Key of valor, p.25
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       Key of Valor, p.25

         Part #3 of Key series by Nora Roberts
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  phone’s ringing. It makes me so happy, so why am I falling apart?”

  “I’m scared, too.”

  Zoe lifted her head, blinked at Malory. “You are?”

  “Terrified. When I first started reading Flynn’s article, I got this buzzing in my ears and this metallic taste in the back of my throat. The happier I got, the louder the buzzing, and the more I had to keep swallowing back that taste.”

  “I keep waking up in the middle of the night.” Dana turned from the stove. “I think: I’m opening a bookstore, and the butterflies wake up in my stomach and have a party.”

  “Oh, thank God.” Outrageously relieved, Zoe pressed her fingers to her temples. “Thank God. It’s okay when I’m busy, when I’m doing something or thinking about all the things I have to do. But sometimes when I stop and it all hits me, I want to lock myself in a nice dark closet and whimper. And at the same time I want to turn cartwheels. I’m making myself crazy.”

  “We’re all in the same boat,” Dana said, “and it’s been christened Neuroses.”

  Zoe managed a watery smile as Dana set colorful cups on the table. “I’m really glad both of you are crazy, too. I was feeling like such an idiot. There’s more. I think I know where the key is. Not exactly,” she said quickly when Malory’s hands jumped on her shoulders. “But I think it’s at Bradley’s. There’s something about the house, and when I turned that angle over in my head yesterday, it just seemed to open up. It feels right to me. And because it does, because it feels as if I’m one step away from finding it, I’m all twisted up inside.”

  “Because you’re close to finding it?” Malory asked. “Or because it’s Brad’s?”

  “Both.” Zoe picked up her cup, held it in both hands. “Everything’s coming to a head. The quest, this place. I’ve been so focused on both things since September that now that they’re both so close to finished, I know I have to start looking beyond that, to what happens next. And I can’t see it. Having this, well, these big purposes, pushed me along. Now I’m going to have to deal with the results.”

  “You won’t have to deal with them by yourself,” Malory reminded her.

  “I know. That’s another part of it. I’m used to dealing with things on my own. In my life I’ve never been as close to anyone, other than Simon, as I am to the two of you. It’s like this incredible gift. Here are these two wonderful women, and they’ll be your friends. Your family.”

  “Jeez, Zoe.” Dana picked up one of the scrunched tissues. “You’re going to get me started.”

  “What I mean is, I’m still getting used to knowing I’ve got you. To realizing I can pick up the phone if I need to, or just go by and see you. Come here and see you. That I can tell you I’m scared or sad or happy, or I need some help—anything, and you’ll be there.”

  She soothed her raw throat with tea, set the cup down. “Then there’s the guys. I’ve never been friends with men before. Not really. With Flynn and Jordan . . . to be able to talk or hang out, flirt and know there’s nothing there but friendship. To have Simon be able to be with them, to have that kind of adult male influence, it’s another real gift.”

  “You haven’t mentioned Brad,” Malory pointed out.

  “Working around to it. I’m nervous and excited about finding the key. About this certainty that I will find it, and that it’s connected to Bradley. At the same time, the certainty that it’s connected to him scares me as much as anything ever has.”

  “Zo, have you considered that it could be the fear that’s blocking you from finding the key?”

  She nodded at Dana. “Yeah, but I can’t push through it. He thinks he’s in love with me.”

  “Why do you qualify it?” Malory demanded. “Why can’t you just say he’s in love with you?”

  “Maybe I want it too much. And I want it not just for me, but for Simon. I know that’s part of it. Bradley’s wonderful with Simon, but it’s all still, well, novel between them. The reality is this is a nearly ten-year-old boy, another man’s son.”

  Saying nothing, Dana walked over, opened a cupboard, and took out their box of emergency chocolate. She set it on the table in front of Zoe.

  “Thanks.” Choosing a piece at random, Zoe let out a little sigh. “If Bradley loves me, he’ll take Simon. He’d always be good to him, kind to him, I know that. But wouldn’t there be something missing, that unbreakable connection?”

  “I don’t know.” Malory pushed a hand through her curls. “But I’d say that’s going to be up to them.”

  “Yes, but Simon’s used to it being the two of us, having my attention focused on him, doing what I say—or trying to get around doing what I say. If this is going to work, he’s going to need time to see Bradley as something other than a friend with a really cool game room. Time to adjust to having someone else have real authority over him, just as Bradley has to adjust to having a child, already half grown. If I just jump the way I want, it means taking both of them in with me, maybe before they’re ready.”

  “That’s sensible.” Giving in, Malory took one of the chocolates. “It’s logical. But sometimes this sort of thing isn’t either one.”

  Zoe drew a breath. “There are other things. Rowena and Pitte, they said the more I cared about Bradley, the harder Kane would go after him.”

  “So you’re protecting him by holding back.” Dana lifted her brows. “That’ll piss Brad off. I know that if it was Jordan, since I love the jerk, I’d probably try to do the same thing.”

  “I’ve been going over and over it in my head. This way, that way. If I do this, what could happen. If I do that.” Zoe shrugged wearily. “There’s too much at stake. Everything’s at stake, so I can’t just grab on to something because it looks so shiny and beautiful. Not without considering the consequences.”

  “Maybe you should add more to the mix.” Malory laid a hand on Zoe’s. “You might hesitate to grab that something shiny and beautiful because to hold it you have to give things up.”

  “What do I have to give up?”

  “The house you made on your own, and the life. The family you made with Simon. The shape of everything you have now changes forever if you reach out and take something else. That’s a scary proposition, Zoe. If you don’t reach out, you may lose him. If you do, something else slips away. You have to decide which holds more value for you.”

  “It’s not just me. Not even just me, Simon, and Bradley.” Zoe rose, carried her cup to the sink. “My key has to do with courage. But is it having the courage to reach out for something or the courage to walk away from it? We’ve read about the gods, so we know they’re not always kind. Not always just. And they want payment.”

  She turned back. “If we fail, the penalty—before it was revoked—would have been the loss of a year of our lives. We wouldn’t even have known which one. It could even have been this year, right now. There’s a fine sort of cruelty in that. Mal, you were given something you wanted all of your life. They let you hold it, taste it, feel it. But to find the key, you had to give it back. It hurt you.”

  “Yes, it hurt.”

  “And you nearly died, Dana, finding yours. They changed the rules, and you could’ve died.”

  “I didn’t.”

  “But you might have, and do you think the gods would’ve shed a tear?”

  “Rowena and Pitte . . .” Malory began.

  “It’s different for them. They’ve lived with us for thousands of years, and in some ways they’re just as much pawns as we are. But the ones behind the Curtain, the ones watching through it, do they care if we live happily ever after?”

  She sat again. “How did the three of us come together. How did we have the time to look for the keys? We lost our jobs. A job I needed, jobs each one of you loved. They took that away from us so we would be more useful, then dangled cash in front of us so we’d sign on the dotted line. The motivation may have been unselfish and noble, but they manipulated us.”

  “You’re right,” Dana agreed. “No argument.”

  “We got this place out of it,” Zoe continued. “But we got it. We took the risk, we did the work. If this place is a miracle, we made it.”

  Nodding, Malory sat back. “Keep going.”

  “Okay. You and Flynn. You met him when you met him because he was connected. You fell in love with him, and he with you. But if you hadn’t, even if you hadn’t, you’d have made the choice you made up in the attic. You wouldn’t have taken the illusion, however much you wanted it, and sacrificed souls. I know that because I know you. If you’d loved Flynn the way I do, as a friend, as a kind of a brother, you’d have done the same thing.”

  “I hope so,” Malory replied. “I want to think so.”

  “I know so. Or you might have felt something for each other that was more transient, that faded after your month was up rather than growing deeper. It didn’t matter to them whether you were happy, just whether you succeeded or failed.”

  “That may be true, but the things I experienced and the choices I made during that month were part of what built what I have with Flynn.”

  “But you built it,” Zoe said. “Jordan came back to the Valley at this time because he was connected. He was a piece that had to be added. You needed to resolve your feelings for him, Dana, that was central. But you might have resolved them differently with the same results. You might have forgiven him. You might have realized that you didn’t love him, but you valued your history together. The friendship more than the passion. You could’ve given up what was between you and still found the key. You’re not thinking of orange blossoms because the gods smiled on you.”

  “Orange blossoms might be carrying it a little far, but okay, I follow you.” Absently, Dana plucked a piece of chocolate, nibbled on it as she thought things through. “When you circle it back, it’s what we were told from the beginning. Each of us is a key. So what we get out of it, or don’t, in the end is of our own making.”

  “But they manipulate,” Zoe added. “They put us together, tossed in the circumstances. Bradley may very well have come back to the Valley, it’s his home, and he has ambitions here. But without all this, I would never have met him. Malory might have met Flynn at any time, but it’s unlikely I’d have met Bradley Charles Vane IV. And what pulled him to me first? The portrait. Manipulating his feelings.”

  It riled her up just to think about it. With heat in her eyes, she chomped down on chocolate. “I know it’s not a painting now. But the change in him is incidental to them. We needed to be pushed together so I could be led to—or away from—the key. Depending on whose side you’re on. If I find it, if I don’t, my usefulness is at an end, and so is his. Do you think it matters to them if that usefulness involves hurt, and pain, and loss?”

  Her temper began to spike, giving her voice an edge. “If it means that his heart, or mine, ends up broken, they won’t give a damn. Isn’t it just as likely that heartbreak is what’s necessary to that last step? Despair and loss, those are in my clue. And blood,” she continued. “It won’t be his. I won’t risk that even to save three souls.”

  “Zoe.” Malory spoke carefully. “If you already love each other, then haven’t you already built your own end?”

  “Have we? Or is that my illusion, and what I’ll have to sacrifice? There’s another part of the clue. How I’m supposed to look at the goddess, know when it’s time to pick up the sword, when it’s time to lay it down. Do I fight for what I want for me, or do I surrender it for the good of the whole?”

  “Those are reasonable and logical suppositions, reasonable and logical questions.” Dana held up a hand before Malory could object. “We don’t have to like them, but we should give credence to them. Nobody promised we were all going to land in a big bowl of rose petals at the end of this. What we were promised was a big bowl of money.”

  “Screw the money,” Malory shot back.

  “I wish I could tell you to bite your tongue, but unfortunately I feel the same way. However,” Dana pointed out, “while Zoe has posed those reasonable, logical suppositions, she’s left out the parts about hope and joy and fulfillment. The intersecting paths that lead from one to the other.”

  “I’m sitting in the heart of that joy and hope and fulfillment right now, with both of you.” Zoe held her arms out to encompass the room, the whole of what they’d built. “I’m not leaving them out, but I need to be realistic. I have to be, because I want to believe, almost more than I can stand, that when I come to the end of this, with that goddamn key in my hand, I’m going to have a chance for . . . for more.”

  “What’s next, then?” Dana asked her.

  “I need both of you to think about it. You’re the only ones who have actually held one of the keys. Dana, you and Jordan and Flynn know Bradley’s house almost as well as he does. I’ll take all the help I can get.”

  She pushed to her feet. “But right this minute, we’d better start answering those phones again.”

  THERE was only a sliver of moon left, just a thin slice of curve to float in the black sky. Though she wished, desperately, that a storm would blow in full of mean clouds that would cover even that, Zoe couldn’t stop staring at the waning light.

  She’d looked everywhere. There were times she was certain her eyes or her fingers had passed over that glint of gold. But she was unable to see or touch it.

  Unless she did that within the next forty-eight hours, everything Malory and Dana had been through, all they’d accomplished, would be for nothing.

  The Daughters of Glass would forever lie still and empty in their crystal coffins.

  Bundled in a jacket, she sat out on the rear deck, trying to hold on to that last splinter of hope.

  “It’s here. I know it. What am I missing? What haven’t I done that I’m supposed to do?”

  “Mortals,” Kane said from behind her, “look toward what they call the heavens and ask what to do, what to think.”

  As Zoe froze, he skimmed a fingertip along the base of her neck. She felt the touch like a line of ice.

  “It amuses me.”

  His soft boots made no sound as he walked around her to lean casually back against the deck’s railing.

  He was so breathtakingly handsome, she thought. Made for the dark. For moonless nights, for storms.

  “You’ve failed,” he announced matter-of-factly.

  “I haven’t.” The cold was creeping into her bones, so she had to fight the urge to shiver. “There’s time left.”

  “It ekes away, minute by minute. And when that last sliver of moon is dark, I will have all. And you will have nothing.”

  “You shouldn’t come here to gloat before it’s over.” She wanted to stand, to push herself defiantly to her feet, but her legs felt like rubber. “It’s bad luck.”

  “Luck is a mortal belief, one of your many crutches. Your kind requires them.” He slid his fingers down the silver chain of his amulet, began to swing it slowly side to side.

  “Why do you hate us?”

  “Hate indicates feeling. Do you feel anything for the bug you crush beneath your boot? You are less to me than that.”

  “I don’t have conversations with the bug, either. But here you are.”

  Irritation rippled over his face, and steadied her.

  “As I said, you amuse me. You, particularly, of the three Rowena and Pitte set on this doomed quest. The first . . . she had style and a clever mind. The second, there was fire there and intelligence.”

  “They beat you.”

  “Did they?” He laughed, a soft, derisive sound as he swung the pendant. “Do you not consider that after so long I might wish some entertainment? To have ended it quickly would have been to deny myself the amusement of watching you, all of you, plot and plan and congratulate yourselves. To have ended it would have meant denying myself the pleasure of seeing you squirm, as you are now. You interested me simply because you lack the wit and style of your companions. Badly educated, poorly bred.”

  He shifted, lifting the pendant an inch higher. “Tell me
, where would you be if not for that invitation to Warrior’s Peak? Certainly not here in this house, with this man. A man who will, when the . . . sparkle of this mutual goal has dulled, see you for what you are. He’ll cast you off, as the other did. But you already know that.”

  The silver pendant’s slow, steady movement made her head feel light. “You don’t know anything about me. Or him.”

  “I know you’re a failure. And when you fail in your quest, the others will know it as well. It was cruel of Rowena and Pitte to involve you in this, to expect so much of you. To toss you in with these people,” he continued as mists began to scud—thin blue clouds—along the boards of the deck. “People who have so much more to offer than you. Cruel to give you a taste of what life might be so you’ll spend the rest of your days thirsting for it.”

  “My friends—”

  “Friendship? Another mortal delusion, and as false as luck. They’ll desert you when you fail, and fail you will. A hand such as yours was never meant to turn the key.”

  His voice was soothing now as he straightened, as he stepped closer with the amulet swinging, swinging, a glittering pendulum. “I feel some sympathy for you. Enough to offer you some compensation. What, of the things Rowena and Pitte have so carelessly pushed into your life, would you like to keep? Your little business, this house, the man? Choose one, and I’ll grant it to you.”

  He was hypnotizing her. She could feel herself drifting under, feel the mists crawling over her skin. So very, very cold. It would be so easy to slide down into those crooning promises, to take something. Her hands felt stiff and icy and useless, but she balled them into fists until she felt the prick of her nails biting into her palms.

  With one vicious effort she tore her gaze from the pendant and looked into his face. “You’re a liar.” Her breath heaved out, ripped painfully from her lungs as she staggered to her feet. “You’re a liar and a cheat.”

  He knocked her back. Though she didn’t see the blow, she felt it like a strike of jagged ice across her face. Without thought, riding on temper, she leaped forward and raked her nails down his.

  She saw the shock—one instant of utter disbelief that flashed into his eyes. She saw blood bloom in the grooves she’d sliced in his skin.

  Then she was slammed back against the wall of the house, pinned there by a wild surge of wind so cold she saw crystals of ice, black as onyx, swirling through it.

  And he stood, huge in his billowing black robes, with blood on his face. “I could kill you with a thought.”

  No, he can’t, he can’t. Or he would have. He’s a liar, she reminded herself frantically. And a bully. But he could hurt her, God, he could hurt her. And she felt the pain, tearing and bright, in her chest.

  “Go back to hell!” she shouted at him. “You’re not welcome here.”

  “When this is done, you will lose all. And I’ll add your soul to my winnings.”

  As if a switch had been flipped, the wind died. Zoe fell forward on her hands and knees, gasping for breath, shuddering in shock.

  She stared, baffled, at the wood of the deck and struggled to clear her mind. When she lifted her head she saw the night had turned into soft, misty morning. Through the dawn haze, at the verge of the trees, stood a buck with a coat that seemed to gleam gold. The jeweled collar around his neck shot fire through the mist, and his eyes burned green fire.

  Those mists drew together, like a curtain, and when they parted again, he was gone.

  “I’m not done.” She spoke aloud for the comfort of her own voice. Kane had tricked her out of time, hours of precious time, but she wasn’t done.

  And when she got to her feet, she looked down at her hands, saw there was blood on them.

  His blood.

  “I hurt him. I hurt the son of a bitch.”

  Tears tracked down her cheeks as she stumbled toward the house. Her vision wavered. She thought she heard someone shouting, a threatening growl, a slam. Shapes and sounds melted together into one dark void.

  WHILE the mist smoked across the deck, it slithered over the bed where Brad slept. Chilled him. Trapped him. He turned in his sleep, reached out for warmth and comfort. Reached for Zoe.

  But he was alone.

  In the dark. The forest was dank with rot and alive with a bitter wind. He couldn’t see the path, only the monstrous shapes of the trees, gnarled and twisted into nightmares. The thorns from wild briars ripped at his flesh, bit into his hands like greedy teeth.

  He could smell his own blood, his own panic sweat. And something wilder.

  He was being hunted.

  There was sly movement in the brush, shadows. Not just hunted, he thought as he fought his way clear of the briars. Taunted. Whatever it was wanted his fear as much as it wanted his death.

  He had to get out, get away, before what stalked him tired of the game. When it did, it would leap out and tear him to pieces.

  Save yourself. There was a whisper in his brain, soft, soothing, as he stumbled into a clearing. This is not your fight. Go home.

  Of course. That was it. He should go home. Dazed, disoriented, he stumbled toward a faint glow of light. Began to run toward it as he heard the howl of the predator behind him.

  The glow was a door, and Brad’s breath shuddered out in relief as he sprinted toward it. He would make it. He had to make it. He wrenched the door open even as he felt the hot breath of what pursued him at the back of his neck.

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