This pronouncement was greeted with a flurry of sobbing. Every ounce of temper drained away.

Obviously, his manners weren’t as well practiced as he’d bragged, and he’d been too worked up to remember arguing and prickliness were Cia’s way of deflecting the comfort she sorely needed but refused to ask for.

He scuttled forward and cursed the binding sheet and sandpaper carpet impeding his progress, but finally he wormed close enough to gather her in his arms. “Shh. It’s okay.”

She stiffened as the war going on inside her spread out to encompass her whole body. Then, all at once, she surrendered, melting into a puddle of soft, sexy woman against him, nestling her head on his shoulder and settling her very nice backside tight against his instantly firm front side.

Hell on a horse. He’d only been trying to get her to stop crying. He honestly expected her to kick him away. The sheet chafed against his bare erection, spearing his lower half with white-hot splinters. He sucked in a breath and let it out slowly. It didn’t help.

Prickly Cia he could resist all day long. Vulnerable Cia got under his skin.

Her trim body was racked with sobs against his, yet he was busy trying to figure out what she had on under that pile of sheets. Moron.

He shut his eyes and pulled her tighter into his arms, where she could sob to her heart’s content for as long as it took. His arousal ached every time he moved, but he stroked her hair and kept stroking until she fell still a million excruciating years later.

“Sorry.” She sniffed into the sudden silence. “I’m just so tired.”

He kept stroking her hair in case the torrent wasn’t over. And because he liked the feel of its dark glossiness. “That wasn’t tired. That was distraught.”

“Yeah.” A long sigh pushed her chest against his forearm. “But I’m tired, too. So tired I can’t pretend I hate it when you calm me down. I don’t know what’s worse, the day I had or having to admit you’ve got the touch.”

His hand froze, dark strands of her hair still threaded through his fingers. “What’s so bad about letting me make you feel better?”

She twisted out of his arms and impaled him with the evil eye. “I hate being weak. I hate you seeing my weaknesses. I hate—”

“Not being able to do everything all by yourself,” he finished and propped his head up with a hand since she was no longer curled in his arms. “You hate not being a superhero. I get it. Lie down now and take a deep breath. Tell me what tall building you weren’t able to leap today, the one that made you cry.”

Her constant inner battle played out over her face. She fought everything, even herself. No wonder she was tired.

With a shuddery sigh, she lay on the pillow, facing him, and light from the TV highlighted her delicate cheekbones. Such a paradox, the delicacy outside veiling the core of steel inside. Something hitched in his chest.

Oh, yeah. This strong woman hated falling. But he liked being the only one she would let catch her.

“One of the women at the shelter...” she began and then faltered. Threading their fingers together, he silently encouraged her to go on. A couple of breaths later, she did. “Pamela. She went back to her husband. That bastard broke her arm when he shoved her against a wall. And she went back to him. I tried to talk her out of it. For hours. Courtney talked to her, too. Nothing we said mattered.”

He vaguely recalled Courtney was Cia’s friend and also her partner in the new shelter. A psychologist. “You can’t save everyone.”

She pulled their fingers apart. “I’m not trying to save everyone. Just Pamela. I work with these women every day, instilling confidence. Helping them see they can be self-sufficient...” Her voice cracked.

She looked at this as failure—as her failure. Because these women, and what she hoped to accomplish with them, meant something, and she believed in both. It went way past fulfilling her mother’s wishes. Her commitment was awe inspiring.

The line between her eyes reappeared. “She threw it all out to go back to a man who abused her. He might kill her next time. What could possibly be worth that?”

“Hope,” he said, knowing his little psych minor couldn’t see past her hang-ups. “Hope people can change. Hope it might be different this time.”

“But why? She has to know it’s got a one hundred percent certainty of ending badly.”

“Honey, I hate to rain on your parade, but people naturally seek companionship. We aren’t meant to be alone, despite all your insistence to the contrary. This Pamela needs to hope the person she chose to marry is redeemable so they can get on with their lives together. Without hope, she has nothing.”