Black Rose


Chapter Twenty




UPSTAIRS IN THEsitting room, Mitch lifted Roz's feet into his lap, and began to rub. "Long day for you."



"Wasn't it just."



"You got in some mighty swings, Slugger."



"I did, but Harper sure did bat clean-up and knock it out of the park."



"I know I'm in love when my girl can talk in baseball analogies." He lifted her foot higher to kiss her ankle. "I'll take my share of the journals with me. I should be able to get a start on them tonight."



"You've had a long day yourself. After the wedding's soon enough." She tipped her head back, closed her eyes as his thumb pressed into her arch. "Besides, if you go, you'll stop rubbing my feet."



"I was hoping this would be a suitable bribe."



"You don't need a bribe. I was hoping you'd stay."



"It so happens I have my suit for the wedding out in the car."



Her eyes stayed closed; her lips curved. "I like a man who thinks ahead."



"I wasn't sure there'd be a place for a man in the house tonight. Wedding eve, female rituals."



"We started our rituals at the salon this morning, and we'll pick them up tomorrow. They're going to make a lovely family, aren't they?"



"They already do. I enjoyed watching those boys stand up to the old woman, and your elegantly executed shots. Followed by Harper's base-clearing run."



"We were all wonderfully rude, weren't we? Of course, she won't speak to you again. Won't help you with your book."



"I'm not worried about it. And - we'll call it postseason play - she's unlikely to be entertained by what I write about her."



"I will be. She knows. She knows who Amelia is, what happened to her. I suppose she always has. There's a possibility she destroyed any journals with a mention of her - a small one, as anything pertaining to Harper House is sacrosanct to her. But it's something we should be prepared for."



"We just need a few seeds. I can propagate from there."



She opened her eyes. "Aren't you clever? I know I'm in love when my guy can talk in gardening terms."



"You haven't seen anything yet. Rosalind, I'm seduced by your feet."



"My feet?"



"Crazy about them. I just never know . . ." Slowly he drew off one of her thick socks. "What I'll find. Ah." He brushed a finger over her toenails, painted pale shell pink, with just a hint of glitter. "Surprise, surprise."



"They're often one of my little secrets."



He lifted her feet, traced his lips down her arch. "I love secrets."



There was something powerful about pleasuring a strong woman, watching her, feeling her surrender to sensation. A tiny quiver, a quiet sigh was unspeakably erotic when you knew the woman yeilded to no one.



From attraction to passion, from passion to love. It was a journey he'd never planned to make again. Yet here he was. When he touched her, he knew she was the woman, the only woman he wanted to spend his life with. He wondered how he'd reached this point in his life without knowing, and needing, her scent, the sound of her voice, the fascinating textures of her skin.



When she rose up, locking her arms around him, fixing her mouth warmly on his, his heart nearly burst.



"I can see you in the dark," he told her. "I can hear you when you're miles away."



The small sound she made was pure emotion as she sank into him.



She held tight, tight a moment with her head on his shoulder, her heart knocking against his. How love could be so many different things at so many different times, she'd never understand. She could only be grateful for it, grateful to have found this love at this time.



She would cherish it. Cherish him.



She eased back to take his face in her hands, so their eyes met. "It's harder when you come into something like this, knowing more, having more behind you. But at the same time, it's more itself. Fuller, richer. I want you to know that's how I feel with you. Full and rich."



"I don't think I can do without you, Rosalind."



"Good." She touched her lips to his. "Good," she repeated and slid slow and deep into the kiss.



She curled around him, breathing him in. His hair, his skin. Here, unbearable tenderness, and there, a simmering excitement. While her mouth clung to his, her fingers flipped open the buttons of his shirt, lifted her arms so he could draw her away and they could press together, warm flesh to warm flesh.



He pressed her back onto the couch, let his hands and lips roam over her. Breasts and shoulders and throat, down to that impossibly narrow torso.



There were signs of the children she'd borne, the men she'd made. For a moment he lay his cheek on her belly, amazed he'd been given the gift of a woman so vital, so potent.



She stroked his back, gliding on the shimmer that coated her senses, lazily working her hands between them to unbutton his jeans. She found him hard and hot, and felt her own muscles bunch and quiver in anticipation.



Now they tugged at clothes, and once again she rose up. This time she straddled him, staring into those bottle-green eyes as she slowly, slowly took him inside her.



"Ah. God." She gripped the back of the couch, her fingers digging in.



With a brutal hold on control, she rode, hips moving in a tortuously gentle rhythm, strong thighs caging him as she set the pace.



She could feel his hands on her, a desperate grip on her hips as he struggled to let her lead. Then a smooth caress up her back, a slick stroke to cup her breasts.



She tightened around him, pressing her mouth to his when she came so he could taste her moan. He was buried in her, their arms locked around each other, when she threw her head back. When her eyes, glassy with arousal, finally closed.



And she whipped him, joyfully, to the finish.



ROZ WOKE ATfour, too early to jog, too late to talk herself back to sleep. She lay awhile, in the quiet dark. It amazed her how quickly she'd gotten used to having Mitch in her bed. She didn't feel crowded, or even surprised to have him sleeping beside her.



It felt more natural than she'd expected - not something she had to adjust to, but something she'd discovered she no longer wanted to do without.



She wondered why it didn't feel odd to wake with him, to start the daily routine with another person in her space. The bathroom shuffle, the conversation - or the silence - while they dressed.



Not odd or strange, she decided, maybe because some part of her had been waiting to make this unit again. She hadn't looked for it, or sought it, hadn't pined without it. In some ways, the years alone had helped make her the woman she was. And that woman was ready to share the rest of her life, her home, her family, with this man.



She slipped out of bed, moving quietly. Another change, she realized. It had been a long time since she'd had to worry about disturbing a sleeping mate.



She moved to her sitting room to choose one of the journals. She ran her hand gently over one of her grandmother's. Those she would save for later, those she would read for pleasure and for sentiment.



What she did now, she did for duty.



It took her less than fifteen minutes to conclude she and her great-grandmother wouldn't have understood each other.



Weather remains fine. Reginald's business keeps him in New Orleans. I was unable to find the shade of blue silk I'm seeking. The shops here are simply notau courant.I believe we must arrange a trip to Paris. Though it's imperative we engage another governess for the girls before we do. This current woman is entirely too independent. When I think of the money spent on her salary, her room and board, I find myself most dissatisfied by her service. Recently I gave her a very nice day dress, which didn't suit me, and which she accepted without a qualm. However, when I ask for some small favor, she behaves very grudgingly. Surely she has time to run a few simple errands when there's nothing else on her plate but minding the girls and teaching a few lessons.



I have the impression she considers herself above her station.



Roz stretched out her legs, flipped through pages. Most of the entries were more of the same. Complaints, tidbits about shopping, plans for parties, rehashes of parties attended. There was very little dealing with the children.



She set that one aside for later, picked up another. Skimming, she found an entry on dismissing a maid for giggling in the hallway, another on a lavish ball. Then stopped, and read more carefully when an entry caught her eye.



I've miscarried again. Why is it as painful to lose a child as to birth one? I'm exhausted. I wonder how I can suffer through this process yet again in the attempt to give Reginald the heir he so desperately wants. He will want to lie with me again as soon as I am able, and that ordeal will continue, I suspect, until I conceive once more.



I can find no pleasure in it, nor in the girls who are a daily reminder of what I have yet to accomplish.



At least, once I conceive yet again, I will be left to myself for the months of waiting. It is my duty to bear sons. I will not shirk my duty, and yet it seems I am unable to bring forth anything but chattering girls.



I want only to sleep and forget that I have failed, once again, to provide my husband and this house with the heir they both demand.



Children as duty only, Roz thought. How sad. How must those little girls have felt, being failures because of their sex? Had there been any joy in this house during Beatrice's reign as its mistress, or had it all been duty and show?



Depressed, she considered switching to one of her grandmother's journals, but ordered herself to glance through one more.



I'm sick to death of that busybody Mary Louise Berker. You would think because she's managed to birth four sons, and is once again fat as a cow with yet another child, she knows all there is to know about conception and child-rearing. This is hardly the case. Her sons run around like wild Indians, and think nothing of putting their grubby little hands on the furniture in her parlor. And she just laughs and saysboys will be boyswhen they and their scruffy dogs - three of them! - come romping in.



She had the nerve to suggest I might see her doctor, and somevoodoowoman. She swears she'll have the girl she pines for this time because she went to this hideous person and bought a charm to hang over her bed.



It's bad enough she dotes on those ruffians in a most unseemly way, and often in public, but it's beyond belief that she would speak to me about such matters, all under the guise of friendship and concern.



I could not take my leave soon enough.



Roz decided she'd have liked Mary Louise. And wondered if the Bobby Lee Berker she'd gone to high school with was a descendant.



Then she saw it, and her heart took a hard jump into her throat.



I have locked myself in my room. I will speak to no one. The humiliation I have been dealt is beyond bearing. For all these years I have been a dutiful wife, an exceptional hostess, I have overseen the staff of this house without complaint, and worked tirelessly to present the proper image for our societal equals and Reginald's business associates.



I have, as wives must, overlooked his private affairs, satisfied that he was always discreet.



Now this.



He arrived home this evening and requested that I come to the library so he could speak to me privately. He told me he had impregnated one of his mistresses. This is not a conversation that should take place between husband and wife, and when this was my response, he brushed it aside as if it was no matter.



As if I am no matter.



I am told that I will be required to create the illusion that I am expecting. I am told that if this creature delivers a son, it will be brought into our home, it will be given the Harper name and raised here. As his son. As my son.



If it is a girl, it will be of no matter. I will have another "miscarriage" and that will be that.



I refused. Of course I refused. To take a whore's child into my home.



Then he gave me this choice. Accept his decision, or he would divorce me. One way or the other, he will have a son. He prefers that I remain his wife, that neither of us are exposed to the scandal of divorce, and he will compensate me well for this one thing. If I refuse, it will be divorce and shame, and I will be sent away from the home I have cared for, the life I have made.



So there is no choice.



I pray that this slatern delivers a girl child. I pray it dies. That she dies. That they all burn in Hell.



Roz's hands shook. Though she wanted to read on, she stood first, walked to the terrace doors. She needed air. With the book in her hand, she stood outside, breathing in the early morning.



What kind of man had this been? To have forced his illegitimate son on his wife. Even if he hadn't loved her, he should have respected her.



And what love could he have had for the child, to have subjected him to a woman who would never, could never, care for him as a mother? Who would always resent him? Even despise him?



And all to carry on the Harper name.



"Roz?"



She didn't turn when she heard Mitch's voice behind her. "I woke you. I thought I was quiet."



"You were. You just weren't there."



"I found something. I started reading through some of the journals. I found something."



"Whatever it is, it's upset you."



"I'm sad, and I'm angry. And I'm surprised that I'm not surprised. I found an entry . . . No, you should read it for yourself." She turned now, held the book out, open to where she'd stopped. "Take it into the sitting room. I just need another minute here."



"All right." He took the book, then, because there was something in her eyes that pulled at his heart, he cupped her chin in his free hand and kissed her softly.



She turned back to the view, to the grounds and the gardens going silver with oncoming dawn. The home that had been her family's for generations. Had it been worth it? she wondered. Had the pain and humiliation one man had caused been worth holding this ground under one name?



She walked back in, sat across from Mitch. "Is this where you stopped?" he asked her.



"I needed to absorb it, I guess. How cruel he was to her. She wasn't an admirable woman, not from what I've read in her own diaries. Selfish, self-absorbed, petty. But she deserved better than this. You haven't given me a son, so I'll get one elsewhere. Accept it, or leave. She accepted."



"You don't know that yet."



"We know." She shook her head. "We'll read the rest, but we know."



"I can go through this, and the others, later. Myself."



"No, let's do it now. It's my legacy, after all. See what you can find, will you? I'm going down to make coffee."



When she came back, she noted he'd gotten his reading glasses. He looked like a rumpled scholar, she thought, pulling an all-nighter. Shirtless, jeans unbuttoned, hair mussed.



That same tenderness floated over her, like a balm over the ache in her heart.



"I'm glad you were here when I found this." She set the tray down, then leaned over, kissed the top of his head. "I'm glad you're here."



"There's more." He reached up for her hands. "Do you want me to summarize?"



"No, read her words. I want to hear her words."



"There's snippets here and there, her thoughts on this worked into daily entries. Her humiliation and the rage under it. She made him pay in the only way she knew, by spending his money lavishly, by shutting him out of her bed, taking trips."



"A stronger woman would have thumbed her nose," she said, pouring coffee, "taken her children and left him. But she didn't."



"No, she didn't. Times were different for women then."



"The times may have been different, but right's still right."



She set down his coffee, and this time sat beside him. "Read it, Mitch. I want to know."



"He brought the bastard home, with some trollop of a wet nurse he brought in from one of his country holdings. Not the mother, he says, who remains in the house in town where he keeps her. He has his son at last, a squalling thing wrapped in a blanket. I did not look at it, and will not. I know only that he has paid the doctor to keep him quiet, and that I am required to continue to remain in the house, receiving no callers for another few days.



"He has brought this thing home in the dead of night, so the servants will believe I delivered it. Or will pretend to believe it. He has named it. Reginald Edward Harper, Jr."



"My grandfather," Roz murmured. "Poor little boy. He grew to be a fine man. A kind of miracle, I suppose, given his beginnings. Is there anything on his mother?"



"Not in this book, though I'll go through it more carefully."



"There will be more, in one of the other journals. She died here, Amelia did. At some point Beatrice must have seen or spoken with her, or dealt with her in some way."



"I'll start looking now."



"No." Tired, she rubbed at her eyes. "No, there's a wedding today. Today is for joy and fresh starts, not for grief and old secrets. We know enough for today."



"Rosalind, this in no way changes who you are."



"No, it doesn't. Of course it doesn't. But it makes me think, that for people like this . . . for people like Reginald and Beatrice, marriage was a practicality. Social standing, breeding, family backgrounds. Maybe there was some affection, or some attraction, but at its core, it was business. The business of maintaining families at a certain level. And children were just tools to accomplish that. How sad for them, and how tragic for the children. But today . . ."



She drew a deep breath. "Today we're seeing it shouldn't be that way. We're going to watch two people who love each other make promises, make a marriage, cement a family. I'm glad you're here, Mitch, and I'm glad we found this today. Because this wedding is just what I need now."



IT WAS THEperfect day for it, tailor-made with candy-blue skies and balmy air scented with flowers. The gardens Logan and Stella had made bloomed in a lovely array of color and shape.



There were chairs set up on the lawn, covered with pale peach drapes and forming an aisle where Stella would walk on her father's arm, toward Logan and her sons.



Roz turned from the window to watch Jolene fuss with the flowers in Stella's hair.



"You make a picture," she said. "Both of you."



"I'm going to start crying again." Jolene waved a hand in front of her face. "I can't count how many times I've repaired my makeup. I'm going to run out just for a minute, honey, check on your daddy."



"Okay." Stella waited until Jolene scurried out. "I was going to be mad and upset that my mother refused to come. Too much trouble to make the trip - not like it's my first time - and she wasn't going to sit around in the same space asthat woman, which she continues to call Jolene even after all these years."



"Her loss, isn't it?"



"It is - and my gain, really. It's Jolene I want today anyway. And you, and Hayley." Stella lifted her hand to touch the sapphires in her ears. "They're so perfect."



"They do the trick. Look at you." Feeling a little misty herself, Roz stepped closer to study her friend.



The dress was simple, a pale, pale blue with narrow straps, a straight bodice and a long skirt with a slight bell. There were two dahlias pinned in her curling red hair. One white, one blue. And her face was luminous, as a bride's was meant to be.



"I feel absolutely beautiful."



"You should. You are. I'm so happy for you."



"I'm not nervous anymore, not even a little jump in the belly." Stella pressed a hand to it as she blinked tears back. "I think about Kevin, my first wedding, the years we had together, the children we made together. And I know, in my heart, I know he's okay with this. Logan's a good man."



"A very good man."



"I made him wait almost a year." She let out a laughing breath. "Time's up. Roz, thank you for all you've done."



"You're welcome. Ready to get married?"



"I'm absolutely ready."



It was sweet, Roz thought, and it was lovely. The man and woman, the young boys, coming together in the gardens of the home they'd share. Logan, big and strong and handsome in his suit, Stella, bright and beautiful in her bride dress, and the children grinning even when Logan kissed the bride.



The guests broke into spontaneous applause as Logan swept Stella off her feet and spun her in a circle. And Harper topped off the moment by popping the first bottle of champagne.



"I don't know when I've seen a happier couple," Mitch commented, and tapped his glass to Roz's. "Or a prettier family. You do good work."



"I didn't do anything."



"It's like a family tree. These two come from one of your branches. May not be blood, but it comes to the same. It's their connection to you that brought them together. They did the rest, but the connection started it."



"That's a nice thought. I'll take it." She lifted her glass, sipped. "There's something I want to talk to you about a little later. I wanted to wait to bring it up until after Stella had her day. A wedding day, by rights, belongs to the bride."



"What's it about?"



"I guess you could say it's about connections." She rose on her toes to kiss him. "We'll talk about it after we go home. Fact is, I've got to run back real quick. With all this commotion I forgot the special bottle of champagne I have back home for the bride and groom and their wedding night."



"I can run get it."



"No, it'll be quicker if I do. I'll be back in fifteen minutes."



As she got to the car, she stopped as Hayley called her.



"Roz! Hold up. Is it okay if we ride with you?" A little breathless, she stopped at the car with a crying Lily in her arms. "I've got a cranky girl here, needs a little nap. But she won't go down. Car ride'll do the trick. We can take mine, it has the car seat."



"Sure. It's going to be a quick run, though."



"That's all right." She walked to her own car, battled an objecting Lily into the seat. "Rides always calm her down, and if she goes to sleep, I can just sit out here with her until she wakes up. Then we'll both have a better time at the party."



As advertised, the crying stopped, and Lily's head began to droop before they were down the lane to the main road.



"Works like a charm," Hayley said.



"Always did with mine, too. She looks so sweet in her pink party dress."



"Everything looked so beautiful. If I ever get married, I want it to be just like that. Springtime, flowers, friends, shiny faces. I always thought I wanted a big church extravaganza, but this was so romantic."



"Just right for them. It's nice to - Slow down. Stop the car!"



"What? What's the . . . oh, my God."



They looked over at In the Garden. Roz had closed for the day so everyone could enjoy the wedding. But someone, she could see, had been there. Someone, she thought, still was.



Several of her outdoor displays were overturned, and a car was parked sideways, crushing one of her beds.



"Call the police," Roz snapped and was already out of the car. "You and the baby get out of here now. Go back to Logan's right now."



"Don't. Don't go in there now."



"This is my place." And she was already running.



Her flowers, she thought. Plants she'd started from seed or cutting, babied along, nurtured and loved. Destroyed, beaten down, ripped to pieces.



Innocent, she thought as she took only a moment to grieve for the loss and waste. Innocent beauty crushed to nothing.



There would be payment made.



She heard glass shatter, and charged around the back of the main building. She saw Bryce, swinging a baseball bat at another window.



"You son of a bitch."



He whirled. She saw the shock first, then the rage. "Thought you were busy today. Figured I'd be done before you came by."



"You figured wrong."



"Doesn't matter a damn." He slammed the bat into the next window. "Time you learned a lesson. You think you can humiliate me in public? Set the cops on me?"



"You humiliated yourself, and if you don't put that down and get the hell off my property, I'm going to do more than set the cops on you."



"Such as? Just you and me now, isn't it?" He slapped the bat against his palm, took a step toward her. "Do you know what you cost me?"



"I've got a general idea, and it's going to be more. Trespassing, destruction of property."



He didn't use the bat, though she saw in his eyes, just for an instant, that he considered it. But he swung out with his hand, cracking her across the cheekbone and sending her sprawling.



That was all it took. She was up like a flash and launching herself at him. She didn't use nails and teeth as Mandy had. She used her fists, and took him so by surprise, he fell to his knees before he managed to block her, and strike out at her again.



But the blow didn't land.



The wind came up so fast, so cold, so furious, that it flung Roz back against the building. Her head rapped sharply against wood so she had to shake it clear.



When she did, she saw Amelia sweeping across the ground, dirty white gown flying, hands curled like lethal claws. Murder in her eye.



And so did Bryce.



He screamed, a single high-pitched shriek of terror before he began to claw at his throat and gasp for air.



"Don't. For God's sake." Roz tried to push forward, but was slapped back by the pressure of the wind. "Don't kill him. It's enough, it's enough! He can't hurt me. He won't hurt me."



Gravel spat and spun, and the figure in white circled, vulturelike, over the man collapsed on the ground raking his own throat bloody.



"Stop. Amelia, stop. Great-grandmama."



Amelia's head lifted, turned, and her eyes met Roz's.



"I know. I know I come from you. I know you're trying to protect me. It's all right. He won't hurt me now. Please." She pushed forward again, managed two steps with an effort that sucked her breath out of her lungs. "He's nothing!" she shouted. "A bug. But he taught me some important lessons. And I'm going to teach him some hard ones. I want him to live so he pays."



She fought forward another step, holding her hands out, palms up. "There will be payment, I swear to you. For me, and on the blood we share, I swear there'll be payment for you."



He was breathing again, Roz noted, short, harsh breaths, but air was wheezing in and out of Bryce's white, white lips. She crouched down, spoke calmly. "Looks like it wasn't just you and me after all."



The wind began to die, and through it she heard shouts and running feet. When she straightened, Amelia was gone.



She staggered back on rubbery legs as Harper flew around the side of the building two strides ahead of Mitch.



"I'm all right. I'm fine." Though she felt her head circle like a carousel. "But this one might need a little medical attention."



"Fuck him. Mama." Harper grabbed her, feathered his hands over her face. "Jesus Christ. Jesus, he hit you?"



"Sucker punched me, but I got him back, believe me. Got him worse. And Amelia finished him off. I'm all right, baby, I promise you."



"Cops are on their way." She looked over at the tremble in Mitch's voice, and saw from his face it was partly from fear, partly from rage. "Hayley called them on her cell on the way back to get us."



"Good. Good." She wasnot going to faint again. No matter what. "Well, we're just going to press all sorts of charges." She brushed at her hair, then her dress, and noticed a tear on the skirt. "Goddamn it, I bought this especially for today. Allsorts of charges."



She drew in a breath, struggling with temper and giddiness. "Harper, honey, will you do me a favor and take this worthless piece of trash around front, you and Mitch wait for the police. I don't want to see him for a minute or two. I might finish what Amelia started."



"Let me haul him up first." Mitch bent down, yanked Bryce up on his buckling legs. Then with eyes burning green, he glanced toward Roz.



"Sorry," he said before he plowed his fist into Bryce's face and sent him sprawling again. "Hope you don't mind."



"Not a bit," Roz told him, and despite the churning in her belly found her lips spreading into a wide, wide grin. "Not a damn bit. Harper, you mind taking it from here? I'd like a word with Mitch."



"Happy to." He dragged Bryce off, and shot a look over his shoulder. "Mama, you sure can kick ass."



"Yeah." She drew in a breath, let it out. "If it's all the same to you," she said to Mitch, "I'm just going to sit down right here until I get my feet back under me. That ass-kicking took something out of me."



"Wait." He peeled off his jacket, spread it on the ground. "No point in messing up that dress any more than it is."



She sat down, then tipped her head onto his shoulder when he joined her. "My hero," she declared.



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