“Hmmm, forever is a long time,” Bryce hedges. “I think I’ll give you some time to get sick of me before I propose for real.”
I can’t help but laugh. “Seriously? I admit that I want to be with you forever too and that’s all you’ve got?” I shake my head and poke him in the stomach. He gives me a lascivious grin and rolls on top of me so suddenly it takes my breath away.
“That’s not even close to all I’ve got,” he promises in a whisper as he nuzzles my neck, his warm breath tickling my ear. He pulls back suddenly and climbs out of bed, giving me an eyeful of his six-foot-four, ridiculously well-muscled body. “But first, breakfast.”
“Naked breakfast?” I ask hopefully as he walks away. He laughs and shakes his head, retrieving his boxers from the floor.
“Just based on the ravenously horny look on your face, I’m going with no,” he teases. “You know, because I actually want to eat. Food.” He runs a hand over his short, chestnut brown hair, his blue eyes sparkling mischievously. I pretend to pout a little.
“Have it your way,” I reply nonchalantly, making a show of stretching widely and letting the sheet slip off of me. I watch his eyes rove over my full chest and soft curves and I try not to let it excite me. But my stomach rumbles loudly and, as usual, he’s right. I definitely need food.
Still, I take my time slowly sliding out of bed and pulling an oversized shirt from my bottom dresser drawer — which I bend down slowly to retrieve. Once I’m covered I saunter casually past him. He shakes his head and laughs, following me down the stairs.
I make a stop at the bathroom. My long, wavy brown hair is an absolute mess, so I take a moment to untangle it with my fingers before meeting Bryce in the kitchen.
I note that he’s already started a pot of coffee. While it percolates, I examine the pitiful contents of the fridge and cupboards.
“Your choices are cereal and cereal,” I announce. Bryce smirks at me as he pours himself a cup of coffee.
“Cereal it is,” he agrees. “But we’re going grocery shopping today.” He passes by on his way to the dining room and plants a kiss on the top of my head. I watch him sit down and find myself welling up a little. He notices and gives me a quizzical look. “Everything okay?”
“Perfect,” I admit breathlessly. Utterly. Fucking. Perfect. It’s everything I’ve hoped for since I opened my heart back up to love not many months ago. And with all we’ve gone through to get here, I can’t help being anything but blissfully happy.
I join him at the table with the food and we munch quietly, shooting each other furtive smiles, the freshness and excitement of our new relationship coursing through me.
“What else is on the agenda today?” I ask as we finish. Bryce leans back in his chair.
“Well, if I’m going to be staying here, I’m going to need to get some stuff from my place,” he replies. The thought is still a little overwhelming, but I’m thankful it’ll be Bryce here with me instead of the personal security guards I’d had twenty-four-seven due to recent events. Though I’ll still need them at least part of the time until the danger has passed. Whenever that is. “What do you need to do today?”
“I have some phone calls to make,” I admit sheepishly. “I wasn’t just ignoring you and Emily this week.” During the epic pity party in which I thought I’d be alone forever, Bryce’s sister had paraded over unannounced the night before last, tired of being ignored and raring to convince me into chasing her brother down. Fortunately, confiding in her led him to me. And I’m sure she’ll be happy to hear that. But I should really call my mother, father, and my best friend, Allie.
“Funny you should mention Em,” Bryce replies, taking our dishes into the kitchen. “Because we’re seeing her tomorrow for brunch.” His feigned casualness rouses my suspicion.
“Brunch?” I ask sharply, following behind him. He turns away from the sink, wrapping his strong arms around me and gently stroking my backside.
“At my mom’s house,” he replies, again too casually, but I can see the worry in his eyes. “That okay?”
“You know I love your mom,” I reply. “But if you don’t want to introduce me as your girlfriend yet, I completely understand.” Bryce pulls a face somewhere between offended and confused. “You looked worried.” Understanding dawns on his face at my explanation. Bryce huffs a laugh and shakes his head.
“Baby, I want to shout it from the goddamn rooftops,” he replies, looking intensely into my eyes. “But from now on I want this to go at your pace. Not mine. That’s all.”
I can’t help but smile. This man. He’s always looked out for my feelings first. Even when that meant watching me date a selfish, lying charmer of a man. Hell, not just watching, but helping me find the bastard when he “went back to Italy” or, as it actually happened, San Francisco. Only to stop hearing from him after a month when he did actually go back to Italy after all, but not because he’d planned to. The whole chain of events ultimately led to my being stalked and attacked by whatever criminals were after him, trying to get to him through me. Luckily, I’d already realized by the time he reappeared that my feelings were better spent on the man who’d always been there for me. This man.
I slide a hand over his gorgeous, taut chest, looking up at him from under my eyelashes. “I’d love to go,” I respond. “Though I can’t promise I’ll behave.” I slide my hand down, running a finger along the waistband of his shorts. He laughs and shoves me backward, pressing me against the fridge.
His soft lips run over my collarbone, his hands roving under my shirt. As his fingers find the tips of my breasts, his mouth presses over mine. I revel in the taste of him, the sweetness of being tangled together, getting to touch him in ways I’d only dreamed of before. But he pulls away before it can go very far.
“I see I’m not the only one likes to play dirty,” he says huskily. I bite my lip to suppress a smile and he sucks in a sharp breath, his pupils dilating and fixing on my mouth. “I’m going to do all kinds of amazing fucking things with that mouth later. But right now,” he kisses me on the top of the head, “you need to get ready to go.”
“I don’t know where you get all this self-control,” I mutter. Bryce barks a loud laugh and runs a finger down my jaw.
“Lots of practice,” he replies. I blush to the roots of my hair, and it just makes him laugh again. “Sera, baby, please don’t be embarrassed. It all worked out. And good things come to those who wait.” The look on his face is full of promise and desire, and it’s all I can do to keep breathing. And standing. He releases me slowly, leaning back against the counter behind him.
Somehow, I tear myself from him and drag ass back upstairs to take a shower. A very cold shower.
When I make my way back downstairs, Bryce is standing in the living room, dressed, with his phone pressed to his ear and a frown tugging at the corners of his mouth. I sink into the oversized white sofa, watching the dim sunlight that has broken through the clouds sparkling on downtown Seattle outside of the large wall of windows that makes up one side of the living room. Bryce doesn’t say a word, simply listens for a few more moments before slipping his phone into his back pocket and sinking into the couch next to me.
Slinging one arm on the couch behind me, he runs his other hand over my leg. “I have to go into the office today,” he conveys grumpily. “But hopefully it won’t take long.” I fold my hand over his, dipping my head so he doesn’t see the disappointment on my face.
“Everything okay?” I ask, tracing the veins in the back of his hand lightly. He flips his hand over, squeezing mine.
“It will be,” he assures me. “It’s nothing too out of the ordinary. Part and parcel of being in charge now. But it’s not something I can really discuss. Corporate security issues and all.” He winks at me. I smile vaguely, curious but knowing I shouldn’t press. It’s how we met, after all, months ago when my own company was facing security issues, and he swooped in like the knight in shining armor that he is. But now that his father is gone, it’s up to Bryce to actually run the corporate security company his grandfather created. It was a natural fit for him after leaving the Navy SEALs. Though I knew he was reluctant to accept the burden so soon, and with it already encroaching on his weekends I can understand why.
“Does that mean one of my bosom buddies will be back?” I ask warily. Not that I necessarily mind any of my guards, but I’d much rather have some time alone, all things considered.
“Unfortunately, yes,” he replies. “I’ll call Tristan. I’m pretty sure he’s available today.” I smile, perking up a little at the thought. Bryce laughs. “I can see that you approve. I don’t have anything to worry about, do I?” I shove him lightly, not sure if he’s really jealous or not.
“Of course not,” I reply. “We just get along well. He’s a nice guy.” Bryce cocks an eyebrow at me. He’s got eyeballs too, so I’m sure he knows how ridiculously attractive Tristan is with his blond hair, green eyes, and charming personality. And by charming personality, I also mean amazing body. Though not quite as amazing as Bryce’s, admittedly.
“Well, as long as you don’t get along too well,” he replies, pulling his phone out of his pocket. I give him a funny look and put my hand over his phone.
“You know he’s gay, right?” I ask. Bryce’s eyes widen.
“Now I do,” he responds. “I can’t believe I didn’t realize that.”
I laugh and let go of his phone. “Hmm, I guess your know-it-all security guy superpowers have their limits,” I tease him. He sticks his tongue out at me and places the call. I arch my eyebrows and resist the urge to make a comment about his tongue. His wicked, amazing tongue. Shuddering lightly, I get up to retrieve my own phone.
It’s not long before Tristan arrives, once again in his fitted black suit with matched, skinny black tie over a crisp white shirt. With fall arriving, it’s cooler, but I can’t imagine how they wear those suits in the heat of summer.
“Are you going out?” Bryce asks as we say our goodbyes at the door.
“No. I can order groceries to be delivered. Anything particular you need?” I respond.
“Eggs,” he responds. “Lots.” He leans in and plants a chaste kiss on my lips. I scrunch up my nose grumpily.
“That’s all?” I pout. His eyes flick to Tristan, who is looking out the window wall with his back to us, politely giving us space. Bryce’s mouth drops to my ear.
“I’ve only got so much self-control. Any more and I’ll end up doing what I’ve been imagining doing to you for the last fifteen minutes. And I think it would be inappropriate if I took you against the windows right now,” he murmurs. “Tristan might notice.” A low gasp escapes my lips as my insides clench. Bryce smirks and uses the opportunity of my speechlessness to leave with a wink. “Bye, Sera.” The door clicks shut softly behind him. But it takes me a few more moments before I catch my breath enough to return to the living room.
I take a few minutes to chat with Tristan before excusing myself and heading upstairs to my makeshift office, where I place an order for groceries to be delivered in an hour. If I’m not going out, I’m going to need the food for lunch. And I’m sure Tristan will appreciate it too.
Next, I hunker down and try to decide who to call first. I realize quickly that it’s a no-brainer. I don’t even really want to talk to my mother or father, and it’s been nearly two weeks since I’ve spoken to Allie. And she’s had enough of her own problems to deal with that I realize I’ve, once again, gone bad friend. So I call her immediately.
“Hey, stranger,” she answers, sounding decidedly cheery. I’m instantly grateful that she doesn’t seem upset with me.
“Hey, Allie,” I greet her. “I’m so sorry it took me so long to respond to you.”
“Let me guess. A lot has happened?” she replies with a smile in her voice. “Yeah, after our brunch two weeks ago, I figured that might be the case. Again.”
“Yes,” I agree softly. “A lot has happened.”
“Give me all the juicy details,” Allie insists. I can’t help but laugh.
“It’s not all sunshine and roses,” I amend. “But okay.” Might as well lead with the least pleasant stuff. So I start by telling her how I was followed two nights in a row the week after we had brunch. I also explain suspecting Bryce was seeing his ex, Madison, then having it confirmed when I went to see him last Saturday night. But unable to face it, I ran out of his apartment building, not wanting to have to compete with Madison for his attentions. And unfortunately ended up being attacked. Which requires me to then explain why I was attacked, which in turn requires me to explain finding Alessandro at my door the next day, since it was ultimately his drama spilling over into my life.
I find having to talk about Alessandro Giordano bittersweet, to say the least. I’m hard-pressed to think of him as a selfish, lying bastard. Even though he is. But he’s also charming and he loves me, but in the end not enough to get over himself. And I loved him. But when he returned after weeks of not speaking to me to tell me he wanted me to leave with him, so he could protect me, so we could be together, it’s no surprise to Allie when I explain I just couldn’t. I couldn’t leave my home, my friends, my work, and the man I’d realized I truly belonged with.
“Well,” Allie says, finally breaking her silence. “At least you got some closure?” I hear her take a deep breath. “That’s some heavy stuff, Sera. So what happened with Bryce? Is he still seeing his not-so-ex?”
“Ex,” I reply firmly. “He ended it with her the same day I saw Alessandro. As it turns out, it was mostly a mistake. He’d lost his father, made a bad decision in his grief, and it took some time for him to disentangle himself.”
“Well, that’s a relief,” she replies. “Are you okay?”
“There’s more,” I admit.
“Of course there is,” she groans, laughing.
“I hired personal security guards after Alessandro left. Just in case. It really led me to isolate myself this week. That’s why I wasn’t responding to calls or texts. That made some people impatient. Eventually Emily marched over here demanding to know what my problem was,” I explain. “Once I told her what happened, naturally, she told Bryce.”
“Bet he’s happy to see the back of Alessandro,” Allie replies wryly. I hadn’t even thought of that aspect. Bryce has always disliked Alessandro. Now that I’ve got some distance, I can’t really blame him.
“Probably,” I agree. “But he came to tell me he still loves me.” I flush at the memory of his admission, and everything that came after.
“Oh, Sera,” Allie breathes. “Did you tell him you love him too?” I snort. I’d never dared to admit to Allie the feelings I’d been developing for Bryce for a long time, though I probably shouldn’t be surprised that she saw right through me anyway.
“Is there anything you don’t know about me?” I ask bluntly.
Allie laughs. “I’m pretty sure some things I know about you before you know yourself,” she teases. It’s hard to deny. Especially when it comes to feelings. I’ve always been purposely obtuse, having completely closed myself off to even the possibility of love for the better part of a decade. Some hurts run so deep that they can take what feels like a lifetime to heal.
“Yes, I told him I love him too,” I admit. I hear her clap her hands with glee.
“Yay!” she squeals. “I was so rooting for you two.” I laugh. It’s good to hear her so happy. And I decide instantly that I’m not going to bring up what she’s going through, at least not directly. If she wants to talk about the deep depression she’s struggled to overcome since losing her first pregnancy earlier this year, she knows I’m here for her. But she sounds so normal, and I’m just glad we’re both in a better place.
“Enough about me,” I insist. “What’s new with you?”
“I’m glad you asked,” she replies perkily. “David and I have decided to take that second honeymoon. We’re going to Fiji!!”
“Holy crap!” I exclaim. “That sounds amazing. When? For how long?”
“We leave in two weeks, and we’ll be gone for ten days,” she replies. “I would love to see you next weekend before we go.”
“Of course,” I agree. “Sunday brunch again?”
“It’s a date,” Allie affirms. Downstairs, the doorbell rings, heralding the arrival of food. And I suddenly realize how hungry I am.
“I’ve gotta go, Al,” I tell her. “But it was so good talking to you. Talk soon, okay?”
“You betcha,” she responds. “Bye, Sera.”
After lunch, Bryce calls to say he won’t be back until dinnertime. Realizing that means I have no excuse, I call my mom. I decide beforehand that I’m going to keep things very high level. On top of already being emotionally exhausted, my mother and I have only recently forged a closer relationship. Most of my life she’d been passive aggressively critical and overbearing. But one of the few bright sides of my relationship with Alessandro was that it outed why — that my father, who left when I was twelve, had cheated on her in a spectacularly awful way.
Still, when I manage to get her on the phone, I do share that I saw Alessandro and ended things officially and completely. I can tell she’s relieved. She suggests coming for a visit, since we haven’t seen each other in some time, but I bristle at the idea of revealing my new relationship with Bryce. She’s already met him, but not as my love interest. And I just don’t think I’m ready for that. So I make vague promises of a visit sometime in the future and steer the conversation away from me. Since she’s always happy to talk about herself, it’s not hard.
But once I’m done talking to her, I’m spent. And I have no desire to call my father. Having only recently spoken to him for the first time since I was a teenager, it just feels like a conversation I’m going to need more strength for.
Instead, I troop downstairs to the kitchen to throw together dinner. Bryce will be home soon. And the thought perks me up considerably.
I’m just assembling a salad to go with the lasagna that’s in the oven when Bryce returns carrying two large duffel bags. Tristan helps him bring them in, and Bryce sees him out before coming to me.
“Hey, you,” he greets me, wrapping his arms around me from behind and kissing my neck. “Sorry I had to be away all day.”
“I missed you,” I reply, turning my head to kiss him. As I wasn’t quite done with the salad, I’d only intended a quick smooch. But he kisses me hungrily, holding my face to his with a strong hand. My body responds, and heat rises quickly in me. I drop the salad tongs and turn to face him without breaking the fervent dance of our lips.
His tongue gently teases mine as he slips his hands around my hips, pulling me toward him. I push into him hard, wrapping my arms around his neck for leverage. I can feel his readiness against my hip, and a small moan breaks out of my throat through our kiss. When he finally pulls his mouth from mine, we’re both panting and aroused.
“I missed you too,” he responds. He looks down at my frilly white apron. “And I’m going to fantasize about coming home to you making dinner in nothing but this apron.”
“You’re killing me with the dirty talk,” I moan, pushing him away so I can finish making dinner. He grins and leans back against the counter opposite me.
“You don’t like it?” he teases, his blue eyes bright and sparkling.
“I like it. Very much. You have no idea,” I reply. “Now sit your gorgeous ass down so we can eat.” He laughs and moves to the dining room, popping open the bottle of wine I’d put on the table.
“I’ll keep that in mind,” he responds. I hand him the salad bowl over the counter and remove the lasagna. “Anything else I do that you like very much?” I shoot him a look as I bring the casserole to the table.
“Plenty,” I assure him. “But if I start talking about it, I just know I’m going to end up with lasagna on my back. So let’s eat. Then I can show you.” Bryce laughs and concedes by sitting down.
“I look forward to it,” he replies suggestively, taking a sip of wine.
Dinner is full of silence and tension. But the best kind of tension. The feeling of Bryce’s eyes on every inch of me as I eat is tantalizing. And I can’t keep my eyes off of him either. Every movement is laden with suggestive undertones. By the time we are done, and the last dish is washed, I’m so turned on I can barely think straight.
Bryce leans back against the stove, eyeing me speculatively.
“That was good,” he remarks casually, crossing his arms over his broad chest.
I shift my weight from one foot to the other. “Thanks,” I reply softly. His eyes drink me in, darkening as the tension builds.
“Damn, baby, if your eyes could talk,” he mutters. The corner of my mouth quirks up in a knowing smile. They’d be saying, Take me already, damnit, I think to myself.
“Mmmm,” I reply noncommittally, unwilling to admit what I’m thinking. “Is this the part where we let things go at my pace?” Bryce chuckles and pushes himself upright.
“If we went at your pace, I have a feeling we’d already be done by now,” he remarks. He saunters past me and I watch him slowly climb the stairs. He pauses before he gets too far and crooks a finger at me. “Coming?”