Black Rose


Chapter Eight




ALITTLE DISTANCE , Mitch decided, was in order. The woman was a paradox, and since there was no finite solution to a paradox, it was best accepted for what it was - instead of puzzling over it until blood leaked out of your ears.



So he'd try a little distance where he could funnel his energies into puzzles other than the enigmatic Rosalind Harper.



He had plenty of legwork, or, more accurately, butt work. A few hours on his computer and he could verify the births and deaths and marriages listed in the Harper family Bible. He'd already generated a chart of the family ancestry, using his on-line and his courthouse information.



Clients liked charts. Beyond that, they were tools for him, as the copies of family pictures were, as letters were. He pinned everything onto a huge board. Two in this case. One for his office in his apartment, and one in the library at Harper House.



Pictures, old photos, old letters, diaries, scribbled family recipes, all of those things brought the people alive for him. When they were alive for him, when he began to envision their daily routines, their habits, their flaws and grievances, they mattered to him more than any job or project could matter.



He could lose hours paging through Elizabeth Harper's gardening notes, or the baby book she'd kept on Roz's father. How else would he know the man who'd sired Roz had suffered from celiac at three months, or had taken his first steps ten months later?



It was the details, the small bits, that made the past full, and immediate.



And in the wedding photo of Elizabeth and Reginald Junior, he could see Rosalind in her grandfather. The dark hair, the long eyes, the strong facial bones.



What else had he passed to her, and through her to her children, this man she barely remembered?



Business acumen for one, Mitch concluded. From other details, those small bits, found in clippings, in household records, he gained a picture of a man who'd had a sharp skill for making money, who'd avoided the fate of many of his contemporaries in the stock market crash. A careful man, and one who'd preserved the family home and holdings.



Yet wasn't there a coolness about him? Mitch thought as he studied the photographs on his board. A remoteness that showed in his eyes. More than just the photographic style of the day.



Perhaps it came from being born wealthy - the only son on whose shoulders the responsibilities fell.



"What," Mitch wondered aloud, "did you know about Amelia? Did you ever meet her, in the flesh? Or was she already dead, already just a spirit in this house when your time came around?"



Someone knew her, he thought. Someone spoke to her, touched her, knew her face, her voice.



And someone who did lived or worked in Harper House.



Mitch moved to a search of the servants he had by full names.



It took time, and didn't include the myriad other possibilities. Amelia had been a guest, a servant whose name was not included - or had been expunged from family records - a relative's relative, a friend of the family.



He could speculate, of course, that if a guest, a friend, a distant relation had died in the house, the information would have trickled down, and her identity would be known.



Then again, that was speculation, and didn't factor in the possibility of scandal, and the tendency to hush such matters up.



Or the fact that she'd been no one important to the Harpers, had died in her sleep, and no one considered it worth discussing.



And it was just another paradox, he supposed as he leaned back from his work, that he, a rational, fairly logical-thinking man, was spending considerable time and effort to research and identify a ghost.



The trick was not to think of her that way, but to think of her as a living, breathing woman, a woman who had been born, lived a life, dressed, ate, laughed, cried, walked, and talked.



She had existed. She had a name. It was his job to findwho ,what ,when .Why was just the bonus question.



He dug the sketch out of his file, studied the image Roz had created of a young, thin woman with a mass of curly hair and eyes full of misery. And this is how they'd dated her, he thought with a shake of his head. By a dress and a hairstyle.



Not that it wasn't a good sketch. He'd only seen Amelia once, and she hadn't looked calm and sad like this, but wild and mad.



The dress could have been ten, even twenty years old. Or brand-new. The hairstyle a personal choice or a fashion statement. It was impossible to pinpoint age or era on such, well, sketchy information.



And yet, from his research so far, he tended to think they were close to the mark.



The talk of dreams, the bits of information, the lore itself appeared to have its roots during Reginald Harper's reign.



Reginald Harper, he thought, kicking back in his chair to stare at the ceiling. Reginald Edward Harper, born 1851, the youngest of four children born to Charles Daniel Harper and Christabel Westley Harper. Second and only surviving son. Older brother, Nathanial died July 1864, at age eighteen, during the Battle of Bloody Bridge in Charlestown.



"Married Beatrice . . ." He rummaged through his notes again. Yes, there it is, 1880. Five children. Charlotte, born 1881, Edith Anne, 1883, Katherine, 1885, Victoria, 1886, and Reginald Junior, 1892."



Big gap between the last two kids, considering the pattern beforehand, he thought, and noted down possibilities of miscarriages and/or stillbirths.



Strong possibilities with the factors of unreliable birth control, and the natural assumption that Reginald would have wanted a son to continue the family name.



He scanned the family chart he'd generated for Beatrice. A sister, one brother, one sister-in-law. But neither female relation had died until well after the first reports of sightings and dreams, making them unlikely candidates. And neither had been named Amelia.



Of course, he hadn't found a servant by that name, either. Not yet.



But for now he circled back to Reginald Harper, head of the house during the most likely era.



Just who were you, Harper? Prosperous, well-heeled. Inherited the house, and the holdings, because the older brother ran off to be a solider, and died fighting for the Cause. Baby of the family on top of it.



Married well, accumulating more holdings through that marriage. Expanded and modernized the house, according to Roz's notes. Married well, lived well, and you weren't afraid to spend the dough. Still, there'd been a consistent turnover of housemaids and other female staff during his years at the helm.



Maybe Reginald liked to play with the help. Or his wife had been a tyrant.



Was the long wait for a son frustrating and annoying, or was he happy with his girls? It would be interesting to know.



There was no one alive to say.



Mitch went back to his computer and contented himself, for the moment, with facts.



SINCE SHE HADso many houseplants from the division of her own, Roz rotated some into store stock, and at Stella's suggestion worked with her to use more in creating some dish gardens.



She enjoyed working with Stella, and that was rare. Primarily when she was potting or propagating, Roz preferred only the company of her plants and her music.



"Feels good to get my hands in the dirt," Stella commented as she selected a snake plant for her arrangement.



"I figure you'll be getting plenty of that soon enough dealing with your new gardens."



"Can't wait. I know I'm driving Logan crazy changing and redefining and tweaking the plan." She blew a stray curl out of her face and slid her gaze over to Roz. "Then again,plan isn't exactly the word for what he was doing with the landscape. It was more of a concept."



"Which you're refining."



"I think if I show him one more sketch he might make me eat it. This coleus is gorgeous."



"Focusing on the gardens helps keep down the nerves over the wedding."



Stella paused, hands in dirt. "Bull's-eye. Who'd think I'd be nervous? It's not the first time around for me, and we're keeping it small, simple. I've had months to plan, which hasn't made him all that happy, either. But we had to at least get the living room and the boys' rooms painted and furnished. You wouldn't believe some of the gorgeous pieces his mother gave him that he's had stuffed in a storage garage."



"This dracaena should work here. Nerves are expected, I'd think. A bride's still a bride, first time around or not."



"Were you nervous the second time? I know it turned out awful, but . . ."



"No, I wasn't." Her tone was flat. Not bitter, just empty. "Should've told me something. You're nervous because you're excited and you're happy, and because you're the type who'll worry over every detail. Worry especially when it's important."



"I just want everything to look special. Perfect. I must've been crazy, deciding to have the wedding outside in the backyard when the gardens weren't even finished. Now we only have until April to get it all done."



"And you will. You and Logan know what you're doing about the planting, about each other, about everything that matters."



"Remind me of that every now and again, would you?"



"Happy to. These look good." She stepped back, fisted her gloved hands on her hips. "You got prices worked up?"



"Thirty-four fifty. Forty-five ninety-five for the large size."



"Sounds good. Nice profit margin since the plants are mostly all divisions."



"And a good value for our customers since they're not going to see dish gardens this full or lush anywhere. I'll help you carry some in, then plug these into the inventory."



They loaded a flat cart, wheeled it into the main building. When Stella started to shift stock to rearrange, Roz nudged her aside.



"Go on, do the paperwork. If you start here fiddling with display, you'll be here an hour. You're just going to come back when I'm done and fool with it anyway."



"I was just thinking if we grouped some of the smaller ones over there, and used a couple of those tile-topped tables - "



"I'll figure it out, then you can come behind me and . . . refine it."



"If you put one of the larger ones on that wrought-iron patio table, and put one of the little brass lanterns with it, then set that sixteen-inch clay pot of bird of paradise beside it, it would be a strong display. And I'm going."



Amused, Roz shifted stock, arranged the new. And since she had to admit Stella was on target, as usual, set up the table as outlined.



"Why, Rosalind Harper, there you are!"



Because Roz's back was turned, she indulged herself in a single wince before schooling her face to more welcoming lines.



"Hey there, Cissy."



She allowed the standard greeting, a peck that stopped an inch from her cheek, then resigned herself to losing a quarter of an hour in chatter.



"Don't you look pretty," Roz said. "Is that a new suit?"



"This?" Cissy waved one of her French-manicured hands, dismissing the cherry-red suit. "Just yanked it out of my closet this morning. I swear, Roz, are youever going to gain an ounce? Every time I see you, I feel obliged to sweat an extra twenty minutes on my exercise machine."



"You look wonderful, Cissy." Which was invariably true. One of the skills Cecilia Pratt had most honed was in turning herself out. Her hair was an attractive streaky blond worn in a ruler-straight swing that suited her round, youthful face with its winking dimples and walnut-brown eyes.



From the outfit, Roz assumed she'd just come from some lady lunch, or committee meeting, and had come by to sow and to harvest gossip.



Gossip was Cissy's other keen skill.



"I don't see how I could, I'm just wornout . The holidays just about did me in this year. Every time you turned around, there was another party. I don't think I've caught my breath since Thanksgiving. Now before you know it, it'll be the Spring Ball at the club. Tell me you're going this year, Roz. It's just not the same without you."



"Haven't thought about it."



"Well, do. Sit down here a minute and let's catch up. I swear I can't stay on my feet anotherminute ." To prove it, she sat on the bench near the table display Roz had just completed. "Isn't this nice? It's just like sitting in a tropical garden somewhere. Hank and I are heading down to the Caymans next week for some sun. I need the break, let me tell you."



"Won't that be fun." Trapped by manners, Roz joined her on the bench.



"You ought to take yourself a nice tropical vacation, honey." Cissy patted Roz's hand. "Sun, blue water, handsome half-naked men. Just the ticket. You know I worry that you just chain yourself to this place. But you've got that girl from Up North managing things now. How's she working out for you, by the way?"



"Her name's Stella, Cissy, and she's worked for me for a year now. That should be a good indication it's working out just fine for both of us."



"That's good. You should take advantage of that and get away for a while."



"There's no place I want to go."



"Well, I'm going to bring you some brochures, that's what I'm going to do. I don't know if I could get through the next day if I didn't know we'd be sitting on a beach sipping mai tais soon. You were smart to skip most of the parties, though I was sorry I didn't see you New Year's Eve at Jan and Quill's. Lovely gathering, really, though it didn't comenear the one you put on. Flowers were on the skimpy side, and the food wasn't much more than mediocre. Not that I'd say so to Jan. Did you know she was going in for liposuction next week?"



"No, I didn't."



"Well, it's one of those ill-kept secrets." Cissy edged closer, her dimples doing a conspirator's wink. "Butt and thighs is what I hear. I just this minute came from lunch with her, andshe says how she's going to be spending a week at a spa in Florida, when everybody knows she's going for the vacuum, then holing up in her house till she can get around again. And, bless her heart, since you could set a table for a family of four on the shelf of her ass, I'd say it'll be more than a week before she's walking straight again."



Despite herself, Roz laughed. "For God's sake, Cissy, her ass looks normal enough to me."



"Not compared to the new administrative assistant Quill's said to have his eye on. Twenty-eight years old, and you could set that table quite a bit higher on that one, as long as you don't mind eating off silicone."



"I hope that's not true, about Quill. I've always thought he and Jan were good together."



"Some men just lose all sense around a big pair of tits, no matter if God or man made them. Which brings me around to what I really came by to tell you. I'm just not quite sure how."



"I'm sure you'll find a way."



"It's just that I feel I must, I'm obliged . . . How long have we been friends, Rosalind?"



"I couldn't say." Since knowing someone since high school didn't make you friends, she thought.



"At our age, it's best not to count the years in any case. But since we've known each other longer than either of us cares to admit to, I feel like I have to let you know what's going around. But first I want to say, since I haven't had a minute to talk to you since . . . theincident , that I've never been so shocked or sodumbfounded as I was when that horrible Bryce Clerk walked into your house, just like he had a right to, the night of your party."



"It's all right, Cissy. He walked right back out again."



"And a good thing, too, as I don't know if I could've held myself back. I just don't know. I couldn't believe that Mandy. Of course, that girl hasn't got the sense God gave a retarded flea, but that's no excuse for not taking the time to find out who the manwas before she came traipsing into your home on his arm."



She waved a hand. "I just can't speak of it."



"Then we won't. I really have to get back to work."



"But I haven'ttold you. My tongue just runs away from me when I'm upset. He wasthere , with that ridiculous, brainless girl again. He was there, Roz, at Jan and Quill's, big as life, like he didn't have a care in the world. Drinking champagne and dancing, smoking cigars out on the veranda. Talking about hisconsulting company. Just turned my stomach."



She held a hand to it, as if even now it threatened to revolt. "I know Jan said you'd sent your regrets, but I lived in horror that you'd change your mind and walk in any minute. I wasn't the only one, either."



"I'm sure." Very sure, Roz thought, that there'd been plenty of excited buzz, and half-hopeful glances toward the door. "Jan's entitled to have anyone she wants to in her own home."



"I certainly don't agree with that. It's a matter of loyalty, if not good taste. And I had lunch with her today to say just that."



As she spoke, she opened her purse and took out a compact to blot her nose. "Turns out Quill cleared the way for him. They're doing some business together, not that Jan seems to know a thing about that, the woman's just clueless when it comes to money matters. Not like you and me."



"Mmm" was the most polite response Roz could think of, as Cissy had never worked a day in her life.



"To her credit she was mortified while we talked about it over lunch. Mortified." Taking out a lipstick, she repainted her mouth to match her suit. "But there are some, and I admit I heard some of this at the party as well as here and there, there are some who feel some sympathy for the man. Who actually believed he was treated poorly, which just beats all, if you ask me. The worst of it is, the version that you physically assaulted him the night of the party, running him out when he attempted to make bygones, so to speak. That you threatened him and that silly girl even when they went out again. Of course, every time I hear it, I do what I can to straighten it out. I was there, after all."



Roz recognized the avid tone. Give me some fuel for this fire. And that she wouldn't do, no matter how angry, how vilified she felt. "People will say or think what they want to say or think. There's no point in me worrying about it."



"Well, some are saying and thinking that you didn't come to Jan's, or other get-togethers, because you knewhe would be there, and sporting a woman nearly half your age."



"I'm surprised anyone would spend so much time concerned with speculating on how I might react to someone who is no longer a part of my reality. If you see Jan, be sure to tell her not to worry about it on my account."



Roz rose. "It was good to see you. I've just got to get back to work here."



"I want you to know I'll be thinking about you." Cissy got to her feet, gave Roz another air peck. "We've got to have lunch sometime soon, my treat."



"You and Hank have a good time in the Caymans."



"We will. I'm going to send you those brochures," she called over her shoulder as she walked out.



"You do that," Roz muttered.



She walked out the opposite way, furious with herself for being hurt and insulted. She knew better, knew it wasn't worth it, but still the score to her pride ached.



She started to turn into the propagation house, but veered off. In this mood she'd do more harm than good. Instead, she skirted around, headed into the woods that separated her private and personal domains, and took the long way home.



She didn't want to see anyone, speak to anyone, but there was David out in the yard, playing with Stella's boys and their dog.



The dog spotted her first, and with a few welcoming yips raced over to jump, and scrabble at her knees.



"Not now, Parker." She bent to scratch his ears. "Not a good time now."



"We're hunting buried treasure." Luke ran over. He wore a silly black beard hooked over his ears and hiding half his freckled face. "We have a map and everything."



"Treasure?"



"Uh-huh. I'm Blackbeard the pirate, and Gavin's Long John Silver. David's Captain Morgan. He says Captain Morgan can put a shine on a bad day. But I don't get it."



She smiled, ruffled the boy's hair as she had the dog's fur. She could use a belt of Captain Morgan herself, she decided. A double. "What's the treasure?"



"It's a surprise, but David - Captain Morgan says if we scallywags don't find it, we have to walk the plank."



She looked over at Gavin, who was hobbling around with a broomstick strapped to his leg. And David, sporting a black eyepatch and a big plumed hat he must have dug out of his costume party bag.



"Then you'd better go on back and find it."



"Don't you wanna play?"



"Not right now, sugar."



"Better find my pieces of eight," David said as he came over, "or I'll hang you from the highest yardarm."



With an un-piratelike squeal, Luke scrambled off to count off more paces from the map with his brother.



"What's wrong, honey?"



"Nothing." Roz shook her head. "Little headache, came home early. I hope to God you didn't actually bury something. I'd hate to fire you."



"New PlayStation game, up in the crook of the lowest branch of that sycamore."



"You're a treasure, Captain Morgan."



"One in a million. I know that face." He lifted a hand to it. "It'd pass most anybody, but not me. What's upset you, and what the hell are you doing walking all that way without a jacket?"



"I forgot it, and I do have a headache. Brought on by some foolishness Cissy Pratt was obliged to carry over to me."



"One of these days her flapping tongue's going to wrap around her own throat." He flipped up his eye patch. "And when she's in the funeral home, I'm going in and dressing her in an outdated, off-the-rack outfit from Wal-Mart. Polyester."



It brought on a half smile. "That's cruel."



"Come on inside. I'm going to fix us a batch of my infamous martinis. You can tell me all about it, then we'll trash the bitch."



"As entertaining as that sounds, I think what I need is a couple of aspirin and a twenty-minute nap. And we both know you can't disappoint those boys. Go on now, Captain." She kissed his cheek. "Shiver some timbers."



She went inside, directly upstairs. She took the self-prescribed aspirin, then stretched out on her bed.



How long, she wondered, how long was the albatross of that joke of a marriage going to lay across her neck? How many times would it flap right up and slap her in the face?



So much for her superstitious hope that by letting the fifteen thousand dollars she'd discovered he'd nipped out of her account slide, she would have paid the debt, balanced the scales of the mistake.



Well, the money was gone, and no use regretting that foolish decision. The marriage had happened, and no point punishing herself for it.



Sooner or later he'd slip again, screw the wrong woman, bilk the wrong man, and he'd slither out of Memphis, out of her circle.



Eventually people would find something and someone else to talk about. They always did.



Imagine him being able to convince anyone that she'd attacked him - and in her own home. Then again, he did play the injured party well, and was the most accomplished liar she'd ever known.



She could not, and would not, defend herself on any level. Doing so would just feed the beast. She would do what she had always done. Remove herself, physically and emotionally, from the storm of talk.



She'd indulge in this brief sulk - she wasn't perfect, after all. Then she'd get back to her life, and live it as she'd always done.



Exactly as she chose.



She closed her eyes. She didn't expect to sleep, but she drifted a bit in that half-state she often found more soothing.



And while she drifted, she sat on the bench in her own shade garden, basking in the late-spring breeze, breathing in the perfumes it had floating on the air.



She could see the main house, and the colorful pots she'd planted and set herself on the terraces. And the carriage house, with its dance of lilies waiting to open wide.



She smelled the roses that climbed up the arbor in a strong stream of golden sun. The white roses she'd planted herself, as a private tribute to John.



She rarely went to his grave, but often to the arbor.



She looked over beyond the rose garden, the cutting garden, the paths that gently wound through the flowers and shrubs and trees to the spot where Bryce had wanted to dig a swimming pool.



They'd argued over that, and had a blistering fight when she'd headed off the contractor he'd hired despite her.



The contractor had been told, she recalled, in no uncertain terms that if he so much as dipped a blade into her ground, she'd call the police to scrape up what she left of him.



With Bryce she'd been even less patient while reminding him the house and grounds were hers, the decisions made involving them hers.



He'd stormed out, hadn't he, after she'd scalded him. Only to slink back a few hours later, sheepish, apologetic, and with a tiny bouquet of wild violets.



Her mistake in accepting the apology, and the flowers.



Alone is better.



She shivered in the shade. "Maybe it is, maybe it isn't."



You did this alone. All of this. You made a mistake once, and look what it cost you. Still costs you. Don't make another.



"I won't make another. Whatever I do, it won't be a mistake."



Alone is better.The voice was more insistent now, and the cold deeper.I'm alone.



For an instant, only an instant, Roz thought she saw a woman in a muddy white dress, lying in an open grave. And for that instant, only that instant, she smelled the decay of death under the roses.



Then the woman's eyes opened, stared into hers, with a kind of mad hunger.

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