Read The Sign of Seven Trilogy Online
Authors: Nora Roberts
Added to it, there was little as noisy as a bowling alley, so their conversation would be covered by the crash of balls against pins, the hoots and hollers.
“First, let's backtrack into the land of logic for a minute.” Fox took a swig of his beer. “She could've made it up to get a reaction.”
“How did she know what to make up?”
“During the Seven, there are people who see itâwho've said they did before it starts to fade on them. She got wind.”
“I don't think so, Fox. Some talked about seeing somethingâboy, man, woman, dog, wolfâ”
“The rat the size of a Doberman,” Fox remembered.
“Thanks for bringing that one back. But no one ever claimed they'd seen it before or after the Seven. No one but us, and we've never told anyone.” Cal arched his brow in question.
“No. You think I'm going to spread it around that I see red-eyed demons? I'd just rake in the clients that way.”
“She's smart. I don't see why she'd claim to have seen it, outside the normâha-haâif she hadn't. Plus she was psyched about it. Juiced up. So, let's accept she did and continue to dwell in the land of logic. One logical assumption is that the bastard's stronger, we know he will be. But strong enough to push out of the Seven into the between time.”
Fox brooded over his beer. “I don't like that logic.”
“Second option could be she's somehow connected. To one of us, the town, the incident at the Pagan Stone.”
“I like that better. Everyone's connected. It's not just Kevin Bacon. If you work at it, you can put a handful of degrees between almost any two people.” Thoughtful, Fox picked up his second slice of pizza. “Maybe she's a distant cousin. I've got cousins up the wazoo and so do you. Gage, not so much, but there's some out there.”
“Possible. But why would a distant cousin see something none of our immediate family has? They'd tell us, Fox. They all know what's coming better and clearer than anyone else.”
“Reincarnation. That's not off the Planet Logic, considering. Besides, reincarnation's big in the family O'Dell. Maybe she was there when it all happened. Another life.”
“I don't discount anything. But more to the point, why is she here now? And will it help us put a goddamn end to this?”
“It's going to take more than an hour's chat in front of the fire to figure that out. I don't guess you heard from Gage.”
“Not yet. He'll be in touch. I'm going to take her out to the stone day after tomorrow.”
“Leaping forward fast, Cal.”
Cal shook his head. “If I don't take her soon enough, she'll try it on her own. If something happenedâ¦We can't be responsible for that.”
“We are responsibleâisn't that the point? On some level it's on us.” Frowning now, he watched Don Myers, of Myers Plumbing, make a seven-ten split to appropriate hoots and shouts. All three hundred twenty pounds of Myers did a flab-wriggling victory dance that was not a pretty sight.
“You go on,” Fox said quietly, “day after day, doing what you do, living your life, making your life. Eating pizza, scratching your ass, getting laid if you're lucky. But you know, on some level you try to keep buried just to get through, that it's coming back. That some of the people you see on the street every day, maybe they won't make it through the next round. Maybe we won't. What the hell.” He rapped his beer against Cal's. “We've got the now, plus five months to figure this out.”
“I can try to go back again.”
“Not unless Gage is here. We can't risk it unless we're together. It's not worth it, Cal. The other times you only got bits and pieces, and took a hell of a beating for it.”
“Older and wiser now. And I'm thinking, if it's showing itself nowâour dreams, what happened to Quinnâit's expending energy. I might get more than I have before.”
“Not without Gage. That'sâ¦Hmm,” he said as his attention wandered over his friend's shoulder. “Fresh flowers.”
Glancing back, Cal saw Quinn standing behind lane one, her coat open and a bemused expression on her face as she watched Myers, graceful as a hippo in toe shoes, make his approach and release his lucky red ball.
“Yeah, I recognized her. I read the books, too. She's hotter than her picture, and that was pretty hot.”
“I saw her first.”
Fox snorted, shifted his eyes to sneer at Cal. “Dude, it's not about who saw her first, it's who
sees. I pull out the full power of my sexual charm, and you'll be the Invisible Man.”
“Shit. The full power of your sexual charm wouldn't light up a forty-watt bulb.”
Cal pushed off the stool when Quinn walked toward him.
“So this is why I got the brush-off tonight,” she said. “Pizza, beer, and bowling.”
“The Hawkins Hollow hat trick. I'm on manager duty tonight. Quinn, this is Fox O'Dell.”
“The second part of the triad.” She shook Fox's hand. “Now I'm doubly glad I decided to check out what seems to be the town's hot spot. Mind if I join you?”
“Wouldn't have it any other way. Buy you a beer?” Fox asked.
“Boy, could you, butâ¦make it a light one.”
Cal stepped back to swing around the counter. “I'll take care of it. Anything to go with it? Pizza?”
“Oh.” She looked at the pizza on the counter with eyes that went suddenly dewy. “Um, I don't suppose you have any with whole-wheat crust and low-fat mozzarella?”
“Health nut?” Fox asked.
“Just the opposite.” Quinn bit her bottom lip. “I'm in a lifestyle change. Damn it, that really looks good. How about if we cut one of those slices in half.” She sawed the side of her hand over the plate.
Cal got a pizza cutter and slid it down a slice.
“I love fat and sugar like a mother loves her child,” Quinn told Fox. “I'm trying to eat more sensibly.”
“My parents are vegetarians,” Fox said as they each picked up a half slice. “I grew up on tofu and alfalfa.”
“God. That's so sad.”
“Which is why he ate at my house whenever he could manage it, and spent all his money on Little Debbies and Slim Jims.”
“Little Debbies are food for the gods.” She smiled at Cal when he set her beer on the counter. “I like your town. I took a walk up and down several blocks of Main Street. And since I was freezing my ass off, went back to the really charming Hotel Hollow, sat on my windowsill, and watched the world go by.”
“Nice world,” Cal said, “that moves a little slow this time of year.”
“Umm,” was her agreement as she took a minute bite of the point of her narrow triangle of pizza. She closed her eyes on a sigh. “It
good. I was hoping, being bowling-alley pizza, it wouldn't be.”
“We do okay. Gino's across the street is better, and has more selections.”
She opened her eyes to find him smiling at her. “That's a lousy thing to tell a woman in the middle of a lifestyle change.”
Cal leaned on the counter, bringing that smile a little closer, and Quinn found herself losing her train of thought. He had the best quick and crooked grin, the kind a woman wanted to take a testing nibble of.
Before he could speak, someone hailed him, and those eyes of quiet gray glanced away from hers toward the end of the counter. “Be right back.”
“Well.” Jeez, her pulse had actually tripped. “Alone at last,” she said to Fox. “So you and Cal and the as-yet-absent Gage Turner have been friends since you were kids.”
“Babies, actually. In utero, technically. Cal's and Gage's mother got together with mine when my mother was teaching a Lamaze class. They had a kind of roundup with the class a couple months after everyone delivered the packages, and the deal about the three of us being born on the same day, same time came out.”
“Instant mommy bonding.”
“I don't know. They always got along, even though you could say they all came from different planets. They were friendly without being friends. My parents and Cal's still get along fine, and Cal's dad kept Gage's employed when nobody else in town would've hired him.”
“Why wouldn't anyone have hired him?”
Fox debated for a minute, drank some of his beer. “It's no secret,” he decided. “He drank. He's been sober for a while now. About five years, I guess. I always figured Mr. Hawkins gave him work because that's just the way he is, and, in a big part, he did it for Gage. Anyway, I don't remember the three of us not being friends.”
“No âyou like him better than me,' major falling-outs or your basic and usual drifting apart?”
“We foughtâfight stillânow and then.” Didn't all brothers? Fox thought. “Had your expected pissy periods, but no. We're connected. Nothing can snap that connection. And the âyou like him better than me'? Mostly a girl thing.”
“But Gage doesn't live here anymore.”
“Gage doesn't live anywhere, really. He's the original footloose guy.”
“And you? The hometown boy.”
“I thought about the bright lights, big city routine, even gave it a short try.” He glanced over in the direction of the moans coming from one of the Alley Cats who had failed to pick up a spare. “I like the Hollow. I even like my family, most of the time. And I like, as it turns out, practicing small-town law.”
Truth, Quinn decided, but not the whole truth of it. “Have you seen the kid with the red eyes?”
Off balance, Fox set down the beer he'd lifted to drink. “That's a hell of a segue.”
“Maybe. But that wasn't an answer.”
“I'm going to postpone my answer until further deliberation. Cal's taking point on this.”
“And you're not sure you like the idea of him, or anyone, talking to me about what may or may not go on here.”
“I'm not sure what purpose it serves. So I'm weighing the information as it comes in.”
“Fair enough.” She glanced over as Cal came back. “Well, boys, thanks for the beer and the slice. I should get back to my adorable room.”
“You bowl?” Cal asked her, and she laughed.
“Oh-oh,” Fox said under his breath.
Cal walked around the counter, blocking Quinn before she could slide off the stool. He took a long, considering look at her boots. “Seven and a half, right?”
“Ahâ¦” She looked down at her boots herself. “On the money. Good eye.”
“Stay.” He tapped her on the shoulder. “I'll be right back.”
Quinn frowned after him, then looked at Fox. “He is
going to get me a pair of bowling shoes.”
“Oh yeah, he is. You mocked the tradition, whichâif you give him any tiny openingâhe'll tell you started five thousand years ago. Then he'll explain its evolution and so on and so on.”
“Well, Christ,” was all Quinn could think to say.
Cal brought back a pair of maroon and cream bowling shoes, and another, larger pair of dark brown ones, which were obviously his. “Lane five's open. You want in, Fox?”
“Sadly, I have a brief to finish writing. I'll rain-check it. See you later, Quinn.”
Cal tucked the shoes under his arm, then, taking Quinn's hand, pulled her off the stool. “When's the last time you bowled?” he asked as he led her across the alley to an open lane.
“I think I was fourteen. Group date, which didn't go well, as the object of my affection, Nathan Hobbs, only had eyes for the incessantly giggly and already well-developed Missy Dover.”
“You can't let previous heartbreak spoil your enjoyment.”
“But I didn't like the bowling part either.”
“That was then.” Cal sat her down on the smooth wooden bench, slid on beside her. “You'll have a better time with it tonight. Ever make a strike?”
“Still talking bowling? No.”
“You will, and there's nothing much that beats the feeling of that first strike.”
“How about sex with Hugh Jackman?”
He stopped tying his bowling shoe to stare over at her. “You had sex with Hugh Jackman?”
“No, but I'm willing to bet any amount of money that having sex with Hugh Jackman would, for me, beat out the feeling of knocking down ten pins with one ball.”
“Okay. But I'm willing to betâlet's make it ten bucksâthat when you throw a strike, you'll admit it's up there on the Thrill-O-Meter.”
“First, it's highly unlikely I'll throw anything resembling a strike. Second, I could lie.”
“You will. And you won't. Change your shoes, Blondie.”
T WASN'T AS RIDICULOUS AS SHE'D ASSUMED IT
would be. Silly, yes, but she had plenty of room for silly.
The balls were mottled blackâthe small ones without the three holes. The job was to heave it down the long polished alley toward the red-necked pins he called Duck Pins.
He watched as she walked up to the foul line, swung back, and did the heave.
The ball bounced a couple of times before it toppled into the gutter.
“Okay.” She turned, tossed back her hair. “Your turn.”
“You get two more balls per frame.”
He shot her the quick grin. “Let's work on your delivery and follow-through, then we'll tackle approach.” He walked toward her with another ball as he spoke. He handed her the ball. “Hold it with both hands,” he instructed as he turned her around to face the pins. “Now you want to take a step forward with your left foot, bend your knees like you were doing a squat, but bend over from the waist.”
He was snuggled up right behind her now, his front sort of bowing over her back. She tipped her face around to meet his eyes.
“You use this routine to hit on women, right?”
“Absolutely. Eighty-five percent success ratio. You're going to want to aim for the front pin. You can worry about the pockets and the sweet spot later. Now you're just going to bring your right arm back, then sweep it forward with your fingers aimed at the front pin. Let the ball go, following your fingers.”
“Hmm.” But she tried it. This time the ball didn't bounce straight into the gutter, but actually stayed on the lane long enough to bump down the two pins on the far right.
Since the woman in the next lane, who
to be sixty if she was a day, slid gracefully to the foul line, released, and knocked down seven pins, Quinn didn't feel like celebrating.
“Two balls, two pins. I don't think that earns my bootie dance.”
“Since I'm looking forward to your bootie dance, I'll help you do better yet. More from your shoulder down this time. Nice perfume,” he added before he walked back to get her another ball.
“Thanks.” Stride, bend, swing, release, she thought. And actually managed to knock down the end pin on the other side of the alley.
“Overcompensated.” He hit the reset button. The grate came down, pins were swept off with a lot of clattering, and another full triangle thudded into place.
“She knocked them all down.” Quinn gave a head nod toward the woman in the next lane who'd taken her seat. “She didn't seem all that excited.”
“Mrs. Keefafer? Bowls twice a week, and has become jaded. On the outside. Inside, believe me, she's doing her bootie dance.”
“If you say so.”
He adjusted Quinn's shoulders, shifted her hips. And yeah, she could see why he had such a high success rate with this routine. Eventually, after countless attempts, she was able to take down multiple pins that took odd bites out of the triangle.
There was a wall of noise, the low thunder of balls rolling, the sharp clatter of pins, hoots and cheers from bowlers and onlookers, the bright bells of a pinball machine.
She smelled beer and wax, and the gooey orange cheeseâa personal favoriteâfrom the nachos someone munched on in the next lane.
Timeless, all-American, she mused, absently drafting an article on the experience. Centuries-old sportâshe'd need to research that partâto good, clean, family fun.
She thought she had the hang of it, more or less, though she was shallow enough to throw a deliberate gutter ball here and there so Cal would adjust her stance.
As he did, she considered changing the angle of the article from family fun to the sexiness of bowling. The idea made her grin as she took her position.
Then it happened. She released the ball and it rolled down the center of the alley. Surprised, she took a step back. Then another with her arms going up to clamp on the sides of her head.
Something tingled in her belly as her heartbeat sped up.
“Oh. Oh. Look! It's going toâ”
There was a satisfying
as ball slapped pins and pins tumbled in all directions. Bumping into each other, rolling, spinning, until the last fell with a slow, drunken sway.
” She actually bounced on the toes of her rented shoes. “Did you see that? Did youâ” And when she spun around, a look of stunned delight on her face, he was grinning at her.
“Son of a bitch,” she muttered. “I owe you ten bucks.”
“You learn fast. Want to try an approach?”
She wandered back toward him. “I believe I'mâ¦spent. But I may come by some evening for lesson number two.”
“Happy to oblige.” Sitting hip-to-hip, they changed shoes. “I'll walk you back to the hotel.”
He got his coat, and on the way out shot a wave at the skinny young guy behind the shoe rental counter. “Back in ten.”
“Quiet,” she said the minute they stepped outside. “Just listen to all that quiet.”
“The noise is part of the fun and the quiet after part of the reward.”
“Did you ever want to do anything else, or did you grow up with a burning desire to manage a bowling alley?”
“Family fun center,” he corrected. “We have an arcadeâpinball, skee-ball, video games, and a section for kids under six. We do private partiesâbirthday parties, bachelor parties, wedding receptionsâ”
“Sure. Bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs, anniversaries, corporate parties.”
Definitely meat for an article, she realized. “A lot of arms on one body.”
“You could say that.”
“So why aren't you married and raising the next generation of Bowl-a-Rama kingpins, pun intended.”
“Love has eluded me.”
Despite the biting cold, it was pleasant to walk beside a man who naturally fit his stride to hers, to watch the clouds of their breath puff out, then merge together before the wind tore them to nothing.
He had an easy way about him and killer eyes, so there were worse things than feeling her toes go numb with cold in boots she knew were more stylish than practical.
“Are you going to be around if I think of some pertinent question to ask you tomorrow?”
“'Round and about,” he told her. “I can give you my cell phone number ifâ”
“Wait.” She dug into her bag and came out with her own phone. Still walking, she punched a few keys. “Shoot.”
He rattled it off. “I'm aroused by a woman who not only immediately finds what she's looking for in the mysterious depths of her purse, but who can skillfully operate electronic devices.”
“Is that a sexist remark?”
“No. My mother always knows where everything is, but is still defeated by the universal remote. My sister Jen can operate anything from a six-speed to a wireless mouse, but can never find anything without a twenty-minute hunt, and my other sister, Marly, can't find anything, ever, and gets intimidated by her electric can opener. And here you are, stirring me up by being able to do both.”
“I've always been a siren.” She tucked her phone back in her bag as they turned to the steps leading to the long front porch of the hotel. “Thanks for the escort.”
There was one of those beats; she recognized it. Both of them wondering, did they shake hands, just turn and go, or give in to curiosity and lean into a kiss.
“Let's stay to the safe road for now,” she decided. “I admit, I like the look of your mouth, but moving on that's bound to tangle things up before I really get started on what brought me here.”
“It's a damn shame you're right about that.” He dipped his hands into his pockets. “So I'll just say good night. I'll wait, make sure you get inside.”
“Good night.” She walked up the steps to the door, eased it open. Then glanced back to see him standing, hands still in his pockets, with the old-fashioned streetlight spotlighting him.
Oh, yeah, she thought, it was a damn shame.
“See you soon.”
He waited until the door shut behind her, then taking a couple of steps, studied the windows of the second and third floor. She'd said her window faced Main Street, but he wasn't sure what level she was on.
After a few moments, a light flashed on in a second-floor window, telling him Quinn was safe in her room.
He turned and had taken two steps when he saw the boy. He stood on the sidewalk half a block down. He wore no coat, no hat, no protection against the bite of wind. The long stream of his hair didn't stir in it.
His eyes gleamed, eerily red, as his lips peeled back in a snarl.
Cal heard the sound inside his head while ice balled in his belly.
Not real, he told himself. Not yet. A projection only, like in the dreams. But even in the dreams, it could hurt you or make you think you were hurt.
“Go back where you came from, you bastard.” Cal spoke clearly, and as calmly as his shaken nerves would allow. “It's not your time yet.”
When it is, I'll devour you, all of you, and everything you hold precious.
The lips didn't move with the words, but stayed frozen in that feral snarl.
“We'll see who feels the bite this round.” Cal took another step forward.
And the fire erupted. It spewed out of the wide brick sidewalk, fumed across the street in a wall of wild red. Before he could register that there was no heat, no burn, Cal had already stumbled back, thrown up his hands.
The laughter rang in his head, as wild as the flames. Then both snapped off.
The street was quiet, the brick and buildings unmarred. Tricks up his sleeve, Cal reminded himself. Lots of tricks up his sleeve.
He made himself stride forward, through where the false fire had run. There was a strong acrid odor that puffed then vanished like the vapor of his own breath. In that instant he recognized it.
PSTAIRS IN THE ROOM THAT MADE HER BLISSFULLY
happy with its four-poster bed and fluffy white duvet, Quinn sat at the pretty desk with its curved legs and polished surface writing up the day's notes, data, and impressions on her laptop.
She loved that there were fresh flowers in the room, and a little blue bowl of artfully arranged fresh fruit. The bath held a deep and delightful claw-foot tub and a snowy white pedestal sink. There were thick, generous towels, two bars of soap, and rather stylish minibottles of shampoo, body cream, and bath gel.
Instead of boring, mass-produced posters, the art on the walls were original paintings and photos, which the discreet note on the desk identified as works by local artists available at Artful, a shop on South Main.
The room was full of homey welcoming touches,
provided high-speed Internet access. She made a note to reserve the same room after her initial week was up, for the return trips she planned in April, then again in July.
She'd accomplished quite a bit on her first day, which was a travel day on top of it. She'd met two of the three focal players, had an appointment to hike to the Pagan Stone. She'd gotten a feel for the town, on the surface in any case. And had, she believed, a personal experience with the manifestation of an unidentified (as yet) force.
And she had the bare bones for a bowling article that should work for her friends at
Not bad, especially when you added in she'd dined sensibly on the grilled chicken salad in the hotel dining room, had
given in to temptation and inhaled an entire pizza but had limited herself to half a slice. And she'd bowled a strike.
On the personal downside, she supposed, as she shut down to prepare for bed, she'd also resisted the temptation to lock lips with the very appealing Caleb Hawkins.
Wasn't she all professional and unsatisfied?
Once she'd changed into her bedtime flannel pants and T-shirt, she nagged herself into doing fifteen minutes of pilates (okay, ten), then fifteen of yoga, before burrowing under the fabulous duvet with her small forest of down pillows.
She took her current book off the nightstand, burrowed into that as well until her eyes began to droop.
Just past midnight, she marked the novel, switched off the lamp, and snuggled into her happy nest.
As was her habit, she was asleep in a finger snap.
Quinn recognized the dream as a dream. Always, she enjoyed the sensation of the disjointed, carnival world of dreamscapes. It was, for her, like having some crazy adventure without any physical exertion. So when she found herself on a crooked path through a thick wood where the moonshine silvered the leaves and the curling fog rippled along the ground, a part of her mind thought: Oh boy! Here we go.
She thought she heard chanting, a kind of hoarse and desperate whisper, but the words themselves were indiscernible.
The air felt like silk, so soft, as she waded through the pools of fog. The chanting continued, drawing her toward it. A single word seemed to fly out of that moonstruck night, and the word was
She heard it over and over as she followed the crooked path through the silken air and the silver-laced trees. She felt a sexual pull, a heat and reaching in the belly toward whatever, whoever called out in the night.
Twice, then three times, the air seemed to whisper.
. The murmur of that warmed her skin. In the dream, she quickened her steps.
Out of the moon-drenched trees swam a black owl, its great wings stirring a storm in that soft air, chilling it until she shivered. And was, even in the dream, afraid.
With that cold wind stirring, she saw, stretched across the path, a golden fawn. The blood from its slit throat drenched the ground so it gleamed wet and black in the night.