"Your fault, Ashland, not mine."
"You're deadly with a high chair."
Ciara almost smiled. Almost. "Say goodbye to daddy, sweetie," Ciara said to Carolina, pulling a chair beneath her.
She started feeding the baby.
His sister frowned at him, yet her friends just smiled.
Bryce felt like an outsider.
Carolina squawked and held up some food for him. Bryce bent low and ate it off her fingers.
A chorus of disgusted "ews" followed, but Bryce didn't care. He smacked his lips for Carolina and she grinned, showing the white of two new teeth about to break the skin.
"Don't believe a word my sister says," he whispered to Ciara.
"What makes you think we talked about you?"
"I know her, I lived with her. She's naturally nosy."
"Any other instructions?"
Bryce felt the chill in her words. "Yeah, loosen up or I'll kiss you right now."
Ciara's eyes flared. "Don't threaten me, Bryce."
"It wasn't a threat." He eyed her. Suddenly she smiled, but it was staged, too brittle, as if to prove to him that she'd do anything to keep what they shared suppressed.
It was like a sharp knife to his side.
He kissed his daughter goodbye, then straightened. Bryce tore his gaze away from Ciara's, then looked at his sister.
Portia and Katey made no bones about their curiosity, but Hope simply stared him down.
"Nice to see you ladies. Have fun."
"We will. More than you will, I guess."
"Don't track water into the house Bryce," Ciara called out. "The maid cleaned today."
"Yes, ma'am," he said and tossed her a smile that hit her like a strike of blinding light. Ciara returned it, her mental orders not to give an inch flying right out the window.
Hope grabbed Bryce's hand as he passed and he met her gaze. "What's going on between you two?" she asked.
"Nothing, like she said."
"Liar. You can cut the tension with a hacksaw."
"Butt out, little sister."
She arched a brow, like she did when they were kids and she imagined herself older and more learned than he was.
"Don't stir up trouble."
"Looks to me like it's already brewing. She's a nice woman, Bryce, and if you chose to come out of this self-imposed seclusion with her, be careful."
"Warning me off?"
"Of course not. But you've felt the need to carry the burden of Diana's death to the extreme, like you caused it."
Hope shook her head sadly, moving farther away from the group. "Did you forget that I knew Diana? That she wanted to be introduced to you. Did you know that after your one and only date she talked about the two of you like your whole future was planned?"
His features yanked taut and his voice lowered. "Why didn't you tell me this before?"
She reared back. "Like you'd have listened? She wanted what I had, what Portia and Katey do. A nice home, and a family. I don't think she cared who provided that for her or which order it came in. Good grief, Bryce, why do you think I didn't introduce her to you when I'd known her longer than you were even married?"
His brows knitted and he thought for a second. "I just thought you didn't want a friend of yours dating me."
"You didn't date, remember? She showed up and you went to bed."
He felt the color rise up from his neck. But the truth of it was that she was right. He hadn't been interested in anything but sleeping with Diana. Maybe that's why he'd felt so rotten later. Diana had been a friend of his sister's and that put some pressure on him.
"It doesn't matter, Hope. I married her. She was carrying my child."
"I know, I know." She walked with him toward the back door. "But you didn't cause her death. The problem was hers, her body, not yours."
He opened his mouth to speak, then snapped it shut. He knew that, he wasn't a complete idiot where his late wife was concerned, but he went to bed with Diana with the intention of saying goodbye in the morning and ending it there. It was heartless, but the truth. If he hadn't taken her to bed, she wouldn't have gotten pregnant and gestational diabetes and toxemia wouldn't have killed her. If she'd planned to trap him into marriage, she'd done a fine job and paid a higher price than he ever could. But all that didn't change a thing. Because in the end, when she was dying, she'd hated him, not so much for ruining her life, but for never loving her.
"You aren't going to listen, are you? I can tell by that look on your face," his sister said.
"Oh, I heard, and I know if Diana had lived, we would have been divorced about now."
Hope eyed him. "I hear a very unpleasant 'but' coming in that."
He offered her a small smile. "I don't want to fall into that kind of mess again."