Vladimir sneered. “Look at you. Sniveling and begging on the floor.” He spat at Sasha, narrowly missing his face.

Sasha wanted to cry in relief when his uncle tossed the gun to one of the men behind him. “Thank you.”

“Remember this the next time you consider lying to me.” Vladimir flicked his gaze over him and nodded.

Air whooshed behind Sasha and from a distance he heard a thunk. Unable to control his body, he slid to the floor.

“Get him on the plane,” his uncle ordered, his voice sounding like it was underwater.

His mother’s bed blurred, then multiplied as his head lulled to one side. Sasha blinked, trying to combine the images into one solid picture. Men on either side of him grabbed him by the arms, dragging him to the door.

“On your feet,” one of them ordered.

When he didn’t move fast enough, the other man raised his hand.

Mercifully, his world went dark before the blow.

Chapter Thirteen

Late Monday morning Rose opened Carolina Dreams for business, completely thankful and anxious that Skye wasn’t bringing Ivy back until after lunch. The bells rang on the front door and Gabriel Edwards came strolling in.

Tall, dark, and handsome with a hint of a foreign accent when he spoke, despite being raised most of his life in Holland Springs, Gabriel was the subject of many women that shopped in her store. Now that he was single, they wanted to know if Rose knew who the right woman was for him.

Only problem was that whenever Rose did try to picture who Gabriel needed to find the spring with, the image was fuzzy. As it had always been, since the very first time she’d tried to make a match for him.

Rose smiled and met him in the middle of the store. “What can I help you with?”

Gabriel shook her hand, his manners unfailingly polite as he asked about her, Skye, and Ivy. She thought it was odd that he didn’t ask about Summer. Then again, his relationship with Summer had always been odd. “So what do you really need, Gabriel?”

Finally, he rubbed the bridge of his nose and peered at her under his brows, his indigo eyes serious as ever. “Could you do me a favor and take on an employee? One of the teens I’ve been mentoring has finally made the decision to leave his crew, but he needs a place to live and work. Maybe you could let him live above your store and take the rent out of his paycheck?”

She wasn’t sure if she wanted a troubled teen around Ivy. Or her cash register. “How old is he and has he ever been arrested?” Walking to the back of the store, she tried tugging a heavy box over to the counter, but it barely moved. “How in the world did Skye lug this downstairs?”

“Eighteen and petty theft.”

Standing, she wiped her hands on the back of her jeans. “No history of violence? Drugs?”

“Not yet. Where do you want this?” Gabriel asked, waving her out of the way.

She pointed at the counter top. “There.”

He lifted the box filled with bottles of shampoo and conditioner with ease. “Please, Rose, he has no family to speak of. His big brother is a gang banger and his mother just got shipped back to Mexico. No one else will give him a chance, and I heard from Jemma Leigh that you got a huge contract with Ingrid’s Insects.”

“Barbara’s Bugs,” she corrected with a smile. “Thanks for the help.”

“You’re welcome.” He grinned back, then sobered. “No one else will hire him. You’re my last hope. And it’s not because I was holding out for something better. I know you have a lot on your plate right now, with taking care of Ivy and all.” He blew out a breath. “I’ll be personally responsible. If he breaks or steals anything, I’ll have David haul his butt to jail and pay you twice what it was worth.”

She hesitated. “I’m not sure it’s a good idea, Gabriel.”

“Come on, Rose, give him a chance to prove he’s not what everyone thinks he is.”

She sighed, tucking a stray curl behind her ear. “What’s his name?”

“Miguel Ruiz.” A look of pure relief passed over his face. “When can he start?”

“When does he need to?”

Gabriel bit the side of his bottom lip before he answered. “As soon as possible.”

“Miguel can move in Thursday afternoon. That’ll give him the entire weekend to rearrange the upstairs. Tell him there’ll be some casseroles in the freezer to get him started. And some basics in the fridge.”

Gabriel grabbed her and pressed a quick kiss to her forehead. “If this town only knew what you really were like, honey.”

“They wouldn’t believe it. Most of them will think I’ve taken up with a younger man,” Rose said, her face growing hot. She stepped away from him as he let go of her arms. “Did you tell him about our…my reputation?”

He grunted. “Nothing to tell. Anyway, I need to get back to work before Noah drives Allie insane and she quits.”

“Will you be my date for the fundraiser at the Collins’?” she asked.

“Uh, well, those kind of events aren’t really my thing,” he said, fidgeting with his keys.

What he really meant, but was too polite to say, was that women like her weren’t his thing, not anymore. Defending her and her sisters when they were kids being bullied was one thing, but now that they were all adults, it wasn’t needed.

Besides his family was well-respected in the community. He was well-respected, with all the outreach programs he’d started. Gabriel understood more than most that there were some people who couldn’t be saved. That there were some families whose reputations would never change.

“Never mind. I got the invitation today. Everyone who owns a business in town did. Jemma Leigh designed the invitations and they’re very pretty.” She snapped her mouth shut and began sorting the remaining bottles into two piles, afraid she’d blurt out that the invitation was probably a mistake, but she wasn’t going to let that stop her from going. Besides, a part of her wanted to see Harrison Collins squirm in public.

“It’s not you, Rose. It’s just that my ex will be there, and—”

“You’re still in love with Zoe?”

“No.” He shook his head, looking her in the eye. “I’m happy for her. Only seeing her reminds me of what I could’ve had. I’ve wasted a lot of time wanting the wrong woman.”

“I completely understand.” She’d been wasting her time wanting the wrong man. But she really didn’t want to go alone. She didn’t want to have to face all those people. Or be the third wheel on Skye’s date with Tristan.

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