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Key of Valorby Nora Roberts
BACK in the parlor, where they found coffee and wedges of apple pie thick enough to make even Simon’s eyes bug out, Malory rubbed a comforting hand up and down Zoe’s back.
“Are you ready for this?”
“I’ve got to be, don’t I?”
“You’ve got us all with you. We’re a good team.”
“The best. It’s just that I thought I’d be prepared. I’ve had the most time to get prepared. I didn’t think I’d be this scared.”
“It was easiest for me.”
“How can you say that?” Baffled, Zoe shook her head. “You went into this knowing almost nothing.”
“Exactly. And you’ve got everything we’ve learned and experienced in the last two months running around in your head.” Her smile sympathetic, Malory gave Zoe’s hand a squeeze.
“Plenty of it’s scary. And there’s more. When we started this we weren’t as involved. With each other, with Rowena and Pitte, with the daughters. Everything matters more now than it did two months ago.”
Zoe let out a shaky breath. “You’re not making me feel any better.”
“I don’t mean to. You’ve got a big load to carry, Zoe, and sometimes you’re going to have to carry it yourself, no matter how much we want to take some of it off your hands.”
Malory looked up, pleased to see Dana coming toward them.
“What’s up?” Dana asked.
“A quick pep talk before we get started.” Malory took Zoe’s hand again. “Kane will try to hurt you. He’ll try to trick you. In fact—and I’ve thought a lot about this—because this is the last round, win or lose all, he’s going to be only more determined to stop you.”
Dana took Zoe’s other hand. “Feeling peppy yet?”
“I’ve thought a lot about it, too. I’m afraid of him.” Zoe squared her shoulders. “I think you’re telling me I should be afraid. That if I’m really going to be prepared, I should be afraid.”
“That’s exactly it.”
“Then I guess I’m as ready as I’m going to get. I need to talk to Rowena before she takes us into the portrait room. I’ve got one stipulation before we move to the next stage.”
She looked over, hissed under her breath as she saw Rowena already in deep discussion with Brad. “Why is he everywhere I want to be?”
“Good question.” Dana gave her a quick pat on the back.
Malory waited until Zoe started across the room. “Dana? I’m scared, too.”
“Well, that makes three of us.”
Zoe stopped in front of Rowena, cleared her throat. “I’m sorry to interrupt. Rowena, I need to speak to you for a minute, before we get started on the next . . . thing.”
“Of course. I imagine it concerns what Brad and I were just discussing.”
“I don’t think so. It’s about Simon.”
“Yes.” In invitation, Rowena patted the cushion beside her. “Exactly. Bradley’s been very insistent that I do something tangible, something specific, about Simon.”
“Kane’s not going to touch the boy.” There was steel, cold and immovable, in Brad’s tone. “He’s not going to use the boy. Simon is to be taken out of the mix. That’s not negotiable.”
“And you are setting terms now for Zoe, and her son?” Rowena asked.
“No.” Zoe spoke quickly. “I can speak for myself, and for Simon. But thank you.” She looked at Brad. “Thank you for thinking about Simon.”
“I’m not just thinking about him, I’m making this crystal clear. You and Pitte want the third key,” he said to Rowena. “You want Zoe to succeed. Kane wants her to fail. There were rules, you said, about causing harm to mortals, shedding their blood, taking their lives. He broke those rules last time, and would have killed Dana and Jordan if he could have. There’s no reason to think he’ll go back to fighting fair this time. In fact, there’s every reason to believe he’ll fight even dirtier.”
The muscles around Zoe’s heart seemed to clench, leaving her breathless. “He’s not touching my boy. You have to promise. You have to guarantee it, or this ends now.”
“New terms.” Rowena lifted her eyebrows. “And ultimatums?”
“Let’s put it this way.” Before Zoe could speak again, Brad silenced her with one sharp look. “If you don’t do something to remove Simon from the board, if you don’t shield him from Kane, he could be used against Zoe and cause her to fail. You’re close, Rowena. Too close to let one stipulation stand in your way.”
“Well played, Bradley.” Rowena patted his knee. “Simon has a formidable champion in you. And you,” she said to Zoe. “But it’s already been done.”
“What?” Zoe looked across the room at Simon, who was sneaking Moe a bit of crust from his pie.
“He’s under protection, the strongest I can make. It was done while he slept, the night Dana found the second key. Mother,” she said gently, touching a hand to Zoe’s cheek, “I would not ask you to risk your child, not even for the daughters of a god.”
“He’s safe, then.” She closed her eyes against the sting of relieved tears. “Kane can’t hurt him?”
“As safe as I can make him. Kane would have to go through me, and Pitte. I can promise you, such an attack would cost him dearly.”
“But if he got through—”
“Then he’d come up against us,” Brad put in. “All six of us—and a big dog. Flynn and I talked about it earlier. You should take Moe with you, keep him around the way Dana did. An early-warning system.”
“Take Moe? Home?” That big, clumsy dog in her tiny little house? “I’d think you’d consult with me before you made such decisions.”
“It’s a suggestion, not a decision.” He angled his head, and though his voice was mild again, his face was set. “It’s just a sensible and reasonable suggestion. Besides, a kid Simon’s age ought to have a dog around.”
“When I think Simon’s ready for a dog—”
“Now, now.” Swallowing a laugh, Rowena patted Brad’s knee again, and Zoe’s. “Isn’t it silly to argue when you’re both only thinking of what’s best for Simon?”
“Can we just do what comes next? I’m getting all twisted up waiting for it to be official.”
“All right. Perhaps Simon could take Moe out for a walk around the grounds. He’ll be watched,” she assured Zoe. “He’ll be safe.”
“I’ll arrange it. Then we’ll move into the next room.”
Zoe found herself sitting on the sofa with Brad, without Rowena as a buffer between them. She linked her hands in her lap as he picked up his coffee cup.
“I’m sorry if I sounded ungrateful and rude,” she began. “I’m not. Not ungrateful.”
“Maybe.” Knowing she had been brought heat to her cheeks. “But I didn’t mean to be. I’m not used to anybody—”
“Helping you?” he prompted. “Caring about you? About Simon?”
There was a bite in his voice, but there was something both careless and cool about it that made her feel small. She countered it by shifting and looking him dead in the eyes. “That’s right, I’m not. Nobody helped me raise him, or feed him, or love him. Nobody helped me put a roof over his head. I’ve done it myself, and I’ve done a decent job of it.”
“You haven’t done a decent job of it,” he corrected. “You’ve done an extraordinary job of it. So what? That means you have to slap away every helping hand?”
“No. No, it doesn’t. You get me so mixed up.”
“Well, that’s a start.” He took her hand, and had it to his lips before she could protest.
“Oh. Thanks.” She got quickly to her feet when Rowena came back into the room.
“If everyone’s ready, we’d like to continue the tradition of beginning the quest in the next room.”
Brad kept his attention on Zoe. She was a little pale, but she was holding her own. Still, as they started down the wide hallway, he noted how Malory and Dana moved in to flank her.
They’d become a team, a triad, even a family over the last two months. He didn’t think anything would change that now. They would need that unity through what was coming.
His heart took a bump when he stepped into the next room and looked up at the portrait that dominated it.
The Daughters of Glass, moments before their souls were stolen, gathered close. Just as the three women who shared the faces of those tragic demigoddesses now gathered close.
Venora, with Malory’s vivid blue eyes, sat with a lap harp in her hands and a smile just blooming across her face. Niniane, with Dana’s strong features and dense brown hair, sat beside her on a marble bench and held a scroll and quill.
Standing, a sword at her side and a small puppy in the crook of her arm, Kyna looked back at him. Her hair was a long fall of inky black rather that the short, sharp, sexy style Zoe wore. But the eyes, those long, topaz eyes, were the same.
They pulled at him, as if they’d dug hooks into his heart.
The three daughters radiated beauty, joy, innocence, in a world sumptuous with color and light. Yet, a closer look showed the hints of darkness to come.
In the thick green forest was the shadowy shape of a man. Just slithering onto the bright tiles was the sinuous figure of a snake.
In the corner, the sky was bruised with a brewing storm that the daughters were yet unaware of. And the lovers who embraced in the background were too wrapped up in each other to sense the danger edging close to their charges.
To look closer yet was to see the three keys worked cleverly into the painting. One, disguised in the shape of a bird, seemed to fly through the cerulean sky. Another hid itself within the lush green leaves of the forest. And the third reflected deep in the pool behind the daughters who were sharing their last moment of peace and innocence.
He’d seen how they’d looked after the spell. White and still as death in the crystal coffins as Rowena had painted them.
He’d bought that painting, titled After the Spell, months before he’d even come back to the Valley or known of this quest and these women. Been compelled to buy it, he thought now, as he’d fallen in love, or into fascination or obsession—he wished to God he knew—with Zoe’s face.
“Two keys are found,” Rowena began. “Two locks are opened. Now there is but one.” She moved to stand under the portrait as she spoke, with the fire snapping gold and red flames behind her.
“You agreed to this quest because you were curious, and you were each at a point where aspects of your life were unsettled and dissatisfying. And,” she added, “because you were paid. But you’ve continued to quest because you’re strong and you’re true. No one else, not in three millennia, has come so far.”
“You’ve learned the power of art,” Pitte continued, and stepped over to join Rowena. “And the power of truth. The first two journeys bring you to the third.”
“You have each other,” she said to the women. “And you have your men. Together you make a chain. You must not let him break it.” She stepped forward and spoke to Zoe as if they were alone in the room. “It is for you now. It was always for you to finish.”
“For me?” Panic wanted to gush into her throat. “If that’s true, why did we pick before? With Mal and Dana?”
“There must always be choice. Fate is the door, but you choose to walk through or turn away. Will you walk through?”
Zoe looked up at the portrait, and nodded.
“Then I’ll give you your map, your clue to the key, and pray that it guides you.” She walked over and took up a scroll.
“Beauty and truth,” she read, “are lost without the courage to hold them. But one pair of hands can grip too hard, so that the precious slips through the fingers. Loss and pain, sorrow and will, blaze the rough path through the forest. Along the journey there is blood, and there is the death of innocence and the ghosts of what might have been.
“Each time the path forks, it is faith that chooses the way or doubt that blocks it. Is it despair, or will it be joy? Can there be fulfillment without risk of loss? Will it be an end, or a beginning? Will you move into the light, or return to the dark?
“There is one who stands on either side, with hands held out. Will you take one, the other, or close your hands in fists to hold what is already yours until it’s ground to dust?
“Fear hunts, and its arrow strikes heart, mind, belly. Without tending, wounds fester, and scars too long ignored harden into shields that block the eyes from what needs most to be seen.
“Where does the goddess stand, her sword in hand, willing to fight each battle in its time? Willing, too, to lay down the sword when the time comes for peace. Find her, know her power, her faith, and her valiant heart. For when you look on her at last, you will have the key to free her. And you will find it on a path where no door will ever be locked against you.”
“Oh, boy.” Zoe pressed a hand to her stomach. “I can keep the paper, right? I’m never going to remember all that.”
“Good.” She worked hard to keep her voice calm and even. “It sounded a little . . .”
“Violent,” Dana put in.
“Yeah, that.” Zoe felt better, considerably, when Dana’s hand came to rest on her shoulder.
“But, it seemed, compared to the others, that my clue was more a lot of questions.”
Rowena held out the scroll. “Answer them,” she said simply.
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