Key of light, p.7
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       Key of Light, p.7

         Part #1 of Key series by Nora Roberts
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  having this one off and dig in around here.”

  “You’ve got a pretty house.” She stepped inside the door, looked around. “A very pretty house.”

  “Thanks.” Zoe looked around as well, grateful that she’d finished buffing up the living room. The pillows were plumped on the bright and cheery blue slipcovers of the sofa, and the old coffee table she’d antiqued was free of dust and held a trio of bottles filled with late-summer daisies snipped from her own little flower bed. The rug her grandmother had hooked when Zoe herself was a child was freshly vacuumed.

  “These are great.” Malory wandered over to look at the framed prints of foreign locales grouped on a wall.

  “They’re just postcards I matted and framed. I always ask customers to pick me up a postcard when they go on a trip.”

  “They’re really clever, and fun.”

  “I like to, you know, put things together. Find stuff at yard sales or flea markets and haul it home, fix it up. It makes it yours that way, plus it doesn’t cost a lot of money. Ah, would you like something to drink?”

  “I would, if I’m not holding you up.”

  “No. I don’t think I’ve had a Saturday off in . . .” She skimmed her fingers through her hair. “Ever,” She decided. “It’s nice to be home, and to have company.”

  Malory had a feeling that she was about to be invited to sit down while Zoe went back to the kitchen. To avoid that, she walked over and angled herself toward the doorway. “Did you plant the flowers yourself?”

  “Simon and I did.” With no choice, Zoe led the way into the kitchen. “I don’t have any soft drinks. Sorry, but I can’t keep them around with Simon. I’ve got some lemonade.”

  “That’s great.”

  She’d obviously caught Zoe in the midst of a major kitchen cleaning, but still the room exuded the same casual charm as the living area.

  “I love this.” She trailed a finger over the mint-green paint of a cupboard. “It really shows what someone can do with imagination, taste, and time.”

  “Wow.” Zoe took a squat glass pitcher out of the refrigerator. “That’s quite a compliment coming from somebody like you. I mean, somebody who knows art. I wanted to have pretty things but still make a place where Simon could run around like a boy. And it’s just the right size for us. I don’t care about the million dollars.”

  She set her company glasses on the counter, shook her head. “Boy, does that sound stupid. Of course I care about the million dollars. What I mean is I don’t need a million. I just want enough so we’re secure. I only got into this because it seemed so interesting, and because the twenty-five thousand was like a miracle.”

  “And because that night, up at Warrior’s Peak, was so compelling, so dramatic? Like we were all the stars of our own movie.”

  “Yes.” Zoe let out a laugh as she poured. “I got caught up in the idea of it all, but I never considered, not for a minute, that we’d be taking any kind of risk.”

  “I don’t know that we are. I’m not going to worry about that until we know more. But I don’t have a child to consider. I wanted to come by and say that if you want to back out, I understand.”

  “I’ve been thinking about it. One of the advantages of serious cleaning is it’s good thinking time. Do you want to take these out in the back? I’ve got some chairs out there. It’s kind of a nice spot.”

  They walked out, and it was a nice spot—that tidy little yard, the two Adirondack chairs painted the same sunny yellow as the house, and a big, shady maple tree.

  Once they were seated, Zoe took a deep breath. “If Pitte and Rowena are some kind of lunatics who’ve targeted us for some reason, there’s no backing out. It won’t matter. And if they are, doing whatever we can to find the keys makes the most sense. If they’re not, then we should keep our word.”

  “It sounds like we’re on the same track. I’m toying with going back up there to talk to them again, get another impression. In a day or two,” Malory nodded, “after we—I hope—find out a little more. I know Dana will be zeroing in on the books, and Flynn’s already heating up the Internet. If he finds anything, he’ll tell me at dinner tonight.”

  “Dinner? You’re going out with Flynn?”

  “Apparently.” Malory frowned into her lemonade. “Five minutes after he left my apartment I was wondering how he talked me into it.”

  “He’s awfully cute.”

  “Any guy would look cute beside that big, ugly dog.”

  “And he was flirting with you.” Zoe gestured with her glass so that the ice clinked. “Big time.”

  “That I got. Flirting isn’t on the agenda for the next few weeks if I’m going to focus on finding the first key.”

  “Flirting with a cute guy’s a nice side benefit.” Zoe sighed, sat back and wiggled toes that she’d painted poppy pink. “Or at least I seem to recall it was, from the dim, dark past.”

  “Are you kidding?” Surprised, Malory looked back at Zoe’s sexy faerie face. “Men must hit on you all the time.”

  “The initial sortie usually stops dead when they find out I’ve got a kid.” She shrugged. “And I’m not interested in the let’s-get-naked-and-keep-it-casual deal. I’ve been there.”

  “Right now, I’m not interested in the let’s-get-naked-and-make-it-serious deal. I have to figure out what I’m going to do with the rest of my life. My current windfall isn’t going to last forever, but it does give me time to decide if I really want my own business, and how to go about it if I do.”

  “That’s something else I was thinking about today. I’m going to have to get back to work. But the thought of starting a new job, with new people, out at the mall . . .” Zoe puffed out her cheeks and blew a hard breath. “And the last thing I want is to try to run a salon out of the house. Nobody takes you seriously when you do that. They start thinking hair’s your hobby instead of your job. Plus, where you live isn’t home anymore, and I’m not taking that away from Simon the way it was taken away from me.”

  “Your mother did hair out of your house?”

  “Trailer.” Zoe shrugged. “She did the best she could, considering we lived a couple miles outside Nowhere, West Virginia. My daddy took off when I was twelve, and I was the oldest of four.”

  “That’s rough. I’m sorry.”

  “Rough on all of us, but like I said, she did the best she could. I’m just hoping to do better.”

  “I’d say making a pretty house and home for you and your son means you’re doing absolutely fine.”

  Color washed into her face. “Thanks. Anyway, I thought I’d start scouting around, see if I could find a place for rent that I could outfit for a salon.”

  “If you find one, see if you can find a nice storefront for me and my artworks shop.” With a laugh, Malory set her glass aside. “Or maybe we should just combine the two and go into business together. Art and beauty, one-stop shopping. I’ve got to go.”

  She rose. “I’m going to swing by and see Dana, then go home and see if I get a brainstorm over that stupid clue. You want to plan for the three of as to get together one day early next week? A powwow.”

  “Fine with me, as long as we can work around Simon’s schedule.”

  “We can do that. I’ll call you.”

  SHE didn’t know if it qualified as a brainstorm, but it was at least a direction.

  Malory studied the clue line by line, searching for metaphors and hidden meanings, double entendres, loose connections. Then she stepped back again to look at it as a whole.

  There were mentions of the goddess. And the keys themselves were reputed to unlock imprisoned souls. Put all that together, she decided, and you had a sort of religious reference.

  With that in mind, she spent the rest of the day going through every church and temple in the Valley.

  She came home empty-handed, but she felt she’d done something positive with her day.

  She dressed for dinner, keeping it simple with a sleeveless black top and black cropped pants, topped wit
h a tailored jacket the color of strawberries.

  At exactly seven, she was sliding into heeled sandals and preparing to wait. In her experience she was the only one who habitually made it a point to be on time.

  So it was a surprise, a pleasant one, to hear the knock on her door even as she was checking the contents of her purse.

  “You’re prompt,” she said to Flynn when she opened the door.

  “Actually, I was here ten minutes ago, but I didn’t want to seem anxious.” He handed her a small bouquet of baby roses, nearly the same color as her jacket. “You look amazing.”

  “Thanks.” She eyed him as she sniffed the rosebuds. He was cute, she thought. Dog or no dog. “I’ll put these in water. Very nice touch, by the way.”

  “I thought so. Moe wanted to go for candy, but I held out for flowers.”

  She stopped. “He’s not out there, is he?”

  “No, no, he’s home, making do with kibble and the Bugs Bunny marathon on the Cartoon Network. Moe’s nuts about Bugs.”

  “I bet.” She arranged the flowers in a clear glass vase. “Do you want a drink before we go?”

  “Depends. Can you walk three blocks in those shoes or would you rather drive it?”

  “I can walk three miles in heels. I’m a professional female.”

  “Can’t argue with that. And because I can’t, I’d like to do what I’ve been thinking about doing since I landed on top of you.”

  He moved in. That’s what Malory would think later, when her brain started to function normally again. He simply moved into her, ran his hands up the sides of her body, over her shoulders, along her throat, then cupped her face in them.

  It was all very slow, all very smooth. Then his mouth was on hers, taking its own sweet time. Somehow she was backed against the counter, pressed snugly between it and his body. Somehow her hands were gripping his hips, her fingers digging in.

  And somehow she was sliding into the kiss without a single murmur of protest.

  His fingers threaded back into her hair, and he nipped, not so playfully, at her bottom lip. When her breath caught, the tone of the kiss changed from flirty warmth to flashing heat.

  “Whoa. Wait.” She managed to catch the fading echo of warning bells ringing in her head, but her body stayed plastered against his.

  “Okay. In a minute.”

  He needed another minute of her, of the taste of her, and the feel of her. There was more here than he’d expected, and he’d expected quite a punch.

  There was something erotically sharp about the flavor of her, as if her mouth was a rare delicacy that he’d only just been allowed to sample. And something so soft about her texture, all those clouds of gilded hair, all those lovely curves and dips.

  He gave her lips one last rub with his, then eased back.

  She stared at him, those blue eyes he’d decided were irresistible, now wide and wary.

  “Maybe . . .” She hoped the long, slow breath would level her voice again. “Maybe we should just start walking now.”

  “Sure.” He offered a hand, and found himself flattered when she not only evaded it, but skirted around him to get her purse. “I figured if I kissed you now, I wouldn’t be thinking about it all during dinner and lose track of the conversation.”

  He went to the door, opened it for her. “The trouble is, now that I have kissed you, I’m probably going to be thinking about kissing you again all during dinner and lose track of the conversation. So if you notice that my mind wanders, you’ll know where and why.”

  “You think I don’t know why you just said that.” She walked out into the shimmering evening light with him. “By saying that, you’ll plant the seed in my head so I’ll be thinking about you kissing me all through dinner. Or that’s the plan.”

  “Damn, you’re good. If you’re quick enough to unravel the dastardly plots of men regarding sex, the puzzle of the key ought to be child’s play to you.”

  “You’d think so, wouldn’t you? But the simple fact is I’ve had more experience with the dastardly plots of men regarding sex than I have with puzzles regarding goddesses and mythological spells.”

  “I don’t know why”—he caught her hand in his, grinned at the sidelong look she sent him—“but I find that very exciting. If I ply you with wine at dinner, will you tell me about those experiences? There may be some plots I’ve missed along the way.”

  “You’re going to buy me a martini, then we’ll see.”

  He’d chosen one of the town’s prettiest restaurants and had arranged for a table on the back terrace with a view of the mountains.

  By the time she was sipping her martini, she was relaxed again. “I’d like to discuss the key. If I find your attention wandering, I’ll kick you under the table.”

  “So noted. I’d just like to say one thing first.”

  “Go ahead.”

  He leaned toward her, breathed deep. “You smell terrific.”

  She leaned toward him. “I know. Now, would you like to know what I did today?” She waited a beat, then kicked him lightly on the ankle.

  “What? Yes. Sorry.”

  She lifted her glass for another sip to hide her amusement. “First I went to see Zoe.”

  She relayed the gist of their conversation, pausing when the first course was served.

  “The little yellow house.” Flynn nodded as he brought the look of it into his mind. “Used to be dog-shit brown. She’s really fixed it up. I’ve seen the kid in the yard, now that I think about it.”

  “Simon. He looks just like her. It’s almost spooky.”

  “Now that you mention it, I would’ve put that together when I met her if I’d been able to take my eyes off you for two minutes.”

  Her lips twitched, and damn it, she was flattered. “You’ve very good at that—both timing and delivery.”

  “Yeah, it’s a gift.”

  “Then I went to see Dana at her apartment. She was buried in books and brooding.”

  “Two of her best things.”

  “She hasn’t been able to track down a version of the Daughters of Glass story yet, but she’s working on it. Then I got this idea. Goddesses equal worship. All the reading I’ve been doing indicates that a lot of churches were built on pagan worship sites. Most Christian holy days coincide with the early pagan holy days, which were based on seasons, agriculture, that sort of thing. So I went to church. In fact I went to every church and temple in a twenty-mile radius.”

  “That’s an interesting connection. Good, clear thinking.”

  “That’s one of my major skills. I kept going over and over the clue. Look within, look without, singing goddess, and so on. So I went looking. Didn’t expect to walk in and see the key waiting for me on a pew. But I thought maybe I’d see the symbol of it, you know? Something worked into a stained-glass window or a molding. But I didn’t.”

  “It was still a good idea.”

  “A better one might be to go back to that house and talk to Rowena and Pitte again.”

  “Maybe. Want to know what I found out?”

  “I do.”

  He waited while their entrées were served, then studied her fish and his steak. “How do you feel about surf and turf?”

  “Amenable.” They cut off portions, passed them.

  “You know, this could develop into a serious deal. You and me? A lot of people are fussy about sharing food. I never get that.” He sampled the steak. “I mean, it’s food. You’re supposed to eat it. What’s the difference if it was on somebody else’s plate first?”

  “That’s an interesting element to factor into a potential relationship. Now, what did you find out?”

  “I talked to my grandmother about the story. There were some details I didn’t remember clearly. First, there was dissension in the ranks over the god-king making a mortal his queen. It was okay to fool around with mortals, but he brought her behind the Curtain of Power—or the Curtain of Dreams. It’s called both. And he took her as his wife. Because of this, some of the gods
set themselves apart from the young king and his mortal wife, established their own rule.”

  “Politics.”

  “Can’t get away from it. Naturally, this didn’t sit too well with the king. There are other stories, full of war and intrigue and heroics, and that brings us to the daughters. Beloved by their parents, and by those loyal to the king and his wife. Each had beauty, as you’d expect, and each had power—a talent. One was an artist, one a bard, and one a warrior. Devoted to each other, they grew up in the kingdom, taught by a young goddess of magic, guarded by the king’s most trusted warrior god. Either the teacher or the guard was to be with them at all times, to keep them safe from the plots surrounding them.”

  “In the painting there were two figures, a man and a woman, in the background. They seemed to be in an embrace.”

  Flynn gestured with his fork, then speared more steak. “That fits with what’s coming. The king’s advisers were campaigning to have the daughters marry three gods of rank from the opposing faction. To unite the kingdom again. But the self-proclaimed king of the opposing faction didn’t like the idea of giving up his throne. Power had corrupted him, and his thirst for more, for complete dominance of this, let’s say, netherworld, and the mortal one, consumed him. He wanted to kill the daughters, but he knew that if he did, all but his most devoted followers would turn against him. So he devised a plot, and the two who were closest to the daughters aided him, by falling in love.”

  “They betrayed the daughters?”

  “Not purposely.” He tipped more wine into their glasses. “By distraction. By looking at each other rather than looking after their charges. And as the daughters were young women, fond of their keepers, they made it easy for the lovers to slip away from time to time. And one day when they were unprotected, the spell was cast.”

  “Their souls were stolen.”

  “It’s more than that. Are you going to eat the rest of that steak?”

  “Hmm.” She glanced down at her plate. “No. Do you want it?”

  “For Moe. I go back empty-handed, he’ll sulk.” He asked the waiter to box up the leftovers, then smiled at Malory. “Dessert?”

  “No, just coffee. Tell me the rest.”

  “Two coffees, a crème brûlée, and two spoons. You’ll never hold out against the crème brûlée,” he said to Malory, then leaned forward to finish the tale. “The bad king’s a clever guy, and a sorcerer. He doesn’t take heat for slaying innocents, and he turns the good king’s choices and policy against him. If a mortal is fit to be queen, if three half-mortals are worthy of rank, then let the mortals prove it. Only mortals can break the spell. Until that’s done, the daughters will sleep—unharmed. If mortal women, one to represent each daughter, can find each of the three keys, then the Box of Souls will be unlocked, the daughters’ souls restored, and the kingdoms united.”

  “And if they fail?”

  “The most popular version, according to my granny, has the bad king setting a time limit. Three thousand years—one millennium for each daughter. If the keys aren’t found and the box unlocked within that time, he alone rules, both the god-world and the mortal.”

  “I never understand why anyone wants to rule the world. Seems like one big headache to me.” She pursed her lips when the dish of crème brûlée was set between them. Flynn was right, she decided. She wasn’t going to be able to hold out against it. “What happened to the lovers?”

  “A couple of versions of that, too.” He dipped his spoon in at one end of the dish while Malory dipped into the other. “My grandmother’s pick is the one that has the grieving king sentencing the lovers to death, but his wife intervened, asking for mercy. Instead of execution, banishment. They were cast out through the Curtain of Dreams, forbidden to return until they found the three mortal women who would unlock the box of souls. And so they wander the earth, gods living as mortals, in search of the triad who will release not only the souls of the daughters but their own as well.”

  “Rowena and Pitte think they’re the teacher and the warrior?”

  It pleased him that their conclusions meshed. “That would be my take. You’ve got a couple of weirdos on your hands, Malory. It’s a nice faerie tale. Romantic, colorful. But when people start casting themselves and others in the roles, you’re edging into psychoville.”

  “You’re forgetting the money.”

  “No, I’m not. The money worries me. Seventy-five thousand means it’s not a game to them, not a little role-playing entertainment. They’re serious. Either they actually believe the myth or they’re seeding the ground for a con.”

 
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