By Nora Roberts
Jove ISBN: 0-515-13940-8
Chapter One Harper House July 2005
Tired down through the marrow, Hayley yawned until her jaw cracked. Lily's head was heavy on her shoulder, but every time she stopped rocking, the baby would squirm and whimper, and those little fingers would clutch at the cotton tank Hayley was sleeping in.
Trying to sleep in, Hayley corrected and murmured hushing noises as she sent the rocker creaking again.
She knew it was somewhere in the vicinity of four in the morning, and she'd already been up twice before to rock and soothe her fretful daughter.
She'd tried at about the two a.m. mark to snuggle the baby into bed with her so they'd both get some sleep. But Lily would have nothing but the rocker.
So Hayley rocked and dozed, rocked and yawned, and wondered if she'd ever get eight straight again in this lifetime.
She didn't know how people did it. Especially single mothers. How did they cope? How did they stand up under all the demands on heart, mind, body-wallet?
How would she have managed it all if she'd been completely on her own with Lily? What kind of life would they have had if she had no one to help with the worry, the sheer drudgery, the fun and the foolishness? It was terrifying to think of it.
She'd been so ridiculously optimistic and confident, and stupid, she thought now.
Sailing along, she remembered, nearly six months pregnant, quitting her job, selling most of her things and packing up that rattletrap car to head out.
God, if she'd known then what she knew now, she'd never have done it.
So maybe it was good she hadn't known. Because she wasn't alone. Closing her eyes, she rested her cheek on Lily's soft, dark hair. She had friends-no, family-people who cared about her and Lily and were willing to help.
They didn't just have a roof over their heads, but the gorgeous roof of Harper House. She had Roz, distant cousin and then only through marriage, who'd offered her a home, a job, a chance. She had Stella, her best friend in the world to talk to, bitch to, learn from.
Both Roz and Stella had been single parents-and they'd coped, she reminded herself. They'd better than coped, and Stella had had two young boys to raise alone. Roz three.
And here she was wondering how she'd ever manage one, even with all the help only an offer away.
There was David, running the house, cooking the meals. And just being wonderfully David. What if she had to cook every night after work? What if she had to do all the shopping, the cleaning, the hauling, the everything in addition to holding up her end at her job and caring for a fourteen-month-old baby?
Thank God she didn't have to find out.
There was Logan, Stella's gorgeous new husband, who was willing to tinker around with her car when it acted up. And Stella's little guys, Gavin and Luke, who not only liked to play with Lily but were giving Hayley a hint of the sort of things she had coming in the next few years.
There was Mitch, so smart and sweet, who liked to scoop Lily up and cart her around on his shoulders while she laughed. He'd be officially here all the time now, she thought, once he and Roz got back from their honeymoon.
It had been so nice, so much fun, to watch both Stella and Roz fall in love. She'd felt a part of it all-the excitement, the changes, the expansion of her new family circle.
Of course, Roz's marriage meant Hayley'd have to stop dragging her feet on finding a place of her own. Newlyweds were entitled to privacy.
She wished there was a place close by. Even on the estate. Like the carriage house. Harper's house. She sighed a little as she rubbed a hand over Lily's back.
Harper Ashby. Rosalind Harper Ashby's firstborn, and one delicious piece of eye candy. Of course she didn't think about him that way. Much. He was a friend, a co-worker, and her baby girl's first crush. From all appearances, that love affair was mutual.
She yawned again, lulled like the baby by the rhythm of the rocking and the early-morning quiet.
Harper was, well, just flat-out amazing with Lily. Patient and funny, easy and loving. Secretly she thought of him as Lily's surrogate father-without the benefits of smoochies with Lily's mother.
Sometimes she played pretend-and what was the harm in that?-and the surrogate part of father didn't apply. The smoochies did. After all, what red-blooded American girl-currently very sex-deprived girl-wouldn't fantasize now and again about the tall, dark, and ridiculously handsome type, especially when he came with a killer grin, heart-melting brown eyes, and a pinchable butt?
Not that she'd ever pinched it. But in theory.
Plus he was completely smart. He knew everything there was to know about plants and flowers. She loved to watch him working in the grafting house at In the Garden. The way his hands held a knife or tied raffia.
He was teaching her, and she appreciated it. Appreciated it too much to indulge herself and take a nice hungry bite out of him.
But imagining doing it didn't hurt a thing.
She eased the rocker to a stop, held her breath and waited. Lily's back continued to rise and fall steadily under her hand.
She got up slowly, moving toward the crib with the stealth and purpose of a woman making a prison break. With her arms aching, her head fuzzy with fatigue, she leaned over the crib and gently, inch by inch laid Lily on the mattress.
Even as she draped the blanket over her, Lily began to stir. Her head popped up, and she began wailing.
"Oh, Lily, please, come on, baby." Hayley patted, rubbed, swaying on her feet. "Ssh now, come on. Give your mama a little break."
The patting seemed to work-as long as she kept her hand on Lily's back, the little head stayed down. So Hayley sank to the floor, stuck her arm through the crib slats. And patted. And patted.
And drifted off to sleep.
* * *
It was the singing that woke her. Her arm was asleep, and stayed that way when her eyes opened. The room was cold; the section of the floor where she sat beside the crib a square of ice. Her arm prickled from shoulder to fingertip as she shifted to keep a protective hand on Lily's back.
The figure in the gray dress sat in the rocker, softly singing the old-fashioned lullaby. Her eyes met Hayley's, but she continued to sing, continued to rock.
The jolt of shock cleared the fuzziness from Hayley's head, and had her heart taking one hard leap into her throat.
Just what did you say to a ghost you hadn't seen for several weeks? she wondered. Hey, how are you? Welcome home? Just what was the proper response, especially when the ghost in question was totally whacked?
Hayley's skin was slicked with cold when she pushed slowly to her feet so she could stand between the rocker and the crib. Just in case. Because it felt as if a few thousand needles were lodged in her arm, she cradled it against her body, rubbing it briskly.
Note all the details, she reminded herself. Mitch would want all the details.
She looked pretty calm for a psychotic ghost, Hayley decided. Calm and sad, the way she had the first time Hayley had seen her. But she'd also seen her with crazed, bulging eyes.
"Um. She had to get some shots today. Inoculations. She's always fussy the night after she gets them. But I think she's settled down now. In time to get up again in a couple of hours, so she'll probably be cranky for the babysitter until she gets her nap. But ... but she should sleep now, so you could go."
The figure faded away seconds before the singing.
* * *
David fixed her blueberry pancakes for breakfast. She'd told him not to cook for her or Lily while Roz and Mitch were gone, but he always did. Since he looked so cute fussing in the kitchen, she didn't try very hard to discourage him.
Besides, the pancakes were awesome.
"You've been looking a little peaky." David gave her cheek a pinch; then repeated the gesture on Lily to make her giggle.
"Haven't been sleeping much lately. Had a visitor last night."
She shook her head when his eyebrows rose, and his mouth curved into a leer. "Not a man-too sad for my bad luck. Amelia."
Amusement faded immediately, replaced by concern as he slid into the breakfast nook across from her. "Was there trouble? Are you all right?"
"She was just sitting in the rocker, singing. And when I told her Lily was fine, that she could go, she did. It was completely benign."
"Maybe she's settled down again. We can hope. Have you been worried about that?" He took a careful study of her face, noted the smudges under the soft blue eyes, the pallor beneath the carefully applied blush on her cheeks. "Is that why you haven't been sleeping?"
"Some, I guess. Things were pretty wild around here for a few months. Our gooses were constantly getting bumped. Now this lull. It's almost creepier."
"You've got Daddy David right down here." He reached over to pat her hand, his long, concert pianist's fingers giving it a little extra rub. "And Roz and Mitch will be back today. The house won't feel so big and empty."
She let out a long breath, relieved. "You felt that way, too. I didn't want to say, didn't want you to feel like you weren't enough company or something. 'Cause you are."
"You, too, my treasure. But we've gotten spoiled, haven't we? Had a houseful for a year around here." He glanced toward the empty seats at the table. "I miss those kids."
"Aw, you softie. We still see them, everybody, all the time, but it's weird, having everything so quiet."
As if she understood, Lily launched her sip-cup so that it slapped the center island and thudded on the floor.
"Atta girl," David told her.
"And you know what else?" Hayley rose to retrieve the cup. She was tall and lanky, and much to her disappointment, her breasts had reverted to their pre-pregnancy size. She thought of them as an A-minus cup. "I think I'm getting in some sort of mood. I don't mean rut, exactly, because I love working at the nursery, and I was just thinking last night-when Lily woke up for the millionth time-how lucky I am to be here, to be able to have all these people in our lives."
She spread her arms, let them fall. "But, I don't know, David, I feel sort of ... blah."
"Need shopping therapy."
She grinned and got a washcloth to wipe Lily's syrupy face. "It is the number-one cure for almost everything. But I think I want a change. Something bigger than new shoes."
Deliberately, he widened his eyes, let his jaw go slack. "There's something bigger?"
"I think I'm going to cut my hair. Do you think I should cut my hair?"
"Hmm." He cocked his head, studied her with his handsome blue eyes. "It's gorgeous hair, that glossy mahogany. But I absolutely loved it the way you wore it when you first moved here."
"All those different lengths. Tousled, casual, kicky. Sexy."
"Well ..." She ran her hand down it. She'd grown it out, nearly to her shoulders. An easy length to pull back for work or motherhood. And maybe that was just the problem. She'd started taking the easy way because she'd stopped finding the time or making the effort to worry about how she looked.
She wiped Lily off, freed her from the high chair so she could wander around the kitchen. "Maybe I will then. Maybe."
"And toss in the new shoes, sweetie. They never fail."
In high summer business slowed at the garden center. It never trickled down too far at In the Garden, but in July, the heady late winter through spring rush was long over. Wet heat smothered west Tennessee, and only the most avid of gardeners would suffer through it to pump new life into their beds.
Taking advantage of it, and her mood, Hayley wheedled a salon appointment, and an extra hour off from Stella.
When she drove back into work after her extended lunch break, it was with a new do, two new pair of shoes, and a much happier attitude.
Trust David, she decided.
She loved In the Garden. Most days, she didn't feel as if she was going to work at all. There couldn't be a better quality in a job than that, in her opinion.
She enjoyed just looking at the pretty white building that looked more like someone's well-tended home than a business, with the seasonal beds spreading out from its porch, and the pots full of colorful blooms by its door.
She liked the industry across the wide gravel lot-the stacks of peat and mulch, the pavers and landscape timbers. The greenhouses that were full of plants and promises, the storage buildings.
When it was busy with customers, winding along the paths, pulling wagons or flatbeds full of plants and pots-everyone full of news or plans-it was more like a small village than a retail space.
And she was a part of it all.
She stepped in, and did a turn for Ruby, the white-haired clerk who manned the counter.
"Don't you look sassy," Ruby commented.
"I feel sassy." She ran her fingers through her short shaggy hair, then let it fall again. "I haven't done anything new with my hair in a year. More. I almost forgot what it was like to sit in a beauty parlor and have somebody do me."
"Things do slide with a new baby. How's our best girl doing?"
"Fussy last night after her shots. But she bounced back this morning. My butt was dragging. Pumped now though." To prove it, she flexed her arms to show little bumps of biceps.
"Good thing. Stella wants everything watered, and I do mean everything. And we're waiting on a big delivery of new planters. They'll need to be stickered and shelved once they come in."
"I'm your girl."
She started outside in the thick, drowsy heat, soaking the bedding plants, the annuals and perennials who'd yet to find a home. They made her think of those awkward kids in school who never got picked for the team. As a result, she had a soft spot for them and wished she had a place where she could dig them into the soil, let them bloom, let them find their potential.
One day she would have a place. She'd plant gardens, take what she'd learned here and put it to use. Make something beautiful, something special. There would have to be lilies, naturally. Red lilies, like the ones Harper brought to her when she was in labor with Lily. A big, splashy pool of red lilies, bold and fragrant that would come back year after year and remind her how lucky she was.
Sweat trickled down the back of her neck, and water dampened her canvas skids. The gentle spray annoyed the gang of bees covering the sedum. So, come back when I'm finished, she thought as they flew off with an annoyed buzz. We're all after the same thing here.
She moved slowly, half dreaming, down the tables holding the picked-over stock.
And if one day she had a garden, and there was Lily playing on the grass. With a puppy, she decided. There should be a puppy, all fat and soft and frisky. If she was able to have all that, couldn't she add a man? Someone who loved her and Lily, someone funny and smart who made her heart beat just a little faster when he looked at her?
He could be handsome. What was the point of a fantasy if the guy wasn't great-looking? Tall, he would be tall, with good shoulders and long legs. Brown eyes, deep delicious brown, and lots of thick dark hair she could get her hands into. Good cheekbones, the kind you just wanted to nibble your way along until you got to that strong, sexy mouth. And then-
"Jesus, Hayley, you're drowning that coreopsis."
She jerked, whipping the sprayer, then on a little yip of distress whipped it back again. But not before the water hit Harper dead-on.
Gut shot, she thought, torn between embarrassment and inappropriate giggles. He looked down at his soaked shirt, his jeans with a kind of grim resignation.
"Got a license for that thing?"
"I'm sorry! I'm so sorry. But you shouldn't sneak up behind me that way."
"I didn't sneak anywhere. I walked."
His voice was aggravated, but so Memphian, she thought, where she knew hers hit twang when she was excited or upset. "Well, walk louder next time. I really am sorry though. I guess my mind was wandering."
"This kind of heat, it's easy for the mind to wander, then lie down to take a nap." He pulled the wet shirt away from his belly. His eyes crinkled at the corners when he narrowed them. "What did you do to your hair?"
"What?" Instinctively she reached up, pulled her fingers through it. "I had it cut. Don't you like it?"
"Yeah, sure. It's fine."
Her finger itched on the trigger of the sprayer. "Please, stop. That kind of flattery'll just go to my head."
He smiled at her. He had such a great smile-sort of slow, so that it shifted the angles of his face and lit up in those deep, dark brown eyes-she nearly forgave him.
"I'm heading home, for a bit anyway. Mama's back."
Excerpted from Red Lily by Nora Roberts Excerpted by permission.
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