Key of light, p.25
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       Key of Light, p.25

         Part #1 of Key series by Nora Roberts
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  The flames shot up, a trio of slim gold edged with red. Light began to throb, like a pulse. Something blew cold through the room and set those flames dancing.

  “This is wild!” Dana exclaimed. “I mean seriously wild.”

  “It’s moving.” The pointer jerked, with Malory’s fingers trembling on it. She heard nothing but the roar of blood in her own head as she watched it slide from letter to letter.

  YOUR DEATH

  Her gasp was still strangled in her throat when the room suddenly burst with light and wind. She heard someone scream, threw up an arm to shield her eyes as a form coalesced out of a whirlpool of air.

  The board shattered as if made of glass.

  “What are you playing at?” Rowena stood in the center of them, the sharp heel of her shoe digging into a shard of the board. “Have you no more sense than to open a door to such things as you cannot understand or defend against?”

  With an annoyed sigh, she stepped gracefully out of the circle and picked up the wine. “I’d like a glass, please.”

  “How did you get here? How did you know?” Malory pushed herself up on rubbery legs.

  “It’s fortunate for you that I did both.” She picked up the salt, and upended the box over the remains of the board.

  “Oh, now, just a damn minute.”

  “Sweep it up together,” Rowena ordered Zoe. “Then burn it. I’d very much appreciate a glass of wine.” She handed the bottle to Malory, then sat on the sofa.

  Outraged, Malory stalked into the kitchen, yanked a wineglass from the cupboard. She marched back and shoved the glass into Rowena’s hand. “I didn’t invite you into my home.”

  “On the contrary, you invited me and whoever else chose to come through the opening.”

  “Then we are witches.”

  Rowena’s expression changed as she looked over at Zoe’s rapt face. “No, not the way you mean.” Her tone was more gentle now, patient teacher to eager student. “Though every woman has some magic. Still, together your powers are trebled, and you had just enough skill, just enough desire to issue an invitation. I’m not the only one who answered it. You felt him,” she said to Malory. “You’ve felt him before.”

  “Kane.” She cupped her elbows and shuddered as the memory of the cold seeped into her. “He moved the pointer, not us. He was playing with us.”

  “He threatened Malory.” The thrill forgotten, Zoe was on her feet now. “What are you going to do about it?”

  “All I can.”

  “Maybe that’s not good enough.” Dana reached up to link her hand with Malory’s. “I heard you scream. I saw your face when you did. You felt something Zoe and I didn’t, and it was real terror. It was real pain.”

  “It’s the cold. It’s . . . I can’t describe it.”

  “The absence of all warmth,” Rowena murmured. “All hope, all life. But he can’t touch you unless you allow it.”

  “Allow it? How the hell did she . . .” Zoe broke off, looked down at the broken board at her feet. “Oh, God. I’m so sorry. Mal, I’m so sorry.”

  “It’s not your fault. It’s not.” She took Zoe’s hand, so for a moment the three of them were linked.

  Seeing them, Rowena smiled into her wine.

  “We were looking for answers, and you had an idea. Which is more than I’ve had the last couple of days. We tried something. Maybe it was the wrong something,” she added as she whipped back to Rowena, “but that doesn’t give you the right to slap at us for it.”

  “You’re absolutely right. I apologize.” She leaned forward to spread Brie on a cracker, then tapped a finger against the Tarot deck. Light flickered over them, then was gone. “These will do you no harm. You may develop a skill for readings, or even find you have a gift for them.”

  “You . . .” Zoe pressed her lips together. “If you hadn’t come when you did . . .”

  “It’s my duty, and my wish, to keep you from harm. When and how I can. Now I should go, leave you to your evening.” Rowena rose, looked around the room. “You have a pretty home, Malory. It suits you.”

  Feeling ungracious and childish, Malory huffed out a breath. “Why don’t you stay, finish your wine?”

  Surprise ran across Rowena’s face. “That’s very kind of you. I’d like that. It’s been a very long time since I’ve sat in the company of women. I’ve missed it.”

  It wasn’t very strange, after the initial awkwardness, to have a woman who’d lived for thousands of years sitting in her living room drinking her wine.

  And it became apparent by the time they started on the truffles that women—goddess or mortal—were the same under the skin.

  “I rarely fuss with it,” Rowena said while Zoe worked her mane of hair into an elegant upsweep. “It’s not one of my talents, so I tend to wear it down. I’ve cut it occasionally, but I always regret it.”

  “Not everyone can wear it simply as you do, and still look regal.”

  Rowena studied herself in the hand mirror as Zoe worked, then tilted the glass to study her stylist. “I’d love to have your hair. It’s so striking.”

  “Couldn’t you? I mean if you wanted to look a certain way, couldn’t you just . . .” Zoe fluttered her fingers and made Rowena laugh.

  “That isn’t my gift.”

  “What about Pitte?” Dana rolled over on the couch. “What’s his deal?”

  “He’s a warrior, full of pride and arrogance and will. He’s maddening and exciting.” She lowered the mirror.

  “Zoe, you’re an artist.”

  “Oh, I just like playing with hair.” She stepped in front of Rowena and released a few tendrils around her face. “A great look for that important board meeting or the after-Oscars bash. Sexy, female, and powerful. Well, you give that off no matter what the do.”

  “Excuse me, but I just have to ask,” said Dana, “what’s it like to be with the same guy for, well, basically forever?”

  “He’s the only man I want,” Rowena answered.

  “Oh, come on, come, on. You’ve got to have had a few hundred fantasies about other men in the last couple of millennia.”

  “Of course.” Rowena set the mirror down, and her lips bowed into a dreamy smile. “There was a young waiter once, in Rome. Such a face and form. With eyes so dark it seemed I could see worlds drowning in them. And he served me coffee and a bun. He called me bella donna with such a knowing smile. While I ate my bun I imagined biting into his tasty bottom lip.”

  She pressed her own together, then laughed. “I painted him in my studio, and let him flirt with me outrageously. And when I nudged him along after a session, I would drag Pitte away from whatever he might be doing and seduce him.”

  “You never cheated.”

  “I love my man,” Rowena said simply. “We’re bound, body, heart, soul. There’s magic in that, more potent than any spell, more wicked than any curse.” She reached up, laid a hand over Zoe’s. “You loved a boy, and he gave you a son. For that, you’ll always love him, even though he was weak and betrayed you.”

  “Simon’s my world.”

  “And you’ve made it a bright and loving world. I so envy you your child. You.” She rose, stepped closer to trail her fingers over Dana’s hair. “You loved one who was no longer a boy, yet not quite a man. For that, you’ve never forgiven him.”

  “Why should I?”

  “There’s a question,” Rowena replied.

  “What about me?” Malory asked, and Rowena sat on the arm of the sofa, touched a hand to her shoulder.

  “You love the man so much, so fast and fierce, it makes you doubt your own heart. For that, you can’t trust him.”

  “How can I trust what doesn’t make sense?”

  “As long as you need to ask, you won’t have the answer.” She leaned down, pressed her lips to Malory’s brow. “Thank you for having me in your home, for sharing yourselves with me. Here, take this.”

  She held out her hand, offered Malory the pale blue stone in the palm. “What is it?”

>   “A small charm. Put it under your pillow tonight. You’ll sleep well. I must go.” She smiled a little, lifting her hand to her hair as she rose and crossed to the glass door. “I wonder what Pitte will think of my hair. Good night.” She opened the door and slipped into the night.

  Zoe waited three seconds, then scurried to the door. Framing her face with her hands, she pressed it close to the glass. “Shoot. I thought she’d go poof or something, but she’s just walking. Like a normal person.”

  “She seems pretty normal.” Dana shifted around to reach the popcorn. “You know, for a goddess with a few thousand years under her belt.”

  “But sad.” Malory turned the blue stone over in her hand. “There’s all that sophistication and cool amusement on the surface, but there’s this terrible sadness under it. She meant it when she said she was envious of you for having Simon, Zoe.”

  “It’s funny to think about.” Zoe wandered back, chose a brush, a rat-tail comb, and pins, then moved behind the sofa. “She lives in that big, well, castle, really, with all those beautiful things.” She began to brush Dana’s hair. “And she’s beautiful, even wise, I think. She’s rich and has a man she loves. She’s traveled and she can paint those wonderful pictures.”

  Dividing sections of Dana’s hair, she began to braid. “But she envies someone like me because I have a kid. Do you think she can’t have children? I didn’t want to ask, it’s so personal. But I wonder why she couldn’t. If she can do all the things she can do, why couldn’t she have a baby?”

  “Maybe Pitte doesn’t want to have kids.” Dana shrugged her shoulders. “Some people don’t. What’re you doing back there, Zoe?”

  “New do. I’m mixing some skinny braids in. It should be young and kicky. Do you?”

  “Do I what?”

  “Want to have kids?”

  Dana munched popcorn and considered. “Yeah. I’d like to have a couple. I figure if I don’t find a guy I can stand being with for the long term in the next few years, I’ll just do it on my own. You know, make love with medical science.”

  “You’d do that?” Fascinated, Malory reached into the bowl. “Raise a child on your own. I mean, on purpose,” she added, looking up at Zoe. “You know what I mean.”

  “Sure, I would.” Dana settled the bowl between them. “Why not? I’m healthy. I think I’d be good at the parenting thing, that I have a lot to offer a kid. I’d want to make sure I had solid financial security first, but if I’m cruising toward say, thirty-five and there’s no guy in the picture, I’d do the deed.”

  “Sort of takes the romance out of it,” Malory commented.

  “Maybe, but it gets results. You’ve got to look at the big picture. If there’s something you want, deep down want, you can’t let anything stop you from getting it.”

  Malory thought of her dream, of the child she’d held in her arms. Of the light filling her world, her heart. “Even if you really, really want something, there are lines.”

  “Well, murder and a certain amount of mayhem are discouraged. I’m talking about making important choices, then going the distance and dealing with the results. What about you, Zoe? Would you do it again? The raise-a-kid-on-your-own part?” Dana asked.

  “I don’t think I’d set out to do it again. It’s hard. There’s nobody to share the load with, and sometimes the load seems impossible for one person. But more, there’s nobody who looks at the child and feels what you feel. Nobody to share that love and pride and, I don’t know, surprise with.”

  “Were you scared?” Malory asked her.

  “Yeah. Oh, yeah. I still get scared. I think it’s supposed to be scary because it’s so important. Do you want babies, Mal?”

  “I do.” She rubbed the stone gently between her fingers. “More than I realized.”

  BY three, Dana and Zoe were sleeping in her bed, and Malory was picking up the worst of the debris, too restless to settle in on the sofa. There were too many thoughts, too many images flitting around in her mind.

  She studied the little blue stone again. Maybe it would work. She’d accepted bigger things than having a piece of rock under her pillow as the cure for the insomnia that was plaguing her.

  Or maybe she hadn’t. Maybe she really hadn’t accepted any of it, not in that deep-down way Dana spoke of. She was exhausted, yet she wasn’t putting the stone under her pillow and letting herself try.

  She claimed to love Flynn, yet she was waiting, tucking a small part of herself safely away and waiting for the feeling to pass. And at the same time, she was annoyed and hurt that he didn’t simply fall over in love with her and even things out.

  After all, how could she keep her balance, outline plans, and keep it all tidy if everything between them wasn’t equal?

  Everything belongs in its place, doesn’t it? Everything has its slot. And if it doesn’t fit just right, well, you’re not the one who’s going to change. That’s up to the other guy.

  With a sigh, she dropped down on the couch. She’d pursued a career in art like a demon because while fate hadn’t cooperated by giving her talent, she wasn’t about to admit that all those years of study and work had been wasted.

  She made it fit.

  She’d stayed at The Gallery because it was comfortable, because it was sensible and convenient. She’d made noise about striking out on her own one day. But she hadn’t meant it. Too big a risk, too messy. If Pamela hadn’t come along, she would still be at The Gallery.

  And why did she resent Pamela with every fiber of her being? All right, the woman was pushy and had all the taste of overcooked trout, but a more flexible woman than Malory Price would’ve found a way around that. She resented Pamela primarily because she’d shifted the balance, she’d changed the lines.

  She just hadn’t fit.

  Now there was the business she and Dana and Zoe were starting. She’d been the one to drag her feet on that. Oh, she’d come through in the end, but how many times had she questioned that decision since? How many times had she considered backing out because it was too hard to see how it could all be neatly done?

  And she hadn’t moved forward on it. Hadn’t gone back to the property or made any plans, put out any feelers for artists and craftspeople.

  Hell, she hadn’t even mailed off the application for her business license. Because once she did, she was committed.

  She was using the key as an excuse not to take the final step. Oh, she was looking for it, giving the quest her time and her energy. One thing she took seriously was responsibility.

  But here and now, alone and awake at three in the morning, it was time to admit one undeniable fact. Her life may have changed in a dozen strange and fascinating ways in three weeks’ time, but she hadn’t changed at all.

  She put the stone under her pillow. “There’s still time,” she murmured, and curled up to sleep.

  Chapter Eighteen

  WHEN she woke, the apartment was silent as a tomb. She lay still a moment, studying the lance of light that sneaked through the chink in the patio drapes and onto her floor.

  Morning, she thought. Full morning. She didn’t remember falling asleep. Better, much, much better, she didn’t remember tossing and turning and worrying about sleep.

  Slowly, she slid a hand under her pillow, feeling for the stone. She frowned, groping now, then sat up to lift the pillow. There was no stone under it. She searched under the cushions, on the floor, under the couch, before sitting down again with a huff of confusion.

  Stones didn’t just disappear.

  Or maybe they did. When they’d served their purpose. She’d slept and slept well, hadn’t she? Just as promised. In fact, she felt wonderful. As if she’d had a nice, relaxing vacation.

  “Okay, thanks, Rowena.”

  She stretched out her arms, took a deep breath. And drew in the unmistakable scent of coffee.

  Unless the gift included morning coffee, someone else was up.

  She walked into the kitchen and found a pleasant surprise.

  Z
oe’s coffee cake was on the counter, set on a pretty plate and protected with Saran Wrap. The coffeepot was on warm and was three-quarters full, and the morning paper was neatly folded and placed between.

  Malory picked up the note tucked under the cake plate and read Zoe’s somewhat exotic mix of cursive and printing.

  Good morning! Had to get going—have a teacher’s conference at ten.

  Ten, Malory thought with an absent glance at the kitchen clock. Her mouth fell open when she saw that it was nearly eleven.

  “That can’t be right. Can it?”

  Didn’t want to wake either of you, tried to be quiet.

  “You must move like a ghost,” Malory said aloud.

  Dana’s got to be at work at two. Just in case, I set the alarm clock in your room for her. Set it for noon so she wouldn’t have to rush and would have time for breakfast.

  I had the best time. Just wanted to tell you, both of you, that whatever happens I’m so glad I found you. Or we found each other. However it worked, I’m just really grateful you’re my friends.

  Maybe next time we can get together at my place.

  Love, Zoe.

  “Looks like it’s a day for gifts.” Smiling, Malory set the note down where Dana would find it, too. Hoping to extend her good mood, she cut a sliver of cake, poured the coffee. She arranged them on a tray, added the paper and a small glass of juice, then carried it all out to her patio.

  Fall was teasing the air. She’d always enjoyed the faint, smoky scent that autumn brought with it when the leaves began to take on hints of the vibrant colors to come.

  She needed to pick up some potted mums, she noted as she broke off a piece of coffee cake. She was behind schedule on that. And some pumpkins and gourds for festive arrangements. She would gather some leaves, the maple ones once they’d turned scarlet.

  She could pick up some extra things and do something fun for Flynn’s front porch.

  She sipped coffee while she skimmed the front page. Reading the morning paper was a different experience now that she’d met Flynn. She liked wondering how he decided what went where and how he juggled it all—stories, ads, pictures, typeface, tone—and made it one cohesive whole.

  She nibbled and sipped her way through, then felt her heart give a quick jolt when she came to his column.

  Odd, wasn’t it, that she’d seen it before. Week after week. What had she thought? she wondered. Cute guy, nice eyes, or something just that casual and forgettable. She’d read his column, had either agreed or disagreed. She hadn’t taken any notice of the work and effort he put into it, what turned his mind to whatever subject he wrote about that week.

  It was different now that she knew him, now that she could hear his voice speaking the words she read. She could envision his face, its expressions. And have some insight into the workings of his very flexible mind.

  What defines the artist? she read.

  By the time she’d finished the column and was going back to read it through a second time, she’d fallen in love with him all over again.

  FLYNN sat on the corner of a desk and listened while one of his reporters pitched him an idea for an article about a local man who collected clowns.

  Stuffed clown dolls, clown statues, clown pictures. Porcelain clowns, plastic clowns, clowns with dogs. Clowns that danced or sang or drove little clown cars.

  “He’s got more than five thousand clowns, not including clown memorabilia.”

  Flynn tuned out for a moment, as the very idea of five thousand clowns in one place at one time was slightly terrifying. He imagined them banding together in a clown army and waging war with seltzer bottles and rubber bats.

  All those big red noses, all that maniacal laughter. All those huge, scary
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