ROZ TOOK HER
holiday mood shopping. The nursery could get along without her for half a day. The fact was, the way Stella managed it, the nursery could get along without her for a week. If she had the urge, she could take herself off on her first real vacation in - how long had it been? Three years, she realized.
But she didn't have the urge.
Home was where she was happiest, so why go to all the trouble of packing, endure the stress of traveling, just to end up somewhere else?
She'd taken the boys on a trip every year when they were growing up. Disney World, the Grand Canyon, Washington, D.C., Bar Harbor, and so on. Little tastes of the country, sometimes chosen at whim, sometimes with great planning.
Then they'd taken that three-week vacation in Europe. Hadn't that been a time?
It had been hard, sometimes frantic, sometimes hysterical, herding three active boys around, but oh, it had been worth it.
She could remember how Austin had loved the whale-watch cruise in Maine, how Mason had insisted on ordering snails in Paris, and Harper had managed to get himself lost in Adventureland.
She wouldn't trade those memories for anything. And she'd seen a nice chunk of the world herself.
Instead of a vacation, she could concentrate on other things. Maybe it was time to start thinking about adding a little florist shop onto the nursery. Fresh-cut flowers and arrangements. Local delivery. Of course, it would mean another building, more supplies, more employees. But it was something to think about for a year or two down the road.
She'd have to go over some figures, see if the business could handle the outlay.
She'd sunk a great deal of her personal resources into the nursery to get it off the ground. But she'd been ready to gamble. Her priorities had been, always, that her children were safe, secure, and well provided for. And that Harper House remain tended, protected, and in the family.
She'd accomplished that. Though there'd been times it had taken a lot of creative juggling and had caused the occasional sleepless night. Perhaps money hadn't been the terrifying issue for her that it often was for single parents, but it had been an issue.
In the Garden hadn't just been a whim, as some thought. She'd needed fresh income and had bargained, gambled, and finagled to get it.
It didn't matter to Roz if people thought she was rich as Croesus or poor as a church mouse. The fact was she was neither, but she'd built a good life for herself and her children with the resources she'd had at hand.
Now, if she wanted to go just a little crazy playing Santa, she'd earned it.
She burned up the mall, indulging herself to the point that she needed to make two trips out to her car with bags. Seeing no reason to stop there, she headed to Wal-Mart, intending to plow through the toy department.
As usual, the minute she stepped through the doors she thought of a dozen other things she could probably use. Her basket was half loaded, and she'd stopped in the aisles to exchange greetings with four people she knew before she made it to the toy department.
Five minutes later she was wondering if she'd need a second cart. Struggling to balance a couple of enormous boxes on top of the mound of other purchases, she turned a corner.
And rapped smartly into another cart.
"Sorry. I can't seem to . . . oh. Hi."
It had been weeks since she'd seen Dr. Mitchell Carnegie, the genealogist she'd hired - more or less. There had been a few brief phone conversations, some businesslike e-mails, but only a scatter of face-to-face contacts since the night he'd come to dinner. And had ended up seeing the Harper Bride ghost.
She considered him an interesting man and gave him top marks for not hightailing it after the experience they'd all shared the previous spring.
He had, in her opinion, the credentials she needed, along with the spine and the open mind. Best of all he'd yet to bore her in their discussions of family lineage and the steps necessary to identifying a dead woman.
Just now it looked as if he hadn't shaved in the past few days, so there was a dark stubble toughening his face. His bottle-green eyes appeared both tired and harassed. His hair badly needed a trim.
He was dressed much like the first time she'd met him, in old jeans and rolled-up shirtsleeves. Unlike hers, his basket was empty.
"Help me," he said in the tone of a man dangling from a cliff by a sweaty grip on a shaky limb.
"Six-year-old girl. Birthday. Desperation."
"Oh." Deciding she liked that warm bourbon voice, even with panic sharpening it, Roz pursed her lips. "What's the connection?"
"Niece. Sister's surprise late baby. She had the decency to have two boys before. I can handle boys."
"Well, is she a girly girl?"
He made a sound, as if the limb had started to crack.
"All right, all right." Roz waved a hand and, abandoning her own cart, turned down the aisle. "You could've saved yourself some stress by just asking her mother."
"My sister's pissed at me because I forgother birthday last month."
"Look, I forgot everything last month, including my own name a couple of times. I told you I was finishing some revisions on the book. I was on deadline. For God's sake, she's forty-three. One. Or possibly two." Obviously at wit's end, he scrubbed his hands over his face. "Doesn't your breed stop having birthdays at forty?"
"We may stop counting, Dr. Carnegie, but that doesn't mean we don't expect an appropriate gift on the occasion."
"Loud and clear," he responded, watching her peruse the shelves. "And since you're back to calling me Dr. Carnegie, I'd hazard a guess you're on her side. I sent flowers," he added in an aggrieved tone that had her lips twitching. "Okay, late, but I sent them. Two dozen roses, but does she cut me a break?"
He jammed his hands into his back pockets and scowled at Malibu Barbie. "I couldn't get back to Charlotte for Thanksgiving. Does that make me a demon from hell?"
"It sounds like your sister loves you very much."
"She'll be planning my immediate demise if I don't get this gift today, and have it FedExed tomorrow."
She picked up a doll, set it down again. "Then I assume your niece's birthday is tomorrow, and you waited until the eleventh hour to rush out and find something for her."
He said nothing for a moment, then laid a hand on her shoulder so that she looked over, and up at him. "Rosalind, do you want me to die?"
"I'm afraid I wouldn't feel responsible. But we'll find something, then you can get it wrapped up and shoot it off."
"Wrapped. God almighty, it has to be wrapped?"
"Of course it has to be wrapped. And you have to buy a nice card, something pretty and age-appropriate. Hmm. I like this." She tapped a huge box.
"What is it?"
"It's a house-building toy. See, it has all these modular pieces so you can design and redesign your own doll house, with furnishings. It comes with dolls, and a little dog. Fun, and educational. You hit on two levels."
"Great. Good. Wonderful. I owe you my life."
"Aren't you a little out of your milieu?" she asked when he took the box off the shelf. "You live right in the city. Plenty of shops right there."
"That's the problem. Too many of them. And the malls? They're like a labyrinth of retail hell. I have mall fear. So I thought, hey, Wal-Mart. At least everything's all under one roof. I can get the kid taken care of and get . . . what the hell was it? Laundry soap. Yeah, I need laundry soap and something else, that I wrote down . . ." He dug in his pocket, pulled out a PDA. "Here."
"Well, I'll let you get to it then. Don't forget the wrapping paper, ribbon, a big bow, and a pretty card."
"Hold on, hold on." With the stylus he added the other items. "Bow. You can just buy them ready-made and slap it on, right?"
"That will do, yes. Good luck."
"No. Wait, wait." He shoved the PDA back in his pocket, shifted the box. His green eyes seemed calmer now and focused on her. "I was going to get in touch with you anyway. Are you finished in here?"
"Good. Let me grab what I need, then I'll meet you at the checkout. I'll help you haul your load out to your car, then take you to lunch."
"It's nearly four. A little late for lunch."
"Oh." He looked absently at his watch to confirm the time. "I think time must warp in places like this so you could actually spend the rest of your natural life wandering aimlessly without realizing it. Anyway. A drink then. I'd really like to have a conversation about the project."
"All right. There's a little place called Rosa's right across the way. I'll meet you there in a half hour."
BUT HE WASwaiting at the checkout. Patiently, from all appearances. Then insisted on helping her load her bags in her car. He took one look at what was already stacked in the back of her Durango and said, "Holy Mother of God."
"I don't shop often, so when I do I make it count."
"There are less than three weeks left till Christmas."
"I'll have to ask you to shut up." He hefted the last bag inside. "My car's that way." He gestured vaguely toward their left. "I'll meet you."
"Fine. Thanks for the help."
The way he wandered off made her think he wasn't entirely sure just where he'd parked. She thought he should've plugged the location into that little personal data thingy he had in his pocket. The idea made her chuckle as she drove over to the restaurant.
She didn't mind a certain amount of absentmindedness. To her it simply indicated the person probably had a lot in his head, and it took a little longer to find just what he was after. She'd hadn't hired him out of the blue, after all. She'd researched Mitchell Carnegie and had read or skimmed some of his books. He was good at what he did, he was local, and though he was pricey, he hadn't balked - overmuch - about the prospect of researching and identifying a ghost.
She parked, then walked into the lounge area. Her first thought was to order a glass of iced tea, or some coffee. Then she decided, the hell with that. She deserved a nice glass of wine after such a successful shopping expedition.
While she waited for Mitch, she called the nursery on her cell phone to let them know she wouldn't be back in, unless she was needed.
"Everything's fine here," Hayley told her. "You must be buying out the stores."
"I did. Then I happened to run into Dr. Carnegie at Wal-Mart - "
"Dr. Hottie? How come I never run into hunks at Wal-Mart?"
"Your day will come, I'm sure. In any case, we're going to have a drink here and discuss, I assume, our little project."
"Cool. You ought to spin it out over dinner, Roz."
"It's not a date." But she did pull out her lipstick and slide a little pale coral on her lips. "It's an impromptu meeting. If anything comes up, you can give me a call. I should be heading home within the hour anyway."
"Don't worry about a thing. And, hey, you've both got to eat sometime, somewhere, so why not - "
"Here he comes now, so we'll get started. I'll fill everyone in later. Bye now."
Mitch slipped into the booth across from her. "This was handy, wasn't it? What would you like?"
She ordered a glass of wine, and he coffee, black. Then he flipped open the bar menu and added antipasto. "You've got to need some sustenance after a shopping safari like that. How've you been?"
"Very well, thanks. How about you?"
"Good, now that the book's out of my hair."
"I never asked you what it was about."
"A history and study of Charles-Pierre Baudelaire." He waited a beat, noted her questioning lift of brows. "Nineteenth-century poet. Wild man of Paris - druggie, very controversial, with a life full of drama. He was found guilty of blasphemy and obscenity, squandered his inheritance, translated Poe, wrote dark, intense poetry, and, long after his death from a sexually transmitted disease, is looked on by many to be the poet of modern civilization - and others as being one sick bastard."
She smiled. "And which camp do you pitch your tent in?"
"He was brilliant, and twisted. And believe me, you don't want to get me started, so I'll just say he was a fascinating and frustrating subject to write about."
"Are you happy with the work you did?"
"I am. Happier yet," he said as their drinks were served, "not to be living with Baudelaire day and night."
"It's like that, isn't it, like living with a ghost."
"Nice segue." He toasted her with his coffee. "Let me say, first, I appreciate your patience. I'd hoped to have this book wrapped up weeks ago, but one thing led to another."
"You warned me at the start you wouldn't be available for some time."
"Hadn't expected it to be quite this much time. And I've given quite a bit of thought to your situation. Hard not to after that experience last spring."
"It was a more personal introduction to the Harper Bride than I'd planned."
"You've said she's been . . . subdued," he decided, "since then."
"She still sings to the boys and to Lily. But none of us has seen her since that night. And to be frank, it hasn't been patience so much as being swamped myself. Work, home, a wedding coming up, a new baby in the house. And after that night, it seemed like all of us needed a little break."
"I'd like to get started now, really started, if that works for you."
"I suppose it was fate that we ran into each other like this, because I've been thinking the same thing. What will you need?"
"Everything you've got. Hard data, records, journals, letters, family stories. Nothing's too obscure. I appreciate the family photos you had copied for me. It just helps me immerse, you could say, if I have photos, and letters or diaries written in the hands of the people I'm researching."
"No problem. I'll be happy to load you up with more."
"Some of what I've managed so far - between bouts with Baudelaire - is what we'll call a straight job. Starting to chart the basic family tree, getting a feel for the people and the line. Those are the first steps."
"And at the end of the day, something I'll enjoy having."
"I wonder if there's a place I could work in your house. I'd do the bulk in my apartment, but it might be helpful if I had some space on site. The house plays a vital part in the research, and the results."
"That wouldn't be a problem."
"For the Amelia portion of the project, I'd like a list of names. Anyone who's had any sort of contact with her I'll need to interview."
"And the written permission we talked about before, for me to access family records, birth, marriage, death certificates, that sort of thing."
"You'll have it."
"And permission to use the research, and what I pull out of it, in a book."
She nodded. "I'd want manuscript approval."
He smiled at her, charmingly. "You won't get it."
"Well, really - "
"I'll be happy to provide you with a copy, when and if, but you won't have approval." He picked up a short, thick breadstick from the wide glass on the table and offered it to her. "What I find, I find; what I write, I write. Andif I write a book, sell it, you owe me nothing for the work."
She leaned back, drew air deep. His casual good looks, that somewhat shaggy peat-moss brown hair, the charming smile, the ancient high-tops, all disguised a clever and stubborn man.
It was a shame, she supposed, that she respected stubborn, clever men. "And if you don't?"
"We go back to the original terms we discussed at our first meeting. The first thirty hours are gratis, and after that it's fifty an hour plus expenses. We can have a contract drawn up, spelling it all out."
"I think that would be wise."
When the appetizer was served, Roz declined a second glass of wine, absently selected an olive from the plate. "Won't you need permission from anyone you interview as well, if you decide to publish?"
"I'll take care of that. I want to ask, why haven't you done this before? You've lived in that house your whole life and never dug down to identify a ghost who lives there with you. And, let me add, even after my experience, it's hard to believe that sentence just came out of my mouth."
"I don't know exactly. Maybe I was too busy, or too used to her. But I've started to wonder if I wasn't just, well, inoculated. The family never bothered about her. I can give you all sorts of details on my ancestors, strange little family anecdotes, odd bits of history, but when it came to her, nobody seemed to know anything, or care enough to find out. Myself included."
"Now you do."
"The more I thought about what I didn't know, the more, yes, I wanted to find out. And after I saw her again, for myself, that night last June, I need to find out."
"You saw her when you were a child," he prompted.
"Yes. She would come into my room, sing her lullaby. I was never afraid of her. Then, as happens with every child who grows up at Harper House, I stopped seeing her when I was about twelve."
"But you saw her again."
There was something in his eyes that made her think he was wishing for his notebook or a tape recorder. That intensity, the absolute focus that she found unexpectedly sexy.
"Yes. She came back when I was pregnant with each of my boys. But that was more of a sensation of her. As if she were close by, that she knew there was going to be another child in the house. There were other times, of course, but I imagine you want to talk about all that in a more formal setting."
"Not necessarily formal, but I'd like to tape the conversations we have about her. I'm going to start off with some basic groundwork.Amelia was the name Stella said she saw written on the window glass. I'll check your family records for anyone named Amelia."
"I've already done that." She lifted a shoulder. "After all, if it was going to be that simple, I thought I might as well wrap it up. I found no one with that name - birth, death, marriage, at least, not in any of the records I have."
"I'll do another search, if it's all the same to you."
"Suit yourself. I expect you'll be thorough."
"Once I get started, Rosalind, I'm a bloodhound. You'll be good and sick of me by the end of this."
"And I'm a moody, difficult woman, Mitchell. So I'll say, same goes."
He grinned at her. "I'd forgotten just how beautiful you are."
Now he laughed. Her tone had been so blandly polite. "It shows what a hold Baudelaire had on me. I don't usually forget something like that. Then again, he didn't have complimentary things to say about beauty."
"No? What did he say?"
" 'With snow for flesh, with ice for heart, I sit on high, an unguessed sphinx begrudging acts that alter forms; I never laugh, I never weep.' "
"What a sad man he must have been."
"Complicated," Mitch said, "and inherently selfish. In any case, there's nothing icy about you."
"Obviously, you haven't talked with some of my suppliers." Or, she thought, her ex-husband. "I'll see about having that contract drawn up, and get you the written permissions you need. As far as work space, I'd think the library would work best for you. Whenever you need it, or want something, you can reach me at one of the numbers I've given you. I swear, we all have a hundred numbers these days. Failing that, you can speak with Harper, or David, with Stella or Hayley, for that matter."
"I'd like to set something up in the next few days."
"We'll be ready. I really should be getting home. I appreciate the drink."
"My pleasure. I owe you a lot more for helping me out with my niece."
"I think you're going to be a hero."
He laid some bills on the table, then rose to take her hand before she could slide out of the booth on her own. "Is anybody going to be home to help you haul in all that loot?"
"I've hauled around more than that on my own, but yes, David will be there."
He released her hand, but walked her out to her car. "I'll be in touch soon," he said when he opened the car door for her.
"I'll look forward to it. You'll have to let me know what you come up with for your sister for Christmas."
Pain covered his face. "Oh, hell, did you have to spoil it?"
Laughing, she shut the door, then rolled down the window. "They have some gorgeous cashmere sweaters at Dillard's. Any brother who sprang for one of those for Christmas would completely erase a forgotten birthday."
"Is that guaranteed? Like a female rule of law?"
"From a husband or lover, it better glitter, but from a brother, cashmere will do the trick. That's a promise."
"Dillard's," she repeated, and started the engine. "Bye."
She pulled out, and as she drove away glanced in the rearview mirror to see him standing there, rocking on his heels with his hands in his pockets.
Hayley was right. He was hot.
ONCE SHE GOThome, she pulled the first load out, carried it in the house and directly up the stairs to her wing. After a quick internal debate, she piled bags into her sitting room, then went down for more.
She could hear Stella's boys in the kitchen, regaling David with the details of their day. Better that she got everything inside by herself, upstairs and hidden away before anyone knew she was home.
When she was finished, she stood in the middle of the room, and stared.
Why, she'd gone crazy, obviously. Now that she saw everything all piled up, she understood why Mitch had goggled. She could, easily, open her own store with what she'd bought in one mad afternoon.
How the hell was she going to wrap all of this?
Later, she decided after dragging both hands through her hair. She'd just worry about that major detail later. Right now she was going to call her lawyer, at home - the benefit of knowing him since high school - and get the contract done.
And because they'd gone to high school together, the conversation took twice as long as it might have. By the time she'd finished, put some semblance of order back into her sitting room, then headed downstairs, the house was settled down again.
Hayley, she knew, would be up with Lily. Stella would be with her boys. And David, she discovered, when she found the note on the kitchen counter, was off to the gym.
She nibbled on the potpie he'd left for her, then took a quiet walk around her gardens. The lights were on in Harper's cottage. David would have called him to let him know he'd made potpie - one of Harper's favorites. If the boy wanted some, he knew where to find it.
She slipped back inside, then poured herself another glass of wine with the idea of enjoying it in a long, hot bath.
But when she went back upstairs, she caught a movement in her sitting room. Her whole body tightened as she went to the door, then loosened again when she saw Stella.
"You got my juices up," Roz said.
It was Stella who jolted and spun around with a hand to her heart. "God! You'd think we'd all stop jumping by now. I thought you'd be in here. I came by to see if you'd like to go over the weekly report, and saw this." She swept a hand toward the bags and boxes lining the wall. "Roz, did you just buy the mall?"
"Not quite, but I gave it a good run. And because I did, I'm not much in the mood for the weekly report. What I want is this wine and a long, hot bath."
"Obviously well deserved. We can do it tomorrow. Ah, if you need help wrapping some of this - "
"Just tap me any evening after the kids are in bed. Ah, Hayley mentioned you were having drinks with Mitch Carnegie."
"Yeah. We ran into each other, as it seems everyone in Tennessee does eventually, at Wal-Mart. He's finished his book and appears to be raring to go on our project. He's going to want to interview you, and Hayley among others. That's not going to be a problem, is it?"
"No. I'm raring, too. I'll let you get started on that bath. See you in the morning."
Roz went into her bedroom, closed the door. In the adjoining bath she ran water and scent and froth, then lit candles. For once she wouldn't use this personal time to soak and read gardening or business literature. She'd just lie back and veg.
As an afterthought, she decided to give herself a facial.
In the soft, flickering light, she slipped into the perfumed water. Let out a low, lengthy sigh. She sipped wine, set it on the ledge, then sank nearly to the chin.
Why, she wondered, didn't she do this more often?
She lifted a hand out of the froth, examined it - long, narrow, rough as a brick. Studied her nails. Short, unpainted. Why bother painting them when they'd be digging in dirt all day?
They were good, strong, competent hands. And they looked it. She didn't mind that, or the fact there were no rings on her fingers to sparkle them up.
But she smiled as she raised her feet out. Her toenails now, they were her little foolishness. This week she'd painted them a metallic purple. Most days they'd be buried in work socks and boots, but she knew she had sexy toes. It was just one of those silly things that helped her remember she was female.
Her breasts weren't as perky as they'd once been. She could be grateful they were small, and the sagging hadn't gotten too bad. Yet.
While she didn't worry too much about the state of her hands - they were, after all, tools for her - she was careful about her skin. She couldn't stop all the lines, but she pampered it whenever she could.
She wasn't willing to let her hair go to salt-and-pepper, so she took care of that, too. Just because she was being dragged toward fifty didn't mean she couldn't dig her heels in and try to slow down the damage time insisted on inflicting.
She had been beautiful once. When she'd been a young bride, fresh and innocent and radiantly happy. God, she looked at those pictures now and it was almost like looking at a stranger.
Who had that sweet young girl been?
Nearly thirty years, she thought. And it had gone by in the snap of a finger.
How long had it been since a man had looked at her and told her she was beautiful? Bryce had, certainly, but he'd told her all manner of lies.
But Mitch had said it almost offhand, casually. It made it easier to believe he'd meant it.
And why did she care?
Men. She shook her head and sipped more wine. Why was she thinking of men?
Because, she realized with a half laugh, she had no one to share those sexy toes with. No one to touch her as she liked to be touched, to thrill her. To hold her in the night.
She'd done without those things, and was content. But every now and again, she missed having someone. And maybe she was missing it now, she admitted, because she'd spent an hour talking with an attractive man.
When the water turned tepid, she got out. She was humming as she dried off, creamed her skin, performed her nightly ritual with her moisturizer. Wrapped in her robe, she started into her bedroom.
She felt the chill even before she saw the figure standing in front of her terrace doors.
Not Stella, not this time. The Harper Bride stood in her simple gray gown, her bright hair in a crown of curls.
Roz had to swallow once, then she spoke easily. "It's been some time since you've come to see me. I know I'm not pregnant, so that can't be it. Amelia? Is that your name?"
There was no answer, nor had she expected one. But the Bride smiled, just a brief shadow of a smile, then faded away.
"Well." Standing, Roz rubbed the warmth back into her arms. "I guess I'll assume that's your way of letting me know you approve that we're getting back to work."
She went back to the sitting room and took a calendar she'd begun keeping over the last winter out of her desk. She noted down the sighting on the day's date.
Dr. Carnegie, she assumed, would be pleased she was keeping a record.