Azalea continued, “About four years ago, I met the nicest man…a rich one to boot. I tried every trick I knew to get him into bed, to get him really into me and wanting to spend some cash. But nothing worked. He wanted to get to know me.”
Rose crossed her arms. “Get to the point.”
“I’d hoped he would have made you smile more.” Azalea frowned, her perfect skin actually creasing. “Then again, I’m not sure how much a young man like him would have to smile about. Always having to follow the bidding of another.”
“How do you know about him?”
“I read Alexander’s horoscope this morning in The Gazette while having coffee with Jemma Leigh.”
Of course Jemma Leigh would tell Azalea everything she knew. No Holland hocus-pocus needed.
A little smile formed on her mother’s lips. “Is he as snazzy of a dresser as it said? Those things can be so moody. I really should have brought my charts with me, but I packed up in such a hurry to avoid rush hour. Traffic in Charlotte can be a real pain.”
Charlotte? “You’ve been there all this time,” Rose whispered. She sat down in a metal folding chair in the corner. Her mother had been only five hours away.
“Only for the past three years. I started Barbara’s Bugs in Concord, in Devlin’s basement.” Azalea picked up the manila folder and handed it to Rose. “This is my apology to you girls. I can’t go back and be your momma again. I’ve got two little ones to try to get it right with this time, and I’m a married woman now.”
Wordlessly, Rose took the folder, but didn’t open it. Her mother was someone else’s mother. Someone’s wife. Obviously Azalea didn’t want Rose or her sisters to be a part of her new life, because she hadn’t mentioned anything of coming to see her or meeting any new siblings. She hadn’t asked about Ivy either.
Azalea stood, smoothing the material of her skirt and hiking the straps of her purse higher on her shoulder. Diamond rings on her hands flashed at her. But on her right pointer finger, Azalea still wore the mood ring Rose, Summer and Skye had bought her for Mother’s Day.
“I’ve seen great things for you. We’re going to be business partners. Barbara’s Bugs has decided to invest in Carolina Dreams by providing you with capital to get Strawberry Grove’s forcing house rebuilt and the plants growing again. Check the cottage west of the house. All the backup jars, as my grandmother Poppy liked to call them, are in hidden under a trap door in the kitchen. You’ll know where, when you step on just the right place.”
Rose glanced down at the folder, then back up at her mother. “But it was auctioned off.”
“Wouldn’t you know it, but the owner of Strawberry Grove finally got word what was going on, and paid off the back taxes early this morning.” Azalea winked at her, then leaned down to press a cool kiss to Rose’s forehead. “And no more going down to Harrison’s office either, unless you feel like it.”
“But I have a loan with him,” Rose protested.
Azalea straightened. “You’re also owed eighteen years of back child support. Rather than go to court and drag this out, exposing his secrets; he agreed to my terms.”
Rose bit her bottom lip. “What about Poppy?”
“Oh, honey.” Her mother shook her head, closing her eyes. When they opened, they were shiny with tears. “I filled you and your sisters’ heads up with so much nonsense. There stopped being a Poppy Holland when my grandmother named my mother Lake and made sure everyone called her that. Sure we kept the name going by passing it down, but Poppy’s gone. People don’t believe in that stuff no how. It’s the reputation that gets remembered and kicked down the line.”
“But people need Poppy Holland. It’s our…my duty to give love advice.”
Azalea sighed and played with one of her many rings. “You’re giving a name too much power over you. There’s a time and place for tradition, but one that keeps a woman down ain’t it.”
“Easy for you to say; you left.” Rose stood, lifting her chin. “I stayed.”
Azalea made a noise of disapproval. “Look where it’s gotten you. You had the chance to leave with Alexander. To see the world and be a young woman for once.”
Growing up, she’d always believed in the magic of her mother, but after Azalea left, Rose had put away childish things. Or so she thought. There was no way her mother could know about Sasha’s offer. No one did.
Azalea nodded at the computer screen. “He’s the man in the picture?”
Rose’s eyes widened as she turned around. She’d forgotten about her ridiculous web-surfing. “I wasn’t looking for him. He kinda popped up on the screen.”
“Maybe he’s looking for you.”
“No, I made sure of that.”
“My stubborn child. That man loves you.” Her mother sounded so certain that Rose almost believed her. Almost.
Rose shook her head, then turned back to her mother. “No, he owes me.”
“What’s the harm in letting him pay you back?”
“I’m not you. I don’t use people.”
Azalea lifted a brow. “Not all of us are as strong as you, Rose. And some of us actually like men and having one around.”
The not-so-thinly veiled insult hit its mark. “I like men.” In fact she loved one and she wanted him around indefinitely, but it wasn’t meant to be. “And I respect them enough to treat them decently.” Like she had with Sasha? No, she’d let her pride get in the way. She’d let her fear color her words.
“Did you take Alexander to the spring?” A knowing look entered her mother’s eyes. “Share some strawberry wine with him…take him to your bed?”
Rose couldn’t have stopped the blush that flooded her face if she had tried. “That’s really none of your business.”
Azalea gave her a self-satisfied smile and reached for her hand, squeezing it gently. “Let’s not fight, honey. One day you can introduce me to your man and I can give you some pointers.”
It was then Rose realized what a blessing in disguise it had been for her mother to leave. For all the good that her mother had done today, she was still selfish and self-centered. Women around here might have had a good reason not to like her family after all.
Still, this wasn’t the reunion she’d dreamed of. Her mother wouldn’t be in her life, not in the way she’d always hoped.