Key of valor, p.24
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       Key of Valor, p.24

         Part #3 of Key series by Nora Roberts
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  She started the same treatment on the dining room, then stopped and sent Brad an apologetic look. “Would you mind if I did this by myself? Maybe it takes doing it alone.”

  “Maybe you think you have to do too much alone, but all right. I’ll be upstairs.”

  She was fumbling one of those important balls, Zoe admitted when he left her. And she was counting, maybe a little too much, on his patience. Still, she didn’t know what else to do, or how else to do it.

  For now, her wants, and his, would have to wait until she had completed her quest and what she loved was safe.

  She moved to the buffet, ran her hands over the wood. Cherry, she thought. A warm, rich wood, and the curves of the design made the piece airy while the mirrored back added a sparkle.

  He’d arranged a few pieces on it, a thick bowl of hazy green glass, a colorful tray that was probably French or Italian, a couple of fat candle stands, and a brass dish with a woman’s face carved into the lid. Lovely pieces, artful, she thought. The sort of things Malory would sell in her gallery.

  She lifted the lid on the dish and found a few coins inside. Foreign coins, she realized with delight. Irish pounds, French francs, Italian lire, Japanese yen. What a wonder that was, she mused, to have those careless pieces of such fascinating places tossed inside a dish.

  He might not even remember they were there, and that was more amazing.

  She closed the lid, and put aside the vague guilt of peeking into personal spaces as she opened the first drawer.

  It was a silverware drawer, lined in deep burgundy velvet. She lifted out a spoon, turned it under the light. It looked old to her, like something that had been used for generations and kept polished and ready.

  Perfect for Thanksgiving, she decided, and filed that away as she went carefully through each slot.

  She found china in the base of the buffet, an elegant white on white. As she searched she began mentally setting the holiday table with the dishes and bowls, the platters and stemware she found stored in sideboards and servers.

  She sighed over linens and damask and a set of bone-white napkin rings. But she found no key.

  She was shaking out books in the library when the clock on the mantel chimed one. Enough, she told herself. Enough for one night. She wasn’t going to let herself get discouraged.

  The fact was, she realized as she switched off the lamps, she didn’t feel discouraged. More, she felt on the verge of something. As if she’d made some turn, or crested a hill. Maybe it wasn’t the last leg, she thought as she started upstairs. But she was focused on the goal now.

  She checked on Simon, going in automatically to tuck him in. Moe lifted his head from the foot of the bed where he stretched out, scented her and gave one halfhearted slap of his tail before starting to snore again.

  The puppy was snoozing with his head on the pillow beside Simon’s. She supposed she should discourage that sort of thing, but she honestly couldn’t see why.

  They looked so cozy there together. Harmless and unharmed. If Simon was part of it, as Malory believed, then maybe the key was here, in this room where he was sleeping.

  For a moment she sat on the edge of the bed, her hand idly stroking his back.

  The light from the last quarter of the moon filtered through the window and washed pale light over her son’s face. There was still light, she told herself, so there was still hope. She was holding on to it.

  She rose and slipped quietly out of the room.

  She glanced toward Brad’s door. For what was left of the night, she would hold on to to him as well.

  She went to her own room first and selected lotions and scents to prepare herself for him. She might not be able to give him all he wanted, or seemed to want, but she could give him this.

  They could give each other this.

  It pleased her to massage fragrant lotion over her skin, to imagine his hands and mouth trailing over her. It pleased her to feel completely like a woman again. Not just a person, not just a mother, but a woman who could give and take from a man.

  There was a knowledge here she hadn’t felt as a girl, a yearning and a confidence she felt with no one else.

  Wearing only a robe, she carried a white candle that wafted the scent of night-blooming jasmine over the air.

  She didn’t knock, but eased silently into the dark of his room, across the thin silver stream of moonlight that drifted through the open curtains.

  She hadn’t come inside this room before, and wondered if he would know, as she did, that this was another step for her. She saw the gleam of wood from the curved foot- and headboards, felt the soft brush of the rug under her bare feet.

  She opened her robe, let herself tingle at the sensation of it falling away to pool at her feet. Carefully, she set the candle on the nightstand, lifted the covers, and slid into bed beside him.

  She’d never watched him sleep before, she realized, and wanting to, she waited for her eyes to adjust to the shadow and light. She liked the way his hair fell over his forehead, and the fact that he looked no less powerfully handsome at rest than he did alert.

  This time, Prince Charming would get the awakening treatment.

  Interesting, she thought as she traced a finger lightly over his shoulder. She’d never seduced a man out of sleep before. It was a heady proposition and gave her, at least for the moment, complete control.

  Should it be fast and hot and shocking? Slow and dreamy and romantic? Should it be sweet or smoky? It was for her to decide, her to create. And her, ultimately, to give.

  Easing the covers down, she shifted to range herself above him and held on to that secret erotic charge another moment before she began to use her mouth. Began to use her hands.

  Slowly, she thought, slowly to tease him out of sleep and prolong this fascinating interlude. His skin was warm and smooth, his body hard and firm. And she could feast freely.

  He dreamed of her, gliding out of forest shadows, with her body slim and free. Dreamed of her low laugh as she turned toward him, then away, as her fingers trailed over his cheek. As she lured him to follow her into the forest, where the moonlight-dappled ground was blanketed with flowers.

  She lay back on that sea of blooms. Her arms, gleaming like gold dust in the scattered light, lifted.

  Her lips met his, then drew away again to leave him with one tantalizing taste.

  He awoke in stages, craving more. And found her.

  Her mouth was on his again, and as she sighed his name, her breath became his breath. And when his caught on a moan, he all but drowned in the scent of her.

  “There you are,” she whispered and caught his chin lightly in her teeth. “I’ve been taking horrible advantage of you.”

  “You’ve got ten years to stop that, or I’m calling the cops.”

  Playfully now, she scraped her nails down his belly, and muffled a giggle when he bit off an oath. “Ssh. We have to be quiet. I don’t want Simon to hear us.”

  “Right. Don’t want him to know we’re in here having fun.” His mind was still scrambling, but he could see her face clearly enough, and the surprise that flashed over it. “He happened to mention it.”

  “Oh, God.” She had to press her lips together and plaster a hand over them to stifle her chuckle. “Oh, my God.”

  “Ssh.” Brad reminded her, and rolled over until he pressed her into the mattress. “Now where were we?”

  “I was sneaking into your bed in the middle of the night and waking you up.”

  “Oh, yeah, I really liked that part.” His grin was quick. “I’m awake now,” he said and slid down to take her breast into his mouth.

  A fireball of heat burst in her belly. “I’ll say.”

  She arched, riding up on the joy of it, before she rolled over again. “But I don’t think I was quite finished.”

  They grappled, burying themselves under the blankets, tangling in them. Struggling with laughter, biting back gasps, they tormented each other. Pleasured each other until bodies were damp and q
uaking, until the playful became the intense.

  They rose up together, kneeling on the tumbled bed, locked tight. Breath heaving, she bowed back, an erotic bridge, and locked her legs around him.

  In the thin light of the last quarter of the moon, they joined. They completed. Fluidly, she came back to him, pressed heart to heart, mouth to mouth, so they were wrapped together as they emptied.

  “Don’t let go.” She burrowed into his shoulder. “Don’t let go yet.”

  “I’m never going to let go.” All but delirious, he ran his lips over her hair, her cheek. “I love you, Zoe. You know it. You love me. I can see it. Why won’t you say it?”

  “Bradley.” Why shouldn’t she say it, and damn all the consequences? Why shouldn’t she take what she so desperately wanted? She turned her head, rubbing her cheek on his shoulder.

  And saw, in the fading moonlight, the portrait that hung over the bedroom mantel.

  After the Spell. That was the name of it, Zoe remembered. The Daughters of Glass lying in their transparent coffins.

  Not dead. Worse than dead, she thought with a shiver.

  Why shouldn’t she say it? They were one reason, she knew. But even they weren’t the heart of it. Kane couldn’t see what was inside her—not what was deep inside her. He could neither see nor understand.

  So she would keep it there, and keep Bradley as safe as she could, a few days longer.

  “You put the portrait here.”

  “Damn it, Zoe.” He yanked her back, then snapped out another oath at the plea on her face. “Yes, I hung it here.”

  He let her go.

  She touched a hand to his shoulder. “I know I’m asking you for a lot.”

  “You’re fucking testing me.”

  “Maybe I am. I don’t know.” She dragged her fingers through her hair. “This has all been so fast for me. So fast and so big, sometimes it seems like I can’t keep up with my own feelings. But I do know I don’t want to hurt you. I don’t want to fight with you. I have to take this at my own pace, and part of that’s tied up with them.” She gestured to the portrait before she rose and reached for her robe. “I can’t help it.”

  “You think because there’s some similarity between my background and James’s, I’ll turn away from you?”

  “I did.” She looked down as she belted her robe, then shifted her attention to him. “I did think that. And I thought maybe I was attracted to you because of those similarities. But I know better than that on both counts now. There’s still a lot I have to work out, Bradley. I’m asking you to wait until I do.”

  He was silent for a moment, then reached over to flip a switch. Light washed over the portrait.

  “When I first saw that, it was like being grabbed by the throat. I fell in love—in lust—whatever the hell it was, with that face. Your face, Zoe. When I first saw you, I had exactly the same reaction. But I didn’t know you. I didn’t know what was inside you. I didn’t know how your mind or your heart worked, or what made you laugh, what irritated you. I didn’t know you liked yellow roses and could handle a nail gun as well as I can. I didn’t know dozens of the little details of you that I know now. What I felt for that face isn’t a shadow of what I feel for the woman it belongs to.”

  She was afraid she wouldn’t be able to speak. “The woman it belongs to has never known anyone like you. Never expected to.”

  “Get things worked out, Zoe. Because if you don’t, I’m going to work them out for you.”

  She let out a small laugh. “No, never anyone like you. This is a big week for me, and by the time it’s . . .” She trailed off as she looked at the portrait again.

  Her heart began to thump. “Oh, God, could it have been that simple all along? Could it have been right there?”

  Trembling, she walked toward the hearth, staring at the painting, her gaze riveted now to the three keys Rowena had painted, scattered over the ground by the coffins.

  She stepped onto the hearth, held her breath, and reached up.

  Her fingers bumped canvas.

  She tried again, closing her eyes first, imagining her fingers reaching into the painting, closing over the key as Malory’s had done.

  But the painting stayed solid, the keys only color and shape.

  “I thought . . .” Deflated, she stepped back. “For a minute, I thought maybe . . . It seems so stupid now.”

  “No, it doesn’t. I tried it myself.” He walked to her and wrapped his arms around her waist. “A few times.”

  “Really? But it’s not for you to find.”

  “Who knows? Maybe this one’s different.”

  She kept her eyes on the portrait. “It isn’t one of them. Rowena painted those keys, years ago. And they’re, well, they’re despair, aren’t they? And loss. Not hope or fulfillment. Because they lie there where no mortal can find them, and no god can use them. It’s not despair that leads to my key. It’s getting through it. I understand that.”

  BUT when she slept that night, she dreamed she stepped into the portrait, walked beside the still and pale shells of the daughters inside their glass coffins. She dreamed she picked up the three keys and took them to the Box of Souls, where the blue lights beat sluggishly.

  Though she put each key into its lock, none would turn.

  It was despair she felt when those blue lights winked out, and the glass of their prison went black.

  Chapter Eighteen

  MALORY rushed into Indulgence the following morning, waving one of several copies of the Dispatch. “The article! Our article’s in the morning edition.”

  She looked right, left, up the stairs, then huffed out a breath when no one came running. Flynn’s article on Indulgence, and its “innovative proprietors”—oh, she loved that part—was front-page news in the Valley, and she couldn’t get a rise out of her partners?

  With her coat flapping behind her, she hurried into Dana’s section. As always, the sight of the color, the books, the pretty tables, the things, made her want to do a happy dance. So she boogied her way into the next room, grinning when she saw Dana behind the counter with the phone at her ear.

  Adding a little bump and grind to the dance, she waved the paper, only to have Dana nod and keep talking.

  “That’s right. Yes, I have that in stock. I’ll be happy to. I could—yes—well, I don’t . . . mmm-hmm.” She mimed acknowledgment, delight, then did a bootie shake when Malory slapped the article on the counter in front of her. “Just let me transfer you to the salon.”

  She took a deep breath, stared at the new phone system. “Please let me do this right, please don’t let me cut her off.” She punched buttons, crossed her fingers, then hung up the receiver.

  An instant later she heard the faint ring of the phone from upstairs. “Thank you, Jesus. Mal, you just won’t believe it.”

  “Forget that. Look at this! Look, look.” She jabbed her finger on the newspaper.

  “Oh, that.” When Malory’s jaw dropped, Dana pulled a stack of the Dispatch from under the counter. “I bought five copies. I’ve read it twice. Would’ve read it again, but I’ve been busy manning this phone. Mal—God, there goes yours, I think.”

  “My what?”

  “Your phone.” Dana swung around the counter, grabbed Malory’s arm, and dragged her to the other side of the house. “I got in ten minutes ago, and the phones were already ringing. Zoe said—never mind. Answer it.”

  “My phone’s ringing,” Malory murmured and stared at it as if it were an alien device.

  “Watch this.” Dana cleared her throat, picked up the receiver. “Good morning, Indulgence, the Gallery. Yes, one moment, please, let me put Ms. Price on the line.”

  Dana punched Hold. “Ms. Price, you have a call.”

  “I have a call. Okay.” Malory wiped her palms on her coat. “I can do this. I did this for years for somebody else, I can do it for myself.” She engaged the line. “Good morning. Malory Price.”

  Three minutes later she and Dana were doing a fast polka around the
room and out into the hallway.

  “We’re a hit!” Dana shouted. “We’re a hit and we haven’t even opened the doors. Let’s go up and get Zoe.”

  “Should we leave the phones?”

  “Let ’em call back.” Laughing like a maniac, Dana pulled Malory up the stairs.

  Zoe sat, tipped back in one of her salon chairs, an expression of shock on her face. Still flying, Dana charged over and gave the chair a wild spin. “We kick ass.”

  “I have appointments,” Zoe said dully. “I’m nearly booked solid for Saturday already, and there’s two manis, a pedi, a cut and color, and two massages for Friday. I have a mother-daughter facial booked for next week. For next week.”

  “We need to celebrate,” Malory decided. “Why don’t we have any champagne around here? We could make mimosas if we only had champagne and orange juice.”

  “The phone was ringing when I walked in,” Zoe continued in the same dazed voice. “It wasn’t even nine o’clock and the phone was ringing. Everyone’s saying how they read the article in the paper. I want to marry Flynn and have his babies. I’m sorry, Malory. I feel I must.”

  “Get in line.” Malory grabbed the newspaper Zoe had on the station. “Look at us. Don’t we look great?”

  She held up the page that carried the photograph of the three of them, arms around each other’s waists, as they stood in the hallway that linked their three enterprises. “Price, McCourt, and Steele,” she read, “the beauty and the brains behind Indulgence.”

  “I have to say, he really did a solid job on the article.” Dana leaned over Malory’s shoulder to scan it again. “We come across great, but then, hey, that’s a given. But he really got the point of our place across. The fun factor. Then there’s the whole local women, revitalizing property, giving a boost to Valley economy, blah blah blah. That gets people interested.”

  “And we look really hot,” Zoe added. “Which never hurts. I read the article before breakfast, then I had to pull over on the drive here and read it again.”

  “I’ll have it framed,” Malory said. “We’ll hang a copy in the kitchen.” She pulled a notebook out of her purse to write it down. “Oh, while I’ve got this out, we need to make sure we check on the refreshments we’re serving at Friday’s opening. I’ll take the bakery. Dana, you’ve got the drinks, Zoe, the fruit and cheese.”

  “My phone’s ringing again,” Zoe said, and shocked everyone by bursting into tears.

  “Uh-oh. You take her.” Malory pointed at Dana. “I’ll get that.” She dashed to reception as Dana yanked tissues from the box on the station and pressed them into Zoe’s hands.

  “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Why do I keep doing this?”

  “Don’t sweat it. Go on, let it out.”

  She couldn’t stop, and only managed a choked sob and a wave of her hand when Malory came back.

  “Let’s go down to the kitchen and have some tea.” Briskly, Malory pulled Zoe to her feet, and tucking an arm around her waist, led her out of the salon.

  “Okay, good. God, what an ass.” Zoe blew her nose fiercely. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

  “It might be having a business about to open, a quest coming up on deadline, a man. And the combination of those bringing just a little hint of stress into your life. Here, now, sweetie, let’s all take ten.”

  “I feel so stupid.” Still sniffling, Zoe let Malory ease her into a chair in the kitchen. “What have I got to cry about? Everything’s great, everything’s wonderful.” Tears flooded again, and she simply laid her head on the table and wept. “I’m scared out of my mind.”

  “It’s all right.” Standing behind her, Malory rubbed her shoulders while Dana put on the kettle for tea. “It’s all right to be scared, honey.”

  “I don’t have time to be scared. I have my own salon. I’ve been thinking about how I could build up to this for almost ten years, and now it’s real. My
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