Key of light, p.22
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       Key of Light, p.22

         Part #1 of Key series by Nora Roberts
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  “Well, yeah, but I promised.” Sensing movement in the doorway behind her, she stiffened. “And unlike some, I keep my promises.”

  “And hold a grudge with equal fervor,” Jordan commented. “Hello, ladies. What can I do for you?”

  “I’d like to go over the paintings and my notes again,” Malory told him. “I hope you don’t mind.”

  “Who’s he to mind? It’s not his house.”

  “True enough.” Jordan, tall and tough in black jeans and black T-shirt, leaned against the doorjamb. “Help yourself.”

  “Haven’t you got something better to do than lurk?” Dana tossed out. “A book to pretend to write, a publisher to skin.”

  “You know us commercial fiction hacks. We just knock ’em out in a couple weeks, then lounge around on our royalties.”

  “I don’t mind if the two of you want to fight, really, I don’t.” Malory dumped her briefcase, fat with notes, on the crate. “But maybe you could take it to another room.”

  “We’re not fighting.” Jordan replied. “This is foreplay.”

  “In your dreams.”

  “Stretch, in my dreams you’re usually wearing a lot less. Let me know if I can help you out with anything, Malory.” He straightened, then strolled away.

  “Be right back.” Dana was after him like a rocket. “In the kitchen, hotshot.” She streamed by, then gritted her teeth while she waited for him to catch up.

  He moved at his own pace, she thought, and always had. Her temper sparked as he wandered in. She was readying the first salvo when he stepped right up, gripped her hips, and covered her shocked mouth with his.

  The blast of heat blew straight through her.

  That had always been, as well.

  Fire and flash and promise all balled together in some sort of molten comet that exploded in the brain and left the system wrecked.

  Not this time, not this time. Not ever again.

  With considerable force she shoved him back a step. She wouldn’t slap. Too predictable and female. But she very nearly punched.

  “Sorry. I thought that was what you called me out here for.”

  “Try that again, and you’ll be bleeding from various fatal wounds.”

  He shrugged, sauntered over to the coffeepot. “My mistake.”

  “Damn right. Any rights you had to touch me expired a long time ago. You may be part of this thing because you happened to buy that damn painting, and I’ll tolerate you because of that. And because you’re Flynn’s friend. But as long as you’re here, you’ll abide by the rules.”

  He poured two mugs of coffee, set hers on the counter. “Spell them out for me.”

  “You don’t ever touch me. If I’m about to step in front of a damn bus, you don’t so much as reach out to pull me back to the curb.”

  “Okay. You’d rather be run over by a bus than have me touch you. Check. Next?”

  “You’re a son of a bitch.”

  Something that might have been regret flashed across his face. “I know it. Look, let’s step back a minute. Flynn’s important to both of us, and this is important to Flynn. That woman out there’s important to him, and she’s important to you. We’re all connected here, whether we want to be or not. So let’s try to figure it out. He was in and out of here in about three minutes flat this morning. I didn’t get much more out of him then, or when he called last night, than that Malory’s in trouble. Fill me in.”

  “If Malory wants you to know, she’ll tell you.”

  Hand her an olive branch, he thought, and she rams it down your throat. “Still a hard-ass.”

  “It’s private stuff,” she snapped. “Intimate stuff. She doesn’t know you.” Despite a thousand vows, she felt her eyes fill. “Neither do I.”

  That single tearful look punched a hole in his heart. “Dana.”

  When he stepped toward her, she snatched a bread knife off the counter. “Put your hands on me again, I’ll hack them off at the wrist.”

  He stayed where he was, slid his hands into his pockets. “Why don’t you just stick it in my heart and get it over with?”

  “Just stay away from me. Flynn doesn’t want Malory left alone. You can consider this your shift, because I’m leaving.”

  “If I’m going to be guard dog, it would help to know what I’m guarding against.”

  “Big, bad sorcerers.” She yanked open the back door. “Anything happens to her, I’ll not only jam that knife in your heart, I’ll cut it out and feed it to the dog.”

  “Always were good with imagery,” he drawled after she’d slammed out.

  He rubbed a hand over his stomach. She’d tied it in knots—something else she was damn good at. He looked at the coffee she hadn’t touched. Though he knew it was foolishly symbolic, he picked up the cup and poured the coffee down the sink.

  “Down the drain, Stretch. Just like us.”

  MALORY studied the paintings until her vision blurred. She made more notes, then stretched out on the floor to stare at the ceiling. She jumbled what she knew in her head, hoping it would form a new, clearer pattern.

  A singing goddess, shadows and light, what was within herself and outside herself. To look and see what she hadn’t seen. Love forged the key.

  Hell.

  Three paintings, three keys. Did that mean there was a clue, a sign, a direction in each painting for each key? Or was there a compilation in the three paintings for the first key? For hers?

  Either way, she was missing it.

  There were common elements in each portrait. The legendary subject matter, of course. The use of forest and shadows. The figure cloaked by them.

  That would be Kane.

  Why was Kane in the portrait of Arthur? Had he actually been there at the event, or was his inclusion, and Rowena’s and Pitte’s, symbolic?

  But still, even with those common elements, the Arthurian portrait didn’t seem part of what she was certain was a set. Was there another painting, to complete the triad, of the Daughters of Glass?

  Where would she find it, and what would it tell her when she did?

  She rolled over, examined the portrait of young Arthur once more. The white dove at the right top. A symbol for Guinevere? The beginning of the end of that shining moment?

  Betrayal by love. The consequences of love.

  Wasn’t she dealing with consequences of love now, within herself? The soul was as much a symbol of love and beauty as the heart was. Emotions, poetry, art, music. Magic. Soulful elements.

  Without a soul, there were no consequences, and no beauty.

  If the goddess could sing, didn’t that mean she still had her soul?

  The key might be in a place where there was art, or love. Beauty or music. Or where the choice to keep them or discard them was made.

  A museum, then? A gallery? The Gallery, she thought and bolted to her feet.

  “Dana!”

  She dashed toward the kitchen, pulling up short when she saw Jordan sitting at the scarred table working on a small, sleek laptop.

  “Sorry. I thought Dana was in here.”

  “She took off hours ago.”

  “Hours?” Malory passed a hand over her face as if coming out of a dream. “I lost track of time.”

  “Happens to me regularly. Want some coffee?” He glanced toward the empty pot on the counter. “All you have to do is make it.”

  “No, I really need to . . . You’re working. I’m sorry to interrupt.”

  “No problem. I’m having one of those days where I fantasize about having an alternate profession. Like being a lumberjack in the Yukon or a bartender at a tropical resort.”

  “Pretty disparate choices.”

  “Either of which seems like more fun than what I’m doing.”

  She noted the empty coffee cup, the half-full ashtray set beside the jazzy laptop on a secondhand picnic table in a stupendously ugly kitchen.

  “Could be the ambience isn’t particularly conducive to creativity.”

  “When things are goin
g well, you can be in a sewer with a notebook and a Ticonderoga.”

  “I suppose that’s true, but I’m wondering if you’re set up in this . . . unfortunate room because you’re watching out for me.”

  “Depends.” He eased back, fiddled with his dwindling pack of cigarettes. “If that’s okay with you, sure. If it’s going to piss you off, then I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

  She cocked her head. “And if I said I had to leave now, that there’s something I want to check out?”

  He gave her an easy smile, one she thought might pass for innocent on a less wicked face. “I’d say, is it okay if I tag along? It might do me good to get out of the house for a while. Where are we going?”

  “The Gallery. It occurred to me that the key must be attached to art, to beauty, to the paintings. It’s the most logical place in the area to look.”

  “Uh-huh. So, you’re going to walk into a public place of business, during business hours, and nobody’s going to mind if you go on a scavenger hunt through the stock and/or office areas.”

  “Well, when you put it that way.” Deflated, she sat across from him. “Do you think this whole thing is just some kind of lunacy?”

  Jordan recalled watching several thousand dollars appear and disappear. “Not necessarily.”

  “And if I said I might have a way to get into The Gallery after business hours?”

  “I’d say you wouldn’t have been picked to be a part of this unless you were a creative woman with a flexible mind who’s willing to take some chances.”

  “I like that description. I don’t know if it always applied, but it does now. I need to make some phone calls. And, Jordan? I think it shows a strong sense of character and loyalty for a man to waste his day looking after a stranger because a friend asked him to.”

  MALORY took the keys from Tod and gave him a huge hug in return. “I owe you big.”

  “I’ll say, but I’ll settle for any sort of an explanation.”

  “As soon as I can. I promise.”

  “Honeybun, this is all getting really weird. You get fired, then you hack into Pamela’s files. You turn down the invitation to come back to home and hearth with a substantial raise. And now you’re going to skulk around the place after closing.”

  “You know what?” She jingled the keys in her hand. “That’s not the really weird part. All I can tell you is I’m doing something important, and with the best intentions. I’m not going to do The Gallery or James, or most especially you, any harm.”

  “I’d never think you would.”

  “I’ll have these back to you tonight. First thing in the morning at the latest.”

  Tod glanced out the window to see Flynn loitering on the sidewalk. “This doesn’t have anything to do with sexual fetishes or fantasies?”

  “No.”

  “Well, that’s a shame. I’m walking away. I’m going to have a lovely martini, maybe two, and put all this completely out of my mind.”

  “Do just that.”

  He started out, then stopped and looked back at her. “Whatever you’re doing, Mal, be careful.”

  “I will. Promise.”

  She waited, watched Tod stop to speak to Flynn before sauntering off. She opened the door, gestured Flynn in, then locked it, set the security code. “What did Tod say to you?”

  “That if I got you into any sort of trouble he’d hang me up by my balls and then snip off various other body parts with manicure scissors.”

  “Ouch. Good one.”

  “You bet.” He peered out the window to make sure Tod was gone. “And let me tell you, if I was thinking about getting you into any sort of trouble, that image would be a very strong deterrent.”

  “I guess, when it comes down to it, I’m the one who could be getting you in trouble. There’s the legal angle, the criminal angle, and your reputation as publisher and editor in chief of the Dispatch on the line here. You don’t have to do this.”

  “I’m in. Manicure scissors are those little pointy ones that curve, right?”

  “That’s right.”

  He hissed out a breath. “Yeah, I was afraid of that. Where do we start?”

  “Upstairs, I think. We can work our way down. Assuming the keys in the painting are in proportion, it’ll be about three inches long.”

  “Little key.”

  “Yes, a fairly little key. The business end is a single, simple drop,” she continued and handed him a small sketch. “The other end is decorative, this complex pattern. It’s a Celtic design, a triple spiral called a triskeles. Zoe found the pattern in one of Dana’s books.”

  “You three make a good team.”

  “It feels like it. It’s gold, probably solid gold. I can’t imagine we won’t recognize it when we see it.”

  He glanced toward the main showroom with its vaulted ceilings and generous space. There were the paintings, of course, and the sculpture and other artworks. Display cases and tables. Drawers and chests and counters with infinite cubbyholes.

  “A lot of places a key might hide in here.”

  “Wait until we get into the storage and shipping areas.”

  They started in the offices. Malory set aside her guilt at going through drawers, riffling through personal items. This wasn’t any time for delicacy, she told herself. She crawled around James’s desk, searching under it.

  “Do you really think people like Rowena and Pitte, or whatever god’s in charge of hiding the keys, would tape the secret key to the bottom of a desk drawer?”

  She sent him a sulky look as she slid the drawer back in place. “I don’t think we can afford to overlook any possibility.”

  She looked so cute, he thought, sitting on the floor with her hair tied back from her face and her mouth all pouty. He wondered if she’d worn black because she felt it suited the circumstances.

  It would be just like her.

  “Fair enough, but we’d get through those possibilities faster if we called the whole team in.”

  “I can’t have a pack of people running around here. It’s just not right.” And the guilt of what she was doing scraped her conscience like ragged fingernails. “It’s bad enough you’re here. You can’t use anything you see here in a story.”

  He crouched down with her, stared into her face with eyes that had gone winter cool. “Is that what you think?”

  “It doesn’t seem unreasonable that the thought crossed my mind.” She rose to take a painting off the wall. “You’re a journalist,” she continued as she checked the frame, tested the backing. “I owe something to this place, to James. I’m just saying that I don’t want him involved.”

  She rehung the painting, chose another.

  “Maybe you should write up a list of what is and isn’t appropriate for me to write about. In your opinion.”

  “There’s no need to get testy.”

  “Oh, yeah, there is. I’ve invested a lot of my time and energy in this, and I haven’t printed a word. Don’t question my ethics, Malory, just because you’re questioning your own. And don’t ever tell me what I can or can’t write.”

  “It’s just a matter of saying this is off the record.”

  “No, it’s not. It’s a matter of you trusting and respecting someone you claim to love. I’m going to start in the next room. I think we’ll do better separately.”

  Just how, she wondered, had she managed to screw that one up so completely? She took the last painting off the wall, ordered herself to concentrate.

  Obviously Flynn was oversensitive. She’d made a perfectly reasonable request, and if he wanted to get huffy about it, it was his problem.

  She spent the next twenty minutes going over every inch of the room, and comforting herself with her conviction that he’d overreacted.

  They didn’t speak for the next hour, and though they were two people performing the same task in the same space, they managed to avoid contact.

  By the time they started on the main level, they’d developed a rhythm, but
they still weren’t speaking.

  It was tedious, frustrating work. Checking every painting, every sculpture, every pedestal and objet d’art. Going over the stairs tread by tread, crawling along the trim.

  Malory took herself off to the storeroom. It was both painful and thrilling to come across newly acquired pieces, or to see others that had been sold since she’d left The Gallery and were waiting to be crated and shipped.

  Once she’d been privy to every step and stage, and had been granted the right to acquire items and negotiate a price. In her heart The Gallery had been hers. She couldn’t count the times she’d been inside it after hours like this. No one would have questioned her presence then. There would have been no need to beg the keys from a friend, or to feel guilt.

  To question her ethics, she admitted.

  She wouldn’t have felt this awful grief, she realized. Grief that this part of her life had been taken away from her. Maybe she was crazy for refusing the offer to take it back. Maybe she was making a huge mistake by deviating from the sensible, the tangible. She could go back and speak to James, tell him she’d changed her mind. She could slide back into routine again, have what she’d always had.

  And it would never be the same.

  That was the grief. Her life was changed, irrevocably. And she hadn’t taken the time to mourn the loss. She did so now, with every piece she touched, every minute she spent in the space that had once been the most important part of her life.

  She revisited a thousand memories, so many of them part of the day-to-day routine that had meant nothing at the time. And everything once it had been taken away.

  Flynn pulled open the door. “Where do you want to—” He broke off when she turned toward him. Her eyes were dry, but devastated. She held a rough stone sculpture in her arms as she might a child.

  “What is it?”

  “I miss this place so much. It’s like something’s died.” Very gently, she replaced the sculpture on a shelf. “I acquired this piece, about four months ago. It’s a new artist. He’s young, with all the fire and temperament you’d expect from the feel of his work. He’s from a small town in Maryland, and he’s had a little local luck, but no major gallery showed any interest. It felt good to give him his first real break, and to think of what he might do, what we might do in the future.”

  She ran a fingertip over the stone. “Someone bought this. I didn’t have anything to do with that part, don’t even recognize the name on the invoice. It’s not mine anymore.”

  “It wouldn’t have been here or have been sold if it wasn’t for you.”

  “Maybe, but those days are over. I don’t have a place here anymore. I’m sorry for what I said before. Very sorry I hurt your feelings.”

  “Forget it.”

  “No.” She drew a breath. “I’m not going to say I didn’t have some concerns about how you might handle this whole thing eventually. I can’t claim that I have absolute trust in you. That conflicts with loving you, and I can’t explain it. No more than I can explain how I know the key’s not here. How I knew that the minute I walked in to get the keys from Tod. I still have to look, have to finish what I started. But it’s not here, Flynn. There’s nothing here for me now.”

 
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