Because she'll never trust you again.

He was looking for trust when she might not forgive him. It would be just penance. Then a horrible thought occurred to him. What if she'd left in the middle of the night? Throwing back the covers, he pulled on his jeans before leaving his bedroom. He paused outside her door, then pushed it open. The bed was made and the room looked vacant.

The sight made his heart leap to his throat and stay there.

Then he heard the clang of pots and caught the scent of bacon. His relief was overwhelming and he strode quickly down the hall, crossing the foyer and padding on bare feet through the dining room to the kitchen. He saw her shuffling around the kitchen, preparing breakfast. She didn't look any better than he felt.

With a quick glance around, he realized they were alone. The girls would sleep late, but the ranch hands would be coming in for coffee in a few minutes. He watched her for a second, wondering what to say.

"It's impolite to stare, Nash."

"Then put more clothes on."

Hayley glanced down at her shorts and T-shirt, then lifted her gaze to his. "You need to address this problem you have with my clothes, and you shouldn't talk." He was wearing jeans, only jeans, and he looked so vulnerable standing in the doorway. But he wasn't. Even with the shadow of a beard and finger-combed hair, even with the hard-muscled chest shouting to be touched, he was still invincible to her.

Except the dark smudges under his eyes told her that while she'd slept, he hadn't.

She turned her gaze away, a dozen feelings running through her at once. She didn't think she could handle a single one right now. She'd spent the past hour trying to line them up in neat little rows only to have one look at his wary expression and experience the domino effect. Feelings fell all over themselves, confusing her more. She didn't want him to suffer any more than she had. He'd paid a higher price for that one night with Michelle. And seeing people suffer and wanting to do something about it was why she'd become a doctor. It was inbred, natural.

She cut a cube of butter into the frying pan, then began cracking eggs into a bowl.

Nash crossed to her and she lifted her gaze.

He took an uncracked egg from her hand and put it back in the carton. She just stood there, staring, wondering what he was up to and knowing exactly what by the look in his eyes.

"No." She stepped away, but he caught her around the waist, dragging her back like a child trying to escape punishment. Then he pulled her warmly against him. All the sensations of her dream rocketed to the surface.

"Yes." Nash wrapped his arms more firmly around her, the contact making his blood flow heavy in his groin. Yet he held her gaze and saw wariness, doubt.

"The men are going to be here any second." Her hands on his bare chest, she tried pushing. It was like trying to move the earth off its axis. "It wouldn't be wise for them to find their boss with the nanny in his arms."

"Let them get their own nanny."

Her lips curved. "You're insufferable."

"I'm suffering."

Her smile fell. "Oh, Nash."

"Forgive me, baby. I know I don't deserve it, but I need it. God, so badly."

She searched his features, his crystal-blue eyes. Beneath the strong exterior lay a beast clawing to be let out of his prison, and Hayley's heart bled for him.

"Of course, I forgive you." His relief swept down his body in a hard shudder, and she realized he'd been holding his breath. "You were as much a victim as I was."

"But I could have changed it. I could have—"

"What? You thought she was carrying your child. And even if there was a shadow of doubt—" his look said there'd been more than a shadow "—you are too honorable to ignore the possibility."

He pressed his forehead to hers.

"Face it, Nash, you're one of the good guys."

A smile threatened his lips. "Say it again. Just so I know I'm not dreaming."

"I forgive you, Nashville."

"It's worth hearing that god-awful name." He kissed her forehead, holding her close, his hand rubbing her back. "Thank you, darlin'."

She laid her head to his chest, tightened her arms around his waist and sighed.

Nash knew torment and contentment in one instant. Her forgiveness gave him a divine release, exposing all he'd suppressed. He tried ignoring this energy warming between them, but he couldn't. It seeped past his clothes, into his skin, and made him realize he'd been a mom and dad so long he'd forgotten what it was like just to be a man, someone's lover. Until Hayley. The instant he saw her again, she made him remember long throbbing kisses and damp bodies rolling under the sheets; connecting physically and emotionally to another human being so closely you could feel every breath they took as if it was yours. And the longer he was near her, the stronger the need grew. He didn't want to feel it, not so completely, so quickly. Again. He kept repeating to himself that he couldn't fold under this need for her, not with the girls at risk, not even when she was the first and only woman he'd desired with every cell of his body.

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