He trailed off when he looked at Bella, who was curled up on the end of the sofa, cheek resting against a throw pillow, face relaxed in slumber. The sweetness of them being able to fall asleep near him caused satisfaction to hum through his blood, along with a trace of possessiveness.
“Guess Snoopy couldn’t compete with sleep.” He moved to shake Bella gently awake, then paused. He’d tucked Zoe in before. He’d get her settled in, then head out without disturbing them.
He scooped up the sleeping child and carried her upstairs. Her room was a pink paradise that perfectly matched Zoe’s personality—from the stuffed animals, dolls, and glittery lamp to the bright artwork decorating the walls. He placed her on the bed, covered her with the frilly pink quilt, and turned out the light, making sure to click on the unicorn night-light before closing the door.
He came downstairs and turned off the television. Bella was still asleep, her limbs crunched up as if still trying to make room for her daughter. A wave of tenderness washed over him. She tried so hard to please everyone all the time and be the best mom to Zoe. He wished she’d let him help.
He grabbed the blanket from the chair and tried to stretch out her legs so she’d be more comfortable. A tiny frown creased her brow, and she muttered something under her breath. He wondered if she was a sleep talker. Smiling, he tucked the blanket around her and leaned in to adjust the pillow, which was at an awkward angle and crushing half of her face.
Suddenly, she turned and rose up, wrapping her arms around his shoulders.
His body went on high alert, but he knew she was half-asleep. Slowly, trying not to wake her, he gently pulled back.
She pressed her mouth to his neck and breathed in, like she was savoring his scent.
His voice ripped from his throat. “You fell asleep, and I didn’t want to disturb you. Do you want to stay here or go to bed?”
“So tired,” she murmured, snuggling against his chest like she belonged there. “You smell good.”
A strangled laugh rose from his chest. His arms automatically hugged her back, savoring her closeness and the womanly curves pressed to his body. “And you’re exhausted. Do you need anything before I go?”
He groaned, giving in to impulse, and kissed her temple. “I can stay till you fall back asleep.”
He stroked her back.
“Feels so nice. Just until—” Suddenly she stiffened, her head tilting back. “Zoe?”
“I put her to bed. I figured you could use the sleep.”
She relaxed with a sigh. “Thank you. You’re good to her. To us.” She focused that heartbreaking gaze on him, her china-blue eyes filled with a longing that punched him in the gut. “You got everyone flowers for Valentine’s Day.”
Caught up in the fragility of the moment, he barely breathed, feeling as if something had suddenly changed. “Yes.”
He hesitated. But right now, he wanted her to know the truth. “Because you’re all important to me. Especially you.”
The air tightened with sensual tension. She blinked, as if trying to register his statement, and then slowly brought her hand to his cheek. His muscles stiffened at the delicacy of her touch, the wonder on her face as she searched his gaze, and in that moment, he realized this was the moment he’d been waiting for. And he couldn’t run or deny or pretend any longer.
He cupped her chin, his mouth descending until it was inches from hers. Those pink, plump lips parted with invitation. Her light floral scent danced around him. “I want to kiss you, Bella. I’ve wanted to since the first day I walked into Sunshine Bridal and saw you. The sun was streaming through your hair, and you had red paint smudged on the tip of your nose from playing with Zoe. You looked up at me with those beautiful blue eyes, and I knew nothing would be the same.”
“Gabe?” His name was both a question and an answer, a prayer and a melody. He waited for her to pull away, but she was motionless, staring at him with a raw mixture of emotions.
His thumb pressed lightly against her soft mouth. “I think you’re an extraordinary woman who rarely gives herself enough credit. And I’ve been trying like hell to get you to see me as a man, not a business partner or casual friend.”
Fierce need shook through him, and he repeated his intention, giving her one last time to walk away. “I want to kiss you, Bella. I’ve imagined it too many damn times in my head, in my dreams, and I can’t wait any longer.”
Slowly, savoring every moment, his lips pressed to hers, lightly, teasingly. He slid his mouth over hers in a gentle caress of discovery, tamping down a groan at the sweet taste of her, the sudden rush of her breath, the fingers that suddenly dug into his shoulders.
He let her settle in, sipping at her like she was a fine wine, a juicy nectar hidden by a flower’s bloom. Already drunk on her scent and taste, his body ached for so much more. And then she parted her lips, and his tongue slipped inside.
He swallowed her throaty gasp and kissed her like he’d always dreamed. Long, and deep, his tongue tangling with hers, gathering every last drop of her intoxicating flavor of spice and sugar and sin all wrapped up in one. Her body melted beneath his, and he became half-mad at the feel of her hard nipples against the cotton T-shirt; her arched hips; her damp, soft mouth beautifully responding to his.
He pulled back slowly. Dropped tiny kisses over her lips as he broke contact, already mourning the distance. Then he stared into her dazed blue eyes.
He’d taken the risk of his life. Kissing Bella could cause a chain reaction that could either spell disaster or finally allow him to show her how good things could be between them. Either way, he had no regrets, not when her taste still burned his lips and his body still shook from her touch.
Now there was only one thing left to do.
He waited for her reaction.
Gabe had kissed her.
She sagged against him, the taste of his mouth still imprinted on her tongue. Her body roared forth in pure feminine power, begging for more; her tight nipples greedy for his lips; the empty, wet ache between her thighs demanding satisfaction.
When he’d showed up at her door, she’d been surprised at how her heart leaped and how badly she wanted him to stay. They’d snuggled on the couch and watched TV like a family, and it had seemed so natural, she’d allowed her exhaustion to overtake her, feeling safe in his presence.
Caught halfway between sleep and wakefulness, she only remembered the strength and power of his arms wrapped around her, the hardness of his muscles, the intoxicating scent of his cologne. Safety turned into want, and a desperation to touch him. She’d wanted that kiss just as much as he had.
Oh God, the kiss.
He had tasted like sweetness and spice, emanating a fierce male hunger that made her want every bad, delicious thing he could do to her. But it was his words that ripped her safe world to shreds and rocked her foundation.
This wasn’t about one kiss.
This was so much more.
He was looking at her as if waiting for an answer, an answer she didn’t know how to give. She studied his gorgeous mouth, trying to unscramble her thoughts. Yes, his leading question at the Royal wedding hinted at something she hadn’t been ready to hear. She’d suspected an admission of attraction. A cracked door where he dangled the allure of a brief physical relationship, nothing more. That would better match his reputation. And she would have been tempted—the man was a god—but that was something she could be strong enough to walk away from in order to protect their business relationship and burgeoning friendship.
She hadn’t a clue he’d been having these types of feelings for her. Big feelings. Feelings he’d been hiding for a while. Feelings that threatened her safe, protected world because he wasn’t offering just his body.
He was offering his heart.
In a flash, all those glimpses from the past suddenly made sense. The way their gazes would occasionally connect and linger. The time their hands had brushed when they both reached for the laptop, and he jerked back as if burned. The day she’d gotten toppled by a wave at the beach and suddenly found herself swept up in his arms, protectively cradled against his chest, his heartbeat thundering madly in her ear.
Dear God, had the signs always been there and she’d been too stubborn to notice? Or was it more about fear? Because if she had noticed, she would have had to make a choice, and that would have been so much harder.
Now he waited, his gaze fixed on hers, the words he’d spoken no longer able to keep him hidden. He’d taken a risk by saying these things, by expressing his want, a longing to see what could be between them if she was interested.
Maybe, if he’d kissed her weeks ago, it would have been different. She hadn’t known the hidden depths of the man before.
Now, she did.
Now, she knew she’d craved his kiss just as much. Because underneath, in a place where she rarely visited, a low simmer burned—the fire of possibility. Barriers had crumbled she had no motivation to rebuild. It had happened slowly, but now as she stared back at him, her lips swollen from his kiss, she realized she owed him a deeper truth.
“I’m confused,” she said, her voice husky in the quiet. “I didn’t know.”