Red lily, p.17
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       Red Lily, p.17
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         Part #3 of In the Garden series by Nora Roberts

  “Ashby, you said?”

  “Yes, ma’am.”

  “Any relation to Miriam Norwood Ashby?”

  “Yes, ma’am. She was my paternal grandmother.”

  “I knew her a little.”

  “I can’t really claim the same.”

  “Don’t expect so, as she’s been dead some time now. You’d be Rosalind Harper’s boy then.”

  “Yes, ma’am, her oldest.”

  “I’ve met her a time or two. First time being at her wedding to John Ashby. You have the look of her, don’t you?”

  “I do. Yes, ma’am.”

  She slid her eyes toward David. “This isn’t your brother.”

  “A family friend, Miz Fitzpatrick,” David said with a full-wattage smile. “I live at Harper House, and work for Rosalind. Perhaps you’d feel more at ease if you contacted Miz Harper before you speak to us. We’d be happy to give you a number where you can reach her, and wait out here while you do.”

  Instead she opened the screen. “I don’t believe Miriam Ashby’s grandson is going to knock me unconscious and rob me. Y’all come in.”

  “Thank you.”

  The house was as neat and well-tended as its mistress, with polished oak floors and muted green walls. She let them into a generous living room that was furnished in a contemporary, almost minimalistic style.

  “I suppose you boys could use a cold drink.”

  “We don’t want to put you to any trouble, Miz Fitzpatrick,” Harper told her.

  “Sweet tea’s simple enough. Have a seat. I’ll be with you in a minute.”

  “Classy,” David commented when she left the room. “A bit pared down, but classy.”

  “The place, or her?”

  “Both.” He took a seat on the sofa. “Ashby-Harper is a very slick entree. Charm wouldn’t have worked on her.”

  “Interesting she knew my grandmother—she’s some younger—and that she was invited to my mother’s wedding. All these little intersections. I wonder if one of her ancestors knew Reginald or Beatrice.”

  “Coincidence is only coincidence if you don’t have an open mind.”

  “Living with a ghost tends to leave it gaping.” Harper got to his feet as Mae came back with a tray of glasses. “Let me get that for you. We very much appreciate your time, Miz Fitzpatrick.” He set the tray on the coffee table. “I’ll try not to take up too much of it.”

  “Your grandmother was a kindhearted woman. While I didn’t know her intimately, your grandfather and my first husband had a small business venture together many years ago. A real estate venture,” she added, “that was satisfactorily profitable for all involved. Now, why has her grandson come knocking on my door?”

  “It has to do with a bracelet from your mother’s estate.”

  She angled her head with polite interest. “My mother’s estate.”

  “Yes, ma’am. It happens that I bought this bracelet from the jeweler who acquired it from the estate.”

  “And is there something wrong with the bracelet?”

  “No. No, ma’am. I’m hoping you might remember some of the history of it, as I’m very interested in its origins. I’m told it was made sometime around 1890. It’s made up of ruby hearts framed in diamonds.”

  “Yes, I know the piece. I sold it and several others recently as they weren’t to my taste and saw no reason to have them sitting in a safety deposit box as they had been since my mother’s death some years ago.” She sipped her tea as she watched him. “You’re curious about its history?”

  “Yes, ma’am, I am.”

  “But not forthcoming with your reasons.”

  “Oddly enough, I have reason to believe it—or one very like it—was in my family. When I discovered that, I found it interesting and thought satisfying my curiosity would be worth a little time in trying to trace it back.”

  “Is that so? Now, that I find interesting. The bracelet was given by my grandfather to my grandmother in 1893, as an anniversary gift. It’s possible that there was more than one made, in that same design, at the time.”

  “Yes, possibly.”

  “There is, however, a story behind it, if you’d like to hear it.”

  “I really would.”

  She held out the plate of cookies she’d brought out with the tea, waited until each of the men had taken one. Then she settled back with a hint of a smile on her face. “My grandparents did not have a happy marriage, my grandfather being somewhat of a scoundrel. He enjoyed gambling and shady deals and the company of loose women—according to my grandmother, who lived to the ripe age of ninety-eight, so I knew her quite well.”

  Rising, she walked to an étagère and took down a photo framed in slim silver.

  “My grandparents,” she said, passing the photo to Harper. “A formal portrait taken in 1891. You can see, scoundrel or not, he was quite handsome.”

  “Both are.” And, Harper noted, the style of dress, hair, even the photographic tone was similar to the copies of photographs Mitch had pinned to his workboard.

  “She’s a beauty.” David glanced up. “You favor her.”

  “So I’ve been told. Physically, and in temperament.” Obviously pleased, she took the photo, replaced it. “My grandmother claimed two of the happiest days of her life were her wedding day, when she was too young and foolish to know what she was getting into, and the day she became a widow—some twelve years later, and could enjoy life without the burden of a man who couldn’t be trusted.”

  She sat again, picked up her tea. “A handsome man, as you saw for yourselves. A charming man, by all accounts, and one who had considerable success with the gambling and the shady deals. But my grandmother was a moral sort of woman. One who managed to bend those morals, just enough to enjoy the results of her husband’s successes, even as she decried them.”

  She set down her tea, sat back, obviously relishing her role. “She told the story, often, of discovering—during one of my grandfather’s drunken confessions that the anniversary gift—the ruby hearts—had come from a somewhat less than reputable source. He had acquired it in a payoff of a gambling debt from a man who bought jewelry and so forth on the cheap from those unfortunate or desperate enough to have to sell their possessions quickly. Often, more likely, from those who had stolen those possessions and used him as a fence.”

  She smiled broadly now, no doubt relishing the thought. “It had belonged to a wealthy man’s mistress, and was stolen from her by one of the servants after she had been cut off by him. The story, as my grandmother claimed it was told to her, was that the woman had gone raving mad, and had subsequently vanished.”

  She reached for her tea, sipped. “I always wondered if that story was true.”

  HARPER WENT TO his mother first, and knelt down beside her in the gardens at home. Absently, he began to help her weed.

  “I heard you took some time off today,” she began.

  “I had something I wanted to do. Why aren’t you wearing a hat?”

  “I forgot it. I was only going to come out for a minute, then I got started.”

  He pulled off the ballcap he wore, tugged it down over her head. “Do you remember how so many times after school, if I was working out here when you came home, you’d sit down beside me, help me weed or plant and tell me your troubles, or your triumphs of the day?”

  “I remember you were always here to listen. To me, to Austin and Mason. Sometimes to all three of us at once. How’d you do that?”

  “A mother’s got an ear for the voices of her children. Like a conductor for each separate instrument in his orchestra, even in the middle of a symphony. What are your troubles, baby boy?”

  “You were right about Hayley.”

  “I make being right a policy. What was I right about exactly?”

  “That she wouldn’t move over to Logan’s because I asked her to.”

  Under the bill, Roz’s eyebrows arched. “Asked her?”

  “Asked her, told her.” He shrugged. “What’s the differ
ence when you’ve got the person’s welfare in mind?”

  She let out a husky laugh, patted her dirty hands on his cheeks. “Such a man.”

  “A minute ago I was your baby boy.”

  “My baby boy is such a man. I don’t see that as a flaw. An amusement sometimes—such as now—a puzzlement now and then, and on rare occasions a damned irritation. Are you fighting? It didn’t seem to me you were at odds when you came down to breakfast together this morning.”

  “No, we’re all right. If you don’t like me sleeping with her in the house, I get that.”

  “So you’ll respect the sanctity of our home and sleep with her elsewhere?”

  “Yeah.”

  “I slept with men I wasn’t married to in Harper House. It’s not a cathedral, it’s a home. Yours as much as mine. If you’re having sex with Hayley, you might as well have it comfortably. And safely,” she added with a direct look.

  Even after all these years, it made his shoulders hunch. “I buy my own condoms these days.”

  “I’m glad to hear it.”

  “And that isn’t what I wanted to get into. I traced the bracelet back to Amelia.”

  Those eyes widened as she sat back on her heels. “You did? That was fast work.”

  “Fast work, coincidence, lucky break. I’m not sure where it falls. It came from the estate of an Esther Hopkins. She’s been dead a few years now, apparently, and her daughter decided to go ahead and sell some of the things she didn’t like, or care to keep. Mae Fitzpatrick. She said she knew you.”

  “Mae Fitzpatrick.” Roz closed her eyes and tried to flip through the vast mental files of acquaintances. “I’m sorry, it doesn’t seem familiar.”

  “She was married before. Wait a minute . . . Ives?”

  “Mae Ives doesn’t ring bells either.”

  “Well, she said she’d only met you a couple of times. Once was when you married Daddy. She was at your wedding.”

  “Is that a fact? Well, that’s interesting, but not all that surprising. I think between my mama and John’s we had everybody in Shelby County and most of Tennessee at the wedding.”

  “She knew Grandma Ashby.”

  He sat on the garden path with her and told her of the conversation he’d had with Mae Fitzpatrick.

  “Amazing, isn’t it,” she mused. “All those little angles and curls, and how they fit together.”

  “I know. Mama, she had it figured. Too well-bred to say it right out, but she put it together, about Reginald Harper being the wealthy protector who’d cast his mistress off. She’s likely to talk about it.”

  “And you think that bothers me? Honey, the fact that my great-grandfather had mistresses, that he kept women, tossed them aside, and lived a life generally rife with infidelity isn’t a reflection on me, or you. His behavior isn’t our responsibility, which is something I sincerely wish Amelia would realize.”

  She dug out more weeds. “As to the rest of his behavior, which is beyond deplorable, it’s not our fault either. Mitch is writing about it. Unless you and your brothers feel strongly that all of this should be kept as closely within the family as possible, I want him to do this book.”

  “Why?”

  “It’s not our fault, it’s not our responsibility. That’s all true,” she said as she sat back to look at him. “But I feel that airing all of this is somehow giving her her due. It’s a way to acknowledge an ancestor who, no matter what she did, what she became, was treated shabbily at best, monstrously at worst.”

  She lifted her hand, pressed her soil-streaked palm to his. “She’s our blood.”

  “Does that make me heartless because I want her gone, I want her ended for what she nearly did to you, for what she’s doing now to Hayley?”

  “No. It means Hayley and I are closer to your heart. That’s enough for today.” She swiped her hands on the thighs of her gardening pants. “We’re going to boil in this wet heat if we stay out much longer. Come on inside with me. Let’s sit in the cool and have a beer.”

  “Tell me something.” He studied the house as they walked down the path. “How did you know that Daddy was the one?”

  “Stars in my eyes.” She laughed, and despite the heat hooked an arm through his. “I swear, stars in my eyes. I was so young, and he put stars in my eyes. But that was infatuation. I think I knew that he was mine when we talked for hours one night. I snuck out of the house to meet him. God, my daddy would have skinned him alive. But all we did was talk, hour after hour, under a willow tree. He was just a boy, but I knew I’d love him all of my life. And I have. I knew because we sat there, almost till dawn, and he made me laugh, and made me think and dream and tremble. I never thought I’d love again. But I do. It takes nothing away from your father, Harper.”

  “Mama. I know.” He closed a hand over hers. “How did you know with Mitch?”

  “I guess I was too cynical for those stars, at least at first. It was slower, and scarier. He makes me laugh and think and dream and tremble. And there was a time during that longer, slower climb that I looked at him, and my heart warmed again. I’d forgotten what it was like to feel that warmth inside the heart.”

  “He’s a good man. He loves you. He watches you when you come into a room, when you walk out of one. I’m glad you found him.”

  “So am I.”

  “With Daddy? What willow was it?”

  “Oh, it was a big, beautiful old tree, way back, beyond the old stables.” She paused, looked toward the ruin, gestured. “John was going to come back sometime soon after, carve our initials in the trunk. But that next night lightning struck it, split it right in two, and—Oh my God.”

  “Amelia,” he said softly.

  “It had to be. It never occurred to me before this, but I remember there hadn’t been a storm. The servants were talking about the tree and the lightning hitting it when there hadn’t been a storm.”

  “So even then,” he said, “she took her shots.”

  “How mean, how petty of her. I cried over that tree. I fell in love under it, and cried when I watched the groundskeepers clear away the wood and pull the trunk out.”

  “Don’t you wonder if there were other things? Small, violent acts we passed off as nature or some strange quirk, all while we thought of her as benevolent?”

  He studied the house now, thought of what it was to him—and what had walked there long before he was born. “She’s never been benevolent, not really.”

  “All that hate and anger stored up. Trapped.”

  “Leaking now and again, like water through a crack in a dam. It’s coming faster and harder now. And we can’t put it back in, Mama. What we have to do is empty it out, draw out every drop.”

  “How?”

  “I think we’re going to have to break the dam, while we’re the ones holding the hammer.”

  IT WAS TWILIGHT when Hayley wandered through the gardens. The baby was asleep, and Roz and Mitch were taking monitor duty. Harper’s car was there, so he was somewhere. Not in the carriage house, because she’d knocked, then poked her head in and called.

  It wasn’t as if they were joined at the hip, she reminded herself. But he hadn’t stayed for dinner. He’d said he’d had something to do, that he’d be back before dark.

  Well, it was nearly dark, and she was just wondering.

  Besides, she liked walking in the gardens, in the gloaming. Even under the circumstances. It was soothing, and she could use a little soothing after running the story he’d told her about the bracelet over and over in her head.

  They were getting closer to the answers, she was sure of it. But she was no longer sure it would all end quietly once they had them.

  Amelia might not be content to give up her last links with this world and pass on—she supposed that was the term—to the next.

  She liked inhabiting a body. If you could call it inhabiting. Sharing one? Sliding through one? Whatever it was, Amelia liked it, of that Hayley was sure. Just as she was sure it was something as new for Amelia as it
was for herself.

  If it happened again—when, she corrected, ordering herself to face facts. When it happened again, she was going to fight to stay more aware, to find more control.

  And wasn’t that what she was doing out here alone, in the half light? No point in pretending to herself this wasn’t a deliberate move. A sort of dare. Come on, bitch. She wanted to see what she could handle, and how she would handle it when no one else was around to run interference. Or be hurt.

  But nothing was happening. She felt completely normal, completely herself.

  And was completely herself when sounds out of the shadows made her jump. She stopped, caught in the crosshairs of fight or flight, ears straining. The rhythmic, repetitive sound made her frown as she inched forward.

  It sounded . . . but it couldn’t be. Still her heart beat like wings as she crept closer, envisioning a ghostly figure digging a grave.

  Amelia’s grave. It could be. This could be the answer, at last. Reginald had murdered her, then buried her here on the property. She was going to be shown the grave—on unconsecrated ground. They could have it blessed or marked or—well, she’d look up what was done in cases like this.

  Then the haunting of Harper House would be over.

  She picked her way quietly around the ruins of the stables, edging as close to the building as she dared. Her palms sprang damp, and her breath seemed to rattle in her throat.

  She turned the corner of the building, following the sound, prepared to be terrified and amazed.

  And saw Harper, his T-shirt stripped off and tossed to the ground, digging a hole.

  The letdown had the breath expelling from her lungs in a frantic whoosh.

  “Harper, for Christ’s sake, you scared me brainless. What are you doing?”

  He continued to spear the blade of the shovel into the ground, tossing the dirt into the pile beside it. Though she was still jittery, she cast her eyes skyward, then marched to him.

  “I said—” He jumped a clean foot off the ground when she poked a finger in his back. And even as she yelped in response, he whirled, cocking the shovel over his shoulder like a bat. He managed to check his swing, cursed a blue streak as she stumbled back and fell hard on her ass.

  “Jesus, God almighty!” He dragged the headset down to his shoulders. “What the hell are you doing, sneaking around in the dark?”

  “I didn’t sneak, I called you. If you didn’t play that headset so loud you could hear a person when they said something. I thought you were going to brain me with that shovel. I thought . . .”

  She began to giggle, tried to snuff it back. “You should’ve seen your face. Your eyes were this big.” She held up her hands, curling her fingers into wide balls, then dissolved into laughter when he snarled at her.

  “Oh, oh, I’m going to wet my pants. Wait.” She squeezed her eyes, bounced quickly in place while more giggles bubbled. “Okay, okay, back in control. The least you could do is help me up after you knocked me down.”

  “I didn’t knock you down. Damn near though.” He offered a hand, pulled her up.

  “I thought you were Reginald, digging Amelia’s untimely grave.”

  Shaking his head, he leaned on the shovel and stared at her. “So you came on around to what, give him a hand?”

  “Well, I had to see, didn’t I? What in the world are you doing, digging a hole out here in the dark?”

  “It’s not dark.”

  “You said it was dark when you yelled at me. What are you doing?”

  “Playing third base for the Atlanta Braves.”

  “I don’t see why you’re being pissy. I’m the one who fell down and nearly wet her pants.”

  “Sorry. Did you hurt yourself?”

  “No. You planting that tree?” She finally focused in on the slim, young willow. “Why are you planting a tree, Harper, back here and at this time of night?”

  “It’s for Mama. She told me this story today, about how she snuck out of the house to meet my father one night, and that they sat under a willow that used to be back here, and talked. That’s when she fell in love with him. The next day it got hit by lightning. Amelia,” he said and dug out another shovelful of dirt. “She didn’t put it together before, but you’ve got to figure the odds. So I’m
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