Black Rose


Chapter Seventeen




"SHE'S NOT EVIL, right?" Hayley shifted Lily on her hip and watched Harper plug some portulaca into the bed outside the back door of his cottage. "I mean she's nasty and mean, but she's not evil."



"Obviously, you haven't heard Mama describe Cousin Rissy as the Uber-Bitch Demon from Hell."



"If she really is, then maybe she had something to do with Amelia. Maybe she's the one who killed her."



"She wasn't born - or spawned, as Mama would say - when Amelia died."



"Oh, yeah." But she wrinkled her forehead. "But that's only if we're right on the dates. If we're wrong, she could've done it."



"Assuming Amelia was murdered."



"Well, okay, assuming that. She has to have some reason for taking the diaries, and for keeping them. Don't you think?"



"Other than being a selfish, tight-assed old biddy?"



"Other than. All right, honey." As Lily squirmed, Hayley put her down and began to walk her, holding her hands, up and down Harper's patio. "There could be things in the diaries that implicate her."



"Then why didn't she burn them?"



"Oh, I don't know," she snapped. "It's a theory. We've got to have a theory and a hypothesis so we can work to the solution, don't we?"



"If you say so, but my solution is Cousin Rissy's just a sticky-fingered, black-hearted, selfish witch. Look here, sweetie-pie." He plucked one of his moss roses, held it out at Lily's level. "Isn't that pretty? Wouldn't you like to have it?"



Grinning, she released her mother's hands, reached out.



"Uh-uh, you come on and get it," he told her.



And when he held it just beyond her fingertips, she took three toddling steps.



"Oh, my God. Oh, my God! Did you see? She walked. Did you see that?"



"Sure did." Harper steadied Lily when she closed her fist around the flower. "Look at you. Aren't you the one?"



"She took her first steps." Hayley sniffled, knuckled a tear away. "She walked right to you."



Always uneasy with tears, Harper looked up. "Sorry. I should've had you hold out the flower."



"No, no, that's not it. She took her first steps, Harper. My little girl. I saw her take her first steps. Oh, we have to show everybody." She did a quick dance, then scooped Lily up, making the baby laugh as she turned circles. "We've got to show everybody how smart you are."



Then she stopped, sighed. Leaning down, she brushed her lips over Harper's cheek. "She walked right to you," she repeated, then hurried toward the main house with the baby on her hip.



ROZ LOVED HAVINGcoffee on the patio with the awakening gardens spread out around her. She could hear Stella's boys playing with the dog, and the sounds turned back her memory clock to when those shouts would have been from her own sons.



It was pleasant to sit out like this in the early evening, with the light soft and blue and the smell of growing things quiet on the air. Pleasant, too, since she was in the mood to have company. She drank her coffee while Logan and Stella, David and Mitch talked around her.



She'd wanted Harper there, too, and Hayley. But Harper wasn't answering his phone - not a rare occurrence - and she hadn't been able to find Hayley or the baby.



"She said he was so happy with the way everything looked, he took her out so she could buy new patio furniture." Stella drained her glass of iced tea. "I've rarely seen a more satisfied customer - or a landscape design done and executed so quickly. Logan better keep his eye on you, Roz."



"Knew the yard, and the woman - and both well enough to be sure Cissy would love the changes. And hire Logan to keep it looking good."



"I'd hate to be that unhappy and intimidated by my mother-in-law." Stella smiled at Logan. "I'm getting a jewel."



"She feels the same, which is going to make my life a hell of a lot easier." He tipped his beer toward Stella. "Your days are numbered, Red."



"Two weeks, and counting. There's still so much to do. Every time I think I've got it all under control, something else pops into my head. Planning a small, simple wedding's full of complications."



"You say 'I do,' then you eat cake," Logan said, and earned a bland stare from his future bride.



"Jolene's been an enormous help," she went on. "So have Logan's mother and sister, by long-distance. And I just don't know what I'd do without you, David."



"Throw me the bouquet, and we're even."



"Speaking of your stepmama," Roz put in, "I spoke with Jolene today."



"You did?"



"If there's anyone who knows everybody in Shelby County, it's Jolene Dooley. And I recalled she had a friend who runs a nice little gallery and gift shop downtown. Jane's got a job interview next Wednesday afternoon."



"You work fast," Mitch said.



"That girl needed a break. Now we'll see what she does with it. Jolene also has a friend whose sister works at a rental management company. Turns out there's a one-bedroom apartment downtown, about six blocks from that gallery. Its current tenants are moving out in a couple weeks, and the lease fell through on the people who were going to move in."



"I should've said you work miracles."



"Oh, I just put in the request for them."



"Do you think she'll move on it?" Logan wondered. "Move out, and bring you the diaries? The way you described her, she didn't seem to have much spine."



"Some of us don't. And some of us find out we've got one, but misplaced it. She's young, and she doesn't have what you'd call a lot of spirit. And though I made it clear there were no strings, I'm fairly sure she'll feel obligated if she takes this job, and this apartment. Now whether she has the gumption to act on that obligation's another matter."



"If she doesn't?" Mitch asked.



"Then I expect Cousin Rissy and I are due for a come-to-Jesus talk. I have a few cards up my sleeve, and I'll play them if I have to."



David's eyes brightened as he leaned closer. "Dirt? Such as?"



"Family peccadilloes that she wouldn't care to have come to light, and that I'll assure her I will light up like Christmas unless she returns what belongs to Harper House." She tapped David on the chin. "But for now, they're my little secrets."



"Spoilsport."



She turned, as did everyone else, when Hayley shouted. Her face glowing, she rushed breathlessly to the table. "She walked. She walked right to Harper. Three steps!"



Nothing would do but that Lily demonstrate her new skill again. But she just buckled at the knees each time Hayley tried to nudge her into a step. And preferred crawling on the patio or trying to climb up Roz's chair.



"I swear she walked. You can ask Harper."



"I believe you." Roz hauled Lily up to nuzzle. "Teasing your mama, aren't you?" She pushed back, rose with Lily in her arms, then picked up a cracker, held it out to Hayley. "You might as well start early using one of the primary parenting tools. Bribery. Scoot down there, hold that cracker out."



As Hayley obeyed, Roz crouched, steadied Lily on her feet. "Harper held out a flower."



"That boy knows how to charm the girls. Go on, baby. Go get it."



To enthusiastic applause, Lily performed. Then she plopped down on her butt and ate the cracker.



When the others went inside, Roz sat with Mitch in the twilight.



"Would you be insulted if I said you make a beautiful honorary grandmother."



"The termgrandmother is a bit of a jolt yet, but since I couldn't love that baby more if she were my own blood, no. She took her first steps to my boy. To Harper. It's hard for me not to focus on that, on the significance of it."



"She's not seeing anyone? Hayley?"



"Her life's centered on Lily right now. But she's young and full of passion. There'll be someone sooner or later. As for Harper, I can't keep up with the females who come and go. Still, he doesn't bring them home to meet me. There's significance in that, too."



"Well, speaking of sons, mine's seeing a new young lady. A local girl. And it happens her parents are members of your club. He'll be at the dinner dance tomorrow night. I'm looking forward to introducing you."



"I'd love to meet him. Who's the girl?"



"Her name's Shelby - after the county, I'm guessing. Shelby Forrester."



"It's a small and crowded world. Yes, I know Jan and Quill, Shelby's parents. I know her, too - and she's a lovely girl. Her parents and I are currently on . . . tenuous terms. Quill is doing business of some sort with Bryce, and it makes things a bit sticky between us. But that won't touch on anyone else."



"No one does complex connections and tenuous terms like the South."



"I suppose not, and I only mention it so that if you sense any awkwardness, you'll know why. But I'm prepared to be excruciatingly polite, so you needn't worry."



"I'm not, whether you decide to be polite or otherwise. Why don't we take a walk? That way I can hold your hand and find some shadowy and fragrant corner of the garden where I can kiss you."



"Sounds like a fine idea."



"You're doing a fine thing for Jane Paulson."



"Maybe, but my motivations are murky."



He laughed and brought her hand to his lips. "If your motivations were always pure, I doubt I'd find you as fascinating as I do."



"I do love astute flattery. Let's walk around to the stables. I'll show you Spot's marker."



"I'd like to see it. It might be a good place for me to broach another theory. One I've been chewing on for a while now."



As they walked down the path, she gauged the progress of her flowers and kept out an eagle eye for weeds.



"I'd as soon you spit it out as chew on it."



"I'm not entirely sure how you're going to feel about this one. I'm looking at dates, at events, at key moments and people, attempting to draw lines from those dates, events, moments, and people to Amelia."



"Mmm-hmm. I've always enjoyed having these stables here, leaving them be. As a kind of ruin."



Head cocked, hands fisted on hips now, she studied the crumbling stones, the weather-scarred wood. "I suppose I could have them restored. Maybe I will if I get those grandchildren and they develop an interest in horses. None of my boys did, particularly. It's girls, I think, who go through that equine adoration period."



She studied the building in the half light, the sagging roof and faded trim - and the vines, the climbers, the ornamental grasses she'd planted around it to give it a wild look.



"It looks like something you'd see in a movie, or more likely, in a storybook."



"That's what I like about it. My daddy's the one who let it go, or never did anything to preserve the building. I remember him talking about having it razed, but my grandmother asked him not to. She said it was part of the place, and she liked the look of it. The grave's around the back," she said. "I'm sorry, Mitch, I interrupted. Mind's wandering. Tell me your theory."



"I don't know how you're going to feel about it."



"Poison sumac," she said, nudging him away before he brushed up against a vine. "I'll have to get out here and get rid of that. Here we are." She crouched down, and with her ungloved hands plucked at weeds, brushed at dirt until she revealed the marker with the hand-chipped name in the stone.



"Sweet, isn't it, that he'd have buried his old dog here, carved that stone for him. I think he must've been a sweet man. My grandmother wouldn't have loved him as much as she did if he hadn't been."



"And she did," Mitch agreed. "You can see the way she loved him in the pictures of them together."



"He looks sort of cool in most of the photographs we have of him. But he wasn't cool. I asked my grandmother once, and she said he hated having his picture taken. He was shy. Odd thinking of that, of my grandfather as a shy man who loved his dog."



"She was more outgoing?" Mitch prompted.



"Oh, much. She liked to socialize, nearly as much as she liked to garden. She loved hosting fancy lunches and teas, especially. She dressed up for them - hat, gloves, floaty dresses."



"I've seen pictures. She was elegant."



"Yet she could hitch on old trousers and dig in the dirt for hours."



"Like someone else we know." He skimmed a hand over her hair. "Your grandfather was born several years after the youngest of his sisters."



"Hmm. There were other pregnancies, I think. My grandmother had two miscarriages herself, and I recall, vaguely, her mentioning that her mother-in-law had suffered the same thing. Maybe a stillbirth as well."



"And then a son, born at the same time we've theorized Amelia lived - and died. Amelia, who haunts the house, but who we can't verify lived there - certainly not as a relation. Who sings to children, gives every appearance of being devoted to children - and distrusting, even despising men."



She cocked her head. Twilight was moving very quickly to dark, and with dark came a chill. "Yes, and?"



"What if the child that was born in 1892 was her child. Her son, Roz. Amelia's son, not Beatrice Harper's."



"That's a very extreme theory, Mitchell."



"Is it? Maybe. It's only a theory, in any case, and partially based on somewhat wild speculation. But it wouldn't be unprecedented."



"I would have heard. Surely there would have been some mention of it, some whisper passed along."



"How? Why? If the original players were careful to keep it quiet. The wealthy, the influential man craving a son - and paying for one. Hell, it still happens."



"But . . ." She pushed to her feet. "How could they hide that kind of deception? You're not talking about some legal adoption."



"No, I'm not. Just run with me on this a minute. What if Reginald hired a young woman, likely one of some breeding, some intelligence, who'd found herself in trouble. He pays the bills, gives her a safe haven, takes the child off her hands if it's a boy."



"And if it's a girl, he's wasted his time and money?"



"A gamble. Another angle might be he impregnated her himself."



"And his wife just accepted his bastard as her own, as the heir?"



"He held the purse strings, didn't he?"



She stood very still, rubbing her arms. "That's a very cold theory."



"It is. Maybe he was in love with Amelia, planned to divorce his wife, marry her. She might have died in childbirth. Or it could've been a straight business deal - or something else. But if that child, if Reginald Harper Jr. was Amelia's son, it explains some things."



"Such as?"



"She's never hurt you or anyone of your blood. Couldn't that be because you're her blood? Her descendant? Her great-grandchild?"



She paced away from the little grave. "Then why is she in the house, on the property? Are you theorizing she birthed that baby here? In Harper House?"



"Possibly. Or that she visited here, spent time here. Maybe as the child's nurse, that's not unprecedented, either. That she died here, one way or the other."



"One way or - "



The grave was not small, and it had no marker. It gaped open dark and deep.



She stood over it, stood over that wide mouth in the earth. She looked down at death. The body in the tattered and filthy gown, the flesh that was melting away from bone. The smell of decay swarmed over her like fat, humming bees, stinging her eyes, her throat, her belly.



The ground was damp and slippery where she stood. Over it a thin, fetid fog crawled, smearing the black dirt, the wet grass with dirty tongues of gray.



She plunged the shovel through that fog, into the earth and grass, filled the blade. Then threw the earth into the grave.



The eyes of the dead opened, gleaming with madness and malice. Lifting a hand, bones piercing horribly through rotted flesh, it began to climb out of the earth.



Roz jolted, and slapped at the hands holding her.



"Easy, easy. Just breathe. Nice and slow."



"What happened?" She pushed at Mitch's hand again when she realized she was on the ground, cradled in his lap.



"You fainted."



"I certainly did not. I've never fainted in my life."



"Consider this your first. You went sheet white, your eyes rolled straight back in your head. I grabbed you when you started to go down. You were only out about a minute." Trembling a bit himself, he lowered his brow to hers. "Longest minute of my life, so far."



He took a long breath, then another. "If you're okay, would you mind if I just sat here a minute until I settle down?"



"Well, that's the damnedest thing."



"I didn't mean to upset you. We'll just table the theories. Let's get you inside."



"You don't think I passed out because you had me thinking my grandfather might've been born on the wrong side of the blanket? Christ. What do you take me for? I'm not some silly, spineless woman who questions her own identity because of the actions of her ancestors. I know who the hell I am."



Her color was back now, and those long-lidded eyes were ripe with irritation.



"Then you want to tell me why . . ." Now he went pale as polished glass. "God, Roz, are you pregnant?"



"Get a hold of yourself. A few minutes ago you're calling me a grandmother, now you're going into shock thinking I could be pregnant. I'm not going to present either one of us with a midlife baby, so relax. I had some sort of spell, I suppose."



"Care to elaborate?"



"One second we were talking, and the next I was standing - I don't know where, but I was standing over an open grave. She was in it. Amelia, and she was not looking her best."



She couldn't stop the shudder, and let her head rest against him. That good, strong shoulder. "More than dead, decomposing. I could see it, smell it. I suppose that's what took me down. It was, to put it mildly, very unpleasant. I was burying her, I think. Then she opened her eyes, started to climb out."



"If it's any consolation, if that had happened to me, I'd have fainted, too."



"I don't know if it was here, I mean this particular spot. It didn't seem like it, but I can't be sure. I've walked by here countless times. I planted that pachysandra, those sweet olives, and I never felt anything strange before."



"To risk another theory, you were never this close to finding out who she was before."



"I guess not. We'll have to dig." She pushed to her feet. "We'll have to dig and see if she's here."



THEY SET UPlights and dug beyond midnight. The men, and Roz, with Stella and Hayley taking turns between shovels and remaining inside to mind the sleeping children.



They found nothing but the bones of a beloved dog.



"COULD BE METAPHORICAL."



Roz looked up at Harper as they walked the woods toward home the next day. She knew very well why he was with her, his arm slung casually around her shoulder, because Mitch had told him she'd fainted.



She'd barely had five minutes to herself since it happened. That was going to change, she thought, but she'd give him and the rest of her honorary family a day before she shooed them back.



"What could be metaphorical?"



"That, you know, vision thing you had. Standing over her grave, shoveling dirt on her." He winced. "I don't mean to wig you out."



"You're not. Who used to have nightmares after watching that Saturday morning show? What was it,Land of the Lost ?"



"Jeez. The Sleestak." He shuddered, and only part of the movement was mocking. "I still get nightmares. But anyway, what I'm saying is you never stood over her grave, never buried her. She died a long time ago. But if we do the metaphor thing, we could say how you're trying to open her grave - but by missing something, not finding something, whatever, you're burying her."



"So, it's all in my mind."



"Maybe she's planting it there. I don't know, Mama."



She considered a moment. "Mitch has a theory. We were discussing it before I keeled over."



She told him, sliding her arm around his waist as she did. Together, they stopped at the edge of the woods, studying the house.



"Doesn't seem so far-fetched, all things considered," Harper said. "It always seemed like she was one of us."



"Seems to me it only opens up another box of questions, and doesn't really get us any closer to finding out who she was. But I know one thing. I want those diaries more than ever. If Jane doesn't come through, I'm going to take on Clarise."



"Want me to play ref?"



"I might just. If Amelia is part of the family, she deserves her due. That said, I don't feel the same about Clarise. She's always wanted more than her due, in my opinion. I don't know what it makes me to feel more sympathy for a dead woman, who may or may not be some blood kin, than I do for a live one who unquestionably is blood kin."



"She smacked me once."



Instantly Roz stiffened. "She did what?"



"Gave me a good swat one day, when she was visiting, and she caught me climbing on the kitchen counter going after the cookie jar. I was about six, I think. Gave me a swat, pulled me off and told me I was a greedy, disrespectful little brat."



"Why didn't you tell me? She had no right to touch you. I'd've skinned her for it."



"Then skinned me," he pointed out. "As you'd told me never to climb on the counter, and not to take any cookies without asking first. So I took my lumps and slunk off."



"Anybody was going to give you lumps it was going to be me. Nobody lays hands on my children, and in my court there is no statute of limitations on the crime. That bitch."



"There now." He gave her shoulders a squeeze. "Don't you feel better?"



"I believe I'll make her very sorry before I'm done." She walked with him toward the house. "You knew better than to put your hand in that cookie jar, Harper Jonathan Ashby."



"Yes'm."



She gave him a light elbow jab. "And don't you smirk at me."



"I wasn't, I was just thinking there are probably cookies in it now."



"I imagine so."



"Cookies and milk sound pretty good."



"I guess they do. Let's go harass David until we get some. But we have to do it now. I've got a date to get ready for."



ROZ KNEW THEstyles and colors that not only flattered her, but suited her. She'd chosen the vintage Dior for its clean, flowing lines, and its pretty spun-gold color. The straight bodice, thin straps and rear drape left her back and shoulders bare.



But that back and those arms and shoulders were toned. She saw to it. So she saw no reason not to show them off. She wore her grandmother's diamonds - the drop earrings and tiered necklace that had come to her.



And knowing she'd regret it, slipped on the high, thin-heeled sandals that showcased the toenails she'd painted the same delicate gold as the dress.



She turned, to check the rear view in the mirror, and called out an absent "come in" at the knock on her door.



"Roz, I just wanted to . . ." Stella stopped dead. "Holy Mother Mary. You look spectacular."



With a nod in the mirror, Roz turned again. "I really do. Sometimes you just want to knock them on their asses, know what I mean? I got an urge to do that tonight."



"Just - just stay there." She rushed out again, and Roz heard her calling for Hayley.



Amused, she picked up her purse - what had possessed her to pay so much for such a silly little thing - and began to slip what she considered necessary for the evening out inside it.



"You've got to get a load of this," Stella was saying, then pulled Hayley into the room.



Hayley blinked, then narrowed her eyes. "You've got to do a spin. Give us a little twirl."



Willing to oblige, Roz turned a circle, and Hayley crossed her arms over her chest and bowed her head.



"We are not worthy. Are those real diamonds? I know it's tacky to ask, but I can't help it. They're so . . . sparkly."



"They were my grandmother's, and particularly special to me. Which reminds me. I have something I thought you might like to wear for your wedding, Stella. It would cover the bases of something old, borrowed, and blue."



She'd already taken the box out of her safe, and now handed it to Stella.



"Oh, God."



"John gave them to me for my twenty-first birthday." She smiled down at the sapphire earrings. "I thought they might suit the dress you'd picked out, but if they don't I won't be offended."



"There's nothing they wouldn't suit." Gently Stella lifted one of the heart-shaped sapphire drops from the box. "They're exquisite, and more, I'm so . . ."



She broke off, waving a hand in front of her face as she sat on the side of the bed. "Sorry. I'm just so . . . that you'd lend them to me."



"If I had a sister, I'd like to think she'd enjoy wearing something of mine on her wedding day."



"I'm so touched, so honored. So . . . I'm going to have to sit here and cry for a couple minutes."



"That's all right, you go ahead."



"You know, the something old in that tradition's a symbol of the bride's link to her family." Hayley sniffed.



Roz patted her cheek. "Trust you to know. Y'all can sit here and have a nice cry together."



"What? Where are you going?" Hayley demanded.



"Downstairs. Mitch should be here shortly."



"But you can't." Biting her lip, and obviously torn between sitting with Stella or preventing a catastrophe, she waved her arms like a woman trying to stop a train. "You have to wait till he gets here, then you have to glide down the steps. That staircase is made for a woman to glide down. You've gotta make an entrance."



"No, I don't - and you sound like my mother, who made me do just that for my escort - thank God it was John so we could laugh about it after - at the debut she forced me into. Believe me, the world will not end if I greet him at the door."



She snapped her purse closed, took one last glance in the mirror. "Plus, there's another tradition I have to follow. If I don't go down, get David's approval on my dress, I'll hurt his feelings. There are tissues in the drawer beside the bed," she called out.



She'd barely finished modeling for David and getting his approval when Mitch was at the door.



Opening it, she had the pleasure of seeing his eyes widen and hearing the low whistle of his breath. "Just how did I get this lucky?" he asked her.



She laughed, held out her wrap. "The way you look in that tux, Doctor, you may get considerably luckier before the night's over."

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