Black Rose


Chapter Nine




ROZ CAME INTOthe house out of a nasty, sleeting rain. She peeled out of her jacket, then sat on the bench in the foyer to drag off her boots. David strolled out, sat beside her, and handed her the cup of coffee he'd brought out of the kitchen.



"Dr. Delish is in the library."



"Yes, I saw his car." She drank coffee, holding the cup in both hands to warm them.



"Harper's with him. He snagged our boy for an interview. We had ours over lattes and applesauce cake earlier."



"Applesauce cake."



"I saved you a big slice. I know your weaknesses. They're saying we might get some snow out of this."



"So I heard."



"Stella and the boys are at Logan's. She's going to fix dinner over there, and the boys are hoping the snow comes through and they can stay the night."



"That's nice. I need a shower. A hot one."



He took the cup she passed back to him. "I thought you might want to ask our handsome professor to stay to dinner. I'm making some hearty chicken and dumplings to ward off the cold."



"Sounds good - the chicken - and Mitch is certainly welcome to stay if he likes, and doesn't have other plans."



"He doesn't," David said confidently. "I've already asked."



She chuckled at his broad grin. "Just who are you matching him up with, David? You or me?"



"Well, being the utterly unselfish person I am - and seeing as the doctor is unfortunately and absolutely straight - I'm going with you."



"Just a pitiful romantic, aren't you?"



She started up, and only rolled her eyes when he called out: "Put something sexy on."



In the library, Harper nursed his after-work beer. It didn't seem to him that he could tell Mitch much more than he already knew, but he'd answered the questions, filled in little gaps in the stories both his mother and David had already related.



"I've got David's rundown of the night you saw her outside, in the gardens, when you were boys."



"The night we were camping out, David, my brothers, and me." Harper nodded in acknowledgment. "Some night."



"According to David, you saw her first, woke him."



"Saw, heard, felt." Harper shrugged. "Hard to pin it down, but yeah, I woke him up. Couldn't say what time it was. Late. We'd stayed up eating ourselves half sick, and spooking ourselves out with scary stories. Then I heard her, I guess. Don't know how, exactly, I knew it was her. It wasn't like the other times."



"What was different?"



"She wasn't singing. She was more . . . moaning, I guess, or making these unintelligible sounds. More like what you'd expect from a ghost on a hot, moonlit night when you're a kid. So I looked out, and there she was. Only not like before, either."



Brave boy, Mitch thought, to look out instead of pulling the sleeping bag over his head. "What was it like?"



"She was in this white nightgown sort of thing. The way she was last spring when she was upstairs. Her hair was down, tangled and dirty. And I could see the moonlight going through her. Right through. Jesus." He took a deeper sip of beer.



"So I got David up, and Austin and Mason woke up, too. I wanted Austin to stay back with Mason, but there was no chance of that, so we all set out to follow her."



Mitch could imagine it very well. A pack of young boys, moonlight and lightning bugs and heavy summer heat. And a ghostly figure trailing through the gardens.



"She walked right over Mama's evening primrose, straight through the hollyhocks. Through them. I was too wound up to be scared. She kept making this noise, a kind of humming, or keening, I guess you could say. I think there were words mixed in there somewhere, but I couldn't make them out. She was going toward the carriage house. Seemed to me she was heading toward the carriage house anyway. And she turned, and she looked back. And her face . . ."



"What?"



"Like last spring again," he said, and let out a little breath. "She looked insane. Horror-movie insane. Wild and crazy. She was smiling, but it was horrible. And for a minute, when she looked at me and I looked back, it was so cold, I saw my own breath. Then she turned, kept walking, and I started after her."



"Started after her? An insane ghost? You had to be scared."



"Not so much, not that I realized anyway. I was caught up, I guess. Really fascinated. I had toknow . But Mason started screaming. Then I was scared spitless. I thought somehow she'd gotten him, which was stupid since she was up ahead and he was behind me. Farther behind me, all of them, than I'd realized. So I went running back, and there was Mason on the ground with his foot bleeding. And Austin's running back to the tent for a T-shirt or something to wrap it 'cause we're not wearing anything but our jockeys. David and I were trying to carry him back when Mama came running out like the wrath of God."



He laughed then, eyes twinkling at Mitch. "You should've seen her. She's wearing these little cotton shorts and some skinny little T-shirt. Her hair was longer back then, and it's flying as she came hauling ass. And I see - the others didn't, but I see she's got my granddaddy's pistol. I tell you what, if it had been some ghost after us, or anything else, she'd have run it off. But when she saw what was what, more or less, she shoved the pistol in the waistband of those little shorts, around the back. She picked Mason up, told us all to get some clothes on. And we all piled into the car to take Mason into the ER for stitches."



"You never said you'd seen the gun." Roz stepped into the library.



"I didn't think you wanted the others to know."



She walked right to him, bent down, and kissed the top of his head. "Didn't want you to know, either. You always saw too much." She turned her cheek, left it on top of Harper's head as she looked at Mitch. "Am I interrupting?"



"No. You could sit down if you have a minute. I've gotten this story from two sources now, and wouldn't mind having your version."



"I can't add much. The boys wanted to sleep out. God knows why as it was hot as hell and buggy with it. But boys do like to pitch a tent. As I wanted to be able to keep an eye on things, and hear them, I closed off my room, and did without the air-conditioning so I could have my doors open to the outside."



"We were right in the yard," Harper objected. "How much trouble could we get in?"



"Plenty, and as events proved just that, it was wise of me to sweat through the night. Once they settled down, I drifted off to sleep myself. It was Mason screaming that woke me. I grabbed my daddy's pistol, which in those days I kept on the top shelf of my bedroom closet. Got the bullets out of my jewelry box and loaded it on the run. When I got there, Harper and David were carting Mason, and his little foot was bleeding. I had to tell them to hush, as they were all talking at once. Took the baby in, cleaned up his foot, and saw it was going to need stitches. I got the story on the way to the hospital."



Mitch nodded, then looked up from his notes. "When did you go to the carriage house?"



She smiled. "First light. It took me that long to get back, settle them all down."



"You take the gun?"



"I did, in case what they'd seen was more corporeal than they'd thought."



"I was old enough to go with you," Harper objected. "You shouldn't have gone out there alone."



She cocked her head at him. "I believe I was in charge. In any case, there was nothing to see, and I can't tell you if I felt anything, genuinely, or if I was still so worked up I thought I did."



"What did you think?"



"That it was cold, and it shouldn't have been. And I felt . . . it sounds melodramatic, but I felt death all around me. I went through the place top to bottom, and there was nothing there."



"When was the place converted?"



"Oh . . . hmm." She closed her eyes to think. "Around the turn of the twentieth century. Reginald Harper was known for wanting the latest things, and automobiles were one of them. He housed his car in the carriage house for a time, then he used the stables for them, and the carriage house became a kind of storage house, with the gardener living on the second floor. But it would've been later, more like the twenties, I think, before it was done up as a guest cottage by my grandfather."



"So it's unlikely she would have stayed there, or visited the gardener there, as those dates are after first sightings. What would've been kept in there while it was an actual carriage house?"



"Buggies, some tack, I suppose. Tools?"



"An odd place for her to go."



"I always wondered if she died there," Harper commented, "and figured she'd let me know once I moved in."



Mitch's attention sharpened on him. "Have you had any experiences there?"



"Nope. She doesn't have much to do with guys once they pass a certain age. Hey, it's snowing."



He popped up to go to the window. "Maybe it'll stick. You need me anymore?" he asked Mitch.



"Not right now, thanks for the time."



"No problem. Later."



Roz shook her head as he walked out. "He'll head right outside, try to scrape up enough for a snowball so he can throw it at David. Some things never change. Speaking of David, he's making chicken and dumplings if you'd like to stay, wait for this snow to peter out again."



"It's a foolish man who turns down chicken and dumplings. I've made some progress, if elimination is progress, the last week or so. I'm running out of candidates, those who're documented, in any case, for Amelia."



She wandered to his work board, studied the photos, the charts, the notes. "And when you run out of candidates who are documented?"



"I start looking outside the box. Off topic, how do you feel about basketball?"



"In what way?"



"In the going to a game sort of way. I scored an extra ticket to my son's game tomorrow night. They're playing Ole Miss. I was hoping I could talk you into going with me."



"To a basketball game?"



"Casual, lots of other people, a specific form of entertainment." He smiled at her easily, when she turned back. "Seemed like a good place to start. And you might be more inclined toward that sort of socializing than a quiet dinner for two. But if you prefer the latter, I find my calendar free the night after next."



"A basketball game might be interesting."



LILY SAT ONthe Bokhara in Roz's bedroom, banging the buttons of a toy phone with a plastic dog. Lily's mother had her head in the closet.



"Just try the eyeshadow, Roz." Hayley's voice was muffled as she pawed through clothing. "I knew it was the wrong color for me when I bought it, but I just couldn't stop myself. It'll look awesome on you, won't it, Stella?"



"It will."



"I've got enough makeup of my own for three women," Roz objected and tried to concentrate on using it. She wasn't entirely sure how her personal space had come to be invaded by females. She just wasn't used to females.



"Oh, my God! Youhave to wear these!"



Hayley pulled out the pants David had talked Roz into buying - and which, to date, had never been on her body again. "I certainly don't."



"Roz, are you kidding?" She waved them at Stella. "Look at these."



Stella did. "I couldn't get my hips in those with a crowbar."



"Sure you could, they stretch." Hayley demonstrated. "Besides, your hips are perfect, seeing as you have breasts. But these are too long for you. You know that sweater I got for Christmas, the red angora David gave me? It'd be fabulous with these pants."



"Then you take them," Roz suggested.



"No, you're wearing them. Watch the baby a minute, okay? I'll run and get the sweater."



"I'm not wearing your sweater. I have plenty of my own. And for heaven's sake, this is just a basketball game."



"No reason not to go looking like the complete babe you are."



"I'm wearing jeans."



Deflated, Hayley dropped onto the bed beside Stella. "She's a hardcase."



"Here, I'll use your eyeshadow. We'll consider it a compromise."



"Can I pick out your earrings?"



Roz shifted her gaze in the mirror until her eyes met Hayley's. "Will you stop nagging the skin off my back?"



"Deal." Hayley leaped up, and when Lily reached toward her, scooped the baby on the fly. Settling Lily on her hip, she began to go through Roz's everyday jewelry box one-handed. "What top are you wearing?"



"I don't know. Some sweater or other."



"The green cashmere," Stella told her. "The dark green mock turtle, and that great black leather coat? The knee-length."



Roz considered as she worked on her eyes. "Fine. That'll work."



"All right, then . . . these." Hayley held up silver spiral dangles. "Shoes?" she asked, turning to Stella.



"Those black leather half boots with the stubby heel."



"You get those, I'll get the sweater, and - "



"Girls," Roz interrupted. "Scoot. I can handle the rest of this myself." But she leaned over to kiss Lily's cheek. "Y'all go play somewhere else now."



"Come on, Hayley, before she decides to wear a sweatshirt and gardening shoes just to spite us. She was right about the eyeshadow," Stella added as she pulled Hayley out.



Maybe so, Roz decided. It was an interesting shade of brown, with a hint of gold to jazz it up. She knew how to use it to her advantage. God knew she had plenty of practice fixing herself up, and enough vanity to put effort into looking her best when looking her best was called for.



At the same time, there was a certain advantage to having other women,younger women in the household, she supposed, and she'd take their advice on the wardrobe.



Except for the pants.



She crossed to her dresser, opened the middle drawer where she kept her good sweaters. She did love those soft fabrics, she thought as she went through the folded garments. The cashmeres and brushed cottons, the silks.



She took out the dark green, unfolded it.



The chill hit with a shock, a punishing little slap, that had her taking a step back. Then freezing as the sweater was ripped out of her hands. She watched with disbelief as it hit the opposite wall, then fell to the floor.



Her knees wanted to buckle, but she kept her feet and walked slowly across the room to pick it up.



There were jagged tears across the front, as if angry nails had raked through the material. Her breath streamed out in visible vapors as she fought to stay calm.



"Well, that was nasty, and small of you. Petty and mean. I was fond of this sweater. Very fond. But it won't make a damn bit of difference."



Angry now, she whirled around, waiting, hoping to see something, someone, to battle. "I've got more, and if you're thinking to repeat this performance on the rest of my clothes, I'll tell you now I'll walk out of here bare-assed naked before I give in to this kind of blackmail. So you go have your temper fit somewhere else."



Roz tossed the sweater onto her bed, marched back to her dresser. She grabbed a sweater at random, dragged it over her head. Her fingers trembled as much with rage as distress as she pulled on jeans.



"I make my own decisions," she ranted, "and always have. Keep this up, you just keep this up, and I'll sleep with him just to piss you off."



She finished dressing, shoved her feet into her boots, grabbed the leather coat, then had to order herself not to slam the door.



On the other side, she leaned back against it, breathed in and out until she was calm again. One thing for certain, she decided, she and Mitch wouldn't lack for things to talk about en route to the game.



Still she waited until they were on their way, with the lights of Harper House behind them. "There are a couple of things I need to tell you, then I think it'd be nice if both of us put business aside for a few hours."



"Something happen?"



"Yes. First, I had an irritating encounter at work one day recently with an acquaintance who has gold-medaled in the gossip Olympics for more than twenty consecutive years."



"Hell of a record."



"And she's proud of it. It dealt with my ex-husband, and isn't important of itself, but it upset me a bit, gave me what I call a temper headache, so I went home, took some aspirin, and decided to lie down for a few minutes. I wasn't asleep, just sort of hovering in that nice, cozy in-between - and in my head I was out in the garden, sitting on the bench in the shade, and it was late spring."



"How did you know it was spring?"



"Late spring, early June. I could tell by the plants, the flowers that were blooming. Then it got cold."



She told him the rest, careful with every detail.



"This is the first dream you've mentioned."



"It wasn't a dream. I wasn't asleep." She gave an impatient wave of her hand. "I know people say that all the time, when theythought they were awake. I was awake."



"All right. You should know."



"She took me there in my mind. I felt the cold, I smelled the flowers - the white roses on the arbor - I felt the air on my skin. All the while I was aware, in another part of myself, that I was still in my room, on the bed, with the headache pounding."



"Disconcerting."



"You're subtle," she replied. "Yes, it was disconcerting. Disorienting and upsetting. I don't like having anyone direct my thoughts. And the way she looked at me, when she opened her eyes in that grave, it was with a terrible kind of . . . love. She's never hurt me, and I've never felt that she would. Until tonight."



He pulled off the side of the road, braked hard, then turned to her. The calm she most usually saw in him, felt from him, was replaced by a percolating anger. "What do you mean? Did she attack you? For God's sake - "



"Not me, but a very nice cashmere sweater. It was a birthday gift, so I've only had it since November, and I'm still mad she ruined it."



"Tell me exactly what happened."



When she had, he sat back, tapped his fingers on the wheel. "She didn't want you coming out with me tonight."



"Apparently not, but that's too bad. Here I am."



He looked at her again. "Why?"



"I said I would, and I do what I say I will. Then you can add that she made me mad, and I don't back down, either. And lastly, I wanted to explore whether or not I'm going to like your company on a purely social level."



"You shoot very straight."



"I do. It irritates some people."



"I'm not one of them. Sorry about the sweater."



"So am I."



"We could speculate - "



"We could," Roz interrupted. "But I'd just as soon not, right now. She didn't stop the evening, so I don't see why she should drive it, either. Why don't we talk about something else until it's time to get down to business again?"



"Sure. What would you like to talk about?"



"I could start by wondering out loud how long you intend to sit here beside the road, and how late that's going to make us to your son's game."



"Oh. Right." He pulled onto the road again. "How about if I start this conversation off by telling you I've got a new cleaning lady."



"Is that so?"



"She's a friend of a friend of a friend. Sort of. She's into feng shui, so she's rearranging everything in the place - career areas, and health areas, I dunno. And making me lists for things I have to buy, like a money frog for my prosperity corner - or something. And these Chinese coins. And she says I have to have a green plant. I think it's for the health area, I'm not sure, and I'm too afraid of her to ask. So I was wondering if I could possibly have that plant back you took from my place last spring."



"The one you were murdering."



"I didn't know I was murdering it. I didn't even know it was there."



"Benign neglect is still neglect."



"Hardass. How about I sign an oath to take better care of it? The fact is, she'll be the one taking care of it, at least every other week. And you could have visitation rights."



"I'll think about it."



THE AUDITORIUM WASalready packed when they arrived, and humming with pregame excitement. They moved through the noise and color and excitement, scooting down the row to their seats while both teams practiced layups on the court.



"That's Josh there, number eight."



She watched the tall boy in his trimmed-in-blue white jersey lope forward and tap the ball off the backboard and into the net. "Nice form."



"He was the NBA's number-ten draft pick. He'll play for the Celtics next year. It's hard for me to believe it. I'm not going to brag all night, but I had to get that one in."



"He's going pro? The Celtics? Brag all you want. I would."



"I'll keep it to a minimum. In any case, Josh is point guard, that's the position that directs the team's offense from the point."



She listened, sipping the soft drink he'd bought her, as he ran through a primer of basketball terms and explanations.



At tip-off she watched the action, enjoyed the lightning movements on court, the echoing voices, the thunder of the ball on wood.



Now and again through the first quarter, Mitch would lean closer to explain a call, a strategy, or a play.



Until she got to her feet with the rest of the Memphis crowd to boo a blown call. "What, do those refs need eye surgery? We had established position, didn't we - does he needthree feet planted on the ground? That was charging, for God's sake. All he was missing was a Visa card!"



When she sat again, with a disgusted huff, Mitch scratched his chin. "Okay, either I'm an exceptional teacher or you know basketball."



"I have three sons. I know basketball. I know football and baseball, and at one time I knew entirely too much about professional wrestling. But they mostly outgrew that one." She took her eyes from the game long enough to smile at him. "But you were having such a nice time educating the little lady, I didn't want to break your stride."



"Thanks. Want some nachos?"



"I wouldn't mind."



She enjoyed herself, and was amused at halftime when Josh zeroed in on his father in the crowd and grinned. More amused when the boy's gaze drifted to her, then back to his father before Josh executed an enthusiastic thumbs-up.



And when at game's end, the Memphis Tigers clipped Ole Miss's Rebels by three points, she decided the experience had nearly been worth one cashmere sweater.



"You want to wait around, congratulate your boy?"



"Not tonight. It'll be better than an hour before he gets out of the locker room, and through the groupies. I'd like you to meet him sometime, though."



"I'd be glad to. He's a pleasure to watch on the court, not just his style and skill - though he has plenty of both - but his enthusiasm. You can tell he loves the game."



"Has since he was a baby." Mitch slipped an arm around Roz's waist to help maneuver them both through the departing crowd.



"It'll be tough on you, him moving to Boston."



"He's always wanted it. Part of me wants to move up there with him, but sooner or later, you've got to let go."



"Nearly killed me when my two youngest moved away. They were five years old yesterday."



He dropped his arm, then took her hand as they crossed the parking lot. "Can I interest you in a postgame meal?"



"Not tonight. I need to get an early start in the morning. But thanks."



"Dinner tomorrow."



She slid a look up at him. "I should tell you getting me out of the house two nights running generally takes a team of wild horses. And I've got a garden club meeting tomorrow, which for personal reasons, I can't miss."



"The night after."



"I sense a campaign."



"How's it going?"



"It's not bad." Not bad at all, she thought, enjoying the bracing air, and the warmth of his hand over hers. "I'll tell you what, you can come to dinner night after next, but I'll warn you, I'll be cooking. David's night off."



"You cook?"



"Of course I cook. Not that I'm allowed to when David's in the house, but it happens I'm a very good cook."



"What time's dinner?"



She laughed. "Let's make it seven."



"I'll be there." When they reached his car, he walked her to her side, then turned her around, slid his arms around her, and drew her toward him. Laid his mouth on hers in a long, lazy kiss.



She curled her hands around his arms, held on to them, to him, and let herself float on the sensation - the warmth of his body, the cool of the air, the simmering demand just under the lazy tone of the kiss.



Then he eased back, his eyes on hers, and reached around to open her door. "I did that now because I figured if I waited until I walked you to your door, you'd be expecting it. I'm hoping to surprise you, at least now and again. I don't think it's the easiest thing to do."



"You've managed it a few times so far."



When she slid into the car, he closed the door. And thought he might have a few more surprises up his sleeve before they were done.

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