Key of valor, p.22
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       Key of Valor, p.22

         Part #3 of Key series by Nora Roberts
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  “He’s yours, baby.”

  In that moment she knew the puppy could chew through her house like a plague of termites and she would never regret it. She would never forget that flash of stunned joy on her little boy’s face.

  “To keep?” Simon’s voice shook as he managed to get to his knees. “I can keep him?”

  “I think he’s counting on it.” She walked over to kneel down and ruffle the pup’s cloud-soft fur. “You’re going to have to be very responsible, and make sure he’s fed right and taught, and loved. Puppies are a lot of work. He’s going to depend on you.”

  “Mom.” Too overcome to be embarrassed that Brad looked on, Simon threw his arms around his mother and buried his face against her shoulder. “I’ll take good care of him. I promise. Thanks, Mom. I love you more than anything, ever.”

  “I love you more than anything, ever.” She answered his fierce hug with one of her own, then managed a watery laugh when both dogs tried to wiggle between them. “I think Moe’s going to like having a friend.”

  “It’s just like a big family.” Simon lifted the puppy high.

  The newcomer expressed his delight by peeing on Simon’s knee.

  Chapter Sixteen

  ZOE rubbed the exfoliating cream over Dana’s calf and grinned as her friend let out a long, heartfelt moan.

  “I really appreciate the two of you giving up your Sunday afternoon to be my guinea pigs.”

  This time Dana grunted. Malory sat on a stool in the treatment room and rubbed her fingers over her newly scrubbed and polished skin. “I can’t get over how good it feels.”

  “I wasn’t worried about the results—these products are great. But I want to be sure the whole experience works.”

  “Works for me,” said Dana’s slurred and muffled voice.

  Zoe glanced around, scanning the shelves of products, the glowing candles, the neat stack of mint-green towels on the counter, the clear crystal she’d hung from the ceiling over the padded table.

  It was, she thought, exactly right.

  “Of course, when we’re doing this for real there won’t be three people in here talking. You want us to be quiet, Dana?”

  “You don’t even exist in my little world. That stuff smells as good as it feels.”

  “It’s good we’re doing this.” Malory sipped some of the lemon water Zoe had chilled in a squat glass pitcher. “If we’re going to open on Friday, we want to work out as many kinks as possible, in all three areas.”

  Swallowing hard, she pressed a hand to her belly. “God, we’re going to open on Friday. Even if it is a kind of dry run for the grand opening on December first, it’s happening.”

  “Big day, all around,” Zoe said.

  “You’re going to find the key.” Malory touched her shoulder. “I know it.”

  The connection—Malory’s hand on her, hers on Dana—bolstered her. “That’s another reason I wanted to do this today. I needed some time with just the three of us.”

  She glanced up at the crystal again. It certainly seemed she’d become a bit more mystical-minded over the last few months. “To recharge my energy. My girl power.”

  “Rah-rah,” Dana cheered and made Zoe laugh.

  “With what happened yesterday I feel more confident, but this little voice keeps sneaking in asking me why the hell I think I can do this.”

  “Is it Zoe’s voice,” Dana asked her, “or Kane’s?”

  “It’s Zoe’s, which makes it more irritating. Yesterday, there was this rush of excitement, of energy, when I realized what was going on, that I knew what it was and could control it. But I need to move it from there.”

  “You went back to a beginning, and an ending.” Curious, Malory examined the bottles and tubes neatly lined up on Zoe’s shelves. “And with the three of us here today, we’re going back to basics. Both Dana and I had periods during our part of this when we felt discouraged and lost.”

  “Check,” Dana confirmed. “And when we went off on tangents that dead-ended. Or seemed to.”

  “Seemed to.” Turning back, Malory nodded. “But without those tangents would we have gotten on the right track? I don’t think so. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot,” she added, leaning back on the counter. “A quest isn’t linear, it isn’t straightforward. It circles and it winds and overlaps. But every step, every piece, has its place. Let’s take yours.”

  “Dana has to rinse off.”

  “Then hold that thought.” Wrapped in the bath sheet Zoe provided, Dana headed for the shower.

  “You’ve got some ideas.” Zoe walked over to rinse her hands. “I can see it.”

  “I do, actually. It might be easier for me to see, well, the forest for the trees, because I’m not in it the way you are. And the experience I had in the attic here was similar to what happened to you yesterday. In that I knew what was going on, and controlled it. And part of me, a little part, wanted to stay in that illusion and let the rest go.”

  Zoe looked back, saw the sympathy, the understanding on Malory’s face. The tension in her shoulders dissolved. “I really needed to hear that. So much. I didn’t want James, Mal, not really, but part of me remembered how much I had wanted him.”

  “I know. I know exactly.”

  She could, Zoe thought. She and Dana were the only ones who really could. “Part of me felt that same way, had that same yearning. And it would’ve been so easy to drift back there and believe everything would turn out differently.”

  “But you didn’t drift back.”

  “No.” She began changing the cover on the treatment table, adjusting the pad, smoothing the cotton. “Everything but that one little part knew I didn’t want it to turn out differently. I didn’t really want the boy who couldn’t stand by me or his own child. But I had to remember him, really remember him, and what I felt for him. So I could say good-bye.”

  “Do you want the man who’s willing to stand by you, and your child?”

  “I do.” There was a flutter under her heart as she selected the lotion for Dana. “But I don’t seem to trust either of us to make it work. Lie on your back,” she said when Dana came back in. “And there’s more than that, than not trusting us.”

  Efficiently, she adjusted the towel that covered Dana from breast to crotch, then warmed the lotion in her hands. “If I take that last step with him, how much danger will that put him in? It’s kind of a quandary. If you love someone, you want to protect them. If I’m going to protect him, I can’t let myself love him. Not all the way.”

  “If you love him, you ought to respect him enough to know he’ll protect himself.”

  Zoe stared at Dana. “I do respect him.”

  “I don’t think you do. You keep wondering if and when he’s going to let you down, let Simon down. When he’s going to walk. You’re talking to somebody who’s been there. You’re thinking you shouldn’t give him a hundred percent because you’ll need something in reserve when he takes a hike. I’m not saying you don’t have a right to that. You’ve got a lot on the line.”

  “And what’s most on the line for Zoe? Personally,” Malory qualified. “The single thing you won’t risk?”

  “Simon.”

  “Exactly.”

  “I know Bradley won’t hurt him.” Zoe massaged the lotion in, working her way down Dana’s body. “But the more Simon looks to him for the sort of things a boy looks for from a father, the more of a jolt it’ll be if things don’t work out. He’s had to deal with not having a father. Ever. Not like a divorce or even death, but never having one. However much I’ve smoothed it for him, however much he knows I love him, and I’m there for him, he’s always known there was someone who didn’t, who refused to be there. I don’t want him to ever feel unwanted again.”

  “And to keep that from happening, you’d sacrifice. You’d fight,” Malory added. “Whatever it took, whatever it cost you, you’d fight. Because of all the choices you’ve made, Simon is the most important. He’s your key.”

  “Simon?
” Zoe repeated as Dana sat up. “Oh, sorry, over on your stomach. My mind’s churning.”

  “Mal’s clicked on something.” Dana rolled over, but propped her head on her fist. “We’re the keys, the three of us. That’s been emphasized over and over. But of the three of us, Zoe’s the one who has—you could say—re-created herself in a child. Simon’s part of Zoe. Zoe’s the key, ergo, Simon’s the key.”

  “Kane can’t touch him.” Fear wanted to leap up and choke her. “Rowena said she’d protected him.”

  “Count on it.” Dana looked over her shoulder. “If he could do anything about Simon, he’d have tried by now.”

  “I think it might be more than Rowena that protects him,” Malory added. “I think whatever can be done from the other side is being done. Someone’s children were already harmed. They won’t let it happen again. Between all that, and us, nothing touches Simon.”

  “If I believed otherwise, I’d walk away from this in a heartbeat.” Zoe paused as she caught Malory’s nod. “Which Kane has to know, so he would have done anything he could to threaten my son. He hasn’t, because he can’t. Okay.” She let out a long breath. “Okay, let’s work from there. If Simon’s the key, or part of it the way he’s part of me, doesn’t that take me back to choices I’ve made regarding him? Having him was a choice, keeping him was a choice—the best ones I ever made. But I’ve been back there. And though I think going back mattered, I don’t have the key.”

  “You made other choices,” Dana pointed out. “Went in other directions.”

  “Been over some of those, too. It’s been a kind of journey, I guess,” she continued as she finished slicking the lotion on Dana. “Remembering, seeing it again, thinking about it all. It’s been good for me, all in all, because it validated my choices and let me see that the mistakes I made weren’t all that big. You want to roll over? I’ll get you your robe.”

  “You came here to the Valley,” Dana began. “You got a job, you bought a house. What else?”

  Malory held up a hand while Zoe helped Dana into her robe. “I’m not going to say all of that’s not important, and maybe going through some of the details is one of the answers. But we could look at this from a different angle. What if some of the answers have to do with Simon’s choices?”

  “He’s a kid,” Dana pointed out, rubbing a hand on her forearm to admire Zoe’s work. “His biggest choice is which video game to play.”

  “No.” Thoughtfully, Zoe shook her head. “No, children have a lot of choices. Right or wrong. Some of those choices stick with them, and push them in a certain direction. What friends they make. Maybe they read a book about a fighter pilot and they decide they want to fly. Right now, in a hundred different ways, Simon’s deciding what kind of a man he’ll be.”

  “Then maybe you need to take a closer look at some of those decisions,” Malory suggested.

  A decision Simon was particularly pleased with at the moment was his choice of Homer as a name for the pup. It combined some of his favorite things into one—baseball, a cartoon character, and a dog. Outside in the crisp fall air, watching Moe chase a tennis ball and Homer chase Moe, Simon figured life didn’t get any cooler.

  Plus, the guys were coming over pretty soon to watch the game while his mom and her friends did girl stuff. He could eat potato chips till he puked.

  He snatched up the ball Moe dropped at his feet, then did a lot of dancing and fake throwing to make the dogs totally nutso before he hurled it toward the trees.

  When he went to school the next day, he’d tell all his pals about Homer. Maybe, if it wasn’t too goofy, he could get Brad to take a picture so he could show everybody.

  He looked back toward the river while the dogs rolled around together. He really liked it here. He liked his house, too, and the yard and all. And living next to the Hansons. But, boy, he really liked it here, with the woods to explore and the river right there.

  If they were going to stay longer, it would be so cool to have his friends over. Man, they would freak over the game room. And they could build a fort in the woods, and maybe go tubing on the river in the summer. If his mom didn’t wig out over the idea.

  Maybe he still could, even after they went back home. He could ask Brad, and then Brad would help him work on Mom. That was cool, too, having another guy so they could double-team her.

  It was sort of like having a father. Not that he cared about that, but it was probably like it. Sort of.

  Anyway, it was going to be totally awesome to have Thanksgiving here, with everybody piling into the house, and the guys all arguing about the game, and eating pumpkin pie until they busted their guts.

  His mom made really good pumpkin pie, and she always gave him little pieces of the dough to make dough people with.

  He wondered if Brad would think that was lame.

  He looked over, then ran toward the house as Brad came out. “Hey! You want to throw the ball some? Moe’s teaching Homer how to fetch.”

  “Sure.” He snugged the knit cap he’d brought out over Simon’s head. “Getting cold.”

  “Maybe it’ll snow. Maybe it’ll snow six feet and there won’t be any school.”

  “We can always dream.” He picked up the ball and winged it in a way Simon desperately admired.

  “If it snows six feet, can you stay home from work?”

  “If it snows six feet, I’ll make a point of staying home from work.”

  “And we can have hot chocolate and play ten million video games.”

  “That’s a deal.”

  “Do you wear a condom when you have the sex with my mother?”

  All the blood in Brad’s head drained out of the soles of his feet. “Do what?”

  “Because if you don’t, you could make a baby. Would you marry her if you made a baby?”

  “Holy Mother of God.”

  There was a tickle at the back of Simon’s throat, a kind of sick nervousness. But he couldn’t stop the rush of words—they had to be said. “The guy who made me with her, he didn’t marry her, and I think it hurt her feelings. I have to look out for her now, so if you’re not going to marry her if you make a baby, you can’t have the sex.” Because his belly was jumping, Simon looked down and gave the ball a good kick. “I just wanted to say.”

  “Okay. Wow. Okay, I really think I need to sit down.” Before even the jelly his knees had become melted away. “Why don’t we all go inside and do that . . . the sit down thing.”

  “I’m the man of the house,” Simon said in a small voice.

  “You’re a hell of a man, Simon.” In a gesture he hoped bolstered them both, Brad laid a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Let’s go inside and sit down and talk about this.”

  Brad prayed for wisdom, and whatever else would help while they peeled off their jackets. He figured the kitchen was best so they could occupy themselves with drink or food, or anything to make the discussion less horrendous for both of them.

  Though he wanted a beer in the worst way, he poured them both a Coke. “About sex,” he began.

  “I know about sex. Mom said it doesn’t hurt, but sometimes people yell and stuff because it’s fun.”

  “Good,” Brad managed after a moment, and worried that he could actually hear his brain cells dying. “Your mother and I . . . Ah. Adults, healthy, single adults often have relationships that—the hell with this. Look at me.”

  He waited until Simon lifted his head. All the doubts, the defiance, the determination were printed clearly on his face. Just, Brad thought, like his mother’s.

  “I’m in love with your mother. I make love with her because she’s beautiful, and I want to be with her that way. I want to be with her in every way because I’m in love with her.”

  “Is she in love with you back?”

  “I don’t know. I’m hoping.”

  “Do you hang around with me so she’ll be in love with you?”

  “Well, you know, it’s a pretty big sacrifice for me, seeing as how you’re so ugly, and you smell so
bad. Plus you’re short, and that’s really annoying. But whatever works.”

  Simon’s lips twitched. “You’re uglier.”

  “Only because I’m older.” He laid his hand over the boy’s. “And somehow, despite your many flaws, I’m in love with you, too.”

  Emotions rushed into Simon’s throat and seemed to flood onto his face. “That’s pretty weird.”

  “Tell me about it. I want both of you more than I’ve ever wanted anything.”

  “Like a family?”

  “Exactly like that.”

  Simon stared down at the table. There were so many things he wanted to say, to ask, but he wanted to make it right. “Would you marry her, even if you didn’t make a baby?”

  So, it wasn’t to be horrendous after all, Brad mused. “I’d like to make a baby, now that you mention it. But . . . Hold on a minute, there’s something I want to show you. I’ll be right back.”

  Alone, Simon rubbed his eyes hard. He’d been afraid he would cry, blubber like a girl or something. When you were having a real man-to-man talk, like Chuck’s father called them, you didn’t start crying.

  He took a drink of his Coke, but it didn’t settle his stomach. Everything kept wanting to jump around inside of him. He struggled to calm down when he heard Brad coming back, and wiped at his face, just in case.

  Brad sat down again. “This has to be just between us. Just the two of us, Simon. I need you to promise me.”

  “Like a secret?”

  “Yes. It’s important.”

  “Okay, I won’t tell anybody.” Solemnly, Simon spat on his palm, then held it out.

  For a moment Brad could only stare. Some things, he thought—oddly comforted—never changed. He mirrored Simon’s gesture, and they joined palms.

  Saying nothing, Brad put a small box on the table and opened it, showed Simon the ring inside. “This was my grandmother’s. She gave it to me when she and my grandfather had their fiftieth anniversary.”

  “Wow. They must be completely old.”

  Brad’s lips quivered, but he kept his voice steady. “Pretty much. It was her engagement ring, and he gave her a new one on their fiftieth. She wanted me to have her first, and to give it to the woman I’d marry. She says it’s lucky.”

  Lips pursed, Simon poked at the box and watched the ring beam. “It’s really shiny.”

  Brad turned the box so he could study the old-fashioned ring with little diamonds in the shape of a small flower. “I think it’s something Zoe would like. It’s delicate, and it’s different and it’s proved itself. I’m planning to give this to her on Saturday.”

  “How come you’re waiting? You could give it to her when she gets home.”

  “She’s not ready. She needs some more time.” He looked back at the boy. “She needs to find the key, Simon, by Friday. I don’t want to push her, or do anything that distracts her before then.”

  “What if she doesn’t find it?”

  “I don’t know. We have to believe she will. Either way, I’m going to give her this on Saturday and ask her to marry me. I’m telling you now not only because you’re the man of the house and deserve to know my intentions, but because you and Zoe are a package deal. You’re entitled to your say in this.”

  “Will you take good care of her?”

  Oh, you marvelous child. “The very best I can.”

  “You have to bring her presents sometimes. You can make them, like I do, but you can’t forget. Especially on her birthday.”

  “I won’t forget. I promise.”

  Simon scooted his glass around in circles. “If she says yes and you get married, will her name be like yours?”

  “I’m hoping she’ll want that. Vanes are really proud of our name. It’d mean a lot to me if she took it.”

 
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