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

CHAPTER TEN

Bryce had to go in to the office the following morning—the day of Bronwyn’s Big Date. He hadn’t done so in months, but he and Pierre had an urgent meeting with a very important client and the man had requested Bryce’s presence. As he was the business’s CFO and Vice President of Marketing, Bryce knew that it was time to pick up the reins of his life again. He had responsibilities to Pierre, their employees, their clients, and to himself. It was time but it was just unfortunate timing. Celeste was down with the flu, Bronwyn had a test, also her all-important date was that night, and Bryce wasn’t about to bail on this fatherhood business just because things got a little sticky. He hadn’t even told Bronwyn about this meeting, but he figured that she had coped with much worse crises over the past couple of years, so he could deal with this one all on his own.

That meant taking Kayla into the office and she was in a terrible mood. He dressed her in her prettiest pink frock, promising her all kinds of treats if she just did this one thing for Daddy today. He didn’t need his hearing to know that she was muttering a whole lot of “Kayla no want tos” into his hair as he tied the laces on the tiny red sneakers she’d insisted on wearing with the girly little dress. He’d relented on the shoes because he was getting pretty sick of trying to reason with her. Bad parenting, he knew, but it was a matter of picking his battles, and he was running late. He was also terrified of losing his temper with her while there was no one else around and wanted to get out of the house and to the office as soon as humanly possible.

By the time Cal—who also acted as his driver these days—parked the car in the underground parking lot of the huge building in Central Cape Town, which hosted DCP Jewellers Inc., he was exhausted and feeling more than a little harassed. Petulant, angry tears were seeping down his daughter’s rosy cheeks, and he could more than imagine her nagging crying. He knew her well enough by now to know when she was acting up and when she was just being difficult.

“Kayla.” He hoped his voice was firm enough. “Stop crying. You’re going meet some nice, new friends.” She was shaking her head in response to his promise, and he could read her lips well enough to understand that she didn’t want “new fwends.” He groaned and dropped a kiss on one wet, chubby cheek.

“Of course you want new friends.” His plan was to drop her off at the company’s day-care center. Quite a few of the young executives who were present stopped in their tracks to stare as he made his way through reception. He nodded at them abruptly, not caring for the open-mouthed shock they were all displaying but knowing that his presence, especially with a toddler in tow, would fuel gossip for months to come. They were naturally curious because not many of them had seen him since his accident; also God only knew how much noise Kayla was making. Pierre loomed in front of him and grinned as his eyes dropped to the fractious child on Bryce’s hip.

“Hello, Mikayla,” he smiled down at her, signing so that Bryce could catch what he was saying. “Why so grumpy?” He reached over and tried to tug the resisting child into his arms. Kayla refused to go, burying her wet face against Bryce’s neck and tightening her small, surprisingly strong arms around his shoulders. Bryce met Pierre’s amused eyes and groaned.

“A little help, if you please?”

“Hey, mine isn’t old enough to throw tantrums yet.” Pierre shrugged, dropping his hands into his trouser pockets and rocking back on his heels. “I have no idea how to deal with this.”

“I’m taking her to the nursery but she’s going to hate me for deserting her,” Bryce informed as he hugged the crying child closer.

“By the time you fetch her again, she’ll be having so much fun, she’ll cry when you try to take her home.”

“God, this parenting business is tough,” Bryce muttered. “I don’t know how the hell Bronwyn coped on her own for two years.”

“That’s why Mother’s Day is so much bigger than Father’s Day will ever be,” Pierre quipped. “I’m off to the Mezzanine Conference Room; meet you there in ten minutes?”

“Sure,” Bryce agreed. Naturally, that was easier said than done. Kayla stubbornly clung to his leg when he set her down in the nursery, and he and one of the nursery school teachers tried desperately to bribe and cajole her into letting go. Twenty minutes later, exhausted and rumpled, Bryce made his way into the Mezzanine Conference Room, troubled that he’d had to leave his crying and begging daughter behind and wondering how often Bronwyn had had to go through the same ordeal over the past two years. How difficult it must have been for her, especially being able to hear Kayla’s begging and crying, when she turned to walk away.

His first big business meeting outside of his home, after the accident, was not as tough as he’d expected it to be, largely due to the sign language interpreter Pierre had thoughtfully employed. The same woman would be Bryce’s new assistant and would ease his transition back into the office. He still intended to spend a lot more time at home than before the accident, but the meeting made him realize just how much he’d missed being in the thick of things and at the heart of the deal.

Bronwyn could barely focus on what Raymond was saying; her mind kept straying back to the lonely image of Bryce sitting in front of that television with her image frozen on-screen. There was something so stark, sad, and desolate about the memory that it ate her up inside every time she thought about it.

“You seem preoccupied.” Raymond’s gentle voice intruded on her thoughts, and Bronwyn was startled back to the present and the man sitting opposite her. He really was a nice man, tall, lean, and almost handsome, with dark eyes, slightly thinning black hair, and a warm smile. Bronwyn really liked him but not enough to seriously consider dating him.

“I think this was a mistake,” she mumbled, and he frowned. “It’s too soon. It just doesn’t feel right for me to be out with you.” He smiled in understanding.

“I was wondering where your mind was,” he said.

“Maybe . . .” she began, and he covered one of her helplessly fluttering hands with his own.

“Some other time?” he completed, and she nodded gratefully. “That’s okay. I can wait until you’re ready.”

The crazy thing was Bronwyn wasn’t sure if she would ever be ready. Despite everything that had happened, she still loved Bryce, and she didn’t know how to stop. While his past behavior had been unforgivable, it had also been completely out of character. How could the man who now loved his daughter so unreservedly have rejected the idea of Bronwyn’s pregnancy in the first place? It made no sense. And yet, while she was confused and conflicted, she still couldn’t forget about or forgive those two years that she had struggled to keep both herself and her baby alive and safe. She loved him and yet she resented him for abandoning them so completely. And there was just no way she could reconcile those two conflicting feelings in any kind of emotionally satisfying manner.

“Thank you for understanding, Raymond.”

He shrugged.

“I can’t say I’m not disappointed, Bronwyn. I would still like to get to know you better and spend time with you. I hope I get that chance.”

“You’re a really nice man, Raymond,” she responded. “But I shouldn’t have come out with you. I’m still married, and while my husband may not be perfect, he’s the father of my child and at one point, he was my whole life. I don’t know what I’m doing here. I can’t make any promises, you understand?”

“I understand.” He smiled again, squeezing her hand in reassurance. “I hope you know that I’m here, as a friend. If you need a shoulder to cry on or someone to listen, I’m always here.”

“Thank you,” she whispered, trying desperately to blink back her tears at his graceful acceptance of the situation.

Bryce, who sat alone in the darkened den, was startled when the unmistakable flash of headlights coming up the drive disturbed the unrelenting dark. He jumped up and stepped out onto the wide balcony that overlooked the driveway, knowing that he would not be spotted in the dark. It was Bronwyn, home a lot sooner than he had expected. She was standing beside the car, her head bent over her bag as she fumbled for her house keys. He frowned, making a mental note to talk to her about her carelessness. She really should have her keys out before she got out of her car; they had the best security money could buy, and there were guards all over the property, but he still didn’t want her taking unnecessary risks. He could see her clearly in the light that was spilling from the front porch, and his stomach clenched at how beautiful she looked in the pale blue wraparound skirt that molded to her long legs with every move she made. Her white top dipped low enough to show off her modest cleavage and it set his blood boiling. She looked too provocative, too bloody tempting! He was sure that the pervert professor could not possibly have kept his hands to himself.

Burning up with the need to know if that bastard had laid his grubby paws on her, he made his way downstairs, sure he would be able to read her expression and know if she had let the man touch her. He just needed to know . . .

“How was your date?” The deep voice, sounding so unexpectedly from behind her, made Bronwyn jump in shock. She was busy setting the alarm and botched up the code when he startled her. She took a deep steadying breath and quickly reentered the correct code before turning to face him.

“It was fine,” she murmured, knowing it was too dark for him to read her lips; she used her hands as well.

“When did you get so good at signing?” he asked huskily, stepping into the small pool of light in the hall and neatly trapping her between his body and the door.

“All those times I met Alice for lunch? Before going back to university? We were going to the same center Pierre went to for his sign language lessons. I go mostly on Saturdays now.”

“Why?” She shrugged awkwardly, trying to step back when he took a small step forward but finding herself with no place to go when her back hit the door. He was so close she could feel his body heat and smell his wonderfully clean scent.

“I don’t know,” she said quietly. “I wanted to be able to talk to you.” He very gently lifted his thumb and forefinger to her chin and used it to tilt her face up to his.

“I didn’t catch that,” he whispered. She repeated her previous statement and his eyes darkened.

“You wanted to talk to me? Despite the way I’ve treated you?” There was a world of vulnerability in his voice, and Bronwyn tried not to let it disarm her.

“I know how it feels to have no one to talk to,” she said, closing her eyes to hide her pain from him.

“Oh God, sweetheart . . . Bron . . .” The anguish in his voice undid her, and she found herself unable to resist when he lowered his head and rested his forehead against hers. His warm breath washed over her face, her lips, and she shuddered before going up onto her toes and brushing his mouth with hers. He went so still that she thought he would shatter, but when she moved her small hands up to cup his face, his breath escaped on a strangled sob. He tentatively wrapped his strong arms around her slender body to gather her close and responded to her sweet kiss with unbelievable tenderness and reverence. The kiss did not last long; it was over before it properly began, and Bryce took a step back, lifting a hand to gently palm one of her cheeks, his eyes bright with some inscrutable emotion. Bronwyn tilted her face into his hand and lifted her own much smaller hand to cover his. They stood that way for what seemed like an eternity but what was, in reality, only a few seconds before Bronwyn stepped around him. She left without a word, unable to find the right words, not even sure if there were words for what she was feeling.

Bryce groaned the following morning, when his boisterous twenty-one-month-old daughter bounced her way onto his bed at some ungodly hour. One sharp little knee narrowly missed his groin to land painfully on his abdomen, causing him to curse softly under his breath as he doubled over in pain.

“Kayla, honey, why don’t you go find your mummy? It’s her day off today.” He caught her to stop her bouncing and planted a quick kiss on her soft cheek. She giggled at the feel of his stubble.

“Tickley.” She formed the word clearly as she rubbed her cheek squeamishly.

“Go and wake Mummy up, sweetheart; Daddy’s trying to sleep. I’ll give you some sweeties if you go to your mummy!” He cajoled.

“See fishies.” He frowned at that bit of information, wondering what the hell he was missing in translation. He often had trouble with voiced and unvoiced consonants, but he doubted very much that she meant “vishies,” so the word had to be “fishies,” which confused the hell out of him.

“What?”

“Fishies, Daddy, see fishies!” She made a squirmy, fishlike movement with one of her plump hands. Okay, so he definitely hadn’t misread the “fishies.”

“Where’s your mummy?” He kept her still when it became obvious that she wanted to bounce again.

“There,” she pointed to his bedroom door, the dimple she’d inherited from him deepening as her smile widened. He looked up to find Bronwyn standing in the open doorway. Well that certainly explained how Kayla had gotten into his room; she wasn’t tall enough to open doors yet. Bronwyn was leaning against the doorjamb with her arms folded over her chest and her eyebrows raised.

“Don’t think I missed that blatant bit of bribery just now,” she said, and he groaned.

“C’mon, Bron, you know the weekends are your domain. I didn’t want to rob you of any time with our precious little angel. It wouldn’t be fair to you,” he quickly smooth-talked, but she wasn’t having any of it and he could practically hear her hah! Their high-strung “angel” of a daughter had escaped his grip and was jumping on the bouncy mattress again, her curls flying as she chanted, “Fishies, fishies” with every bounce. Bryce grimaced as he read her lips.

“What’s all this about ‘fishies’?” he asked, feeling ridiculous as he said the word. He glanced up and caught Bronwyn staring at his naked chest. She blushed when he caught her staring and took a few seconds to gather her thoughts before responding.

“Uh . . . I’m taking her to the aquarium today and was wondering if you’d like to join us.” He blinked up at her, wondering if he had read that right.

“What?”

She repeated the question, using her eloquent hands this time, and he blinked again, more than a little shocked by the unexpected invitation. Her blush deepened and she started to say that he didn’t have to if he didn’t want to, but he quickly brushed that aside before she changed her mind completely.

“Sure! I’ve never been! That would be great! Kayla will love it!” He knew he was speaking in exclamations but he didn’t want any misunderstanding. “Give me ten minutes and we can head off.” He jumped out of bed, forgetting that he was wearing nothing but skin and quickly grabbed a sheet to preserve modesty when he felt a breeze on areas best kept covered in the presence of his little girl and his estranged wife. Tucking the sheet in at his waist, he grabbed Kayla while she was in midjump and hugged her to his chest, twirling her around for a couple of seconds. “We’re going to see the fishies, baby!” He dropped a kiss on the toddler’s cheek before setting her down, where she tottered dizzily before plonking down onto her butt. She laughed happily after the dizziness passed and held up her arms to him for another round.

“Not now, sweetie. I have to shower and then we’re going to see all the pretty fishies.”

“Nebo?” she asked worriedly, and he grinned at the thought of the Disney movie that she insisted on watching at least five times a week, with her daddy of course! Bryce was thankful for the subtitle option on DVDs and never thought he’d be the type to recite the dialogue of a cartoon movie word for word in his lifetime.

“Yes, Nemo too,” he promised. “I’ll be quick,” he told Bron on his way out.

“No rush.” She smiled. “I still have to get Kayla ready. We can leave in about half an hour.”

Bronwyn watched him leave, his broad tanned back rippling with muscles, the sheet molding his tight behind much too lovingly. Her mouth went dry as she recalled that flash of nudity; he was so gorgeous that it was a real shame to cover it up. She grinned as she recalled his near schoolboy giddiness at her impulsive invitation. She hadn’t seen him that lighthearted and ecstatic in, well, ever really.

Even before her pregnancy when they had been happy together, there had always been this reserve in him, a darkness that he had tried to keep hidden from her. She had always believed that it would only be a matter of time before he confided in her but then she had gotten pregnant and they had run out of time. She sighed at the dark turn of her thoughts; it was too bright and beautiful an autumn day to dwell on the past.

“Come on, Kayla, time to get dressed.” She held out her hand to the toddler who happily made her way over, still chattering excitedly about “Nebo” and “fishies.”

The Two Oceans Aquarium was based at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town. It was teeming not only with marine life but with children, teens, students, and noisy families. Bryce and Bronwyn, as a young couple with an energetic toddler, blended in completely. For once the ubiquitous Cal and his team had been told to remain very much in the background. Bryce had commanded them to remain outside, despite Cal’s obvious uneasiness with the high security risk such a busy place posed. Bryce had even chosen to drive them himself—a rarity these days—while the security team had remained a discreet distance behind them.

Now Bronwyn was achingly aware of how much like a normal family they must look amidst the tide of humanity. Kayla was up on Bryce’s shoulders, and her little feet frantically paddled against his chest every time she wanted him to stop and let her down so that she could investigate something closer. She had loved the touch pool, where she got to stroke and touch all manner of tide-pool life: fish, starfish, and even a small octopus. She had squealed with every new sensation under her fingertips.

Their little girl was nothing if not adventurous, and unlike a lot of the other children her age who backed off squealing and crying, she kept coming forward to touch something new. Of course, the highlight for her was the display of clownfish. The beautiful exhibit had actually been named “Nemos.” Bryce had guided her into the little bubble beneath the display, which had afforded her a 360-degree view of the tank. She had squealed and clapped in delight when she found herself surrounded by so many “Nemos.” It had been very difficult getting her back out to give other children a chance but she hadn’t had time to sulk with so much to see and do.

Bronwyn sensed that, despite his laughter, something was not quite right with Bryce. He seemed jumpy and sweat beaded his upper lip. She often caught him looking around frantically when she was farther away from him and then almost noticeably sagging in relief when he caught sight of her. At first she was confused by his uncharacteristic lack of composure, but then she caught the way he shrank away anytime someone brushed by him or got too close. With startling clarity, she recognized that her husband, who had once seemed so strong and infallible, feared the milling crowd of people around them. She even suspected that he was mildly agoraphobic. It explained why he had confined himself to the house these past couple of years, why he rarely ventured out, and why he preferred having Pierre or Rick come by to see him at home. This once social creature had been cut off from the world in more ways than she had known. It said a lot for how much her invitation must have meant to him, if he was willing to brave this for a day out with her and Kayla.

She made her way to his side and firmly slid her hand into his. His startled gaze met hers, and when he saw the understanding glimmering there, his eyes shone with gratitude.

“Do you want to go home?” she asked, and he hesitated before shaking his head.

“I’m okay . . . now.” He lifted their clasped hands gratefully.

Neither openly acknowledged the situation again, but she rarely left his side after that and he seemed less tense. He appeared to be genuinely enjoying himself by the time they reached the underwater tunnel that led them through a multitude of manta rays, barracudas, tuna, and ragged-toothed sharks. The display was so awesome that even Kayla went quiet as she took in the strange, beautiful blue world that surrounded her. Her little hands were clasped together under her father’s jaw and Bronwyn watched as she started to droop more and more until her head was resting on top of Bryce’s and she was fast asleep.

“Hold still,” she urged, digging out the digital camera and taking yet another picture of father and daughter. He grinned before taking the camera from her and stopping a passing tourist, asking the man to take their picture. He shifted Kayla so that she was cradled in his right arm, her head resting on the curve of his shoulder and her arm draped around his neck, and he hauled Bronwyn against his left side, wrapping his arm around her waist and holding her close.

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“Smile, sweetheart,” he urged into her ear, and she was startled into obeying. The tourist took three pictures in quick succession before handing the camera back to Bryce.

“You have a great-looking family, mate,” he said in a thick Aussie accent before handing back the camera and heading off with a wave.

When they left the aquarium, Bryce pushed Kayla’s cart while Bronwyn tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow to maintain contact. Cal and his team were taking their brief to remain discreet so seriously that Bronwyn didn’t even see them. Bryce led the way toward one of the many restaurants dotting the waterfront, a Greek place that served fabulous food, and they sat down at a table beneath one of the umbrellas out in the early autumn sunshine. They were quiet for a while, watching the world go by, until Bryce broke the silence.

“Thank you.”

She lifted surprised eyes to his solemn face. “For?”

“Earlier.” He cleared his throat and she watched his Adam’s apple bob sexily as he swallowed. “Thank you for earlier. Crowds are . . . difficult for me. Ever since the accident I can’t stand being in large crowds. It’s so bizarre. There I am with all these people around me and I know there should be noise, voices, footsteps, and laughter, but instead there’s nothing. It’s like being in a huge void, until I’m jostled and then it feels like being ambushed because I didn’t see or hear it coming. After the accident I was so paranoid, I kept wondering who was behind me, kept imagining someone was there, and I’d turn around so quickly that I’d startle everyone around me, only there’d be no one there, but I’d immediately get the same feeling and turn again. I knew that it would only be a matter of time before it would get to the point where I’d just keep turning round and round and round until I went insane. So before that could happen I . . .”

“You shut yourself in,” she completed, and he nodded.

“It’s crazy, I know,” he confessed, and she smiled with a shake of her head, covering his lightly trembling hand with her own.

“No, it’s not. You lost one of your senses, Bryce. Naturally there’d be physical, mental, and emotional repercussions. I read that people go through the stages of grief after losing their hearing. Did you . . . did you talk to anyone after the accident?”

“You mean a psychiatrist?” he clarified dryly. “I was seeing one for nearly a year; it’s because of him that I was able to even contemplate coming out today. I was so much worse immediately after the accident and I very stubbornly refused to talk to anyone. Yes, I was in denial and furious that something like this could have happened to me, but I shoved it aside because I had something bigger to take care of. I was adamant that talking to shrinks could wait. But Pierre and Rick kind of forced my hand. They blackmailed me into seeing someone.”

“How?” she asked, curious. One thing she knew about her stubborn husband was that when he made up his mind about something, it was very difficult to get him to change it again. He cleared his throat and gulped down a healthy mouthful of white wine.

“At the time, my sole purpose was to find you,” he admitted. “But I was so incapacitated and the only two people I trusted to help me with that were Rick and Pierre. They had private detectives working on it and because of my antisocial phobias, they were the ones who dealt with those detectives. They threatened to stop acting as liaisons between the detectives and me if I didn’t see someone. I couldn’t let that happen, and since I knew I wouldn’t be able to deal with the detectives myself, I had no choice but to comply with their demands. I resented the hell out of them for imposing that ultimatum, but in the end, Bron, they saved my sanity.” They remained silent for a while after that, while Bronwyn thought about everything that he had revealed.

“And the . . . the deafness is permanent?” She asked the question that she had been too scared to broach before and winced at the immense of amount of pain that darkened his eyes. “There’s nothing they can do about it?”

“To put it in the simplest of terms, I suffered major nerve damage in both ears. I hit my head so hard that the doctors told me I was lucky that deafness was my only major, lasting injury. Lucky, can you believe that?” His voice rang with outrage at the memory, and he shut his eyes briefly before shaking his head and meeting her eyes again. “They told me that the damage to my right ear is less catastrophic and said that an operation might restore some of the function.”

“It didn’t work?” she asked sympathetically, aching for him. What he had done to her was unforgivable, but he had paid in spades for it already, and she found herself unable to hate or resent him any longer. She just felt numb and confused.

“I didn’t have the operation,” He shrugged and she blinked. Stunned by that information.

“What? Why?”

“It seemed pointless.” His jaw was set, and while she longed to prompt him for more information, she sensed that he wouldn’t be receptive to any more questions. She sighed, his stubbornness and uncommunicativeness merely serving to remind her of why she felt their marriage no longer stood a chance of working. Yes, he had paid for his unforgivable and baffling reaction to her pregnancy, but they had so many other insurmountable problems.

“I’m sorry that this happened to you, Bryce,” she said earnestly. “I’m so sorry.”

“I’m not the only one who suffered, Bron.” For the first time since it happened, he was brushing it off because there was so much more he needed to know about what had happened to her during those lost years. “After you left the hospital, what happened? Where did you go? Who took care of you?”

“I really don’t want to talk about this,” she began hesitantly.

“Please.” The single, softly spoken word undid her more than any other could have, and she lowered her eyes to her peacefully sleeping daughter before lifting them back to Bryce.

“Thanks to selling the car, I had enough money for a few months’ rent and food. Luckily Kayla was a healthy baby, and I didn’t have to worry about extra doctor’s bills.”

“What about you? How were you after her birth?”

“We coped, Bryce,” she said. “I stayed home for a month and a half and my next-door neighbor, Linda, would often drop by to do some of the cooking for me. The first few times I went out job-hunting, Linda babysat Kayla for me. Eventually I got the job in Plettenberg Bay, where I ran into Rick and Lisa, and the rest is history.” The censorious glint in his eyes told her what he thought of the huge gaps in her story.

“Where did Kayla stay while you were at work?”

“Linda usually took care of her but Linda was elderly, and she . . . she died just before Rick found me. I got sick soon after her death, and the day I ran into Rick was my first day back at work. I hadn’t found a replacement for Linda and had to hire a babysitter for the day.” Her situation had been utterly desperate. Heartbroken over her friend’s death, broke, and sick, she was at her wits’ end. If Rick had not found her that day, she didn’t know what she would have done. Odds were she would have lost her job that day anyway as she had been making too many mistakes.

Bryce didn’t need her to spell it out to understand how bad the situation had been, and a grim silence settled over them while they contemplated their roast lamb and potatoes, appetites lost.

“How was your health after her birth, Bron?” he asked again, alerting her to the fact that he had noticed her earlier evasiveness on that matter.

“It was . . . I wasn’t . . .”

He maintained steady eye contact, and she bit her bottom lip before shrugging and giving him the brutal, unvarnished truth. “I was often sick. I was weak after giving birth and didn’t get enough rest after taking Kayla home from the hospital. I was up at all hours, feeding and changing her, and then I was back at work. I never fully recovered and couldn’t afford health care for myself since all of my money was assigned to buying food and clothes for Kayla. I ate leftovers at work whenever I could and the odd sandwich when I couldn’t. It sounds worse than it was, Bryce.”

“So when you got the flu . . .” He left the statement unfinished and she nodded.

“Yes, it raged out of control because my immune system had taken such a beating in the past. The day Rick found me, the only reason I was at work was because Gerhard would have given my job to someone else if I’d missed one more day, and I wasn’t getting paid for staying at home. I couldn’t afford the doctor and had been fending off the flu with cheap over-the-counter stuff.”

“Bron,” he began.

“I know it was irresponsible, Bryce. I know that I had a baby to take care of and I could have gotten seriously ill or worse—”

“You were seriously ill,” he interrupted, but she continued as if there hadn’t been an interruption.

“But I was taking care of her the only way I knew how; I was keeping her fed, healthy, and happy. I needed to work, you understand? I’d made arrangements in case anything happened to me; I made sure that the authorities would know to call you, for Kayla’s sake. I wouldn’t have left her alone. I knew that you’d take her if I wasn’t part of the package. I knew that you’d love her and take care of her.” He seemed at a loss and frowned down at his plate before sighing tiredly and scrubbing his hands over his face.

“God,” he groaned wearily. “How did we ever get to this point?” He reached over and stroked one long finger down the side of her face. “Eat, sweetheart. I never want you to go hungry again.”

“I’m . . .”

“Please?” She couldn’t resist the naked pleading on his face, and she smiled before nodding and lifting her fork, her appetite restored. He remained quiet for a while longer, breaking the silence to tell her an amusing story about taking Kayla into the office the previous day. He peppered the story with wry humor, and she found herself laughing more than she’d laughed in a long time. Eventually they started talking about other things—university and work—and for a short while, it felt as companionable and comfortable as it had been in the past.

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