Key of valor, p.9
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       Key of Valor, p.9

         Part #3 of Key series by Nora Roberts
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  “You don’t say.”

  “We’ve got to keep it quiet until I’m all set up. I don’t want Carly firing her, putting her out of work before I open. But she’s ready to give her notice as soon as I say. And she’s friends with a stylist working out at the mall who’s getting married first of the year and wants to find something closer to town. So I said how about in town, and Marcie’s going to have her come see me. She says she’s really good.”

  “Sounds to me like you’re putting it all together.”

  “It feels right, you know? I got Chris on board to do massages and some of the body treatments. And my friend Dana? She’s hired this woman to work in her bookstore, and she has this friend who just moved back to the Valley and used to work at a spa out in Colorado. I’m going to be talking to her, too. It’s so exciting—as long as I don’t think about the payroll.”

  “You’re going to do fine. Better than fine.”

  “The plumber was in today, setting things up for my shampoo sinks. I got the lights in, and I’m going to be working on the stations. Sometimes I just look around up there and think this has got to be a dream.”

  “You don’t have to earn dreams, Zoe. And you’ve earned this.”

  S H E had earned it, Zoe thought later as she washed out the color brush and bowl. Or she was earning it. Still, so much of it was like a gift. She promised herself she would never take it for granted.

  She would do good work. She would be a good partner, and a good employer. She knew what it was to work for someone who was more interested in filling up the spaces in the appointment book than in the basic needs of her operators. Someone who’d forgotten what it was to stand on your feet hour after hour until they burned, until the small of your back ached like a bad tooth.

  But she wouldn’t forget.

  Maybe this wasn’t the road she’d expected to take, all those years ago when she was a young girl who imagined having pretty things and a quiet life that she would earn by using her brain.

  But it was the road she’d taken, and she was making it the right road.

  “You could go back, change it all.”

  She turned from the sink and looked at Kane. Surprise, shock, even fear were buried under thick layers of fog. She knew they were there but couldn’t quite feel them.

  He was beautiful, with a dark beauty. The black hair and deep eyes, the sharp bones sculpted under pure white skin. He was taller than she’d pictured. Not powerfully built like Pitte, but with a graceful, elegant body that she imagined could move as swiftly as a snake.

  “I wondered when you would come.” Her voice sounded hollow, as if formed more in her mind than with her mouth.

  “I’ve watched you. A pleasant pastime.” He stepped closer, and his hand brushed her cheek. “You’re very lovely. Too lovely to labor as you do. Too lovely to spend your life working on the appearance of others. You always wanted more. No one understood.”

  “No. It made Mama angry. It hurt her feelings.”

  “She never knew you. She used you like a slave.”

  “She needed help. She did her best.”

  “And when you needed help?” His voice was gentle, his face full of understanding. “Poor young thing. Used, betrayed, discarded. And a lifetime of payment for one reckless act. What if it had never happened? Your life would be so different. Don’t you wonder?”

  “No, I—”

  “Look.” He held up a sphere of crystal. “Look at what could have been.”

  Helpless to do otherwise, she looked, and fell into the scene.

  And swiveled in a deep leather chair to gaze out a wide corner window at the spears and towers of a great city. She had a phone to her ear and a satisfied expression on her face.

  “No, I can’t. I’m leaving for Rome tonight. A little business, a lot of pleasure.” She glanced at the slim gold watch on her wrist. “The pleasure is a little bonus from upstairs for bringing in the Quartermain account. A week at the Hastler. Of course I’ll send you a postcard.”

  She laughed, swiveled back to face the office as her assistant brought in a tall, slim china cup. “I’ll talk to you when I get back. Ciao.”

  “Your latte, Ms. McCourt. Your car will be here in fifteen minutes.”

  “Thanks. The Modesto file?”

  “Already in your briefcase.”

  “You’re the best. You know how to reach me, but as of Tuesday I’m off the clock. So unless it’s dire, pretend I’ve gone to Venus and can’t be reached.”

  “Count on it. Nobody deserves a vacation more than you. Have a wonderful time in Rome.”

  “I plan to.”

  Sipping her latte, she turned to her computer, brought up a file to check some final details.

  She loved her work. Some people would say it was just numbers, accounting, black or red ink. But to Zoe it was a challenge, even an adventure. She handled finance for some of the biggest and most complex corporations in the world, and she handled it very well.

  A long way from doing books for Mama’s hair business, she mused. A very long way.

  She’d studied hard to earn that scholarship to college, worked hard to complete her degree and secure an entry-level position with one of New York’s most prestigious international banking firms.

  And then she’d worked her way up. A corner office on the fiftieth floor, her own staff, all before she hit thirty.

  She had a beautiful apartment, an exciting life, a career she loved sinking her teeth into day after day. She’d traveled to all those places she’d wondered about when she snuck out to walk the woods at night as a girl.

  She had what she’d never been able to explain to her family that she needed. She had respect.

  Satisfied, she logged off, sipped the last of the latte. She pushed away from the desk, picked up her briefcase, tossed her coat over her arm.

  Rome was waiting.

  Work would come first, but then it was play. She was planning to carve out a nice chunk of time for shopping. Something in leather, something in gold. A sortie to Armani or Versace. Maybe both. Who deserved it more?

  She started toward the door, then stopped, turned back. There was a nagging sensation, a tug at the back of her mind. She was forgetting something. Something important.

  “Your car’s here, Ms. McCourt.”

  “Yes, I’m coming.”

  She started for the door again. But no. No, she couldn’t just leave.

  “Simon.” Her head spun, so viciously she had to brace a hand on the wall. “Where’s Simon?”

  She rushed through the door, shouting for him. And fell back through the crystal and onto her kitchen floor.

  “I wasn’t ever afraid,” Zoe told Malory and Dana. “Not even when I landed on the floor. It was more, ‘hmmm, how about that.’ ”

  “That’s all he said to you?” Dana demanded.

  “Yes. He was very smooth.” Zoe said as she worked on attaching her stations to the wall. “Very sympathetic. Not frightening at all.”

  “Because he was trying to seduce you,” Malory concluded.

  “That’s the way I see it.” Zoe gave the station a test shake, nodded. “ ‘Wouldn’t you like things to be this way, instead of the way they turned out?’ He made it seem like it was just a matter of stepping this way instead of that.”

  “The fork in the path.” Dana set her hands on her hips.

  “Exactly.” Zoe lined up the last screw, then drilled the hole. “Here’s the chance to have a high-powered career, a spiffy life, fly off to Rome for a week. All you have to do is one little thing. Not get pregnant at sixteen. He figured out he can’t threaten me with Simon, so what if he just eliminates him from the equation.”

  “He’s underestimating you.”

  Zoe glanced up at Malory. “Oh, yeah, he is, because nothing in that crystal ball comes close to what I have with Simon. And you know what? It doesn’t come close to what I’m doing here, with both of you.”

  She smiled and pushed herself to her feet. “I was wearin
g really great shoes, though. I think they were Manolo Blahnik, like what’s-her-name, Sarah Jessica Parker, wears.”

  “Hmm. Excellent and sexy shoes, or a nine-year-old boy.” Dana tapped a finger on her chin. “Tough choice.”

  “I think I’ll be sticking with Payless for the time being.” She stepped back to study the completed station. “He doesn’t scare me.” She let out a laugh, then set down the drill. “I was so sure he would, but he doesn’t.”

  “Don’t let your guard down,” Malory warned her. “He’s not going to take a simple ‘no thanks’ for an answer.”

  “That’s the one he’s going to keep getting. Anyway, he’s made me think about the clue again. Choices. The moment of truth, you called it, Malory, in the paintings. I guess I had one, the night Simon was conceived, or when I made the decision to have him. But I think there has to be another, either one that I’ve already made or one I have to make.”

  “We can make a list,” Malory began and made Dana laugh.

  “How did I know she would say that?”

  “A list,” Malory continued with a bland look for her friend, “of important events and decisions Zoe’s made, and of minor ones that had important results. Just the way she thought about the Valley as a forest with paths. This time it’s her life as the forest. We look for intersections, connections, how one choice led to others, how any of them pertains to the key.”

  “I’ve been playing around with that already and I was thinking . . .” She lined up the next station, pulled out her measuring tape, then just set it down. “The decisions you made, the things both of you did that led you to your keys, involved Flynn and Jordan. Brad and I are the only ones left, so it follows that mine’s going to involve him. That puts him on the front line with me.”

  “Brad can handle himself,” Dana assured her.

  “I’m certain he can. And I can handle myself. I’m just not sure I can handle him. I can’t afford to make a mistake, not about the key, not about myself and Simon.”

  “Are you worried that being closer to Brad, forming a personal relationship with him, could be a mistake?” Malory asked her.

  “Actually, I’m starting to worry that not being closer to him might be a mistake. That’s making it harder to be practical.”

  “You’re going over there tonight,” Malory said. “Why don’t you take a tip from Simon just this once and enjoy being with someone who so obviously enjoys being with you?”

  “I’m going to try.” She picked up the tape again. “It helps to know I’ve got a chaperon. Two, actually, counting Moe.”

  “Sooner or later, no matter how fond Brad is of Simon, he’s going to want to see you alone.”

  Zoe passed Dana the measuring tape and picked up her drill. “Then I’ll worry about that, sooner or later.”

  More sooner, later, and right this minute, Zoe thought when she was alone again.

  She knew that with a physical attraction this intense, they were bound to come together. But she could, and she would, decide the time, the place, the tone. The rules. There had to be rules, just as there had to be an understanding between them before that intimate step was taken.

  If Bradley Vane was indeed one of her forks in the road, it was vital to be certain that neither of them ended up lost, alone, and bleeding at the end of the trail.

  Chapter Seven

  SIMON’S excited call interrupted Zoe’s debate over earrings. Should she go with the big silver hoops, sort of carefree sexy, or the little marcasite drops she’d splurged on last summer, more demure and sophisticated?

  These were the details that set the tone for a woman’s mood, her outlook, her intentions for an event. A man might miss them, she thought as she held one of each pair up to her ears, but a woman knew why she was wearing a particular pair of earrings. Or shoes. Or why she’d chosen a particular bra.

  These were the building blocks for the dating ritual. She set both earrings down and pressed a hand to her stomach. God, she was dating.

  “Mom! Come quick! You gotta see this.”

  “Just a minute.”

  “Hurry up! Hurry, it’s pulling in the driveway. Man. Oh, man! Come on, Mom!”

  “What is it?” She darted toward the living room in her bare feet. She couldn’t decide on the shoes until she’d decided on the earrings. “For heaven’s sake, Simon, we have to leave in a few minutes, and I’m not—” Her jaw dropped, mimicking her son’s as she looked out the front window with him at the black stretch limo sliding in behind her ancient hatchback.

  “It’s the biggest car I’ve ever seen in my whole life.”

  “Me too,” Zoe replied. “He must be lost.”

  “Can I go out and see?” He grabbed her hand, tugging on it as he did when particularly frantic. “Please, please, please! Can I go touch it?”

  “I don’t think you should touch it.”

  “A man’s getting out.” Simon’s voice dropped to a reverent whisper. “He looks like a soldier.”

  “He’s a chauffeur.” She laid a hand on Simon’s shoulder as they peeked out the window together. “That’s what they call people who drive limousines.”

  “He’s coming to the door.”

  “He must need directions.”

  “Can I just go out and look while you tell him how to get someplace? I won’t touch it or anything.”

  “We’ll ask.” She took Simon’s hand and walked to the door.

  Simon was right, she thought as she opened the door. He did look like a soldier—tall and straight, with a military bearing in his black uniform and cap.

  “Can I help you find someone?” she asked him.

  “Ms. Zoe McCourt? Master Simon McCourt?”

  “Ah.” She tugged Simon a little closer to her side. “Yes.”

  “I’m Bigaloe. I’ll be driving you to Mr. Vane’s this evening.”

  “We get to ride in that?” Simon’s eyes went wide and bright as twin suns. “Inside?”

  “Yes, sir.” Bigaloe gave Simon a quick wink. “In any seat you like.”

  “Sweet!” He pumped a fist, gave a hoot, and would have charged to the limo if Zoe hadn’t hauled him back.

  “But we have a car. And a dog.”

  “Yes, ma’am. Mr. Vane sent this.”

  Zoe looked down at the note Bigaloe held out, recognized the stationery. “Simon, you stand right here,” she ordered, and released his hand to open the envelope.

  The single sheet of letterhead read:

  Don’t argue this time either.

  “But I just don’t see why . . .” She trailed off, undone and defeated by the desperate plea in Simon’s eyes. “We’ll be out in just a minute, Mr. Bigaloe.”

  “You take your time, ma’am.”

  The minute she closed the door, Simon threw his arms around her waist. “This is so awesome!”

  “Yes. Awesome.”

  “Can we go now? Can we?”

  “All right. Get your jacket, and the present we made for Bradley. I need my purse.” And my shoes, she thought. It looked like it would be the marcasite earrings tonight.

  The minute they were out of the house, Simon made a beeline for the car, then skidded to a halt to wave wildly at the Hansons, who stood on their front porch.

  “We get to ride in a limousine!”

  “Isn’t that something?” With a wide grin, Mrs. Hanson waved back. “Just like a rock star. I want to hear all about it tomorrow.”

  “Okay. This is Mr. Bigaloe,” Simon announced when the driver opened the door. “He’s going to drive us to Brad’s house. That’s Mr. and Mrs. Hanson. They live next door.”

  “Pleased to meet you.” Bigaloe tipped his cap, then offered a hand to Zoe. “The dog can ride up with me, if that suits you.”

  “Oh. Well, if he’s no trouble.”

  “Look at that, John.” Mrs. Hanson gave her husband’s hand a quick squeeze. “Just like Cinderella. Just hope our girl’s smart enough not to go running off when the clock strikes.”

were little glass vases with fresh flowers beside the tinted windows. And little lights, like faerie lights, streamed along the floor and the roof.

  There were a television and a stereo, and buttons to work everything on a panel just above her head.

  Everything smelled like leather and lilies.

  Simon was already crawling over the long seat along the side to poke his head through the opening to the limo’s cab and peppering Bigaloe with questions.

  Zoe didn’t have the heart to stop him. And it gave her a moment to try to adjust.

  After that moment she gave up. It would take her a year to adjust.

  Simon came sliding back. “Moe likes it up front, and Mr. Bigaloe’s letting him stick his head out the window. And Mr. Bigaloe says I can touch anything, because I’m the boss. And I can have a soda from the ice place over there if you say so, ’cause you’re the boss of me, and I can watch TV! In the car. Can I?”

  Zoe looked at his bright and dazzled face. On impulse, she caught that face in her hands, gave him a loud, smacking kiss on the mouth. “Yes, you can have a soda. Yes, you can watch TV in the car. And look, look up here. You can make the lights go on and off. And there’s a telephone.”

  “Let’s call somebody.”

  “You do it.” She picked up the phone and offered it. “Call Mrs. Hanson. Won’t she love that?”

  “Okay. I’m going to get a soda, and turn on the TV, and call her so I can tell her.”

  She giggled with him, and played with the controls, and drank a ginger ale just so she could say she had.

  When they arrived at Brad’s, she took Simon’s hand before he could reach for the door handle. “Mr. Bigaloe’s supposed to come around and open it,” she whispered. “That’s part of his job.”

  “Okay.” When the door opened, Simon popped out and looked up at Bigaloe. “That was really good. Thanks for driving us.”

  “It was a pleasure.”

  “I guess you could tell it was our first time in a limo,” Zoe said when he helped her out.

  “I don’t know when I’ve enjoyed driving anyone quite so much. I’ll look forward to taking you home when you’re ready.”

  “Thank you.”

  “Wait until I tell the guys.” Simon grabbed the leash and let Moe pull him to the door. “They’re not going to believe it.”

  Before Zoe could tell him to knock, he was pushing the door open and shouting for Brad. “Brad! We watched TV in the car and called Mrs. Hanson and had sodas. And Moe rode up front.”

  “Sounds like a busy ride.”

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