Black Rose


Chapter Fifteen




ROZ PUTMITCHoff for a day, then for two. She wanted her head clear, her temper calm, and it wasn't happening quickly. She needed a meeting with her lawyer, and felt obliged to schedule another with William Rolls at the club.



She hated, absolutely hated, being pulled away from her work, particularly at the very start of high season. She could thank God for Stella, as always for Harper, and for Hayley as well. She could be confident that her business was in the best of hands.



But those hands weren't hers, at least not while she was running around tidying up the mess Bryce had made for her.



With the hateful errands done, she trudged through a soaking rain toward the propagation house. For an hour or two, at least, she could dive into the final prep work for the spring season. And she could take her headache, and her sour mood, into a private spot and let the work do its magic.



When she was done for the day, she told herself, she was going to find Mitch. If he wasn't working in her library, she'd call him. She wanted his company - or hoped she would by that evening.



She wanted conversation, about something other than her problems. And wouldn't it be nice to relax with him, maybe up in her sitting room, by the fire - especially if the rain continued - and bask a little in the way he looked at her?



A woman could get very used to having a man look at her as if she were beautiful and desirable and the only one who mattered.



Get used enough to it, she might start to believe it. She'd like to believe it, Roz realized. What a difference it made, being drawn to a man you felt you could trust.



She opened the door to the propagation house.



And stepped into her own bedroom.



The fire was simmering low, the only light in the room. And it tossed flickers of gold, hints of red into the shadows. She heard them first, the quick breath, the low laughter, the rustle of clothing.



Then she saw them in the firelight, Bryce, her husband, and the woman who was a guest in her home. Embracing. No, more . . . grappling, hurrying to touch, to taste each other. She could feel the excitement from them, the snap of the illicit thrill. And knew, even in those few shocked seconds, this wasn't the first time. Hardly the first time.



She stood, with the sounds of the party dim behind her, and absorbed the betrayal, and the greasy slide of humiliation that was under it.



As she had before, she started to step back, to leave them there, but he turned his head, turned it toward her even as his hands cupped another woman's breasts.



And he smiled, bright and charming and sly. Laughed, low and pleased.



"Stupid bitch, I was never faithful. None of us are."



Even as he spoke, his face changed, light and shadow playing over it as it became Mitch's face.



"Why should we be? Women are meant to be used. Do you really think one of you matters more than another?" That lovely voice dripped derision as he fondled the woman in his arms. "We all lie, because we can."



Those shadows floated and the face became John's. Her husband, her love. The father of her sons. "Do you think I was true to you, you pathetic fool?"



"John." The pain nearly took her to her knees. So young, she thought. So alive. "Oh, God, John."



"Oh, God, John," he mimicked, as his hands made the woman he embraced moan. "Needed sons, didn't I? You were nothing more than a broodmare. If I'd been luckier, I'd have lived and left you. Taken what mattered, taken my sons, and left you."



"That's a lie."



"We all lie."



When he laughed, she had to press her hands over her ears. When he laughed, it was like fists pounding on her body, on her heart, until she did simply sink to her knees.



She heard herself weeping, raw, bitter sobs.



She didn't hear the door open behind her, or the startled exclamation. Arms came around her, hard and tight. And she smelled her son.



"Mama, what's wrong? Are you hurt? Mama."



"No. No." She clung to him, pressing her face into his shoulder and fighting to stop the tears. "I'm all right. Don't worry. I'm just - "



"You're not all right, and don't tell me not to worry. Tell me what it is. Tell me what happened."



"In a minute. Just a minute." She leaned against him, let him rock her there on the ground until his warmth seeped into her own icy bones. "Oh, Harper, when did you get to be so big and strong? My baby."



"You're shaking. You're not sick, you're scared."



"Not scared." She drew a deep breath. "A little traumatized, I guess."



"I'm taking you home. You can tell me about it there."



"I . . . yes, that's best." She drew back a little, wiped at her face. "I don't want to see anybody else just now. I sure as hell don't want anyone to see me. I'm a little bit of a wreck, Harper, and imagine I look like a major one."



"Don't worry. Want me to carry you?"



"Oh." Tears stung her eyes again, but warm ones. "My sweet boy. No, I can walk just fine. Tell me something first. Everything's the same in here, isn't it? Everything's as it should be in here?"



Because there was such tension in her voice, he looked around the greenhouse. "Everything's fine."



"Okay. Okay. Let's go home."



She let him lead her through the rain, around the buildings, and let out her first sigh of relief when she climbed into his car.



"Just relax," he ordered, and leaned over to fasten her seat belt himself. "We'll be home in a minute. You need to get warm."



"You'll make a good daddy."



"What?"



"You've got a nurturing bent - comes from being a gardener, maybe, but you don't just know how to take care, you take it. Christ, these have been a lousy couple of days."



"Did you have a fight with Mitch or something?"



"No." She kept her eyes closed as he drove, but her lips curved a little. "I don't get hysterical over a spat. I hope to God it takes more than that to bring me so low."



"I've never seen you cry like that, not since Daddy died."



"I don't guess I have." She felt the car turn, and opened her eyes so she could watch Harper House come into view. "Did you ever want me to give it up, this place?"



"No." His expression was utter shock as he looked over at her. "Of course not."



"Good. That's good to know for sure. I don't know if I could have, even for you."



"It's ours, and it's always going to be." He parked, and was out of the car and hurrying to her side before she could get out.



"I'm just a little shaky, Harper, not mortally wounded."



"You're going straight up, getting into some dry clothes. I'll bring you up some brandy."



"Harper, this is going to sound stupid, but I'm not quite ready to go upstairs."



"I'll get you some dry clothes. You can change in David's room."



"Thanks." He didn't even ask why, she thought. Didn't hesitate. What a man she'd raised.



"Go on back to David," he ordered. "Tell him I said you're to have some brandy, and some hot tea."



"Yes, sir."



Before she could move toward the stairs, Mitch came out of the library and started down the hall.



"I thought I heard the door - I've been keeping an ear . . ." He trailed off as he got closer, then lengthened his stride to reach her. "What is it? Are you sick, hurt?"



"No. Do I look sick?"



"You look pale as a sheet, and you've been crying. What is it?" He looked over her head into Harper's eyes. "What happened?"



"She doesn't really want to see anyone right now," Harper began.



"It's all right." She squeezed Harper's hand. "I did say that," she told Mitch, "but after I pull myself together a little more, I'd just as soon tell you both - all three of you, since I imagine David's in the kitchen - at once."



"She needs dry clothes," Harper stated. "If you'd take her back to David, get some brandy into her, I'll go fetch her some."



"For heaven's sake, this is what comes from being the little woman in a house full of big, strapping males. I don't have to be taken anywhere, and I can get brandy into myself."



"She's coming back." Harper nodded at Mitch. "You'll take care of her. I'll just be a minute."



"I've worried him now," Roz stated as Harper bounded up the steps. "I hate worrying him."



"Well, you're worrying me, too."



"I suppose it can't be helped. I wouldn't mind that brandy, though."



The minute they stepped into the kitchen, David rushed forward, concern tightening his face. Roz simply threw up a hand.



"I'm not hurt, I'm not sick, and there's no need to fuss. What I want is a shot of brandy, and the dry clothes Harper's bringing down. Mind if I change in your room?"



"No. Sit down." As he strode to a cabinet, he whipped the dishrag tucked into the waistband of his jeans, and used it to brush flour from his hands. "Who made her cry?"



Because the question was more of an accusation, tossed straight at Mitch, Mitch held up his hands for peace. "I've been here, remember? Harper just brought her in like this."



"I must point out, I'm sitting right here. And as I am, I can speak for myself. Thanks, baby." She lifted the snifter of brandy and took a quick, deep swallow. "Always hated this stuff, but it shoots straight to the spot."



She managed a smile as Harper came in with a sweatshirt, jeans, and thick socks. "My hero. Just give me a couple of minutes, and I'll try to explain what happened."



Harper waited until she'd gone into David's quarters, and the doors were closed.



"I found her sitting on the floor of the propagation house, crying. Just . . . sobbing. She hardly ever cries. Gets a little wet when something makes her really happy, or sentimental, but when she's sad or hurt - she doesn't let you see it."



"What's been going on the past few days?" Mitch demanded, and saw David and Harper exchange a look. "I knew there was something. She's been avoiding me."



"It's best if she tells you herself. David, she ought to have some tea, don't you think?"



"I'll put it on. Get that box of Nirvana caramels out of the fridge. Some chocolate will make her feel better. Mitch, why don't you light the fire there? I didn't bother with it today."



When Roz stepped back in, David was brewing tea, Harper was setting out fancy chocolates, and Mitch was babying a fire in the kitchen hearth.



"Makes me wonder why I haven't had some sort of jag long before this, if I get three good-looking men bustling around ready to wait on me. Before we sit down, Mitch, I should've told you before. I think you'll want your tape recorder."



"I'll get it."



It gave her a little more time, calming herself toward cool by the time they all sat together. She told them, was able to relay it matter-of-factly now. Though her hands went cold again, she simply warmed them on her teacup and finished describing her experience in the greenhouse.



"I always had a soft spot for the Bride," David began, "but now, I think she's just a stone bitch."



"Hard to argue." Roz picked up a piece of chocolate. "But it seems to me that she believes all this sincerely. Men are liars and cheats and no-good bastards. She wants me to believe it so I'm not used and hurt again."



"Mama." Harper stared hard into his own tea. "Do you believe Daddy wasn't faithful to you?"



"I don't believe anything of the kind. More than that, honey, I know he was faithful. Without a single doubt."



"She made you see him that way."



"She made me see him," Roz repeated. "And it broke my heart. To see him, just as he'd been. So young and vibrant and real. Just out of my reach. Out of my reach, when everything I felt for him came alive inside me again, just as vibrant and real. I knew it was a lie, even as it happened. And the cruel things she put into his mouth were never his. He was never cruel."



"She used your experience with Bryce, a painful incident," Mitch began. "And transferred that experience to the man who came before him. John. The man who came after him. Me. She'd rather hurt you, is compelled to hurt you, to save you from becoming involved with me."



"A bit late for that."



"Is it?"



"Do you think I'm so weak-minded, so spineless that I'd let her tricks influence me?"



"I think you're strong-minded, perilously close to a fault. I'm just not sure how much you disagree with her."



"I see. Well, well, well. I think I've told y'all what I can. I'm going to go on up, do some paperwork. Harper, it'd set my mind at ease if you'd go back to the nursery, just make sure everything's under control. David, the tea was just right, thanks."



She rose, strode out of the room without a second glance.



"Well, pissing her off brought the color back in her cheeks," David commented.



"Then she'll probably have a permanent healthy blush by the time I'm done. Excuse me."



"Brave, brave man," David stated as Mitch marched out.



"Or brick stupid," Harper said. "Either way, I think he's in love with her. If he's stupid, she'll chew him up and spit him out, regardless. If he's brave, he might just make the cut. I hope he does."



ROZ HAD JUSTreached her bedroom when Mitch caught up and walked right in behind her. She turned around, slow and deliberate.



"I don't believe I invited you in."



"I don't believe I asked for an invitation." Just as slow, just as deliberate, he closed the door. And to her shock, locked it.



"You're going to want to unlock that and step out again, or believe me, the wrath of this arguably psychotic ghost will be nothing compared to mine."



"You want a shot at me, take it. But I'll damn well know why first."



"I've just told you. I don't appreciate your invading my privacy this way, and presuming - "



"And that's bullshit. What led up to this? You've been brushing me off and evading me for days. The last time we were together, we were in that bed, and you were with me, Rosalind. I want to know what changed."



"Nothing. I've got my own life, just as you do." In a deliberate and, she could admit, petty move, she walked to the terrace doors, flung them open. "I had a lot to do."



He simply crossed over, slammed the doors shut. Locked them.



She wasn't sure she could get words past the fire of rage burning in her throat. "If you think for one minute I'll tolerate that - "



"Just be quiet." He snapped it out, and though blistering temper boiled inside her, she found herself measuring him in a new light.



"On second thought," he said before she could think of a response, "answer one question. I told you I was falling in love with you. Was that a mistake?"



"Telling me? No. Falling, possibly. I'm a difficult woman."



"That's not a news flash."



"Mitchell, I'm tired, I'm angry, I'm emotionally . . . I don't know what the hell I am, but I don't want to fight with you now, because I'll fight dirty and regret it later. I don't want to talk to you. I don't want to be with you."



"I'm not leaving, because you're tired and you're angry, and in emotional turmoil. You don't want to talk or fight, fine. Lie down, take a nap. I'll wait until you're feeling stronger."



"God. Goddamnit." She whirled away, stormed toward the terrace doors, and unlocking them again, threw them open to the rain. "I need air. I just need some fucking air."



"Fine. Suck it in then, all you want. But this time, Rosalind, you're going to talk to me."



"What do you expect me to say? What do you want to hear?"



"The truth'll do."



"The truth, then. Shehurt me." Emotion drenched her voice as she pressed a fisted hand to her heart. "She sliced me up and carved me out. Seeing John like that. I can't explain it, I don't have words for what it did to me."



She whirled back to him, and he saw her eyes were drenched, too. The tears didn't fall, and he could only imagine the vicious strength that held them back. But the golden brown swam with tears.



"She dropped me right down to the ground, and there was nothing I could do. How can I fight that? How can I fight something that doesn't really exist? Even knowing why she did it doesn't stop it from squeezing my heart into bloody pulp."



With an impatient gesture, she used the heels of her hands to swipe at any tear that escaped her control.



"He didn't deserve to be used that way. Do you see? He didn't deserve it. He was a good man, Mitchell. A good man, good husband, good father. I fell in love with him when I was fourteen. Fourteen years old, can you imagine? He made me a woman, and a mother, and God, a widow. I loved him, beyond measure."



"She can't touch what you feel for him. Nothing she can do can touch it. I didn't know him, but I'm looking at you, Rosalind, and I can see that. I can see him."



Her breath released on a shaky, painful sound. "You're right. You're right." She leaned against the doorjamb, stared out into the cool rain. "You didn't deserve to be used, either. You didn't - don't - deserve what she tried to make you in my mind. I didn't believe it of John, and I didn't believe it of you. But it hurt, nonetheless, it hurt."



She took another breath, a stronger one. "I don't equate you with Bryce. I hope you know that."



"I'd rather know what you feel instead of what you don't. Why haven't you wanted to see me, Roz?"



"Nothing to do with you, and everything to do with me. Don't you hate when people say that?"



"Enough that I'm having a hard time not grabbing you and shaking out the rest of it. You're not the only one with a healthy share of wrath."



"No, I believe I caught the leading edge of it just now. One of the things I like about you is you have a strong sense of control. I have such a vile temper, you've no idea. So I know all about control."



"Aren't we just two mature individuals."



"Oh, you're still mad at me." She let out a half laugh, then tried to give him what he'd asked for. The truth. "The last night I spent with you?"



She turned now, facing him fully with the open doors at her back. "It was beautiful, and meant so much in so many ways. The next day I thought of you, and when I came home from work, I was going to call you. There was a message from you on my machine."



"Roz, I have a standing date with Josh. My son - "



"I know. It wasn't that. God, don't start worrying I'm one of those needy females who craves a man's attention every minute of every day. It was the message after yours that set me off. It was about my membership at the country club, how I'd canceled it, and sent in some letter full of complaints and rude comments, and so on. Which, of course, I hadn't done."



"Clerk."



"Undoubtedly. Easy enough to straighten out, really - No." She shook her head. "Truth. It was irritating and embarrassing to straighten out. But either way it set me off. I was halfway out the bedroom door, blood in my eye, heading out to hunt him down like a sick dog when Hayley and the baby got in my way. She stopped me, for which I'm grateful. I don't know what I might've done with my temper up like that."



"I bet it would've been worth the price of a ticket."



"I'd probably have landed in jail for assault at the very least. I was raging so much I scared that baby, made her cry. And said a particularly foul word in front of her that dealt with Bryce's sexual activities should he have same with members of his own gender."



"Seeing Lily's not quite a year old, I don't imagine it made much of an impression."



"Regardless, I was nearly out of my mind with temper, and I got it under control, but it was simmering in there for a while. I wanted to cool down, all the way down. And I had to go meet with my lawyer, make a courtesy call at the club. Smooth everybody else's feathers."



"Next time it might occur to you that I'd like a chance to smooth yours."



"I'm mean when I'm mad."



"Bet you are."



She sank into a chair.



"Roz, you should go to the police with this."



"I did. One more embarrassment. And you don't need to tell me I've nothing to be embarrassed about. I feel it, so there it is. Nothing much they can do, of course, but I've documented all the things I know about. If and when it can be proved he's behind this, it's fraud, and it may be considered stalking. If I can burn his ass, Mitch, you can bet the bank I'll do just that."



He came over, crouched in front of her. "I'd like to help you light the match."



She laid a hand on his cheek. "I wasn't brushing you off. I was thinking of you, of finding you and seeing if you'd spend the evening with me. Right before I walked into that nasty little waking nightmare."



"Coincidentally, I've been thinking of you, and wondering if you'd spend the evening with me. Do you want to get out of the house for a few hours?"



"I don't. I really don't."



"Then we'll stay in."



"I'd like to ask you for something."



"Ask."



"There's a big, splashy affair coming up at the club. Formal dinner dance, the annual spring one. David was going to escort me. Even with what's happening with us, I'd planned to stick to that because I didn't like the idea of the talk and gossip that'll start if I was to show up with you. But screw that. I'd like you to go with me."



"Formal, as in tux?"



"I'm afraid so."



"I can manage it. We're all right, you and me?"



"We really seem to be, don't we?"



"You want to take a rest now?"



"No, I don't." Content, she leaned forward to kiss both of his cheeks. "What I want is a long, hot bath. And I'd really like some company in the tub."



"That's a hell of an invitation." He got to his feet, drew her to hers. "Accepted. It may just be the perfect venue to tell you about my recent visit with Clarise Harper."



"Cousin Rissy? This I have to hear."



IT FELT LOVELY, it felt decadent, and exactly perfect to soak in a bubble bath in the deep old tub, with her back resting against Mitch's chest.



Not even the end of the workday, and here she was having a sexy bath, with a man, music, and candles.



"Clarise gets meaner and leaner every blessed year," Roz commented. "I swear if she ever dies - because I'm not sure she'll agree to that eventuality - they won't even need a coffin. They'll just crack her in two like a twig and have done with it."



"I could tell she holds you in the same high regard."



"She despises me for many reasons, but the main is that I have this house, and she doesn't."



"I'd say that's high on the list."



"She's lying when she says she never saw or felt Amelia. I heard my grandmother talk about it. Clarise's memory is convenient and to suit herself. She doesn't tolerate any nonsense, you see, and ghosts fall into that category."



"She said 'balderdash.' "



Letting her head fall back, Roz laughed herself breathless. "Oh, she would. I can just hear it. Well, she can balderdash all she likes, but she's lying. And I know damn well she should have letters, maybe even journals, quite a number of photographs. There were things she took from the house when my father died. She'll deny it, but I know she helped herself here and there. We had one of our famous set-tos when I caught her taking a pair of candlesticks from the parlor, while my daddy was still being waked. Vicious old badger."



"I don't imagine she walked out with them."



"Not that time, anyway. I didn't care about the damn candlesticks - ugly things - but my daddy wasn't even in theground . Still burns my ass. She claimed she'd given them to my father - which she certainly had not - and that she wanted them for sentimental reasons. Which was a load of stinking horseshit, as there isn't a sentimental cell in her dried-up body."



He rubbed his cheek over her hair as if to soothe, but she felt his body shaking with laughter.



"Oh, go ahead and let it out. I know how I sound."



"I love how you sound, but back to the subject. She might have taken other things, things you didn't see her with."



"I know she did, greedy vampire bat that she is. There was a picture of my grandfather as a boy, in a silver frame - Edwardian - a Waterford compote, two Dresden shepherdesses - oh, and other things that vanished after she paid calls."



"Hmm." He rested his chin on the top of her head, lazily soaped her arm. "What do you know about this Jane Paulson?"



"Not very much. I've met her at various weddings and funerals, that sort of thing, but I barely have a picture of her in my head. And when I do, I see this sweet-faced little girl. She's nearly twenty-five years younger than I am, if my math is right."



"Made me think of a puppy who's been kicked often enough to keep its tail between its legs."



"If she's living with Cousin Rissy, I can only imagine. Poor thing."



"She knows something, though."



Curious, Roz turned her head so she could see Mitch. "Why do you say?"



"Something went over her face when Clarise claimed not to have any journals, any diaries. As if she were going to be helpful and say: Oh, don't you remember the one . . . whatever. Then she caught herself, folded up. If I were a betting man, I'd wager heavy that Prissy Rissy has some information we could use."



"And if she doesn't want to share it, she'd burn it before she'd give it to you. She's that perverse."



"Can't if she doesn't know I know she's got it - and if we can persuade Jane to help us out."



"What are you going to do, seduce the poor girl?"



"Nope." He bent down to kiss Roz's wet shoulder. "You are. What I was thinking was that the girl could use a friend - maybe the prospect of another job. If you were able to contact her without Clarise knowing, give her some options . . ."



"And try to recruit her." Pursing her lips, Roz thought it through. "It's very sneaky, very deceptive. And I like it very much."



He slid his hands up, covered her breasts with them, and with frothy bubbles. "I was hoping you would."



"I don't mind playing dirty." With a wicked gleam in her eye, she squirmed around until she faced him. "Let's practice," she said, and dunked them both.

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