Key of Light
She arched her brows, took the wine he offered, then pulled a little notepad out of her apron pocket. “This is already half full. I was planning to wait until you were lulled into complacency by meat and potatoes.”
He flipped through the notebook and noted that items were listed under specific headings. Foodstuffs, Cleaning Supplies—with subheadings Kitchen, Bathroom, Laundry—Household Necessities.
Jesus, the woman was irresistible.
“Am I going to need to take out a loan?”
“Think of it as an investment.” Taking the notebook from him, she tucked it into his shirt pocket, then concentrated on the potatoes. “Oh, by the way, I really like the art in your office upstairs.”
“Art?” It took him a minute. “Oh, my girls. Really?”
“Clever, nostalgic, sexy, stylish. It’s a great room altogether, which I admit was something of a relief to me, considering the rest of the house. Enough that I wasn’t flattened by disappointment when my brainstorm about the key didn’t pan out.” She drained the beans that she’d dashed with basil into one of her serving bowls, handed it to him. “Monroe, Grable, Hayworth, and so on. Screen goddesses. Goddess, key.”
“Yeah, it seemed so, but no luck.” She passed him the bowl of potatoes, then using the potholders she’d bought, took the meat loaf out of the oven. “Still, I think I’m on the right track, and it gave me the chance to see your thinking space.”
She sat, scanned the table. “Hope you’re hungry.”
They dished up the meal. At the first bite of meat loaf, Flynn sighed. “Good thing you put Moe out. I’d hate to torment him with this, since he won’t be getting much of it. My compliments to the artist.”
There was pleasure, Malory discovered, in watching someone you loved eat what you’d prepared. Pleasure in sharing a simple meal at the kitchen table at the end of the day.
She’d never felt deprived eating dinner alone, or in the company of a friend. But now it was easy to see herself sharing this hour with him, night after night, year after year.
“Flynn, you said that when you accepted that you were meant to stay in the Valley, you bought this house. Did you—do you—have a vision for it? How you want it to look and feel?”
“I don’t know if you’d call it a vision. I liked the look of it, the lines of it, and the big yard. Something about a big yard makes me feel prosperous and safe.”
He went back for seconds. “I figure I’ll have to gut this room sooner or later, rip it into the new millennium. Buy stuff for the rest of the place, eventually. But I never seem to get around to it. I guess because it’s just me and Moe.”
He poured more wine for both of them. “If you’ve got some ideas, I’m open to suggestions.”
“I’ve always got ideas, and you should be careful before you get me started. But that wasn’t why I asked. I had a vision for the property we bought—Dana and Zoe and I. As soon as I walked into that house I could see how it would work, what it needed from me, what I could bring to it. And I haven’t been back since.”
“You’ve been pretty busy.”
“That’s not it. I deliberately haven’t been back. That’s not like me. Usually when I have a project, I can’t wait to get started, to start fiddling with things, lining them up, making lists. I took the step. I signed on the dotted line, but I haven’t taken the next step.”
“It’s a big commitment, Mal.”
“I’m not afraid of commitment. Hell, I thrive on it. But I’ve been a little afraid of this. I’m going to go over tomorrow, take a look at the place. Apparently the previous owners left a lot of stuff they didn’t want in the attic. Zoe asked me to go through it before she started hauling things out.”
“What kind of attic? A dark, spooky attic or a big, fun, Grandma’s attic?”
“I have no idea. I haven’t been up there.” It shamed her to admit that. “I haven’t been off the ground floor, which is ridiculous, as I own a third of the property. Or will. I’m going to change that. Change isn’t my best thing.”
“Want me to go with you? I’d like to see the place anyway.”
“I was hoping you’d say that.” She reached over to give his hand a squeeze. “Thanks. Now, since you asked about ideas on this house, I’d suggest you start in the living room, which by my definition is an area where you’re supposed to live.”
“You’re going to insult my sofa again, aren’t you?”
“I don’t believe I have the skills to form the insult that sofa merits. But you might want to think about actual tables, lamps, area rugs, curtains.”
“I was thinking I could just order a bunch of stuff out of a catalogue.”
She sent him a very long, very dry stare. “You’re trying to scare me, but it won’t work. And since you’ve generously offered to help me out tomorrow, I’ll return the favor. I’d be glad to give you a hand with turning that space into a room.”
Since he’d all but licked his plate clean a second time, he resisted going for thirds. “Was that a trick, some clever ploy to drag me off to a furniture store?”
“It wasn’t, but it sure circled around to it well, didn’t it? I can give you some of my thoughts while we do the dishes.”
She rose to stack dishes, but he put a hand over hers. “Let’s just go in there now, and you can show me what’s so wrong with my simple, minimalist approach.”
“After the dishes.”
“Uh-uh. Now.” He began to pull her out of the room, amused at the struggle on her face as she glanced back at the table. “They’ll still be there when we get back. Trust me. It’s not going to hurt to do them out of the logical order.”
“Yes, it does. A little. Five minutes, then. The condensed consultation. First, you did a good job with the walls. It’s a good-sized room, and the strong color’s a complement, which you could enhance with touches of other strong colors in curtains and . . . What’re you doing?” she demanded when he began unbuttoning her shirt.
“Getting you naked.”
“Excuse me.” She tapped his fingers away. “I charge extra for naked decorating consults.”
“Bill me.” He swept her off her feet.
“This was just a trick, wasn’t it? A ploy to get my clothes off and have your way with me.”
“Sure circled around nicely, didn’t it?” He dumped her on the couch and dived on top of her.
HE made her laugh as he nipped along her jawline, playfully wrestled her down when she tried to squirm away.
“You taste even better than meat loaf.”
“If that’s the best you can do, then you’re the one who’ll be washing dishes.”
“Your threats don’t scare me.” He walked his fingers up her ribs toward her breast. “There’s a dishwasher somewhere in that kitchen.”
“Yes, there is. And you had a bag of dog food stored in it.”
“Is that where that went to?” He nibbled at her earlobe.
“It’s now in the utility closet, where it belongs.” She turned her head slightly to give him easier access to her neck. “You’re obviously unaware that there are very practical, even attractive, containers manufactured to store items such as dog food.”
“No kidding? Looks like I’ve got my work cut out for me, getting these domestic worries out of your mind. But I like a challenge after a good meal. Let’s just get this off.”
He tugged at her shirt, then made a throaty sound as he smoothed a finger over the salmon-colored lace of her bra. “I like this. We’ll leave that on a while.”
“We could take this upstairs, you know. I cleaned under the cushions and learned just what this monster can swallow. We could be next.”
“I’ll protect you.”
He replaced his fingertips with his lips, skimmed them over lace and flesh.
The enormous cushions gave under their weight, cradled them together as he sampled her. She wiggled and squirmed in mock resist
ance, an erotic game that aroused them both.
Her mind began to fog as he scraped his teeth down her torso. “What do you think of Brazilians?”
Baffled, he lifted his head. “What? The people, or the nuts?”
She stared at him, amazed that she’d spoken out loud, delighted with his response. Laughter shook her, rolled straight up from her belly as she grabbed him and rained kisses over his face. “Nothing. Never mind. There.” She dragged his shirt over his head. “Now we’re even.”
She loved the feel of his skin under her hands, the sturdy shoulders, the play of muscles. She loved, oh, yes, the feel of his hands on her. Gentle or rough, rushed or patient.
And as the evening light slipped through the windows, as he roamed down her body, she closed her eyes and let sensation rule.
Flutters and tugs, heat and chills. Each was a separate thrill blending into a single, steady ache. His fingers danced over her belly, made it quiver, before he drew her pants down her hips and legs.
Then his tongue slid over her, down her, into her, and flashed her to peak.
She moaned his name when her body went bowstring taut under his. Sighed his name as she seemed to dissolve under his hands.
He wanted, as he’d wanted in that stunning moment in his kitchen, to give her anything. Everything she wanted, all she needed, more than she could imagine.
He’d never known what it was to be offered unconditional love, to know it waited for him. He’d never felt deprived of it because he’d never known it existed.
And now he held the woman who’d given it to him.
She was his miracle, his magic. His key.
He pressed his lips to her shoulder, her throat, rode on the punch of these huge new emotions when her arms came around him.
Words tumbled through his mind, but none of them were enough. He found her mouth with his, cupped her hips, and filled her.
WARM and loose and sleepy, she curled into him. She was more than willing to cocoon herself in this lovely sexual haze, to drift in it to the sound of her own skin humming. Chores could wait, forever if need be. As long as she could snuggle here, feeling Flynn’s heart pound against hers.
She wondered why they didn’t just drift off to sleep this way, warm, naked, and tangled with the bloom of lovemaking covering them both like soft, silky clouds.
She stretched luxuriously under his hand when he stroked her back. “Mmmm. Let’s just stay here all night, like a couple of bears in a cave.”
She tipped her face up to smile at him. “Of course I am.” She snuggled back in. “So happy I’m pretending there aren’t dishes waiting to be washed or leftovers to put away.”
“You haven’t been happy the last few days.”
“No, I guess I haven’t.” She settled her head more comfortably on his shoulder. “I felt like I’d lost my direction, and everything around me was shifting and changing so fast I couldn’t keep up. Then it occurred to me that if I didn’t change, at least open myself to changing, the direction didn’t matter. Because I was going nowhere.”
“There are some things I want to tell you, if you can handle some more changes.”
Uneasy, as his tone was so serious, she braced herself. “All right.”
He felt her tense, an instant tightening of muscles, and could all but feel her will herself to relax again. “This may not be the best moment to tell me about another woman. Especially one you loved and planned to marry.”
“I think it is. We knew each other casually for several months, then intimately for the best part of a year. We clicked on a number of levels. Professionally, socially, sexually—”
Her lovely cocoon was now in shreds, and she began to feel the cold. “Flynn—”
“Hear me out. It was the longest adult relationship I’d had with a woman. Serious relationship with long-term planning. I thought we were in love with each other.”
“She hurt you, I know. I’m sorry, but—”
“Quiet.” He tapped a finger on the top of her head. “She didn’t love me, or if she did, that love had specific requirements. So you couldn’t call it a gift.”
He was silent for a moment, selecting his words carefully. “It isn’t easy looking in the mirror and accepting that you were missing some element, some thing that kept a person you wanted from loving you.”
She tried to keep steady. “No, it’s not.”
“And even when you come to terms with it, when you realize it just wasn’t right, that there was something missing from the other person, too, something missing from the whole, it still breaks your stride. It makes you a lot more hesitant about taking that kind of chance again.”
“I understand that.”
“And you end up going nowhere,” he stated, echoing her earlier statement. “Jordan said something to me the other day that had me thinking, and thinking back. I asked myself if I’d ever really imagined life with Lily. You know, pictured how we’d be together a few years down the road. I could see the immediate future, the moving-to-New-York thing. How we’d get jobs in our chosen fields, find a place to live, and then I realized that was pretty much it. That was all I’d been able to see. Not how we would live or what we’d do beyond that vague picture, not how we’d look together in a decade. It wasn’t hard to picture my life without her in it, maybe harder to pick up my life at the point she dumped me. Lots of bruises on the pride and ego. Lots of anger and hurt. And the by-product of feeling like I probably wasn’t cut out for the whole love-and-marriage thing.”
Her heart was twisting, for both of them. “You don’t have to explain.”
“I’m not finished. I was bumping along pretty well. Had my life in order—not so you’d think so, but it suited me. Then Moe knocked you flat on the sidewalk, and things began to change. No secret I was attracted to you from the get-go, and hoped we’d end up naked on this sofa sooner or later. But, initially, that’s as far as I could see things, regarding you and me.”
This time he tipped her face up. He wanted her to look at him now. Wanted to see her face. “I’ve known you less than a month. On a lot of basic points we come at it from opposite angles. But I can see my life with you, the way you can look through a window and see your own little world spread out. I can see how it could be a year from now, or twenty years from now, with you and me and what we make.”
He skimmed his fingers along her cheek, just to feel the shape of it. “What I can’t see is how I’d pick up my life from this point and make it without you.”
He watched her eyes fill with tears, watched them spill over. “I love you.” He brushed away a tear with his thumb. “I don’t have a master plan for what happens next. I just know I love you.”
Emotions surged through her, so bright and rich she wondered that they didn’t burst out of her in colored light. Terrified that she was about to fall apart, she struggled to smile. “I have to ask you for something important.”
“Promise me you’ll never get rid of this couch.”
He laughed, nuzzled her cheek. “You’re going to regret that.”
“No, I won’t. I’m not going to regret a thing.”
WITH the two women who had become her friends and partners, Malory sat on the front porch of the house that would be one-third hers.
The sky had clouded up since she’d arrived, clouds stacking on clouds to make a multilayered sweep of grays.
Storm brewing, she figured, and found herself pleased with the idea of being inside with rain pounding on the roof. But first she wanted to sit while the electricity gathered in the air and those first puffs of wind bent the trees.
More than anything she’d needed to share her joy and her nerves with her friends.
“He loves me.” She didn’t think she would ever tire of saying it aloud. “Flynn loves me.”
“It’s so romantic.” Zoe dug a tissue out of her purse and sniffled into it.
s. You know, there was a time I wouldn’t have thought so. I’d have had a very detailed outline in my mind. Candlelight, music, with me and the perfect man in some elegant room. Or outdoors, in some spectacular setting. It would all have had to be arranged, just so.”
With a shake of her head, she laughed at herself. “That’s why I know it’s the real thing. Because it didn’t have to be just so, and elegant and perfect. It just had to be. It had to be Flynn.”
“Jeez. It’s hard for me to equate the stars in your eyes with Flynn.” Dana rested her chin on her fist. “Nice and all, because I love him too. But it’s Flynn, my favorite moron. I’ve never pictured him as a romantic figure.” She turned toward Zoe. “What the hell’s in that meat loaf? Maybe I should get the recipe.”
“I’m going to take another look at it myself.” She patted Malory’s knee. “I’m really happy for you. I liked the way you two looked together right from the start.”
“Hey, you moving in with him?” Dana perked up. “That would set Jordan out on his butt that much sooner.”
“Sorry, we didn’t get to that stage yet. We’re just basking in the we’re-in-love moment for now. And that, friends and neighbors, is a real change for me. I’m not making schedules and lists. I’m just going with it. God, I feel like I could take on the world! Which brings me to the next part of this session. I’m sorry I haven’t contributed to any of the plans for the house here or done anything about moving forward with ideas for fixing it up, putting it all together.”
“I wondered if you were going to bail,” Dana admitted.
“I was thinking about it. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. I guess I had to work out for myself what I was doing and why. Now I know. I’m starting my own business because the longer you put off dreams, the less chance you have of making them real. I’m going into a partnership with two women I like a lot. Not only am I not going to let them down, but I’m not going to let me down either.”
She got to her feet, and with her hands planted on her hips, turned to look at the house. “I don’t know if I’m ready for this, but I’m ready to try. I don’t know if I’m going to find the key in the time I have left, but I know I’ve tried there, too.”
“I know what I think.” Zoe rose to join her. “If it weren’t for the key, you wouldn’t be with Flynn now. We wouldn’t be together, and we wouldn’t have this place. Because of that I’ve got a chance to make something special, for myself, for Simon. I wouldn’t have had that without the two of you.”
“Let me start off saying we can skip the group hug.” Still, Dana walked over to them. “But I feel the same way. I wouldn’t have had the chance for this without both of you. My idiot brother has a classy lady in love with him. All that starts with the key. I say you’re going to find it.”
She looked up as rain began to splatter. “Now let’s get the hell in out of the rain.”
Inside, they stood in a loose semicircle.
“Together or separate?” Malory asked.
“Together,” Zoe answered.
“Top or bottom?”
“Top.” Dana glanced over, got assenting nods. “You said Flynn was coming by?”
“Yeah, he’s going to slip over for an hour.”
“We can use him as a pack mule, then, for anything we want to haul out of the attic.”
“Some of the stuff up there is great.” Zoe’s face shone with enthusiasm as they started up. “I know it looks like junk at first glance, but I think once we get to it, we’ll be able to use some. There’s an old wicker chair that could be rewoven and painted. It’d look good on the porch. And there’s a couple of those pole lamps. The shades are trash, but the poles could be cleaned up and antiqued.”
Her voice faded away as Malory climbed the steps. The window at the top was wet with rain, dull with dust. And her heart began to thud like a fist against her ribs.
“This is the place,” she whispered.
“Yeah, it is. This is it.” Dana set her hands on her hips as she looked around the second floor. “It’ll be ours and the bank’s in a few weeks.”