses on the dresser before picking up her robe. She paused by the window to admire her garden, draw in the fragrant air. She pushed the window open wider and let the sound of birdsong follow her out of the room.

  The odd feeling was already fading—as a dream does on waking—as she glided down the stairs, trailing a hand over the silky wood of the banister. Jewel lights from the window over the door played on the floor. More flowers, exotic sprays of white orchids, speared out of the antique vase on the entrance table.

  His keys were tossed beside them, in the little mosaic bowl she’d bought just for that purpose.

  She wound her way through the house to the kitchen, then grinned. He was at the stove, sliding a battered slice of bread into the skillet. There was a tray beside him, already topped with a flute of sparkling juice, a single rose in a bud vase, her pretty coffee cup.

  The back door was open. Through it, she could hear the birds continuing to sing and the dog’s occasional happy barks. Blissful, she crept forward, then wrapped her arms around his waist, pressed a kiss to the nape of his neck.

  “Watch it. My wife could wake up any minute.”

  “Let’s risk it.”

  He turned, caught her up in a long, hard kiss. Her heart leaped, her blood fired, even as she thought, Perfect. It’s all so perfect.

  “I was going to surprise you.” Flynn ran his hands over her back as he eased her away. “Breakfast in bed. The Hennessy Special.”

  “Make it a better surprise, and have breakfast in bed with me.”

  “I could probably be persuaded. Hold on.” He grabbed a spatula, flipped the bread over.

  “Mmm. It’s after eight. You shouldn’t have let me sleep so late.”

  “I didn’t let you get much sleep last night.” He winked at her. “Seemed only fair to let you catch a little this morning. You’ve been working so hard, Mal, getting ready for your show.”

  “I’m nearly done.”

  “And when it’s over, I’m going to take my incredibly beautiful and talented wife on a well-deserved vacation. Do you remember that week we spent in Florence?”

  Sun-drenched days, love-drenched nights. “How could I forget? Are you sure you can take the time off? I’m not the only one who’s been busy around here.”

  “We’ll make time.” He flipped the French toast onto a plate. “Why don’t you grab the paper, and we’ll crawl back into bed for an hour . . . or two.”

  Sleepy cries began to sound from the baby monitor on the counter. Flynn glanced toward it. “Or maybe not.”

  “I’ll get him. Meet me upstairs.”

  She hurried up, part of her mind acknowledging the paintings lining the walls. The street scene she’d done in Florence, the seascape from the Outer Banks, the portrait of Flynn sitting at his desk in his office.

  She turned toward the nursery. The walls there were decorated with her paintings as well. The bright faerie-tale scene
s she’d done the entire time she’d been pregnant.

  And in the crib with its glossy spindle bars, her little boy cried impatiently for attention.

  “There now, sweetheart. Mama’s right here.” She picked him up, cuddled him close.

  He would have his father’s hair, she thought, as she cooed and swayed. It was already coming in dark, with those hints of chestnut shining through when the light caught it.

  He was so perfect. So absolutely perfect.

  But as she carried him toward the changing table, her legs went weak.

  What was his name? What was her baby’s name? Panicked, she clutched him close, then whirled as she heard Flynn come to the door.

  “You look so beautiful, Malory. I love you.”

  “Flynn.” Something was wrong with her eyes. It was as if she could see through him, as if he were fading away. “Something’s wrong.”

  “Nothing’s wrong. Everything’s exactly right. Everything’s just the way you wanted it to be.”

  “It’s not real, is it?” Tears began to sting her eyes. “It’s not real.”

  “It could be.”

  A light flashed, and she was standing in a studio awash with light. Canvases were stacked against the walls or rested on easels. She faced another, brilliant with color and shape. A brush was in her hand, and she was already daubing it on her palette.

  “I’ve done this,” she whispered as she stared at the canvas. It was a forest, misty with green light. The figure walking on the path was alone. Not lonely, she thought, but solitary. There was home at the end of the path, and a bit of time yet to enjoy the quiet and the magic of the woods.

  Her hand had done that. Her mind, her heart. She could feel it, just as she could feel and remember every brushstroke on every canvas in the room.

  The power of that, the glory of it with all its pain and pleasure.

  “I can do this.” With a kind of frantic glee, she continued to paint. “I have to do this.”

  The joy was like a drug, and she was greedy for it. She knew how to mix just the right tone of color, when to sweep it on, when to switch for the fine, fine details.

  How to create that light, that shadow so one might feel as if he or she could slip inside, walk that path, and find home at the end of it.

  But even as she painted, tears began to run down her cheeks. “It’s not real.”

  “It could be.”

  The brush clattered to the floor, splattering paint, as she whirled.

  He stood beside her, with the sun’s rays flooding over him. And still he was dark. His hair, black and glossy, spread like wings to his shoulders. His eyes were a strong stone gray. Sharp, high cheekbones hollowed his cheeks, and his mouth was full, appealingly wicked.

  Beautiful, she thought. How could he be beautiful?

  “Did you think I’d look like a demon? Like something out of a nightmare?” His amusement only added charm. “Why should I? They’ve made you think poorly of me, haven’t they?”

  “You’re Kane.” Fear was alive in her, with its cold hands closing around her throat. “You stole the souls from the Daughters of Glass.”

  “It needn’t concern you.” His voice was beautiful as well. Melodic, soothing. “You’re an ordinary woman in an ordinary world. You know nothing of me or mine. I wish you no harm. The opposite, in fact.” With a dancer’s grace, he wandered the room, his soft boots silent on the paint-splattered floor. “This is your work.”

  “No.”

  “Oh, yes, you know it.” He lifted a canvas, studied the sinuous lines of a mermaid lounging on a rock. “You remember painting this, and the others. You know now how it feels to have that power. Art makes gods out of men.” He set the canvas down again. “Or women. What are we, in my world, but artists and bards, magicians and warriors? You want to keep the power, Malory?”

  She swiped at the tears, saw her work through them. “Yes.”

  “You can have it, all of it, and more. The man you want, the life, the family. I’ll give them to you. The child you held in your arms? It can all be real, it can all belong to you.”

  “At what price?”

  “So little.” He slid a finger over her damp cheek, and the tear he stole flamed on its tip. “So very little. You’ve only to stay within this dream. To wake and sleep within it, to walk, to speak, to eat, to love. All you can wish for will be here for you. Perfection—without pain, without death.”

  She let out a shuddering breath. “There are no keys in this dream.”

  “You’re a clever woman. Why care about keys, about bastard goddesses who have nothing to do with you? Why risk yourself and those you love for foolish girls who should never have been born? Would you give up your own dream for strangers?”

  “I don’t want a dream. I want my life. I won’t trade my life for your illusions.”

  His skin went white, his eyes black. “Then lose all!”

  She screamed as he reached for her, and again when the cold speared through her. Then she was pulled clear, tumbled free, to wake gasping in her own bed.

  She heard the banging on the door, the shouting. Terror leaped out of bed with her. She made it to the living room at a stumbling run and spotted Flynn on the other side of her patio doors, about to smash one of her chairs through the glass.

  He tossed it aside as she unlocked the door, shoved it open.

  “Who’s in here?” He grabbed her shoulders, lifted her right off her feet, and set her out of his way. “Who hurt you?”

  “Nobody’s here.”

  “You were screaming. I heard you screaming.” He strode into the bedroom, fists ready.

  “I had a nightmare. It was just a bad dream. No one’s here but me. I have to sit down.” She braced a hand on the couch, lowered herself.

  His own legs felt a little shaky. She’d screamed as if something was tearing her to pieces. He’d had a good taste of terror the night before, but it had been nothing compared to what had pumped into him on the other side of that glass door.

  He marched into the kitchen, poured a glass of water. “Here, drink some. Take it slow.”

  “I’ll be okay in a minute. I woke up, and you were pounding and shouting. Everything’s still confused.”

  “You’re trembling.” He glanced around, spotted a chenille throw. Wrapping it around her shoulders, he sat on the couch beside her. “Tell me about the dream.”

  She shook her head. “No. I don’t want to talk about it, or think about it right now. I just want to be alone for a while. I don’t want you here.”

  “That’s the second time today you’ve said that to me. But this time you’re not getting your way. In fact, I’m calling Jordan and letting him know I’m staying here tonight.”

  “This is my apartment. Nobody stays here unless I invite them.”

  “Wrong again. Get undressed, get in bed. I’ll make you some soup or something.”

  “I don’t want soup, I don’t want you. And I certainly don’t want to be coddled.”

  “Then what the hell do you want?” He lunged to his feet, vibrating with fury and frustration. “One minute you’re all over me, telling me you’re in love with me, you want to spend your life with me. Then the next you want me to hit the road. I’m sick to death of women and their mixed signals and capricious minds and their goddamn expectations of me. Right now, you’re going to do what I want, and that’s getting into bed while I make you something to eat.”

  She stared at him. A dozen vile and vicious words leaped into her throat. And she lost them all in a burst of tears.

  “Oh, Christ.” Flynn scrubbed his hands over his face. “Nice job. Take a bow, Hennessy.”

  He stalked to the window, stared out while she wept wildly behind him. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what to do about you. I can’t keep up. You don’t want me here, fine. I’ll call Dana. But I don’t want you to be alone.”

  “I don’t know what to do about me either.” She reached in the drawer for a pack of tissues. “If I’ve sent you mixed
signals, it hasn’t been deliberately.” She mopped at her face, but the tears simply wouldn’t stop. “I don’t have a capricious mind—at least I never used to. And I don’t know what my goddamn expectations of you are. I don’t even know what my goddamn expectations are of me anymore. I used to. I’m scared. I’m scared of what’s happening around me and inside me. And I’m scared because I don’t know what’s real. I don’t know if you’re actually standing over there.”

  He came back, sat beside her again. “I’m here,” he said as he took her hand firmly in his. “This is real.”

  “Flynn.” She steadied herself by staring at their joined hands. “All my life I’ve wanted certain things. I wanted to paint. For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be an artist. A wonderful artist. I studied, and I worked. And I never came close. I don’t have the gift.”

  She closed her eyes. “It hurt, more than I can tell you, to accept that.” Steadier, she let out a breath, looked at him. “The best I could do was work with art, to be around it, to find some purpose for this love.” She fisted a hand on her heart. “And that I was good at.”

  “Don’t you think there’s something noble about doing what we’re really good at, even if it wasn’t our first choice?”

  “That’s a nice thought. But it’s hard to set a dream aside. I guess you know that.”

  “Yeah, I know that.”

  “The other thing I wanted was to love someone, to be loved by him. Absolutely. To know when I went to bed at night, woke in the morning, that this someone was with me. Understood me and wanted me. I never had much luck with that one either. I might meet someone, and we’d seem to click. But it never got inside me. I never felt that leap, or the burn that eases into that wonderful, spreading warmth. When you just know this is the one you were waiting for. Until you. Don’t say anything,” she said quickly. “I need to finish.”

  She picked up the water again, soothed her throat. “When you wait all your life for something and then you find it, it’s like a miracle. All the parts inside you that’ve been on hold, they open up and start beating. You were okay before, you were good. You had purpose and direction, and everything was just fine. But now it’s more. You can’t explain what that more is, but you know, if you lose it, you’ll never be able to fill those empty spaces in just the same way again. Not ever. That’s terrifying. I’m afraid that what’s inside me is just a trick. That I’ll wake up tomorrow and what’s beating in here will have stopped. It’ll be quiet again. I won’t feel this way. I won’t feel the way I’ve waited all my life to feel.”

  Her eyes were dry again, her hand steady as she set the water down. “I can stand you not loving me back. There’s always the hope that you will. But I don’t know if I can stand not loving you. It would be like . . . like having something stolen from inside me. I don’t know if I can handle going back to the way I was.”

  He brushed a hand down her hair, then drew her close to his side so her head rested on his shoulder. “Nobody’s ever loved me, not the way you’re talking about. I don’t know what to do about it, Malory, but I don’t want to lose it either.”

  “I saw the way things could be, but it wasn’t true. Just an ordinary day that was so perfect it was like a jewel in the palm of my hand. He made me see it and feel it. And want it.”

  He eased back, turning her to face him. “The dream?”

  She nodded. “It hurt more than anything I’ve ever known to let it go. It’s a hard price, Flynn.”

  “Can you tell me?”

  “I think I have to. I was tired. I felt like I’d been through this emotional wringer. I just wanted to lie down, have it go away for a while.”

  She took him through it, the waking with that sensation of absolute well-being, of moving through a house that was full of love, finding him in the kitchen making her breakfast.

 
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