Key of light, p.9
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       Key of Light, p.9

         Part #1 of Key series by Nora Roberts
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  “Oh, we do a bit of this and that, and some of the other. Milk?” she asked Malory as she poured. “Honey, lemon?”

  “A little lemon, thank you. I have a lot of questions.”

  “I’m sure you do, as does your very attractive companion. How do you like your tea, Flynn?”

  “Black’s fine.”

  “So American. And what is your business, Flynn?”

  He took the delicate cup she offered. His gaze was direct, and suddenly very cool. “I’m sure you already know. You didn’t pick my sister’s name out of a hat. You know everything you need to know about her, and that would include me.”

  “Yes.” Rowena added both milk and honey to her own tea. Rather than looking insulted or chagrined, she looked pleased. “The newspaper business must be very interesting. So much information to be gathered, and dispersed. I imagine it takes a clever mind to know how to do both well. And here is Pitte.”

  He entered a room, Flynn thought, like a general. Measuring the field, gauging his ground, outlining his approach. However genial his smile, Flynn was certain there was a steely soldier behind it.

  “Miss Price. What a pleasure to see you again.” He took her hand, brought it to within an inch of his lips in a gesture that seemed too fluid not to be natural.

  “Thanks for seeing us. This is Flynn—”

  “Yes. Mr. Hennessy.” He inclined his head. “How do you do?”

  “Well enough.”

  “Our friends have questions and concerns,” Rowena told him as she passed the cup of tea she’d already prepared.

  “Naturally.” Pitte took a seat. “You’re wondering, I imagine, if we’re . . .” He turned that mildly curious look to Rowena.

  “Lunatics,” she supplied, then lifted a plate. “Scones?”

  “Ah, yes, lunatics.” Pitte helped himself to a scone and a generous dollop of clotted cream. “I can assure you we’re not, but then again, so would I if we were. So that’s very little help to you. Tell me, Miss Price, are you having second thoughts about our arrangement?”

  “I took your money and gave you my word.”

  His expression softened, very slightly. “Yes. To some that would make little difference.”

  “It makes all the difference to me.”

  “That could change,” Flynn put in. “Depending on where the money comes from.”

  “Are you implying we could be criminals?” Now temper showed in the flush that swept Rowena’s ice-edged cheekbones. “It shows considerable lack of courtesy to come into our home and accuse us of being thieves.”

  “Reporters aren’t known for their courtesy, and neither are brothers when they’re looking out for their sisters.”

  Pitte murmured something quiet and foreign, skimmed his long fingers over the back of Rowena’s hand, the way a man might soothe a cat who was about to spit and claw. “Understood. It happens I’ve some skill in monetary matters. The money comes to us through perfectly legal means. We’re neither lunatics nor criminals.”

  “Who are you?” Malory demanded before Flynn could speak again. “Where do you come from?”

  “What do you think?” Pitte challenged softly.

  “I don’t know. But I think you believe you represent the teacher and the warrior who failed to protect the Daughters of Glass.”

  An eyebrow arched slightly. “You’ve learned more since you were here last. Will you learn more yet?”

  “I intend to. You could help me.”

  “We’re not free to help in that way. But I will tell you this. Not only teacher and warrior but companions and friends to those precious ones, and so only more responsible.”

  “It’s only a legend.”

  The intensity in his eyes dimmed, and he leaned back again. “It must be, as such things are beyond the limits of your mind and the boundaries of your world. Still, I can promise you the keys exist.”

  “Where is the Box of Souls?” Flynn asked him.

  “Safe.”

  “Could I see the painting again?” Now Malory turned to Rowena. “I’d like Flynn to see it.”

  “Of course.” She rose and led the way into the room dominated by the portrait of the Daughters of Glass.

  Malory heard Flynn catch his breath, then they were moving together closer to the painting. “It’s even more magnificent than I remembered. Can you tell me who painted this?”

  “Someone,” Rowena said quietly, “who knew love, and grief.”

  “Someone who knows Malory. And my sister, and Zoe McCourt.”

  Rowena let out a sigh. “You’re a cynic, Flynn, and a suspicious one. But as you’ve put yourself in the role of protector, I’ll forgive you for it. We don’t wish Malory, Dana, or Zoe any harm. Quite the opposite.”

  Something in her tone made him want to believe her. “It’s pretty disconcerting to see my sister’s face up there.”

  “You’d do whatever needed to be done to keep her safe and well. I understand that kind of loyalty and love. I admire and respect it. She’s in no danger from me or Pitte. I can swear that to you.”

  He turned now, zeroing in on what hadn’t been said. “But from someone else?”

  “Life’s a gamble,” was all Rowena said. “Your tea’s getting cold.”

  She turned toward the door just as Pitte stepped to it. “There seems to be a very large, very unhappy dog of some sort outside.”

  The temper and sharp words hadn’t ruffled Flynn a bit, but that single statement made him wince. “He’s mine.”

  “You have a dog?” The change in Rowena’s tone was almost girlish. Everything about her seemed to go light and bright, then bubble out as she gripped Flynn’s hand.

  “He calls it a dog,” Malory said under her breath.

  Flynn merely gave her a sorrowful look before speaking to Rowena. “You like dogs?”

  “Yes, very much. Could I meet him?”

  “Sure.”

  “Ah, while you’re introducing Rowena and Pitte to Moe, at their peril, could I take a minute to freshen up?” Casually, Malory gestured toward the powder room. “I remember where it is.”

  “Of course.” For the first time since Malory had met her, Rowena seemed distracted. She already had a hand on Flynn’s arm as they started down the hall. “What kind of a dog is he?”

  “That’s debatable.”

  Malory slipped into the powder room and counted to five. Slowly. Heart pounding, she opened the door a crack and did her best to peer up and down the corridor. Moving quickly now, she dashed back to the portrait, dragging out the little digital camera in her purse as she ran.

  She took half a dozen full-length shots, then some of smaller details. With a guilty look over her shoulder, she shoved the camera back into the purse and pulled out her glasses, a plastic bag, and a small palette knife.

  With her ears buzzing, she stepped up on the hearth and carefully, gently, scraped flakes of paint into the bag.

  The entire process took less than three minutes, but her palms were slick with sweat, her legs loose and wobbly by the time she’d finished. She took another moment to compose herself, then strolled—with what she hoped was casual ease—out of the room and out of the house.

  The instant she stepped outside, she stopped dead. There was the regal and magnificent Rowena sitting on the ground with a mountain of dog sprawled over her lap.

  And she was giggling.

  “Oh, he’s wonderful. Such a big sweetheart. What a good boy you are.” She bent her head and nuzzled Moe’s fur. His tail beat like a jackhammer. “What a kind, pretty boy.” She looked up at Flynn and beamed. “Did he find you or did you find him?”

  “It was sort of mutual.” One dog lover recognized another. Tucking his thumbs in his pockets, Flynn scanned the expansive lawns, the slices of woods. “Big place like this, lots of room to run. You could have a pack of dogs.”

  “Yes. Well.” Rowena lowered her head again and rubbed Moe’s belly.

  “We travel considerably.” Pitte laid a hand on Rowena
’s hair, stroked it.

  “How long do you plan to stay here?”

  “When the three months is up, we’ll move on.”

  “To?”

  “That will depend. A ghra.”

  “Yes. Yes.” Rowena cuddled Moe another moment, then with a wistful sigh got to her feet. “You’re very lucky to have such goodness in your life. I hope you treasure him.”

  “I do.”

  “I see you do, yes. You may be cynical and suspicious, but a dog like this knows a good heart.”

  “Yeah,” Flynn agreed. “I believe that.”

  “I hope you’ll bring him if you come back. He can run. Good-bye, Moe.”

  Moe sat up and lifted one massive paw with unaccustomed dignity.

  “Wow. That’s a new one.” Flynn blinked as Moe politely allowed Rowena to shake his paw. “Hey, Mal! Did you see—”

  As he said her name, Moe’s head swiveled, and he was off at a sprint in Malory’s direction, bringing a distressed yip to her throat as she braced for the onslaught.

  Rowena called out, a single indecipherable word in a calm, brisk tone. Moe skidded to a halt inches from Malory’s feet, plopped onto his butt. And once more lifted his paw.

  “Well.” Malory expelled a relieved breath. “That’s more like it.” She reached down, obligingly shook the offered paw. “Good for you, Moe.”

  “How the hell’d you do that?” Flynn wanted to know.

  “I have a way with animals.”

  “I’ll say. What was that, Gaelic?”

  “Mmmm.”

  “Funny that Moe would understand a command in Gaelic when he mostly ignores them in plain English.”

  “Dogs understand more than words.” She held out a hand for Flynn’s. “I hope you’ll all come back. We enjoy company.”

  “Thanks for your time.” Malory walked to the car with Moe trotting happily beside her. The minute she sat, she tucked her purse on the floor like a guilty secret.

  Rowena laughed, but the sound was a bit watery as Moe stuck his head out of the backseat window. She lifted a hand in a wave, then leaned against Pitte as Flynn drove away.

  “I have real hope,” she murmured. “I can’t remember the last time I felt real hope. I—it frightens me. It actually frightens me to feel it.”

  Pitte wrapped an arm around her, drew her tighter to his side. “Don’t weep, my heart.”

  “Foolish.” She dashed a tear away. “To cry over a stranger’s dog. When we get home . . .”

  He shifted her, cupped her face in his hands. His tone was gentle, yet somehow urgent. “When we get home, you’ll have a hundred dogs. A thousand.”

  “One will do.” She rose on her toes to brush her lips across his.

  IN the car Malory let out a long, long breath.

  “I take that sound of relief to mean you got the pictures.”

  “I did. I felt like an international art thief. I guess I have to give Moe points for being the main distraction. So, tell me what you thought of them.”

  “They’re slick, smart, and full of secrets. But they don’t seem crazy. They’re used to money—real money. Used to drinking tea out of antique cups brought in by a servant. They’re educated, cultured, and a little snobby with it. The place is full of stuff—fancy stuff. They’ve only been here a few weeks, so they didn’t furnish those rooms locally. They had it shipped in. I should be able to track that.”

  Frowning, he tapped his fingers on the steering wheel. “She went goony on Moe.”

  “What?”

  “She turned into a puddle the minute she saw him. I mean, he’s got a lot of charm, but she melted. I have this impression of her from inside. Cool, confident, aloof. The kind of woman who’s sexy because she knows she’s in charge. Strolling up Madison Avenue with a Prada bag on her arm, or running a board meeting in L.A. Power, money, brains, and looks all wrapped up in sex.”

  “I get it. You thought she was sexy.”

  “Last checkup, I had a pulse, so, yeah. But you should’ve seen her face when Moe jumped out of the car. All that polish, that sheen just vanished. She lit up like Christmas morning.”

  “So, she likes dogs.”

  “No, it was more. It wasn’t the coochee-coo that some fancy women do with dogs. It was fall down on the ground, roll in the grass, and gut-laugh. So why doesn’t she have one?”

  “Maybe Pitte won’t have one around.”

  Flynn shook his head. “You’re more observant than that. The guy would slice open a vein for her if she asked him to. Something strange about the way she got Moe to shake hands. Something strange about the whole deal.”

  “No argument. I’m going to concentrate on the painting, at least until one of us comes up with a different angle. I’ll leave you to try to pin down Rowena and Pitte.”

  “I’ve got to cover a town hall meeting tonight. How about we get together tomorrow?”

  He maneuvers. He herds. She remembered Dana’s words and shot him a quick, suspicious look. “Define ‘get together.’ ”

  “I’ll adjust the definition any way you want.”

  “I’ve got four weeks—less now—to find this key. I’m currently unemployed and have to figure out what I’m going to do, at least professionally, for the rest of my life. I recently ended a relationship that was going nowhere. Add up all the above, and it’s very clear I don’t have time for dating and exploring a new personal relationship.”

  “Hold on a minute.” He pulled off to the side of the windy road, unhooked his seat belt. He leaned over, took her shoulders, and eased her over as far as her own belt would allow while his mouth ravished hers.

  A rocket of heat shot up her spine and left its edgy afterburn in her belly.

  “You’ve, ah, really got a knack for that,” she managed when she could breathe again.

  “I practice as often as possible.” To prove it, he kissed her again. Slower this time. Deeper. Until he felt her quiver. “I just wanted you to add that to your equation.”

  “I was an art major. Math isn’t my strong suit. Come back here a minute.” She grabbed his shirt, yanked him to her, and let herself go.

  Everything inside her sparked. Blood and bone and brain.

  If this was what it meant to be herded, she thought dimly, she could be flexible about her direction.

  When his hands clenched in her hair, she felt a stir of power and anxiety that was as potent as a drug.

  “We really can’t do this.” But she was tugging his shirt out of his waistband, desperate to get her hands on flesh.

  “I know. Can’t.” He fumbled with the buckle of her seat belt. “We’ll stop in a minute.”

  “Okay, but first . . .” She brought his hand to her breast, then moaned as her heart seemed to tip into his palm.

  He shifted her, cursed when he rapped his elbow on the steering wheel. And Moe, delighted with the prospect of a wrestling match, squeezed his head between the seats and slathered both of them with sloppy kisses.

  “Oh, God!” Torn between laughter and shock, Malory scrubbed at her mouth. “I really, really hope that was your tongue.”

  “Ditto.” Struggling to get his breath back, Flynn stared down at her. Her hair was sexily tousled, her face flushed, her mouth just a little swollen from the assault of his.

  With the flat of his hand, he shoved Moe’s face away and snapped out a curt order to sit. The dog flopped back on his seat and whined as if he’d been beaten with a club.

  “I wasn’t planning on moving this fast.”

  Malory shook her head. “I wasn’t planning on moving at all. And I’ve always got a plan.”

  “Been a while since I tried this in a car parked on the side of the road.”

  “Me, too.” She slid her gaze toward the pathetic sounds coming from the backseat. “Under the circumstances . . .”

  “Yeah. Better not. I want to make love with you.” He drew her up. “To touch you. To feel you move under my hands. I want that, Malory.”

  “I need to think. Ev
erything about this is complicated, so I have to think about it.” She certainly had to think about the fact that she’d nearly torn the man’s clothes off in the front seat of a car, on the side of a public road, in broad daylight.

  “My life’s a mess, Flynn.” The thought depressed her enough to have her pulse calming again. “Whatever the equation, I’ve screwed things up, and I have to get back on track. I don’t do well with messy situations. So, let’s slow this down a little.”

  He hooked a finger in the V of her blouse. “How much is a little?”

  “I don’t know yet. Oh, I can’t stand it.” She scooted around, leaned over the seat. “Don’t cry, you big baby.” She ruffled the fur between Moe’s ears. “Nobody’s mad at you.”

  “Speak for yourself,” Flynn grumbled.

  Chapter Seven

  I feel the sun, warm and somehow fluid like a quiet waterfall gliding from a golden river. It pours over me in a kind of baptism. I smell roses, and lilies, and some spicier flower that cuts the sweetness. I hear water, a playful trickle and plop as it rises up, then falls back into itself.

  All these things slide over me, or I slide into them, but I see nothing but a dense white. Like a curtain I can’t part.

  Why am I not afraid?

  Laughter floats toward me. Bright and easy and female. There’s a youthful cheer in it that makes me smile, that brings a tickle of laughter to my own throat. I want to find the source of that laughter and join in.

  Voices now, that quick bird-chatter that is again youth and female.

  The sounds come and go, ebb and flow. Am I drifting toward it or away?

  Slowly, slowly, the curtain thins. Only a mist now, soft as silken rain with sunlight sparkling through it. And through it, I see color. Such bold, rich color it sears through that thinning mist and stuns my eyes.

  Tiles are gleaming silver and explode with sunlight in blinding flashes where the thick green leaves and hot-pink blossoms of trees don’t shade or shelter. Flowers swim in pools or dance in swirling beds.

  There are three women, girls, really, gathered around the fountain that plays its happy tune. It’s their laughter I hear. One has a small harp in her lap, and the other a quill. But they’re laughing at the wriggling puppy the third holds in her arms.

  They’re so lovely. There is about them a touching innocence that’s so perfectly suited to the garden where they spend this bright afternoon. Then I see the sword sheathed at one’s hip.

  Innocent perhaps, but strong. There is power here; I can feel the tingle of it now sparking on the air.

 
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