Key of light, p.24
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       Key of Light, p.24

         Part #1 of Key series by Nora Roberts
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  something more solid and in tune with the feel of the house.

  And what was she going to do about lighting? He didn’t know anything about salons, but it seemed logical that good, strong lighting would be essential.

  “Excuse me. I need my toolbox.”

  “What? Oh, sorry.” He handed it to her, then ran his fingers over the chipped and peeling window trim. “You know, you could go with cherry for contrast here. Different woods, leaving the natural grain, going with warm tones. You’re not going to cover these floors, are you?”

  She took out her measuring tape. “No.”

  Why didn’t he go away? She had work to do, thinking to do. And most of all she’d wanted to be alone in her wonderful building, planning and deciding and dreaming about how it was all going to be when she’d finished.

  The colors, the textures, the tones, the smells. Everything.

  And here he was, in her way, wandering around. All male and gorgeous and distracting in his perfect suit and his expensive shoes. He smelled, oh so subtly, of high-end soap and aftershave.

  He probably paid more for a cake of soap then she had for the jeans and shirt she was wearing. And he thought he could just mill around, wafting in her air, making her feel clumsy and inferior.

  “What are your plans for this room?”

  She wrote down her measurements and kept her back to him. “This is the main salon. It’s for hair, manicures, and makeup.” When he didn’t respond, she was compelled to look over her shoulder. He was staring contemplatively at her ceiling. “What?”

  “We have these mini track lights. Very practical, but with a fun look. They have the advantage of being able to be set in a number of directions. You going for fun or elegant in here?”

  “I don’t see why it can’t be both.”

  “Good point. Soft colors or bold?”

  “Bold here, soft in the treatment rooms. Look, Bradley—”

  “Ouch. That sounded like my mother.” He’d already crouched down to flip through a sample book, and cast her a quick grin. “Do you guys have like a training center where you learn how to develop that withering tone?”

  “Men aren’t allowed to have that information. If I told you, I’d have to kill you. And I just don’t have the time. We’re going to close on the property in a month, and I want to have my plans outlined so I can start on them the minute we do.”

  “I can help you.”

  “I know what I’m doing and how I want to do it. I don’t know why you assume—”

  “Hold on. Boy, are you touchy.” Wouldn’t you think a woman who wore skintight jeans and decorated her navel would be a little more approachable? “I’m in the business, remember?” He tapped the HomeMakers logo on the sample book. “Not only that, but I like helping a building meet its potential. I can give you a hand with some labor and material.”

  “I’m not looking for a handout.”

  He set the book aside, slowly got to his feet. “I said a hand, not a handout. What is it about me that puts your back up?”

  “Everything. That’s unfair.” She shrugged. “But it’s true. I don’t understand people like you, so I tend to distrust them.”

  “People like me?”

  “Rich, privileged people who run American empires. I’m sorry, I’m sure you have some very nice qualities or you wouldn’t be Flynn’s friend. But you and I have nothing in common. Plus, I have a lot on my plate right now and no time to play games. So let’s clear this up, then we can move on. I’m not going to have sex with you.”

  “Okay, well, obviously my life is no longer worth living.”

  She wanted to smile at that, nearly did. But she had reason to know his sort was very tricky. “Are you going to tell me that you’re not hoping to sleep with me?”

  He took a careful breath before speaking. She’d hooked the earpiece of her sunglasses in the V of her shirt, and those long, tawny eyes were staring very directly into his. “You and I both know there’s no way for me to answer that question correctly. It’s the mother of trick questions. Others in this category are, Do I look fat in this? Do you think she’s pretty? And if you don’t know, I’m certainly not going to tell you.”

  Now she had to bite the inside of her lip to hold back the laughter. “The last isn’t a question.”

  “It’s still a mystery and a trap. So why don’t I just say I find you very attractive. And we have more in common than you seem to think, starting with a circle of friends. I’m willing to help you, Malory, and Dana with this place. None of you has to have sex with me in return. Though if the three of you wanted to get together and organize a nice tasteful orgy I wouldn’t say no. Meanwhile, I’ll let you get back to work.”

  He started out, then said casually as he walked down the stairs, “By the way, HomeMakers is having a sale on wall treatments—paper and paint—next month. Fifteen to thirty percent off all stock.”

  Zoe hurried to the top of the steps. “When next month?”

  “I’ll let you know.”

  So, she wasn’t going to have sex with him. Brad shook his head as he walked to his car. That had been an unfortunate statement on her part. Obviously, she wasn’t aware that the one thing no Vane could resist was a direct challenge.

  His only plan had been to ask her out to dinner. Now, he decided as he studied the windows on the second level, he’d have to take a little time and work out a strategy.

  Zoe McCourt was about to go under siege.

  ZOE had other things on her mind. She was running late, but that was nothing new. There always seemed to be another flood of things to do or remember or fix right before she walked out the door.

  “You give those cookies to Chuck’s mother. She’ll divvy them up.” Zoe turned the car into the driveway two blocks from her own house, then sent her son a stern look. “I mean it, Simon. I don’t have time to take them in myself. If I go to the door she’ll keep me there for twenty minutes, and I’m already late.”

  “Okay, okay. I coulda walked.”

  “Yeah, but then I wouldn’t’ve been able to do this.” She grabbed him, dug her fingers into his ribs to make him squeal.

  “Mom!”

  “Simon!” she said in the same exasperated tone.

  He was laughing as he got out and dragged his duffel from the backseat.

  “You mind Chuck’s mother, and don’t keep everybody up all night. You’ve got Malory’s number?”

  “Yes, I’ve got Malory’s number. And I know how to dial nine-one-one, and to run out of the house if I set it on fire when I play with matches.”

  “Smart guy. Come over here and give me a kiss.”

  He made a show of dragging his feet, keeping his head dipped to hide his grin as he approached her car window. “Make it quick. Somebody might see us.”

  “Just tell them I wasn’t kissing you. I was yelling at you.” She gave him a kiss, resisted hugging him. “See you tomorrow. Have a good time, baby.”

  “You, too, baby.” He snickered, then raced for the house.

  With a mother’s skill, she backed out of the drive while watching her boy until he was safely inside.

  Then she headed off to Malory’s, and her first grown-up sleepover.

  Chapter Seventeen

  MALORY knew what was going on. Nobody wanted her to be alone, and her new friends were worried about her. Zoe had been so enthusiastic about the brainstorm of an all-girl sleepover that Malory hadn’t been able to refuse.

  The very fact that she’d wanted to refuse, had wanted to burrow into her cave alone, forced her to admit she needed a change.

  She’d never been a loner, nor had she been much of a brooder in the past. When she was troubled, she went out, saw people. Bought things, gave a party.

  Zoe’s request for an all-nighter gave Malory the push to do all of that. She bought food and pretty new candles with citrusy scents. And fragrant soaps and fussy new guest towels, then some good wine.

  She cleaned the apartment she’d been neglecting, sp
illed spicy potpourri into bowls. And groomed herself in the meticulous way that women groomed for other women.

  By the time Dana arrived, she had cheese and fruit and fancy crackers set out, the candles lit and music set on low.

  “Wow, pretty elegant around here. I should’ve dressed up some.”

  “You look great.” Determined to be cheerful, Malory leaned in to kiss Dana’s cheek. “I appreciate you guys doing this.”

  “Doing what?”

  “Hanging out with me, giving me a boost. I’ve been feeling down the last couple of days.”

  “None of us figured on the energy drain this deal would be.” She passed Malory a grocery bag, then set down her overnight case. “I bought extra supplies. Wine, Cheez-Its, chocolate truffles, and popcorn. You know, the four basic food groups.” Dana flipped through the movie selection next to the entertainment center. “Did you rent every chick flick ever made?”

  “Every one currently available on DVD. How about some wine?’

  “You don’t have to twist my arm. New perfume?”

  “No, must be the candles.”

  “Nice. That’s Zoe. Better pour another glass.”

  Zoe came in through the patio doors, loaded down with bags. “Cookies,” she said a little breathlessly. “Videos, aromatherapy, and coffee cake for the morning.”

  “Nice job.” Dana took one of the bags from her and handed her a glass of wine. Then she leaned closer and said, “How do you get your lashes to look like that? All sooty and spiky?”

  “I’ll show you. This is fun. I went by the house today to do some measuring and to look at some samples there in the space and light. I’ve got wallpaper books and paint chips in the car if we want to look later. Bradley Vane caught me while I was there. What’s his story?”

  “Golden boy with a social conscience.” Dana attacked the Brie. “Star athlete, high school and college. Track a specialty. Honor student but not a nerd. Semi-engaged a couple of times, but always managed to wiggle out before it stuck. Been friends with Flynn just about from birth. Excellent body, which I’ve been fortunate enough to see through various stages. Interested in seeing it yourself?”

  “Not that way. I haven’t had much luck with men, so the only one who’s going to be in my life for the time being is Simon. Oh, I love this song.” She slipped out of her shoes to dance. “So, Mal, how’s it going with Flynn?”

  “Well, I love him, so it’s pretty irritating. I wish I could dance like that.”

  “Like what?”

  “All long legs and loose hips.”

  “Come on, then.” Zoe set her wine down, held out her hands. “We’ll work on it. You do one of two things. Pretend nobody’s watching or pretend that this guy, this incredibly sexy guy, is watching. Either way, depending on your mood, you just let go.”

  “How come girls always end up dancing with girls?” Malory wondered as she tried to get her hips to move independent of the rest of her body, as Zoe’s seemed to do.

  “Because we’re better at it.”

  “Actually,” Dana said, helping herself to a little tree of green grapes, “it’s a kind of social, sexual ritual. The female performs, tempts, and teases, the male observes, fantasizes, and selects. Or is selected. Jungle drums or the Dave Matthews Band, it comes down to the same thing.”

  “Are you going to dance?” Malory asked her.

  “Sure.” Popping one more grape, Dana got up. Hips and shoulders went into a sinuous rhythm as she moved toward Zoe. They slithered into a dance that was, to Malory’s mind, both sexy and free.

  “Now I’m totally outclassed.”

  “You’re doing fine. Loosen your knees. And speaking of rituals, I have some ideas. But . . .” Zoe grabbed her wine again. “I think we should have some more wine before I bring it up.”

  “You can’t do that,” Dana complained. “I hate that. What’s the idea?” She took Zoe’s glass, had a hurried sip. “Look, I drank more. Tell me.”

  “Okay. Let’s sit down.”

  Remembering her role as hostess, Malory brought the wine and the tray of food to the coffee table. “If this ritual has anything to do with leg waxing, I need much more wine first.”

  “No.” Zoe laughed. “But I have an almost painless technique with hot wax. I can give you a Brazilian without anyone shedding a tear.”

  “A Brazilian?”

  “Tidy up the bikini area. It leaves just a neat little strip so you can wear the tiniest thong without looking, well, unkempt.”

  “Oh.” Instinctively Malory folded her hands over her crotch. “Not even if you use morphine and shackles.”

  “Honest, it’s all in the wrist.” Zoe explained. “Well, so . . . back to what I was saying,” she continued. “I know we’ve all been reading and researching and trying to come up with theories and ideas to help Malory find the first key.”

  “And you’ve both been great. Really. I just feel like I’m missing something, some little thing that could open it all up.”

  “Maybe we’ve all missed something,” Zoe countered. “The legend itself. Mortal woman mates with Celtic god and becomes queen. Female power. She has three daughters. Female again. One of their guardians is a female.”

  “Well, it is a fifty-fifty shot,” Dana pointed out. “Even for gods.”

  “Wait. So when their souls are stolen and trapped by a man, it’s said that three mortals, mortal women, have to find and turn the keys.”

  “Sorry, Zoe, I’m not following you. We already know all this.” Malory reached halfheartedly for a grape.

  “Let’s take it a little further. Gods, in Celtic lore, are, well, earthier than say the Greek or Roman ones. They’re more like wizards and sorcerers than . . . what’s the word? Um, omniscient beings. Is that right?” she asked Dana.

  “Yeah.”

  “They have ties to the earth, to nature. Like, well, witches. There’s black magic and white, but they both use natural elements and forces. And here’s where you sort of have to step out of the box.”

  “We haven’t been in the box since September the fourth,” Dana pointed out.

  “What if we were chosen because we’re . . . well, because we’re witches?”

  Malory frowned at the level of wine in Zoe’s glass. “How much did you have to drink before you got here?”

  “No, just think about it. We look like them. Maybe we’re somehow related to that . . . bloodline or something. Maybe we have power, but we just never knew it.”

  “The legend says mortal women,” Malory reminded her.

  “Witches aren’t necessarily immortal. They’re just people with more. I’ve been reading up. In Wicca the female witch has three stages. The maiden, the mother, the crone. And they pay homage to the goddess. They—”

  “Wicca is a young religion, Zoe,” Dana said.

  “But its roots are old. And three, that’s a magic number. There are three of us.”

  “I really think I’d know if I were a witch.” Malory considered it as she sipped her wine. “And if this has somehow escaped my notice for nearly thirty years, what am I supposed to do about it now? Conjure something, cast a spell?”

  “Turn Jordan into a horse’s ass. Sorry,” Dana shrugged when Malory stared at her. “Just daydreaming.”

  “We could try it. Together. I bought some things.” Zoe jumped up, pulled open her bag. “Ritual candles,” she said, digging through. “Incense. Table salt.”

  “Table salt?” Baffled, Malory picked up the dark blue box of Morton’s and studied the cheerful girl with her umbrella.

  “You can make a protective circle with it. It wards off evil spirits. Ash wands. Sort of wands. I bought a baseball bat and cut it up to make them.”

  “Martha Stewart meets Glenda the Good Witch.” Dana picked up the thin wooden wand, waved it. “Shouldn’t it sprinkle fairy dust?”

  “Drink more wine,” Zoe ordered. “Crystals. Amethyst and rose quartz and this really great ball.” She held up the globe.

  “Where
d you get all this loot?” Malory demanded.

  “New Age shop at the mall. Tarot cards—Celtic ones because it seemed right. And—”

  “A Ouija board!” Dana pounced on it. “Man, oh, man, I haven’t seen one of these since I was a kid.”

  “I found it at the toy store. They don’t carry them in the New Age place.”

  “We had this pj party when I was a kid. Got all toked up on Pepsi and M&Ms and lit candles. Everybody asked the name of the guy they’d marry. Mine came up PTZBAH.” Dana gave a sentimental sigh. “It was really sweet. Let’s do the Ouija first,” Dana suggested. “For old times’ sake.”

  “Okay, but we’ve got to do it right. Take it seriously.” Zoe rose to turn off the lights and music.

  “I wonder if Ptzbah is still out there.” Dana slid to the floor, opened the box.

  “Wait. We have to set up the ritual. I got a book.”

  They sat in a circle on the floor.

  “We have to cleanse our minds,” Zoe instructed. “Visualize opening our chakras.”

  “I never open my chakras in public.” Dana giggled, unrepentant, until Malory slapped her knee.

  “And we light the ritual candles. White for purity. Yellow for memory. Purple for power.” Zoe bit her lip as she carefully ignited the tapers. “Place the crystals. Amethyst for . . . shoot.” She reached for her book, flipped pages. “Here. Amethyst for intuition. And the incense. Rose quartz for psychic power and divination.”

  “It’s pretty,” Malory decided. “Soothing.”

  “I think we should all take turns with the Tarot cards, and maybe try some chants, but let’s make Dana happy and do this first.” Zoe set the board between them and placed the pointer in its center.

  “We have to concentrate,” she said. “Focus our minds and our powers on one question.”

  “Can it be about the love of my life? I pine for Ptzbah.”

  “No.” Zoe swallowed a laugh and tried to look stern. “This is serious business. We want the location of the first key. Malory should do the asking, but you and I need to think it.”

  “We should close our eyes.” Malory rubbed her fingers on her pants, took a deep breath. “Ready?”

  They laid fingertips on the pointer, sat in silence.

  “Should we call on the Otherworld or something?” Malory whispered. “Pay our respects, ask for guidance? What?”

  Zoe opened one eye. “Maybe you should call on the ones behind the Curtain of Dreams.”

  “Denizens,” Dana suggested. “That’s a good word. Call on the denizens behind the Curtain of Dreams for guidance.”

  “Okay, here goes. Everybody quiet, everyone be calm. Concentrate.” Malory waited ten seconds in silence. “We call on the denizens behind the Curtain of Dreams, to aid and to guide us in our, um, in our quest.”

  “Tell them you’re one of the chosen ones,” Zoe said out of the corner of her mouth and was shushed by Dana.

  “I am one of the chosen, one of the seekers of the keys. Time is short. I ask you to show me the way to the key so that we can free the souls of . . . Dana, no pushing the pointer.”

  “I’m not. Really.”

  Mouth dry, Malory opened her eyes and watched the pointer shudder under their fingertips.

  “The candles,” Zoe whispered. “Oh, jeez, look at the candles.”

 
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