Restraint was not a word generally associated with Captain Malcolm Reynolds. He was a man of action, harboring no qualms about picking a random bar fight or speaking a string of impolitic thoughts during a tenuous trade negotiation. He would risk much to gain little purchase on his aims, if any.
There was only one relationship in which he held a vigil of calculated distance. He conjured that any declaration on his part would be no different than any other offer that had been laid at her door, minus the exchange of coin. He was rougher around the edges than her clientele, but he turned his nose up at them all for depleting her soul little by little in exchange for a few days of intimate pretense. The only thing he would despise more than them was to be categorized as one of them. So he kept his distance.
She was a commodity. She was a licensed, willing commodity that the 'verse viewed as highly esteemed but he knew better. They only esteemed how she could make them feel, how they could use her to satisfy their desires for importance or belonging, sparing not a thought for the woman who existed within the shell for hire. She was beautiful and he could not say that he was not attracted to her curls or her alluring smile, but there was more to it. He needed her to know that it was a deeper connection he sought, but there was nothing that he could say or do that could not be interpreted as a cheap imitation of something some 'upstanding gentleman' had said more intelligently or suave-like. So he did his best to keep his affections at bay and his words guarded or even harmful to ward off any comparison between himself and the silver tongued devils.
He did not treat her with deference but called her a whore, and it was the truth. He did so not to belittle her but because she deserved to know that someone understood that at the core, she felt the part. Legal or not, giving away what was most dear so many times could not be done without consequence. She had nothing left that was unrehearsed, she had techniques and gentle skills of affection, but she had no way to communicate that any touch or smile was spontaneous. Her reactions were schooled and careful so he delighted in letting her show unchecked emotions, even if they were not ones conventionally desired. When he insulted her through slights on her profession, she showed a shadow of anger, which covered a fleeting pang of shame. But she expressed herself. Not Inara the companion, but the woman within who was imprisoned by the proprietal expectations of the despicable profession.
Distance was not a declaration of his undying love, but it was the only kindness he could offer until he could formulate a better plan. And he would exercise restraint until he was sure that an approach would be received with an honest welcome. Captain Malcolm Reynolds threw punches for the thrill of the moment, but his next move with Inara had to be calculated and without any risk of failure. So he waited.