Key of valor, p.4
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       Key of Valor, p.4

         Part #3 of Key series by Nora Roberts
 

  They bounded off while she walked toward the front door.

  She loved to look at the place, the big old house with all its possibilities. They’d already put their mark on it, painting the front porch a bright, celebrational blue and arranging pots of mums to flank the front steps.

  As soon as she got around to it, she was going to pick up some old pots at the flea market. Clean them up, paint them. Maybe she’d search out half a whiskey barrel as well, and they could plant seasonal flowers in it.

  She glanced up at the window above the front door. Malory had hired a glass artist to create a stained-glass panel for that space, using the design from their logo.

  That was just the sort of touch that was going to make their place unique.

  She set the cooler down, opened the door.

  She heard the music. It wasn’t set up to blast, but it was close. Through it, she heard hammering, sawing, voices. The good noise of work in progress.

  She stood absorbing it for a moment, looking up the stairs that neatly bisected the main level. Dana’s bookstore on one side, and Malory’s gallery on the other. With my salon over them, she thought. The communal kitchen in the back, then the nice little yard where one day, she hoped, they would set up tables where customers could sit and enjoy refreshments during good weather.

  Though it would be weeks before Indulgence could open, it was already a dream come true for Zoe.

  “Hey. Where’s the rest of your crew?”

  Zoe brought herself back and looked over to see Dana stroll into the little foyer. “Out in the back. I’m sorry I’m late.”

  “We’ve already docked your pay. Or we will, once we get a time clock. Jeez, lose the guilty look, Zoe. Nobody’s set hours yet, especially on Saturday.”

  “I meant to be here an hour and a half ago,” she said as she shrugged out of her coat, “but I slept late. I didn’t get up until nearly eight.”

  “Eight!” Dana exclaimed in horror “Why, you lazy bitch!”

  “I don’t know how Simon kept that dog quiet—or vice versa—but when I got up they were in the backyard. By the time I made them presentable, got them breakfast, pulled myself together, I was way behind. Then I stopped by Flynn’s, thinking I would drop Moe off, but nobody was home, which made Simon’s day.”

  She let out a sigh. “Dana, I’m going to end up getting him a dog. I just know it.”

  Dana’s dimples appeared in her cheeks as she grinned. “Sap.”

  “That’s the God’s truth. I didn’t know everybody was coming over here today.”

  “Figured we’d give it a nice big Saturday push.”

  “That’s good.” Ready to dive in, Zoe strapped on her tool belt. “What are you up to?”

  “I was up to putting the second coat of varnish on my floors, but Jordan claims I don’t do it right. So he’s putting it on, which leaves me painting the kitchen, as the unanimous opinion around here is that painting’s all I’m good for.”

  “You’re an excellent painter,” Zoe said diplomatically.

  “Hmm. Malory and Flynn were doing the varnish in her spot, but she claims he doesn’t do it right, so he was sent upstairs to work with Brad.”

  “Upstairs? In my place? What’s Bradley doing upstairs in my place?”

  “I think he was . . .” Dana decided to save her breath as Zoe was already sprinting up to see for herself.

  The walls of the salon area had already been painted by her own hand. They were a deep pink that edged toward purple. A rich color, she’d thought, a feminine one, but not so girly that a man would be put off by it.

  For contrast, on the trim and for the counters she’d begun to build, she was going to go with a bold green, then take these same colors, in softer hues, into her treatment areas.

  The floors were already sanded and sealed—a chore she’d taken care of personally, then protected with drop cloths.

  She had plans for displays, and had already picked out the fabric to make slipcovers for a secondhand couch and a couple of chairs she had on hold.

  She’d decided on the lighting, on the treatment tables, even on the color of the towels she would use. Everything in her salon would have her touch, reflect her vision, and be created by her own two hands.

  And there was Bradley Charles Vane IV busily sawing the board for one of her counter stations.

  “What are you doing?”

  Nobody heard her, of course. Not with Brad’s saw buzzing, and Flynn’s nail gun popping, and the damn music blaring.

  She might as well not even be there. Well, she would fix that, right this minute.

  She marched over until her shadow fell across the board and the template Brad was following. He glanced up, gave her a little head jerk to indicate she was in his light.

  She stood her ground.

  “I want to know what you’re doing.”

  “Hold on a minute,” he shouted right back at her, and finished running the blade through the board. He turned off the saw, shoved up his safety goggles.

  “Your laminate came in.”

  “I want—my laminate?” The thrill of that had her spinning around in the direction he pointed. And there it was, that wonderful bold green. “It’s perfect. I knew it would be perfect. It wasn’t supposed to come in until next week.”

  “Got in early.” He’d put a rush on it. “We ought to be able to have a couple of these done today.”

  “I don’t expect you to—”

  “Hi, Zo.” Flynn set the nail gun down, grinned up at her. “What do you think?”

  “I think it’s really nice of you to pitch in this way. Give up your Saturday and all. But I can do this if you want to . . . do something else.”

  “We’ve got a good start on it.” He glanced past her. “Where are the big dog and the small boy?”

  “They’re out back. I didn’t know what to do with them.”

  “Plenty of room to run around out there. I’ll go check on them.” Flynn got to his feet. “Want coffee when I come back?”

  “Only if you didn’t make it,” Brad told him.

  “Ingrate.” Flynn gave Zoe a wink, then left them alone.

  “I don’t want you to—”

  “You’ve got a good design,” Brad interrupted. “For your stations. Neat and simple. It’s easy to follow your plans, get a good sense of what you have in mind.”

  She folded her arms. “I didn’t expect anybody would have to follow them.”

  “You do good work.” He paused a beat while she stared at him. “Careful planning, good choices, a flair for design. Any reason why you have to do everything yourself?”

  “No. You just shouldn’t feel obligated, that’s all.”

  He lifted an eyebrow. “Ingrate.”

  Defeated, she let out a half laugh. “Maybe it’s more that I know what kind of work I do, but I don’t know if you’re any good.” She walked around the base of the counter he was finishing for her. “I guess you do okay.”

  “My granddaddy’d be so proud to hear that.”

  With the wood between them, she gave him a quick, easy smile. “I want to cut the laminate myself. I just want to be able to . . .”

  “To look at it when it’s finished, to look at it a year from when it’s finished and say, Hey, I did that.”

  “Yes. That’s it exactly. I didn’t think you’d understand.”

  He shifted, stood hip-shot, and angled his head. “Do you know why I came back to the Valley?”

  “I guess I don’t. Not really.”

  “Ask me sometime. You want to get that nail gun? We’ll knock this thing out.”

  SHE had to admit they worked well together, and he didn’t, as she’d assumed he would, treat her as if she wasn’t capable of handling tools. On the contrary, he took for granted that she was capable.

  He did tend to be bossy about certain things. If she started to lift something he deemed too heavy, he snapped out an order for her to leave it be. And he insisted on going down himself to haul up her cool
er.

  But she overlooked it in the thrill of spreading the glue for the laminate on her first station.

  Even with the windows open for ventilation, the fumes were strong.

  “Good thing we’re working in small sections,” Brad commented. “If we were doing long stretches of this, without a fan in here, we’d be buzzed before we were finished.”

  “I got carried away redoing my kitchen counters at home a couple years ago. Got giddy as a Saturday night drunk and had to go outside and lie down on the grass.”

  He studied her face, noted that while she was a little flushed, beautifully so, her eyes were clear. “You start feeling it, let me know.”

  “I’m fine.” She touched a fingertip to the glue. “Nearly done here.”

  “Too bad. I wouldn’t mind seeing you giddy.”

  She shifted her gaze to his as she straightened up from the counter. “Plenty of fresh air in here.”

  “You’re a little flushed, though.” He stroked the side of his finger over her cheek. “You have the most incredible skin.”

  “It’s, ah, like advertising.” She didn’t know if she’d been flushed before, but she could feel the heat rising now. “I use a lot of the products I’m going to carry. There’s this wonderful serum. It’s time release.”

  “Is that so?” His lips curved a little as he trailed that finger down her throat. “Seems to be working.”

  “I don’t want to carry anything I don’t believe in.”

  “What do you do with your mouth?”

  At the question, it dropped open. “What?”

  “What do you use? Your lips are soft.” He rubbed the pad of his thumb over them. “Smooth. Tempting.”

  “There’s a balm that I—don’t do that.”

  “Do what?”

  “Don’t kiss me. I can’t get mixed up this way. And we’ve got work.”

  “You’re right about that. But work has to stop sometime. Glue’s probably set up enough. You ready?”

  She nodded. Fresh air or not, she was just a little light-headed now. And could put the cause of it solely on him. She imagined he knew it—knew just how those long, deep looks, those casually intimate touches affected a woman.

  So she would just have to toughen up against them before they got her in trouble.

  Together, they lifted the laminate. It was an exacting process, one that required teamwork and precision to create a smooth surface. Once glue hit glue, there was no turning back.

  When it was down, the edges routed smooth, and the clamps tightened every few inches to hold it in place while it set hard, she stepped back.

  Yes, it was right, she’d been right to curve the edges, to give it that subtle flow. Simple, practical, yet with a fluidity that gave it a touch of class.

  The clients might not notice the details, but they would notice the effect.

  “It’s a good look,” Brad said from beside her. “Smart to put the holes in for the cords of those gizmos you people use.”

  “They’re called hair dryers and curling irons.”

  “Right. The way you’ve got it, the cords won’t be dangling everywhere, tangling up. Gives you an uncluttered look.”

  “I want it to seem upscale but relaxed.”

  “Just what do you plan to do to people in the other rooms?”

  “Oh, secret rituals.” She gave an airy wave of her hand that made him smile. “And when I earn enough to pump some real money back into the place, I’m going to put a Swedish shower and a hydrotherapy tub in the bathroom. Turn it into a kind of water therapy space. But that’s down the road. For now, I’m going to set up to build the second station.”

  SHE worked like a Trojan, Brad thought. It was more than knowing what she wanted and how to get it, more even than a willingness to sweat to get it.

  It was, under it all, a belief that she had to.

  She stopped only to check on her son, to see that he was fed and safe.

  By the time they were preparing the laminate for the second station, the others were packing up to call it a day.

  Malory popped upstairs and fisted her hands on her hips. “Wow! Every time I walk around this place, there’s something new. Zoe, this is looking great. The colors are just fabulous. This is the station, right?” She walked over to study the completed one. “I can’t believe you built it.”

  “I had some help with that.” Absently, she rolled her stiff shoulders as she moved over to join Malory. “It really looks fabulous, doesn’t it? I know I could have bought something for about the same cost, but it wouldn’t have been exactly right. How’s it coming downstairs?”

  “Floors are done, kitchen’s painted.” As if she’d just remembered she was still wearing it, Malory tugged off the bright blue kerchief she used to protect her hair. “First coat’s on the cabinets, and the appliances have been scrubbed to within an inch of their lives.”

  “I got so involved up here. I should’ve given you and Dana a hand with the kitchen.”

  “We had plenty of hands, thanks.” She combed her fingers through her dark blond curls to fluff them. “We’re all heading back to our place for some bucket chicken. You ready to pack it in?”

  “Actually, I’d just like to finish this. Just send Simon up here, and we’ll come by a little later.”

  “Why don’t I take him with me? He’s already outside fooling around with Flynn and Moe.”

  “Oh. Well. I don’t—”

  “He’s fine, Zoe. Just come by when you’re done. I’ll try to save you a drumstick. You, too, Brad.”

  “Oh, you don’t have to stay.” As Zoe turned, Malory winked at Brad, then headed downstairs again.

  “You want to finish this station.”

  “Yeah, but I didn’t mean to put you on the spot.”

  “When you put me on the spot, I’ll let you know. Ready to glue this up?”

  To save time, she didn’t argue.

  The second station was finished and clamped, left to stand by the first while they picked up and put away tools. They left the windows open an inch.

  Before she could do so herself, he picked up her cooler. “That should do it for today.”

  “I really appreciate the help. If you’d just leave that on the porch, I’m going to take a look at the floors, and the kitchen, and make sure everything’s locked up before I head out.”

  “I’ll wait. I’d like to see the work myself.”

  She started down the stairs, then stopped, turned around. “Are you looking out for me? Is that what this is? Because I can take care of myself.”

  He shifted the cooler. “Yes, I’m looking out for you. Though there’s no doubt you’re capable of taking care of yourself, and your son, your friends, and perfect strangers, should it be called for.”

  “If I’m so damn capable, then I don’t need you looking out for me. So why are you?”

  “I enjoy it. In addition I enjoy just looking at you, period, because you’re a beautiful woman and I’m very attracted to you. Since you’ve shown no signs of being slow or stupid, I’m sure you’re aware I’m attracted to you. But if there’s any doubt in your mind, you could keep going down these damn stairs so I can set this cooler down and demonstrate.”

  “I asked a very simple question,” she returned. “I didn’t ask for a demonstration of anything.”

  She marched down the steps, and had just turned sharply toward the kitchen when she heard the thump of her cooler hitting the floor.

  She didn’t have time to react, not when her feet cleared the floor, then slapped down again as she was spun around and pushed back against the wall.

  She caught the temper in his eyes, turning them hot and almost black. It brought an equally hot tickle to her throat that was both fear and anger and just enough arousal to confuse the mix.

  “Take care of yourself,” he challenged. “Then we’ll move on to the demonstration.”

  She stared into his eyes, waiting until he’d eased in just a little more. Then she brought her knee
up between his legs, lightning swift, and stopped a hairbreath from doing serious damage.

  He flinched, and she found it immensely satisfying.

  “Okay. First let me commend you on your really exquisite control.” He didn’t move. They both understood it would take only one quick jerk to drop him to his knees. “Second, let me thank you, sincerely, for using it in this case.”

  “I’m not some helpless hick.”

  “I never thought of you as either helpless or a hick.” Abruptly, the situation, and his position in it, struck him as ridiculously funny. He started to grin, then to laugh until he simply lowered his forehead to hers. “I don’t know how you manage to piss me off, but you do.”

  He gentled his grip on her shoulders, then released her to brace his hands on the wall on either side of her head. “Would you mind lowering that knee? At least a few inches. It’s making me nervous.”

  “That’s the idea.” But she complied. “I don’t know why this is funny.”

  “Neither do I. Jesus, Zoe, you wind me up, one way or the other. Tell me something. Am I not supposed to find you beautiful? Am I not supposed to be attracted to you?”

  “How am I supposed to answer that?”

  “It’s a puzzler, isn’t it?” His gaze skimmed over her face, down to her mouth. “Try thinking about it from my end.”

  “Move back some.” Because the breath was backing up in her lungs, she tapped her fingers against his chest. “I can’t talk to you like this.”

  “Okay. Just one second.” He brushed his lips over hers in a kind of whispered promise that had her stomach fluttering.

  Then he stepped back.

  “It’d be easy to let you.” Not sure if she was steady yet, she stayed leaning against the wall. “To let myself. I’ve got needs, normal needs, just like anyone. And I haven’t been with a man in over a year—going on two.”

  “I don’t care if you were with a man yesterday. I’m interested in now.”

  “Well, I haven’t been. There are reasons for that.”

  “Simon.”

  She nodded. “He’s the big reason. I’m not going to let any man into my life that I wouldn’t let into his.”

  “You know I wouldn’t hurt him.” Temper began to edge back. “It’s goddamn insulting for you to imply that I would.”

  “I know you wouldn’t, so there’s no point in you getting fired up over that. But I’m a reason, too, and I’ve got a right to be careful with myself. You’re not looking to hold my hand or give me a couple of sweet kisses in the moonlight, Bradley.”

  “It’d be a start.”

  “That’s not where it would end, and we both know it. I don’t see the point in starting something if I don’t know I can finish it. I don’t know if going to bed with you is going to be good for me. I don’t know if going to bed with you, if you wanting me to, is because of those normal needs or because of what’s going on around us.”

  “You think I’m attracted to you because of the key?”

  “What if you are?” She lifted her hands, palms up. “How would you feel about being used that way? The fact is, Bradley, you and I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the key. We don’t come from the same place. And I don’t mean the
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