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Just To Be With You (Page 27)

Now he knew it wasn’t an act. Because though Tatiana was a world-class actress, she was one of the few women that he’d never seen put on an act in real life. Instead, amazingly, she let herself be real, be honest, be vulnerable. He could now see why Valentina and Smith were so protective of her.

Ian found that he wanted to do whatever he could to protect her, too.

Especially from a man like himself.

“It must have been difficult for your father when you decided to become an actress.”

“I was pretty young when he passed away. I’d only just started to do a few commercials, so he never had to deal with me falling for bad boys.”

“It wouldn’t matter how young you were, he would still have worried, would still have wanted to protect you.”

“I would have liked that, to know that he was there to take care of me if I needed him.” Her words were soft, filled with longing for the father she’d lost far too early. “I always think of him, even now, when something really great happens. I want to run to him to tell him everything, want to feel him lift me up one more time and spin me around in circles until we’re both dizzy. Valentina says that she’s always felt him watching over us, but I didn’t get as many years with him as she did, and sometimes he’s so fuzzy in my head…”

Ian didn’t think before moving to close the distance between them. Tatiana’s grief at losing a parent was so much bigger than what he’d gone through with his divorce, and yet, she didn’t try to hold it in or to keep it caged inside.

He didn’t know how she did it, how she managed to be so open without fear of getting hurt. All he knew was that he had to be there for her, needed to lift his hands to frame her face as he told her, “Valentina is right, Tatiana. Your father sees you. And he’s proud of you, so damned proud. Not just because you’re such a success, but also because of the truly extraordinary woman you’ve become.”

Her eyes were shining with tears as she lifted them to meet his. “Thank you. Thank you for saying that, and for watching our read-through…and for worrying about me when I didn’t show up at your office.”

Her skin was soft, so soft. And so warm that he’d never wanted anything more than he wanted to close the rest of the distance between them and kiss her.

Finally kiss her.

Finally learn if her lips tasted as sweet, and were as soft, as he’d imagined them to be.

In that moment, all the reasons he had for keeping his distance, for staying away from her, fell away as he shifted his hands to thread his fingers into her hair so that he could—

Her phone jumped on the kitchen counter, a loud buzz as it clanked against a set of keys that jolted him back into the real world.

He dropped his hands from her and took one step back, and then another and another, away from the greatest temptation he’d ever faced. And when he saw Smith’s face light up her cell phone’s screen, guilt at what he’d almost done swamped him.

Valentina and Smith trusted him with Tatiana. He should be protecting her, not fantasizing about all the ways he wanted to take her, how many times he could make her scream his name in pleasure before the next sunrise.

“You should get that,” he told her.

“Smith can wait. Right now, don’t you think it’s more important that we talk about what happened yesterday?” She touched her hair, the silky strands his fingers had been tangling in just seconds before. “And what almost happened now?”

“I was an ass yesterday. I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry for the way I behaved, too. Not for what I said to your ex-wife—I can’t stand back and watch one of my friends be attacked without needing to get up and fight for them—but that I poked my nose in where it doesn’t belong. Especially when I see what Valentina and Smith have, I can only guess at how hard it would be to lose that.”

“What your sister and my cousin have together and what I had in my marriage are not the same at all. From what I can see, Valentina gives Smith what he needs and he gives the same right back. My ex-wife and I never were able to do that for each other.”

He stopped, realizing he’d just given away way too much of himself…and not only that, but he’d let Tatiana get way too close. It was hard enough wanting her as he did, but throwing all these emotions into the mix was utter madness.

She’d said he was her friend, and since Ian knew it was the only path forward for them that could make sense—that could work long term—he told her, “You threw Chelsea off her game in a way I haven’t seen before. She was threatened by you. It made her angry. But you shouldn’t have had to bear the brunt of it.”

“Like I said, no one hurts one of my friends and gets away with it. But I want you to know that I didn’t believe her, Ian, not a word she said about you.”

“Maybe you should.” After all, hadn’t his ex laid out the truth of what a relationship with him was like? Chelsea had been angry, but she hadn’t lied.

But Tatiana dismissed his warning with a shake of her head, obviously choosing instead to believe that it couldn’t possibly be true. “How could I believe anything she says when I feel like I already know you better after a handful of days than she did in all the time you were married?”

It was crazy for him to feel that, too, but he did. In fact, he knew Tatiana so well already that he could read her mind and know she was hoping they were about to leap from being friends to lovers.

He’d already gone too deep with her, shared too much of himself, but before he pushed her away again, he had to at least explain to her why he was doing it. “I like you, Tatiana. A great deal. And I’m glad we’ve become friends. Which is why I can’t stand the thought of hurting you. Not in any way.”

“Why do you think you’ll hurt me, Ian? Why can’t we just jump and trust that we’ll help each other with the landing?”

“I can’t take any chances with you.” He wanted to touch her again so badly—wanted to feel her skin against his fingertips, her body pressed close to his again—that he made himself take another step away from her. “Especially not with you.”

She stared at him with big green eyes, and he decided to let her take a good long look this time, to let her see what he made sure to hide from everyone else. That she couldn’t want him. Shouldn’t want him.

Because he didn’t have nearly enough to give her.

But instead of flinching or looking away, she said, “I’m not good at holding in what I feel. And I meant what I said yesterday. I did fall for you that first day we met in the vineyard, and I’ve only fallen further as I’ve gotten to know you better.” She sighed. “I’m not a terribly patient person, so the fact that I’m pretty sure you were just about to kiss me, but didn’t, is really bugging me. Not in the least because I’ve been dying to know if it will be as good as I’ve dreamed it will be. But now that you’re telling me, flat out, you just want to be friends, and—” She sighed again, shaking her head. “I wish I knew what to do. About everything.”

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