Bronwyn cautiously opened her eyes to a sunlit bedroom. There was no sign of Bryce, and instinct told her that it was way after midday. She heard Kayla’s joyful laughter outside, and she guessed the little girl was in the swimming pool, probably with her father, who was diligently teaching her how to swim. Bryce had had a childproof fence built around the pool sometime during her absence, another one of those preparations he’d made in anticipation of a child he’d had no idea if he’d ever meet.
Bronwyn sat up shakily, feeling refreshed yet strangely hollow. She felt like someone who’d had a long and desperately needed sleep after the death of a loved one, only to wake up to the discovery that even though life would go on, it would be forever marred by the tragedy of loss. She could not remember the last time she had slept so soundly, possibly that last night before leaving Bryce two years ago; she certainly had not had much peace of mind since then. She got up and made her way to the bathroom, trying not to think of the night before. She wasn’t sure what any of it had signified and definitely wasn’t sure where it left her and Bryce.
She made her way downstairs a little over half an hour later, wearing a pair of faded jeans and an old T-shirt. The clothes were from her old wardrobe and were too baggy on her. Bronwyn resolved to eat even more, still feeling incredibly unattractive because of her thinness.
When she reached the living room, she stood at the open patio doors staring out at the pair in the water for the longest time, feeling ambivalent about the obvious enjoyment they seemed to find in each other’s company. She felt a little left out and again bitter toward Bryce for allowing this to happen to them. She was about to turn away and head in search of something to eat when Bryce glanced up and caught sight of her. She could not see his expression because of the sun’s glare off the water, but he went strangely still before heading toward the side of the pool and depositing a protesting Kayla on the paving before heaving himself out alongside her.
“Daddy more swim . . .” the child was protesting, but he was watching Bronwyn and did not see her display of temper. Bronwyn watched in amazement as the little girl impatiently patted her father on his leg and made a clumsy sign that Bronwyn knew signified “daddy” or “father.” Bronwyn was familiar with it because she had been meaning to teach her daughter the word in sign language. Bryce looked down at his precocious offspring and grinned when she said “daddy” with one of her chubby hands again before making swimming gestures.
“Later, baby,” he laughingly promised, picking her up and depositing her on his wide, bronzed shoulders. “First we’ll have some lunch with your mummy.” The child looked up and noticed Bronwyn for the first time. The delight on her little face warmed Bronwyn’s heart. Bryce had pretty much monopolized the little girl’s time since their arrival eleven days ago. And while he sometimes seemed at a loss as to how to deal with Kayla, he was muddling through without asking Bronwyn for any assistance. It concerned her that he seemed so able around the child. She worried that he might start to wonder why he needed Bronwyn around at all. Now that she was feeling healthier, she vowed to spend more time with the little girl whom she had missed so much. She wouldn’t allow Bryce to usurp her so completely any longer.
Bryce made his way toward her, and she stepped onto the patio, relishing the feel of the hot, early autumn sun on her face. She picked up a bright-pink beach towel adorned with characters from Disney’s Finding Nemo cartoon and held it up as he deposited the happily chattering little girl into Bronwyn’s arms. She wrapped the towel around Kayla and hugged her small body close. Her daughter was bubbling on about swimming, her daddy, and various other concerns that were of great importance to any nearly nineteen-month-old little girl. Bronwyn nodded and made the appropriate noises, but she was preoccupied with Bryce, whose eyes were sweeping over her from top to bottom, making her feel naked and vulnerable.
“How do you feel?” he asked quietly, and she shrugged, managing a slight smile.
He nodded at her reply but seemed at a loss for words.
“I hope you’re hungry. You’re just in time for lunch,” he said, gesturing toward the glass-and-wrought-iron patio table situated close to the huge stone barbeque at the other end of the large patio. Celeste was just laying out what looked like a delicious lunch. The older woman, always one of few words, flashed them a smile and retreated with a nod.
“I’m famished.” She nodded and headed toward the table, depositing a still-prattling Kayla into her high chair and placing the provided plastic bowl and plastic spoon onto the surface in front of the toddler.
“She’s a messy eater,” Bryce pointed out with a wince, and Bronwyn grinned, realizing that he must have discovered that particular trait the hard way. Most of Kayla’s meals seemed to wind up all over herself and anybody else in the general vicinity, but the little girl obdurately refused to allow anybody to feed her, insisting that she could do it herself. It was a stubborn streak that she had inherited from her father, and Bronwyn wished that she had been there to witness that particular battle of wills firsthand. It must have been a novelty for Bryce to discover someone as hardheaded as himself, especially someone as tiny as Mikayla.
“I know.” Bronwyn smiled. “She rejects any attempt to help feed her. I usually give her extra portions in the hopes that she manages to get as much of it into her mouth as she does all over everything else. But sometimes I have to take the bull by the horns and feed her myself anyway, despite her fervent protests.”
“She is also inordinately fond of ice cream,” he pointed out with a grimace, seeming to recall something particularly unpleasant.
“I’m guessing you discovered one of her favorite pastimes?”
“Finger painting?” He nodded and she laughed.
“Unfortunately ice cream, especially chocolate, seems to be her favorite medium,” Bronwyn said solemnly.
“I thought Celeste would quit after Kayla demonstrated her talent on the kitchen walls, but luckily she seems to have the patience of a saint.”
“I hope that you reprimanded Kayla?” Bronwyn asked with a frown, and he shook his head.
“She seemed so proud of her painting,” he responded, and Bronwyn sighed before shaking her head.
“She’s testing you,” she informed. “She knows better than to mess on the walls, she wouldn’t dare do it at ho—” She halted, knowing that the word home would be a mistake and not wanting to destroy the fragile peace between them. “She wouldn’t have done that in our old flat. She wants to see how much she’ll be able to get away with here. You’ve got to be firm with her, Bryce. Don’t let her take advantage of you.
“I wouldn’t know how to go about reprimanding her,” he offered quietly. “I haven’t had much practice at this fatherhood business. I want her to like me.” Judging from the pained look on his face, it grated to admit as much and she bit her lip, unsure how to respond without rekindling hostilities.
“I can guarantee,” she began reluctantly, not really wanting to help him with this but knowing that it was in Kayla’s best interests, “that she loves you already, Bryce. She won’t like it if you raise your voice to her, she may even shed a few fake little tears, but she’ll get over it. You’re as much of an authority figure to her as I am now, and she has to get used to that. We’re here to teach her right from wrong. If we don’t she’ll become a spoiled brat. And while a bit of spoiling never hurt anyone, I would not want her to become intolerable.” He was paying close attention to her mouth, and Bronwyn was careful to enunciate clearly and slowly.
“It makes sense, I suppose,” he said. “I’ll try to be a little less indulgent, but it’s still such a treat for me to give her things and spoil her a bit.”
“That’s understandable.” Bronwyn nodded. “You’ll get over it soon enough, once the novelty wears off and she becomes bratty.”
“She’ll never be that bratty.” He grinned before becoming quite serious. “You did a good job with her, Bron.”
“Uh . . .” The compliment was as unexpected as it was flattering, and Bronwyn had no idea how to respond to it. “Thank you.” She could not read his mood at all and wondered if she could trust what seemed to be an armed and uneasy truce. She bent her head and focused on her food. The cook had prepared a light lunch of crispy fried filleted hake—a delicious Cape game fish—herbed baby potatoes, and steamed fresh vegetables. Her mouth fairly watered at the sight of it. She checked Kayla’s bowl and was gratified to note that the little girl’s vegetables had been mashed into manageable chunks. Kayla had already started digging in with her chubby little fingers, and Bryce groaned when she proceeded to lift her fist to her mouth and suck the food off it.
“Mummy.” She picked up a piece of fish between two grubby fingers and held it up to her mother. “Hmm nice . . . Mummy . . .”
“I already have food, Kayla. See?” she pointed out, lifting a fork with some fish speared onto the tines. Kayla dropped the fish back into her bowl and lifted her plastic spoon and attempted to imitate her mother. When the fish kept falling back into the bowl, she glared and tossed the spoon aside in frustration before resorting to using her hands again. Bronwyn put aside her own utensils and lifted the plastic spoon, firmly placing it back into her daughter’s hands.
“Use the spoon, Mikayla,” she ordered firmly, but the little girl shook her head mutinously.
“No ’poon, Mummy,” the child protested, tossing it aside again the moment her mother let her hand go.
“Kayla, I’m not going to tell you again,” Bronwyn warned, picking the spoon up and wrapping the child’s stubborn fingers around it. Bryce watched the little power play unfold in fascination. Kayla, knowing how far she could push her mother, sulkily held on to the spoon and clumsily rooted around her bowl, messing about rather than actually attempting to eat. Bronwyn ignored the recalcitrant child and quite deliberately went back to her own lunch.
Kayla was now scooping up spoonfuls of food and placing it in little mounds on the tray of the high chair in front of her. Bronwyn finished off the last of her fish and sighed before dragging a wet wipe from the container Celeste had thoughtfully left within easy reach and wiping Kayla’s face and hands clean. She ignored the way the child tried to evade her attempts and after giving her face a thorough wipe, Bron lifted the squirming toddler out of the high chair and into her own lap. She grabbed Kayla’s bowl and spoon and very determinedly began spooning food into the protesting child’s mouth.
“No, Mummy, no! No!” Kayla was sobbing hysterically and working herself up into a fine little tantrum. Bronwyn could feel it in the way her small body was tensing up more and more. “Kayla no want! Kayla no like!”
“Kayla, you will eat your food!” Bronwyn managed in her sternest voice. The child’s determined squirming was rapidly tiring her mother out, and Bronwyn knew that she would have to give up the fight soon. She lifted the spoon to Kayla’s mouth, and the baby kept her mouth tightly shut, turning her head away.
“Mikayla!” The unfamiliar sound of Bryce’s raised voice shocked both mother and child into momentary stillness. Kayla’s eyes swallowed her face when they encountered her father’s stern countenance. His voice softened on his next words. “Listen to your mummy.”
The child obediently opened her mouth to the proffered spoon, her large blue eyes never wavering from her father’s face. She took in bite after bite until she had emptied her bowl, and when she was done, she begged to be let down. Bronwyn helped her down and watched with a helpless smile of sheer adoration as Kayla toddled over to her father and crawled into his lap, curling herself up and tucking her thumb into her mouth. Bryce’s face reflected a mixture of surprise, aching vulnerability, and confusion as he wrapped his arms around the sleepy little girl. He lifted his awestruck eyes to Bronwyn’s smiling face.
“She always gets a little peevish when she’s tired,” Bronwyn informed, watching as Kayla’s eyelids drooped more and more until she was fast asleep.
“I’m hesitant about raising my voice to her,” he admitted quietly. “I find it difficult to judge exactly how loud I’m actually being. I don’t want to terrify her. Sometimes I worry that . . .”
He left the sentence hanging and dropped his eyes down to his daughter’s sleeping face. Bronwyn waited, hoping that he would finish what he had been about to say, sensing that he had been about to reveal something deeply personal. He didn’t say anything further though, and it left her wondering about the insecurity she had heard in his voice.
“Bron . . .” he said after a long silence. He kept his gaze trained on Kayla’s sleeping face. “About last night?” Bronwyn tensed, and she lowered her eyes to the ice-cold glass of mango juice in her hands.
“I just . . . I never meant . . .” He paused again, and the silence grated on her nerves until she could stand it no more. His beautiful blue eyes at last rose to meet hers.
“Look, Bryce,” she said, breaking the silence, hoping that her face reflected the resolution that she could hear in her voice. “I know how much you hate me. In fact, believing what you do about me, I can even understand why you feel the way you do. Anybody who would so cold-bloodedly desert their spouse at the scene of an accident is certainly someone who deserves no forgiveness.”
“You’re . . .”
“I’m not even going to try to defend myself anymore,” she said firmly, interrupting whatever he’d been about to say. “There’s really no point, is there? You’ve hated me for so long I don’t think I’ll ever be able to change your mind. All I ask is that you put this . . . this contempt you have for me aside for Kayla’s sake. Hate me if you must. I think I can almost live with it now that I know you never really loved me, but try to be less obvious about it.” His eyes narrowed as he assessed her face; there was another lengthy silence as he considered her words before shrugging.
“I have a couple of questions,” he murmured, and she bit her lip before nodding. “How long were you at the beach house?” Whatever she had expected, that certainly wasn’t it. She blinked a couple of times before shrugging.
“A couple of weeks,” she managed softly.
“So, if your story is to be believed . . .”
She resisted the overwhelming urge to reach over and slap him for the blatant sarcasm in his voice.
“. . . You went there directly after leaving here, to wait for me, right?”
“Why don’t we just agree to let this matter go?” she asked, not in the mood to defend herself against any more of his crazy accusations.
“No.” He shrugged her request aside nonchalantly. “So, how is it that you never once heard about my accident? Apparently it was in all the papers and had news coverage on radio, television, and the Internet. Are you telling me you missed all of that?”
“Do really think that I spent my days watching the telly and listening to music?” she asked in exasperation. “I could barely drag myself out of bed and into the shower most days. I was ill from the morning sickness, exhausted, scared, and every day that passed without word from you sent me deeper into depressed isolation. So yes, I’m telling you I missed all of that!”
His eyes flickered and she thought she caught a glimmer of uncertainty in them before they went icy with disdain again. She shook her head.
“When are Rick and Lisa due back from their holiday?”
“Saturday,” he replied shortly before continuing on with the original conversation. “So after it became painfully self-evident that I would not be coming for you, what did you do then?” Not caring for the mockery in his eyes and voice and fed up with his determination to disbelieve every little thing she said, Bronwyn got up shakily and rounded the table, reaching out possessively to take her daughter from his arms.
“I’ll put her to bed,” she told him without meeting his eyes.
“Your story is full of holes, Bronwyn, you know that,” he murmured almost gently. “I’d be willing to move on if you’d only admit to being at the scene of my accident.” She lifted blazingly furious eyes to his.
“It would be so terribly convenient for you if I admitted to that, wouldn’t it, Bryce?” she asked angrily. “That way you wouldn’t have to feel any guilt about driving your pregnant wife out into the streets. No guilt about leaving her to fend for herself while she was so ill she was terrified she would lose your baby. You wouldn’t have to be accountable for anything that has happened since the night I left. Well, you can go to hell because I refuse to give you that satisfaction.”
Bronwyn turned away angrily and carried Kayla back into the house. She headed straight for the baby’s room and after tucking her in, stood beside the cot and watched the baby sleep, her heart absolutely overflowing with love for the innocent child.
“You’re worth everything, my darling,” she whispered, leaning over to kiss her short, silky curls. When she straightened up and turned around, Bryce was standing in the doorway, still wearing nothing but his board shorts. She frowned resentfully, annoyed that a deaf man could move so silently, and moved to pass him. He barely shifted, crowding her abominably as she tried to squeeze through the doorway and into the hall. She flushed crimson when she inadvertently brushed against his muscular naked chest. She frowned up at him, making sure he was looking at her before she spoke.
“Get out of my way,” she demanded, and he grinned lazily.
“Glad to see you’re getting your fire back, babe . .
“Don’t call me that,” she reprimanded, and he grinned.
“You never complained before.” She went an even brighter red as she recalled the very rare instances during which he had used the endearment in the past—always in the most intimate of circumstances and very rarely outside of bed. He had used it now just to rattle her—she could see it in his eyes. She pursed her lips and pushed her way past him. He grabbed her wrist, just as she thought she’d managed to escape.
“Pierre and Alice are coming around for dinner,” he informed her idly, ignoring the way she tugged furiously, trying to get loose. “Try not to embarrass me with any more lies or insincere shows of concern while they’re here.” She gasped at the sharp stab of pain at his casual cruelty.
“Bryce, I’m really starting to hate you,” she stated conversationally, and he raised his brows lazily.
“Are you?” He smiled. “That’s a shame. I did so enjoy being worshipped by you.”
“I never worshipped you, you arrogant bastard!” she managed furiously. “I loved you. More than you could ever comprehend.” His grip slackened and she tugged herself free. “I now see that you never deserved that love!” He seemed unable to respond, merely keeping his level gaze on her emotional face. She made a despairing little sound in the back of her throat and turned to walk away.
“Bronwyn,” he called after her, and she stopped, her back going rigid as she braced herself for another blow. “If you loved me you would never have left me.”
“I didn’t leave you, you jackass,” she muttered beneath her breath, knowing that he could not see the denial while she stood with her back to him.
“You would never have driven off without giving me the chance to apologize . . .” His voice was closer, and she knew that he had come up right behind her. “You would have stayed to hear me grovel and beg your forgiveness, because if you loved me, you would have known me well enough to appreciate that an apology would not be far off.” His hands came to rest on her narrow shoulders, and she flinched as she felt the warmth of his flesh through the thin cotton of her T-shirt. She turned around slowly and lifted her eyes to meet his.
“I knew that,” she admitted. “I left to give you some space to clear your head and to give myself time to gather my own confused thoughts. I knew you’d come and that’s the reason I waited and waited and waited at that damned beach house! I knew you would come . . . only you never did.
“When I eventually concluded that maybe you really wanted nothing to do with us, I called your office to talk about child support and was quite bluntly informed that—Mr. Palmer did not want to speak to me or hear from me ever again—You weren’t answering your cell phone, and nobody was answering at the house.” She watched as his eyes hardened and his hands fell away.
“My God, can’t you ever stop lying?” he muttered in frustration. “I could buy into maybe being mistaken about seeing you at the scene of my accident. I can even try to believe that maybe you hadn’t seen a single newspaper article, television report, or heard any radio news, but none of my people would ever have said those words to you!”
“Oh, believe what you want, Bryce,” she responded wearily and turned away. She was so sick of defending herself to him.
“Oh no you don’t.” He caught her arm in a bruising grip to prevent her from walking away. “I spent two years looking for you, Bronwyn. Why would I have told my staff to stonewall you when I was trying so hard to find you? So you are not going to try to make me feel guilty about something that I never authorized, something that would never have happened, not in a million years!” She shook her head and stepped back, jerking her arm violently out of his tight grip before deciding to make use of some of the SASL that she had learned and using her hands rather eloquently to say something quite unmistakable. For a second he was taken aback, and he blinked a couple of times before bursting into laughter, the sound so natural and spontaneous that it took her completely by surprise.
“You didn’t just tell me to . . .” He trailed off before saying the obscenity, and she jutted her jaw stubbornly, refusing to be charmed by his genuine amusement
“So what if I did?” she asked defiantly. His eyes were still brimming with laughter as he shrugged.
“Nothing, I’m just impressed with your extensive knowledge of SASL.” He shrugged and she went bright red.
“Not that extensive,” she told him self-consciously. “It was the first thing I learned because I knew that it would probably come in handy in most of my dealings with you.”
“Good call,” he complimented, and she cleared her throat before moving away from him without another word and retreating to her bedroom.