Key of Light
“That should’ve clued you in. Me, cooking? An obvious delusion.”
“You were making me French toast. It’s my favorite lazy-morning treat. We talked about going on vacation, and I remembered all the other places we’d gone, what we’d done. Those memories were inside me. Then the baby woke up.”
“Baby?” He went icy pale. “We had—there was . . . a baby?”
“I went up to get him out of the crib.”
“Yes, him. Along the walls on the way were paintings I’d done. They were wonderful, and I could remember painting them. Just as I could remember painting the ones in the nursery. I picked the baby up, out of the crib, and this love, this terrible love for him. I was full of it. And then . . . and then I didn’t know his name. I had no name for him. I could feel the shape of him in my arms, and how soft and warm his skin was, but I didn’t know his name. You came to the door, and I could see through you. I knew it wasn’t real. None of it was real.”
She had to stand up, to move. She walked over to open the curtains again. “Even as I started to hurt, I was in a studio. My studio, surrounded by my work. I could smell the paint and the turpentine. I had a brush in my hand, and I knew how to use it. I knew all the things I’d always wanted to know. It was powerful, like having the child who had come from me in my arms. And just as false. And he was there.”
“Who was there?”
She drew in a sharp breath, turned back. “His name is Kane. The stealer of souls. He spoke to me. I could have it all—the life, the love, the talent. It could be real. If I just stayed inside it, I’d never have to give it up. We would love each other. We’d have a son. I’d paint. It would all be perfect. Just live inside the dream, and the dream’s real.”
“Did he touch you?” He rushed to her to run his hands over her as if to check for wounds. “Did he hurt you?”
“This world or that,” she said, steady again. “My choice. I wanted to stay, but I couldn’t. I don’t want a dream, Flynn, no matter how perfect it is. If it’s not real, it means nothing. And if I’d stayed, isn’t that just another way of giving him my soul?”
“You were screaming.” Undone, Flynn laid his forehead on hers. “You were screaming.”
“He tried to take it, but I heard you shouting for me. Why did you come here?”
“You were upset, with me. I didn’t want you to be.”
“Annoyed,” she corrected and slid her arms around him. “I still am, but it’s a little hard to get through everything else to my irritation. I want you to stay. I’m afraid to sleep, afraid I might go back and this time I won’t be strong enough to come out again.”
“You’re strong enough. And if you need it, I’ll help pull you out.”
“This might not be real either.” She lifted her mouth to his. “But I need you.”
“It’s real.” He lifted her hands, kissed each one in turn. “That’s the only thing I’m sure of in this whole damn mess. Whatever I’m feeling for you, Malory, it’s real.”
“If you can’t tell me what you feel, then show me.” She drew him to her. “Show me now.”
All the conflicting emotions, the needs and doubts and wants, poured into the kiss. And as she accepted them, accepted him, he felt himself settle. Tenderness spread through him as he picked her up, cradled her in his arms.
“I want to keep you safe. I don’t care if it irritates you.” He carried her to her room and laid her on the bed, began to undress her. “I’ll keep getting in the way, if that’s what it takes.”
“I don’t need someone to look out for me.” She lifted a hand to his cheek. “I just need you to look at me.”
“Malory, I’ve been looking at you from the beginning, even when you’re not around.”
She smiled, arched up so he could slip off her blouse. “That’s a strange thing to say, but it’s nice. Lie down with me.”
They were side by side, faces close. “I feel pretty safe right now, and it’s not particularly irritating.”
“Maybe you’re feeling a little too safe.” He skimmed a fingertip over the swell of her breast.
“Maybe.” She sighed when he began to nuzzle the side of her neck. “That doesn’t scare me a bit. You’re going to have to try a lot harder.”
He rolled over, pinned her, then plundered her mouth with his.
“Oh. Nice work,” she managed.
She was trembling, just enough to arouse him, and her skin was flushing warm. He could steep himself in her, in the tastes and textures. He could lose himself in that low, driving urge to give her pleasure.
He was tied to her. Perhaps he had been even before he’d met her. Could it be that all the mistakes he’d made, all the changes in direction, had been only to lead him to this time, and this woman?
Was there never any choice?
She sensed him drawing back. “Don’t. Don’t go away,” she begged. “Let me love you. I need to love you.”
She wound her arms around him, used her mouth to seduce. For now, she would trade pride for power without a qualm. As her body moved sinuously under his, she felt his quiver.
Hands stroked. Lips took. Breathy moans slid into air that had gone dim and thick. Long, lazy kisses built in intensity and ended on gasps of greed.
He was with her now, locked in a rhythm too primal to resist. The hammer blows of his heart threatened to shatter his chest, and still it wasn’t enough.
He wanted to gorge on the flavors of her, to drown in that sea of needs. One moment she was pliant, yielding; the next, as taut as a bunched fist. When her breath sobbed out his name, he thought he might go mad.
She rose over him. Locking her hands in his, she took him into her, a slow, slow slide that tied his frantic system into knots.
She shook her head, leaning down to rub her lips over his. “Want me.”
“Let me take you. Watch me take you.”
She arched back, stroking her hands up her torso, over her breasts, into her hair. And she began to ride.
Heat slapped him back, a furnace blast that had his muscles going to jelly, that scorched his bones. She rose above him, slim and strong, white and gold. She surrounded him, possessed him. Spurred him toward madness.
The power and pleasure consumed her. She drove them both faster, harder, until her vision was a blur of colors. Alive, was all she could think. They were alive. Blood burned in her veins, pumped in her frenzied heart. Good healthy sweat slicked her skin. She could taste him in her mouth, feel him pounding in the very core of her.
This was life.
She clung to it, clung even when the glory climbed toward the unbearable. Until his body plunged, and she let go.
HE made good on the soup, though he could tell it amused her to have him stirring a pot at her stove. He put on music, kept the lights low. Not for seduction, but because he desperately wanted to keep her relaxed.
He had questions, a great many more questions, about her dream. The part of him that felt that asking questions was a human obligation warred with the part that wanted to tuck her up safe and quiet for a while.
“I could run out,” he suggested, “grab some videos. We can veg out.”
“Don’t go anywhere.” She snuggled closer to him on the couch. “You don’t have to distract me, Flynn. We have to talk about it eventually.”
“Doesn’t have to be now.”
“I thought a newspaperman dug for all the facts fit to print, and then some.”
“Since the Dispatch isn’t going to be running a story on Celtic myths in the Valley until all of this is finished, there’s no rush.”
“And if you were working for the New York Times?”
“That’d be different.” He stroked her hair, sipped his wine. “I’d be hard-boiled and cynical and skewer you or anybody else for the story. And I’d probably be strung out and stressed. Maybe have a drinking problem. Be working toward my second divorce. I think I’d like bourbon,
and I’d have a redhead on the side.”
“What do you really think it’d be like if you’d gone to New York?”
“I don’t know. I like to think I’d have done good work. Important work.”
“You don’t think your work here’s important?”
“It serves a purpose.”
“An important purpose. Not only keeping people informed and entertained, giving them the continuity of tradition, but keeping a lot of them employed. The people who work on the paper, deliver it, their families. Where would they have gone if you’d left?”
“I wasn’t the only one who could run it.”
“Maybe you were the only one who was supposed to run it. Would you go now, if you could?”
He thought about it. “No. I made the choice. Most of the time I’m glad I chose as I did. Just every once in a while, I wonder.”
“I couldn’t paint. Nobody told me I couldn’t or made me give it up. I just wasn’t good enough. It’s different when you’re good enough, but someone tells you you can’t.”
“It wasn’t exactly like that.”
“What was it like?”
“You have to understand my mother. She makes very definite plans. When my father died, well, that must’ve really messed up Plan A.”
“I’m not saying she didn’t love him, or didn’t mourn. She did. We did. He made her laugh. He could always make her laugh. I don’t think I heard her laugh, not really, for a year after we lost him.”
“Flynn.” It broke her heart. “I’m so sorry.”
“She’s tough. One thing you can say about Elizabeth Flynn Hennessy Steele, she’s no wimp.”
“You love her.” Malory brushed at his hair. “I wondered.”
“Sure I do, but you won’t hear me say she was easy to live with. Anyway, when she pulled herself out of it, it was time for Plan B. Big chunk of that was passing the paper to me when the time came. No problem for me there, since I figured that was way, way down the road. And that I would deal with it, and her, when I had to. I liked working for the Dispatch, learning not just about reporting but about publishing too.”
“But you wanted to do that in New York.”
“I was too big for a podunk town like Pleasant Valley. Too much to say, too much to do. Pulitzers to win. Then my mother married Joe. He’s a great guy. Dana’s dad.”
“Can he make your mother laugh?”
“Yeah. Yeah, he can. We made a good family, the four of us. I don’t know that I appreciated that at the time. With Joe around, I figured some of the pressure on me was off. I guess we all figured they’d work the paper together for decades.”
“Joe’s a reporter?”
“Yeah, worked for the paper for years. Used to joke that he’d married the boss. They made a good team too, so it looked like everything was going to work out fine and dandy. After college, I figured to build up another couple years’ experience here, then give New York a break and offer my invaluable skills and services. I met Lily, and that seemed to be the icing on the cake.”
“Joe got sick. Looking back, I imagine my mother was frantic at the idea that she might lose somebody else she loved. She’s not big on emotional displays. She’s sort of contained and straightforward, but I can see it, hindsight-wise. And I can’t imagine what it was like for her. They had to move. He had a better chance of copping more time if they got out of this climate, and away from stress. So either I stayed, or the paper closed.”
“She expected you to stay.”
He remembered what he’d said about expectations. “Yeah. Do my duty. I was pissed off at her for a year, then irritated for another. Somewhere in year three I hit resigned. I don’t know exactly when that became . . . I guess you could say contentment. But around the time I bumped into contentment, I bought the house. Then I got Moe.”
“I’d say you’re off your mother’s plan and on your own.”
He let out a half laugh. “Son of a bitch. I guess I am.”
THERE was very little that Dana dragged herself out of bed for. Work, of course, was the primary incentive. But when she had the morning off, her main choice for entertainment was sleep.
Giving that up at Flynn’s request demonstrated, in her opinion, extreme sisterly affection. And should earn her major points, to be redeemed in any future necessity.
She knocked on Malory’s door at seven-thirty, wearing a Groucho Marx T-shirt, ripped jeans, and a pair of Oakleys.
Because he knew his sister, Flynn opened the door and shoved a steaming cup of coffee into her hands.
“You’re a peach. You’re a jewel. You are my personal treasure chest.”
“Stuff it.” She strode in, sat on the couch, and began to inhale the coffee. “Where’s Mal?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t look. I should’ve looked,” he said instantly. “I’m a selfish bastard, thinking only of myself.”
“Excuse me, but I’d have liked to say that.”
“Just saving you the time and energy. I’ve got to go. I need to be at the paper in . . . shit, twenty-six minutes,” he said when he looked at his watch.
“Just tell me why I’m in Malory’s apartment, drinking coffee and hoping there are bagels, when she’s asleep.”
“I don’t have time to get into it. She had a rough one, and I don’t want her to be alone. At all, Dana.”
“Jesus, Flynn, what? Did somebody beat her up?”
“You could say that. Emotionally speaking. And it wasn’t me,” he added as he headed for the door. “Just stick with her, will you? I’ll shake loose as soon as I can, but I’ve got a full slate today. Let her sleep, then, I don’t know, keep her busy. I’ll call.”
He was out the patio door and loping away while Dana scowled after him. “For a reporter, you’re sure stingy with the deets.” Deciding to make the best of it, she got up to raid Malory’s kitchen.
She was taking the first enthusiastic bite of a poppy-seed bagel when Malory came in.
Heavy-eyed, Dana noted. A little pale. Considerably rumpled. She imagined the rumpled part was on Flynn. “Hi. Want the other half?”
Obviously groggy, Malory just blinked. “Hi, yourself. Where’s Flynn?”
“He had to run. Go stand for journalism and all that. Want some coffee instead?”
“Yes.” She rubbed her eyes and tried to think. “What’re you doing here, Dana?”
“Don’t have a clue. Flynn called me, at the ungodly hour of about forty minutes ago, and asked me to come over. He was short on details but long on pleading, so I hauled my ass over here. What’s up?”
“I guess he’s worried about me.” She considered it, then decided she didn’t mind very much. “That’s sort of sweet.”
“Yeah, he’s sugar. Why is he worried about you?”
“I think we’d better sit down.”
She told Dana everything.
“What did he look like?” Dana demanded.
“Well . . . strong face, leaning toward the ascetic side. Wait a minute—I think I can sketch it.”
She got up to take a pad and pencil from a drawer, then sat down again. “He had very well-defined features, so it won’t be too hard. But more than how he looked was the way he felt. Compelling. Even charismatic.”
“What about the house you were in?” Dana pressed while Malory worked.
“I just got impressions. It seemed so familiar in the dream, the way your home does. So you don’t notice a lot of details. Two-story with a lawn in the back, a pretty garden. Sunny kitchen.”
“It wasn’t Flynn’s house?”
Malory looked up then. “No,” she said slowly. “No, it wasn’t. I didn’t think of that. Wouldn’t you assume it would be? If it’s my fantasy, why weren’t we living in his house? It’s a great house, it’s already in my head.”
“Maybe he couldn’t use Flynn’s
house because it’s already occupied, and . . . I don’t know. It’s probably not important.”
“I think everything’s important. Everything I saw and felt and heard. I just don’t know how yet. Here . . .” She turned the pad around. “It’s rough, but that’s the best I can do. It’s a pretty decent impression of him anyway.”
“Wow!” Dana pursed her lips, whistled. “So Kane the sorcerer’s a hottie.”
“He scares me, Dana.”
“He couldn’t hurt you, not really. Not when it came right down to it.”
“Not this time. But he was in my head. It was like an invasion.” She pressed her lips together. “A kind of rape. He knows what I feel, and what I wish for.”
“I’ll tell you what he didn’t know. He didn’t know you’d tell him to kiss your ass.”
Malory sat back. “You’re right. He didn’t know I’d refuse, or that I’d understand—even in the dream—that he wanted me trapped somewhere, however wonderful, where I couldn’t find the key. Both of those things surprised and irritated him. And that means he doesn’t know everything.”
WITH considerable reluctance, Dana tagged along when Malory decided to work at Flynn’s house. It made sense, as the two paintings were there. But so was Jordan Hawke.
Her hopes that he would be out somewhere were quashed when she saw the vintage Thunderbird in Flynn’s driveway.
“Always had a thing about cars,” she muttered, and though she sniffed at the T-Bird, she secretly admired its lines, the sweep of tail fins and the sparkle of chrome.
She’d have paid money to get behind the wheel and open that engine up on a straightaway.
“Don’t know why the jerk has to have a car when he lives in Manhattan.”
Malory recognized the tone, both the sulkiness and the bitterness, and paused at the door. “Is this going to be a problem for you? Maybe we can make arrangements to see the paintings again when Jordan’s not here.”
“No problem for me. He doesn’t exist in my reality. I long ago drowned him in a vat of ebola. It was a messy, yet oddly satisfying, task.”
“Okay, then.” Malory lifted a hand to knock, but Dana nudged her aside.
“I do not knock on my brother’s door.” She shot her key into the lock. “No matter what morons he might have staying with him.”
She strode in, prepared for a confrontation. Unwilling to be so easily deflated when she didn’t see him, she slammed the door.
“Oops. Slipped.” Hooking her thumbs in her pockets, she strolled into the living room. “Just where we left them,” she said with a nod at the paintings. “And you know what, I don’t see anything different about them either. Job’s done for today. Let’s go shopping or something.”
“I want to do a more thorough study of them, and I want to go through all the research notes. But there’s no reason for you to hang around.”
“I promised Flynn.”
“Flynn’s a worrywart.”