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He smiled and took another confident step, the motion of his lean body reminding her of a panther. By the time he quit walking, she was against the door, holding Ivy between them.

Slowly, he lowered his head. She sucked in a quick breath and turned her face away. His breath was hot on her neck, the tiny hairs on her skin standing at attention. The heat of his skin caressed hers and she half-expected—and to her mortification, half-hoped—to feel his lips.

Holding Ivy tighter, she closed her eyes.

“Sweet Rose, I’ll need a contract and a spare key.”

Suddenly, the delicious heat her body had been absorbing was gone. She opened her eyes to find Sasha standing a couple of feet away, rifling through his wallet. He pulled out some money and held it out to her. “Skye said rent’s five hundred a month. Here’s the deposit and I’ll get the rest out tomorrow.”

She pressed her nose to Ivy’s head, steadying her nerves before she spoke. There was no way she would ever let him know how much he still affected her. “Give me about fifteen minutes to print out a contract and pack everything up. Then you can follow me home.”

“I can’t.” He began striding to the back of the store.

She followed him to her office. “Why not?”

“Like I told Jemma Leigh, I need a car.” His was expression unreadable as he turned to wait for her to catch up. That was the worst thing about Sasha. She could never trust her instincts when it came to him. But she needed the money.

“Fine, you can ride with me when we’re done,” she said grudgingly.

He held out his arms. “Let me hold her while you get everything together.”

She hesitated. He didn’t strike her as the paternal type.

“Fine, do it your way.” He held his hands up.

She looked down at Ivy and then back at him. “It’s nothing personal, but—”

“Say no more.” He gave her a friendly smile and hopped to sit on one side of her desk.” I completely understand.”

“You do?”

“Actually no, but I thought it was the best thing to say at the time,” he said with a small shrug. He placed five hundred dollars on her desk and began to whistle.

She wanted to laugh at him. At her entire situation. But she was afraid that her laughter would turn into hysterical crying and she wouldn’t be able to stop.

Chapter Three

Rose turned on the radio and popped in a Mozart CD when they hit the outskirts of town. Ivy’s pediatrician, Dr. Reed, had told her it was good for babies to listen to classical music. It made special connections in their developing brains. Made them smarter. God knew Ivy needed an advantage due to her last name.

Abruptly, the strains of “Serenade in G Minor” stopped. She glanced over at Sasha. He stared at her with a grim look on his face. “More of a Bach fan?” she asked.

“Are we there, yet? We’ve been driving for days,” he complained, making her smile.

She turned left onto Strawberry Grove Lane, the long winding drive welcoming her home. “Only five more minutes.”

“Thank God,” he said as her home came into view. “I never thought we’d get here.”

The pre-Civil War house had been built in 1820 for the second Poppy Holland by her adoring lover. The two-story double-balcony structure faced the Pamlico Sound and was framed by oak trees with heavy boughs of Spanish moss in their branches. Off to the side stood a greenhouse surrounded by a carefully tended garden.

After parking, they got out of the Jeep and she moved to the back passenger side to get Ivy.

Rose unlatched the baby’s carrier from its base, stealing glances at her new tenant as she did. However, his profile revealed nothing, and as they walked to the entrance, she began to judge the exterior from an outsider’s point of view.

Peeling paint, a sagging front porch and missing rails greeted them. Shutters hanging on by their last nails threatened to decapitate an unlucky bystander. Cobwebs decorated every nook and cranny.

Her cheeks began to burn and she walked faster, the gravel crunching under her shoes. Maybe she should have sold the place when she had the chance—before she had told the real estate agent to stick it where the sun didn’t shine.

Damn stubborn pride.

But that’s what kept her from collapsing on the floor when she read the letter from the tax office. It really hadn’t been a surprise, but the grace period had been shortened from six months to three. She was thankful that it hadn’t been reduced to one. A move that she wouldn’t put past Lorelei Collins, Holland Springs’ tax administrator, not after this new development.

The sins of her mother were being visited on Rose and her sisters in triplicate. As usual.

Sasha knew Rose was embarrassed as hell, the tightness in her shoulders and rigid posture giving her away. He could make it easier on her. He could say something witty and charming, putting her at ease. Then again, she didn’t like it when he was charming. She smiled when he was snarky and biting. Or when he was real.

And if he didn’t watch it, he’d end up talking to her about long walks on the beach and his pet peeves.

“I see you’re ready for Halloween,” he said.

She paused and he grabbed the car seat from her, following as she made her way up the rickety front porch steps. He rather hoped they would hold his and Ivy’s combined weight. The steps creaked ominously, but held. Good God, this place needed a major face lift.

“At Strawberry Grove, we’re ready twenty-four-seven, three hundred-sixty five days a year,” she said.

“Favorite holiday, eh?”

As the door opened, she stepped inside and gave a low laugh. Darkness enveloped her and the hair on the back on his neck stood up. “Haven’t you heard, Mr. Romanov?” Her voice was low, seductive. Bewitching.

“Heard what?” Unease pricked at his spine, making him unable to step inside with a defenseless baby.

Lights in the foyer flickered to life, but Rose stood no where near the twin lamps sitting on a table under a large gilded mirror. Instead she stood at the base of a grand staircase, her ocean-blue eyes mysterious. A black cat rubbed against her ankles and meowed.

“I’m a witch.”

Unable to help himself, his mouth dropped open. “A what!”

“I’m only teasing.” The expression on her face was anything but playful. She gestured for him to follow her up the stairs. “Your room’s up here. Bring Ivy and I’ll give you the grand tour before I fix supper.”

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