Authors: Natasha Anders
“I was such a fool, Bronwyn.” His voice had lowered and she wasn’t sure he knew that he was speaking barely above a whisper. She had to strain to hear him. “I’m a wreck of a man and I brought you into this hell with me and ruined your life in the process.”
“You didn’t ruin my life,” she protested, but he shook his head at her denial—not believing her.
“It sounds crazy to say that I loved you too much and that my love destroyed us, but I feel like that’s what happened. I’m
. I’ve always known that and to even consider a fresh start with you . . .” He laughed bitterly. “I’m a selfish idiot.
“Do you love me?” she asked him quietly, and he blinked at the question.
“What?” he asked blankly.
“Well, you just said that you loved me ‘too much.’” She rolled her eyes. “As if that’s such a bad thing. But you used the past tense. So do you still
“That’s a stupid question,” he growled.
“It’s a valid question,” she dismissed.
“Of course I love you,” he nearly shouted. “It’s not a question of me not loving you—”
“I beg to differ,” she interrupted, waving her hands at him. “It’s very
a question of you not loving me. You never
me you loved me. Not once.”
“Okay, when we married, quite honestly, I didn’t even
I loved you. I told you, I’d never had anyone love me for no reason before. I didn’t bloody know what love was!” His voice rose on the last three words, but she merely raised her eyebrows at him.
“Do you know what it is now?”
“Yes,” he whispered. “Yes, I know.”
“It’s . . . it’s . . .” He floundered for a few moments before inhaling deeply. “It’s everything, isn’t it? It’s the quiet dinners when not much gets said. It’s the sunny days at the beach. It’s hearing
laughter in my head when I see Kayla giggling. It’s seeing the love in your eyes when you watch our baby sleep. It’s watching the sun rise in your smile and set in your tears. It’s the contentment in seeing you eat and sleep and study and play. It’s the small, everyday things, like never getting tired of watching you tuck that same stubborn strand of hair behind your ear twenty times a day, and it’s the huge life-altering things like seeing
eyes on our beautiful little girl’s face. It’s knowing that even if you turn away from me forever, I’ll always be the better for having had you in my life.”
She leaned forward and stared deeply into his grave blue eyes for an endless moment before reaching out to cup his strong and stubbled jaw with her slender hands. He had trustingly laid his beautiful, wounded soul into her keeping, and she would protect it fiercely.
“There you are,” she whispered wonderingly as the edges of her lips tilted up into a tiny smile. She formed her words as clearly as she could, not wanting him to misunderstand her. “I’ve been looking for you.” His stern brows lowered in confusion, and she leaned down to press a feather-soft kiss to his sensuous lips before easing back so that he could see her face again.
“There’s the man I married.”
His eyes widened as her words registered. He swallowed and then swallowed again, his Adam’s apple bobbing with the movement. She watched him valiantly try to keep it together, to remain strong as usual—but her steady gaze seemed to completely unravel him. His shoulders heaved as he drew in a convulsive breath, and the sound that tore loose from his chest when he exhaled again was an unmistakable sob.
“It’s okay,” she said, stroking one hand down the side of his face, and it was that gentle touch that undid him completely. His face crumpled, his eyes filled, and he finally,
, dropped every single defense that he had built up over the years and allowed himself to weep. He tried to turn away. Even after everything that he had just revealed, his first instinct was to weather this storm of emotion alone; but Bronwyn wouldn’t let him.
She put her arms around his neck and held on tight. His head dropped into her lap and she folded herself over him so that she was wrapped around him. She crooned the same soothing little sounds that she used when Kayla cried, hoping that he could feel the slight vibrations coming from her chest and throat. His weeping was raw, violent, and gut-wrenching. Her own tears had all but blinded her, but she was determined to be strong for him, and she refused to allow them to overwhelm her. This moment was for this beautiful man who was so very terrified of allowing himself to be happy.
“It’s okay,” she whispered into his hair. “It’s okay, Bryce.” The words were ridiculously inadequate of course. It was very far from okay, but she was still processing the ugly truth and trying to figure out how to deal with everything he had revealed. He was so very,
damaged, but his revelations only gave her deep and abiding love for him a sharply protective edge. She would be damned if she’d allow him to spend one more second thinking that he wasn’t deserving of her love. She now understood that the mistakes he had made had been his twisted and misguided attempts to protect her from the monster he believed himself to be. The realization was heartrending, and her scorching tears slid silently down her face and into his soft hair.
It felt like hours later when his sobs came to a shuddering stop. For a moment he simply allowed himself to rest in her arms, before she felt the tension creep back into his big body, and he lifted himself out of her loving hold and moved to stand beside the window again. He kept his eyes averted as he self-consciously tugged at his dress shirt, which had wrinkled beyond repair. She watched as his ravaged face closed up and shook her head with a sigh before standing up and placing herself squarely in front of him, giving him no option but to meet her eyes.
She had carefully weighed all of her possible responses to his tormented disclosures and knew that there was only one way to play this without stomping all over his fragile male pride.
“You’re an idiot,” she said quietly, and he blinked in confusion.
“I don’t . . .”
“How could you even
that you’re capable of hurting Kayla or me?” she asked, rolling her eyes to convey exasperation. “We’ve had some huge arguments in the past, and I’ve never felt remotely threatened by you.”
“Bronwyn, I always walked out in the middle of our arguments, remember? It used to drive you crazy, but every time I felt myself getting too angry, I’d rein in my temper and walk out because I was so terrified that I would hurt you physically.”
“Bryce, what’s the angriest you’ve ever been with me?” she asked him gently, and he shrugged helplessly.
“When you told me you were pregnant?” His statement came out in question form, as if he wasn’t entirely sure of his answer.
“No you weren’t angry then,” she denied. “You were afraid to allow yourself to hope and lashed out because of that fear. I know that now. I’m talking about
anger. The kind that makes you feel like your head’s going to explode.”
“I don’t know.” He looked confused. “I don’t think that I’ve ever allowed myself to get too angry with you,” he admitted, and she snorted, showing her disdain with a dismissive flick of her wrist.
“Please, I can recall several incidents off the top of my head. Like the time I told Rick that you enjoyed getting the occasional manicure with me. You were so furious you were practically breathing steam.”
“Okay, I was pissed off,” he admitted uncomfortably, looking a little uncertain. “Justifiably so, since Rick has never really let me hear the end of it. He still makes the odd snarky comment about it. But that’s petty stuff. I’d hardly hurt you over something so trivial.”
“Oh? Your father never beat you over trivial things then? Like a three-year-old’s accidently dropping a watch into a toilet bowl?”
“It was a gold watch,” he muttered.
It was a watch!
she signed fiercely. “Gold, diamonds, whatever. Breaking a three-year-old child’s arm because of it isn’t a normal reaction. What if Kayla did the same thing? Would you hit her? Break her arm?” He paled at the question and shook his head in unconscious rejection.
“No, you wouldn’t,” she answered for him. “Of
“I don’t . . .”
“What about when we were on our honeymoon and I danced with Sasha Tisdale? You nearly went purple with jealousy.”
“You still remember that jerk’s name?” he asked incredulously. The same jealousy flared in his eyes again, and she grinned irreverently.
“Well he was really,
good looking,” she reminded, and he glowered, starting to look less shocked and more like the arrogant man she knew and loved beyond all reason.
“Seriously? You think that second ‘really’ was warranted?”
“I only left off the third one in deference to your fragile ego,” she teased. “Bryce, you were beyond irrational about that dance. You were jealous and possessive but nowhere near violent. Now, I’m no expert, but from what I’ve read about abusive spouses, they barely need an excuse to trigger the violence. Even when you were emotionally hurtful—even
—you were punishing yourself more than me.” She switched to sign language.
It’s just not in your nature to be violent.
How do you know that? How can you be sure?
he asked, his eyes were filled with anguished uncertainty, and she cupped his jaw before going up on her toes to plant a kiss on his gorgeous mouth.
“Because even at your most irrational, when I thought you were kicking me out of the house and then after my return when you seemed to hate me so much . . . I never
feared you. Not once, Bryce.”
“I’m so sorry,” he whispered, shutting his eyes and ducking his head. “I’m so sorry. I’m sorry. I’m . . .”
She stopped his words with a soft kiss, and his eyes opened and met hers. She ended the kiss with a smile.
“I know you are,” she acknowledged. “I forgive you, Bryce, and I love you
“Of course I do. I don’t think that our problems have been miraculously resolved by any means. I think that we have a long, hard road ahead of us actually. But I think that we can finally move forward.”
“I’ve been going back to therapy,” he admitted softly. “It’s been . . . helpful.”
“I hope that we can go together sometime,” she said, and he nodded.
“I’d like that.” He stared down at her with something like awe in his eyes before shaking his head in disbelief. “How the hell did I get so lucky?”
“I got lucky too, you know,” she pointed out, and wrapped her arms around his waist. “Last night I said that I fell in love with a man not a superhero. But you know what? You
my hero, Bryce.”
“How can you say that after everything that’s happened and everything that you’ve heard tonight?”
“Bryce, if anything, tonight has taught me that you’re the kind of man who would place himself squarely between his family and any threat. Of course you’re a hero. Mine, Kayla’s, Rick’s . . . never doubt that.”
Bryce stared down into the tear-ravaged face of this woman who meant the world to him and saw sincerity shining up at him. It was in her eyes and in her smile, and the relief that coursed through his body nearly buckled his knees. For the first time in longer than he could remember, he really felt like everything was going to work out. That somehow, against all odds, he had managed to redeem himself and win his wife back. The panic and fear that he’d been living with for more than two years—no, even longer than that—since they had first married, was dissipating and he felt years younger. He captured her mouth with his own and kissed her with desperation that bordered on obsessive. When he eventually felt able to let her go, they were both flushed and breathless.
“I’m going to marry you someday, Bronwyn Kirkland Palmer,” he told her with a cocky grin, and she licked her lips dazedly.
“Do you have a timeline on that wedding date, Mr. Palmer?” she asked him sweetly.
“Hey, don’t rush me, lady. We’ve only just started dating. I have big plans for this courtship, you know.”
“Oh? What kind of plans?” she asked, curious, rubbing her body sensuously against his. He smiled gently before cupping her face and tilting her head back for another one of his drugging kisses.
“You’re just going to have to wait and see,” he muttered, his voice alive with promise.
haven’t been back here since before the accident,” Bryce told Bronwyn as they stepped into their beautiful holiday home in Knysna. They had arrived after dark and so had missed out on the house’s spectacular panoramic views of the gorgeous lagoon and Knysna Heads. Still, the serenity of the place was reflected in the sounds of the quietly chirruping night insects and the susurration of the gentle waves lapping at the shore. Bronwyn was filled with mixed emotions as she stepped into the huge stone foyer. The last time she had been here hadn’t been a happy time for her, and as she glanced around the gorgeously appointed house, all she could see was her former self disconsolately drifting from room to room like a lonely little ghost as hope faded to despair with every passing minute.
The domestic staff had been in before their arrival since the place was freshly cleaned and the refrigerator restocked for their weekend here. He hadn’t told her that this was where he was bringing her, but she had easily recognized the unmistakable Garden Route and had known for hours where they were headed. The drive had become more and more tense with every kilometer that the car ate up, and the last hour had been mostly quiet without Kayla around to break the silence. They had asked Rick and Lisa to take the little girl for this weekend that Bryce had so carefully been planning for weeks.
Bronwyn wandered into the living room and he trailed after her, dropping their bags in the hallway. She made her way to the floor-to-ceiling window that overlooked the tranquil lagoon. Because of the pitch-blackness outside, she could see nothing but her own troubled reflection staring back at her, and she tracked Bryce’s movements as he came up to stand behind her. He placed his hands on her slender shoulders and tugged her back until she was leaning against his chest. She went willingly into his loose embrace, her head tilting back until it rested just below his shoulder. His strong arms folded around her narrow waist, his hands rested against her abdomen, and his lightly stubbled jaw nuzzled into the nook just below her ear. She could feel his gentle, warm breath washing against the sensitive skin of her ear as he exhaled deeply.
“I know this place holds some pretty unhappy memories for you,” he murmured, his lips brushing against her earlobe as he spoke. “I want to replace those memories with sweeter ones.”
She dropped her hands and entwined her fingers with his.
“Will you give me the chance do that for you, Bron?” he asked thickly, and she blinked away the tears before nodding. She watched his reflection in the glass and saw the naked relief on his face at her response.
“Thank you,” he said before sucking her delicate lobe into his mouth. She dragged in a harsh breath at the sensation. His hands moved to the curve of her waist, and he turned her around before she fully understood what his intention was. She had her hands braced against his broad chest and could feel the accelerated beat of his heart as he stared down into her eyes. He had looped his arms around her waist and his hands were now resting just above the curve of her behind.
“It’s been years since I kissed you last,” he observed urgently, his eyes dropping down to her lips and dilating when she sucked her full lower lip into her mouth to moisten it.
been years,” she agreed—even though it had been mere hours. Ever since they had started seeing each other again, they had been getting increasingly hot and heavy with the petting, and while they had gotten close to making love, they had always stopped before the point of no return. Neither of them wanted to muddy the waters with sex before they both felt that their relationship was strong enough to withstand all emotional and physical obstacles. They would not rush into bed until they were both completely ready for it. Somehow, by unspoken mutual agreement, they knew that this weekend would see them consummating their new relationship. Bryce had known it when he had planned the trip, and Bronwyn had known it when she had agreed to go with him.
He groaned and dropped his hungry mouth onto hers and just about ate her alive. Bronwyn met his desperate kiss with feverish concentration, her tongue dueling with his in a battle for supremacy. The kiss eventually gentled, and his hands lifted to cup her face as he tilted her head for easier access to her mouth. He loved holding her face when he kissed her; his thumbs were always restlessly stroking her soft skin, brushing over her cheekbones and tracing the delicate line of her jaw. After a long while, he eased up, his tongue retreated, and his mouth softened as he feathered butterfly kisses on her lips and up over her cheeks and down into her neck.
Their kiss had been mostly silent, punctuated by heavy breathing and the occasional gasp or desperate moan. Now, as he lifted his head to stare into her eyes, he smiled gently down at her.
“I love you,” he whispered, and Bronwyn’s face lit up as she smiled radiantly at him.
“I know you do, Bryce . . . but I never get sick of hearing those words,” she told him.
“Well, since I’ll never get tired of saying them, I guess we’ll have to resign ourselves to making each other revoltingly happy for the rest of our lives.” He stepped away from her reluctantly, and Bronwyn had to bite back her protest as his gorgeous—and visibly aroused—body moved beyond her reach. When she unconsciously raised one of her hands toward him, he
ted and waved a finger back and forth in front of her face
“Hands off the merchandise, lady. I have plans for this evening and I can’t have you distracting me. Why don’t you head up for a nap and a shower? And chat with Kayla like you’ve been dying to do for the last hour? Leave me to prepare our dinner.”
She grinned at the thought of him bumbling about in the kitchen. He really wasn’t the domestic god he seemed to think he was. He made a terrible mess and his meals were often culinary disasters, with unpalatable over- or undercooked dishes. Still, he tried—bless him—and she appreciated his efforts. He was always so disgustingly pleased with himself that she didn’t have the heart to mention the occasional raw potato or the burned edges on a steak. She blew him a little kiss and headed toward the hallway, picking up her overnight bag along the way.
“Dress code?” she turned to ask him, and he shrugged.
She nodded and turned away again.
“Give the munchkin my love.”
She flicked him a thumbs-up to acknowledge his request.
She made her way back downstairs an hour later, feeling refreshed after a short nap and a long shower. She had also called Kayla to say good night but the little girl had been distracted by a game she was playing with Rhys and Rick, so the call had been a little rushed. She had taken Bryce at his word and hadn’t dressed up, wearing only a pair of jeans and a loose T-shirt. She hadn’t bothered with shoes at all; the under-floor heating kept her feet warm enough
Whatever Bryce was cooking up in the huge kitchen smelled surprisingly good. She was a little mystified when she got to the kitchen and saw no trace of him. Curiously, she poked around a few of the scattered Tupperware containers left on the white marble top of the gorgeous stone island in the middle of the kitchen. The whole house had a spacious log cabin feel to it, with its stone floors and wooden walls and high-beamed ceilings. Unfortunately her search yielded little in the way of answers except to inform her that whatever Bryce was offering for dinner was of the stick-in-the-microwave-and-heat variety. Which could only mean that he had asked someone else—probably Celeste—to cook it. She smiled ruefully at his minor deception, but her taste buds were truly grateful.
She heard a sound coming from the living room and headed in that direction. She found him out on the large, covered balcony, which had a spectacular view of the lagoon. In fact, they were so close to the water that it actually felt like they were on a boat out on the lagoon when they stood on the balcony. In winter, they were able to enclose the space entirely by slotting in glass panes between the eaves and the balcony railing. It allowed them to still enjoy the view without being exposed to the cold wind and rain. It was a pretty mild evening, so Bryce had a couple of the panes open, allowing the night sounds and the fragrant briny air to drift in.
He was bustling around the round table that he had shifted into the center of the balcony. It was covered in a white tablecloth—the finest linen of course—and he had pulled out all the stops, bringing out the best china and silverware for the occasion. He also had a gorgeous bouquet of red roses in a crystal vase as the centerpiece of the table. He was currently struggling to keep the candles lit. Every time he managed to get one tiny flame burning, a breeze would snuff it out, and he was starting to curse under his breath. She giggled to herself when he tried again, only to be foiled by another mischievous gust of wind.
She lovingly traced the lines of his strong back with her eyes and saw that he had changed his clothes. He was wearing a pair of faded jeans that conformed beautifully to the gorgeous curve of his firm butt and a black dress shirt with a pair of running shoes. His hair was damp and a bit messy, so he must have showered sometime in the last hour.
He swore even more vituperatively than before, and she rolled her eyes before walking up to stand beside him. He was so absorbed in his task that he didn’t notice her until she placed a hand on his back. He jumped before relaxing when he saw that it was Bronwyn.
“I can’t get the damned things lit,” he groused, gesturing to the two tall, white candles beautifully showcased in their sterling silver holders. Bronwyn twined her arm around his and sandwiched his large hand between hers. She rested her cheek against his hard deltoid and contemplated the problem, while idly playing with his fingers before straightening up and smiling at him. The living room light illuminated the balcony just enough to enable them to see each other. She held up a finger indicating that he should wait there before dashing back inside for a few minutes.
She returned with a triumphant smirk, holding up four little scented Glade candles in glass holders. They usually kept them around for candlelit baths. He grinned and grabbed a couple of the glasses from her.
“Vanilla? My favorite,” he announced happily as he placed them strategically around the table. After they were lit, he frowned doubtfully at the scant light they offered. “Are there any more?” he asked, and she nodded.
I didn’t want to ruin your dinner by having the whole place reek of vanilla. Everything would taste like cake
, she signed.
, he acknowledged.
“I think this is perfect.” She waved her arm at the table and he smiled.
perfect.” She snorted at that unnecessary bit of flattery, and he grinned again, sweeping her up in a hug.
“I’m starving,” he growled, nipping at her neck to let her know exactly
he was starving for. As if the erection insistently pushing against her wasn’t proof enough of that. She giggled and pushed him away.
“Down, boy,” she teased. “I want to see what culinary feast you’ve prepared for us tonight.” She didn’t miss the flash of guilt in his eyes as he uncovered the chafing dishes at the other end of the beautifully decorated table.
“We have”—he cleared his throat nervously, keeping his eyes averted—“roast beef soup with crème fraîche, followed by salad with vinaigrette dressing.” More throat clearing. He really was getting truly awful at deception. “Stuffed flank steak served with baby potatoes in a garlic butter sauce, and triple chocolate mousse for dessert.”
Her lips twitched at his discomfort as he raised miserable eyes to hers, and when he saw her gentle smile, he heaved a huge, sad sigh.
“You know, don’t you?” he asked wretchedly, and she nodded. “I’m sorry. I wanted everything to be perfect tonight, and I didn’t think burned meat and hard potatoes would cut it this time.” Again his gaze shifted slightly to the left of her as his cheeks lit with shame. She put a soft hand on his jaw and turned his head until he was looking at her again.
“Bryce, you’re a man of many talents . . . unfortunately, cooking isn’t really one of them. I love you for trying and even though those other meals weren’t perfect, I enjoyed them because of the love that went into the preparation. That said, this looks truly delicious, and I’m happy you decided to forgo cooking tonight. Where did this come from? Initially I thought you may have asked Celeste to prepare something for us, but this doesn’t at all resemble anything she has cooked for us before.”
“Yeah, it’s from a local restaurant. They delivered it earlier when the housekeeper was still here. They left very specific instructions on how to reheat everything. I hope nothing has dried out or spoiled.”
“I’m sure it’ll be fine.” She waved aside his concern. He helped her into her chair and draped a napkin over her lap with flair. He sat down to her left and angled his chair so that he could see her face and hands clearly. The meal was divine, and they joked and fed each other as they devoured the food in front of them. They had made their way through half a bottle of delicious Cabernet Sauvignon, and as they licked the last of their chocolate mousse off their spoons, Bryce reached for the bottle to refill their long-stemmed wineglasses with the burgundy liquid. He raised his glass and eyed her expectantly. She smiled and raised hers as well.