“The tourist attraction?”
He shot her a knowing look. “That spring is more than just a tourist attraction. People believe in it. It made a cut over my eye better, freshened up my—”
“Herbs,” she said, confusing the hell out of him.
A small smile flitted over her lips. “Later.”
“Anyway, I was able to get samples of it the night you took me there, and had them sent to my uncle’s Helsinki labs. He was the one who called while we were, ah, otherwise occupied at the time.”
“You mean seducing the most gullible woman in existence and leaving when you’d had enough?”
Had enough? There was no such thing when it came to Rose. He’d never get enough of her. “Not gullible, incredibly sweet. Caring. The brief time we spent together was the absolute best I’d had in a long time.”
“Well, I am a Holland, and we aim to please the men around here.”
“Dammit, Rose, stop putting yourself down.” He banged the back of his head against the headboard.
“Is your uncle a scientist?”
He blinked at her change in subject or rather redirection. Women were entirely baffling and would most likely remain so until he was decrepit. “Do you ever watch the telly?”
She lifted a dainty shoulder. “Unlike some people, I don’t have time.”
Meaning people like him. People who did nothing but play and use others for personal gain. “He’s a very powerful businessman, a bully, actually. Long story short: the samples were no good. The people that work for him know there’s another spring. One that feeds the tourist attraction.”
Rose’s expression barely changed, but her fingers began to rub at her cross. “Why does it matter?”
“An international water bottling company is interested in your land. They want Holland Springs to be the location of their North American headquarters. And they want to put a plant here.” Glancing at the picture of his mother and uncle, he clenched his teeth. He’d been told not to play the hero. Hell, he’d never wanted to be the hero. Not until a woman with infrequent smiles and beautiful eyes had entered his life. “If I don’t find the source and get samples sent off in time, my uncle will move my mum to a place that’s a guaranteed death sentence.”
Her eyes widened. “How can he?”
“Vladimir can do any damn thing he wants. He’s the executor of my father’s estate and makes all of the medical decisions for my mother until I’m thirty. Less than two years away, but it seems like eternity.”
Understanding dawned on her face, and he wanted to kiss her. She let go of the cross pendant. “This isn’t the first time he’s done this, is it?”
So great was his relief that he could barely get out the words, “It’s been my life for the past nine years. He started using me when I was nineteen.”
“Oh my God,” she gasped, “That’s why you were in the Johnsons’ cucumber field.”
“The only reason he had the living hell beat out of me is because he can’t actually allow my mother to die. Who’d be his minion then? But she’s a little stronger now, more stable.” Self-loathing shot through his veins, corroding them with its poison. As always he was trading someone else’s life for his mother’s.
“Your uncle’s flat out evil,” she said.
So was he, if only by association. Rose had to know the full extent of his sordid past. “At first, I didn’t mind doing things for my uncle,” he said, not bothering to spin it and paint himself as a victim. Only women like his mother and Rose were victims of his uncle’s schemes. “Well, to be honest… I rather liked it. The attention I received from him. The illusion of control and power. All for starting a rumor or hacking into personal email accounts to dig up dirt. Or finding incriminating pictures—you wouldn’t believe what people store on their computers. It was as if I had replaced the son he didn’t want with the one who’d do anything for him.”
Rose made a little noise. “By loving you with conditions. That’s not love. It’s manipulation, plain and simple.”
She said it with such conviction that he wondered at it, but he had to get everything out. He couldn’t stop it. He didn’t want to.
“Eventually, I wised up and started saying no. Then Vladimir began playing Russian Roulette with my mother’s health. The first time he put her at Childer’s, they didn’t check on her for days and she got an infection that nearly killed her. Sometimes, I think he’s toying with me for his sadistic pleasure. Only when she’s too weak for even the people he buys off to move does he take it out on me.” He turned the phone over and over in his hand. “I hate him, but I hate myself even more.” Face heating and stomach roiling, he looked away. “If you only knew the things I’ve done, the lives I’ve ruined—”
“Don’t,” she said, placing her hand on his chest.
Grabbing her hand, he pressed it tightly against his skin and made himself look at her. “I swear to you…I swear on my father’s grave I didn’t set out to seduce or use you. I tried to keep my distance, but I—you’ve, for lack of a better word, bewitched me, and I fell under your spell. Willingly.” He gave her the barest hint of a wicked grin before he sobered. “Ivy as well. With the exception of my mother, the two of you are the last people on this planet I want to hurt.”
When she said nothing, he let go of her hand and it fell away. Cold air rushed over his chest. He chucked his phone on the nightstand. There was no going back now. Any minute Rose would storm out of here in completely righteous indignation. Perhaps even kick him out before she got to the door. But he deserved it. He deserved every last drop of her vengeance.
Suddenly, Rose threw back the covers and got out of bed. He watched in disbelief as she grabbed a shirt from the wardrobe and hastily put it on. Not until she finished rolling up the sleeves did she look at him and say in an exasperated tone, “Aren’t you coming with me?”
“What?” She wasn’t kicking him out?
Her spine straightened and she seemed to grow taller as she smiled. “I’m going to help you keep your mom safe.”
“How?” he croaked. Jesus, he sounded like a right git.
“I’m going to rescue you and your mom,” she said slowly, as if speaking to a small child who was refusing to listen.