Key of light, p.4
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       Key of Light, p.4

         Part #1 of Key series by Nora Roberts
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  “Things change.” James P. Horace, natty as always in his bow tie and rimless glasses, spoke in modulated tones.

  In all the years Malory had known him, she’d never heard him raise his voice. He could be absentminded, occasionally negligent about practicalities when it came to business, but he was unfailingly kind.

  Even now his face held a patient and serene expression. A little like an aged cherub, Malory thought.

  Though the office door was closed, the rest of The Gallery’s staff would know, very shortly, the outcome of the meeting.

  “I like to think of myself as a kind of surrogate father, and as such I want only the best for you.”

  “Yes, James. But—”

  “If we don’t move in some direction, we stand still. I feel that though this may be difficult for you initially, Malory, you’ll soon see it’s the best thing that could happen.”

  How many clichés, Malory wondered, could one man use when lowering the boom?

  “James, I know Pamela and I haven’t seen eye to eye.” I’ll see your cliché, and raise you. “As the new kid on the block, she’s bound to be a bit defensive, while I tend to be territorial. I’m so terribly sorry I lost my temper. Spilling the coffee was an accident. You know I’d never—”

  “Now, now.” He waved his hands in the air. “I’m sure it was. I don’t want you to give that another thought. Water under the bridge. But the point is, Malory, Pamela wants to take a more active role in the business, to shake things up a bit.”

  Desperation slithered into her belly. “James, she moved everything in the main room, jumbled pieces in from the salon. She brought fabric in—gold lamé, James—and draped it over the Deco nude like a sarong. Not only was the flow interrupted by the placements, but the result was, well, just tacky. She doesn’t understand art, and space. She—”

  “Yes, yes.” His voice never changed pitch, his face never altered its placid expression. “But she’ll learn. And I believe that teaching her will be enjoyable. I appreciate her interest in my business, and her enthusiasm—just as I’ve always appreciated yours, Malory. But the fact is, I really think you’ve outgrown us here. It’s time for you to stretch yourself. Broaden your horizons. Take some risks.”

  Her throat closed, and her voice sounded thick when she managed to speak. “I love The Gallery, James.”

  “I know you do. And you’re always welcome here. I feel it’s time for me to give you a nudge out of the nest. Naturally, I want you to be comfortable while you’re deciding what you’d like to do next.” He took a check out of his breast pocket. “A month’s severance should help keep the wolf from the door.”

  What will I do? Where will I go? Frantic questions flew around her brain like terrified birds. “This is the only place I’ve ever worked.”

  “Which makes my point.” He set the check on the desk. “I hope you know how fond I am of you, and that you can come to me anytime, anytime at all, for advice. Though it would probably be best if we kept that between ourselves. Pamela is a little annoyed with you just now.”

  He gave her an avuncular peck on the cheek, a pat on the head, then strolled out.

  PATIENT and placid he might be, but he was also weak. Weak, and though she hated to admit it—hated to realize it after all these years—selfish. It took a selfish weakness to fire an efficient, creative, loyal employee on the whim of his wife.

  She knew it was useless to cry, but she cried a little anyway as she stood in the small office that she’d decorated herself and boxed up her personal things. Her lifetime, career-wise, fit into a single storage box.

  That was efficient again, practical. And, Malory decided, pathetic.

  Everything was going to be different now, and she wasn’t ready. She had no plan, no outline, no list for what came next. She wouldn’t be getting up tomorrow, eating a light, sensible breakfast, dressing for work in the outfit carefully selected tonight.

  Day after day without purpose, without plan, stretched out in front of her like some bottomless canyon. And the precious order of her life was strewn somewhere down there in the void.

  It terrified her, but marching along with the fear was pride. So, she repaired her makeup and kept her chin up, her shoulders back, as she carried the box out of the office and down the stairs. She did her best to muster up a smile when Tod Grist rushed to the base of the stairs.

  He was short and trim, clad in his signature black shirt and pants. Two tiny gold hoops glinted in his left earlobe. His hair was a shoulder-length streaky-blond, which Malory had always envied. The angelic face that it framed drew middle-aged and elderly ladies like the sirens’ song drew sailors.

  He’d started at The Gallery the year after Malory arrived and had been her friend, confidant, and bitching partner ever since.

  “Don’t go. We’ll kill the bimbo. A little arsenic in her morning latte and she’s history.” He grabbed at the storage box. “Mal, love of my life, you can’t leave me here.”

  “I got the boot. A month’s severance, a pat on the head, and a pack of homilies.” She fought to keep the tears from blurring her vision as she looked around the lovely, wide foyer, the streams of filtered light spilling over the glossy oak floor. “God, what am I going to do tomorrow when I can’t come here?”

  “Aw, baby. Here, give me that.” He took the box, gave her a little nudge with it. “Outside, so we can blubber.”

  “I’m not going to blubber anymore.” But she had to bite her lip when it quivered.

  “I am,” he promised and kept nudging until she was out the door. He set the box down on one of the iron tables on the pretty covered porch, then flung his arms around her. “I can’t stand it! Nothing’s going to be the same without you here. Who will I gossip with, who’ll soothe my broken heart when some bastard breaks it? You notice this is all about me.”

  He made her laugh. “You’ll still be my best bud, right?”

  “Sure I will. You’re not going to do something crazy, like move to the city?” He eased back to study her face. “Or fall in with bad companions and work in a strip mall gift shop?”

  A lead weight landed—ka-boom—in her stomach. Those were the only two reasonable choices she had if she was going to make a living. But because he looked as if he might cry, she waved them away to bolster him. “Perish the thought. I don’t know what I’m going to do, exactly. But I’ve got this thing—” She thought of her odd evening, and the key. “I’ll tell you about it later. I’ve got something to keep me occupied for a while, then . . . I don’t know, Tod. Everything’s out of kilter.”

  Maybe she was going to blubber a little after all. “Nothing’s the way it’s supposed to be, so I can’t see how it will be. Getting fired was not in the Malory Price Life Plan.”

  “It’s just a blip,” he assured her. “James is in some sort of sexual haze. He could still come to his senses. You could sleep with him,” he added, inspired. “I could sleep with him.”

  “I have one thing to say to both of those suggestions. Ick.”

  “Profound, and true. How about if I come by tonight, bring you Chinese and a cheap bottle of wine?”

  “You’re a pal.”

  “We’ll plot Putrid Pamela’s demise and plan your future. Want me to walk you home, sweetie pie?”

  “Thanks, but I’ll be fine. Give me time to clear my head. Say good-bye to . . . everybody. I just can’t face it now.”

  “Don’t you worry.”

  She tried not to worry as she walked home. She tried to ignore the panic that dogged her with every step she took away from routine and closer to that wide, wide canyon.

  She was young, educated, hardworking. She had money in the bank. Her whole life was ahead of her, like blank canvas. All she had to do was choose her paints and get on with it.

  But right now, she needed to think of something else. Anything else. She had a month to decide. And an intriguing task to perform in the meantime. It wasn’t every day you were asked to find a mysterious key and play a part in s
aving souls.

  She would play along with that until she figured out the rest of her life. She’d given her word, after all, so she’d best get started on keeping it. Somehow. Right after she went home and buried her sorrows in a pint of Ben and Jerry’s.

  As she came to the corner, she looked back, mistily, miserably, toward The Gallery. Who was she kidding? That had been home.

  On a long sigh, she took a step. And landed hard on her butt.

  Whatever had collided with her sent her box of possessions flying, then fell on top of her. She heard a grunt, and what sounded like a yip. With the breath knocked out of her, and what felt like a minor mountain pressing on her chest, she stared up into a hairy black face.

  Even as she fought for the breath to scream, an enormous tongue rolled out and slurped her face.

  “Moe! Stop, heel, get the hell off! Jeez. Jesus, I’m sorry.”

  Malory heard the voice, the light panic in it, as she gagged and turned her head to try to avoid the tongue. Abruptly, the huge black mass pinning her down grew arms. Then a second head.

  This one was human, a great deal more attractive than the first, despite the sunglasses that slid down a sharp, straight nose and the grim set to the mouth.

  “Are you all right? Are you hurt?”

  He shoved the massive weight away, then squeezed his body between them, like a defensive wall. “Can you sit up?”

  The question was moot, as he was already pulling her from her ungainly sprawl to a sitting position. The dog tried to nose in but was elbowed back. “You lie down, you big sloppy idiot. Not you,” he added with a quick, charming grin as he brushed Malory’s hair back from her face. “I’m sorry. He’s harmless, just clumsy and stupid.”

  “What . . . what is it?”

  “Moe’s a dog, or that’s the rumor. We think he’s a cross between a cocker spaniel and a woolly mammoth. I’m really sorry. My fault. I wasn’t paying enough attention, and he got away from me.”

  She slid her gaze to the right, where the dog, if it was a dog, was hunkered down, thumping a tail as thick as her arm and looking as innocent as anything that homely could manage.

  “You didn’t hit your head, did you?”

  “I don’t think so.” She found Moe’s owner staring at her with a quiet intensity that made heat rush over her skin. “What?”

  She was as pretty as a bakery-shop pastry. All that tumbled blond hair, the top-cream skin, the rosy, bottom-heavy mouth that was in a sexy little sulk. Her eyes were big, blue, and beautiful, despite the temper flames shooting out of them.

  He nearly licked his lips when she scowled at him and lifted her hand to shove it through that terrific tangle of hair. “What are you staring at?”

  “Just making sure you don’t have little X’s in your eyes. You went down pretty hard. Great eyes, by the way. I’m Flynn.”

  “And I’m tired of sitting on the sidewalk. Do you mind?”

  “Oh. Yeah.” He stood, took both her hands in both of his, and pulled her to her feet.

  He was taller than she’d realized, and she automatically stepped back so she didn’t have to tip her face up to keep an eye on him. The sun was streaming over his hair—a lot of thick, wavy brown hair with hints of chestnut. His hands were still clasping hers, firmly enough that she felt the ridge of callus on them.

  “You sure you’re all right? Steady? You went down pretty hard.”

  “I’m aware of that.” Painfully aware in the portion of her anatomy that had hit the sidewalk first. She crouched and began gathering what had spilled out of the box.

  “I’ll get this stuff.” He crouched beside her, then stabbed a finger at the dog who was trying to inch his way toward them with the same stealth as an elephant tiptoeing across the African plain. “Stay, or there’s no treat for you.”

  “Just get your dog. I don’t need any help here.” She snatched up her emergency cosmetic bag, tossed it in the box. And when she saw that she’d chipped a nail, she wanted to curl into a ball of self-pity and wail. Instead, she selected the temper button.

  “You have no business being out on a public street with a dog of that size if you can’t control him. He’s just a dog, he doesn’t know any better, but you’re supposed to.”

  “You’re right. You’re absolutely right. Um . . . this must be yours.”

  He held out a strapless black bra.

  Mortified, Malory grabbed it out of his hand, stuffed it in the box. “Go away now. Go very, very far away.”

  “Listen, why don’t you let me carry that—”

  “Carry your silly dog,” she snapped and, hefting the box, strode away with as much dignity as she could muster.

  Flynn watched her go as Moe lumbered over to press his considerable weight against his master’s side. Absently, Flynn patted the massive head and enjoyed the indignant sway of feminine hips in a short skirt. He doubted that run in her stocking had been there before her encounter with Moe, but from his perspective it did nothing to detract from a pair of great legs.

  “Pretty,” he said aloud as she slammed into a building halfway down the block. “And pretty steamed.” He glanced down at the hopefully grinning Moe. “Nice job, jerk-face.”

  AFTER a hot shower, a change of clothes, and a medicinal bowl of cookie dough ice cream, Malory headed for the library. She hadn’t made any firm arrangements with her—she supposed they were her partners—the night before. As she was the first, she would have to be in charge.

  They needed to have some sort of meeting, to go over the clue, to plot out a plan of action. She didn’t hold out any real hope of winning a million dollars, but she wasn’t going to shrug it off or go back on her word.

  She couldn’t remember the last time she’d actually been in the library. For some reason, going in made her feel like a student again, full of näıveté, hope, and an eagerness to learn.

  The main area wasn’t large, and the tables were mostly unoccupied. She saw an older man reading the newspaper, a few people wandering the stacks, a woman with a toddler in tow at the checkout counter.

  The place was so hushed, the ringing of a phone was like a shout. She glanced toward the sound, and the central island of counter. Dana sat there, a phone at her ear while her fingers clicked on a keyboard.

  Pleased that she wouldn’t have to search the building to find her, Malory walked over. She wagged her fingers as Dana nodded at her and finished the call.

  “I was hoping you’d come by. Didn’t expect you this soon.”

  “I’m now a woman of leisure.”

  “Oh.” Sympathy softened Dana’s face. “You got canned?”

  “Canned, booted, axed, then knocked on my ass by an idiot and his dog on the way home. All in all, it’s been a lousy day, even with the expansion of my bank account.”

  “I have to say, I didn’t believe it. Those two up on the Peak are certifiable.”

  “Lucky for us. But still, we have to earn it. I’m first up, so I figure I need to get started. Somewhere.”

  “I’m ahead of you. Jan? Will you take the desk?” As she rose, Dana gathered a stack of books from under the counter. “Come with me,” she told Malory. “There’s a nice table by the window where you can work.”

  “Work at what?”

  “Research. I’ve got several books on Celtic mythology, gods and goddesses, lore and legend. I’m going with the Celts since Rowena’s from Wales and Pitte’s Irish.”

  “How do you know he’s Irish?”

  “I don’t. He sounded Irish. At this point I know little or nothing about Celtic myths, and I figure it’s the same for you and Zoe.”

  “I don’t have a clue.”

  Dana set the books down with a muffled thud. “So, we need to get one. I’m off in a few hours, then I can give you a hand. And I can call Zoe in if you like.”

  Malory stared at the stack of books. “Maybe that’s a good idea. I don’t know where to start.”

  “Pick one. I’ll get you a notebook.”

  After a
n hour Malory needed an aspirin as well. When Zoe rushed up to sit at the table beside her, she took off her glasses and rubbed her tired eyes. “Good. Reinforcements.” She shoved a book across the table.

  “I’m sorry it took me so long. I was running errands. I bought Simon this video game he’s been wanting. I know I probably shouldn’t have spent the money, but I wanted to get him something, just for fun. I’ve never had so much money in my life,” she whispered. “I know I have to be careful with it, but if you can’t do a little something fun, what’s the point?”

  “You don’t have to sell me. And after you’ve been at this for a while, you’ll know you earned it. Welcome to the wacky world of the Celts. Dana’s probably got another notebook.”

  “I brought my own.” Out of an enormous bag, Zoe pulled a fresh notebook, thick as a brick, and a pack of pencils already sharpened to saber points. “It’s sort of like going back to school.”

  Zoe’s eager optimism cut through Malory’s foul mood. “Want to pass notes and talk about boys?”

  Zoe just grinned and opened a book. “We’re going to find that key. I just know it.”

  By the time Dana joined them, Malory had written reams of notes in the modified shorthand she’d developed in college, had drained her pen and borrowed two of Zoe’s pencils.

  “Why don’t we move this to my brother’s place?” Dana suggested. “It’s right around the corner. He’s at work, so he won’t be in the way. We can spread out a little, and you can give me the highlights.”

  “Fine with me.” Stiff from sitting, Malory got to her feet.

  “I can only stay for about an hour. I like to be there when Simon gets home from school, when I can.”

  “Then let’s get started. These books are on me,” Dana said as she began gathering some up. “Anybody takes one home for personal research, I need it back in a timely fashion and in the same condition it was in when you took it.”

  “She really is a librarian.” Malory tucked books under her arm.

  “Bet your ass.” Dana led the way out. “I’m going to see what I can get off the Net, and through interlibrary loan.”

  “I don’t know how much we’re going to get out of books.”

  Dana slipped on her sunglasses, then tipped them down and peered at Malory over the tops. “Anything worth anything can be found in books.”

  “Okay, now you’re heading toward Scary Library Lady. What we need to do is figure out the clue.”

  “Without information on the story, the characters in it, we’ve got no base.”

  “We’ve got four whole weeks,” Zoe put in, and dragged sunglasses out of her shoulder bag. “That’s enough time to find out a lot of stuff, look in a lot of places. Pitte said the keys were around here. So it’s not like we have the whole world to worry about.”

  “Around here could mean the Valley, or the highlands. It could mean the entire state of Pennsylvania.” Malory shook her head at the sheer scope and disorder. “Pitte and pal left it pretty wide open. Even if it’s close by, it could be in someone’s dusty drawer, on the bottom of the river, in a bank vault, or buried under a rock.”

  “If it was easy, somebody else would have found it by now,” Zoe pointed out. “And the grand prize wouldn’t be three million dollars.”

  “Don’t be sensible while I’m crabbing.”

  “Sorry, but there’s one other thing I was wondering. I couldn’t sleep last night, going over and over the whole evening in my head. It’s all so unreal. But even if you set all that aside for a minute, even if we’re optimistic and say you find the key, how do we know it’s your key, and not one of the other two?”

  “Interesting.” Malory shifted her load of books as they turned the corner. “How come the Weird Twins didn’t think of that?”

  “I figure they did. See, first you have to say it’s all real.”

  Dana shrugged. “We’ve all got money in the bank, and we’re walking along with a load of books on Celtic myths. That’s real enough for me.”

  “If it’s all real, then Malory can only find the first key. Even if the other two were right in front of her, she wouldn’t find them. And we wouldn’t either, not before it’s our turn to look.”

  Dana stopped, angling her head as she studied Zoe. “Do you really believe all this?”

  Zoe flushed but gave a careless shrug. “I’d like to. It’s so fantastic and important. I’ve never done anything fantastic or important.” She looked up at the narrow three-story Victorian painted a soft slate blue with creamy gingerbread trim. “Is this your brother’s house? I’ve always thought it was so pretty.”

  “He’s been fixing it up bit by bit. Kind of a hobby.”

  They started up the brick walk. The grass was green and trim on either side,
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