For Kathy Onorato,
for being my keeper
THE storm ripped over the mountains, gushing torrents of rain that struck the ground with the sharp ring of metal on stone. Lightning strikes spat down, angry artillery fire that slammed against the cannon roar of thunder.
There was a gleeful kind of mean in the air, a sizzle of temper and spite that boiled with power.
It suited Malory Price’s mood perfectly.
Hadn’t she asked herself what else could go wrong? Now in answer to that weary, and completely rhetorical, question, nature—in all her maternal wrath—was showing her just how bad things could get.
There was an ominous rattling somewhere in the dash of her sweet little Mazda, and she still had nineteen payments to go on it. In order to make those payments, she had to keep her job.
She hated her job.
That wasn’t part of the Malory Price Life Plan, which she had begun to outline at the age of eight. Twenty years later, that outline had become a detailed and organized checklist, complete with headings, subheadings, and cross-references. She revised it meticulously on the first day of each year.
She was supposed to love her job. It said so, quite clearly, under the heading of CAREER.
She’d worked at The Gallery for seven years, the last three of those as manager, which was right on schedule. And she had loved it—being surrounded by art, having an almost free hand in the displaying, the acquiring, the promotion, and the setup for showings and events.
The fact was, she’d begun to think of The Gallery as hers, and knew full well that the rest of the staff, the clients, the artists and craftsmen felt very much the same.
James P. Horace might have owned the smart little gallery, but he never questioned Malory’s decisions, and on his increasingly rare visits he complimented her, always, on the acquisitions, the ambience, the sales.
It had been perfect, which was exactly what Malory intended her life to be. After all, if it wasn’t perfect, what was the point?
Everything had changed when James ditched fifty-three years of comfortable bachelorhood and acquired himself a young, sexy wife. A wife, Malory thought with her blue-steel eyes narrowing in resentment, who’d decided to make The Gallery her personal pet.
It didn’t matter that the new Mrs. Horace knew next to nothing about art, about business, about public relations, or about managing employees. James doted on his Pamela, and Malory’s dream job had become a daily nightmare.
But she’d been dealing with it, Malory thought as she scowled through her dark, drenched windshield. She had determined her strategy: she would simply wait Pamela out. She would remain calm and self-possessed until this nasty little bump was past and the road smoothed out again.
Now that excellent strategy was out the window. She’d lost her temper when Pamela countermanded her orders on a display of art glass and turned the perfectly and beautifully organized gallery upside down with clutter and ugly fabrics.
There were some things she could tolerate, Malory told herself, but being slapped in the face with hideous taste in her own space wasn’t one of them.
Then again, blowing up at the owner’s wife was not the path to job security. Particularly when the words myopic, plebeian bimbo were employed.
Lightning split the sky over the rise ahead, and Malory winced as much in memory of her temper as from the flash. A very bad move on her part, which only showed what happened when you gave in to temper and impulse.
To top it off, she’d spilled latte on Pamela’s Escada suit. But that had been an accident.
However fond James was of her, Malory knew her livelihood was hanging by a very slim thread. And when the thread broke, she would be sunk. Art galleries weren’t a dime a dozen in a pretty, picturesque town like Pleasant Valley. She would either have to find another area of work as a stopgap or relocate.
Neither option put a smile on her face.
She loved Pleasant Valley, loved being surrounded by the mountains of western Pennsylvania. She loved the small-town feel, the mix of quaint and sophisticated that drew the tourists, and the getaway crowds that spilled out of neighboring Pittsburgh for impulsive weekends.
Even when she was a child growing up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, Pleasant Valley was exactly the sort of place she’d imagined living in. She craved the hills, with their shadows and textures, and the tidy streets of a valley town, the simplicity of the pace, the friendliness of neighbors.
The decision to someday fold herself into the fabric of Pleasant Valley had been made when she was fourteen and spent a long holiday weekend there with her parents.
Just as she’d decided, when she wandered through The Gallery that long-ago autumn, that she would one day be part of that space.
Of course, at the time she had thought her paintings would hang there, but that was one item on her checklist that she’d been forced to delete rather than tick off when it was accomplished.
She would never be an artist. But she had to be, needed to be, involved with and surrounded by art.
Still, she didn’t want to move back to the city. She wanted to keep her gorgeous, roomy apartment two blocks from The Gallery, with its views of the Appalachians, its creaky old floors, and its walls that she’d covered with carefully selected artwork.
But the hope of that was looking as dim as the stormy sky.
So she hadn’t been smart with her money, Malory admitted with a windy sigh. She didn’t see the point of letting it lie in some bank when it could be turned into something lovely to look at or to wear. Until it was used, money was just paper. Malory tended to use a great deal of paper.
She was overdrawn at the bank. Again. She’d maxed out her credit cards. Ditto. But, she reminded herself, she had a great wardrobe. And the start of a very impressive art collection. Which she would have to sell, piece by piece and most likely at a loss, to keep a roof over her head if Pamela brought the axe down.
But maybe tonight would buy her some time and goodwill. She hadn’t wanted to attend the cocktail reception at Warrior’s Peak. A fanciful name for a spooky old place, she thought. Another time she would’ve been thrilled at the opportunity to see the inside of the great old house so high on the ridge. And to rub elbows with people who might be patrons of the arts.
But the invitation had been odd—written in an elegant hand on heavy, stone-colored paper, with a logo of an ornate gold key in lieu of letterhead. Though it was tucked in her evening bag now along with her compact, her lipstick, her cell phone, her glasses, a fresh pen, business cards, and ten dollars, Malory remembered the wording.
The pleasure of your company is desired for cocktails and conversation
Eight P.M., September 4
You are the key. The lock awaits.
Now how weird was that? Malory asked herself, and gritted her teeth as the car shimmied in a sudden gust of wind. The way her luck was going, it was probably a scam for a pyramid scheme.
The house had been empty for years. She knew it had been purchased recently, but the details were sparse. An outfit called Triad, she recalled. She assumed it was some sort of corporation looking to turn the place into a hotel or a mini resort.
Which didn’t explain why they’d invited the manager of The Gallery but not the owner and his interfering wife. Pamela had been pretty peeved about the slight—so that was something.
Still, Malory would have passed on the evening. She didn’t have a date—just another aspect of her life that currently sucked—and driving alone into the mountains to a house straight out of Hollywood horror on the strength of an invitation that made her uneasy wasn’t on her list of fun things to do in the middle of the workweek.
There hadn’t even been a number or a contact for an R.S.V.P. And that, she felt, was arrogant and rude. Her intended response of ignoring the invitation would have been equally arrogant and rude, but James had spotted the envelope on her desk.
He’d been so excited, so pleased by the idea of her going, had pressed her to relay all the details of the house’s interior to him. And he’d reminded her that if she could discreetly drop the name of The Gallery into conversation from time to time, it would be good for business.
If she could score a few clients, it might offset the Escada mishap and the bimbo comment.
Her car chugged up the narrowing road that cut through the dense, dark forest. She’d always thought of those hills and woods as a kind of Sleepy Hollow effect that ringed her pretty valley. But just now, with the wind and rain and dark, the less serene aspects of that old tale were a little too much in evidence for her peace of mind.
If whatever was rattling in her dash was serious, she could end up broken down on the side of the road, huddled in the car listening to the moans and lashes of the storm and imagining headless horsemen while she waited for a tow truck she couldn’t afford.
Obviously, the answer was not to break down.
She thought she caught glimpses of lights beaming through the rain and trees, but her windshield wipers were whipping at the highest speed and were still barely able to shove aside the flood of rain.
As lightning snapped again, she gripped the wheel tighter. She liked a good hellcat storm as much as anyone, but she wanted to enjoy this one from someplace inside, anyplace, while drinking a nice glass of wine.
She had to be close. How far could any single road climb before it just had to start falling down the other side of the mountain? She knew Warrior’s Peak stood atop the ridge, guarding the valley below. Or lording itself over the valley, depending on your viewpoint. She hadn’t passed another car for miles.
Which only proved that anyone with half a brain wasn’t out driving in this mess, she thought.
The road forked, and the bend on the right streamed between enormous stone pillars. Malory slowed, gawked at the life-size warriors standing on each pillar. Perhaps it was the storm, the night, or her own jittery mood, but they looked more human than stone, with hair flying around their fierce faces, their hands gripping the hilts of their swords. In the shimmer of lightning she could almost see muscles rippling in their arms, over their broad, bare chests.
She had to fight the temptation to get out of the car for a closer look. But the chill that tripped down her spine as she turned through the open iron gates had her glancing back up at the warriors with as much wariness as appreciation for the skill of the sculptor.
Then she hit the brakes and fishtailed on the crushed stone of the roadbed. Her heart jammed into her throat as she stared at the stunning buck standing arrogantly a foot in front of the bumper, with the sprawling, eccentric lines of the house behind him.
For a moment she took the deer for a sculpture as well, though why any sane person would set a sculpture in the center of a driveway was beyond her. Then again, sane didn’t seem to be the operative word for anyone who would choose to live in the house on the ridge.
But the deer’s eyes gleamed, a sharp sapphire blue in the beam of her headlights, and his head with the great crowning rack turned slightly. Regally, Malory mused, mesmerized. Rain streamed off his coat, and in the next flash of light that coat seemed as white as the moon.
He stared at her, but there was nothing of fear, nothing of surprise in those glinting eyes. There was, if such things were possible, a kind of amused disdain. Then he simply walked away, through the curtain of rain, the rivers of fog, and was gone.
“Wow.” She let out a long breath, shivered in the warmth of her car. “And one more wow,” she murmured as she stared at the house.
She’d seen pictures of it, and paintings. She’d seen its silhouette hulking on the ridge above the valley. But it was an entirely different matter to see it up close with a storm raging.
Something between a castle, a fortress, and a house of horrors, she decided.
Its stone was obsidian black, with juts and towers, peaks and battlements stacked and spread as if some very clever, very wicked child had placed them at his whim. Against that rain-slicked black, long, narrow windows, perhaps hundreds of them, all glowed with gilded light.
Someone wasn’t worried about his electric bill.
Fog drifted around its base, like a moat of mist.
In the next shock of lightning, she caught a glimpse of a white banner with the gold key madly waving from one of the topmost spires.
She inched the car closer. Gargoyles hunched along the walls, crawled over the eaves. Rainwater spewed out of their grinning mouths, spilled from clawed hands as they grinned down at her.
She stopped the car in front of the stone skirt of a wide portico and considered, very seriously, turning back into the storm and driving away.
She called herself a coward, a childish idiot. She asked herself where she’d lost her sense of adventure and fun.
The insults worked well enough that she soon was tapping her fingers on the car’s door handle. At the quick rap on her window, a scream shot out of her throat.
The bony white face surrounded by a black hood that peered in at her turned the scream into a kind of breathless keening.
Gargoyles do not come to life, she assured herself, repeating the words over and over in her head as she rolled the window down a cautious half inch.
“Welcome to Warrior’s Peak.” His voice boomed over the rain, and his welcoming smile showed a great many teeth. “If you’ll just leave your keys in the car, miss, I’ll see to it for you.”
Before she could think to slap down the locks, he’d pulled her door open. He blocked the sweep of wind and rain with his body and the biggest umbrella she’d ever seen.
“I’ll see you safe and dry to the door.”
What was that accent? English? Irish? Scots?
“Thank you.” She started to climb out, felt herself pinned back. Panic dribbled into embarrassment as she realized she had yet to unhook her seat belt.
Freed, she huddled under the umbrella, struggling to regulate her breathing as he walked her to the double entrance doors. They were wide enough to accommodate a semi and boasted dull silver knockers, big as turkey platters, fashioned into dragons’ heads.
Some welcome, Malory thought an instant before one of the doors opened, and light and warmth poured out.
The woman had a straight and gorgeous stream of flame-colored hair—it spilled around a pale face of perfect angles and curves. Her green eyes danced as if at some private joke. She was tall and slim, garbed in a long gown of fluid black. A silver amulet holding a fat, clear stone hung between her breasts.
Her lips, as red as her hair, curved as she held out a hand sparkling with rings.
She looked, Malory thought, like someone out of a very sexy faerie tale.
“Miss Price. Welcome. Such a thrilling storm, but distressing, I’m sure, to be out in it. Come in.”
The hand was warm and strong, and stayed clasped over Malory’s as the woman drew her into the entrance hall.
The light showered down from a chandelier of crystal so fine that it resembled spun sugar sparkling over the twists and curves of silver.
The floor was mosaic, depicting the warriors from the gate and what seemed to be a number of mythological figures. She couldn’t kneel down and study it as she might have liked and was already struggling to hold back an orgasmic moan at the paintings that crowded walls the color of melted butter.
“I’m so glad you could join us tonight,” the woman continued. “I’m Rowena. Please, let me take you into the parlor. There’s a lovely fire. Early in the year for one, but the storm seemed to call for it. Was the drive difficult?”
“Rowena. Just Rowena.”
“Rowena. I wonder if I could take a moment to freshen up before joining the other guests?”
“Of course. Powder room.” She gestured to a door tucked under the long sweep of the front stairs. “The parlor is the first door on your right. Take your time.”
“Thank you.” Malory slipped inside and immediately decided that “powder room” was a very poor label for the plush, spacious area.
The half dozen candles on the marble counter streamed out light and scent. Burgundy hand towels edged in ecru lace were arranged beside the generous pool of the sink. The faucet gleamed gold in the fanciful shape of a swan.
Here the floor mosaic showed a mermaid, sitting on a rock, smiling out at a blue sea as she combed her flame-colored hair.
This time, after double-checking to make certain that she’d locked the door, Malory did kneel down to study the craftsmanship.
Gorgeous, she thought, running her fingertips over the tiles. Old, certainly, and brilliantly executed.
Was there anything more powerful than the ability to create beauty?
She straightened, washed her hands with soap that smelled faintly of rosemary. She took a moment to admire the collection of Waterhouse’s nymphs and sirens framed on the walls before digging out her compact.
There was little she could do for her hair. Though she’d drawn it back and anchored it at her nape with a rhinestone clip, the weather had played havoc with the dark blond curls. It was a look, she thought, as she dusted her nose. Sort of arty and carefree. Not elegant like the redhead, but it suited her well enough. She reapplied her lipstick, satisfied that the pale rose had been a good investment. Subtle worked best with her milkmaid coloring.