Red lily, p.28
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       Red Lily, p.28
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         Part #3 of In the Garden series by Nora Roberts

  Of course. Children and those who tended them didn’t belong near grand ballrooms, elegant withdrawing rooms. Smell the house! How rich its perfume. Her son’s home. And hers now.

  The carpet was soft as fur on her feet. And even so late, even when the house was in bed, the gaslights glowed on low.

  Spare no expense! she thought. Money to burn.

  Oh, she should burn them all.

  At the stairs she paused. They would be sleeping down there, the bastard and his whore. The sleep of the rich and the privileged. She could go down, kill them. Hack them to pieces, bathe in their blood.

  Idly, she rubbed her thumb over the curved blade of the sickle, had blood welling red. Would their blood run blue? Harper blood. It would be so lovely to see it, spilling out of their white throats, pooling regally blue on their linen sheets.

  But someone might hear. One of the servants could hear, and stop her before her duty was done.

  So quiet. She tapped a finger to her cheek, stifled a laugh. Quiet as a mouse.

  Quiet as a ghost.

  She walked to the other wing, easing doors open if they were closed. Peeking inside.

  She knew—it was her mother’s heart speaking, she thought—as her trembling hand reached for the latch on the next door. She knew her James slept inside.

  A low light burned, and with it she could see the shelves of toys and books, the rocking chair, the small bureaus and the chests.

  And there, the crib.

  Tears spilled out of her eyes as she crossed to it. There he lay sleeping, her precious son, his dark hair clean and sweet, his plump cheeks rosy with health.

  Never had there been a more beautiful baby than her James. So pretty and soft in his crib. He needed to be tended, and rocked, and sung to. Sweet songs for her sweet son.

  She’d forgotten his blanket! How could she have forgotten his blanket? Now she would have to use what another had bought him when it came time to carry him off with her.

  Gently, so gently, she brushed her fingers over his soft hair and sang his lullaby.

  “We’ll be together always, James. Nothing will ever part us again.”

  Sitting on the floor, she went to work.

  She used the blade to hack through the rope. It was difficult to form the noose, but she thought she did well. Well enough. Discarding the sickle, she carried a chair, positioned it under the ceiling lamp. And sang softly as she tied the rope to the arms of the lamp.

  It held on a strong, testing pull and made her smile.

  She pulled out the gris-gris she had in a bag looped around her neck by a ribbon. She’d memorized the chant the voodoo queen had sold her, but she struggled with the words now as she sprinkled the gris-gris in a circle around the chair.

  She used the blade to slice open her own palm. And let the blood from her hand drip over the gris-gris, to bind the work.

  Her blood. Amelia Ellen Connor. The same blood that ran in her child. A mother’s blood, potent magic.

  Her hands shook, but she continued to croon as she went to the crib. For the first time since he’d been born, she lifted her child into her arms.

  Bloodied his blanket, and his rosy cheek.

  Ah, so warm, so sweet! Weeping with joy she cuddled the child against her damp and filthy gown. When he stirred and whimpered, she hugged him only closer.

  Hush, hush, my precious. Mama is here now. Mama will never leave you again. His head moved, his mouth sucking as if in search of a nipple. But when with a sob of joy, she tugged her gown below her breast, pressed him there, he arched and let out a cry.

  Hush, hush, hush. Don’t cry, don’t fret. Sweet, sweet baby boy. Sawing her arms back and forth to rock him, she moved to the chair. Mama has you now. She’ll never, never let you go. Come with Mama, my darling James. Come with Mama now where you will never know pain or grief. Where we will waltz in the ballroom, have tea and cake in the garden.

  She climbed, awkward with his weight, with his wiggles, onto the chair. Even as he wailed, she smiled down at him, and slipped the noose around her neck. Softly singing, she slipped the smaller noose around his.

  Now, we’re together.

  The connecting door opened, a spill of light that had her turning her head, baring her teeth like a tiger protecting her cub.

  The sleepy-eyed nursemaid shrieked, her hands flying to her face at the sight of the woman in the filthy white gown, and the baby in her arms, screaming with fear and angry hunger, with a rope around his neck.

  “He’s mine!”

  As she kicked the chair away, the nursemaid sprang forward.

  Screams gave way to the cold, and the dark.

  Hayley sat on the floor of what had been the nursery, weeping in Harper’s arms.

  SHE WAS STILL icy, even in the parlor with a blanket over her legs, and the unseasonable fire Mitch had set to blaze in the hearth.

  “She was going to kill him,” she told them. “She was going to kill the baby. My God, my God, she meant to hang her own child.”

  “To keep him.” Roz stood, staring at the fire. “That’s more than madness.”

  “If the nurse hadn’t come in when she did. If she hadn’t heard him crying and come in quickly, she would’ve done it.”

  “Selfish woman.”

  “I know, I know.” Hayley lifted her hands, rubbed her shoulders. “But she didn’t do it to hurt him. She believed they’d be together, and happy, and, oh Jesus. She was broken, in every possible way. Then at the end, when she lost again . . .” Hayley shook her head. “She keeps waiting for him. I think she must see him in every child who comes to Harper House.”

  “A kind of hell isn’t it?” Stella asked. “For madness.”

  She’d never forget it, Hayley thought. Never. “The nurse, she saved the baby.”

  “I haven’t been able to trace her,” Mitch put in. “They had more than one nursemaid during his babyhood, but the timing of this points to a girl named Alice Jameson—which also jibes with Mary Havers’s letter to Lucille. Alice left the Harper employ in February of 1893, and I haven’t found anything more on her.”

  “They sent her away.” Stella closed her eyes. “That’s what they’d have done. Paid her maybe, or just as likely threatened her.”

  “Both would be my guess,” Logan said.

  “I’ll push on it, do what I can to find her,” Mitch promised, and Roz turned to smile at him.

  “I’d appreciate it. I wouldn’t be here without her, nor would my sons.”

  “It wasn’t what she wanted us to know,” Hayley said quietly. “Or not all of it. She doesn’t know where she is. Where she’s buried. What they did with her. She won’t be able to leave, to rest, to pass over, whatever it is, until we find her.”

  “How?” Stella spread her hands.

  “I have an idea on that.” Roz scanned faces. “One I think’s going to hit this group about fifty-fifty.”

  “What’s the point?” Harper objected. “So Hayley can see her try to hang a baby again?”

  “So she, or one of us, can see what happened next. Hopefully. And by we, I mean myself, Hayley, and Stella.”

  For the first time since they’d started upstairs, Harper released Hayley’s hand. He shoved off the couch. “That’s a damn stupid idea.”

  “Don’t take that tone with me, Harper.”

  “It’s the only tone I’ve got when my mother goes crazy. Did you see what just happened up there? The way Hayley walked from the ballroom to the old nursery? The way she talked as if she was watching it happen, and like she was part of what was happening?”

  “I saw perfectly well. That’s why we have to go back.”

  “I’ve got to side with Harper on this, Roz.” Logan gave an apologetic shrug. “I don’t see sitting down here while three women go up there alone. I don’t give a rat’s ass if it’s sexist.”

  “I expected as much. Mitch?” Her eyebrows winged up when he sat, frowning at her. “Well, you’re about to surprise me again.”

  “Yo
u can’t seriously agree with her on this?” Harper whirled around to his stepfather.

  “The hell of it, Harper, is that I am. I don’t like it, but I see where she’s going, and why. And before you take my head off, consider this: They’ll do it later, at some point when none of us is around.”

  “What happened to staying together?”

  “It’s a man who used her, abused her, stole her child, cast her off. She’s been poking at me and Stella again. She won’t trust you. Maybe we can convince her to trust us.”

  “And maybe she’ll toss you off the third floor terrace.”

  “Harper.” Roz crossed to him, her smile as thin as a blade. “Anybody gets tossed out of this house, it’s going to be her. That’s a stone promise. My sympathy for her is at an end. You still have it.” She looked over at Hayley. “And that’s fine, probably an advantage. But mine is over. What she would have done if not for intervention is unforgivable to me. I will have her out of this house. Can you go back?” she asked Hayley.

  “Yes, I can. I want it done. I don’t think I’ll ever have another easy moment until it is.”

  “You’re asking me to risk you.”

  “No.” Hayley rose to go to Harper. “To believe in me.”

  “YOU KNOW HOW, in the movies, the stupid, usually scantily clad blonde, goes down in the basement alone when she hears a noise, especially if there’s a slasher-type killer running around?”

  Roz laughed at Hayley as they stood on the third floor landing. “We’re not stupid.”

  “And none of us are blond,” Stella added. “Ready?”

  They clasped hands and started down the hall.

  “The problem with this,” Hayley began in a voice that sounded tinny to her ears, “is that if she doesn’t know what happened to her after, how will we?”

  “One step at a time.” Roz gave Hayley’s hand a squeeze. “How are you feeling?”

  “My heart’s beating a mile a minute. Roz, when this is over, can we open this room again? Make it, I don’t know, a playroom maybe. Something with light and color.”

  “A wonderful idea.”

  “And here we go,” Stella declared. They walked in together.

  “How did it look before, Hayley?” Roz asked her.

  “Um. The crib was over there.” She gestured with her chin. “Against the wall. The lights were on low. Gaslights, like in that movie with Ingrid Bergman. The one where Charles Boyer tries to drive her crazy. There was a rocking chair over there, and another, straight-backed chair—the one she used—over there. Shelves here,” she pointed, “with toys and books on them. And a . . .”

  Her head snapped back, her eyes rolled up white. As she began to choke, her legs buckled.

  She heard, through the storm surge in her ears, Roz shout to get her out. But she shook her head wildly.

  “Wait, wait. God it burns! The baby’s screaming, and the maid, the nurse. Don’t let go of me.”

  “We’re taking you out,” Roz said.

  “No, no. Just don’t let go. She’s dying—it’s horrible—and she’s so angry.” Hayley let her head fall onto Roz’s shoulder. “It’s dark. It’s dark where she is. Was. No light, no air, no hope. She lost. They took him again, and now she’s alone. She’ll always be alone. She can’t see, she can’t feel. Everything seems so far away. Very cold, very dark. There are voices, but she can’t hear them, only echoes. It’s so empty. She’s going down, down, so heavy. She can only see the dark. She doesn’t know where she is. She just floats away.”

  She sighed, left her head on Roz’s shoulder. “I can’t help it, even in this room, I feel sorry for her. She was cold and selfish, calculating. A whore, certainly, in the lowest sense of the word. But she’s paid for it, hasn’t she? More than a hundred years of being lost, of watching over other people’s children and never having more than that one mad moment with her own. She’s paid.”

  “Maybe she has. Are you all right?”

  Hayley nodded. “It wasn’t like before, not the way I could feel her pulling at me. I was stronger. I need life more than she does. I think she’s tired. Almost as tired as we are.”

  “That may be, too. But you don’t let your guard down.” Stella looked up where once had hung an armed gaslight chandelier. “Not for a minute.”

  “Let’s go back.” Stella rose, helped Hayley to her feet. “You did what you could. We all have.”

  “It doesn’t seem like enough. It was a brutal death. It wasn’t quick, and she saw the maid run out with the baby. She reached out her arms for him, even when she was strangling.”

  “That’s not a mother’s love, whatever she thought,” Roz said.

  “No, it’s not. It wasn’t. But it was all she had.” Hayley moistened her lips, wished desperately for water. “She cursed him—Reginald. Cursed them all—the Harpers. She . . . she willed herself to stay here. But she’s tired. Part of her, the part that sings lullabies, is so tired and lost.”

  She let out a sigh, then smiled when she saw Harper pacing the landing. “We’ve all got so much more than she did. We’re fine.” She left the other women to go to him. “I guess we didn’t get what we were after, but we’re fine.”

  “What happened?”

  “I saw her die, and I felt her in the dark. Awful. Dark and cold and alone. Lost.” She leaned against him, let him lead her downstairs. “I don’t know what happened to her, what they did with her. She was going down in the dark, in the dark and cold.”

  “Buried?”

  “I don’t know. It was more . . . floating away in the dark, drifting down where she couldn’t see or hear, or find her way out.” Unconsciously, she rubbed a hand over her throat, remembering the sensation of the rope biting in. “Maybe it was a soul thing—you know the opposite of the tunnel of light.”

  “Floating, drifting?” Harper’s eyes went sharp. “How about sinking?”

  “Ah . . . yeah. I guess.”

  “The pond,” he said and looked at her. “We never thought of the pond.”

  “THIS IS CRAZY.” In the hazy light of dawn, Hayley stood on the bank of the pond. “It could take hours, more. He should have help. We could get other people. Search-and-rescue people.”

  Roz slid an arm over her shoulders. “He wants to do this. He needs to.” She watched while Harper pulled on flippers. “It’s time for us to step back, let them do.”

  The pond looked so dark and deep with the skim of fog rising over its surface. The floating lilies, the spears of cattails and iris greens that had always seemed so charming to her were ominous now, fairy-tale foreign and frightening.

  But she remembered how he’d paced the landing while she’d gone up the stairs into the nursery.

  “He trusted me,” Hayley said quietly. “Now I have to trust him.”

  Mitch crouched beside Harper, handed him an underwater lamp. “Got everything you need?”

  “Yeah. Been a while since I scuba’d.” He took deep, steady breaths to expand his lungs. “But it’s like sex, you don’t forget the moves.”

  “I can get some students, some friends of my son’s who know the moves, too.” Like Hayley, Mitch studied the wide, misty surface of the water. “It’s a big pond for one man to cover.”

  “Whatever else she was, she was mine, so it’s for me to do. What Hayley said last night about maybe she’d been meant to help find her. I’m feeling the same about this.”

  Mitch braced a hand on his shoulder. “You keep an eye on your watch, surface every thirty minutes. Otherwise, your mama’s going to toss me in after you.”

  “Got it.” He looked over at Hayley, shot her a grin.

  “Hey.” She stepped to him, crouched down. With a hand on his cheek she touched her mouth to his. “For luck.”

  “Take all I can get. Don’t worry. I’ve been swimming in this pond . . .” He glanced up at his mother, and vague memories of his own tiny hands slapping at the water while she held him flashed into his mind. “Well, longer than I can remember.”

 
“I’m not worried.”

  He kissed her again, tested his mouthpiece. Then, adjusting his mask, slid into the pond.

  He’d swum here countless times, he thought as he dived, following the beam of the light through the water. Cooling off on hot summer afternoons, or taking an impulsive dip before work in the morning.

  Or bringing a girl back after a date and talking her into a moonlight skinny dip.

  He’d splashed with his brothers in this pond, he remembered, playing his light over the muddy bottom before he checked his watch, his compass. His mother had taught them each how to swim here, and he remembered the laughter, the shrieks, and the cool, quiet moments.

  Had all that happened over the grave of Amelia?

  Mentally, he cut the pond into wedges, like a pie, and methodically began to search each slice.

  At thirty minutes, then an hour, he surfaced.

  He sat on the edge, feet dangling in while Logan helped him change his tank. “I’ve covered nearly half. Found some beer cans, soft drink bottles.” He tilted his face toward his mother. “And don’t look at me, I got more respect.”

  She reached down, skimmed a hand over his dripping hair. “I should think.”

  “Somebody’d get me a bag, I’d clean up as I go.”

  “We’ll worry about it later.”

  “It’s not deep, maybe eighteen feet at the deepest point, but the rain’s stirred up the mud some, so it’s a little murky.”

  Hayley sat beside him, but he noted she was careful not to dip her toes in the water. “I wish I could go in with you.”

  “Maybe next year I’ll teach you how to scuba.” He patted her belly. “Stay up here and take care of Hermione.”

  He rolled back into the water.

  It was tedious work, without any of the adventure or thrill he’d experienced when he’d strapped on tanks on vacations. The strain of peering through the water, training his gaze on the circle of light had a headache brewing.

  The sound of nothing but his own breath, sucking in oxygen from the tank, was monotonous and increasingly annoying. He wished it was done, over, and he was sitting in the dry, warm kitchen drinking coffee instead of swimming around in the damn, dark water looking for the remains of a woman who, at this point, just pissed him off.

  He was tired, sick and tired of having so much of his life focused on a suicidal crazy woman—one who would have, if left to her own devices, killed her own child.

  Maybe Reginald wasn’t so much the villain of the piece after all. Maybe he’d taken the kid to protect him. Maybe . . .

  There was a burn in his belly, not sickness so much as a hot ball of fury. The sort, Harper realized, that could make a man forget he was fifteen feet or so underwater.

  So he rechecked his watch, deliberately, paid more attention to his breathing, and followed the path of his light.

  What the hell was the matter with him? Reginald had been a son of a bitch, no question about it. Just as Amelia had been self-centered and whacked. But what had come from that selfish union had been good and strong. Loving. What had come from it mattered.

  So this mattered. Finding Amelia mattered.

  She was probably buried out in the woods, he decided. But hell, why dig a hole in the ground in winter when you’ve got a private pond handy? It seemed right, so right he wondered they hadn’t thought of it before.

  Then again, maybe they hadn’t thought of it before because it was lame. People used the pond, even back then. To swim, to fish. Bodies that got dumped in water often resurfaced.

 
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