HE'D NEVER BEEN much of a gardener. Then again, he'd lived in apartments most of his life. Still, he liked the look of plants and flowers, and had an admiration for those who knew what to do with them.
Rosalind Harper obviously knew what to do with them.
He'd seen some of the gardens on her estate this past June. But even their graceful beauty had paled next to his encounter with the Harper Bride. He'd always believed in the spirit of a person. Why else would he be so drawn to histories, to genealogies, to all those roots and branches of family trees? He believed that spirit could, and did, have influence and impact for generations, potentially centuries.
But he'd never believed in the tangibility, the physical presence of that spirit.
He knew better now.
It was difficult for someone with Mitch's academic bent to rationalize, then absorb, something as fanciful as ghosts.
But he'd felt and he'd seen. He'd experienced, and there was no denying facts.
So now he was caught up. He could admit it. With his book finally put to bed, he could pour his energies and his time, his skills, into identifying the spirit that had - purportedly - walked the halls of Harper House for more than a century.
A few legalities to get out of the way, then he could dive in.
He turned into the parking area of In the Garden.
Interesting, he thought, that a place that certainly had its prime in spring and summer could look so attractive, so welcoming as December clicked away.
The sky was heavy with clouds that would surely bring a cold, ugly rain before it was done. Still there were things growing. He had no clue what they were, but they looked appealing. Rusty red bushes, lush evergreens with fat berries, silvery green leaves, brightly painted pansies. At least he recognized a pansy when he saw one.
There were industrious-looking piles of material - material he assumed one would need for gardening or landscaping. Long tables on the side that held plants he assumed could handle the chill, a small forest of trees and shrubs.
The low-slung building was fronted with a porch. He saw poinsettias and a small, trim Christmas tree strung with lights.
There were other cars in the lot. He watched a couple of men load a tree with a huge burlapped ball into the back of a truck. And a woman wheel out a red wagon loaded with poinsettias and shopping bags.
He walked up the ramp, crossed the porch to go inside.
There were a lot of wares, he noted. More than he'd expected. Pots, decorative garden stakes, tabletop trees already decorated, books, seeds, tools. Some were put together in gift baskets. Clever idea.
Forgetting his intention of seeking Roz out immediately, he began to wander. When one of the staff asked if he needed help, he just smiled, shook his head, and continued to browse around.
A lot went into putting a place like this together, Mitch mused as he studied shelves of soil additives, time released fertilizer pellets, herbal pest repellents. Time, labor, know-how, and, he thought, courage.
This was no hobby or little enterprise indulged in by a southern aristocrat. This was serious business. Another layer to the woman, he supposed, and he hadn't begun to get to the center of her.
Beautiful, enigmatic Rosalind Harper. What man wouldn't want the chance to peel off those layers and know who she really was?
As it was, he owed his sister and niece a big, sloppy thanks for sending him scrambling out to shop. Running into Roz, seeing her with her shopping cart, having an hour alone with her was the most intriguing personal time he'd had in months.
Hardly a surprise he was hoping for more, and that he'd made this trip to her garden center mainly to study yet another side of her.
He wandered through wide glass doors and found an exotic mass of houseplants. There were tabletop and garden fountains as well, and baskets of ferny and viney things hanging from hooks or standing on pedestals.
Through another set of doors was a kind of greenhouse, with dozens of long wooden tables. Most were empty, but some held plants. The pansies he recognized, and others he didn't. Though, he noted, they were labeled and billed to be winter hardy.
He was debating whether to continue on or go back and ask for Roz when her son Harper came in from the outside.
"Hi. Need some help?" As he walked toward Mitch, recognition crossed his face. "Oh, hey, Dr. Carnegie."
"Mitch. Nice to see you again, Harper," he said as they shook hands.
"You, too. That was some game against Little Rock last week."
"It was. Were you there?"
"Missed the first quarter, but the second half rocked. Josh ruled."
Pride in his son beamed through him. "He had a good game. Missouri this week. I'll have to catch that one on ESPN."
"Same here. You see your son, tell him I said that three-pointer in the last five minutes was a thing of beauty."
"I'll do that."
"You looking for something, or someone?"
"Someone. Your mother, actually." You have her eyes, he thought. Her mouth, her coloring. "I was taking a little tour before I hunted her up." As he looked around, Mitch slipped his hands in his pockets. "This is a hell of a place you've got here."
"Keeps us busy. I just left her in the propagation house. I'll take you back."
"Appreciate it. I guess I didn't think this kind of business would have so much going on this late in the year."
"Always something going on when you're dealing with gardening and landscaping." Mirroring Mitch's stance, Harper scanned the area. "Holiday stuff's big now, and we're working on getting plants ready for March."
When they stepped outside, Mitch stopped, hooked his thumbs in his jacket pockets. Low, long greenhouses spread, separated into two areas by a wide space where more tables stood under a screened shelter. Even now he could see a field where someone worked a machine to dig up a pine - or a spruce, or a fir. How could you tell the difference?
He caught a glimpse of a little pond, and a small stream, then the woods that shielded the business from the main house, and the main house from the business.
"I've got to say, wow. I didn't expect anything this expansive."
"Mom doesn't do things halfway. We started a little smaller, added on two more greenhouses and an additional space in the retail area a couple years ago."
More than a business, Mitch realized. This was a life. "It must take an incredible amount of work."
"It does. You've gotta love it."
"Yeah. That's my castle over there." Harper gestured. "Grafting house. Mostly, I deal with grafting and propagation. But I get pulled out for other things, like the Christmas tree end this time of year. In fact, I was grabbing ten before I head out to the field when I ran into you."
As the rain began to fall, Harper nodded toward one of the greenhouses. "That's the propagation area. Since we've got Stella, Mom spends most of her time in there."
"Then I can find her from here. Why don't you go on, catch what you've got left of your break."
"Better get right out in the field." As the rain fell, Harper pulled the bill of his cap lower on his head. "Get those trees up before the rain scares the customers away. Just go ahead in. See you later."
Harper set off at a jog, and had made the turn toward the field when Hayley rushed up to him from the opposite direction. "Wait! Harper, wait a minute."
He stopped, lifting the bill a bit to get a better look at her. She was wearing a short red denim jacket over jeans, and one of the In the Garden caps Stella had ordered for employees.
"Jesus, Hayley, get inside. This rain's going to cut loose big-time any minute."
"Was that Dr. Carnegie?"
"Yeah. He was looking for the boss."
"You took him to the propagation house?" Her voice pitched up over the increasing drum of rain. "Are you just stupid?"
"What? He's looking for Mom, she's in the propagation house. I just left her there five minutes ago."
"So you just take him there, say go right in?" She made wild gestures with both hands. "Without letting herknow ?"
"That he's here, for God's sake. And now he's going in, and she's all dirty and sweaty, with no makeup on and in her grubbiest clothes. You couldn't stall him for five damn minutes to give her some warning?"
"About what? She looks like she always does. What's the damn difference?"
"If you don't know, you are stupid. And it's too late now. One of these days, Harper Ashby, you're going to have use of the single brain men pass around among them."
"What the hell," he grumbled after she'd given him a punch on the arm and dashed inside again.
MITCH DUCKED INTOthe propagation house out of the rain. If he'd thought the houseplant section seemed exotic, it was nothing compared to this. The place seemed alive with plants in various stages of growth. The humid warmth was almost tropical, and with the rain pattering it seemed he'd walked into some sort of fantasy cave.
The air was pungent with green and brown - plants and soil. Music twined along with the scents. Not classical, he noted. Not quite New Age. Something oddly and appealingly between.
He saw tables and tools, buckets and bags. Shallow black containers holding delicate growing things.
And he saw Roz at the far end, on the side. Her back was to him as she worked.
She had a gorgeous neck. It was an odd thought, and, he admitted, probably a foolish one. But again, facts were facts. She wore her hair short and straight and to his mind, the style showed off that long, lovely neck perfectly.
Then again, all of her was rather long and lovely. Arms, legs, torso. At the moment that intriguing body was camouflaged in baggy pants and a shapeless sweatshirt she'd pushed up at the sleeves. But he remembered, very well, that willowy figure.
Just as he remembered, even before she heard his approach and turned, that her eyes were long as well. Long lidded and in a fascinating shade of deep, deep amber.
"I'm sorry. I'm interrupting."
"That's all right. I didn't expect to see you here."
"I got the paperwork, and thought I'd ride out and let you know it's signed, sealed, and on its way back to your lawyer. Plus, it gave me a chance to see your place. I'm impressed. Even though I don't know squat about gardening, I'm majorly impressed."
He glanced down at her worktable. There were pots, some empty yet, some filled with soil and small green leaves. "What's going on here?"
"I'm potting up some seedlings. Celosia - cockscomb."
"I have no idea what that is."
"I'm sure you've seen them." She brushed a hand absently over her cheek, transferring a smudge of soil. "In bloom they're like small feather dusters in bold colors. Red's very popular."
"Okay. And you put them in these little pots because?"
"Because they don't like their roots disturbed after they're established. I pot them young, then they'll be blooming for our spring customers, and only have to tolerate that last transplanting. And I don't imagine you're all that interested."
"Didn't think I would be. But this is like a whole new world. What's this here?"
She raised her eyebrows. "All right, then. That's matthiola, also called gillyflower or stock. It's very fragrant. Those there with the yellowish green leaves? They'll be double-flowered cultivars. These will flower for spring. Customers prefer to buy in bloom, so I plan my propagation to give them plenty of blooms to choose from. This section is for annuals. I do perennials back there."
"Is it a gift, or years of study? How do you come to know what to do, how to recognize the . . . cockscomb from the gillyflower at this stage?"
"It's both, and a love of it with considerable hands-on experience thrown in. I've been gardening since I was a child. I remember my grandmother - on the Harper side - putting her hands over mine to show me how to press the soil around a plant. What I remember best about her is in the gardens at Harper House."
"Elizabeth McKinnon Harper, wife to Reginald Harper, Jr."
"You have a good memory."
"I've been skimming over some of the lists. What was she like?"
It made her feel soft, and a little sentimental, to be asked. "Kind, and patient, unless you riled her up. Then she was formidable. She went by Lizzie, or Lizzibeth. She always wore men's pants, and an old blue shirt and an odd straw hat. Southern women of a certain age always wear odd straw hats to garden. It's the code. She smelled of the eucalyptus and pennyroyal she'd make up into a bug repellant. I use her recipe for it still."
She picked up another pot. "I still miss her, and she's been gone nearly thirty years now. Fell asleep in her glider on a hot summer day in July. She'd been deadheading in the garden, and sat down to rest. She never woke up. I think that's a very pleasant way to pass."
"How old was she?"
"Well, she claimed to be seventy-six, but in fact, according to the records she was eighty-four. My daddy was a late baby for her, as I was for him. I broke that Harper family tradition by having my children young."
"Did she ever talk to you about the Harper Bride?"
"She did." As she spoke, Roz continued with her potting. "Of course, she was a McKinnon by birth and wasn't raised in the house. But she claimed to have seen the Bride when she'd come to live here, when my great-grandfather passed. My grandfather Harper grew up at Harper House, of course, and if we were right in dating Amelia, would have been a baby around the time she died. But he passed when I was about eight, and I don't recall him ever speaking of her."
"How about your parents, or other relatives?"
"Are we on the clock here, Doctor?"
"No, I don't mind." She labeled the new potted plant, reached for another. "My daddy never said much, now that I think about it. Maybe it's a thing with the Harper men, or men in general. My mother was a dramatic sort of female, one who enjoyed the illusion of turmoil in her life. She claimed to have seen the Bride often, and with great stress. But then, Mama was always stressed about something."
"Did either she or your grandmother keep a journal, any sort of diary?"
"Yes, both of them. Another fine old tradition I haven't followed. My grandmother moved into the guesthouse when my father married and brought his own bride home. After she died, he cleaned out her things. I recall asking him about her journals, but he said they were gone. I don't know what became of them. As for my mother's, I have hers. You're welcome to them, but I doubt you'll find anything pertinent."
"Just the same. Aunts, uncles, cousins?"
"Oh, legions. My mother's sister, who married some British lord or earl - third marriage - a few years ago. She lives in Sussex, and we don't see each other often. She has children from her first two marriages, and they have children. My father was an only child. But his father had four sisters, older sisters - Reginald's daughters."
"Yeah, I've got their names on my list."
"I don't remember them at all. They each had children. Let's see, that would be my cousins Frank and Esther - both gone years now - and their children, of course. Ah, Lucerne, Bobby, and Miranda. Bobby was killed in World War II. Lucerne and Miranda are both gone now, too. But they all had children, and some of them have children now. Then there's Owen, Yancy, ah . . . Marylou. Marylou's still living, down in Biloxi where she suffers from dementia and is tended by her children, best they can. Yancy, I couldn't say. He ran off to join a carnival years back, and no one heard from him again. Owen's a fire-and-brimstone minister, last I heard, in Macon, Georgia. He wouldn't talk to you about ghosts, I can promise you."
"You never know."
She made a noncommittal sound as she worked. "And my cousin Clarise, who never married. She has managed to live to a ripe age. Too sour not to. She's living in a retirement village, other side of the city. She doesn't speak to me."
"You do ask questions."
"Part of the process."
"I'm not sure I remember exactly why she stopped speaking to me. I recall she didn't appreciate that my grandparents left everything to me and my daddy. But they weremy grandparents, after all. My father's parents, while she was only a niece to them. She came to visit here when the boys were young. I believe that's when she cut me off, or we cut each other off, which is more accurate. She didn't care for my style of raising the boys, and I didn't care for her criticism of them, or me."
"Before the family rift, do you recall if she ever talked to you about the Bride?"
"I don't, no. Cousin Rissy's conversations mostly consisted of complaints or her own irritable observations. And I know damn well she pilfered things from the house. Little bits and pieces. I can't say I'm sorry we're not on speaking terms."
"Will she talk to me?"
Thoughtfully, Roz turned to him, studied his face. "She might, especially if she thinks I'd prefer she didn't. If you decide to go see the dried-up old bat, be sure you take her flowers, and chocolate. You spring for Godiva and she'll be very impressed with you. Then you turn on the charm. Be sure to call her Miss Harper, until she says otherwise. She uses the family name, and is very formal about everything. She'll ask about your people. If you happen to have any ancestors who fought in the War Between the States, be sure to mention it. Any Yankees in your tree, disavow them."
He had to laugh. "I get the type. I have a great-aunt who's on the same page."
She reached under the worktable to a cooler, took out two bottles of chilled water. "You look hot. I'm so used to it, I don't notice."
"Working in all this humidity every day must be what gives your skin that English rose look." Absently he reached out, flicked a finger over her cheek. When her brows shot up again, he eased back, just a step.
"Sorry. You had a little dirt . . ."
"Something else I'm used to."
"So . . ." He reminded himself to keep his hands otherwise occupied. "I guess from what I saw the other day, you're ready for Christmas."
"Near enough. You?"
"Not even close, though I owe you big - once again - for the gift for my sister."
"You went for the cashmere, then."
"Something the salesgirl called a twinset, and she said no woman could have too many of them."
"Okay. So, I'm going to put some effort into the rest of it over the next few days. Get the tree out, fight with the lights."
"Get it out?" A look that might have been pity, might have been derision covered her face. "I assume that means you've got a fake tree."
His hands slid into his pockets, his smile spread slowly. "It's simplest. Apartment life."
"And from the state of that dieffenbachia, probably for the best."
"State of the what?"
"The plant you were slowly murdering. The one I took when I came to your place to meet you the first time."
"Oh. Oh, right." When she'd been wearing that lady suit, he thought, and those high heels that had made her legs look ten feet long. "How's it doing?"
"It's just fine now, and don't think I'll be giving it back."
"Maybe I could just visit it sometime."
"That could be arranged. We're having a holiday party at the house, a week from Saturday. Nine o'clock. You're welcome to come, if you like. And bring a guest, of course."
"I'd like that. Would you mind if I went over to the house now, took a look at the library? Get a ground floor started?"
"No, that'll be fine. I'll just call David and let him know you're coming."
"Good. I'll go on, then, and get out of your way. I appreciate the time."
"I've plenty of it."
He didn't see how. "I'll call you later, then. You have a strong place here, Rosalind."
"Yes, I do."
When he'd gone out, she set her tools aside to drink deeply from the water bottle. She wasn't a silly young girl who was flustered and giddy at the touch of a man's hand on her skin. But it had felt strange and oddly sweet, that careful brush of his fingers over her cheek, and that look in his eyes when he touched her.
English rose, she thought and let out a half laugh. Once, long ago, she might have appeared that fragile and dewy. She turned and studied one of her healthy stock plants. She was much more like that now, sturdy and strong.
And that, she thought as she got back to work, was just fine with her.
DESPITE THE STEADYrain, Mitch took a walk around the buildings, and gained even more respect for Roz and what she'd built. And built almost single-handedly, he thought. The Harper money may have given her a cushion, he decided, but it took more than funds to create all this.
It took guts and vision and hard work.
Had he actually made that lame, cliched comment about her skin? English rose, he thought now and shook his head. Like she hadn't heard that one before.
In any case, it wasn't even particularly apt. She was no delicate English rose. More a black rose, he decided, long and slender and exotic. A little haughty, a lot sexy.
He'd learned a lot about her life, just from that conversation in her work space. A lot about her. She'd lost someone she'd loved very much - her grandmother - at a tender age. She hadn't been very close with her parents. And had lost them as well. Her relatives were far-flung, and it didn't appear she had close relations with any of them.
Other than her sons, she had no one.
And after her husband's death, she'd had only herself to depend on, only herself to turn to while she raised three boys.
But he'd detected no sense of pity, certainly no weakness in her.
Independent, direct, strong. But there was humor there, and a good heart. Hadn't she helped him out when he'd been floundering over a toy for a little girl? And hadn't she been amused by his dilemma?
Now that he'd begun to get a good sense of her, he only wanted to know more.
What was the deal with the second husband and the divorce, for instance? None of his business, of course, but he could justify the curiosity. The more he knew, the more he knew. And it wouldn't be difficult to find out. People just loved to talk.
All you had to do was ask the questions.
On impulse, he detoured back into the center. There were a few customers debating over the poinsettias and some sort of cactus-looking plant that was loaded with pink blossoms. Mitch had barely raked a hand through his wet hair when Hayley arrowed in his direction.
"Dr. Carnegie! What a nice surprise."
"Mitch. How are you, Hayley, and the baby?"
"We both couldn't be better. But look at you, you're soaked! Can I get you a towel?"
"No, I'm fine. I couldn't resist walking around, looking the place over."
"Oh." She beamed at him, all innocence. "Were you looking for Roz?"
"Found her. I'm about to head over to the house, get a sense of my work space there. But I thought maybe I'd pick up one of those tabletop trees. The ones that're already decorated."
"Aren't they sweet? Really nice for a small space, or an office."
"A lot nicer than the old artificial one I fight to put together every year."
"And they smell just like Christmas." She steered him over. "You see one you like?"
"Ah . . . this one's fine."
"I just love all the little red bows and those tiny Santas. I'll get you a box for it."
"Thanks. What are those?"
"Those are Christmas cacti. Aren't they beautiful? Harper grafts them. He's going to show me how one of these days. You know, you should have one. They're so celebrational. And they bloom for Christmas and Easter."
"I'm not good with plants."
"Why, you don't have to do much of anything for it." She set those big baby blue eyes on him. "You live in an apartment, don't you? If you take the tree, a Christmas cactus, a couple of poinsettias, you'll be all decorated for the holidays. You can have company over, and be set."
"I don't know how much attention Josh is going to pay to a cactus."
She smiled. "Maybe not, but you must have a date over for a holiday drink, right?"
"Ah . . . I've been pretty busy with the book."
"A handsome single man like you must have to beat the ladies off with a stick."
"Not lately. Um - "
"You should have a wreath for the door, too."
"A wreath." He began to feel slightly desperate as she took his arm.
"Let me show you what we've got. I made some of these myself. See this one here? Just smell that pine. What's Christmas without a wreath on the door?"
He knew when he was outgunned. "You're really good at this, aren't you?"
"You bet," she said with a laugh and selected a wreath. "This one goes so well with your tree."
She talked him into the wreath, three windowsill-size poinsettias, and the cactus. He looked bemused and a little dazed as she rang it all up and boxed his purchases.
And when he left, Hayley knew what she wanted to know.
She dashed into Stella's office.
"Mitch Carnegie's not seeing anybody."
"Was he recently blinded?"
"Come on, Stella, you know what I mean. He doesn't have a sweetie." She drew off her cap, raked her fingers through her oak-brown hair she was wearing long enough to pull back into a stubby tail.
"And he just spent a good half hour in the propagation house with Roz before he came in here to buy a tabletop tree. Harper sent him in there without even letting her know. Just go right on in while she's working and doesn't even have time to swipe on some lipstick."
"Just sent him in? What is Harper, stupid?"
"Exactly what I asked him - Harper, that is. Anyway, then he - Mitch - came in all wet because he'd been walking around the place checking it out. He's going over to the house for a while now."
"Hayley." Stella turned from her computer. "What are you cooking?"
"Just observing, that's all. He's not seeing anybody, she's not seeing anybody." She lifted her hands, pointing both index fingers, then wiggled them toward each other. "Now they're both going to be seeing a lot of each other. And besides being a hottie, he's so cute. I talked him into buying a wreath, three mini poinsettias, and a Christmas cactus as well as the tree."
"But see, he didn't know how to say no, that was the cute part. If Roz doesn't go for him, I might myself. Okay, no." She laughed at Stella's bland stare. "He's old enough to be my daddy and blah blah blah, but he's just perfect for Roz. I'm telling you, I know this stuff. Wasn't I right about you and Logan?"
Stella sighed as she looked at the aquamarine he'd given her as an engagement ring. "I can't argue about that. And while I'm going to say, firmly, that observing's all we should do, I can't deny this may be a lot of fun to watch."