"There is nothing to tell, Bryce." Nothing that would make a difference. Nothing that would keep her from breaking her heart and his.
He kissed her forehead, not responding, then he settled her back in his arms as if they hadn't spoken.
Ciara's throat clamped tight and she hugged him, wishing again, yet knowing it would never come true. Nothing could make time stand still.
* * *
Ciara felt strange. It's not that she hadn't been in a grocery store before. But she never had with a baby strapped into the cart. Or a handsome man beside her. And she would have sworn a month ago that she would never have experienced a day like it in her life.
Bryce reached for a package of cereal and tossed it into the cart.
"You can't just toss it in, Bryce, or everything won't fit." She leaned over Carolina to resituate the package.
"Why don't I push and you shop? Or are you territorial about who has command of the shopping cart?"
Ciara made a face and switched places with him, handing him the list.
Bryce had to rush to keep up with her. She was moving down the aisle, going after exactly what she needed. "Have you been in this store before?"
"It's just … well … how the heck do you know where everything is? It takes me at least an hour."
"It's a woman thing," she said but knew it wasn't. Her CIA training taught her to take in several details in one sweep, the arrangement of obstructions, the nearest escape route, assessing the offense. At least she wasn't slipping, she thought, then glanced at the other women in the store. Some looked hurried, dealing with children's boredom. Across the produce aisle a couple strolled, a four-year-old talking incessantly. The sight of them hadn't bothered her until now. Their lives, or what she'd imagined them to be, seemed so mundane and lifeless to her months ago. But now, she was just plain jealous, and resentment rose in her. What good was her career, she thought, if she wasn't truly happy?
And when did she stop being happy?
She lifted her gaze to Bryce.
When I fell in love with him, she thought.
Ciara looked away, not denying it to herself. She loved him. Oh lord, she hadn't expected to but she did. She didn't examine when it happened, it just did. And the thought of being without him was eating at her. It was as if she were waiting for her heart to be torn out. She hadn't checked in with her boss because she didn't want to know if the sting was over. Didn't want to go back to work.
She looked back at Bryce, walking closer. With him she knew what real happiness was, and she was just getting used to the taste.
The baby fussed and Ciara focused. "Oh, I recognize that sound." Immediately she went for a box of animal crackers, opening them and giving them to the baby.
"The whole box?"
"I say bribery is allowed when you're in a store. We're done by the way."
He sighed with what could only be relief and Ciara laced her arms with his. "Poor man, do you deserve a reward for behaving better than Carolina?"
He looked at her, half-offended, half-intrigued.
"Nah, you whined too much."
He chuckled. She walked ahead, placing the groceries on the conveyer belt.
A few minutes later they were outside. Carolina was still stuffing as many cookies as she could into her mouth. Ciara reached for the box, knowing she'd get a fight.
A shot rank out and instinctively Ciara threw herself over the baby and pushed the cart between two cars. She and Bryce collided as he did the same thing.
When they looked around and realized it was a car backfiring, Ciara let out a breath and checked the baby. Carolina just kept eating cookies.
Bryce stood beside the car, scowling at her.
"What?" She unlocked the trunk.
"Okay, that was clearly a defensive move, Ciara. I was trained by the Secret Service to do it." He folded his arms over his chest. "Just where did you learn that?"
* * *
Ciara stared, her expression blank. "It was a maternal instinct, I guess," she said, shrugging.
"Most people would just look to see what it was first, not cover a person and be ready to take a bullet."
"I'm not most people. I was with the Embassy, remember? And a bullet? It was a backfire."
She started putting the bags into the trunk. He didn't move, still starling at her. Not now, she thought. She couldn't tell him now.
"But neither of us knew that."
"True. Your instinct was to protect, just as mine was. It was a split second decision, Bryce, and though this is a small town, it's not immune to a holdup now and then."
His features softened a little.
She stopped putting the groceries in the trunk and looked directly at him. "What would you have me do? Stick my head up to look? Ignore the sound and chance Carolina getting caught by a stray bullet, or maybe getting hit by something as simple as a street-light snapping from its brackets?"