Especially when all it took was one look from her to grab him by the throat and hold him hostage.
He cocked his head, his gaze sliding over her. "Yeah."
"Watch Carolina. Dinner is ready." The timer sounded in the background. Ciara barely heard it. He was looking at her as if he wanted to swallow her whole.
He stood and offered her a hand up. She accepted and the motion brought her against him. He didn't wrap his arms around her like he wanted, didn't kiss her like he wanted and simply said, "You're dining with us, right?"
She hesitated for a moment and he felt his own breathing stagger.
"Sure," she said, a little lost when he smiled at her like that.
"Okay, I'll chase Carolina," he said, loosening his tie. "While you serve dinner up."
He went after his daughter as Ciara turned toward the kitchen, pausing once to frown back at him and wonder what was going on.
Neither of them were known for their restraint. And when he was this close, Ciara felt like a thread about to snap.
* * *
« ^ »
Don't think I'm not, he'd said.
Ciara had thought, she had kept her guard about her. That kiss had ended gently. A normal lovers' kiss.
Except they weren't lovers.
They weren't anything except adversaries.
All through dinner he'd watched her, staring at her in a way she couldn't understand. She liked understanding, being completely involved, and informed of what was going on around her. It's what made her a good agent.
But right now she felt as if she were losing a grip on that. On her ability to judge quickly and stick by it. On her ability to size up a situation in seconds and take action. But with Bryce, he was worse than listening to interference on the satellite waves. Nothing but static.
She'd been in control all her adult life. Had been promoted quickly, recognized by the agency enough times to know she was good at her job. But she was also cautious and efficient.
Not cautious enough to learn about Mark, a voice in her head prodded.
Yeah, well, Ciara thought. No excuse there. Call it a bad hormone day.
Was she just having another string of those? She just couldn't figure out what Bryce was up to lately. He wanted her. She wanted him. They were adults. It should be easy. Like it was five years ago. But he hadn't been a father then. He hadn't been a widower who'd secluded himself in a southern mansion deep in the low country because he still mourned the loss of his wife.
Ciara wasn't stupid. His sister Hope had said that Bryce and his wife had known each other one night. He'd gotten her pregnant and had done the right thing in his book, and married her. Ciara wasn't surprised he did. He was an honorable sort of guy, but that didn't mean he hadn't adored her. Hadn't loved her madly.
Love, Ciara scoffed, had gotten her into trouble with Mark Faraday because it had long-term leftover feelings to deal with. Love, in her job, made her soft. And sleeping with Bryce Ashland wasn't wise. It would ingrain her deeper in his life.
Then she realized he had a life.
She fought the thought, telling herself she did have one, it was just as isolated as his had been, according to his sister, for the past year. Except Ciara's isolation lasted longer. The other day by the pool, she'd been downright rude to him and was angered that he'd stirred so much in her, angered that she didn't have, could never have what his sister and Portia and Katey had. Futures, families, long-time friends.
Heck, the only person she'd been in contact with from her past since she was twenty-two was Katherine Davenport and that was to get this job and hide.
Bryce lifted his gaze from his daughter and looked at her from beneath a shock of black hair. Those blue eyes hit her like a hail of arrows, nailing her taut nerves to the wall behind her.
He had that much effect on her. That much power. She didn't want it.
Yet in the same breath she admitted she craved it. She wanted to submerge herself in him and not come up for air until she was satisfied. 'Til she had enough of him to last her another five years.
Immediately she stood and gathered a few dishes, bringing them to the kitchen counter. She couldn't bear to look at him and not somehow regret her choices.
Bryce paused in feeding Carolina to study Ciara.
She'd been quiet since they'd sat down to dinner. Oh, they'd talked, but it was about everyone else, his sister, and his family. Carolina. But he could feel the tension radiating from her. He knew he shouldn't have kissed her, but it felt so natural to do it at the time. He hadn't wanted to think. He still didn't. As he'd decided earlier, he'd just not antagonize her, like he seemed to always do. He didn't want her to close him out.
He wanted Ciara open for him.
His lips curved as his mind took flight on that thought and he tried to redirect it. "Dinner was great, Ciara."