Black Rose


Chapter Twelve






ROZ FOLLOWED THEscent of coffee, and the noise, into the kitchen. The dreary gray rain had canceled her morning run, so she'd channeled the energy into three miles on her treadmill. It was an alternative that usually bored her senseless, but today she'd found herself singing along with commercial jingles during theToday show breaks.



In the kitchen the baby was banging away on her high chair tray with the enthusiasm of a heavy metal drummer, and Stella's boys were whining over their cereal.



"Yes," Stella announced with the snap of motherly frustration in her voice, "you both have to wear your raincoats, because I'm mean and bossy and I want you to be miserable."



"Wehate the raincoats," Gavin informed her.



"Really? That's not what you said when you begged me to buy them."



"That was before."



Perhaps in sympathy, perhaps for the fun of it, Lily stopped banging her teething rattle and threw it - along with her mangled Zwieback. The eagle-eyed Parker fielded the Zwieback before it hit the floor, and the rattle landed with a solidplop in Luke's bowl of Cap'n Crunch.



Milk fumed up and over the rim of the bowl, causing Lily to scream in delight. In a chain reaction, Parker let out a spate of ear-piercing barks and did canine flips while Gavin doubled over in hysterics.



Stella was quick, but for once Luke was quicker and had the rattle out of the bowl and tossed, dripping, into his brother's lap.



"Oh, for God's sake." Stella grabbed a napkin with one hand and held up the other to block Gavin's retaliation. "Don't even think about it."



"I'm sorry. I'm sorry." Hayley scooped up the bowl, more napkins as the boys shoved at each other.



A calm in the storm, David walked over with a damp rag. "We'll mop it up. Troublemaker," he said to Lily, who answered him with a huge, crumby grin.



Roz studied the chaos, and just beamed.



"Morning," she said and strolled in.



Heads turned.



"Roz?" Stella stared at her. "What are you doing here?"



"Since I live here, I thought I'd come in and get myself a cup of coffee." She bent down to brush a kiss over the top of Lily's head. "Hello, boys. That baby's got pretty good aim, doesn't she? Two-pointed it right in the goal."



The idea was so intriguing the boys stopped fighting. "Do it again, Lily!" Luke tugged on his mother's sleeve. "Give it back to her, Mom, so she can do it again."



"Not right now. You've got to finish up or you'll be late for school." She checked her watch and saw it was indeed just after eight, and a full hour after Roz was usually on her way out the door.



"My cereal's got baby spit in it now," Luke complained.



"You can have a muffin instead."



"Then I want a muffin." Gavin shoved his cereal aside. "If he can have a muffin, I can have a muffin, too."



"Fine, fine."



"I'll get them." Hayley gestured Stella back. "Least I can do."



"Mmm, don't they smell great?" Roz sniffed at the bowl filled with fresh apple muffins. She plucked one out for herself, then leaned back against the counter, her coffee in one hand, her muffin in the other. "Can't be a better way to start the day. And look at that rain. Nothing like a good all-day soaker."



After Hayley passed out muffins, she bent close to Stella's ear. "Somebody got her batteries charged."



Stella fought to swallow a snorting laugh. "We'll be out of your way in a minute."



"No rush." Roz bit into the muffin.



"You're usually gone, or finishing up before the invasion."



"Slept in a little today."



"That explains the bulletin I heard on the news this morning about hell freezing over." David didn't bother to hide the smirk as he brought the coffeepot over to top off Roz's mug.



"Aren't you full of sass this morning."



"I'm not the only one full of something. How'd the . . . lasagna go over?"



"Very well." She gave him a bland look over the rim of her cup, and wondered if she was wearing a sign: Recently Got Laid.



"You ought to have a nice big helping of it more often. Puts roses in your cheeks."



"I'll keep that in mind."



"I could use a nice hot dish of lasagna myself," Hayley commented. "Come on, baby doll, let's get you cleaned up." She took Lily out of the high chair.



"You guys go up and get your things - including raincoats," Stella ordered. "It's almost time to go."



But she loitered another minute. "You want to ride over with me?" she asked Roz.



"I guess I will."



STELLA WAITED UNTILthey were starting down the drive. By her calculations, swinging just a half a mile out of the way to drop Lily off at the babysitter's should give them enough time.



"We made a lot of progress on the painting last night. It's going to be nice to have the dining room finished and put together by the wedding. I'd really like to have a dinner party once we're set. David and all of us, Harper, my parents. Oh and Mitch, of course."



"That'd be nice."



"He's around so much - Mitch, I mean - these days, he feels like part of the household." At Roz's noncommittalhmmm , Stella glanced in the rearview mirror to see Hayley rolling her eyes and giving get-to-it hand signals.



"So . . . ah, did you and Mitch work on the project last night, or take advantage of the quiet house and just relax?"



"Stella, why don't you just ask me if I had sex with him instead of beating around the bush? Nothing I hate more than seeing a bush beat half to death."



"I was being subtle," Stella replied.



"No, you weren't."



"I told her she didn't have to lead up to everything," Hayley said from the back. "Besides, we know you had sex. You've got that recently waxed and lubed look."



"God."



"Of course, it's none of our business," Stella put in, shooting Hayley a hot look in the mirror.



"Of course it's not," Roz agreed easily.



"But we just wanted to find a way to say that we're happy if you're happy. That we think Mitch is a terrific guy, and we're here to support - "



"Jeez." Hayley leaned forward as much as her seat belt would allow. "What she's trying to say in her Stella way is: Score!"



"I am not. Exactly. I'm trying to say, with some delicacy - "



"Screw delicacy. Hey, just because people are a little older and all doesn't mean they don't want and deserve some touch the same as the next guy."



"Oh," Roz declared. "I repeat, God."



"You're beautiful and sexy," Hayley continued. "He's great looking and sexy. So, it seems to me that sex is . . . She really can't understand all this, right?" Biting her lip, she glanced at Lily, who was busy playing with her own fingers. "I read this theory on how babies absorb all the stimuli around them, including voices and words, and kind of file them away, and shoot, here we are."



She gathered the diaper bag, then jumped out of the car in the rain. After jogging around, she opened the door to release Lily's harness and drape a blanket over her head. "Don't say anything interesting while I'm gone. I mean it."



When she dashed off, Roz let out a long, heartfelt sigh. "Half the time that girl makes me feel old and creaky, and the other half she makes me feel about eighteen and grass green."



"I know exactly what you mean. And I know it sounds like we're pushing and prying into your private life, but it's because, well, it's just because we love you, that's all. And added to it, we were wondering when you and Mitch might take things up a level."



"Wondering, were you?"



Stella winced. "The subject might have come up in casual conversation. Once or twice."



"Why don't I let you know when and if I'd like to have a casual conversation on the subject?"



"Sure. Absolutely."



When Hayley ran back out, jerked open the door, Stella cleared her throat - loudly - and gave a quick shake of her head. As Hayley let out a disgusted sigh, Stella pulled away from the side of the road and spoke brightly.



"So, I've been working on ideas for displaying the potting soil."



HER LIFE DIDN'Tchange, Roz reminded herself, just because she'd gone to bed with a man she found attractive and appealing. Life went on, with its duties and obligations, its irritations and its pleasures.



As she headed for her garden club's monthly meeting, she wasn't sure which category her current destination landed in.



A Harper had been a member of the garden club since her grandmother's day. In fact, her grandmother had helped form it in 1928, and Harper House had held many of its early meetings.



As the owner of a garden center, she felt a double obligation to support the group and remain an active member. And there were some pleasures attached to it. She enjoyed talking with like-minded people about gardening and felt the club had worked hard to implement fund-raisers for beautification projects.



But then, there were plenty who just wanted to dress up, have lunch, and gossip.



She walked into the meeting room at the country club into that beehive hum of female voices. Square enameled pots exploding with forced narcissus sat festively on tables draped with spring-green linen. A podium stood in front of the room for the various committee chairs who'd give their reports or pitches.



She could only thank God she wasn't chairing anything currently.



When she stepped farther into the room, glances shot her way, and the hum of voices trailed off. And died.



Almost immediately they started up again, just a bit too loud, just a bit too bright. She let the cold shield slide over her, and continued to walk straight to a table.



"Aren't these flowers sweet." She looked directly at Jan Forrester as if she couldn't hear the whispers under the forced chatter. "A nice reminder spring's just around the corner. How are you, Jan?"



"Oh, fine, Roz. I'm just fine, how about you?"



"Couldn't be better. How's Quill doing?"



She flushed, deep and rosy. "Oh, you know Quill."



"I certainly do. You just give him my best, won't you?"



It was pride that had her walking the gauntlet, mingling with the crowd, speaking with more than a dozen people before she moved to the pots of coffee and tea. She opted for tea, cold, rather than her habitual coffee.



Her throat felt scalded.



"Roz, honey, don't you look fabulous." Cissy sidled up, smelling of Obsession and smiling like a hungry cat. "I swear, nobody wears clothes like you do. What color would you call that suit?"



Roz glanced down at the trim jacket and pants. "I have no idea."



"Apricot. That's just what it looks like, a nice ripe apricot. That little turnip-head Mandy's been flapping her foolish tongue as fast as she can," she said under her breath. "You and me need to have ourselves atete-a-tete ."



"That's all right, I've got the picture. Excuse me." She walked deliberately to Mandy and had the small pleasure of watching the woman's cheeks go white even as she stopped speaking in mid-sentence.



"Mandy, how are you? I haven't seen you since before Christmas. You didn't make last month's meeting."



"I was busy."



Roz took a slow sip of tea. "Life is a circus, isn't it?"



"You've been busy yourself." Mandy jerked up her chin.



"If there's not one thing that needs doing, there's a half dozen."



"Maybe if you spent more time tending to your own business, you wouldn't have so much left over to make harassing phone calls or tell vicious lies."



All pretense of other conversation stopped, as if a switch had been thrown.



"You don't know me very well," Roz said in the same conversational tone, "or you'd know that I don't make any phone call that isn't necessary. I don't care to spend much time on the phone. And I don't lie. I just don't see the point in it when the truth usually serves best."



Mandy folded her arms, cocked a hip in an aggressive stance. "Everybody knows what you've been up to, but they're too afraid of you to say it to your face."



"But you're not - good for you - so you go right ahead and say what's on your mind. Or if you'd feel more comfortable, we can have this conversation in private."



"You'd like that, wouldn't you?"



"No, not any more than I like having it in public."



"Just because your family's gone back in Shelby County since God doesn't give you the right to lord it over everybody. My family's just as important as yours, and I've got as much money and prestige."



"Money and prestige don't buy good manners. You aren't showing any at the moment."



"You have nerve, talking to me about manners when you're doing everything you can to ruin Bryce's reputation, and mine."



"Bryce's reputation is of his own making. And as for yours, honey, you haven't even been on my radar screen. You seem like a likable enough girl. I've got nothing against you."



"You've been telling people I was a cheap tramp, using my daddy's money to try to buy some class."



"And where'd you hear such a thing? Bryce, I imagine."



"Not only him." With her chin still lifted, red spots of color flagged in her cheeks, Mandy looked over at Jan.



"Jan?" Surprise softened Roz's voice, and regret flickered in her heart, just once as she saw the woman flush. "You know better. Shame on you."



"It was something I heard, from a reliable source," Jan said as she hunched her shoulders.



"A reliable source?" Roz didn't bother to temper the disgust in her voice. "And suddenly you're, what, an investigative reporter hunting up sources? You might've come and asked me. It would've been the simple and decent thing to do before spreading such nonsense any further."



"Everyone knows how mad you were when Bryce showed up at your house with Mandy. This isn't the place to discuss it."



"No, it isn't, but it's too late for that. At least this girl has the spine to say what she has to say straight to my face, which is more than you."



Dismissing Jan, Roz turned back to Mandy. "Mandy, did I seem mad when you arrived at my door with Bryce for my holiday party?"



"Of course you were mad. You turned us away, didn't you, when he was only trying to make peace with you."



"We can disagree on what he was trying to do. How did I seem mad? Did I shout and scream?"



"No, but - "



"Did I curse and push you physically out the door?"



"No, because you're cold-blooded, just like he says. Just like plenty others say when you're not around to hear. You waited until we were gone to go in and say awful things about us."



"Did I?" She turned, determined now to finish it out. "Most of you were there that night. Maybe someone here could refresh my memory, as I can't recall saying awful things."



"You did nothing of the sort." Mrs. Haggerty, one of Roz's oldest customers and a pillar in the gardening community, pushed her way through. "I'm as interested in juicy gossip as the next, and don't mind some enhancements to a story, but these are outright lies. Rosalind comported herself with absolute propriety under extremely difficult circumstances. And, young lady, she was kind to you, I saw that with my own eyes. When she came back inside, she said nothing whatsoever about you or that unfortunate bastard you've chosen to champion. If there's anyone here who can say different than that, let's hear it."



"She didn't say a word against you," Cissy put in, and gave a wicked smile. "Even when I did."



"He said you'd try to turn people against me."



"Why would I do that?" Roz said, wearily now. "But you'll have to believe what you have to believe. Personally, I'm not interested in speaking of this, or to you, any longer."



"I have as much right to be here as you."



"You certainly do." To end it, Roz turned away, walked to a table across the room, and sat down to finish her tea.



Ten humming seconds of silence followed, until Mandy burst into tears and ran from the room. A few women hustled after her after shooting glances at Roz.



"Lord," Roz said when Mrs. Haggerty sat down beside her, "she is young, isn't she?"



"Young's no excuse for being flat-out stupid. Rude, on top of it." She looked up with a nod as Cissy moved to join them. "Surprised at you."



"At me? Why?"



"For speaking straight for a refreshing change."



Cissy shrugged, sat. "I like ugly scenes, and I won't deny it. Sure does spice up a dull day. But I don't like Bryce Clerk. And sometimes speaking straight makes things more interesting anyway. Only thing better would've been seeing Roz give that bobble-headed fool Mandy a good smack. Not your style, though," she said to Roz.



Then she touched a hand to Roz, gently. "You want to leave, I'll go with you."



"No, but thanks. I'll stick it out."



SHE GOT THROUGHthe meeting. It was a matter of grit, and of duty. When she got home she changed, then slipped out the back to go in the gardens, to sit on her bench in the cool and study the little signs of coming spring.



Her bulbs were spearing up, the daffodils and hyacinths that would burst into bloom before too long. The crocus were already in flower. They came so soon, she thought, left so early.



She could see the tight buds on her azaleas, and the faint haze on the forsythia.



While she sat, the control she'd locked into place wavered, so she was allowed, finally, to shake inside. With rage, with insult, with temper, with hurt. She gave herself the gift of swimming in the sea of all those dark emotions while she sat, alone in the quiet.



While she sat, the fury peaked, then ebbed, until she could breathe clear again.



She'd done the right thing, she decided. Faced it down, though she'd hated doing so in public. Still it was always better to face a fight than it was to run from it.



Had he thought she would? she wondered. Had he thought she'd break apart in public, run off in humiliation to lick her wounds?



She imagined he did. Bryce had never understood her.



John had, she thought, studying the arbor where his roses would ramble and bloom for her from spring into the summer, and well into fall. He had understood her, and he'd loved her. Or at least he'd understood and loved the girl she'd been.



Would he love the woman she'd become?



An odd thought, she decided, tipping her head back, closing her eyes. She might not be the woman she was if he'd lived.



He'd have left you. They all do. He'd have lied and cheated and broken you. Taken whores while you sat and waited. They all do.



I should know.



No, not John, she thought, squeezing her eyes tighter as that voice hissed in her head.



You're better off he died than if he'd lived long enough to ruin you. Like the other. Like the one you take to your bed now.



"How pitiful you are," Roz whispered, "to try to smear the memory, and the honor, of a good man."



"Roz." The hand on her shoulder made her jump. "Sorry," Mitch told her. "Talking in your sleep?"



"No." Didn't he feel the cold, or was it only inside her? Inside her along with the quivering belly. "I wasn't sleeping. Only thinking. How did you know I was out here?"



"David said he saw you through the window, heading out this way. Over an hour ago. It's a little chilly to sit out so long." He took her hand, rubbed it between his as he sat beside her. "Your hands are cold."



"They're all right."



"But you're not. You look sad."



She considered a moment, then reminded herself there were things that couldn't be personal. He was working for her. "I am, I guess. I am a little sad. She was talking to me. In my head."



"Now?" His hands tightened on hers.



"Mmm. You interrupted our conversation, though it was the same old, same old 'men are deceivers' sort of thing on her side."



He scanned the gardens. "I doubt Shakespeare could have created a more determined ghost than your Amelia. I was hoping you'd come by the library, for several reasons. This is one."



He turned her face toward his, pressed his mouth to hers.



"Something's wrong," he stated. "Something more."



How could he see her so well? How could he see what she was able to hide from most? "No, just a mood." But she drew her hand from his. "Some female histrionics earlier. Men are so much less inclined to drama, aren't they?"



"Why don't you tell me about it?"



"It's not worth the breath."



He started to speak again, she could feel him check the instinct to press. Instead he tapped his shoulder. "Put your head here?"



"What?"



"Right here." To ensure she did, he wrapped an arm around her waist, drew her close to his side. "How about it?"



She left it there, smiled a little. "It's not bad."



"And the world didn't spin on its axis because you leaned on someone else for a minute."



"No, it didn't. Thanks."



"You're welcome. Anyway, other reasons I was hoping you'd come in while I was working. I wanted to tell you I've sent a letter to your cousin Clarise Harper. If I don't hear back from her in a week, I'll do a follow-up. And I have several detailed family trees for you, the Harpers, your mother's family, your first husband's. I actually found an Amelia Ashby. No, leave that head right where it is," he said, tightening his grip when she started to sit up straight.



"She's not connected, as far as I can see, as she lived and died in Louisiana, and is too contemporary. I spent some time tracking her back, to see if I could find a link to your Amelia - a namesake sort of thing - but it's not happening. I have some e-mail correspondence from the great-granddaughter of the housekeeper who worked in Harper House from 1887 to 1912. She's a lawyer in Chicago, and is finding the family history interesting enough to put out feelers of her own. She could be a good source, at least on that one branch."



His hand stroked gently up and down her arm, relaxing her. "You've been busy."



"Most of that's just standard. But I've been thinking about the less ordinary portions of our project. When we made love - "



"What portion of the project does that come under?"



He laughed at her dry tone, and rubbed his cheek over her hair. "I put that in the extremely personal column and am hoping to fill a lot of pages in that file. But I've got a point. She manifested - that would be the word, right?"



"Can't think of a better."



"She blew open doors, slammed them shut, set the clocks off, and so on. Without question showed her feelings about what was going on between us, and has since we started that personal file."



"And so?"



"I'm not the first man you've been personal with in that house."



"No, you're not."



"But you haven't mentioned her having similar tantrums over you and John Ashby or you and Bryce Clerk - or anyone you might have had a relationship with otherwise."



"Because it never happened before."



"Okay. Okay." He got up, walking back and forth as he talked. "You lived in the house when you and John Ashby were dating, when you became engaged."



"Yes, of course. It's my home."



"And you lived here, primarily, after you were married, exclusively after your parents died."



She could see him working something out in his head. No, she corrected. It's already worked out, he was just going through the steps of it for her benefit.



"We stayed here often - my mother wasn't well, and my father couldn't cope with her half the time. When he died, we lived here, in an informal sort of way. When she died, we moved permanently into the house."



"And during all that time, Amelia never objected to him? To John."



"No. I stopped seeing her when I turned, oh, eleven, I'd say, and didn't see her again until after I was married. We hadn't been married long, but were already trying to have children. I thought I might be pregnant, and I couldn't sleep. I went outside, sat in the garden, and I saw her. I saw her and I knew I was carrying a child. I saw her at the onset of every pregnancy. Saw or heard her, of course, when the boys were little."



"Did your husband ever see her?"



"No." She frowned. "No, he didn't. Heard her, but never saw her. I saw her the night he died."



"You never told me that."



"I haven't told you each and every time I . . ." She trailed off, shook her head. "No, I'm sorry, I didn't tell you. I've never discussed it with anyone. It's very personal, and it's painful still."



"I don't know what it's like to love and lose someone the way you loved and lost your John. I know it must seem like prying, and it is. But it's all of a piece, Roz. I have to know, to do the job, I have to know this sort of thing."



"I didn't think you would, when I hired you. That you'd have to know personal things. Wait." She lifted a hand before he could speak. "I understand better now. How you work, I think, how you try to see things. People. The board in the library, the pictures on it so youcan see who they were. All the little details you accumulate. It's more than I bargained for. I think I mean that in a good way."



"I need to be immersed."



"Like you were with a brilliant and twisted poet," she said with a nod. "I also believe you have to know, and that I'm able to tell you these things, because of what we're becoming to each other. Conversely, that may be why it's hard for me to tell you. It's not easy for me to feel close to someone, to a man. To trust, and to want."



"Do you want it easy?"



She shook her head. "How do you know me so well already? No, I don't want it easy. I suspect easy. I'm having a time with you inside myself, Mitchell. That's a compliment."



"Same goes."



She studied him, standing there, vital and alive, with the arbor and its sleeping roses behind him. With warmth and sun, the roses would wake. But John, her John, was gone.



"John was coming home from his office in Memphis. Coming home late from a meeting. The roads were slick. It had been raining and the roads were slick, and there was fog."



Her heart gave a little hitch as it did, always, when she remembered.



"There was an accident. Someone driving too fast, crossed the center line. I was up, waiting up, and dealing with the boys. Harper had a nightmare, and both Mason and Austin had colds. I'd just settled them down, and was going to bed, irritated a little that John wasn't home yet. And there she was, standing there in my room."



She gave a half laugh, brushed a hand over her face. "Gave me a hell of a jolt, thinking oh, hell, am I pregnant, because believe me, I wasn't in the mood for it right at the moment after dealing with three restless, unhappy children. But something in her eyes didn't look right. Too bright, and I want to say too mean. It scared me a little. Then the police came, and well, I wasn't thinking about her anymore."



Her voice had remained steady throughout. But her eyes, her long, lovely eyes, mirrored the grief.



"It's a hard, hard thing. I can't even imagine it."



"Your life stops right there. Just stops. And when it starts up again, it's different. It's never what it was before that moment. Never."



He didn't touch her, didn't comfort, didn't support. What was in her heart, for this moment, in this winter garden belonged to someone else.



"You had no one. No mother, no father, no sister, no brother."



"I had my sons. I had this house. I had myself." She looked away, and he could see her draw herself back, close that door to the past. "I understand where you're going with this, and I don't understand it. She never bothered to object before, not to John, or anyone I was with after, not to Bryce. She did, occasionally express some disapproval - I've told you that before. But nothing on the scale she has recently. Why would that be?"



"I've been trying to work that out. I have a couple of theories. Let's go inside first. The light's going and you're going to be chilled straight through. Not much meat on you. That wasn't a complaint," he added when she narrowed her eyes.



Deliberately she bumped up the southern in her voice. "I come from a line of women with delicate builds."



"Nothing delicate about you," he corrected and took her hand as they walked toward the house. "What you are is a long wild rose - a black rose with plenty of thorns."



"Black roses don't grow wild. They have to be cultivated. And no one's ever managed a true black."



"A black rose," he repeated and brought their joined hands to his lips. "Rare and exquisite."



"You keep talking like that, I'll have to invite you up to my private quarters."



"I thought you'd never ask."

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