He groaned. "Boys. Thank God that's far away."
"Only about sixteen years."
"She can't date 'til she's twenty at least. Maybe thirty."
She laughed. "Hah, she's going to be a beauty. Just try and stop the boys from knocking on your door."
"When did you first date?" Lord, he knew next to nothing about her past.
Her features softened. "Sixteen, I think. My dad was like a hound after a squirrel when the boys came into the house. I recall him saying something like, 'I have a gun and shovel. No one would ever find you.'"
Bryce chuckled, sympathizing with the man. "So where is he now?"
He caught the flash of pain in her eyes and she hesitated before answering. "He's dead. He and my mother were killed several years ago in a jet crash."
"Oh, God, Ciara, I'm sorry."
"Thank you. The worst of it was it was their first vacation alone in years." Ciara rolled to her back and closed her eyes, realizing she'd told him more than she'd intended. Her parents' passing was years ago, leaving her with her brothers for guidance and mostly, leaving her in charge of her younger sister, Cassie for a while. Mostly, forcing her to leave the company for a while to fill her mother's shoes. The last image she had of her family flooded her mind and her eyes burned. Oh, I miss them, she thought and knew it was because she was here, with Bryce and his daughter. In a normal life that wasn't really hers at all. It was like she was living 'what might have been' had she not gone into the CIA.
"Darlin', you okay?" Bryce settled in the corridor leading to the bow, close to where she was lying against the windshield. He touched her cheek, and she turned her face into his palm, kissing it, then lifting her gaze to his. The agony in her eyes was enough to slay him where he stood. "Ahh baby, I'm sorry." He gathered her in his arms. "I didn't mean to bring up old pain."
"It's okay," she whispered, clinging to him, loving that she had someone to share it with, someone who understood. She swallowed repeatedly, trying to keep back the grief she'd never had the chance to shed, for her parents, for the family she'd abandoned for the sake of her career. It was for their own safety, she told herself again. Their safety. Yet her heart wasn't listening and the dam broke.
A decade of tears shattered the stillness.
Bryce groaned and shifted to the bow, pulling her deeper into his embrace. Her shoulders shook as old heartache spilled in tortured sobs that cut him in half. He never really imagined her crying like this. She was so independent and strong, almost invincible. It was a long time before her sobs quieted. A lot of hidden sorrow, he thought and wondered if this was why she shut her emotions off so frequently.
When she was silent and still, he squeezed her, then nudged her head back, staring into her soulful eyes. Then he covered her mouth with his.
Their kiss was slow and tender, her heartache soothed under the balm of his attention.
"Thank you," she muttered after a long moment.
"I hate to see you hurting."
She sniffled. "I'm okay now." With the end of her towel, she blotted her eyes.
Bryce tipped her chin up, and could almost see her turning the pain away, marshaling her emotions and stuffing them into a compartment he knew he couldn't open. "Talk to me, darlin'."
"Nothing to say about it."
He drew on his patience and said, "You can trust me with anything, Ciara. Even your pain. You know that, don't you?"
She nodded and kissed him again, knowing she couldn't. Not with her secret. And right now, she needed him more than she needed to tell him. Not breaking the kiss she shifted closer, and let him work his magic. Their skin meshed, sun-scented and warm.
His hand rode down her back and enfolded her buttock.
Suddenly a horn sounded. They broke apart and looked to see a passing boat filled with people. They hooted and waved and someone shouted.
Ciara buried her face in his chest. "Good grief, I feel like a teenager caught necking by the school principal."
Just then Carolina cried. "Oh dear, the noise startled her," Ciara said and Bryce found his arms empty as she shifted off the bow and went to the baby.
She scooped Carolina up, soothing her tears and reaching for the little life vest the baby had to wear when she was out of the playpen. When Carolina felt sufficiently loved, Ciara slipped on the vest and sat down on the padded bench, reaching for the cooler. She pulled out a snack for Carolina and offered it to her. His daughter stuffed the crustless sandwich in her mouth in a very unladylike fashion.
Smiling, he folded his arms over his chest and studied the woman who turned his world inside out. She was resilient. He'd give her that. She was nothing like Diana or any other woman he'd met before. Last night in his bed, she'd felt what he did. He was sure of it. It was more than just changing things. More than needing each other and wanting that intimate connection. It was a mating of souls, he thought. As if he'd been searching for her, yet not knowing he was searching, and when he found her, it was a pleasure enough to kill him.