Black Rose


Chapter Six




ROZ PUT MEN, family ghosts, and messages written in steam out of her mind. Her sons were home.



The house was full of them, their voices, their energy, their debris. Once, the piles of shoes, the hats, thethings they'd leave scattered around had driven her slightly crazy. Now she loved seeing the evidence of them. Once, she'd longed for an ordered, quiet house, and now reveled in the noise and confusion.



They'd be gone soon enough, back to the lives they were building. So she would treasure every minute of the two days she had her family under one roof again.



And wasn't it fun to see her sons with Stella's boys, or watch Harper lift a fussy Lily and cuddle her in his arms? It made up for finding herself at the head of this mixed generational train.



"I want to thank you for letting Logan stay tonight." Stella settled onto the sofa beside Roz.



"It's Christmas Eve. We generally have room at the inn."



"You know what I mean, andI know it's probably fussy and anal and silly, but I really want our first Christmas in his - our - house to be when we're official."



"I think it's sweet and sentimental, and selfishly I'm glad everyone's here tonight." She watched Hayley scoop Lily up as the baby made a crawling beeline for the tree. "Glad to have children in the house tonight. Austin!" she called out as her middle son began to juggle three apples he'd plucked out of a bowl. "Not in the parlor."



"That tune's so familiar, I can add the music." A tall, narrow-hipped young man with his father's wavy blond hair, he winked at Gavin while giving the apples one more rotation. "Not in the parlor, Austin, not in the parlor," he sang, making Stella's sons roll with laughter before he tossed them each an apple, and took a bite out of the third.



"Here, Mama, have some wine." Her youngest, Mason, sat on the arm of the sofa and handed her a glass. There was a wicked twinkle in his blue eyes that warned Roz trouble was coming. "Austin, you know the parlor is sacred ground. You don't want to be juggling in here. Especially something like, say, shoes."



"You can juggle shoes!" Awestruck, Luke goggled at Austin.



"I can juggle anything. I have amazing talent and dexterity."



"But sadly, I wasn't able to talk him into running off and joining the circus when he was eight." Harper took Lily when she leaned away from Hayley and held out her chubby arms to him.



"Can you juggle mine?" Luke asked.



"Hand one over."



"Austin." Resigned, Roz sighed and sipped her wine. "You break anything, you're grounded."



"Why, another familiar tune. Let's see, I need a challenge. Logan, looks to me like that shoe's big enough to house a family of four. Let's have it."



"I give you my shoe, you get grounded, I get fired. Call me a coward, but I'll soon have two growing boys to feed." He reached down to poke Gavin in the ribs. "And they eat like pigs."



"Oink." Showing off, Gavin grabbed a cookie from a tray and stuffed it whole in his mouth. "Oink."



"Oh, go ahead, Logan." Roz waved a hand. "He won't be satisfied otherwise."



"Let's see, one more." His gaze scanned, landed on Hayley. "Look at those pretty, delicate feet. How about it, sweetheart?"



Hayley laughed. "They're about as delicate as banana boats." But she slipped her shoe off.



"Harper, move your grandmother's Baccarat there to safer ground," Roz ordered, "so your brother can show off."



"I prefer the termperform. "



"I recall a performance that cost Mama a lamp," Harper commented as he moved heirlooms. "And got all three of us - and you, too, David, if memory serves - KP duty."



"In my salad days," Austin claimed. After giving the trio of varied footwear a few testing tosses, he began to juggle. "As you can see, I've sharpened my skills since that regrettable incident."



"Fortunate to have a fallback career," Mason told him. "You can take that act down to Beale Street."



The circling shoes had Lily giggling and bouncing on Harper's hip. For herself, Roz just held her breath until Austin took his bow.



He tossed a shoe back to a delighted Luke. "Can you teach me?"



"Me, too!" Gavin insisted.



"She's going to say 'not in the parlor,' " Austin announced even as Roz opened her mouth. "We'll work in a lesson tomorrow - outside - keep us all safe from Mama's wrath."



"She's the boss of everybody," Luke told him solemnly.



"No flies on you. Since nobody's seen fit to throw money, I'll have to settle for a beer."



He strolled over to hand Logan his shoe, then walked to Hayley. "All right, Cinderella, let's see if this fits."



He made a production out of slipping it back on her foot, then grinned at Harper over Hayley's head. "Shoe fits." He took her hand, kissed it. "We'll just have to get ourselves married when I get back from the kitchen."



"That's what they all say." But she gave him a flirting sweep with her eyes.



"Why don't you get me a beer while you're at it?" Mason asked.



"If I'm taking orders, what can I get everyone?"



After a scatter of requests, he looked over at Harper again. "Why don't you give me a hand fetching the supplies?"



"Sure." He passed Lily back to Hayley, and followed his brother out of the room.



"Can't miss this," Mason whispered to his mother, then strolled out behind them.



"PRETTY THING,ISN 'Tshe, our cousin Hayley?" Austin commented.



"You've always had a keen knack for stating the obvious."



"Then I'll keep my streak going by saying I think she's soft on me."



"And an infallible way of misjudging women."



"Hold on," Mason told them. "I've got to find something to write on so I can keep score."



"She's got the prettiest mouth. Not that you'd notice, big brother, since it's not something growing out of a pot." He took out a beer, had a swig from the bottle even as Harper got out pilsners.



"And the only way you'd get your fat lips on hers is if she has a seizure and requires mouth-to-mouth."



"He shoots, he scores. By the way, I'm the doctor here," Mason reminded them. "She needs mouth-to-mouth, I'm first in line. We got any Fritos or anything around here?"



"Got ten bucks says different." In an old habit, Austin boosted himself up to sit on the counter. "Maybe you could babysit so I can see if our resident babe would like a little stroll around the gardens. Seeing as I haven't heard you call dibs."



"She's not the damn last piece of pie." With some heat, Harper grabbed the beer from his brother, took a long swallow. "What the hell's wrong with you talking about her that way? You ought to have a little more respect, and if you can't come up with it on you're own, you and I can take a little stroll outside so I can help you find it."



With a grin, Austin jabbed a finger at Mason. "Told ya. Can I call 'em or can I call 'em?"



"Yeah, he's hooked on her. What kind of kitchen is it that doesn't have any Fritos?"



"In the pantry, top shelf," Roz said from the doorway. "I'm surprised you'd think I'd forget your childish addiction to corn chips. Austin, have you finished messing with your brother's head for now?"



"I was really just getting started."



"You'll have to postpone that portion of your holiday entertainment." She glanced over, had to smile when she heard Mason's cheer as he located the bag of chips. "We have company, and it might be nice if we present the illusion that I raised three respectable and mature young men."



"That's pretty well shattered since he's already juggled," Harper grumbled.



"There's a point." She moved over to touch Harper's cheek, then Austin's before she turned to Mason. "You may not be respectable and mature, but by God, the three of you sure are handsome. I could've done worse. Now get those drinks together, Harper, and take them out to our guests. Austin, get your butt off my counter. This is a house, not the neighborhood bar. Mason, put those chips into a bowl, and stop dropping crumbs all over the floor."



"Yes'm," they said in unison, and made her laugh.



CHRISTMAS DAY WENTby in a blur. She tried to imprint specific moments on her mind - Mason's sheer delight in the antique medical bag she'd found him, Harper and Austin squaring off over a foosball table. There was Lily's predictable fascination with boxes and wrapping rather than toys, and Hayley's joy in showing off a new pair of earrings.



She loved seeing Logan sitting cross-legged on the floor, showing Stella's boys - his boys now - the child-sized tools inside the toolboxes he'd made them.



She wanted to slow the clock down - just for this day, just this one day - but it sped by, from dawn and the excitement of opening gifts, to the candlelight and the lavish meal David prepared and served on her best china.



Before she knew it, the house was quiet once more.



She wandered down to take a last look at the tree, to sit alone in the parlor with her coffee and her memories of the day, and all the Christmases before.



Surprised when she heard footsteps, she looked over and saw her sons.



"I thought you'd all gone over to Harper's."



"We were waiting for you to come down," Harper told her.



"Come down?"



"You always come down Christmas night, after everyone's gone to bed."



She lifted her eyebrows at Mason. "I have no secrets in this house."



"Plenty of them," he disagreed. "Just not this one."



Austin came over, took her coffee, and replaced it with a glass of champagne.



"What's all this?"



"Little family toast," he told her. "But that comes after this one last gift we've got for you."



"Another? I'm going to have to add a room on the house to hold everything I got this morning."



"This is special. You've already got a place for it. Or did at one time."



"Well, don't keep me in suspense. What have y'all cooked up?"



Harper stepped back into the hall and brought in a large box wrapped in gold foil. He set it at her feet. "Why don't you open it and see?"



Curious, she set her glass aside and began to work on the wrap. "Don't tell Stella I'm tearing this off, she'd be horrified. Myself, I'm amazed the three of you got together and agreed on something, much less kept it quiet until tonight. Mason always blabs."



"Hey, I can keep a secret when I have to. You don't know about the time Austin took your car and - "



"Shut up." Austin punched his brother's shoulder. "There's no statute of limitations on that sort of crime." He smiled sweetly at Roz's narrowed look. "What you don't know, Mama, can't hurt this idiot."



"I suppose." But she wondered on it as she dug through the packing. And her heart simply stuttered as she drew out the antique dressing mirror.



"It was the closest we could come to the one we broke. Pattern's nearly the same, and the shape," Harper said.



"Queen Anne," Austin added, "circa 1700, with that gold and green lacquer on the slanted drawer. At least, it's the best our combined memories could match the one Mason broke."



"Hey! It was Harper's idea to use it as a treasure chest. It's not my fault I dropped it out of the damn tree. I was the baby."



"Oh, God. Oh, God, I was so mad, so mad, I nearly skinned y'all alive."



"We have painful recollection of that," Austin assured her.



"It was from your daddy's family." Voice thick, throat aching, she traced her fingers over the lacquered wood. "He gave it to me on our wedding day."



"We should've been skinned." Harper sat down beside her, rubbed her arm. "We know it's not the same, but - "



"No, no, no." Swamped with emotion, she turned her face to press it against his arm for a moment. "It's better. That you'd remember this, think of this. Do this."



"It made you cry," Mason murmured, and bent to rub his cheek over her hair. "It's the first time I remember seeing you cry. None of us ever forgot it, Mama."



She was struggling not to cry now as she embraced each one of her sons. "It's the most beautiful gift I've ever been given, and I'll treasure it more than anything I have. Every time I look at it, I'll think of the way you were then, the way you are now. I'm so proud of my boys. I always have been. Even when I wanted to skin you."



Austin picked up her glass, handed it to her, then passed around the other three flutes. "Harper gets the honors, as he's the oldest. But I want it on record that I thought it up."



"We all thought it up," Mason objected.



"I thought most of it up. Go on, Harper."



"I will, if you'll shut up for five seconds." He lifted his glass. "To our mama, for everything she's been to us, everything she's done for us, every single day."



"Oh. That's done it." The tears welled into her throat, spilled out of her eyes. "That's done it for sure."



"Go ahead and cry." Mason leaned over to kiss her damp cheek. "Makes a nice circle."



GETTING BACK TObusiness as usual helped fill the little hole in her heart from kissing two of her sons goodbye.



It would be a slow week - the holiday week was, routinely - so she took a page out of Stella's book and shouldered in to organizing. She cleaned tools, scrubbed down worktables, helped with inventory, and finally settled on the style of potting-soil bag, and the design.



With some time to spare, she worked with Hayley to pour a fresh supply of concrete planters and troughs.



"I can't believe Christmas is over." Squatting, Hayley turned the mold as Roz poured. "All that anticipation and prep, and it's over in a snap. Last year, my first after my daddy died? Well, it was just awful, and the holidays dragged and dragged."



"Grief tends to spin time out, and joy contracts it. I don't know why that is."



"I remember just wanting it all to be over - so I wouldn't keep hearing "Jingle Bells" every time I went to work, you know? Being pregnant, and feeling alone, the house up for sale. I spent most of Christmas packing things up, figuring out what I was going to sell so I could leave Little Rock."



She sat back on her heels to sigh, happily. "And here, just one year later, and everything was so bright and happy. I know Lily didn't know what was going on, but it was so much fun to watch her play with her toys, or mostly the boxes."



"Nothing like a cardboard box to keep a baby entertained. It was special for me, for all of us, to have her, to be able to share that first Christmas with her."



With the mold full, Hayley tidied the edges with a trowel. "I know you love her, but, Roz, I just don't feel right about you staying home New Year's Eve to sit with her while I go out to a party."



"I prefer staying home New Year's Eve. Lily gives me the perfect excuse. And I'm looking forward to having her to myself."



"You must've been invited to half a dozen parties."



"More." Roz straightened, pressed the small of her back. "I'm not interested. You go on out with David and celebrate with other young people. Wear your new earrings and dance. Lily and I will be just fine seeing the new year in together."



"David said he never could talk you into going to this party, even though it's been a tradition for years now." She picked up a bottle of water, drank casually. "He said Harper would probably drop by."



"I imagine so. They have a number of mutual friends." Amused, she patted Hayley's shoulder. "Let's get this next one done, then call it a day."



She was tired when she got home, but in that satisfied way of knowing she'd crossed several chores off her list. When she noticed Mitch's car in her drive, she was surprised to find herself considering going up to change before seeking him out in the library.



Which was, she reminded herself, both a waste of time and hardly her style. So she was wearing her work clothes when she walked into the library.



"Have everything you need?"



He looked up from the piles of books and papers on the library table. Stared at her through the lenses of his horn-rim reading glasses. "Huh?"



"I just got in. I thought I'd see if there was anything else you need."



"A couple dozen years to organize all of this, a new pair of eyes . . ." He lifted the pot on the desk with him. "More coffee."



"I can help with the last at least." She crossed over, mounted the steps to the second level.



"No, that's all right. My blood level's probably ninety percent caffeine at this point. What time is it?"



She noted the watch on his wrist, then looked at her own. "Ten after five."



"A.M. or P.M.?"



"Been at it that long?"



"Long enough to lose track, as usual." He rubbed the back of one shoulder, circled his neck. "You have some fascinating relatives, Rosalind. I've gathered up enough newspaper clippings on the Harpers, going back to the mid-nineteenth century so far, to fill a banker's box. Did you know, for instance, you have an ancestor who rode for the Pony Express in 1860, and in the 1880s traveled with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show?"



"My great-great-uncle Jeremiah, who'd run off as a boy, it seems, to ride for the Pony Express. Fought Indians, scouted for the Army, took both a Comanche wife and, apparently, another in Kansas City - at more or less the same time. He was a trick rider in the Wild West Show, and was considered a black sheep by the stuffier members of the clan in his day."



"How about Lucybelle?"



"Ah . . ."



"Gotcha. Married Daniel C. Harper, 1858, left him two years later." The chair creaked as he leaned back. "She pops up again in San Francisco, in 1862, where she opened her own saloon and bawdy house."



"That one slipped by me."



"Well, Daniel C. claimed that he sent her to a clinic in New York, for her health, and that she died there of a wasting disease. Wishful thinking on his part, I assume. But with a little work and magic, I found our Lucybelle entertaining the rough-and-ready crowd in California, where she lived in apparent good health for another twenty-three years."



"You really love this stuff."



"I really do. Imagine Jeremiah, age fifteen, galloping over the plains to deliver the mail. Young, gutsy, skinny. They advertised for skinny boys so they didn't weigh down the horses."



"Really." She eased a hip on the corner of his desk.



"Bent over his mount, riding hell-for-leather, outrunning war parties, covered with dirt and sweat, or half frozen from the cold."



"And from your tone, you'd say having the time of his life."



"Had to be something, didn't it? Then there's Lucybelle, former Memphis society wife, in a red dress with a derringer in her garter - "



"Aren't you the romantic one."



"Had to have a derringer in her garter while she's manning the bar or bilking miners at cards night after night."



"I wonder if their paths ever crossed."



"There you go," he said, pleased. "That's how you get caught up in all this. It's possible, you know. Jeremiah might've swung through the doors of that saloon, had a whiskey at the bar."



"And enjoyed the other servings on the menu, all while the more staid of the family fanned themselves on the veranda and complained about the war."



"There's a lot of staid, a lot of black sheep here. There was money and there was prestige."



He pushed some papers around, came up with a copy of another clipping. "And considerable charm."



She studied the photo of herself, on her engagement, a fresh and vibrant seventeen.



"I wasn't yet out of high school. Green as grass and mule stubborn. Nobody could talk me out of marrying John Ashby the June after this picture was taken. God, don't I look ready for anything?"



"I've got clippings of your parents in here. You don't look like either of them."



"No. I was always told I resembled my grandfather Harper. He died when I was a child, but from the pictures I've seen, I favor him."



"Yeah, I've come across a few, and you do. Reginald Edward Harper, Jr, born . . . 1892, youngest child and only son of Reginald and Beatrice Harper." He read his notes. "Married, ah . . ."



"Elizabeth McKinnon. I remember her very well. It was she who gave me her love of gardening, and taught me about plants. My father claimed I was her favorite because I looked like my grandfather. Why don't I get you some tea, something herbal, to offset the coffee?"



"No, that's okay. I can't stay. I've got a date."



"Then I'll let you go."



"With my son," he added. "Pizza and ESPN. We try to fit one in every week."



"That's nice. For both of you."



"It is. Listen, I've got some other things to deal with and some legwork I'd like to get in. But I'll be back on Thursday afternoon, work through the evening, if that's all right with you."



"Thursday's New Year's Eve."



"Is it?" As if baffled, he looked down at his watch. "My days get turned around on me during holidays. I suppose you're having people over."



"Actually, no."



"Then, if you're going out, maybe you wouldn't mind if I worked."



"I'm not going out. I'm going to take care of the baby, Hayley's Lily. I'm scooting her out to a party, and Stella and her boys are going to have a little family party of their own at Logan's house."



"If you weren't asked to a dozen parties, and didn't have twice that many men after you for a New Year's Eve date, I'll eat those newspaper clippings."



"Your numbers might be somewhat exaggerated, but the point is, I declined the parties, and the dates. I like staying home."



"Am I going to be in your way if I work in here?"



She angled her head. "I imagine you were asked to your share of parties, and that there were a number of women eager to have you for their date."



"I stay in on New Year's. A tradition of mine."



"Then you won't be in my way. If the baby's not restless, we can take part of the evening to start on that interview."



"Perfect."



"All right, then. I've been busy," she said after a moment. "The house full over Christmas, all my sons home. And those are only part of the reason I haven't brought this up before."



"Brought what up?"



"A couple of weeks ago, Amelia left me a message."



"A couple ofweeks ago?"



"I said I'd been busy." Irritation edged into her voice. "And besides that, I didn't want to think about it through the holidays. I don't see my boys very often, and there were a lot of things I wanted to get done before they got here."



He said nothing, simply dug out his tape recorder, pushed it closer to her, switched it on. "Tell me."



Irritation deepened, digging a line between those dark, expressive eyebrows. "She said:Men lie. "



"That's it?"



"Yes, that's it. She wrote it on a mirror."



"What mirror? Did you take a picture of it?"



"No, I didn't take a picture." And she could, privately, kick herself for that later. "I don't know what difference it makes what mirror. The bathroom mirror. I'd just gotten out of the shower. A hot one. The mirror was steamy, and the message was written on it through the steam."



"Written or printed?"



"Ah, printed, with an exclamation point at the end. Like this." She picked up one of his pens, demonstrated. "Since it wasn't threatening or earth-shattering information, I figured it could wait."



"Next time don't - figure it can wait. What had you been doing before you . . ." Don't think about her naked in the shower, he ordered himself. "Before you went up to shower?"



"As a matter of fact, I'd been out in the garden talking to you."



"To me."



"Yes, that day you came by and I was mulching up branches."



"Right after your holiday party," he said, making notes. "I asked you out to dinner."



"You mentioned something about - "



"No, no, I asked you out socially." In his excitement, he came around the table, sat on it so they were closer to eye level. "Next thing you know, she's telling you men lie. Fascinating. She was warning you away from me."



"Since I'm not heading in your direction, there's hardly any reason to warn me away."



"It doesn't seem to bother her that I'm working here." He took off his glasses, tossed them on the table. "I've been waiting, actually hoping for some sort of sighting or confrontation, something. But she hasn't bothered about me, so far. Then I make a personal overture, and she leaves you a message. She ever leave you one before?"



"No."



"Hmm." But he caught something flicker over her face. "What? You thought of something."



"Just that it might be a little odd. I saw her recently right after I'd taken a long, hot bath. Shower, bath. Strange."



Don't think of her naked in the tub. "What had you been doing before the bath?"



"Nothing. Some work, that's all."



"All right. What were you thinking while you were in the tub?"



"I don't see what that has to do with anything. It was the night that I did that insane bout of Christmas shopping. I was relaxing."



"You'd been with me that day, too."



"Your ego looks a little heavy, Mitch. Need any help with it?"



"Facts are facts. Anyway, she might have been interested, or upset, by what you were thinking. If she could get into Stella's dreams," he said when she started to brush that aside, "why couldn't she get into your waking thoughts?"



"I don't like that idea. I don't like it at all."



"Neither would I, but it's something to consider. I'm looking at this project from two ends, Roz. From what's happening now, and why, to what happened then, and why. Who and why and what. It's all of a piece. And that's the job you hired me to do. You have to let me know when something happens. And not a couple weeks after the fact."



"All right. Next time she wakes me up at three in the morning, I'll give you a call."



He smiled. "Don't like taking orders, do you? Much too used to giving them. That's all right. I can't blame you, so why don't I just ask, politely, if I could take a look at your bathroom."



"Not only does that seem downright silly at this point, but aren't you supposed to be meeting your son?"



"Josh? Why? Oh, hell, I forgot. I've got to go." He glanced back at the table. "I'm going to just leave this - do me a favor and don't tidy it up."



"I'm not obsessed with tidy."



"Thank God." He grabbed his jacket, remembered his reading glasses. "I'll be back Thursday. Let me know if anything happens before then."



He hurried toward the door, then stopped and turned. "Rosalind, I have to say, you were a lovely bud at seventeen, but the full bloom? It's spectacular."



She gave a half laugh and leaned back on the table herself when she was alone. Idly she studied her ancient boots, then her baggy work pants, currently smeared with dirt and streaks of drying concrete. She figured the flannel shirt she was wearing over a ragged tee was old enough to have a driver's license.



Men lie, she thought, but occasionally, it was nice to hear.

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