Black Rose

Chapter Ten

HARPER COULD ANDdid spend hours a day in the grafting house without being bored or missing the company of others. The plants he worked with were an endless fascination and satisfaction to him. Whether he was creating another standard or experimenting with a hybrid, he was doing the work he loved.

He enjoyed the outdoor work as well, the grafting and propagation he performed with the field stock. He'd already selected the trees he intended to graft and would need to spend part of the week collecting his scions, and pruning the maiden trees he'd grafted the year before.

His mother left these sort of decisions up to him. The what, the how, the when. It was, he knew, a strong level of trust and confidence from her to step back and let him run that end of the show.

Then again, she'd taught him not only the basics of the work, but had instilled in him a love for what grew.

They'd spent countless hours together in the garden and greenhouse when he was growing up. She'd taught his brothers as well, but their interests had veered off where his had centered. In Harper House, in the gardens, in the work.

His college years, his studies there, had only cemented for him what would be his life's work.

His responsibility to them - the house, the gardens, the work, and the woman who'd taught him - was absolute.

He considered it a bonus round that love and obligation so neatly united for him.

Tchaikovsky played for the plants, while through his headset his choice of classic was Barenaked Ladies. He checked his pots, making notations on his various clipboards.

He was especially pleased with the dahlias he'd grafted the previous spring at Logan's request. In a couple of weeks, he'd bring the overwintered tubers into growth, and in spring take cuttings. In the Garden should be able to offer a nice supply of Stella's Dream, the bold, deeply blue dahlia he'd created.

Interesting the way things worked, he thought. Through Logan and tidy Stella falling in love - and Logan showing his sentimental side over the blue dahlia Stella had dreamed of. Dreamed of, Harper thought, because of the Harper Bride.

It sort of circled around, didn't it, back to the house, and what grew there.

There would be no Stella's Dream without the Bride. And no Bride without Harper House. None of it, he supposed, without his mother's steady determination to keep the house and build the business.

Since he was facing the door, he saw it open. And watched Hayley walk in.

She wouldn't be here, either, without his mother. There would have been no beautiful, pregnant woman knocking on the door of Harper House last winter looking for work and a place to live.

When she smiled, his heart did that quick, automatic stutter, then settled back to normal again. She tapped the side of her head, and he pulled off his headset.

"Sorry to interrupt. Roz said you had some pots mature enough for me to rotate into the houseplant stock. Stella's looking to do a winter sale."

"Sure. You want me to bring them out?"

"That's okay. I got boxes and a flat cart outside the door."

"Let me check the inventory, adjust it first." He walked down to his computer station. "Want a Coke?"

"Love one, but I'm still watching my caffeine."

"Oh right." She was nursing Lily, a concept that made him feel sort of warm and twisty inside. "Ah, got some water in the cooler, too."

"That'd be good. When you've got time, can you show me some grafting? Stella said how you do most of it, at least the field work, about this time of year. I'd really like to do something, then, you know, follow it on through."

"Sure, if you want." He handed her a bottle of water. "You can try your hand on a willow. It was the first graft my mother showed me how to do, and they're the best to practice on."

"That'd be great. I thought one day, when I get a place for me and Lily, I could plant something I'd made myself."

He sat, ordered himself to concentrate on his inventory program. The scent of her, somehow essential female, fit so perfectly with the smell of earth and growth. "You've got plenty of room at the house."

"More than." She laughed, tried to read over his shoulder. "Been there a year, and still can't get used to all the space. I love living there, I do, and it's wonderful for Lily to have so many people around, and nobody, nobody could be more amazing than your mama. She's the most awesome person I know. But sooner or later, I need to, well, plant Lily and me somewhere of our own."

"You know Mama loves having you there or she'd've nudged you along by now."

"Boy, that's the truth. She really knows how to structure things, doesn't she? Sets them up to suit her. I don't mean that exactly the way it sounds. It's just that she's strong and smart, and doesn't seem to be afraid of anything or anyone. I admire that so much."

"You seem to have plenty of guts and brains of your own."

"Guts maybe, but I've started to realize a lot of that came from not knowing any better." Idly, she picked up a scrap of raffia, twisted it around her finger. "When I look back, I don't know how I worked up to setting out six-months pregnant. Not now that I have Lily and realize, well, everything. I'm going to owe Roz for the rest of my life."

"She wouldn't want that."

"That's one thing she's not going to have any choice about. My baby's got a good, loving home. I've got a job that I swear I like more every day. We've got friends, and family. We'd've done all right, I'd've made sure of it. But we wouldn't be where we are now, Lily and I, without Roz."

"Funny, I was thinking how most everything - the house, this place, even Logan and Stella wind around to my mother. Maybe even the Bride."

"Why the Bride?"

"If Mama had sold the place - and there had to be times it would've been easier to do that - maybe the Bride wouldn't still be there. Maybe it takes a Harper being in the house. I don't know." He shrugged, got up to select the plants he'd checked off his inventory. "It was just something I wondered about."

"Could be right. You wouldn't sell it, would you, when it comes to you?"

"No. Fact is, every time I think, maybe I should move out of the carriage house, get some place, I just can't do it. It's where I want to be, that's one thing. And the other is no matter how smart or strong my mother is, I feel it's better that I'm around. I think she'd be sad, and a little lonely, if you and Lily went somewhere else, especially since Stella and the boys'll be moving into Logan's in a couple months."

"Maybe, and I'm not planning on anything right away. But with her and Mitch dating, it could be she'll have all the company she wants."

"What?" He stopped dead, with a young, healthy ficus in his arms. "Dating? What do you mean dating? They're not dating."

"When two people go out two or three times, to basketball games, to dinner and what not, when theshe in the pair cooks thehe dinner herself, I tend to call it dating."

"They're working on this project. It's like . . . meetings."

She gave him the female smile he recognized. The one that categorized him as a pitifully out-of-touch male. "You don't generally adjourn a meeting with a long, hot kiss - at least I haven't been lucky enough to have a meeting like that for some time."

"Kiss? What - "

"I wasn't spying or anything," she said quickly. "I happened to be up with Lily one night, looked out the window when Mitch brought Roz home. Okay, I sort of looked out on purpose when I heard the car, just to see what was what. And if the liplock I witnessed is anything to go by, that's some serious dating."

He set the plant down again, with a thump. "Well, for Christ's sake."

She blinked. "Harper, you don't have any problem with Roz seeing a man like that. That'd be just silly."

"Last time she was seeing a man like that, she ended up married to the son of a bitch."

"She made a mistake," Hayley said, heating up. "And Mitch is nothing like that bastard Bryce Clerk."

"And we know this because?"

"Because we do."

"Not good enough."

"He certainly is good enough for her."

"That's not what I said. I said - "

"Just because he isn't rich, or doesn't have that fancy Harper blood running through him doesn't mean you should build a case against him." She drilled a finger straight into Harper's chest. "You ought to be ashamed of yourself, talking like some snob."

"I'm not saying that, don't be stupid."

"Don't you call me stupid."

"I didn't call you stupid. Jesus Christ."

"I don't even want to talk to you right now." She turned on her heel, stomped out.

"Fine. I don't want to talk to you, either," he shot back.

He stewed about it, worked himself up about the entire situation while he loaded and transported the plants himself.

Ready for battle, he searched out his mother.

She was in the field, checking on the nursery beds, and the roses he'd t-budded earlier in the season.

She wore a stone-gray hoodie, fingerless gloves, and a pair of boots so old and scarred they were no discernable color. She looked, Harper realized, more like a contemporary than his mother.

"Hayley find you?" she called out.

"Yeah, it's done."

"You know, I'm thinking of adding a mist propagation tent, and doing more palms. Honey, I've got to tell you, I'm excited at how these multiple trees you did are coming along. Our customers are going to have fun with these. I'm thinking of taking one of the nectarine and peach myself."

She studied one of the young trees Harper had grafted, then fan-trained on stakes. "This is lovely work, Harper, and that weeping pear over there - "

"Mama, are you sleeping with Mitch Carnegie?"

"What?" She turned fully to face him, and the pleased smile, the glint of pride in her eyes both froze away. "What did you ask me?"

"You heard what I asked. I'd like an answer."

"And why would I answer a question that you have no business asking?"

"I want to know how seriously you're involved with him. I have a right to know."

"You certainly do not."

"I kept my mouth shut about Clerk. That was my mistake. I'm not making it again. I'm looking after you whether you like it or not. So if you don't tell me, I'll go ask him."

"You'll do no such thing, Harper." She paced away, stood with her back to him. He knew her well enough to be sure she was battling back a spew of temper. They both had a dangerous one, and were both very careful with it. "When's the last time I quizzed you about who you see socially, or who you're intimate with?"

"When's the last time I married a fortune hunter?"

She whirled back, and the temper was so close to the surface now, he saw it burning out of her eyes. "Don't you throw that in my face. I don't like it."

"I don't like doing it. I don't care how mad you get, nobody's going to hurt you like that again while I'm around. Just how much do we know about him? From where I'm standing he's already crossing a line hitting on someone he's working for."

"You're so damn proper about the oddest things. How did I ever manage that?" She let out a long breath. "Let me ask you this. Have you ever known me to make the same mistake twice?"

"Not so far."

"Your confidence in me is overwhelming." She took off one of the gloves she wore, slapped it against her thigh. "I'll tell you this. He's an interesting and attractive man who I've enjoyed seeing a couple of times on a social level. He has a strong and loving relationship with his son, and since I pride myself on the same, that goes a long way with me. He's divorced, and maintains a cordial relationship with the mother of his son and her second husband. This is not always an easy feat. He's done nothing improper, even by your lofty standards."

"They're lofty when it comes to you."

"Oh, Harper. I'm not a paragon."

"Who wants you to be? What I want you to be is safe and happy."

"Honey." She stepped to him then, laid her hands on his cheeks, shook his head gently from side-to-side. "That's supposed to be my line to you. If I promise you, take a solemn oath, that I learned my lesson with Bryce, will you relax?"

"Only if you promise to tell me if he pushes where you don't want to be pushed."

"Listen to you. All right, then, I'll promise. Come on, let's take a look at the rest of this before we go in."

IT CERTAINLY GAVERoz a lot to think about. How could she know her firstborn so well, yet have been completely surprised by the altercation that afternoon?

Then again, did any mother ever consider her children would worry about her? There just wasn't enough room in the brain or heart for that possibility, when they were both so full of worry and concern for the child.

Added to that, it had come home fully, for the first time, just how much she'd let him down with Bryce. She'd hurt Harper as much, and maybe more, than she herself had been hurt.

Was that something you could make up to those you loved, or was it something that just had to heal over, like a wound?

Because she wanted quiet, she went into her room from the outside entrance, peeled off her outer gear.

She wandered into her sitting room, intending to put on music and spend some time sketching just to wind down from the day. But she saw the neat piles of mail on her desk. David, as was his habit, had separated the personal correspondence - not much these days as she and most everyone she knew had slid into e-mail posts - business, and bills.

Because she believed in handling the bad news first, she sat and began to open the bills. The utilities on the house made her wince a bit, but that was the price to be paid for having so much space, and so many people using it.

She got out her checkbook, promising herself that soon - before next month - she would master the bill-paying business on-line. Of course, she promised the same every month. But this time she meant it. She'd have Stella show her the ropes, first chance.

She paid the electric, the gas, the phone, a credit card bill. Then frowned at another envelope from another credit card company. She nearly tossed it, assuming it was a solicitation, then opened it, just to check.

Her eyes widened as she looked at the charges, the total. Over eight thousand dollars. Eightthousand ? It was ridiculous, absurd.

She didn't have a card with this company, and certainly hadn't charged eight thousand dollars. Restaurants, electronics, the men's department at Dillard's.

Baffled, she picked up the phone to report the mistake, then spent the next half hour winding her way through tangled and sticky red tape.

The next call she made was to her lawyer.

Once the wheels were set in motion, she sat back, the sinking sensation in her stomach making her queasy. The card had been taken out in her name, with all her information - her address, her Social Security number, even her mother's maiden name. The other user on the card was listed as Ashby Harper.

Clever, she thought. Very clever.

He hadn't used his own name, and hadn't accumulated charges at his most usual haunts. By now, she had no doubt the card was destroyed. The last charge had been made three days before the end of the billing cycle.

Covered all the bases as usual - that bastard Bryce.

The money wouldn't have been the main thrust, she thought now. Not that he wouldn't enjoy the benefits of eight thousand and change. But the point would have been the trouble for her, the irritation, and most of all thereminder that he was still in her face. And there was little she could do about it.

It was doubtful the charges could be traced back to him, that it could be proved he'd defrauded the credit card company. It was she who would be forced to untangle the knots, spending the time, the effort, and paying any legal fees.

It was mean and small of him, and suited him perfectly.

And Harper, poor Harper, worried she'd make that kind of mistake again. Not in a million years.

To give herself more time to settle, she skipped dinner, then wrote long, detailed posts to her two younger sons before calling Harper.

Once she knew the children were in bed for the night, she asked Harper, David, along with Stella and Hayley to join her in the front parlor.

"I'm sorry," she began. "I know some of you might have plans for the night. I don't think this will take long."

"It's all right," Stella told her. "Something's the matter. Just tell us what it is."

"I've already taken steps to deal with it, but it's likely all of you will be asked, at least, to answer some questions. In going through my bills this evening, I came upon a credit card bill - a card I don't have, charges I didn't make. However, it was applied for and taken out with considerable personal information. The credit card company will, of course, follow this through. But as I was obliged to list all those who live in this house, I wanted you to be aware. I've no doubt the card was taken out by Bryce. He'd know the information, and it's just his style."

"You don't have to pay it," Hayley said quickly. "This kind of thing happened in the bookstore once where I used to work. You don't have to pay it."

"No, I won't pay it. It simply costs me time and energy, and upsets me - which would have been the motive. It also upsets the household, which he'd enjoy, I'm sure. I'm sorry for that." She looked at Harper. "I'm sorry."

"Don't say that again." He spoke very softly. "I don't want to hear you say you're sorry again, Mama. What about the police?"

"They may very well be involved. But I'm going to tell you what my lawyer told me. While the credit card company will follow through, it'll be very difficult to prove he's the one who used the card. He didn't use his name, and he didn't charge so much at any given time or place to raise an eyebrow. No one's going to remember he breezed into Dillard's and bought some shirts or a pair of shoes. This is the sort of thing he knows how to do quite well."

She had to get up, to move, so rose to add a log to the fire. "The best we can do is step back from it, as much as we can, and let it play out. Sooner or later, and I believe this, he'll do one of three things. He'll get bored with it, he'll find someone else to harass, or he'll go just a little too far and hang himself."

"I vote for Door Number Three," David put in.

"Your mouth, God's ear," Roz assured him, and made herself sit again. "I've written both Austin and Mason, because I want them, and all of you, to be on guard. He may very well choose to amuse himself by doing this same sort of thing to one or more of you."

At the thought of it, the tension in her shoulders increased until her muscles felt like iron rods under her skin. "And Stella, you and I should be particularly vigilant regarding any charges to the business."

"Don't worry. He won't get by us. Roz, I'm so sorry you have to deal with this. Anything I can do - anything any of us can do?"

"I'll let you know, I promise. All right." Roz got to her feet. "That's all, then. I'm going to go on up, get to some work I've put off."

"You haven't had any dinner," David reminded her. "Why don't I bring you something?"

"Not now. I'll get something later."

David stayed on his feet, watching her walk out. "Son of a bitch," he muttered when she was out of earshot. "Smarmy, sleazy, last-season Ferrogamo-wearing son of a bitch."

"Why don't you and I go pay him a visit?" Harper stayed in his chair. His voice was still soft, as it had been, but now it had an edge to it, a predatory edge.

"That's a damn good idea." Hayley sprang up, fists clenched at her sides. "Let's all go pay him a call. Right now."

"Stand down, Xena." David patted her shoulder. "While there's little more I can think of that would be more entertaining than breaking a few of his caps, it's not the answer."

"I hear four when you add two and two," Harper said. "I say it's the right answer."

"David's right," Stella pointed out. "It would upset and embarrass Roz, more than she's already upset and embarrassed."

"Then we won't tell her." Hayley threw out her arms. "We can't justsit here."

"I'm not," Harper said. "You are."

"Just a damn minute - "

"Hold on." Like a referee, David stepped between them. "Think, Harper, past your temper. We go take a few very deserved hits at Clerk, his bruises'll heal soon enough. And he'll have the satisfaction of knowing he got to her, that he upset her. That's the last thing she wants, and you and I know that. The most important weapon she has against him is indifference. She won't have that when she has to bail you out on assault charges."

"I'll tell you what else." Stella continued to sit, her hands gripped tight in her lap. "The more we make of it, the more upset she'll be. The best thing we can do for her is to take a page from her book. Treat it coolly, like business. And to remember, if it's hard for us to do that, how much harder it is for her."

"I hate it," Hayley raged. "I hate that you're right, and I wish you'd been rightafter we'd beat the hell out of him. It shows character, Harper, that you want to stand up for her. And it shows character, I guess, to know it's not the way."

MAYBE NOT,BUT Harper couldn't quite erase the picture of Bryce in a bloody pulp at his feet. It probably didn't hurt that he didn't know exactly where to find the man. Oh, he could find out, a few calls would do the trick. But those calls might trickle back to the source before he got there.

And in the end, he knew David was right.

But he couldn't just sit at home and stew. There was another matter he could deal with, and he didn't give a damn whether or not his mother liked it.

He was still spoiling for a fight when he knocked on Mitch's apartment door.

He half hoped he'd find Mitch with another woman. Then he could punch him in the mouth and defuse the sparking end of his temper.

But when Mitch answered, he appeared to be alone. Unless you counted the noise that Harper recognized as a televised basketball game.

"Hey. How's it going? Come on in."

"I want to talk to you."

"Sure. Wait." Mitch's attention had already swung back to the huge television screen that dominated one wall. "Less than a minute to halftime. We're down two. Damn it. Goddamn it, loose ball."

Despite himself, Harper found himself standing there, caught up in the action, calling out when number eight recovered the ball and, pivoting with a kind of magical grace, sent it sailing through the air.

"Three! That's three." Mitch punched Harper companionably in the arm. "And there's the buzzer. Want a drink?"

"Could use a beer."

"Don't have any, sorry. Coke?"

"Fine, thanks." He slipped his hands into his pockets as Mitch wandered off. Alone, he scanned the room, brow knitting over some coins dangling from red ribbons. "Hell of a TV," he said when Mitch came back with a can.

"Next to my son, my pride and joy. Have a seat."

"I'll get right to it. Where's this thing you've got going with my mother heading?"

Mitch sat, studied Harper as he lifted his own can. "I can't tell you, as a lot of it depends on her, and where she wants it to head. Obviously, since I'm not blind, deaf, or dead, I find her very attractive. I admire what she's done with her life, and enjoy her company."

"If any of that attraction has to do with her money or her position, you're going to want to step away, right now."

With apparent calm, Mitch picked up the remote, hit the mute button, then set it down again. "That's a very ugly thing to say."

"She had a very ugly time not that long ago."

"Which is why I'm not kicking you out of my home. Such as it is." He reached down below the insult and got a tenuous hold on patience. "Your mother doesn't need money or position to be attractive. She's one of the most beautiful and fascinating women I've ever known. I feel something for her, and I believe she feels something for me. I'm hoping we'll be able to explore those feelings."

"Your first marriage cracked up."

"It did. I cracked it." He turned the Coke can in his hand. "There's no beer in the fridge because I don't drink anymore, and haven't for fourteen years. I'm an alcoholic, and I destroyed my first marriage. All of which I've told your mother, in more detail than I'm willing to tell you. Because I thought she deserved to know before we took those initial steps into what I'm hoping is a relationship."

"I apologize for embarrassing you."

"You haven't. Pissed me off some."

"I'm not sorry about that. She's my mother, and you weren't there to see what she went through. What she's still dealing with."

"How do you mean, still?"

"She found out tonight he opened a credit card in her name - can't prove it, not yet anyway, but it was him. Charged on it, so she's got the hassle of closing it down, dealing with the legal end - and having to tell the rest of us about it."

Mitch set the drink aside, pushed out of the chair to pace a circle around the room. And it was the temper pumping off him that calmed Harper.

"I thought about hunting him down, beating the crap out of him."

"I'll hold your coat, then you can hold mine."

Another knot in Harper's belly loosened. It was exactly the sentiment he could respect. "David talked me out of it. David and Stella, actually. Mama would hate it. It's one of those things she'd find . . . unseemly - then there'd be the gossip that rolled out of it. So I came here to take a few punches at you instead. Work off some of the mad."

"Mission accomplished?"

"Seems like it."

"That's something." Mitch scooped both hands through his hair. "Is she okay? How's she handling it?"

"Like she handles everything. Straightforward, takes the steps. She deals. But she's churned up. More worried that he'll take the same sort of shot at me, or my brothers. Embarrassed, too," he added. "It's the kind of thing that embarrasses her."

Mitch's expression went grim. "He'd know that, wouldn't he? That'll be the perk, even more than whatever he charged on the bogus account."

"Yeah, you got that right. I want you to know, if you hurt her, any way, shape, or form, I'll make you pay for it. Seems fair to tell you up-front."

"Okay." Mitch came back to the chair, sat. "Let me lay this out so we understand each other. I'm forty-eight. I make a good living. Nothing spectacular, but I do fine. I like my work, I'm good at my work, and lucky for me it pays the bills and gives me enough to be comfortable."

As an afterthought, Mitch shoved the open bag of chips on the table in Harper's direction. "My ex-wife and her husband are good people, and between us - without much help from me for the first six years, we raised a hell of a young man. I'm proud of that. I've had two serious relationships since my divorce, and a few that weren't so serious. I care about your mother, I respect what she's accomplished, and I have no intention of causing her any sort of harm or unhappiness. If I do, I have a feeling she'll pay me back for it before you can get off the mark."

He paused, took a drink. "Is there anything else you want to know?"

"Just one thing right now." Harper picked up the bag, dug in. "Can I hang out and watch the rest of the game?"

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