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       Red Lily, p.12

         Part #3 of In the Garden series by Nora Roberts
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  “Fine with me.”

  “I just have to do one thing.”

  Harper reached in his pocket. “Here, use my phone.”

  Laughing, she took it. “I know she’s fine with Roz and Mitch. I just want to check.”

  SHE ATE CATFISH and hush puppies and drank two glasses of wine. It was amazing how liberating it was to sit as long as she liked, to talk about whatever came to mind.

  “I forgot what this was like.” Simply because she could, Hayley lounged back in her chair. “Eating a whole meal without interruptions. I’m glad you finally asked me out.”

  “Finally?”

  “You’ve had plenty of time,” she pointed out. “Then I wouldn’t have had to make the first move.”

  “I liked your first move.” He reached over, took her hand.

  “It was one of my better ones. Harper.” Relaxed, she eased forward, her eyes on his. “Were you really thinking about me that way all this time?”

  “I put a lot of effort into not thinking about you that way. It worked some of the time.”

  “Why did you? Put a lot of effort into it, I mean.”

  “It seemed . . . rude,” was the best he could think of, “to imagine seducing a houseguest, especially a pregnant one. I helped you out of the car once—the day of your baby shower.”

  “Oh God, I remember.” It made her laugh even as she covered her face with her free hand. “I was so awful to you. I felt so hot and fat and miserable.”

  “You looked amazing. Vital. That was my first impression of you. Light and energy, and well, sex, but I tried to tramp that one out. But that day, when I helped you out, the baby moved. I felt it move. It was . . .”

  “Scary?”

  “Powerful, and yeah, a little scary. I watched you give birth.”

  She went still, and flushed to the tips of her ears. “Oh, oh God, I forgot about that.” She squeezed her eyes shut. “Oh no.”

  He grabbed her hands, pulled them toward him to kiss. “It was impossible to describe. After I got over the get-me-the-hell-out-of-here stage, it was just staggering. I saw her born. I’ve been in love with her ever since.”

  “I know.” Embarrassment faded as her heart swam up into her eyes. “That I know. You never ask about her father.”

  “It’s not my business.”

  “If we take this any further, it should be. You should at least know. Could we maybe take a walk?”

  “Sure.”

  THEY TURNED AWAY from the lights and action of Beale Street and wandered toward the river. Tourists flocked there as well, to stroll through the park or stand and watch the water, but the relative quiet made it easier for her to go back in her mind, and take him with her.

  “I didn’t love him. I want to say that right off because some people still like to think poor girl, some guy got her in trouble then didn’t stand by her. And they think your heart’s been broken by some asshole. It wasn’t like that.”

  “Good. It’d be a shame if Lily’s father was an asshole.”

  The laugh bubbled up, made her shake her head. “You’re going to make this easier. You’ve got a way of doing that. He was a nice guy, a grad student I met when I was working at the bookstore back home. We’d flirt with each other, and we hit it off, went out a couple of times. Then my father died.”

  They crossed the little bridge over the replica of the river, wandered past the couples sitting at stone tables. “I was so lost, so sad.”

  He slid his arm around her shoulder. “I think if anything happened to my mother, it would be like being blinded. I’ve got my brothers to hold on to, but I can’t imagine the world without her.”

  “It’s like that, like you just can’t see. What to do next, what to say next. No matter how kind people are—and they were, Harper, a lot of kind people—you’re in the dark. People loved my father, you just had to. So there were neighbors and family and friends, the people I worked with, that he worked with. But still, he was so much the center of my life, I felt alone, just isolated in this void of grief.”

  “I was a lot younger when my father died, and I guess in some ways it’s easier. But I know there’s a stage you have to go through, the one where you can’t believe anything’s ever going to be right again, or solid again.”

  “Yes, exactly. And when you get through it, start to feel again, it hurts. This guy, he was there for me. He was very sweet, very comforting, and that’s how one thing led to another.”

  She tilted her head to meet his eyes. “Still, we were never more than friends. But it wasn’t a fling, it was—”

  “Healing.”

  Her heart warmed. “Yes. He went back to school, and I got on. I didn’t realize I was pregnant at first. The signs didn’t filter through my head. And when I did . . .”

  “You were scared.”

  She shook her head. “I was pissed. I was so mad. Why the hell had this happened to me? Didn’t I have enough to deal with? It wasn’t like I’d slept around, it wasn’t like I hadn’t been responsible, so what the hell was this? A joke? God, Harper, I wasn’t all soft and shivery. I was enraged. I got around to panic at some point, but I bounced back pretty quick to mad.”

  “It was a tough spot, Hayley. You were alone.”

  “Don’t pretty it up. I didn’t want to be pregnant. I didn’t want a baby. I had to work, I had to grieve, and it was about damn time somebody up there gave me a freaking break.”

  They moved toward the river, and she kept her voice down as she looked out toward the water. “Now I was going to have to get an abortion, and that meant I’d have to figure out how to get some time off work, and pay for it.”

  “But you didn’t.”

  “I got the literature, and I found a clinic, and then I started thinking maybe it’d be better if I had it then gave it up for adoption. Signed up with one of those agencies. You read so much about these infertile couples pining for a baby. I thought maybe that would be something positive I could do.”

  He brushed a hand down her hair, spoke softly. “But you didn’t do that either.”

  “I got literature on that kind of thing, started researching. And all the time I was going back and forth, cursing God and so on, I was wondering why this guy wasn’t coming back in the store, or calling me. Part of my thinking when I was a little calmer was that I had to tell him, he had to know. I didn’t get pregnant by myself, and he’d better take some responsibility, too. Somewhere in all that thinking, it got real. I was going to have a baby. If I had a baby, I wouldn’t be alone. That was selfish thinking, and the first time I realized I was leaning toward keeping it. For me.”

  She breathed deep and faced him. “I decided to keep the baby because I was lonely. That, then, was the heaviest weight on the scale.”

  He didn’t say anything for a moment. “And the grad student?”

  “I went to see him, to tell him. Tracked him down at college, all ready to say, oops, look what happened, and here’s what I’ve decided to do so step on up.”

  A breeze fluttered her hair, and she let it go. Let the damp warm air breathe over her face. “He was glad to see me, a little embarrassed, I think, that he hadn’t kept in touch. The thing was, he’d fallen in love with somebody. Big sunbursts of love,” she said, throwing her arms out to illustrate. “He was so happy and excited, and when he talked about her he just sent off waves of love.”

  “So you didn’t tell him.”

  “I didn’t tell him. What was I supposed to do? Say, gee, that’s nice, glad you found someone who makes your world complete. How do you think she’ll feel about the fact that you knocked me up? Too bad you screwed up the rest of your life because you were being a friend to me when I needed one. On top of that, I didn’t want him. I didn’t want to marry him or anything, so what was the point?”

  “He doesn’t know about Lily?”

  “Another selfish decision, maybe with a little unselfish best-for-him worked in. I wrestled with it later, when the pregnancy got more real, when I started to sh
ow and feel the baby kick around inside me. But I stuck with what I’d done.”

  She paused a moment. It was harder than she’d known it could be to finish it out, to go on when he was quiet, when the quality of his listening was so complete.

  “I know he has a right to know. But that’s what I did, and what I’d do again. I heard he married that girl in April, and they moved up to Virginia where his people are from. I think, whatever the reasons were, I did the right thing for all of us. Maybe he’d love Lily, or maybe she’d just be a mistake to him. I don’t want to know. Because she was a mistake for me for those first few months, and I hate knowing that. I didn’t start to love her, really love her, until I was about five months gone, and then it was like . . . oh, it was like everything in me opened up, and she was filling it. That’s when I knew I had to leave home. Give us both a new start, clean slate.”

  “It was brave, and it was right.”

  It was so simple, his response, and nothing like what she’d prepared for. “It was crazy.”

  “Brave,” he repeated. He stopped, by deliberate design, next to a patch of small yellow lilies. “And right.”

  “Turned out right. I was going to name her Eliza. That was the name I had picked out for a girl. Then you brought those red lilies into the room, and they were so beautiful, so bright. When she was born, I thought, she’s so beautiful, so bright. She’s Lily. So . . .” She let out a long breath. “That’s the big circle, from the beginning around to the end.”

  He leaned down, touched his lips to hers. “The thing about circles? You can keep widening them.”

  “Is that a way of saying you weren’t so bored by my personal soap opera you might want to do this again?”

  “One thing you’ve never done is bore me.” He linked his hand with hers so they could continue walking. “And yeah, I’d like to do this again.”

  “Away from the house. Away from her.”

  “We can do that. The thing is, Hayley, we live there. We work there. We can’t avoid her.”

  TOO TRUE, HAYLEY thought when she walked into her bedroom. All the drawers on her dresser hung open. Her clothes from there, from the closet, were all heaped on the bed. She crossed over, lifted a shirt, a pair of jeans. No damage, she noted, so that was something.

  There’d been nothing amiss in Lily’s room when she’d checked, and that was even more important. Curious, she walked to the bathroom. All of her toiletries had been shoved into a pile on the counter.

  “Your way of reminding me this isn’t really my place?” she wondered aloud. “That I may be told to pack up and go any time? Maybe you’re right. If and when, I’ll handle it, so all you managed to do was give me an hour’s annoying work before I go to bed.”

  She began to put away the creams and colognes, the lipsticks and mascaras. Discount brands mostly, with a couple of splurges tossed in. And maybe she did wish she could afford better, just for the fun of it.

  The same went for the clothes, she admitted as she went into the bedroom to deal with them. What was wrong with wishing she could afford really good fabrics or designer labels?

  It wasn’t like she was obsessed with it.

  Still, wouldn’t it be wonderful to be hanging up fabulous dresses instead of knockoffs and discount rack. Silks and cashmere. It would feel so good against her skin.

  Roz had all those incredible clothes, and walked around in old shirts half the time. More than. What was the point in having so much, then taking it for granted? Leaving it hanging when someone else could use it. Use it better, too. Someone younger who knew how to live. Who deserved it, who’d earned it instead of just having everything handed to her.

  And all those jewels, just going to waste, sitting in a safe when they’d look so beautiful around her throat. Sparkling.

  She should just take them, take a few pieces here and there. Who’d know the difference?

  Everything she wanted was right here for the taking, so why not . . .

  She dropped the shirt she’d been holding. Holding, she realized in front of her the way a woman holds some lovely gown. Swaying in front of the mirror. And thinking of theft.

  Not me. Shaking, she stared at her own reflection.

  “Not me,” she said aloud. “I don’t need what you need. I don’t want what you want. Maybe you can get inside me, but you can’t make me do something like that. You can’t.”

  She dumped the rest of her clothes in a chair, then lay down on the bed fully dressed. And slept with the lights on.

  nine

  SHE WAS GLAD to be working the counter, grateful to the steady trickle of customers who kept her busy. Amelia didn’t appear to be interested in her when she was working. At least not so far.

  She’d made a list, documenting every incident she remembered clearly for Mitch’s files. She’d noted down the locations: the pond, her bedroom, the nursery. She wasn’t absolutely sure, but she thought there had been other times her thoughts weren’t really hers. In the garden at Harper House, when she’d been daydreaming at work.

  Once it was down on paper, she decided, it didn’t seem that enormous.

  At least not during the day, when people were around.

  She looked over as a new customer came in. Young, good shoes, good haircut. Healthy disposable income, Hayley decided, and hoped to help her dispose of some.

  “ ’Morning. Can I help you find something today?”

  “Well, I . . . I’m sorry, I think I’ve forgotten your name.”

  “It’s Hayley.” She narrowed her focus while keeping her expression pleasant. Swingy, streaky blond hair, narrow face, pretty eyes. A little bit shy.

  Then her own eyes popped wide. “Jane? Roz’s cousin Jane? Holy cow, look at you.”

  The woman flushed. “I . . . got my hair cut,” she told her, and fluffed a hand over the flattering swing.

  “I’ll say. You look great, totally great.”

  The last time she’d seen Jane, she’d helped Roz and Stella move the woman’s few possessions out of the over-stuffed, overheated city apartment ruled by Clarissa Harper. The woman they’d smuggled out—along with journals Clarissa had nipped out of Harper House—had been dull and dowdy, like a pencil sketch that barely showed up on the paper.

  Now her plain, dishwater blond hair had been lightened, highlighted, and shortened to a sassy length that didn’t drag down her long, thin face.

  Her clothes were simple, but the cotton shirt and breezy cropped pants were a far cry from the dumpy skirt she’d been wearing when she’d made her escape.

  “I’ve gotta say: Wow. You look like you’ve been on one of those makeover shows. You know, like What Not to Wear. And oh boy, what just came out of my mouth was really rude.”

  “No, it’s okay.” Her smile spread even as her blush deepened. “I guess I feel made over. Jolene—you know Jolene, Stella’s stepmother?”

  “Yeah, she’s terrific.”

  “She helped me get the job at the gallery, and the day before I started, she came to my new apartment. She just . . . highjacked me. She said she was my fairy godmother for the day. Before I knew it, I was getting my hair cut, and they were putting aluminum foil in what was left of it. I was too terrified to say no.”

  “Bet you’re glad you didn’t.”

  “I was in a daze. She dragged me out of there to the mall, and said she was going to start me off with three outfits, top to toe. After that, she expected me to fill out the rest of my wardrobe in a like manner.”

  Her smile wreathed from ear to ear even as her eyes went damp. “It was the most wonderful day of my life.”

  “That’s the sweetest story.” Hayley teared up as Jane did. “You deserved a fairy godmother after being kicked around by that wicked witch. You know, historically fairy tales were women’s stories, passed orally in a time when women didn’t have many rights.”

  “Um. Oh?”

  “Sorry, trivia head. It’s just that this is all such a girl thing, I guess. I’ve got to get Stella.”


  “I didn’t want to interrupt anything. I just hoped to see Cousin Rosalind, and thank her.”

  “We’ll get her, too.” Hayley hurried over to Stella’s office door. “But Stella’s really going to want to see this.” She poked her head in without knocking. “You’ve got to come out here a minute.”

  “Is there a problem?”

  “No, just take my word and come out here.”

  “Hayley, I’ve still got half a dozen calls to make before I . . .” She trailed off, automatically putting on her greeting-the-public face when she spotted Jane. “Sorry. Is there something—Oh my God. It’s Jane.”

  “New and improved,” Hayley said, then winced. “Sorry.”

  “Don’t be. That’s just how I feel.”

  “Jolene said she’d given you the Jo Special.” Delighted, Stella walked a circle around Jane. “Boy, didn’t she just. I love your hair.”

  “So do I. Your stepmother, she’s been so good to me.”

  “She’s enjoyed every minute of it. I’ve had reports, but I have to say, a picture’s worth a thousand. I hope you’re doing as well as you look.”

  “I love my job. I love my apartment. I really love feeling pretty.”

  “Oh.” Stella’s eyes filled.

  “Same thing happened to me,” Hayley said as she got a two-way from behind the counter. “Roz,” she said into it, “we need you at checkout.”

  She clicked it off on Roz’s staticky complaint about being busy.

  “I don’t want to drag her away from her work.”

  “She’ll want to see you. And I want to see her see you. God, this is fun!”

  “Tell us what else you’ve been up to,” Stella said.

  “Work’s number one. I really love it, and I’m learning so much. I’ve made a couple of friends there.”

  “Male types?” Hayley wondered.

  “I’m not ready for that yet. But there is this man in my building. He’s very nice.”

  “Is he cute? Shoot, customer,” Hayley grumbled as one came in through the back with a loaded cart. “Don’t talk about anything sexy while I’m busy.”

  “I thought I’d be embarrassed to see the two of you again.” Jane turned to Stella as Hayley waited on the customer.

  “Why?”

  “That time, when I met you, I was so whiny and horrible.”

  “You were not, you were scared and upset. For good reason. You were taking a big step, letting us in so Roz could get those journals.”

  “They belonged to her. Clarissa didn’t have the right to take them from Harper House.”

  “No, she didn’t. But it was still a big step for you, to let Roz get them back, to move out, start a new job, a new life. I know how scary that is. So does Hayley.”

  Jane glanced over her shoulder to where Hayley rang up sales and chatted with her customer. “She doesn’t look like she’d be scared of anything. That’s what I thought when I met her, and you. That the two of you would never be afraid to stand up for yourselves, never let yourselves get pushed around like I did.”

  “We all get scared, and we don’t always do something so radical and positive about it.”

  Roz came in, the only sign of irritation the slap of her gardening gloves on her thigh. “Is there a problem?”

  “Absolutely not.” Stella gestured. “Jane wanted to see you.”

  Roz’s brows lifted, and her smile spread slowly. “Well, well, well. Jolene is a woman of her word. Aren’t you just blooming.” She stuck her gloves in her back pocket, then lost her breath as Jane threw arms around her. “I’m glad to see you, too.”

  “Thank you. Thank you so much. I’ll never be able to tell you.”

  “You’re welcome.”

 
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