Key of valor, p.23
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       Key of Valor, p.23

         Part #3 of Key series by Nora Roberts
 
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  He scooted the glass again, watched it intensely. “Will mine be like yours?”

  Everything inside Brad lit up like one big candle of love. “I’m hoping you’ll want that, too, because it’ll tell everyone how you belong to me. Simon, if she says yes, and we get married, will you call me Dad?”

  Simon’s heart pounded so hard, he heard it ringing in his ears. He looked up, smiled. “Okay.”

  When Brad held out his arms, he did what came naturally and went into them.

  THERE were so many things to think about, and all of them seemed to want to jumble in her head as she drove along the river. The day was almost over, and that left only five more. Five more days to find the key, to open that final lock. Five days to search her mind, her heart, her life.

  Nothing was the same as it had been. And when the week was up, everything would change again. All these new directions, she thought, so many roads, when before her route had been so direct.

  Earn a living to make a home. Make that home so her son could have a happy, healthy, normal life. However arduous it had been from time to time, it had been relatively uncomplicated. You got up every morning, took the first step, and kept going until you got everything done.

  Then you did it again, in some variation, the next day.

  It had worked, and worked well.

  But it was true, wasn’t it? she admitted as she slowed to make a turn. It was true that under it all she’d still wanted more. The little things, the pretty things she saw in magazines. She’d found ways to have them by learning how to make them. Nice curtains, a table arrangement, a garden that lasted from spring till frost.

  And the big things. The college fund she’d started for Simon and built on a little each month. The business she’d begun.

  So however direct her route, she’d always had her eye out for a detour.

  Well, she’d taken one now.

  She pulled up at Brad’s, saw Flynn’s car, Jordan’s. It made her smile. Her detour hadn’t just brought two women she’d come to love into her life, it had brought three interesting men. And in less than three months, they had become more like family to her than her own.

  She parked, waited for the guilt to creep in at that thought. When it didn’t, she sat back and considered. No, she didn’t feel guilty at all. She’d made this family, she realized. And through some miraculous twist of fate they understood her in a way her own never had. Probably never would.

  She could love her mother, her sisters, her brother, she shared hundreds of memories and moments with them—good and bad. But she didn’t feel, couldn’t feel, the same connection, the same intimacy with them as she did for the family she’d made.

  They were her more, she thought.

  Nothing would ever take away what they’d built together over the past three months. Whatever happened next, she would always have her more.

  Almost giddy with the sensation, she stepped out of the car and started toward the house. It felt good to stride up this walk, easy and natural to head for the front door not knowing quite what to expect when she opened it.

  Dogs running, three men and a boy in a football coma, a male-generated disaster in the kitchen. It didn’t matter what she found, because whatever it was, she was part of it.

  Struck, she stopped. She was part of it, part of what went on inside this house. And the man who owned it. Slowly, she walked back to the banks of the river and turned, and looked.

  She remembered the first time she’d seen the house, how she’d stopped her car just to stare and admire. She hadn’t known Brad, hadn’t really known any of them yet. But the house had caught her.

  She’d wondered what it would be like to live there, inside something so wonderfully designed. To have some part in that perfect spot, woods and water, to call her own. And when she’d gone inside, she’d been drenched in delight and wonder. The warmth and the space had pulled her along. She remembered standing at the window in the great room and thinking how incredible it would be to live there, and to be able to look out that window whenever she liked.

  Now she did. She could.

  Her quest had brought her here, her and her son, to live inside that house with the man who owned it. With the man who loved her.

  He loved her.

  Breathless, Zoe pressed her fingers to her lips. Was this an intersection, she wondered, or a destination?

  Eager to know, she ran toward it. She flung open the door, then held herself still, trying to interpret what she felt.

  Ease, she thought, and comfort. And excitement, anticipation. A wondrous mix of the soothing and the giddy. Here, she thought. Yes, there was something here. Something that might be hers.

  Moe dashed up, and she laughed as he bounded to plant his paws on her shoulders in greeting. “You’ll never learn.” She gave him a happy rub before pushing him down, and scooped up the puppy jumping over her feet.

  “Let’s go find our men.” She tucked Homer on her shoulder like a baby, patting his back as she headed toward the noisy game room.

  They were, as she’d suspected, sprawled everywhere in an intensely male Sunday afternoon tableau. The football game must have ended, but there was a new contest under way as Flynn took on her son in what appeared to be a vicious round of Mortal Kombat.

  Jordan was slumped in a chair, a beer bottle dangling from his fingers, his long legs stretched out on a rug that was littered with potato chip shards, portions of the Sunday paper, and dog hair.

  Brad had copped the couch, and with a bowl of nachos balanced on his belly looked to be catching a nap, despite the ringing sounds of battle from the screen and the floor.

  Flushed with love for all of them, Zoe headed toward Jordan. He gave her a lazy smile, then cocked a brow as she caught his dark hair in her hands and bent down to give him a long, hard kiss.

  “Hello, handsome.”

  “Hello, gorgeous.”

  With a laugh for his perplexed expression, she swung around. She crouched by Flynn and as Simon goggled, hooked her arm around Flynn’s neck, tipped him back like a dance move and pressed her lips enthusiastically to his.

  “Jeez, Mom.”

  “Wait your turn. Hi, cutie,” she said to Flynn.

  “Hi, back. Did Mal have whatever you did?”

  She grabbed Simon, wrestling him into her arms as he pretended to struggle. She peppered kisses over his cheeks, then did an exaggerated mmmmm on his lips. “Hello, son of mine.”

  “Did you drink stuff, Mom?”

  “No.” She gave him a quick tickle in the ribs, then got to her feet.

  Brad stayed as he was, but his eyes were open now and on hers. With a slow smile, she pushed up her sleeves one at a time as she crossed the room.

  “I wondered if you’d get around to me.”

  “Saved you for last.”

  She picked up the nachos, set them on the table. She sat at his hip, and grabbed a handful of his sweatshirt. Yanked. “Come here, and bring that sexy mouth with you.”

  Behind her, Simon rolled around on the floor making gagging noises until Moe sat on him.

  She ended the kiss with a teasing nip on his bottom lip and a whispered “We’ll finish this later.” Then gave him a light shove to send him flat again.

  “Well.” She rose, brushed her palms together as if completing a task. “Y’all be sure to pick up in here when you’re done. I’ve got some work to do upstairs.”

  She sauntered out, feeling like the queen of the world.

  Chapter Seventeen

  BRAD wasn’t sure what had gotten into her, but he was pretty sure he liked it. Whatever had put that brilliantly sexy look on her face and had turned her voice into a laughing purr couldn’t be bad.

  He wondered what sort of strange and exotic female rituals she and the others had performed while he’d been watching football.

  He wondered if they would perform them once a week.

  The first chance he got, he was going to corner her and see that she made good on that promise to
finish what she’d started with that long, smoldering kiss.

  But from the looks of things, it wasn’t going to be soon.

  By the time Flynn and Jordan left, Simon claimed to be starving to death. The fact that the boy had been eating steadily all day didn’t seem to matter. He was starving, the dogs were starving. They would all keel over and die if they didn’t eat soon. To hold them off, Brad thrust what was left of a bag of corn chips in Simon’s hands and chased the three of them outside.

  But from Zoe there hadn’t been a peep in over an hour. The woman had swept in, stirred him up, then swept out again, leaving the taste of her lingering on his lips.

  Simon wasn’t the only one who was starving.

  Unwilling to wait for her to wander his way again, Brad went upstairs and knocked on her closed bedroom door.

  “Come on in.”

  He opened it and saw her sitting on the bed, surrounded by stacks of paper and notebooks, library books and her borrowed laptop. She still looked sexy—he doubted she could look anything but—and very focused.

  “What’s up?” he asked her.

  “The desk couldn’t hold all this. It’s a big bed.” She had a pencil behind her ear and was idly chewing on another one. “I’m going through everything one more time, start to finish. I’ve got all this energy all of a sudden and all these ideas.” She shook herself as if she couldn’t hold them all comfortably. “I’m trying to organize them, but one thing just keeps slapping into another.”

  Watching her, he walked over to sit on the side of the bed. “You look excited.”

  “I am. It just sort of struck me as I was driving back, and I thought if I went back through each clue, each quest, each . . . Where’s Simon?”

  “He’s outside with the dogs.”

  “It’s getting late. I wasn’t paying attention. I’d better throw something together for dinner, and get him in and settled down.”

  “Take a minute. Tell me where you’re heading with this.”

  “That’s one of the things I need to figure out. Where am I heading? I’ll tell you while I see about dinner.”

  “You don’t have to see about dinner,” he said as she wound through her stacks and off the bed. Reaching out, he snagged the pencil from her ear, tossed it on her papers. “There’s enough left over down there to forage through.”

  “I think better when I’m busy, and foraging isn’t part of the deal. And I like fussing around in that kitchen of yours,” she added as she started out. “That’s one of the things I need to talk to you about.”

  “You want to talk to me about the kitchen?”

  “That’s part of it. Part of the whole.” Catching his expression of pure male distress, she chuckled. “Don’t panic, I’m not pulling a Malory on you. Your kitchen’s wonderful just as it is. The fact is, this is the most wonderful house I’ve ever seen.”

  She trailed her fingers along the rail on the way downstairs. “Everything about it is just as it should be. I love my place. It means so much to me. There are still some mornings I wake up and just hug myself because it’s mine.”

  She stepped into the kitchen. And let out a very long, very audible breath.

  “We, ah, foraged considerably earlier.”

  “So I see.” There were dishes, glasses, bottles of soda and beer, bags of chips and other jetsam of a male afternoon spread over the counters and table. “Well.” So saying, she rolled up her sleeves.

  “Wait a minute. Just wait.” More than a little embarrassed that he’d let the state of the house get quite so out of hand, he grabbed her arm. “If we’re talking about deals, you’re not supposed to pick up after me.”

  “I’m not picking up after you.” After brushing him off, she plucked up a half-empty bag of taco chips and rolled up the end. “I’m picking up after all of you, which balances out you having Simon underfoot all day while I was off doing something else. Do you have any clothespins?”

  “Clothespins?” He struggled to find the connection. “You’re going to hang out wash?”

  “No. These chips’ll stay fresher if you clip them closed. You can buy those plastic spring things they make for it, but clothespins work just as well.”

  Amused, he slid his hands into his pockets. “I don’t believe I have any of those in stock at the moment. We could order them for you.”

  “I’ve got my own. I’ll bring some by.” With quick, efficient moves, she had the bags rolled and stored, or crushed and thrown away. And started straight in on the dishes. “A man’s got a beautiful house like this, he shouldn’t let it get to be such a mess. I imagine the game room looks like an army was bivouacked in it.”

  He began to jiggle his change. “Maybe. I have a cleaning crew—” He broke off at the single steely look she sent over her shoulder. “Am I going to have to vacuum?”

  “No, Simon is, to thank you for the day. Meanwhile, I was talking about houses. Flynn’s got a great house. I imagine he bought it because it pulled some string inside him and made him comfortable. Made him at home. He didn’t do a lot with it until Malory came along, but there was something about that place that told him this is the one, this is my place.”

  “Okay, I’m following that.”

  With the dishes loaded, she damped a cloth to wipe off the counters. “There’s the Peak. That’s a fantastic place. A magic one. But it’s a home, too. It was a place that meant something special to Jordan even as a boy. Something he aspired to. He and Dana are going to make it their own.”

  She poured a couple of swallows of warm beer in the sink, tossed bottles into the recycle bin. Watching, Brad was certain he’d never seen a room put so quickly to rights.

  “I could never live in a place like that,” she continued. “It’s too big, too grand, too everything. But I can see how it’s right for them.”

  She got out a pot, measured water by eye and set it on the range. While she spoke, she pulled out vegetables and the sealed bag of beef she’d marinated that morning. “Then there’s Indulgence. As soon as I saw it, I knew, this is the place. The place where I could make something. Where Mal and Dana and I could make something. It was a crazy idea when you really think it through.”

  She julienned peppers and carrots with what looked to Brad like the skill of a veteran line chef. “How so?”

  “Putting it all under one roof that way, with the bare minimum of seed money. Buying the place, too, instead of pushing just to rent. But I wanted to buy it, to have it, as soon as I saw it.”

  “You don’t say it was a crazy idea for the three of you to go into business together so quickly after you’d met. Or that it was crazy to take on that much work.”

  “Those aren’t the crazy parts for me.” She cut strips of onions, minced garlic. “There was never any question for me about Malory and Dana. And work, that’s just what you do. It was the place, Bradley. It held the same kind of magic for me as my house. That’s why I thought, I really thought for a while that was where I’d find the key.”

  “You don’t think so now.”

  “No, I don’t.”

  She moved from one task to another without breaking rhythm, measuring out rice, cubing tomatoes, slicing beef. He thought it was like watching a kind of poetry.

  “Malory’s key was there. In the painting, yes, but she had to do the painting in that house. And Dana’s was at the Peak—or in the book, in Phantom Watch, which was based on the Peak. When you look back through their clues, you can see them being led around to it. Through their connections with the place, through their connections with Flynn, and Jordan.”

  She drizzled olive oil in a skillet. “The painting for Malory. The book for Dana. But they needed the place, too.”

  “And for you?”

  “For me, it’s not a thing so much. It’s a kind of journey with different paths. Some I took, some I didn’t, and the whys of both, maybe. And it’s a struggle, a kind of battle.” She added garlic and onion to the sizzling oil. “Maybe it’s understanding that the ones I lost wer
e as important in their way as the ones I didn’t. I think maybe you can’t see clearly where you’re going next if you don’t see where you’ve been. And why.”

  He had to touch her, just to feel her under his hand for a moment. He brushed his fingers over her hair, down the long, lovely line of her neck. And got the absent smile of a busy woman in response. “Where are you going, Zoe?”

  “I can’t say I know that, not for sure. But I know where I am right now. In this house. In this house that pulled a string in me the first time I saw it. Here I am, cooking dinner in the kitchen, and Simon’s out there playing with the dogs. I have a connection here. To this place. To you.”

  “Enough to stay?”

  The beef she’d started to slide into the skillet slipped out of her fingers and plopped into the oil. “That’s one sure way to scatter my thoughts.” She picked up another slice, concentrated fiercely on the exact placement. “Bradley. I can’t—I just can’t step that far off the path. I made promises to myself when Simon was born. Promises to him.”

  “I want to make them to you.”

  “I’ve only got until Friday to do this,” she said quickly. “Only a few more days. If I don’t do this right, I feel like I may never do anything right again.” She looked at him pleadingly. “I see her face in my sleep, Bradley. I see all of them, waiting for me to do this last thing.”

  “You’re not the only one fighting a battle, Zoe. I’m in this as deep as you. And damned if I can figure out if loving you is a sword or a curse.”

  “Do you ever ask yourself, in some quiet moment, whether you think you love me because my face is in that painting?”

  He started to speak, then stopped himself and gave her the plain truth. “Yes.”

  “So do I. One thing I do know is I don’t want to lose you. I won’t risk losing what we have now by making or asking for promises that neither of us may want to keep down the road.”

  “You keep waiting for me to let you down, Zoe. You’re going to have a long wait.”

  Surprised, she turned around. “I don’t. I’m not. It’s—”

  She broke off as Simon burst in the back door. “I’m starving.”

  “Dinner’s in ten minutes.” She reached out to stroke his hair. “Go ahead and wash up. I got off the track,” she said to Brad as Simon zoomed out in a flurry of dogs. “I was working my way around to asking you if I could go through your house.”

  Irritation flickered over his face. “You try my patience, Zoe.”

  “I imagine I do,” she said calmly, and turned back to finish sautéing the beef and vegetables. “And I wouldn’t blame you for wanting to give me a good kick in the ass. But I’ve got a lot of important balls in the air right now, and I’m not going to drop any of them.”

  He remembered the way her face had glowed when she’d come home that afternoon. What was the point, he asked himself, in dimming that light because he was frustrated, even angry, that she didn’t just leap into his arms and give him everything he wanted, all on one big plate?

  “I reserve the right for the ass-kicking. Why ask me if you can go through the house when you’re living . . . when you’re staying here?”

  “I mean go through it like I did my own and Indulgence. Top to bottom, which would mean poking into personal spaces.” She got out a platter, scooped her finished rice onto it. “I think the key’s in this house, Bradley. No, that’s not right. I know it is. I feel it.”

  Efficiently, she topped the mound of rice with the contents of the skillet. “Something just opened up for me today when I drove up here, and I know it. I don’t know where or how, I just know it is.”

  He looked at her, looked at the platter. In under thirty minutes, he calculated, she had talked him through another stage in her quest, irritated him, amused him, fended off a proposal, and cooked a very attractive meal.

  Was it any wonder she fascinated him?

  “When do you want to start?”

  THEY gave it two hours after Simon was in bed, starting with the lower level. She searched every inch of the great room, moving furniture, rolling up rugs, going through drawers, into closets. Armed with a flashlight, she checked the fireplace, testing each stone, running her fingers over the mantel.

 
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