Bryce sank down on the bed, and Ciara looked at him, their bodies still locked.
"What is it, darlin'?" She looked scared all of a sudden.
Her gaze swept his handsome features. She licked her lips. "I love you," she said, her throat raw. "I love you. I love your baby, I love your friends."
Her smile was small and tight.
"It's okay if you don't love me. I know you had it rough with—"
"Hush," he said wiling her to her back. "I haven't ever said this to a woman—"
"Don't," she said, clamping two fingers over his lips. "Don't you dare say it if you don't mean it, Bryce Ashland, or I swear I'll kick your butt."
He grinned. "I just bet you will."
Shifting to his side he gazed down at her, his fingers toying with a lock of her hair. Bryce didn't feel fear or reservations, all he felt was the emotions he'd bottled up for so long.
He took a deep breath and said, "I love you, Ciara."
Tears wet her eyes and she traced her finger across his lips over his cheeks. One tear rolled down her cheek and stole his heart.
"No one's ever loved me Bryce. No one."
"I do, darlin. I really, really do."
She kissed him and they sank into each other, and Ciara swore, at this moment, she'd never been happier.
* * *
Bryce stared lazily out the window of his office when he should be working. Yet his mind wouldn't rest. For the past week, he'd been reluctant to leave his own house and the woman within. He didn't think it was legal to be this happy, he thought. Ciara occupied his every thought and he wondered if everyone who was in love felt this way, then he didn't care. He had what he'd thought was impossible and now he had plans to make, big plans, he thought as he glanced down at the velvet box lying on his desk.
He had to do this right. Because he wanted it to be memorable but he knew that Ciara had little love in her life. She seemed to absorbing all she could, storing it up and when she'd told him about walking out on her family, he'd realized she was more alone than he ever was. And he planned on correcting that soon. But for now, he had a future to start, he thought, and was about to reach for the box when someone popped into his office.
"Mr. Ashland," Bryce's secretary said in her usual low tone. "There's a call for you on line three."
Lisa smiled, amused. "No sir, someone named Steve Hartlan."
Bryce's features tightened and he nodded. As she left, he stared at the blinking light on the phone. He'd forgotten all about that. When Ciara had first started working for him, before their relationship had changed, he'd called in a few favors, asking an old friend to run a check on her. As a father, he had every right to check his new nanny's background.
His mind filled with the images of Ciara and he swore his love for her grew. He almost couldn't breathe when he thought of her, and he didn't want anything to change between them.
And he wondered if this phone call would make a difference.
He almost called Lisa back into his office to tell the caller he wasn't in, but he owed Steve the courtesy. Bryce hesitated, clamping his eyes shut and hoping to God that Ciara didn't learn about this. She'd never forgive him, but Bryce decided that for the sake of their future, he had no choice. Why was he so damned suspicious? Was it because she'd been that way from the start? Or that because she was telling him things about her past, yet still keeping the past several years in a vague scenario of traveling around the world? She'd mentioned something like eating Moroccan food in Tripoli and when he'd pursued it, she'd given him a response that was so generic, he couldn't accept it.
The thought of her lying to him twisted in his gut. He'd given her no reason to, tried to make her feel that she could trust him. He wanted to start a life with her. And if she wasn't going to help them get there, then he'd do it himself.
He reached for the phone and punched the button. "Hello, Steve."
"Hey buddy. Boy, did you ever ask for a big favor."
"Really, how so?"
"Well, there is nothing on this Ciara Stuart. I spelled it five different ways, ran her description through and nothing. At least nothing I could find."
Bryce frowned. Steve had connections to databases that included FBI and Interpol. "What do you mean?"
"I mean I hit dead end after dead end, buddy. According to records, Ciara Stuart doesn't exist."
"Did you try the first name alone?"
"Yes, and I got about fifteen million women with that name. Want to come down here and look through the files?"
"No. That was the favor."
"Listen, Bryce. I don't know who she is to you, but I'd be asking a lot of questions."