Nora Roberts & J. D. Robb
In the Garden Trilogy
KEY OF LIGHT
KEY OF KNOWLEDGE
KEY OF VALOR
Gallaghers of Ardmore Trilogy
JEWELS OF THE SUN
TEARS OF THE MOON
HEART OF THE SEA
Chesapeake Bay Saga
Three Sisters Island Trilogy
DANCE UPON THE AIR
HEAVEN AND EARTH
FACE THE FIRE
Born In Trilogy
BORN IN FIRE
BORN IN ICE
BORN IN SHAME
DARING TO DREAM
HOLDING THE DREAM
FINDING THE DREAM
FROM THE HEART
A LITTLE MAGIC
A LITTLE FATE
(with Jill Gregory, Ruth Ryan Langan, and Marianne Willman)
The Once Upon Series
(with Jill Gregory, Ruth Ryan Langan, and Marianne Willman)
ONCE UPON A CASTLE
ONCE UPON A STAR
ONCE UPON A DREAM
ONCE UPON A ROSE
ONCE UPON A KISS
ONCE UPON A MIDNIGHT
J. D. Robb
(in order of publication)
NAKED IN DEATH
GLORY IN DEATH
IMMORTAL IN DEATH
RAPTURE IN DEATH
CEREMONY IN DEATH
VENGEANCE IN DEATH
HOLIDAY IN DEATH
CONSPIRACY IN DEATH
LOYALTY IN DEATH
WITNESS IN DEATH
JUDGMENT IN DEATH
BETRAYAL IN DEATH
SEDUCTION IN DEATH
REUNION IN DEATH
PURITY IN DEATH
PORTRAIT IN DEATH
IMITATION IN DEATH
DIVIDED IN DEATH
VISIONS IN DEATH
SURVIVOR IN DEATH
(with Susan Plunkett, Dee Holmes, and Claire Cross)
OUT OF THIS WORLD
(with Laurell K. Hamilton, Susan Krinard, and Maggie Shayne)
Also available . . .
THE OFFICIAL NORA ROBERTS COMPANION
(edited by Denise Little and Laura Hayden)
To Kayla, child of my child, and all those lights who’ve yet to shine when this was written.
Grafting and budding involve joining two separate plants so that they function as one, creating a strong, healthy plant that has only the best characteristics as its two parents.
AMERICAN HORTICULTURE SOCIETY PLANT PROPAGATION
Youth fades; love droops, the leaves of friendship fall; a mother’s secret hope outlives them all.
OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES
SHE WAS DESPERATE, destitute, and demented.
Once she’d been a beautiful woman, a clever woman with one towering ambition. Luxury. She’d achieved it, using her body to seduce and her mind to calculate. She became the mistress of one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in Tennessee.
Her house had been a showplace, decorated at her whim—and with Reginald’s money. There’d been servants to do her bidding, a wardrobe to rival the most sought-after courtesan in Paris. Jewelry, amusing friends, a carriage of her own.
She’d given gay parties. She’d been envied and desired.
She, the daughter of a biddable housemaid, had all her avaricious heart had desired.
She’d had a son.
It had changed her, that life she hadn’t wanted to carry inside her. It had become the center of her world, the single thing she loved more than herself. She planned for her son, dreamed of him. Sang to him while he lay sleeping in her womb.
She delivered him into the world with pain, such pain, but with joy, too. The joy of knowing when the pain was done, she would hold her precious son in her arms.
They told her she delivered a girl child. They told her the baby was stillborn.
She’d known it even then, even when she was wild with grief, even when she sank into the pit of despair. Even when she went mad, she knew it for a lie. Her son lived.
They’d stolen her baby from her. Held him for ransom. How could it be otherwise when she could feel his heart beat as truly as she felt her own?
But it hadn’t been the midwife and doctor who’d taken her child. Reginald had taken what was hers, using his money to buy the silence of those who served him.
How she remembered the way he’d stood in her parlor, coming to her only after her months of grief and worry. Done with her, she thought as she buttoned the gray dress with trembling fingers. Finished now that he had what he had wanted. A son, an heir. The one thing his cold-blooded wife hadn’t been able to provide.
He’d used her, then taken her single treasure, as if he had the right. Offering her money and a voyage to England in exchange.
He would pay, he would pay, he would pay, her mind repeated as she groomed herself. But not with money. Oh no. Not with money.
She was all but penniless now, but she would find a way. Of course she would find a way, once she had her darling James back in her arms.
The servants—rats and sinking ships—had stolen some of her jewelry. She knew it. She’d had to sell most of the rest, and had been cheated in the price. But what could she expect from the thin-lipped scarecrow of a jeweler? He was a man, after all.
Liars and cheats and thieves. Every one of them.
They would all pay before she was finished.
She couldn’t find the rubies—the ruby and diamond bracelet, heart-shaped stones, blood and ice, that Reginald had given her as a token when he’d learned she was pregnant.
It was a trinket, really. Too delicate, too small for her tastes. But she wanted it, and tore through the messy maze of her bedroom and dressing area in search.
Wept like a child when she found a sapphire brooch instead. As the tears dried, as her fingers closed around the pin, she forgot the bracelet and her desperate desire for it. Forgot that she’d been searching for it. Now she smiled at the sparkle of rich blue stones. It would be enough to provide a start for her and James. She would take him away, to the country perhaps. Until she felt well again, strong again.
It was all very simple, really, she decided with a ghastly smile as she studied herself in the glass. The gray dress was quiet, dignified—the proper tone for a mother. If it hung on her, drooping at the bodice, it couldn’t be helped. She had no servants now, no dressmakers to fuss with alterations. She would get her figure back once she and James found their pretty country cottage.
She’d dressed her blond hair in top curls and, with considerable regret, eschewed rouge. A quiet look was better, she concluded. A quiet look was soothing to a child.
She would simply go get him now. Go to Harper House and take back what was hers.
The drive out of the city to the grand Harper mansion was long, cold, and costly. She no longer had a carriage of her own, and soon, very soon, Reginald’s agents would come back to the house and remove her as they’d threatened already.
But it was worth the price of a private carriage. How else could she bring her James back to Memphis, where she would carry him up the stairs to his nursery, lay him tenderly in his crib, and sing him to sleep?
“Lavender’s blue, dilly dilly,” she sang softly, twisting her thin fingers together as she stared out at the winter trees that lined the road.
She’d brought the blanket she’d ordered him from Paris, and the sweet little blue cap and booties. In her mind he was a newborn still. In her shattered mind the six months since his birth didn’t exist.
The carriage rolled down the long drive, and Harper House, in all its glory, stood commanding the view.
The yellow stone, the white trim were warm and graceful against the harsh gray sky. Its three stories were proud and strong, accented by trees and shrubs, a rolling lawn.
She’d heard that peacocks had once wandered the estate, flashing their jeweled tails. But Reginald hadn’t cared for their screaming calls, and had done away with them when he’d become master.
He ruled like a king. And she’d given him his prince. One day, one day, her son would usurp the father. She would rule Harper House with James. Her sweet, sweet James.
Though the windows of the great house were blank and glazed by the sun—secret eyes staring out at her—she imagined living there with her James. Saw herself tending him there, taking him for walks in the gardens, hearing his laughter ring in the halls.
One day, of course, that’s how it would be. The house was his, so in turn, the house was hers. They would live there, happily, only the two of them. As it was meant to be.
She climbed out of the carriage, a pale, thin woman in an ill-fitting gray dress, and walked slowly toward the front entrance.
Her heart thudded at the base of her throat. James was waiting for her.
She knocked, and because her hands refused to be still, folded them tightly at her waist.
The man who answered wore dignified black, and though his gaze swept over her, his face revealed nothing.
“Madam, may I assist you?”
“I’ve come for James.”
His left eyebrow lifted, the barest fraction. “I’m sorry, Madam, there is no James in residence. If you’re inquiring about a servant, the entrance is in the rear.”
“James is not a servant.” How dare he? “He is my son. He is your master. I’ve come for him.” She stepped defiantly through the doorway. “Fetch him immediately.”
“I believe you have the wrong house, Madam. Perhaps—”
“You won’t keep him from me. James! James! Mama is here.” She dashed toward the steps, scratched and bit when the butler took her arm.
“Danby, what is the problem here?” A woman, again in servant black, bustled down the wide hall.
“This . . . woman. She’s overwrought.”
“To say the least. Miss? Please, Miss, I’m Havers, the housekeeper. You must calm yourself, and tell me what is the matter.”
“I’ve come for James.” Her hands trembled as she lifted them to smooth her curls. “You must bring him to me this instant. It’s time for his nap.”
Havers had a kind face, and added a gentle smile. “I see. Perhaps you could sit for a moment and compose yourself.”
“Then you’ll bring James? You’ll give me my son.”
“In the parlor? There’s a nice fire. It’s cold today, isn’t it?” The look she gave Danby had him releasing his hold. “Here now, let me show you in.”
“It’s a trick. Another trick.” Amelia bolted for the stairs, screaming for James as she ran. She made it to the second floor before she collapsed on weak legs.
A door opened, and the mistress of Harper House stepped out. She knew it was Reginald’s wife. Beatrice. She’d seen her at the theater once, and in the shops.
She was beautiful, sternly so, with eyes like chips of blue ice, a slender blade of a nose, and plump lips that were curled now in disgust. She wore a morning dress of deep rose silk, with a high collar and tightly cinched waist.
“Who is this creature?”
“I’m sorry, ma’am.” Havers, swifter of foot than the butler, reached the door of the sitting room first. “She didn’t give her name.” Instinctively, she knelt to drape an arm around Amelia’s shoulders. “She seems to be in some distress and chilled right through.”
“James.” Amelia reached up, and Beatrice deliberately swept her skirts aside. “I’ve come for James. My son.”
There was a flicker over Beatrice’s face before her lips clamped into a tight line. “Bring her in here.” She turned, strode back into the sitting room. “And wait.”
“Miss.” Havers spoke quietly as she helped the trembling woman to her feet. “Don’t be afraid now, no one’s going to hurt you.”
“Please get my baby.” Her eyes pleaded as she gripped Havers’s hand. “Please bring him to me.”
“There now, go on in, talk to Mrs. Harper. Ma’am, shall I serve tea?”
“Certainly not,” Beatrice snapped. “Shut the door.”
She walked to a pretty granite hearth and turned so the fire smoldered behind her, and her eyes stayed cold when the door shut quietly.
“You are—were,” she corrected with a curl of her lips, “one of my husband’s whores.”
“I’m Amelia Connor. I’ve come—”
“I didn’t ask your name. It holds no interest for me, nor do you. I had assumed that women of your ilk, those who consider themselves mistresses rather than common trollops, had enough wit and style not to step their foot into the home of what they like to call their protector.”
“Reginald. Is Reginald here?” She looked around, dazedly taking in the beautiful room with its painted lamps and velvet cushions. She couldn’t quite remember how she came to be here. All the frenzy and fury had drained out of her, leaving her cold and confused.
“He is not at home, and you should consider yourself fortunate. I’m fully aware of your . . . relationship, and fully aware he terminated that relationship, and that you were handsomely recompensed.”
“Reginald?” She saw him, in her fractured mind, standing in front of a hearth—not this one, no not this one. Her hearth, her parlor.
Did you think I’d allow someone like you to raise my son?
Son. Her son. James. “James. My son. I’ve come for James. I have his blanket in the carriage. I’ll take him home now.”
“If you think I’ll give you money to ensure your silence on this unseemly matter, you’re very mistaken.”
“I . . . I came for James.” A smile trembled on her lips as she stepped forward, arms outstretched. “He needs his mama.”
“The bastard you bore, and that was forced on me is called Reginald, after his father.”
“No, I named him James. They said he was dead, but I hear him crying.” Concern covered her face as she looked around the room. “Do you hear him crying? I need to find him, sing him to sleep.”
“You belong in an asylum. I could almost pity you.” Beatrice stood, the fire snapping at her back. “You have no more choice in this matter than I. But I, at least, am innocent. I am his wife. I have borne his children, children born within the bounds of marriage. I have suffered the loss of children, and my behavior has been above reproach. I have turned a blind eye, a deaf ear on the affairs of my husband, and given him not one cause for complaint. But I gave him no son, and that, that is my mortal sin.”
Color rushed into her cheeks now, all fury. “Do you think I want your brat foisted on me? The bastard son of a whore who will call me mother? Who will inherit this?” She threw her hands out. “All of this. I wish he had died in your womb, and you with him.”
“Give him to me, give him back to me. I have his blanket.” She looked down at her empty hands. “I have his blanket. I’ll take him away.”
“It’s done. We’re prisoners in the same trap, but at least you deserve the punishment. I’ve done nothing.”
“You can’t keep him; you don’t want him. You can’t have him.” She rushed forward, eyes wild, lips peeled. And the blow cracked across her cheek, knocking her back and to the floor.
“You will leave this house.” Beatrice spoke quietly, calmly, as though giving a servant some minor duty. “You will never speak of this, or I will see to it that you’re put in the madhouse. My reputation will not be smeared by your ravings, I promise you. You will never come back here, never set foot in Harper House or on Harper property. You will never see the child—that will be your punishment, though it can never be enough in my mind.”
“James. I will live here with James.”
“You are mad,” Beatrice said with the faintest hint of amusement. “Go back to your whoring. I’m sure you’ll find a man who’ll be happy to plant another bastard in your belly.”
She strode to the door, flung it open. “Havers!” She waited, ignoring the wailing sobs behind her. “Have Danby remove this thing from the house.”
BUT SHE DID come back. They carried her out, ordered the driver to take her away. But she came back, in the cold night. Her mind was broken to pieces, but she managed the trip this last time, driving in a stolen wagon, her hair drenched from the rain, her white nightdress clinging to her.
She wanted to kill them. Kill them all. Slash them to ribbons, hack them to pieces. She could carry her James away then, in her bloody hands.
But they would never let her. She would never take her baby into her arms. Never see his sweet face.
She left the wagon while shadows and moonlight slid over Harper House, while the black windows gleamed and all inside slept.
The rain had stopped; the sky had cleared. Mists twined over the ground, gray snakes that parted for her bare, frozen feet. The hem of her gown trailed over the wet and mud as she wandered. Humming, singing.
They would pay. They would pay dearly.
She had been to the voodoo woman, and knew what had to be done. Knew what would be done to secure all she wanted, forever. For always.
She walked through the gardens, brittle with winter, and to the carriage house to find what she needed.
She was singing as she carried it with her, as she walked in the damp air toward the grand house with its yellow stones alit with moonlight.
“Lavender’s blue,” she sang. “Lavender’s green.”one
TIRED DOWN THROUGH the marrow, Hayley yawned until her jaw cracked. Lily’s head was heavy on her shoulder, but every time she stopped rocking, the baby would squirm and whimper, and those little fingers would clutch at the cotton tank Hayley was sleeping in.
Trying to sleep in, Hayley corrected and murmured hushing noises as she sent the rocker creaking again.
She knew it was somewhere in the vicinity of four in the morning, and she’d already been up twice before to rock and soothe her fretful daughter.
She’d tried at about the two A.M. mark to snuggle the baby into bed with her so they’d both get some sleep. But Lily would have nothing but the rocker.
So Hayley rocked and dozed, rocked and yawned, and wondered if she’d ever get eight straight again in this lifetime.
She didn’t know how people did it. Especially single mothers. How did they cope? How did they stand up under all the demands on heart, mind, body—wallet?
How would she have managed it all if she’d been completely on her own with Lily? What kind of life would they have had if she had no one to help with the worry, the sheer drudgery, the fun and the foolishness? It was terrifying to think of it.
She’d been so ridiculously optimistic and confident, and stupid, she thought now.
Sailing along, she remembered, nearly six months pregnant, quitting her job, selling most of her things and packing up that rattletrap car to head out.
God, if she’d known then what she knew now, she’d never have done it.
So maybe it was good she hadn’t known. Because she wasn’t alone. Closing her eyes, she rested her cheek on Lily’s soft, dark hair. She had friends—no, family—people who cared about her and Lily and were willing to help.
They didn’t just have a roof over their heads, but the gorgeous roof of Harper House. She had Roz, distant cousin and then only through marriage, who’d offered her a home, a job, a chance. She had Stella, her best friend in the world to talk to, bitch to, learn from.
Both Roz and Stella had been single parents—and they’d coped, she reminded herself. They’d better than coped, and Stella had had two young boys to raise alone. Roz three.
And here she was wondering how she’d ever manage one, even with all the help only an offer away.
There was David, running the house, cooking the meals. And just being wonderfully David. What if she had to cook every night after work? What if she had to do all the shopping, the cleaning, the hauling, the everything in addition to holding up her end at her job and caring for a fourteen-month-old baby?
Thank God she didn’t have to find out.
There was Logan, Stella’s gorgeous new husband, who was willing to tinker around with her car when it acted up. And Stella’s little guys, Gavin and Luke, who not only liked to play with Lily but were giving Hayley a hint of the sort of things she had coming in the next few years.
There was Mitch, so smart and sweet, who liked to scoop Lily up and cart her around on his shoulders while she laughed. He’d be officially here all the time now, she thought, once he and Roz got back from their honeymoon.
It had been so nice, so much fun, to watch both Stella and Roz fall in love. She’d felt a part of it all—the excitement, the changes, the expansion of her new family circle.
Of course, Roz’s marriage meant Hayley’d have to stop dragging her feet on finding a place of her own. Newlyweds were entitled to privacy.
She wished there was a place close by. Even on the estate. Like the carriage house. Harper’s house. She sighed a little as she rubbed a hand over Lily’s back.
Harper Ashby. Rosalind Harper Ashby’s firstborn, and one delicious piece of eye candy. Of course she didn’t think about him that way. Much. He was a friend, a co-worker, and her baby girl’s first crush. From all appearances, that love affair was mutual.
She yawned again, lulled like the baby by the rhythm of the rocking and the early-morning quiet.
Harper was, well, just flat-out amazing with Lily. Patient and funny, easy and loving. Secretly she thought of him as Lily’s surrogate father—without the benefits of smoochies with Lily’s mother.
Sometimes she played pretend—and what was the harm in that?—and the surrogate part of father didn’t apply. The smoochies did. After all, what red-blooded American girl—currently very sex-deprived girl—wouldn’t fantasize now and again about the tall, dark, and ridiculously handsome type, especially when he came with a killer grin, heart-melting brown eyes, and a pinchable butt?
Not that she’d ever pinched it. But in theory.
Plus he was completely smart. He knew everything there was to know about plants and flowers. She loved to watch him working in the grafting house at In the Garden. The way his hands held a knife or tied raffia.
He was teaching her, and she appreciated it. Appreciated it too much to indulge herself and take a nice hungry bite out of him.
But imagining doing it didn’t hurt a thing.
She eased the rocker to a stop, held her breath and waited. Lily’s back continued to rise and fall steadily under her hand.
She got up slowly, moving toward the crib with the stealth and purpose of a woman making a prison break. With her arms aching, her head fuzzy with fatigue, she leaned over the crib and gently, inch by inch laid Lily on the mattress.
Even as she draped the blanket over her, Lily began to stir. Her head popped up, and she began wailing.
“Oh, Lily, please, come on, baby.” Hayley patted, rubbed, swaying on her feet. “Ssh now, come on. Give your mama a little break.”
The patting seemed to work—as long as she kept her hand on Lily’s back, the little head stayed down. So Hayley sank to the floor, stuck her arm through the crib slats. And patted. And patted.
And drifted off to sleep.
IT WAS THE singing that woke her. Her arm was asleep, and stayed that way when her eyes opened. The room was cold; the section of the floor where she sat beside the crib a square of ice. Her arm prickled from shoulder to fingertip as she shifted to keep a protective hand on Lily’s back.
The figure in the gray dress sat in the rocker, softly singing the old-fashioned lullaby. Her eyes met Hayley’s, but she continued to sing, continued to rock.
The jolt of shock cleared the fuzziness from Hayley’s head, and had her heart taking one hard leap into her throat.
Just what did you say to a ghost you hadn’t seen for several weeks? she wondered. Hey, how are you? Welcome home? Just what was the proper response, especially when the ghost in question was totally whacked?
Hayley’s skin was slicked with cold when she pushed slowly to her feet so she could stand between the rocker and the crib. Just in case. Because it felt as if a few thousand needles were lodged in her arm, she cradled it against her body, rubbing it briskly.
Note all the details, she reminded herself. Mitch would want all the details.
She looked pretty calm for a psychotic ghost, Hayley decided. Calm and sad, the way she had the first time Hayley had seen her. But she’d also seen her with crazed, bulging eyes.
“Um. She had to get some shots today. Inoculations. She’s always fussy the night after she gets them. But I think she’s settled down now. In time to get up again in a couple of hours, so she’ll probably be cranky for the baby-sitter until she gets her nap. But . . . but she should sleep now, so you could go.”
The figure faded away seconds before the singing.
DAVID FIXED HER blueberry pancakes for breakfast. She’d told him not to cook for her or Lily while Roz and Mitch were gone, but he always did. Since he looked so cute fussing in the kitchen, she didn’t try very hard to discourage him.
Besides, the pancakes were awesome.
“You’ve been looking a little peaky.” David gave her cheek a pinch; then repeated the gesture on Lily to make her giggle.
“Haven’t been sleeping much lately. Had a visitor last night.”
She shook her head when his eyebrows rose, and his mouth curved into a leer. “Not a man—too sad for my bad luck. Amelia.”
Amusement faded immediately, replaced by concern as he slid into the breakfast nook across from her. “Was there trouble? Are you all right?”
“She was just sitting in the rocker, singing. And when I told her Lily was fine, that she could go, she did. It was completely benign.”
“Maybe she’s settled down again. We can hope. Have you been worried about that?” He took a careful study of her face, noted the smudges under the soft blue eyes, the pallor beneath the carefully applied blush on her cheeks. “Is that why you haven’t been sleeping?”
“Some, I guess. Things were pretty wild around here for a few months. Our gooses were constantly getting bumped. Now this lull. It’s almost creepier.”
“You’ve got Daddy David right down here.” He reached over to pat her hand, his long, concert pianist’s fingers giving it a little extra rub. “And Roz and Mitch will be back today. The house won’t feel so big and empty.”
She let out a long breath, relieved. “You felt that way, too. I didn’t want to say, didn’t want you to feel like you weren’t enough company or something. ’Cause you are.”
“You, too, my treasure. But we’ve gotten spoiled, haven’t we? Had a houseful for a year around here.” He glanced toward the empty seats at the table. “I miss those kids.”
“Aw, you softie. We still see them, everybody, all the time, but it’s weird, having everything so quiet.”
As if she understood, Lily launched her sip-cup so that it slapped the center island and thudded on the floor.
“Atta girl,” David told her.
“And you know what else?” Hayley rose to retrieve the cup. She was tall and lanky, and much to her disappointment, her breasts had reverted to their pre-pregnancy size. She thought of them as an A-minus cup. “I think I’m getting in some sort of mood. I don’t mean rut, exactly, because I love working at the nursery, and I was just thinking last night—when Lily woke up for the millionth time—how lucky I am to be here, to be able to have all these people in our lives.”
She spread her arms, let them fall. “But, I don’t know, David, I feel sort of . . . blah.”
“Need shopping therapy.”
She grinned and got a washcloth to wipe Lily’s syrupy face. “It is the number-one cure for almost everything. But I think I want a change. Something bigger than new shoes.”
Deliberately, he widened his eyes, let his jaw go slack. “There’s something bigger?”
“I think I’m going to cut my hair. Do you think I should cut my hair?”
“Hmm.” He cocked his head, studied her with his handsome blue eyes. “It’s gorgeous hair, that glossy mahogany. But I absolutely loved it the way you wore it when you first moved here.”
“All those different lengths. Tousled, casual, kicky. Sexy.”
“Well . . .” She ran her hand down it. She’d grown it out, nearly to her shoulders. An easy length to pull back for work or motherhood. And maybe that was just the problem. She’d started taking the easy way because she’d stopped finding the time or making the effort to worry about how she looked.
She wiped Lily off, freed her from the high chair so she could wander around the kitchen. “Maybe I will then. Maybe.”
“And toss in the new shoes, sweetie. They never fail.”
IN HIGH SUMMER business slowed at the garden center. It never trickled down too far at In the Garden, but in July, the heady late winter through spring rush was long over. Wet heat smothered west Tennessee, and only the most avid of gardeners would suffer through it to pump new life into their beds.
Taking advantage of it, and her mood, Hayley wheedled a salon appointment, and an extra hour off from Stella.
When she drove back into work after her extended lunch break, it was with a new do, two new pair of shoes, and a much happier attitude.
Trust David, she decided.
She loved In the Garden. Most days, she didn’t feel as if she was going to work at all. There couldn’t be a better quality in a job than that, in her opinion.
She enjoyed just looking at the pretty white building that looked more like someone’s well-tended home than a business, with the seasonal beds spreading out from its porch, and the pots full of colorful blooms by its door.
She liked the industry across the wide gravel lot—the stacks of peat and mulch, the pavers and landscape timbers. The greenhouses that were full of plants and promises, the storage buildings.
When it was busy with customers, winding along the paths, pulling wagons or flatbeds full of plants and pots—everyone full of news or plans—it was more like a small village than a retail space.
And she was a part of it all.
She stepped in, and did a turn for Ruby, the white-haired clerk who manned the counter.
“Don’t you look sassy,” Ruby commented.
“I feel sassy.” She ran her fingers through her short shaggy hair, then let it fall again. “I haven’t done anything new with my hair in a year. More. I almost forgot what it was like to sit in a beauty parlor and have somebody do me.”
“Things do slide with a new baby. How’s our best girl doing?”
“Fussy last night after her shots. But she bounced back this morning. My butt was dragging. Pumped now though.” To prove it, she flexed her arms to show little bumps of biceps.
“Good thing. Stella wants everything watered, and I do mean everything. And we’re waiting on a big delivery of new planters. They’ll need to be stickered and shelved once they come in.”
“I’m your girl.”
She started outside in the thick, drowsy heat, soaking the bedding plants, the annuals and perennials who’d yet to find a home. They made her think of those awkward kids in school who never got picked for the team. As a result, she had a soft spot for them and wished she had a place where she could dig them into the soil, let them bloom, let them find their potential.
One day she would have a place. She’d plant gardens, take what she’d learned here and put it to use. Make something beautiful, something special. There would have to be lilies, naturally. Red lilies, like the ones Harper brought to her when she was in labor with Lily. A big, splashy pool of red lilies, bold and fragrant that would come back year after year and remind her how lucky she was.
Sweat trickled down the back of her neck, and water dampened her canvas skids. The gentle spray annoyed the gang of bees covering the sedum. So, come back when I’m finished, she thought as they flew off with an annoyed buzz. We’re all after the same thing here.
She moved slowly, half dreaming, down the tables holding the picked-over stock.
And if one day she had a garden, and there was Lily playing on the grass. With a puppy, she decided. There should be a puppy, all fat and soft and frisky. If she was able to have all that, couldn’t she add a man? Someone who loved her and Lily, someone funny and smart who made her heart beat just a little faster when he looked at her?
He could be handsome. What was the point of a fantasy if the guy wasn’t great-looking? Tall, he would be tall, with good shoulders and long legs. Brown eyes, deep delicious brown, and lots of thick dark hair she could get her hands into. Good cheekbones, the kind you just wanted to nibble your way along until you got to that strong, sexy mouth. And then—
“Jesus, Hayley, you’re drowning that coreopsis.”
She jerked, whipping the sprayer, then on a little yip of distress whipped it back again. But not before the water hit Harper dead-on.
Gut shot, she thought, torn between embarrassment and inappropriate giggles. He looked down at his soaked shirt, his jeans with a kind of grim resignation.
“Got a license for that thing?”
“I’m sorry! I’m so sorry. But you shouldn’t sneak up behind me that way.”
“I didn’t sneak anywhere. I walked.”
His voice was aggravated, but so Memphian, she thought, where she knew hers hit twang when she was excited or upset. “Well, walk louder next time. I really am sorry though. I guess my mind was wandering.”
“This kind of heat, it’s easy for the mind to wander, then lie down to take a nap.” He pulled the wet shirt away from his belly. His eyes crinkled at the corners when he narrowed them. “What did you do to your hair?”
“What?” Instinctively she reached up, pulled her fingers through it. “I had it cut. Don’t you like it?”
“Yeah, sure. It’s fine.”
Her finger itched on the trigger of the sprayer. “Please, stop. That kind of flattery’ll just go to my head.”
He smiled at her. He had such a great smile—sort of slow, so that it shifted the angles of his face and lit up in those deep, dark brown eyes—she nearly forgave him.
“I’m heading home, for a bit anyway. Mama’s back.”
“They’re back? How are they? Did they have a good time? And you don’t know yet because you haven’t been home. Tell them I can’t wait to see them, and that everything’s fine over here, and Roz shouldn’t worry and come over and start in working when she’s barely walked in the door. And—”
He cocked his hip, hooked a thumb in the front pocket of his ancient jeans. “Should I be writing any of this down?”
“Oh, go on then.” But she laughed as she waved him away. “I’ll tell them myself.”
“See you later.”
He walked off, the man of her daydreams, dripping a little.
She really had to get her mind off Harper, she warned herself. Get it off and keep it off. He wasn’t for her, and she knew it. She walked over to give the potted shrubs and climbers a good soak.
She wasn’t even sure she wanted anybody to be for her—right now, anyway. Lily was number one priority, and after Lily came her job. She wanted her baby happy, healthy, and secure. And she wanted to learn more, do more at the nursery. The more she learned, the less it would be a job, and the more it would be a career.
Pulling her weight was fine, but she wanted to do more.
After Lily, her work, and the family she’d made here, came the fascinating and spooky task of identifying Amelia, the Harper Bride—and laying her to rest.
Most of that fell to Mitch. He was the genealogist, and along with Stella the most organized mind of the bunch. And wasn’t it cool that he and Roz had found each other, fallen in love, after Roz had hired him to research the family tree to try to find where Amelia fit in? Not that Amelia had cared for the falling-in-love part. Boy, she’d been a stone bitch about it.
She might get mean again, too, Hayley thought. Now that they were married and Mitch was living at Harper House. She’d been quiet for a while, but it didn’t mean she’d stay quiet.
If and when the whirlwind resumed, Hayley intended to be ready for it.two
HAYLEY WALKED INTO Harper House—ah, the blessed cool—with Lily on her hip. She set Lily on her feet, then dumped her purse and the diaper bag on the bottom step so they’d be handy for her to carry up. Up’s where she wanted to go. She wanted to shower for, oh, two or three days ought to do it, then drink an ice cold beer, straight down.
But before she did anything, she wanted Roz.
Even as she thought it, Roz came out of the parlor. She and Lily gave mutual cries of delight. Lily changed direction, and as she headed toward Roz, Roz closed the distance and scooped her up.
“There’s my sweet potato.” She gave Lily a fierce hug, nuzzled her neck, then with a grin for Hayley, looked back at the baby and listened with amazement to the excited and incomprehensible babbling. “Why, I can’t believe all that happened in just one week! Don’t know what I’d do if you weren’t here to catch me up on all the local gossip.” She grinned at Hayley again. “And how’s your mama?”
“I’m fine. I’m great.” Hayley dashed over to lock them both in a hug. “Welcome home. We missed you.”
“Good. I like being missed. And look at this.” She flipped her fingers over Hayley’s hair.
“I just did it. Just today. Woke up with a bug up my butt. Oh, you look so beautiful.”
“Listen to you.”
But it was true, always true. And now a weeklong honeymoon in the Caribbean had added a dewy glow to innate beauty. Sun had turned the creamy skin pale gold so that Roz’s long, dark eyes seemed even deeper. The short, straight hair capped a face with the sort of classic, timeless beauty Hayley knew she could only envy.
“I like that cut,” Roz commented. “It looks so young and easy.”
“Gave my morale a boost. Lily and I had a rough night. She got her shots yesterday.”
“Mmm.” Roz gave Lily an extra hug. “No fun there. Let’s see if we can make up for it. Come on in here, baby girl,” Roz said, snuggling Lily again as she went back in the parlor. “See what we got you.”
The first thing Hayley saw was a life-sized doll with a mop of red hair and a sweet and foolish smile.
“Oh, she’s so cute! And almost as big as Lily.”
“That was the idea. Mitch spotted her before I did, and nothing would do but we bring her home to Lily. What do you think, sweetie?”
Lily poked the doll in the eye a couple of times, pulled its hair, then was happy to sit on the floor and get acquainted.
“It’s the kind of doll she’ll name in a year or so, then keep in her room till college. Thank you, Roz.”
“We’re not done. There was this little shop, and they had the most adorable dresses.” She began to pull them out of the bag while Hayley goggled. Soft smocked cotton, ruched lace, embroidered denim. “And look at these rompers. Who could resist?”
“They’re wonderful. They’re beautiful. You’ll spoil her.”
“Well, of course.”
“I don’t know what to . . . She doesn’t have any grand—anybody to spoil her like this.”
Roz arched a brow, folded a romper. “You can say the G word, Hayley. I won’t faint in horror. I like to think of myself as her honorary grandmother.”
“I’m so lucky. We’re so lucky.”
“Then why are you tearing up?”
“I don’t know. All this stuff’s been going on in my head lately.” She sniffled, heeled a hand under her eyes to rub away the dampness. “Where I am, how I got here, how it might’ve been for us if I’d been on my own with Lily the way I thought I’d be.”
“Might’ve beens don’t get you very far.”
“I know. I’m just so glad I came to you. I was thinking last night that I should start looking for a place.”
“A place to what?”
“Something wrong with this place?”
“It’s the most beautiful house I’ve ever seen.” And here she was, Hayley Phillips from Little Rock, living in it, living in a house that had a parlor furnished with beautiful antiques and deep rich cushions, with generous windows that opened up to acres of more beauty.
“I was thinking I should look for a place, but I don’t want to. At least, well, not right now.” She looked down, watched Lily struggle to carry the doll around the room. “But I want you to tell me, and I know we’re good enough friends that you will, when you want me to start looking.”
“All right. That settled then?”
“Don’t you want to see what we brought you?”
“I got something, too?” Hayley’s lake blue eyes went bright with anticipation. “I love presents. I’m not ashamed to say it.”
“I hope you like this one.” She took a box out of the bag, offered it.
Wasting no time, Hayley took off the top. “Oh, oh! They’re gorgeous.”
“I thought the red coral would suit you best.”
“I love them!” She took the earrings out of the box and holding them to her ears rushed to one of the antique mirrors on the wall to study how they looked. The trios of delicate and exotic red balls swayed from a glittery triangle of silver. “They’re wonderful. God, I have something from Aruba. I can’t believe it.”
She dashed back to give a chuckling Roz a hug. “They’re just beautiful. Thank you, thank you. I can hardly wait to wear them.”
“You can give them a test drive tonight if you want. Stella, Logan, and the boys will be over. David tells me we’re having a welcome-home dinner.”
“Oh, but you’ll be tired.”
“Tired? What am I, eighty? I just got back from vacation.”
“Honeymoon,” Hayley corrected with a smirk. “Bet you didn’t get a lot of rest either.”
“We slept in every morning, you smart-ass.”
“In that case, we’ll party. Lily and I’ll go upstairs and get ourselves all clean and pretty.”
“I’ll give you a hand up with all these things.”
“Thanks. Roz?” Everything inside her had settled down to a glow. “I’m really glad you’re home.”
IT WAS SO much fun to put on her new earrings, to dress Lily in one of her pretty new outfits, to fuss a little over both herself and her daughter. She shook her head just for the pleasure of feeling the way her hair fell and her earrings swung.
There now, she thought, not feeling dull and blah anymore. Since she was feeling celebratory, she capped it off with new shoes. The thin-heeled strappy black sandals were impractical and unnecessary. Which made them perfect.
“And they were on sale,” she told Lily. “Gotta say, they’ve got to be more fun than Prozac or whatever.”
It felt great to wear a dress—a short dress—and sexy shoes. A new haircut. Red lipstick.
She gave a turn for the mirror and struck a pose. Maybe she had a skinny build, but there was nothing much she could do about that. Still, she wore clothes pretty well, if she did say so. Kind of like a clothes hanger. Add new hair, new earrings, new shoes, and you had something.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I do believe I’m back.”
DOWNSTAIRS, HARPER WAS sprawled in a chair, sipping a beer and watching the way Mitch touched his mother—her hair, her arm—while they related some of the highlights of their trip for Logan and Stella and the boys.
He’d heard some of it already when he’d buzzed home for an hour that afternoon. He wasn’t really listening. He was just watching, and thinking it was good, it was time his mother had someone so obviously besotted with her.
He was happy for her—and relieved. No matter how well his mother could take care of herself, and God knew she could do just that, it was a comfort to know she had a smart, able man at her side.
After what had happened last spring, if Mitch hadn’t moved in, he’d have done so himself. And that might’ve been a little sticky with Hayley living there.
It was more . . . comfortable, he decided, for everybody, if he continued to live in the carriage house. It might not have been much distance geographically, but psychologically it did the job.
“I told him he was crazy,” Roz continued, gesturing with her wine in one hand, patting the other on Mitch’s thigh. “Windsurfing? Why in God’s name would we want to teeter around on a little hunk of wood with a sail attached? But he just had to try it.”
“I tried it once.” Stella sat, her curling mass of red hair spilling over her shoulders. “Spring break in college. It was fun once I got the hang of it.”
“So I hear.” Mitch’s mutter had Roz grinning.
“He’d get up on the thing, and in two seconds, splash. Get up, and wait, I think he’s got it. Splash.”
“I had a defective board,” Mitch claimed, and poked Roz in the ribs.
“Of course you did.” Roz rolled her eyes. “One thing you can say about our Mitchell is he’s game. I don’t know how many times he hauled himself out of the drink and back on that board.”
“Six hundred and fifty-two.”
“How about you?” Logan, big and built and rugged beside Stella, gestured toward Roz with his beer.
“Oh, well, I don’t like to brag,” Roz said and examined her fingernails.
“Yes, she does.” Mitch gulped down club soda, stretched out his long, long legs. “Oh, yes, she does.”
“But I enjoyed the experience quite a lot.”
“She just . . .” Mitch sailed his hand through the air to illustrate. “Sailed off as if she’d been born on one of the damn things.”
“We Harpers do tend to have excellent athletic abilities and superior balance.”
“But she doesn’t like to brag,” Mitch pointed out, then glanced over at the click of heels on hardwood.
Harper did the same, and felt his reputed superior balance falter.
She looked frigging amazing. The skinny little red dress, the mile-high shoes combined to make her legs look endless. The sort of legs a man could imagine cruising over for miles and miles. Her hair was so damn sexy that way, and her mouth was all hot and red.
She had a baby on her hip, he reminded himself. He shouldn’t be thinking about what he’d like to do to that mouth, that body when she was carrying Lily. It had to be wrong.
Across the room, Logan let out a long, low whistle that had Hayley’s face lighting up.
“Hello, beautiful. You look good enough to eat. You look good, too, Hayley.”
At that, she gave one of those husky rolls of laughter, and hip-swayed over to drop Lily in Logan’s lap. “Just for that.”
“How about some wine?” Roz offered.
“To tell you the truth, I’ve been wanting a cold beer.”
“I’ll get it.” Harper all but sprang out of his chair, and was heading out of the parlor before she could respond. He hoped the trip to the kitchen and back would bring his blood pressure back to normal.
She was a cousin, sort of, he reminded himself. And an employee. His mother’s houseguest. A mother. Any one of those reasons meant hands-off. Tally them up, and it put Hayley way off-limits. Added to that, she didn’t think of him that way, not even close.
A guy made a move on a woman under those circumstances, he was just asking to screw up a nice, pleasant friendship.
He got out a beer, got out a pilsner. As he was pouring, he heard the squeal, and the rapid clip of heels on wood. He glanced over and spotted Lily running, with Hayley scrambling behind her.
“She want a beer, too?”
With a laugh, Hayley started to scoop Lily up, only to have her baby girl go red in the face and arch away. “You. Like always.”
“That’s my girl.” He hoisted her up, gave her a toss. The mutinous little face went sugar sweet and bright with smiles. Pretending to pout, Hayley finished pouring her beer.
“Shows where I am in her pecking order.”
“You got the beer, I got the kid.”
Lily wrapped an arm around Harper’s neck, dipped her head to rest it on his cheek. Hayley nodded, lifted her glass. “Looks like.”
IT WAS WONDERFUL to have everyone around the table again, the whole Harper House family, as Hayley thought of them, sitting together, diving into David’s honey-glazed ham.
She’d missed having a big family. Growing up, it had been just Hayley and her father. Not that she’d felt deprived, she thought, not in any way. She and her father had been a team, a unit, and he was—had been—the kindest, funniest, warmest man she’d ever known.
But she’d missed having meals like this, a full table, lots of voices—even the arguments and drama that went hand-in-hand in her mind with big families.
Lily would grow up with that, because Roz had welcomed them. So Lily would have a lifetime of meals like this one, full of aunts and uncles and cousins. Grandparents, she thought, stealing a glance toward Roz and Mitch. And when Roz’s other sons, or Mitch’s son, came to visit, it would just add to the rich family stew.
One day, Roz’s sons, and Mitch’s Josh, would get married. Probably have a herd of kids between them.
She shifted her gaze toward Harper and ordered herself to ignore the little ache that came from thinking of him married, making babies with some woman whose face she couldn’t see.
Of course, she’d be beautiful, that was a given. Probably blonde and built and blue-blooded. The bitch.
Whoever she turned out to be, whatever she looked like or was like, Hayley determined she’d make friends. Even if it killed her.
“Something wrong with the potatoes?” David murmured beside her.
“Hmm. No. They’re awesome.”
“Just wondered why you looked like you were forcing down some bad-tasting medicine, sugar.”
“Oh, just thought about something I’m going to have to do, and won’t like. Life’s full of them. But that doesn’t include eating these potatoes. In fact, I was wondering if you could show me how to cook some things. I can cook pretty good. Daddy and I split that chore, and we were both okay with the basics—I could even get a little fancy now and then. But Lily’s growing up on your cooking, so I ought to be able to fix it for her myself when need be.”
“Hmm, a kitchen apprentice. One I can mold into my own likeness. Love to.”
When Lily began to drop the bits of food still on her tray delicately to the floor, Hayley popped up. “Guess who’s done.”
“Gavin, why don’t you and Luke take Lily outside and play awhile?”
“Oh.” Hayley shook her head at Stella’s suggestion. “I don’t want them to have to mind her.”
“We can do it,” Gavin piped up. “She likes to chase the ball and the Frisbee.”
“Well . . .” At nearly ten, Gavin was tall for his age. And at just-turned-eight, Luke was right behind him. They could—and had—handled Lily at play on the backyard grass. “I don’t mind if you don’t, and she’d love it. But when you’re tired of her, you just bring her back.”
“And as a reward, ice cream sundaes later.”
David’s announcement got a couple of cheers.
When playtime was over, the sundaes devoured, Hayley carried Lily up to get her ready for bed, and Stella brought the boys up to the sitting room they’d once shared to watch television.
“Roz and Mitch want an Amelia talk,” Stella told her. “I didn’t know if you’d gotten the word.”
“No, but that’s fine. I’ll be down as soon as she is.”
“Need any help?”
“Not this time, but thanks. Her eyes are already drooping.”
It was nice, she thought, to hear the muted crash and boom of some sort of space war on the sitting room television and the bright chatter of the boys’ commentary on the action. She’d missed those noises since Stella had gotten married.
She settled Lily in for the night—hopefully—checked the monitor and the night-light. Then left the door ajar as she returned downstairs.
She found the adults in the library, the most usual meeting spot for ghost talk. The sun had yet to set, so the room was washed with light that was just hinting of pink. Through the glass, the summer gardens were ripe, sumptuous, spears of lavender foxglove dancing over pools of white impatiens, brightened with elegant drips of hot-pink fuschia.
She spotted the soft, fuzzy green of betony, the waxy charm of begonias, the inverted cups of purple coneflowers with their prickly brown heads.
She’d missed her evening walk with Lily, she remembered, and promised herself she’d take her daughter out for a stroll through the gardens the next day.
Out of habit, she crossed to the table where a baby monitor stood beside a vase of poppy-red lilies.
Once she was assured it was on, she tuned in to the rest of the room.
“Now that we’re all here,” Mitch began, “I thought I should bring you up-to-date.”
“You’re not going to break my heart and tell us you researched during your honeymoon,” David put in.
“Your heart’s safe, but we did manage to find some time to discuss various theories here and there. The thing is, I had a couple of e-mails from our contact in Boston. The descendant of the Harper housekeeper during Reginald and Beatrice’s reign here.”
“She find something?” Harper had chosen the floor rather than one of the seats, and now folded himself from prone to sitting.
“I’ve been feeding her what we know, and told her what we found in Beatrice Harper’s journal, regarding your great-grandfather, Harper. The fact that he wasn’t her son, but in fact Reginald’s son with his mistress—whom we have to assume was Amelia. She hasn’t had any luck, yet, digging up any letters or diaries from Mary Havers—the housekeeper. She has found photographs, and is getting us copies.”
Hayley looked toward the second level of the library, to the table loaded with books, Mitch’s laptop. And the board beside it that was full of photos and copies of letters and journal entries. “What will that do for us?”
“The more visuals, the better,” he said. “She’s also been talking to her grandmother, who’s not doing very well, although she does have some lucid moments. The grandmother claims to recall her mother and a cousin who also worked here at the time talk about their days at Harper House. Lots of talk about the parties and the work. She also recalls her cousin talking about the young master, that’s how she referred to Reginald Jr. And saying the stork got rich delivering that one. That her mother told her to hush, that blood money and curses aside, the child was innocent. When she asked what she meant, her mother wouldn’t speak of it, except to say she’d done her duty by the Harper family, and would have to live with it. But the happiest day of her life had been when she’d walked out the door of this house for the last time.”
“She knew my grandfather had been taken from his mother.” Roz reached down, touched a hand to Harper’s shoulder. “And if this woman is remembering correctly, it sounds as though Amelia wasn’t willing to give him up.”
“Blood money and curses,” Stella repeated. “Who was paid, and what was cursed?”
“There would have been a doctor or a midwife, perhaps both, attending Amelia during the birth.” Mitch spread his hands. “Almost certainly they’d have been paid off. Some of the servants here might have been bribed.”
“I know that’s awful,” Hayley said. “But you wouldn’t call that blood money, would you? Hush money more like.”
“Bull’s-eye,” Mitch told her. “If there was blood money, where was the blood?”
“Amelia’s death.” Logan shifted, leaned forward. “She haunts here, so she died here. You haven’t been able to find any record of that, so we have to assume it was covered up. Easiest way to cover something up is money.”
“I agree.” Stella nodded. “But how did she get here? There’s no mention of Amelia in any of Beatrice’s journals. No mention of Reginald’s mistress by name, or of her coming to Harper House. She wrote about the baby, and how she felt about Reginald bringing him here, expecting her to pretend she’d given birth to him. Wouldn’t she have been just as outraged, and written of that, if he’d established Amelia in the house?”
“He wouldn’t have.” Hayley spoke quietly. “From everything we’ve learned about him, he wouldn’t have brought a woman of her class, one he considered a convenience, a means to an end, into the house he was so proud of. He wouldn’t have wanted her around his son—the one he was passing as legitimate. It’d be a constant reminder.”
“That’s a good point.” Harper stretched out his legs, crossed them at the ankles. “But if we believe she died here, then we have to believe she was here.”
“Maybe she passed as a servant,” Stella suggested. She gestured, and her wedding ring glinted gold in the softening light. “If Beatrice didn’t know her, what she looked like, Amelia might have managed to get a position in the house, so she’d be close to her son. She sings to the children of the house, she’s obsessed with the children here, in her way. Wouldn’t she have been even more so with her own child?”
“It’s a possibility,” Mitch commented. “We haven’t found her through the household records, but it’s a possibility.”
“Or she came here to try to get him.” Roz looked at Stella, at Hayley. “A mother, frantic, desperate, and not completely balanced. She sure as hell didn’t go crazy after she died. I’m not willing to stretch credulity that far. Doesn’t it play that she would have come here, and something went terribly wrong? We have to consider that if she came here, she might have been murdered. Blood money to cover up the crime.”
“So the house is cursed.” Harper lifted a shoulder. “And she haunts it until, what, she’s avenged? How?”
“Maybe just recognized,” Hayley corrected. “Given her due, I guess. You’re her blood,” she said to Harper. “Maybe it’s going to take Harper blood to put her to rest.”
“I have to say that sounds logical.” David gave a little shudder. “And creepy.”
“We’re a bunch of rational adults sitting around talking about a ghost,” Stella reminded him. “It doesn’t get much more creepy.”
“I saw her last night.”
At Hayley’s statement all eyes turned to her. “And you didn’t tell us?” Harper demanded.
“I told David this morning,” she shot back. “And I’m telling everybody now. I didn’t want to say anything in front of the kids.”
“Let’s get this on record.” Mitch rose to go to the table for his tape recorder.
“It wasn’t that much of a big.”
“We agreed last spring after the last two violent apparitions, that everything goes on the record.” He came back to sit again, and set the recorder on the table. “Tell us.”
Talking on tape made her feel self-conscious, but she related everything.
“I hear her singing sometimes, but usually when I go in to check, she’s gone. You know she’s been there. Sometimes I hear her in the boys’ room—Gavin’s and Luke’s old room. Sometimes she’s crying. And once I thought . . .”
“Thought what?” Mitch prompted.
“I thought I might’ve seen her walking outside. The night y’all left on your honeymoon, after we had the wedding party here? I woke up—had a little more wine than I should, I guess—and I had a little headache. So I took some aspirin, checked on Lily. I thought I saw someone, out the window. There was enough moonlight that I could make out the blond hair, the white dress. It appeared like she was going toward the carriage house. But when I opened the doors, to go out on the terrace and get a better look, she was gone.”
“Didn’t we have an agreement, starting after Mama finally decided to clue us in about nearly being drowned in the bathtub, that we put everything on record?” Anger simmered in Harper’s voice. “We don’t wait a damn week to make an announcement.”
“Harper,” Roz said dryly. “That horse is dead. Don’t start beating it again.”
“We had an agreement.”
“I didn’t know for sure.” Hayley’s back went up, and it reflected in her tone as she glared down at Harper. “I still don’t. Just because I thought I saw a woman walking toward your place didn’t mean she was a ghost. Could just as likely—more likely—have been flesh and blood. What was I supposed to do, Harper, call you over at the carriage house and ask if you were getting a bootie call?”
“Well, there you are.” Pleased, she nodded decisively. “It’s not like you never have female company over there.”
“Fine, fine. Just FYI, I didn’t have female company—flesh and blood variety—that night. Next time, follow through.”
“Class,” Mitch said mildly, and gave a professorial tap of pencil on notebook. “Can you tell us any more about what you saw, Hayley?”
“Honestly, it was only a few seconds. I was just standing there, hoping the aspirin would kick in before morning, and I caught a movement. I saw a woman—a lot of blond or light hair, and she was wearing white. My first thought was Harper got lucky.”
“Oh, man,” was Harper’s muttered comment.
“Then I thought about Amelia, but when I went out to see better, she was gone. I only mention it because if it was her, and I guess it was, that’s twice I’ve seen her in about a week. And that’s a lot for me.”
“You were the only woman in the house during that week,” Logan pointed out. “She’s been more likely to show herself to women.”
“That makes sense.” And made her feel better.
“Added to that, it was the night after Mitch and I were married,” Roz said. “She’d have been miffed.”
“And it’s the second time we’ve got a firsthand report of her walking toward the carriage house. There’s something there,” Mitch said to Harper.
“She’s not letting me know about it. So far.”
“Meanwhile we keep looking. We believe she lived in this area, so our best bet is Reginald kept her in one of his properties.” Mitch lifted his hands. “I’m still pursuing that avenue.”
“If we find out her name, her whole name,” Hayley asked him, “would you be able to research her the way you did the Harper family?”
“It’d give me a start.”
“Maybe she’ll tell us, if we just find the right way to ask. Maybe . . .” She trailed off when singing came through the monitor. “She’s with Lily, and she’s early tonight. I’m just going to go up and check.”
“I’ll go with you.” Harper got to his feet.
She didn’t argue. Even after more than a year, the sound of that sad voice sent a chill up her spine. As was her habit, she’d flicked lights on in her wing so she wouldn’t have to come back up in the dark. They reassured her now, as the sun was nearly set, as did the sounds of Luke and Gavin playing in the sitting room.
“You know, if you’re uneasy being over here alone, you could move into the other wing, closer to Mama and Mitch.”
“Just what the newly married couple need. Me and a baby as chaperones. Anyway, I’m mostly used to it. She’s not stopping.” She dropped her voice to a whisper. “She almost always stops before I get to the door.”
Instinctively she reached for Harper’s hand as she eased open the door she always left off the latch.
It was cold, but she’d expected that. Even after Amelia was gone, the chill would linger. Yet Lily was never disturbed by it. Her breath puffed out, a little startled cloud when she heard the distinctive creak of the rocker.
That was a new one, Hayley thought. Oh boy.
She sat in the rocker, wearing her gray dress. Her hands lay quiet in her lap as she sang. Her voice was pretty, unschooled but light and tuneful. Comforting, as a voice singing lullabies should be.
But when she turned her head, when she looked toward the door, Hayley’s blood ran as cold as the air in the room.
It wasn’t a smile on her face, but a grimace. Her eyes bulged, and were rimmed with violent red.
This is what they do. This is what they give.
As she spoke—thought—the form began to disintegrate. Flesh melted away to bone until what sat in the chair was a skeleton that rocked in rags.
Then even that was gone.
“Please tell me you saw that.” Hayley’s voice trembled. “Heard that.”
“Yeah.” With his hand firm on hers, he drew Hayley across the room to the crib. “Warmer here. Feel it? It’s warm around the crib.”
“She’s never done anything to scare Lily. Still, I don’t want to leave, go down again. I’d just feel better if I stayed close tonight. You can tell the others what happened?”
“I can bunk up here tonight. Take one of the guest rooms.”
“It’s all right.” She arranged Lily’s blanket more securely. “We’ll be all right.”
He tugged her hand, gestured so that she went back out into the hall with him. “That was a first, right?”
“A definite first for me. It’s going to give me nightmares.”
“You sure you’re going to be okay?” He touched his hand to her cheek, and it flitted through her mind that was another first. They were standing close, her hand in his, his fingers on her cheek.
All she had to do was say, no. Stay with me.
And then what? She could start something, and ruin everything.
“Yeah. It’s not like she’s mad at me or anything. No reason to be. We’re good, we’re fine. You’d better go down, fill the others in.”
“You get spooked in the night, call. I’ll come.”
“Good to know. Thanks.”
She slid her hand out of his, eased back, and slipped into her own room.
No, Amelia had no reason to be mad at her, Hayley considered. She had no boyfriend, no husband, no lover. The only man she wanted was off-limits.
“So you can relax,” she murmured. “Looks like I’ll be going solo for the next little while.three
HE HUNTED HER up the next day, mid-morning. But he had to be sly about it. He knew her well enough to be sure if she thought he was trying to help, to get her mind off things, to give her any sort of break, she’d brush him off.
Hayley Phillips was the original I’m-fine-don’t-worry-about-me girl.
Nothing wrong with that, Harper thought. In her place, a lot of women would have been happy to take advantage of his mother’s generosity, or at least to take that generosity for granted. Hayley did neither, and he respected that. He could admire her stand—to a point. But plenty of times, to his mind, that point tripped over into just mule-headed stubborn.
So he kept it casual, even when he had to poke into two greenhouses, work his way to the main building before he found her setting up a new display of houseplants.
She was wearing one of the nursery’s bib aprons over black camp shorts and a V-necked tank. There was damp soil on the apron, and on her forearm. Only repressed lust could be responsible for him finding it so absurdly sexy.
“Hey, how’s it going?”
“Not too bad. Had ourselves a little run on dish gardens. Customer just came in and bagged five as centerpieces for her sorority reunion lunch. And I talked her into taking the sago palm for her own sunroom.”
“Nice going. Guess you’re busy then.”
She glanced over her shoulder. “Not too. Stella wants to make up more dish gardens, but she’s tied up with Logan, which isn’t as sexy as it sounds. Big job came in, and she’s locked him in the office until she gets all the details for the contract. Last I walked by, he wasn’t all that happy about it.”
“Ought to be at it for a while then. I was going to do some chip-budding. Could use some help, but—”
“Really? Can I do it? I can take one of the two-ways in case Ruby or Stella need me.”
“I could use another pair of hands.”
“Mine’ll be right back. Hold on.”
She dashed through the double glass doors, and was back in thirty seconds, shed of the apron and hitching a two-way to her waistband. And giving him a quick peek at smooth belly skin.
“I read up some, but I can’t remember which is the chip-budding.”
“It’s an old method,” he told her as they started out. “More widely used now than it used to be. What we’re going to do is work some of the field stock, some of the ornamentals. Mid-summer’s the time for it.”
Heat hit like a wet wall. “This sure is mid-summer.”
“We’ll start on magnolias.” He picked up a bucket of water he’d left outside the door. “They never stop being popular.”
They walked over gravel, between greenhouses, and headed out to the fields. “Things stay quiet last night?”
“Not a peep after that little show we were treated to. I’m hoping she doesn’t plan an encore of that trick. Gross, you know?”
“She sure knows how to get your attention anyway. Okay, here’s what we do first.” He stopped in front of a tall, leafy magnolia. “I’m going to pick some ripe shoots, this season’s wood. You want one not much thicker than a pencil with well-developed buds. See this one?”
With an ungloved hand, he reached up, gently drew a shoot down.
“Okay, then what?”
“I clip it off.” He drew pruners out of his tool bag. “See here, where the base is starting to go woody? That’s what we’re looking for. You don’t want green shoots, they’re too weak yet.”
After he’d cut it, Harper put the shoot in the water bucket. “We keep it wet. If it dries out, it won’t unite. Now you pick one.”
She started to move around the tree, but he caught her hand. “No, it’s better to work on the sunny side of the tree.”
“Okay.” She rolled her bottom lip between her teeth as she searched, selected. “How about this one?”
“Good. Here, make the cut.”
She took the pruners, and since he was close he could smell the scent she wore—always light with a surprising kick—along with the garden green.
“How many are you doing?”
“About a dozen.” He stuck his hands in his pockets as he leaned in to watch her, smell her. And told himself he was suffering for a good cause. “Go ahead, pick another.”
“I don’t get out in the field much.” She drew down another shoot, looked toward Harper and got his nod. “It’s different out here. Different than selling and displaying, talking to customers.”
“You’re good at that.”
“Yeah, I am, but being out here, it’s getting your hands into the thing. Stella knows all this stuff, and Roz, she knows everything. I like to learn. You sell better the more you know.”
“I’d rather ram that shoot in my eye than have to sell every day.”
She smiled as she worked. “But you’re a loner at heart, aren’t you? I’d go crazy holed up in the grafting house day after day like you. I like seeing people, and having them talk to me about what they’re looking for and why. I like selling, too. ‘Here, you take this pretty thing, and give me the money.’ ”
She laughed as she put another shoot in the bucket. “That’s why you and Roz need somebody like me, so you can squirrel away in your caves and work with the plants for hours, and I can sell them.”
“Seems to be working.”
“That’s a dozen, even. What next?”
“Over here, what we’ve got is rooted shoots I got from stool-grown stock plants.”
“Stooling, I know what that is.” She stared down at the nursery bed and its line of straight, slim shoots. “Um, you hill the ground up to stimulate rooting, and cut them back hard in the winter, then you take the roots from the whatdoyoucallit, parent plant, and plant them out.”
“You have been reading up.”
“I like to learn.”
“Shows.” And was just one more click for him. He’d never found a woman who’d interested him physically, emotionally, who shared his love of gardening. “Okay. We use a sharp, clean knife. We’re going to trim off all the leaves from the budstick—the shoots we just cut. But we’ll leave just a little stub, just about an eighth of an inch of the petiole—the leaf stalk.”
“I know what a petiole is,” she muttered, and watched Harper demonstrate before she took her turn.
Good hands, she thought. Quick, skilled, sure. Despite—or maybe because of the nicks and calluses—they were elegantly male.
She thought they reflected who he was perfectly, that combination of privileged background and working-class.
“Cut the soft tip from the top, see? Now watch.” He angled around so she could see, and their heads bent close together. “We want the first bud at the base, that’s where we’re going to cut into the stem, just a little below there. See how you have to angle the cut, going down, then another above, behind the bud toward that first cut. And . . .” Gently, holding the chip by the leaf stalk, he held it out.
“I can do that.”
“Go ahead.” He slipped the bud chip into a plastic bag, and watched her work.
She was careful, which was a relief to him, and he heard her whispering his instructions to herself with every move.
“I did it!”
“Nice job. Let’s get the rest.”
He did seven in the time it took her to do three, but she didn’t mind. He showed her how to stand astride the rootstock to remove the sideshoots and leaves from the bottom twelve inches.
She knew it was a maneuver, and really, she’d probably feel guilty about it later, but she deliberately fumbled her first attempt.
“No, you need to position it between your legs, more like this.”
As she’d hoped, he came over to stand behind her, in a nice vertical spoon, his arms coming around, making her belly dance as his hands closed over her wrists.
“Bend down a little, loosen at the knees. That’s it. Now . . .” He guided her hand for the cut. “Just a sliver of the bark,” he murmured, and his breath breezed along her ear. “See, there’s the cambium. You want to leave a lip at the base where the chip will layer.”
He smelled like the trees, sort of hot and earthy. His body felt so firm pressed against hers. She wished she could turn around, just turn so they were pressed front to front. She’d only have to rise up on her toes for their mouths to line up.
It was a maneuver, and shame on her, but she looked over her shoulder, looked dead into his eyes. And smiled. “Is that better?”
“Yeah. Better. A lot.”
As she’d hoped, his gaze skimmed down, lingered on her mouth. Classic move, she thought. Classic results.
“I’ll . . . show you how to do the rest.”
He looked blank for a moment, like a man who’d forgotten what he was doing in the middle of a task. She couldn’t have been more delighted.
Then he stepped back, reached in his tool bag for the grafting tape.
That had been so nice, she mused. Line to line, heat to heat, for just a few seconds. Of course now she was all churned up, but it felt good, felt fine to have everything swimming around inside her.
But as penance for her calculation, she behaved herself, played the eager student as she positioned the bud chip on the stock so the cambium layers met as snugly as her body had met Harper’s.
She bound the chip to stock using the tape around and over the bud as instructed.
“Good. Perfect.” He still felt a little breathless, and the palms of his hands were damp enough that he wiped them on the knees of his jeans. “In six weeks, maybe two months, the chip will have united, and we’ll take off the tape. Late next winter, we’ll cut the top of the stock, just above this bud, and during the spring the grafted bud will send out a shoot, and we’re off and running.”
“It’s fun, isn’t it? How you can take a little something from one, a little something from another, put them together and make more.”
“That’s the plan.”
“Will you show me some of the other techniques sometime? Like what you do in the grafting house?” Her body was angled, her head bent over the next rootstock. “Roz and Stella showed me some of the propagation techniques. I’ve done some flats by myself. I’d like to try something in the grafting house.”
Alone with her there, in all that moist heat. He’d probably drown in a pool of his own lust.
“Sure, sure. No problem.”
“Harper?” She knelt to join chip bud with rootstock. “Did you ever think, when your mama started this place, it’d be what it is?”
He had to focus, on her words, on the work, and ignore—or at least suffer through—his body’s reaction to her.
Lily’s mama, he reminded himself. A guest in his home. An employee. Could it be any more complicated?
Jesus, God. Help.
“Sorry.” He wrapped grafting tape. “I did.” When he looked up, looked around, beyond the fields and nursery beds, to the greenhouses, and sheds, he calmed. “I guess I could see it because it was what I wanted, too. And I know when Mama puts her mind to something, puts her back into it, she’s going to make it work.”
“What if she hadn’t wanted it, or put her mind to it? What would you be doing?”
“Just what I’m doing. If she hadn’t decided on this I’d’ve started it myself. And because I wanted it, she’d’ve got on board, so I guess we’d have pretty much what we have here.”
“She’s the best, isn’t she? It’s good that you know that, that you understand how lucky you are. I see that between you. You don’t take each other for granted. I hope Lily and I have that one day.”
“Seems like you already do.”
She smiled at that, and rose to go to the next rootstock. “Do you think you and Roz are the way you are with each other, to each other—and your brothers, too—because you didn’t have a daddy most of your life? I mean, I think I was closer to my own daddy because it was just the two of us than I might’ve been otherwise. I’ve wondered about that.”
“Maybe.” His hair, a thick tangle of black, fell forward as he worked. He shook it back, momentarily annoyed he’d forgotten a hat. “I remember her and my father, how they were together. It was special. She’s got something like that with Mitch—not the same. I guess it’s never the same, not supposed to be. But they’ve got something good and special. That’s what she deserves.”
“Do you ever think about finding somebody? Somebody good and special?”
“Me?” His head whipped up, and he narrowly missed slicing his own finger with the knife. “No. No. Well, eventually. Why? Do you?”
He heard her sigh as she moved down the nursery bed. “Eventually.”
WHEN THEY WERE finished, and she had gone, Harper walked back to the pond. He emptied out his pockets, tossed his sunglasses on the grass. Then dived in.
It had been something he’d done—with or without clothes—since childhood. There was nothing like a quick dip into the pond to cool you down on a sticky summer day.
He’d been on the point of kissing her. More than, he admitted, and sank under the surface, along the lily pads and yellow flags. It had been more than a kiss—even a hot and greedy one—that had run through his mind when he’d had his hands on her.
He had to put that aside—well off to the side—as he had been for more than a year now. She looked to him for friendship. God help him, she probably thought of him as a kind of brother.
So he’d just have to keep tamping down his less than brotherly feelings until he beat out the last of the sparks. Or burned up.
Best thing for him to do was get himself back into circulation. He was spending too much time at home, and too much of that time alone. Maybe he’d go into the city tonight, make some calls, meet some friends. Better yet, make a date. Have dinner, listen to music. Charm himself into some willing female’s bed.
The trouble was, he couldn’t think of any particular female he wanted to be with, over dinner, with music, or in the bed. That right there, it seemed to him, illustrated his pitiful state of affairs. Or lack of them.
He just wasn’t in the mood to do the dance that ended up between the sheets. He couldn’t bring himself to call another woman, put on the show, go through the pretense, when the woman he wanted was sleeping in his own house.
And as far out of his reach as the moon.
He pulled himself out of the water, shook like a dog. Maybe he’d go into town though. He picked up the rest of his things, shoving them in his dripping pockets. See if any of his unattached friends felt like catching a movie, eating some barbecue, hitting a club. Something, anything, to take his mind somewhere else for a night.
BUT WHEN HE got home, he wasn’t in the mood to go out. He made excuses to himself: It was too hot, he was too tired, he didn’t feel like the drive. What he really wanted was a cool shower and a cold beer. He was pretty sure there was a frozen pizza buried with the leftovers David was always giving him. There was a ballgame on TV.
What else did he need?
A long warm body with miles of leg and smooth skin. Luscious lips and big blue eyes.
Since that wasn’t on the menu, he decided to drop the temperature of the shower to cold.
His hair was still dripping and he wore nothing but ancient cutoffs when he wandered into the kitchen for that beer.
Like the rest of the house, it was small-scale. He didn’t need big, he’d grown up in big. And he liked the charm and convenience of his little rooms. He thought of the converted two-story carriage house as a kind of country cottage. The way it sat away from the main house, surrounded by the gardens with their curving paths, shaded by old trees, gave it the kind of solitude and privacy that suited him. And kept him close enough to the main house that he could be on hand if his mother needed him.
If he wanted company, all he had to do was stroll over. If he didn’t, he stayed put. More often than not, he admitted, he stayed put.
He remembered when he’d decided to move in, and his biggest decorating plan had been to paint all the walls white and be done with it. Both his mother and David had been all over him like white on rice for that one.
They’d been right, he had to admit it. He liked the silvery sage walls in his kitchen and the stone gray counters, the distressed wood of the cabinets. He supposed the color had inspired him to juice the place up a little with the pieces of old pottery or china sitting around, the herbs growing on the windowsill.
It was a nice space, even if he was just eating a sandwich over the sink. He liked standing here, looking out at his own little greenhouse, and the explosion of the summer gardens.
The hydrangeas were as big as soccerballs this year, he noted, and the infusion of iron he’d given them turned them a strong, unearthly blue. Maybe he’d cut a few, plunk them down somewhere in the house.
Butterflies were massing around the garden he and his mother had planted to lure them. A flurry of colorful wings flashed over the welcoming bloom of purple coneflower, the sunny coreopsis, fragrant verbena, and the reliable asters. Backing them was the elegant dance of daylilies.
Maybe he’d cut a few of those, too, and take them over to the house so Lily could have them in her room. She liked flowers, liked when he took her walking in the gardens so she could touch them.
And her eyes, blue like her mama’s, got so big and serious when he recited the names. Just like she was taking it all in, filing it away.
Christ, who’d have thought he’d be so gone on a kid?
But it was so cool the way she’d march along with her little hand in his, then stop and reach up, that pretty face turned to his, that pretty face full of light because she knew he’d swing her up. Then the way she’d hook her arm around his neck, or pat his hair. It just killed him.
It was amazing to love, to be loved in that open, uncomplicated way.
He took a pull of the beer, then opened the freezer to look for the pizza. He heard the quick knock on the front door seconds before it opened.
“Hope I’m interrupting an orgy,” David called out. He strolled in, cocked his head at Harper. “What, no dancing girls?”
“They just left.”
“I see they ripped your clothes off first.”
“You know how it is with dancing girls. Wanna beer?”
“Tempting, but no. I’m saving myself for an exceptional Grey Goose martini. Night off, heading into Memphis to meet some people. Why don’t you cover up that manly chest and come along?”
“I’m driving, got AC. Go on, put on some dancing shoes. We’re going to check out some clubs.”
Harper pointed his beer toward his friend. “Every time I check out some clubs with you, somebody hits on me. And they’re not always female.”
“You heartbreaker. I’ll protect you, throw myself bodily on anyone who tries to pat your ass. What’re you going to do, Harp, stew around here with a beer and Kraft’s mac and cheese?”
“Kraft’s mac and cheese is the packaged dinner of champions. But I’m going with frozen pizza tonight. Besides, there’s a game on.”
“You are breaking my heart. Harper, we’re young, we’re hot. You’re straight, I’m gay, which means we cover all available ground and double our chances of getting lucky. Between us we can cut a mighty swath down Beale Street. Don’t you remember, Harp?” He took Harper by the shoulders, gave him a dramatic shake. “Don’t you remember how once we ruled?”
He had to grin. “Those were the days.”
“These are still the days.”
“Don’t you remember how once we puked our guts up in the gutter?”
“Sweet, sweet memories.” David hitched himself up to sit on the counter, took Harper’s beer for one sip. “Should I be worried about you?”
“When’s the last time you had your pipes cleaned?”
“Jesus, David.” He took a gulp of beer.
“Used to be a time when the nubiles were lined up three deep on the path to your door. Now the closest you come to a bang is nuking Kraft’s in the mike.”
It was too close to the truth for comfort. “I’m on sabbatical. I guess I got tired of it,” he said with a shrug. “Besides, things have been pretty busy and intense around here for a while. The business with the Bride, especially finding out she was like my great-great-grandmother. Somebody screwed with her, messed her up. Careless, you know, callous, the way it’s playing out. I don’t want to be careless anymore.”
“You never were.” Soberly now, David boosted himself down. “How long have we been friends? Almost for fucking ever. I’ve never known you to be careless with anyone. If you’re talking sex, you’re the only person I know who stays friendly with a lover once the heat blows off. You’re not careless with people, Harper. And just because Reginald was a bastard—most likely—doesn’t mean you’re doomed to be.”
“No, I know. I’m not obsessing about it or anything. Just sort of taking stock. Just chilling awhile until I figure out what I want for the next phase.”
“You want company, I can take you up on that beer and whip up something considerably less revolting than frozen pizza.”
“I like frozen pizza.” He’d do it, Harper thought. He’d blow off his plans, just to hang, to be a pal. “Go, there’s a martini with your name on it.” He slapped a hand on David’s shoulder to lead him to the front door. “Eat, drink, make Barry.”
“Got my cell phone if you change your mind.”
“Thanks.” He opened the door, leaned on the jamb. “But while you’re steaming along Beale, I’m going to be sitting in the cool, watching the Braves trounce the Mariners.”
“Pitiful, son, just pitiful.”
“And drinking beer in my underwear, which cannot be overstated.” He broke off, felt the punch straight to the belly when Hayley and Lily came around a turn of the garden.
“Now that’s a pretty sight.”
“Yeah. They look good.” The baby wore some sort of romper thing, pink and white stripes, with a little pink bow in her hair—dark hair, like her mother’s. She looked sweet as a candy stick.
And Mama—tiny blue shorts, a yard of leg, bare feet. Some skinny little white top and wraparound shades. A different kind of candy altogether. Maybe it was sweet, but it was sure as hell hot.
He tipped up the beer to cool his throat, and Lily spotted them. She let out something between a yell and a squeal—all delight—and pulling away from Hayley made a beeline toward the carriage house as fast as her little legs could manage.
“Slow down, sweet potato.” David moved forward to scoop her up, give her a toss. She patted his face with both of her hands, gabbled at him, then reached for Harper.
“As always, I’m day-old paté when you’re around.”
“Hand her over,” Harper hitched her onto his hip where she kicked her legs with joy and beamed at him. “Hey, pretty girl.”
In response, she tilted her head to lay it on his shoulder.
“What a flirt,” Hayley commented as she walked up. “Here we are having a nice walk, having a little girl-talk, she spots a couple of handsome men, and blows me off.”
“Why don’t you leave her with Harper, put on a party dress and drive on into Memphis with me?”
“Sure.” Harper kept his voice carefully neutral as he jiggled Lily. “She can hang with me. You can bring that Portacrib thing over and I’ll put her down when she’s tired.”
“That’s nice, I appreciate it. But it’s been a long day. I don’t think I’m up for a trip to Memphis.”
“Fuds and duds, Lily.” David leaned over to kiss her. “I’m surrounded by fuds and duds. I’m flying solo then, and I better get started. See y’all.”
“I don’t mind watching her if you want to get out awhile.”
“No. I’m going to put her down pretty soon, then curl on up myself. Why aren’t you going?”
“Too hot,” he said, decided it was the easiest catchall excuse.
“Isn’t it? And you’re letting all the cool out. Come on, Lily.”
But when she tried to take the baby, Lily squirmed away and clung to Harper like ivy to a tree. The sound she made was distinctly da-da.
The flush glowed on Hayley’s cheeks even as she gave a weak laugh. “She doesn’t mean anything. Those D sounds are the easiest to make, is all. Lots of things are da-da these days. Come on, Lily.”
This time her arms circled Harper’s neck like a noose, and she started to wail.
“You want to come in for a while?”
“No, no.” She spoke quickly now, a tumble of words. “We were just taking a little walk, nearly done with it, and she has to have a bath before bedtime.”
“I’ll walk back with you.” He turned his head, kissed Lily’s cheek then whispered in her ear so she laughed and snuggled against him.
“She can’t have everything she wants.”
“She’ll have to learn that soon enough.” He reached behind him, and shut the door.
SHE MANAGED BATH and bedtime, kept herself distracted with Lily’s needs until the baby was asleep.
She tried to read, she tried TV. Too restless for either, she plugged in a yoga tape she’d bought at the mall and gave it a spin. She went down for cookies. She put on music, then turned it off.
By midnight, she was still edgy and unsettled, so gave up and went out on the terrace to take in the warm night.
The lights were on in the carriage house. His bedroom light, she assumed. She’d never been up to the second floor, or what he called the loft. Where he slept. Where he was probably in bed right now, reading a book. Naked.
She should never have walked that way with Lily. All those directions to take, and she’d headed straight toward the carriage house. As besotted as her daughter.
God, she’d nearly melted at the knees when she’d come around that turn in the path and seen him.
Leaning against the doorjamb, wearing nothing but those ragged old cutoffs. Hard chest, golden tan, his hair all curly and damp. That lazy smile on his face as he’d taken a sip from a bottle of beer.
He’d looked so sexy—a freaking billboard for sexy, framed in that cottage doorway, surrounded by flowers, sultry in the heat. She’d been amazed she’d been able to get reasonable words out of her throat when she’d been tingling the whole time, inside and out, while they’d stood there.
And she had no business tingling around Harper. It really had to stop. Why couldn’t it go back to the way it used to be? When she’d been pregnant, she’d felt comfortable around him. Even the first months after Lily’s birth she’d been easy in his company. When had it started to change on her?
She didn’t know, she couldn’t pinpoint it. It just was.
And couldn’t be. Lily wasn’t the only one who couldn’t have everything she wanted.four
SHE FELT ODD and out of sorts at work. As if her skin was too small, her head too heavy. Too much yoga for the novice, she decided. Too much work, not enough sleep. Maybe she should take a little vacation. She could get the time off, and she could afford a few days. She could drive back to Little Rock, visit some of her old friends and co-workers. Show Lily off.
But it would eke into the vacation fund she’d started to take Lily to Disney World for her third birthday. Still, how much would it cost, really? A few hundred dollars, and the change of scene might do her good.
She swiped the back of her hand over her forehead. The air in the greenhouse felt too close, too thick. Her fingers as she tried to arrange dish gardens were too fat and clumsy. She didn’t see why she got stuck with this job. Stella could’ve done it, or Ruby. Then she could work the counter—a monkey could work the counter this time of year, she thought irritably.
She should have had the day off. It wasn’t as if they needed her. She should have been home, in the cool, relaxing for a damn change. But here she was, sweating and dirty, stuffing plants into bowls because Stella said so. Orders, orders, orders. When was she going to be able to do what she wanted, when she wanted?
They looked down on her because she didn’t have the bloodline, she didn’t have the education, she didn’t have the fancy background that made them all so important. But she was just as good as they were. Better. She was better because she’d made her own way. She’d clawed her way up from nothing because—
“Hey, hey! You’re breaking the roots on that ludisia.”
“What?” She stared down at the plant, and her fingers went limp as Stella snatched it from them. “I’m sorry. Did I kill it? I don’t know what I was thinking.”
“It’s okay. You looked upset. What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. I don’t know.” She shook herself, and flushed with the shame of her own thoughts. “The heat’s making me irritable, headachy, I guess. I’m sorry I haven’t got these done. I can’t seem to concentrate.”
“It’s okay. I came back to give you a hand anyway.”
“I can do it. You don’t have to take the time.”
“Hayley, you know how I like to play in the dirt when I can. Here.” She reached into the cooler under the workbench, took out two bottles of water. “Take five.”
What had she been thinking before? she wondered as she took a long pull from the bottle. Nasty, petty thoughts. She didn’t understand why her mind would have come up with such mean things. She didn’t feel that way. But for a minute or two she had, and it made her feel ugly now.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with me, Stella.”
Frowning, Stella laid her hand on Hayley’s brow in the classic mother’s gesture. “Maybe you’re coming down with a summer cold.”
“No, I think it’s more the blahs. Not even the blues, just the blahs. They keep sneaking up on me, and I don’t know why. I’ve got the most beautiful baby in the world. I love my job. I’ve got good friends.”
“You can have all that, and still get the blahs.” Stella took an apron off a hook, studying Hayley as she tied it on. “You haven’t dated in more than a year.”
“Closer to two.” And that called for another long drink of water. “I’ve thought about it. I’ve been asked out a few times. You know Mrs. Bentley’s son, Wyatt? He was in a few weeks ago, buying her a hanging basket for her birthday, and he was flirting pretty hard. Asked me if I’d like to have dinner sometime.”
“He’s pretty cute.”
“Yeah, he’s got that sexy jock thing going for him, and I thought about it, then I just didn’t want to go to all the bother, and I edged back.”
“I seem to remember you pushing me out the door when I talked about not wanting to go to all the bother when Logan first asked me out.”
“I did, didn’t I?” She smiled a little. “I’ve got such a big mouth.”
Before Stella selected plants, she tightened the band that held her mass of curling red hair into a tail. “Maybe you’re just a little nervous on the board? You know, taking that dive into the dating pool again.”
“I’ve never been nervous about dating. It’s one of my primary skills. I like going out. And I know if I wanted to, you or Roz, or David would take care of Lily.” The knowledge brought on another stab of guilt for the resentful thoughts that had wormed into her mind. “I know she’d be fine, so that’s no excuse. I just can’t seem to get myself in gear.”
“Maybe you just haven’t met somebody who makes you want to oil the gears and get them moving again.”
“I guess . . . maybe.” She took another long drink, braced herself. “The thing is, Stella . . .”
When the silence dragged on, Stella glanced up from the pot she was building. “What’s the thing?”
“First you gotta promise, swear that you won’t tell anybody. Even Logan. You can’t say anything.”
“You absolutely swear?”
“I’m not going to spit in my palm, Hayley. You’ll have to take my word for it.”
“Okay. Okay.” She walked down the aisle between tables, then back again. “The thing is, I like Harper.”
Stella nodded encouragement. “Sure. So do I.”
“No!” Frustrated, mortified to hear herself say it out loud, Hayley set the water down and clamped her hands over her face. “God.”
It took her a minute for the light to shine. “Oh,” Stella said with her eyes going wide. “Oh. Oh,” she repeated drawing out the syllable. Then she pursed her lips. “Oh.”
“If that’s the best you can do, I’m going to have to hit you.”
“I’m trying to take it in. Absorb it.”
“It’s crazy. I know it’s crazy.” Hayley dropped her hands. “I know it’s not right, it’s not even on the table. But I . . . forget I said anything. Just highlight and hit delete.”
“I didn’t say it was crazy, it’s just unexpected. As far as not being right, I don’t follow you.”
“He’s Roz’s son. Roz, the woman who took me in off the street.”
“Oh, you mean when you were penniless, naked, and suffering from some rare, debilitating disease? It was saintly of her to take you in, clothe you and spoon-feed you broth night after night.”
“I’m allowed to exaggerate when I’m being a fool,” Hayley snapped. “She did take me in, she gave me a job. She gave me and Lily a home, and here I am imagining how I can get naked and sweaty with her firstborn.”
“If you’re attracted to Harper—”
“I want to bite his ass. I want to pour honey all over his body then lick it off an inch at a time. I want to—”
“Okay, okay.” Stella held out one hand, laid the other on her heart. “Please don’t put any more of those images in my head. We’ll just agree you’ve got the hots for him.”
“Major hots. And I can’t do anything about it because we’re friends. Look how screwed up things got for Ross and Rachel. Of course Monica and Chandler’s a different story, but—”
“And I know this isn’t a television show,” she muttered over Stella’s roll of laughter. “But you know how life imitates art? Besides, he doesn’t think about me that way.”
“The honey-licking way?”
Hayley’s eyes went blurry. “Oh God, now I’ve got that image in my head.”
“Serves you right. Anyway, are you sure he doesn’t think of you that way?”
“He hasn’t made a move, has he? It’s not like there haven’t been opportunities. And what if I made a move on him, and he was just, like, horrified or something?”
“What if he wasn’t?”
“That could be even worse. We’d have ourselves some wild jungle sex, then after we’d both be . . .” She lifted her hands into the air, waved them wildly. “Oh God, what’ve I done, and all awkward with each other. And I’d have to take Lily and move to Georgia or somewhere. And Roz would never want to speak to me again.”
“Hayley.” Stella patted her on the shoulder. “This is just my impression, just my opinion, but I’m fairly sure Roz knows Harper has sex.”
“You know what I mean. It’s different when he’s having sex with women she doesn’t know.”
“Oh yes, I’m sure she’s perfectly delighted that her son has sex with strangers. Strangers to her, anyway,” she added with a laugh. “And naturally she’d be appalled to learn that he might be intimate with a woman she knows and loves. Yes, that would be a real knife in the heart.”
“It’s a kind of betrayal.”
“It’s no kind of betrayal. He’s a grown man, Hayley, and his choices in relationships are his own business. Roz would be the first to say so, and the first—without a doubt—to tell you she doesn’t want to be one of the angles in this triangle you’ve formed.”
“Well, maybe, but—”
“Maybe, maybe, but, but.” Stella waved them all aside with such enthusiasm, Hayley had to duck and blink. “If you’re interested in Harper, you should let him know. See what happens. Besides, I think he’s had a crush on you from the get-go.”
“He has not.”
Stella shrugged. “Just my opinion, just my impression.”
“Really?” The quick bump under her heart at the idea was painful and nice. “I don’t know. I think if he has a crush on anybody, it’s Lily. But I could think about maybe giving it a little push, see what happens.”
“Positive thinking. Now, let’s get these dish gardens done.”
“Stella.” Hayley poked a finger in the dirt. “You swear you won’t say anything about this to Roz.”
“Oh, for God’s sake.” Stella held out her palm and, mimicking the sacred rite she’d seen her sons perform, spat in it.
When offered the hand Stella held out, Hayley stared at it, and said: “Eeuuww.”
IT MADE HER feel better. Having somebody else know what she was thinking and feeling took a weight off. Especially when that somebody else was Stella. Who hadn’t been shocked, Hayley reminded herself. Surprised, sure, but not shocked, so that was good.
Just as it was good to take a couple of days and think about it. In fact, she was thinking about it, a little dreamily, when with Lily down for the night, she stretched out on the sitting room couch to unwind with some TV.
Idly, she channel surfed and decided how nice it was to have nothing to do for an hour. Still, reruns, repeats, and other summer dreck, she decided, wasn’t what she wanted for a lazy hour of entertainment.
She flipped to an old black-and-white movie, something she didn’t recognize. It seemed like some kind of romantic drama, where everyone wore gorgeous clothes and went dancing every night at elaborate clubs where they had orchestras and voluptuous girl singers.
Everybody drank highballs.
Why did they call them highballs? she wondered, yawning as she snuggled down. Because the glasses were tall, okay, but why were the glasses called balls? She should look it up sometime.
What would it be like to wear those incredible gowns and glide around a dance floor with everything all Art Deco and glittering? He’d be wearing a tuxedo, of course. She bet Harper looked awesome in a tux.
And what if they’d both come with someone else, but then they saw each other. Through all that silk and shine, their eyes met. And they just knew.
They’d dance, and everything else would wash away. That’s the way it was in black-and-white. It didn’t have to be complicated; whatever separated you could be vanquished or overcome. Then it all washed away except the two of you together as the end music swelled.
And when it did, you’d be in each other’s arms, your face tipped up to his as your lips came together in that movie-perfect kiss. The kind you felt all the way down to the soles of your feet, the kind that meant you’d love each other forever.
Soft, soft kiss, so tender as his hand brushed over your hair, then deepening, heating just a bit when your arms locked around his neck. Up on your toes so your body leaned to his.
Line, angle, curve, all beautifully fitted.
Then after it faded to black, his hands moved over you, touching where it tingled and ached. Stroking over silk and skin so that your mouths met now with little gasps and moans.
The taste of that kiss was so potent, so powerful, the flavor of it streamed through your whole system, woke everything up, made everything swell.
And everywhere you’d felt cold and tired warmed again because you wanted, and were wanted.
Candles were flickering. Smoke and shadows. Flowers scented the room. Lilies, it had to be lilies. The flowers he’d brought her, bold and red and passionate. His eyes, deep brown, depthless brown, told her everything she wanted. That she was beautiful to him, and precious.
When they undressed each other, her gown melted away into a pool of glittery white against the black of his jacket.
Skin to skin, at last. Smooth and soft. Gold dust and milk. His shoulders under her hands, the length of his back, so she could feel those muscles tense as she aroused him.
The way he touched her, with such need, filled her with excitement so that when he gathered her up in his arms—oh—she was quivering for him. He laid her on the bed, the big white bed with sheets as soft as water, then sank into it with her.
His lips skimmed her throat, captured her breast so appetites quickened, and the tug, that long, liquid pull in her belly made her moan out his name.
Candlelight. Firelight. Flowers. Not lilies, but roses. His hands were smooth—a gentleman’s hands. Rich hands. She stretched under them, arched, adding throaty purrs. Men liked their whores to make noise. She stroked her hand along the length of him. Ready, more than ready, she thought. But she’d tease him a bit longer. It was wives who lay passive, who let men do what they willed, to have done with it.
That’s why they came to her, why they needed her. Why they paid.
She brought her shoulders off the mound of pillows, so her curling mane of golden hair spilled back. And she rolled with him, lush breasts and hips to entice, rolled him over on the bed to slither her way down, to nip and lick her way down his body to do what his cold-blooded, prim-mouthed wife would never do.
His grunts and gasps were her satisfaction.
His hands were in her hair now, gripping, twisting while she pleasured him. His body was trim, and she could gain some enjoyment from it, but had he been fat as a pig she’d have convinced him he was a god to her. It was so easy.
When she straddled him, looked down at his handsome face, saw the greedy desperation in his eyes, she smiled. She took him into her, fast and hard and thought that nothing fit so well inside her as did a rich man’s cock.
Hayley bolted up from the sofa as if she’d been shot out of a cannon. Her heart clanged, hammer to anvil, in her chest. Her breasts felt heavy as if, oh God, as if they’d been fondled. Her lips tingled. Panicked, she grabbed at her hair and nearly wept with relief when she felt her own.
Someone laughed, and had her stumbling back, rapping up against the couch and nearly spilling onto it again. The television, she saw as she crossed her arms protectively over her breasts. Just the television, sophisticated drama in black-and-white.
And oh, God, what had happened to her?
Not a dream, or not just a dream. It couldn’t have been.
She dashed out of the room to check on Lily. Her baby slept, snuggled with her stuffed dog.
Ordering herself to calm, she went downstairs. But when she reached the library, she hesitated. Mitch sat at the library table, tapping away at the keyboard of his laptop. She didn’t want to disturb him, but she had to check. She had to be sure. Waiting until morning just wasn’t in the cards.
She stepped inside. “Mitch?”
“Hmm? What? Where?” He looked up, blinked behind his hornrims. “Hi.”
“I’m sorry. You’re working.”
“Just some e-mail. Do you need something?”
“I just wanted to . . .” She wasn’t shy, and she wasn’t prudish, but she wasn’t sure how to comfortably relate what she’d just experienced to her employer’s husband. “Um, do you think Roz is busy?”
“Why don’t I call up and see?”
“I don’t want to bother her if . . . Yes, yes, I do. Could you ask her to come down?”
“All right.” He reached for the phone to dial the bedroom extension. “Something happened.”
“Yeah. Sort of. Maybe.” To settle one point, she walked to the second level, behind the table and studied the pictures on Mitch’s work board.
She stared at the copy of the photograph of a man in formal dress—strong features, dark hair, cool eyes.
“This is Reginald Harper, right? The first one.”
“That’s right. Roz, can you come down to the library. Hayley’s here. She needs to talk to you. Right.” He hung up. “She’ll be right down. Do you want something—some water, some coffee?”
She shook her head. “No, thanks. I’m okay, just feeling a little weirded out. Ah, when Stella first came here, when she was living here, she had dreams. That’s when it really started, right? I mean, before that there were . . . incidents. Sightings. But nothing much ever happened—at least not that Roz heard of—that was dangerous. Regarding The Bride, I mean.”
“That seems to be the case. There’s been a kind of escalation, which seemed to start when Stella moved in with her boys.”
“And I came a few weeks after. So it was the three of us here, living in Harper House.” Her skin still felt chilled. She rubbed her bare arms and wished for a sweatshirt. “I was pregnant, Stella had the boys, and Roz, well, Roz is bloodline.”
He nodded. “Keep going.”
“Stella had the dreams. Intense dreams, which we have to believe were somehow plugged into her subconscious by Amelia. That’s not a very scientific way of putting it, but—”
“It’s good enough.”
“And when Stella and Logan—” She broke off as Roz came in. “I’m sorry I dragged you down here.”
“It’s all right. What happened?”
“Finish your thought out first,” Mitch suggested. “Line it up.”
“Okay, well, Stella and Logan got involved, and Amelia didn’t like it. Stella’s dreams got more disturbing, more pointed, and there were violent incidents, culminating in how she blocked us all out of the boys’ room that night—that first night you came here, Mitch.”
“I’ll never forget it.”
“She told us her name that night,” Roz commented. “Stella got through to her, and she gave us her first name.”
“Yeah. Wouldn’t you say she’s left Stella be pretty much since then? She’d have told us if she had dreams still, or if anything happened to her directly.”
“The focus transferred to Roz,” Mitch said.
“Yeah.” Pleased they seemed to be traveling the same road, Hayley nodded. “And it was even more intense, right? Like waking dreams, Roz?”
“Yes, and an escalation of violent behavior.”
“The closer you got to Mitch, the crazier she got. That’s the kind of thing that pisses her off. She nearly killed you. She rode to the rescue, you could say, when you were in trouble, when push came to shove, but before that she attacked you. But since then, since you and Mitch got engaged, got married, she’s backed off.”
“Apparently, at least for the moment.” Roz stepped over, ran a hand down Hayley’s arm. “She’s moving on you now, isn’t she?”
“I think so. I think that the three of us being in the house—you and Stella and me—maybe that pushed her out of pattern.” She looked toward Mitch, lifting her hands. “I don’t know how to put it, exactly, but things really got rolling then, and the ball seems to pick up bulk and speed, if you get me.”
“I do, and it’s interesting. The three of you—three women at varying stages of life—all unattached at the point you came together. Your connection made a connection to her, we could say. And as Stella, then Roz became emotionally, romantically involved, it caused Amelia’s behavior to deteriorate.”
“Honey, did she hurt you?”
“No.” Hayley pressed her lips together, then looked from Roz to Mitch. “I know we’re supposed to, like, report anything, so Mitch has it on record. I just don’t know how to say all this. At least not delicately. It’s a little bit embarrassing.”
“You want me to step out?” Mitch asked her. “So you can talk to Roz about it?”
“No, that’s just dumb—of me, I mean. She’ll just tell you anyway.” To brace herself, Hayley blew out a long breath. “Okay, so I was taking an hour to relax, watch some TV upstairs in the sitting room. And there was this old movie on, and I was daydreaming, I guess. All those fabulous clothes, you know, and the beautiful lighting, and the fancy clubs where people went out to dance and all. I was imagining what it would be like, how I’d be all dressed up, and I’d see someone.”
She trailed off a moment. She didn’t have to say the someone was Harper. That didn’t have to be relevant.
“Anyway, we’d dance, and fall in love, and have that big movie kiss? You know what I mean.”
Roz smiled. “Absolutely.”
“Well, then I guess I was drifting off some, and I was thinking about what happens after The End? Thinking about sex, I guess,” she said and cleared her throat. “Just a fantasy thing, candlelight and flowers and a big white bed, being in love. Making love.” She lowered her head, put it in her hands. “This is mortifying.”
“Don’t be silly. Healthy girl like you didn’t think about sex, I’d be worried.” Roz gave her shoulder a little shake.
“It was nice. Romantic and exciting. Then, it changed. Or I changed. And it was calculating. I was thinking about how I’d do these things. I could feel the skin and the form and the heat. There were roses. I could smell roses, but I had lilies in the fantasy, and now there were roses, and firelight. And his hands were different—soft and smooth. Rich, that’s what I thought. And I thought the guy’s wife wouldn’t do what I’d do, and that’s why he came to me. How he’d pay. And I felt my hair, and I could see it. Long and blond and curly. I saw it when it fell over my face, not like I was watching, but like I was there. It was me. And I saw him. His face.”
She turned to the board and pointed at Reginald. “His face. He was inside me, and I saw his face.”
She let out another long breath. “So.”
After a moment of silence, Roz spoke. “I don’t think it would be that unusual for your mind to weave that sort of thing together, Hayley. We all spend a lot of time thinking about these people, trying to put it all together. We know she was his mistress, we know she bore him a child, so we know they had sex. And for her, we can assume or at least speculate that it was, at least in part, a kind of business arrangement.”
“You know how your body feels when you’ve been fooling around? Physically. Not just the buzz you get from a sex dream, but how you feel physically when you’ve been with a guy. Maybe I haven’t been with one since before Lily was born, but you don’t forget how it feels. And that’s where I was when I woke up, or came out of it. Roz, I smelled those roses. I know how his body was shaped.”
She had to take a breath, had to swallow hard. “I felt him inside me. Inside her, I guess, but it was like being her while it was happening. She liked being with someone handsome and skilled. It wouldn’t have mattered if he’d been ugly as homemade sin and a dud in bed, but this was like a bonus. Rich was the bottom line—the rest was icing. I know that, because I was right inside her head. Or she was in mine. I didn’t imagine it.”
“I believe you,” Mitch told her.
“We believe you,” Roz corrected. “You’re the closest to her age when she died, at least the age we think she was. Maybe she’s relating to that, to you, and trying to go through you to tell us what it was like for her.”
“Possibly.” Mitch tipped back in the chair when Roz arched her brows at him. “It could give us more insight on her, on what happened and why. What else can you tell us about her?”
“Well, I don’t think she got that much of a rush out of sex—from the power, the control, yeah, but not the rest of it. It’s just what she did, and from his, um, response, she was good at what she did. Her body was a lot better than mine.”
With a sheepish smile, she held her hands in front of her breasts to mime someone well-endowed. “And she was cold inside. The whole time they were doing it, she was thinking about what she’d get out of him. There was a derision—that’s the best way to describe it—for the wives of men like him. I guess that’s about it.”
“Hardly her best side. Or maybe it is, from her point of view,” Mitch considered. “She was in charge, doing what she’d chosen to do. Young, beautiful, desired by a powerful man and controlling that man through sex. Interesting.”
“Creepy’s what it was. And if I get to have sex, I’d like to have it with my own body. But anyway, I feel better, getting all that out. I think I’ll go back up, maybe do some yoga. I don’t think she’s going to bother me while I’m trying to twist myself into the warrior position or whatever. Thanks for hearing me out.”
“Anything else happens, I want to hear it,” Roz told her.
“That’s a promise.”
Roz waited until Hayley was gone, then turned to Mitch. “We’re going to have to worry about her, aren’t we?”
“Let’s not skip straight to worry.” He took her hand. “Let’s start with we’ll keep an eye out for her.”five
FROM STELLA’S KITCHEN window, Hayley could see the spread of the back gardens, the patio, the arbor, the treehouse Logan and the boys had built snugged into the branches of a sycamore.
She watched Logan push Lily on a red swing that hung from another branch while the boys tossed an old ball for Parker to chase.
It was, she thought, a kind of moving portrait of summer evening. The sort of lazy contentment that only comes on breathless summer days right before the kids are called in for supper and the porch light goes on. Yellow glows to chase the moths away and to shine a circle that says: We’re home.
She remembered, so clearly, what it was to be a child in August, to love the heat, to rush through it to snatch every drop of the sun before it went down.
Now, she hoped, she was learning what it was to be a mother. To be on the other side of the screen door. To be the one who turned on the porch light.
“Do you get used to it, or do you still look out sometimes like this, and think ‘I’m the luckiest woman in the world.’ ”
Stella moved over to the window, smiled. “Both. You want to sit out on the patio with this lemonade?”
“In a minute. I didn’t want to talk about this at work. Not just because it’s at work, but because it’s still on the Harper estate. And she’s on the estate. She can’t come here.”
“Roz told me what happened.” Stella laid a hand on Hayley’s shoulder.
“I didn’t tell her that it was Harper. I mean when I was fantasizing, I was with Harper. I’m just not going to tell her I was fantasizing about getting naked with her son.”
“I think that’s a judicious edit at this point. Has anything happened since?”
“No, nothing. And I don’t know whether to hope something does or something doesn’t.” She watched Logan field the mangled slobbery ball that rolled his way, then toss it, sending dog and boys on a mad chase while Lily bounced in the swing and clapped her hands.
“I can tell you this, if I have to star in someone’s life and times, I’d rather take a turn in yours.”
“I believe in being a good and true friend, Hayley, but I’m not letting you have sex with Logan.”
Hayley snorted out a laugh, then gave Stella an elbow nudge. “Spoilsport, and though I wasn’t going there, I bet—wow.”
Stella’s smile was lazy as a cat’s. “You bet right.”
“Anyway. I was just thinking how it would be to have someone as crazy about me as Logan is about you. Toss in a couple of great kids, a beautiful home you’ve made together, and who needs fantasies?”
“You’ll have what you’re looking for one day, too.”
“Listen to me, you’d think I was the redheaded stepchild. I don’t know what’s wrong with me lately.” She rolled her shoulders as if shrugging off a weight. “I keep catching myself doing a poor-me routine. It’s not like me, Stella. I’m happy. And even when I’m not, I look for a way to make myself happy. I don’t brood and bitch. Or hardly.”
“No, you don’t.”
“Maybe I’ve got a thing for Harper, but a little frustration’s not enough to bring me down. Next time you hear me feeling sorry for myself, give me a good smack.”
“Sure. What are friends for?”
SHE MEANT IT, too. She wasn’t the type to sit around ticking off the negatives of her life to see if she could make them outweigh the positives. If something was wrong, something was missing, she acted. Fix the problem and move ahead. Or if the problem couldn’t be fixed, she found the best way to live with it.
When her mother had left, she’d been sad and scared and hurt. But there’d been nothing she could do to bring her back. So she’d done without—and done pretty damn well, Hayley thought as she drove back to Harper House.
She’d learned how to help make a home, and she and her father had had a good life. They’d been happy; she’d been loved. And she’d been useful.
She’d done well in school. She’d gotten a job to help with expenses. She knew how to work, and how to enjoy the work. She liked to learn, and to sell people things that made them happy.
If she’d stayed in Little Rock, at the bookstore, she’d have made manager. She’d have earned it.
Then her father had died. That had blasted a hole in the foundation of her life, and had shaken her like nothing before or since. He’d been her rock, as she’d been his. Nothing had felt steady or sure when he’d died, and her grief had been a constant raw ache.
So she’d turned to a friend—that’s all he’d been really, she admitted as she turned down the drive to Harper House. A nice boy, a comfort.
Lily had come from that, and she wasn’t ashamed of it. Maybe comfort wasn’t love, but it was a positive act, a giving one. How could she have paid that kindness back by pushing the boy into marriage, or responsibility when he’d already moved on by the time she’d realized she was pregnant?
She hadn’t wallowed—or hardly. She hadn’t cursed God or man, for long. She’d accepted responsibility for her own actions, as she’d been taught, and had made the choice that was right for her.
To keep the child, and raise the child on her own.
Hadn’t worked out quite that way, though, she thought with a smile as she parked. Little Rock, the bookstore, the house she’d shared with her father had no longer been her comfort zones once she’d started to show. Once the looks and the questions and the murmurs had begun.
So, fresh start.
She climbed out of the car, rounded it to open the back door and unhook Lily from her car seat.
Sell everything that could be sold, pack up the rest. Positive, move forward. All she’d expected by coming here to Roz was the possibility of a job. What she’d been given was family.
Just more proof, to her mind, that good things happened when you took steps, when you worked for them—and when you were lucky enough to find people who’d give you a chance to do your best.
“That’s what we are, Lily.” She hoisted Lily up, covered her face with kisses. “We’re a couple of lucky girls.”
She swung the diaper bag over her shoulder, bumped the car door shut with her hip. But as she started toward the house an idea bloomed.
Maybe it was time to try her luck again.
Sit around waiting for things to happen and nothing much did. But act, you either failed or succeeded. Either was better than standing still.
She strolled around the house, taking her time, just to see if she could talk herself out of it. But the idea was planted now, and she couldn’t find a good enough reason to uproot it.
Maybe he’d be shocked or stunned or even appalled. Well, that would be his problem. At least she’d know something and stop wondering all the damn time.
As she rounded the curve in the path, she set Lily down, and let her little girl trot toward Harper’s front door.
Maybe he wasn’t home, out with some woman. Or worse, had some woman in his home. Okay, that would be bad, but she’d deal with it.
It was time she dealt with it.
Though the dark wasn’t deep yet, the path lights were glowing, those pretty soft green lanterns speared at the edges of the brick to guide the way. A few early lightning bugs blinked on and off, on and off over the heads of flowers, and out beyond to the roll of grass to lose themselves in the shadows of the woods.
She drew in the perfume of heliotrope, sweet peas, roses, and the more pungent aroma of earth. All of those scents, along with the different tones of growing green would forever make her think of Harper, and this place.
She caught up with Lily, knocked. On impulse she stepped back and to the side, leaving her little girl clapping her hands at Harper’s front door. Where the porch light was on, a glowing circle of yellow.
When the door opened, she heard Lily give her greeting—something between hi and hey and a cry of pleasure.
“Look what I found at my front door.”
From her vantage point, Hayley could see Lily’s arms go up; and Harper’s come down. When he scooped her up, Lily was already babbling in her excited and incomprehensible language.
“Is that right? Just thought you’d drop by to say hi? Maybe you ought to come in and have a cookie, but we’d better find your mama first.”
“She’s right here.” Laughing, Hayley stepped over to the door. “Sorry, but it was so cute. You know she can’t walk by your place without wanting to see you, so I thought I’d knock and let her stand there on her own.”
She reached out, but as usual when Harper was involved, Lily shook her head and wrapped herself around her favorite man.
“I mentioned the C word. Why don’t you come in and I’ll dig one out for her.”
“You’re not busy?”
“No. Was just thinking about getting a beer and doing some paperwork. Just as soon postpone the paperwork part of it.”
“I always like coming in here.” She glanced around the living room as he carried Lily back toward the kitchen. “You’re pretty tidy, too, for a single straight guy.”
“Comes from living with Mama, I guess.” With Lily on his hip, he reached in a cupboard and got out the box of animal crackers he kept on hand for her. “Now how’d these get here?”
He opened the box, let her dig one out. “Want a beer?”
“I wouldn’t mind. I stopped off at Stella’s after work. Ended up having burgers on the grill, but I passed on the wine. I don’t like sipping when I’m driving, even just a little when I’ve got Lily in the car.”
He offered her a beer, got one for himself. “How you doing?” When she only angled her head, he shrugged. “Word spreads. I heard about what happened. In any case, it’s something we’re all involved in, so word should spread.”
“It’s a little embarrassing to have word of my sex dreams spreading.”
“It wasn’t like that. Besides, nothing wrong with a good sex dream.”
“I’d as soon the next one I have be all my own idea.” She tipped back the beer, watching him. “You look a little like him, you know.”
“Reginald, especially now that I’ve seen him in what you could call a more intimate situation. Something more personal than an old photograph. You’ve got the same coloring, and the same shape to your face—your mouth. His build’s not as good as yours.”
“Oh. Well.” He lifted his beer, drank deep.
“He was slim, but soft. Like his hands. And he was older than you, a little gray in the hair. And some hard lines coming in around the mouth, out from the eyes. But still, very handsome, very virile.”
She got Lily’s sip-cup of juice and her music cube out of the diaper bag. Bribing her, she lifted her away from Harper and set her on the floor.
“You got better shoulders, and no pudge right here.” She poked her finger into his belly.
Lily sat down with her music cube, playing with it so it switched from “This Old Man” to “Bingo.”
“I noticed all that,” Hayley said, “seeing as we were all naked and sweaty.”
“I especially noticed the resemblance—the similarities and the differences because when I started out fantasizing—my own part of it—it was with you.”
“It was . . . what?”
Okay, a little shocked, but more confused, she decided, and moved in. “It started with you, something like this.”
She slid a hand around to the back of his neck, rose up on her toes. She stopped, her lips a whisper from his, to savor that instant when the breath catches and the heart stumbles. Then she closed the distance.
Soft, as she’d imagined it would be soft. And warm. His hair was a silky weight on the back of her hand, and his body such a pleasure to press against.
He’d gone so still, but for his heart that slammed against hers. Then she felt his hand on her back, the fist he made as he gathered her shirt in his fingers.
On the floor, Lily’s music cube was a jubilant crash of sound.
She made herself ease back. One step at a time, she reminded herself. Though her belly was quivering, she did her best to take a casual sip of beer while he stared at her with those dark eyes.
“So, what do you think?”
He lifted a hand, then dropped it again. “I appear to have lost the capability for rational thought.”
“When you get it back, you’ll have to let me know.”
She turned to gather the baby’s things.
“Hayley.” He reached out, grabbed her by the waistband of her jeans and tugged. “Uh-uh.”
Her belly jumped, joyfully. She glanced over her shoulder. “Which means?”
“The short way of saying you don’t walk in here, kiss me like that, then walk out again. Question. Was that a demonstration to catch me up with what’s happening with Amelia, or was it something else?”
“I’ve been wondering what it would be like, so I decided to find out.”
“Okay.” He turned her around, glanced down to be sure Lily was still occupied, then backed her into the counter.
His hands were at her hips when his mouth met hers. As his tongue dipped in, an intimate taste, those hands slid up, cruising over her, setting off little charges under her skin.
Then he stepped back, rubbed a thumb over her tingling lips. “I’ve been wondering what it would be like, too. So I guess we both know.”
“Looks like,” she managed.
Since Lily came over to tug at his pants, Harper boosted her up on his hip. “I guess it’s complicated.”
“Yeah, it is. Very. We’ll need to take it slow, think it all the way through.”
“Sure. Or we can say screw that and I can come to your room later tonight.”
“I . . . I want to say yes. I’m thinking yes,” she said on a rush. “Yes is screaming inside my head and I don’t know why yes isn’t coming out of my mouth. It’s exactly what I want.”
“But.” He nodded. “It’s okay. We should give it a little time. Be sure.”
“Be sure,” she repeated, and hurried to pick up Lily’s things. “I need to go, or I’ll forget about a little time and being sure, because, man, you sure can kiss. And I need to get Lily ready for bed. I don’t want to mess things up, Harper. I so don’t want to mess things up.”
“We can’t.” She took Lily, though the baby cried pitifully at being pried away from Harper. “I’ll see you at work.”
“Sure, but I can walk you back.”
“No.” She hurried toward the door with Lily struggling and crying in her arms. “She’ll be okay.”
The crying escalated into a full-blown temper tantrum with kicking legs, stiffly arched back, and ear-piercing shrieks. “For God’s sake, Lily, you’ll see him again tomorrow. It’s not like he’s going off to war.”
The diaper bag slipped off her shoulder to weigh like an anchor on her arm while her sweet baby morphed into a red-faced demon from hell. Tiny, hard-toed walking shoes punched bruises into her hip, her belly, her thighs as she struggled to cart twenty pounds of fury through the dragging summer heat.
“I’d like to’ve stayed, too, you know.” Frustration sharpened her voice. “But we can’t, that’s just the way it is, so you’re going to have to deal.”
Sweat dripped into her eyes, blurred her vision so that for a moment, the grand old house seemed to be floating like a mirage. An illusion she’d never reach.
It would just keep swimming farther away, because it wasn’t real. Not for her. She’d never really belong there. It would be better, smarter, easier if she packed up, moved on. The house and Harper were one in the same—things that could never be hers. As long as she stayed here, she was the illusion.
“Well, what’s all this?”
She saw Roz through the shimmer of heat, the daze of twilight, and felt her own body sway as everything snapped back into focus. A sly tongue of nausea curled in her stomach. Then Lily, tears streaming, all but launched herself out of her arms and into Roz’s.
“She’s mad at me,” Hayley said weakly, and tears stung her own eyes as Lily wrapped her arms around Roz’s neck and wept into her shoulder.
“Won’t be the last time.” Roz rubbed Lily’s back, going into that instinctive side-to-side rocking motion as she studied Hayley’s face. “What set her off?”
“She saw Harper. She wanted to stay with him.”
“It’s hard leaving your best guy.”
“She needs a bath and bed. Should’ve had them already. I’m sorry we bothered you. I guess they could hear her screaming clear down to Memphis.”
“You didn’t bother me. She’s not the first baby I’ve heard in a temper, and she won’t be the last.”
“I’ll take her up.”
“I got her.” Roz turned to take the steps up to the second floor. “You frazzled each other out. That’s what happens when babies want one thing and their mama knows they need something different. Then you end up feeling guilty because they act like it’s the end of their world, and you’re the one who pulled the rug out.”
A tear spilled over, and Hayley rubbed it away. “I hate letting her down.”
“And how did you let her down by doing what’s best for her? This baby’s tired,” Roz said as she opened the door to the nursery, turned on the lamp. “And sweaty. She needs her bath, a nightie, and a little quiet time. Go on, get her bath started. I’ll get her clothes off.”
“That’s all right, I can—”
“Honey, you’ve got to learn to share.”
Since Roz was already carrying a now calm Lily away, Hayley moved into the bathroom. She ran the water, adding the bubbles Lily liked to splash in, the rubber duck and frogs. And caught herself swallowing back tears a half dozen times.
“I got myself a naked baby,” she heard Roz say. “Yes, I do. And look at that belly, just calling out to be tickled.”
Lily’s laughter had Hayley sniffling back more tears as Roz stepped in.
“Why don’t you go have yourself a shower? You’re hot and you’re blue. Lily and I’ll have some fun in the tub.”
“I don’t want you to have to do all this.”
“You’ve been around long enough to know I don’t offer to do something if I don’t want to do it. Go on. Clean up, cool down.”
“All right.” Since she feared she’d burst into tears at any moment, she fled.
SHE WAS CLEANER, and she was cooler, if not a great deal steadier when she came back to find Roz putting a little cotton nightgown on a sleepy Lily.
The nursery smelled like powder and sweet soap, and her baby was calm.
“And here’s your mama come to give you good night kisses.” She lifted Lily, and the baby stretched out her arms to Hayley. “Come on over to the sitting room when you’re done putting her down.”
“Okay.” She held Lily close, breathing in her hair, her skin. “Thanks, Roz.”
She stood where she was, holding her little girl, letting the embrace center her. “Mama’s sorry, baby. I’d give you the world if I could. The whole wide world and a silver box to put it in.”
There were kisses, and quiet murmurs as she laid Lily down in the crib with her little dog to cuddle. Leaving a low light burning, she slipped out of the room and down the hall to the sitting room.
“I got us some bottled water out of your stash.” Roz held one out. “That do for you?”
“Perfect. Oh, Roz, I feel so stupid. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
“You’d do fine. Better with me, but then everybody does.” Roz sat, stretched out her legs. Her feet were bare tonight, and her toes painted a gumdrop pink. “You keep beating yourself up because your child had herself a tantrum, you’re going to be permanently black and blue before you’re thirty.”
“I knew she was tired. I should’ve brought her straight into the house instead of letting her visit Harper.”
“And I bet she enjoyed the visit as much as he did. Now she’s sleeping peaceful in her crib, and no harm done.”
“I’m not a terrible mother, am I?”
“You’re certainly not anything of the sort. That baby is happy and healthy and loved. She has a sweet disposition. She also knows what she wants when she wants it, and that’s a sign of character in my opinion. She’s got a right to a temper, hasn’t she, same as anybody else?”
“Boy, she’s sure got one. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, Roz.” Hayley set the bottle down without drinking. “I’m emotional and bitchy one minute, on top of the world the next. You’d think I was pregnant again, except there’s no possibility of that unless the Second Coming’s scheduled some time soon.”
“That might be your answer right there. You’re young and healthy. You’ve got needs, and they’re not being met. Sex is important.”
“Maybe, but it’s not easily, or safely come by for somebody in my situation.”
“I know what that’s like, too. You know if you’re interested in dating again, you have all manner of willing baby-sitters.”
“Actually, Hayley, I think sex might be one of the keys to Amelia.”
“I’m sorry, Roz, I’d do most anything to help, but I have to draw the line at having sex with Amelia. Ghost, female, psycho. That’s a full three strikes.”
“There’s our girl,” Roz said with a laugh. “Mitch and I were talking about what happened to you the other evening, sort of expanding on our theories. Sex is what Amelia used to get what she wanted in life. It was her commodity. In any case, that’s our conclusion: She was Reginald’s mistress. And it was how, obviously, she conceived a child.”
“Well, maybe she loved him. Amelia. It’s possible she was seduced by him, in love with him. We really only have Beatrice’s viewpoint of her from the journals, and she wouldn’t be an objective source.”
“Good point, and yes, possible.” Roz took a thoughtful sip of water. “But that still points to sex. Even if she was in love and being used, it came down to sex. Reginald went to her for his pleasure, and his purposes. To conceive a male heir. It’s not far-fetched to assume Amelia’s view of sex is far from healthy.”
“Then we come into it, the three of us, living together in this house. Stella hears her, sees her—not that unusual as there were children involved. But there’s Logan, and not just an emotional spark between them, but a sexual one. And the episodes begin to escalate. We move to me and Mitch, another sexual contact, and more escalation. Now you.”
“I’m not having sex.” Yet, she thought. Oh boy.
“You’re thinking about it. You’re considering it. As Stella was. As I was.”
“So . . . you think her focus is on me, the sexual energy kind of thing being the magnet. And things will escalate again.”
“I think that may be, and particularly if that sexual energy becomes tied together with genuine affection. With love.”
“If I got involved with someone, emotionally, sexually, she could hurt them. Or Lily. She could—”
“Now wait.” Roz laid a hand over Hayley’s. “She’s never hurt a child. Never in all these years. There’s absolutely no reason to think she might cause Lily any harm. But you’re another matter.”
“She could hurt me, or try. I get that.” Hayley let out a shaky breath. “So I have to make sure she doesn’t. She could hurt someone else, too. You or Mitch, David, any of us. And if there was someone I cared about, someone I wanted, he’d be the most likely target, wouldn’t he?”
“Maybe. But I know you can’t live your life on maybes. You have a right to your life. Hayley, I don’t want you to feel obligated to stay here, or to keep working at In the Garden.”
“You want me to leave?”
“I don’t.” Roz’s hand gripped tighter. “On a purely selfish level, I want you here. You’re the daughter I never had, that’s the God’s truth. And that child in the other room is one of the brightest lights of my life. It’s because of what you mean to me I’m telling you to go.”
Hayley took a deep breath as she rose, first to cross to the window. To look out over the summer gardens, so bold and bright in the hazy dark. And beyond them, to the carriage house, with the porch light glowing.
“My mama left us. Daddy and I weren’t enough to keep her. She didn’t love us enough. When he died, I didn’t even know where to write and tell her. She’ll never see her granddaughter. That’s a shame for her, I think. But not for Lily. Lily has you. I’ve got you. I’ll go if you tell me to. I’ll get another place, get another job. And I’ll stay away from Harper House for as long as it takes. But you need to tell me something first, and I know you’ll tell me the truth because that’s what you do.”
She turned back, met Roz’s eyes. “If you were standing here where I am, having to decide whether to leave people you love—especially when you might be able to help—to leave a place you love, work you love. And you had to decide that because maybe something might happen. Maybe you might have trouble, have to face something hard along the way. What would you do, Roz?”
Roz got to her feet. “I guess you’re staying.”
“I guess I am.”
“David made peach pie.”
“Oh my God.”
Roz held out a hand. “Let’s go have a big sinful slice, and I’ll tell you about the flower shop I’m thinking of adding on next year.”
IN THE CARRIAGE house, Harper raided his stash of leftovers. And thought of Hayley while he ate some of David’s fried chicken.
She’d gone and changed the playing field, and he wasn’t quite sure what to do with the ball. He’d spent the last year and a half suppressing his feelings and urges when it came to Hayley, and assuming—from her attitude, from every damn signal—that she considered him a friend. Even, God help him, a kind of surrogate brother.
He’d done his best to fill that role.
Now she’d come waltzing in, and put the moves on him. Kissed the brains right out of his head, to the tune of—what the hell was it?—“Bingo.”
He was never going to be able to hear that ridiculous song again without getting hot.
What the hell was he supposed to do now, ask her out? He was good at asking women out. It was normal, but there was nothing normal about all of this, not when he’d convinced himself she wasn’t interested that way. That he shouldn’t be.
Add that they worked together. That she lived in the main house with his mother, for God’s sake. Then there was Lily to consider. It sliced him in two, the way she’d cried for him when Hayley had taken her home. What if he and Hayley got together, and something went wrong? Would it spill over onto Lily?
He’d have to make certain it didn’t, that’s all. He’d have to be careful, take it slow and easy.
Which crossed out any idea brewing in the back of his mind about going over to Hayley’s room after dark and letting nature take its course.
He cleaned up the kitchen, as was his habit, then went up to the loft that held his bedroom, a bath, and a small room he used as an office. He spent an hour on paperwork, ordering his mind back to the business at hand every time it drifted toward Hayley.
He switched on ESPN, picked up a book, and indulged in one of his favorite solo evening activities. Reading between innings. Somewhere in the eighth, with Boston down two and the Yankees with a runner on second, he drifted off.
He dreamed that he and Hayley were making love in Fenway Park, rolling naked over the infield grass while the game played on around them. Somehow he knew the batter had a count of three and two, even as Hayley locked those long legs around him, as he sank into her. Into that heat, into those soft blue eyes.
The crash woke him, and his dreaming mind heard the joyful crack of ball on bat. He thought home run even as he sat up, shaking his head to toss off sleep.
Jesus! He rubbed his hands over his face. Weird, very weird, even if it did combine two of his favorite activities. Sports and sex. Amused at himself, he started to toss the book aside.
The second crash from downstairs was like a bullet shot, and no dream.
He was on his feet in a fingersnap and grabbing the Louisville Slugger he’d had since his twelfth birthday as he rushed out of the room.
His first thought was that Bryce Clerk, his mother’s ex-husband, had gotten out of jail and was back to cause more trouble. He’d be sorry for it, Harper thought grimly as he gripped the bat. His blood was up as he charged toward the fury of crashing and banging.
He slapped on the lights in time to see a plate come winging toward him. Instinct had him swinging for the fences. The plate shattered, shooting out shards.
Then there was utter silence.
The room he’d washed up before going upstairs looked as though it had been set upon by a particularly destructive gang of vandals. Broken dishes littered the floor along with spilled beer and the jagged remains of the bottles it had come from. His refrigerator door hung open, with all the contents pulled out. His counters and walls were covered with what looked like a nasty mix of ketchup and mustard.
There was no one there but himself. And he could see his own breath in the chill that had yet to fade out of the air.
“Son of a bitch.” He scooped a hand through his hair. “Son of a goddamn bitch.”
She’d used ketchup—at least he hoped it was that benign condiment rather than the blood it resembled—to write her message on the wall.
I will not rest
He studied the mess. “You’re not the only one.”six
MITCH ADJUSTED HIS glasses and looked more closely at the photographs. Harper had been thorough, he thought, getting pictures from every angle, taking close-ups and wide angles.
The boy had a steady hand and a cool head.
But . . .
“You should’ve called us when this happened.”
“It was one in the morning. What was the point? This is what it looked like.”
“What it looks like is you pissed her off. Any ideas?”
Mitch spread the photos out, adjusting their order, while David looked over his shoulder. “You clean that shit up?” David asked Harper.
“Yeah.” Temper seemed to vibrate off the blades of his tensed shoulders. “She got every damn dish in the place.”
“No great loss there. They were ugly anyway. What are those?” David snatched one of the pictures up. “Twinkies? What are you, twelve? Harper.” His face a picture of pity, David shook his head. “I worry about you.”
“I happen to like Twinkies.”
Mitch held up a hand. “Snack choices aside—”
“Twinkies are bombs of sugar and fat and preservatives.” Interrupting Mitch, David tried for a pinch at Harper’s waist.
“Cut it out.” But the move, as designed, pushed a little humor through the wall of Harper’s temper.
“Girls,” Mitch said mildly. “To get back to the matter at hand. This is another change of pattern. She’s never, to your knowledge, come into the carriage house, or caused you any particular trouble.” He looked to Harper for confirmation.
“No.” A glance at the photos he’d taken brought back the shock, the fury, and the time it had taken to deal with the destruction. “And this is a hell of a debut.”
“Your mother’s going to have to know about this.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Still steaming, Harper paced to the back door, scowled out at the morning haze. He’d waited, deliberately, until he’d seen his mother head out for her morning run. “I value my life, don’t I? But I wanted us to go over this first, before we bring her into it.” He glanced up at the ceiling, where he imagined Hayley was getting started on the day. “Or any of them.”
“Strategizing to protect the womenfolk?” David said in an exaggerated drawl. “Not that I don’t agree, son, but Roz isn’t going to care for that.” He jerked a thumb toward the ceiling. “She won’t either.”
“I don’t want them going postal over it, that’s all. If we could downplay it some. It was just dishes and kitchen crap.”
“A personal attack, Harper, not on you but on your property, in your home. That’s how it is, and that’s how they’ll see it.” Mitch waved a hand at him before he could speak. “We’ve dealt with worse, all of us, and we’ll deal with this. The important thing is to figure out why it happened.”
“Maybe it’s because she’s crazy,” Harper snapped back. “That might be a small, contributing factor.”
“Takes after his mama when he’s riled up,” David offered. “Mean and stubborn.”
“I’ve noticed. She’s been seen walking in the direction of the carriage house in the past.” Mitch leaned a hip on the table. “You saw her yourselves when you were kids. We can assume she did, at some point in her life, go there. We can assume it was after Reginald Harper brought their love child here to pass him off as his legitimate heir.”
“And we can assume she was crazy as a crack monkey,” David added. “From the way she looked.”
“Yet, from what we know she’s never bothered with the place since Harper’s lived there. How long?”
“Shit, I don’t know.” He shrugged, drummed his fingers on the thighs of his ragged work pants. “Since college. Six, seven years.”
“But she goes in now, destructively. She may be crazy, but there’s a reason. Everything she’s done has a root and a reason. Have you brought anything in there recently? Anything new?”
“Ah, no.” But the idea made him pause and consider instead of stew. “Plants. I rotate plants, but I’ve done that for years. And the usual stuff, you know, groceries, CDs, clothes. Nothing particular or unusual.”
“Have you had anyone over who hasn’t been there before? A woman?”
“Now that’s just sad.” David swung an arm around Harper’s shoulders. “Losing your touch?”
“My touch is still gold. Just been a little busy.”
“And before it happened, you were?”
“Watching the game upstairs in the bedroom, reading. Zonked out, and the next I know it’s crash, boom, bang.”
He heard Lily’s happy call and winced. “Damn it, here they come. Mitch, let’s put those away, put this all away until—”
He broke off, cursing himself for not moving faster, when Lily ran in just ahead of Hayley. She zipped straight for him, all grins and upstretched arms.
“She heard your voice,” Hayley said as he picked Lily up. “Her face just lit.”
“His touch is gold,” David said dryly, “with toddlers.”
“It’s sure her favorite way to start the morning.” She went to the refrigerator for juice, and when she turned with the bottle and Lily’s cup in her hands, spotted the photographs. “What’s all this?”
“It’s nothing. Just a little late-night adventure.”
“Good God, what a mess! You have a party and not invite us?” Then she blinked, and paled as she leaned closer. “Oh. Oh, Amelia. Are you all right? Are you hurt?” She dropped Lily’s cup as she swung toward him. “Harper, did she hurt you?”
“No. No.” He patted the hand she was running over his face, his arm. “It’s just dishes.”
David bent to retrieve the plastic cup, wiggled his eyebrows at Mitch on the way up, and said, “Aha,” under his breath.
“But look at your things.” She snatched up a photo. “Your sweet little kitchen. What is wrong with her? Why does she have to be so damn mean?”
“Being dead probably ticks her off some. I think Lily wants her juice.”
“All right, all right. If it’s not one thing it’s six others with her—Amelia, not Lily. I’m getting fed up.” She poured the juice, secured the lid, then handed it to Lily. “There you are, baby. Just what are we going to do about this?” she demanded as she rounded on Mitch.
“Innocent bystander,” he reminded her and held up his hands.
“We all are, aren’t we? But that doesn’t mean a damn to her, apparently. Bitch.” She sat down, folded her arms.
“Feel better?” David asked her, and poured her some coffee.
“I don’t know what I feel.”
“Just dishes.” Harper settled Lily in her highchair. “And according to David, ugly ones.”
Hayley worked up a smile. “They weren’t too ugly. I’m sorry, Harper.” She touched his hand. “I’m so sorry.”
“Sorry about what?” Roz asked as she came in.
“There’s the bell for round two.” David gestured with the coffeepot. “I think I’ll make crepes.”
SHE COULDN’T CONCENTRATE. Hayley went through the routine of waiting on customers, ringing up sales on automatic. When she didn’t think she could stand making inane chat with another living soul, she went into Stella’s office to throw herself on her mercy.
“Give me some manual labor, will you? Something hot and sweaty. Get me off the counter, please. I keep feeling this bitch attack coming on, and I don’t want one to spew onto the customers.”
Stella pushed back in her chair to give Hayley the once-over. “Why don’t you take a break instead?”
“I stop doing, I’ll start thinking. Then I’ll start seeing those pictures of Harper’s kitchen in my head again.”
“I know it’s upsetting, Hayley, but—”
“It’s my fault.”
“How is Harper’s kitchen getting trashed your fault? And did you have anything to do with the broken vase in my living room, because no one in my house is taking responsibility. At the moment, I Dunno is taking the rap.”
“I Dunno is the classic whipping boy.”
“Between him and Not Me, nothing is safe, nothing is sacred.”
Blowing out a breath, Hayley dropped into a chair. “All right, I will take a break, just for a minute. Can you take one, too, talk to me?”
“Sure.” Stella swung away from the spreadsheet on her computer monitor.
“When I left your place last night I went to Harper’s. I talked myself into taking some action, making a move, going up a step, you know? He wants to think of me as Cousin Hayley, or Lily’s mama, or whatever the hell he thinks, fine. But I’ll give him a taste and see what he thinks of that.”
“I laid one on him. Standing right there in his kitchen, moved in and gave him one of those here’s-what-you’re-missing-so-why-don’t-you-come-get-it kisses.”
Stella’s lips quivered up into a smile. “And did he? Come and get it?”
“You could say. The kiss he gave me back was more of the since-you-opened-the-gate-I’m-galloping-right-on-in variety. He’s got a really amazing mouth. I sort of figured he did, but having a couple of good samples made me realize I’d underestimated. Considerably.”
“That’s good, isn’t it? It’s what you wanted.”
“It’s not about what I want. Or maybe it is.” She pushed back to her feet, but there was nowhere to pace in the tiny office. “Maybe that’s just the point. In his kitchen, Stella. I kissed him in his kitchen, and a few hours later, she’s in there wrecking the place. It doesn’t take a math whiz to put that two and two together. I opened the gate, all right, but she’s the one who came in.”
“You’re mixing metaphors. I’m not saying you’re entirely wrong,” she added, and stretched out from the chair to open her little cooler for bottled water. “But I am going to say it’s not your fault. She’s a volatile presence, Hayley, and none of us is responsible for her actions, or what happened to her.”
“No, but try telling her that. Thanks,” she said when Stella handed her one of the bottles.
“What we’re doing is trying to find out, maybe to make it as right as it can be made, but we have to live our lives while we do.”
“It’s about sexual energy and emotional attachments. That’s what Roz thinks, and I think she’s on to something.”
“You told Roz about you and Harper.”
She took a long, deep drink. “No, no, I mean in general. And there isn’t any ‘me and Harper,’ not really. Roz and Mitch think it’s the sexual buzz and the developing emotions that get her stirred up, at least in part. So I’ve got to work off some of this buzz and these feelings.”
“Even if you could, you’re not taking Harper’s buzz or feelings into account.”
“I can take care of that. It’s when they’re directed at me. Otherwise, she’d’ve slapped at him before.” Her fingers tightened on the bottle, but she caught herself before the gesture pushed water over the lip. “You can bet he’s done more than kiss a woman in his kitchen in that house before last night, and she didn’t get bent out of shape.”
“Again, no argument. But if it does connect to you and Harper, then it must mean something. Maybe something important. The way Logan and I, the way Mitch and Roz mean something important to each other.”
“I can’t think about that. Not now. I just want to work off this edge. Give me something physical.”
“I want all the excess stock cleared out of greenhouse one, brought around front for a display. One table for annuals, one for perennials, and marked thirty percent off.”
“I’ll get right on it. Thanks.”
“Be sure to remember you thanked me when you collapse from heat exhaustion,” Stella called out.
SHE LOADED FLATS and pots on a flatbed cart and hauled them around to the front of the building. It took her four trips. She muscled over the tables she wanted, positioning them where they’d be most likely to catch the eye of someone driving by. Possible impulse sales, she decided.
She still had to stop from time to time, talk to customers or direct them, but for the most part, she was blessedly left alone.
The air was close and heavy, the sort that brewed itself into thunderstorms. She hoped it did. She’d relish a bitching good storm. It would suit her mood exactly.
Still, the work kept her mind busy. She played the game of identifying and reciting the name of each specimen as she unloaded. Pretty soon she might be as good as Roz or Stella at recognizing plants. And she was pretty sure by the time she finished the work, she’d be too worn out to think about anything.
“Hayley. Been looking for you.” Harper’s brows drew together as he got closer. “What the hell are you doing?”
“Working.” She swiped a forearm over her sweaty brow. “That’s what I do around here.”
“It’s too hot for this kind of work, and the air quality’s in the toilet today. Get inside.”
“You’re not my boss.”
“Technically I am as I’m part owner of this place.”
She was a little breathless, and the damn sweat kept dribbling into her eyes. It only made her more irritable. “Stella told me to set this up, and I’m setting it up. She’s my immediate supervisor.”
“Of all the stupid—” He broke off, strode inside.
And straight into Stella’s office. “What the hell’s wrong with you, sending Hayley out in this heat hauling stock around?”
“Good God, is she still at it?” Alarmed, she pushed back from her desk. “I had no idea she’d—”
“Give me a goddamn bottle of water.”
Stella grabbed one out of her cooler. “Harper, I never thought she’d—”
But he held up a hand to cut her off. “Don’t. Just don’t.”
He marched out again, stormed outside, straight to Hayley. She took a swat at him when he grabbed her arm, but he pulled her away from the front of the building.
“Let go. What do you think you’re doing?”
“Getting you into the shade for a start.” He propelled her around the back, through tables and potted shrubs, between greenhouses, until he came to the shaded banks of the pond.
“I don’t like you this way.”
“Right back at you. Now drink that water, and consider yourself lucky I don’t just toss you in the pond to cool you off. I expected better of Stella,” he said when Hayley glugged down water. “But the fact is, even though this is her second summer, she’s a Yankee. You were born and raised down here. You know what this kind of heat can do.”
“And I know how to handle it. And don’t you blame Stella for anything.” But she had to admit, now that she’d stopped, she felt a little queasy and light-headed. Giving in, she stretched out flat on the grass. “Maybe I overdid it. I got caught up, is all.” She turned her head, looked over at him. “But I don’t like being pushed around, Harper.”
“I don’t like pushing people around, but sometimes they need it.” He pulled off his fielder’s cap and waved it at her face to stir the air and cool her. “And since your color’s several shades under fire engine now, I’d say you did.”
It was hard to argue when it felt so good to stretch out on the grass, and so sweet to have him fanning her with his sweaty old cap.
The sun was behind him, but filtered through the high, thickly leaved branches so that it dappled over him, made him look romantic and handsome sitting in the summer shade.
All that dark hair, curling a bit at the ends from the heat and humidity. And those long, chocolate brown eyes were so . . . delicious. The blades of his cheekbones, the full, sexy shape of his mouth.
She could lie here, she thought, for hours just looking at him. The idea was foolish enough to make her smile.
“You get away with it, this once. I had a lot on my mind, and good, sweaty work helps me deal with it.”
“I got another way to deal with it.” He leaned down, then stopped, cocked his head when she brought her hand up between them.
“We’re on the clock here.”
“I thought we were on a break.”
“Work environment.” The work, however draining, had done the trick. She’d made her decision. It wasn’t about what she wanted, but about what was right. “Besides, I realized that sort of thing isn’t a good idea.”
“What sort of thing?”
“The you and me sort.” She sat up, shook her hair back and made sure she smiled at him. It would drop the base out of her world if they stopped being friends. “I like you, Harper. You mean a lot to me, to Lily, and I want to stay friends. We add sex to that, sure, it’d be nice for a while, but then it’d just get awkward and sticky.”
“It doesn’t have to.”
“Odds are.” She touched his knee, gave it a brisk rub. “I was just in a mood yesterday. I liked kissing you. It was nice.”
“Sure.” Because she knew that expression on his face—or rather the lack of expression—meant he was angry and fighting it back, she bumped up the smile several degrees. “Kissing a good-looking guy’s always nice. But I’ve got to think beyond that kind of thing, and the best thing for me is to leave things just the way they are.”
“Things aren’t the way they were. You already changed that.”
“Harper, a couple of smoochies between friends isn’t such a big.” She patted his hand, started to get up, but he clamped his fingers around her wrist.
“It was more than that.”
His temper was winning, she could see it. And from the few times she’d watched it fly, she knew it was formidable. Better he was mad, she thought quickly. Better for him that he was mad or disgusted or even hurt for the short term.
“Harper, I know you’re probably not used to having a woman put on the brakes, but I’m not going to sit here and argue about whether I’m going to have sex with you.”
“It’s more than that.”
More. And that single word had her heart trembling. “It isn’t. And I don’t want it to be.”
“What’s this, some kind of game? You came to me, you moved on me. And now it’s that was nice, but I’m not interested?”
“That’s the nutshell. I’ve got to get back to work.”
His voice stayed calm and cool; a dangerous sign. “I know what you felt when I had my hands on you.”
“Well, for God’s sake, Harper, of course I felt something. I haven’t had any action in months.”
His fingers tightened, then released. Let her go. “So, you were just cruising for a fuck buddy.”
It wasn’t her heart that bumped this time, but her belly. “I did something on impulse I realized I shouldn’t have done. You want to make it crude, go ahead.”
Her vision wavered, so she seemed to be looking at him through a rippling wave of heat. The anger inside her spiked up, so acute it all but scored her throat. “Men always take it down to fucking, lying and cheating and buying their way to it. And once they have, the woman’s no more than a whore to be used again or tossed away. It’s men who are the whores, plotting and planning their way to the next rut.”
Her eyes had changed. He couldn’t say how, but he knew he wasn’t looking at her through them. The heat of his temper froze in fear. “Hayley—”
“Is this what you want, Master Harper?” With a sly smile, she cupped her breasts, caressed them. “And this?” She slid a hand between her legs. “What will you pay?”
He took her shoulders, gave her a quick shake. “Hayley. Stop it.”
“Do you want me to play the lady? I’m so good at it. Good enough to be used to breed.”
“No.” He needed to stay calm, though he could feel his own fingers tremble. “I want you exactly the way you are. Hayley.” He gripped her chin, kept his eyes focused on hers. “I’m talking to you. We’ve got things to do around here, then you’ve got to go get Lily. You don’t want to be late picking up Lily.”
“What? Hey.” Frowning, she pushed at his hand. “I said I didn’t . . .”
“What did you say?” He moved his hands back to her shoulders, rubbed them gently up and down. “Tell me what you just said to me.”
“I said . . . I said I did something on impulse. I said—Oh God.” The color drained out of her face. “I didn’t. I didn’t mean—”
“Do you remember?”
“I don’t know. I don’t feel right.” She pressed a clammy hand to her belly as nausea rolled. “I feel a little sick.”
“Okay. I’m going to get you home.”
“I didn’t mean those things, Harper. I was upset.” Her knees wobbled when he helped her to her feet. “I say stupid things when I’m upset, but I didn’t mean them. I don’t know where that came from.”
“That’s all right.” His tone was grim as he took her weight to walk her around the front. “I do.”
“I don’t understand.” She wanted to lie on the grass again, lie in the shade until her head stopped spinning.
“We’ll get you home first, then we’ll talk about it.”
“I have to tell Stella—”
“I’ll tell her. I didn’t bring my car. Where are your keys?”
“Um. In my purse, behind the counter. Harper, I really feel . . . off.”
“In the car.” He opened the door, nudged her in. “I’ll get your purse.”
Stella was behind the counter when he hurried in. “Hayley’s purse. I’m taking her home.”
“Oh, Harper, is she sick? I’m so sorry. I—”
“It’s not that. I’ll explain later.” He snatched the purse out of Stella’s hand. “Tell Mama, tell her to come. Tell her I need her home.”
Though she protested she was feeling better, he all but carried her in the house, then jerked his chin at David. “Get her something. Tea.”
“What’s the matter with our girl?”
“Just get the tea, David. And Mitch. Get Mitch. Come on, lie down in here.”
“Harper, I’m not sick. Exactly. I just got overheated or something.” But it was hard to argue with a man who plopped you down on a sofa.
“It’s the ‘or something’ part that worries me. You’re still pale.” He ran his knuckles down her cheek.
“It could be because I’m completely embarrassed by what came out of my mouth. I shouldn’t have said those things, Harper, even if I was mad.”
“You weren’t that mad.” He looked around as Mitch came into the room.
“What’s going on?”
“We had . . . a thing.”
“Hey, baby, what’s the matter?” Mitch walked to the sofa, crouched down.
“Just the heat.” The sick weakness was passing, and let her work up an embarrassed smile. “Made me a little crazy.”
“It wasn’t the heat,” Harper corrected. “And you’re not the one who’s crazy. Mama’s on her way. We’re going to wait for her.”
“You didn’t drag Roz away from work over this? Just how bad do you want me to feel?”
“Quiet down,” Harper ordered.
“Look, I don’t blame you for being mad at me, but I’m not going to lie here and—”
“Yes, you are. Lily doesn’t have to be fetched for a couple hours. One of us will go get her.”
Since her only response was a dropped jaw, he turned as David brought a tea tray into the room. “You can get Lily from the sitter’s, can’t you?”
“Since she’s my daughter, I’m the one who picks her up, or delegates,” Hayley snapped.
“Color’s coming back,” Harper observed. “Drink your tea.”
“I don’t want any damn tea.”
“There now, sugar, it’s nice green tea.” David soothed as he set the tray down and poured. “Be a good girl now.”
“I wish y’all would stop fussing and making me feel like an idiot.” She sulked, but took the cup. “But since you ask, David, I will.” She continued to sulk as she sipped, then cursed under her breath when she heard Roz come through the front door.
“What’s the matter? What happened?”
“Harper’s on some sort of rampage,” Hayley said.
“Harper, you rampaging again?” Roz rubbed her hand over his arm as she brushed by him to study Hayley. “When are you going to grow out of these things?”
“Roz, I’m sorry for all this trouble,” Hayley began. “I got a little overheated and wonky, is all. I’ll put in extra time tomorrow to make up for today.”
“Oh good, then I won’t have to fire you. Now somebody tell me what the hell’s going on.”
“First, she was working herself up to a good case of heat exhaustion,” Harper told her.
“I overdid just a little, which isn’t the same as—”
“Didn’t I tell you to quiet down once already?”
She set the cup down with a snap of china on china. “I don’t know where you get off taking that tone with me.”
The glance he sent her was as mild, and as formidable, as his tone. “Since it’s not working, I’ll just tell you to shut the hell up. I got her into the shade, got some water in her,” he continued. “We talked a couple minutes, then we had an argument. In the middle of it, it wasn’t her talking anymore. It was Amelia.”
“No. Just because I said things I shouldn’t have—”
“Hayley, it wasn’t you saying them. She sounded different,” he told Mitch. “Different tonal quality, you could say. And the accent was pure Memphis. Not a trace of Arkansas in it. And her eyes, I don’t know how to explain it exactly. They were older. Colder.”
Everything inside Hayley sank and shivered. “It’s not possible.”
“You know it is. You know it happened.”
“All right.” Roz sat beside Hayley. “What did happen, Hayley, from your point of view?”
“I wasn’t feeling quite right—the heat. Then Harper and I got into an argument. He just pushed my buttons, that’s all, and I slapped back. I said things. I said . . .”
Her hand shook, groped for Roz’s. “Oh God, oh God. I felt—away, detached. I don’t know how to say it. And at the same time, I was filled with all this rage. I didn’t know what I was saying. It was like I stopped saying anything. Then he was saying my name, and I was irritated. For a minute I couldn’t remember. My—my brain felt a little dull, like it does when you first wake up from a nap. And I felt a little queasy.”
“Hayley.” Mitch spoke gently. “Has this happened before?”
“No. I don’t know. Maybe.” She closed her eyes a moment. “I’ve been having these thoughts, these moods, that don’t seem like me. A lot of bitchiness, but it just seemed like I was feeling bitchy, that’s all. God, what am I going to do?”
“Stay calm,” Harper advised. “And we’ll figure it out.”
“Easy for you to say,” she shot back. “You’re not possessed by a psychopathic ghost.”seven
“A LITTLE LIKE old times,” Stella commented as she settled down in the upstairs sitting room with Roz and Hayley. And a bottle of cool white wine.
“I should be getting Lily her supper.”
Roz poured the wine, then chose one of the sugared green grapes from the platter David had put together. “Hayley, you not only know she’ll be fed, but that she’ll handle all those men just fine.”
“And it’s good practice for Logan. We’re thinking maybe we’ll try to have a baby.”
“Really?” For the first time in hours Hayley felt pure pleasure. “I think that’s great. You’ll make a beautiful baby, and Gavin and Luke would just love having another brother or a sister.”
“Still in the talking stage, but we’re leaning toward the acting on it stage.”
“Feeling better?” Roz asked Hayley.
“Yeah. A lot. Sorry I cracked on you.”
“I think we can make allowances. And give you some leeway. You didn’t want to talk about what Mitch called the trigger—what you and Harper were arguing about. You needed your panic time and your weepy time, and you’ve had them.”
“And then some. Nothing clears men out of the room faster than female hysterics.”
“Which, I believe, was something you wanted anyway.” Roz raised her brows and popped another grape. “You didn’t want to discuss this with Mitch. Not what you argued about, or what you said to Harper—or rather what Amelia said.”
Rather than meet Roz’s eyes, Hayley kept hers fixed on the platter as if the cure for cancer was coded in among the glossy grapes and strawberry flowers. “I don’t see what’s important about what was said. The important thing is it happened. I think we should all—”
“That’s enough nonsense.” Roz’s voice was mild as May. “Everything’s important, every detail. I haven’t pushed Harper on this, but I will. I’d prefer to hear it from you and it’s been each one of us most intimately involved with this thing. So suck up your pride or whatever it is, Hayley, and spill it.”
“I’m sorry. I took advantage of you.”
“And how did you do that?”
Hayley took a bracing gulp of wine. “I hit on Harper.”
“And?” That stumped her for a minute. “You took me into your home, me and Lily. You treat us like family. More than. You—”
“And don’t make me regret it by putting strings around it that I never tied on. Harper’s a grown man, and makes his own decisions about a number of things, including the women in his life. If you hit on him I have no doubt he knew how to block or hit back.”
As Hayley remained silent, Roz settled back with her wine, tucked her legs up, sipped. “And unless I don’t know or understand my son as well as I think, I’d bet on the latter.”
“It happened in the kitchen. I made it happen. Just kissing,” Hayley said quickly when she realized how it sounded. “I mean Lily was right there and it was the first time . . .”
“The kitchen,” Roz murmured.
“Yes, yes. You see?” She shuddered. “And that same night, she tore his kitchen apart. So I realized this wasn’t something that could happen just because I’ve got the . . . because I’m attracted to Harper. I told him that I wasn’t interested after all, and I probably hurt his feelings. But it’s better his feelings get hurt than something else happen.”
“Mmm-hmm.” Roz nodded as she watched Hayley over the rim of her glass. “I don’t imagine he took it well.”
“Not exactly, so I was like, what’s the big deal.” She set her glass down so she could gesture freely with both hands. “Then he said something deliberately crude, and it upset me. Because it wasn’t like that. It was just a kiss—well, two,” she corrected. “But it wasn’t like we stripped down naked and had monkey sex on the kitchen floor.”
“Difficult when Lily was there,” Roz commented.
“Yeah, but even so, I’m not like that, even though I got pregnant with Lily the way I did. And it might seem like I’m a big ho, but—”
“It doesn’t seem,” Stella cut in. “Not for a minute. We all know what it is to need someone. Whether for the moment, or for more. Personally, I don’t care to hear you talking about a friend of mine that way, or to intimate that I would.”
Roz smiled, stirred herself to lean forward and tap her glass to Stella’s. “Nice.”
“I forgot where I was,” Hayley said after a moment.
“You were arguing with Harper,” Stella said helpfully. “You big ho.”
It made her laugh, settled her down. “Right. We were arguing, then it happened, the way I said. I sort of faded back, and there were these things coming out of my mouth I didn’t put there. About how men are all liars and cheats, and just want to fuck you, and treat you like a whore. It was ugly, and it wasn’t true. Especially not about Harper.”
“The first thing you have to remember is it wasn’t you saying it,” Stella reminded her. “And the second is, it fits with what we know of her, and the pattern of her behavior. Men are the enemy, and sex is a trigger.”
“During the argument, before Amelia’s participation, Harper said something to make you feel cheap.”
Hayley picked up her glass again, looked at Roz. “He didn’t mean it the way I took it.”
“Don’t make excuses for my boy.” Roz angled her head. “If he was perfect, he wouldn’t be mine. The point is, you felt that way, and she moved in.”
“Roz, I want you to know, I’m not going to pursue this thing with Harper. This personal thing.”
“Is that so?” Roz raised her eyebrows. “What’s wrong with him?”
“Nothing.” Blinking, Hayley looked to Stella for support and got a smile and a shrug. “Nothing’s wrong with him.”
“So you’re attracted to him, nothing’s wrong with you, but you’ve dumped him before things really got started. Why is that?”
“Well, because he’s . . .”
“Mine?” Roz finished. “Then what’s wrong with me?”
“Nothing!” At her wit’s end, Hayley spread a hand over her face. “I can’t even believe how embarrassing this is.”
“I expect you and Harper to work this out, and to leave me entirely out of the equation. I will make one observation, as his mother. If he knew you were showing him the door in order to protect him from possible future harm, he’d turn right back around and kick that door in. And I’d applaud the action.”
“You won’t tell him.”
“It’s not my place to tell him. It’s yours.” She pushed to her feet. “Now I’m going downstairs, and I’ll discuss this with Mitch over our dinner. Meanwhile, I think you have another hour coming—for sulking time. After that, I expect you to straighten up.”
Stella gestured with her glass as Roz walked out, then took a slow, satisfying sip. “She’s just frigging terrific, isn’t she?”
“You weren’t a lot of help,” Hayley complained.
“Actually, I was. I agreed with everything she said there at the end, but I didn’t mention it. Seems to me, keeping my mouth shut was helpful. Hey, you’re doing really well with this sulking hour,” she added. “And you’re only a couple minutes into it.”
“Maybe you should shut up again.”
“I love you, Hayley.”
“And I’m worried about you. We all are. So we’re going to figure this out. Go team and all that. In the meantime you’ve got to decide what’s best for you in regards to Harper. You can’t let Amelia drive the train.”
“It’s tough when she’s already highjacked it and put on the engineer’s hat. She was inside me, Stella. Somehow.”
Stella got up, moved to the couch to sit beside Hayley, to drape her arm over her friend’s shoulders.
“I am seriously freaked,” Hayley whispered.
SHE FELT LIKE she was tiptoeing on eggshells. Only the eggshells were sharp as razor blades. She questioned everything she did or thought or said.
It all seemed like her, she decided as she undressed for bed. She’d tasted the pasta salad, the garden-fresh tomatoes at dinner. It was her head that had throbbed with a tension headache, and her hands that had tucked Lily into the crib.
But just how long could she go on being so hyper-aware of every single action, every breath she took without going a little loopy herself?
There were things she could do, and she was going to start doing them the next day. The first order of business was to weigh down her credit card with the purchase of a laptop. The Internet was probably full of information on possession.
That’s what they’d call what had happened to her. Possession.
What she knew about it came out of books, novels mostly. To think she’d enjoyed having her spine tingled with those kind of stories once. Maybe she could take some of the things she’d read and apply it to her situation. Though the one that came first to her mind was Stephen King’s Christine. She was a woman not a classic car, and come to think of it, the solution of smashing the car to bits didn’t seem very practical. Besides, it hadn’t really worked anyway.
There was The Exorcist, but she wasn’t Catholic—and that dealt with demons. Still, she’d be willing to try a priest if things got any worse. In fact, the minute her head spun a three-sixty, she was heading for the nearest church.
She was probably overreacting, she decided, and slipped on a tank and cotton shorts. Just because it happened once didn’t mean it would happen again. Especially now that she was aware. She could stop it from happening, probably. Willpower, strength of self.
She needed to do more yoga. Who knew that yoga wasn’t the cure for possession?
No, what she was going to do was get some air. The thunderstorm she’d wanted was just starting to lash. The wind was up, and shimmers of lightning were buzzing light against the windows. She’d throw open the terrace doors, let the wind pour in. Then she’d read something light, a nice romantic comedy, and turn her head off for sleep.
She walked to the doors, gave them a big, dramatic yank.
“Jesus! Jesus!” Harper grabbed her before she could let out the next peal. “I’m not an ax murderer. Chill.”
“Chill? Chill? You’re skulking around, scare my hair white, and I’m supposed to chill?”
“I wasn’t skulking. I was just about to knock when you opened the doors. I think you may have cracked my eardrum.”
“I hope I did. What are you doing out there? It’s just about to storm.”
“A couple of things. The first was I saw your light and wanted to see if you were okay.”
“Well, I was before you gave me a damn heart attack.”
“Good.” His gaze drifted down, up again. “Nice outfit.”
“Oh stop.” Annoyed, she folded her arms over her chest. “It’s no less than I might wear running around the yard with the kids.”
“Yeah, I’ve noticed you running around the yard. The second is I was thinking about what happened this afternoon.”
“Harper, I haven’t been able to think about anything else for hours.” Weary of it, she pushed a hand through her hair, then pressed it to her temple. “I just don’t think I can think about it any more tonight.”
“You don’t have to, you just have to answer a question.” When he started to step inside, she gave him a good, solid shove back.
“I didn’t ask you in. And I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to be in here when I’m not really dressed.”
His eyebrows lifted as he leaned comfortably on the doorjamb. Like he owned the place, she thought. Which, of course, he did.
“Let me point out that you’ve been here for about a year and a half. During that time I’ve somehow managed to restrain myself from jumping you. I think I can continue that policy for another few minutes.”
“You’re feeling pretty snarky, aren’t you?”
“I’d say what I’m feeling is pissed off. Especially if you’re going to be a drama queen and insist we have this conversation with me standing out here and you standing in there.”
The first fat drops began to fall, and he lifted his eyebrows again. Exactly the way his mother did.
“Oh, all right, come in then. No point in you standing out there getting soaked like an idiot.”
“Gee, thanks so much.”
“And leave those doors open.” She jabbed a finger at them because the gesture made her feel more in charge. “Because you’re not staying.”
“Fine.” The wind whipped in through them, chased by a charge of thunder. And he stood, thumbs hooked in the front pockets of ratty jeans, his hip cocked.
She wondered, even through the irritation, why she didn’t drool.
“You know,” he began, “after I more or less—mostly less—calmed down about everything, replayed it in my head some, the way you do, something interesting occurred to me.”
“You going to make a speech or ask your question?”
He inclined his head, an action that managed to look regal despite the jeans, T-shirt, and bare feet. “You’ve done a lot of swiping at me since you came here. I’ve tolerated it pretty well, for certain reasons. I’m about done with that now. But to get back to my point. The interesting thing that occurred to me was timing. Here’s how it plays for me. You come over, make your move, I make one back. We have a moment, a couple of them. You want to take it slow, I get that. Then the next time we’re together, you’re all about now you’re not really interested after all, it was just an impulse, no big, and let’s just be pals.”
“That’s right. And if your question is have I changed my mind—”
“It’s not. Between those two interludes, I get a visit from our resident crazy, who happens to decide to trash my place. My kitchen to be exact, the scene of interlude one. So my question is, how much did that event play into your role in interlude two?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Well now you’re just lying, straight to my face.”
Her expression went to pitiful. She could actually feel it move across her face and settle in. “I wish you’d go away, Harper. I’m tired, and I have a headache. It hasn’t been the easiest day for me.”
“You pulled back because you figured she didn’t like us together. Enough that she fired what we could call a warning shot.”
“I pulled back because I pulled back. And that should be enough.”
“It would be, would have to be, if that were true. If that was all. I’m not going to push myself on you, on any woman who doesn’t want me. I’ve got too much pride for that, and I was raised better.”
He straightened, took another step toward her. “And those are the exact same reasons I don’t walk away from a fight anymore than I let somebody stand in front of me if there’s trouble.”
He angled his head again, rocked on his heels. “So don’t even think about getting in my way on this, Hayley, about stepping aside from something to protect me from her.”
She cupped her elbows. “You say you won’t push, but I feel pushed, so—”
“I’ve wanted you since the first minute I saw you.”
Her arms went limp, simply fell to her sides. “You have not.”
“The first moment—it was like being blasted with light. Went straight through me.” With his eyes on hers, he tapped a fist on his chest. “I think I stuttered. I could hardly speak.”
“Oh God.” She pressed a hand to her heart, hoping that would hold it in place. “That’s a lousy thing to say to me.”
“Maybe.” His lips twitched, his eyes warmed. “I’ll just follow it up with some lousy behavior then.” He reached out, drew her against him.
“Harper, this really isn’t something we should—” It was some move, or so she would think when she could think again. With a subtle shift, a tiny bump, they were fitted together. Angle to angle, line to line so that every inch of her body felt the jolt.
“Oh,” she murmured. “Uh-oh.”
A smile flickered at the corners of his mouth, then that mouth was on hers. Hot and warm and sweet, like liquid sugar. The kiss was a slow, irresistible seduction, a drugging of the senses, as his hands cruised over her, a light and lazy touch. A touch, she thought mistily, of a man confident enough to take his time—sure enough that he had plenty of it.
And his lips rubbed silkily over hers until she’d have sworn she felt her own shimmer.
It was like being gradually, skillfully, thoroughly melted, body and will, heart and mind, until what choice was there really, but surrender?
She moaned for him, that soft, helplessly pleasured sound. And she yielded, degree by erotic degree, until the fingers that had gripped his shoulders went lax.
When he eased back, her eyes were blurred, her lips parted.
“That’s not the response of a woman who isn’t interested.”
She managed to get her hand on his shoulder again, but it wasn’t much of a push. “That wasn’t really fair.”
“Because . . . that mouth.” She couldn’t stop her gaze from dropping down to it. “You should need a license to kiss that way.”
“Who says I haven’t got one?”
“Well, in that case. Do it again, would you?”
“Was planning on it.”
It was the same rush with the wind spewing in through the door, and his mouth lighting small, sparkling fires inside her. Little tongues of heat, she thought, that were going to lick their way through her until she simply dissolved.
“Harper.” She said it with the kiss, shuddering at the sensation of their lips moving together.
“We really have to stop this.” She couldn’t resist nipping that sexy bottom lip of his, just a little. “Sometime.”
“Later is good. Let’s say next week.”
She had to laugh, but it came out shaky, then ended on a gasp as his mouth slid from hers to find some magic point just under her ear.
“That’s good, that’s . . . exceptional. But I really think we need to wait, just a . . . Oh.” She let her head fall back as his cruising mouth found yet another magical spot. “That’s so . . .”
She turned her head to give him better access, and her heavy eyes blinked clear. Widened. “Harper.”
When she jerked in his arms, he just shifted his grip. “What? It’s not next week yet.”
“Harper. Oh God, stop. Look.”
Amelia stood in the doorway, the storm raging at her back. Behind her, through her, Hayley could see trees whipping in the wind and the bruised fists of clouds that smothered the sky.
Her hair was matted and wild, her white gown streaked with mud that dripped, it seemed to drip, into a filthy pool over her bare and bloodied feet. She carried a long, curved blade in one hand, a rope in the other. And her face was a mask of bitter rage.
“You see her, don’t you? You see her.” Hayley shuddered now from fear and cold.
“Yeah, I see her.” In one easy move, he changed his stance so Hayley was behind him. “You’re going to have to get over it,” he said to Amelia. “You’re dead. We’re not.”
The force of the blow lifted him off his feet, shot him back five feet to slam against the wall. He tasted blood in his mouth even as he shoved clear again.
“Stop! Stop!” Hayley shouted. Force of will and fear had her pushing against the freezing wind toward Harper. “He’s your great-great-grandbaby. He comes out of you. You sang to him when he was a boy. You can’t hurt him now.”
She started forward, with no clear idea what she would do if she reached Amelia. Before Harper could yank her back, a gust of wind knocked her off her feet and sent her sprawling. She thought she heard someone scream, in rage or grief. Then there was nothing but the sound of the storm.
“Are you crazy?” Harper dropped down beside her to prop her up.
“No, are you? You’re the one whose mouth’s bleeding.”
He swiped the side of his hand over it. “You hurt?”
“No. She’s gone. At least she’s gone. Christ, Harper, she had a knife.”
“Sickle. And yeah, that’s a new one.”
“It can’t be real, right? I mean, she’s not corporeal, so the rest of it isn’t real either. She couldn’t slice us up with it. You think?”
“No.” But he wondered if she could make you imagine you were cut, or do yourself some kind of harm defending yourself.
She stayed on the floor, getting her breath back, leaning on him as she stared through the open doors. “When I first came here, when I was pregnant, she’d come to my room sometimes. It was a little spooky, sure, but there was something comforting, too. The way it seemed she was just looking in on me, seeing if I was okay. And this sense I got, this wistfulness, from her. And now she’s—”
She was on her feet and running the instant she heard the singing come through the baby monitor.
She was fast; Harper was faster and got to Lily’s door two strides ahead of her. Quick enough to throw out an arm and block her. “It’s okay, it’s all right. Let’s not wake her up.”
Lily slept in the crib, curled under her blanket with her stuffed dog. In the rocking chair, Amelia sang. She wore her gray dress, her hair in neat coils, and her face was calm and quiet.
“It’s so cold.”
“It’s not bothering the baby. It never bothered me as a kid. I don’t know why.”
In her chair, Amelia turned her head to look over. There was sorrow on her face, grief, and, Hayley thought, regret. She continued to sing, low and sweet, but her gaze was on Harper now.
When the song was done, she faded away.
“She was singing to you,” Hayley told him. “Some part of her remembers, some part of her knows, and she’s sorry. What must it be like, to be insane for a hundred years?”
Together, they crossed to the crib where Hayley fussed with the blanket.
“She’s okay, Hayley. Lily’s just fine. Come on.”
“Sometimes I don’t know if I can take it, this roller-coaster ride through the haunted house.” She pushed at her hair as they walked back to Hayley’s bedroom. “One minute she’s knocking us around, and the next, she’s singing lullabies.”
“Dead lunatic,” he pointed out. “Still, maybe it’s a way of telling us she might come after you or me, but she won’t hurt Lily.”
“What if I do? What if she does what she did at the pond, and makes me hurt Lily, or someone else?”
“You won’t let that happen. Sit down a minute. You want something? Water or something?”
He eased her down so they sat on the side of the bed. “She never hurt anybody in this house. Maybe she wanted to. Maybe she even tried, but she never did.” He took her hand, and because it still felt chilled, rubbed it between both of his. “That’s one thing that would’ve gotten passed down. A crazy woman attacking a Harper, or even a servant. It would’ve been reported, and she’d have been taken away, put in jail or an asylum.”
“Maybe. What about the sickle, and the rope? That says: I’m gonna tie somebody up and slice them to ribbons.”
“Nobody ever got sliced to ribbons in Harper House.” He rose to move over and close her terrace doors.
“That you know about.”
“Okay, that I know about.” He sat again. “We’ll pass this on to Mitch. He can look into police records maybe. It’s an avenue.”
“You’ve got this calm surface,” she said after a moment. “It’s deceptive, seeing as there are all these little hot pockets under it. Shows me I don’t know you as well as I thought I did.”
“Back at you.”
She sighed, looked down at her hands as they sat on the side of her bed together. “I can’t just sleep with you. I thought I could—at first. Then I thought, I can’t go jumping on that. I do and he’s going to get hurt. She’s going to hurt him.” She looked up. “You were right about that.”
He only smiled. “Duh.”
She gave his arm a swat. “Think you’re so clever and smart.”
“Only because I am. You can ask my mama, when she’s in a good mood.”
“You’re easy to be around, except when you’re not.” She studied him, trying to take in all the new things she was learning. “I like that, I guess, finding all those under-the-surface pockets. And God knows you’re nice to look at.”
“How big a fall are you building me up for?”
“It’s not—” She shook her head, rose to wander the room. “I’ve got all these feelings stored up, and all these needs. It’d be so easy to set them loose on you.”
“I don’t recall putting up a fight.”
“I didn’t know you looked at me, not that way. Knowing you did, you do, just adds to everything. I’ve never been kissed like that in my life, and I’ve been kissed pretty good now and then. If she hadn’t come in here when she did, it’s likely we’d be in bed right now, going where that kiss was leading.”
“That’s no way to make me feel fonder of my great-great-grandmother.”
“I’m not feeling so fond of her myself. But it gave me time to think instead of just want.” Ordering herself to be sensible, for both of them, she sat on the arm of a chair. “I’m not shy about sex, and I think if you and I were somewhere else, in some other sort of situation, we could be lovers without all these extra complications.”
“Why do people always think being lovers shouldn’t be complicated?”
She frowned, then shook her head. “Well, that’s a question. A good one. I don’t know.”
“Seems to me,” he began, crossing to her. “That there are flings, and that’s uncomplicated by design. Nothing wrong with it. But being lovers, going into it thinking about more than a night or two, that should have weight. You’ve got weight, you’ve got some complications.”
“You’re right, I can’t say you’re not. But there’s a lot to consider before we take a step like this. I think we need to be sure it’s the right thing for both of us before we take that step. There are things we don’t know about each other, and maybe we should.”
“How about dinner?”
She stared up at him. “You’re hungry?”
“Not now, Hayley. I’m asking you for a date. Have dinner with me. We’ll go into the city, have a meal, listen to some music.”
Her shoulders relaxed and the tight coil in her belly loosened. “That’d be good.”
“Tomorrow?” he said as he drew her to her feet.
“If your mama or Stella can mind Lily, tomorrow’s fine. Ah, we’ll need to tell them about what happened. About Amelia.”
“In the morning.”
“It’s a little awkward, explaining how you were in here, and what we were doing when—”
“No.” He took her face in his hands, laid his lips on hers. “It’s not. You going to be all right now?”
“Yeah.” She looked over his shoulder to the doors he’d shut. “Storm’s passing, you should go now, in case it decides to rain some more.”
“I’ll bunk in Stella’s old room.”
“You don’t have to do that.”
“We’ll both sleep easier that way.”
SHE DID FEEL better, even though it didn’t exactly cajole sleep to imagine him just down the hall. Or to imagine how easy it would be to tiptoe down there, slide into bed beside him.
She had no doubt they’d both sleep a lot easier that way.
It was hell being responsible and mature.
Even a bigger hell to realize she cared about him more than she’d bargained for. But that was good, wasn’t it? she thought as she tossed and turned. She wasn’t a slut who hopped into bed with a guy just because he was good-looking and sexy.
Some people might think differently, because of Lily, but it hadn’t been that way. She’d cared for Lily’s father. She’d liked him. Maybe she’d been careless, but it hadn’t been cheap.
And she’d wanted the baby. Maybe not at first, she admitted. But after the panic and pity, the anger and denial, she’d wanted the baby. She’d never wanted anything in her life as much.
Her beautiful baby.
She’d taken nothing from the father, had she? The spineless, selfish bastard who’d used her grief to have his way. That hadn’t been stupid. She’d been smart not to tell him, to go away, keep her child to herself. Only hers. Always.
But she could have more, couldn’t she? She was thinking about this all the wrong way. Why should she work? Sweat and slave, settle for a room in the great house. She could have it all. Her child would have it all.
He wanted her. She could play this well. Oh yes, who knew better how to play a man. He would come begging before she was done, and she would bind him to her.
When it was done, Harper House would be hers, hers and her child’s.
IN THE PROPAGATION house, Hayley watched Roz set a ceanothus cutting in a rockwood plug. “Are you sure you don’t mind watching Lily?”
“Why would I mind? Mitch and I will spend the evening spoiling her rotten while you aren’t around to run interference.”
“She loves being with you. Roz, I feel so weird about everything.”
“I don’t know why you’d feel weird about going out on a date with Harper. He’s a handsome, charming young man.”
“Your young man.”
“Yes.” Roz smiled as she dipped another cutting in rooting compound. “Aren’t I lucky? I also have two other handsome, charming young men, and wouldn’t be the least surprised if they had dates tonight.”
“It’s different with Harper. He’s your first, he’s your partner. I’m working for you.”
“We’ve been over this, Hayley.”
“I know.” Just as she knew that impatient tone. “I’m not able to wind myself through it as easy as you, I guess.”
“You might if you’d relax, go out, and have a good time.” Roz glanced up before sliding the cutting into the plug. “Wouldn’t hurt to try to catch a quick nap beforehand, either. See if you can deal with those circles under your eyes.”
“I didn’t sleep well.”
“Not surprising, considering.”
The music in the propagation house today was some sort of complicated piano, drenched in romance. Hayley had more skill identifying plants than classical composers, so she just let the music drift around her as she worked.
“I kept having weird dreams, at least I think I did. I can’t remember any of them clearly. Roz, are you afraid?”
“Concerned. Here, you do the next one.” She stepped back so Hayley could take over. “And angry, too. Nobody slaps at my boy—except me. And if I get the opportunity, I’ll tell her so, in no uncertain terms. That’s good,” she said with a nod as Hayley worked. “This kind of hardwood cutting needs a dry rooting medium or you get rot.”
“She may have gotten that sickle and the rope out of the carriage house. I mean all those years ago. Maybe she tried to use them and someone stopped her.”
“There are a lot of maybes, Hayley. Since Beatrice didn’t mention Amelia again in any of her journals, we may never know all of it.”
“And if we don’t we may never get her out. Roz, there are people, paranormal experts, who you can hire to clean houses.” She glanced up, knitted her brows. “I don’t know why you smile at that. It’s not such a strange idea.”
“I just had an image of a bunch of people running around the house armed with buckets and brooms, and that ray gun sort of thing Bill Murray used in Ghostbusters.”
“Proton streams—and I have no idea why I know that. But really, Roz, it’s a fringe science and all that, but there are serious and legitimat