Black Rose


Chapter Seven




WITH THE NURSERYclosing early for the holiday, Roz earmarked the time to deal with her own houseplants. She had several that needed repotting or dividing, and a few she wanted to propagate for gifts.



With the weather crisp and clear outside, she settled into the humid warmth of her personal greenhouse. She worked with one of her favorites, an enormous African violet that had come from a plantlet her grandmother had given her more than thirty years before. As Norah Jones's bluesy voice surrounded her, she carefully selected a half dozen new leaves, taking them with their stalks for cuttings. For now, she used a stockpot, sliding the stems in around the edges. In a month they would have roots, and other plantlets would form. Then she would plant them individually in the pale green pots she'd set aside.



They'd be a gift for Stella, for her new house, her new life.



It pleased her to be able to pass this sentimental piece of her heritage along to a woman who'd understand, to someone Roz had come to love.



One day she'd do the same for her sons when they married, and give to them this living piece of her heritage. She would love the women they chose because they did. If she was lucky, she'd like the women they married.



Daughters-in-law, she mused. And grandchildren. It didn't seem quite possible that those events weren't far around her next corner. Odder still that she was beginning to yearn for them. And that, she decided, had its roots in having Stella and Hayley and the children in the house.



Still, she could wait. She accepted change, but that didn't mean she was in a hurry for it.



Right now her life was in pretty good order. Her business was flourishing, and that was not only a personal triumph, it was an intense relief.



She'd risked a great deal by starting In the Garden. But it was a risk she'd had to take - for herself, and for her heritage.



Harper House, and she would never give it up, cost a great deal to maintain. She was well aware there were people who believed she had money to burn, but while she certainly wasn't at the point where she needed to pinch every penny, she was hardly rolling in it.



She'd raised three children, clothed and fed them, educated them. Her legacy had allowed her to stay home with them rather than seek outside employment, and her own canniness with investments had added a cushion.



But three college educations and medical school for Mason hadn't come cheap. And when the house demanded new plumbing, new paint, a new roof, she was obliged to see it got what it needed.



Enough so that she'd discreetly sold some things over the years. Admittedly, paintings or jewelry she hadn't cared for, but it had still given her a little twinge of guilt to sell what had been given to her.



Sacrificing pieces to preserve the whole.



There'd come a time when she'd been confident her sons' futures were seen to, as best she could, and the house was secure. But money was needed nonetheless. It wasn't as if she hadn't considered finding a job - considered very briefly.



Mitch was right, she didn't care to take orders. But she was, without question, very adept at giving them. Play to your strengths, after all, she thought with a glimmer of a smile. That's just what she'd done.



It had been a choice between gathering her courage to start her own business, or swallowing her pride to work for someone else.



For Roz, it was no contest.



She'd piled a great deal of her eggs into that single basket, and the first two years had been touch and go. But it had grown. She and Harper had made it grow.



She'd taken a hit with the divorce. Stupid, stupid mistake. While Bryce had gotten very little out of the deal - and only what she'd permitted him to get - it had cost her dearly in pride and in money to shed herself of him.



But they'd weathered it. Her sons, her home, her business were thriving. So she could think, a little, of changes. Of expansions on both her business and personal fronts. Just as she could enjoy the successful present.



She moved from the African violets to her bromeliads, and by the time she'd finished dividing, she decided Stella was going to get one of these, too. Pleased, she worked another hour, then shifted to check the spring bulbs she was forcing. She'd have narcissus blooming in another week.



When she was satisfied, she carted everything she wanted in the house inside, arranging, as she preferred them, a forest of plants in the solarium, then placing other pots throughout the house.



Last, she carried a trio of bulbs in forcing bottles to the kitchen.



"And what have you brought me?" David asked.



"David, I despair of teaching you anything about horticulture. They're very obviously tulips." She arranged them on the windowsill beside the banquette. "They'll bloom in a few weeks."



"I despair of teaching you anything about the choices of stylish gardening wear. How long have you owned that shirt?"



"I have no idea. What are you doing in here?" She pulled open the refrigerator, took out the pitcher of cold tea that was always there. "Shouldn't you be starting your primping marathon for tonight's party?"



"I'm making you up a nice platter of cold cuts and sides, as you refuse to come out and play with us tonight. And as I treated myself to a few hours at the day spa today while you were grubbing in dirt, my primping has already started."



"You don't have to go to any trouble with platters, David. I can find the makings for a sandwich myself."



"Nicer this way, especially when you have company." He chuckled. "The professor's in the library, and I put a couple of bottles of champagne in to chill so the two of you can - let's say - pop a cork."



"David." She gave him a light cuff on the side of the head before she poured the tea. "I'm not popping anything with anyone. I'm minding the baby."



"Babies sleep. Roz, my treasure, he'sgorgeous , in that sexily rumpled academic sort of way. Jump him. But for God's sake, change your clothes first. I set out your white cashmere sweater, and those black pants I talked you into - the ones with lots of lycra, and those fabulous Jimmy Choo's."



"I'm certainly not wearing white cashmere, skintight pants - which I'd never have bought if you hadn't hypnotized me or something - or a pair of five-inch heels when I'm babysitting for a seven-month-old. It's not even a date."



"Don't you just love those horn-rims? What is it about a man in horn-rim glasses?"



She took an olive out of the bowl he'd filled. "You're certainly wound up tonight."



He covered the bowls and the tray he'd prepared with plastic. "There now. You're going to have yourself a nice New Year's Eve picnic with the horn-rimmed hunk."



"David, why in the world do you think I need a man?"



"My darling Roz, weall need a man."



SHE DID CHANGE, but brutally rejected David's choices in favor of a simple cotton shirt and jeans, and her favored wool socks in lieu of shoes. Still, she had enough vanity to do her makeup.



In the nursery, she listened patiently to all of Hayley's nervous-mother instructions, assured, and reassured, swore an oath she would call if there was any sort of a problem. And finally nudged the girl out and on her way.



She waited, watching from the window until she saw the car drive away. Then, grinning, she turned to where Lily gurgled in her bouncy chair.



"I've got you all to myself now. Come on up here to Aunt Roz, 'cause I've just got to eat you right up like a bowl of sugar."



In the library, Mitch pretended to read, took sketchy notes, and listened to the baby monitor that stood on a table on the lower level.



Every room had one, at least every room he'd been in, he thought. Since the experiences last spring, he thought that was a wise and basic precaution.



But he wasn't thinking of safety or precautions now. He was simply charmed and amused, listening first to Hayley's anxiety-filled departure, and now Roz's verbal love affair with the baby.



He'd never heard that tone in her voice before, hadn't known it could soften like that, like fragrant wax under low heat. Nor had he expected her to dote, as she so obviously doted, on a child.



She talked nonsense, cooed, laughed, made the silly noises adults habitually made around babies and, from the sounds of Lily's response, made the baby as happy as the sitter.



It was another angle to a woman he'd seen as formidable, confident, a little aloof, and oddly direct. All those facets had already combined into a woman he found smoothly sexy. Now this . . . softness, he supposed, was a surprising icing on an already desirable cake.



He heard her laugh, a long, lovely roll, and gave up even the pretense of working.



He heard the music and banging of toys, the child's burbling and giggles, and the undiluted pleasure in the woman's voice. Later, he heard her singing as she rocked the baby to sleep.



Soon after, he heard her murmured words, her quiet sigh, then the monitor was silent.



He sighed himself, sorry the interlude was over. Then reaching for his coffeepot, found it empty. Again.



He carried it into the kitchen to brew another pot, and was just measuring out the coffee when Roz came in.



"Hi," he said. "Be out of your way in a minute. David said I should just make myself coffee whenever."



"Of course. I was about to make use of the cold cuts he put together earlier, if you'd like something to eat."



"I would, thanks. He mentioned there'd be makings when he showed me where I could find what I needed for coffee. And . . ." He widened his eyes as Roz took out the tray, the bowls. "I see he meant it."



"He's constantly afraid I'll starve to death if he doesn't leave me enough food for six people." She glanced over. "And?"



"Sorry?"



"You started to say something else? Regarding David?"



"Oh well, just that I think he was hitting on me."



She got long, fresh rolls from the bread drawer. "Not very hard, I'm sure."



"No, not hard. Just . . . charmingly actually."



"I hope you weren't offended."



"No, I was, well, sort of flattered, really. Considering the age difference."



"He likes the way you look in your glasses."



"In my . . . what?"



"Horn-rims. They just turn him to mush, apparently. You want me to just pile everything on here, or would you rather pick and choose?"



"Just pile, thanks. I appreciate it."



"It's no trouble as I'm making some for myself as it is." She looked up sharply, as a voice, Amelia's voice, began to sing through the monitor.



"It's a jolt, isn't it?" Mitch said. "Every time."



"She doesn't go into Lily's room every night, not like she did with the boys. She favors boys. I suppose she knows Hayley's out, and wants to . . ."



She trailed off, her fingers fumbling, as they rarely did, with the sandwiches as she recalled the monitor in the library. And her own session with Lily.



"I hadn't thought about the monitor where you were working, disturbing you."



"It didn't - you didn't - in the least."



"In any case, feel free to switch it off in there when you're working. God knows we have them everywhere. Hayley went out and bought one that has video, too, for her room. Amazing the sorts of things they have now, to make life a bit easier for new mothers."



"You must've been a good one. It came through," he added, "when you were up there with her."



"I was. Am. It's my most important job." But her interlude with Lily had been private - or so she'd thought. Just how many times had she sang the hokeypokey along with Elmo?



Best not to think about it.



"Would you like to take this back in, eat while you work, or take a break, and eat in here?"



"In here, if it's all right with you."



"That'll be fine." She hesitated, then opened the refrigerator again, took out the champagne. "Seeing as it's New Year's Eve, I'm going to open this. We can have something a little more festive than coffee with our poor boys."



"Thanks, but I don't drink. Can't."



"Oh." She felt abominably slow and stupid. Hadn't she noticed herself that he never took alcohol? Couldn't she have used her brain to put two and two together before embarrassing a guest? "Coffee it is, then."



"Please." He stepped over to lay a hand on her arm before she replaced the bottle. "Open it, enjoy it. It doesn't bother me when other people have a drink. In fact, it's important to me that they're comfortable. That you're comfortable. Here, let me do it."



He took the bottle. "Don't worry, opening a bottle of champagne isn't backsliding."



"I certainly didn't mean to makeyou uncomfortable. I should've realized."



"Why? I'm not still wearing that sign that says Recovering Alcoholic around my neck, am I?"



She smiled a little, walked to the display cabinet for a flute. "No."



He released the cork, a quick, celebrational pop. "I started drinking when I was about fifteen. Sneaking a beer now and then, the way boys often do. Nothing major. I did love an ice-cold beer."



He set both their plates on the table, then poured his coffee while she arranged the rest of the simple meal. "Went through the drinking insanity in college, but again, plenty do the same. Never missed a class because of it, never caused me any trouble, really. My grades stayed up - enough I graduated with honors, top five percent of my class. I loved college nearly as much as I did an ice-cold beer. Am I going to bore you with this?"



"No," she said, her eyes on his. "You're not."



"All right." He took his first bite of the sandwich, nodded. "Miz Harper, you make a hell of a po'boy."



"I do."



"So I went to grad school, got my master's. Taught, got married, worked on my doctorate. Had myself a gorgeous baby boy. And I drank. I was . . . an amiable drunk, if you know what I mean. I was never confrontational, never abusive - physically, I mean, never picked fights. But I can't say I was ever completely sober from the time Josh was born - a bit before that to be honest, until I set the bottle down the last time."



He sampled David's potato salad. "I worked - taught, wrote, provided my family with a good living. Drinking never cost me a day's work, any more than it had cost me class time. But it cost me my wife and my son."



"I'm sorry, Mitch."



"No need to be. Sara, my ex, did everything she could do. She loved me, and she wanted the life I'd promised her. She stuck with me longer than many would have. She begged me to quit, and I'd promise or reassure, or fluff her off. Bills were paid, weren't they? We had a nice house, and we never missed a mortgage payment. I wasn't some stumbling-down, sprawled-in-the-gutter drunk, was I, for God's sake? I just had a few drinks to take the edge off. Of course, I started taking the edge off at ten in the morning, but I was entitled."



He paused, shook his head. "It's easy to delude yourself that you're entitled, that you're just fine when you're in a haze most of the time. Easy to ignore the fact that you're letting your wife and child down in a dozen ways, every single day. Forgetting dinner parties or birthdays, slipping out of bed - where you are useless to her in any case - to have just one more drink, dozing off when you're supposed to be watching your own baby. Just not being there, not completely there. Ever."



"It's a hard thing to go through, I imagine. For everyone involved."



"Harder for the ones you shipwreck with you, believe me. I wouldn't go to counseling with her, refused to attend meetings, to talk to anyone about what she saw as my problem. Even when she told me she was leaving me, when she packed her things, and Josh's things, and walked out. I barely noticed they were gone."



"That was tremendously brave of her."



"Yes, it was." His gaze sharpened on Roz's face. "Yes, it was, and I suppose a woman like you would understand just how brave it was. It took me another full year to hit the bottom, to look around at my life and see nothing. To realize I'd lost what was most precious, and that it was too late to ever get it back. I went to meetings."



"That takes courage, too."



"My first meeting?" He took another bite of his sandwich. "Scared to death. I sat in the back of the room, in the basement of this tiny church, and shook like a child."



"A lot of courage."



"I was sober for three months, ten days, and five hours when I reached for a bottle again. Fought my way out of that, and sobriety lasted eleven months, two days, and fifteen hours. She wouldn't come back to me, you see. She'd met someone else and she couldn't trust me. I used that as an excuse to drink, and I drank the next few months away, until I crawled back out of the hole."



He lifted his coffee. "That was fourteen years ago next March. March fifth. Sara forgave me. In addition to being brave, she's a generous woman, one who deserved better than what she got from me. Josh forgave me, and in the past fourteen years, I've been a good father. The best I know how to be."



"I think it takes a brave man, and a strong one to face his demons, and beat them back, and keep facing them every single day. And a generous one, a smart one who shoulders the blame rather than passing it on, even partially, to others."



"Not drinking doesn't make me a hero, Roz. It just makes me sober. Now if I could just kick the coffee habit."



"That makes two of us."



"Now that I've talked your ear off, I'm going to ask you to return the favor, and give that first interview when we've finished eating."



"All right. Am I going to be talking for the recorder?"



"Primarily, yeah, though I'll take some notes."



"Then maybe we could do that in the parlor, where it's a little more comfortable."



"Sounds like a plan."



She checked on Lily first, and took the first phone call from Hayley. While Mitch gathered whatever he needed from the library, she pulled the tray of fresh fruit - David never missed a trick - and the brie and cheddar, the crackers, he'd stocked.



Even as she wheeled it toward the parlor, Mitch came up behind her. "Let me get that."



"No, I've got it. But you could light the fire. A fire'd be nice. It's cold tonight, but thank God, clear. I'd hate to worry about my chicks navigating slick roads on their way home to roost later."



"I thought the same thing about my own earlier. Never ends, does it?"



"No." She set out the food, the coffee, then sat on the couch, instinctively propped her feet on the table. She stared at her own feet, surprised. It was a habit, she knew, but one she didn't indulge in when she had guests. She glanced at Mitch's back as he crouched to light kindling.



She supposed it meant she was comfortable with him, and that was fine. Better than labeling him a guest as she'd be trusting him with her family.



"You're right, it's nice to have a fire."



He came back, set up his recorder, his notebook, then settled on the other end of the couch, shifting his body toward hers. "I'd like to start off with you telling me about the first time you remember seeing Amelia."



Straight to business, she thought. "I don't know that I remember a first time, not specifically. I'd have been young. Very. I remember her voice, the singing, and a kind of comforting presence. I thought - to the best of my memory, that is - that it was my mother. But my mother wasn't one to look in at night, and I never remember her singing to me. It wasn't her way. I remember her - Amelia - being there a few times when I was sick. A cold, a fever. It's more that she was there, and expected to be in a way, than a jolting first time."



"Who told you about her?"



"My father, my grandmother. My grandmother more, I suppose. The family would talk about her casually, in vague terms. She was both a point of pride - we have a ghost - and a slight embarrassment - we have a ghost. Depending on who was talking. My father believed she was one of the Harper Brides, while my grandmother maintained she was a servant or guest, someone who'd been misused somehow. Someone who had died here, but wasn't blood kin."



"Did your father, your grandmother, your mother, ever tell you about their specific experiences with her?"



"My mother would get palpitations if the subject was brought up. My mother was very fond of her palpitations."



Mitch grinned at the dry tone, watched her spread some brie. "I had a great-aunt like that. She had spells. Her day wasn't complete without at least one spell."



"Why some people delight in having conditions is more than I can understand. My mother did speak to me of her once or twice, in a sort of gloom-and-doom manner - something else she was fond of. Warning me that one day I'd inherit this burden, and hoping for my sake it didn't shatter my health, as it had hers."



"She was afraid of Amelia, then."



"No, no." Roz waved that away, nibbled on a cracker. "She enjoyed being long-suffering, and a kind of trembling martyr. Which sounds very unkind coming from her only child."



"Let's call it honest instead."



"Comes to the same. In any case, other times, it was bearing and birthing me that had ruined her health. And others, she'd been delicate since a bout of pneumonia as a child. Hardly matters."



"Actually, it's helpful. Bits and pieces, personal observations and memories are helpful, a start toward the big picture. What about your father?"



"My father was generally amused by the idea of a ghost and had fond memories of her from his own childhood. But then he'd be annoyed or embarrassed if she made an appearance and frightened a guest. My father was fiercely hospitable, and mortified on a deep, personal level if a guest in his home was inconvenienced."



"What sort of memories did he have?"



"The same you've heard before. It hardly varies. Her singing to him, visiting him in his room, a maternal presence until he was about twelve."



"No disturbances?"



"Not that he told me, but my grandmother said he sometimes had nightmares as a boy. Just one or two a year, where he claimed to see a woman in white, with her eyes bulging, and he could hear her screaming in his head. Sometimes she was in his room, sometimes she was outside, and so was he - in the dream."



"Dreams would be another common thread, then. Have you had any?"



"No, not . . ."



"What?"



"I always thought it was nerves. In the weeks before John and I were married, I had dreams. Of storms. Black skies and thunder, cold winds. A hole in the garden, like a grave, with dead flowers inside it." She shivered once. "Horrible. But they stopped after I was married. I dismissed them."



"And since?"



"No. Never. My grandmother saw her more than anyone, at least more than anyone would admit to. In the house, in the garden, in my father's room when he was a boy. She never told me anything frightening. But maybe she wouldn't have. Of all my family, that I recall, she was the most sympathetic toward Amelia. But to be honest, it wasn't the primary topic of conversation in the house. It was simply accepted, or ignored."



"Let's talk about that blood kin, then." He pulled his glasses out of his shirt pocket to read his notes. "The furthest back you know, personally, of sightings starts with your grandmother Elizabeth McKinnon Harper."



"That's not completely accurate. She told me my grandfather, her husband, had seen the Bride when he was a child."



"That's her telling you what she'd been told, not what she claimed to have seen and experienced herself. But speaking to that, can you recall being told of any experiences that happened in the generation previous to your grandparents?"



"Ah . . . she said her mother-in-law, that would be my great-grandmother Harper, refused to go into certain rooms."



"Which rooms?"



"Ah . . . lord, let me think. The nursery, which was on the third floor in those days. The master bedroom. She moved herself out of it at some point, I'm assuming. The kitchen. And she wouldn't set foot in the carriage house. From my grandmother's description of her, she wasn't a fanciful woman. It was always thought she'd seen the Bride. If there was another prior to that, I don't know about it. But there shouldn't be. We've dated her to the 1890s."



"You've dated her based on a dress and a hairstyle," he said as he scribbled. "That's not quite enough."



"It certainly seems sensible, logical."



He looked up, smiling, his eyes distracted behind his glasses. "It may be. You may be right, but I like a little more data before I call something a fact. What about your great-aunts? Reginald Jr.'s older sisters?"



"I couldn't say. I didn't know any of them, or don't remember them. And they weren't close with my grandmother, or my father. There was some attempt, on my grandmother's part, to cement some familial relations between their children and my father, as cousins. I'm still in contact with some of their children."



"Will any of them talk to me?"



"Some will, some won't. Some are dead. I'll give you names and numbers."



"All," he said. "Except the dead ones. I can be persuasive. Again," he murmured as the singing came from the monitor across the room.



"Again. I want to go check on Lily."



"Do you mind if I come with you?"



"No. Come ahead." They started upstairs together. "Most likely it'll stop before we get there. That's the pattern."



"There were two nursemaids, three governesses, a housekeeper, an under-housekeeper, a total of twelve housemaids, a personal maid, three female kitchen staff between 1890 and 1895. I've dug up some of the names, but as ages aren't listed, I'm having to wade through a lot of records to try to pinpoint the right people. If and when, I'll start on death records, and tracking down descendants."



"You'll be busy."



"Gotta love the work. You're right. It's stopped."



But they continued down the hall to the nursery. "Cold still," Roz commented. "It doesn't last long, though." She moved to the crib, slid the blanket more neatly around the sleeping baby.



"Such a good baby," she said quietly. "Sleeps right through the night most of the time. None of mine did at this age. She's fine. We should leave her be."



She stepped out, leaving the door open. They were at the top of the stairs when the clock began to bong.



"Midnight?" Roz looked at her watch to be certain. "I didn't realize it was so late. Well, Happy New Year."



"Happy New Year." He took her hand before she could continue down the steps and, laying the other on her cheek, said, "Do you mind?"



"No, I don't mind."



His lips brushed hers, very lightly, a kind of civilized and polite gesture to commemorate the changing year. And somewhere in the east wing, Roz's wing, a door slammed shut like a gunshot.



Though her heart jumped, she managed to speak evenly. "Obviously, she doesn't approve."



"More like she's pissed off. And if she's going to be pissed off, we might as well give her a good reason."



He didn't ask this time, just slid the hand that lay on her cheek around to cup the back of her neck. And this time his mouth wasn't light, or polite, or civilized. There was a punch of heat, straight to her belly, as his mouth crushed down on hers, as his body pressed, hard against hers. She felt that sizzle zip through her blood, fast and reckless, and let herself ride on it for just one mad moment.



The door in the east wing slammed, again and again, and the clock continued to chime, madly now, well past the hour of twelve.



He'd known she'd taste like this, ripe and strong. More tang than sweetness. He'd wanted to feel those lips move against his as they were now, to discover just how that long, slender body fit to his. Now that he was, she settled inside him and made him want more.



But she eased back, her eyes open and direct. "Well. That ought to do it."



"It's a start."



"I think it'd be best to keep everything . . . calm for tonight. I really should tidy up the parlor, and settle down up here, with Lily."



"All right. I'll get my notes and head home."



In the parlor she loaded the cart while he gathered his things. "You're a difficult woman to read, Rosalind."



"I'm sure that's true."



"You know I want to stay, you know I want to take you to bed."



"Yes, I know." She looked over at him. "I don't take lovers . . . I was going to say just that. That I don't take lovers, but I'm going to say, instead, I don't take them rashly, or lightly. So if I decide to take you as a lover, or let you take me, it will be serious business, Mitchell. Very serious business. That's something both of us need to consider."



"Ever just jump off the ledge, Roz?"



"I've been known to. But, except for the regrettable and rare occasion, I like to make certain I'm going to land on my feet. If I wasn't interested, I'd tell you, flat out. I don't play games in this arena. Instead, I'm telling you that I am interested, enough to think about it. Enough to regret, a little, that I'm no longer young and foolish enough to act without thinking."



The phone rang. "That'll be Hayley again. I need to get that or she'll panic. Drive carefully."



She walked out to get the phone, and heard, as she assured Hayley the baby was fine, was sleeping like an angel, had been no trouble at all, the front door close behind him.



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