Black Rose

Chapter Eighteen

"IWAS TRYING to remember the last time I wore a tux." Mitch slid behind the wheel of the car, giving himself the pleasure of another long look at Roz as he hitched on his seat belt. "Pretty sure it was a friend's wedding. His oldest kid graduates high school this year."

"Now, that's a shame, since you wear one so well."

"Lean over here once." When she did, he brushed his lips over hers. "Yeah, tastes as good as it looks."

"It certainly does."

Starting the engine, he pulled away from the house. "We could skip this business tonight and run off and get married. We're dressed for it."

She sent him a sidelong glance as he turned onto the main road. "Be careful how you bat those marriage proposals around, Dr. Carnegie. I've already shagged two in my time."

"Let me know if you want to try for three."

It felt spectacular, she realized, to be all dressed up and flirting with a handsome man. "You getting serious on me?"

"It's looking that way. You need to consider I'm a rent-the-tux kind of guy, but I'd spring for one when you decide to take the jump. Least I can do."

"Of course, that is a deciding factor."

He laid his hand briefly over hers. "I make a good living, and your money isn't an issue one way or the other with me. What baggage I've got, I've pretty well packed up. For the past many years, my son's been the singular essential element in my life. He's a man now, and while he'll always be my great love, I'm ready for other loves, other essentials."

"And when he moves to Boston?"

"It's going to cut me off at the knees."

This time she laid her hand on his. "I know just how it feels."

"You can't follow them everywhere. And I've been thinking it's easy enough to visit Boston now and again, or take a trip here and there when he's got a game somewhere appealing."

"I'm looking forward to meeting him."

"I'm looking forward to that, too. I'm hoping you're not going to be too uncomfortable with whatever friction there is between you and his date's parents."

"I won't be. Jan will. Being a spineless sort of woman who's decided to be embarrassed by her friendship, such as it was, with me. It's foolishness, but she's a foolish sort. I, on the other hand, will enjoy making her feel awkward."

She stretched back and spoke with satisfaction. "But then, I have a mean streak."

"I always liked that about you."

"Good thing," she said as they turned toward the club. "Because it's likely to come out tonight."

IT WAS FASCINATING, to Mitch's mind, to see how this set worked. The fancy dress, the fancy manners were a kind of glossy coat over what he thought of as basic high school clique syndrome. People formed small packs, at tables, in corners, or at strategic points where they could watch other packs. There were a few butterflies who flitted from group to group, flashing their wings, dipping into some of the nectar of gossip, then fluttering off to the next.

Fashion was one of the hot topics. He lost count of the times he overheard a murmured variation of: Bless her heart, she must've been drinking when she bought that dress.

He'd had a taste of it at Roz's holiday party, but this time out he was her escort, and he noted that changed the dynamics considerably.

And he was the new kid in class.

He was given the once-over countless times, asked who he was, what he was, who his people were. Though the manner of interrogation was always charming, he began to feel as if he should have a resume typed up and ready to hand out.

Ages ran from those who'd certainly danced to the swing music the band played when it was new, to those who'd consider the music retro and hip.

All in all, he decided as he discreetly avoided discussing the more salient details of his work on the Harper family with a curious couple named - he thought - Bing and Babs, it was an interesting change of pace for a guy in a rented tux.

Spotting Josh, he used his son as an excuse to cut the inquisition short. "Excuse me, my son's just come in. I need to speak with him."

Mitch made a beeline through the tuxedos and gowns. "Hey, you clean up good." He gave Josh a one-armed hug around the shoulders, then smiled at the little brunette. "You must be Shelby."

"Yes, sir. You have to be Josh's daddy. He looks just like you."

"That takes care of the intros. Wow." Josh scanned the room. "Some hot-dog stand."

The ballroom was draped with twinkling lights, festooned with spring flowers. Wait staff manned one of three bars or roamed the room with trays of drinks and canapes. Diamonds glittered, emeralds flashed as couples took the dance floor to a hot rendition of Goodman's "Sing, Sing, Sing."

"Yeah, a littlePhiladelphia Story ."


Mitch sent Josh a pitying glance. "There were movies made beforeThe Terminator ."

"So you say, Pops. Where's your date?" Josh asked.

"She got swept away. I've been . . . oh, here she comes."

"Sorry, got myself cornered. Hello, Shelby. Don't you look pretty."

"Thanks, Ms. Harper. That's an awesome dress. Josh said you were coming with his father."

"It's nice to meet you at last, Josh. Your father's full of talk about you."

"Same goes. We'll have to find a quiet corner and compare notes."

"I'd love to."

"I see my parents over there." Shelby nodded toward a table. "I'd like to introduce you, Josh, and your daddy. Then I'll have done my duty, and you can dance with me."

"Sounds like a plan. Dad says you're into plants, Ms. Harper."

"Roz, and yes, I am."

"He kills them, you know," he added as they worked their way around the room.

"So I've seen."

"Mostly when they see him they just commit suicide and get it over with."

"Shut up, Josh."

"Just don't want you to pull a fast one on her." He gave his father a lightning grin. "Shelby says you live in that amazing house we passed on the way here."

"Yes, it's been in my family a long time."

"It's totally huge, and great looking." He angled his head enough to send his father a quick, and not-so-private, leer. "Dad's been spending a lot of time there."

"Working." Mitch managed, through years of practice, to give his son a light elbow jab in the ribs.

"I hope you'll come spend some time there yourself, very soon."

Roz paused by the table where Jan and Quill sat talking to other friends. "Hello, everyone." As Roz had expected, Jan stiffened, went a little pale. Deliberately, Roz leaned down, air-kissed Jan's cheek. "Don't y'all look wonderful."

"Mama, Daddy." Shelby angled herself around to make introductions. "This is Joshua Carnegie, and his father Dr. Mitchell Carnegie. My parents, Jan and Quill Forrester, and Mr. and Mrs. Renthow."

Quill, a solidly built man with a glad hand and subtle comb-over, pushed himself to his feet to pump Mitch's, then Josh's hand, then inclined his head to Roz. "Rosalind, how are you doing?"

"I'm doing just fine, Quill. How's business?"

He pokered up, but nodded. "Bumping right along."

"That's good to hear. Jan, I swear, Shelby's grown up to be an absolute beauty. You must be so proud."

"Of course. I don't think I understood you were acquainted with Shelby's escort."

"His father and I are great friends." Beaming, she slid her arm through Mitch's. "In fact, Mitch is researching the Harper family history. He's finding all sorts of secrets and scandals." Playing it up, she gave a little head toss, a little laugh. "We just love our scandals here in Shelby County, don't we?"

"That's where I've heard the name," Renthow spoke up. "I've read one of your books. I'm a bit of an amateur genealogist myself. Fascinating business."

"I think so. In any case, the Harper ancestors led me to Roz." In a smooth move, Mitch lifted her hand, kissed it. "I'll always be grateful."

"You know," Renthow put in, "I've traced my ancestry back to the Fifes in Scotland."

"Really?" Mitch perked up. "A connection to Duncan Phyfe, before he changed the spelling?"

"Yes, exactly." Obviously pleased, Renthow shifted in his chair to angle toward Mitch. "I'd like to put something more detailed together. Maybe you can give me some tips."

"Happy to."

"Why don't we all sit down for a few minutes?" Shelby began. "Then y'all can get acquainted while - "

"We're expecting friends," Jan interrupted. "Our table's full. I'm sure Rosalind and Dr. Carnegie can find another table. And we'll all be more comfortable."

"Mama," the word was a shocked whisper that Roz overrode with an easy smile. "We already have one, thanks. In fact, we're going to steal this handsome young couple here. Shelby, why don't I show you where we're sitting, and Josh and Mitch can get us both a drink?"

Hooking her arm through the girl's, Roz led her away.

"Ms. Harper, I . . . I'm sorry, Ms. Harper, I don't know what's the matter."

"Don't you worry about it. Here we are right here. Let's sit down, and you can tell me how you met that gorgeous young man before they get back. And you call me Roz, now. Why, we're practically on a double date here."

She put the girl at ease, chattering away until their dates returned with drinks and canapes. Only when Josh took Shelby to the dance floor did Roz show any fire.

"She didn't have to embarrass that child the way she did. If she had a brain in that spiteful head of hers, she'd have known I wouldn't have sat with them. That's a sweet girl. I can only conclude she does not come by it naturally."

"You smoothed it over. One of the reasons I eased out of academia was to rid my life of these little snarling matches and petty grudges. But wherever you go, life's just pocked with them, isn't it?"

"I suppose. I mostly stay out of this arena, too. I have no patience for it. But I feel obliged to make an appearance now and then."

"You're not the only one," he said, and linked his fingers with hers on the table. "How much is it going to upset you to know Bryce Clerk just came in, with that same blonde he was with when he tried to crash your party?"

Her hand stiffened in his, then slowly relaxed. "I had a feeling he'd show. Well, that's all right. I'm just going to slip off to the rest room for a minute, give myself a little talking to, and freshen up. I don't intend to have another public scene, I promise you."

"Wouldn't bother me."

"That's nice to know, in case the talking to doesn't work."

She rose, walked out of the room, and turned down the corridor toward the lounges.

Inside, she freshened her lipstick and began to lecture herself on proper decorum.

You will not lower yourself to his level, no matter what the provocation.

You will not allow that silly girl to draw you into a catfight, even though you'd leave her bleeding on the floor without chipping a nail.

You will not -

Roz broke off the self-lecture when Cissy slipped in.

"I had to use a chainsaw to sever myself from Justine Lukes. Bless her heart, that woman can talk you deaf, dumb, and blind without having a single interesting thing come out of her mouth. I wanted to get over to your table. I swear, Roz, could you look any more glamorous?"

"I think I've reached the top of my game. How'd the visit with the in-laws go?"

"If I'd've cold-cocked her with a cast-iron skillet, she wouldn't have been any more stunned. I tell you, honey, even she couldn't find anything to pick at, though I did have to spill wine on my new shirt as a distraction when she asked me about one of the shrubs. The one with the arching branches and all those white flowers? Smells delicious."

"The drooping leucothoe."

"I suppose. Anyway, I owe you my very life on this one. Isn't that Jan's girl you're with?" Cissy sidled up to the mirror to fuss with her hair.

"Yes, she's with my date's son, as it happens."

"Both of whom I'm just dying to meet. I do love adding to my quota of handsome men. I suppose you saw Bryce slither in."

She shifted her gaze from her own face in the mirror to Roz's. "I broke away from Justine so I wouldn't have to pretend to be civil to him. I don't know if you've heard the latest, but - "

She broke off, zipping her lip when Jan came in with Mandy.

Both women stopped, but while Jan looked ready to move by quickly, Mandy marched forward and jabbed a finger at Roz.

"If you don't stop your harassment, I'm going to get a court order and have you arrested."

Entertained, Roz pulled out her compact. "I don't believe attending a country club event could be considered harassment, but I'll have my lawyer look into it in the morning."

"You know damn well what I mean. You called my spa pretending to be me and canceled all my treatments. You're calling me day and night and hanging up when I answer."

Casually Roz dusted her nose. "Now why would I do any of those things?"

"You can't stand the fact that I'm going to marry Bryce."

"Has it come to that?" Roz closed her compact again. Part of her - that mean streak - did a little dance of joy. If Bryce had a rich one hooked, he was bound to leave her, and her family, alone. "Well, despite your rude behavior, you have all my sympathy."

"I know what you've been doing to Bryce, too, and to Jan because she's standing as my friend."

"I haven't done anything to any of you." She looked over at Jan. "And couldn't be less interested."

"Someone called one of Quill's top clients, pretending to be me," Jan said stiffly. "A drunken, vicious phone call that cost Quill an important account."

"I'm sorry to hear that, Jan. If you honestly believe I'd do something like that, I won't waste my time, or yours, telling you different. Excuse me."

She heard Cissy's exasperated, "Jan, how can you be so slow-witted" as the door shut behind her.

She started down the corridor only to come up short when she saw Bryce leaning against the wall. In hopes of avoiding a scene, she turned and started in the opposite direction.

"Retreating?" There was a laugh in his voice as he caught up with her. "You surprise me."

She stopped. She hadn't finished that talking to, she thought. In her current mood, it would've been a waste of time. "You never surprise me."

"Oh, I think I do and will again. I wasn't sure you'd be here tonight." His expression turned sly, and smug. "I heard somewhere that you'd dropped your membership."

"That's the thing about rumors, they're so often lies. Tell me, Bryce, what are you getting out of all this effort? Writing letters, making phone calls, risking criminal charges by falsifying credit cards."

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"Nobody here for the moment but you and me." She gestured up and down the empty corridor. "So let's move straight to the bottom line. What do you want?"

"Everything I can get. You'll never prove I made any calls, wrote any letters, used any credit cards. I'm very careful, and very smart."

"Just how long do you think you can keep it up?"

"Until I'm bored. I had a lot of time and effort invested in you, Roz, and you flicked me off. I don't like being flicked off. Now I'm back, and you won't get through a day without remembering that. Of course, if you were to make me a private, monetary offer - "

"That's never going to happen."

"Your choice." He gave a shrug. "There are things I can do to keep chipping away at you. I think you'll come around. I know just how important your reputation, your standing in Shelby County is to you."

"I don't think you do." She kept her eyes on his even when the lounge door opened several feet behind them. "You can't touch me, either, where it counts, no matter how many lies you spread, how many people you convince to believe them. Quill isn't a complete fool, and it won't take long for him to realize you're taking him for a ride. A costly one."

"You give him too much credit. What he is, is greedy. I know how to play on greed."

"You would, having so much of it yourself. Tell me, how much have you taken poor Mandy for so far?"

"Nothing she can't afford to lose. I never took what you couldn't afford, Roz." He skimmed his fingers over her cheek, and she let him. "And I gave you good value for your money. If you hadn't been so narrow-minded, we'd still be together."

"If you hadn't stolen from me, cheated on me with another woman in my own home, we might be - so I'll have to thank you for that. Tell me, Bryce, what is it about Mandy that appeals to you?"

"She's rich, but then so were you. After that, she's young and you weren't, and she's remarkably stupid. You weren't that, either. A little slow, but never stupid."

"Are you really going to marry her?"

"She thinks so." He took out a gold lighter, idly flicking the lid open and closed. "And who knows? Money, youth, malleability. She may just be the perfect wife for me."

"It does seem small of you to be going around, making prank calls, complicating her life - oh, and screwing with Quill and Jan, losing Quill clients. I think you need more constructive work."

"Two birds, one stone. It keeps them sympathetic to me and chips away at you."

"And what do you think will happen when they find out the truth?"

"They won't. As I said before, I'm careful. You'll never prove it."

"I don't think I'll have to. You always did like to boast and brag, Bryce." This time she patted him on the cheek, and thought of it as her kill shot. "Only one of your many failings." She gestured behind him to where Jan and Mandy stood, faces shocked, bodies still as statues.

Beside them, Cissy began to applaud lightly. Roz took a small bow, then walked away.

It was her turn to be surprised when she saw Mitch at the end of the corridor.

"Caught the show," he said casually, and slipped his hand over hers. "I thought the female lead was exceptional."

"Thank you."

"You okay?"

"Probably, but I wouldn't mind some air."

He led her out on the terrace. "Very slick," he said.

"Very impromptu," she corrected, and now, after it was done, her stomach began to jump. "But there he was, just dying to nip at me and posture around, and there they were, those pitiful, annoying women. The bonus being Cissy's presence, too. That little play will be making the rounds, word-for-word, in a New-York minute."

On cue, there was the sound of raised female voices from inside the ballroom, an abrupt crash, hysterical sobbing.

"Want to go in for the second act?"

"No, I don't. I think you should ask me to dance, right here."

"Then I will." He slipped his arms around her. "Beautiful night," he said while the scene played out through the open doors behind them.

"It really is." With a long sigh, she laid her head on his shoulder and felt all those sharp edges smooth out. "Just smell that wisteria. I want to thank you for not riding to my rescue back there."

"I nearly did." He brushed his lips over her hair. "But then, I thought you had it so completely under control, and I was enjoying my front-row seat."

"Lord, listen to that woman wail. Doesn't she have any pride? I'm afraid Bryce had one thing right. She is stupid, bless her heart. Dim as an underground cave on a moonless night."

"Dad!" Josh charged through the doorway. "You'vegot to come see this."

Mitch just continued to circle Roz on the terrace, though the music had long stopped, giving way to shouts and scuffling feet.

"Busy here," he replied.

"But Shelby's dad just clocked this guy. Punched himout . And this woman ripped into him - the other guy, not Shelby's dad. It's all about teeth and nails. You're missing it."

"Go on back, you can give us the play-by-play later. I'm going to be busy kissing Roz for a while."

"Man. I've got to come to country clubs more often." With that, Josh rushed back inside.

And Mitch lowered his mouth to Roz's.

SHE NEEDED TOrelax. She'd handled herself, Roz thought as she replaced her jewelry in its case, and she believed that what she'd been able to do had finally pried the monkey of a vindictive ex-husband off her back.

But the cost had been yet another public scene.

She was tired of them, tired of having her dirty linen flapped around for avid eyes to see. And she'd have to get over it.

She undressed, slipped into her warm flannel robe.

She was glad they'd been able to leave the club early. Hardly any reason to stay, she thought with a sharp smile. The place had been a glorious mess of overturned tables, spilled food and drink, horrified guests, and scrambling security.

And would be the talk of the gossip circuit for weeks, as she would be.

That was fine, that was expected, she told herself as she ran a warm bath. She'd ride it out, then things would get back to as close to normal as they ever did.

She poured in an extra dose of bubble bath, a lovely indulgence for a midnight soak. When she was done, all relaxed and pink and fragrant, she might just wander down to the library and crook a finger at Mitch.

Bless him for understanding she needed a little alone time. With a sigh, she slid into the tub, right down to the tips of her ears. A man who recognized a woman's moods, and accepted them, was a rare find.

John had, she remembered. Most of the time. They'd been so beautifully in tune, moving in tandem to build a family, enjoying their present and planning their future. Losing him had been like losing an arm.

Still, she'd coped, and damn well if she said so herself. She'd raised sons she, and John, could be proud of, kept a secure home, honored her traditions, built her own business. Not bad for a widow woman.

She could laugh at that, but the tension gathered at the base of her neck as she moved to the next phase. Bryce. A foolish, impulsive mistake. And that was all right, everyone was entitled to a few. But this one had done such damage, caused such upheaval. And public speculation and gossip, which in some ways was a bigger score to her pride.

He'd made her doubt herself so often during their marriage, where she'd always been so confident, so sure. But he had an eroding way about him, slick and sly with all those insistent little rubs under the charm.

It was a lowering thing to admit she'd been stupid - and over a man.

But she'd cooked him good and proper tonight, and that made up for a lot of irritation, embarrassment, and pain. He'd served himself up on a goddamn platter, she thought, and she'd stuck the fork in. He was done.

So good for her. Woo-hoo.

Now maybe it was time for yet another phase in the Life of Rosalind. Was she ready for that? Ready to take that big, scary step toward a man who loved her just as she was? Nearly fifty, and thinking about love and marriage - for thethird time. Was that just insane?

Idly she played her toes through the trickle of hot water she'd left running to keep the bath warm.

Or was it a gift, already wrapped in pretty paper, tied with a big fat bow, and tossed in her lap?

She was in love, she thought, her lips curving as she let the tension drain away, closed her eyes. In love with an interesting, attractive, considerate man. A good man. With enough flaws and quirks to keep him from being boring.

She sighed, as contentment began to settle over her. And a thin gray mist crawled along the tiles.

And the sex? Oh, thank God for the sex, she thought with a lithe stretch and a purr in her throat. Hot and sweet, tender and exciting. Stimulating. Lord, that man was stimulating. Her body feltjuiced again.

Maybe, just maybe they could have a life together. Maybe love didn't have to come at convenient and sensible times. And maybe the third time was the charm. It was something worth considering, very, very seriously.

Marriage. She drifted, drowsy now, trailing her fingers through the frothy water while the mist thickened, rising off the floor like a flood.

It came down to making an intimate promise to someone you not only loved, but trusted. She could trust Mitch. She could believe in him.

Would her sons think she'd lost her mind? They might, but it was her life, after all.

She'd enjoy being married - probably. Having someone else's clothes in the closet, someone else's books on the shelf. The man wasn't what you'd call tidy, but she could deal with that if . . .

The foamy water went ice cold. On a gasp, Roz shoved up from her lounging position, instinctively clutching her arms. Her eyes popped wide when she saw the room was full of fog, so dense she couldn't see the walls, the door.

Not steam, she realized, but a kind of ugly gray mist, as cold as the water and thick as iced soup.

Even as she started to stand, to climb out, she was dragged under.

With a leap in the belly, shock came first, before the fear. The utter shock of the frigid water, the sensation of being yanked down, held under, froze her before she began to fight. Choking, kicking, she strained to surface as the cold stiffened her limbs. She couldfeel hands clamped on her head, then nails digging into her shoulders, but through the film of the water, she saw nothing but floating bubbles and swirling mists.

Stop!Her mind screamed it. Using all her strength, she braced hands and feet and pushed up in one desperate lunge. Her head came up, broke through into the icy fog. She took one frantic gulp of air before the steely pressure on her shoulders shoved her under again.

Water sloshed over the rim of the tub as she struggled, burned her eyes and throat. She could hear her own muffled screams, as she flailed against what she couldn't see. Her elbow slammed against the side of the tub, shooting pain through terror.

For your own good. For your own good. You have tolearn!

The voice was a hiss in her ear, a hiss that cut through the frantic beat of blood. Now she saw it, the face swimming above her, over the churning water, its lips peeled back on a grimace of fury. She saw the madness in Amelia's eyes.

He's no different. They all lie! Didn't I tell you? Why don't you listen? Make you listen, make you stop. Tainted blood. His blood's in you. Ruined you after all.

She was dying. Her lungs were screaming, her heart galloping as she fought wildly to find purchase, to findair . Something was going to burst inside her, and she'd die in the cold, scented water. But not willingly, not easily. She pounded out, with her hands, her feet. And with her mind.

Let go of me. Let go! I can't listen if I'm dead. You're killing me. If I die, you'll stay lost. If I die, you'll stay trapped. Murderer. Trapped in Hell.

She gathered herself again, fueled her straining muscles with the strength of survival, and rocketed up.

Water fumed, sliced through the mists to splash walls and floor in a small, violent tidal wave. Gripping the edge of the tub, she leaned over, choking, coughing out what she'd swallowed. Her stomach heaved, but she locked her arms around the rim. She wouldn't be pulled under again.

"Keep your hands off me, you bitch."

Wheezing, she crawled out of the tub and dropped weakly onto the soaked mat. As shudders racked her, she curled into a ball until she could find her breath. Her ears rang, and her heart thudded so brutally she wondered if she'd have bruised ribs to add to the rest.

She heard weeping.

"Your tears don't mean a lot to me at the moment." Not trusting herself to stand, she scooted over the floor until she could reach for a towel with a shaking hand, and pull it around her for warmth.

"I've lived with you all my life. I've tried to help you. And you try to drown me? In my own tub? I warned you I'd find a way to remove you from this house."

The words didn't come out nearly as strong or angry as she wanted. It was hard to sound in charge when her teeth were chattering, as much with fear as cold.

She jolted when the robe she'd hung on the back of the door drifted down and settled over her shoulders. "Why, thank you," Roz said, and did manage sarcasm well enough. "How considerate of you, after trying to kill me, to see that I don't catch cold. I've had about enough."

She shoved her arms in the robe and drew it close as she got shakily to her feet.

Then she saw Amelia, through the thinning mists. Not the madwoman with crazed eyes and wild hair who'd loomed over her while she'd fought for her life, but a shattered woman with tears on her cheeks, and her hands clasped as if in prayer.

As she faded away, as the mists melted, another message appeared on the mirror. It said simply:

Forgive me.


Mitch paced the bedroom, anger all but sparking off his fingertips.

She'd gone down to make a pot of hot coffee, and to ask him to come upstairs. She'd wanted to be assured they weren't overheard when she told him.

"I wasn't. Happily." The coffee was helping, but she was still chilled, and willing to bundle under a thick cashmere throw.

"You might've died, while I was downstairs putzing around with books and files. You were up here, fighting for your life, and I - "

"Stop." But she said it gently. A woman who'd lived with men, raised sons, understood ego. "What happened, could have happened, didn't happen - none of it was your fault. Or mine, for that matter. The fault lies in what is no doubt an emotionally disturbed ghost. And I don't care how ridiculous that sounds."

"Rosalind." He stopped in front of her, knelt down, rubbed his hands over hers. They felt strong on hers, and warm. They felt solid. "I know how you feel about this house, but - "

"You're going to say I should move out, temporarily. And there's some good, solid sense in that, Mitch. But I won't. You can say it's because I'm stubborn, because I'm too damn hardheaded."

"And I will."

"But," she said, "besides that, and the fact I won't be chased away from what's mine, the problem won't be solved by moving out. My son lives on this property, as do others I care about very much. My business is on this property. Do I tell everyone to find other accommodations? Do I shut down my business, risk losing everything? Or do I stick it out, and work to find the answers?"

"She's escalating. Roz, for years she did little more than sing to children, an odd but relatively charming addition to the household. A little mischief now and then, but nothing dangerous. In the past year she's become increasingly unstable, increasingly violent."

"Yes, she has." Her fingers linked with his, held firm. "And you know what that tells me? It tells me we must be getting close to something. That maybe because we are, she's more impatient, more erratic. Less controlled. What we're doing matters to her. Just as what I think and feel matters, whether she approves or not."


He probably wouldn't take it well, she considered. But it had to be said. She'd promised him honesty, and took promises seriously. "I was thinking of you. Of us. When I finished sulking about tonight, and started to relax, I was thinking of the way I feel about you, and the way you feel about me."

"She tried to kill you because we love each other." His face stone hard when he pushed to his feet. "I'm the one who needs to leave, to stay away from here, and you, until we finish this."

"Is that how you deal with bullies? You give them their way?"

He'd started to pace again, but whipped around now, fury ripe in his eyes. "We're not talking about some asshole trying to steal lunch money on the playground. We're talking about your safety. Your goddamn life!"

"I won't give in to her. That's how I stay alive. That's how I stay in charge. You think I'm not furious, not frightened? You're wrong."

"I notice fury comes first."

"Because it's positive - at least I've always felt a good, healthy mad's more constructive than fear. That's what I saw in her, Mitch, at the end."

Roz tossed the throw aside and rose to go to him. "She was afraid, shocked and afraid and sorry - pitifully. You said once she didn't want to hurt me, and I think it's true."

"I also said she could, and I've been proven right." He took her face in his hands, then slid them down to her shoulders. "I don't know how to protect you. But I know I can't lose you."

"I'll be less afraid if you're with me."

He cocked his head, very nearly smiled. "That's very tricky."

"It is, isn't it?" She wrapped her arms around him, settled in when his came around her. "It also happens to be true. She asked me to forgive her. I don't know that I can, or will, but I need the answers. I need you to help me find them. And damn it, Mitch, I just need you - and that's hard for me to say."

"I hope it gets easier, because I like hearing it. We'll keep things as they are for now."

"Thank you. When I got out of there." She shifted her gaze toward the bathroom. "When I got out and pulled it together enough to think, I was so relieved you were downstairs. That I could tell you. That I wouldn't be alone tonight."

"Alone isn't even an option. Now." He scooped her off her feet. "You're getting into bed, bundling up."

"And you'll be . . ."

"Taking a closer look at the scene of the crime before I mop it up."

"I can take care of that, the mopping up."

"No." He tucked her in, firmly. "Give a little, get a little, Roz. Do what you're told, and stay in bed like a good girl. You've had a long and interesting day."

"Haven't I just?" And it felt wonderful to snuggle in the bed, knowing there was someone to look after some of the details. "I'm not sure what I'll have to give, but I'm going to ask you for a little something more."

"You want some soup? Something hot? Tea? Tea'd be better than coffee."

Look at you, she thought, Dr. Studly, with your black tie loose, and your tux shirt rolled up to the elbows, offering to make me soup. She reached for his hand as he sat on the side of the bed.

"No, but thanks. I'm going to ask you to keep what happened here between us for now."

"Roz, how does your mind work?" Frustration was so clear in his voice, on his face, she nearly smiled. "You were almost drowned in the tub by our resident ghost, and you don't want to mention it?"

"It's not that. We'll mention it, document it, go into great detail and discussion if need be. I just want to wait until after Stella's wedding. I just want a little calm. When Harper hears about this . . . Well, he's not going to take it well."

"Let me just say a big fat: Duh."

She laughed. "Everyone'll be upset, distracted, worried. And what good will it do? It happened, it's over. There are so many other things to deal with right now. I'm already going to be dealing with the fallout from what happened at the club. I can promise you word will be out, and it'll be a topic at my breakfast table tomorrow."

"And that bothers you."

"Actually, I think I'll enjoy it. I'm just small enough to bask in it. So let's leave this between us, until Stella's had her wedding. After that, we'll tell everyone, and deal with the fallout. But for the time being, we could use some undiluted happiness around here."

"Okay. I don't see that it'll matter."

"I appreciate it. I'm not so mad and scared now," she added, and slid down on the pillow. "I stopped her. I fought her off. I could do it again. That has to count for something."

Mitch leaned over to press his lips to her cheek. "Counts for a hell of a lot with me."

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