Key of valor, p.20
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       Key of Valor, p.20

         Part #3 of Key series by Nora Roberts
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  Though she laid down the law in that area, she intended to keep her ear cocked for the sounds of the television post-bedtime.

  She unpacked her own things, laying clothes in the cedar-scented drawers of an antique mahogany dresser, setting out toiletries on the acre of pale green countertop in the adjoining bath.

  “Don’t get used to it,” she warned herself as she trailed her fingers over the delicate white lace of the spread accenting the four-poster she would sleep in.

  It’s just for a few days, she thought. Like a chapter in a faerie tale.

  She looked up at the honey-colored wood that formed the coffered ceiling and wondered what it would be like to wake in the morning in this bed, in this room.

  She zipped her empty suitcase as Brad knocked on the jamb of the open door.

  “Find everything you need?”

  “All that and more. It’s a gorgeous room, like being inside a warm biscuit.” Crouching, she scooted the suitcase under the bed. “It’s tempting to have a few jumps on the bed like Simon.”

  “Help yourself.”

  Though she smiled, her eyes were troubled. She gestured to the yellow roses on the dresser. “Were you so sure you’d get your way?”

  “I was sure of your common sense, and your commitment to follow through on the quest.”

  “You’ve got a way about you, Bradley.” She trailed her fingers over the bedspread again. “A smooth way about you.”

  “Regardless, I wanted you and Simon as safe as possible. If I’d had to bully you to get you here, I would have. I appreciate you sparing us both that.”

  “If you’d bullied me, I’d’ve gotten my back up, which would’ve canceled out my common sense. Anyway, it’s smarter to stick together.”

  “Good. Are you going to let me sneak in here in the middle of the night?”

  Though she tried for a cool stare, she felt her lips twitch. “It’s your house.”

  “It’s your choice.”

  She let out a laugh, shook her head. “A smooth way. We have to talk. Can we go downstairs?”

  “Sure.” He held out a hand, and though he noted her hesitation, he kept it extended until she stepped forward and laid hers in it. “How about a glass of wine by the fire?”

  “That would be lovely. Everything here is lovely. I’m terrified Simon’s going to break something.”

  “Stop it. The day I was moving back, Flynn stopped by with Moe. The first thing that dog did was run through the house and break a lamp. It wasn’t a national tragedy.”

  “I guess I’m just jumpy, between one thing and another.”

  “Go in and sit down. I’ll get the wine.”

  There was a fire already blazing. He must have seen to that while she was unpacking. Like the rest of the house, the room looked settled and warm and interesting. All the little pieces, the things she imagined he’d collected on his travels, the art, even the way it was all placed.

  It spoke of a man who knew what he wanted and was used to having the best.

  She wandered over to study a painting of a Paris street scene, the sidewalk café with its cheerful umbrellas, the rivers of flowers, the dignity of the Arc de Triomphe in the background.

  A far cry from her framed postcards.

  And he’d sat at one of those busy cafés, drinking strong black coffee out of a tiny cup, while she’d only dreamed of it.

  Brad came in with a bottle of wine in one hand and two glasses held by the bowls in the other. “I bought that a couple of years ago,” he said as he joined her. “I liked the movement, the way the traffic’s bunched up on the street. You can almost hear the horns blasting.”

  He tipped wine into one of the glasses, waited for her to take it. “We Vanes can’t seem to stop collecting art.”

  “Maybe you should think about having a museum.”

  “Actually, my father’s working on something. A hotel, a resort. He could fill it with some of his art, and have an excuse to buy more.”

  “He would build a hotel just so he has a place to put his art collection?”

  “That, and enterprise. Art, wood, and capitalism are the Vane bywords. He’s angling to find the right piece of land here in the Highlands, where it all began.” His shrug was a gesture of easy confidence. “But if he doesn’t, he’ll find it elsewhere. Once B.C. knows what he wants, he doesn’t take no for an answer.”

  “So you come by it honestly.”

  “I’ll take that as a compliment. He’s a good man. A little formidable, but a good man. A good husband and father and a hell of a businessman. He’ll like you.”

  “I can’t imagine,” she said faintly.

  “He’ll admire what you’ve done with your life, what you’ve made. And what you’re still building. He’d say you have grit, and there’s nothing he respects more.”

  She expected a man like B. C. Vane would grill her like a hamburger patty if he ever discovered she was involved with his son.

  “Do you love them? Your parents?”

  “Very much.”

  “I don’t know if I love my mother.” It spilled out before she knew she meant to say it, before she knew she thought it. “What an awful thing to say. I want to, but I don’t know if I do.”

  Shocked by her own words, she lowered herself to the arm of a chair. “And my daddy, I haven’t seen him in so many years. I don’t even know him, so how could I love him? He left us. He left his wife and his four children, and he never came back.”

  “That was tough on you. Tough on your mother.”

  “On all of us,” Zoe agreed. “But especially on Mama. It didn’t just break her heart, it shriveled it up until it was all dry and brittle and there wasn’t any juice left for us. When he left, she took off after him. I didn’t think she was going to come back.”

  “She left you alone?” The sheer outrage of it vibrated in his voice. “She left four children alone?”

  “She was wild to get him back. She was only gone a few days, but . . . oh, God, I was scared. What was I going to do if she didn’t come back?”

  “Wasn’t there anyone you could’ve called, gone to for help?”

  “My mama’s sister, but she and Mama fought all the time, so I didn’t want to call her. I didn’t know if I should call any of my daddy’s family, the way things were. The fact was, I didn’t know what the hell to do, so I didn’t do anything except mind the kids and wait for her to come home.”

  He couldn’t fathom it. “How old were you?”

  “Twelve. Junior was only a year younger than me, and he wouldn’t mind me. Joleen, she was a couple years younger than him, so she’d’ve been eight, I guess, and she cried for a whole day. I never saw anybody cry like that before or since,” Zoe said with a sigh. “Mazie, the baby, was five, so she didn’t really understand what was going on, but she knew something was up. I couldn’t hardly take my eyes off her for a minute. I didn’t know what I was going to do if we ran out of food or money to buy more.”

  She shifted to sit in the chair, dangling the wineglass between her knees. “But she came back. I remember thinking how tired she looked, and how hard. But she was going to look more tired, more hard before it was done. She did her best for us. She did all she could, but I don’t know that she ever loved us again. I don’t know if she could.”

  She looked up at him then. “Those are the people I come from. I wanted you to know.”

  “Are you telling me that because you think it’ll change my feelings for you? That if I find your parents irresponsible and selfish I’ll stop loving you?”

  Wine sloshed over the rim of her glass when her hand jerked. “Don’t say that. Don’t say something about love when you don’t even know me.”

  “I know you, Zoe. Do you want me to tell you what I know? What I see, what I feel?”

  She shook her head. “God. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. I don’t know how to make you understand how this twists me around. How I’m afraid if I let go again, I could end up dried up inside, too.”
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  “The way you let go with James Marshall?”

  She sighed. “I loved him. Bradley, I loved him so much. It was like being inside a crystal bowl, where everything was so shiny and bright. It wasn’t just something reckless, something careless between us.”

  He sat down with her. “Tell me. I need to know,” he said when she hesitated. “And if that’s not enough, going back over it, with me, might be one of the steps toward the key.”

  “I’m not ashamed.” She spoke quietly. “It’s not that I’m ashamed, but that some of it—the things that happened, the things I felt—have always been just for me. But you deserve to hear it.”

  He touched the back of her hand, then let her go. “How did you meet him?”

  “I guess you could say it was through our mothers. Mrs. Marshall, she had my mama do her hair. Sometimes she’d have Mama come out to her house before a party, or before she was going somewhere special, to do her up. Maybe I’d go along, give Mrs. Marshall a manicure, or do the shampoo. She was nice to me. She was always very kind, and not snooty. Well, not very,” she corrected.

  “She would talk to me, and she’d answer questions if I asked about the pictures on the walls or the flowers on the dresser. She’d ask me about school, or boys. And she’d always slip me an extra five dollars when my mother wasn’t looking.

  “James was off at school. I’d see him once in a while, but he never noticed me. And I’d look at his pictures on Mrs. Marshall’s bureau. He was so handsome, like a knight or a prince, so maybe I fell a little bit in love that way. Girls do.”

  “So do boys,” Brad added.

  “Maybe. They gave a lot of parties in the big house. Mrs. Marshall, she loved giving parties. She hired me to help with the serving for some of them, and even bought me a good black skirt and a white blouse so I’d look nice. They had a party in the spring, and James was home from school. He noticed me.”

  She looked down at her wine as if she’d forgotten it was there. Gathering her thoughts, she took a slow sip. “He followed me back to the kitchen, and he was talking to me, flirting. I was so shy, and he made me clumsy. But he was so sweet about it. After it was over, and things were cleaned up, he drove me home.”

  She lifted her shoulders, let them fall. “I wasn’t supposed to take rides from boys, so I shouldn’t have let him drive me. I knew his mama wouldn’t like it if she found out. And mine? She’d’ve skinned me. But I couldn’t help it. Just like I couldn’t help seeing him again. Sneaking out to see him, because his parents and my mama, they wouldn’t have allowed it. That only made it more exciting, more wonderful. Like Romeo and Juliet. I was young enough, and so was he, to think like that. To slide right into love without thinking about anything else.”

  She looked at Brad, and could read his thoughts. “You’re thinking he took advantage of me, that he was using me, but it wasn’t like that. Maybe he didn’t love me, not the way I loved him. But he thought he did. He was only nineteen, and caught up in the romance of it the same as I was.”

  “Zoe, at nineteen, with his background, his lifestyle, he knew a lot more about . . . life than you did.”

  “Maybe. Maybe that’s true, especially since I didn’t know much of anything. But he didn’t push me, Bradley. I don’t want you to think that. He didn’t insist or demand, and he wasn’t any more to blame than I was. It just happened.”

  “And when you told him you were pregnant?”

  She took a breath, long and slow. “I didn’t even know I was for over two months. I wasn’t very smart about that kind of thing. It was September before I was sure, and he was away at college. When he came home one weekend, I told him. He was angry, and he was scared. And I guess, looking at it from here, I can see it was already fading for him. Here he is, off at college with all those exciting things happening, and some girl at home he’s already losing interest in comes up pregnant.”

  “Yeah, his bad luck.”

  She had to smile a little. “You’re awfully hard on him.”

  “A hell of a lot harder if I had the chance.” Annoyed, he got up to pour another half glass of wine. “Maybe part of it’s jealousy. But the bigger part is knowing he let you go through this alone.”

  “He said we’d do the right thing, that he’d stand by me. I believe he meant it, even though he was scared and angry. I believe he meant it when he said it.”

  “Words are cheap.”

  “Yes, they are.” She nodded slowly while Brad wandered around the room. “Someone like you, you’d have meant them, and you’d have followed through with them. Not everyone’s built the same. And sometimes the right thing isn’t what you think it is. I’m where I am because he didn’t follow through, so it was the right thing. For me and for Simon.”

  “All right. What happened next?”

  “He was going to tell his parents, and I had to tell my mama, then we’d do what we had to.”

  “But he didn’t do it.”

  “Oh, he told his parents, just like I told my mother. Mama was mad, but a part of her was smug. I could see that part on her face when I told her. The part that was thinking it served me right for acting like I was better than the rest of them, and now I’d find out just what was what. Still, when Mrs. Marshall came around, Mama stood up for me.”

  Her chin came up now, a gesture of pride. “Mrs. Marshall said I was a liar and a cheat, a tramp who’d tricked her son into sneaking around behind her back. I wasn’t going to drag her boy down in the gutter, and if I was pregnant it didn’t mean the baby was his. Even if it was, she wasn’t having him pay the rest of his life for falling in with me. She said more, things about how she’d taken me into her home, trusted me, and I was no better than a thief and a whore. She tossed a check for five thousand dollars down on the table and told me that was all I’d ever get. I could use it for an abortion, or whatever, but I’d never get another penny, and if I tried to get more, tried to see James again, she’d see to it that my family paid for it.”

  “You were carrying her grandchild.”

  “She didn’t see it that way. She couldn’t. And she would have made my family pay. She had the money and the power, and I had nothing to fight back with. She sent James away, I don’t know where. I wrote him a letter that September, to the college, asking him what to do, what did he want me to do. He never answered, so I guess that was answer enough. I took the money, and the savings I’d squirreled away, and I left. I wasn’t going to raise my baby in that trailer court. I wasn’t going to raise him anywhere near the Marshalls. After Simon was born, I sent James another letter, with a picture of the baby. It came back unopened. So I put that aside, and I promised myself I’d look after my own. And I wasn’t going to look for somebody to make things better, or different, or show me what to do. I wasn’t going to look for somebody to tell me they loved me and they’d do the right thing.”

  He came back to sit, took the glass of wine she’d neglected out of her hand and set it aside. “You’ve proved you can make a good life for yourself and Simon. On your own. Do you have to go on proving it?”

  “If I let this happen between us, and you walk away . . . I’m not brave enough to risk it. Maybe I would be if it was just me. But it’s not.”

  “You don’t believe I’m in love with you.”

  “I believe you think you are, and I know that no one would stop you from doing the right thing. Even if it wasn’t right for you. So I’m going to ask you to wait until this month is over, until everything’s less romantic and exciting, then see how we are together.”

  She was holding up a mirror, he thought, reflecting back what was between them to what had been between her and James. He struggled to find some understanding through the resentment. “I want to ask you one thing. Just one. Do you love me?”

  “I can’t help but love you, but I can help what I do about it.”

  Chapter Fifteen

  SHE’D gone off in the wrong direction. Zoe was sure of it now. She’d gone back to Indulgence, searched through all th
ree floors alone, cleaned every inch of the attic, stared in the mirror. But she found nothing to guide her. No sudden flash of light or inspiration.

  No key.

  She’d gone back to her house, and had spent a full hour sitting alone in the living room. Though she felt foolish, she closed the curtains, lit candles and tried to push herself into some state of knowledge or perception.

  Instead, she almost fell asleep.

  She was tired, frustrated, and irritable, and probably in no state to open herself to intuition.

  She decided to go back to the beginning and try again.

  She made the arrangements for Simon before she approached Bradley.

  He’d been polite since they’d moved into the guest rooms. A little cool, Zoe thought as she walked toward the office he kept in his home. But she couldn’t blame him.

  She knocked, then eased the door open when he called out to come in.

  “I’m sorry to bother you, but . . . oh.” The enormous blueprints tacked up on a display board pulled her into the room. “These are your plans, for the expansion.”

  “Mmm. Couple of changes yet, but we’re almost there. We’ll break ground in March, as soon as the weather cooperates.”

  “You’re adding all this to the lawn-and-garden section?”

  “Doubling it. Homeowners want trees, shrubs, flowers, and vegetables, and the means to plant and maintain them.” He tapped his fingers on his thigh, studying her as she studied the plans. “Then there’s garden decor. And this section here will carry several new lines of outdoor furniture.”

  “It’s very ambitious.”

  “I’ll make it work. When something matters, you keep at it until you make it work.”

  “I know you’re angry with me.”

  “Some. Mostly frustrated. You heading into town?”

  “No, not today. I just talked to Flynn. He’s going to keep Simon for a while today. He’s missing Moe anyway, and Simon won’t mind spending most of his Saturday romping around with Flynn and the dog. And I’m . . . I want to go back to West Virginia, to the woods. To see if I missed something before. I’m telling you because I don’t want you to worry or be upset.”

  “I’ll drive you.”

  “Yes.” Her stomach unknotted. “I think that’s a good idea. I have a stop to make on the way back, but I need to talk that over with you, too. If we could get started soon, I’d appreciate it.”

  “Give me five minutes.”

  “Thanks. I’ll go get Simon and Moe together.”

  When she left, Brad took a hunting knife out of a locked drawer and unsheathed it to test the edge.

  SHE ordered herself to stay relaxed as they drove out of the Valley. “Um. One of the things I wanted to talk to you about is Thanksgiving. Malory mentioned that you were staying here for the holiday.”

  “It isn’t the time to leave.”

  “No.” Thanksgiving was the day before her deadline. In less than a week, all the sand in that hourglass would have drained. “I wondered if you’d like it if we, all seven of us, had Thanksgiving together at your house. Malory’s dining room isn’t ready yet, and yours is bigger anyway. I could handle the cooking, and—”

  “Yes.” He reached over, touched a hand to hers. “I’d like that very much. If you’re handling the cooking, I’ll take the gathering. Make me a shopping list.”

  “That’ll help. There’s not much time.”

  He looked at her, understanding perfectly. “There’s time enough.”

  “I’m holding on to that. There’s another thing I thought you might help me with. I want to go by the pound, pick out a pup for Simon. After Thanksgiving, after . . . everything’s over, I can go get it. They said they’d hold one for me for a week.”

  “Why not just take it now?”

  “Oh, that’ll be fine—a boy, a huge dog, and a new puppy running around your house. A puppy who’ll pee on your rugs and chew everything that isn’t nailed down. We’ll wait till we’re home again.”

  “Logical,” Brad said, and let it drop.

  She directed him off the main road, along the winding ones, and asked him to park beside the field as she had done before.

  “It’s beautiful country.”

  “It is.” She stepped out of the car and into brisk air that immediately
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