Key of valor, p.5
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       Key of Valor, p.5

         Part #3 of Key series by Nora Roberts



  “We don’t have anything in common, except for the key.”

  “The key,” he agreed. “Friends who matter to both of us, a place that holds my roots and where you’ve set yours. A need to build something for ourselves. Then there’s a young boy. He happens to belong to you, but he’s hooked me. With or without you, he’d have hooked me. Do you get that?”

  She could only nod.

  “There’s more, but let’s just toss in the sexual chemistry for now. Add all that up, it seems like some fairly solid common ground.”

  “I don’t know what to say to you half the time, or how to say it.”

  “Maybe you shouldn’t think about it so hard.” He held out a hand. “Let’s go look at the kitchen. If we don’t get out of here soon, there’s not going to be anything left in that chicken bucket but crumbs.”

  SHE was grateful he’d let the subject drop. She just couldn’t separate her thoughts and feelings, her concerns and her needs into separate areas. Not right now.

  She was grateful, too, that the time she’d spent at Flynn’s had involved fried chicken and relaxation without focusing on the key.

  She had nothing to offer yet, and there was too much information, too many questions, circling around in her mind to line up in an intelligent conversation.

  They would need to have a meeting soon, all of them, but she wanted a little time to sort through everything first.

  Both Malory and Dana had come up with theories quickly. Those theories had been refined and re-angled and changed over the four weeks, but they’d formed a foundation.

  And, Zoe thought, she had nothing.

  So she would spend the evening going over the clue, all of their notes, taking herself back, step by step, through the first two quests. Somewhere in there were answers.

  Once Simon and Moe were settled down and the house blessedly quiet, she sat at her kitchen table. Notes, files, books were arranged in piles. She’d decided she’d gone over her coffee quota for the day, so she brewed a pot of tea.

  Sipping the first cup, she read over the clue again and wrote down on a fresh page of her notebook what she thought might be important words.

  Beauty, truth, courage

  Loss, sorrow




  Blood and death






  She was probably missing some, but the list gave her a start. Beauty for Malory, truth for Dana. Courage for herself.

  Loss and sorrow. Hers, or did it refer to the daughters? If she took it personally for this round, what was her loss, what was her sorrow? Most recently, she’d lost her job, Zoe mused and jotted that down. But that had turned out to be an opportunity.

  Forests? They were plentiful, but some meant more to her than others. There were woods at Warrior’s Peak. There were woods back home, where she’d grown up. There were woods along the river by Brad’s house. But if forest was symbolic, it could mean not seeing it for the trees. Not seeing the overall scope of something because you were too busy worrying about the individual details.

  She did that sometimes, that was true. But, God, there were so many details, and who was going to worry about them if she didn’t?

  She had a parent-teacher meeting coming up. Simon needed new shoes and a new winter coat. The washing machine was starting to make grinding noises, and she hadn’t gotten around to cleaning out her gutters.

  She needed to buy the towels for the salon and spring for a new washer and dryer over there. Which meant the one at home would have to grind for a while.

  She rested her head on her fisted hand, closed her eyes for just a minute.

  She would get it all done; that was her job. But one of these days, she was going to stretch out in the shade for an entire afternoon with nothing but a book and a pitcher of ice-cold lemonade.

  The hammock swung, gentle as a cradle, and the book lay, neglected and unread, on her belly. The taste of tart lemonade was still on her tongue.

  Her eyes were closed behind shaded glasses, and she could feel the breeze blowing sweetly over her face.

  She didn’t know the last time she’d been so relaxed. Mind and body totally at rest. There was nothing to do but bask in the quiet and peace.

  She drifted along with a sigh of perfect contentment.

  And was standing in the trailer, sweating in the vicious heat. It was like living in a can, she thought as she swept shorn hair into a pile on the floor.

  She could hear her brother and younger sister arguing, their voices spilling through the stingy windows. High and tight and angry. Everyone always seemed so angry here.

  It made her head pound, viciously.

  Moving to the door, she shoved it open to shout out to them.

  Be quiet! For God’s sake, be quiet for five damn minutes and give me some peace.

  And found herself wandering in a forest, with winter snow thick under her feet. Wind screamed through the pines, whipped the branches toward a sky the color of stone.

  She was cold, and lost and afraid.

  As she began to trudge, hunched into herself against the blizzard, she wrapped an arm under her swollen belly to anchor the baby.

  He was so heavy, and she was so tired.

  She wanted to stop, to rest. What was the point, what was the use? She would never find her way out.

  Pain vised her belly, doubled her over in shock. She felt a gush between her legs, and stared down in horror at the blood spilling onto the snow.

  Terrified, she opened her mouth to scream, and found herself back in the hammock, in the shade, tasting lemonade again.


  She bolted up from her own kitchen table, shivering while Moe stood beside her snarling at thin air.

  Chapter Four

  IT was trickier than Zoe had expected to talk Simon into spending the day with one of his school friends instead of coming with her to work at Indulgence.

  He liked hanging out with the guys. He wanted to play with Moe. He could help with stuff. He wouldn’t get in the way.

  In the end she fell back on the most successful parental ploy of all. Bribery. They would stop by the video store on the way and rent two games and a movie.

  When it turned out that Moe was welcome to join the play date and romp in the backyard with young Chuck’s yellow lab, Simon wasn’t only satisfied, he was in heaven.

  It alleviated a big chunk of the guilt, and the worry, and gave Zoe the opportunity to explore her first theory.

  If the journey in the clue was hers, and the forest a kind of symbol, maybe it referred to her life in the Valley. The paths she’d taken in the place she’d made her home.

  She’d been drawn here, to this pretty little valley town, and had known it was her place the moment she’d driven through it nearly four years earlier.

  She’d had to work, to struggle, to sacrifice to find the joy and the fulfillment. She’d had to choose her paths, her directions, her destinations.

  She reacquainted herself with them now, driving along the streets she knew so well. Quiet streets, she thought, on this early Sunday morning. She cruised the neighborhoods, as she had years before when her mind had been set on finding a house for herself and Simon. She’d done that first, she remembered, to give herself time to find the rhythm of the town, to see how the houses struck her, how the people made her feel as she watched them walk or drive.

  It had been spring, late spring. She’d admired the gardens, the yards, the settled feel of the place.

  She’d spotted the For Sale sign on the scrubby lawn in front of the little brown house. And with a kind of inner click of recognition, she’d known it was the one. She stopped at the curb, as she had then, studied what was hers while trying to see it as it had been.

  The houses on either side of it were small, too, but well tended. Nice trees offering shade
. There’d been a young girl riding a bike along the sidewalk, and a teenage boy down the block, washing his car while music blasted.

  She recalled the thrill of anticipation that had bubbled through her as she’d jotted down the name and number of the realtor on the For Sale sign.

  And that’s where she’d gone next. So she followed the same route now. The asking price had been too high, but that hadn’t discouraged her. She’d known she probably looked like a mark, in her inexpensive shoes and clothes. She probably sounded like one, with that hint of rural West Virginia in her voice.

  But she hadn’t been a mark, Zoe thought with satisfaction.

  She parked, as she had parked then, and got out to walk.

  She’d made an appointment to see the house—one she would, shortly, bargain fiercely for—and had walked along this downtown street and straight into the beauty salon to see if they were hiring.

  The real estate office was closed for Sunday, as was the salon, but she walked to both, seeing herself as she had been. Full of nerves and excitement, but putting on a cool front, she remembered. She’d bagged the job—maybe quicker, maybe easier than she should have, she thought now. Another one of those things that were meant to be? Or had it just been a matter of taking the right path at the right time?

  Better than three years she’d put into that salon, Zoe mused as she stood outside the display window with her hands on her hips. She’d done good work there. Better work than the bitchy owner, Carly. Which had been part of the problem.

  Too many of the customers had begun to request Zoe specifically, and her tips had been solid. Carly hadn’t liked that, hadn’t liked having one of her operators take the spotlight in her own place. So she’d begun to make things difficult—cutting Zoe’s hours here, or loading them on there. Complaining that she talked to the customers too much, or didn’t talk enough. Anything that would demoralize or scrape away at her pride.

  She’d tolerated it, hadn’t fought back. Should she have? she wondered. She’d needed the job, the steady clientele and the pay, the tips. If she’d stood up for herself, she’d have been fired all the sooner.

  Still, it was demoralizing to realize how much crap she’d put up with for a lousy pay stub.

  No. She took a deep breath and pulled back the anger and the shame. No, she had put up with it for her home, her son, her life. It wasn’t a battle she could have won. In the end she’d been fired in any case. But it had been the time for her to be fired, to be at one of those crossroads.

  And hadn’t that anger, that shame, that sense of despair, even panic, when she’d walked out of Carly’s for the last time pushed her toward Indulgence? Would she have begun to build her own as long as she’d been drawing a salary, as long as the bills were being paid and the house was secure?

  No, she admitted. She would have dreamed it, but she wouldn’t have done it. She wouldn’t have found the courage. It had taken a kick in the ass for her to risk the next path.

  She turned away, stared out at the town she’d come to know as well as her own living room. That way to the grocery store, turn there toward the post office, head left and past the little park, hang a right toward Simon’s school.

  Up the block to the Main Street Diner and the milk shakes Simon loved. Straight out of town and up the mountain road to Warrior’s Peak.

  She could find her way from here, blindfolded, to Dana’s apartment, to the house where Flynn and Malory lived. To the library, the newspaper, the drugstore, the pizza parlor.

  She could follow the river to Bradley’s.

  Different paths, she thought, walking back to her car. Different choices, different destinations. But they were all part of the whole. All, now, part of her.

  If the key was here, somewhere in what was her home, she would find it.

  She got in the car and took a winding path, the long way around, to Indulgence.

  ZOE said nothing to her friends through the morning. She needed to work first, not only physically but mentally, to sort through her theory and to decipher exactly what had happened to her the night before.

  She couldn’t talk about it until she had it all straight in her head. And it was, she admitted, a different sort of dynamic when the men were around. There were things she could say, and a way she could say them when it was just Malory and Dana that didn’t fit the same way when you added men.

  Even men she’d come to trust.

  She left Brad to the carpentry, and spent her Sunday morning regrouting bathroom tiles. It was the kind of work that left her mind free to tinker with what had happened to her, and what it might mean.

  Was it odd that her experience hadn’t been like what had happened with Malory or Dana on their first encounters with Kane? Or was it significant?

  Choose, he’d told her. That, at least, followed pattern. Each one of them had had to make a choice. And apparently the risk increased with each key.

  He hadn’t really hurt her. There’d been that moment of pain in the blizzard, but she’d had worse. Why had he shown her three different scenes, barely giving her time to settle into one illusion before tossing her into the next?

  The first had been a harmless little fantasy, hardly anything huge and life-changing. The second, more tedious and familiar, and the third . . .

  The third, she thought as she spread grout on the floor, was scary. To frighten her. You’re lost, you’re alone, you’re pregnant.

  Been there, she reflected.

  Then the pain, the blood. Like a miscarriage, she realized. Losing the baby. But she hadn’t lost her baby, and he was protected.

  What if Kane didn’t know? Struck, she sat back on her haunches. What if he didn’t know Simon was protected? Wouldn’t his first threat to her revolve around the most precious thing in her life, the one thing she would die to keep safe?


  The sponge she’d been using to spread the grout fell on the tiles with a plop.

  “Sorry. Didn’t mean to startle you.” Brad stayed in the doorway, one shoulder resting on the jamb. As he’d been standing for the last several minutes, watching her.

  A lot going on inside that head, he knew. He’d seen all of it run over her face.

  “No, that’s okay.” She bent back to the work. “I’m nearly finished here.”

  “The rest of the crew’s about to break for lunch.”

  “Okay. I’ll be down as soon as I’m done. It’ll give the grout a chance to dry.”

  He waited until she’d worked her way over, was half in, half out of the doorway. Then he crouched. “Are you going to tell me what happened?”

  Her hand hesitated, then picked up the rhythm again. “What do you mean?”

  “I’ve spent enough time looking at you to know when something’s going on inside. Tell me what happened since yesterday, Zoe.”

  “I will.” She put the sponge in the bucket she’d set just outside the room. “But not just you.”

  “Did he hurt you?” He grabbed her hand, used his free one to tilt her face around.

  “No. Let go. My hands are all covered with grout.”

  “But he did something.” His tone had chilled, the way it did when he was chaining down temper. “Why haven’t you said anything?”

  “I just wanted some time to think about it, work some of it out, that’s all. It’ll be easier for me to tell everybody about it all at once.” His hand was still cupping her cheek. And his face was very close. “It’d be easier for me, too, if you wouldn’t touch me that way right now.”

  “Right now?” He trailed his fingers back to the nape of her neck. “Or ever?”

  She wanted to stretch into that hand and purr. “Let’s start with now.”

  She started to push to her feet, but he was already up, her hand still caught in his as he drew her up beside him. “Just tell me this—Simon’s okay?”

  She could fight attraction. She could even fight the sexual buzz. But she was going to have a very hard time fighting his obvious and deep concern for h
er son.

  “Yes. He’s fine. He really wanted to come today. He likes being with you—with all of you,” she added quickly. “But I didn’t want to talk about this in front of him. At least, not yet.”

  “Then let’s go down and talk about it, and I’ll come by and see him later this week.”

  “You don’t have to—”

  “I like being with him, too. With both of you.” He brushed the side of her throat, her shoulder. “Maybe you could invite me to dinner again.”

  “Well, I . . .”

  “Tomorrow. How about tomorrow?”

  “Tomorrow? We’re just having spaghetti.”

  “Great. I’ll bring some wine.” Obviously considering the matter settled, he tugged her out of the doorway. “We’d better go down and clean up.”

  She wasn’t sure when she’d lost her footing, or why it seemed so impossible to refuse. He’d boxed her in, Zoe realized as she scrubbed up for lunch. There was no question about that, but he’d done it so neatly the lid was on before she’d seen it coming.

  Besides, that was tomorrow. She had enough to worry about today without getting worked up about a plate of spaghetti.

  It might have been a work in progress, but the kitchen was the best gathering place. A sheet of plywood on two sawhorses served as a table, and there were buckets and ladders for chairs.

  Dana scooted a bucket over to her. “Is that peanut butter and jelly?” she demanded, eyeing the sandwich Zoe had unwrapped. “Chunky peanut butter and grape jelly?”

  “Yeah.” Zoe started to lift one of the triangular halves to her mouth, and noted Dana practically salivating for it. “You want it?”

  “It’s been much too long since I had a good pb and j. Half of yours for half my ham and swiss on rye.”

  They made the exchange, then Dana took a test bite. “Excellent,” she said around a mouthful. “Nobody makes these like a mom. So, are you going to tell us what’s going on, or do you want to eat first?”

  Zoe glanced up, then shifted her gaze around the room. Everyone was watching
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