Key of valor, p.1
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       Key of Valor, p.1

         Part #3 of Key series by Nora Roberts  



  To my mom, who was brave enough to raise five of us

  Courage, the footstool of the Virtues, upon which they stand.

  —ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON

  Chapter One

  ZOE McCourt was sixteen when she met the boy who would change her life. She’d grown up in the mountains of West Virginia, the oldest of four. By the time she was twelve, her father had already run off with the wife of another man.

  Even then, Zoe hadn’t considered it any great loss. Her daddy was a short-tempered, moody man who preferred drinking beer with the boys or banging his neighbor’s wife rather than seeing to his own.

  Still, it was hard, since most weeks he had at least brought home a paycheck.

  Her mother was a thin, nervous woman who smoked too much and compensated for her husband’s desertion by replacing him, with some regularity, with boyfriends cut from the same cloth as Bobby Lee McCourt. They made her happy in the short term, angry and sad in the long, but she’d never been able to do without a man for more than a month straight in any case.

  Crystal McCourt had raised her brood in a double-wide, slotted into a lot in the Hillside Trailer Park. After her husband ran off, Crystal got shit-faced drunk and, leaving Zoe in charge, hopped in her thirdhand Camaro to head out in pursuit of, in her words, “the cheating son of a bitch and his godforsaken whore.”

  She’d been gone for three days. She hadn’t found Bobby, but she came back sober. The chase had cost her some of her self-respect, and her job at Debbie’s House of Beauty.

  Debbie’s House might have been more of a hut, but it cut deep to lose the regular pay.

  The experience toughened Crystal considerably. She sat her children down and told them things were going to be rocky and things were going to be hard, but they’d find a way.

  She nailed up her beautician’s license in the trailer’s kitchen and opened her own house of beauty.

  She undercut Debbie’s prices, and she had a talent with hair.

  So they’d gotten by. The trailer had smelled of peroxide and permanents and smoke, but they’d gotten by.

  Zoe shampooed heads, swept up shorn hair, and minded her three siblings. When she showed an aptitude, she was given comb-outs or allowed to trim.

  And she dreamed of better, of more, of the world outside that trailer park.

  She did well in school, especially in math. Her skill with numbers put her in charge of her mother’s books, the taxes, the bills.

  She was an adult before her fourteenth birthday, with the child inside yearning for something more.

  It was no surprise that she was dazzled by James Marshall.

  He was so different from the boys she knew. Not just because he was a little older—nineteen to her sixteen—but because he’d been places and seen things. And God, he was so handsome. Like Prince Charming out of the storybook.

  His great-grandfather might have worked the mines in those hills, but there was no coal dust on James. The generations between had scrubbed it all away, and added a sheen of polish and gloss.

  His family had money, the kind of money that bought class, and education, and trips to Europe. They had the biggest house in town, as white and showy as a bridal gown, and James and his younger sister were both sent to private schools.

  The Marshalls liked to give parties, big, splashy ones with live music and fancy catered food. Mrs. Marshall would always have Crystal come right to the house to do her hair for a party, and Zoe often went along to do Mrs. Marshall’s nails.

  She would dream about that house, so clean and full of flowers and pretty things. It was so wonderful to know people lived that way. Not everyone was crowded into a trailer that smelled of chemicals and stale smoke.

  She promised herself that one day she would live in a house. It didn’t have to be big and grand like the Marshalls’, but it would be a real house, and it would have a little yard.

  And one day, she would travel to the places Mrs. Marshall spoke of—New York City, Paris, Rome.

  She saved her pennies for it from her tip money, and the pay she earned from the odd jobs she took. Well, the pay that didn’t go to helping Mama keep the wolf from the door.

  She was good with money. At sixteen she had four hundred and fourteen dollars tucked away in a secret savings account.

  In April, when she turned sixteen, she made some extra money helping to serve at one of the Marshalls’ parties. She was presentable enough, and eager for the work.

  She wore her hair long back then, a straight stream of black down her back. She’d always been slim, but she’d blossomed in a way that had the boys sniffing around her. She had no time for boys—or not very much.

  She had long-lidded eyes of golden brown that were always looking, watching, wondering, and a wide, full mouth that was slow to smile. Her features were sharp and angular, adding a touch of the exotic that was a contrast to her innate shyness.

  She did what she was told and did it well—and kept, as much as it was possible, to herself.

  Maybe it was the shyness, or the dreamy eyes, or the quiet competence that attracted James. But he flirted with her on that early-spring evening, flustered her, and ultimately flattered her. And he asked to see her again.

  They met in secret, which added to the thrill. The sheer romance of having the attention of someone like James was overpowering. He listened to her, so her shyness dropped away and she told him her dreams and hopes.

  He was sweet to her, and whenever she could slip away they went for long drives or simply sat and looked at the stars and talked.

  Of course, before long, they did more than talk.

  He said he loved her. He said he needed her.

  On a soft night in June, on a red blanket spread out on the floor of the summer woods, she lost her innocence to him with the eager optimism that belongs to the young.

  He was still sweet, still attentive, and promised they’d always be together. She imagined he’d believed it. She certainly had.

  But there was a price to pay for being young and foolish. She had paid it. And, she thought, so had he. Maybe he’d paid much, much more than she had.

  Because while she had lost her innocence, James had lost a more precious treasure.

  She glanced over at that treasure now. Her son.

  If James had changed her life, Simon had righted it again. In a new way, a new place. James had given Zoe her first taste of what it was to be a woman. The child had made her one.

  She’d gotten her house—her little house with its little yard—and she’d gotten it by herself. Maybe she’d never traveled to all those wonderful places as she’d once dreamed of doing, but she’d seen all the wonders of the world in her son’s eyes.

  And now, nearly ten years after she’d first held him, first promised him she would never let him down, she was moving forward again, with her son. She was seeing to it that Simon had more.

  Zoe McCourt, the shy girl from the West Virginia hills, was about to open her own business in the pretty town of Pleasant Valley, Pennsylvania, with two women who’d become as much sisters as friends in two short months.

  Indulgence. She liked the name. That was what she wanted it to be for the clients and customers. It would be work, hard work, for her, for her friends. But even the work was a kind of indulgence, as it was labor they’d all dreamed of doing.

  Malory Price’s arts and crafts gallery would occupy one side of the main level of their sweet new house. Dana Steele’s bookstore would stand on the other. And her own salon would spread over the top floor.

  Just a few more weeks, she thought. A few more weeks of remodeling and freshening up, of setting up supplies, stock, equipment. Then they would open the doors.

  It made her belly jump to think of it, but it wasn’t only fear. Some of those jumps were pure excitement.

  She knew exactly how it would look when it was done. Full of color and light in the main salon, then softer, relaxing tones in the treatment rooms. She would have candles set around for fragrance and atmosphere, and interesting pictures on the walls. Good lighting to flatter and to soothe.

  Indulgence. For the mind, the body, the spirit. She intended to give her customers a bit of all three.

  On this evening, she drove from the Valley where she made her home, and would make her business, into the mountains. Where she would face her fate. Simon brooded a little, staring out the window. He wasn’t happy, she knew, that she’d made him wear his suit.

  But when you were invited to dinner at a place like Warrior’s Peak, you dressed for the occasion.

  Absently, she tugged at the skirt of her dress. She’d gotten it at the outlet for a good price, and hoped the deep purple jersey was appropriate.

  Probably should’ve gotten something black, she mused, to be more dignified and sober. But she so enjoyed color, and for this event she needed the punch of it for confidence. Tonight was one of the most momentous nights of her life, so she might as well go outfitted in something that made her feel good.

  She pressed her lips together. Now that her thoughts had circled around to what she’d tried to avoid thinking about, she had to deal with it.

  Just how, she wondered, was she going to explain to a nine-year-old boy what she’d been doing—and more, what she was about to do?

  “I guess we’d better talk about why we’re going up here to dinner tonight,” she began.

  “I bet nobody else is wearing a suit,” he muttered.

  “I bet you’re wrong.”

  He turned his head, slanted her a look. “Dollar.”

  “Dollar,” she agreed.

  He looked so much like her, she thought. Sometimes it just struck her with a kind of fierce and possessive joy. Wasn’t it funny that there was nothing of James stamped on that face? Those were her eyes, that was her mouth, her nose, her chin, her hair, all tipped just the slightest bit to make them Simon.

  “Anyway.” She cleared her throat. “You know how I got that invitation to go up there, a couple months ago? And that’s where I met Malory and Dana.”

  “Sure, I remember, because the next day you bought me PlayStation 2, and it wasn’t even my birthday.”

  “Unbirthday presents are the best.” She’d been able to buy Simon his heart’s desire with part of the twenty-five thousand dollars paid to her for agreeing to . . . the fantastic.

  “You know Malory and Dana, and you know Flynn and Jordan and Bradley.”

  “Yeah, we hang with them a lot now. They’re cool. For old people,” he added, with a smirk he knew would make her laugh.

  But she didn’t laugh.

  “Something wrong with them?” he asked quickly.

  “No. No. Absolutely nothing’s wrong.” She chewed her bottom lip as she tried to find the right words. “Um, sometimes people are sort of connected, without even knowing it. I mean, Dana and Flynn are brother and sister—well, stepbrother and stepsister, then Dana gets to be friends with Malory, and Malory meets Flynn, and before you know it, Malory and Flynn fall in love.”

  “Is this going to be a sloppy love story? Because I might get sick.”

  “Be sure to lean out the window if you do. So, Flynn’s oldest friends are Jordan and Bradley, and when they were younger, Jordan and Dana used to . . . date.” It was the safest word a mother could think of. “Then Jordan and Bradley moved out of the Valley. Then they came back, partly because of this connection I’m getting to. And Jordan and Dana got back together and—”

  “Now they’re going to get married, and so’s Flynn and Malory. It’s like an epidemic.” He was turned to her now, and his face mirrored preadolescent pain. “If we go to those weddings like we did Aunt Joleen’s, you’re probably going to make me wear a suit, aren’t you?”

  “Yes, it’s one of my quiet pleasures, this torment of you. What I’m trying to show you is that each of us turned out to be connected, one way or another—to the others. And to something else. I haven’t told you much about the people who live at Warrior’s Peak.”

  “They’re the magic people.”

  Zoe’s hand jerked on the wheel. Slowing, she pulled off to the shoulder of the winding road. “What do you mean by ‘magic people’?”

  “Jeez, Mom, I hear you guys talk when you have those meetings and junk. So are they like witches or what? I don’t get it.”

  “No. Yes. I don’t know exactly.” How did she explain ancient gods to a child? “Do you believe in magic, Simon? I don’t mean the card trick kind, but the kind of thing you read about in stories, like Harry Potter or The Hobbit.”

  “If it wasn’t real sometimes, how come there are so many books and movies and junk about it?”

  “Good point,” she said after a moment. “Rowena and Pitte, the people who live at the Peak, the people we’re going to see tonight, they’re magic. They come from a different place, and they’re here because they need our help.”

  “For what?”

  She had his attention and interest now, she knew. The interest that took him into the stories she’d mentioned, X-Men comics, and the role-playing video games he loved.

  “I’m going to tell you. It’s going to sound like a story, but it’s not. But I have to start driving again while I tell you, or we’ll be late.”

  “Okay.”

  She took a long, quiet breath as she pulled back onto the road. “A long time ago—a really, really long time ago, in a place behind what they call the Curtain of Dreams, or the Curtain of Power, there was this young god—”

  “Like Apollo?”

  “Sort of. But not Greek. He was Celtic. He was the son of the king, and when he was of age, he visited our world and he met a girl and fell in love.”

  Simon’s mouth twisted. “How come that always happens?”

  “Can we get into that area of things later? We’re a little pressed for time. So, they fell in love, and even though it wasn’t really allowed then, his parents let him bring the girl home with him so they could be married. This was okay with some of the gods, but it wasn’t okay with some of the others. There were battles and—”

  “Cool.”

  “The world split into two kingdoms, I guess you could say. One with the young god becoming ruler with his human wife, and the other ruled by, well, a wicked sorcerer.”

  “Way cool.”

  “The young king had three daughters. They call them demigoddesses because they’re part human. Each of the daughters had a special gift. One was music, or art, another was writing, or knowledge, and the third was courage, I guess. Valor.”

  It made her mouth a little dry to think of it, but she swallowed and went on. “She was a kind of warrior. They were very close to each other, the way sisters should be, and their parents loved them. To keep them safe while there was this trouble going on, they had them guarded and taught by a warrior and a teacher. Then—try not to groan—the warrior and the teacher fell in love.”

  He let his head fall back and stared upward. “I just knew it.”

  “Not being sarcastic nine-year-old boys, the daughters were happy for them, and covered for them when they slipped off a little way to be alone. So these girls weren’t guarded as well as maybe they should have been. The wicked sorcerer took advantage of that, and he snuck close and cast a spell. The spell stole the souls of the daughters and locked them in a glass box with three locks and three keys.”

  “Man, that sucks for them.”

  “It sure does. The souls are trapped there, in the box, and can’t get out until the keys are turned in the lock—one by one—and only by the hand of a mortal. A human.”

  Because her fingers tingled, she rubbed them on the skirt of her dress. “See, because they were half human, this sorcerer made it so only someone from our world could save them. Because he didn’t think it could be done. The teacher was given the keys—but she can’t work them—and she and the warrior were cast out, and into this world. In every generation they have to ask three humans, the three humans who are the only ones who can unlock the box, to find the keys. They have to be hidden and found as part of the quest, part of the spell. And each one of the chosen has to go in turn, and has just four weeks to find the key and put it in the lock.”

  “Wow, are you one of the ones who has to find a key? How come you were chosen?”

  She let out a little breath. Her son was a bright and logical boy. “I don’t know exactly. We look—Mal, Dana, and I—we look like the daughters. The Daughters of Glass, they’re called. Rowena’s an artist, and she has a painting of them at the Peak. It’s connections, Simon. There’s something that connects us to each other, to the keys, and to the daughters. I guess you could say it’s fate.”

  “If you don’t find the keys, they’re just stuck in the box?”

  “Their souls are. Their bodies are in glass coffins—um, like Snow White. Waiting.”

  “Rowena and Pitte, they’re the teacher and the guard.” He nodded. “And you and Malory and Dana have to find the keys and fix everything.”

  “Pretty much. Malory and Dana have already had their turns, and they each found the key. It’s my turn now.”

  “You’ll find it.” He gave her a solemn nod. “You always find stuff when I lose it.”

  If only, she thought, it was as simple as finding her son’s favorite action figure. “I’m going to try as hard as I can. I have to tell you, Simon, the sorcerer—his name is Kane—he’s tried to stop us. He’ll try to stop me. It’s really scary, but I have to try.”

  “You’ll kick his butt.”

  The laugh eased some of the knots in her stomach. “That’s my plan. I wasn’t going to tell you all this, but then it didn’t seem right not to.”

 
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