Black Rose


Chapter Eleven




WITH HER HANDSon her hips, Roz studied her newly arranged In the Garden potting soil preparation area. It had taken two full days, eking out time between other chores and working with the precise-minded Stella to set it up.



In Roz's estimation it would have taken her half that time alone, but it wouldn't have been nearly as practical a work space. There were tubs of soil she'd already mixed herself, the worktables, the bag storage, the scale, scoops, bag sealer, stools.



Everything was arranged in assembly-line efficiency.



The outlay had been relatively little, which had pleased Stella, who had a head for profit as well as precision. With the simple design of the bags, some clever marketing, and what she knew to be an excellent product, Roz felt confident they'd do very well. Very well indeed.



Her mood was very bright when she turned to greet Harper as he came through the door of the work shed.



"What do you think of our new enterprise?" She held out her arms. With a laugh, she picked up a five-pound bag she'd already filled and sealed and tossed it over to him.



"Good look," he said, turning the bag over. "No frills. It says this is serious dirt. Looks like something you'd see in a high-end garden boutique."



"Exactly, and we'll keep the price down initially, to get it moving. I'm having the bags overfilled by a couple ounces to give me a safety zone. I thought we'd put Ruby on the job, for a start anyway. Maybe see if Steve wants to take some part-time work. It won't be that labor intensive, or take that much time."



"It's smart business, Mama." He laid the bag down. "You've got a knack for it."



"I like to think so. We still mad at each other?"



"No, but we might be after I finish telling you I went into Memphis to see Mitch Carnegie."



Her face went blank; her voice turned cool. "Why would you do that, Harper?"



"One, I was pissed off. Two, David and Stella talked me out of hunting up Clerk and beating his face in. Third, I wanted to hear for myself what Mitch had to say about what's going on between you."



"I understand one perfectly. I appreciate two, on several levels. But I fail to comprehend why you would assume to interrogate a man I'm seeing. It's unpardonably rude and interfering. I don't run around snooping on the women you choose to see."



"It wasn't snooping, and I've never chosen to see a woman who stole from me or set out to interfere with my life or smear my reputation."



"You're young yet." Ice dripped from the words. "Do you think I'm the only woman foolish enough to get tangled up with an asshole?"



"No, I don't. But I don't much care about other women. You're my only mother."



"That doesn't give you the right to - "



"I love you."



"Don't use that weapon on me."



"I can't help it. It's all I've got."



She pressed her fingers to the center of her forehead, rubbed hard. "It would help if you added a little trust and respect to that love, Harper."



"I've got all the trust and respect in the world for you, Mama. It's the men I'm not so sure about. But if it helps any, I worked up plenty of trust and respect for Mitch last night. He might almost be worthy enough to court my mama."



"He's not courting me, for God's sake. Where do you get this sort of . . . We went to a college basketball game, we had dinner."



"I think he's stuck on you."



She stared, and this time lifted both hands to the sides of her head. "My head is reeling."



He walked to her, slid his arms around her, and drew her in. "I couldn't stand to see you get hurt again."



"Bryce only hurt my pride."



"That's a mortal wound for us Harpers. And he did more than that. I don't think Mitch will do the same, at least not deliberately."



"So, you approve."



He grinned when she tipped her head up to look at him. "That's a trick question, and my mama didn't raise any fools. I say yes, and you'll rip my butt reminding me you don't need my approval. So I'm just going to say I like him. I like him a lot."



"You're a slippery one, Harper Ashby. Tell you what." She patted his back, eased away. "You can give me a hand in here for a while. I want to do up twenty bags of each weight category."



"I thought you wanted Ruby to do that."



"Changed my mind. Doing some uncomplicated and monotonous work ought to give you some time to reflect on the error of your ways."



"Talk about slippery."



"The day you can outwit me, my baby, is the day I see about moving myself into a home. Let's get started."



AFTER WORK SHEwent straight home, and directly upstairs to clean up. Wary now, she checked the mail on her desk, looked through the bills. She couldn't say she was relieved when she found nothing. It was like waiting for the other shoe to drop.



There had been a similar sort of harassment right after the divorce, then a nice period of peace. When, she assumed, he'd had some other woman on the string and was too involved to waste his time poking sticks at an ex-wife.



She'd handled it then; she'd handle it now.



As she was dressing the phone rang. When it hit the third ring, she assumed David was otherwise occupied and answered herself.



"Good evening. Is Rosalind Harper available?"



"This is she."



"Ms. Harper, this is Derek from the Carrington Gallery in New York. We're just following up to let you know the Vergano will be shipped to you tomorrow."



"I don't think that's a good idea, Derek, is it? I didn't order anything from your gallery."



"The Cristina Vergano, Ms. Harper. Your representative spoke with me personally only last week."



"I don't have a representative."



"Ms. Harper, I'm very confused. The charge has already been cleared to your account. Your representative indicated that you were very taken with the painting, and wished to have it shipped as soon as the showing was over. We've had considerable interest in this work, but as it was already sold - "



She rubbed hard at the back of her neck where the tension had settled. "It looks like we both have a problem, Derek. Let me give you some of the bad news." She explained briefly, caught herself pacing as she spoke, and as a fresh headache brewed. She noted down the credit card company and number.



"This is very upsetting."



"Yes," she agreed, "it certainly is. I'm sorry you and your gallery have been inconvenienced by this. Would you mind, just for curiosity's sake, telling me the name of the painting?"



"Vergano's a very powerful and dynamic artist. This oil on linen, custom framed by the artist, is from her Bitches collection. It's calledThe Amazing Bitch ."



"Of course it is," Roz replied.



She went though the routine, calling the credit card company, and her lawyer, then writing to both to document the incident.



She took aspirin before going down to the kitchen and pouring herself a large glass of wine.



David's note sat propped on the counter.



Hot date. An exceptional lasagna's on warm in the oven. Hayley and the baby went over to Logan's with Stella and the boys. They're having a little painting party. More than enough lasagna for two. Dr. Studly's in the library. Just warm up the bread, toss the salad - in the fridge - and you're set.Buon appetito!



David



P.S. Appropriate CDs already loaded in the player. Nowpleasego up and put on those Jimmy Choo's.



"Well." She noted David had set the kitchen nook with festive plates, fat candles, a bottle of San Pellegrino, pale green glasses. And it explained why a bottle of good Italian red was breathing on the counter.



"Lasagna's fine," she said aloud. "But I'm not putting on those shoes to eat it."



Content and comfortable in the thick gray socks she habitually wore around the house, she walked to the library.



He was sitting at the table, wearing his glasses and a Memphis Tigers sweatshirt. His fingers were moving quickly over the keyboard of his laptop. On the desk was a large bottle of water. David's doing, no doubt. He'd have nagged Mitch to rotate water with his habitual coffee.



He looked . . . studiously sexy, she decided, with his intellectual glasses and the mass of thick, disordered hair. That rich brown, with just a hint of chestnut.



There were good eyes behind those glasses, she thought. Not just the color, so deep, so unique, but good, direct eyes. A little intense, unnervingly intense, and she had to admit she found that exciting.



Even as she watched, he paused in his typing to scoop the fingers of one hand through his hair. And muttered to himself.



It was interesting to hear him mutter to himself, since she often caught herself doing the same.



It was interesting, too, to feel this long slow pull in her belly, and the little dance of lust up her spine. Wasn't it good to know those instinctive charges still had spark? And wasn't she curious to see what would happen if she took a chance, and lit the fuse?



Even as she thought it, books flew off the shelf, slammed into each other, then the walls, the floor. In the fireplace, flames leaped in hot reds, while the air shivered with cold.



"Jesus Christ."



Mitch shoved back from the table so fast his chair hit the floor. He managed to duck one book, then block another. As Roz rushed forward, everything stopped.



"You see that? Did yousee that?" He bent, picked up a book, then dropped it on the table. It wasn't fear in that lovely, liquid drawl, she noted. It was fascination. "It's like ice."



"Temper tantrums." She picked up a book herself, and the cold nearly numbed her fingers.



"Impressive ones. I've been working in here since about three." Grinning like a boy, he checked his watch. "Nearly four hours. It's been quiet as, you'll excuse the expression, a tomb. Until now."



"I suppose I set her off, as I was about to ask if you'd like to have dinner. David left a meal."



Together they began to retrieve the rest of the books. "No question that she doesn't like the two of us together."



"Apparently not."



He set the last book on the shelf. "So . . . what's for dinner?"



She glanced over at him, smiled. And in that moment realized that beyond the lust, there wasn't anything about him she didn't like. "Lasagna, which David bills as exceptional. As I've sampled it in the past, I can vouch for his claim."



"Sounds great. God, you smell good. Sorry," he added when her eyebrows lifted. "Thinking out loud. Listen, I've been able to eliminate more names, and I've been transcribing the interviews we've done so far. I've got a file here for you."



"All right."



"I'm going to work on tracking down some of the descendants of staff, and what we'll call the outer branches of the family tree. But what I'm seeing as the oldest living relative is your cousin Clarise - and happily she's local. I'd like to talk to her."



"Good luck with that."



"She's still in the area, at the . . ."



"Riverbank Center. Yes, I know."



"She puts me a full generation closer to Amelia. It'd be simpler, I'd think, to approach her if you spoke to her first."



"I'm afraid Cousin Clarise and I aren't on speaking terms, or any sort of terms whatsoever."



"I know you said there was a rift, but wouldn't she be interested in what I'm doing with the family?"



"Possibly. But I can assure you, she wouldn't take my call if I made one."



"Look, I understand about family schisms, but in this case - "



"You don't understand Clarise Harper. She dropped her surname years ago, choosing to go legally by her first and middle names. That's how entrenched in the Harper name she is. She never married. My opinion being she never found anyone soft or stupid enough to take her on."



Frowning, he hitched a hip on the table. "Is this your way of telling me you don't want me contacting her, because - "



"I hired you to do a job, and don't intend to tell you how to go about it, so don't get your back up. I'm telling you she's chosen to banish me and mine from her plane of existence, which is just fine by me. The one good thing I can say about her is once she's made up her mind on something, she follows through."



"But you don't have any objection to me talking to her, involving her."



"None. Your best bet is to write her - very formally - and introduce yourself, being sure to use the doctor part, and any other impressive credentials you might have at hand. If you tell her you intend to do a family history on the Harpers, and play up how honored you would be to interview her, and so on, she might agree."



"This is the one you kicked out of the house, right?"



"In a manner of speaking. I don't recall telling you about that."



"I talk to people. She's not the one you chased off with a Weedwacker."



Amusement, very faint, ran over her face. "You are talking to people."



"Part of the job."



"I suppose. No, I didn't chase her with a Weedwacker. That was the gardeners. And it wasn't a Weedwacker, come to that. It was a fan rake, which was unlikely to do any serious damage. If I hadn't been so mad and thinking more clearly, I'd've grabbed the loppers those idiots had used on my mimosa trees. At least with those I could've given them a good jab in the ass as they skeddadled."



"Loppers. Would those be . . ." He made wide scissoring motions with both arms.



"Yes, that's right."



"Ouch. Back to your cousin. Why'd you give her the boot?"



"Because when I invited her, to my lasting regret, to a family barbecue here years ago, she called my sons disreputable brats and stated - she without chick or child - that if I were a proper mother I'd've taken a switch to them regularly. She then called Harper a born liar, as he was entertaining some of his young cousins with stories about the Bride, and told him to shut his mouth."



He angled his head. "And still she lives."



Temper had brought a flush to her cheeks, but his comment had a small smile curving her lips. "She was on shaky ground already as she constantly criticized my parenting, my housekeeping, my lifestyle, and occasionally my morals. But nobody stands on my ground and attacks my children. While I did consider murder, knowing my quarry, I was certain banishment from Harper House was a more painful punishment."



"As I believe I said before, you're a hardass. I like that."



"Good thing, 'cause that's not going to change at this late date. In any case, on her way out the door, she cursed my name and said it was a black day when Harper House came into my grasping, incompetent hands."



"She sounds delightful. I'll write her tomorrow."



"Just don't mention you're working for me."



"It wouldn't be hard for her to find out."



"True enough, but the less you mention me the better. Anything else on your mind?"



"Other than wondering how you manage to work all day and still look amazing, no. Nothing that springs, anyway."



She waited another moment, nodded. "You're not going to mention it."



"What would it be?"



"The visit my son paid to you last night."



"Oh." Because she was watching his face, she caught the flicker of surprise that moved over it before he picked up the glasses he'd taken off and began to polish them with his sweatshirt. "He told you?"



"Yes. He was angry, so he acted rashly."



"Like grabbing a fan rake instead of loppers."



Her laugh snuck out. "Very like. We have, both of us, horrible tempers. Which is why we both make a concerted effort not to lose them. It doesn't always work. I'd like to apologize for his behavior."



"I can't accept."



There was distress, something he rarely saw from her, in her eyes. "Mitch, I know he overstepped, but he's young and - "



"You misunderstand. I can't accept an apology when there's no need for one. From either of you. He was looking out for you."



"I don't need, or want, looking out for."



"Maybe not, but that's not going to stop someone who loves you from trying. We discussed, came to understand each other, and that's all there was to it."



"And you're not going to elaborate on that."



"It was between him and me."



"You men do have your codes of honor."



"You weren't going to tell me about this latest harassment."



For an instant, she thought of the phone call from New York, then tucked it away again. "Nothing to tell. I'm dealing with it."



"What's happened since last night? You're good, so I must've caught you off guard. What else happened?"



"Just a minor irritation, one I've already handled. It's not important. More accurately, I won't let it be important. If I do, it makes me the victim, and he wins. I won't be his victim. That's one thing I never allowed myself to be, and I won't start now."



"Telling me, venting some of the stress, doesn't make you a victim, either."



"I'm not used to airing my problems. I'm not comfortable with it. But I appreciate the offer."



He took her hand, held it. "Consider it a standing one. For my next offer,Chicago 's coming to the Orpheum next week. Come with me, have a late supper with me after."



"I might. Are you courting me, Mitchell?"



His thumb grazed back and forth over her hand. "I like to think I'm romancing you, Rosalind."



"That's a pretty word,romancing . You've been careful not to pressure me into taking that romancing into intimacy."



"If I pressured you, it wouldn't be romance, or intimacy. Besides the fact, I imagine the door would hit me in the ass as you shoved me out of it."



Humor danced over her face. "That's astute. I think you're a clever man."



"I know I'm a besotted one."



"Another pretty word."



"I'll have to be careful with them. They're the sort of thing you'd distrust."



"Yes, a clever man. Well." She had a choice, and she made it. "Come upstairs."



For the second time that night, she watched surprise run over his face. Then he lifted her hand to his lips. "Would this be serious business?"



"It would. Very serious business."



"Then I'd love to."



She led him out of the room, and down the hall. "The house emptied out on me tonight. So it's just the two of us. Well, three." She looked up at him as they walked up the stairs. "Will that bother you?"



"The fact that she may be watching." He took a little breath. "I guess we'll find out. Did you - " He cut himself off, shook his head.



"What?"



"No, we'll save that."



"All right. I hope you don't mind putting off dinner a bit."



As an answer he turned to her, into her, backing her against a wall. Then laying his lips on hers.



It began warm and soft, then edged up to heat, and demand. She trembled, just once, a shiver of anticipation that spread through her system and reminded her what it was like to be poised on the brink.



He lifted his head, angled it. "You were saying?"



It made her laugh, and feel easy. Taking his hand, she drew him into her bedroom. Shut the door.



He took a moment, scanned the room with its lovely old four-poster and tall windows with the curtains drawn back to let in the night.



"It looks like you. The room," he explained, taking in the silvery green walls, the antiques, the clean lines and elegant details. "Beautiful and classy with a simple elegance that reflects an innate grace and sense of style."



"You make me wish I'd taken the time to fuss with myself a bit."



He looked at her then, the casual sweater, the comfortable trousers. "You are exactly right."



"Right or not, I'm what I am. I think a fire would be nice." She stepped toward it, but he laid a hand on her arm.



"I'll do it. You'd have a view of the back gardens from here," he began as he crouched in front of the fire.



And the terrace doors slashed open on a frigid gust of wind.



"Yes, I do." Calmly Roz crossed over, muscled the doors closed again. "Some mornings, when there's time, I like to take coffee out on the terrace."



He set the kindling to blaze, and his tone was as matter-of-fact as hers. "I can't think of many better ways to start the day."



She stepped to the bed to turn down the duvet. "Or end it. I often have a last glass of wine or cup of coffee out there before I go to bed. It helps smooth out any rough edges left over from the day." She reached over, turned out the lamp.



"Why not leave it on?"



She shook her head. "The firelight's enough, the first time. It's more flattering, and I'm vain enough to prefer that."



She stood where she was, waited for him to come to her. As he laid his hands on her shoulders, the bedroom door slammed open, and closed.



"I expect we might have more of that to contend with," she said.



"I don't care." His hands slid up to her face. "I don't care," he repeated and took her mouth with his.



She felt her pulse jump, what a glorious jolt. The sort that woke the whole system at once, brought it to quivering life. In answer, she lifted her arms to link them around his neck, changed the angle of the kiss to deepen it.



Clocks began to chime, insanely. In defiance as much as need, she pressed her body to his. "I want you to touch me," she murmured against his mouth. "I want to be touched. By you. Your hands on me."



He eased her back on the bed, sank in with her. The weight of him made her sigh, the weight of a man, and what it meant. Then he touched, and she moaned.



He felt the heat from her. He'd known it was there, under that fascinating and cool veneer. Her skin was like velvet, warmed velvet, over her sides, her torso, the lovely curve of her breasts.



Slim, but not delicate, her body was tough and disciplined. Like her mind, he thought. And just as appealing.



She tasted of ripe, forbidden fruit and smelled of midnight gardens.



Her hands slid under his shirt, up his back. Hard, strong hands, an arousing contrast to the wand-slim body, the satiny skin.



She drew his shirt over his head, reared up enough to set her teeth on his bare shoulder. And the shock of it speared straight to his loins.



The terrace door flew open once more, and the wind burst through to slap over him. He simply reached down, hauled the duvet up. And burrowed under it with her.



She laughed, and found his mouth in the blanketing dark.



Tasting her, feasting on her, he tugged her sweater up and off. "Tell me if you're too cold."



"No. I couldn't be."



She was burning up from the inside out, and only wanted more. More of his hands, his mouth. She arched to him, demanding, exalting when those hands, that mouth claimed her breast. The thrill of it stabbed through her, the bliss of giving her body, of having itused .



They rolled together, tugging each other free of clothes, sliding together naked as flesh began to slick from heat and passion.



The blankets fell away, so firelight flickered over them. And if in some dim corner of her brain she heard someone weeping, she could feel only that steady rise of excitement. She could see only him, in the glow of the fire, rising over her.



She lifted to meet him, opened to take him. And sighed, sighed, when he slipped inside her.



He watched her now as she watched him, gazes and bodies locked. Then the movement, slow, intensely focused as her breath came short and ragged, as dark, deep pleasure flooded her, swept her away.



He watched her crest, the arch of her throat, the blur of her eyes, felt her fly over as she squeezed around him. He fought to hold on another moment, just another moment while she quaked under him, while her breath hitched, then released on a long, low moan. And her body went soft and limp in surrender.



He kissed her then, one last, desperate kiss before he plunged, and emptied.



THE DOORS WEREclosed as they should be. The fire crackled and simmered. And the house was quiet, settled, and warm.



She was cocooned with him in the center of the bed, allowing herself to enjoy the bliss and the glow. With very little effort, she could have drifted straight off to sleep.



"Looks like she gave up," Mitch commented.



"Yes. For now, anyway."



"You were right about the fire. It's nice. Very nice."



Then he rolled so that she was under him again, and he could look down at her face. "Being with you," he began, then shook his head, touched his lips to hers. "Being with you."



"Yes." Smiling, she stroked her fingers through his hair. "That's very nice, too. I haven't wanted to be with anyone in a very long time. You know, you've got good arms, for a scholar." She gave his biceps a squeeze. "I like good arms. I don't like to think I'm shallow, but I have to say it's a pleasure being naked with a man who keeps in shape."



"I'll change that to a woman, then say the same. The first time I met you, I stood and watched you walk away. You've got one excellent ass, Ms. Harper."



"It happens I do." With a laugh, she gave his a light slap. "We'd better get dressed, go on down before everyone starts coming home."



"In a minute. It was your eyes that hooked me - hooked right through me."



"My eyes?"



"Oh yeah. I thought maybe it was because they're the color of good aged whiskey - and I did love a good whiskey. But that's not it. It's the way they look straight at me. Straight on. Fearless, and just a little regal."



"Please."



"Oh yeah, there's lady of the manor in there, and it beats the hell out of me why it's so sexy. Ought to be irritating, or intimidating at least. But for me, it's just . . . stimulating."



"If that's the case, I'm going to have to start wearing dark glasses so I don't get you heated up at inappropriate times."



"Won't matter a damn." He gave her a light kiss, then shifted. Took her hand. "This mattered. This was important. There isn't anyone else."



Her heart trembled a little, made her feel young and just a little foolish. "Yes, this mattered. This was important. There isn't anyone else."



"Serious business," he said, and drew her hand to his lips. "I'm going to start wanting you again, real soon."



She squeezed his hand. "We'll have to see what we can do about that."

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