by Natasha Anders
A few hours after arriving in Camps Bay, Bronwyn was still unsettled by the emotions those long ago memories on the chopper had stirred up. She was standing in the conservatory; it was the highest point in the staggered house and had always felt like an eagle’s aerie to her. All but one wall, as well as half of the ceiling, was entirely made of glass.
She gazed down at the beautiful, blue Atlantic Ocean with its pristine beaches. To her left was a view of the mountain range, the Twelve Apostles, named after the majestic craggy peaks that loomed above the gorgeous beaches, while the bustling city of Cape Town lay to the right.
The house was exactly as she remembered. Big and beautiful, it was built into the face of the mountain and had panoramic views all around. Bronwyn loved this house, absolutely loved the way it caught the sun and loved the fact that it had always felt like home. It still did. She had felt it welcoming her back from the moment she had stepped off the chopper. Bryce had deserted her immediately after their arrival, taking Kayla to introduce her to her new home. Bronwyn had wandered around listlessly before finding herself back in this room—her favorite. Bryce had always complained that she had turned it into a “girlie” room, with comfortably overstuffed furniture, beautiful throw rugs, and anything else that caught her fancy. She had trawled flea markets and out-of-the-way little shops for anything she felt would suit this room, and the result had been an eclectic blend of old and new, a room for all seasons.
He hadn’t changed it at all. Everything was still in exactly the same place as it had been when she had left, but the room felt unused, and Bronwyn knew that he hadn’t set foot in it over the last two years. The room contained so many memories. They had spent hours in it, night and day; it was the room they had done most of their daily living in, simply talking, often making love, and then arguing fiercely on that last day.
Her eyes flooded with tears and she covered her face with her hands. Kayla had been conceived in this room too. One night, three months or so before their final argument, they had returned home from a party, both of them slightly tipsy. He had looked at her like she was the most beautiful woman in the world and had, indeed, told her that over and over again as he had worshipped her body on one of the rugs in front of the window. They had fallen asleep here, right where she was standing, entangled in each other’s arms. They’d been so close it had felt like nothing would ever separate them.
She jumped and swung around, so wrapped up in her memories that it took a few seconds for her to realize that he was no longer the same Bryce who had held her so tenderly that night. He had a sleeping Kayla draped against his chest and looked at a bit of a loss. She felt a combination of anger and regret at the sight of him holding her daughter and possessively reached out for her, but Bryce sent her a quelling look.
“You can barely stand upright. Do you really think you’re capable of carrying her without dropping her?” Frustrated by the logic of his words and biting back her protestations only out of concern for her daughter’s safety, Bronwyn took a step back.
“It’s past her usual nap time,” she said, making certain that he was looking at her before she spoke, not wanting a repeat of the incident on the helicopter. “Where can we put her?”
“I have a room prepared for her.” He turned away and headed for the stairs, which led down to the second-story bedrooms. Bronwyn tensed when they passed the master bedroom and wondered where she would be expected to sleep. He led her to the room that adjoined the master and, with his hands full, he nodded toward the closed door. She obediently opened the door and then gasped when she saw the room. It was a nursery, beautifully decorated in lemon and cream. Toys of every kind were stacked neatly on shelves, and a crib—gorgeously detailed and obviously for a newborn—was positioned close to the large picture window. He carried Kayla to a bigger cot that Bronwyn hadn’t immediately noticed. She watched as he tenderly laid his daughter down and covered her with a lightweight downy blanket. He stared at her for the longest time, his hand looking clumsy and huge and infinitely gentle as it stroked the little girl’s silky hair.
“Welcome home, Mikayla,” he murmured gently before leaning down to place a sweet kiss on her forehead. He raised his head to meet her eyes, and seeing the question in them he shrugged, his face going a little bit red.
“I had the room done a few months after you left. It was that or go stir-crazy. I didn’t know if she was a boy or girl, so the colors had to be neutral. She has outgrown just about everything in here but I couldn’t imagine . . . couldn’t picture how she would look and didn’t know how big she would be.” His voice broke and he lowered his gaze to the sleeping toddler, his eyes glittering with unshed tears. “God, she’s so beautiful.”
Bronwyn didn’t know what to say, didn’t know how to respond to this obvious desire he’d had to be a part of his child’s life. Why hadn’t he come for her if he’d wanted the baby? Why hadn’t he taken, or returned, any of her calls? At the same time she couldn’t help but feel near hatred toward this clearly conflicted man. He had robbed them of the opportunity to be a real family with his inexplicably cruel actions, and pretty little rooms with expensive toys weren’t going to change that fact.
“I wasn’t aware that I was being so . . . obvious,” he murmured. He shook himself out of some kind of reverie before reaching for his wallet and extracting a platinum credit card. It was pretty clear that he had no intention of answering her question. He was a generous, but not overly generous, tipper, and when she returned with his credit card he stood up while pocketing his wallet.
“Thank you . . . Bronwyn, is it?” She nodded mutely and he smiled—just the barest tilt at the corners of his mouth—again. “The name suits you.” She didn’t respond to that, not sure if it was a compliment or not.
He turned to go and then hesitated before turning back to face her.
“How old are you, Bronwyn?”
His expression was inscrutable.
“You seem younger.” He shrugged. “I’m twenty-nine.”
“Okay?” Why was he telling her this? He was a strange man, but not in a scary way. He seemed so sophisticated, so unlike anyone else she had ever met.
“I’m sorry. It’s just that . . .” He seemed to lose track of what he was saying and stood, awkwardly silent for a few seconds. “You just . . . you have . . .” What? She had what? She ran her tongue over her teeth, afraid that she may have something stuck in them, and then rubbed her nose in case she had a spot on it.
“Such amazing eyes,” he concluded in a rush.
She gaped at him uncomprehendingly for a while, and he went dull-red before clearing his throat and turning away abruptly. He left before she could blink, before she could draw breath, and before she could call him back.
It had been nearly a week since their ill-fated kiss and Bryce hadn’t spoken to her much since then. He had given her the master bedroom and as with the conservatory, the room had an unlived feel to it. Her wardrobe had been left untouched, but Bryce’s clothes were gone; not a tie or even a stray cuff link remained. It was as if he had never shared the same closet space with her. None of her old clothes fit her anymore; they were all a couple of sizes too large. Bronwyn had been dismayed to discover exactly how much weight she had lost over the last couple of years. She had always been slender, so the fact that she had dropped two dress sizes must mean that she looked completely emaciated! No wonder Bryce had said that she looked like a wraith.
She made a concerted effort to eat more, and as Kayla was spending a lot of time with her father, Bronwyn was getting plenty of rest, so much rest that she was getting quite bored. She was sitting in the conservatory, reading an easy (or so the back blurb claimed) guide to South African Sign Language, when she heard Kayla’s happy chatter approaching. She tucked the book behind a cushion, not wanting Bryce to know she was trying to learn SASL. Something told her that he would not be happy about it. Any references she had made to his deafness were not well received.
Kayla entered the room in her inimitable way, all happy laughter and incomprehensible speech while Bryce followed her in his inimitable way, all scowls and growls when he saw that Bronwyn occupied the conservatory.
“Mummeeeee!” The little girl squealed when she saw Bronwyn, and she clambered into her mother’s lap, smelling of sunshine and sea air. She was wearing cute pink dungarees, one of the very many expensive items of clothing her father had purchased for her. He had taken his daughter out shopping, without Bronwyn, the day after their arrival in Camps Bay. He had sent the housekeeper to ask for Kayla’s sizes. Bronwyn had felt rather awkward around Celeste, the housekeeper, who had been with them since their wedding just over four years ago, but the elderly woman had welcomed her back with a genuinely warm smile. Bronwyn had written the sizes down and mentally wished him luck with Kayla, who inevitably became a nightmare to handle in any shopping situation. No sooner had they left, than she started worrying about both of them. Bryce might find Kayla more than a handful with his deafness, and Kayla would probably start panicking when she figured out that her mummy was nowhere to be found. Her worrying had come to nothing though, because the two had returned from their shopping spree fast friends and totally inseparable from that point onward. She was a little jealous and resentful at the ease with which Bryce had established a position in her daughter’s life. A petty part of her had hoped that Kayla would give him a hard time of it, but her daughter had accepted him without protest and seemed to barely miss Bron at all.
Despite her deep-seated feelings of animosity toward Bryce, Bronwyn tried very hard not to begrudge them this time together, if only for Kayla’s sake. The little girl needed Bryce in her life. And Bronwyn had to acknowledge that the toddler, with her boundless energy, would have sapped her last reserves. Now she cuddled the affectionate child lovingly, delaying the moment when she would actually have to look at her grim husband. When she managed to summon up the guts to glance at him, she was surprised by an expression of unguarded vulnerability on his face. The expression was quickly shuttered when he noticed that she was staring at him, and the habitual frown took its place.
“What did you and Daddy do this morning?” she asked Kayla, keeping her eyes trained on his face so that he would not feel excluded.
“We play horsy . . . giddup.” The child chortled in remembered glee. She bounced on her mother’s lap, and Bronwyn winced as Kayla’s shoes dug into her thighs. “Giddup mummy . . . giddup, giddup!” Bryce plucked the child from Bronwyn’s lap before she could do any damage.
“You’re hurting your mummy,” he told the child in his carefully modulated voice. He spoke very quietly, and Bronwyn guessed that he had difficulty judging the volume of his voice. He kept it so soft that she strained to hear him sometimes. Not that anything he said was ever directed at her. She guessed that the volume of his voice would grow in proportion to his anger, and he was perpetually angry with her. He stared at her thoughtfully for a little while before totally shocking her and sitting down next to her, putting Kayla down to play with the toys that were scattered all over the floor.
“You look much better,” he observed, his eyes continuing to run over her face and form. “Not as gaunt, and you’re getting some color in your cheeks. How do you feel?”
“Better.” She nodded. “Bored.” He shocked her by gracing her with the smallest of smiles.
“Yes, you were never one for long periods of inactivity.” He nodded. “Have you given any thought to what you want to do once you’ve recovered?” She stared at him in dismay, having no clue how to answer that question. She hadn’t dared think about the future; she had no idea what Bryce wanted from her. Did he expect them to just continue to live together in the same soulless fashion for the next fifty years or so? Because Bronwyn couldn’t do that. She absolutely refused to live like this for much longer; she would rather get a divorce. Did he want a divorce? For that matter, were they divorced already? She was certain of only two things; he wanted his daughter but he did not want Bronwyn.
“I don’t . . . what do you mean?”
He frowned. “It wasn’t a trick question, Bronwyn,” he responded scathingly.
“I’m not sure . . . I suppose I’ll find a place to live?”
He didn’t like her response. That much was evident from the way he was glowering at her.
“You’re not taking Kayla away from me again, Bronwyn. You’ll both be staying here. You’d best reconcile yourself to that fact!”
“Staying here as what?” she asked pointedly. A divorce was looking increasingly appealing right now. She had no idea why she hadn’t instigated proceedings herself long ago. She supposed she had clung to the remnants of a fairy-tale marriage that had never existed outside of her imagination.
“My wife and my daughter,” he responded angrily, his voice rising marginally. “I could do without the wife, but I realize that it’s a package deal for now, so I’m willing to suffer your presence in my life again.”
“How long do you expect us to continue to living like this?” she pressed. She was trying very hard to keep the emotional strain off her face.
“Live like what? You have it made, Bronwyn, you’ll never want for anything, you have everything you need right here. I’m the one who will be making the sacrifices, shackled to the wife who crippled me and stole my child from me. I’ll be the one saddled with a wife whom I have absolutely no respect for. But I want my daughter, and for now this is the only way that I can have her.”
“Oh please, Bryce,” she retorted, her face pale with anger and hurt. “You’re not quite the prize you think you are. You forget that I’ll be trapped in a loveless marriage with a man who kicked me out of the house when I told him I was pregnant with his child. A man who hates me for absolutely no reason at all and who makes no secret of the fact that he doesn’t respect me. How on earth do you call that having it made? I’d rather we divorce and try to reach an amicable custody agreement. Kayla and I could live close by and . . .”
“The only other option you have here is if I took her from you, Bronwyn. No compromises. You live here with us, or you leave without her. What’s it to be?”
“You can’t take her from me . . .” she began helplessly, going ice cold as he pulled the rug out from under her again. Damn him, he held all the cards and he knew it. Her bravado was just empty posturing. She didn’t have his resources, and for now she’d have to toe his line until she could find a way out of this mess.
“Can’t I?” he asked frostily. She floundered beneath his steady gaze, lowering her eyes to where Kayla was happily playing on the floor. “You’d better start thinking about what you want, Bronwyn. Stay or leave. But if you stay, I suggest you start finding ways to make your life here more tolerable.”
“But what about . . .” she began before biting her tongue and blushing to her toes. The blush gave her away.
“Sex?” he prompted, and she nodded miserably. “Well, I don’t know about yours but my sex life is perfectly fine.” He shrugged. “Naturally, I don’t expect you to deprive yourself either. If you’re concerned that I’ll come creeping into your bed one desperate night, don’t worry about it. You’re the last woman in the world I want to sleep with.” His expression was filled with such distaste that Bronwyn’s eyes filled with tears of shame. She knuckled them away, infuriated by the display of weakness. His contempt hurt more than she could possibly have imagined. She glanced down at their daughter. The innocently playing little girl remained oblivious to the tension in the room, and Bronwyn was grateful for that. She refocused her attention on Bryce.
“You wanted me the other day,” she reminded him defiantly, and he laughed.
“I felt sorry for you,” he corrected. “Trust me, Bronwyn, the mere thought of touching you makes my skin crawl!” She flinched and struggled desperately to keep her tears at bay and her emotions in check, but one single scalding drop escaped to scorch its way down her cheek. His eyes followed the tear’s progress. His jaw clenched, and his expression remained emotionless. He looked like a man under enormous strain. She wiped at the moisture on her face, wanting to be as unemotional as he was but failing dismally when another tear escaped. She averted her face, not wanting to see the scorn in his eyes and pushed herself up as she sought an escape route out of the room. He got up too and stood in front of her, blocking her way to the exit, so she turned away from him and walked to one of the windows, staring blindly out at the magnificent scenery as she fought to control her emotions.
He watched her narrow back quiver as she bravely tried to bring herself back under control. Damn her! Her tears had always had the power to unman him, but that was something she did not know, something he had never dared reveal to her for fear that she would use them as a weapon against him. But he could tell that Bronwyn hated having him see her tears. He could see her struggling to be strong, but she was so transparent that every devastating emotion showed clearly on her face. The very fact that she was trying so hard to hide any sign of weakness from him made her tears difficult to ignore. He clenched his fists and forced himself to remain where he was, not to give in to the temptation to go and comfort her.
She looked out at the ocean but didn’t appear to be admiring the view as she wrapped her slender arms around herself. She seemed so incredibly lonely that it almost physically hurt him not to go to her. But Bryce refused to fall into her trap again; he was calling the shots now. The last time he had been so smitten with her that he had barely been able to see straight. He remembered the first time he’d laid eyes on her, how he had stared at her that day, trying to figure out what he found so fascinating about her.
She was tall, about five eleven, but she lacked the grace inherent in a lot of tall women. In fact, on that first day, she had seemed to fall over her feet just about every five minutes. She wasn’t even pretty. Her features taken separately were attractive enough, a long straight nose, lush mouth, high arching eyebrows, and the most beautiful, thickly lashed, brown eyes that he had ever seen. Yet when put together in her narrow, oval face, those features just didn’t seem to match. Still he had been compelled to stare for hours, drowning every time she shifted those huge, velvet-brown doe eyes of hers to him.
Now he watched her warily, almost wishing that he had never laid eyes on the treacherous bitch. He damned her for looking like a fragile waif with her badly trimmed dark-brown hair curling around her face where it had escaped from its sloppy ponytail. He watched as she straightened her back, coming to some sort of resolution, and turned back to face him. She walked toward him until they were separated by less than a meter
“I will stay,” she said, her beautiful mouth forming the words concisely. It was hell, this lip-reading business. Every time his gaze fell on her full lips, he found himself remembering what they tasted like. “It looks like I have no other choice. When I have completely recuperated and Kayla is settled in, I want to resume my studies.” He nodded; one of his objections to her pregnancy had been that she was in the process of obtaining her undergraduate degree in zoology, her ultimate goal to become a veterinarian. He hadn’t been comfortable with the idea of her giving that up and maybe one day resenting both him and the baby for having to sacrifice her dreams. He couldn’t recall telling her that at the time though but he knew that he hadn’t been at his most logical after hearing the news that she was pregnant.
“If this is to be an open marriage,” she continued, “I will start seeing other people too. All I ask is that we be as discreet as possible, for Kayla’s sake.”
She intended to see other men? That thought did not sit too well with him, and he opened his mouth to protest before remembering that it had been his own stupid idea for her not to deprive herself. After all if he did not want her, why should she not feel free to find someone who would? Some other guy who would hold her and kiss her? Someone who would be free to wipe away her tears and comfort her? Some other man who would love her and take care of her? Someone who would do what Bryce no longer wanted to do? He nodded, hoping that none of the confusion he was feeling was evident in his eyes or on his face.
“Sounds fair,” he agreed smoothly before dropping his gaze pointedly to her bare ring finger. “But open marriage or not, you have to start wearing your wedding rings again.”
Bronwyn covered her left hand self-consciously with her right, her own eyes dropping to his strong hands. She had noticed, couldn’t help but notice, that he still wore his wedding ring, a broad brushed gold and platinum band with a complex Celtic design that had matched her much smaller band.
“I . . . I don’t have them,” she confessed, and he made an impatient sound at the back of his throat.
“I’m deaf, remember?” he prompted sarcastically. “Show me your mouth when you speak!” She raised her face and met his gaze unflinchingly.
“I don’t have them.”
“You don’t have the rings?” he asked in disbelief. “What the hell did you do with them?”
“I sold them,” she said before fleeing from the room, not wanting to see his reaction to that confession. She would have given anything to hold on to those rings even though they had come to symbolize nothing but lies.