WHEN THE PARTY was over, and the guests on their way home, Roz couldn't settle. She knew better than to go up to her rooms, where she would just pace and rehash and twist herself up over this personal humiliation.
Instead, she made herself a big mug of coffee and took it out on the patio to enjoy the cool and the solitude. With the heaters humming and the lights still twinkling, she sat down to sip, to enjoy and maybe to brood just a little.
Harper was angry with her, she knew. Angry because she'd held him off from physically ejecting Bryce from the house. He was still young enough - and bless his heart, he was a man on top of it - to believe that brute force could solve this particular problem. And he loved her enough to chain his temper down because she'd asked.
At least this time he'd managed to chain it down.
The single other time Bryce had attempted to enter Harper House without invitation, she'd been too shocked to hold Harper off. Or David, for that matter. Bryce had been thrown out on his cheating ass, and she was small enough to gain some satisfaction from the way her boy had hauled the man out. But what had it solved?
Bryce had accomplished then just what he'd accomplished this round. He'd upset her.
How long, she wondered, just how goddamn long was she supposed to pay for one stupid, reckless mistake?
When she heard the door open behind her, Roz tensed up. She didn't want to rehash this nasty little business with David or Harper, didn't want a man to pat her head and tell her not to worry.
She wanted to sit and brood alone.
"I don't know about you, but I could use some chocolate."
Surprised, Roz watched Stella set a tray on the table. "I thought you'd gone up to bed."
"I always like to decompress a little after a big party. Then there was the matter of these chocolate truffles, just sitting out there in the kitchen, calling my name."
She'd brewed tea, Roz noted, and remembered Stella wasn't one for late-night coffee. And she'd arranged the leftover truffles on a pretty plate.
"Hayley would be down, too, but Lily woke up. She must be cutting a tooth, because she's fussing. It's beautiful out here. Middle of December, and it's just so beautiful. Not even much of a bite to the air yet."
"Did you practice the small talk, decide you'd open with the weather?"
There had been a time when that aloof tone would have had Stella easing back. But those days were over. "I always figure the weather's a good starter, especially for a couple of gardeners. I was going to segue into how spectacular the poinsettias are this year, but I guess we'll skip that part."
She selected a truffle, bit in. "But the chocolate was just a natural, all around. God, whoever invented these should be canonized."
"Ask Hayley. If she doesn't know who made the first chocolate truffle, she'll find out." Since the chocolate was there, Roz couldn't come up with a good reason not to have one.
"I've been here nearly a year now," Stella began.
"Is this your way of leading up to asking for a raise?"
"No, but good idea. I've worked for you for nearly a year, lived in the same house with you. The second part is certainly longer than I intended."
"No point in moving somewhere else, then moving again when you and Logan get married."
"No, and I appreciate you understanding that, and making it easy for me not to shuffle my kids around. The fact is, even though I'm looking forward to getting married, and moving into Logan's place - especially now that I've been getting my hands on it - I'll miss being here. So will the boys."
"It's nice to hear."
"Even with everything that went on last spring, maybe in some ways because of it, I'm attached to this house. And to you."
"That's nice to hear, too. You have a sweet heart to go with that orderly mind of yours, Stella."
"Thanks." She sat back in her chair, cupping her tea in both hands. Her flower-blue eyes were directly on Roz's. "Living with and working for you for nearly a year, I know your mind and heart. At least as much as I can. One of the things I know is that despite your generosity, your hospitality, you're a very private woman. And I know I'm stepping into that private area when I say I'm sorry about what happened tonight. I'm sorry and I'm angry and just a little bit stunned that some asshole would walk into your home, uninvited and unwelcomed, for the purpose of embarrassing you."
When Roz said nothing, Stella took a long breath. "So, if you're in the mood to eat truffles and trash the son of a bitch, I'd be happy to listen. If you'd rather sit out here alone, and let it fester, then I'll take my tea and half these chocolates upstairs."
For a moment, Roz just sat, sipping her coffee. Then she thought, what the hell, and had another chocolate. "You know, having lived here all my life, I have a number of friends, and a bevy, we could say, of acquaintances. But I haven't had what you might call close, important female friends. There's a reason for that - "
She lifted a finger, wagged it before Stella could speak. "The reason being my own preference to an extent, and that having its roots in being widowed young. So many of my social circle, in the female area, became just a little wary. Here I was, young, attractive, fairly well off - and available. Or so they assumed. In the other camp were those eager, just innately, to pair me up with a man. A friend, a brother, a cousin, whatever. I found both of those attitudes annoying. As a result, I got out of the habit of having close women friends. So I'm a little rusty. I consider you a friend, the best I have of the female persuasion."
"Since I feel the same about you, I wish you'd let me help you. Even if it's only to say really nasty things about that fucking Bryce Clerk and bring you chocolate."
"Why, Stella." Roz's voice was as creamy as the truffles. "I believe that's the first time in this entire year I've heard you say fuck."
Stella flushed a little, the curse of redheads. "I reserve it for special occasions."
"This is certainly that." Roz tipped her head back and studied the stars. "He didn't do it to embarrass me. That was just a side benefit."
"Then why? Did he think, could he actually be stupid enough to think you'd have let him come in and party?"
"He may have thought my need to maintain image would give him a pass, and if I had, just a little more grease to oil the gears of whatever moneymaking plots and plans he has going."
"If so, he couldn't know you very well to have underestimated you like that."
"He knows enough that he got exactly what he was after tonight. The young woman he had on his arm? She's very wealthy, and very silly. Chances are she'll feel some sympathy, even some outrage on his behalf over tonight."
"Then she's more than silly. She's bone stupid."
"Maybe, but he's an accomplished liar, and slick as a snake. I'm not silly or stupid, and I fell for it."
"You loved him, so - "
"Oh, honey, I didn't love him. Thank God for that." She shuddered at the thought of it. "I enjoyed the attention, the flattery, and initially at least, the romance and sex of it. Added to that I had a raging case of empty nest, so I was ripe for plucking. My own fault that I went and married him instead of sleeping with him until I got bored, or saw what was under that pretty exterior."
"I don't know if that makes it worse or better," Stella said after a moment.
"Neither do I, but it is what it is. In any case, he wanted to remind me he exists, that he can and does swim in the same social pond. He wanted, primarily, for me to be upset and to think about him. Mission accomplished. He has a need for attention, to have attention focused on him - for better or worse. The worst punishment I can give him is to ignore him, which I've done, fairly successfully, since he came back to Memphis. Tonight was a way, a very clever way, of shoving himself in my face, in my own home, in front of my guests."
"I wish I'd gotten there quicker. I was nearly at the other end of the house when I heard the rumbles. But I don't see how anyone could get any sort of satisfaction out of being turned away, in public, the way I heard you turned him away."
"You don't know Bryce. He'll dine off the incident for weeks. Center of attention, and he has a smooth way." Her short, unpainted nails tapped against her teacup. "Before he's done, he'll be the underdog. All he'd done was try to mend fences, to come by to wish me well, it being the holidays and all. And what had I done but rebuffed him, and humiliated his date - an invited guest."
She stopped a moment to suck back the fresh rage. "People will say: 'My goodness, how cold and hard, how ungracious and rude of her.' "
"Then people are idiots."
"Yes, indeed they are. Which is why I rarely socialize with them. And why I've been so particular in my friends. And why I'm very grateful to have one who would sit out here with me at this time of night, eating chocolate truffles while I feel sorry for myself."
She let out a long breath. "And damned if I don't feel better. Let's go on up. Get some sleep. We're going to have us a busy day tomorrow, with the gossip sniffers slinking in along with the regular customers."
SOME WOULD HAVEcalled it burying herself in work. Roz called it doing what needed to be done and enjoying every minute of it. She loved winter chores, loved closing herself in for hours, even days in a greenhouse and starting new life, nurturing it along. Her seedlings, and cuttings, sprouts started by layering or leaf buds. She loved the smell of rooting compound and damp, and watching the stages of progress.
There were pests and problems to guard against here, just as there were in life. When she caught signs of downy mildew or rusts, she snipped off the infected leaves, sprayed the plants. She checked air circulation, adjusted temperature.
Any cuttings that showed signs of rot or virus were systematically removed and discarded. She would not allow infection here, any more than she allowed it in her life.
It soothed her to work, and to remember that. She had cut Bryce off, discarded him, rid her life ofthat infection. Maybe not quite soon enough, maybe she hadn't been quite vigilant enough, so even now she was forced to guard and control.
But she was strong, and the life she'd built was strong enough to withstand these small, annoying invasions.
Thinking of that, she finished her list of tasks for the day, then sought out Harper.
She slipped into his grafting house, knowing he wouldn't hear her right away, not with Beethoven soaring for the plants, and whatever music he'd chosen for himself that day booming in his headset.
She took a moment, a moment that made her feel tender, to watch him work. Old sweatshirt, older jeans, grubby boots - he'd have been out in the field off and on that day, she realized.
He'd gotten a haircut recently, so all that glossy black fell in a sleeker, more ordered style. She wondered how long that would last? If she knew her boy - and she did - he'd forget about that little grooming task for weeks until he ended up grabbing a piece of raffia to tie his hair back while he worked.
He was so competent, so creative here. Each of her sons had his own talent, his own direction - she'd made sure of it - but only Harper had inherited her abiding love for gardening.
She moved down through the tables crowded with plants and tools and mediums to watch him skillfully graft a miniature rose.
When he'd finished the specimen, reached for the can of Coke that was always nearby, she moved into his line of vision.
She saw him focus on her as he sipped.
"Nice job," she said. "You don't often do roses."
"Experimenting with these. Thought we might be able to have a section for container-grown miniatures. Working on a climbing mini, and some ground-cover specimens. Want a Coke?"
"No, thanks." He was so muchher , she thought. How many times had she heard that polite, cool tone come out of her own mouth when she was irritated. "I know you're upset with me, Harper."
"No point in me being upset."
"Point isn't, well, the point, is it?" She wanted to stroke his shoulders, rub her cheek to his. But he'd stiffen, just as she would if someone touched her before she was ready to be touched.
"You're angry with the way I handled things last night. With the way I wouldn't let you handle them."
"Your choice." He jerked a shoulder. "And I'm not mad at you. I'm disappointed in you, that's all."
If he'd taken his grafting knife and stabbed it into her heart, she'd have felt less pain, less shock. "Harper."
"Did you have to be so goddamn polite? Couldn't you have given him what he deserved right then and there instead of brushing me back and taking it outside?"
"What good would - "
"I don't give ashit about what good, Mama." The infamous Harper temper smoldered in his eyes. "He deserved to have his clock cleaned, right on the spot. You should've let me stand up for you. But it had to be your way, with me standing there doing nothing. So what is the damn point?"
She wanted to turn away, to take a moment to compose herself, but he deserved better. He deserved face-to-face. "There's no one in this world who can hurt me the way you can."
"I'm not trying to hurt you."
"No, you're not. You wouldn't. That's how I know just how angry you are. And how I can see where it comes from. Maybe I was wrong." She lifted her hands to rub them over her face. "I don't know, but it's the only way I know. I had to get him out of the house. I'm asking you to understand that Ihad to get him out of our house, quickly and before he'd smeared it all again."
She dropped her hands, and her face was naked with regret. "I brought him into our home, Harper. I did that, you didn't."
"That doesn't mean you're to blame, for Christ's sake, or that you have to handle something like that by yourself. If you can't depend on me to help you, to stand up for you - "
"Oh, God, Harper. Here you are, sitting in here thinking I don't need you when half the time I'm worried I need you too much for your own good. I don't know what I'd do without you, that's the God's truth. I don't want to fight with you over him." Now she pressed her fingers to her eyes. "He's nothing but a bully."
"And I'm not a little boy you have to protect from bullies anymore, Mama. I'm a man, and it's my job now to protect you. Whether you want it or not. And whether you damn well need it or not."
She dropped her hands again, nearly managed a smile this time. "I guess that's telling me."
"He comes to the door again, you won't stop me."
She drew a breath, then framed his face with her hands. "I know you're a man. It pains me sometimes, but I know you're a man with his own life, his own ways. I know you're a man, Harper, who'll stand beside me when I ask, even though you'd rather stand in front of me and fight the battle."
Though she knew she wasn't quite forgiven, she pressed a kiss to his forehead. "I'm going on home to work in the garden. Don't stay mad at me too long."
"There's some of that baked ham left over from the party. Plenty of side dishes, too, if you wanted to come by and forage for dinner."
"All right, then. You know where to find me."
WITH GARDENS ASextensive as hers, there was always some chore to do. Since she wanted work, Roz hauled mulch, checked her compost, worked with the cuttings and seedlings she grew for her personal use in the small greenhouse at home.
Then grabbing gloves and her loppers, she headed out to finish up some end-of-the-year pruning.
When Mitch found her, she was shoving small branches into a little chipper. It rattled hungrily as it chewed, with its dull red paint looking industrious.
As she did, he thought, in her dirt-brown and battered jacket, the black cap, thick gloves, and scarred boots. There were shaded glasses hiding her eyes, and he wondered if she wore them against the beam of sunlight, or as protection against flying wood chips.
He knew she couldn't hear him over the noise of the chipper, so took a moment just to watch her. And let himself meld the sparkling woman in rubies with the busy gardener in faded jeans.
Then there was the to-the-point woman in a business suit who'd first come to his apartment. Roz of the tropical greenhouse with a smudge of soil on her cheek. And the casual, friendly Roz who'd taken the time to help him select a child's toy.
Lots of angles to her, he decided, and likely more than he'd already seen. Strangely enough, he was attracted to every one of them.
With his thumbs hooked in his front pockets, he moved into her line of vision. She glanced up from under the brim of the ballcap, then switched off the machine.
"You don't need to stop on my account," he told her. "It's the first time I've seen one of those things in action except inFargo ."
"This one isn't quite up to disposing of a body, but it does the job for garden chores."
She knewFargo , he thought, ridiculously pleased. It was a sign they had some common ground. "Uh-huh." He peered down where most of a branch had gone inside. "So you just shove stuff in there, and chop, chop, chop."
"More or less."
"Then what do you do with what's left?"
"Enough branches and leaves and such, you get yourself a nice bag of mulch."
"Handy. Well, I didn't mean to interrupt, but David said you were out here. I thought I'd come by, get in a couple hours of research."
"That's fine. I didn't figure you'd have much time to spare on it until after the holidays."
"I've got time. I'm getting copies of official records, and I need to make some notes from your family Bible, that sort of thing. Get some order before I can dig down below the surface."
He brushed a good-sized wood chip from her shoulder and wished she'd take off the sunglasses. Her eyes just killed him.
"And I'd like to set up times for those interviews, for after the holidays."
He stood, his hands in the pockets of his leather jacket. He was stalling, he knew, but she smelled so damn good. Just a hint of secret female under the woody scent. "Funny, I didn't think much went on in a garden this time of year."
"Something goes on every time of year."
"And I'm holding you up. Listen, I wanted to see if you were all right."
"I'm fine. Just fine."
"It'd be stupid for me to pretend I didn't hear murmurs about what was behind that scene last night. Or what would have been a scene if you hadn't handled things so . . . adroitly."
"Adroitly's how I prefer handling things, whenever possible."
"And if you're going to get your back up when a conversation between us touches on the personal, it's going to be tough to research your family history."
Because he was watching carefully, because he was learning to read her, he saw the annoyance flick over her face before she composed it. "Last night has nothing whatsoever to do with my family history."
"I disagree. It involves you, and this . . . thing going on in your house involves you."
She might kick him out as . . . adroitly as she had Bryce Clerk, but if so, it would be because he was honest and up-front.
"I'm going to pry, Roz. That's what you've hired me to do, and I won't always pry gently. If you want me to move forward with this, you'll have to get used to it."
"I fail to see what my regrettable and thankfully brief second marriage could have to do with the Harper Bride."
He didn't have to see her eyes clearly to know they'd chilled. He heard it in her voice. "Bride. Whether or not she was one, she's referred to as such through your family lore. When she . . . manifested herself," he decided, "last spring - in spades - you said she'd never bothered with you when you'd socialized with men, or when you'd married - as she had with Stella."
"Stella has small children. My children are grown."
"Doesn't make them less your children."
Her shoulders relaxed, then she bent to scoop up some smaller twigs and toss them in the mouth of the chipper. "No, of course, it doesn't."
"So, we can theorize that she didn't feel threatened by Bryce - and what the hell kind of name is that anyway? Stupid. Or that she considered your maternal duties done, and didn't care what you did regarding your sex life. Or that after a certain point, she stops showing herself to whoever's living in the house."
"It can't be three, as I've seen her recently."
"Just a few days ago, and then again last night."
"Interesting. What were you doing, what was she doing? I should have my notebook."
"It was nothing. She was there, then she wasn't. I don't expect you to solve the puzzle of why she comes, or to whom. I want you to find out who she was."
"One puzzle's connected to the other. I really want some time to talk to you. And this is obviously not it. Maybe we can have dinner, next evening you're free."
"It's not necessary for you to buy me dinner to get an interview."
"It might be enjoyable to buy you dinner. If you have strong objections to mixing business and pleasure, I'm going to be sorry to wait to ask you out until I'm finished with this project."
"I don't date anymore, Mitch. I gave it up."
"The worddate always makes me feel like I'm back in college. Or worse, high school." He took a chance and reached out to slide her glasses down her nose. Looked directly into her eyes. "We could just say that I'm interested in spending time with you on a social level."
"That saysdate to me." But she smiled before she scooted the glasses back in place. "Not that I don't appreciate it."
"We'll settle for an interview for now. I'm going to be in and out the next couple of weeks, so you can let me know when you've got time to sit down for an extended period. Otherwise, you can call me at home, and we'll set it up."
"I'll go in, get some work done. Let you get back to yours."
When he started to walk away, she reached for the switch on the chipper.
"Roz? Any time you change your mind about dinner, you just let me know."
"I'll be sure to do that." She switched on the machine, pushed the branch in.
SHE WORKED UNTILshe lost the light, then stowed her tools before climbing the steps to the second-floor terrace and her outside door.
She wanted an endless hot shower, soft clothes, then a cold glass of wine. No, she thought. A martini. One of David's amazing, icy martinis with the fancy olives he squirreled away. Then she'd make a sandwich out of that glorious leftover ham. Maybe she'd spend most of the evening playing with sketches and ideas for the florist expansion. Then there were the bag selections Stella had gotten for her, for the in-house potting soil.
Dates, she thought as she shed her clothes and turned on the shower. She didn't have time, certainly didn't have the inclination to date at this stage of her life. Even if the offer had come from a very attractive, intelligent, and intriguing man.
One who'd ask her out when she was covered with wood chips.
Why couldn't they just have sex and clear the air?
Because she wasn't built that way, she admitted. And wasn't that too damn bad. There had to be a little more . . . something before she stripped down, literally and figuratively, with a man.
She liked him, well enough, she thought as she tipped her head back and let the hot water beat on her face, her shoulders. She appreciated the way he'd reacted last spring when there'd been trouble, admired - now that she had the distance to look back - the way he'd leaped in without hesitation, without investment.
Some men would have run the other way, and would certainly have dismissed the idea of working for her, in a house haunted by what they now knew could be a dangerous spirit.
And well, she'd been charmed, really, at the way he'd been so flummoxed over buying a child's gift - and how much he'd wanted to find the right thing. It was a point in his favor.
If she were keeping score.
If she wanted to dip her toe in the dating pool again, it would probably be with someone like him. Someone she could have conversations with, someone who attracted and interested her.
And it didn't hurt that he was what Hayley termed a hottie.
Then again, look what happened last time.
It was a stupid woman who'd use anyone like Bryce as a yardstick. Sheknew that, so why couldn't she stop? The fact that she was doing it was a sort of victory for Bryce, wasn't it? If she could do nothing else about it, she could and would work on pushing him out of her thoughts.
All right, she thought as she switched the water off again and reached for a towel. Maybe she'd consider - just consider - going out to dinner with Mitch. Just to prove to herself that she wasn't letting Bryce affect her life in any way.
A little dinner out, some conversation, a mix of business and pleasure. That wouldn't be so bad, when she drummed up the energy for it. She wouldn't mind seeing him on a personal level. In fact, it might help all around if she got to know him better.
She'd think about it.
After wrapping the towel around her body, she reached automatically for her lotion. And her hand froze inches from the bottle.
Written in the steam of the bathroom mirror were two words.