Key of valor, p.21
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       Key of Valor, p.21

         Part #3 of Key series by Nora Roberts
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  pinkened her cheeks. “I love the hills. I never wanted to live anywhere that didn’t have hills. And trees.”

  She ducked under the fence. “I played in those woods there when I was little, and I used to sit in them and dream when I was older.”

  “What did you dream of?”

  “Oh, all the places I’d go, the things I’d see, the people I’d meet.”

  “Boys?”

  “Not so much. Or not as soon as most girls, I guess. I used to think if there was one thing I wasn’t going to do it was get myself tied down to a man and a bunch of babies so I’d never do or have anything special. Maybe Mama was right to be smug.”

  “No, she wasn’t.”

  “I was just so sick of taking care of my sisters and my brother, of helping to run things. Worrying about bills and how to make a meal stretch. By the time I was twelve the last thing on my mind was boys or weddings or babies. I didn’t even play with dolls.”

  He took her hand as they approached the trees. “What did you play with?”

  “Tools and paints. I liked to fix things. I gave my dolls to Joleen and Mazie. There wasn’t any point pretending to take care of somebody when I already was. Oh, God, I wanted out of here. I wanted out, so bad, Bradley, then when James came around—I didn’t hope to get pregnant. But . . . I’m not sure I didn’t figure somewhere in my head that it had to be a man and babies after all, and that was the only way I was going to get out and get more.”

  “What if it was?” He stopped as they reached the edge of the trees. “What if it was, Zoe? You were sixteen.”

  “I’m not anymore, and I want you to know that I don’t look at you and think you’re a way I can get more.” She gripped both of his hands, hard. “I need you to know that before we walk through these woods.”

  “I don’t think that. Hell, I can hardly get you to take more when I knock you over the head with it.” To soothe them both, he lifted her hand, pressed his lips to it. “But I’d take it from you. I want more from you.”

  “If I could give it to anybody, it’d be you.” She wrapped her arms around him, pressed close. “You’re the best man I ever met in my life, and that’s what scares me most.”

  “It’s about time you let me worry about myself.”

  “A few more days,” she murmured, then pulling back, took his hand again and walked into the woods.

  “I saw the white buck on the way through,” she told him. “But nothing else. It felt good to walk here again. Peaceful. Simon was conceived in here. It’s a good place, an important place for me.”

  “For both of us, then.”

  She walked the way she’d walked before, but there was no white buck, and no sense of import. When they came to the edge where the gravel began, she stopped again.

  “I’ve got to go over and see my mother. You don’t have to come.”

  “You don’t want me to meet her?”

  Staring at the trailers, she blew out a breath. “Maybe you’d better. Saturday’s a busy day for her. She’ll probably have customers, so we won’t stay long.”

  He saw some children playing on a rusted swing set, and a Doberman mix tethered by a thick chain that barked at them as if it’d already tasted blood. From a trailer to the left came the sounds of voices raised in a vicious argument. And to the right, a little girl was perched on a rickety step, singing her baby doll to sleep.

  She looked up and offered Bradley a slow and beautiful smile. “Time for Cissy’s nap,” she told him in a whisper.

  He crouched, angling his head around to look at the doll. “She’s very pretty.”

  “She’s my sweet baby girl.”

  As she spoke, the door opened behind her. A young woman stepped out, a dishrag in her hand and a cautious look in her eye.

  “Can I help you?” She laid a hand on the little girl’s shoulder.

  “Just admiring Cissy,” Brad said.

  “I’m Crystal McCourt’s daughter, Zoe.” Understanding the mother’s caution, Zoe stepped up to touch Brad’s arm. “We’re just dropping by to see her.”

  “Oh.” She relaxed visibly. “Nice to meet you. You gave me a start, is all. Chloe knows she’s not supposed to talk to strangers, but she can’t seem to help it. She trusts everybody. Tell Mrs. McCourt I said hey, and thank her again for cutting Chloe’s hair so nice.”

  “I will.” As Zoe walked away, she heard the woman say, “Come inside with Mama, sweet baby girl.”

  “Some people make a good life here,” she said quietly. “They plant little container gardens and have picnics in the summer.”

  “And some people live in palaces and can’t make a good life. It’s not where, it’s how. And it’s who.”

  Maybe, Zoe thought, that was one more thing she was meant to remember.

  “That’s ours. Hers. Ours.” She dropped the hand she’d used to gesture to the dingy green double-wide. “I’m ashamed that I’m ashamed of this. And I hate myself for hating that you see this. She always said I had too much pride. I guess she was right about that.”

  “I guess you’re not perfect, then. Maybe I don’t love you after all.”

  She tried to laugh, but it got stuck in her throat.

  “Are you going to introduce me to your mother, Zoe, or should I just go up and knock on the door myself?”

  “She won’t like you.”

  “You’re not taking into account my incredible charm.”

  Noting the amused and confident tone, Zoe merely slid her gaze up to his face. “That’s one of the things she won’t like about you.” Resigned, she started forward. She heard the chattering inside as she reached the door. Young voices, at least two.

  Saturday morning drives into Saturday night, she thought. Date night. A couple of girls wanted to get done up for a night on the prowl. She knocked on the metal frame of the screen, squeaked it open, then gave the inner door a good nudge with her shoulder.

  Three girls, she noted. One with her hair already plastered with stripper. Somebody was going blond. The second had her short do already coated and setting up, and a third waited her turn and was holding out a fashion magazine to show off a hairstyle.

  They sounded like an excited flock of birds, then fell into silence, then into snorting giggles when they spotted Brad behind Zoe.

  The place smelled of bleach, dye, smoke, and last night’s dinner.

  Crystal finished setting an egg timer on the counter, turned. Her eyebrows raised high. “Wind blew you back a second time in one month, and it ain’t even my birthday.” Her gaze shifted to Brad and held, speculatively.

  “I was out this way. I wanted you to meet my friend, Bradley.”

  “Bradley. That’s a silver-dollar name.”

  “It’s nice to meet you, Mrs. McCourt.”

  “Too many people in here.” She grabbed her cigarettes and her hot-pink Bic. “Go on outside.”

  “Ladies,” Brad said to the girls, and the giggles erupted again as he stepped back.

  “I can see you’re busy,” Zoe began.

  “Good Saturday business today.” When the door shut behind her, Crystal flicked on her lighter, blew out a stream of smoke. “The Jacobson girl wants her hair blond. Wants to be Britney Spears. Had herself a nice head of chestnut brown, too, but it’s no never mind to me if she wants to ruin it.”

  “Is that Haley Jacobson? She was just a little thing the last time I saw her.”

  “She’s sixteen. Same age as you when you ran off. She keeps sashaying around like she does, she’ll get herself in trouble same as you did.”

  “I stopped thinking about it as trouble a long time ago.” Zoe knew the girls were there, too, and that as her mother hadn’t bothered to lower her voice, that they heard every word. “Simon’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”

  “You said you weren’t breeding again.” The line etched between Crystal’s eyebrows deepened as she shot another look at Brad. “You come to tell me different?”

  “No. Bradley’s, he’s . . .


  “Zoe and Simon are important to me,” Brad said smoothly. “I wanted to meet you. Zoe told me you raised four children, mostly on your own. That must be where she gets her courage.”

  Fancy name, fancy looks, fancy talk, Crystal thought as she chuffed out smoke. “Doesn’t take courage to raise kids. It takes a strong back.”

  “I imagine it takes both. You have a beautiful and amazing daughter, Mrs. McCourt. You must be very proud.”

  “Bradley. Silver-dollar name and a fancy manner. You want to take her on, that’s your business.” As if it didn’t matter to her one way or the other, she jerked a thin shoulder. “She’s a good worker, and she breeds well. Doesn’t whine much.”

  “I’ll keep that in mind,” Brad said equably, and made Crystal laugh in spite of herself.

  “Maybe she’s got better taste this time around. You don’t look to be too much of an asshole.”

  “Thanks.”

  “You never tried to wiggle out of work,” she said to Zoe with a hint of affection. “I’ll give you that.” On impulse, she reached out, touched Zoe’s hair. “Good cut—got style. Anyway, you never were stupid, either. You got a chance for the high life here—’cause this one looks like the high life to me—you’d be a fool not to take it. A woman’s got to take what she can get.”

  “Mama.”

  “I say what’s on my mind, always have, always will.” Crystal dropped the cigarette, crushed it under her shoe. “I gotta get back inside. Get a ring on your finger this time,” she told Zoe, then tipped her chin at Bradley. “You could do worse.”

  She dragged the screen open, went back inside. And shut the door.

  “It never comes out right. It just never does.” Tears flooded Zoe’s eyes and were ruthlessly blinked back. “We need to go.”

  She started toward the woods almost at a jog, kept her head down when Brad took her arm. “She doesn’t understand you.”

  “That’s not news to me.”

  “She doesn’t understand the light inside you. Or that it’s not about what you can get, it’s about what you want to make. She doesn’t understand you, so she doesn’t know how to love you.”

  “I don’t know what to do about it.”

  “You keep trying, and it’s going to hurt you. You stop trying, and it’s going to hurt you.” He ran his hands up and down her arms for comfort. “I understand you, Zoe, so I know which choice you’ll make.”

  She looked back toward the trailer. “I’ll come back at Christmastime and maybe . . . just maybe.” Because she thought they both needed it, she worked up a smile. “I told you she wouldn’t like you.”

  “She did too like me. She’s already caught in my web.” He bent to kiss her lightly on the lips. “Just like her daughter.”

  “Me, I’m hell on cobwebs.” She took his hand again, and they walked into the woods.

  “Why do they call them cobwebs? They’re not made out of cob.”

  “There’s a question for Dana. She’ll look it up somewhere—I don’t know where she finds half these things—and give you a whole lecture on it. I never knew anybody so smart with words. It was always numbers for me. Now I’m friends with Dana, who knows everything about books, and Malory, who knows everything about art. I’ve learned a lot from them in the last couple months. Sometimes it all seems like some kind of dream.”

  She paused, looking around as she spoke. “And I’ll wake up one morning and it’ll all be the way it was. I’ll be working for that bitch Carly again and I won’t even know Dana or Mal. I’ll pick up the newspaper and read Flynn’s column, but I won’t know him. Or I’ll see one of Jordan’s books and wonder what he’s like, because I won’t know.”

  She looked up at Brad, touched her fingers to his cheek. “I won’t know you. I’ll go pick up something at HomeMakers, and I won’t think of you because none of this happened.”

  “It’s real.” He curled his fingers firmly around her wrist so she could feel his grip, so he could feel her pulse. “This is real.”

  “But if it wasn’t, if I’m in bed having some long, complicated dream, I think I’d wake up heartbroken.” She looked back in the direction of her mother’s trailer. “Or worse. Whatever happens next, wherever all of this ends, I couldn’t stand it if I’d missed knowing you. Kiss me.” She leaned in, rose on her toes. “Will you?”

  He drew her close, and laid his lips on hers gently. Letting the moment spin out. When she sighed, when she linked her arms around his neck, it was more lovely than any dream.

  She felt something shift inside her with an ache so sweet it brought the tears rushing back. The air was cool, his mouth so warm. Love, beyond what she’d ever hoped for, was here.

  She felt his hand stroke her hair, smooth it all the way down her back. His slim young body pressed to hers with his need quivering through it, and into hers.

  She eased back, looked into bright blue eyes, and let a tear trickle down her cheek. “James.” She said it softly, cupped his face in her hands.

  “I love you, Zoe.” James’s voice—a little breathless, eager, fell on her ears. “We were meant to be together. You’ll never feel this way about anyone but me.”

  “No, I won’t.” Swamped with the love that poured from a sixteen-year-old girl’s heart, she pressed his hand to her lips, to her cheek, held it there. “Nothing will ever be the same, not for either of us.”

  “We’ll run away together. We’ll be together forever.”

  She smiled, very gently. “No, we won’t.” She kissed him again, with no regrets, then stepped back. “Good-bye, James.”

  Brad hauled her upright when her knees gave way and continued to shake her, to say her name, as he had since he’d felt her leave him.

  Her eyes had blurred, her cheeks had paled.

  She’d called him James.

  “Look at me. Look at me, goddamn it.”

  “I am.” Limply, her head rolled back, and though her vision grayed with the effort, she fought to focus. “I’m looking at you. Bradley.”

  “We’re getting out of here.” He started to scoop her up, but she pressed a hand to his chest.

  “No. It’s all right. I just need a second. Let me take that second sitting down.”

  She slid down, sat on the ground with her forehead pressed to her updrawn knees. “I’m a little dizzy. Just need to get my bearings.”

  He pulled the knife from the sheath under his jacket and took a long scan of the woods before crouching in front of her. “You clicked off, like someone had flicked a switch inside you. You called me James.”

  “I know.”

  “You slipped away. You weren’t with me, you were with him. Looking at him.” With love. “You said nothing would ever be the same.”

  “I know what I said. He took me back. Kane took me back, but I knew it.” Steadier, she lifted her head. “I knew it, almost as soon as it started. I felt . . . I’m not ashamed of what I felt, and I’m not sorry for it. That would mean I’m ashamed and sorry about Simon. But I can be sorry Kane used you that way.”

  “You cried for him.” Reaching out, Brad caught a tear on his fingertip.

  “Yes, I cried for James. And for what might’ve been if he’d been stronger, maybe if we’d both been stronger. Then I said good-bye.”

  She laid her hand over Brad’s, curled her fingers into his palm. “Kane wanted me to feel all those things I felt for James, and he wanted to use them to drive something between us. Has he?”

  “It pissed me off. It hurt.” He looked down at their joined hands and, after a moment, turned his over so their fingers linked. “But no, he didn’t drive anything between us.”

  “Bradley.” She started to lean in, wanted to touch her lips to his. And saw the knife. Her eyes went huge. “Oh, God.”

  “He can be hurt,” Bradley said simply. “If I get the chance, I’m going to hurt him.” Standing, he sheathed the knife, then held a hand down to her.

  She moistened her lips. “You better be careful with that thing.


  “Yes, Mom.”

  “Still a little pissed, aren’t you? I know who you are, Bradley. I know who I am. He tried to make me forget that, but he couldn’t. That has to mean something. I felt exactly like I did when I was sixteen and with James. My body, my heart, my head. He ran his hand down my hair. I wore it long then, and he used to do that. Run his hand all the way down my hair when he kissed me. That kind of thing’s inside me, in those memory boxes. Kane can get into those.”

  It took a supreme act of will, but Bradley forced himself to think beyond the personal, toward the quest. “What did he say to you? James—what did he say to you?”

  “That he loved me, that I’d never feel about anyone else the way I did about him. That’s true, I won’t. I shouldn’t. But Bradley, I knew.”

  She spun around now, and her face shone. “Even when I was standing there with hair halfway down my back and his face in my hands, I knew it wasn’t real. Just a trick. And I used it.”

  She pressed her palms together, tapped the sides of her fingers against her mouth as she turned in a circle. “This place. I had to come back here. More, I had to come back here with you. But the key isn’t here.” She dropped her hands. “It’s not here.”

  “I’m sorry.”

  “No.” She shook her head, twirled again, with a brilliant smile. “I know it’s not here. I feel it. I don’t have to wonder, I don’t have to come back hoping or looking, because I’ve done what I needed to do here. Or we have.”

  She jumped into his arms, hard and fast enough to knock him back a full step. Laughing, she hooked her legs around his waist and gave him a noisy kiss. “I don’t know what it all means, but I’ll figure it out. For the first time in days, I believe I’ll figure it out. I’m going to unlock that box, Bradley.”

  She pressed her cheek to his. “I’m going to unlock it, and they’re going to go home.”

  WHEN they pulled up at Flynn’s, Zoe aimed a steely look at Brad. “This is on your head, I want to make that clear.”

  “You did. About six times already.”

  “I’m not going to have any sympathy for you or your belongings.”

  “Yeah, yeah. Blah blah.”

  She stifled a laugh, kept her face stern as she followed him toward the house. “Just remember who tried to be practical.”

  “Right.” He shot her a grin as he pushed open the door. “You were a goner as soon as you looked into those big brown eyes.”

  “I could’ve waited a week.”

  “Liar.”

  The laugh escaped as she set the puppy down and let him race down the hall. “This ought to be interesting.”

  Moe shot out of the kitchen, then skidded to a halt. His eyes rolled, his body braced. And the little pup, a ball of brown and gray fur, yipped in joy and leaped up to nip at Moe’s nose.

  Brad grabbed Zoe’s arm before she could run forward. “But what if—”

  “Have a little faith,” Brad suggested.

  Moe quivered, sniffed the pup as it jumped and tumbled. Then he collapsed, rolling over on his back in an attitude of bliss as the puppy climbed all over him and chewed on his ears.

  “Big softie,” Zoe murmured, and felt her own smile spread, big and foolish, as Simon wandered out from the kitchen.

  “Hey, Mom! We’re having subs for lunch. Me and Flynn made them, and . . .” He trailed off, his eyes going round as the puppy deserted Moe to charge him.

  “Whoa! A puppy. Where’d he come from?” Simon was already down on the floor, laughing as the pup licked his face, tumbling back as Moe tried to horn in. “He looks like a bear cub or something.”

  Buried in dogs, Simon twisted enough to look at Brad. “Is it yours? When’d you get him? What’s his name?”

  “Not mine. He’s just been liberated. And he doesn’t have one.”

  “Then who—” He went very still, and those long gold eyes fixed on his mother’s.

 
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