“Sweet baby,” she crooned, sitting down in the chair that had rocked the first Poppy Holland born in the New World. Rose hummed, the familiarity of their routine giving her a sense of peace.
Ivy grunted and sucked harder, making Rose laugh. “Greedy little thing.”
Blackbeard meowed and Rose focused on him. The cat’s gaze seemed to be disapproving. “Don’t look at me like that. We need the money.” He let out a growl. “Leave if you don’t like it, but who else is going to put up with you?”
The feline rose and stretched, sauntering from the room in a way that only a spoiled cat secure in his position could.
As Ivy ate, Rose kept one eye on the clock. She still had supper to fix. Sasha’d given her a funny look when she’d said that. Maybe she should have said four course dinner. That was language he understood—the snob.
She let out a little giggle. Wonder what he’d think of cheese grits and sliced ham with biscuits? He’d probably look at her with those sexy green eyes and say something scathing. Or outrageous.
Secretly, she liked those sides of his personality. “Idiot,” she chided herself. It was his charming side that made her distrust him.
As Rose patted her on the back, Ivy let out a lusty burp. Rose held her close, snuggling with her until the baby had fallen fast asleep. She knew this was spoiling her, but Rose couldn’t help it.
Ivy made her happy. Every little new gurgle and sound. Every little wiggle and grunt. Not that Ivy wasn’t work; she was. At first Rose had been terrified. Terrified of holding her wrong, feeding her wrong, accidentally drowning her in the bath or not waking up at night when she cried. Most of all she was afraid that she wasn’t mother material. That there was something in her DNA that made her unfit to parent.
What was worse, she knew that time was running out. Her sister, Summer, would return and then Rose would be alone again. It was her destiny.
Actually, it was more like a curse.
“Supper’s ready,” Rose called out as Sasha strode into the kitchen. She sat down at the kitchen table and helped herself to the meal she’d prepared. He sat down with her, loading up his plate and placing a napkin in his lap.
“Your house is trying to kill me,” he muttered before taking a savage bite of buttermilk biscuit. “Nearly electrocuted myself in the loo.” He chewed the rest and she watched his throat work as he swallowed. “Then the damn lights went off just as I started down the stairs. Hit me head a half dozen times on God-knows-what.”
“You look fine,” she said. There wasn’t a hair out of place. He looked exactly like a male model. Dressed like it, too. The stark lines of his shirt emphasized the sculpted lean muscles underneath.
He gave her a sexy grin and winked, making her heart pound. “Glad you think so.”
She rolled her eyes. Good grief. Maybe he should’ve been the actor instead of his cousin. She said nothing and began to eat. Polite conversation was most likely expected, but for the life of her, she couldn’t think of a single thing to say.
“Where’s Ivy?” he asked.
“Sleeping.” She stirred her grits around with her spoon. Normally, she loved eating them, but tonight they tasted like paste.
She looked across the table at him. “She went back to Greenville, remember?”
“How often does she help you?” He took a sip of water and set the glass down.
“Every Thursday.” She bent her head again, studying the cracked Formica top as she chewed on a piece of salty ham. Little gold stars winked back at her under the pendant light fixture. Never before had the condition of her home bothered her. But now, with this man, sitting in her kitchen, the old inadequacies of her childhood resurfaced at an alarming rate.
“I have a friend who’d love your house. Maybe I should invite him out here. He directs horror movies, and—”
She snapped her head up. He thought her home belonged in a horror movie?
“I’ve got it,” he said with a snap of his fingers, “a Halloween party. Fancy dress. No, no. A masquerade with costumes. Can you imagine how many people could fill up this place? And the dark corners are perfect for a little—”
“No,” she managed to say without choking. There was no way in hell he was turning her home into some kind of haunted house for his friends’ perverse pleasures. She grabbed her glass of water and washed down the bite of meat.
He looked at her quizzically and stroked his jaw. “I’m not allowed friends? Or parties? Don’t remember that bit in the rental contract. In fact, I reckon it’s not legal. You can’t keep a man away from his mates.”
“It’s not in the stupid contract. It’s-it’s the rules. My rules. Take it or leave it,” she said flatly, unable to take his teasing.
His mouth dropped open, reminding her of a catfish at the end of a fishing pole. “Pardon?”
“You heard me.” She stabbed a helpless piece of ham with her fork.
“I’m paying you six months in advance rent tomorrow. Surely, you could relax them a bit, eh?”
There was nothing she wanted to relax for him. She couldn’t even relax in her own house, and he’d only been there for two hours.
She jumped to her feet, bumping the table and overturning the salt shaker. Out of habit, she grabbed the shaker and shook some salt into her right hand, throwing it over her left shoulder when she was done. “Tomorrow, I’ll drive you back to town and you can find another place to stay.”
“Wait! Where do you think you’re going? ” Sasha reached for her as she rushed past, but Blackbeard growled at him.
“Sic, Blackbeard, sic,” she hissed, and the black cat pounced.
“Holy hell,” he shouted.
The tone of his voice made her stop mid-stride in the most glorious storm-off in history. Sliding over the left side of the hallway, she peeked around the corner, waiting to see what he would do next.
He knelt down, trying to unhook the cat’s claws from the hem of his pants. “Don’t you know this is Prada, you mangy cur?” he asked, clearly exasperated.
She gasped in outrage. Blackbeard was the cleanest cat in Holland Springs.
“Not the shirt, too. Get off,” he said, his voice rising again, “It’s a McQueen before Burton.”
“Oh, yes, the shirt, too,” Rose mocked softly. As if Blackbeard knew or cared about fashion designers.
Sasha looked up at the ceiling of the kitchen as though pleading for help. She took a step forward, almost giving away her hiding place. If Sasha so much as looked at her sweet kitty cock-eyed, she’d smother him in his sleep tonight. With a rock.