Key of valor, p.7
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       Key of Valor, p.7

         Part #3 of Key series by Nora Roberts
 

  She hauled out her cutting board and began chopping vegetables for the salad. “You keep making those faces at my back,” she said, coolly now, “and you’ll lose those privileges for the whole week.”

  He didn’t know how she knew what he was doing behind her, but she always did. In a small rebellion, he took three times as long to solve the next problem as he needed.

  Homework sucked. He glanced up quickly just in case his mother could hear what he was thinking. But she kept on cutting junk for the stupid salad.

  He didn’t mind school. Sometimes he even liked it. But he didn’t see why it had to follow him home every single night. He thought about kicking the chair again, just to test her. But Moe bounced into the room and distracted him.

  “Hey, Moe. Hey, boy, whatcha got there?”

  Zoe looked around, and dropped the knife. “Oh, my God.”

  Moe stood, tail thumping, whole body wagging, and what was left of a roll of toilet paper clamped in his teeth.

  When she leaped toward him, it was a signal in Moe’s mind for the game to begin. He charged left, zipped around the table, then bolted back through the kitchen doorway.

  “Stop! Damn it. Simon, help me get that dog.”

  He’d already done his work. Shredded bits of paper, streams of mangled paper, were sprinkled and spread all over her floors like snow. She chased him into the living room while he growled playfully around the crushed tube. Giggling in delight, Simon streaked past her and dived.

  Boy and dog rolled over the rug.

  “Simon, it’s not a game.” She waded in, managed to get a hand on the wet roll. But the harder she tugged, the brighter Moe’s eyes became.

  He bore down, with happy snarls.

  “He thinks it is. He thinks you’re playing tug. He really likes to tug.”

  Exasperated, she looked at her son. He was kneeling beside the dog now, one arm thrown over Moe’s back. Some of the shredded paper had attached itself to Simon’s clean pants, Moe’s fur.

  Both of them were grinning at her.

  “I’m not playing.” But the words choked out over a laugh. “I’m not! You’re a bad dog.” She tapped a finger on his nose. “A very bad dog.”

  He plopped on his butt, lifted a paw to shake, then spat the roll onto the floor at her feet.

  “He wants you to throw it so he can fetch.”

  “Oh, yeah, that’s going to happen.” She snatched the roll up, put it behind her back. “Simon, go get the vacuum cleaner. Moe and I are going to have a little chat.”

  “She’s not really mad,” he said in Moe’s ear. “Her eyes get sorta dark and scary when she’s really mad.”

  He bounded up. Moving fast, Zoe grabbed Moe’s collar before he could follow. “Oh, no, you don’t. Look at the mess you made. What do you have to say for yourself?”

  He collapsed and rolled over to expose his belly.

  “The only way that’s going to work on me is if you know how to run a vacuum cleaner.”

  She let out a little sigh when she heard the knock on the door, and Simon’s shouted “I’ll get it!”

  “Perfect. Just perfect.”

  She stared after Moe as he raced away, and heard Simon’s excited voice telling Brad about Moe’s latest adventure.

  “He ran all over the house. He made a real mess.”

  “So I see.” Brad turned into the living room where Zoe stood, surrounded by shredded toilet paper. “The fun never stops, huh?”

  “He must’ve nosed his way into the linen closet. I just have to clean this up.”

  “Why don’t you take care of these?” He crossed to her, held out a bottle of wine and a dozen yellow roses. “Simon and I can clean it up.”

  “No, really, you can’t—”

  “Sure I can. Got a vacuum cleaner?” Brad asked Simon.

  “I was getting it.” He dashed off.

  “Really, you don’t have to bother. I’ll . . . get it later.”

  “I’ll take care of it. You don’t like roses?”

  “Yes. I do. They’re beautiful.” She started to take them, then looked down at her hand, and the soggy remains still gripped in it. “Oh,” she said on a very long sigh, “well.”

  “Trade ya.” He plucked it out of her hand before she could stop him, then filled hers with the flowers. “You’ll want to take this, too.” He passed her the bottle of Chianti. “You might want to go ahead and open that, so it can breathe.”

  He turned away from her when Simon hauled in the vacuum. “Plug her in, Simon, and let’s get this done because something smells really good around here.”

  “Spaghetti sauce. Mom makes the best. But we gotta have salad first.”

  “There’s always a catch.” He smiled at Zoe as he rolled up the sleeves of his dark blue shirt. “We’ve got this covered.”

  “All right. Well. Thanks.” Not knowing what else to do, she carried the roses and wine back into the kitchen. She could hear Simon still chattering away, then the quick roar of the vacuum, followed immediately by Moe’s insane barks.

  She’d forgotten Moe considered the vacuum a mortal enemy. She should go back and get him. Then she heard Simon’s peal of laughter, the deeper, but equally delighted sound of Brad’s, and the increasingly frantic barking that meant man and boy were only encouraging Moe to go postal.

  No, they were fine. She should leave them alone.

  And it gave her the opportunity to simply bury her face in the flowers. No one had ever given her yellow roses before. They were so sunny and elegant. After some debate, she settled on the slim copper urn she’d rescued from obscurity at a yard sale. With the brilliant shine she’d given it, it was a suitably bright home for yellow roses.

  She arranged them, opened the wine. After putting a pot of water on to boil for the pasta, she went back to the salad.

  It was going to be okay, it was going to be fine. She had to remember he was just a man. A friend. Just a friend who’d dropped by for dinner.

  “Back to normal,” Brad said as he strolled in. He noted the arranged bouquet she’d set on the counter. “Nice.”

  “They’re really beautiful. Thank you. Simon, why don’t we put Moe out back for now? You can take your books in the other room and finish those last couple of problems. Then we’ll eat.”

  “What kind of problems?” Brad asked as he wandered around to Simon’s books.

  “Stupid fractions.” Simon opened the back door for Moe and sent his mother a long-suffering look. “Can’t I do them later?”

  “Sure, if you don’t want your hour after dinner.”

  Simon’s mouth curled in what his mother recognized as the onset of a serious snit. “Fractions bite. It all bites. We got calculators and computers and junk, so how come I have to do it?”

  “Because—”

  “Yeah, calculators make it easy.” Brad spoke casually over Zoe’s heat, and traced a finger over Simon’s work-sheet. “These are probably too tough for you to figure out by yourself.”

  “No, they’re not.”

  “I don’t know. Look pretty tough to me. You’ve got to add this three and three-quarters to the two and five-eighths. Heavy stuff.”

  “You just have to change the quarters to eighths, that’s all. Like this.” Simon grabbed the pencil and, clamping his tongue in his teeth, did the conversion. “So, see, now you can add up the six-eighths and the five-eighths, then you take it down again to one and three-eighths, plus the whole number jazz. So altogether you get six and three-eighths. See, the answer’s six and three-eighths.”

  “Ha. How about that?”

  “Was that a trick?” Simon asked suspiciously.

  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He ruffled Simon’s hair. “Do the last one, smart guy.”

  “Man.”

  Zoe watched Brad lean over her son’s shoulder, felt her system start to slide toward melting when he looked up, smiled into her eyes.

  No, she was afraid he wasn’t just a man, not just a friend who’d dr
opped by for dinner.

  “Done!” Simon slapped his book closed. “Do I get parole, warden?”

  “You’re out of the slammer for now. Go ahead and put your books away, and wash up for dinner.” Zoe poured two glasses of wine as Simon bolted out of the room. “You’re good with stubborn little boys.”

  “It probably helps that I used to be one.” He took the glass from her. “He’s quick with numbers.”

  “Yes, he is. He does really well in school. He just hates homework.”

  “He’s supposed to, isn’t he? What are you wearing?”

  “I . . .” Off center again, she looked down at her navy blue sweater.

  “Not the clothes, the perfume. You always smell fabulous, and never quite the same.”

  “I’m trying out a lot of different products. Soaps and creams and . . .” Catching the gleam in his eye, she lifted her wine to her lips before he could lean in and take them with his own. “Scents.”

  “It’s funny. A lot of women have a favorite scent, like a signature. And it can haunt a man. You make a man wonder what it’ll be today, so he can’t stop thinking about you.”

  She’d have backed up, but there wasn’t enough room in the kitchen to do so without making it obvious. “I don’t wear scents for men.”

  “I know. That only makes it more seductive.”

  He caught her panicked glance toward the doorway when they heard Simon coming back. Casually, Brad moved aside and let Zoe turn back to the stove.

  “Are we going to eat now?” Simon demanded.

  “Just putting the spaghetti in. Go ahead and sit down. We’ll start on the salad.”

  She set a pretty table, Brad thought. Colorful plates, festive bowls, linens in a cheerful pattern. There were candles burning, and since Simon made no comment about them, Brad concluded they weren’t unusual at the McCourt table.

  He thought she was relaxing into it, by degrees. The boy was responsible for most of that, of course. He was full of chatter, questions, comments, all of which he managed to get out even though he ate like a stevedore.

  Not that Brad could blame him. Simon’s mother made a hell of a plate of spaghetti.

  He had a second helping himself.

  “I like your pictures in the living room,” Brad said to Zoe.

  “The postcards? I collect them from people I know who go places.”

  “We make the frames,” Simon put in. “Mom has a miter box. Maybe one day we’ll go places, and we’ll send people postcards. Right, Mom?”

  “Where do you want to go?”

  “I don’t know.” She twirled pasta absently around her fork. “Somewhere.”

  “We’re going to Italy one day, and eat spaghetti over there.” Grinning, Simon stuffed more in his mouth.

  “They don’t make it any better than your mom does.”

  “You been over there and stuff?”

  “Yeah. The picture you have of the bridge in Florence? I’ve stood there.”

  “Is it really cool?” Simon wanted to know.

  “It’s really cool.”

  “They’ve got a place over there that’s got water for streets.”

  “Venice, Simon,” Zoe reminded him. “They’re canals. Have you been to Venice?” she asked Brad.

  “Yes. It’s beautiful. You go everywhere in boats,” he told Simon. “Or you walk. They have water taxis and water buses.”

  “Get out!”

  “Really. There aren’t any cars in Venice, and no roads for them. I’ve got some pictures somewhere. I’ll dig them out and show them to you.”

  He shifted his attention back to Zoe. “How’s the work progressing?”

  “Dana’s bookshelves came in today. We dropped everything to set them up. It was a real moment for us. And the windows came in.” She cleared her throat. “I want to thank you for arranging the installation. It was very generous of you.”

  “Uh-huh. Did you get my note?”

  She twirled the last of her pasta on her fork. “Yes. Despite that, it was generous of you.”

  He had to laugh. “Think about it this way. Indulgence has brought considerable business into HomeMakers over the last couple of weeks. This was our way of thanking you for your patronage. So, did they get all the windows in?”

  “I imagine you know the answer to that already.” He was a man, she was sure, who knew that whatever he ordered done was done.

  He acknowledged that with a tip of his glass. “The crew said they looked good—and that they got cookies and coffee out of the deal.”

  Amused, she looked down at his plate. “Looks like you got two helpings of spaghetti out of it.”

  He grinned at her, and lifted the bottle to pour more wine into her glass.

  “I’m stuffed,” Simon announced. “Can we go play a video game now? Me and Brad?”

  “Sure.”

  Simon popped up, and Brad noted that he took his dishes and set them on the counter by the sink.

  “Can I let Moe back in?”

  Zoe drilled a finger into Simon’s belly. “Keep him out of my closets.”

  “Okay.”

  “I’m going to give your mother a hand with the dishes first,” Brad said.

  “You don’t have to do that. Really,” she insisted even as Brad cleared his plate like Simon had done. “I’ve got a system in here, plus Simon’s been looking forward to the match all day. He’s only got an hour before he has to get ready for bed.”

  “Come on. Come on.” Simon grabbed Brad’s hand and tugged. “Mom doesn’t mind. Right, Mom?”

  “No, I don’t mind. Everybody out of my kitchen, and that includes the dog.”

  “I’ll come back and dry as soon as I beat the midget,” Brad told her. “It won’t take long.”

  “In your dreams,” Simon sang out as he pulled Brad from the room.

  It did her heart good to hear her son enjoying himself while she went through the routine of straightening the kitchen. Simon had never had an adult male take a sincere interest in him. Now, with Flynn and Jordan and Bradley, he had three.

  And, she had to admit, Bradley was his favorite. There’d been some click between them, she thought. Some mysterious male chemistry. It was something she not only had to accept, but also should encourage.

  Before she did so, though, she had to make certain Brad understood that whatever happened, or didn’t, between them, Simon wasn’t to be shrugged off.

  She finished the kitchen, then brewed a pot of coffee and arranged a tray for it and a plate of chocolate biscotti.

  When she carried it in, there was Brad, sitting cross-legged on the floor beside Simon. The dog was snoring away with his head propped on Brad’s knee.

  The room was reverberating with the sounds and sights of WWE Smackdown.

  “Meat! You are meat!” Simon chanted as he frantically worked the controls.

  “Not yet, buddy boy. Take that!”

  Zoe watched an enormous blond wrestler heave his burly opponent onto the mat and deliver a punishing body slam.

  Next came grappling, grunts, horrible shrieks—and not all of them from the speakers.

  Then Simon collapsed onto his back, arms spread, mouth gaping.

  “Defeat,” he groaned. “I have tasted defeat.”

  “Yeah, get used to it.” Brad reached over, drummed a hand on Simon’s belly. “You’ve met the master and now know his greatness.”

  “Next time you die.”

  “You’ll never take me in Smackdown.”

  “Yeah? Here’s a sample of what’s to come.”

  He flipped over, and with a whoop leaped onto Brad’s back.

  There was more grappling, Zoe noted, more grunts, and the kind of shrieks that warmed her heart. She didn’t even flinch when Brad flipped Simon over his head and pinned him on the rug.

  “Yield, small, pathetic challenger.”

  “Never!” Simon hooted it out, and laughed from the gut, being ruthlessly tickled while he tried to twist his face away from Moe’s slurping
tongue. “My ferocious dog will chew you to pieces.”

  “Oh, yeah, I’m trembling with fear. Give up?”

  Breathless, tears of laughter streaming, Simon wiggled and squirmed another ten seconds. “Okay, okay. No more tickling, or I’ll puke!”

  “Not on my rug,” Zoe said.

  At her voice, Brad turned his head, Simon squirmed. And his elbow connected, point first, with Brad’s mouth.

  “Oops.” Simon sucked in a snicker.

  Brad dabbed at the little cut with the back of his hand. “You’re going to pay for that,” he said in a dangerous tone that had Zoe’s fingers jerking on the tray.

  In a blur, Brad was on his feet, and horrors flashed into her mind. She was already opening her mouth to shout, already moving forward to protect her son, when Brad hauled him up, hung him upside down, and had him howling with laughter again.

  As her knees went weak and the muscles in her arms began to tremble, she set down the coffee tray with a clatter of dishes.

  “Look, Mom! I’m upside down!”

  “So I see. You’re going to have to get right side up again and go brush your teeth.”

  “But can’t I—” He broke off, as Moe licked his face.

  “School night, Simon. Go on, get ready for bed. Then you can come out and say good night to Bradley.”

  Though he was watching Zoe now, Brad rotated Simon until the boy’s feet hit the ground. “Get going. I’ll give you a rematch soon.”

  “Sweet. When?”

  “How about Friday night? You can come over, bring your mom along. We’ll have dinner at my place, then suit up in the game room.”

  “All right! Can we, Mom?” Anticipating her answer, he flung his arms around her waist. “Don’t say we’ll see. Just say yes. Please!”

  Her knees were still knocking. “Yes. Okay.”

  “Thanks.” He gave her a fierce hug. Whistling for the dog, he danced out of the room.

  “You thought I was going to hit him.” It was said with such complete astonishment that Zoe felt her stomach pitch.

  “I just—you sounded so . . . I’m sorry. I know better.”

  “I don’t make a habit of knocking kids around.”

  “Of course you don’t. It was knee-jerk.”

  “Did somebody else hurt him? Were you involved with someone who hit him?”

  “No. No,” she repeated, struggling for calm now. “There’s never been anyone
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