“Look here, Blackbeard, I’d invoke parley, but I seriously doubt your superior would give me any quarter,” he said with a smile, “She’d cut me into tiny pieces with a butter knife, I suspect.” Gently, he stroked the cat’s back. Blackbeard sheathed his claws and purred.

“That’s a good puss,” he said as the cat laid on its side.

“Traitor,” she muttered. Whirling away, she strode to the stairs and made her way to Ivy’s room. Sasha was good with animals. Even ones that stuck their claws into him and ruined his pricey clothes. So what? Blackbeard was notoriously fickle with his affections, she mentally argued. Besides, he probably knew she was watching him.

After checking on Ivy, she shuffled to her room. She changed clothes, trading her faded jeans and long-sleeved t-shirt for a cotton nightgown. A velvet robe that had belonged to the fifth Poppy Holland hung on the back of her door. She pulled it on and tied the sash into a loose knot.

The baby monitor’s lights flashed as Ivy snored in her sleep.

Rose glanced at the antique clock on her bedside table. Ten minutes had passed. Shouldn’t he have stolen her car to drive himself back to town? Gravel should be shooting into the air right about now, tires spinning and engine gunning. But the only sound that greeted her was the occasional call of wintering swans.

She walked to the French doors and opened them, letting in a crisp autumn breeze. It blew at her robe and lifted her hair. Stepping out onto the balcony, she shivered. Her toes curled, trying to get away from the cold wooden planks.

Out of habit, she searched for her star. The one she wished upon as a child. Every night, she would wish that she and her sisters would be good enough for their momma to stay home. But after Rose’s sixteenth birthday, Azalea Holland never came back. And Rose had sworn she’d never wish again.

The star twinkled, tempting her to take a chance. She wished…Rose shook her head. “I don’t believe in you,” she whispered, backing away.

Chapter Four

Last night had been the ultimate in dinner disasters. He’d insulted his hostess, cursed at her cat and gotten himself kicked out. To make matters worse, he was sure she’d left him here to walk back to town. When he had checked this morning, her Jeep hadn’t been in the drive.

Sasha jogged down the formerly grand staircase, dodged a lazy Blackbeard sunning in the foyer and headed into the kitchen.

Sure he hadn’t risen before eleven-thirty, but he’d stayed up until three am, assuming every position humanly possible to get the barest of signals for his cell phone to work. At one point he’d leaned so far over the balcony that he’d nearly fallen. The lure of one bar had been that tantalizing.

A note partly hidden by a crystal bowl full of strawberries greeted him on the badly cracked kitchen table.

Had to run some errands. Help yourself to breakfast or lunch. I’ll be back at 1.

P.S. Thank you for cleaning up supper.

Did this mean he could stay, or that she’d be driving him into Holland Springs proper when she got back? Taking a bite of a particularly juicy strawberry, he turned the note over, searching for what he wasn’t sure. A signature, perhaps. But he knew it was her stationery. The initials RPH were engraved at the top in an elegant script. Surprisingly, the paper was excellent quality. She did seem to like pretty things. Like crystal bowls and hand-painted patterns on heirloom china.

But she, most assuredly, did not like her home being made fun of. Almost as much as he didn’t like being told what to do. There were too many people treating him as a puppet on a string as it were. Two more years and he’d be free. In the meantime, he had to keep his mother in the best medical facilities possible. So…he played his uncle’s game. He did it well in any case. A natural born charmer, though liar would be more apt.

He rubbed the back of his neck.

There was a spring hidden on this property, and it was up to him to find it. To get a sample and send it off to his uncle’s lab in Helsinki. And not that ridiculous only-true-love-can-find-it spring either. Anyone with a maps app and a good signal could find that one.

Hell, Rose had taken him to that spring. Her hand in his, walking in the forest after midnight. The night sky had been saturated with stars, the breeze with her perfume.

Eating the last bite of strawberry, he threw the cap away and grimaced. There was no use thinking of that night. However, he had to find a way to get Rose to show him the real spring.

The front door opened and closed.

“Hullo?” he called out.

“It’s me and Ivy.” Rose trudged into the kitchen. Dark circles shadowed her eyes and his gut clenched.

“You’re back early.” He took the carrier from her and set it on top of the table. “Didn’t sleep well?”

She washed and dried her hands. “Not really.”

He managed to work the straps and locks. Ivy made gurgling noises and threw out her arms, starfish-shaped hands opening and closing as he lifted her out. “Happy to see me, sweetheart?” Ivy’s dark brown eyes were solemn. She turned her head and nuzzled his shirt. He looked up at Rose. “I think she’s hungry.”

Smiling, Rose took Ivy from him. “She’s always hungry,” she said with affection and the baby smiled up at her.

A tightness settled in his chest. “About last night—”

“Forget it. You can stay,” Rose said, pre-empting his apology. “We need the money and for once I won’t let my…pride get in the way.” Her ocean-blue eyes met his and he swallowed.

“Care to show me around your house? We were slightly distracted last night.”

She wrinkled her nose, her brows drawing together. “You corner me in the hallway and call it a slight distraction?”

He grinned. “No, I call that fun.”

Her eyes narrowed. “You better call it not happening again.”

“Damn, I thought it was one of the perks of living here.” It really was fun to tease her. To try to make her react to him. He’d bet she was one hell of a poker player. She rubbed the gold cross at the hollow of her neck. Now that would be a dead giveaway of a bad hand. But he’d probably be the only one to know that.

“Could you hold Ivy while I fix her bottle?”

“Sure.” He held out his arms, once again settling the baby in his arms. “Where’s her father?”

Rose rummaged through the cabinets, finding the parts of the bottle she needed and putting it together. “Who knows?”

Okay, so he wasn’t expecting that answer. Something wasn’t right. “I expect you would, as Ivy’s mother and sole supporter. Shouldn’t you take him to court for child support?”

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