Red lily, p.9
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       Red Lily, p.9
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         Part #3 of In the Garden series by Nora Roberts

  “I can’t think about that. Not now. I just want to work off this edge. Give me something physical.”

  “I want all the excess stock cleared out of greenhouse one, brought around front for a display. One table for annuals, one for perennials, and marked thirty percent off.”

  “I’ll get right on it. Thanks.”

  “Be sure to remember you thanked me when you collapse from heat exhaustion,” Stella called out.

  SHE LOADED FLATS and pots on a flatbed cart and hauled them around to the front of the building. It took her four trips. She muscled over the tables she wanted, positioning them where they’d be most likely to catch the eye of someone driving by. Possible impulse sales, she decided.

  She still had to stop from time to time, talk to customers or direct them, but for the most part, she was blessedly left alone.

  The air was close and heavy, the sort that brewed itself into thunderstorms. She hoped it did. She’d relish a bitching good storm. It would suit her mood exactly.

  Still, the work kept her mind busy. She played the game of identifying and reciting the name of each specimen as she unloaded. Pretty soon she might be as good as Roz or Stella at recognizing plants. And she was pretty sure by the time she finished the work, she’d be too worn out to think about anything.

  “Hayley. Been looking for you.” Harper’s brows drew together as he got closer. “What the hell are you doing?”

  “Working.” She swiped a forearm over her sweaty brow. “That’s what I do around here.”

  “It’s too hot for this kind of work, and the air quality’s in the toilet today. Get inside.”

  “You’re not my boss.”

  “Technically I am as I’m part owner of this place.”

  She was a little breathless, and the damn sweat kept dribbling into her eyes. It only made her more irritable. “Stella told me to set this up, and I’m setting it up. She’s my immediate supervisor.”

  “Of all the stupid—” He broke off, strode inside.

  And straight into Stella’s office. “What the hell’s wrong with you, sending Hayley out in this heat hauling stock around?”

  “Good God, is she still at it?” Alarmed, she pushed back from her desk. “I had no idea she’d—”

  “Give me a goddamn bottle of water.”

  Stella grabbed one out of her cooler. “Harper, I never thought she’d—”

  But he held up a hand to cut her off. “Don’t. Just don’t.”

  He marched out again, stormed outside, straight to Hayley. She took a swat at him when he grabbed her arm, but he pulled her away from the front of the building.

  “Let go. What do you think you’re doing?”

  “Getting you into the shade for a start.” He propelled her around the back, through tables and potted shrubs, between greenhouses, until he came to the shaded banks of the pond.

  “Sit. Drink.”

  “I don’t like you this way.”

  “Right back at you. Now drink that water, and consider yourself lucky I don’t just toss you in the pond to cool you off. I expected better of Stella,” he said when Hayley glugged down water. “But the fact is, even though this is her second summer, she’s a Yankee. You were born and raised down here. You know what this kind of heat can do.”

  “And I know how to handle it. And don’t you blame Stella for anything.” But she had to admit, now that she’d stopped, she felt a little queasy and light-headed. Giving in, she stretched out flat on the grass. “Maybe I overdid it. I got caught up, is all.” She turned her head, looked over at him. “But I don’t like being pushed around, Harper.”

  “I don’t like pushing people around, but sometimes they need it.” He pulled off his fielder’s cap and waved it at her face to stir the air and cool her. “And since your color’s several shades under fire engine now, I’d say you did.”

  It was hard to argue when it felt so good to stretch out on the grass, and so sweet to have him fanning her with his sweaty old cap.

  The sun was behind him, but filtered through the high, thickly leaved branches so that it dappled over him, made him look romantic and handsome sitting in the summer shade.

  All that dark hair, curling a bit at the ends from the heat and humidity. And those long, chocolate brown eyes were so . . . delicious. The blades of his cheekbones, the full, sexy shape of his mouth.

  She could lie here, she thought, for hours just looking at him. The idea was foolish enough to make her smile.

  “You get away with it, this once. I had a lot on my mind, and good, sweaty work helps me deal with it.”

  “I got another way to deal with it.” He leaned down, then stopped, cocked his head when she brought her hand up between them.

  “We’re on the clock here.”

  “I thought we were on a break.”

  “Work environment.” The work, however draining, had done the trick. She’d made her decision. It wasn’t about what she wanted, but about what was right. “Besides, I realized that sort of thing isn’t a good idea.”

  “What sort of thing?”

  “The you and me sort.” She sat up, shook her hair back and made sure she smiled at him. It would drop the base out of her world if they stopped being friends. “I like you, Harper. You mean a lot to me, to Lily, and I want to stay friends. We add sex to that, sure, it’d be nice for a while, but then it’d just get awkward and sticky.”

  “It doesn’t have to.”

  “Odds are.” She touched his knee, gave it a brisk rub. “I was just in a mood yesterday. I liked kissing you. It was nice.”

  “Nice?”

  “Sure.” Because she knew that expression on his face—or rather the lack of expression—meant he was angry and fighting it back, she bumped up the smile several degrees. “Kissing a good-looking guy’s always nice. But I’ve got to think beyond that kind of thing, and the best thing for me is to leave things just the way they are.”

  “Things aren’t the way they were. You already changed that.”

  “Harper, a couple of smoochies between friends isn’t such a big.” She patted his hand, started to get up, but he clamped his fingers around her wrist.

  “It was more than that.”

  His temper was winning, she could see it. And from the few times she’d watched it fly, she knew it was formidable. Better he was mad, she thought quickly. Better for him that he was mad or disgusted or even hurt for the short term.

  “Harper, I know you’re probably not used to having a woman put on the brakes, but I’m not going to sit here and argue about whether I’m going to have sex with you.”

  “It’s more than that.”

  More. And that single word had her heart trembling. “It isn’t. And I don’t want it to be.”

  “What’s this, some kind of game? You came to me, you moved on me. And now it’s that was nice, but I’m not interested?”

  “That’s the nutshell. I’ve got to get back to work.”

  His voice stayed calm and cool; a dangerous sign. “I know what you felt when I had my hands on you.”

  “Well, for God’s sake, Harper, of course I felt something. I haven’t had any action in months.”

  His fingers tightened, then released. Let her go. “So, you were just cruising for a fuck buddy.”

  It wasn’t her heart that bumped this time, but her belly. “I did something on impulse I realized I shouldn’t have done. You want to make it crude, go ahead.”

  Her vision wavered, so she seemed to be looking at him through a rippling wave of heat. The anger inside her spiked up, so acute it all but scored her throat. “Men always take it down to fucking, lying and cheating and buying their way to it. And once they have, the woman’s no more than a whore to be used again or tossed away. It’s men who are the whores, plotting and planning their way to the next rut.”

  Her eyes had changed. He couldn’t say how, but he knew he wasn’t looking at her through them. The heat of his temper froze in fear. “Hayley—”

  “Is thi
s what you want, Master Harper?” With a sly smile, she cupped her breasts, caressed them. “And this?” She slid a hand between her legs. “What will you pay?”

  He took her shoulders, gave her a quick shake. “Hayley. Stop it.”

  “Do you want me to play the lady? I’m so good at it. Good enough to be used to breed.”

  “No.” He needed to stay calm, though he could feel his own fingers tremble. “I want you exactly the way you are. Hayley.” He gripped her chin, kept his eyes focused on hers. “I’m talking to you. We’ve got things to do around here, then you’ve got to go get Lily. You don’t want to be late picking up Lily.”

  “What? Hey.” Frowning, she pushed at his hand. “I said I didn’t . . .”

  “What did you say?” He moved his hands back to her shoulders, rubbed them gently up and down. “Tell me what you just said to me.”

  “I said . . . I said I did something on impulse. I said—Oh God.” The color drained out of her face. “I didn’t. I didn’t mean—”

  “Do you remember?”

  “I don’t know. I don’t feel right.” She pressed a clammy hand to her belly as nausea rolled. “I feel a little sick.”

  “Okay. I’m going to get you home.”

  “I didn’t mean those things, Harper. I was upset.” Her knees wobbled when he helped her to her feet. “I say stupid things when I’m upset, but I didn’t mean them. I don’t know where that came from.”

  “That’s all right.” His tone was grim as he took her weight to walk her around the front. “I do.”

  “I don’t understand.” She wanted to lie on the grass again, lie in the shade until her head stopped spinning.

  “We’ll get you home first, then we’ll talk about it.”

  “I have to tell Stella—”

  “I’ll tell her. I didn’t bring my car. Where are your keys?”

  “Um. In my purse, behind the counter. Harper, I really feel . . . off.”

  “In the car.” He opened the door, nudged her in. “I’ll get your purse.”

  Stella was behind the counter when he hurried in. “Hayley’s purse. I’m taking her home.”

  “Oh, Harper, is she sick? I’m so sorry. I—”

  “It’s not that. I’ll explain later.” He snatched the purse out of Stella’s hand. “Tell Mama, tell her to come. Tell her I need her home.”

  Though she protested she was feeling better, he all but carried her in the house, then jerked his chin at David. “Get her something. Tea.”

  “What’s the matter with our girl?”

  “Just get the tea, David. And Mitch. Get Mitch. Come on, lie down in here.”

  “Harper, I’m not sick. Exactly. I just got overheated or something.” But it was hard to argue with a man who plopped you down on a sofa.

  “It’s the ‘or something’ part that worries me. You’re still pale.” He ran his knuckles down her cheek.

  “It could be because I’m completely embarrassed by what came out of my mouth. I shouldn’t have said those things, Harper, even if I was mad.”

  “You weren’t that mad.” He looked around as Mitch came into the room.

  “What’s going on?”

  “We had . . . a thing.”

  “Hey, baby, what’s the matter?” Mitch walked to the sofa, crouched down.

  “Just the heat.” The sick weakness was passing, and let her work up an embarrassed smile. “Made me a little crazy.”

  “It wasn’t the heat,” Harper corrected. “And you’re not the one who’s crazy. Mama’s on her way. We’re going to wait for her.”

  “You didn’t drag Roz away from work over this? Just how bad do you want me to feel?”

  “Quiet down,” Harper ordered.

  “Look, I don’t blame you for being mad at me, but I’m not going to lie here and—”

  “Yes, you are. Lily doesn’t have to be fetched for a couple hours. One of us will go get her.”

  Since her only response was a dropped jaw, he turned as David brought a tea tray into the room. “You can get Lily from the sitter’s, can’t you?”

  “No problem.”

  “Since she’s my daughter, I’m the one who picks her up, or delegates,” Hayley snapped.

  “Color’s coming back,” Harper observed. “Drink your tea.”

  “I don’t want any damn tea.”

  “There now, sugar, it’s nice green tea.” David soothed as he set the tray down and poured. “Be a good girl now.”

  “I wish y’all would stop fussing and making me feel like an idiot.” She sulked, but took the cup. “But since you ask, David, I will.” She continued to sulk as she sipped, then cursed under her breath when she heard Roz come through the front door.

  “What’s the matter? What happened?”

  “Harper’s on some sort of rampage,” Hayley said.

  “Harper, you rampaging again?” Roz rubbed her hand over his arm as she brushed by him to study Hayley. “When are you going to grow out of these things?”

  “Roz, I’m sorry for all this trouble,” Hayley began. “I got a little overheated and wonky, is all. I’ll put in extra time tomorrow to make up for today.”

  “Oh good, then I won’t have to fire you. Now somebody tell me what the hell’s going on.”

  “First, she was working herself up to a good case of heat exhaustion,” Harper told her.

  “I overdid just a little, which isn’t the same as—”

  “Didn’t I tell you to quiet down once already?”

  She set the cup down with a snap of china on china. “I don’t know where you get off taking that tone with me.”

  The glance he sent her was as mild, and as formidable, as his tone. “Since it’s not working, I’ll just tell you to shut the hell up. I got her into the shade, got some water in her,” he continued. “We talked a couple minutes, then we had an argument. In the middle of it, it wasn’t her talking anymore. It was Amelia.”

  “No. Just because I said things I shouldn’t have—”

  “Hayley, it wasn’t you saying them. She sounded different,” he told Mitch. “Different tonal quality, you could say. And the accent was pure Memphis. Not a trace of Arkansas in it. And her eyes, I don’t know how to explain it exactly. They were older. Colder.”

  Everything inside Hayley sank and shivered. “It’s not possible.”

  “You know it is. You know it happened.”

  “All right.” Roz sat beside Hayley. “What did happen, Hayley, from your point of view?”

  “I wasn’t feeling quite right—the heat. Then Harper and I got into an argument. He just pushed my buttons, that’s all, and I slapped back. I said things. I said . . .”

  Her hand shook, groped for Roz’s. “Oh God, oh God. I felt—away, detached. I don’t know how to say it. And at the same time, I was filled with all this rage. I didn’t know what I was saying. It was like I stopped saying anything. Then he was saying my name, and I was irritated. For a minute I couldn’t remember. My—my brain felt a little dull, like it does when you first wake up from a nap. And I felt a little queasy.”

  “Hayley.” Mitch spoke gently. “Has this happened before?”

  “No. I don’t know. Maybe.” She closed her eyes a moment. “I’ve been having these thoughts, these moods, that don’t seem like me. A lot of bitchiness, but it just seemed like I was feeling bitchy, that’s all. God, what am I going to do?”

  “Stay calm,” Harper advised. “And we’ll figure it out.”

  “Easy for you to say,” she shot back. “You’re not possessed by a psychopathic ghost.”

  seven

  “A LITTLE LIKE old times,” Stella commented as she settled down in the upstairs sitting room with Roz and Hayley. And a bottle of cool white wine.

  “I should be getting Lily her supper.”

  Roz poured the wine, then chose one of the sugared green grapes from the platter David had put together. “Hayley, you not only know she’ll be fed, but that she’ll handle all those men just fine.”
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  “And it’s good practice for Logan. We’re thinking maybe we’ll try to have a baby.”

  “Really?” For the first time in hours Hayley felt pure pleasure. “I think that’s great. You’ll make a beautiful baby, and Gavin and Luke would just love having another brother or a sister.”

  “Still in the talking stage, but we’re leaning toward the acting on it stage.”

  “Feeling better?” Roz asked Hayley.

  “Yeah. A lot. Sorry I cracked on you.”

  “I think we can make allowances. And give you some leeway. You didn’t want to talk about what Mitch called the trigger—what you and Harper were arguing about. You needed your panic time and your weepy time, and you’ve had them.”

  “And then some. Nothing clears men out of the room faster than female hysterics.”

  “Which, I believe, was something you wanted anyway.” Roz raised her brows and popped another grape. “You didn’t want to discuss this with Mitch. Not what you argued about, or what you said to Harper—or rather what Amelia said.”

  Rather than meet Roz’s eyes, Hayley kept hers fixed on the platter as if the cure for cancer was coded in among the glossy grapes and strawberry flowers. “I don’t see what’s important about what was said. The important thing is it happened. I think we should all—”

  “That’s enough nonsense.” Roz’s voice was mild as May. “Everything’s important, every detail. I haven’t pushed Harper on this, but I will. I’d prefer to hear it from you and it’s been each one of us most intimately involved with this thing. So suck up your pride or whatever it is, Hayley, and spill it.”

  “I’m sorry. I took advantage of you.”

  “And how did you do that?”

  Hayley took a bracing gulp of wine. “I hit on Harper.”

  “And?”

  “And?” That stumped her for a minute. “You took me into your home, me and Lily. You treat us like family. More than. You—”

  “And don’t make me regret it by putting strings around it that I never tied on. Harper’s a grown man, and makes his own decisions about a number of things, including the women in his life. If you hit on him I have no doubt he knew how to block or hit back.”

  As Hayley remained silent, Roz settled back with her wine, tucked her legs up, sipped. “And unless I don’t know or understand my son as well as I think, I’d bet on the latter.”

  “It happened in the kitchen. I made it happen. Just kissing,” Hayley said quickly when she realized how it sounded. “I mean Lily was right there and it was the first time . . .”

  “The kitchen,” Roz murmured.

  “Yes, yes. You see?” She shuddered. “And that same night, she tore his kitchen apart. So I realized this wasn’t something that could happen just because
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