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A Husband’s Regret (Unwanted #2) by Natasha Anders


Rick, Lisa, and Rhys arrived just after one o’clock. The couple was holding hands and looked tanned, healthy, and happy. Rick’s greeting of Bronwyn was strained; merely a curt nod before he grinned at his older brother and immediately struck up a conversation in SASL, rather rudely excluding both Bronwyn and Lisa. The other woman shared a wry smile with Bronwyn before clasping her hand warmly and planting a totally unexpected kiss on her cheek.

“You look so much better than the last time I saw you,” she said with a friendly smile.

“Rest and sunshine will do that,” Bron responded easily before stepping back and giving Lisa an all-encompassing once-over.

“I don’t remember much about you, beyond your kindness that day, but I have to say, you’re looking very good too.” She snuck a glance over to her expansively signing brother-in-law. “I’m happy the whole . . . situation with Bryce and I didn’t ruin your holiday!” Lisa shook her head with a smile.

“Rick was a bit withdrawn for a while, but Rhys and I soon dragged him out of it.” She nodded down at the sleeping baby in his stroller and grinned good-naturedly.

“Oh, I’m so relieved to hear that.” Bronwyn couldn’t help but respond to Lisa’s warm personality. The woman was absolutely lovely. She could see how Rick fell for her so quickly.

“So where is your beautiful little girl?” Lisa sent a questioning glance around the sunny patio as if expecting Kayla to pop out from some nook at any moment.

“Poor little thing. Bryce was preparing her for your impending visit all morning and while she has no idea what cousins, aunts, and uncles are—I think she’s expecting some exotic form of animal—she kept chattering on about it throughout her lunch. She wore herself out and drifted off to sleep almost immediately after completing her meal. It’s for the best; she gets cranky if she doesn’t have her afternoon nap. She’ll be up again in an hour or two.” She glanced over to where Bryce and Rick were still immersed in conversation and frowned.

“Can you understand sign language?” she asked quietly, and Lisa’s eyes became pools of liquid sympathy.

“A little. Rick has been teaching me,” she admitted softly.

“What are they talking about?” Bron wondered wistfully, and Lisa squeezed her hand again.

“I think Rick is telling Bryce about his shark cage dive.” She shuddered at the unpleasant recollection.

“Oh dear . . . Rick still does stuff like that?”

“Apparently it was the first time he’s ever gone shark cage diving. He loved it but told me that he doubts he’ll do it again, now that he’s experienced it. I should hope not. It gives me jitters whenever I think of him down there with all those huge great whites circling the flimsy little cage he considers protection!”

“He’ll settle down a bit now that he’s married with a child, I suspect,” Bron stated confidently.

“Sure he will.” Lisa rolled her eyes. “Or maybe he’ll simply drag Rhys and me along with him. Back when we were dating, before I got pregnant, he did a brilliant job of talking me into doing the crazy stuff with him! In fact I’m pretty sure getting pregnant so soon was my body’s defence mechanism kicking in to save me from Death by Crazy.”

“No,” Bron gasped, unable to picture the sweet, bookish-looking woman participating in some of the extreme sports Rick commonly did for fun.

“Well let’s see: bungee jumping, parasailing, parachuting, hang-gliding.” She ticked off her fingers as she itemized. “Navigating in some crazy off-road race, white-water rafting . . . these are just a few of the insane things I found myself roped into doing back then.”

“Ballet recitals, operas, poetry readings, symphony orchestras, shopping for really old furniture,” Rick interjected.

“Antiques,” Lisa inserted smoothly, smiling affectionately as her husband came over to join them.

“. . . Art exhibitions,” Rick continued to recite as if she hadn’t interrupted, dropping an arm around his wife’s narrow shoulders and angling himself so that Bryce was able to lip-read what he was saying. “These are just a few of the really boring things I have found myself participating in since getting married.”

Lisa snorted and rolled her eyes again.

“At least I don’t have a thing for jumping off high mountains and out of perfectly good planes,” she scoffed, and he grinned before dropping a quick kiss on her lips and whispering something in her ear.

Bronwyn watched them enviously and unconsciously found herself raising her eyes to Bryce’s face. She was startled to see that he was studying her intently, and she lowered her gaze quickly but he came over to stand beside her. They stood side by side for a couple of moments, not touching, watching the younger couple whispering and giggling with each other. Bronwyn nearly jumped out of her skin when she felt the first tentative, wholly unexpected touch of his large hand in the small of her back. Her eyes flew to his impassive profile, but he kept his eyes straight ahead, watching his brother and Lisa with a slight smile playing about his lips.

His hand moved up hesitantly, until it was in the nape of her neck, beneath the thick fall of her hair and the heat of his skin singed the delicate flesh of her vulnerable neck. He massaged her soft skin gently before clearing his throat to get the younger couple’s attention; they jumped apart guiltily, grinning like kids.

“Ready to eat?” Bryce asked quietly before turning toward the patio table that was laden with delicious food and fruit. He kept a possessive hand on Bronwyn as he led her toward the table and let her go long enough to pull out a chair for her. Bronwyn glanced up at him warily before accepting the seat. He used to do things like that for her all the time in the past, unconscious acts like opening doors, helping her into coats, seating her. It was an old-world chivalry that Bronwyn had found completely charming. He hadn’t done anything like it since her return, and Bronwyn realized with a pang that it was one of the small details she had forgotten, yet subconsciously missed, about him. She nodded her thanks, wondering what was behind the sudden courtesy. His hand unexpectedly lowered to her cheek and his thumb stroked her flesh briefly, but he moved away before she had any chance to react to the unexpected caress.

Baffled, Bronwyn’s eyes followed his progress as he sat opposite her, next to Lisa, leaving Rick no option but to sit beside Bronwyn. Rick largely ignored her in favor of his brother and wife, leaving Bronwyn feeling snubbed and ridiculously hurt. She knew why he was behaving the way he was, knew that he was merely being loyal to his brother, whom he felt had been treated unfairly. Yet Bronwyn still couldn’t help but feel almost betrayed by Rick’s blatant display of hostility. By the time they were halfway through the meal, Lisa was glaring daggers at her husband, and Bryce was looking almost as strained as Bronwyn felt. Rick was either oblivious to the tension he was creating or—more than likely—ignoring it.

“Bronwyn,” Bryce’s quiet voice interrupted Rick’s animated description of some of the more exotic sights he and Lisa had been treated to during their “and baby makes three honeymoon,” as he had so delightfully described the holiday. “You’re not eating . . .”

Bronwyn looked down at her barely touched meal and shrugged helplessly, a bit thrown by the abrupt shift in topic.

“I’m not that hungry,” she responded with a strained smile. “And I was wrapped up in Rick’s story.”

“You should eat,” Bryce prompted. “You’re still too thin . . .”

Bronwyn snapped, instantly and utterly fed up with everything. The ridiculous untruths he believed about her, Rick’s hostility, and her own weakness in both body and spirit.

“It’s always something with you, isn’t it?” she hissed furiously. “I wasn’t well spoken enough, pretty enough, graceful enough, educated enough . . . I was never good enough for you. I doubt I’ll ever be good enough. No wonder you jumped at the opportunity to get rid of me,” she reflected bitterly. “All you needed was an excuse, and I very conveniently provided you with one when I got pregnant. And then, to add insult to injury, you came up with that ridiculous . . .” She stopped abruptly, remembering her resolve to let him muddle through the facts and find the truth for himself. She shook her head furiously, turning to a gaping Rick.

“And as for you . . . How dare you sit there judging me with nothing but the so-called facts your stupid brother gave you to go on?” She was so furious, hurt, and frustrated that she couldn’t stop herself from clenching her fist and punching him on his arm. He winced and angled his chair away from her. “I thought you were smarter and fairer than that, Rick!” She got up and turned to face Lisa, who was staring up at her with an approving grin playing about her lips.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered, her eyes burning with the tears she refused to shed. “Please excuse me . . .”

Lisa nodded and Bronwyn turned to flee, leaving absolute silence in her wake.

“Well,” Lisa drawled into the shocked silence. “I think she’s a little angry, don’t you?

“Stop it, Lisa,” Rick grunted irritably. “This is none of your—”

“Don’t say it,” she warned direly. “Don’t even think about saying it!”

Rick wisely shut up.

“Your behavior was atrocious, and I was so ashamed of you.”

“Lisa, you don’t know—”


“She claims that she tried to call me,” Bryce interrupted the squabbling couple quietly, and Rick frowned.


“Before having Kayla, as little as a week after leaving me and then again after she gave birth.” He knew enough to read between the lines of her sarcastic responses of that morning. “She said she tried to call me. She said she tried my cell phone, but of course that was wrecked in the accident. She also professes to have tried the house but you’d given Celeste and the staff time off while I was recuperating. But then she also says that she tried to contact the office and was stonewalled by my people.”

Rick gaped at him.

“Bronwyn tried to contact you?”

“So she claims.” Bryce shrugged, trying to disguise his unease behind the careless movement. “My staff would not have given her the run-around, not unless I’d given specific instructions to that effect. Something I could not have done while laid up in hospital. So she has to be lying. But why the hell does she keep telling the same lie, over and over again?”

“Bryce,” Rick looked aghast. “You did give an order to that effect.”

“What?” Bryce leaped to his feet at the outrageousness of the remark. “What in God’s name are you talking about?”

“It was the same night as your accident. Pierre, Cooper”—Cooper had been Bryce’s personal assistant at the time, a young and ambitious self-starter who had since moved on to bigger and better things—“and I were all there. You had just gotten out of surgery and you were still groggy, but when I asked you where Bronwyn was, you were very adamant that you did not want to see her or hear from her ever again. You were in so much pain and the fact that I had to write down everything I said was adding to your emotional strain. I knew that something pretty awful must have happened between the two of you. The mere fact that she wasn’t at the hospital was testament enough of that, but I still figured the words were bluster and that you two would work things out, so I shrugged them off.”

Bryce’s face revealed absolutely no emotion as he got up from the table and dug his cell phone out of his pocket.

“Call Pierre and ask him if he knows of any calls Bronwyn may have made to my office while I was recuperating.”

“Bryce . . .” Rick began.

“Just do it, Rick!” The younger man nodded and dialed. Bryce watched his brother’s face as he spoke with Pierre, unable to read his lips while he had the phone up against his ear. He kept picturing Bronwyn’s tormented face as she had flung her bitter words at him. He hadn’t been able to read half of what she’d said to him, but he had gotten the gist of it. She actually believed he didn’t think she was good enough for him? Where the hell had she gotten a demented idea like that? He was still mulling over the question when Rick disconnected his call and looked up. Bryce watched his younger brother’s expression closely, anxious to know what Pierre had revealed. When Rick first spoke, Bryce was so intent on watching his brother’s eyes that he missed the first few words and impatiently signed for him to start again.

“Pierre doesn’t know of any calls Bron may have placed to the office,” Rick began, and Bryce felt an overwhelming surge of despair battling with an equally large dose of anger at himself for almost believing the treacherous little bitch! Rick was still talking and it took all of Bryce’s concentration to focus on his brother’s lips again. “. . . Does remember you categorically stating that you wanted nothing more to do with her. Like me, he didn’t take the words seriously, so he placed no such order on your behalf. Pierre thinks that Cooper may not have dismissed your words as lightly. After all, Pierre is your friend and partner, and I’m your brother, and unlike Cooper we had no jobs on the line.” Bryce said nothing, merely stared at his brother thoughtfully for the longest time. The anger and despair was forgotten as a terrible feeling of sinking panic rapidly settled over him, and he frantically tried to figure out what to do next.

“Rick,” he said out loud, as carefully and concisely as he could, not wanting his brother to misunderstand his next words in the slightest way. “I want you to find Cooper. I want to know if she’s lying about this because . . . because . . .” He couldn’t bear to utter the words. His eyes slid away from Rick’s, and he found himself meeting Lisa’s gaze. He saw that her lips were moving and he automatically focused on them.

“. . . If she’s telling the truth about trying to call you, she may well be telling the truth about everything else, right?” He hid a wince as Lisa verbalized the words he had been unable to speak, and his eyes shut in horror at the mere idea of such an atrocity. God, how could he live with himself if his terrible treatment of her since her return had been unjustified? He met Rick’s gaze, wondering if the misery and overwhelming dread he felt were evident in his eyes.

“She also said that she wasn’t there when I had my accident. That she didn’t leave me to . . .” He couldn’t even bring himself to say it, realizing now how ridiculous it was to believe that his soft-hearted wife would ever leave him, or anyone else for that matter, injured and alone at the scene of an accident. He sat down on the closest chair with a thump, feeling bewildered and sick to his stomach.

“Oh my God,” he groaned. “Oh my God! I was so determined to blame her for this, but what if I was wrong, Rick? Do you know what that means? The things she went through on her own . . . how she struggled to make a decent life for Kayla and herself. She nearly died having our baby, and I wasn’t there for her. Even if she’s lying about everything, there’s just no excuse for letting her go through all of that on her own!” His brother put a firm hand on his shoulder, forcing Bryce to look up to meet his gaze.

“Calm down, Bryce, you tried to find her, remember? Even believing what you did about her, you still tried your damnedest to find her. Let’s just figure out what the truth is before you start with the self-recriminations.

Bryce covered his face with his hands, not sure what to do next, feeling helpless and completely lost. It was a feeling he was all-too familiar with since losing his hearing, but it wasn’t a feeling he would ever learn to live with. He got up abruptly, his head swimming with chaotic thoughts, his objective clear.

“I have to talk with her.” His eyes blindly sought out his brother and sister-in-law. “I . . . excuse me.” He saw Rick start to sign something but Lisa reached out and stayed his brother’s hands before nodding encouragingly at Bryce.

She was on the nursery floor, playing with an active Kayla, who looked refreshed after her afternoon nap. Bronwyn had her back to the door and didn’t see him at first. In fact, it was Kayla who alerted her to his presence. The little girl saw him hovering in the doorway, and her whole face lit up as she squealed excitedly.

“Daddy!” She toddled toward him, her chubby arms outstretched. Bryce smiled at the little girl as he swept her up into his arms, keeping his eyes on Bronwyn’s slender back, noting how it tensed, before she squared her shoulders and stood up to face him. Bryce was trying to handle the little girl’s effusive chatter and watch Bronwyn’s face at the same time. Eventually he gave up on trying to follow Kayla’s confusing baby talk and focused entirely on Bronwyn, nodding now and then to keep Kayla happy.

“Are you okay?” he asked her quietly, noting the stubborn tilt of her jaw and the unshed tears in her luminous eyes. He felt like an absolute bastard driving her to the brink of tears . . . again!

“I’m fine.” She nodded, folding her arms defensively over her chest.

“I . . .” he began, but Kayla was bouncing up and down, demanding that he play horsey with her. He kissed the little girl, before going to the door and hollering for Rick, immediately quieting Kayla, who looked up at him uncertainly, wondering if her daddy was mad at her. Bryce grinned down at her reassuringly, making airplane noises and flying her around the room for a few moments, before Rick came panting up the stairs.

“What?” he asked urgently.

“Kayla . . .” Bryce planted an affectionate kiss on his daughter’s silky cheek. “This is your Uncle Rick!”

“Unca?” The girl wondered doubtfully.

“Yes and he likes to play horsey!” Rick, who had been grinning foolishly down at the little girl, abruptly stopped smiling and met his brother’s eyes in horror.

“Unca, horsey?” the little girl asked excitedly.

“You want to play horsey with Uncle Rick while Mummy and Daddy talk?” Bryce asked gently, knowing that she wouldn’t understand anything but “play horsey” and “Uncle Rick.”

“Uh, Bryce . . .” Rick began while back-pedaling frantically; he stopped abruptly when Kayla bestowed her most radiantly trusting smile on him and held out her arms.

“Horsey, Unca Wick?” she asked coyly, and Rick swallowed visibly before stepping forward and lifting the little girl from her father’s arms.

“What an accomplished little flirt you already are.” He chuckled before meeting Bryce’s eyes.

“You’re going to have your hands full with this one, in twelve or so years’ time, big brother.” Bryce grinned halfheartedly and shrugged.

“I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. Please keep her busy, Rick. Bron and I need to—”

“Say no more,” Rick interrupted cheerfully while Kayla tugged at his hair and shirt, impatient to be off. “Come along, Kayla, let’s go and meet your cousin and your auntie Lisa. She loves to play horsey too!” He carried the friendly little girl, who seemed to have forgotten all about her parents at the prospect of playing with exciting new people, out of the room and left Bronwyn and Bryce to contemplate each other quietly for a few moments.

“What’s the problem this time, Bryce?” Bronwyn asked with what appeared to be sarcasm, if her face was any indication. “I’m so sorry I stormed out and ruined your perfect little party.”

“The night you left,” he began quietly, trying to keep his voice level and calm, not wanting to come across as accusatory or angry. “After my accident, Bron, I swear I saw you in the crowd and, even though I knew that I was the one who had driven you out of the house in the first place, in my mind, abandoning me there was completely unforgivable. I know that my reaction to your pregnancy was cruel and unwarranted, but despite that, you were my wife, the person I depended on the most, the woman who claimed to love me, and you left me there! It made no sense to me and it hurt so damned much. It also gave me an excuse to hate you because feeling anything other than that was just too . . .” He broke off awkwardly, aware of her frown and her confusion.

“Bryce, I wasn’t . . .” she began but he held up a hand.

“Please . . . I . . . let me speak.” He shut his eyes painfully. “I remember it so vividly; I looked up and saw you standing there on the fringe of the gathering crowd. You looked cold, remote, and so beautiful. You were wearing the dress that I loved. Remember? The little black one with the floaty skirt. I tried to call you, but my voice wouldn’t work. I now know that I was shouting at the top of my lungs.” He grinned feebly. “I just couldn’t hear myself. Do you understand why it’s been so difficult to let go of that image? How I can’t ever get the memory of you turning your back and walking away from me out of my mind?”

Bronwyn stared up into his dark and tormented face. She knew how much it must have cost him to come up here and reveal how much he been hurt by her perceived actions that night. She sighed; so much for letting him muddle through it on his own. She couldn’t, not when he had just presented her with the means to refute his repulsive accusation.

“Bryce.” Her throat caught, and she inhaled deeply as she fought back the ever-present urge to cry. “I have something to show you.” She led him into the master bedroom and toward the huge walk-in closet that housed her old wardrobe. She opened the door and rifled through the contents briefly before lifting a padded hanger with a flimsy scrap of black chiffon hanging from it.

“This dress?” she asked gently, and he winced as if the dress brought back cripplingly painful memories. He nodded. She shut her eyes tightly as she fought for composure, so did not see the slight movement he made toward her before stopping himself.

“Bryce,” she murmured unsteadily, opening her eyes again. “I was wearing a pair of jeans and a T-shirt when I left that night. I left with nothing but the clothes on my back. This dress . . . it’s been hanging here for the last two years.” Bryce shifted his gaze to the dress and shook his head, unable to believe that he had gotten something so very crucial to the well-being of their relationship so totally wrong. He took the dress from her and ran the flimsy material gently through his large hands.

“Rick could have packed . . .” he began, but she touched his hand to get his attention and shook her head slowly, keeping her eyes level.

“Why don’t you ask Rick? I’m sure he’d remember a dress like this among the endless amounts of toddler-proof wear he packed for me.” She nibbled at her lower lip. “I left on a Tuesday night, remember?

He nodded.

“This is a cocktail dress, Bryce,” she pointed out. “Were we at a party that night?”

He hesitated before responding.

“No. You called me at the office and told me you were cooking a special meal because you had something exciting to tell me . . .” His voice broke and he was trembling from head to foot. Bronwyn was the one who remained rock-steady for a change, while Bryce looked like he was on the verge of tears. “I came home and found you wearing your tattered blue jeans and one of those T-shirts you’d bought in the Seychelles. You said that you didn’t feel like dressing up for dinner.”

“So you changed your clothes and we had a picnic in the conservatory. After dinner I told you I was pregnant and you . . .”

He swallowed painfully.

“I reacted in the worst possible way,” he grated. “I told you to leave and you did.”

“Wearing the same jeans and T-shirt that I’d been wearing all evening,” she finished. His face contorted savagely, and he flung the dress aside with a vicious curse. Bronwyn flinched at the sudden movement, unable to gauge his mood, not sure if he believed her or not. He brushed past her abruptly to slam his way into the en suite, and she was shocked to hear the sound of violent retching coming from behind the closed door. She hovered outside, unsure if she should venture in or wait for him to come back out. She had just made up her mind to go in, when the ghastly sounds stopped and she heard the toilet flush, followed by the sounds of water running and gargling.

He opened the door slowly, and she found herself staring up at him warily. He looked awful, hollow-eyed, hunted, and like he had aged ten years in the last ten minutes. He couldn’t quite bring himself to meet her eyes.

“I . . .” he began. “I don’t know . . .” He raised a violently trembling hand toward her but checked the movement abruptly, his hand falling limply back to his side.

“Bryce . . .” she murmured uncertainly, but he shook his head abruptly, lifting his eyes to her face, and Bronwyn was horrified by the depth of self-loathing she saw in his tortured gaze. It was mingled with overwhelming regret and something akin to fear and desperation.

“God, how you must hate me,” he murmured.

“I don’t think . . .” But it was too late, he turned away before she could say anything more and exited the room abruptly. Bronwyn felt ridiculously deflated by the anticlimactic end to such an intense conversation. That Bryce believed her was no longer in doubt, but he now seemed wholly unable to deal with his own culpability in the failure of their relationship.

“Don’t bother finding Cooper,” Bryce growled upon stepping out onto the sunny patio where his brother, sister-in-law, and the two toddlers were happily playing. They, all four, came to an abrupt halt at the sound of his gruff voice. Lisa and Rick looked concerned, Rhys started crying, and Kayla merely looked happy to see him, as always. While Lisa picked Rhys up for a cuddle, Kayla babbled on incoherently but Bryce couldn’t focus and was unable to tell what the child was trying to communicate. It was difficult enough to understand her under normal circumstances, but the emotional turmoil he was in right now made it damned near impossible to make out what she was trying to say to him. He nodded and smiled blindly down at her, before switching his gaze to Rick.

“Why not?” his brother asked when their gazes met.

“She’s telling the truth,” Bryce bit off tautly, the knowledge still tearing him apart.

“How do you know?”

“A dress.” Bryce shook his head in shattered disbelief. “I was so sure of what I’d seen that night, I could remember every single detail of the accident scene down to the dress she was wearing as she stood there watching me scream her name.” He fought back the urge to laugh like a maniac, knowing that it would send him careening off the edge of reason. “Only she wasn’t wearing a dress the night she left me, Rick. I should have known that because I now remember thinking how damned sexy she looked in those jeans, just moments before everything went to hell. Not the cocktail dress I’d been remembering her in for the last two years but a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. Oh God . . . oh my God!” He saw Rick go pale and knew that he had to look equally pasty-faced. The younger man blasphemed shakily.

“So now what, Bryce?”

Bryce shook his head helplessly at his brother’s question.

“Now I give her everything she wants because that’s the least of what she deserves.”

“What if she wants a divorce?”

It was the one thing Bryce had been trying not to think about, and he flinched from the question.

“I wouldn’t blame her.” Bryce’s eyes fell to his happily bubbling daughter, who was trying to share her stuffed toys with a still-crying Rhys. “But I’m not sure what I’ll do if she asks for one.”

Bronwyn came down about an hour later to find Rick and Lisa in the conservatory with Kayla and Rhys. The children were playing together contentedly. There was no sign of Bryce. Rick hopped to his feet agitatedly when he saw her enter the room and immediately apologized.

“I was unforgivably rude and needlessly cruel, Bron,” he muttered, shoving his hands into the back pockets of his jeans. “I’m so sorry. I know I hurt you, but . . . damn it, Bron, he’s my brother and he was so damaged and so completely changed by something we all thought was your fault. It just felt like too large an obstacle to overcome!”

“Technically it was my fault,” she pointed out grimly. “He came after me that night, and if not for that he would not have had his accident.”

“No, it was his fault and he admits as much. If he hadn’t been such an absolute bastard about your pregnancy, none of it would have happened. I’m so sorry, Bronwyn.”

“Ricky.” She sighed wearily, not sure why she felt the need to comfort him but wanting to set his mind at ease nonetheless. “You were being loyal to your brother. It was his word against mine. You did what you thought was right.”

“What do you plan to do now?” Rick asked after an awkward pause. He was unable to look her in the eye, and she knew how hard the truth must have hit him. Knowing how unjustly he and Bryce had treated her would not sit comfortably with someone who had such an innate sense of fairness. She knew that it would eat at him for a while and that their relationship might never go back to the way it was before.

“What do you mean?” she asked tiredly.

“Well, my brother is pretty torn up about this, Bron.”

She laughed grimly at his words, cutting him off.

“Yes, and it’s always about him isn’t it?” she asked bitterly.

“No, it’s just . . .” Rick trailed off awkwardly, not sure what to say. “Will you leave him?”

“He doesn’t really want me, you know? He wants Kayla. I’m just excess baggage.” She shrugged.

“He’ll give you just about anything you ask for right now,” Rick pointed out.

“Is that so? Well then, where is he? Maybe it’s time I start making my demands. While his guilt lasts . . .”

“Bronwyn, you’re being—” he began, but Lisa, who had been keeping the children occupied, interrupted whatever he’d been about to say.

“Bryce is in his study,” she informed quietly, absently picking Kayla up and handing her over to Rick while she lifted Rhys into her arms. Bronwyn nodded her thanks and dropped a loving kiss on her daughter’s head before turning on her heel and heading out of the room.

She didn’t ring the doorbell; she wanted an honest reaction from him and did not want to give him time to mask whatever he was feeling. So she strode in confidently and then halted before she’d gotten more than two steps into the room, suddenly unsure of her decision.

He sat behind his huge desk, with his head in his hands in almost exactly the same pose as the day before but he looked so incredibly lost and alone that, for a moment, she was unsure of what her next move should be. He must have sensed her presence because he looked up unexpectedly, pinning her to the spot with his tormented gaze. It said a lot for the changed status of their relationship that he did not immediately fly off the handle because of her supposed “intrusion” into his lair.

“I can’t fix this,” he admitted bleakly. His voice was quivering in a way that would have killed his pride if he had been able to hear it. “I don’t know how to.” He looked strangely defenseless with his messy hair and his disheveled clothing, but she steeled herself against his vulnerability. While she was happy that he now knew the truth, the simple fact of the matter was that she couldn’t trust him with her heart. It had never been safe with him, but she hadn’t known it until he had so ruthlessly rejected her two years ago. Yes, he was now filled with regret about the mistake he had made immediately following his accident, but he still had no explanations or apologies for the behavior that had driven her out in the first place.

She did not know what to say to him, did not know what she wanted from him anymore. Just the day before she had idealistically and unrealistically imagined that if they tried to get along, their relationship would improve and they could build on that. Of course, they both had Kayla’s best interests at heart and wanted to provide stability for her, but Bronwyn deserved better than a second-rate marriage, with them staying together only for the sake of their daughter. Right now Bronwyn also honestly believed that Kayla would be better off if their marriage was severed sooner rather than later. It was better than raising their baby in an atmosphere of mistrust.

After all, this was the man who had thought nothing of kicking her out of their home after discovering that she was pregnant with his baby. The same man who had left her to fend for herself when she was at her weakest. He had also accused her of the most heinous of acts and no amount of guilt now could make up for his many sins. Any relationship that they tried to salvage from this wreckage of a marriage would be based on a foundation of guilt and misguided obligation.

“I don’t think it can be fixed anymore, Bryce,” she said reluctantly, moving toward his desk and sitting down in the huge leather chair across from him. He flinched and averted his face briefly before turning his head to look at her once more.

“So what do you want to do?” he asked tonelessly.

“I don’t know,” she admitted helplessly. “I think we would all be better off if we, you and I, were no longer together. Let’s face it, after two years of separation, the next logical step is a mere formality.”

“You want to leave,” he said matter-of-factly. “Again.”

“I didn’t exactly want to leave the last time, Bryce,” she reminded him pointedly. She was small-minded enough to enjoy seeing the barb hit home. “I just don’t think this situation can be redeemed. Too much has been said and done to go back.” He scrubbed a tired hand over his face before tilting his head back and shutting his eyes. After a few moments of silence, he opened his eyes and looked back at her with his piercing eyes.

“What do you plan to do after you leave?

“I’m going back to university to finish my studies.”

“Won’t it be difficult to be a full-time student when you’re a single parent again?” Her mouth gaped in surprise at the wholly unexpected question.

“Correct me if I’m wrong, but I assumed that I was no longer a single parent.” His eyes flickered with something akin to relief, and Bronwyn’s surprise very quickly turned to horrified comprehension. “You thought I was taking her away from you?” He nodded in response to her shocked question.

“Whatever you may have done to deserve it, Bryce, I won’t deny you your right to be a father to Kayla. Even though you once tossed away that privilege as cavalierly as you would a pair of old socks.” Another direct hit. “And don’t get me wrong here; I am not doing it for you! Kayla needs you in her life.” He nodded again, this time more confidently.

“So you want to finish your studies?” he prompted after clearing his throat awkwardly.

“I’ll have to find a decent place to live and a job to pay for—”

“That won’t be necessary,” he inserted hurriedly. “The job, I mean. I’ll pay for your studies.”

“The only money I’ll ever want from you will go toward the upbringing of your daughter, Bryce. I can take care of myself!”

“This from the woman who was practically on her last legs when we found her? You will not run yourself into the ground again. I can, and will, take care of you.”

“I am not your property; you have no right to speak to me as if I were,” she said, seething, and he swore in frustration.

“Okay, can we compromise on this?” he asked meekly after what looked like a colossal effort to rein in his temper. “I have a suggestion.” She waited silently for him to continue, her arms folded defiantly over her chest as she prepared for battle.

“You and Kayla stay here.” He lifted a silencing hand as she started to protest. “No, wait, just listen. You and Kayla stay here, and that way, she and I would be able to see each other all the time. You find that job to pay for your studies, and you’ll have built-in babysitters for Kayla in both Celeste and me. You won’t be run off your feet, studying, working a part-time job, and caring for a demanding toddler. You also won’t have to worry about rent and food.”

“What’s in this for you?” she asked suspiciously.

“Like I said, unrestricted access to my daughter,” was his simple response. “And enough time to get to know her better.”

“What about us? Our marriage?” She broached the subject warily, and he averted his eyes down to his clenched hands again.

“Well there is no more marriage, is there?” he droned tonelessly. “This house is big enough for us to live completely separate lives. We could work out some kind of schedule, times you may need certain areas of the house to yourself. Please don’t reject the idea out of hand just because it came from me. It makes sense and you won’t be killing yourself trying to make ends meet. I won’t interfere with your life at all.”

“What about your work?” she asked when his eyes were on her again.

“I work mostly from home these days.” He shrugged and she hesitated, her mind busily going over every angle of his plan. “I do plan to spend some more time in the office in the future, but we have an excellent in-house day-care facility, so she’ll never be too far from me.”

“This can’t be a permanent arrangement,” she said after a long pause, knowing that she was compromising way too much. Her instincts were screaming at her to move out, but she kept thinking of Kayla and how much she adored her father. “And if I’m staying here, I’ll want to pay rent,” she cautioned, and he dipped his head in acquiescence.

“I know it can’t be permanent, but it’ll give you time to arrange your future; it will give me time to get to know Kayla and vice versa. You can pay a reasonable amount for rent, and the amount will include food and utilities. But if you’re paying rent, you won’t be able to pay for your tuition and books, so I’d like to give you a student loan, low interest, which you can pay off in your own time,” he hurried on when it looked like she was about to protest. “It’s a better deal than you’d get from any bank, Bronwyn. No strings attached. Once you’ve finished your studies and are settled into your new career, you’ll be better equipped to move out, and Kayla will be old enough to understand.”

“Bryce, that will take years.” She was aghast at the thought of living in limbo for so long. But still, it was an awfully tempting suggestion, and Bronwyn knew she’d be a fool to turn it down when she had so few other options. But things were starting to get sticky again, too many ties and way too many complications. “We have to move on with our lives.”

“And so we shall. We’ll just be sharing a house, Bron . . . nothing else. This works out to everyone’s advantage, and it’s best for Kayla.”

“We’ll have to . . .” She cleared her throat, not really wanting to be the one to mention the inevitable. “We’ll have to start proceedings.”

“Proceedings?” He looked confused.

“Divorce proceedings,” she clarified, and he very quickly averted his face, shielding his eyes from her.

“Yes, of course.” He nodded before lifting his eyes to her face again.

“It will be awkward once we start seeing other people, Bryce.” She decided to be the one to bite the bullet and speak the inescapable words. He cleared his throat uncomfortably before nodding again.

“I just ask that we both practice some discretion when it comes to that. Any . . . uh . . . any liaisons you . . . we see fit to start will have to be conducted outside of the home. For Kayla’s sake, of course. Anything else would confuse her.”

“That sounds reasonable,” she agreed, even while nervousness ate away at her stomach. She wasn’t sure that she was doing the right thing. Sure, she was taking the easy way out, but apprehension kept niggling away at the back of her mind. She got up gracefully and looked down at him for a long moment. “This marriage was probably never meant to be, Bryce. We were always too different.” He averted his gaze, saying nothing in response, and Bronwyn sighed before turning away and heading toward the door.

“We were good together once.” The words sounded torn from him, and she turned around to face him again.

“For a very brief time, so long ago that it seems like a dream now,” she reflected, her eyes misty. She dipped her chin at him before leaving.

Bryce watched her go before slumping back into his chair and kneading his temples with his fists. God, how the hell had this happened? How could he have gotten everything so wrong? He thought back to that terrible night and fought the painful memories, but they were relentlessly flooding back.

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