W-why are you doing that?” Bronwyn stammered. Both men ignored her, and Bryce turned back to his sleeping daughter, with his heart in his eyes.
“Mikayla . . .” he murmured, running a gentle finger down the baby’s soft cheek. “What a beautiful name.”
“What’s going on here?” Bronwyn asked in a voice bordering on hysteria, before convulsing into a series of painful coughs. Kayla stirred a little, disturbed by the violent coughing, and Bryce picked the little girl up and cradled her to his chest.
“Give me your flat keys. Rick and Lisa will pack your things.” Her eyes were blurry with tears as the coughing tore at her throat and chest. She was unable to respond to the autocratic demand and was appalled when Bryce simply reached for her handbag and tossed it to Rick.
“They’re probably in there,” he told his brother. The younger man nodded and turned away.
“Wait!” Bronwyn called painfully, trying to get her coughing under control. Bryce handed her a glass of water that she gulped down thankfully. “Why were you using sign language?” she asked urgently, her throat on the verge of giving out. Rick turned back with naked disgust on his face.
“This display of ignorance is an insult to our intelligence, Bronwyn!” he hissed, and her eyes widened with hurt.
“I don’t know what’s going on here!” Her voice was strained but she hoped she managed to convey her urgency. “Can you hear me, Bryce?”
“I haven’t heard much of anything over the last two years, Bronwyn.” He shrugged scornfully. “And you know it. You did this to me, after all.”
“Me?” Bronwyn did not know what to react to first: the unbelievable news that her beautiful, strong husband was deaf, or the accusation that she was somehow responsible for his condition. It was all too awful to comprehend. “But . . . I . . . how?” Rick made an impatient sound at the back of his throat, seemingly sickened by her continued ignorance. He touched his brother’s arm to gain his attention. Bryce turned to face him.
“I’ve asked that girl Katrina where she lives.” He nodded toward Bronwyn, unable to even say her name. “Some dump downtown. I’ll pack a couple of bags for her and Mikayla.”
“Pack only a change of clothes for the little one,” Bryce ordered, his gaze softening as he looked down into his still-sleeping daughter’s pretty face. “If the rags she’s wearing right now are any indication, there won’t be anything worth keeping. I’ll clothe my own child.” Bronwyn’s eyes stung with tears at that terrible insult; if only he knew how much she had sacrificed and slaved for every single item of clothing the child possessed. She had worked double shifts, bypassed meals, and taken on extra jobs to keep her baby fed and clothed. They may not have been the most expensive clothes, but they were pretty and serviceable enough for an active toddler.
“Pack her toys though,” he told Rick. “God knows they’re probably not much better than the clothing, but she’s bound to have her favorites.”
“What do you mean I did this to you?” Bronwyn asked, letting the matter of Kayla’s wardrobe slide in favor of a much more pressing matter. He didn’t respond and she understood that he must have been lip-reading all along. She tugged at his sleeve to get his attention and he directed his arrogant gaze down to her pinched face.
“What do you mean I did this to you?” she repeated, and he frowned before turning away from her, deliberately blocking her out and making her feel about as significant as a fly.
“What are you . . .” She diverted her gaze to Rick when she saw that Bryce was ignoring her. A neat trick that, turning his back on someone when he didn’t care to know what he or she was saying. It was certainly effective. “What is he accusing me of?” Rick couldn’t ignore her as successfully as Bryce could, but he was definitely doing a good job of trying. He and Bryce were speaking quietly, sometimes lapsing into sign language and cutting her out completely. Feeling muddled, exhausted, and on the verge of hysterical tears, Bronwyn had no clear idea of how to deal with this problem. The situation had just spiraled completely beyond her control and she was too ill to deal with it. She watched as the talking men left the room and took her baby with them and she felt an overwhelming sense of dread. She wanted to snatch her child back and run as fast and as far as she could but all she could do was watch helplessly as the door swung shut behind them.
She covered her face with her hands, feeling as wrung out as a dishcloth. Hot tears seeped through the cracks of her fingers as she allowed herself to weep for everything that she had lost and was still losing. She was so wrapped up in her own misery that the first she knew of another presence in the room was a comforting arm around her narrow shoulders.
“Shhh, it’s okay, it’s okay . . .” Rick’s pretty wife was perched on the side of the bed, her head bowed toward Bronwyn’s. “You’ll be all right, both you and your beautiful little girl will be absolutely fine. Bryce will take care of you.”
“Bryce hates me,” Bronwyn negated miserably.
“Bryce could never hate the woman who has given him such a gorgeous daughter,” the other woman denied.
“He blames me for what happened to him,” Bronwyn groaned. “And I don’t even know what happened to him! How did he lose his hearing?” She lifted her tear-drenched brown eyes to Lisa’s face, and the other woman frowned, her expression thoughtful.
“It was an accident. Rick and I hadn’t been dating for long—barely a month since the day he first walked into my bookshop—but we were serious enough that he was talking about introducing me to you guys.”
So Rick had met Lisa while Bronwyn was still with Bryce. She remembered how euphoric and secretive he’d been during those few weeks before she had left. She’d even teased him about it over dinner one night and he’d stammered and blushed like a schoolboy. The memory warmed her somewhat, but Lisa’s sympathetic voice dragged her back into the horror of the present.
“One night Rick called me to cancel one of our dates because his brother had been in an accident. It was pretty bad. I met Bryce a few weeks later while he was still recovering in the hospital. Rick and I married about four months after the accident, when Bryce was well enough to attend. If I hadn’t been two months pregnant at the time, we would have postponed the wedding. Both Rick and Bryce refused to talk about you again. I think Rick was merely following Bryce’s lead on that score. He was so completely wrecked by what had happened to his brother that he would have walked over hot coals if he thought that it would make Bryce happy. From the rare bits of information about it that I managed to get out of Rick over the past twenty months of our marriage, I thought that you’d opted out because you couldn’t cope with his deafness.”
“But I didn’t even know he was deaf until just now.” She coughed painfully and Lisa stroked her hair soothingly.
“Why did you leave him?” Lisa questioned gently.
“I would never willingly have left him. I love him . . . loved him.” Lisa raised her eyebrows at the telling slip and nodded.
“I know that now. I took one look at you this morning and I knew. So why did you leave him?”
“Because he told me to leave. He kicked me out,” Bronwyn recalled miserably. “He was unhappy about my pregnancy because we had agreed to wait a few years before starting a family. He accused me of getting pregnant deliberately, of tricking him. It was awful.”
“I don’t understand.” Lisa frowned. “Why would he go off the deep end like that? Surely a pregnancy is something to be celebrated?”
“I don’t know,” Bronwyn confessed. “I left to give him some time to cool off and went to our house in Knysna. I knew that once he had calmed down enough he would come looking for me. I never believed he wouldn’t come . . .” Her voice faded away as she remembered the pain, betrayal, and disillusionment she had felt when it became apparent that Bryce would not be coming for her.
“What did you do?” Lisa asked sympathetically.
“I waited. For two weeks I waited. Bryce is usually pretty good about keeping his temper under control, and when he does lose it he usually needs only a couple of hours for his logical thought processes to kick in again. But I’d never seen him as angry as he was that night, so I figured that it would take him a little longer than usual to come to his senses.” She shrugged helplessly, battling to keep the pain she still felt at the memory from showing. “After a week, I tried calling him. But I was stonewalled. His staff had closed ranks around him. I couldn’t reach him or Rick and I didn’t know what to do. It felt as if my whole world had imploded.” She bowed her head.
“After the initial disbelief and pain, the anger and resentment kicked in. I decided that if he wanted nothing to do with the baby and me, then I wasn’t going to make it easy for him to come crawling back. Not that I believed he would come back. I suppose I started thinking that way to preserve my pride. I went off the grid—no credit, no bank accounts except the one I already had in my maiden name. The only jobs I was qualified to do didn’t exactly keep stellar employee records. I never believed he would actually try to find us.” She shook her head dazedly.
“I thought he loved me.” It shamed her to admit that now, embarrassed her to confess such a foolish belief in front of this woman who was so obviously confident in her husband’s love. “Now he blames me for his deafness, and he’s practically accusing me of stealing Kayla from him when he had made it abundantly clear that he had no interest in her!” She heard the bitterness creeping into her voice. “He undoubtedly thinks that the way we’ve been living is beneath him, but I took good care of my baby. I fed her, clothed her, and loved her after he had abandoned us! How dare he waltz back into my life and presume that he’d be the better parent just because he has so much more money than I do!”
“Bryce has kept pretty much to himself in the time since I got married to Rick. He’s a difficult man to get to know,” Lisa said into the silence that ensued after Bronwyn ran out of steam. “But what I do know I like and respect. I can’t really reconcile the picture you’ve just painted with the man I’ve come to know.”
Bronwyn nodded miserably. “I’m sorry,” she responded, forcing the words past her tortured throat. “I don’t mean to place you in an awkward position. I shouldn’t have said those things.”
“No, that’s not it at all,” Lisa hurriedly corrected. “It’s just that you each seem so convinced of the other’s wrongdoing that there must have been some crossed wires somewhere.”
“Hmm.” Bronwyn tried to agree, but she was feeling fuzzy again, unable to concentrate.
“Try to get some rest,” Lisa suggested gently. “You look done in.”
“I didn’t . . . would never . . .” She could not complete the thought and was aware of nothing more as she slid into unconsciousness.
She looked fragile, like the slightest touch would break her, and how he wanted to break her. Bryce glared down at the stranger who was his wife and was eaten up by pure hatred for her. This innocent-looking bitch had destroyed his life and stolen his child. The barely contained violence he felt toward her had been festering for just over two years, and he quite cheerfully would have strangled her in her sleep if it weren’t for the fact that their daughter needed her. He watched her labor to breathe and imagined that it sounded hoarse and ragged. He remembered sounds but sometimes wondered if his memory was accurate. For the longest time, despite his unsuccessful attempts to force it out, his most precious memory had been of her voice. Now the memory of the sweet, clear sound of her voice returned unbidden along with the bell-like clarity of her laugh and, lastly, how that lovely voice had sounded during their final argument, thick with tears and entreaties.
She looked so ill. He grimaced, unwilling to feel any compassion for her. If she had worked herself into the ground it was less than she deserved for running out on him, for stealing his child, and for crippling him! He lived in a silent world now, the only sounds he heard were mere echoes of memories and her voice . . . always her voice.
He had hated her for haunting him, and he hated her still for looking so damned vulnerable, for being ill and weak and nearly defenseless, thereby rendering him impotent to lash out and rail at her the way he had fantasized about doing for so long.
Well, she wouldn’t always be sick. He could wait. Revenge, they said, was a dish best served cold. He’d been waiting for two years, so a few more weeks wouldn’t make a difference. And how much sweeter the payback would be now that he had her very firmly within his grasp!
Kayla decided that she didn’t like scary and noisy helicopters and cried during the entire short, chartered flight from Plettenberg Bay to Camps Bay. Her beleaguered father, who was figuring out that parenthood may not be as fabulous as he had first imagined, battled to keep her calm while Bronwyn, who was feeling the effects of some pretty powerful medication, remained mostly oblivious to it all. Bronwyn was vaguely aware of Bryce frantically trying to shush the child. He made funny faces and played silly little games but Kayla refused to be comforted by someone who was a total stranger to her. She was too small to be belted in but she stubbornly refused to stay in Bryce’s lap. Instead she kept trying to crawl over onto her mother’s lap, and Bronwyn tried her best to soothe the little girl, but Kayla wasn’t too impressed with her limp hugs either.
“Do something,” Bryce eventually entreated, when Kayla slid from his grasp like a greased pig and melted to the floor in a boneless heap. Once at their feet she wailed pitifully.
“Kayla scairt, mummy, Kayla scairt!” she howled. Bronwyn, thoroughly fed up with the theatrics, reached down and dragged the limp toddler up with as much strength as she could muster.
“Mikayla,” she managed hoarsely in her toughest, no-nonsense, voice. Kayla was momentarily silenced by Bronwyn’s “mummy” voice and her wide blue eyes melted Bronwyn’s heart. The poor little thing was understandably scared. Too many changes in too short a time for her. Bronwyn gentled her voice and smiled with what she hoped was cheerful confidence. “It’s fine, baby. Sit with your daddy; he’ll take care of you.” Mikayla glanced over at the swiftly unraveling Bryce with wary speculation in her gaze. Turning to him for protection had evidently not occurred to her.
“Man?” she questioned uncertainly.
“Daddy,” Bronwyn corrected tiredly, fading fast. “Go and sit with him.” The little girl, clutching her favorite stuffed doll to her chest, took the one small step separating her from Bryce and raised her arms to let it be known that she would allow him to pick her up now. Bryce lifted her into his lap and she curled up against his chest, propping her thumb into her mouth. Huge crocodile tears were streaming down her cheeks. Bronwyn rolled her eyes and leaned back with an exhausted sigh. For a couple of minutes everything was quiet, save for the noisy drone of the chopper. Bronwyn was just settling in for a doze when Bryce spoke, so softly that she could barely hear his voice above all the noise. Not even the headphones she was wearing helped to amplify his voice.
“She’s a handful.”
Bronwyn opened her eyes and found herself staring straight into his brooding eyes. “Yes.” She nodded tiredly. “She tends to be. But she’s just frightened right now; this isn’t anything that she’s used to.”
“Tell me about her,” he invited, almost reluctantly. It obviously dented his pride having to ask her for anything.
“She’s inherited more than just some of your physical traits,” Bronwyn said with a smile. “She has a stubborn streak a mile wide and is ferociously independent.”
“When did she start walking and talking?”
“She was an early talker.” Bronwyn’s smile went misty. “She mostly gurgled a lot, babbled incoherently for a while . . .” Bryce was frowning and she stuttered to a halt. “What’s wrong?”
“Slow down,” he commanded gruffly. “I can’t understand a damned thing you’re saying!”
Having momentarily forgotten about his deafness, the reminder served as a cruel reality check. She swallowed convulsively, aware of the dry, painful heat in her throat.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered before repeating her previous statement as slowly and clearly as she could. Bryce rolled his eyes impatiently.
“I’m deaf, not stupid,” he ground out furiously. “Just speak normally; don’t babble and don’t drawl and keep facing me.”
“I’m sorry.” She helplessly repeated her apology. She felt hopelessly inadequate. Again, she tried to repeat her previous statement, but she was so nervous by now that she stammered badly. Bryce swore impatiently beneath his breath before deliberately lowering his gaze to Kayla. That easily he ended the conversation. The slight was brutally effective and left Bronwyn feeling thoroughly abandoned. She felt like a complete failure and kept her eyes trained on his face, hoping that he would look back up, but he was talking to the still-crying Kayla. He was so absorbed by his daughter that Bronwyn might as well not have been there.
She eventually lowered her gaze to where her hands were curled into tight fists in her lap, and as she desperately fought the urge to cry, she tried to figure out where and how her life had gone so very wrong. She thought back to their first meeting, which had always seemed like something out of a fairy tale to her—Prince Charming meeting Cinderella while she was still in her rags but falling for her anyway.
It had seemed so perfect . . .
He had been, without a doubt, the most handsome man she had ever seen. It was her first day waitressing at the upscale beachfront restaurant in Camps Bay and she could not afford distractions, especially since she had lied about her qualifications to get the job. Fortunately she had managed to bluff her way through the in-house training without looking too incompetent. Since finishing high school six years ago, she hadn’t been much good at anything except looking after her ailing grandmother, her only relative. It had been a full-time job, leaving no room in her life for the socializing other women her age enjoyed. Instead, she had spent most of her day in the company of an infirm old woman and any free time she may have had was devoted to her stash of books. It had been a sad and solitary existence for a young woman with such a sunny disposition but Bronwyn had never wished the task away. Her grandmother had raised her without complaint after her parents had died and Bronwyn had loved the old lady fiercely because of that.
They had scraped by, living off her gran’s pension and a small trust fund her grandfather had set up for his wife. After her grandmother’s death just two months before, the balance of the fund had been spent on the funeral and Bronwyn had been forced to sell their small semi-detached house. Most of the money made from the sale had gone toward settling outstanding hospital bills, with barely enough left over for Bronwyn to pay the deposit on the tiny flat that she was now renting.
So here she was, trying desperately to do well at her new job, but she couldn’t take her eyes off the man who had just walked into the restaurant. He was tall, blond, and beautiful, and he was absorbed in the conversation he was having with the lean, dark man beside him. The two men were as opposite as night and day. The blond was big and bulky, almost Nordic in appearance, while the dark one was lean and lithe, with a definite sexy Gallic look to him. They sat down at one of her tables and her mouth went dry. She hurried over, not wanting to keep such important-looking men waiting and thankfully stumbled only once along the way.
“Good morning . . . Uh, hello . . . How may I . . .” She blanked, having already stuffed up the perky greeting that had been drilled into her during training. The men were looking at her expectantly, and she faltered even more beneath the blond man’s icy stare. “Your order,” she concluded abruptly. “What is it, please?”
The dark man’s eyebrows climbed in astonishment, but the blond remained impassive even though Bronwyn, for a fleeting moment, thought that she spotted amusement flashing in those seemingly cold eyes of his.
“Drinks,” she continued desperately. “You probably drink. So you probably want some, a lot, I mean . . .” She felt her face going blood red with embarrassment. The dark man was staring at her in complete amazement, with his jaw dropped practically to his chest. The other man though, his jaw was clenched; he looked like he was exerting enormous control over his emotions. She panicked. He was probably angry, probably used to vastly superior service from this restaurant. She floundered again . . . at a complete loss.
“You look thirsty,” she murmured, hoping to prompt them into saying something, anything. “And we have plenty of drinks.”
“What would you recommend?” the blond asked unexpectedly. His voice was warm and mellifluous and much gentler than she had expected. It seemed completely at odds with the craggy planes of his face, as well as with his tightly controlled expression. His voice flowed over her like warm honey, and she stood staring at him dreamily without being aware of it for the longest time.
“Miss?” the dark man prompted impatiently. “What do you recommend?”
“Uh”—she snapped out of her daze, embarrassingly aware that she had been caught staring at the blond. “Recommend?”
“Drinks,” the blond reminded gently.
“Yes of course . . .” She scanned her memory frantically. “Wine . . . we have wine, and of course we have . . . you might like it, because I quite like it, you see?” They didn’t seem to see. God, she was being such a socially awkward ditz. She wasn’t usually this bad.
“Like what?” the blond asked.
“The . . . um . . . the milkshake. Chocolate especially.” The dark man’s brows lowered in complete consternation; he really had the most expressive eyebrows.
“You recommend the . . .” He sounded like he was choking, and his face was going an unbecoming shade of red. “The milkshake?”
“I didn’t even know they had milkshakes here,” the blond said conversationally. “Did you, Pierre?” The other man, Pierre, seemed incapable of replying, and Bronwyn wished the ground would open up and swallow her, she was so humiliated. Milkshake? What was she thinking recommending the milkshake to a pair of men who had doubtless not had one since hitting puberty?
“We have other—” she began miserably but was interrupted by Jake, the manager. Sensing a problem, he had come over to intervene.
“Excuse me, is everything all right here?” he asked politely, sending a surreptitious glare toward the flustered Bronwyn. Bronwyn suspected that he knew she had lied about her previous experience, and it seemed that the owner had hired her against Jake’s advice. Now Jake seemed desperate for her to mess up so that he could have an excuse to fire her. She hung her head and waited miserably for the men to complain. The darker one, Pierre, opened his mouth to say something, but the blond forestalled him.
“No problem at all,” he murmured smoothly. “My colleague and I were just having some difficulty deciding what to order.” Jake had no option but to retreat, but not before sending a warning glare toward Bronwyn.
“Very well, Mr. Palmer.” He practically genuflected as he stepped back. “But if you need anything, please ask for Jake.”
“Now why would we do that when we already have an excellent server right here?” the blond, Mr. Palmer, asked smoothly before dismissing Jake with a casual flick of the hand. His colleague gaped at him in disbelief.
“Bryce . . .” Pierre started to say. His name was Bryce! He ignored his friend and refocused his beautiful ice-blue eyes on Bronwyn’s flushed face.
“Now where were we?” he asked mildly, his eyes running over her face intently. “Ah, yes . . . I think I’ll have the chocolate milkshake.”
“Uh . . .” She gaped at him stupidly. “Uh . . . what?”
“The milkshake, I’ll have that. Chocolate of course.” She nodded dazedly and scribbled down the order before reluctantly turning her attention to Pierre.
“And for you, sir?” Pierre was staring at his friend in disbelief, before refocusing his attention on Bronwyn. Those previously grim eyes of his were alight with humor.
“What the hell.” He had a French accent. She had been so focused on Bryce that she hadn’t noticed that before. “I think I’ll have that milkshake too!”