She reared back. "Excuse me?"

"You said your past was not important and too painful to talk about. Hell, I thought you were abused or something the way you hid it."

"It's past. What difference does it make now what school I attended, how many boys I dated?"

He set his iced tea aside and braced his elbows on his knees, the motion bringing him closer to her. "It's part of who you are, Ciara, and I realized I barely know you."

"You know me, you know who I am. God, how can you not!"

Bryce felt the hurt and defensiveness in her words. "Yes, I do know you. I know the woman who loves my daughter like she was her own. I know the woman who gets teary-eyed over dinner roll commercials." She flashed him an embarrassed smile. "The one who drives me wild with her touch. I know the woman who makes love with me like there is no tomorrow, when there is a tomorrow. If you'll just see it."

Ciara swallowed repeatedly, her heart thundering in her chest.

"But I don't understand what made you this way. I don't know how it is that you can turn your emotions off when you want to. And turn them on so brightly it makes my heart skip."

Her eyes burned. No one could read her like he could. No one before wanted to. She'd had to be more than businesslike in her career. As cold as men, as calculating as the snipers she'd been ordered to shoot to kill. Her stomach rolled at the thought and she realized that insensitive temperament wasn't so easy to dredge up and thrust out like a shield anymore. Staring into his eyes, she felt her heart weaken. To his pleas and to her need to share her greatest shame.

She swallowed a breath. "I did something that hurt them all, Bryce. And I thought it best to just stay away."

His expression first hardened, then softened. "What happened?"

I joined the CIA, she thought. She went off and dismissed them from her mind, from her heart. "I abandoned them."

"Why?"

She licked her lips and spoke the truth. "Because when my parents died I got all the burdens my mother had. I was mother to Cassie and being a housewife to two men, yet with no husband. They had their lives and were going full steam ahead, yet expected me to stay home and hold down the fort, make it as if my parents hadn't been blown to bits in a crash!" She choked on her breath, and stood suddenly, folding her arms over her middle and walking a few feet away. She watched Carolina walk unsteadily and try to gather up her pail and shovel. "I was young and wanted freedom, too. I wanted them to pay attention and see that I was drowning. That I was losing the chance to have my own life and living my mother's instead."

Her throat closed and she bit back scalding tears. She'd been so angry with them for so long. Angry enough to push them out of her heart and focus on the career that made a difference in the world. Yet when she'd arrived here, when she'd fallen in love with a needy baby and a lonely man, she let herself feel.

And now she was feeling so much she couldn't breathe.

Bryce watched her shoulders tighten and knew she was fighting her emotions. "Don't blame yourself. They had a part in it."

"I'm the one who left."

"But whether they knew it or not, they pushed you out." He stood and came to her, tipping her head back and staring into her sad eyes. Sympathy swam through him. "I understand."

"Oh yeah, right."

He smiled slightly, patiently. "I do. I'd been expected to take over the family business, but I didn't want to. And my father knew it. He just kept ignoring my wishes. When I went into the Secret Service, my father was more than disappointed. He'd accepted it, expecting me to return home someday and be a part of the company. But if it hadn't been for Diana I would never be the president right now."

"But you didn't cut them out completely."

"Yes I did. I never came back. Not until my father became ill and was considering retiring. That's really why I was home when I met Diana. Otherwise I'd have never come home."

"I doubt that."

"Thanks for the confidence, darlin', but I'm sure my sister blabbed that I hadn't exactly been the social butterfly when I came back anyway."

Her lips curved gently. "Yes, she did blab that much."

"I resented the hell out of my family even mentioning I should come home permanently. Maybe I even held it against Diana for forcing me to."

"That's a whole other issue, Bryce."

"And a dead one." He pulled her closer, wrapping his arms around her, and hers clamped his waist. He held her, feeling her sorrow shudder through her, and she sighed, snuggling into his body. He rubbed her back in slow circles.

"It okay, baby. I'm sorry I pushed."

"No." She squeezed him. "You deserved to know." And she wanted him to.

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