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Her mothers keeper, p.3
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       Her Mother's Keeper, p.3

           Nora Roberts
 
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  Over dinner Gwen met Anabelle’s two other visitors. Though both were artists, they could not have been more different from each other. Monica Wilkins was a small, pale woman with indifferent brown hair. She spoke in a quiet, breathy voice and avoided eye contact at all costs. She had a supply of large, shapeless smocks, which she wore invariably and without flair. Her art was, for the most part, confined to illustrating textbooks on botany. With a touch of pity, Gwen noticed that her tiny, birdlike eyes often darted glances at Luke, then shifted away quickly and self-consciously.

  Bradley Stapleton was tall and lanky, casually dressed in an ill-fitting sweater, baggy slacks and battered sneakers. He had a cheerful, easily forgettable face and a surprisingly beautiful voice. He studied his fellow humans with unquenchable curiosity and painted for the love of it. He yearned to be famous but had settled for regular meals.

  Gwen thoroughly enjoyed dinner, not only because of Tillie’s excellent jambalaya but for the oddly interesting company of the two artists. Separately, she thought each might be a bore, but somehow together, the faults of one enhanced the virtues of the other.

  “So, you work for Style,” Bradley stated as he scooped up a second, generous helping of Tillie’s jambalaya. “Why don’t you model?”

  Gwen thought of the frantic, nervous models, with their fabulous faces. She shook her head. “No, I’m not at all suitable. I’m much better at stroking.”

  “Stroking?” Bradley repeated, intrigued.

  “That’s what I do, basically.” Gwen smiled at him. It was better, she decided, that her mother had seated her next to Luke rather than across from him. She would have found it uncomfortable to face him throughout an entire meal. “Soothe, stroke, bully. Someone has to keep the models from using their elegant nails on each other and remind them of the practical side of life.”

  “Gwen’s so good at being practical,” Anabelle interjected. “I’m sure I don’t understand why. I’ve never been. Strange,” she said, and smiled at her daughter. “She grew up long before I did.”

  “Practicality wouldn’t suit you, Anabelle,” Luke told her with an affectionate smile.

  Anabelle dimpled with pleasure. “I told you he was spoiling me,” she said to Gwen.

  “So you did.” Gwen lifted her water glass and sipped carefully.

  “You must sit for me, Gwen,” Bradley said, as he buttered a biscuit.

  “Must I?” Knowing the only way she could get through a civilized meal was to ignore Luke, Gwen gave Bradley all her attention.

  “Absolutely.” Bradley held both the biscuit and knife suspended while he narrowed his eyes and stared at her. “Fabulous, don’t you agree, Monica? A marvelous subject,” he went on without waiting for her answer. “In some lights the hair would be the color Titian immortalized, in others, it would be quieter, more subtle. But it’s the eyes, isn’t it, Monica? It’s definitely the eyes. So large, so meltingly brown. Of course, the bone structure’s perfect, and the skin’s wonderful, but I’m taken with the eyes. The lashes are real, too, aren’t they, Monica?”

  “Yes, quite real,” she answered as her gaze flew swiftly to Gwen’s face and then back to her plate. “Quite real.”

  “She gets them from her father,” Anabelle explained as she added a sprinkle of salt to her jambalaya. “Such a handsome boy. Gwen favors him remarkably. His eyes were exactly the same. I believe they’re why I first fell in love with him.”

  “They’re very alluring,” Bradley commented with a nod to Anabelle. “The size, the color, the shape. Very alluring.” He faced Gwen again. “You will sit for me, won’t you, Gwen?”

  Gwen gave Bradley a guileless smile. “Perhaps.”

  The meal drifted to a close, and the evening waned. The artists retreated to their rooms, and Luke wandered off to his. At Gwen’s casual question, Anabelle told her that Luke “worked all the time.” It was odd, Gwen mused to herself, that a woman as romantic as her mother wasn’t concerned that the man in her life was not spending his evening with her.

  Anabelle chattered absently while working tiny decorative stitches into a pillowcase. Watching her, Gwen was struck with a sudden thought. Did Anabelle seem happier? Did she seem more vital? If Luke Powers was responsible, should she, Gwen, curse him or thank him? She watched Anabelle delicately stifle a yawn and was swept by a fierce protective surge. She needs me to look out for her, she decided, and that’s what I plan to do.

  ***

  Once in her bedroom, however, Gwen could not get to sleep. The book she had brought with her to pass the time did not hold her attention. It grew late, but her mind would not allow her body to rest. A breeze blew softly in through the windows, lifting the curtains. It beckoned. Rising, Gwen threw on a thin robe and went outside to meet it.

  The night was warm and lit by a large summer moon. The air was filled with the scent of wisteria and roses. She could hear the continual hum of the crickets. Now and then, there was the lonely, eerie call of an owl. Leaves rustled with the movements of night birds and small animals. Fireflies blinked and soared.

  As Gwen breathed in the moist, fragrant air, an unexpected peace settled over her. Tranquility was something just remembered, like a childhood friend. Tentatively Gwen reached out for it. For two years, her career had been her highest priority. Independence and success were the goals she had sought. She had worked hard for them. And I’ve got them, she thought as she plucked a baby coral rose from its bush. Why aren’t I happy? I am happy, she corrected as she lifted the bloom and inhaled its fragile scent, but I’m not as happy as I should be. Frowning, she twisted the stem between her fingers. Complete. The word came from nowhere. I don’t feel complete. With a sigh, she tilted her head and studied the star-studded sky. Laughter bubbled up in her throat suddenly and sounded sweet in the silence.

  “Catch!” she cried as she tossed the bloom in the air. She gasped in surprise as a hand plucked the rose on its downward journey. Luke had appeared as if from nowhere and was standing a few feet away from her twirling the flower under his nose. “Thanks,” he said softly. “No one has ever tossed me a rose.”

  “I wasn’t tossing it to you.” Automatically, Gwen clutched her robe together where it crossed her breasts.

  “No?” Luke smiled at her and at the gesture. “Who then?”

  Feeling foolish, Gwen shrugged and turned away. “I thought you were working.”

  “I was. The muse took a break so I called it a night. Gardens are at their best in the moonlight.” He paused, and there was an intimacy in his voice. Stepping closer, he added, “I’ve always thought the same held true for women.”

  Gwen felt her skin grow warm. She struggled to keep her tone casual as she turned to face him.

  Luke tucked the small flower into her curls and lifted her chin. “They are fabulous eyes, you know. Bradley’s quite right.”

  Her skin began to tingle where his fingers touched it. Defensively, she stepped back. “I wish you wouldn’t keep doing that.” Her voice trembled, and she despised herself for it.

  Luke gave her an odd, amused smile. “You’re a strange one, Gwenivere. I haven’t got you labeled quite yet. I’m intrigued by the innocence.”

  Gwen stiffened and tossed back her hair. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

  Luke’s smile broadened. The moonlight seemed trapped in his eyes. “Your New York veneer doesn’t cover it. It’s in the eyes. Bradley doesn’t know why they’re appealing, and I won’t tell him. It’s the innocence and the promise.” Gwen frowned, but her shoulders relaxed. Luke went on, “There’s an unspoiled innocence in that marvelous face, and a warmth that promises passion. It’s a tenuous balance.”

  His words made Gwen uncomfortable. A warmth was spreading through her that she seemed powerless to control. Tranquility had vanished. An excitement, volatile and hot, throbbed through the air. Suddenly she was afraid. “I don’t want you to say these things to me,” she whispered, and took another step in retreat.

  “No?” The amusem
ent in his voice told her that a full retreat would be impossible. “Didn’t Michael ever use words to seduce you? Perhaps that’s why he failed.”

  “Michael? What do you know about . . . ?” Abruptly she recalled the conversation with her mother before dinner. “You were listening!” she began, outraged. “You had no right to listen to a private conversation! No gentleman listens to a private conversation!”

  “Nonsense,” Luke said calmly. “Everyone does, if he has the chance.”

  “Do you enjoy intruding on other people’s privacy?”

  “People interest me, emotions interest me. I don’t apologize for my interests.”

  Gwen was torn between fury at his arrogance and admiration for his confidence. “What do you apologize for, Luke Powers?”

  “Very little.”

  Unable to do otherwise, Gwen smiled. Really, she thought, he’s outrageous.

  “Now that was worth waiting for,” Luke murmured, as his eyes roamed her face. “I wonder if Bradley can do it justice? Be careful,” he warned, “you’ll have him falling in love with you.”

  “Is that how you won Monica?”

  “She’s terrified of me,” Luke corrected as he reached up to better secure the rose in her hair.

  “Some terrific observer of humanity you are.” Gwen sniffed, fiddling with the rose herself and managing to dislodge it. As it tumbled to the ground, both she and Luke stooped to retrieve it. Her hair brushed his cheek before she lifted her eyes to his. As if singed, she jolted back, but before she could escape, he took her arm. Slowly, he rose, bringing her with him. Involuntarily, she shivered as he brought her closer until their bodies touched. Just a look from him, just the touch of him, incited her to a passion that she had not known she possessed. His hands slid up her arms and under the full sleeves of her robe to caress her shoulders. She felt her mantle of control slip away as she swayed forward and touched her lips to his.

  His mouth was avid so quickly, her breath caught in her throat. Then all was lost in pleasure. Lights fractured and exploded behind her closed lids as her lips sought to give and to take with an instinct as old as time. Beneath her palms she felt the hard, taut muscles of his back. She shuddered with the knowledge of his strength and the sudden realization of her own frailty. But even her weakness had a power she had never tapped, never experienced.

  His hands roamed over her, lighting fires, learning secrets, teaching and taking. Gwen was pliant and willing. He was like a drug flowing into her system, clouding her brain. Only the smallest grain of denial struggled for survival, fighting against the growing need to surrender. Reason surfaced slowly, almost reluctantly. Suddenly, appalled by her own behavior, she began to struggle. But when she broke away, she felt a quick stab of loneliness.

  “No.” Gwen lifted her hands to her burning cheeks. “No,” she faltered.

  Luke watched in silence as she turned and fled to the house.

  Chapter 4

  The morning was hazy and heavy. So were Gwen’s thoughts. As dawn broke with a gray, uncertain light, she stood by her window.

  How could I? she demanded of herself yet again. Closing her eyes and groaning, Gwen sank down onto the window seat. I kissed him. I kissed him. Inherent honesty kept her from shifting what she considered blame. I can’t say I was caught off guard this time. I knew what was going to happen, and worse yet, I enjoyed it. She brought her knees up to her chin. I enjoyed the first time he kissed me too. The silent admission caused her to shut her eyes again. How could I? As she wrestled with this question, she rose and paced the room. I came thousands of miles to get Luke Powers out of Mama’s life, and I end up kissing him in the garden in the middle of the night. And liking it, she added wretchedly. What kind of a person am I? What kind of a daughter am I? I never thought of Mama once in that garden last night. Well, I’ll think of her today, she asserted, and pulled a pair of olive-drab shorts from her drawer. I’ve got a month to move Luke Powers out, and that’s just what I’m going to do.

  As she buttoned up a short-sleeved khaki blouse, Gwen nodded confidently at herself in the mirror. No more moonlit gardens. I won’t take the chance of having midsummer madness creep over me again. That’s what it was, wasn’t it? she asked the slender woman in the glass. She ran a nervous hand through her hair. Another answer seemed just beyond her reach. Refusing any attempt to pursue it, Gwen finished dressing and left the room.

  Not even Tillie was in the kitchen at such an early hour. There was a certain enjoyment in being up alone in the softly lit room. She made the first pot of coffee in the gray dawn. She sipped at a cupful while watching dark clouds gather. Rain, she thought, not displeased. The sky promised it, the air smelled of it. It gave an excitement to the quiet, yawning morning. There would be thunder and lightning and cooling wind. The thought inexplicably lifted Gwen’s spirits. Humming a cheerful tune, she began searching the cupboards. The restless night was forgotten.

  “What are you up to?” Tillie demanded, sweeping into the room. Hands on her bony hips, she watched Gwen.

  “Good morning, Tillie.” Used to the cook’s abrasiveness, Gwen answered good-naturedly.

  “What do you want in my kitchen?” she asked suspiciously. “You made coffee.”

  “Yes, it’s not too bad.” Gwen’s tone was apologetic, but her eyes danced with mischief.

  “I make the coffee,” Tillie reminded her. “I always make the coffee.”

  “I’ve certainly missed it over the past couple of years. No matter how I try, mine never tastes quite like yours.” Gwen poured a fresh cup. “Have some,” she offered. “Maybe you can tell me what I do wrong.”

  Tillie accepted the cup and scowled. “You let it brew too long,” she complained. Lifting her hand, she brushed curls back from Gwen’s forehead. “Will you never keep your hair out of your eyes? Do you want to wear glasses?”

  “No, Tillie,” Gwen answered humbly. It was an old gesture and an old question. She recognized the tenderness behind the brisk words and quick fingers. Her lips curved into a smile. “I made Mama’s breakfast.” Turning, Gwen began to arrange cups and plates on a tray. “I’m going to take it up to her, she always liked it when I surprised her that way.”

  “You shouldn’t bother your maman so early in the morning,” Tillie began.

  “Oh, it’s not so early,” Gwen said airily as she lifted the tray. “I didn’t leave much of a mess,” she added with the carelessness of youth. “I’ll clean it up when I come back.” She whisked through the door before Tillie could comment.

  Gwen moved quickly up the stairs and down the corridor. Balancing the tray in one hand, she twisted the knob on her mother’s door with the other. She was totally stunned to find it locked. Automatically, she jiggled the knob in disbelief. Never, as far back as her childhood memories stretched, did Gwen remember the door of Anabelle’s room being locked.

  “Mama?” There was a question in her voice as she knocked. “Mama, are you up?”

  “What?” Anabelle’s voice was clear but distracted. “Oh, Gwen, just a minute, darling.”

  Gwen stood outside the door listening to small, shuffling sounds she could not identify. “Mama,” she said again, “are you all right?”

  “Yes, yes, dear, one moment.” The creaks and shuffles stopped just before the door opened. “Good morning, Gwen.” Anabelle smiled. Though she wore a gown and robe and her hair was mussed by sleep, her eyes were awake and alert. “What have you got there?”

  Blankly, Gwen looked down at the tray she carried. “Oh, chocolate and beignets. I know how you like them. Mama, what were you . . . ?”

  “Darling, how sweet!” Anabelle interrupted, and drew Gwen into the room. “Did you really make them yourself? What a treat. Come, let’s sit on the balcony. I hope you slept well.”

  Gwen evaded a lie. “I woke early and decided to test my memory with the beignet recipe. Mama, I don’t remember you ever locking your door.”

  “No?” Anabelle smiled as she settled herself in a white, wrought-iro
n chair. “It must be a new habit, then. Oh, dear, it looks like rain. Well, my roses will be thankful.”

  The locked door left Gwen feeling slighted. It reminded her forcibly that Anabelle Lacrosse was a person, as well as her mother. Perhaps she would do well to remember it, Gwen silently resolved. She set the tray on a round, glass-topped table and bent to kiss Anabelle’s cheek. “I’ve really missed you. I don’t think I’ve told you that yet.”

  “Gwenivere.” Anabelle smiled and patted her daughter’s fine-boned hand. “It’s so good to have you home. You’ve always been such a pleasure to me.”

  “Even when I’d track mud on the carpet or lose frogs in the parlor?” Grinning, Gwen sat and poured the chocolate.

  “Darling.” Anabelle sighed and shook her head. “Some things are best forgotten. I never understood how I could have raised such a hooligan. But even as I despaired of you ever being a lady, I couldn’t help admiring your freedom of spirit. Hot-tempered you might have been,” Anabelle added as she tasted her chocolate, “but never malicious and never dishonest. No matter what dreadful thing you did, you never did it out of spite, and you always confessed.”

  Gwen laughed. Her curls danced as she tossed back her head. “Poor Mama, I must have done so many dreadful things.”

  “Well, perhaps a bit more than your share,” Anabelle suggested kindly. “But now you’re all grown up, so difficult for a mother to accept. Your job, Gwen, you do enjoy it?”

  Gwen’s automatic agreement faltered on her lips. Enjoy, she thought. I wonder if I do. “Strange,” she said aloud, “I’m not at all certain.” She gave her mother a puzzled smile. “But I need it,
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