Dawn, the awakening promise of it, was her favorite time to run. The running itself was just something that had to be done, three days a week, like any other chore or responsibility. Rosalind Harper did what had to be done.
She ran for her health. A woman who’d just hadshe could hardly say “celebrated” at this stage of her lifeher forty-seventh birthday had to mind her health. She ran to keep strong, as she desired and needed strength. And she ran for vanity. Her body would never again be what it had been at twenty, or even thirty, but, by God, it would be the best body she could manage at forty-seven.
She had no husband, no lover, but she did have an image to uphold. She was a Harper, and Harpers had their pride.
But, Jesus, maintenance was a bitch.
Wearing sweats against the dawn chill, she slipped out of her bedroom by the terrace door. The house was sleeping still. Her house that had been too empty was now occupied again, and rarely completely quiet any longer.
There was David, her surrogate son, who kept her house in order, kept her entertained when she needed entertaining, and stayed out of her way when she needed solitude.No one knew her moods quite like David.
And there was Stella, and her two precious boys. It had been a good day, Roz thought as she limbered up on the terrace, when she’d hired Stella Rothchild to manage her nursery.Of course, Stella would be moving before much longer and taking those sweet boys with her. Still, once she was married to Loganand wasn’t that a fine matchthey’d only be a few miles away.
Hayley would still be here, infusing the house with all that youth and energy. It had been another stroke of luck, and a vague and distant family connection, that had Hayley, then six-months pregnant, landing on her doorstep. In Hayley she had the daughter she’d secretly longed for, and the bonus of an honorary grandchild with the darling little Lily.She hadn’t realized how lonely she’d been, Roz thought, until those girls had come along to fill the void. With two of her own three sons moved away, the house had become too big, too quiet. And a part of her dreaded the day when Harper, her firstborn, her rock, would leave the guesthouse a stone’s throw from the main.
But that was life. No one knew better than a gardener that life never stayed static. Cycles were necessary, for without them there was no bloom.
She took the stairs down at an easy jog, enjoying the way the early mists shrouded her winter gardens. Look how pretty her lambs ear was with its soft silvery foliage covered in dew. And the birds had yet to bother the bright fruit on her red chokeberry.
Walking to give her muscles time to warm, and to give herself the pleasure of the gardens, she skirted around the side of the house to the front.
She increased to a jog on the way down the drive, a tall, willowy woman with a short, careless cap of black hair. Her eyes, a honeyed whiskey brown, scanned the groundsthe towering magnolias, the delicate dogwoods, the placement of ornamental shrubs, the flood of pansies she’d planted only weeks before, and the beds that would wait a bit longer to break into bloom.
To her mind, there were no grounds in western Tennessee that could compete with Harper House. Just as there was no house that could compare with its dignified elegance.Out of habit, she turned at the end of the drive, jogged in place to study it in the pearly mists.
It stood grandly, she thought, with its melding of Greek Revival and Gothic styles, the warm yellow stone mellow against the clean white trim. Its double staircase rose up to the balcony wrapping the second level, and served as a crown for the covered entryway on the ground level.
She loved the tall windows, the lacy woodwork on the rail of the third floor, the sheer space of it, and the heritage it stood for.She had prized it, cared for it, worked for it, since it had come into her hands at her parents’ death. She had raised her sons there, and when she’d lost her husband, she’d grieved there.
One day she would pass it to Harper as it had passed to her. And she thanked God for the absolute knowledge that he would tend it and love it just as she did.What it had cost her was nothing compared with what it gave, even in this single moment, standing at the end of the drive, looking back through the morning mists.
But standing there wasn’t going to get her three miles done. She headed west, keeping close to the side of the road, though there’d be little to no traffic this early.To take her mind off the annoyance of exercise, she started reviewing her list of things to do that day.
She had some good seedlings going for annuals that should be ready to have their seed leaves removed. She needed to check all the seedlings for signs of damping off. Some of the older stock would be ready for pricking off.
And, she remembered, Stella had asked for more amaryllis, more forced-bulb planters, more wreaths and poinsettias for the holiday sales. Hayley could handle the wreaths. The girl had a good hand at crafting.
Then there were the field-grown Christmas trees and hollies to deal with. Thank God she could leave that end to Logan.
She had to check with Harper, to see if he had any more of the Christmas cacti he’d grafted ready to go. She wanted a couple for herself.
She juggled all the nursery business in her mind even as she passed In the Garden. It was temptingit always wasto veer off the road onto that crushed-stone entryway, to take an indulgent solo tour of what she’d built from the ground up.Stella had gone all out for the holidays, Roz noted with pleasure, grouping green, pink, white, and red poinsettias into a pool of seasonal color in the front of the low-slung house that served as the entrance to the retail space. She’d hung yet another wreath on the door, tiny white lights around it, and the small white pine she’d had dug from the field stood decorated on the front porch.
White-faced pansies, glossy hollies, hardy sage added more interest and would help ring up those holiday sales.
Resisting temptation, Roz continued down the road.
She had to carve out some time, if not today, then certainly later this week, to finish up her Christmas shopping. Or at least put a bigger dent in it. There were holiday parties to attend, and the one she’d decided to give. It had been awhile since she’d opened the house to entertain in a big way.
The divorce, she admitted, was at least partially to blame for that. She’d hardly felt like hosting parties when she’d felt stupid and stung and more than a bit mortified by her foolish, and mercifully brief, union to a liar and a cheat.
But it was time to put that aside now, she reminded herself, just as she’d put him aside. The fact that Bryce Clerk was back in Memphis made it only more important that she live her life, publically and privately, exactly as she chose.
At the mile-and-a-half mark, a point she judged by an old, lightning-struck hickory, she started back. The thin fog had dampened her hair, her sweatshirt, but her muscles felt warm and loose. It was a bitch, she mused, that everything they said about exercise was true.
She spotted a deer meandering across the road, her coat thickened for winter, her eyes on alert by the intrusion of a human.
You’re beautiful, Roz thought, puffing a little on that last half mile. Now, stay the hell out of my gardens. Another note went in her file to give her gardens another treatment of repellant before the deer and her pals decided to come around for a snack.
Roz was just making the turn into the drive when she heard muffled footsteps, then saw the figure coming her way. Even with the mists she had no trouble identifying the other early riser.
They both stopped, jogged in place, and she grinned at her son.
“Up with the worms this morning.”
“Thought I’d be up and out early enough to catch you.” He scooped a hand through his dark hair. “All that celebrating for Thanksgiving, then your birthday, I figured I’d better work off the excess before Christmas hits.”
“You never gain an ounce. It’s annoying.”
“Feel soft.” He rolled his shoulders, then his eyes, whiskey brown like hers, and laughed.
“Besides, I gotta keep up with my mama.”
He looked like her. There was no denying she’d stamped herself on his face. But when he smiled, she saw his father. “That’ll be the day, pal of mine. How far you going?”
“How far’d you?”
He flashed a grin. “Then I’ll do four.” He gave her a light pat on the cheek as he passed.“Should’ve told him five, just to get his goat.” She chuckled, and slowing to a cool-down walk, started down the drive.
The house shimmered out of the mists. She thought: Thank God that’s over for another day. And she circled around to go in as she’d left.
The house was still quiet, and lovely. And haunted.
She’d showered and changed for work, and had started down the central stairs that bisected the wings when she heard the first stirrings.
Stella’s boys getting ready for school, Lily fussing for her breakfast. Good sounds, Roz thought. Busy, family sounds she’d missed.
Of course, she’d had the house full only a couple weeks earlier, with all her boys home for Thanksgiving and her birthday. Austin and Mason would be back for Christmas. A mother of grown sons couldn’t ask for better.
God knew there’d been plenty of times when they were growing up that she’d yearned for some quiet. Just an hour of absolute peace where she had nothing more exciting to do than soak in a hot tub.
Then she’d had too much time on her hands, hadn’t she? Too much quiet, too much empty space. So she’d ended up marrying some slick son of a bitch who’d helped himself to her money so he could impress the bimbos he’d cheated on her with.
Spilled milk, Roz reminded herself. And it wasn’t constructive to dwell on it.
She walked into the kitchen where David was already whipping something in a bowl, and the seductive fragrance of fresh coffee filled the air.
“Morning, gorgeous. How’s my best girl?”
“Up and at ’em anyway.” She went to a cupboard for a mug. “How was the date last night?”
“Promising. He likes Grey Goose martinis and John Waters movies. We’ll try for a second round this weekend. Sit yourself down. I’m making French toast.”
“French toast?” It was a personal weakness. “Damn it, David, I just ran three miles to keep my ass from falling all the way to the back of my knees, then you hit me with French toast.”
“You have a beautiful ass, and it’s nowhere near the back of your knees.”
“Yet,” she muttered, but she sat. “I passed Harper at the end of the drive. He finds out what’s on the menu, he’ll be sniffing at the back door.”
“I’m making plenty.”
She sipped her coffee while he heated up the skillet.
He was movie-star handsome, only a year older than her own Harper, and one of the delights of her life. As a boy he’d run tame in her house, and now he all but ran it.
“David . . . I caught myself thinking about Bryce twice this morning. What do you think that means?”
“Means you need this French toast,” he said while he soaked thick slices of bread in his magic batter. “And you’ve probably got yourself a case of the mid-holiday blues.”
“I kicked him out right before Christmas. I guess that’s it.”
“And a merry one it was, with that bastard out in the cold. I wish it had been cold,” he added. “Raining ice and frogs and pestilence.”
“I’m going to ask you something I never did while it was going on. Why didn’t you ever tell me how much you disliked him?”
“Probably the same reason you didn’t tell me how much you disliked that out-of-work actor with the fake Brit accent I thought I was crazy about a few years back. I love you.”“It’s a good reason.”
He’d started a fire in the little kitchen hearth, so she angled her body toward it, sipped coffee, felt steady and solid.
“You know if you could just age twenty years and go straight, we could live with each other in sin. I think that would be just fine.”
“Sugar-pie.” He slid the bread into the skillet. “You’re the only girl in the world who’d tempt me.”
She smiled, and resting her elbow on the table, set her chin on her fist. “Sun’s breaking through,” she stated. “It’s going to be a pretty day.”
A pretty day in early December meant a busy one for a garden center. Roz had so much to do she was grateful she hadn’t resisted the breakfast David had heaped on her. She missed lunch.
In her propagation house she had a full table covered with seed trays. She’d already separated out specimens too young for pricking off. And now began the first transplanting with those she deemed ready.
She lined up her containers, the cell packs, the individual pots or peat cubes. It was one of her favorite tasks, even more than sowing, this placing of a strong seedling in the home it would occupy until planting time.
Until planting time, they were all hers.
And this year she was experimenting with her own potting soil. She’d been trying out recipes for more than two years now, and believed she’d found a winner, both for indoor and outdoor use. The outdoor recipe should serve very well for her greenhouse purposes.From the bag she’d carefully mixed, she filled her containers, testing the moisture, and approved. With care she lifted out the young plants, holding them by their seed leaves. Transplanting, she made certain the soil line on the stem was at the same level it had been in the seed tray, then firmed the soil around the roots with experienced fingers.
She filled pot after pot, labeling as she went and humming absently to the Enya playing gently from the portable CD player she considered essential equipment in a greenhouse.Using a weak fertilizer solution, she watered them.
Pleased with the progress, she moved through the back opening and into the perennial area. She checked the sectionplants recently started from cuttings, those started more than a year before that would be ready for sale in a few months. She watered and tended, then moved to stock plants to take more cuttings. She had a tray of anemones begun when Stella stepped in.
“You’ve been busy.” Stella, with her curling red hair bundled back in a tail, scanned the tables. “Really busy.”
“And optimistic. We had a banner season, and I’m expecting we’ll have another. If Nature doesn’t screw around with us.”
“I thought you might want to take a look at the new stock of wreaths. Hayley’s worked on them all morning. I think she outdid herself.”
“I’ll take a look before I leave.”
“I let her go early, I hope that’s all right. She’s still getting used to having Lily with a sitter, even if the sitter is a customer and only a half mile away.”
“That’s fine.” She moved on to the catananche. “You know you don’t have to check every little thing with me, Stella. You’ve been managing this ship for nearly a year now.”
“They were excuses to come back here.”
Roz paused, her knife suspended above the plant roots, primed for cutting. “Is there a problem?”
“No. I’ve been wanting to ask, and I know this is your domain, but I wondered if, when things slow down a bit after the holidays, I can spend some time with the propagation.
I’m missing it.”
Stella’s bright blue eyes twinkled when she laughed. “I can see you’re worried I’ll try to change your routine, organize everything my way. I promise I won’t. And I won’t get in your way.”
“You try, I’ll just boot you out.”
“Meanwhile, I’ve been wanting to talk to you. I need you to find me a supplier for good, inexpensive soil bags. One pound, five pound, ten, and twenty-five to start.”
“For?” Stella asked as she pulled a notebook out of her back pocket.
“I’m going to start making and selling my own potting soil. I’ve got mixes I like for indoor and outdoor use, and I want to private-label it.”
“That’s a great idea. Good profit in that. And customers will like having Rosalind Harper’s gardening secrets. There are some considerations, though.”
“I thought of them. I’m not going to go hog-wild right off. We’ll keep it small.” With soil on her hands still, she plucked a bottle of water from a shelf. Then, absently wiping her hand on her shirt, twisted the cap. “I want the staff to learn how to bag, but the recipe’s my secret. I’ll give you and Harper the ingredients and the amounts, but it doesn’t go out to the general staff. For right now we’ll set up the procedure in the main storage shed. It takes off, we’ll build one for it.”
“I’ve studied on that. We won’t be using any pesticides, and I’m keeping the nutrient content to below the regulatory levels.” Noting Stella continued to scribble on her pad, Roz took a long drink. “I’ve applied for the license to manufacture and sell.”“You didn’t mention it.”
“Don’t get your feelings hurt.” Roz set the bottle aside, dipped a cutting in rooting medium. “I wasn’t sure I’d go on and do the thing, but I wanted the red tape out of the way. It’s kind of a pet project of mine I’ve been playing with for a while now. But I’ve grown some specimens in these mixes, and so far I like what I see. I got some more going now, and if I keep liking it, we’re going for it. So I want an idea how much the bags are going to run us, and the printing. I want classy. I thought you could fiddle around with some logos and such. You’re good at that. In the Garden needs to be prominent.”
“And you know what I’d really like?” She paused for a minute, seeing it in her head. “I’d like brown bags. Something that looks like burlap. Old-fashioned, if you follow me. So we’re saying, this is good old-fashioned dirt, southern soil, and I’m thinking I want cottage garden flowers on the bag. Simple flowers.”
“That says, this is simple to use, and it’ll make your garden simple to grow. I’ll get on it.”
“I can count on you, can’t I, to work out the costs, profits, marketing angles with me?”
“I’m your girl.”
“I know you are. I’m going to finish up these cuttings, then take off early myself if nothing’s up. I want to get some shopping in.”
“Roz, it’s already nearly five.”
“Five? It can’t be five.” She held up an arm, turned her wrist, and frowned at her watch. “Well, shit. Time got away from me again. Tell you what, I’m going to take off at noon tomorrow. If I don’t, you hunt me down and push me out.”
“No problem. I’d better get back. See you back at the house.”
When she did get home, it was to discover the Christmas lights were glinting from the eaves, the wreaths shimmered on all the doors, and candles stood shining in all the windows. The entrance was flanked by two miniature pines wrapped in tiny white lights.She had only to step inside to be surrounded by the holiday.
In the foyer, red ribbon and twinkling lights coiled up the twin banisters, with white poinsettias in Christmas-red pots under the newel posts.
Her great-grandmother’s silver bowl was polished to a beam and filled with glossy red apples.
In the parlor a ten-foot Norway sprucecertainly from her own fieldruled the front windows. The mantel held the wooden Santas she’d collected since she’d been pregnant with Harper, with fresh greenery dripping from the ends.
Stella’s two sons sat cross-legged on the floor beneath the tree, staring up at it with enormous eyes.
“Isn’t it great?” Hayley bounced dark-haired Lily on her hip. “Isn’t it awesome?”
“David must’ve worked like a dog.”
“We helped!” The boys jumped up.
“After school we got to help with the lights and everything,” the youngest, Luke, told her. “And pretty soon we get to help make cookies, and decorate them and everything.”
“We even got a tree upstairs.” Gavin looked back at the spruce. “It’s not as big as this one, ’cause it’s for upstairs. We helped David take it up, and we get to decorate it ourselves.” Knowing who was the boss of the house, Gavin looked at her for confirmation. “He said.”
“Then it must be true.”
“He’s cooking up some sort of trim-the-tree buffet in the kitchen.” Stella walked over to look at the tree from Roz’s perspective. “Apparently, we’re having a party. He’s already given Logan and Harper orders to be here by seven.”
“Then I guess I’d better get myself dressed for a party. Hand over that baby first.” She reached out, took Lily from Hayley and nuzzled. “Tree that size, it’ll take all of us to dress it up. What do you think of your first Christmas tree, little girl?”
“She’s already tried to belly-scoot over to it when I put her on the floor. I can’t wait to see what she does when she sees it all decked out.”
“Then I’d better get a move on.” Roz gave Lily a kiss, handed her back. “It’s a bit warm yet, but I think we ought to have a fire. And somebody tell David to ice down some champagne. I’ll be down shortly.”
It had been too long since there were children in the house for Christmas, Roz thought as she hurried upstairs. And damn if having them there didn’t make her feel like a kid herself.
Roz took her holiday mood shopping. The nur- sery 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 inhow 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 hiredmore 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 forgot her 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 was waiting 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 balkedovermuchabout 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 Parisdruggie, 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 civilizationand 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 farbetween bouts with Baudelaireis 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.”
“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. And if 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 namebirth, 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 got home, 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 homethe benefit of knowing him since high schooland 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 potpieone 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 itlong, 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 handsthey were, after all, tools for hershe 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.