Single father Seeks...(8)

By: Amy J. Fetzer

He chuckled to himself. "Lord no. I barely made the rent working for the government. This house has been in my family for generations. It was my parents' home."

"They're retired?"

"Yes, they live in Florida when they aren't on a jet heading somewhere else."

She looked at the baby, rocking her from side to side and noticing her little eyelids drooping. "A lot of house for just the two of you, huh sweetheart?" When she looked at Bryce, he was staring at her oddly. Her brows knit, her look questioning.

Bryce couldn't say why he was so touched by the gesture. His baby in her arms, the gentle way Ciara touched Carolina. He never expected anything so tender from a woman like her. And he reminded himself that all he knew about her was what it was like to make love to her, to be completely and utterly driven mad by her touch.

Stop looking at me like that, she wanted to say, but she didn't want to open that can of worms.

"It's breathtaking," she said into the silence. "Did you grow up here?"

"Yes. Me and my sister Hope. She lives closer to town." Bryce looked off at the marsh. "There are gators in there occasionally. If you go near, be careful."

"I understand." She kept her gaze on the landscape as they strolled around the pool deck. "The décor is lovely, Bryce. Who did it? Your wife?"

He looked at her sharply. "No, my mother. I didn't live here with Diana."

She propped Carolina on her hip and said, "Diana, huh?"

The mention of his wife's name set him suddenly on edge. "I wasn't married to her when you and I met."

Her brows shot up. "I didn't think you were." A pause and then, "So what happened to her?"

A surge of guilt pounded through Bryce at the thought of his late wife, and what he'd done to her life. He didn't want to talk about Diana. Especially not with Ciara. Somehow, if he did, it felt as if he were hurting Diana more than he already had.

At his hesitation she added, "If it's too painful and you'd rather not…"

"Yes, it is painful, but—" He gave Ciara the minimum. "She died when Carolina was born. She had gestational diabetes. The pregnancy was very difficult. Toxemia and the diabetes caused her death."

Ciara heard the anger building in his voice. And the torment in his features. He must have loved his wife deeply, she thought. To lose his wife and then be forced to care for a newborn alone, how hard it must have been for him.

In the ensuing silence, she watched him stare out over the marsh, his handsome features twisted with anger and the echo of old pain.

"And while we are on the subject, let's get one thing straight right now," he said, grinding the words past clenched teeth. He faced her, his hands on his hips, his entire stance as belligerent as a man about to do battle. Something had changed in him in those few seconds, with those few words. Gone was the sexy man she knew, the man needing help with his child, and before her stood a guardian. Guarding what, she didn't know.

"I'm listening."

"I'm not looking for a replacement."

She blinked. "I'm not looking to be one." She had a career to return to, a job that meant changing the world.

"Carolina is my concern. She needs someone who is here when I'm not. She needs … mothering."

Oh lord, Ciara thought. Baby-sitting yes, but mothering? After years with the CIA, she was the farthest thing from a mother type. Was she out of her league with this job? Too late to back out now, she thought, remembering how she'd badgered Katherine into giving her this position. Take it like an undercover assignment, she thought, a masquerade. "I can handle it."

He eyed her. "I know you're bonded and trained, but that has little to do with caring for my daughter."

"I should say so." Did he think she was completely incapable?

Silence. Hard and biting as they stared.

She squared off with him, wondering why he was suddenly so defensive. "Why don't you just say what's on your mind, Bryce? Get it off your chest right now."

"I don't trust you." There was just too much mystery surrounding her. The fact that she was back in his life, in this position, was enough to make him cautious.

"You did enough that night." Instantly she hated herself for bringing up their past.

"That was five years ago. I was single without a care except who was looking funny at the former first lady. And that night was just about us. Now it's about Carolina." He shook his head. "My life is completely different. I'm not the same man."

"Well, here's a news flash, Ashland. I haven't changed. I'm not the mother type. I'll do my level best for Carolina while I'm here, but don't expect what I can't give."