Cassie let Ciara go and Michael stepped back, eyeing his older brother and not hiding his tears of joy.
Ciara looked up at Richard. "I'm sorry."
His expression faltered. They stared, then Richard walked closer and slowly closed his arms around her. "It's okay, Ciara. You're home now. All is forgiven."
* * *
"Bryce called me, looking for you," Katherine Davenport said as she handed Ciara the glass of iced tea.
The glass shook in her hand, ice cubes tinkling. "What did he want?"
Kat eyed her. "To talk to you."
She shook her head, setting the tea aside. "I can't see him, Kat. It hurts too much."
"Better safe than sorry, is that it?"
"You didn't see the look in his eyes, the disgust. Bryce hates me. And he has good reason."
"Did leaving the company mean you had to leave your backbone behind?"
Ciara scowled. "What the heck does that mean?"
"It means you went after what you wanted when you joined the CIA. Why stop there? Go for what you want now."
Ciara moved to the large window of Katherine's home that offered a spectacular view of the inter-coastal waterway. "What I want isn't out there, Kat. Not for me. Not anymore."
"Oh yeah. I just wanted peace and quiet and routine. Routine was so nice," she said sadly. "I want carpools and ballet lessons, and … my own babies." She choked. "I had it, Kat. I had it all, but it wasn't really mine to keep. And I'm the only one to blame for destroying it all."
"I wouldn't say that, darlin'."
She spun around, her heart slamming against the wall of her chest. Bryce.
"Is it true you left the agency?"
She nodded as everything about him came crashing in on her. The deep blue of his eyes, the way his dark hair fell across his forehead. The way he could look at her and make her heart stop.
"I couldn't do it anymore. I took one look at the gun and holster and knew that was the old Ciara. That life belonged to the woman who walked in your doors." She took a breath. "Not the woman who walked out of them."
"I see." Bryce couldn't take his eyes off her. The past week had been horrible, like he was under water, everything muffled, heavy, numbing with cold. Hurting for air. And now he felt as if he'd just shot to the surface. Looking at Ciara, it was like breathing again.
"I'm so sorry I deceived you, Bryce," she said suddenly. "But it was part of my job, I had—"
"I know. It took me a while, but I know you were protecting us." He shoved his hands deep into the pocket of his jeans. "I've made some mistakes too, Ciara. The first one was that I didn't know what I had in Hong Kong 'til it was gone."
Her lips curved with old memory.
"The second was last week when I pushed you away." He took a step closer and Ciara's breath caught. Several inches from her, he gazed into her eyes and said, "I was a fool."
"No, you were only—"
"I was," he said more firmly. "I did what you were so afraid I'd do. The instant I had your trust, I pushed you away. But finding out who you really were made me feel as if you didn't need me. That we were just a job to you."
"Oh Bryce, no."
"You're an amazing woman," he said, his gaze drifting over her face, her hair before meeting hers again. "I was afraid I wasn't enough for you. I know what that kind of life is like, how could I offer you more?"
"You already did. You offered a rope to a drowning woman, a woman so isolated she'd forgotten how to really live and love."
"I can't give you all that intrigue."
Hope sprang through her. "I don't want it."
"All I can offer is me. Painfully normal. Is it enough for you?"
She nodded, unable to speak for the thick knot crowding her throat.
He touched her face, sliding his hands into her hair and drawing her close. "I love you, Ciara. I've missed you so much," he said. "I don't care what you did before. I don't care what name you used. I only want it to end with Ashland."
She covered his hand with her own. "I love you," she whispered fiercely.
"Then come home with me, baby," he murmured. "Come back to River Bend and marry me."
Bryce held his breath.
"Yes," Ciara said on a sigh and tipped her head. "Oh, yes."
He kissed her, drowning in her taste, her scent, and knowing for the rest of his life he'd never get enough of her. Before she walked into his life, he'd been lost, wandering, until she stepped in and gave him a second chance to do it right.
He couldn't wait to get started.
"Hey, someone wants her share," Kat said.