Piper resisted for all of a second before Ryan just pulled her against his hard body. She wrapped her arms around his waist and rested her cheek against his warm, bare chest.
“Quit always trying to be so damn strong, Piper.” He stroked her back, then reached up to pull her ponytail free. His hands slid through her hair. “I don’t need you to put up a front around me, ever. Just be yourself, let it out. No one has to know you had a moment of vulnerability.”
Yeah, but she would know. Unfortunately she just couldn’t keep the emotions bottled up any longer. Piper let her buried sobs rise to the surface. She clutched Ryan’s back, her forehead resting against the middle of his bare chest.
She inhaled his masculine scent and didn’t care that he was all sweaty. She needed to draw from his strength, from his affection.
“You should’ve seen her face,” she cried. “His wife was holding their baby, her eyes held hope, but I knew he wasn’t going to make it. I couldn’t even look at her, Ryan. I’m a coward. I knew he was fading and I wanted to get him into the ambulance before we lost him. I didn’t want her to see that.”
“You did what you could.”
Piper sniffed, her body shook as more sobs tore through her. “I couldn’t do a damn thing to save him. Now that baby will grow up with no father and his wife is all alone.”
Ryan knew that right there was the main reason this patient had hit her so hard. Even though her father hadn’t passed away, he was gone from her life and she still felt that void. Piper had never had closure, had never been able to fill the gap he had left in her heart. The only things she had to cover that hole were years of bitterness and anger.
“You can’t save everyone,” he told her. “You’re human. Only God controls who stays and who goes.”
Piper slid her hands around, flattened them against his chest and lifted her face to look at him. Ryan wiped the pads of his thumbs across her cheeks and held her face firm between his palms.
“I’m sorry I fell apart on you.”
Ryan smiled, nipped at her lips. “I’m not. I like knowing you want to lean on me for comfort. I want to be here for you, Piper. For everything.”
Couldn’t she see that? After all these years, couldn’t she see that he was ready to settle down now, that he was back for good? That he was finally ready to sow permanent roots?
“What happed to the A/C installation?” he asked, hoping to take her mind off work.
“Sorry, they had to reschedule. I’m so used to it now, I didn’t think. You worked all day in this heat?”
He shrugged. “It’s Texas. I can stand the heat.”
Her shining eyes held his and Ryan moved in closer. Slowly, so slowly, in case she wasn’t ready for his intimate touch. But he had to taste her, had to show her that she was special, that she was cherished even when she was vulnerable...especially when she was vulnerable and let that guard down.
He slid his hand across her cheek, beyond her ear and to the back of her head, pulling her in toward him.
“Stop me,” he whispered, warned. “Stop me from doing this again.”
Yeah, neither could he.
Ryan stole her lips and just like the other times he’d kissed her, a wave of perfection consumed him. Perhaps this was the woman he was meant to settle down with. Perhaps this woman who’d been in his life since childhood and through school and the wild ride on the circuit was the one who would stand by his side until he was old and gray.
Piper’s arms slid around his neck as she toyed with the damp ends of his hair. Her soft moans filled him as his tongue danced with hers.
Allowing his hands to travel down her back, Ryan cupped her rear and tugged her against his hips so she could see just how she affected him. This was beyond friendship and, if he were honest with himself, they’d passed friendship well before they’d kissed the first time. They’d passed it the instant he’d moved back, considered her naked and in his bed, then imagined her never leaving his side or his new ranch.
Ryan took a handful of her shirt and tugged it from her work pants. He needed skin, her skin. That soft, delicate, satiny skin that always felt so amazing beneath his roughened hands. He wanted that goodness, that near innocence she could bring to his life. And he wanted her to see just how special she was.
Moving his hands around to her belt, he unfastened her pants when she gasped his name.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
Her eyes locked on his as she panted and licked her moist lips. “I—I...”