Is she asleep?” Bryce asked when Bronwyn joined him in the den after putting Kayla down for the night. She nodded in response to the question and tried not to let the intimate domesticity of the scene unnerve her too much. He was sprawled on one of the huge comfortable sofas that Bronwyn had begged him to buy when she had first seen it, four years ago.
“Yes, she was still going on about ‘Nebo’ when she dropped off.”
He smiled faintly at that.
“I don’t think she’s going to forget about today too quickly,” he murmured, fingering the rim of the glass of scotch he had poured for himself, indicating a glass of red wine on the little table beside the sofa. “Wine?”
Not wanting to refuse and end the comfortable atmosphere between them just yet, she nodded and curled up on the opposite end of the large sofa, tucking her feet beneath her.
“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if today turned out to be her first real memory?” He smiled faintly at her dreamy question.
“It would be a happy one for all of us,” he agreed. He tilted his head to look at her appraisingly, and she met his eyes with a laugh.
“What’s your first memory?” he asked, and she giggled.
“Chasing a butterfly around our backyard, tripping over the puppy and falling down, hard. According to my Gran, I was three when it happened. She remembered because it was at my birthday party and I made such a fuss because I thought I’d hurt the dog. Apparently I insisted that we take him to the ‘doggy doctor’!”
His eyes crinkled at the corners.
“What about you?” she asked him, still smiling at her own memory. “What was your first memory?” The smile faded from his eyes to be replaced by a somber frown as he shrugged.
“I don’t remember.”
She laughed at that. “It’s your first memory. By its very definition you should remember it.” He looked uncomfortable and refused to meet her eyes. Realizing that something was wrong, she tried to catch his eye.
“Bryce?” she prompted, waving her hand to get his attention and not expecting much in the line of a response from him. If this followed the old pattern of their marriage, he would freeze her out and retreat back behind the walls that seemed to have been specifically designed to keep her out. It amazed her now, how little she actually knew of the man and merely brought home the fact how much was still wrong, how much would always be wrong, with their relationship. She was just resigning herself to watching him get up and leave when he unexpectedly spoke, still not looking at her.
“My first memory is of my father. He’s shouting at me and angry because I’d accidentally dropped his wristwatch into a toilet bowl. Can’t really blame him—it’s a gold watch. Of course, I wasn’t aware of the significance of that at the time. I was three as well. I know because that was the same day I broke my arm . . . so there are records of the date,” he said it almost absently, and Bronwyn’s brow furrowed.
“How did you break your arm?” she asked, but he wasn’t looking at her and didn’t see the question. She reached over and in a gesture similar to the one he’d used on her the previous night, gently tilted his jaw so that he was looking at her. She repeated the question and he seemed to shake himself out of his reverie, but when he spoke again, his voice was so horribly empty.
“He was very angry,” he said with a shrug.
“Your father broke your arm?” She needed clarity on this point and wasn’t sure she understood. He nodded abruptly before draining his glass.
“I’m exhausted,” he muttered gruffly. “I was wondering, would you and Kayla like to go to the beach with me tomorrow? I’ll fix a picnic lunch. Unless you’ve moved your ladies’ get-together to tomorrow? Since you missed it today?”
“A couple of the others had other plans this weekend as well, so we decided not to meet until next week. Anyway, the beach sounds nice,” she agreed absently, not really paying attention, her mind on what he had just revealed. He smiled before getting up abruptly.
“Great.” He sounded pleased. “It’ll be an early-ish start. I think eight o’clock should do it.” He turned to head out of the door, then hesitated and turned back to her. He leaned over her.
“Thank you for today, Bron,” he said sincerely, bending down to drop an unexpectedly sweet kiss onto her opened mouth. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
“No, wait. Bryce . . .” But he was already striding away, leaving her to fret over the unexpected information he had divulged about his father. Had it been an accident? Or deliberate? The latter possibility left her cold and unable to fall asleep for the longest time.
Bronwyn woke to the conspiratorial sound of whispering just outside her door, and a bleary-eyed look at her bedside clock told that her it was seven thirty a.m. She groaned at the thought of getting Kayla up and ready in time for Bryce’s early start. She was exhausted after an uneasy night’s sleep. She cleared her throat and frowned when the whispering outside her door continued. She pushed herself up when the door handle turned slowly and braced for an energetic wake-up call similar to the one Bryce had received the day before. She leaned forward when nothing happened; the whispering continued for a few more moments before her daughter’s dimpled face appeared around the door. When the little girl caught sight of her mother, she gasped and abruptly jerked back out of sight.
“Mummy not sleep!” Bronwyn heard the toddler hiss frantically before she was shushed by an unmistakeable, deep voice that always managed to send delicious shivers down her spine. Intrigued now, Bronwyn leaned even farther forward, wondering what they were up to. After another few moments of whispered exchanges, Kayla stepped around the door, already dressed in a pair of pink denim dungarees, a yellow-and-pink T-shirt, and her favorite pair of red squeak sneakers. In her hands she solemnly clasped a handful of multicolored autumn flowers, which Bronwyn recognized from the garden outside.
“Hello, Mummy.” She grinned.
“Good morning, sweetheart. What do you have there?” The little girl solemnly handed her the flowers before leaning up on tiptoes to kiss her mother on the cheek.
“Happy Mummy day,” the little girl said carefully in a well-rehearsed way.
“Mummy’s day? But . . .” She glanced up to see Bryce standing in the doorway with a tray clasped in his hands, her eyes huge and vulnerable in her face as she tried to figure out what on earth was going on here. “Bryce, it’s not . . .”
“Yes it is. You’ve missed out on two, so Kayla and I are making up for lost time.” He placed the tray in her lap and removed the flowers from her numb fingers to place them in the empty vase on the tray, before moving the vase to her nightstand. He dropped a kiss on her cheek. “Happy Mother’s Day, Bronwyn.”
Kayla solemnly held up a small gift-wrapped box, and when Bronwyn opened it she frowned in confusion.
“What’s this?” It was an electronic beeper-like device nestled in a custom-molded Styrofoam cushion.
“The smart key to your new car,” he informed with a slight smile, and her eyes widened when she turned the small device over and spotted the prominent BMW logo on the other side of the key.
“Bryce, this is too much,” she protested helplessly.
“This is nowhere near enough,” he interrupted gruffly. “Nothing I do can ever be enough.”
“I don’t know what to say,” she said, unable to read his mood and not sure how to react.
“You don’t have to say anything.” He grinned, flashing a dimple identical to his daughter’s and looking just as mischievous as the toddler. “Just enjoy the car. It’s not quite as sporty as the last one you had; I wanted something bigger and safer because of Kayla.”
“But when did you . . .” She couldn’t seem to gather her thoughts, and his smile widened.
“I started shopping when you told me about how you were forced to sell the last one. It was delivered yesterday, but the visit to the aquarium kind of distracted me. I figured you must be sick of that Jeep by now. I know you’re not a fan of it.” She nodded dumbly in response to that observation, still staring blankly down at the key in her hand. Bored with the lack of attention, Kayla started tugging at her father’s hand. He glanced down at her and signed something to her that Bronwyn didn’t quite catch. Whatever it was seemed to satisfy the little girl because she grudgingly settled down
“Take your time getting ready,” he told her. “Kayla and I will be downstairs packing our picnic. It’s going to be a beautiful day; sunny, with blue skies and not a single cloud on the horizon.”
His prediction proved accurate; it was a beautiful day, the most perfect day Bronwyn had ever spent with Bryce. After leading them down to Bronwyn’s gorgeous, sleek, new silver sedan, he told her that she would be doing the driving. He had only Cal on security and—always a consummate professional—the man was keeping such a low profile that Bronwyn was barely aware of him in the discreet black sedan parked a few meters away from them.
A little nervous about test-driving the new car in front of one of the worst backseat drivers that she had ever met, she tried to demur. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t have it, and after strapping Kayla into the baby seat that was already installed in the back, he made quite a show of settling in on the passenger side. Bronwyn rolled her eyes and headed for the driver’s side, prepared for a day’s worth of male condescension from him.
She was rather pleasantly surprised that he valiantly refrained from commenting when she had problems starting the keyless car. He kept a bright smile glued to his face when she ground the clutch and the car lurched forward and limped out of the driveway. She sent a nervous glance at his profile after she had finally managed to get them down to Main Street and could tell that his smile was beginning to fray at the edges after less than five minutes in the car. She bit back an irreverent chuckle before pulling the car over to the shoulder of the road. He glanced over at her in alarm and she smiled at him sweetly.
“Do you want to drive?” she invited, and he grinned sheepishly.
“No, you’re doing fine. I’m sorry if I seem tense. It’s just that since the accident I’ve been a bit nervous in cars. That’s why I have Cal do most of my driving these days.”
“Well, I don’t know where we’re going, so it’s better if you do the driving today,” she said reasonably. “I’ll take over if you get tired or something.” He shook his head placidly.
“I’ll be okay,” he assured her. “It doesn’t really matter if I’m driving or not, I’m still uneasy in a car,” he grudgingly explained, and she could see how much it cost him to reveal that weakness to her. “I’ll give you directions.”
“Fine, but keep the wincing down to a minimum, mister,” she warned. “You’ve always been a terrible backseat driver.”
“What do you mean?” He looked so genuinely baffled that she snorted in exasperation and restarted the car.
Following his directions and ignoring his occasional grimaces and harshly indrawn breaths, she drove them safely to Boulder’s Beach where Bryce spent most of the morning trying to keep Kayla away from the penguins. Bronwyn laughed helplessly at their antics. Kayla turned it into a game, running from her father while she tried to pet one of the many wild penguins that fearlessly waddled around on the beach, completely ignoring his warnings that they would bite. At around twelve, when it was too hot to remain on the beach, they packed up and he directed her to the wine lands of Stellenbosch. Bronwyn was becoming more confident in her handling of the car and was grinding the gears less often, which in turn meant a more relaxed Bryce. They had a picnic lunch in one of the beautiful privately owned vineyards in the picturesque Stellenbosch.
“It’s so beautiful here,” Bronwyn observed dreamily as she tilted her head back to enjoy the sun filtering through the leaves of the giant oak tree that they were picnicking beneath. They were sitting up on a hill that overlooked a vast vineyard. The vines were starting to go vivid shades of orange and red and made the entire valley look like it was aflame in the afternoon sunshine. “And peaceful. How did you know about this place?”
“The family of a business acquaintance of mine owns this vineyard. I cleared this with him.”
“Anybody I know?” she asked, tucking her feet beneath her and rummaging through the picnic basket that he had settled on the blanket.
“I don’t know,” He shrugged. “Cord Strachan?”
“As in Strachan Diamonds?” Her eyes widened. The Strachan family was one of South Africa’s wealthiest and most influential families. They controlled a huge chunk of the diamond mining industry in the country and the latest generation provided a rich source of fodder for local and international gossip columnists.
“They supply most of our rough diamonds.” He nodded. “I remembered that Cord mentioned this place over one of our business lunches a couple of years ago.” Before his accident, of course; any socializing had been done before his accident. The reminder saddened Bronwyn and the awkward silence that followed was entirely her fault. Luckily Kayla demanded attention and distracted them with her antics. Bryce kept the little girl entertained with silly games all through lunch, as Kayla had the natural tendency of a toddler to grow bored very easily. Eventually, after a companionable lunch, Bryce packed them all back into the car and directed her to drive the short distance to a small town called Klapmuts and there introduced them to a place Bronwyn had never known existed.
She stood in an enclosed tropical garden and gazed in awe at the hundreds of butterflies that fluttered around her. It was like watching a garden of wildflowers take flight, and Bronwyn could do nothing but stand and stare, her eyes filling with tears as their wings kissed her face and hair. Kayla was just as entranced. She was in her father’s arms and reached out one chubby hand to try and capture the delicate creatures as they flitted by.
“Oh my God,” Bronwyn breathed, lifting a trembling hand to her mouth. “Oh my God, Bryce . . .” He couldn’t hear her of course; he couldn’t even see what she was saying as his attention was focused on the fragile creatures that were haphazardly darting from flower to flower and person to person. How dare he make this so difficult for her? Just when she had decided to contact the divorce lawyer, he did something so wonderfully tender and so unbelievably sweet. He knew that she loved butterflies, that she had always loved them. She had countless earrings, chains, charms, printed skirts, and blouses with butterflies scattered all over them. It would be so easy to believe that he had planned this day out of some manipulative need to keep her complacent. But when she looked up she found herself charmed by the arresting picture he made with his head tilted back and his eyes closed. He was lost in his own world, enjoying the sensation of the delicate butterfly wings brushing against his face, and Bronwyn instinctively knew that he had done this to make her happy. She stood on her toes to drop an impulsive kiss on his cheek and startled him into opening his eyes. He looked down at her quizzically.
“This is perfect,” she told him, and his eyes warmed. “Thank you.”
He dropped an arm over her slender shoulders and gave her a quick, little one-armed hug.
“I saw an advertisement for this place last winter and I knew that you’d like it.” Last winter? At least six months before her return? He had learned about this place and thought of her. Not with any hatred or resentment it seemed. Instead he had thought about something that would make her happy. It was startling to know that he hadn’t always thought of her in anger over the last couple of years, and Bronwyn wasn’t sure how to process that information.
They got home shortly before eight, and Kayla was once again drooping in exhaustion. Bryce took her from Bronwyn’s arms.
“I’ll put her to bed,” he offered.
“Bryce, you’ve been taking care of her all week, I should—”
“And you’ve been taking care of her on your own for years. This is the least I can do,” he interrupted, and she protested no further. She knew that he needed to make up for the past but that wasn’t what she wanted from him anymore. They had to think of the future and ensure that it was a happy one for all of them. Bronwyn just couldn’t live with his secrets any longer. And she was only human, so she still felt so much anger and bitterness toward him for misjudging her so horribly.
She went upstairs to take a hot shower, and when she headed toward the study later, she ran into Bryce as he was coming from the kitchen with a glass of fruit juice in his hand.
“Hitting the books?” His deep, quiet voice sent a little tremor of awareness shivering up her spine. She shoved back the unwanted frisson of sexual awareness and forced herself to smile.
“I’m doing research on an assignment due in a couple of weeks,” she explained.
“Well, don’t overtax yourself,” he advised before heading upstairs. She saluted his back sarcastically.
“Yes sir,” she said smartly before rolling her eyes at her own childishness and continuing on her way to the study. She didn’t get much done before the rigors of the weekend caught up with her and her eyes drifted shut.
She came awake with a start when she felt strong arms encircling her and lifting her up.
“Wha . . . I was just taking a catnap,” she protested groggily, somehow managing to speak clearly enough for him to read her lips.
“You’ve been in here for nearly four hours, and judging from the computer screen, you’ve done all of five minutes’ worth of work. That wasn’t a catnap, babe; you were completely out.”
“Just so tired,” she murmured incoherently before snuggling up to his warm, strong, and naked chest. He must have been in bed until some instinct had told him to check on her.
“It’s okay,” he soothed into her hair. “Sleep, sweetheart.” She sighed contentedly, burrowed closer, and was asleep seconds after he’d deposited her in bed.
It was still dark when she woke up, but the room was filling with the eerie gray light of the impending dawn. She soon recognized that she was in Bryce’s room, in his bed, and wrapped in his arms. He lay spooning her, his knees tucked into the crook of hers, one strong arm snaked under her head and the other draped over her torso. His large hand was possessively spread over her abdomen. Bronwyn tried not to think about how incredibly right this felt and focused on extricating herself from his hold. She moved experimentally, but his arms flexed and his hand gently exerted a little bit more pressure on her stomach. She relaxed until she felt the tension seeping out of his arms and heard his breathing regulate again. Once she was sure he was still asleep, she subtly tried to move away again, but his reaction was the same as before. She sighed quietly and stilled her movements, wondering why he hadn’t taken her to her own bed. She was still wearing the tank top she had donned after her shower the night before, but her sweatpants were missing. He must have removed them to make her more comfortable. This left her wearing only her tiny silk bikini panties, and judging from the expanse of hot, smooth male flesh pressed up against her back, Bryce wasn’t wearing much more than a pair of boxers.
She groaned softly, knowing that she should try harder to remove herself from his arms, but it felt so good to be held by him that she was tempted to stay where she was. She carefully laid her hand over his where it rested low on her stomach and gently tried to lift it. His hand quite unexpectedly curled around hers and she jumped in response to the touch.
“I just wanted to hold you.” His voice rumbled in her ear. His hand briefly tightened around her smaller hand for a few seconds longer before he let her go and removed his arm from around her waist. He shifted away from her, giving her the space to leave if she so desired. Bronwyn hesitated for a brief moment, impulsively turning around to face him. She could barely make out his expression in the predawn light, and against her better judgment she reached out a hand to touch his stubbled jaw. His own hand lifted to trap her against the bristly surface of his skin. Her palm brushed against the lower edge of his sensuous lips.
“If you don’t leave now, Bronwyn . . .” He left the rest of the desperately whispered warning unspoken, and Bronwyn closed her eyes briefly, praying for the strength to get up and walk away. She steeled herself and gently dragged her hand out from under his.
“Wait,” he whispered urgently, and she hesitated. He moved closer, bracing himself on one elbow to look down at her. “I’m sorry, I have to do this.” Before she could react, his mouth found hers in an achingly sweet yet infinitely hungry kiss.
“So sorry,” he apologized again, when he lifted his mouth to stare down into her face tenderly before dropping back down to claim her lips again. His kiss was tender and loving and, as a result, Bronwyn found herself helplessly responding to it. Her lips opened up and welcomed him in and his tongue happily accepted the invitation, gently courting and coaxing hers.
His hands moved down the slim column of her neck, to her shoulders, stroking every centimeter of silky skin he encountered. His lips followed his hands down. She felt his hot, moist breath on her sensitive skin as he worked his way down, kissing every inch of available skin. She cried out when she felt his breath on one tautly beaded nipple through the thin cotton material of her top. His mouth moved over the nipple and he very deliberately breathed onto the bud through the cotton. The material sensuously abraded the sensitive peak, while his fingers fluttered up and down the small slope of her breast, circling, taunting but not quite touching the eager tip. Bronwyn sobbed desperately as she wondered how he had gotten her so hot, so fast. He glanced up into her face, over the small mound of the breast, and grinned almost satanically. He hovered for an endless moment before bending his head and drawing the tight nub of her nipple, cotton and all, deeply into his hot, wet mouth. At the same time he buried his free hand between her legs and found the other eager nubbin desperate for his touch through her silky underwear.
It was like being jolted by a huge bolt of lightning; she screamed and arched off the bed as she climaxed unexpectedly and with ferocious force. Her back bowed and she remained taut for what seemed like an eternity, as the spasms went on and on, while he drew her nipple deeper and deeper into his mouth. He had one hand cupped in the nape of her neck with the other still buried between her legs and kept them there even after she went completely boneless and collapsed back onto the bed. He lifted his head to chuckle hoarsely.
“You’re so bloody gorgeous,” he whispered as he gave her one final stroke with his long finger before moving his hand to rest on her heaving stomach. She barely heard him over the thunderous crashing of her heart. She could hardly move and she was only just aware of him dragging her top off and tossing it aside. He went back to work, kissing her skin, licking, sucking, and nipping reverently. Bronwyn tried to regain her equilibrium but it was an impossible task when Bryce was so determinedly keeping her off-kilter.
He was patient and undemanding and Bronwyn sighed dreamily, feeling ridiculously relaxed after her massive orgasm, while his sweeping hands and loving mouth continued to do deliciously wicked things to her. Gradually, his relentless patience started to have an undeniable effect on her. Her nipples had beaded back into tight, hard nuggets, and her breathing became more and more ragged as he kissed and caressed his way over her entire body, front and back. Her panties had long since disappeared, and she became sharply aware of that fact when his lips found their way to her flat stomach. His tongue swirled in and around the dent of her belly button, and she helplessly shifted her hips, encouraging him to move even lower. She was amazed by how quickly he had managed to get her so incredibly aroused again after her earlier climax.
All thought fled her mind when his talented mouth found the moist core of her femininity, and she shuddered violently with every stroke of his tongue. She barely had time to brace herself before a second, even bigger climax had her writhing around in ecstatic agony. He managed to still her helplessly thrusting hips between his large hands as he continued to lave her with his incredibly clever tongue.
“Stop,” she whispered, unable to tolerate the overwhelming sensations for much longer, but of course he could not hear her and continued to relentlessly coax the almost painfully pleasurable response from her. He made her come again and again until Bronwyn, so overly sensitive after her repeated orgasms, had to pull at his hair to make him stop.
Bryce dragged himself up over her body and braced himself above her to stare down into her sweaty face. His eyes were smiling down into hers and he looked justifiably smug.
“Wow,” she whispered after her climactic shudders eventually stopped. It was light enough now for him to read her lips, and his smile widened into a grin. She glanced down between their bodies and noticed that his boxers had disappeared and that he was still very aroused. She comprehended how incredibly one-sided this entire experience had been, and she reached down to touch him. He hissed when her fingers closed around him and groaned when she stroked his hard, hot length lazily.
“No,” he whispered, when she tried to guide him to her and she frowned up at him. “I don’t think it would be a good idea.”
“Why not?” she asked in confusion.
“Because you’ll hate me if we do.”
“No,” she denied. “I won’t. I’m not that unfair, Bryce. We both want this. I want this. Please.” He was helplessly thrusting himself against her hand and she once again tried to bring him to her.
“No, sweetheart,” he managed tightly. “Just your hand. We don’t have to go further than that. Just your hand is fine.”
“No,” she protested again. Why wouldn’t he make love to her? Her hand loosened and he groaned before reaching down and tightening his own hand over hers.
“Don’t let go,” he begged hoarsely.
“Bryce, please make love to me.” He groaned again and let go of her hand. She released him, her hands moving up to stroke and caress the rest of his body instead.
“I’m sorry,” he apologized. “I never meant for any of this to happen. I just wanted to hold you.”
“I know,” she appeased, kissing his chest and neck lovingly before raising her head to meet his eyes. “It’s okay.”
“No,” he whispered quietly. “No, it’s not.” He hovered for a moment before, with a growl of brutal self-denial, he dragged himself out of her arms and off the bed all in one swift movement. He stood at the side of the bed, gloriously naked and painfully aroused, to stare at her for a heartbeat before turning away and heading toward the en suite. Bronwyn watched the door close gently behind him and an instant later, heard the shower going on. She turned her face into the pillow with an anguished sob and wondered at the amount of self-control it must have taken for him to get up and leave her. She was tempted to join him in the shower, but she knew that he believed he had done the right thing. She could not undermine the sacrifice he had just made by stepping into that shower with him.
She dragged herself out of the warm bed and to her own room. Knowing that she would get no more sleep that morning, she showered as well and tried not to think about how difficult it would be to get through the day ahead.