GARBED IN Asuit and tie and armed with a dozen yellow roses and a box of Godiva chocolates, Mitch rode the elevator to Clarise Harper's third-floor apartment in the retirement complex. His letter from her was in his briefcase, and the formal, lady of the South tone had given him a broad clue that this was a woman who would expect a suit - and a floral tribute - just as Roz had instructed.
She wasn't agreeing to a meeting, he thought, but was, very definitely, granting him an audience.
No mention of Rosalind, or any of the occupants of Harper House, had been made in their correspondence.
He rang the bell and prepared to be charming and persuasive.
The woman who answered was young, hardly more than twenty, dressed in a simple and conservative black skirt, white blouse, and low-heeled practical shoes. Her brown hair was worn in what he supposed women still called a bun - a style that did nothing to flatter her young, thin face.
Mitch's first impression was of a quiet, well-behaved puppy who would fetch the slippers without leaving a single tooth mark on the leather.
"Dr. Carnegie. Please come in, Miss Harper is expecting you."
Her voice suited the rest of her, quiet and well-bred.
"Thank you." He stepped inside, directly into the living room furnished with a hodgepodge of antiques. His collector's eye spotted a George III secretaire chest and a Louis XVI display cabinet among the various styles and eras.
The side chairs were probably Italian, the settee Victorian - and all looked miserably uncomfortable.
There was a great deal of statuary, heavy on the shepherdess and cat and swan themes, and vases decorated within an inch of their lives. All the china and porcelain and crystal sat on stiffly starched doilies or runners.
The walls were painted a candy pink, and the tweed beige wall-to-wall was buried under several floral area rugs.
The air smelled like the inside of a cedar chest that had been bathed in lavender water.
Everything gleamed. He imagined if an errant mote of dust dared invade such grandeur, the quiet puppy would chase it down and banish it instantly.
"Please, sit down. I'll inform Miss Harper that you're here."
"Thank you, Miss . . ."
"Paulson. Jane Paulson."
"Paulson?" He flipped through the family tree in his mental files. "A relative, then, on Miss Harper's father's side."
The faintest hint of color bloomed in her cheeks. "Yes. I'm Miss Harper's great-niece. Excuse me."
Poor baby, he thought when she slipped away. He maneuvered through the furniture and condemned himself to one of the side chairs.
Moments later he heard the click and step, and the woman herself appeared.
Though she was rail thin, he wouldn't have said frail, despite her age. More, he thought at first glance, a form that was tough and whittled down to the basics. She wore a dress of rich purple, and leaned on an ebony cane with an ivory handle.
Her hair was a pristine white helmet, and her face - as thin as her body - was a map of wrinkles under a dusting of powder and rouge. Her mouth, thin as a blade, was poppy red.
There were pearls at her ears and her throat, and her fingers were studded with rings, glinting as fiercely as brass knuckles.
The puppy trailed in her wake.
Knowing his role, Mitch got to his feet, even managed a slight bow. "Miss Harper, it's an honor to meet you."
He took the hand she extended, brought it to within an inch of his lips. "I'm very grateful you were able to find the time to see me." He offered the roses, the chocolates. "Small tokens of my appreciation."
She gave a nod, which might have been approval. "Thank you. Jane, put these lovely roses in the Minton. Please be seated, Dr. Carnegie. I was very intrigued by your letter," she continued as she took her seat on the settee and propped her cane on the arm. "You're not from the Memphis area originally."
"No, ma'am. Charlotte, where my parents and my sister still live. My son attends the university here, and I relocated in order to be close to him."
"Divorced from his mama, aren't you?"
She'd done her research, Mitch thought. Well, that was fine. So had he. "Yes, I am."
"I don't approve of divorce. Marriage isn't a flight of fancy."
"It certainly isn't. I confess my marital difficulties were primarily on my shoulders." He kept his eyes level with her piercing ones. "I'm an alcoholic, and though in recovery now for many years, I caused my former wife a great deal of distress and unhappiness during our marriage. I'm pleased to say she's remarried to a good man, and we have a cordial relationship."
Clarise pursed her bright red lips, nodded. "I respect a man who takes responsibility for his failings. If a man can't hold his drink, he shouldn't drink. That's all there is to it."
Old bat. "I'm proof of that."
She continued to sit, and despite nearly eight full decades of wear and tear, her back was straight as a spear. "You teach?"
"I have done. At the moment, I'm fully occupied with my research and writing of family histories and biographies. Our ancestry is our foundation."
"Certainly." Her gaze shifted when Jane came in with the flowers. "No, not there," she snapped. "There, and be careful. See to the refreshments now. Our guest can't be expected to sit here without being offered basic hospitality."
She turned her attention back to Mitch. "You're interested in the Harper family."
"Then you're aware that the Harpers are not only my foundation, but a vital part of the foundation of Shelby County, and indeed the state of Tennessee."
"I am, very keenly aware, and hope to do justice to their contributions. Which is why I've come to you, for your help, for your memories. And in the hope that you'll come to trust me with any letters or books, any written documentation that will help me to write a thorough and detailed account of the Harper family history."
He glanced up as Jane came out carrying a teapot and cups on a large tray. "Let me help you with that."
As he crossed to her, he saw the woman's eyes shoot over to her aunt. Obviously flustered, she allowed him to take the tray. "Thank you."
"Pour the tea, girl."
"Miss Paulson would be your great-niece on your father's side," Mitch began easily, and took his seat again. "It must be comforting to have some of your family so close."
Clarise angled her head, regally. "Duty to family is paramount. I would assume, then, you've done considerable research to date."
"I have. If you'll permit me." He opened his briefcase and took out the folder he'd prepared for her. "I thought you might enjoy having this. The genealogy - a family tree - I've done."
She accepted the folder, wagged her fingers in the air. On command, Jane produced a pair of reading glasses on a gold chain.
While she looked over the papers, Mitch did his best to swallow down the weak herbal tea.
"How much do you charge?"
"This is a gift, Miss Harper, as you've not requested my services. It's I who request your help in a project I'm very eager to explore."
"We'll be clear, Dr. Carnegie, that I won't tolerate being asked for funds down the road."
"I see you've gone back to the eighteenth century, when the first of my family immigrated from Ireland. Do you intend to go back further?"
"I do, though my plan is to focus more on the family here, in Tennessee, what they built after they came to America. The industry, the culture, their leading roles in both, as well as society. And most important, for my purposes, the family itself. The marriages, births, deaths."
Through the lenses of her reading glasses, her eyes were hawklike. Predatory. "Why are household staff and servants included here?"
He'd debated that one, but had gone with his instincts. "Simply because they were part of the household, part of the texture. In fact, I'm in contact with a descendant of one of the housekeepers of Harper House - during your mother, Victoria Harper's, childhood. The day-to-day life, as well as the entertaining the Harpers have been known for are essential elements of my book."
"And the dirty linen?" She gave a regal sniff. "The sort servants are privy to?"
"I assure you, it's not my intention to write a roman a clef, but a detailed, factual, and thorough family history. A family such as yours, Miss Harper," he said, gesturing toward the file, "certainly has had its triumphs and tragedies, its virtues and its scandals. I can't and won't exclude any that my research uncovers. But I believe your family's history, and its legacy, certainly stands above any of its very human failings."
"And failings and scandal add spice - spice sells."
"I won't argue with that. But certainly, with your input, the book would have a stronger weight on the plus side, we could say."
"We could." She set the folder aside, sipped her tea. "By now you've certainly been in contact with Rosalind Harper."
"And . . . she's cooperating?"
"Ms. Harper has been very helpful. I've spent some time in Harper House. It's simply stunning. A tribute to what your family built since coming to Shelby County, and a tribute to charm and grace as well as continuity."
"It was my great-great-grandfather who built Harper House, and his son who preserved it during the War of Northern Aggression. My grandfather who expanded and modernized the house, while preserving its history and its traditions."
He waited a moment for her to continue, to speak of her uncle's contribution to the estate. But when she stopped there, he only nodded. "Harper House is a testament to your family, and a treasure of Shelby County."
"It is the oldest home of its kind consistently lived in by one family in this country. The fact is, there is nothing to compare with it, to my mind, in Tennessee, or anywhere else. It is only a pity my cousin was unable to produce a son in order to carry the family name."
"Ms. Harper uses the family name."
"And runs a flower shop on the property." She dismissed this with another sniff and a flick of her ring-spangled fingers. "One hopes that her eldest son, when he inherits, will have more sense and dignity, though I see no indication of it."
"Your family has always been involved in commerce, in industry, in business."
"Not at home. I may decide to give you my cooperation, Dr. Carnegie, as my cousin Rosalind is hardly the best source for our family history. You may deduce we are not on terms."
"I'm sorry to hear that."
"It could hardly be otherwise. I'm told that even now she has outsiders, and one of them a Yankee, living in Harper House."
Mitch waited a beat, saw that he was expected to verify. "I believe there are houseguests, and one is also a distant relation, through Ms. Harper's first husband."
"With a baby out of wedlock." Those brightly painted lips folded thin. "Disgraceful."
"A . . . delicate situation, but one that happens, very often in any family history. As it happens, one of the legends I've heard regarding the house, the family, deals with a ghost, that of a young woman who may have found herself in this same delicate situation."
He nearly blinked. He didn't believe he'd ever heard anyone use that term in actual conversation.
"Ghosts. I would think a man with your education would be more sensible."
"Like scandal, Miss Harper, ghosts add spice. And the legend of the Harper Bride is common in the area. Certainly it has to be mentioned in any detailed family history. It would be more surprising if a house as old and rich in history as Harper House didn't have some whisper of hauntings. You must have grown up hearing the story."
"I know the story, and even as a child had more sense than to believe such nonsense. Some find such things romantic; I do not. If you're skilled or experienced at your work, you'll certainly find that there was no Harper bride who died in that house as a young woman - which this ghost is reputed to be. Not since the story began buzzing about."
"Which would have been?"
"In my grandfather's time, from all accounts. Your own papers here," she said as she tapped the folder, "debunk any such foolishness. My grandmother lived to a ripe age, as did my mother. My aunts were not young women when they passed. My great-grandmother, and all of her children who survived their first five years, lived well past their forties."
"I've heard theories that this ghost is a more distant relation, even a guest or a servant."
He fixed a pleasant smile on his face and nodded as if in agreement. "Still, it adds to the lore. So none of your family, to your knowledge, actually saw this legendary bride?"
"Pity, it would have made an interesting chapter in the history. I'd hoped to find someone who'd have a story to tell, or had written of it in a journal or diary. But as to journals or diaries, in a more earthbound sense. I'm hoping to add some to my research, to use them to personalize this family history. Do you have any that your mother or father, or other ancestors kept? Your grandmother's perhaps, your own mother's, aunts', cousins'?"
Out of the corner of his eye he saw Jane open her mouth as if to speak, then quickly close it again.
"I hope you'll allow me to interview you more in-depth, about specifics, and whatever anecdotes you'd care to share. And that you'd be willing to share any photographs, perhaps copy them at my expense for inclusion in the book."
"I'll consider it, very seriously, and contact you when I've made my decision."
"Thank you. I very much appreciate the time you've given me." He got to his feet, offered his hand. "Your family is of great interest to me, and it's been a pleasure to speak with you."
"Goodbye, Dr. Carnegie. Jane, show the man out."
At the door he offered his hand to Jane, smiled straight into her eyes. "It was nice to meet you, Miss Paulson."
He walked to the elevator, then rocked back and forth on his heels as he waited for the doors to open.
The old woman had something - something she didn't want to share. And the quiet little puppy knew it.
ROZ STROLLED HOMEthrough her woods in the best of all possible moods. It was nearly time for the major spring opening. Her season would begin with a bang, the work would be long, hard, and physical - and she'd love every minute.
The new potting soil was already beginning to move, and once the season got into swing, the twenty-five - pound bags were going to march out the door.
She just felt it.
The fact was, she admitted, she felt everything. The hum in the air that said spring, the streams of sunlight that spilled through the branches, the loose and limber swing of her own muscles.
Hardly a wonder they were loose and limber after last night, she thought. Four orgasms, for God's sake. And Mitch was a man of his word. Stick with me, he'd said, and it won't be the last time.
He'd proven just that in the middle of the night.
She'd had sex twice in one night, and that was certainly worth a red letter on her calendar.
With John . . . they'd been young and hadn't been able to get enough of each other. Even after the children had come, the sexual aspect of their marriage had been vital.
Then it had been a long, long time before she'd allowed another man to touch her. And to be honest, none ever had. Not really, not beyond the physical.
Bryce hadn't. But she'd thought, for a while at least, that it was her own fault, or her own nature. She hadn't loved him, not deep down. But she'd liked him, she'd enjoyed him, and had certainly been attracted to him.
Stupidly, but that wasn't the point now.
The sex had been adequate at best, and adequate had been enough for her. She'd wanted - needed - companionship, partnership.
Since the divorce, for a considerable time prior to it, if truth be told, she'd been celibate. Her own choice, and the right one for her.
Now he'd turned her inside out, and God, she was grateful. And relieved, if it came to that, to know her sex drive was in fine working condition.
He said he was falling in love with her, and that put a little knot in her belly. Love still meant specific things to her. Marriage and family. And those were too enormous to take lightly.
She'd never take marriage lightly again, so she could hardly take love, what she considered its precursor, lightly.
But she could, and she would, enjoy him, and the way she felt on this spectacular evening.
She crossed her own lawn and saw that her earliest daffodils were blooming buttery yellow. Maybe she'd go in, get her sheers, and cut some for her bedroom.
As she approached the house, she saw Stella and Hayley on the veranda, and raised her hand in a wave.
"I smell spring," she said. "We're going to want to start moving . . ." She trailed off as she saw their faces. "Well, don't you two look solemn. Trouble?"
"Not exactly. Mrs. Haggerty was in today," Stella said.
"Is something wrong with her?"
"Not with her. She wondered how you were doing, though, if you were all right."
"Why wouldn't I be?"
"She was concerned the scene at the garden club meeting had upset you."
"Oh." Roz shrugged. "She should know better."
"Why didn't you tell us?" Stella demanded.
"She said that bitch, that walking Barbie, insulted you right there in front of everybody," Hayley cut in. "That she was spreading lies and rumors and accused you of harassing that asshole she's hooked herself up with."
"You seem to have most of the facts. She should have added, if she didn't, that Mandy came off looking foolish and shrill, and was certainly more embarrassed by the whole thing than I was."
"You didn't tell us," Stella repeated.
"Why would I have?" The tone was aloof.
"Because whether or not she was more embarrassed, it had to upset you. And while you're the boss, and blah, blah, blah - "
"Blah, blah, blah?"
"And a little bit scary," Stella added.
"The fear factor has diminished considerably over the past year."
"I'm not afraid of you," Hayley said, then hunched her shoulders when Roz turned cool eyes to hers. "Very much."
"Despite us being your employees, we're friends. Or we thought we were."
"Oh, for God's sake. Girls are so much more complicated than boys." On a long sigh, Roz plopped down on the porch swing. "Of course we're friends."
"Well, if we're friends, especiallygirl friends," Hayley continued, and sat beside Roz on the swing, "you're supposed to tell us when some skinny-assed bitch rags on you. How else are we going to know we hate her guts? How else are we going to know to think up nasty things to say about her? Like, here's one. Did you know that seventy-three percent of women whose name ends with thei sound are bimbos?"
Roz sat a moment. "Is that one of your factoids or did you just make it up?"
"Okay, I made that one up, but I bet it's true if they dot thei with a little heart - after the age of twelve. And I bet, I just bet she does. So. Bimbo."
"She's just a foolish girl who believes a very smooth liar."
"I stand by bimbo."
"She had no right to say those things, to your face or behind your back." Stella sat on Roz's other side.
"No, she didn't, and she came out the worse for it. And all right, it did upset me at the time. I don't like my personal business aired in public forums."
"We're not a forum," Hayley stated firmly. "Or the public."
Saying nothing for a moment, Roz laid a hand on each of their thighs and gave them a little rub.
"As I said, females are more complicated than men, and even being female, I probably understand men better. I certainly didn't mean to hurt your feelings by keeping something like this to myself."
"We just want you to know we're here for you, for the good stuff, and the bad stuff."
Hayley's words touched her. "Then you should know I've long since put Mandy out of my mind, as I do with unimportant people. And I'm in much too good a mood to think about her now. When a woman, especially a woman within spitting distance of fifty, has herself a lover who performs excellently twice in one night, so well in fact that she needs the fingers on both hands to count the number of orgasms experienced, the last thing on her mind is some silly girl with no manners."
She gave each of their thighs another pat, then rose. "There, that's some good stuff," she said and strolled into the house.
"Wow," Hayley said after she managed to close the mouth that had fallen open. "I mean, mega-wow. How many times do you think he got her off? At least six, right?"
"You know what I thought the first time I saw Roz?"
"That I wanted to be her when I grew up. And boy, do I."
ROZ WALKED STRAIGHTback to the kitchen, and straight to the coffeepot. Once she had a cup, she sidled over and gave David's cheek a kiss as he stood at the stove making his famed hot chocolate.
"Running off some energy with Parker, and working up anticipation for hot chocolate. My other guest, as you see, has conked on me."
Stella grinned toward the highchair, where Lily snoozed in the tipped-back seat. "Isn't she a doll baby, and aren't you a sweetheart for minding three children so those girls could waylay me."
"We do what we can. And you should've mentioned what that silly bitch pulled."
"You ever known me not to be able to handle a silly bitch?"
"I've never known you not to be able to handle anything, but you should've mentioned it. How else am I going to know what shape to make the voodoo doll?"
"Don't worry, Bryce'll stick plenty of pins in her before he's done."
"Don't expect me to feel sorry for her."
"It's her cross to bear."
"Dinner in about an hour," he called as she started out of the room. "And you've got some phone messages. They were on your line so I didn't screen them."
"I'll get them upstairs."
She took her coffee with her, and toed off her shoes after she crossed the threshold to her room. Then she pushed the button on the answering machine.
"Roz, I didn't want to bother you at work."
"What a nice voice you have, Dr. Carnegie," she mused aloud, and sat on the side of the bed to enjoy it.
"It's my pizza night with Josh. I forgot to mention it. I like to think you'll miss me, and that I can make up for it by taking you out tomorrow. Whatever, wherever you'd like, just let me know. In addition, I did some work today, and I'd like to talk to you about that tomorrow. I should be over there by noon. If I don't see you, you can reach me on my cell. I'll be thinking of you."
"That's nice to know. That's very nice to know."
She was still daydreaming a little when the next message began.
"Ms. Harper, this is William Rolls from the Riverbend Country Club. I received your letter this morning, and am very sorry to hear that you're dissatisfied with our services and have resigned as a member. I must admit to being surprised, even stunned, by your list of complaints, and only wish you had been able to speak with me about them personally. We have valued your association with Riverbend for many years, and regret your decision to end it. If you'd care to discuss this matter, please feel free to contact me at any time at any of the following numbers. Again, I sincerely regret the circumstances."
She sat very still until the entire message played through. Then she shut her eyes.
"Fuck you, Bryce."
WITHIN AN HOURshe'd not only spoken with William Rolls, had assured him she wasn't dissatisfied, had no complaints and had not written any letter, but she had a faxed copy of the letter in question in her hand.
And a head of steam that threatened to blow like a geyser.
She was dragging her shoes back on when Hayley popped in, the baby on her hips. "David says dinner's . . . whoa, what's wrong?"
"What's wrong? You want to know what's wrong? I'll tell you what's wrong." She snatched the letter up from where she'd tossed it on the bed. "Here's what's wrong. That miserable, snake-spined son of a bitch has tried my patience once too often."
" 'The admittance of individuals of lower-class backgrounds and mixed ethnicity,' " Hayley read, holding the paper out of Lily's reach. " 'Staff members of dubious character. Demeaning intimacy between staff and members, substandard service.' " Her eyes were huge as she shifted them back up to Roz's face. "You didn't write this."
"Of course I didn't. And I'm going to take that letter, find Bryce Clark, and stuff it down his lying throat."
"No." Hayley jumped to block the door, her move so fast it had Lily laughing and bouncing in anticipation of another ride.
"No? What do you meanno ? I'm done taking this. Finished. And he's going to know it when I'm done with him."
"You can't. You're too mad to go anywhere." The fact was, she'd never seen Roz this angry, and Stella's term of a little bit scary was currently bumped up too many levels to count. "And I don't know much about this sort of thing, but I'd bet a month's pay this is just what he's hoping for. You need to sit down."
"I need to kick his balls blue."
"Well, yeah, that'd be great. Except he's probably expecting it, and he's probably got something worked out so you'll get arrested or something for assault. He's playing you, Roz."
"You think I don't know that?" She threw her arms out as she spun around, looking for something to kick, to hurl, to punch. "You think I don'tknow what that bastard's doing? I'm not going tostand here and take it anymore."
The shout, the fury in it had Lily's face crumpling, her little mouth trembling an instant before the wail.
"God, now I'm scaring babies. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. Here, let me have her."
Lily continued to sob as Roz took her out of Hayley's arms and cuddled her in her own. "There, sweetheart, I'm not mad at you, I'm not mad at your mama. I'm so sorry, baby girl." She crooned, and nuzzled while Lily clung to her. "I'm mad at this no-account, slimy-assed, cocksucking son of a bitch who's doing whatever he can to complicate my life."
"You saidcocksucking ," Hayley whispered. Awed.
"Sorry. She doesn't know what I'm saying, so it won't hurt her." Lily's tears were down to sniffles as she began to pull at the ends of Roz's hair. "I shouldn't have yelled like that in front of her. It's the tone that scares her, not the words."
"But you saidcocksucking ."
This time Roz laughed. "I'm so mad," she said, walking the baby, and calming them both. "Just so mad. And you're right, and that's just annoying. I can't go tearing out of here and going after him. It's just what he's looking for. It's all right, it'll be all right. He can't do anything that can't be fixed."
"I'm sorry Roz. I wish I could go kick his balls blue for you."
"Thanks, honey, that's a sweet thing to say. We'll just go down to dinner." She held Lily up, blew on her belly to make her laugh. "We'll just go down to dinner and forget all about the asshole, won't we, baby girl?"
"Okay. You know, I don't know as snakes have spines."
Roz blinked at her. "What?"
"You saidsnake-spined- before, when you were raving about Bryce. I'm not sure they have actual spines. Maybe just some sort of skeletal cartilage. Could be wrong, though. I don't much like snakes, so I haven't paid a lot of attention."
"You never fail, Hayley, just never fail to baffle me."