Key of valor, p.6
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       Key of Valor, p.6

         Part #3 of Key series by Nora Roberts
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  her. Waiting. “Am I wearing a sign?”

  “Might as well be.” Malory dipped a spoon into her carton of yogurt. “You looked upset when you came in this morning, but more like you were trying not to look upset. Then you shot straight upstairs. Plus you haven’t said anything about how the kitchen looks now that it’s painted.”

  “It looks great. I meant to tell you.” Never easy with being the center of attention, Zoe tore her half sandwich in two. “And I wanted to wait until everybody was taking a break before telling you what happened last night.”

  “We’re taking a break now.” Dana rubbed a hand over Zoe’s thigh. “What gives?”

  She took her time in the telling, wanting to make it clear, wanting to be sure she didn’t leave out any details. “It was different than it was with you. With everybody here who’s had an experience with Kane. Even different than what happened to us here in the house, the first month.”

  “Did you know it was him?” Jordan asked her.

  “That’s the thing. I never stayed in any one of the three . . . places”—she supposed she should call them that—“long enough to feel it. And I don’t think I pulled myself out, the way some of you were able to. There wasn’t time for that. It was more like being somewhere, then closing your eyes for a second and being somewhere else.”

  “Let’s take them one at a time.” Flynn had already pulled out a notebook. “Swinging in a hammock.” He tapped the page. “Were you in your yard?”

  “No. I don’t have a hammock. I’ve never actually lain around in a hammock in the shade with a pitcher of lemonade and a book. Who has the time? It’d be nice, and I was thinking about not having much breathing room over the next few weeks, then, pop, I’m swinging in a hammock and drinking lemonade.”

  She frowned, and didn’t notice the narrowed look from Brad. “I don’t know where I was. I don’t think it mattered, that’s what I’ve figured out thinking it over. It didn’t matter where the stupid hammock was, it was just symbolic of having nothing to do for an afternoon. Or, I guess, as long as I wanted to have nothing to do.”

  “I think you’re right,” Malory agreed. “He clicks into fantasies, lets us get a look at them, experience them. Mine, being an artist and married to Flynn. The perfect house, the perfect life.” She gestured across the table. “Dana’s, being alone on a tropical island without a care in the world. And for you, a lazy afternoon.”

  “Pretty pitiful fantasy, compared to yours.” But Zoe smiled, relieved that her conclusion seemed valid.

  “But he yanked you out of it, instead of giving you time to wallow,” Jordan pointed out. “Maybe he didn’t want to give you the chance to see it as false. Just give you a quick taste, then move on. A new strategy.”

  “I think that’s part of it. But, well, take the second part. That was my mother’s trailer, and God knows I swept up plenty in there. I recognized the way it looked, smelled, the way my brother and sister were arguing outside. But I don’t know how old I was. Was I the way I am now? Was I a kid? Somewhere between?”

  Thoughtfully, she shook her head. “What I mean is, I didn’t get a sense of myself, just the heat and the fatigue and the annoyance of it all. I just felt like this is all I ever do, clean up around this place, mind the children, and I’m so tired of it. I felt, you could say, particularly put upon and bitchy. I think it’s sort of symbolic, too.”

  “Being trapped in a loop,” Brad supplied. “Always doing what needs to be done, and for somebody else, and never seeing an end to it.”

  “Yes. Mama did her best, and she needed me to help out. But you get to feeling trapped. You get so you feel it’s not going to get any better, no matter what you do.”

  “So you can lie around in a hammock and enjoy life, or you can sweat and run the same loop over and over.” Dana pursed her lips as she considered. “But those aren’t the only choices. It’s not that cut and dried. You’ve proven that yourself.”

  “Some people might look at my life and think I’m just running a different loop now. I don’t feel like that, but it could seem that way. Then there’s the third part.”

  “He wanted to scare you,” Malory said.

  “Oh, yeah, and boy, mission accomplished. It was cold, and I was alone. It wasn’t one of those pretty wonderland snows. It was vicious and mean, the kind that kills you. And I was so tired, the baby so heavy inside me. I just wanted to lie down somewhere and rest, but I knew I couldn’t. I’d die if I did, and if I died, the baby died.”

  Unconsciously, she pressed a hand to her belly, as if to protect what had lived there.

  “Then the contractions. I knew what they were, you remember that pretty quick. But this was meaner, it wasn’t progress. The way labor pains are. It was an ending, an ending with all that blood on the snow.”

  “He wanted to threaten you, through Simon.” Flynn’s face hardened. “It’s not going to happen. We’re not going to let him.”

  “I think that’s part of it. Trying to scare me, using Simon to do it. And I think that’s one of the reasons he yanked me out of the last one, too, and told me to choose. I can tell you, as soon as I came back, saw Moe standing there growling, I was up and in Simon’s room like a shot.”

  And shaking like a leaf, she remembered now. “But he was just all sprawled out the way he gets, one leg hanging off the bed and the blankets all wrapped around the other. I swear, that boy can’t be still even when he’s sleeping.”

  “He was using Simon as another symbol.” Brad poured coffee, and since she hadn’t taken any for herself as yet, handed a mug to her.

  Her gaze met his as she nodded, as the fear fluttered at the base of her throat. “That’s what I worked out of it, too.”

  “A symbol for what?” Dana demanded. “Her life?”

  “Her life, yeah,” Brad replied. “And her soul. Choose. Comfort, tedium, or the loss of everything she is. He threw down the gauntlet.”

  “He did. But I think—I wonder if he doesn’t know Simon’s safe. Maybe he can’t see that he’s protected and that it won’t do him any good to try to threaten me that way.”

  “You could be right. But,” Brad continued, “I’d say he’ll find out soon enough, then look for something else to use on you.”

  “As long as it’s not my baby. Anyway, what happened made me think harder about the clue. It pissed me off,” she said with a quick laugh. “So I spent more time trying to work it out. I had this idea that maybe the Valley’s like my forest. The different things I’ve done or selected are like the paths.”

  “Not bad,” Dana told her.

  “It was something to work on. I took an hour early this morning and drove around, sort of tripping down memory lane. Trying to see it the way I did when I first came, and track how things changed for me.”

  “Or how you changed them,” Brad put in.

  “Yes.” Pleased, she gave him one of her rare smiles. “I don’t know if it’s the right direction, but I’m putting together places and, well, events, I guess, that seem important to me personally. If I gather them up in my head maybe one will stand out. If I start heading the right way, it seems to me Kane won’t like it. Then I’ll know.”

  IT was hard to imagine herself in a pitched battle with anyone, much less a sorcerer. But she wasn’t going to back down at the first punch. If there was one thing she knew how to do, Zoe determined, it was how to stick it out.

  Maybe she wouldn’t find the key, but it wouldn’t be because she hadn’t looked.

  She spent Sunday evening plowing through notes, scanning the books they’d collected on Celtic myths, and tiptoeing her way around the Internet on the laptop Flynn lent her.

  She didn’t know if she learned anything new, but the exercise helped line up what she did know.

  The key, wherever it was, would be personal to her. It would relate to her life, or to what she wanted out of life. And in the end, it would come down to a choice. Though her friends, one or all of them, might be connected to it, she would be t
he only one able to make the choice.

  So what did she want? Zoe asked herself as she prepared for bed. An afternoon in a hammock? Sometimes it was just as simple as that. To know she’d shoved her way out of the door of that trailer and moved on? No question about that. And that she’d found her way out of that terrifying forest, and given her child not only life but a good life.

  She needed to know those things, and to know that she would keep building that life for Simon, and herself. She needed Indulgence to be a success. That was partly pride.

  Her mother had always said she was too proud.

  Maybe she had been, and maybe that pride had made things harder than they might have been. But it had also carried her through the hard times.

  She hadn’t gotten everything she’d dreamed of, but what she had would do just fine.

  She turned off the light. If there was a pang that there was no one there, in the dark, she could turn to, there was the satisfaction, even the pride, of knowing she could always rely on herself.

  SHE was working upstairs at Indulgence the next day, screwing the hardware onto her completed stations, when she heard the shouts from below. Excited shouts, she noted immediately, not distressed ones. So she finished the station she was working on before going down to see what was causing the commotion.

  Following the voices, she walked into Dana’s section, then let out a shout of her own when she saw the book display rack lining one wall and the two huge cartons in the middle of the floor.

  “They came! Your shelves came. Oh, they look great. You were right to go with these. They look so good with your colors.”

  “They do, don’t they? I’ve got the diagram I worked out, the one I changed six dozen times. But I’m wondering if I should switch the kids’ section with the nonfiction.”

  “Why don’t we just open the next one, put it where you have it planned, then see?” Malory wielded her box cutter.

  The deliveryman wheeled in the next carton. “Lady, where do you want this one?”

  “Oh, God,” was all Dana could manage.

  “Just leave it here,” Zoe told him. “We’ll figure it out. How many did you get?” she asked Dana.

  “A lot. Maybe too many, but I wanted to be sure I could showcase everything the way I had in my head. But now . . . Jesus, my heart’s pounding. Is it excitement? Is it terror? You be the judge.”

  “It’s excitement.” Gleefully, Malory ripped open another carton. “Come on, let’s get this one set up, too. Let’s get them all set up, then you’ll see how wonderful it is.”

  “It’s real,” Dana murmured as yet another carton was wheeled in. “It’s really real. It’s not just going to be empty rooms now.”

  “Shelves, books, tables, chairs.” Zoe tore cardboard away. “In a few weeks we’ll sit down in here and have our first cup of tea.”

  “Yeah.” Bracing herself, Dana helped them move the next section into place. “Then we’ll wander over and admire all the pretty things in Malory’s gallery.”

  “And finish it off with a tour of Zoe’s salon.” Malory stepped back. “Look what we’ve done already. Can you get over what we’ve done?”

  Zoe looked at the next carton to come in. “Right now, I can’t get over what we’re about to do. Get that box cutter going, Mal. We’ve got work to do.”

  They were still carrying bookcases when the next delivery truck pulled up.

  “It’s from HomeMakers.” Malory looked back at them from the window. “Are we expecting a delivery from HomeMakers today?”

  “We’ve got some things on order,” Zoe told her. “I didn’t think any of it was in yet. I’ll go check.”

  She went to the front door and met the driver on the porch. “This Indulgence?” he asked her.

  Hearing someone else say the name made her feel so good inside. “It will be.”

  “Got some windows on the truck.” He handed her the invoice to check. “Got a list here, which one’s we’re replacing. If that’s right, we’ll get started. We’ll have them in for you today.”

  “In? We didn’t order installation, just the windows.”

  “Installation comes along with them. Got a note here.” He dug into his pocket. “From Mr. Vane for a Ms. McCourt.”

  “I’m Ms. McCourt.” Frowning, she took the envelope, ripped it open. Inside was a single sheet of letterhead, with a single line of message.

  Don’t argue.

  She opened her mouth, shut it again, then looked back at the driver. She saw two other men now, getting out of the truck to lean against the hood.

  “Mr. Vane, he said you should give him a call if there was any trouble with this. You want us to get started, or you want us to wait?”

  “No. No, go ahead and get started. Thank you.”

  She walked back inside, rubbing the back of her neck as she watched Dana and Malory set another section in place. “The replacement windows are here.”

  “That’s great. Maybe we should angle this,” Dana suggested.

  “There’s a crew here to install them,” Zoe continued. “Bradley—HomeMakers—included installation.”

  “Brad’s such a sweetie,” Malory commented.

  “Pays to know the owner.” Dana stepped back, shook her head. “No, let’s keep this one flush.”

  Unsettled, Zoe nudged a sheet of cardboard with her toe. “Don’t you think we should pay for it?”

  “Gift horse, Zoe.” Huffing a bit, Dana muscled the shelf into position. “I’d rather kiss it on the lips than look it in the mouth.” She glanced back, added a quick leer. “Of course, this particular horse would rather you be the one giving out the smoochies.”

  “He’s coming to dinner tonight.”

  “Good. Give him a big, wet one.”

  “I’m afraid.”

  Malory set the box cutter aside. “Of Brad?”

  “Yes. Of him, of me.” She rubbed a fist between her breasts as if something inside ached a little. “Of what’s going to happen.”

  “Oh, honey.”

  “I don’t know what to do, or what to think. It’s one thing if it’s just for the fun, the excitement. But I’m not looking for fun and excitement. Not this kind.”

  “You think he is?”

  “I don’t know. Well, I mean, sure he is. He’s a guy. I don’t hold that against him. And I think maybe he’s caught up in the romance of the whole thing. How we’re supposed to link up and slay the dragon. But see, I have to think about what happens after that.”

  “He isn’t careless with people, if that’s what you’re worried about.” Serious now, Dana shook her head. “I’ve known him most of my life. He’s a good man, Zoe.”

  “I think he is. I can see that he is. But he’s not my man, and he’s not likely to be. Still, if he keeps on the way he is, he’s going to wear me down. I’m afraid, if that happens, I’m going to start wishing for something I can’t have.”

  “I don’t think there is anything you can’t have,” Malory told her. “We wouldn’t have this place if it wasn’t for you.”

  “That’s silly. Just because I found the house—”

  “Not just the house, Zoe. The idea, the vision, the faith.” Impatient, Malory laid a hand on Zoe’s shoulder, gave it a little shake. “You started this. So I think when you figure out what you really want, you’ll figure out the way to get it.”

  To keep her hands busy, Zoe picked up the box cutter and started on the next carton. “Were you ever in love, really in love, before Flynn?”

  “No. I’ve been in lust, experienced infatuation, had some very heavy like. But I’ve never loved anyone the way I love Flynn.”

  Zoe nodded. “And it was always Jordan for you, Dana.”

  “Whether I wanted it to be or not, yeah.”

  “I’ve been in love.” She spoke quietly as she worked. “I loved Simon’s father. I loved him with everything I had. Maybe some people think you don’t have a whole lot when you’re sixteen, but I had so much love to give. I gave him all of it.
I didn’t think, I didn’t hesitate, I just gave it.”

  She pulled the cardboard away, let it drop to the floor. “I’ve known men since. Some good men, some who didn’t turn out to be so good. But none of them ever came close to touching me the way that boy did when I was sixteen. I wanted him, Mal, almost more than I wanted to live.”

  “He didn’t stick by you,” she replied.

  “No, he didn’t. He did love me, I believe that, but not enough to stick by me. Not enough to make the choice to be with me, or even to acknowledge what we’d made between us. He just walked away and went back to living his life, while mine was torn to pieces.”

  To vent some of that old, old anger, she sent the knife whizzing through the carton. “He got engaged just a few months ago. My sister sent me the clipping from the newspaper. Got a big wedding planned in the spring. I got mad when I read that. I got mad because he’s planning a big, fancy wedding in the spring, and he’s never once laid eyes on his son.”

  “His loss,” Malory said.

  “Yes, that’s true. It is his loss. But still, I loved him, and I wanted him. I couldn’t have him, and that almost broke me.” With a sigh, she rested her head on the side of the unit. “I’m not going to want what I can’t have again. So I’m afraid of Bradley because he’s the only one who’s come along in ten years who makes me remember, just a little, what it was like to be sixteen.”

  Chapter Five

  THE important thing to keep in mind was that she was a grown woman, and grown women often had men over for a meal without falling apart, or falling in love.

  It was just a little twist to her Monday routine.

  It meant she picked up some fancy bread and fresh makings for a salad on the way home. And made extra sauce. She had to get Simon started on his homework earlier than usual. And that was a battle, even with the bribe of his good pal Brad coming over for dinner.

  She had to clean herself up, change her outfit twice and retouch her makeup. Then she had to clean Simon up, which caused another battle, then light fragrance candles so everything looked pretty and the air wasn’t tinged with Eau de Moe.

  There was the salad to make, the table to set, arithmetic and spelling to check and a dog to feed.

  All this had to be done between three-thirty-five and six-thirty.

  He probably wasn’t used to going out to dinner so early, she thought as she stirred sauce. The richer people were, the later they ate. But Simon had to be in bed by nine o’clock on a school night. That was the law around here, so Bradley Vane would just have to adjust, or he could go eat his spaghetti somewhere else.

  She hissed out a breath. Stop it! He hadn’t complained, had he? She was the one making all the trouble.

  “Simon, you really need to finish that up.”

  “I hate fractions.” He bumped his heels against the leg of his chair and scowled down at the math assignment. “Fractions blow chunks.”

  “Some things don’t come in wholes. You need to know the pieces that make them up.”

  “Why?”

  She took out the cloth napkins she’d run up on her sewing machine. “So you can put things together, take them apart, understand how it all works.”

  “Why?”

  She folded the napkins into triangles. “Are you trying to irritate me, or is it a natural gift?”

  “I don’t know. How come you’re using those things?”

  “Because we’re having company.”

  “It’s just Brad.”

  “I know who it is. Simon, you’ve only got three more problems there. Get them done so I can finish setting the table.”

  “How come I can’t do it after dinner? How come I always have to do homework? How come I can’t take Moe outside and fool around?”

  “Because I want you to do it now. Because that’s your job. Because I said so.”

  They sent each other mutual looks of heat and annoyance. “It’s not fair.”

  “Bulletin for Simon: Life isn’t always fair. Now get the rest of that done, or you’ll lose your hour TV-and-video privilege tonight. And stop kicking that chair,” she snapped.

 
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