AS A RULE when he was working, Mitch remembered to clean his apartment when he ran out of places to sit, or coffee cups. Between projects he was slightly better at shoveling out, or at least rearranging the debris.
He hired cleaning services. In fact, he hired them routinely. They never lasted long, and the fault - he was willing to admit - was largely his.
He'd forget which day he'd scheduled them and, invariably, pick that day to run errands, do research, or meet his kid for a quick game of Horse or one-on-one. There was probably something Freudian about that, but he didn't want to think too deeply about it.
Or he'd remember, and the team would come in, goggle at the job facing them. And he'd never see them again.
But a man had to - or at least should - make an effort for the holidays. He spent an entire day hauling out, scrubbing down, and sweeping up, and was forced to admit that if he were being paid to do the job, he'd quit, too.
Still, it was nice to have some order back in his apartment, to actually be able to see the surface of tables, the cushions of chairs. Though he didn't hold out much hope he'd keep them alive for the long-term, the plants Hayley had talked him into added a nice holiday touch.
And the little tree, well, that was ingenious. Now instead of dragging the box out of storage, fighting with parts, cursing the tangle of lights only to discover half of them didn't work anyway, all he had to do was set the cheerful tree on the Hepplewhite stand by his living room window and plug the sucker in.
He hung the wreath on the front door, set the blooming cactus on his coffee table, and the three little poinsettias on the top of the toilet tank. It worked for him.
By the time he'd showered, dragged on jeans and a shirt, his date for the evening was knocking at the door.
Barefoot, his hair still damp, Mitch crossed the living room to answer. And grinned at the only person he loved without reservation.
"Forget your key?"
"Wanted to make sure I had the right place." Joshua Carnegie tapped a finger on the greenery. "You've got a wreath on your door."
"I heard a rumor about that." He walked in, and his eyes, the same sharp green shade as his father's, widened.
He was taller than Mitch by a full inch, but spread the height on the same lanky frame. His hair was dark, and it was shaggy. Not because he forgot haircuts like his father, but because he wanted it that way.
He wore a hooded gray sweatshirt and baggy jeans.
"Wow. You find a new cleaning service? Do they get combat pay?"
"No, haven't had a chance. Besides, I think I've ripped through all the cleaning services in western Tennessee."
"You cleaned up?" Lips pursed, Josh took a brief tour of the living room. "You've got a plant - with flowers on it."
"You're taking that with you."
"I'll kill it. I've already heard it gasping. I can't be responsible."
"Sure." Josh pulled absently on his ear. "It'll jazz up the dorm. Hey. You got this little tree going on. And candles."
"It's Christmas," Mitch repeated, even as Josh leaned down to sniff the fat red candle.
"Smelly candles. Plus, if I'm not mistaken, you vacuumed." Eyes narrowed he looked back at his father. "You've got a woman."
"Not on me, no. More's the pity. Want a Coke?"
"Yeah." With a shake of his head, Josh started toward the bathroom. "Gotta use the john. We getting pizza?"
"Pizza," Josh called out. "Pepperoni and sausage. Extra cheese."
"My arteries are clogging just hearing that," Mitch called out as he pulled two cans of Coke out of the refrigerator. From experience, he knew his son could steam through most of a pie on his own and still stay lean as a greyhound.
Oh, to be twenty again.
He speed-dialed the local pizza parlor, ordered a large for Josh, and a medium veggie-style for himself.
When he turned, he saw Josh leaning against the jamb, feet crossed at the ankles of his Nike Zooms. "You've got flowers in the john."
"Poinsettias. Christmas. Deal."
"You've got a woman. If you haven't bagged one, you've got one in the sights. So spill."
"No woman." He tossed one of the cans to Josh. "Just a clean apartment with a few holiday touches."
"We have ways of making you talk. Where'd you meet her? Is she a babe?"
"Not talking." Laughing, Mitch popped the can.
"I'll get it out of you."
"Nothing to get." Mitch walked by him into the living room. "Yet."
"Ah-ha!" Josh followed him in, plopped down on the couch, propped his feet on the coffee table.
"I repeat: Not talking. And that's a prematureah-ha . Anyway, I'm just feeling a little celebrational. Book's done, which means a check will be in the mail shortly. I'm starting on a new, interesting project - "
"Already? No decompressing?"
"I've had this one dangling awhile, and I want to get on it full steam. It's better than thinking about Christmas shopping."
"Why do you have to think about it? It's still a couple weeks away."
"Now, that's my boy." Mitch raised his Coke in toast. "So how are your mother and Keith?"
"Good. Fine." Josh took a long swallow from his can. "She's all jazzed up about the holidays. You know how it is."
"Yeah, I do." He gave Josh an easy slap on the knee. "It's not a problem, Josh. Your mom wants you home for the holidays. That's the way it should be."
"You could come. You know you could come."
"I know, and I appreciate it. But it'd be better if I just hang out here. We'll have our Christmas deal before you leave. It's important to her to have you there. She's entitled. It's important for you, too."
"I don't like thinking about you being alone."
"Just me and my cup of gruel." It was a sting, it always was. But it was one he'd earned.
"You could go to Grandma's."
"Please." Exaggerated pain covered Mitch's face, rang in his voice. "Why would you wish that on me?"
Josh smirked. "You could wear that reindeer sweater she got you a couple years ago."
"Sorry, but there's a nice homeless person who'll be sporting that this holiday season. When do you head out?"
"We can do our thing the twenty-second if that works for you."
"Sure. I've just got to juggle Julie. She's either going to Ohio to her mother's, or L.A. to her father's. It's seriously messed up. They're both doing the full court press on her, laying on the guilt and obligation crap, and she's all, 'I don't want to see either one of them.' She's either crying or bitchy, or both."
"We parents can certainly screw up our children."
"You didn't." He took another drink, then turned the can around in his hands. "I don't want to get all Maury Povich or whatever, but I wanted to say that you guys never made me the rope in your personal tug-of-war. I've sort of been thinking about that, with all this shit Julie's going through. You and Mom, you never hung that trip on me. Never made me feel like I had to choose or ripped on each other around me. It sucks when people do. It sucks long."
"Yeah, it does."
"I remember, you know, before you guys split. It was rugged all around. But even then, neither of you used me as a hammer on the other. That's what's going on with Julie, and it makes me realize I was lucky. So I just wanted to say."
"That's a . . . That's a good thing to hear."
"Well, now that we've had this Hallmark moment, I'm getting another Coke. Pregame show should be coming on."
"I'm on that." Mitch picked up the remote. He wondered what stars had shone on him to give him the gift of such a son.
"Hey, man! Salt and vinegar chips!"
Hearing the bag rip, and the knock on the door, Mitch grinned, and rising, took out his wallet to pay for the pizza.
"IDON 'T GETit, Stella. I just don't get it." Hayley paced Stella's room while the boys splashed away in the adjoining bath.
"The sexy black shoes that will kill my feet, or the more elegant pumps?"
When Stella stood, one of each pair on either foot, Hayley stopped pacing long enough to consider them. "Sexy."
"I was afraid of that. Well." Stella took them both off, replaced the rejected pair in her closet. Her outfit for the evening was laid out on the bed, the jewelry she'd already selected was in a tray on the dresser.
Now all she had to do was settle the boys down for the night, get dressed, deal with her hair, her makeup. Check the boys again, check the baby monitors. And . . . Hayley's pacing and muttering distracted her enough to have her turn.
"What? Why are you so nervous? Do you have a date going on for tonight's party I don't know about?"
"No. But it's dates I'm talking about. Why would Roz tell Mitch to bring a date? Now he probably will, because he'll think if he doesn't, he'll look like a loser. And they'll both miss a golden opportunity."
"I missed something." She hooked on her earrings, studied the results. "How do you know Roz told him to bring a date? How do you find this stuff out?"
"It's a gift of mine. Anyway, what's up with her? Here's this perfectly gorgeous and available man, and she invites him for tonight - points there. But then tells him he can bring somebody. Jeez."
"She'd have considered it the polite thing to do, I guess."
"You can't be polite in the dating wars, for God's sake." On a long huff, Hayley plopped down on the foot of the bed, then lifted her legs out to examine her own shoes. "You know,date 's from the Latin - or maybe it's Old English. Anyway, it comes fromdata- and it's afemale part of speech. Female, Stella. We're supposed to take the controls."
Since she hadn't yet started her makeup, Stella was free to press her fingers to her eyes. "How? How do you know that kind of thing? Nobody knows that kind of thing."
"I was a bookseller for years, remember. I read a lot. I don't know why I retain the weird stuff. But anyway, it's a holiday party here - her house. And you know she'll look amazing. And now he'll show up with some woman and screw everything up."
"I don't actually think there's anything to screw up at this point."
Hayley tugged at her hair in frustration. "But therecould be. I just know it. You watch, you just watch them tonight and see if you don't get the vibe."
"All right, I will. But now I've got to get the kids out of the tub and into bed. Then I have to get dressed, and strap on my sexy shoes with the single goal of driving Logan crazy."
"Want a hand? With the kids, not with driving Logan crazy. Lily's already sleeping."
"No, you'll get wet or wrinkled, and you look fantastic. I wish I could wear that shade of red. Talk about sexy."
Hayley looked down at the short siren-red slip dress. "You don't think it's too . . ."
"No, I think it's exactly."
"Well, I'll go down, see if I can give David a hand with the caterer and all. Then I can get his take on the outfit. He rules in fashion."
Roz was already downstairs, checking details and second-guessing herself. Maybe she should have opened the third-floor ballroom and held the party there. It was a gorgeous space, so elegant and graceful. But the main level, with its hive of smaller rooms, the fires burning, was warmer and more friendly somehow.
Space wasn't a problem, she assured herself as she checked the positioning of tables, chairs, lamps, candles. And she liked throwing open the rooms this way, knowing people would wander from here to there, admiring the home she loved.
It was a clear night, so they could spill onto the terraces, too. There were heaters if it got too chilly, and more tables, more seating, more candles and all those festive lights in the trees, the luminaries along the garden paths.
And you'd think, for heaven's sake, that it was the first party she'd given in her life.
Been awhile, though, since she'd held anything this expansive. Because of that, the attrition rate on her guest list had been very low. She was going to be packed.
Avoiding the caterers and extra staff bustling around, she slipped outside. Yes, the lights were lovely, and fun, she decided. And she liked the poinsettia tree she'd created out of dozens of white plants.
Harper House was designed for entertaining, she reminded herself. She'd been shirking her duty there, and denying herself, she supposed, the pleasure of socializing with people she enjoyed.
She turned when she heard the door open. David stepped out, holding two flutes of champagne.
"Hello, beautiful. Can I interest you in a glass of champagne?"
"You can. Though I should be inside, helping with the madhouse."
"Under control." He tapped his glass to hers. "Another twenty minutes, and it'll be perfect. And look at us! Aren't we gorgeous?"
She laughed, slipped her hand into his. "You always are."
"And you, my treasure." Still holding her hand, he stepped back. "You just shimmer."
She'd chosen a gown of dull silver in a long, narrow column with an off-the-shoulder neckline that would showcase her great-grandmother's rubies.
She brushed her fingertips over the platinum necklace with its spectacular ruby drops. "I don't have many opportunities to wear the Harper rubies. This seemed the night for them."
"And a treat they are for the eyes plus they do amazing things for your collarbone. But I was talking about you, my incandescent beauty. Why don't we run away to Belize?"
Champagne and David, the perfect combination to make her feel bubbly and relaxed. "I thought it was going to be Rio."
"Not until Carnival. It's going to be a wonderful party, Roz. You just put all the other crap out of your mind."
"You read me, don't you?" She shook her head, staring into the gardens as she sipped champagne. "Last time I threw one of these holiday bashes, I walked upstairs into the bedroom to change my bracelet because the clasp was loose, and what do I find but my husband nibbling on one of our guests instead of the canapes."
She took a longer, deeper sip. "A singularly mortifying moment in my life."
"Hell with that. You handled it, didn't you? I still don't know how you managed to step back out, leave them there, to get through the rest of the party and wait until everyone was gone before you pitched the son of a bitch out on his ear."
His voice heated up on the rant, his fury for her lighting little fires. "You've got balls of steel, Roz. And I mean that in the best possible way."
"It was self-serving, not courageous or ballsy." She shrugged it off, or tried to. "Causing a scene with a house full of guests would only have been more humiliating."
"In your place, I'd've scratched both of them blind, then chased them out the door brandishing one of your great-great . . . however many greats-granddaddy's muskets."
She let out a little sigh, sipped again. "That would've been satisfying, and damn if I don't wish I'd thought of the musket after the guests had gone. Well, we didn't let him spoil that evening, and we won't let him spoil this one."
She polished off the champagne and turned to David with the determined look of a woman prepared for battle. "Let's get the rest of these candles lit, put some music on. I'm ready for a party."
YES,IT WAS good to open the house again. To have wine and music, good food, good friends. She listened to snippets of gossip, political debates, discussions on sports and the arts as she moved from group to group, from room to room.
She hooked her arm through her old friend Will Dooley's, who was also Stella's father, and Roz's landscaper, Logan Kitridge's future father-in-law. "You slipped by me."
"Just got here." He brushed his lips over her cheek. "Jo kept changing her shoes. She just went upstairs with Hayley. Said she had to peek at the baby."
"I'll find her. Lose your fiancee, Logan?"
"She's everywhere." He shrugged, sipped from his pilsner. "Woman can't rest until she's checked every detail personally. Nice party, Roz."
"Oh, you hate parties."
Now Logan grinned, a quick grin that added charm to his rugged looks. "A lot of people. But the food's first-rate, the beer's cold, and my date's the most beautiful woman in the world. Tough to complain. Don't tell her daddy, but I plan to lure her out to the gardens later to neck."
He winked at Will, then shifted his gaze. "Your Dr. Carnegie just came in. Seems to be looking for you - or somebody."
"Oh?" Roz glanced around, and those expressive eyebrows lifted. He'd worn a suit, stone gray, that flattered his lean build. He'd gotten a haircut since the last time she'd seen him, she noted, and was looking a little moreGQ than professorial.
She could admit, to herself at least, that it was a treat to study him either way.
Still, he seemed slightly befuddled with the crowd, and shook his head when one of the efficient servers offered him a glass from a tray of champagne.
"Excuse me just a minute," she said to Will and Logan.
She started to wind her way through the room, and broke her stride when his gaze skimmed over, then locked on her face.
She felt a little bump under her heart, and a quickening of pulse she found both baffling and embarrassing.
He just hones in, she thought. Those eyes just zeroed right on in so she felt - anyone would feel - that she was the only person in the room. A good trick in a space jammed with people and noise, and just a little disconcerting.
But her expression was easy and friendly as she walked to him.
"I'm so glad you could come."
"When you throw a party, you mean it. I could see the lights from a mile away. You don't actually know all these people, do you?"
"Never seen them before in my life. What can I get you to drink?"
"Club soda, lime."
"There's a bar set up over here." To guide him, she laid a hand on his arm. "Let's get you fixed up."
"Thanks. Listen, I have something for you. A gift."
He dug into his pocket as they crossed to the bar, then offered her a small wrapped box.
"That's completely unnecessary, and awfully sweet."
"Just a thanks for bailing me out with the gift for my niece." He ordered his drink. "You look . . .amazing is the word that springs to mind, withspectacular coming right behind it."
"From head." His gaze skimmed down to her silver-heeled sandals - and the ruby-red toenails. "To toe."
"My mama always said a woman wasn't groomed unless her toenails were painted. It's one of the few pieces of advice she gave me I agreed with. Should I open this now?"
He'd barely glanced at the rubies, though his amateur antiquer's eye judged them to be vintage. But the toes. The toes were terrific.
"The gift." She smiled. It was hard not to be pleased, and a little bit smug, when a man was enraptured by your feet. "Should I open it now?"
"Oh, no, I wish you wouldn't. If you open it later, and you hate it, you'll have time to prepare a polite lie."
"Don't be silly. I'm opening it now."
She tugged off the ribbon, lifted the top. Inside was a miniature clock, framed in silver filigree. "It's lovely. It's really lovely."
"Antiquing's a hobby of mine. Makes sense, considering. I figured with this house, you'd enjoy old things. There's an inscription on the back. It got to me."
She turned it over and read.
L, Count the hours. N
"Lovely, and romantic. It's wonderful, Mitch, and certainly more than I deserve for picking out a toy."
"It made me think of you." When she lifted her head, he shook his. "That put a cynical look in your eye. But fact's fact. I saw it, thought of you."
"Does that happen often?"
"My thinking of you?"
"No, thinking of someone and buying her a charming gift."
"From time to time. Not in some time, actually. Does it happen often on your end?"
She smiled a little. "Not in some time. Thank you, very much. I want to put this upstairs. Why don't I introduce you to . . . oh, there's Stella. Nobody can steer you through a party better than our Stella."
"Mitch." Stella held out a hand for him. "It's good to see you again."
"And you. You're blooming," he said. "It must be love."
"I can confirm that."
"And how are your boys?"
"They're great, thanks. Conked out upstairs, and . . . oh." She broke off when she saw the little clock. "Isn't that sweet? So romantic and female."
"Lovely, isn't it?" Roz agreed. "It was a gift, for a very small favor."
"You wouldn't say small if you'd been on the receiving end of the phone call I got from my sister and my niece," Mitch told her. "I'm not only officially forgiven, I'm currently enjoying favorite-uncle status."
"Well then, obviously I deserve this. Stella, show Mitch around, will you? I just want to put this upstairs."
"Sure." And Stella noted the way Mitch's gaze followed Roz out of the room.
"One question before we make the rounds. Is she seeing anyone?"
"No, she's not."
He grinned as he took Stella's arm. "How about that?"
Roz mingled her way to the foyer, then started upstairs. It reminded her that she'd walked up these stairs at another party, with the voices and the music and lights behind her. And she'd stepped into the end of a relationship.
She wasn't naive. She knew very well Mitch was asking her if she was interested in beginning a relationship, and was laying some groundwork so she would be. What was strange was that her answer wasn't a flat no. What was strange, Roz thought as she walked to her bedroom, was not knowing the answer.
She slipped into the room to set the romantic little clock on her dresser. She couldn't stop the smile as she traced the frame. A very thoughtful gift, she thought, and yes, her cynical side added that it was a very clever gift. Then again, a woman who'd been through two marriages was bound to have a healthy dose of cynicism.
A relationship with him might be interesting, even entertaining, and God knew she was due for some passion in her life. But it would also be complicated, possibly intense. And potentially sticky with the work she'd hired him to do.
She was allowing the man to write a book that involved her family history, and would certainly involve herself to some extent. Did she really want to become intimate with someone who could, if things burned out, slap her, and her family, in print?
Her experience with Bryce warned her that when things went bad, things got worse.
A lot to consider, she mused. Then she raised her eyes to the mirror.
She saw not only herself, her skin flushed, her eyes bright from her own thoughts, but the pale figure behind her.
Her breath caught, but she didn't jolt. She didn't spin around. She simply stood as she was, her eyes linked with Amelia's in the glass.
"Twice in so many weeks," she said calmly. "You, I imagine, would tell me to brush him off. You don't like men much, do you, Amelia? Boys, yes, children, but men are a different kettle. No one but a man puts that kind of anger in a woman. I know. Was it one of my blood who put that anger in you?"
There was no answer, none expected.
"Let me finish this one-sided conversation by saying I have to think for myself, decide for myself, just as I always have. If I let Mitchell into my life, into my bed, the consequences, and the pleasure, will be on me."
She took a slow breath. "But I'll make you one promise. Whatever I do, or don't, we won't stop looking for the answers for you. Not now that we've started."
Even as the figure began to fade, Roz felt something brush her hair, like a soft stroke of fingers that warmed even as it chilled.
She had to steady herself, pressing both hands to the top of the dresser. Then she meticulously freshened her lipstick, dabbed a bit more scent on her throat. And started back to the party.
She thought a ghostly caress would be enough of a shock for one night, but she had another, harder shock, as she reached the bottom of the stairs.
Bryce Clerk stood in her foyer.
The rage spewed through her, hot and horrid, and had a vision of herself flashing through her brain. Of leaping down the stairs, spitting out all the bitter insult and fury as she beat him senseless, and threw him out the door.
For an instant, that vision was so sharp, so clear, that the rest, the reality around her, blurred and vanished. She heard nothing but the pounding blood in her ears.
He beamed up at her as he helped a woman she knew from the garden club with her wrap. Roz clutched the newel post until control clamped down over temper and she was marginally sure her hand wouldn't bunch into a fist and fly out.
She took the last step. "Mandy," she said.
"Oh, Roz!" Amanda Overfield giggled, kissed both of Roz's cheeks in a couple of quick pecks. She was Harper's age, Roz knew, a silly, harmless, and wealthy young woman. Recently divorced herself, she'd only relocated in Memphis the previous summer. "Your house is justgorgeous . I know we're awfully late, but we got . . ." She giggled again, and set Roz's teeth on edge. "It doesn't matter. I'm so glad you asked me to come. I've been dying to see your home. Where are my manners? Let me introduce you to my date. Rosalind Harper, this is Bryce Clerk."
"Roz. You look spectacular, as always."
He started to lean down, as if to kiss her. She knew conversations nearby had died off, knew people were watching, listening. Waiting.
She spoke very softly. "Touch me, and I'll kick your balls right up into your throat."
"I'm an invited guest in your home." Bryce's voice was smooth, and lifted enough to reach interested ears. She watched him fix an expression of injured shock on his face. "Rudeness doesn't become you."
"I don't understand." Hands clasped together, Mandy looked from one to the other. "I don't understand."
"I'm sure you don't. Mandy, why don't you and your escort come out front with me a moment?"
She heard the vicious curse behind her, fought valiantly not to wince. She turned, and again kept her voice low. "Harper. Don't. Please."
When she shifted her body to block his, Harper's gaze snapped from Bryce to his mother. "Once and for all."
"I'm going to take care of it. Let me take care of it." She rubbed a hand over his arm, felt his muscles quivering. "Please."
"Two minutes." She kissed his cheek, whispered in his ear. "He wants a scene. We won't give it to him. He gets nothing from us. Two minutes, baby."
She turned. "Mandy? Let's get a little air, all right?" She took the woman by the arm.
Bryce held his ground. "This is ungracious of you, Rosalind. You're embarrassing yourself, and your guests. I'd hoped we could be civil, at least."
"I suppose your hopes are dashed then."
She saw the change in his face as he looked over her shoulder. She followed his direction, noted that Mitch stood beside Harper now, and that Logan and David were both moving into the foyer. Their expressions were far lesscivil , she decided, than hers.
"Who's the asshole?" Mitch's question was barely a mutter, but Roz heard it, just as she heard Harper's answer.
"Bryce Clerk. The garbage she tossed out a few years ago."
Roz drew Mandy outside. Bryce was an idiot, she thought, and he might've enjoyed an altercation, a public one, with Harper. But he wouldn't take on several strong, angry men, even for the pleasure of embarrassing her in her own home.
She was proven right as he walked stiffly out the door behind her. Roz shut it.
"Mandy, this is my ex-husband. The one I found upstairs, at a similar party, with his hands all over the naked breasts of a mutual acquaintance."
"That's a damn lie. There was nothing - "
Her head whipped around. "You're free to tell Mandy your side of things, when you're not standing on my doorstep. You are not welcome here. You will never be welcome here. If you come onto my property again, I will call the police and have you arrested for trespassing. And you can bet your lying, cheating ass I will prosecute. Now you have one minute, and one minute only, to get in your car and get off my land."
She turned, smiled now into Mandy's shocked face. "Mandy, you're certainly welcome to come in, to stay. I'll arrange for you to be taken home later if you like."
"I think I should . . . I, ah, guess I should go."
"All right, then. I'll see you next month at the meeting. Merry Christmas."
She stepped back, but didn't open the door. "I believe you're down to about forty seconds now before I go inside and contact the police."
"Everyone in there knows what you are now," Bryce shot out at her as he pulled Mandy toward his car.
"I'm sure they do."
She waited until he'd gunned the engine, until he'd sped off.
Only then did she press a hand to her sick stomach, and squeeze her eyes shut until she could bank back the trembling rage and embarrassment.
She took two deep breaths, lifted her head high, then walked back into the house.
She smiled, brilliantly, then held out a hand for Harper's.
"Well," she said, giving his hand a squeeze as she scanned curious faces, "I could use a drink."