A single touch of a button had the window automatically rolling down as the sheriff leaned over. “License and registration.”

Handing it over, Sasha kept his mouth shut and waited. He rather thought that asking what the problem was might end up with a ‘don’t-tase-me-bro’ moment.

“You know why I pulled you over?”

Sasha had a very good suspicion as to why. “To see if it really can parallel park by itself?”

Turner didn’t crack a smile. “I don’t appreciate being used in this little scheme y’all got going. Rose Holland is a nice girl. She and her sisters were sweet to Missy when everyone else talked about my Yankee of a wife.”

No surprise there. She’d helped him out, too, hadn’t she? Put her sweet hands on him and eased his troubles for a while. He gave the sheriff an arrogant glare. “I didn’t realize upholding the law was a scheme.”

Turner flung his license and registration back at him. “Men like you never get what they really deserve in the end.”

“Men like me keep doing what they’re doing because it works,” he said, checking his reflection in the rear view mirror and running his hand through his hair. Or because they have no other choice. No way out. But he wasn’t about to share that information. He fiddled with his cufflinks. “Now, are we finished?”

The sheriff looked like he wanted to say more. Hell, he looked like he wanted to arrest him. Instead Turner adjusted his hat. “You’re free to go. Watch your speed.”

Sasha gave him a smart-ass salute and was on his way. A minute later, his phone vibrated and he cut on the Bluetooth. “Hullo?”

“Found the spring?”

Couldn’t he be here longer than five seconds? “Uncle Vladimir, so nice to hear from you. I’m perfectly fit and living at the Hollands’ home. Thanks for asking.”

His uncle grunted. “Answer my question.”

“Sure you don’t want the one that’s already been found?” Sasha asked. It would be a hell of lot easier to buy that tiny slice of Holland land than to search the entire property for what was rumored to be the original spring that fed the second. For some reason known only to God, satellite images of Rose’s home and the surrounding property were inconclusive. So that left Sasha to do it the old-fashioned way.

“Too many impurities. We have two months, Alexander. Two. After that Nahalah Industries cuts funding.”

His uncle must be in a panic. Vladimir had uttered more than three words without insulting him. Sasha made a left at the stop sign and sped up. “I’m meeting with the mayor of Holland Springs and the president of the largest bank in town tonight.” It was the only bank in town, but it really didn’t matter. “They seem to be on board with the town acting as the U.S. headquarters of Nahalah. Only I have to convince them that jobs will be a part of the deal.”

“Tell them five hundred.”

Sasha’s stomach plummeted even as his car accelerated beyond the speed limit sign’s posted number. Five hundred jobs against one woman’s ancestral lands. Her home. One that despite the multiple offers she’d received, she’d refused to sell. Perhaps sending that jackass of a lawyer with the real estate agent had been a mistake. He gripped the steering wheel hard, hating this. Hating himself.

“Visited your mother today. She remains stable,” Vladimir said, as though he was speaking about the weather. And not about a woman who was in a coma.

Fury tried to break free, but Sasha clenched his jaw and kept everything he wanted to say behind his teeth. Finally, he allowed, “She remains at St. Francis?” He had to know she was safe. That his uncle had not exercised his rights set forth by Sasha’s father’s will and moved Phoebe to Childer’s Asylum. To a guaranteed death sentence.

His uncle chuckled, the sound not at all reassuring. “As usual, Alexander, where she remains is entirely up to you. So I wouldn’t recommend playing the hero with Ms. Holland.”

Sasha barked out a laugh. “I always prefer the villain’s entrance and exit. There’s something to be said for style.” He scanned the road, looking for the small green sign that marked Strawberry Grove’s gravel path.

“Eight weeks, and if all goes according to plan, I’ll allow you to visit your mother.” Vladimir ended their call.

Allow? Sasha wanted to rip the steering wheel from the dash. He wanted to smash and break everything in sight. But it would do no good. He cut the engine and slumped down in the leather seat, waiting for calm.

He eyed the house in front of him as the sun set and the windows reflected the light. Inside waited a woman who wanted nothing from him but cheesecake. Cheesecake. Yet here he was, sitting in his car and planning how to strip of her house, her land. Her defenses.

Her clothes.

Good God, he had to stop thinking about that. “Dammit,” he muttered. He rubbed the back of his neck. Maybe he should shag someone. It couldn’t be anyone around here, of course. No need for Rose to know about his activities.

He shook his head. Why did it matter if she knew? “Oh, for the love of God.” He grabbed the desserts from the passenger side and quickly got out of the car.

The soft strains of country music played in the background as he came through the back door. The glow of the kitchen light illuminated Rose. She stood at the sink, washing dishes and humming along. Ivy babbled as she lay on a mat nearby.

It was a scene so perfectly domestic and cozy that he stopped mid-stride and stared. And stared some more.

Wouldn’t this be something to come home to every night? To actually look forward to, because there was a person, a family waiting for you. Until this moment, he couldn’t remember what that felt like.

And it was for the best that he strike it from his mind.

Clearing his throat, he said, “I didn’t know what you liked, so I got every kind Daisy Barnes had.” Sasha placed the cheesecakes on the counter.

Rose stopped washing dishes long enough to glance at him, the beginnings of a smile transforming her face. “Thank you.”

His formerly bad mood vanished with the appearance of her beautiful smile. He would bring her cheesecake every day for a month if she’d keep looking at him like that.

Walking over to Ivy, he knelt down to tickle her foot. She cooed and swiped at a brightly colored fish and octopus hanging from a mobile over her head. “What is this thing? And do they make one for adults?”

“It’s a play gym for babies. Ivy can roll around and try to grab all the things that catch her eye.” Rose joined him, her dainty feet with their unpainted toenails entering his side vision. Well, he certainly wanted to grab the things that caught his eye.

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