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

CHAPTER NINE

That night, two years ago, Bryce had leaned against the doorframe and watched as Bronwyn, unaware of his presence, flitted happily around the kitchen. She had her back to the door and her sweet little behind, deliciously molded by the faded fabric of her jeans, had wriggled energetically to the beat of the lively salsa tune coming from the iPod speakers on the kitchen counter. She clearly thought she was alone in the house. It was something she did quite often: dismissed the servants to surprise him with a meal that she had lovingly prepared. He would be lying if he didn’t admit to loving these moments of intimate domesticity. Eventually, he found the temptation of that cute little butt too much to resist. He crept up behind her to grab her hips and draw her back against him. She squealed in delight before turning in his grasp and throwing her arms around his neck. His own arms crept around her slender waist and they danced together sexily for a while. He started nuzzling her neck before she laughed and pulled herself out of his embrace.

“Silly man, stop distracting me,” she chided, bracing her hands on his chest. “Dinner will be spoiled if I allow you to lead me into temptation.”

“I can give dinner a miss,” he growled as he reached for her again, but she giggled happily and danced out of his reach.

“But I can’t,” she laughed. “I’m starving. Why don’t you go and shower off the day’s grit and grime while I finish up in here?”

“God, you make it sound like I work on a construction site.” He smiled down at her, indicating his disheveled gray suit.

“Hmm, I’d like that,” she murmured as she eyed his tall, broad form critically. “It’d certainly help with all the flab.”

“Flab?” He pretended to be outraged but was completely confident that he sported no flab or excess weight of any kind. She laughed again and wrapped her arms around his waist before stretching up to drop a sweet kiss on his mouth.

“I love you,” she told him, and he smiled back. He loved it when she said those words to him, and he felt such overwhelming tenderness in return that it nearly brought him to his knees. He brushed her silky brown hair from her forehead and planted a kiss on her soft skin.

“My Bronwyn,” he whispered against her forehead, tugging at the ponytail she had secured in the nape of her neck and dragging her head back for a proper kiss. When it ended he was aching with desire, and she looked a little dazed.

“Get dinner done, woman, before I head straight for dessert,” he growled as his eyes dipped to the small breasts straining at her light-blue T-shirt so that she could not mistake his meaning. She wasn’t wearing a bra—she hardly ever did when she was at home—her breasts didn’t need the support, and he could see her nipples tenting the soft fabric. The sight made him hotter than hell, and he had to force himself to move away from her. After two years of marriage, he was constantly surprised by how much he still wanted her.

He eagerly rushed through his shower, and by the time he entered the conservatory, she had laid out a picnic beside one of the floor-to-ceiling plate-glass windows, the one with the ocean view. He’d never seen her look more beautiful, and again his stomach tightened with that feeling of tenderness. She was sitting on a blanket that she had spread out on the floor, and he dropped down next to her. He reached for the bottle of red wine that she’d placed within easy reach and frowned when he noticed that there was only one glass.

“You’re not having any wine?” he asked, and she shook her head. Her beautiful eyes tangled with his, and he frowned as he tried to read the emotion in them. He could usually read her pretty easily, but her eyes were a mystery tonight and it unsettled him a bit.

“I’m having water tonight.”

“Are you still worried about your reaction to that glass of wine at Pierre’s party last week?” he asked in concern, referring to her dizzy spell. He’d attributed it to overwork and a bad vintage.

“That’s not it.” She smiled cryptically while her small fingers worried the edge of the blanket. Bryce tried to puzzle through her odd behavior as he poured his own drink.

“So tell me this news that you’re so excited about,” he prompted, referring to her giddy phone call to his office that afternoon.

“After we’ve eaten,” she said quietly, and his eyes dipped to the Mediterranean feast that she had laid out before them. She had prepared seed loaf, feta cheese, and black olives as appetizers, along with fresh vegetables and dolmades with hummus, complemented by aubergine and tzatziki dips and falafels in pita. She lifted an olive to his lips, and he opened up, sucking at the tips of her fingers as he accepted the tangy fruit into his mouth. He returned the favor, and they had the rest of their meal in a similar fashion, laughing and murmuring intimacies as they fed each other. By the end of the meal, she was leaning back against his chest, with her head nestled in the nook between his jaw and collarbone. They quietly watched the sun drop into the ocean and turn the horizon into a painter’s palette of red, orange, crimson, and scarlet.

He had his arm draped over her shoulder and across her breasts, and she was toying with his long and capable fingers. Bryce reveled in the closeness, wondering, not for the first time, how the hell he had gotten so lucky. He felt utterly at peace; they belonged together. They were like two halves of a whole. God knows he had never believed that such an utterly clichéd thought would ever cross his mind, but there it was; she was his other half and he could spend the rest of his life with just her by his side. They were a perfect unit. He shut his eyes to the sunset and tightened his arm around her slender frame. She lifted his hand to her lips and pressed a kiss into his broad palm.

“Bryce,” she murmured quietly, and he made a slight sound to let her know that she had his attention. “I’m pregnant.”

Their new living arrangements were not as bad as Bronwyn had feared they would be. Bryce pretty much kept his word, and she hardly ever saw him around the house and would have sworn that she and Kayla were alone in the house if not for the little girl’s constant references to her daddy and what fun they had while Mummy was at work or at school. She had been back at university for nearly a month; luckily her late enrollment for the first semester in March had been easily accepted, and she had been allowed to resume her studies with very little fuss. It was about six weeks since she and Bryce had made their deal, and Bronwyn was starting to relax and enjoy the freedom of movement that she now had. She worked part-time in a bookshop. It was a job that Lisa, a bookshop proprietor herself, had told her about. Most of Bronwyn’s lectures were over by one in the afternoon, so she worked from about two to six every day, leaving her with enough time to enjoy her evenings with Kayla. It was so quiet in the esoteric bookshop that she often had time to study. She also had weekends off because the shop’s owner was older and didn’t like having the business open on weekends. The pay was good, the work was easy, and the hours were ideal; she could have kissed Lisa when the other woman told her about it. Bronwyn also loved the challenge of studying again; she hadn’t even known how much she missed it until she had gone back. Exercising and expanding her brain after such an extended period of nothing but “mummy duty” felt wonderful!

She was making new friends at school, and she spent a lot of time with Lisa and Alice as well as with Lisa’s cousin, Theresa. The latter was a year older than Bronwyn’s twenty-eight and had a six-month-old baby girl. They (unimaginatively) called themselves the “Mummy Club” and spent most Saturdays actively avoiding mummy duty by leaving the babies with their husbands and escaping for a well-deserved girls’ day out. They were all busy women: Lisa had her shop, Alice was a chef, and both Theresa and Bronwyn had just started studying again, Theresa only part-time because of the new baby.

Bronwyn was actually starting to enjoy her life again, despite the unusual situation at home. Soon she started noticing that one of her professors, a man in his mid-thirties, appeared to be taking more than the usual interest in her. She didn’t quite know how to react to that fact. It had been so long since she’d felt even remotely attractive that the male interest, while flattering, was a little unnerving. It also felt so wrong to even be talking to a man who was so obviously attracted to her while she was still married to Bryce. It made her wonder about the divorce. She had assumed that Bryce would start proceedings, but she hadn’t heard a peep about it from him. She wasn’t sure if he was expecting her to do it or if he was content to let things stay as they were for the moment. The uncertainty was driving her mad, so she took it upon herself to speak to some of the law students about her options. Being young and overly ambitious, most of them advised her to “take him for everything she could get,” but one young man had thoughtfully given her his father’s number after informing her that his parent was a divorce lawyer. He also cautioned her to tread carefully when there were custody matters to consider.

She hadn’t used the number yet and wasn’t sure if she should or even if she could. The thought of finally ending her marriage, even if it could only be described as such in the loosest possible terms, was not a pleasant one. Not when she still cared for her husband, more than he probably deserved.

The ambiguity of her feelings reached even greater heights when her professor, Raymond Mayfair, acted on his interest in her and asked her out. Bronwyn battled with the decision for a while before accepting his invitation. She made sure to warn him that nothing would ever happen between them while she was married. He graciously accepted her terms and told her that he just wanted to spend time with her.

That night she deliberately sought Bryce out for the first time in more than two months and found him hiding out in the den and watching television with the sound turned down. For some reason, the den, with all its audio visual equipment, was the last place she’d expected to find him. An ignorant assumption, she acknowledged, since his deafness didn’t prevent him from watching television or enjoying music with heavier beats. He sat in an easy chair and the only parts of him that were visible to her were the back of his head and his right hand, which was hanging over the arm of the chair with a glass of amber-colored liquid dangling from his fingers.

At first, she was so preoccupied by the fact that she had found him after half an hour of searching that what he was watching did not register with her. Then she glanced up and found herself riveted by her own smiling face on the huge flat-screen television. The camera angle changed to include Bryce in the shot; he was leaning toward her, his mouth to her ear as he whispered something intimate enough to make her blush. It was their wedding DVD with the sound turned down. She was dressed in a beautiful white concoction that had cost the earth but that Bryce had paid for, and he looked gorgeous in a stylish black tuxedo. They both looked so young and happy and were wrapped up in each other to the exclusion of everyone else. She watched as he fast-forwarded through Rick’s best man speech and resumed playing when the focus was back on them.

She took a step backward, feeling like she was intruding on yet another moment that she knew he would not want her to witness. Her back hit the door and her fingers fumbled with the handle but her eyes remained glued to the screen. He hit the pause button, and she panicked, thinking that he was about to get up, but he merely leaned forward, his attention still focused on the screen. She shifted her stricken gaze to the larger-than-life frozen image of her beaming face. She looked radiant and so hopelessly in love. The room was absolutely silent, and she was achingly aware of how loud the pounding of her heart sounded to her own ears and of how ragged her breathing had become.

After a seemingly interminable amount of time had passed, she succeeded in getting a decent grip on the door handle and managed to slip out without him ever knowing that she had been there. But the haunting image of Bryce in that silent room watching that video stayed with her all evening. She didn’t understand why he had dug up that old thing. It served only to emphasize how catastrophically they had failed as a couple.

She still needed to talk with him; she couldn’t go out with Raymond without telling Bryce about it first. It was the decent thing to do. So she waited another couple of hours until she heard him prowling around in the kitchen. She ventured boldly into the spacious room and stepped immediately into his line of vision, not wanting to startle him. He was just turning away from the huge double-door refrigerator with some sandwich ingredients stacked precariously in his arms and stilled abruptly at the sight of her. The abrupt cessation of movement unsettled the food and dislodged a tomato, which rolled from the top of the armload and landed on the floor between them with a soft plop. Bronwyn winced and they both stared down at the mess the unfortunate tomato had made on the tiled floor. They looked up at the same time and their gazes met uncertainly.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you,” she apologized, both verbally and in the sign language that she was still trying to learn in her free time. Because of school, her lessons had had to be moved to Saturdays before her usual get-together with the other ladies. His eyes dropped to her busy hands and narrowed sharply as they took in the graceful movements of her fingers.

“It’s okay,” he said out loud, shrugging slightly. He didn’t mention the sign language she had used, and she was both relieved and somewhat disappointed by that. He brushed by her and headed toward the large wooden island in the middle of the kitchen to drop the ingredients on the black marble–topped surface, while Bronwyn used a damp paper towel to wipe up the mess on the floor. When she was done, she rounded the island to face him again while he busily went about constructing an imaginative sandwich. He kept his eyes on his task and Bronwyn sighed in frustration before waving her hand beneath his eyes to get his attention. Finally, reluctantly, he looked up to face her.

“I have to talk to you about something,” she half signed, half spoke, and he nodded warily. “I need you to watch Kayla tomorrow night.” Something akin to relief flickered in his eyes, and he smiled slowly, nodding again.

“Of course.” His eyes dropped back to his sandwich. “I know that you have to start studying, mid-terms can’t be that far off.” Bronwyn groaned, this was going to be more difficult than she had originally anticipated. She waved her hand beneath his eyes again.

“Bryce,” she began when she had his attention again. “I have a date.” She said the words aloud, choosing not to sign them, and his eyes remained fixed on her lips for such a long time that she began to wonder if he might have misunderstood her. His large hands were resting on the wooden surface of the island, his sloppy sandwich teetering unsteadily between them, and as she dropped her eyes, wondering if she should repeat the statement, she noticed them curling into huge fists and knew that he had not misunderstood or misread her lips. He was trying to figure out how to deal with her words.

“You’re married,” he reminded, almost absently, his voice sounding strangely hoarse. She raised her eyes to his face again and was startled to see how strained and pale he looked.

“We’re not married, Bryce,” she whispered. “Not really. Not for a long time now. You know that. You said it yourself; there is no marriage. We’re separated and merely sharing a house.”

“Who . . .” He began to frame a question but then simply turned the one word into a question. “Who?”

“One of my professors. He’s a nice man, decent.”

“How decent can he be if he dates his students?” Bryce hissed furiously.

“I’m not a child, Bryce, and Raymond is only two years older than you are. It’s hardly unethical for us to go out on a perfectly harmless date.”

“I don’t think you should do this,” he began, but she held up a silencing hand.

“I didn’t come to you for your blessing, Bryce,” she told him firmly. “I felt that telling you would be the right thing to do, because we are still legally bound. Yes, we have a child together and we’re sharing a house, but our marriage, if we can call it that anymore, is over. I want to move on with my life, and the only way either of us can do that is if we get a divorce. So if you won’t start the proceedings, then I will. I’ll be seeing an attorney as soon as possible.” He lowered his gaze back to his sandwich.

“It’s probably better that way,” he agreed quietly. “If you need me to watch Kayla tomorrow night, I will.” He raised his enigmatic eyes back to hers and she smiled gently.

“One more thing, Bryce,” she said tentatively. “I don’t want a security guy hovering in the background while I’m out tomorrow night. So I’m dismissing Paul early. Please clear it with Cal.” Poor Paul would probably be relieved to have the time off. Her life was pretty mundane, and while he was too professional to ever show it, she suspected that he was bored out of his mind for the most part.

“Fine,” he gritted after a long pause, clearly not happy with that idea but acquiescing when he realized that she wasn’t going to budge on the matter.

“In fact, I would prefer it if Paul didn’t come to campus or work with me. It’s a waste of your resources. I’m perfectly safe, and I would just feel more comfortable without him constantly hovering in the background.” She knew that she was pushing it and that Bryce wasn’t likely to budge on this, but she really felt like a pretentious freak with a bodyguard constantly dogging her steps. It made her feel completely conspicuous.

“Bronwyn, I take your and Kayla’s safety very seriously,” he said darkly.

“Look, of course I want Kayla to be safe, and I absolutely agree on the issue of security for her, but I’m not quite in the same boat. I’m your all-but-estranged wife. Not quite the prime target for kidnappers.”

“Prospective kidnappers don’t know the intimate details of our marriage, Bron,” he pointed out reasonably. “You’re living with me, you’re the mother of my child, and you’re a target. End of story. Paul stays.”

“Well, can you at least give me some time to myself on Monday then? I have something to take care of.” While she had just informed him she would be seeing an attorney, she didn’t want Bryce hearing about it from the hired help before she had a chance to tell him about it in person. That wasn’t the way she wanted him to learn the news.

“What?” he asked suspiciously.

“Bryce, I don’t ask you for much, just grant me this one request and allow me to cling to the illusion that I still have some semblance of privacy in my life.”

“Only on Monday?” he clarified reluctantly, and she nodded. “Very well, I’ll inform Cal.”

“Thank you,” she said, and he inclined his head curtly before turning away from her and heading to the refrigerator, his rigid back telling her that he wanted her gone by the time he turned back. Bronwyn wasted no time in beating a hasty retreat. She headed to the nursery to watch Kayla sleep and silently mourned the loss of the life she could never have with the man she so desperately loved.

Bryce wanted to break something, wanted to hurt someone, preferably the smarmy bastard who had ingratiated himself to Bryce’s wife! God, this was so much worse than he’d imagined. Bronwyn was moving on with her life and seeing other people. What if she let this guy, this Raymond, touch her or, worse, make love to her? His stomach rebelled at the thought, and he picked up his half-made sandwich and tossed it into the trashcan.

He pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes and frantically tried to figure out what to do, how to make this right, but he didn’t know how. He no longer had any control over his own life. Everything was sliding so swiftly downhill that he knew it was only a matter of time before it all ended. Bronwyn didn’t see herself as his wife anymore. She wanted nothing to do with him, and who could blame her? After the way he had behaved, it was nothing less than he deserved. He could threaten her with a custody battle, but he didn’t have it in him to do that to her or Kayla.

After all those months of self-righteous anger and believing he was the wronged one, while his Bronwyn suffered unimaginable horrors on her own, he now had to face up to the fact that he had brought all of this upon himself. Blackmailing Bronwyn to stay with him, after everything else that he had done wrong, would in no way, shape, or form restore his self-respect. He had to let her go; she deserved to be happy and it was obvious that he couldn’t make her happy, that he had very rarely made her happy. That was his failure, his shame, and his cross to bear, and he would no longer have her share that burden.

“What the hell do you mean, you’re pregnant? What about your studies and the mutual decision we made when we first got married? We were going to wait, Bronwyn, remember? Just tell me you’re joking.” The fury he had felt that night scorched its way through his body and obliterated his ability to think rationally. He moved away from her and jumped to his feet to glower down at her. She had looked so confused and hurt that for a moment he nearly softened, nearly took her into his arms to comfort her. But then those two words echoed their way through his brain again and his white-hot, bitter anger reasserted itself. The sense of betrayal left an acrid taste in his mouth.

“I know that it’s sooner than we’d planned,” she said softly, trying to maintain an even tone of voice. “But this is the reality of our situation now and it can’t be changed. We’re having a baby . . . a baby, Bryce. Don’t you understand how wonderful that is?”

“I can’t believe you did this. I can’t believe you would stoop to this,” he gritted out bitterly. “This was supposed to be a joint decision. I’m not ready for this, Bronwyn. I don’t want a kid, damn it!”

“But it’s our baby . . . we made it together,” she protested, and he could hear the pain and confusion in her voice but just couldn’t keep the venom out of his own, knowing that if he allowed her to see through his anger to his own pain and confusion, she would think that what she had done was okay, and he was too furious with her to allow her to think that yet.

“You mean you made it, without my consent.” He could barely look at her. He didn’t want to see her tears—he hated her tears—but he could hear them in her gasp and in her voice when she spoke.

“I don’t know why you’re being like this,” she cried. “I didn’t plan this, it just happened. Our birth control failed. I asked the doctor and he said that if I’d had a stomach virus or anything like that it could provide a window of opportunity. And you know that I was sick a couple of days before your company party three months ago.” Damn her, she was trying to cover her tracks. He strode out of the conservatory and downstairs into their en suite, while she trotted behind him, still trying to tell him about a stomach bug that she had had three months ago. How the hell could she expect him to remember something like that, anyway? He pushed back the niggling voice that told him he did remember it and that he had pampered her ridiculously while she had been sick. Instead, he convinced himself that he couldn’t recall whatever insignificant bug she was referring to. He opened the medicine chest and yanked out her birth-control pills.

“What are you doing?” She sounded scared and appalled as she watched him count the pills in the box. His eyes clouded over with a haze of red when he realized that the numbers were right.

“God, have you been chucking pills down the drain every night?” he wondered out loud, hating himself even as he asked the question.

“You know I wouldn’t do that,” she defended urgently.

“Is that so? I obviously don’t know you as well as I thought I did, do I?”

“Of course you know me, Bryce.” she laid a tentative hand on his rigid forearm, and his flesh burned beneath the contact. He yanked his arm away and turned away from her. His eyes flooded with tears, he needed time to think, but he couldn’t think with her standing in the same room, not when she was crying, not when he was the one responsible for her tears.

“Get out of here,” he whispered harshly, wanting her out of the room, not wanting her to hear or see how much he ached to take her into his arms.

“What?”

“Get the hell out,” he snarled, bracing himself before turning to face her. He barely kept himself from flinching when he saw her tears. “Go now.” She uttered a low cry and whirled from the room, fleeing as quickly as she could. Bryce finally allowed himself to break, sinking back against a tiled wall as his legs gave out and sliding down to the floor. He clasped his head in his hands and shook uncontrollably as he tried to imagine his life from this point on.

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