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In order to look like he was actually doing something, he’d brought his laptop and sat down in a wildly leaning to one side rolling desk chair at the old counter. As he ordered new equipment and sent emails to friends asking for donations, he kept one eye on Carolina Dreams.

He didn’t know how she did it. It seemed as though Rose was always moving, always helping someone. Sometimes with Ivy in her arms. Not until a little after one in the afternoon did traffic to her store finally die down.

A group of four women—including Jemma Leigh—exited Rose’s shop, their laughter carrying to him. To his amazement Rose trailed behind them, but she stopped to prop open her door with a big pot of some kind of green plants with huge red flowers.

“Come to lunch with us, Rose,” Jemma Leigh said with a smile.

Rose froze in place.

Sasha stood, moving to the window to get a closer look. Why did Rose look so surprised at the invitation? She had to have girlfriends—all women did.

“Oh please come,” An auburn haired woman wearing square glasses said. “Maybe you could give Christina a love hint.”

“Sage Caswell!” Christina said, a blush forming on her cheeks as she lightly bumped her friend with her hip. “Well, my momma swears by your family. So whatever help you can give me, I’ll take it.”

A smile began to tilt Rose’s lips at the corners, but the fourth in their quartet banished it. “Not with that baby,” the brunette with straight brown hair snapped. “This is my one day without kids.”

Sasha narrowed his eyes at the self-centered women. “Rose never gets a day without kids,” he said under his breath.

Rose turned to Christiana. “It’s Jacob Mansell.”

Christina smiled and clapped her hands together, then reached out to hug Rose.

Quickly side-stepping the woman, Rose tucked a loose curl behind her ear and grabbed the sign by the door, repositioning it. “Y’all have fun.” She disappeared into her shop.

Sage frowned. “You really know how to make a person feel welcome.”

Jemma Leigh punched the brunette in the shoulder. “Way to go, Bernice.”

Bernice rubbed her shoulder, leading the way as the group of women followed. ”I don’t know why you’re so hell-bent on her coming, Sage. It’s not like you and Joaquin worked out.”

“You need to apologize to Rose before I do more than hit you on your shoulder,” Sage said, her eyes narrowing.

“You tell her, Sage,” Sasha said, crossing his arms over his chest.

“I’m not apologizing for—Oh, my God—did a bird just poop in my hair?” Bernice patted her hair, coming away with some whitish-gray goop in her hand. She let out a screech.

A little blue bird swooped down, finding a spot on the awning over Carolina Dreams’ door. It twittered joyfully, and Sasha’s jaw dropped. He swung his gaze back to the foursome, entirely satisfied to see the other three women laughing at Bernice.

Rose peeked out of her door, her eyes widening as she clamped a hand over her mouth. He kept himself from laughing, worried that she’d hear him and know he was spying on her.

However, he couldn’t stop the ache that began to form in his chest when her hand fell away and the longing on her face as the women walked around the corner eclipsed the sunny afternoon.

***

Sasha squeezed the stuffed rabbit he bought Ivy, making it squeak, and the baby squealed with delight.

Ivy’s dark brown eyes crinkled at the corners as she drooled and babbled. “Don’t think you’ll lure me in with those ridiculous lashes. I’m made of sterner stuff,” he said, but then the baby just had to smile at him. And his heart lurched.

“He’s too old for you, baby girl,” Rose said, sitting down on the faded rug beside him and handing him a cup of green tea.

“Thanks.” He leaned against the sofa and stretched his legs out on either side of Ivy’s blanket. Rose grabbed Ivy just as she tried to eat his sock and placed her back in the middle. “You’re quite good at the whole mummy thing.”

“Baptism by fire,” she said softly. “I was scared to death, but now…”

He leaned forward to set the tea on the coffee table, then settled against the couch again. “Now what?”

“Now I feel guilty because I don’t want Summer to come back. I want to keep Ivy forever,” she said with a little hitch to her voice. Her eyes glistened with unshed tears.

“I’m sure you’ll do what’s best for Ivy.” He wouldn’t insult her by saying everything would be okay. That she’d be okay. That maybe Summer wouldn’t come back after all and Rose could keep Ivy forever.

Life wasn’t fair, because if it were, he’d still have his dad and a mother who wasn’t in a coma. He wouldn’t be a pawn in his uncle’s schemes. He wouldn’t be a villain. One that was sitting on the floor with the woman who’d saved him while he plotted against her and all that she cherished.

“I know.” She swiped a finger across her lashes, then a smile curved her sweet lips. “Where have you been?”

Blackbeard slunk into the room, his bushy tail hitting Sasha in the leg. The cat eyed a half-eaten slice of cheese cake. He jumped on top of the scratched coffee table to inspect it closer.

Sasha gave the cat a mock grimace and shook the rabbit at him. “I can tell you where that damn cat’s been. In my bed and under my covers, making himself at home. I’ve been choking on cat hair. That beast of yours likes to sleep on my neck.”

“Poor baby.” Rose laughed and his heart turned over. “It’s only been a little over a week.”

It seemed a lot longer to him. Maybe because he spent every night listening to the sounds of her humming to Ivy. Of her asking about his day, his store, and what he wanted to eat that night. Watching as she ventured out of her shop and over to his, bringing him lunch, but never staying to eat with him. As she picked flowers and talked to Blackbeard as if he were human.

As he searched for weakness and only found his own.

Not once had she mentioned the “real” Holland Springs and not once had he asked her.

In the fireplace, a blazing fire crackled and snapped while the sounds of indie rockers lamenting their love lives, but not their unfortunate fashion choices (which never failed to boggle Sasha’s mind) filled the silence.

“Looks like she’s feeling much better.” This morning, when Ivy had woken up with a fever and Rose had been frantic, he’d volunteered to go to Palm Island and clean so Rose would have one less thing to worry about. She’d given him another one of her tight hugs in thanks, and he’d driven to the ferry, happy as lunatic—again.

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