Alice De Coursey was not all what Bronwyn had been expecting. The woman was a couple of years older than Bronwyn, about thirty, and so tiny that she made Bronwyn feel like a giant by comparison. She could not have been more than five feet tall and had a small, perfectly proportioned body. She had soft brown eyes shielded by silly, little round glasses and she was almost pretty in a wholesome way, with freckles splattered across her nose and an endearingly mischievous grin. Her shoulder-length, uncontrollably frizzy, sandybrown corkscrew curls gave her a kind of Raggedy-Ann appeal. She was certainly not the drop-dead-gorgeous woman Bronwyn had expected a beautiful individual like Pierre De Coursey to fall for. She walked with a slight limp and still had faint scars on her upper arms and a slightly longer, more pronounced one on her round, firm jaw.
Her intimidatingly gorgeous husband doted on her. In fact every time Pierre looked at her, his eyes positively glowed with love. He lit up when she smiled and beamed whenever she laughed. It was a revelation for Bronwyn to see the previously austere Pierre so transparently in love. The man who had terrified her when she’d first met him now laughed freely, told silly jokes, and changed nappies! Their baby boy, Tristan, was about five months old and had a sweet, placid temperament. He had his father’s pitch-black hair and his mum’s large brown eyes. Kayla was quite excited to see the baby and meet new people, but she fell asleep half an hour after the couple’s arrival.
“She’s such a beautiful little girl,” Alice was telling Bronwyn after the latter had put Kayla to bed. “Such a little livewire . . .” Bronwyn laughed.
“That’s a polite way of phrasing it,” she told the woman. “She’s hell on wheels. When she started toddling, she was an unstoppable force. You wait until Tristan gets to that age; you’ll be running yourself ragged. I’m just happy we managed to get her off to bed with so little fuss tonight.”
Alice laughed and Bronwyn smiled, really liking the other woman. She had feared that Alice De Coursey would be an unbearable snob, the way Pierre sometimes tended to be, but not only was she not a snob, she had somehow managed to destarch Pierre in many ways. The man was definitely a lot more relaxed and a great deal more pleasant to spend time with. He was fluent in SASL, and he and Bryce were engaged in what looked like a serious conversation. Alice followed her eyes and smiled. She leaned conspiratorially close to Bronwyn.
“Pierre was very relieved when he heard you were back.”
Bronwyn frowned, that came as a surprise to her; she had always believed that Pierre did not care much for her. In fact he had barely spoken to her after arriving for dinner, leading Bronwyn to assume that he had heard the same story about her as Rick. “From what I understand, Bryce became something of a recluse after you left. He hardly ever leaves the house; he works from home, never goes into the office, and leaves it to Pierre to run the more social end of the business.” Bronwyn bit her lip and watched as her husband laughed at something Pierre said, the joke silent and just between the two of them.
“Where did Pierre learn to sign?” she asked quietly, admiring the fluent, graceful gestures of Pierre’s hands.
“He used to drive me to my physiotherapy sessions after I had recovered from the accident enough to start strengthening my weak leg, and they happened to have SASL classes at the same clinic, which fortunately coincided with my visits. Pierre saw it as an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone, so to speak.”
“I would like to learn,” Bronwyn confided softly. “Could you give me the address of this place?”
Alice smiled. “Of course.” She nodded. “I’ll even go with you if you’d like.”
Bronwyn smiled gratefully before nodding. “I’d really like that.”
“Did you enjoy your evening?” Bryce asked in an indulgent voice that grated on Bronwyn’s nerves, after the other couple’s departure. They were standing on the front step watching the taillights on the De Coursey car grow more distant as it made its way down the steep, winding drive leading from the Palmer home back down to the main road.
“Yes.” She replied abruptly. “Alice is fantastic. I really like her.”
“I knew you would,” he confirmed, still looking and sounding like an indulgent father. For some reason Bronwyn felt like slapping the self-satisfied smirk off his face. Did he have to look so damned smug?
“Yes of course.” She looked straight up at him, her eyes gleaming angrily. “And, as we all know by now; you’re always right.” He couldn’t hear the venom in her voice, but he could certainly see it in her eyes and he took the tiniest step back.
“What the hell is wrong now?” he growled furiously.
“Nothing,” she hissed. “I’m tired . . . I’m going to bed.”
“Oh come on,” he fumed. “You’re not going to do this to me. You’re not going to play this game.”
“I’m not playing any games. I’m too tired for games.” She turned away and headed back indoors. He followed her inside and caught her elbow to halt her progress. She tried to tug her arm away, but his grip, while gentle, was unrelenting.
“What’s going on?” he asked on a whisper. “Did Alice or Pierre do or say something to offend you?”
“No,” she shook her head abruptly. “No, of course not.”
“So then it’s me?” he stated matter-of-factly.
“Is it ever anyone else?” she muttered snidely beneath her breath, but he couldn’t read her lips because she ducked her head as she said it. She tried to wriggle her arm and glared up at him when he wouldn’t release her.
“You’re hurting me!” she stated as clearly as she could, and he let her go abruptly.
“I’m sorry.” His immediate release and apology took her by surprise, and she felt a little guilty when she saw a flare of genuine remorse in his eyes. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.
“You didn’t,” she admitted. “But I’m tired and I have nothing more to say to you tonight.”
“You think you can dismiss me and expect me to obey like a whipped dog?” he sneered, taking hold of her elbow again and giving her a gentle shake to emphasize his point.
“No, I expect you to respect my wishes,” she told him tiredly, all of the fight leaving her. Her arm hung limply in his grip. He sighed and took hold of her other elbow before running his hands caressingly up her arms.
“Tell me why you’re angry with me,” he coaxed, and his large hands moved up to cup her narrow face gently. His thumbs traced the outline of her trembling lips, and he leaned toward her, his lips almost touching hers.
“I want to be with you again tonight,” he whispered hoarsely, and she flinched.
“No.” She shook her head firmly. He frowned and stepped back, releasing her abruptly.
“Why not?” he asked coldly.
“How can you even ask me that? I told you, last night was a mistake. And do you really think I want to get back into bed with the man who said I made his skin crawl?” she asked.
“Look, I was an ass when I said that, okay?” he admitted, throwing up his hands in surrender. “I’m sorry. It was a blatant lie expressly designed to hurt you as much as possible. It was that or admit that you were right about me wanting you the other day.” She continued to stare stonily up at him, knowing that he was repudiating his words now because he wanted her back in his bed.
“I won’t beg,” he warned.
“I wasn’t expecting you to,” she muttered, and he frowned uncertainly.
“What?” When she refused to repeat the words he hadn’t caught, he swore angrily and turned away from her. “I hate this! I want to know your every word. I want to hear my daughter’s laughter. I want so many things.” She softened a little at the helpless frustration in his voice and took a step toward him. She rested a tentative hand on his rigid shoulder and stepped around to face him. He shrugged off her hand and glared at her.
“Don’t,” he warned dangerously, and her brow lowered in confusion.
“Don’t you dare pity me.” His voice was as hard as granite, belying the vulnerability she had heard just seconds before. “I don’t want or need your pity!”
“Trust me, the last thing I feel for you is pity,” she told him, but he must have missed the words because his confused frown deepened before he swore in irritation.
“Just go to bed, Bron,” he muttered tiredly as he brushed by her. Bronwyn watched his broad back as he retreated. He turned a corner and she heard a door slamming in the distance as he shut himself into his study.
Bronwyn stood there for the longest time, valiantly fighting back her tears of frustration. She did not know this bruised, battered, and embittered man as the Bryce she had adored and married within weeks of meeting him, but there was still something so compelling about him. He reminded her of a badly wounded lion, confused and exhausted but unable to stop fighting.
She swallowed down the incredible pain of realization, recognition, and resignation. God help her, she still loved Bryce. She had always loved Bryce. She loved him, hated him, and resented him all at the same time. Yet the only other certainty she had in life besides Kayla’s love was the knowledge that Bryce hated her more than she had ever thought possible, and she did not know how she was going to shield her vulnerable heart from the agony that he was so very capable of inflicting on her.
“Where are you going?” Bryce did nothing to hide the deep suspicion in his eyes late the following morning as he took in Bronwyn’s attire. They were in the living room, where Bryce had been glaring down at his laptop screen before she’d distracted him with her presence. She was wearing a pair of designer black slacks, one of the pieces that she had left behind, combined with a pretty silk turquoise top. Despite the fact that the clothes were still a little baggy on her, Bronwyn thought the combination looked charming. Especially with her dark hair falling in lustrous waves to her narrow shoulders and her lips tinted with shell-pink lipstick. She had even taken on a healthy, light-golden sheen after spending some time out in the sun the day before. For the first time in a long while she was relatively happy with the way she looked.
“Out to lunch, with Alice,” she informed casually, taking a seat opposite his. “Will you be okay with Kayla? She’s in the kitchen with Celeste at the moment. They’re baking a cake.”
“Of course I’ll be okay with Kayla,” he dismissed before continuing. “When was this lunch thing decided?” he asked highhandedly, and she laughed at the autocratic question.
“Not that it’s any of your business, but this was decided after dinner last night.”
He frowned, missing her sarcasm.
“I don’t remember you making this arrangement,” he said, clearly trying to recall the evening before.
“Well you and Pierre were having your little powwow.” She shrugged lightly. “What did you expect Alice and I to do? Sit around quietly and wait for our husbands to rejoin us? We talked, hit it off, and befriended each other. This is what friends do. We get together, have lunch, and go shopping . . .”
“You’re not well enough to venture out yet,” he said authoritatively. “Alice can come around here for lunch. I’ll SMS Pierre immediately and arrange it.” He whipped his mobile phone out of his jeans pocket, and Bronwyn stayed his hand by placing her smaller one over it.
“No.” She shook her head decisively, and he frowned.
“But . . .”
“I’m meeting Alice for lunch,” she reiterated.
“I don’t like it.”
“Well that’s just too bad, isn’t it?” She was getting annoyed with his arrogance and her glare told him so.
“How are you getting there?” She frowned and lifted the set of car keys she was holding.
“I’m taking the Jeep,” she responded. The Jeep was one of the five cars he owned. Bronwyn had never seen the sense in anyone having more than one car, but Bryce loved his cars. She had already noted that his beloved metallic blue Maserati was gone, and she guessed that it must have been the one he’d been driving when he had his accident.
“I didn’t give you permission to use the Jeep,” he retaliated smugly, and she bit her lip.
“You’ve never been selfish with your things; I didn’t think you’d mind,” she said uncertainly.
“I gave you a car as a wedding present. What happened to it?” he gritted, his eyes narrowing as he reminded her of the beautiful sporty BMW. She flushed as she struggled to respond to that question.
“What do you think happened to it? I sold it,” she whispered softly, defiance in her eyes. She had loved that car, but she had sold it before selling her wedding rings. She had clung to her marriage, her love for Bryce, and the rings that had symbolized both, for as long as she possibly could. The corners of his lips curled downward and she lowered her eyes, not wanting to see the contempt he had for her reflected on his face.
“Why?” he asked quietly. The question threw her. She had expected yet another one of his scathing set downs.
“I needed the money,” she confessed huskily. “I was seven months pregnant and I had no place to live. Up till then, I’d been staying in cheap hotels until the money I had in my personal bank account dried up.” The money in her personal account had been hers, money earned during her short-lived waitressing career, and that had been left over from her grandmother’s trust fund. It had lasted longer than expected after she had scrimped and saved, going without a lot of things in order to keep a roof over her head. She had worked three separate jobs, until she had been forced to concede that she wasn’t doing herself or her unborn baby much good. So eventually she’d had to sell her car and put some of the money down as a deposit on the small flat that she and Kayla had been still living in when Rick found her again. The money from the car and the rings had kept her comfortably afloat for nearly a year. The added income from work had been used for food and rent. The car and rings had paid for the extras and had helped with the medical bills as well as with feeding and clothing Kayla.
“It took me that long to grasp that our marriage was well and truly over,” she admitted shamefully. “It took four long months before I—at long last—accepted that I couldn’t continue living my life in limbo. I needed a place to stay, someplace that would be good for both the baby and me. I also knew that I would need medical care soon and some sort of financial cushion for a month or so after giving birth. I didn’t want to abandon Kayla for work mere days after giving birth to her. I wanted to spend some time with her.” He stared at her in silence for a long time, and she wet her lips nervously, not really knowing what to expect. Not even sure that he’d caught half of what she’d said. She had spoken a little too quickly, without really giving any thought to his deafness.
“I expected you to use the money in our mutual account, or to use your credit card. I was hoping that you would because it would have helped me track you down. I nearly went crazy wondering how the hell you were taking care of yourself. Why didn’t you use the money, Bronwyn?” he asked hoarsely, clearly staggered by her words. “Surely your health and the baby’s welfare meant more than your stubborn pride?”
She blinked at him in mute shock.
“I used my own money, Bryce,” she repeated with a shrug, knowing that the money had been a pittance compared to what he had. But at least it had been hers. “In my old account.”
“What account?” he asked blankly, and she frowned.
“The account I had before we married,” she said quietly.
“You still had that account?” He practically exploded, and she winced, understanding how that must look to him. “After two years of marriage, you still had a bank account in your maiden name? What the hell was that about, Bronwyn? Your escape clause?”
“Hardly,” she scoffed. “It barely had enough in it to see me through the first month. I just never got around to closing it, that’s all. And besides, you have no right to get all self-righteous with me over it. You had cut me off so completely I’d assumed—”
“What? That I’d be happy to let you and the baby starve to death or wind up homeless?” he interrupted fiercely, and her mouth opened and then closed again as she tried to gather her thoughts. Yes, she should probably have used the money. When she thought back to all the unnecessary suffering that she had endured, it seemed stupid now, but at the time she’d been trying to prove a point.
“Bryce,” she tried to find a way to explain her decision to him and drew a complete blank. “After four months of constant and inexplicable rejection, I gave up on trying to reach you. By that point I didn’t think that you deserved to have the baby or me in your life. I wanted to move on and couldn’t do so with your money. I needed to do it on my own, without being beholden to the man who had made it clear that he didn’t want anything to do with us. I didn’t feel entitled to your money after making that decision.”
“You didn’t feel entitled to it?” Bryce latched onto those words, obviously dismissing the rest of what she had said. “To the father of your child’s money? I don’t even know how to respond to that, Bronwyn. You may not have felt entitled to it, but Kayla certainly was, and is, entitled to it. You could have set aside your pettiness and considered her in all of this!”
“Oh please just stop throwing Kayla in my face. I did everything I could for her. I gave her the best I could afford after you kicked us out. How was I supposed to know you’d have this turnaround where the baby was concerned? As far as I knew, you didn’t want her and didn’t think that she was entitled to anything you had. She didn’t want for anything. Her clothes may not have had designer tags and her toys may have been secondhand, but my baby was well loved and well taken care of. Don’t you dare imply anything else!” More interminably silent staring from him, but she refused to lower her eyes, refused to be intimidated or cowed by him. Instead she met his inscrutable gaze head-on, with chin tilted defiantly, eyes sparking, and fists clenched. She looked like a feral cat ready to defend herself and her baby against any and all threats.
“What time are you meeting Alice?” The question threw her completely, and she blinked in astonishment, surprised and relieved that he had let it drop. She checked her watch.
“In about half an hour,” she told him.
“You will come back?”
Not understanding the question, she merely stared at him confusedly for a few moments.
“You won’t run off again?” he rephrased, and she reeled in shock at the depth of vulnerability and insecurity his question had revealed.
“Uh . . . n-no. Mikayla . . .” was all she managed, and he nodded shortly, realizing that she would never leave without her daughter.
“If not for Mikayla . . .” He seemed to ask the question before he could stop himself, and in doing so, clearly revealed a lot more than he had ever intended to reveal. “Would you come back?” She hesitated, her eyes lowered as she pondered the question, and seeing the uncertainty on her face, Bryce made a slight movement with his hand.
“Forget it,” he snapped, before she could even think about formulating a response. “It was a stupid question, and it’s really not that important. As long as you don’t leave with my daughter, I don’t give a damn what you do.” Somehow the words sounded hollow and untrue, ringing with bravado and not much conviction. They avoided each other’s eyes—each afraid of the truth they might spy in the other’s gaze.
“I have to go,” she muttered evasively, getting up from the chair. He jumped up too and caught her arm to halt her progress.
“Wait.” She stood quietly in his grasp, her eyes searching his harsh features warily. He looked moody and uncertain, not at all sure of what he wanted to say or even why he’d halted her progress.
“I don’t want you to go by yourself,” he said, almost reluctantly. “I want one of the security team to go with.” Bronwyn frowned at that. She had always hated the discreet security detail that had followed them just about everywhere after they had first gotten married and had complained about it so much that he had cut her personal detail down to one supposedly unobtrusive guard to keep her happy. Bronwyn had agreed to the compromise because the one guy had been better than a team, but she had never felt comfortable with what she had always felt was a blatant display of wealth.
“Bryce, I don’t want to have some gorilla following me around all afternoon,” she snapped, and his lips tightened.
“I’ll ask Cal to take care of the matter personally.” Cal was his head of security and Bronwyn had always liked the quiet man who read Shakespearean sonnets in his spare time. She hadn’t really seen him since her return. She was relieved to learn that he still worked for Bryce since she had feared that she might have gotten him into trouble after instructing him to take that fateful night off two years ago. She had wanted a private and romantic evening with her husband and had dismissed the entire staff. She knew that it was probably one of the only reasons she had been able to disappear so completely. Cal had left only a skeleton staff on duty that night. Her personal guard, not expecting her to leave the house that night, had also been given the night off.
“I’m glad Cal still works for you,” she said, all the heat fleeing from her voice and expression.
“He’s been acting as my personal guard,” Bryce said before making an odd sound in the back of his throat. “You still have my numbers right?” he continued hesitantly, and she nodded again. “If you need anything, or if you feel ill, call me.”
“Bryce.” She smiled reassuringly up into his eyes. “I’m fine, but in the unlikely event of that status quo changing, I’ll be sure to give you a call.” His eyes frosted over.
“Don’t mock me, Bronwyn,” he said coldly, and she shook her head, alarmed that he had misread her humor.
“I wasn’t,” she assured gently, lifting her hand to cup his jaw. “I’ll be fine, but I promise to call you if I feel ill.” He stepped away from her soft hand, leaving it hovering in midair. He continued to look down at her for a few long moments.
“I’ll tell Cal to meet you in the garage. Let him do the driving,” he said bossily before swivelling on his heel and leaving the room. Bronwyn sighed despondently and stared after him for one long, wistful moment before straightening her shoulders and leaving too.
Alice met her at the restaurant entrance with a warm hug and a smile. Her mischievously sparkling eyes traveled past Bronwyn’s shoulder to where Cal stood hovering in the background, before tossing a conspiratorial glance back over her own narrow shoulder. When Bronwyn saw a large man, similarly dressed in black suit and dark glasses standing a little off to the side, desperately striving to look “unobtrusive” behind Alice, she laughed in genuine amusement.
“All the cool kids have one these days,” Alice wisecracked cheerfully, her expression so comical that it set Bronwyn off again.
“Where’s Tristan?” Bronwyn asked Alice after their initial warm greetings.
“I told Pierre that this was a ladies’ afternoon and as such he had to take Tristan to the office with him.” She grinned. “He was a bit reluctant. He loves having the baby around, but Tristan has this nasty habit of chewing important documents. Pierre still shudders every time he thinks of a certain document that got gummed just minutes before he had to hand it back to the legal department. The way he tells it, he had no option but to give it back as is. He made no comment about the drool and as such none of the legal team had the courage to say anything either. They merely retyped everything before sending it off.” She laughed conspiratorially.
“According to Pierre it was ‘damned embarrassing.’” She imitated her husband’s voice and accent perfectly, and Bronwyn’s grin widened appreciatively. “Apparently he has an important meeting today, but I hardly ever get time to myself, so while he may grumble, he doesn’t really mind. In fact, he’ll never admit it but he gets a total thrill out of having his son to himself for part of the day.”
“Well, I still feel a bit guilty about leaving Bryce with Kayla,” Bronwyn admitted. “He’s been remarkable with her, but I feel like he’s been doing all the work.”
“So?” Alice interrupted coldly. “You have been doing all the work for the last two years, and you’ve paid for it with your health. It’s time for Bryce to put in some hours.”
“But . . .”
“And you can’t tell me he’s not enjoying this time with her. He’s getting to know his daughter, and from what I could see last night, he’s totally in love with her.”
Bronwyn nodded with slight smile.
“So no more guilt; just enjoy yourself. As far as I can tell, you haven’t had too much fun over the last two years.”
Bronwyn’s smile faded, and Alice shrugged, the gesture so Gallic, it could only have rubbed off on her from her husband.
“I know nothing about your situation, Bronwyn,” she said quietly. “But Pierre’s version of events, definitely gleaned from his friend, was so one-sided that I’d always vowed to reserve judgment until I met you. And there seems to be a whole lot that Bryce left out when he told Pierre his story. I mean, he had certainly never told Pierre that you were pregnant. I can’t tell you how shocked Pierre was when he learned that you were back in Bryce’s life and with a child!”
Bronwyn blinked stupidly at that. Pierre hadn’t known about her pregnancy? She had a sudden vivid flashback of Rick in her room at the hospital. It hadn’t really sunk in at the time; she had been frightened, panicky, and floating on a medicated cloud, but her brother-in-law had looked startled at Bryce’s first mention of a child. How could Bryce not have told Rick or Pierre about their baby? Had he told his “crack” team of private investigators? It was a bizarre detail to leave out. If he really wanted to find her, why wouldn’t he have told anybody about her pregnancy? Surely it would have made his search easier. Granted, some instinct had urged her to use her maternal grandmother’s maiden name over the last two years, just in case Bryce decided that he wanted her baby and not her. It had been bothersome because she’d had to keep changing doctors and clinics; nobody would have believed her “forgotten ID” story twice.
“Bronwyn?” Alice’s voice seemed to come from a great distance away, and Bronwyn had a hard time focusing on Alice again. “Are you okay?”
“Why wouldn’t he have told Pierre or Rick about the baby?” she mused aloud, and Alice frowned
“That’s a good question,” Alice murmured. “But one that only Bryce can provide the answer to.” Bronwyn nodded absently but found it hard to focus on anything else for the rest of the afternoon. She enrolled in the sign language classes after lunch. The clinic offered afternoon and evening classes, and Bronwyn opted to attend a day class once a week. She and Alice also arranged a standing lunch date on the day that she would attend the class.
“So every Tuesday? Same time and place?” the other woman double-checked as they said their good-byes a couple of hours later. “And next time, let’s keep the husbands out of the conversation!”
“I’m sorry if I seemed a little distracted,” Bron apologized quietly. “It’s just . . .”
“Forget it, you and Bryce obviously still have a great deal to work out.”