Black Rose

Chapter Thirteen

"ITHOUGHT I should tell you," Roz began as they walked toward the house, "that my . . . household is very interested in my more personal relationship with you."

"That's all right, so am I. Interested in my personal relationship with you."

She glanced down at their joined hands and thought what a lovely design it was that fingers could link so smoothly together. "Your hand's bigger than mine, considerably. Your palm's wider, your fingers longer. And see how your fingers are blunt at the tip where mine taper some?"

She lifted her arm so their hands were eye level. "But it makes such a nice fit."

With a soft laugh, he said her name. Said it tenderly. Rosalind. Then paused briefly to angle his head down and touch his lips to hers. "So does that."

"I was thinking the same. But I'd as soon keep those thoughts, and that personal interest, between you and me."

"Hard to do, since we have other people in our lives. My son wanted to know where I came up with the brunette babe I was with at the Ole Miss game."

"And you told him?"

"That I'd finally managed to get Rosalind Harper to give me a second look."

"I gave you plenty of looks," she said, and sent him another as they started up the steps to her terrace. "But I've gotten into the habit of being selfish with my private life, and I don't see any reason we can't enjoy each other without filing regular bulletins on our sex life."

She reached for the terrace door. It blew open, barely missing striking her face. A blast of frigid wind gushed out of her room, knocking her back a full step before Mitch managed to grab her, then block her body with his.

"Good luck!" he shouted over the scream of air.

"I will not tolerate this." Furious, she shoved him aside and bulled her way through the door. "I will not tolerate this sort of thing in my house!"

Photographs flew off tables like missiles while lamps flashed on and off. A chair shot across the room, slamming into a chest of drawers with a force that had the vase of hothouse orchids spinning. When she saw the vanity mirror her sons had given her start to slide, she leaped forward to grab it.

"Stop this idioticbullshit right now. I'm not going to put up with it."

There was pounding, monstrous fists of fury, on the walls, in the walls, and the floor trembled under her feet. A large Baccarat perfume bottle detonated, a crystal bomb that spewed jagged shards like shrapnel.

In the midst of the whirlwind, Roz stood, clutching the vanity mirror, and her shout over the explosions of shattering glass, the ferocious banging, was Arctic ice.

"I'll stop every attempt to find out who you are, to right whatever wrong was done to you. I'll do whatever it takes to remove you from this house. You won't be welcome here.

"This ismy house," she called out as fire erupted in the hearth and the candlestick on the mantel spiraled up into the air. "And I will, by God, clear you out of it. I swear on my life, I will remove you."

The air died at once, and what had been spinning in it fell with thuds or crashes to the floor.

The door burst open instantly. David, Logan, and Stella pushed through it an instant before Harper barreled through the terrace doors.

"Mama." Harper lifted her right off her feet, his arms banded around her. "Are you all right?"

"I'm fine. I'm fine."

"We couldn't get in." Stella touched Roz's back with a trembling hand. "Couldn't get the doors open."

"It's all right now. Where are the children?"

"Hayley. Hayley's got them downstairs. When we heard - God, Roz, it sounded like a war."

"Go tell her everything's all right." She pressed her cheek to Harper's before she pulled back. "Go on now."

"What happened here?" David demanded. "Roz, what the hell happened?"

"We started to come in, and she objected . . . strongly."

"Your mother slapped her back for it," Mitch told Harper. "Let her know who runs this house."

"You're bleeding," Harper said dully.

"Oh, my God." Roz shoved the vanity mirror into Harper's hands and moved quickly to Mitch to touch the cut on his cheek.

"Some flying glass. Nothing major."

"Got some nicks on your hands, too." She lowered her own before they could shake. "Well, let's clean them up."

"I'll pick up in here," Stella offered.

"No, leave it be. Go down, make sure Hayley and the kids are okay. Logan, you ought to take them to your place."

"I'm not leaving you." Stella stood firm, shook her head. "That's not negotiable."

"I'll stay here." Logan draped an arm around Stella's shoulders. "If that's all right with you."

"That's fine." Letting out a breath, she took the mirror back from Harper. "She'd've gotten more than a tongue-lashing if she'd broken this." She set it back in place, then turned to give Harper's hand a squeeze. "It's all right, baby. I promise."

"She does anything to hurt you, I'm finding a way to get her out."

"Like mother, like son." She smiled at him. "I told her the same, and since she stopped when I did, she must know I mean what I say. Go down now. Hayley can't leave the children, and she must be frantic. Mitch, come on into the bathroom. I'll clean those cuts."

"I don't want her alone up here tonight," Harper said when his mother left the room.

"She won't be," Mitch assured him.

When he went into the bath, Roz was already damping a cloth with peroxide. "They're just scratches."

"Doesn't mean they shouldn't be seen to, and since I've never doctored cuts caused by some ghost's tantrum, I'm doing it my usual way. Sit down."

"Yes'm." He sat, studying her face. "Not a scratch on you."

"Hmm?" Distracted, she glanced at her own hands, then looked at her face in the mirror over the sink. "I guess you're right."

"I don't think she wanted to hurt you. Not that she won't, directly or inadvertently, being as she's more than a little crazy. But this was a warning. It's interesting."

"I admire a man who can get cut up by an angry bitch of a ghost and find it interesting."

"I admire a woman who goes toe-to-toe with an angry bitch of a ghost and wins."

"My house." Her voice gentled as she tipped up his chin. "Here now, this won't hurt."

"That's what they all say."

But she cleaned the cuts with a deft and easy hand while he continued to watch her face.

"Looking for something?" she asked him.

"I'm wondering if I found it."

"This one here barely missed your eye." Shaken more than she cared to admit, she bent down to brush her lips over the cut. "There." She stepped back. "You'll live."

"Thanks." He took both her hands, those sharp green eyes on hers. "I have some theories."

"And I'm anxious to hear them. But I want to clean up that mess in there first, then I want a glass of wine. A very big glass of wine."

"I'll give you a hand."

"No, I'd rather do it myself. In fact, I think I need to."

"You make it hard, always asking me to take a step back."

"I guess I do." She brushed a hand through his hair. "Maybe it'll help if I tell you it comforts me to know you're confident enough in yourself to take that step back when I need you to."

"Maybe that's something else that makes this a good fit."

"I think so. I'd appreciate it if you'd go down with the others, give me a half hour to put things back to rights. It'll settle me down a little."

"Okay." He got to his feet. "I'm staying the night. I'll take a page from Stella's book and tell you that part's not negotiable. But you can use the half hour to decide if I'm staying in there with you or in a guest room."

He left her frowning after him.

HE FOUND EVERYONEin the kitchen. Like family, he thought, gathered together in the hub of the house with something simmering on the stove, a baby crawling on the floor, and two young boys pulling on jackets while their little dog jumped with excitement.

Every eye shifted to him, and after a beat of silence, Stella began speaking brightly to her sons. "Go ahead and let him run, but stay out of the flower beds. We're going to eat soon."

There was a lot of scrambling, barking, a scream of laughter from Lily, then dog and boys were gone with a slam of the back door.

Stella's hand slipped into Logan's. "How is she?"

"Steady, as usual. She wanted half an hour." Mitch looked at Harper. "I'm staying tonight."

"Good. I think that's good," Hayley said. "The more the better. It gets so you're used to having a ghost in the house, but it's different when she starts throwing things at you."

"You, specifically, from the look of it," Logan put in.

"Noticed that?" Mitch rubbed absently at his cut cheek. "Interesting, isn't it? There was a lot of rage up in that room, but nothing - nothing tangible - was directed at Rosalind. I'd say there was deliberate care not to do her physical harm."

"If there hadn't been, she'd be out." Harper scooped up Lily when she tried to climb up his leg. "And I'm not talking about my mother."

"No." Mitch nodded. "And Roz expressed just about the same sentiment."

"And she's alone up there," David chimed in, then glanced up from his work at the stove. "Because she means it. Everyone in this house, dead or alive, knows she means it."

"And we're all down here, leaving her be because she runs this show." Logan leaned back against the counter.

"That may be, but after this, she'll have to get used to giving up the wheel from time to time. Is that coffee fresh?" Mitch asked with a nod toward the pot.

UPSTAIRS, ROZ PICKEDup the pieces of the personal treasures she'd kept in her bedroom. Little mementos, little memories, shattered now.

Willful destruction, she thought, that was the worst of it. The waste of the precious through selfish temper.

"Like some spoiled child," she mumbled as she worked to put order back to her space. "I didn't tolerate that behavior from my own children, and I won't tolerate it from you. Whoever the hell you are."

She straightened furniture, then moved to the bed to remake it. "You best just keep that in mind, Amelia. You best just remember who's mistress of Harper House."

She felt better, amazingly better, taking action, putting her room to rights, saying her piece, even if it was to an empty room.

Steadier, she stepped into the bathroom. Her hair, short as it was, stood up in spikes from the wind that had blown through her bedroom. Not, Roz decided, a good look for her. She brushed it into order, then idly freshened her makeup. And thought about Mitch.

Fascinating man. She couldn't remember the last man who'd fascinated her. It was interesting, and telling, that he'd stated he was staying the night - no polite request, just a flat statement. Then left it to her where he would sleep.

Yes, it was a fascinating man who could be both dominating and obliging in the same sentence.

And she wanted him. It felt wonderful to want, to need, to have this good, healthy lust bubbling inside her. Certainly she was beyond the stage where she had to deny herself a lover, and smart enough now to recognize when that lover was a man she could respect. Maybe trust.

Trust was just a little tougher than respect, and a whole lot tougher than lust.

So they'd start with what they had, she decided, and see where it went.

When she came out, she heard music, Memphis blues played low, from her sitting room. Her frown was back as she stepped over to the doorway.

Dinner for two was set on her gateleg table - slices of David's roast chicken, snowy mashed potatoes, spears of asparagus, golden biscuits.

How the boy managed to put together her favorite comfort foods was beyond her, but that was her David.

And there was Mitch standing in the candlelight, pouring her a glass of wine.

She felt a lurch - heart and belly - like a blow. Sucker punch, she thought dully, that was both rude and shocking. More than lust, when lust was all she wanted. But more was standing there, with cuts on his hands and face, whether she wanted it or not.

Then he looked over, and smiled at her.

Well, damn it! was all she could think.

"We thought you'd like a quiet meal," he said. "A little calm in the storm. And since I wanted to talk to you, I didn't give your front-line soldiers any argument."

"Soldiers. That's an interesting term."

"Apt enough. Harper would pick up the sword in a heartbeat for you - and I imagine your other sons are the same."

"I like to think I can fight my own battles."

"Which is only more reason they'd stand for you. Then there's David." He stepped over, held out the wine. "Your fourth son, I'd say, in everything but blood. He adores you."

"It's mutual."

"Then there's Logan. Though I'm not sure he'd appreciate the imagery, I see him as a knight to your queen."

She took a sip of wine. "I'm not sure I like the imagery, either."

"But there it is."

He picked up his water glass, toasted her. "You're no more just his employer than you are to Stella or Hayley. And those kids? You're an intimate and vital part of their lives now. When I went downstairs, walked into the kitchen, what I saw was a family. You're the core of that family. Youmade that family."

She stared at him, then let out a huff of breath. "Well. I don't know just what to say to that."

"You should be proud. Those are good people in your kitchen. By the way, does Harper know he's in love with Hayley?"

This time when she stared, she lowered herself into a chair. "You're more intuitive and more observant than I gave you credit for, and I gave you credit for quite a bit. No, I don't think he knows - at least not completely. Which may explain why she's completely oblivious to what he feels for her. She knows he loves Lily. I suppose that's all she sees, at the moment."

"How do you feel about it?"

"I want Harper to be happy, and to have what he wants most in life. We should eat before this gets cold."

A polite way, Mitch surmised, of telling him she'd discussed the intimacies of her family enough with him. The woman had lines, he thought, very defined lines. It would be challenging, and interesting, to pick and choose which to cross, and the when and how of it.

"How are you feeling?"

"I'm fine. Really. Just needed to calm myself down a little."

"You look more than fine. How is it, Rosalind, you can look so beautiful?"

"Candlelight flatters a woman. If we had our way, Edison would never have invented that damn lightbulb."

"You don't need candlelight."

She lifted her brows. "If you're thinking you need to seduce me over roast chicken so I won't scoot you off to one of the guest rooms after dinner, you don't need to worry. I want you in my bed."

"Regardless, I'm going to seduce you. But at the moment, I was just stating the facts. Aside from that, this is some terrific roast chicken."

"I like you. Thought I'd say that straight-out. I like the way you are. I don't feel there are a lot of pretenses about you, not a lot of show. That's a nice change for me, in this area."

"I don't lie. Gave it up along with the bottle. That's the one thing I can promise you, Roz. I won't lie to you."

"As promises go, that's the one I'd value most."

"Then keeping with that theme, there's something I'd like to ask you. What happened earlier, that . . . upheaval, we'll call it. That was new."

"Yes, and I'm hoping it was a first and last sort of thing."

"She never objected in any way to your engagement or your marriage to John Harper."

"No, as I told you before."

"Or to any relationship you had after, to Clerk."

She gave a little shrug. "Some irritation, we could say, off and on. Disapproval, annoyance, but no, not rage."

"Then I have a theory - one you may not like to hear. But in addition to not lying to you, I'm going to speak my mind, as I expect you'll speak yours."

"Should be interesting."

"She needs children in the house - that's what brings her comfort, or gratification. You and John would bring children into the house, so she had no strong objection. He was a means to an end."

"That's a very cold theory."

"Yes, and it gets colder. Once there were children, there was no more need for him, so his death was, in my opinion, something she saw as right, even just."

Her color drained, leaving her face white and horrified. "If you're suggesting she somehow caused - "

"No." He reached out, laid his hand over hers. "No. Her limitations are this house, the grounds. I'm no expert in the paranormal, but that's what works. That's what makes sense. Whatever she is, or has, is centered here."

"Yes." Relaxing again, she nodded. "I've never experienced, or heard of anyone experiencing anything regarding her beyond the borders of my land. I would have. I'm certain I'd know, or have heard if there'd been anything."

"She's bound to this place, and maybe to this family. But I doubt the grief you and your sons felt when John died touched her. And she can be touched. We saw that with Stella last spring when she communicated with her as a mother. We saw it tonight, when you laid it on the line to her."

"All right." She nodded, reached for her wine. "All right, I'm following you, so far."

"When you began to socialize again, to see men, even to have lovers, she was only mildly annoyed. Disapproving, as you said. Because they didn't matter to you, not deeply. They weren't going to be a part of your life, of this house, not for the long run."

"You're saying she knew that?"

"She's connected to you, Roz. She knows what's inside you, at least enough to understand what you think and feel, things you might not say out loud."

"She gets inside my head," she said softly. "Yes, I've felt that. I don't like it. But what happens to your theory when you add Bryce? I married him. He lived here. And though she acted up a few times, there was nothing extreme, nothing violent."

"You didn't love him."

"I married him."

"And divorced him. He wasn't a threat to her. It seems she knew that before you did. At least before you consciously knew it. He was . . . superfluous, let's say, to her. Maybe it was because he was weak, but for whatever reason, still, no threat to her. Not from her view."

"And you are."

"Clearly. We could suppose it has to do with my work, but that doesn't jibe. She wants us to find out who she was, what she was. She just wants us to work for it."

"You seem to know her very well, on short acquaintance."

"Short, but intense acquaintance," he pointed out. "And understanding the dead is part of my work. It's actually the part - the personalizing - that makes it the most compelling for me. She's angry that you've allowed me into your life, into your bed."

"Because you're not weak."

"I'm not," he agreed. "And also because I matter to you, or I will. I'm going to make sure of it. Because what we're moving toward, you and I, is important."

"Mitch, we're having an affair, and while I don't take that lightly, I - "

"Rosalind." He laid his hand over hers, kept his eyes on hers. "You know very well I'm falling in love with you. Have been since the minute I opened my apartment door and saw you standing there. Scares the hell out of me, but that doesn't change it."

"I didn't know." She drew back, and her hand pressed on her heart, ran up to her throat and back again. "I didn't, and that makes me as oblivious as Hayley. I thought we had a great deal of attraction for each other, and mutual respect along with . . . what are you grinning at?"

"You're nervous. I've never seen you nervous. How about that?"

"I'm not nervous." She stabbed at the last bite of her chicken. "I'm surprised, that's all."

"Scared's what you are."

"I'm certainly not." With some heat, she shoved back from the table. "I'm certainly not. All right, I am." She pushed to her feet when he laughed. "Yes, that should please you. Men love putting women into a state."

"Oh, bullshit."

There was a ring of steel, even through the humor. Intrigued by both, she turned back. "You're an awfully confident individual."

"You meant that as a compliment the first time you said it. This time you meanarrogant , and right back at you, honey."

With that, she laughed. Then pressed her fingers to her eyes. "Oh, God. God, Mitchell, I don't know if I've got it in me for anotherimportant relationship. They're so much damn work. Love can be, should be, so consuming, so demanding. I just don't know that I've got the stamina, or the heart, or the generosity."

"I have no doubt you've got plenty of all three, but we'll take it as it goes, and see."

He rose. "Can't say I mind making you a little nervous," he said as he walked to her. "Nothing much shakes you, at least not so it shows."

"You have no idea."

"Oh, I think I do." He slipped his arms around her, led her smoothly into a dance, swaying to the throb of the music. "One of the sexiest things about you is your unshakable capability."

"I'm capable." She tipped her head up. "I want my accountant to be capable, but I sure as hell don't want to sleep with him."

"I find it devastatingly sexy."

"Is this the seduction part of the evening?"

"Just getting started. Do you mind?"

He thought her capable, she realized, and found that appealing. And he made her feel soft, and cherished. "You asked me that the first time you kissed me. I didn't mind then, either."

"I love that you're beautiful. Shallow of me, but there you go. A man's entitled to some flaws."

Amused, she trailed a finger up the back of his neck. "Perfection's boring - but, God, don't tell Stella I said so."

"Then I'll never bore you."

He touched his lips to hers lightly, once, twice, then slowly, slowly, sank into the kiss.

It spilled through her, the warmth, and the life, the thrill and the power. She moved with him, that sensuous dance, that sensuous kiss, and let herself glide. Like a woman glides over a path strewn with fragrant petals. Through moonbeams. And into love.

She heard a door shut quietly, and opened her eyes to see that he'd circled her into the bedroom.

"You're a clever dancer, Dr. Carnegie." Then laughed when he spun her out, and back. "Very clever."

He kissed her again, spinning until her back was pressed to the door, until the kiss took on a bite. Then he ran his hands down her arms, stepped back.

"Light the candles," he said. "I'll light the fire."

Shaken, right down to the soles of her feet, she leaned against the door. Her heart felt swollen and tender, and its beat was a throbbing ache in her breast. When she moved, she moved carefully, like a woman sliding through the fog of a dream. And she saw her own fingers tremble as she set flame to candlewick.

"I want you." Her voice was steady enough, and she was grateful. "And the want is stronger and different than any I've felt before. Maybe it's because I - "

"Don't question it. Not tonight anyway."

"All right." She turned, as he did, so they faced each other across the room. "We'll leave it that I want you, very much. That it presses on me, not entirely comfortably."

In the gilded light, he crossed to her, took both her hands. "Let me show you how I feel."

He lifted her hands, turning them palms up to press his lips to one, then the other. Then he cupped her face, stroking his thumbs over her cheeks as his fingers slid back into her hair.

"Let me take you," he said as his mouth cruised over hers. "Tonight, just let me take you."

He asked for surrender. And surrender was a great deal to ask. But she gave him her mouth, then her body as his hands stroked over her. And they were dancing again, circling and swaying as the dreamy pleasure he offered slipped into her like rich, red wine.

He slid her shirt aside, and was murmuring in her ear, about her skin, her scent. And the dance was like floating.

She was giving him what he'd asked. Surrender. Though it was slow, inch by inch, he could feel it, that gorgeous yielding of self. He undressed her as they danced, taking almost painful care, almost painful pleasure in removing each barrier that blocked his hands from her flesh.

It was incredibly erotic, dancing in the firelight, the candlelight, her naked body pressed to his while he was still fully clothed. To see that long, lean line of her in the mirror, the way the light played over her skin, to feel that skin shiver under his hands. To feel her pulses jump under his mouth.

When he slipped his hand between her thighs, he felt her body jerk, heard her breath catch.

She was hot, already hot and wet. And her nails dug into his shoulders as he began to play her, lazily. Little tortuous strokes that had her breath going short and harsh, and his own blood pumping.

Her body plunged, then melted against his when she came. Her head fell back even as he continued to arouse, and her eyes were glazed and stunned.

She was so pliant he could almost pour her onto the bed. They watched each other as he stood, undressed.

Then he skimmed his finger over her leg, lifted it, bent to it, and rubbed his lips along her calf. "So much more I want from you."

Yes, she thought. So much more. And surrendering to it, to him, gave him all he wanted.

His mouth found her, shot her up again, breathlessly, until she had to grip the spread or fly apart.

He exploited and explored, and took, took while the air went thick and sweet as syrup, and the deepest, darkest pleasures quivered inside her.

She could hear herself sobbing for him, even as he slid into her. His languorous pace never altered, only built arousal higher with a near brutal patience, a delicious, drugging friction. She had no choice, no control any longer, could only quiver, could only ache, could only enjoy as he nudged her closer and closer to the edge.

And when she fell that final time, it was like flying.

SHE WAS STILLtrembling. It was ridiculous, she told herself. It was foolish, but she couldn't seem to stop. She was warm, even overwarm, and only then realized both of them were slick with sweat.

She'd been thoroughly seduced, then thoroughly used. And she couldn't find a thing wrong with either.

"I'm trying to think of something appropriate to say."

His lips moved against her neck. "How about 'wow'?"

She managed to move her heavy arms enough to brush a hand through his hair. "That probably covers it. I came three times."


"Four?" Her voice was as hazy as her vision. "I must've lost count."

"I didn't." And there was a wicked satisfaction in his tone, one that she saw reflected in his face as he rolled onto his back.

"Since I'm in such a blissful state, I'm going to admit that's the first time I've ever come four times."

He reached down, found her hand, linked fingers. "Stick with me, kid, and it won't be the last."

She laughed, a full-out bawdy roll of laughter, then shifted to prop herself up on his chest. "Pretty proud of yourself."

"Damn right."

"Me, too." She pillowed her head over his heart, shut her eyes. "I go running around six."

"Is that A.M.?"

"Yes, it is. Harper's got some spare clothes in the next bedroom, if you want to join me."

" 'Kay."

She let herself drift, like a cat curled for a nap. "She left us alone."

"I know."

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