Red lily, p.8
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       Red Lily, p.8
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         Part #3 of In the Garden series by Nora Roberts

  you have all manner of willing baby-sitters.”

  “I know.”

  “Actually, Hayley, I think sex might be one of the keys to Amelia.”

  “I’m sorry, Roz, I’d do most anything to help, but I have to draw the line at having sex with Amelia. Ghost, female, psycho. That’s a full three strikes.”

  “There’s our girl,” Roz said with a laugh. “Mitch and I were talking about what happened to you the other evening, sort of expanding on our theories. Sex is what Amelia used to get what she wanted in life. It was her commodity. In any case, that’s our conclusion: She was Reginald’s mistress. And it was how, obviously, she conceived a child.”

  “Well, maybe she loved him. Amelia. It’s possible she was seduced by him, in love with him. We really only have Beatrice’s viewpoint of her from the journals, and she wouldn’t be an objective source.”

  “Good point, and yes, possible.” Roz took a thoughtful sip of water. “But that still points to sex. Even if she was in love and being used, it came down to sex. Reginald went to her for his pleasure, and his purposes. To conceive a male heir. It’s not far-fetched to assume Amelia’s view of sex is far from healthy.”

  “Okay.”

  “Then we come into it, the three of us, living together in this house. Stella hears her, sees her—not that unusual as there were children involved. But there’s Logan, and not just an emotional spark between them, but a sexual one. And the episodes begin to escalate. We move to me and Mitch, another sexual contact, and more escalation. Now you.”

  “I’m not having sex.” Yet, she thought. Oh boy.

  “You’re thinking about it. You’re considering it. As Stella was. As I was.”

  “So . . . you think her focus is on me, the sexual energy kind of thing being the magnet. And things will escalate again.”

  “I think that may be, and particularly if that sexual energy becomes tied together with genuine affection. With love.”

  “If I got involved with someone, emotionally, sexually, she could hurt them. Or Lily. She could—”

  “Now wait.” Roz laid a hand over Hayley’s. “She’s never hurt a child. Never in all these years. There’s absolutely no reason to think she might cause Lily any harm. But you’re another matter.”

  “She could hurt me, or try. I get that.” Hayley let out a shaky breath. “So I have to make sure she doesn’t. She could hurt someone else, too. You or Mitch, David, any of us. And if there was someone I cared about, someone I wanted, he’d be the most likely target, wouldn’t he?”

  “Maybe. But I know you can’t live your life on maybes. You have a right to your life. Hayley, I don’t want you to feel obligated to stay here, or to keep working at In the Garden.”

  “You want me to leave?”

  “I don’t.” Roz’s hand gripped tighter. “On a purely selfish level, I want you here. You’re the daughter I never had, that’s the God’s truth. And that child in the other room is one of the brightest lights of my life. It’s because of what you mean to me I’m telling you to go.”

  Hayley took a deep breath as she rose, first to cross to the window. To look out over the summer gardens, so bold and bright in the hazy dark. And beyond them, to the carriage house, with the porch light glowing.

  “My mama left us. Daddy and I weren’t enough to keep her. She didn’t love us enough. When he died, I didn’t even know where to write and tell her. She’ll never see her granddaughter. That’s a shame for her, I think. But not for Lily. Lily has you. I’ve got you. I’ll go if you tell me to. I’ll get another place, get another job. And I’ll stay away from Harper House for as long as it takes. But you need to tell me something first, and I know you’ll tell me the truth because that’s what you do.”

  “All right.”

  She turned back, met Roz’s eyes. “If you were standing here where I am, having to decide whether to leave people you love—especially when you might be able to help—to leave a place you love, work you love. And you had to decide that because maybe something might happen. Maybe you might have trouble, have to face something hard along the way. What would you do, Roz?”

  Roz got to her feet. “I guess you’re staying.”

  “I guess I am.”

  “David made peach pie.”

  “Oh my God.”

  Roz held out a hand. “Let’s go have a big sinful slice, and I’ll tell you about the flower shop I’m thinking of adding on next year.”

  IN THE CARRIAGE house, Harper raided his stash of leftovers. And thought of Hayley while he ate some of David’s fried chicken.

  She’d gone and changed the playing field, and he wasn’t quite sure what to do with the ball. He’d spent the last year and a half suppressing his feelings and urges when it came to Hayley, and assuming—from her attitude, from every damn signal—that she considered him a friend. Even, God help him, a kind of surrogate brother.

  He’d done his best to fill that role.

  Now she’d come waltzing in, and put the moves on him. Kissed the brains right out of his head, to the tune of—what the hell was it?—“Bingo.”

  He was never going to be able to hear that ridiculous song again without getting hot.

  What the hell was he supposed to do now, ask her out? He was good at asking women out. It was normal, but there was nothing normal about all of this, not when he’d convinced himself she wasn’t interested that way. That he shouldn’t be.

  Add that they worked together. That she lived in the main house with his mother, for God’s sake. Then there was Lily to consider. It sliced him in two, the way she’d cried for him when Hayley had taken her home. What if he and Hayley got together, and something went wrong? Would it spill over onto Lily?

  He’d have to make certain it didn’t, that’s all. He’d have to be careful, take it slow and easy.

  Which crossed out any idea brewing in the back of his mind about going over to Hayley’s room after dark and letting nature take its course.

  He cleaned up the kitchen, as was his habit, then went up to the loft that held his bedroom, a bath, and a small room he used as an office. He spent an hour on paperwork, ordering his mind back to the business at hand every time it drifted toward Hayley.

  He switched on ESPN, picked up a book, and indulged in one of his favorite solo evening activities. Reading between innings. Somewhere in the eighth, with Boston down two and the Yankees with a runner on second, he drifted off.

  He dreamed that he and Hayley were making love in Fenway Park, rolling naked over the infield grass while the game played on around them. Somehow he knew the batter had a count of three and two, even as Hayley locked those long legs around him, as he sank into her. Into that heat, into those soft blue eyes.

  The crash woke him, and his dreaming mind heard the joyful crack of ball on bat. He thought home run even as he sat up, shaking his head to toss off sleep.

  Jesus! He rubbed his hands over his face. Weird, very weird, even if it did combine two of his favorite activities. Sports and sex. Amused at himself, he started to toss the book aside.

  The second crash from downstairs was like a bullet shot, and no dream.

  He was on his feet in a fingersnap and grabbing the Louisville Slugger he’d had since his twelfth birthday as he rushed out of the room.

  His first thought was that Bryce Clerk, his mother’s ex-husband, had gotten out of jail and was back to cause more trouble. He’d be sorry for it, Harper thought grimly as he gripped the bat. His blood was up as he charged toward the fury of crashing and banging.

  He slapped on the lights in time to see a plate come winging toward him. Instinct had him swinging for the fences. The plate shattered, shooting out shards.

  Then there was utter silence.

  The room he’d washed up before going upstairs looked as though it had been set upon by a particularly destructive gang of vandals. Broken dishes littered the floor along with spilled beer and the jagged remains of the bottles it had come from. His refrigerator door hung open, w
ith all the contents pulled out. His counters and walls were covered with what looked like a nasty mix of ketchup and mustard.

  There was no one there but himself. And he could see his own breath in the chill that had yet to fade out of the air.

  “Son of a bitch.” He scooped a hand through his hair. “Son of a goddamn bitch.”

  She’d used ketchup—at least he hoped it was that benign condiment rather than the blood it resembled—to write her message on the wall.

  I will not rest

  He studied the mess. “You’re not the only one.”

  six

  MITCH ADJUSTED HIS glasses and looked more closely at the photographs. Harper had been thorough, he thought, getting pictures from every angle, taking close-ups and wide angles.

  The boy had a steady hand and a cool head.

  But . . .

  “You should’ve called us when this happened.”

  “It was one in the morning. What was the point? This is what it looked like.”

  “What it looks like is you pissed her off. Any ideas?”

  “No.”

  Mitch spread the photos out, adjusting their order, while David looked over his shoulder. “You clean that shit up?” David asked Harper.

  “Yeah.” Temper seemed to vibrate off the blades of his tensed shoulders. “She got every damn dish in the place.”

  “No great loss there. They were ugly anyway. What are those?” David snatched one of the pictures up. “Twinkies? What are you, twelve? Harper.” His face a picture of pity, David shook his head. “I worry about you.”

  “I happen to like Twinkies.”

  Mitch held up a hand. “Snack choices aside—”

  “Twinkies are bombs of sugar and fat and preservatives.” Interrupting Mitch, David tried for a pinch at Harper’s waist.

  “Cut it out.” But the move, as designed, pushed a little humor through the wall of Harper’s temper.

  “Girls,” Mitch said mildly. “To get back to the matter at hand. This is another change of pattern. She’s never, to your knowledge, come into the carriage house, or caused you any particular trouble.” He looked to Harper for confirmation.

  “No.” A glance at the photos he’d taken brought back the shock, the fury, and the time it had taken to deal with the destruction. “And this is a hell of a debut.”

  “Your mother’s going to have to know about this.”

  “Yeah, yeah.” Still steaming, Harper paced to the back door, scowled out at the morning haze. He’d waited, deliberately, until he’d seen his mother head out for her morning run. “I value my life, don’t I? But I wanted us to go over this first, before we bring her into it.” He glanced up at the ceiling, where he imagined Hayley was getting started on the day. “Or any of them.”

  “Strategizing to protect the womenfolk?” David said in an exaggerated drawl. “Not that I don’t agree, son, but Roz isn’t going to care for that.” He jerked a thumb toward the ceiling. “She won’t either.”

  “I don’t want them going postal over it, that’s all. If we could downplay it some. It was just dishes and kitchen crap.”

  “A personal attack, Harper, not on you but on your property, in your home. That’s how it is, and that’s how they’ll see it.” Mitch waved a hand at him before he could speak. “We’ve dealt with worse, all of us, and we’ll deal with this. The important thing is to figure out why it happened.”

  “Maybe it’s because she’s crazy,” Harper snapped back. “That might be a small, contributing factor.”

  “Takes after his mama when he’s riled up,” David offered. “Mean and stubborn.”

  “I’ve noticed. She’s been seen walking in the direction of the carriage house in the past.” Mitch leaned a hip on the table. “You saw her yourselves when you were kids. We can assume she did, at some point in her life, go there. We can assume it was after Reginald Harper brought their love child here to pass him off as his legitimate heir.”

  “And we can assume she was crazy as a crack monkey,” David added. “From the way she looked.”

  “Yet, from what we know she’s never bothered with the place since Harper’s lived there. How long?”

  “Shit, I don’t know.” He shrugged, drummed his fingers on the thighs of his ragged work pants. “Since college. Six, seven years.”

  “But she goes in now, destructively. She may be crazy, but there’s a reason. Everything she’s done has a root and a reason. Have you brought anything in there recently? Anything new?”

  “Ah, no.” But the idea made him pause and consider instead of stew. “Plants. I rotate plants, but I’ve done that for years. And the usual stuff, you know, groceries, CDs, clothes. Nothing particular or unusual.”

  “Anyone?”

  “Sorry?”

  “Have you had anyone over who hasn’t been there before? A woman?”

  “No.”

  “Now that’s just sad.” David swung an arm around Harper’s shoulders. “Losing your touch?”

  “My touch is still gold. Just been a little busy.”

  “And before it happened, you were?”

  “Watching the game upstairs in the bedroom, reading. Zonked out, and the next I know it’s crash, boom, bang.”

  He heard Lily’s happy call and winced. “Damn it, here they come. Mitch, let’s put those away, put this all away until—”

  He broke off, cursing himself for not moving faster, when Lily ran in just ahead of Hayley. She zipped straight for him, all grins and upstretched arms.

  “She heard your voice,” Hayley said as he picked Lily up. “Her face just lit.”

  “His touch is gold,” David said dryly, “with toddlers.”

  “It’s sure her favorite way to start the morning.” She went to the refrigerator for juice, and when she turned with the bottle and Lily’s cup in her hands, spotted the photographs. “What’s all this?”

  “It’s nothing. Just a little late-night adventure.”

  “Good God, what a mess! You have a party and not invite us?” Then she blinked, and paled as she leaned closer. “Oh. Oh, Amelia. Are you all right? Are you hurt?” She dropped Lily’s cup as she swung toward him. “Harper, did she hurt you?”

  “No. No.” He patted the hand she was running over his face, his arm. “It’s just dishes.”

  David bent to retrieve the plastic cup, wiggled his eyebrows at Mitch on the way up, and said, “Aha,” under his breath.

  “But look at your things.” She snatched up a photo. “Your sweet little kitchen. What is wrong with her? Why does she have to be so damn mean?”

  “Being dead probably ticks her off some. I think Lily wants her juice.”

  “All right, all right. If it’s not one thing it’s six others with her—Amelia, not Lily. I’m getting fed up.” She poured the juice, secured the lid, then handed it to Lily. “There you are, baby. Just what are we going to do about this?” she demanded as she rounded on Mitch.

  “Innocent bystander,” he reminded her and held up his hands.

  “We all are, aren’t we? But that doesn’t mean a damn to her, apparently. Bitch.” She sat down, folded her arms.

  “Feel better?” David asked her, and poured her some coffee.

  “I don’t know what I feel.”

  “Just dishes.” Harper settled Lily in her highchair. “And according to David, ugly ones.”

  Hayley worked up a smile. “They weren’t too ugly. I’m sorry, Harper.” She touched his hand. “I’m so sorry.”

  “Sorry about what?” Roz asked as she came in.

  “There’s the bell for round two.” David gestured with the coffeepot. “I think I’ll make crepes.”

  SHE COULDN’T CONCENTRATE. Hayley went through the routine of waiting on customers, ringing up sales on automatic. When she didn’t think she could stand making inane chat with another living soul, she went into Stella’s office to throw herself on her mercy.

  “Give me some manual labor, will you? Something hot and sweaty. Get me off the c
ounter, please. I keep feeling this bitch attack coming on, and I don’t want one to spew onto the customers.”

  Stella pushed back in her chair to give Hayley the once-over. “Why don’t you take a break instead?”

  “I stop doing, I’ll start thinking. Then I’ll start seeing those pictures of Harper’s kitchen in my head again.”

  “I know it’s upsetting, Hayley, but—”

  “It’s my fault.”

  “How is Harper’s kitchen getting trashed your fault? And did you have anything to do with the broken vase in my living room, because no one in my house is taking responsibility. At the moment, I Dunno is taking the rap.”

  “I Dunno is the classic whipping boy.”

  “Between him and Not Me, nothing is safe, nothing is sacred.”

  Blowing out a breath, Hayley dropped into a chair. “All right, I will take a break, just for a minute. Can you take one, too, talk to me?”

  “Sure.” Stella swung away from the spreadsheet on her computer monitor.

  “When I left your place last night I went to Harper’s. I talked myself into taking some action, making a move, going up a step, you know? He wants to think of me as Cousin Hayley, or Lily’s mama, or whatever the hell he thinks, fine. But I’ll give him a taste and see what he thinks of that.”

  “Woo-hoo. And?”

  “I laid one on him. Standing right there in his kitchen, moved in and gave him one of those here’s-what-you’re-missing-so-why-don’t-you-come-get-it kisses.”

  Stella’s lips quivered up into a smile. “And did he? Come and get it?”

  “You could say. The kiss he gave me back was more of the since-you-opened-the-gate-I’m-galloping-right-on-in variety. He’s got a really amazing mouth. I sort of figured he did, but having a couple of good samples made me realize I’d underestimated. Considerably.”

  “That’s good, isn’t it? It’s what you wanted.”

  “It’s not about what I want. Or maybe it is.” She pushed back to her feet, but there was nowhere to pace in the tiny office. “Maybe that’s just the point. In his kitchen, Stella. I kissed him in his kitchen, and a few hours later, she’s in there wrecking the place. It doesn’t take a math whiz to put that two and two together. I opened the gate, all right, but she’s the one who came in.”

  “You’re mixing metaphors. I’m not saying you’re entirely wrong,” she added, and stretched out from the chair to open her little cooler for bottled water. “But I am going to say it’s not your fault. She’s a volatile presence, Hayley, and none of us is responsible for her actions, or what happened to her.”

  “No, but try telling her that. Thanks,” she said when Stella handed her one of the bottles.

  “What we’re doing is trying to find out, maybe to make it as right as it can be made, but we have to live our lives while we do.”

  “It’s about sexual energy and emotional attachments. That’s what Roz thinks, and I think she’s on to something.”

  “You told Roz about you and Harper.”

  She took a long, deep drink. “No, no, I mean in general. And there isn’t any ‘me and Harper,’ not really. Roz and Mitch think it’s the sexual buzz and the developing emotions that get her stirred up, at least in part. So I’ve got to work off some of this buzz and these feelings.”

  “Even if you could, you’re not taking Harper’s buzz or feelings into account.”

  “I can take care of that. It’s when they’re directed at me. Otherwise, she’d’ve slapped at him before.” Her fingers tightened on the bottle, but she caught herself before the gesture pushed water over the lip. “You can bet he’s done more than kiss a woman in his kitchen in that house before last night, and she didn’t get bent out of shape.”

  “Again, no argument. But if it does connect to you and Harper, then it must mean something. Maybe something important. The way Logan and I, the way Mitch and Roz mean something important to each other.”

 
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