Now running was all that they shared in common. All that kept his father’s memory fresh and close to his heart.

This afternoon he didn’t run to be close; he ran to get away. Away from the disappointment he imagined in his father’s voice and eyes. The small shake of his head and a frown was nearly enough to make Sasha turn around and reconsider every choice he’d ever made. But it couldn’t be helped.

Keeping his mother safe was his drive, finding that damned spring was his purpose, and as for a wife or rather woman who adored him...Rose had been that woman last night. Her eyes had been luminous and when she’d smiled, he’d felt like he could conquer anything.

In reality he was nothing more than a pawn of his uncle. A small piece of a global chessboard that could be sacrificed—no, not sacrificed, that would imply he was actually worth something. He could be discarded to win the game.

A branch smacked his bare chest, catching one of his nipple rings. “Shit.” He stopped to see if the ring was still in place, wiggling it back and forth. No blood was a good sign.

He bent over at the waist and retied his laces. This is what he got for thinking of her. For touching her. For losing his damn mind when it came to her.

Last night, he hadn’t come back. The temptation of seducing Rose in her own house had been too great of a temptation. Instead he’d driven around for hours, until the pinks and golds of another sunrise had him wincing and craving shelter like a vampire. On the outskirts of Wilmington, he’d found a motel advertising clean rooms and free Wi-Fi.

Sleep eluded him, guilt his constant companion as he’d counted tiles in the ceiling. He supposed he could’ve chalked it up to actually living with his victim. When he’d begun to develop a conscience, he’d quickly stunted it by reasoning that the people whose business or lives he’d helped ruin had it coming. That their hands, while not as dirty as his, were not perfectly clean.

But what crime had Rose committed? She didn’t smile or laugh enough? She’d helped too many people without asking anything in return? She hid behind hocus-pocus and her family’s reputation, keeping everyone at a distance?

Until him.

A winter goose honked in the distance.

Sasha knew what must be done. He needed to keep his hands (and every other body part) off of Rose, find the spring, visit his mother and go on a bleedin’ holiday. Easier said than done since he had absolutely no self-control when it came to Rose. None.

He kicked at a rotted stump, hitting one side and it fell apart.

This ridiculous need to elicit smiles, to make her laugh and for her to know him had to be slashed and burned from his heart. Wrenched out of his soul.

Wasn’t he waxing all poetic?

Leaves rustled and the scent of jasmine drifted to him, filling his senses. His mouth watered and his c**k stirred. He took off. Faster and harder than before, his lungs straining and his thighs screaming. But he couldn’t stop. Her scent was all around him, taunting and tempting. He needed to escape—

A rock caught the toe of one of his trainers and he crashed to the ground, pine straw and dirt filling his mouth and nose. Stunned, he laid there.

Slowly, he lifted his head and spit out a wad of dirt. He scrunched his nose and blinked, clearing his vision. Rolling to a sitting position, he tentatively patted his face with the tips of his fingers, checking it for blood. A small dash of red appeared on the pad of his forefinger. Of course a spot above his eye waited until then to begin throbbing.

He reckoned it could’ve been worse. There could’ve been an audience with their camera phones videoing him going arse over tip. A small sound caught his attention. A blur of movement to the left and a cat meowed. He knew it well. It woke him up from the nightmares that threatened to suffocate him.

“Blackbeard, you cur, come back here!” Sasha jumped to his feet and pushed at a thick hanging of vines.


He wasn’t a botanist, but he for damn sure knew these weren’t evergreens and that North Carolina in the fall wasn’t a tropical climate. The vines parted easily and what he saw almost made him fall to his knees and kiss the ground.

Almost two stories high, a waterfall cascaded over mossy rocks to splash down into a pool roughly half the size of Trevi Fountain in Rome. Flowers of every size and color bloomed along each side, while butterflies and hummingbirds zoomed in and out of focus.

He wanted to shout out his triumph.

Then he wanted to roar in frustration, because he was unsure if this was the spring she’d taken him to before, or the one he was supposed to find. His memory was suddenly fuzzy and he couldn’t picture the specifics of his time spent with Rose. All he could recall was the pleasure of her kiss and his hands on her body, making him forget who he was and what he had to be.

He did neither.

Instead, he ambled over to the water and dropped to his knees at the edge. His wavy reflection greeted him, but he looked past it, down to the sandy bottom glinting with smooth pebbles. Nothing swam within its depths. What looked to be the entrance to a cave played hide and seek with the waterfall as it fell in wide sheets. That definitely called for some spelunking.

Technically, there was nothing out of the ordinary about this place. Well, if one didn’t count tropical plants blooming out of season or caves in a naturally flat, almost at sea level terrain. It wasn’t geographically possible. Then again, Stonehenge and Yonaguni Monument were great mysteries as well.

He thrust his hands into the water, expecting it to be cold. To his utter amazement it felt perfect against his skin. Scooping up some in his palms, he splashed his face until he washed away the dirt and grime. Almost immediately the throbbing above his eye stopped. He drank greedily, the sweet taste of the water filling his belly and cleaning his mouth. He ran his tongue along his teeth. They felt clean, as if he’d just brushed them.

Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out three plastic vials—which by some miracle had managed to escape destruction from his tumble. The hairs at the nape of his neck rose and he quickly glanced around. No one was there, but it felt as if he was being watched.

“Just do it,” he muttered.

Blackbeard appeared at the top of the waterfall, precariously balanced on a rock. Sasha narrowed his eyes at him and dipped all three vials in the water, capping each one off with a deliberate purpose.

“What do you say to that?” He stood and shoved the vials back in his pocket. The cat simply stared down at him. Sasha’s face grew hot and his ears began to burn. “Piss off,” he shouted, waving his arms.