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Chapter One

If it hadn’t been for the vultures circling above the Johnsons’ old tobacco field, Rose Holland would’ve never seen the dead body.

“Oh my God!”

Slamming on the brakes, she put the Jeep in park and grabbed her cell phone, jabbing at the buttons. Nothing happened and she looked down at the screen. “No signal,” she muttered and tossed it into the passenger seat. Of course not, she was thirty miles outside of Holland Springs, North Carolina. And that, according to her Garmin, was smack dab in the middle of nowhere.

Rose had two choices: wait; or drive to town and get help.

She should wait. It was the decent thing to do, and eventually someone would come along. State troopers loved to patrol this stretch of highway that the locals referred to as a speed trap.

Tapping her fingers against the dash, she muttered, “Any minute now.”

A vulture landed and poked at the arm.

Bile rose in her throat, then pity flooded her heart. He, judging by the large shape she thought it to be a man, might have a family at home. Missing him. Worrying and out of their minds for him.

Before she could question her sanity, she’d unbuckled her seat belt, thrown open the door and now stood at the edge of the road. Staring.

Steeling her nerves, she strode to the field. Her foot slipped on mud made by last night’s rainstorm and she hit the ground with a splat. Cold water and mud seeped through her shorts, jolting her. This was ridiculous. No one in their right mind would even think of checking out a dead body, but something inside of her insisted that he wasn’t dead.

She tracked another vulture as it landed. It too began pecking, but at a bare foot. Glancing to the right, she breathed through her nose, trying to calm her racing heart. Tire tracks and footprints intermingled along the ditch bank. Deep gashes in the soft earth held puddles of water. Was he a victim of a hit and run?

A third vulture landed.

Those ugly things had always disgusted her, even more so because of their ‘nature’s garbage disposal’ reputation. Pushing away from the ground and running at the birds, she waved her arms and shouted, “Go away! Shoo, you nasty things. Shoo!”

After a good ten minutes the vultures decided that either he wasn’t worth it or she’d made it impossible for them to properly digest. She dropped to her knees in the loamy soil a few feet away from the body, panting and waiting for the stench of rotting flesh to hit her.

It never came.

She turned and the wind whipped her corkscrew curls around, blinding her to the man sprawled over rows of dirt.

He groaned and her mouth dried out.

Rose shoved her hair out of her face. Feet. She could handle looking at his feet. Another groan and this time his pinky toe moved.

Oh God! Was that a death twitch?

Finally, she made her gaze travel to his chest. No other spot but there. The tattered remnants of a button-down shirt rose and fell with shallow breaths.

“You’re alive!” she shrieked, scrambling to her feet and running to him. She stopped just inches from the body. His golden hair was matted down and dirt smeared his face.

His face.

“It’s you.”

Alexander Romanov’s lids slitted open, revealing moss green eyes glinting with pain. “Sorry to disappoint,” he rasped, his British accent more pronounced than usual. He groaned again.

“Who did this to you?” She dropped to her knees, searching his beautiful face. But for a cut at the corner of his mouth, it was unmarred. His body, however, was an entirely different story. Almost every exposed inch had a shallow cut or bruise. It looked as though someone had used him as a punching bag. “We need to go the sheriff’s office and make a report.”

“No need.” He grimaced. “Got into a row with some mates and lost.”

She pursed her lips at him. “Maybe you should rethink your circle of friends.”

“I’ll take that under consideration.” A ghost of a smile appeared and then he coughed, a spasm of pain covering his face.

She sat back on her heels. “As nice as you were to me yesterday, I should leave your sorry tail out here to rot.”

“Sorry, love,” he said as his eyes closed and the skin around his mouth turned white, “Couldn’t help myself.”

“But now you can?”

“Can we discuss this later?” Once again his green eyes focused on her, and the need to help him, really anyone in pain, negated the desire to leave him wallowing in his own misery.

Rose scanned the field. To her left it lay empty, not even the Johnsons’ fluorescent green tractor was around. To her right there were woods but it wasn’t deer season, so she couldn’t flag down a hunter.

She sighed in resignation. “Either I can go get help, or—”

“No!” He struggled to rise, managing to get into a sitting position.

“Why not?”

Shaking his head, he waved her question away with his hand. “Help me up, Rosebud,” he ordered.

She raised her brows and crossed her arms. “Ask nicely, Alexander.”

“Call me Sasha,” he’d said with a wicked grin, “All my friends do.”

Well, Sasha sure had a funny way of treating his friends. Why couldn’t someone else have found him? She had enough going on in her life without this. Him.

“Please?” he asked.

“That wasn’t so hard, was it?”

Sasha grunted. It was harder than she thought. He hated asking anyone for anything. He hated being helpless.

As she leaned forward to help him, black curls tumbled onto his blood, dirt and God-only-knew-what-else-covered chest. He had the urge to shove her away, desperate that this filth not touch her. Not even the silky tips of her hair.

The scent of night blooming jasmine drifted to him, displacing the odor of violence. He breathed deeply, then scanned the road. He found her Jeep up the small incline. “Four-wheel drive?”

“No, but I think that between the two of us, we can get you to it. The closest hospital is fifty minutes away, but—”

“No, no hospital. It looks much worse than it is.” Turning to his good leg, he put most of his weight on it, then tried the other. A fresh wave of pain rose over him and he had to clench his teeth from crying out.

Rose’s arms came around him, her slight form a human crutch. Suddenly, she stood, ramming his dislocated shoulder back in place.

His vision blackened, stars sparked and he shouted, “Son of a bitch!” Breathing through his nose, he fought down the nausea.

She looked up, her eyes shadowed. Did she feel any pity for him? Anything at all? Did he want her pity? Oh, good God, this was quickly turning into a let’s-talk-about-our-feelings moment. Although it was all in his head. Yeah, because having conversations with oneself is entirely sane.

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