“Do you want me to take you to your cousin’s house?” she asked.

“He’s not home and I don’t have a key.” And as things stood, he wasn’t welcome there.

Her arms tightened around him. “Can you still make it to my Jeep?”

Nodding once, he began to hobble towards the small SUV. Of course, he could do this.

He’d done it before.


The ride into the backwoods town of Holland Springs wasn’t as bad as he thought. It was worse. Every pothole and bump served to remind him of how his new motto of “Just say no” got the living hell beat out of him.

However, there were just some things a man didn’t do. Like be a sperm donor for some eighty-year-old nutter with a twenty-year-old trophy wife because he needed an heir for his empire. No matter how painful the consequences.

Now that he’d been properly punished, he’d get some time off before his uncle tried to persuade Sasha to his way of thinking again. And next time, Sasha knew, Vladimir would pull out the big guns.

“I need to change, and you need a shower,” Rose said, wrinkling her nose as she parked the Jeep behind her store. “There’s a bathroom on the second floor you can use. The store used to be a house and there’s a studio apartment upstairs. We mainly use it for storage.”

“You can wash me up next time, dear.” He gave her a suggestive smile and tried to wiggle his brows, but it hurt too damn much to follow through. Moving his shoulder experimentally, he opened the door and braced for a sharp pain, but there was only a dull ache.

By the time he managed to get out of Rose’s Jeep, she had the back door propped open. Exhausted, he waited for her to come to him, her sweet body his personal rock of Gibraltar.

“Lean on me.”

Lean on her? He wanted to crawl all over her, caress every curve and take her to bed—the way he’d wanted to a month ago.

“It’s only a few steps,” she coaxed. “You can do it.”

Eventually, they made it up the stairs and to the bathroom. He leaned against the wall as she prepared the shower and brought in a chair from the other room.

“Thought you might need this.” She stood there, one hand on the chair and the other at the base of her throat.

He sank down on it gratefully, almost too weary to undress himself. But pride made him shoo her from the room, then he pulled his cell phone from his pocket, texted his uncle and got a reply a few seconds later. He had forty-five minutes to be ready. Sooner than Sasha thought it would be.

He placed the cell phone behind the faucet of the bathroom sink. How considerate of Vladimir to have Sasha’s old cell phone replaced with a new one. Grimacing, he made his fingers work the buttons of his shirt and pants. Getting his damn trousers off was the hardest part and he nearly asked Rose to help him.

“I need to go get you some clothes. I’ll be right back, okay?” she called out as he stepped into the tub, one agonizing limb at a time.

“Brilliant.” Hot water hit his face, making the cut on his lip sting. He stood under the shower head until it become a dull throb. Until his battered and bruised body began to relax. He must have fallen asleep standing up, because the next thing he knew, Rose was calling his name. His eyes popped open.


“I’m fine, Rose.”

He didn’t sound fine. Rose peeled off her muddy clothes and shoved them into a plastic grocery bag. She dropped the bag by the door to the stairs and shivered in the air-conditioning. Quickly dressing in the middle of the makeshift storage room, she pulled on a pair of faded jeans and a green t-shirt she’d found in the back of her jeep, not quite sure what do with the very naked man showering only a few feet away.

“Rosebud, I need you,” he yelled at the same time she heard a loud thunk.

Throwing open the bathroom door, she skidded to a halt when she saw his wavy outline through the shower curtain. She placed a hand on her chest. “Good grief, I thought you fell.”

He slid the curtain to one side, a mischievous grin on his gorgeous face. “I dropped the soap. Care to get it for me?”

She narrowed her eyes. “Pick it up yourself.”

“Didn’t you need to take a shower, too?”


“You had mud all over your very nice bottom,” he pointed out, the compliment making her flush.

“I changed.”

“Shame, I was so looking forward to you joining me,” Sasha said as he bent over to pick up the bar of homemade soap. He stood, propping himself against the window above the claw-foot tub and gingerly moved the soap over his skin. Steaming hot water ran down his body, washing away the suds, blood and grime, revealing his lean, muscular form. The large cross tattoo on his bicep contracted and expanded with his movements. Gold nipple rings flashed in the morning sun.

Heat flared in the pit of her stomach. She’d kissed those rings. Put her lips around them and tickled his ni**les with her tongue. She whirled around to face the sink. And the conveniently placed mirror above it.

“Generally, I shower alone.” Generally…Really, couldn’t she have just said I always shower alone or—better still—kept quiet?

He raised his brows, a slight smile at his lips. “And the other times?”

“It’s none of your business.”

“Smart woman to play it close to the vest. I’ve always loved an intelligent female.”

“You love women—period.”

He turned, giving her a full view of his tight butt and she ogled him in the mirror. Most of what she’d thought to be bruises on his body turned out to be dried mud, but all the shallow cuts needed to be treated.

“Like the view?”

Yes! She wanted to lick him up one side and down the other. “I’m only making sure you don’t pass out. Do you know how hard it is to get blood stains out of woven rugs?”

“Your concern is heartwarming,” he drawled.

“Just hurry up. I’ve got other things to do.” She crossed her arms. Apparently, it was her go-to gesture of the day.

“It was your idea, remember?” Their eyes met in the mirror and he chuckled when she looked away, the sound making her heart flip. “I think you like watching me.”

“I think you like being watched,” she grumbled.

“By you? Absolutely.”

She rolled her eyes. A small pot of ointment containing calendula flowers and almond oil sat on the edge of the sink. It was one of Carolina Dreams’ biggest sellers for the men and women who worked two towns over at the paper mill. They swore by its healing properties.

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