She tipped her head back and accepted his kiss, the heady warmth of it spreading through her like sweet wine.
Carolina trotted up and grasped their legs, trying to hold on and not totter backward. Ciara bent down and scooped her up. Carolina offered them a rock.
Ciara thanked her and held it to her chest like it was a diamond.
Bryce watched their interaction, wondering how he could see the truth of her love so plainly, yet still have this niggling suspicion there was more to her than she'd revealed today. He resented the thought and in an effort to push it out, he kissed her, feeling a bond that went deeper than his soul when his daughter clutched at them both.
* * *
In the garage, Bryce climbed out of his car, turned off the house alarms, then stepped inside. Immediately he switched the alarm system back on. He'd tried to get home earlier, but it just wasn't happening today. At least he managed to get home before sunset the past three nights, he thought, then frowned at his house. It was dark, with only a small lamp lit in the foyer. He called out and when no one responded, he checked his watch. Where could they be at this hour? He moved through the house, through the kitchen, sunroom and out onto the pool deck. It was empty and he spun around and searched the first floor, room by room, then took the stairs two at a time.
He thrust open the door to his daughter's room. Her crib was empty, the lights off. A vise clamped down on his heart, and he rushed to Ciara's room, finding it too, empty and dark. He yelled for her.
And he didn't get a response.
Bryce rushed from door to door, shoving them open and finding his house horrifyingly barren of life. He returned to Ciara's room and opened her closet, a little spark of hope coming when he saw her suitcases. Over his harsh breathing he heard soft music and he nearly tripped over his feet as he turned toward her private bathroom door.
With panic still riding him like a hurricane, he thrust open the door and froze.
Ciara flinched, holding his daughter to her chest. She was in the tub, a sea of bubbles surrounding both females.
He let out a long relieved breath. "Thank God." He rushed forward, sinking to his knees as he cupped the back of Ciara's head and brought her to him. His mouth crushed over hers, his kiss hard and utterly possessive. She responded hungrily, soothing his terror with the heat of her mouth.
"What's wrong?" she said when he drew back.
Words spilled from him in a rush. "When I came home the house was dark, I couldn't find you and thought that—" He touched her face, his daughter's head as she splashed water. "Hell I don't know what I thought."
His hands were trembling, Ciara realized. "You thought I left with her?"
His gaze shot to hers. "No. Not a chance. I thought something happened to you. Both of you."
A spark of warmth spread through Ciara and just as she recognized it, she realized how she'd feel if anything happened to them. "We're fine. Oh, close the door, Bryce, the draft is making Carolina shiver."
He did, sagging to the floor and letting the horrible images of the past moments fade. Then he started to notice … things. Ciara's long hair piled on top of her head. The sheen of her wet skin, the swell of her breasts as his daughter snuggled against her, the bubbles on her chin, on his baby, and the way they looked together, as if they belonged. A hard brittle ache settled in his chest.
"What the heck are you doing in the tub together anyway?"
"Relaxing. Pampering ourselves." She looked lovingly at Carolina. "We are girls, you know." She cupped warm water and poured it gently over Carolina's back and head.
His daughter patted the water. "She cries when I give her a bath."
"Do you get in with her?"
"No." He looked at her as if it was the furthest thing from his mind. Which, at the moment, it was.
"I guess," she said, shrugging, "it's the lack of security she feels in the tub. She cried the first couple times with me, too. But she's been in the pool and is used to the water now. See." Ciara poured water over the baby's head. Carolina squinted and blew it out of her mouth, but didn't cry.
Bryce smiled, inching closer. "Hey, princess."
As if just noticing him, Carolina launched toward him, her arms outstretched. Bryce lifted her out of the bath water, settling her on his lap.
"You're going to ruin another suit," Ciara said softly.
"Who cares." He wrapped the baby in a towel and spoke to her, asking about her day and when she just made noise, he agreed and smiled. Ciara's heart swelled and tightened in her chest. Her eyes watered a bit and she understood how hard Bryce was trying to be mother and father to his little girl and how much he loved his daughter. She'd known that he did, but seeing it pour from him was another matter entirely. It made her see how much she wanted to stay right here and be a part of it.