“Out of my way, damn cat.”
Blackbeard ignored him, taking every opportunity to try to trip him as he jogged up the grand staircase.
The cross pendant felt tight around his neck, like a noose. One he deserved.
When he got to the final landing, he slowed his pace, trying to sort through all the possible things he could say to her. But “whoops, didn’t think to mention the bit about helping the town was important” wasn’t going to cut it.
The door to Ivy’s nursery was ajar and he stepped inside. He paused in the middle of the room, listening to Rose as she sang softly to Ivy. The baby’s hands reached for Rose’s curls, grabbing them and cooing.
Regret hit him hard in the gut. This was what his life had come to—targeting an innocent woman and baby in order to save his mother. At least Rose had a place to go. That much he could be thankful for. He would be the lowest of gutter scum if he’d made her completely homeless. Not that he was far off.
“Did we wake her?”
The lullaby abruptly stopped.
“Once she goes back to sleep, I’ll take you to the spring and you can get your samples,” she said quietly as Ivy’s lids drooped.
He blinked, unsure if he was hearing her correctly. “You’re still going to help me?”
She placed the baby in the crib. “I said I would.”
“Rose, I…” he began and tried to grab her arm as she walked by him.
She jerked back. “Don’t.”
He let his hand fall to his side. The need to apologize was overwhelming, but he couldn’t make his mouth and tongue form the words. Finally, he said, “Wait until tomorrow to take me to the springs. After the ball, we’ll—”
“No, we’ll go now and then you’ll get the hell out of my house.” She left him standing in the middle of Ivy’s room.
The door shut behind them and it took a minute for Rose’s eyes to adjust to the darkness. She shivered, wishing she’d put on a coat. “You’ll need to watch your head.”
Automatically, she turned on the flashlight and began to walk down the corridor made of earth and oak timbers that shored up the sides and ceiling. Normally, she made this trek alone. Normally, her heart wasn’t broken. Normally…Nothing was ever normal for her.
She could feel Sasha’s presence behind her as they walked. The slight scuffle of his shoes echoed in turn with hers.
“Who built this?”
“Need it for your official report?”
“Dammit, Rose. I’m trying to make conversation so I won’t go mental in here.”
He sounded so sincere that she couldn’t help but ask, “Are you afraid of the dark or closed-in spaces?”
“Does it matter?” he snapped.
Irritated, she stopped suddenly. He rammed into her and sent her to her knees, the firmly packed dirt floor unforgiving. “Ow!” The flashlight flew out of her hand and landed on the floor with a thud, shining a long beam of light in the direction they needed to go.
Sasha swore, his hands patting her head and shoulders before he yanked her up and pressed her close.
“Are you okay?” he asked, his voice harsh.
She closed her eyes in the near darkness and breathed in his male scent, wanting to weep at the false sense of comfort his body gave her. At the way his strong arms wrapped around her and made her think that he’d cared for her. But it had all been a lie. He couldn’t even tell her the truth without lying to her.
“You lied to me. I bet you weren’t ever going to tell me either,” she said, the material of his shirt soft against her cheek.
He exhaled, his muscular chest falling. “Rose, I—”
“Let me go,” she whispered as she heard his heart begin to sprint.
Her heart began beating furiously. “Why not?”
“Because I was trapped in mangled steel for ten hours and had to be cut out of my parents’ car. Confined spaces are not—” his voice cracked slightly and he cleared his throat even as hers thickened in disappointment. “—let’s start moving again before I do something quite ridiculous.”
As soon as his hands fell away, she stepped back and turned around, striding to the flashlight. She wasn’t falling for his routine. No matter how sincerely anxious he sounded. But she stopped and waited for him to catch up anyway.
“Idiot,” she muttered. She should have left him to curl up in a ball in the middle of the tunnel. However, being cruel had never been in her nature.
“I hear water,” he said and her sweater grew tight against her br**sts. He had to be holding on to it. “Does this mean we’re close?”
Unable to stop herself, she reached back and grabbed his hand, squeezing it reassuringly. “Almost there.”
“Thank you,” he said softly.
Ducking under a particularly low formation of rock, she entered the main room, then turned right and pressed an old-fashioned light switch. Several bulbs connected by a series of cords glowed brightly, chasing away the shadows.
Behind her, Sasha took a deep breath and let go of her sweater. “It’s smaller than I expected.” He brushed past her, carrying a box the size of a large cosmetics case in his left hand. He skirted the edge of the spring, then turned to her. “How deep is it?”
Rose hit her collar bone with the edge of her hand. “Here, but you have to be careful on the left side. There’s a sudden drop-off and you can feel it sucking at your feet like a drain.” She joined him and stared at the deceptively calm water. “Whatever gets pulled down shows up at the legendary spring. If I know a couple will be there on a certain day and time, I send flowers to them.”
“What about the temperature?”
Shrugging, she said, “Not everything can be explained away.”
He grunted. “The herbs?”
“That I can explain.” She pointed to an over-sized chest in the corner. “It’s a mixture I add three times a week. One that’s been passed down from generation to generation. Hollands have been adding herbs to the springs for over two hundred and fifty years. Supposedly, the mixture can cure everything from toothaches to burns. But not broken hearts, and it can’t make anyone fall in love. Or tell the truth.” Clamping her mouth shut to keep from rambling even more, she turned to face him. He looked resigned. Soon he’d be free. To go wherever he wanted. See whoever he wanted. A little pinch in her heart made her rub the vee-neck of her sweater.