Key of valor, p.8
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       Key of Valor, p.8

         Part #3 of Key series by Nora Roberts
 

  who’s paid him enough mind for that. And I’d like to see somebody try to raise a hand to him when I’m around.”

  Apparently satisfied by that, he nodded. “Okay. You can rest assured it won’t be me.”

  “I insulted you. I don’t like to insult anyone—well, not by mistake anyway. It was just that it happened so fast, and you sounded mad, and . . . your lip’s bleeding.”

  “I was just messing with him. And as I recall, my own mother used to say if you start all that horseplay, somebody’s going to get hurt.” He tapped a finger on his sore lip. “You people are always right, aren’t you?”

  “And now you’re trying to make me feel better.” Following her instincts, she picked up a napkin from the tray. Without thinking, she put a tip of it in her mouth to dampen it, then dabbed it on his lip. “When I walked in just now and saw the two of you together, it was nice. You could’ve let him win, too, but you didn’t. And that’s nice, because I don’t want him growing up thinking he should always win. You’ve got to know how to lose, too, and . . .”

  She trailed off, looked down in mild horror at the cloth. She’d spat on it, for God’s sake. “Lord.” She crumpled the napkin in her hand. “That was stupid.”

  “No.” Ridiculously touched, he took her hand. “That was sweet. So are you.”

  “Not really. Not especially. It stopped bleeding anyway. It might be a little sore for a bit.”

  “You forgot a step.” He put a hand on her waist, slid it around to the base of her spine. “Aren’t you supposed to kiss it and make it better?”

  “It doesn’t look so bad.” In fact it looked beautiful. He had a beautiful mouth.

  “Hurts,” he murmured.

  “Well, if you’re going to be a baby about it.”

  She leaned in, intending to give that beautiful mouth a light brush. Friendly, casual. She gave it a little peck, and tried to ignore the stirring in her belly.

  He didn’t draw her closer, didn’t try to lengthen the kiss, but only held her where she was, kept his eyes on hers. “Still hurts,” he told her. “Can I have another?”

  Alarm bells were ringing, but she ignored them. “I guess.”

  She touched her lips to his again. So warm, so firm.

  With a little sound in her throat, she gave in to that stirring and traced those lips with her tongue, combed her fingers through his hair.

  Still he waited. She could feel the tension toughen his body, she could hear his breath draw in. But he waited.

  So she wrapped her arms around him and let herself sink into that warmth, that firmness, that slow and steady seduction.

  It felt so good to ride that long, liquid wave, with all those tastes and textures. The shape of his mouth, the sensation of tongue sliding over tongue, the press of body to body.

  So many things inside her that she’d ruthlessly shut down began to churn into hot life again.

  “Oh, God.” She moaned it, and all but slathered herself against him.

  He’d have sworn he felt the ground begin to quake under his feet. He was damn sure the world took a hard tilt that left him reeling. Her mouth had gone from light and sweet to hot and greedy, in one lurching beat of the heart.

  Desperate for more, he changed the angle of the kiss, then nipped restlessly at her bottom lip just to hear her low, throaty moan.

  When he ran his hands up her body, she stretched under them like a woman waking from a long sleep.

  Then jerked back, stared with shocked eyes toward the doorway. “Simon,” she managed, and brushed at her hair. She took another quick step back just as Simon and Moe bounced into the room.

  The boy was wearing X-Men pajamas, Brad saw. And smelled of toothpaste.

  “All set?” Zoe gave her son a bright smile. The blood was still roaring in her head. “Mister, ah, Brad and I were just going to have coffee.”

  “Yuck.” Simon walked to Zoe and tipped his head up for a kiss good night.

  “I’ll be in, in just a little while.”

  “Okay. ’Night,” he said to Brad. “We’re going to have a rematch, right?”

  “You bet. Hold on a minute, will you? I want your opinion on something.”

  Before Zoe realized his intent, Brad pulled her into his arms and kissed her. It was a restrained kiss, comparatively, and she froze like a statue, but it was still a kiss.

  Then he eased back, keeping one arm firm around her waist while he raised an eyebrow at Simon. “So?”

  The boy’s eyes were long like his mother’s, tawny like his mother’s, and held a world of speculation. After a long five seconds, he crossed those eyes, poked a finger in his mouth, and made gagging noises.

  “Uh-huh,” Brad said. “Other than the gag reflex, do you have any problem with me kissing your mother?”

  “Not if you guys want to do something that gross. Chuck says his brother Nate likes to stick his tongue in girls’ mouths. That just can not be true. Can it?”

  With what he considered heroic control, Brad kept his face very sober. “It takes all kinds.”

  “I guess. I’m going to take Moe into my room so he doesn’t have to watch if you guys are going to do something gross again.”

  “See you, kid.” As Simon and Moe padded off, Brad turned and grinned at Zoe. “Want to do something gross?”

  “I think we’ll just have coffee.”

  Chapter Six

  MEETINGS, projections, and plans for expansion kept Brad tied to HomeMakers for a couple of days. He couldn’t complain, as it had been his idea to come back to Pleasant Valley, to make it his home base while overseeing the northeast quadrant of his family’s business, revamping the Valley store and expanding it by fifteen thousand square feet.

  That meant paperwork, conference calls, adjustments in staff and procedure, consultations with architects and contractors, haggling with or being wooed by suppliers.

  He could handle it. He’d been raised to handle it and had spent the last seven years in the New York offices learning the ins and outs of being a top executive of one of the country’s biggest retail chains.

  He was a Vane, the fourth generation of the HomeMakers Vanes. He had no intention of dropping the ball. In fact, he fully intended to slam-dunk that ball by making the first HomeMakers store the biggest, the most prestigious, and the most profitable in the national system.

  His father hadn’t been thrilled by his decision. B.C. Vane III considered it based on sentiment. And so it was, Brad thought. And why not? His grandfather had built the humble hardware store, then gambled everything to push it outward, had developed it into a successful, consumer-friendly outlet for home improvement needs, into a staple of the Laurel Highlands.

  And through guts, guile, and vision, had built a second store, then a third, then more, until he’d become a symbol of American enterprise with his face on Time magazine before his fiftieth birthday.

  So it was sentiment, Brad thought, but that was leavened with a good dose of the Vane guts, guile, and vision.

  He studied his hometown as he drove through the downtown area. The Valley was prospering in its quiet, steady way. The real estate market was strong in the county, and when people bought homes here, they tended to dig in and stay. Retail was up, and steadily above the national average. And tourist dollars maintained a nice healthy stream into the local economy.

  The Valley prized its small-town ambience, but being an hour from Pittsburgh lent that ambience a sheen of sophistication.

  For vacationers it offered hiking, skiing, boating, fishing, and charming inns, good restaurants. The flavor of country, all within an easy commute from the bustle of the city.

  It was a good place to live, and a good place to do business.

  Brad intended to do both.

  Maybe he hadn’t intended to be quite so pressed, but he hadn’t expected to come back and find himself spun into a search for mystical keys. And he hadn’t expected to fall for a cautious single mother and her irresistible son.

  Still, it was si
mply a matter of setting goals, establishing priorities, and taking care of the details.

  He parked his car and walked into the Valley Dispatch to handle a few of those details.

  He got a kick out of thinking of his friend running the local paper. Flynn might not project the image of a man who could, or would, ride herd on a staff, whip a daily through deadlines, and concern himself with advertising, content, and the price of paper. And that, Brad mused as he headed up to editorial and Flynn’s office, was why his old buddy was so good at his job.

  He had a way of pushing people to do things, and to do them his way, without letting them feel the nudge.

  Brad wound his way around desks and reporters, through the cacophony of phones, keyboards, and voices. He smelled coffee, baked goods, and somebody’s pine-scented aftershave.

  And there was Flynn, within the glass walls of the editor in chief’s office, sitting on the corner of his desk in a striped shirt, jeans, and banged-up Nikes.

  Invoking the privilege of a thirty-year friendship, Brad strolled straight in through the open door.

  “I’ll cover that meeting personally, Mr. Mayor.” Flynn jerked his head toward the phone on his desk, and the speaker light.

  Grinning now, Brad slid his hands in his pockets and waited while Flynn finished the call.

  “Sorry. Didn’t realize you were on the phone.”

  “So what’s a mature executive such as yourself doing in my humble office this morning?” Flynn asked.

  “Dropping off the layout for next week’s insert.”

  “Those are some fancy threads for a messenger boy.” Flynn fingered the sleeve of Brad’s suit.

  “I have to head into Pittsburgh later, for business.” He dropped the file on Flynn’s desk. “And I wanted to talk to you about doing a ten-page, full-color pullout for the week before Thanksgiving. I want to hit Black Friday hard.”

  “I’m your man. You want my people to talk to your people. I like saying that,” Flynn added. “It sounds so Hollywood.”

  “That’s the idea. I’m generating this locally rather than out of corporate. It’s specific to the Valley store, and I want it classy and convenient. Something the consumer can slide out and into a purse or pocket to bring along while shopping. And I want it exclusive. I want it in the Dispatch on a day without any other inserts, flyers, tip-ins.”

  “There’s a flood of inserts the week before Black Friday,” Flynn pointed out.

  “Exactly. I don’t want this one lost in the shuffle. It runs alone.”

  Flynn rubbed his palms together. “That’s gonna cost you, bunky.”

  “How much?”

  “I’ll talk to advertising, we’ll work up a price. Ten-page, full-color?” Flynn confirmed as he made a note. “I’ll get back to you on it tomorrow.”

  “Good.”

  “Wow, look at us, doing business. Want coffee to go with that?”

  Brad looked at his watch, gauged the time. “Yeah. There’s something else I want to talk to you about. Can I close this?”

  Flynn jerked a shoulder as Brad gestured to the door. “Sure.” He poured coffee, sat back on the desk. “Is this about the key?”

  “I haven’t heard anything for a couple of days. The last time I saw Zoe I got the impression she didn’t want to talk about it. At least not to me.”

  “So, you’re wondering if she talks to me, or more likely to Mal and then Mal talks to me. Not so much right now,” Flynn told him. “Malory’s take is that Zoe’s waiting for the other shoe to drop, and she’s on edge wondering when Kane might make a move.”

  “I’ve been working with the clue. The way I read it, it’s Zoe who has to make a move. I’m going to see her Friday night, but we might want to brainstorm beforehand.”

  “Friday night?” Flynn sipped his coffee. “Is that a social event?”

  “Simon’s coming over to fool around.” Restlessly, Brad wandered the office as he spoke. “He’s bringing his mother.”

  “Sneaky.”

  “You do what you can. That’s one great kid, and he’s not as complicated as his mother is.”

  “My impression is she had a rough road, and blazed the trail out of it on her own. Which eases right into the theme of her clue.”

  “She’s an amazing woman.”

  “How stuck on her are you?”

  “All the way.” Trying to settle, Brad leaned against the windowsill. “Problem is, she doesn’t trust me. I’m making progress, though. At least she doesn’t freeze up or go on the defensive every time I look at her these days. But sometimes she looks at me like I’ve just dropped in from another planet and I have not come in peace.”

  “She’s a package deal. Women who are part of a package have to be more careful. If they’re smart. Zoe’s smart.”

  “I’m nuts about that kid. The more I’m around him, the more I want to be. I’d like to know the story on his father.”

  Flynn shook his head at Brad’s questioning look. “Sorry, my sources are very closemouthed on that subject. You could try the direct approach and ask her yourself.”

  Brad nodded. “One more thing, then I’ve got to take off. Are you going to write the story?”

  “The Daughters of Glass,” Flynn said aloud, looking off into middle distance as if reading a headline written on air. “Dateline Pleasant Valley, Pennsylvania. Two Celtic gods visited the scenic Laurel Highlands to challenge three local women to locate the keys to the legendary Box of Souls.”

  He laughed a little, lifted his coffee again. “It’d be a hell of a story. Adventure, intrigue, romance, money, personal risk, personal triumph, and the power of the gods, all right here in our quiet hometown. Yeah. I thought about it—to write it, and do it right. When I first got into this, I thought, Jesus, Jesus, this could be the story of the century. Of course, I could just as easily be hauled off and put in a padded room, but that wouldn’t have stopped me.”

  “What did?”

  “It would put them on the spot, wouldn’t it? Again. Some people would believe it, many wouldn’t, but everybody would ask them questions, hammer at them for answers and statements. They—well, none of us—would ever be able to live a normal life after that.”

  He looked down into his coffee, gave another little shrug. “And that’s what this is about, at the base. All of us being able to live the way we want to, the way we’re entitled to. It’s different if Jordan writes it, turns it into a book. Then it’s fiction. But I won’t be writing it up for the paper.”

  “You were always the best of us.”

  Flynn paused with his coffee mug halfway to his lips. “Huh?”

  “The most clear-sighted, the most clear-hearted. That’s why you stayed in the Valley, at the paper, when you wanted to go. Maybe that’s why Jordan and I could leave. Because we knew you’d be here when we got back.”

  It was a rare thing for Flynn’s tongue to tie itself in knots, but it did so now. “Well” was all he could manage.

  “I’ve got to get to Pittsburgh.” Brad set his coffee aside and rose. “Call me on the cell if anything comes up while I’m gone.”

  Still speechless, Flynn only nodded.

  ZOE measured and mixed Mrs. Hanson’s color. Her neighbor liked strong red highlights in the brown. Zoe had come up with a combination of toners that suited them both, and had been doing Mrs. Hanson’s cut and color once a month for three years.

  She was the only client Zoe serviced at home. Memories of growing up with hair on the floor and chemicals in the air had caused her to vow never to turn her home into a business.

  But Mrs. Hanson was different, and the hour or so Zoe spent once a month doing her hair in the kitchen was more like a visit than a job.

  She still remembered the day she’d moved into this house, how Mrs. Hanson, whose hair had been an unfortunate boot-black color then—had come over to welcome her and Simon to the neighborhood.

  She’d brought chocolate chip cookies, and after taking a long look at Simon, had nodded in approval.
Then she’d offered her services as official sitter, claiming that with her own sons grown up she missed having a boy around the house.

  She was the first friend Zoe made in the Valley, and had become not only a surrogate grandmother to Simon but a mother to Zoe as well.

  “I saw your young man come by the other night.” Mrs. Hanson’s blue eyes twinkled in her pretty face as she perched on the stool in Zoe’s kitchen.

  “I don’t have a man, young or old.” Zoe parted hair, dabbed the gray roots with color.

  “Handsome young man,” Mrs. Hanson continued, undaunted. “Looks like his father some, who I knew a bit when he was the same age. Those roses he brought you are holding up well. Look how nice they’ve opened up.”

  Zoe glanced at the table. “I’ve been trimming the stems and changing the water to keep them fresh.”

  “Just like having a sunbeam on the table. Yellow roses suit you. It takes a smart man to know that. Simon’s full of Brad this and Brad that. Tells me he’s good with the boy.”

  “He is. They get along like a house afire.” As she worked, Zoe’s brows knit. “Bradley seems very fond of Simon.”

  “I imagine he’s very fond of Simon’s mama, too.”

  “We’re friends—or I’m working my way up to that. He makes me nervous.”

  Mrs. Hanson gave a quick hoot of laughter. “Man looks like that, he’s supposed to make a woman nervous.”

  “Not that way. Well, yes, that way.” Zoe laughed and scooped more color onto her brush. “But just altogether nervous.”

  “He kiss you yet?” At Zoe’s long silence, Mrs. Hanson let out a satisfied cackle. “Good. He didn’t look slow to me. How was it?”

  “I had to check after to make sure the top of my head was still there, because it felt like it’d blown clean off.”

  “About damn time. I was a little worried about you, sweetheart. Working day and night, seemed to me. Never taking time for yourself. Last little while, I see those nice girls you’ve taken up with, and handsome Brad Vane coming around, it does my heart good.”

  She reached back to give Zoe’s hand a pat. “Still working night and day, especially now that you’re putting that business together, but I like seeing it.”

  “I wouldn’t be able to have this business without you watching Simon after school so many afternoons.”

  Mrs. Hanson made a dismissive sound and waved Zoe’s words away. “You know very well I love having that boy around. He’s like one of my own. I don’t see nearly enough of my grandchildren what with Jack moving down to Baltimore and Deke off in California. I don’t know what I’d do without Simon. He brightens up my day.”

  “He thinks of you and Mr. Hanson as his grandparents. It takes a weight off me.”

  “Tell me how things are coming with the salon. I just can’t wait until you open up for business, put that tight-assed Carly’s nose out of joint when you start stealing her customers. I heard from Sara Bennett that the new girl Carly hired to replace you isn’t working out.”

  “That’s too bad.” But she said it with a snicker. “I wouldn’t wish her bad luck, except for the way she fired me. Saying I took money out of the till,” Zoe continued, firing up. “Calling me a thief.”

  “Easy there.”

  “Oh, sorry,” Zoe apologized when she realized she’d given Mrs. Hanson’s hair a tug. “I start seeing red whenever I think about it. I did good work for her.”

  “Too good. And too many of her regulars wanted you doing their hair, not her. Came down to jealousy, and that’s that.”

  “You know Marcie? She does nails there? I called her up a couple days ago, just to feel her out. She’s going to work for me.”

 
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