Page 48 of Staking His Claim

Her eyes widened. “You can see it?”

He found himself leaning forward. “You’re more relaxed—not so uptight.”

“Uptight?” She drew away. “I’m not uptight!”

The quicksand deepened. He drew a measured breath. “I meant that as a compliment, not a criticism.”

The look she flicked him was laden with uncertainty. An uncertainty that bothered him far more than he cared to admit. Had he been so critical of her? That she had to examine everything he said for hidden motive? Yevgeny didn’t like that thought at all. He always considered Ella opinionated and judgmental. Had he been every bit as bad?

Leaning forward, he brushed the grass cuttings from her stockings.

She wiggled her toes and jerked away. “Don’t!”

Acting on instinct, he grasped her foot and pulled it back to him. Then, on a wicked suspicion, he tickled the sole of the foot now resting against his leg.

She gave a shriek of laughter that she quickly bit off.

“You’re ticklish.” The discovery delighted him.

“Very.” She glanced at the still sleeping baby, then mock frowned at him. “Don’t you dare!”

“I never could resist a dare.”

Or the temptation of revealing this unexpected side of Ella....

She convulsed with laughter as his fingers descended. “I haven’t even begun,” he protested.

“No, no.” But she was laughing.

So he tickled more.

She writhed on the blanket, breathless with mirth. Her body rolled up against him, and Yevgeny went still. He had only a moment to make the was no decision. His fingers trailed away from her foot, his touch firming as he stroked along her leg.

Her laughter faltered, and her head turned. She must have glimpsed the intent in his eyes because her breath hooked in her throat.

The sudden silence was deafening.

Her lips moved. “Yev—”

Before she could protest he shifted his body and slanted his mouth across hers.

Then he waited.

She made no sound, no move rejecting him.

She gave a little gasp beneath his lips. Then her mouth opened like a flower.

Then a growling wail broke the tension.

“It’s Holly, she’s awake!” Ella pushed at his shoulders. “Let me up.”

Yevgeny rolled away onto his back, one arm flung across his eyes. The baby sure picked her moments....

“My God. Anyone could have seen us.” Ella’s breath was coming in shallow gasps. “What was I thinking?”

“You weren’t thinking....” Yevgeny lowered his arm to gauge her response “You were feeling.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Ella picked up the baby. “That I don’t feel? That’s what you believe?” She clasped the baby to her chest, rocking her. “That I have no feelings?”

It was hardly the time to confess that he’d considered all her feelings to be entombed in ice. Nor could he lie. He settled for, “I didn’t know you.”

“So you jumped to conclusions instead of trying to find out more.”

There was nothing he could say to refute her statement.

“So much for being someone who doesn’t react on impulse.”

Having his own words flung back at him was no more than he deserved. He tried not to flinch. “I still believe that is the best way—even though I am perhaps not the best example.”

“Well, at least you’re honest.”

“And you’re generous to concede that. Thank you.” Her shoulders sagged as she let out a deep breath. She hitched the baby higher.

He reached awkwardly forward. “Let me take her. She must be heavy.”

“I can manage.”

His arms fell away. For the first time he took in how comfortable Ella looked holding the baby. This wasn’t a picture of a woman who couldn’t wait to get rid of the child in her arms. Ella looked...maternal.

Surprise jolted Yevgeny.

He blinked. Looked again. Ella still looked perfectly at home. He waited for Holly to regurgitate the bottle he’d given her before she’d gone to sleep over Ella’s formal suit. But that didn’t happen. Instead, Ella continued looking down at the baby cradled in the crook of her arm with a curiously content expression.

Yevgeny couldn’t concentrate on anything except Ella.

Every time he turned his head, those golden eyes ensnared him. The rose-tinted mouth that was so much softer than he’d ever envisaged. The Ella he was discovering behind the professional dark suits and efficient manner was very different from what he’d built her into.

So much more.

Her humor. Her rounded, infectious laugh. The love for her sister. The way her eyes softened like melting honey when she looked at Holly and thought no one was watching.