Black Rose


Chapter Sixteen






UNDER THE HUMMINGchaos of spring season was a kind of simmering stress for the grower, especially if she happened to be the owner as well. Had she prepared enough flats, was she offering the right types and numbers of perennials?



Would the blooms be big enough, showy enough to attract the customers? Were the plants strong enough, healthy enough to maintain the reputation she'd built for quality?



Had they created enough baskets, pots, planters - or too many?



What about the shrubs and trees? Would the sidelines compliment the plants or detract from those sales?



Were the mulch colorants she'd decided to carry a mistake, or would her customer base enjoy the variety?



She left a great deal of this in Stella's hands; that's why she'd hired a manager. Roz wanted to compartmentalize many of the details - in someone else's compartment. But In the Garden was still her baby, and she experienced all the pride and worry a mother might over any growing child.



She could enjoy the crowds and confusion, the customers wheeling their wagons or flatbeds around the tables, over gravel and concrete to select just the right plants for their gardens or patio pots. She could and did enjoy consulting and recommending, and used that to balance out the little pang she experienced at the start of high season when she watched the plants she'd nurtured ride off to new homes.



At this time of year she often lectured herself about being sentimental over what she'd grown. But they weren't, and never could be, merely products to her. The weeks, months, often years spent nurturing specimens formed a connection for her that was very personal.



For the first few days of every spring season, she mourned the parting. Then she got down to business.



She was in the propagation house, taking a break from those crowds and calculating which plants to move into the retail area next when Cissy burst in.



"Roz, I'm desperate."



Roz pursed her lips. The usually meticulously groomed Cissy had more than one highlighted hair out of place, and a panicked gleam in her eyes. "I can see that. Your hairdresser retire? Your masseuse run off with a musician?"



"Oh, don't joke. I'm serious." She hustled down the tables to where Roz worked. "My in-laws are coming to visit."



"Oh."



"Just dropped that bomb on me this morning. And they're coming in two days. Ihate when people just assume they're welcome."



"They are family."



"Which only makes it worse, if you ask me. You know she picks on me. She's picked on me for twenty-six years. If they hadn't moved to Tampa, I'd be a crazy woman by now, or in jail for murder. I need your help, Roz."



"I'm not going to kill your mother-in-law for you, Cissy. There are limits to friendship."



"I bet you could." Eyes narrowed, she took a long and calculating look around. "I bet there are all sorts of interesting poisons around here I could slip into her martini, and end this personal hell. I'll just hold that one in reserve. You know what she said to me?"



"No, but I guess I'm going to hear it."



"She said she supposed I hadn't replaced the carpet in the dining room yet, and how she'd just love to go out while she's here and find just the right thing. Not to worry about the time it took her, she had plenty now that she and Don have retired. And how I'd find that out for myself soon, since I'm reaching that age. I'm reachingthat age . Can you imagine?"



"Seeing as you and I are about the same age, I might find some poison around here."



"Oh, and that's not the half of it. I'd be here all day if I got started, and I can't because I'm under the gun. She started snooting at me about the gardens and the lawn, and how she wondered I didn't do more than I did with mine, why I didn't take more pride in the homeher son has provided me with."



"You have a lovely yard." Not that it reached its potential, but it was, in Roz's opinion, well kept and pretty enough.



"She just pushed my buttons - like she always does - and I just blurted out how I'd been slaving away, and put in new beds and whatnot. I just blathered, Roz, and now, unless you help me out, she's going to see I was lying through my teeth."



"If you want Logan, we can ask Stella what his schedule's like, but - "



"I hit her on the way back. He's booked - solid, she says - for the next two weeks." She clasped her hands together, as if in prayer. "I'm begging you, Roz. Begging you. Pull him off something and give him to me. Just two days."



"I can't yank him off another job - but wait," she said when tears gathered in Cissy's eyes. "We'll figure this out. Two days." Roz blew out a breath. "It's gonna cost you."



"I don't care. Money's the least of it. My life's at stake here. If you don't help me, I'll just have to fly down to Tampa on the sly and murder her in her sleep tonight."



"Then let's get started saving your life, and hers."



She had a vision in mind, and cut a swath through her own nursery as she built on it. Cissy didn't blink when Roz accumulated plants, shrubs, ornamental trees, pots, and planters.



"Harper, I need you to go to the house, bring my pickup on around. We're going to load this up, and I'm going to steal you for a few hours. Stella, you tell Logan to come on by here when he finishes for the day. He's going to be putting in some overtime. He can pick up what I've earmarked, and bring it to this address."



She scrawled Cissy's address on a scrap of paper. "You come with him. I can use your hands, and your eye."



"Do you really think you can get all this done in less than two days?" Stella asked.



"I will get it done in less than two days because that's what I've got."



SHE LOVED Achallenge. And there was nothing like digging in the dirt to take her mind off any worries.



She measured, marked, tilled, dumped peat moss, and raked.



"Normally I'd want to take more time to prep the soil. Starting a new bed's an important event."



Cissy chewed on her lip, twisted the string of pearls she wore around her fingers. "But you can do it."



"Not much I can't do with dirt and plants. It's my gift." She nodded to where Harper was already setting in a decorative metal trellis. "And his. And you're going to learn something today. Put those gloves on, Cissy. You're going to do some slaving away, then you won't have lied."



"I don't give a red damn about the lie." But she tugged on the gloves.



Roz explained, in basic terms, that they'd do a four-season perennial garden. One that would impress, whatever time of year the in-laws visited. Iris and dianthus, campanula. Bleeding heart and columbine for instant bloom. With spring bulbs, craftily placed annuals, and the foliage from later bloomers filling in now.



And once the massive planters she'd chosen were done and exploding with flowers, the bed would be a showpiece even a persnickety mother-in-law would love.



She left Cissy setting in crested cockscomb and dusty miller and moved off to reorganize and fluff up the already established beds.



At the end of another hour, she realized they would use everything she'd brought with her, and then some.



"Harper?" She swiped at her sweaty forehead with the back of her hand. "You got your cell phone?"



He stopped working the vines onto the trellis long enough to pat at his pockets. "Somewhere. Truck maybe?"



Like mother like son, she thought, sent him a wave, and went around front to find it. She called Stella, rattled off another list of needs - having no doubt her manager would record them all, invoice, inventory, and deliver.



She planted cannas at the back fence, along with blue salvia and African daisies. Then sat back on her heels when Cissy walked to her with a tall glass.



"I made lemonade, from scratch. For my sins. My manicure is wrecked," she said as she handed Roz the glass. "And I'm already aching in places I forgot I owned. I don't know how you do this."



"I don't know how you play bridge every week."



"Well, to each his own, I suppose. I owe you a lot more than the check I wrote."



"Oh, you're going to be writing a couple more before it's over."



Cissy just closed her eyes. "Hank's going to kill me. He's going to take his nine iron and beat me bloody and dead."



"I don't think he will." Roz got to her feet, handed the empty glass back, then stretched her back. "I think he's going to be pleased and proud - and touched that you'd go to all this trouble - ruining a manicure on top of it - to make your home more beautiful for his mother's visit. To show her, and him, how much you value the home he's provided you with."



"Oh." A slow smile spread. "That's damn clever of you, Rosalind."



"Just because I don't have a husband doesn't mean I don't know how they work. I'm going to warn you, you don't take proper care of all this, I'll come over here and beat you senseless with Hank's nine iron myself."



Cissy looked around at the dirt, the half-planted beds, the shovels and rakes and bags of soil and additives. "It's going to look really nice when it's finished. Right?"



"Trust me."



"I am. Completely. And this is probably not the best time to tell you that son of yours is one handsome devil. I swear, my heart nearly shut right down when I handed him that lemonade and he flashed that grin at me. God almighty, he must have the girls at his feet, four layers deep."



"Never known him to have trouble finding one. Doesn't seem to keep them long, though."



"He's young yet."



IT WAS DARKwhen she got home. Dirty, a little achy, she poked her head in the library before heading upstairs. She'd seen Mitch's car out front.



"Working late?" she asked.



"Yeah. You, too?"



"I had an amazing day. Time of my life. I'm going to go up and scrape several inches of that day off me, then eat like a pig."



"Want company? I've got a couple of things to run by you."



"Sure, come on up."



"Been playing in the dirt?"



"Most of the day. Gardening emergency." She shot a grin over her shoulder as she started up the stairs. "A friend, an unexpected visit by in-laws, passive-aggressive tendencies, and a desire for one-upmanship. This resulted in a hell of a profit for my business and a terrific day for me."



She walked straight into her bathroom, stripped off her shirt. "Been a long time since I got seriously involved in the design and landscaping end of things. I'd nearly forgotten how much I love to get my hands into somebody's dirt and create something."



She undressed while she talked, in a practical sort of way, dumping her clothes in the hamper, leaning in to start the shower and test the water temperature, while he stood in the doorway, listening.



"A lot of the place was virgin ground - unrealized potential. I should feel guilty for charging her when it was such a good time for me - but I don't. We earned it."



"We."



"Had to call in the troops." She stepped into the shower. "Took Harper with me, then had Logan and Stella swing by as reserves later in the day. I put in the nicest four-season perennial garden. Looks sweet now, and in a few weeks the early daylillies will pop, and the wild indigo, then it'll move right into the spirea and ladybells, the meadow sage and foxglove. Harper started this gorgeous purple clematis on a copper trellis and put in a trio of oakleaf hydrangeas. Then when Logan got there . . ."



She trailed off, stuck her head out, hair dripping. "I'm boring you senseless."



"Not at all. I may not know what you're talking about, but I'm not bored. You sound revved."



"I am. I'm going by tomorrow morning for some final touches and to present her with the final bill. She may faint, but she's going to wow her in-laws."



"You never did give me an answer about that plant for my apartment. You know, feng shui."



"No, I didn't."



He waited five seconds, heard nothing but water running. And laughed. "Guess that's answer enough. You know, I'm fairly intelligent and responsible. I could be taught how to care for a plant."



"Possibly, but your track record's ugly, Mitch. Just ugly. We may discuss a probationary period. I threatened to hurt Cissy if she didn't maintain what I did over there. I heard her talking to Logan about hiring him to come in twice a month to deal with it. And that's fine. We should all be self-aware enough to know our limitations."



"You water it. You put it in the sun. I can do that."



"As if that's all there is to it. You want to hand me a towel?"



She shut off the water, took the towel he handed her, and began to dry off. "We've been so busy at work I've barely been able to knock two thoughts together about anything else. Stella's wedding's right around the corner, too. And I know there are things that need my attention in this project."



He watched as she slathered on cream, as the scent of it mixed with the scent of her soap. "We'll manage it all."



"Winters fly by now that I've got the business. A lot more to do over the winter than people might think. And here we are, into another spring. I can hardly believe it's . . ."



Her eyebrows drew together, with that faint vertical line between them. Falling silent, she carefully replaced the top on her cream.



"Just hit you, didn't it?" he asked.



"What would that be?"



"The two of us, right now." He stayed where he was as she moved by him into the bedroom, as she opened a drawer for fresh clothes. "End of the workday, talking over the shower. It's all very married, isn't it?"



She slipped on cropped gray sweats, tugged a T-shirt over her head. "How do you feel about that?"



"Not entirely sure. A little nervous around the edges, I guess. Amazingly calm at the center. What about you?"



She rubbed the towel over her hair as she studied his face. "Getting married again wasn't just not on my radar, but top of my list of things to avoid. Such as poisonous snakes, frogs dropping out of the sky, ebola viruses, and such."



He smiled, leaned on the doorjamb. "I heard past tense."



"You have good ears. I fell in love once, very young. And when I fell in love, I married. It was very good, and I'll love John Ashby all of my life. I'll see him in the sons we made together, and know I wouldn't have them if we hadn't loved the way we did."



"People who can and have loved like that are fortunate."



"Yes, we are. At one time I was lonely. My boys were going their own way, and the house just seemed so empty, so quiet. I was sad, under the pride of seeing the young men I'd help create, I was so damn sad."



She walked back into the bathroom to hang the damp towel, then opened her daily moisturizer to smooth it over her face.



"I needed something to take that away, or thought I did. I wanted someone to share the rest of my life with. I picked someone who, on the surface, seemed right. That mistake cost me a great deal. Emotionally and financially."



"And because of that, you'll be very careful about another marriage."



"I will. But I'm in love with you, Mitchell." She saw the emotion rush into his eyes, and what a thrill it was to see it, to know it was there because of her.



She saw him start to step forward. And stop himself, because he knew she wanted him to wait. Another thrill, she thought, to be so well understood.



"I never expected to love again, not with the whole of my heart. That was the mistake I made with Bryce, you see. The basic mistake, in marrying someone I didn't love with the whole of my heart. Still, marriage is an enormous step. I hope you won't mind if I let you know when and if I'm ready to take it."



"I can work with that, because I love you, Rosalind. Mistakes I made before hurt people I loved. I won't make them again."



She walked to him. "We're bound to make new ones."



He leaned down, brushed his lips over hers. "That'll be all right."



"Yes, I think it might be all right. Why don't we go downstairs, see what David's got cooked up? Then you can tell me about your day instead of listening to me carry on about mine."



AS IT WASlate, the children had already eaten and their parents were busy with bedtime rituals.



"Sometimes you can forget this house is full of people." Roz dug into spaghetti and meatballs. "Other times it's like being at the monkey house at the zoo."



"And you like it both ways."



"I do. I'm a contradictory soul. I need my solitude or I get mean. I get too much solitude, I get broody. I'm a pain in the ass to live with, you may want to factor that into the equation."



"I already have."



She paused, fork halfway to her mouth, then set it down as a long, rolling laugh spilled out of her. "Serves me right."



"I'm messy, often careless with details that don't interest me at that particular moment - and I don't have any intention of reforming. You can factor those in."



"Done. Now what did you want to talk over with me?"



"I never seem to run out of things I want to talk over with you."



"Men, in the first few weeks of love, talk more than they do or will for the following twenty years."



"See?" He gestured with his fork, then wound pasta around it. "Another advantage for finding each other a little later in life. We both know how it works. But what I wanted to discuss, primarily, was Clarise Harper."



"You're going to spoil my appetite, bringing her name up, and I do love meatballs and spaghetti."



"I paid another call on her this morning while, I assume, you were off digging gardens."



"Would you say you visited the third or fourth level of Hell?"



"Not that bad. She likes me, to a point. Finds me interesting, at least, and I'd say is amusing herself by feeding me what she likes and holding back what she doesn't want me to know."



He shoveled in spaghetti, then broke a hunk of garlic bread in half to split with her. "I have a tape, if you're interested. She told an entertaining story, she claimed her mother told her, about your grandfather when he was a boy - going off to sleep in a closet with a puppy he'd taken from a litter in the stables. He'd wanted it for a pet, and his mother had vetoed. No dogs in the house sort of thing. So he'd hidden it in his room for a week or so, keeping it in his closet, pilfering food out of the kitchen."



"How old was he?"



"About ten, she thinks. At least from what her mother told her. He was found out when he crawled into the closet with it, and fell asleep. Nobody could find him, turned the house upside down. Then one of the servants heard this whimpering and found the two of them in the back of his bedroom closet."



"Did he get to keep the dog?"



"He did. His father overruled his mother and let him keep it, though it was a mutt and apparently never learned any manners. He had it nearly eighteen years, so she remembers it herself, vaguely. He buried it behind the stables, put a little tree over the grave."



"Spot. My grandmother showed me the grave. There's even a little marker. She said he'd buried his beloved dog there, but must not have known the story about how he acquired it. She'd have told me."



"My impression is Clarise told me to illustrate that her mother's little brother was spoiled by his father."



"She would," Roz replied.



"I learned something else. Jane has every other Wednesday off. Or Wednesday afternoons. She likes to go to Davis-Kidd, have lunch in their cafe, then browse the stacks."



"Is that so?"



"Anyone who wanted to talk to her privately could run into her there. Tomorrow, in fact, as it's her Wednesday afternoon off."



"I haven't made time, recently, to go to the bookstore."



"Then I'd say you're due."



WITHOUTMITCH'S DESCRIPTION, Roz doubted she'd have recognized Jane Paulson. She saw the young woman - mouse-colored hair, drab clothes, solemn expression - come into the cafe and go straight to the counter.



She ordered quickly, like someone whose habits varied little, then took a table in a corner. She pulled a paperback book out of her purse.



Roz waited sixty seconds, then wandered over.



"Jane? Jane Paulson?" She said it brightly, with just a hint of puzzlement, and watched Jane jolt before her gaze flew up. "Well, isn't this something?"



Without waiting for an invitation, Roz took the second chair at the table. "It's been . . . well, I can't remember how long. It's Cousin Rosalind. Rosalind Harper."



"Yes, I . . . I know. Hello."



"Hello right back." Roz gave her hand a pat, then sat back to sip at her coffee. "How are you, how long are you in town? Just tell me every little thing."



"I . . . I'm fine. I live here now."



"No! Right here in Memphis? Isn't that something. Your family's well, I hope."



"Everyone's fine. Yes, everyone's just fine."



"That's good to hear. You give your mama and daddy my best when you talk to them next. What are you doing here in Memphis?"



"I, um . . ." She broke off as her cup of soup and half sandwich were served. "Thank you. Um, Cousin Rosalind, would you like something?"



"No, coffee's just fine." And she couldn't do it. She couldn't look at that miserable, distressed face any longer and lie.



"Jane, I'm going to be honest with you. I came here today to see you."



"I don't understand."



"I know you're living with Cousin Rissy, working for her."



"Yes. Yes, I . . . and I just remembered. I have errands to run for her. I don't know how I could've forgotten. I really should go and - "



"Honey." Roz laid a hand on hers, to hold her still, and hopefully to reassure. "I know just what she thinks of me, so you don't need to worry. I won't tell her we spoke. I don't want to do anything to get you in trouble with her. I promise you."



"What do you want?"



"First let me tell you that nothing you say will get back to her. You know how much she dislikes me, and the feeling couldn't be more mutual. We won't be talking about this, Clarise and I. So I'll ask you first, are you happy staying with her?"



"I needed a job. She gave me a job. I really should - "



"Mmm-hmm. And if you could get another job?"



"I . . . I can't afford a place of my own, right now." Jane stared into her soup as if it held the world, and the world wasn't a very friendly place. "And I don't have any skills. Any job skills."



"I find that hard to believe, but that can wait. If I could help you find a job you'd like, and an apartment you could afford, would you prefer that to working for and living with Clarise?"



Her face was very pale when she lifted her head. "Why would you do that?"



"Partially to spite her, and partially because I don't like to see family unhappy if the solution is a simple one. And one more partially. I'm hoping you can help me."



"What could I possibly do for you?"



"She has things from my home, from Harper House." Roz nodded as she saw the fear and knowledge flicker over Jane's face. "You know it, and I know it. I don't care - or have decided not to care - about the statuary, the things, we'll say. But I want the papers. The books, the letters, the journals. To be frank, Jane, I intended to bribe you to get them for me. I'd help you get yourself employed and established, give you a little seed money if you needed it, in exchange. But I'm going to do that for you anyway."



"Why?"



Roz leaned forward. "She would have beat me down, if she could. She'd have manipulated me, run my life, crushed my spirit. If she could. I didn't let her. I don't see why I should let her do the same to you."



"She didn't. I did it myself. I can't talk about it."



"Then we won't. I'm not going to browbeat you." She could, Roz knew, all too easily. And that's why she couldn't. "What I'm going to do is give you my numbers. Here's my home number, and my cell phone number, and my work number. You put these somewhere she won't find them. You must know she goes through your things when you're not there."



Jane nodded. "Doesn't matter. I don't have anything."



"Keep that attitude up, you'll never have anything. You think about what you want, and if you want me to help you get it. Then you call me."



"You'd help me even if I don't help you?"



"Yes. And I can help myself if and when I need to. She has what belongs to me, and I need it back. I'll get it. You want to get away from her, I'll help you. No strings."



Jane opened her mouth, closed it, then got quickly to her feet. "Cousin Rosalind. Could we . . . could we go somewhere else? She knows I come here, and she might . . ."



"Get reports? Yes, she might. All right, let's go somewhere else. My car's right out front."



SHE DROVE THEMto a little diner, off the beaten path, where no one who knew them, or Clarise, was likely to dine. The place smelled of barbecue and good strong coffee.



She ordered both, for each of them, to give Jane time to settle her nerves.



"Did you have a job back home?"



"I, um, did some office work, at my father's company? You know he's got the flooring company."



"Do you like office work?"



"No. I don't like it, and I don't think I'm much good at it anyway."



"What do you like?"



"I thought I'd like to work in a bookstore, or a gallery? I like books and I like art. I even know a little about them."



"That's a good start." To encourage the girl to eat, instead of picking at the sesame seeds on her roll with restless fingers, Roz picked up half the enormous sandwich she'd already cut in two, and bit in. "Do you have any money of your own?"



"I've saved about two thousand."



"Another good start."



"I got pregnant," Jane blurted out.



"Oh, honey." Roz set the sandwich down, reached for Jane's hand. "You're pregnant."



"Not anymore." Tears began to slide down her cheeks. "Last year. It was last year. I . . . he was married. He said he loved me, and he was going to leave his wife. I'm such an idiot. I'm such a fool."



"Stop that." Voice brisk, Roz passed Jane a paper napkin. "You're no such thing."



"He was a married man, and I knew it. I just got swept away. It was so wonderful to have somebody want me, and it was so exciting to keep it all a secret. I believed everything he said, Cousin Rosalind."



"Just Roz. Of course you did. You were in love with him."



"But he didn't love me." Shaking her head, she began to tear the napkin into shreds. "I found out I was pregnant, and I told him. He was so cool, so, well not really angry, just annoyed. Like it was, I don't know, an inconvenience. He wanted me to have an abortion. I was so shocked. He'd said we were going to be married one day, and now he wanted me to have an abortion."



"That's very hard, Jane. I'm sorry."



"I said I would. I was awful sad about it, but I was going to. I didn't know what else I could do. But I kept putting it off, because I was afraid. Then one day I was with my mother, and I started bleeding, and cramping, right there in the restaurant where we were having dinner."



Tears spilled down her cheeks. Roz pulled a napkin from the metal dispenser and offered it.



"I had a miscarriage. I hadn't told her I was pregnant, and I had a miscarriage practically in front of her. She and Daddy were so upset. I was all dopey and feeling so strange, I told them who the father was. He was one of Daddy's golf partners."



This time she buried her face in the napkin and sobbed. When the waitress started over, Roz just shook her head, rose, and moved around the booth to slip in beside Jane, drape an arm over her shoulder.



"I'm sorry."



"Nothing of the kind. You go ahead and cry."



"It was an awful scene, an awful time. I embarrassed them, and disappointed them."



"I would think, under the circumstances, their minds and hearts should have been with you."



"I shamed them." She hiccupped, and mopped at her tears. "And all for a man who never loved me. I lost that baby, maybe because I wanted it not to be. I wished it would all just go away, and it did."



"You can't wish a baby away, honey. You can blame yourself some for conceiving it, 'cause that takes two. But you can't blame yourself for losing it."



"I never did anything in my life except what I've been told. But I did this, and that's what happened."



"I'm sorry it happened. We all make mistakes, Jane, and sometimes we pay a very stiff price for them. But you don't have to keep paying it."



She gave Jane's shoulders a last squeeze, then went back to her own side, so they'd be face-to-face. "Look at me now. Listen to me. The man who used you, he's out of your life?"



She nodded, dabbed at her eyes.



"Good. Now you can start deciding what you want to do. Build a life or keep sliding around on the wreck of the old one."



"You'd really help me get a job?"



"I'll help you get one. Keeping it would be up to you."



"She . . . she has a lot of old diaries. She keeps them in her room, locked in a drawer. But I know where the key is."



Roz smiled and sat back. "Aren't you something?"

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