Key of valor, p.26
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       Key of Valor, p.26

         Part #3 of Key series by Nora Roberts
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  Light showered through the dark. And color, and movement. He stood in the doorway of his New York offices, his breath heaving from the run. Blood from his wounded hands fell onto the polished oak of the floor.

  Through the wide triple windows, he saw the skyline, all those gleaming spears that rose into the morning sky.

  A young blonde in a sharp black suit walked by, shot him a sunny smile. “Welcome back, Mr. Vane.”

  “Yes.” His lips felt stiff. Why was it so cold in here? “Thanks.”

  Michael, his assistant, hurried up to him. He wore red suspenders over a blue shirt and carried a thick appointment book. “I have your schedule for the day, Mr. Vane. Coffee’s on your desk. We’d better get started.”

  “I should . . .” He could smell the coffee, and Michael’s aftershave. He heard a phone ringing. Confused, he lifted his hand, watched the blood drip from the puncture in his palm. “I’m bleeding.”

  “Oh, we’ll take care of that. You just need to come in. All the way in.”

  “No.” He swayed. Nausea roiled in his belly, sweat poured down his face with the effort. “I don’t.” Gripping the doorjamb for balance, he looked behind him, and into the dark. “This isn’t real. This is just more bull—”

  He broke off as he heard Zoe scream.

  Whirling, he shoved away from the door.

  “You’ll die out there,” Michael shouted after him, seconds before the door slammed. A bullet shot.

  Brad plunged into the dark, calling for Zoe. He couldn’t see, though he tore frantically through briars, he couldn’t see anything but that unrelieved veil of black.

  He couldn’t find her, would never find her. And what was in the dark would kill them both because he hadn’t held on to her.

  She only wants your money. A rich father for her bastard son.

  “That is such crap.” Exhausted, sick, he fell to his knees. He was letting himself get roped in, letting himself believe the lies.

  It had to stop.

  He threw back his head, bunched his fists. “It’s not real. It’s not happening. Goddamn it, I am home. And so is she.”

  He woke, gulping in air, with the last tendrils of the mist fading and Moe standing on the foot of the bed, snarling like a wolf.

  “Okay, boy. Christ.” Still a little shaken, he started to reach out for the dog, but felt the pain shudder through his hand. Turning it over, he saw the blood smeared on his palm, welling fresh from several punctures. “Well, some of it was real.”

  On a long breath, he shoved his bloodied hand through his hair. And the next instant was leaping out of bed. Zoe. If the blood was real, her screams might be.

  He raced to her room, threw open the door. In the soft morning light he could that see her bed hadn’t been slept in. Pushed by panic, he whirled to Simon’s room, shuddered with relief when he saw the boy curled up with the puppy.

  “Stay with him.” Brad ordered Moe into the room. “You stay with him,” he repeated, then tore downstairs to look for Zoe.

  Shouting for her now, he burst into the great room just in time to see her stumble in from the deck.

  WHEN she opened her eyes, Zoe saw Brad’s face, pale, with his hair tousled around it.

  “You need a haircut,” she mumbled.

  “Christ Jesus, Zoe.” He gripped her hand hard enough to rub bone against bone. “What the hell were you doing outside? What happened? No, quiet.” He snapped himself back from the line of utter terror. “Lie still. I’ll get you some water.”

  He hurried to the kitchen, filled a glass, then just braced his hands on the counter while he fought to steady his pulse.

  Ordering himself to take slow, deep breaths, he washed the blood off his hands, then picked up the glass of water and went back to her.

  She was sitting up now, and the color was back in her cheeks. He’d never seen anyone so white as she’d been when she’d come through that doorway.

  “Take it easy,” he ordered. “Sip slowly.”

  She nodded, though it was hard to obey when her throat was on fire. “I’m okay.”

  “You’re not okay.” He didn’t shout it, but there was a slapping edge to his voice. “You fainted. You’ve got a bruise on your face and blood on your hands. You’re not fucking okay.”

  It was amazing how he did that, she thought. How he never raised his voice, but managed to have the temper and the authority crush you into dust.

  “It’s not my blood. It’s his.” It steadied her to see it again. To know what she’d done. “I scratched his goddamn face. I have good, strong nails, and I tore that bastard’s cheeks open with them. It felt great.”

  She handed Brad the empty glass, and because she thought they both could use it, kissed his cheek. “I’m sorry I scared you. I was . . . oh!” On a sound of distress, she snatched his hand. “You’re all scratched and cut.”

  “I had a little adventure in the woods while you were . . . whatever you were doing.”

  “He worked on both of us,” Zoe said softly. “But we’re here, we’re right here, aren’t we?” She lifted his wounded hand to her lips. “Let’s go clean up these cuts, and you’ll tell me what happened to you. I’ll tell you what happened to me, but first I want you to know something.”

  She took his face in her hands, looked into his eyes. “I want you to know it’s going to be all right. Everything’s going to be all right. Let’s go in the kitchen. I want to wash my hands, bandage yours, and make some coffee.”

  She drew a breath and got to her feet. Her legs were steady, she noted with some pride. And her mind was set. “We’ll talk about the rest while I work.”

  “Work?”

  “I’ve got a turkey to stuff.”

  Chapter Nineteen

  I don’t know how you can be so calm.” Malory washed fresh cranberries at the kitchen sink.

  “Oh, I’ve roasted turkeys before.” Zoe shot a grin over her shoulder and continued to prepare the yams.

  “I don’t know how she can be such a smart-ass,” Dana commented, scowling at the mountain of potatoes she had yet to peel. “You’d think a pissing match with an evil sorcerer god, a fainting spell, and cooking for an army would spoil her mood, but oh, no, our Zoe’s in some form today.”

  “It’s Thanksgiving.”

  “Which forces me to broach the question.” Dana frowned at her paring knife. “Why are the three of us doing all the work in here while the men laze around like kings?”

  “I wanted the three of us to be alone for a while,” Zoe told Dana. “This was the simplest way.”

  Dana set another potato aside. “So you say.”

  “And Bradley watching me like a hawk makes me nervous.”

  “A man’s entitled when you swoon into his arms,” Malory pointed out.

  “I don’t blame him. It’s interesting, too, that he was there to catch me. Don’t you think? Romantic, I guess, but interesting, too. He’s upstairs asleep, and I’m out there for—I don’t know how long. Hours. It felt like minutes, but it was hours.”

  She glanced toward the doorway to make certain no one was hovering. “Then he’s not just asleep—Kane’s got him running around in the dark, getting his hands all cut up. He tried to get him to go back to New York in his head, where everything’s ordered, everything’s normal.”

  “But he didn’t do it.” Malory set the strainer of cranberries in the sink. “At the threshold—a moment of decision, and he made his choice.”

  “He made it, and so did I when I ripped Kane’s face. Those are decisions we can both feel pretty damn good about today.”

  “Wished I’d seen you do it.” Dana attacked the potatoes again. “My one regret.”

  “It was great,” Zoe assured her. “I don’t know when I’ve done anything that’s made me feel that powerful. But anyway, after all that, Bradley gets downstairs just in time to keep me from falling flat on my face.”

  Zoe brought her knife down with a thunk. “Kane tried to keep him away, to trap him in that illusion.


  “Didn’t want a man interfering,” Malory said sourly, “while he bullied the little lady.”

  “No, and I think he didn’t want us together while he tried to make me feel like a loser.”

  “Doesn’t sound like you’re feeling like a loser.”

  “He pushed all the right buttons, I’ll give him that. But he’s not the first one to push them, and I’ve learned how to push back. He pushed them because he’s scared. Because I’m close. Because he knows I can beat him. So he worked on my insecurities and my feelings, then he tried to bribe me. And when it didn’t work, he got pissy.”

  “Pissy.” Malory stepped over to touch her fingers gently to the bruise on Zoe’s cheek. “Honey, he clocked you.”

  “Maybe so, but I can promise you, he looks a lot worse.” She threw back her head and let out a hoot. “If I’d been thinking straight, I’d’ve followed up. A good kick to the balls. If he has balls. I hurt him, and Bradley beat him. We’ve got him running scared. And that just makes my whole damn day.”

  She saw the flicker in Malory’s eyes and sighed. “I know. I know I don’t have much time left. Part of me wants to go running through this house like a mental patient trying to find the key. But that’s not the answer. I don’t know what is, only that isn’t it. So I’m going to make Thanksgiving dinner, a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner. Because I do belong. I do belong with all of you, and I’m thankful for it.”

  Dana set the paring knife aside. “He did get to you some.”

  “Maybe he did,” Zoe admitted. “He hit me where I live. Poor little Zoe McCourt who got herself knocked up by the first boy who smiled at her. The high school dropout scrounging for pennies so she can buy diapers for the baby she’ll be raising on her own. What makes her think she can do anything that matters?”

  She spooned her yams into a casserole dish. “Because I can, that’s what. Let’s have some wine.”

  “Well, now you’re talking.” Though Dana exchanged a look with Malory behind Zoe’s back, she got out a bottle of Pinot Grigio.

  “There are things I’m going to do today,” Zoe said as she took glasses out of the cupboard. “Besides making this meal with you and eating it. Things I’m going to do, things I’m going to say. I’ve just got to work them all out in my head first.”

  She set the glasses down, tilting her head as she looked out the window and spotted Brad and Simon walking along one of the paths that wound through the garden shrubs toward the trees. “What in the world are they doing?”

  Dana laid a hand on Zoe’s shoulder as she leaned over to pour the wine. “I can tell you what they’re not doing. They’re not peeling potatoes.”

  “What’s that he’s carrying?” Absently, she lifted her glass of wine, shifted to get a better angle. Her son was dancing around Brad, and the dogs raced back and forth, hoping for a game. “It looks like . . . well, for heaven’s sake.”

  She watched, dumbfounded, as Brad hung the bird feeder from a branch so that it dangled over his lovely ornamental shrubbery. Then he lifted her son so Simon could pour seed into the opening.

  “For heaven’s sake,” she repeated. As if in a dream, she set the wine down and walked to the door. Walked outside.

  “What the hell is that about?” Dana wondered.

  “You’ve got me.” With her nose all but pressed to the glass, Malory smiled. “What is that thing? Why are they hanging a boot from a tree?”

  Zoe hadn’t thought to get a jacket, but she didn’t mind the bite of wind. It carried Simon’s laugh to her as he raced away to play with the dogs. And her heart was too warm for the chill to touch it.

  Brad stood on the path, his hands in his pockets, grinning at the bird feeder. Hearing her footsteps, he turned to greet her. “What do you think?”

  She’d helped make it, guiding Simon through the steps of turning the flashy red cowboy boot into a bird feeder, steadying his hands as he’d cut the hole in the leather, watching him measure the strips of scrap wood to make the little pitched roof.

  He’d been so proud of it, she remembered, so pleased that no one else in his class would have a project quite like his.

  He’d told her they could hang it in the backyard at home after it was graded and given back.

  At home, she thought.

  “Simon gave it to you?” she asked carefully.

  “Yeah. He got an A on it, you know.”

  “Yes, I know.”

  “We figured—what the hell are you doing out here without a coat?” On a huff of impatience, he stripped off his jacket. She stood silent as he shoved her arms into the sleeves of buttery-soft leather.

  “I saw you from the kitchen. Saw you hanging this in your beautiful garden, behind your beautiful house.”

  “Okay.” Obviously puzzled, he lifted his shoulder. “And?”

  “He gave you his bird feeder, and you hung it.” Tears tickled the base of her throat. “Bradley, this has to be the silliest-looking thing you’ve ever seen in your life. It’s an old boot with a hole in it. You’re going to see it every time you look out the window, and so’s everyone else.”

  “That’s the idea.” He stepped back and just beamed at it. “It’s terrific.”

  “Bradley, I have to ask you something. I was thinking, this morning, after what happened, I was thinking about how I might find the way to ask you. But I thought I needed to talk to Simon first, to explain to him and to see how he’d . . .”

  She looked back at the feeder and smiled. “But I can see I don’t have to talk to him or explain. He’s made his choice already.”

  “Ask me what?” He reached out to give the boot a little push, just for the pleasure of watching it swing.

  “I wanted to ask you to marry me.” She felt her courage evaporate when his hand dropped to his side, when he stared at her, but she picked it back up again with both hands. “I thought I should wait until all the rest was finished and I’d had a long talk with Simon and . . . all sorts of things. And until I wasn’t so scared about what would happen if I did ask. But I think I was wrong about waiting to ask, and about not telling you that I love you, so much. So much it made me more scared so I was afraid to trust myself, or you. Or even Simon. And God, I wish you’d say something and shut me up.”

  “Well. This is pretty sudden. Hang on a minute.”

  Of all the things she’d expected—the best and the worst—it hadn’t been for him to stroll away, calling for Simon. Heat rose into her cheeks even as ice balled in her belly. She wasn’t sure if that was the result of mortification, hurt, or temper. She tugged his jacket tight around her as he bent down to Simon.

  She couldn’t hear what was said, but it caused Simon to nod rapidly, give a little war whoop, then charge back to the house.

  Hooking his thumbs in his front pockets, Brad walked back to Zoe. His expression was both polite and pleasant. “Let’s see now, where were we? You’re asking me to marry you because I hung the feeder Simon gave me in the garden.”

  “Yes. No. Damn it, Bradley, you don’t have to make me sound like a fool. The only other people Simon’s ever given things he makes to besides me are the Hansons, and that’s because he thinks of them like grandparents. He gave this to you because he loves you, and I thought . . . You hung it.”

  “I happen to like it.” He couldn’t help grinning like a fool when he tapped a finger against the red leather boot. “I’m afraid you might be missing the artistic whimsy of the design. But be that as it may—”

  “Don’t you talk to me about artistic whimsy. Let me tell you something, Bradley Charles Vane IV, if you’re not prepared to stand behind all that talk about being in love with me, then you don’t know who you’re dealing with.”

  The grin stayed plastered on his face as he looked at her. “Don’t I?”

  “Marriage isn’t a joke to me, it’s what I expect from the man I love and the one who claims to love me. My son deserves a father, not someone who just wants to play around at relationships. Neither of us is going
to settle.”

  Brad nodded. “I guess that told me.”

  “I got it! I got it!” Simon bulleted out of the house. “It was right where—” He cut himself off at the warning look from Brad, but though he stared down at the ground, his shoulders shook with laughter.

  “I’d like to know what’s so damn funny.”

  “A little man business between me and Simon,” Brad told her, deftly palming the box Simon had clutched in his hand. “You see, it happens Simon and I discussed a certain matter a while back, and—”

  “You said you had to wait until . . .” Hunching his shoulders under Brad’s bland stare, Simon scuffed a toe on the path. “Okay, okay, but hurry up.”

  “We came to an understanding,” Brad continued. “And as questions on both sides were resolved, I thought it only right to show him this, so he could be sure of my intentions.”

  Brad lifted the box, opened the lid.

  “It was his grandmother’s and—golly, can’t I say anything?” Simon complained when Brad shushed him.

  “Let’s see what your mother has to say first.”

  Looking at the ring was like looking at stars. Delicate and bright, and beautiful. She could only give a helpless shake of her head.

  “You had plenty to say a minute ago,” Brad pointed out. “Something about me standing up, and what you expect. But maybe I should answer your initial question. Yes.” He took the ring from the box. “Absolutely yes. I’ll be your husband, and love you every day for the rest of my life.”

  “Put it on her finger,” Simon demanded. “You’re supposed to put it on her finger, then you have to kiss her.”

  “I know the drill.”

  “You—the two of you—already talked about this?” Zoe managed.

  “That’s right. When a guy’s taking on a father, there are things he needs to know.” Brad exchanged a look with Simon, one that made Zoe’s heart sparkle every bit as richly as the ring. “And when a man’s being given a son, there are things he needs to say.”

  “It’s man-to-man stuff,” Simon told her. “You wouldn’t get it.”

  “Oh.” She felt the laugh bubble up through the tears in her throat. “Okay, then.”

  “Zoe? Give me your hand.”

  She looked at him first, looked into his eyes. “He’s the most precious thing in the world to me.” She laid her right hand on Simon’s shoulder and gave Brad her left. “We’re both yours now.”

  “We’re each other’s.”

  There was warmth as the ring slid onto her finger, a lovely jolt of it as it circled her flesh. “It fits. It’s so beautiful. I’ve never seen anything more beautiful.”

  “I have.” His eyes held hers as he kissed her.

  “Can I call you Dad now?” Simon tugged on Brad’s sleeve. “Can I, or do I have to wait?”

  As Brad lifted Simon off his feet, Zoe’s already full heart overflowed. “You don’t have to wait. Neither do we.” With his free hand, Brad pulled Zoe into his arms and made the three of them a unit. “We don’t have to wait for anything.”

  As cheers sounded from the house, Zoe looked over. Everyone was on the deck, applauding.

  “I sort of told them,” Simon confessed. “When I went in to get the ring.”

  “Get back here!” Dana shouted between her cupped hands. “We need champagne and we need it now.”

  “I wanna watch it pop.” Wiggling down, Simon ran for the house.

  It seemed to Zoe that everything glowed as if it had been washed with gold. With her hand clutched in Brad’s she took the first step down the path toward the house.

  Simon leaped onto the deck. The pup missed a step and tumbled, and Moe raced in circles around him. She saw Flynn give Jordan a friendly punch on the arm. And watched as Malory slid her arm around Dana’s waist.

  Brad’s hand was warm against hers as their fingers linked.

  And she knew.

 
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