Authors: Natasha Anders
She intended to see other men?
That thought did not sit too well with him, and he opened his mouth to protest before remembering that it had been his own stupid idea for her not to deprive herself. After all if
did not want her, why should she not feel free to find someone who would? Some other guy who would hold her and kiss her? Someone who would be free to wipe away her tears and comfort her? Some other man who would love her and take care of her? Someone who would do what Bryce no longer wanted to do? He nodded, hoping that none of the confusion he was feeling was evident in his eyes or on his face.
“Sounds fair,” he agreed smoothly before dropping his gaze pointedly to her bare ring finger. “But open marriage or not, you have to start wearing your wedding rings again.”
Bronwyn covered her left hand self-consciously with her right, her own eyes dropping to his strong hands. She had noticed, couldn’t help
notice, that he still wore his wedding ring, a broad brushed gold and platinum band with a complex Celtic design that had matched her much smaller band.
“I . . . I don’t have them,” she confessed, and he made an impatient sound at the back of his throat.
remember?” he prompted sarcastically. “Show me your mouth when you speak!” She raised her face and met his gaze unflinchingly.
“I don’t have them.”
“You don’t have the rings?” he asked in disbelief. “What the hell did you
“I sold them,” she said before fleeing from the room, not wanting to see his reaction to that confession. She would have given anything to hold on to those rings even though they had come to symbolize nothing but lies.
ronwyn hadn’t really expected to see the handsome Mr. Palmer again after that disastrous first time, yet there he was, waiting outside the restaurant the following evening after her shift ended. He had looked moody and uncertain, leaning against the wall outside the staff entrance. When she saw him, she hesitated, not sure why he was there.
“Oh . . . sir, are you waiting for someone? Would you like me to deliver a message?” He was frowning down at her in consternation and seemed a little bewildered.
“Have you eaten?” he asked unexpectedly, and her brow wrinkled as she tried to make sense of the bizarre situation.
“Not really.” She shook her head.
“Have dinner with me?” The request was so abrupt that it took a few seconds to sink in.
“Uh . . .”
“Look, I know how this must seem,” he acknowledged gruffly. “But I assure you, I am not in the habit of lurking around outside restaurants and ambushing the female staff with invitations to dinner. I won’t harm you in any way. I’m not some creepy pervert or anything. I just . . . I just . . .”
She waited, watching in absolute fascination as he glowered in frustration and ran an agitated hand through his hair while swearing beneath his breath. He dropped his gaze to the ground as he made a visible effort to gather his scattered wits.
“God,” he was muttering to himself. “I sound like a complete psychopath . . .” Her lips curved into a slight smile at the tone of disgusted self-discovery, but she quickly wiped it from her face when he shifted his eyes back to her.
“I had no intention of coming back, but I wanted to see you again.”
.” He sounded so baffled that the smile crept back into her eyes. “Will you have dinner with me?”
“Okay,” she said lightly, and his frown deepened. He nodded, pushing himself away from the wall and turning to lead the way before pausing to turn back to her.
“Do you have absolutely no sense of self-preservation?” he growled, and her eyebrows shot up in surprise at his stern tone. “Promise me that after tonight you won’t agree to have dinner with any more strange men off the street! It’s dangerous. There are all manner of crazies out there. Murderers and rapists and God knows what else. You have to be more careful, Bronwyn. Promise me.”
“I promise,” she vowed, a little stunned by this unexpected protectiveness from a man she barely knew.
He had smiled in relief and she noticed, for the first time, that he had a rather sexy dimple in his right cheek. “Good. Then let’s eat . . .”
Bryce had been in an unpredictable mood since she had confessed, earlier that day, to pawning her wedding and engagement rings. Bronwyn eyed her husband nervously across the dinner table. They tended to have late dinners, so Kayla had been fed and put to bed an hour before. She had toyed with the idea of skipping dinner, but she knew that it would be foolish to miss any meals when she was already so weak, and eating in her room would be the coward’s way out. Bryce had insisted, soon after her arrival, that they dine together. He seemed to want everyone to think that this was some kind of happy reconciliation. Not that anyone other than the maids had been around to see them together. Rick, Lisa, and their thirteen-month-old baby—Rhys—had resumed their family vacation in Knysna and wouldn’t be back in Cape Town for another few days.
Bronwyn was still amazed by how much things had changed since she left. She wondered where Bryce’s friends were. Pierre De Coursey, his business partner at DCP Jewellers Inc. and good friend, used to be a regular visitor in their home; she had liked the Frenchman, although she knew he must have wondered what Bryce was doing with a small-town hick like her.
“Where is Pierre?” She got sick of the silence and decided to take the bull by the horns. When she received no response, she looked up to find Bryce contemplating his wineglass. She sighed sadly, immediately realizing her mistake. She waved to catch his attention and he looked up absently. She repeated her question and he frowned.
“You want beer?” he asked in surprise.
“Pierre De Coursey?” She used the Frenchman’s full name, hoping that it would help, and watched as Bryce’s lips quirked in amusement, causing his dimple to wink briefly. She was a little shocked at the self-deprecating humor she saw in his eyes.
’s, you know? Along with
’s. It can be a little confusing when there’s no context to a comment or conversation. I can get a little lost.”
She nodded and dared a slight smile. “What about Pierre?”
“Well he hasn’t been around at all since my return. I find this rather strange, since he used to come by most evenings before . . . before . . .” Her voice petered off, and his eyebrows rose.
“Before you ran away?” he inserted smoothly.
“Before I was
away,” she corrected, just as smoothly, fed up with being the villain of the piece. His eyebrows raised a notch higher, but he let it slide for once.
“Pierre spends most evenings at home with his family these days.”
“His family?” Pierre hadn’t been married when she left.
“Yes, he has a wife and son.”
“Pierre De Coursey got
?” She couldn’t quite keep the shock out of her expression.
“Came as a surprise to me too.” He grinned unexpectedly and looked so much like his old self that Bronwyn’s mouth went dry with longing. “Last year, nearly a full year after you’d left, he quite unexpectedly announced that he was getting married. Admittedly, I had been very much out of commission and not too aware of what was happening in the world around me at the time, but Pierre, who had been a regular and concerned visitor and friend had never even
meeting a woman he was serious enough about to marry.”
Bronwyn was so busy absorbing the rare and revealing statement about his convalescence after the accident that his comments about Pierre barely registered. To all intents and purposes, it seemed as if Bryce had retreated from the world after his accident and hadn’t ventured back into it. He seemed almost reclusive and hardly ever left the house. In fact she could not recall him going to the office once since her return. He and Pierre co-owned an exclusive jewelry company that was renowned for its designer accessories that catered to only the wealthiest members in the most rarefied reaches of society. The company had branches in all the major cities in Europe, North America, and Asia and had just recently gone public on the stock exchange.
“Alice is fantastic,” he was saying. “Just what Pierre needs.” Sidetracked by that, Bronwyn frowned and tuned back in to the conversation.
“Pierre De Coursey married a woman named
?” Somehow she had always pictured Pierre, when she had even entertained such an absurd notion, as ending up with a woman exotic in both name and looks.
“Yes. She’s a nice woman, a bit quiet but sharp as the proverbial tack,” he recalled fondly, and Bronwyn forced back a tide of envy at the warmth in his voice.
“How did they meet?” she asked, curious.
“Hospital. Pierre was visiting me and wandered into the wrong ward. Alice had been in an accident too, a really bad one from what I understood. She was unconscious, apparently in a coma, and while every other patient in the room had cards and flowers, Alice had nothing. I don’t know, I think Pierre felt a little sorry for her, so he checked in on her every day on his way to visit me and soon learned that she had no family and that she had just moved here from Johannesburg, which meant that she’d had no time to befriend anyone yet. He kept visiting her even after my discharge from the hospital. He brought her flowers and talked to her for months until one day she opened her eyes, smiled, and said, ‘It’s you.’” Bryce shrugged. “Damned if I know what that meant, but Pierre fell hard and fast. They married a couple of months later, after Alice had convalesced enough to walk down the aisle without aid.”
“Oh, what a beautiful story.” Bronwyn smiled mistily and Bryce rolled his eyes.
“How like a woman to find it romantic,” he scoffed.
“You don’t think it’s romantic?”
“I think that Pierre just liked feeling needed and enjoyed the idea of having someone almost totally dependent on him. It happens! The love may have come later but initially, in my opinion, that’s all it was. Men tend to like it when women arouse our protective instincts; it makes us feel heroic.”
“You sound like you’re speaking from experience,” she couldn’t stop herself from pointing out, and he sneered.
“Why the hell do you think I kept coming back to
?” She had known it was coming, but she had been unable to prevent herself from rushing into those deep, dark waters. “You made me feel like an all-conquering hero. You kept staring at me with those doe eyes, and I felt like I could take on the world. It’s a heady thing, being elevated to near-godlike status like that. I should never have let things go so far. You were a naïve little thing and I took everything you offered, but when we had sex and I learned that you were a virgin, I had no option but to do the right thing, didn’t I? Especially since we were so stupid and careless that first time. Even though I wasn’t keen on the idea of kids, I didn’t want any child of mine growing up without my name.”
“What are you trying to say?” She asked softly, glad for once that he could not hear the emotion in her voice but unable to hide the tears sparkling in her eyes. “That our marriage was based on a lie?”
“No lie.” He shrugged. “Well, okay, maybe a lie by omission. I never told you
I was proposing.”
“I thought . . .”
that you loved me
. She couldn’t bring herself to say the words, and her voice faded into nothing.
“I know what you thought, but I felt it was best to allow you to continue believing in your happily-ever-after fairy tale.” There was absolutely nothing she could say in response to that, and she stared at him through her misty eyes. He broke eye contact first and raised his glass to his lips, taking a hearty slurp from it. For a second she was almost certain his hand was trembling, but he quickly lowered it and raised his gaze to meet hers once again. There was nothing but disdain in that stare, and she knew that she had imagined the slight trace of vulnerability. “Would you like to meet Alice? I’m sure the two of you will get along.”
Surprised by the sudden change in subject and the unexpected gentleness in his voice, she nodded helplessly. She had lost contact with all of the friends she had made at university. She had tried contacting a few of them since her return. Of course, most of them had moved on to their postgraduate studies, a few had left the city to continue their studies elsewhere, but the ones who had remained had shown no real desire to resume their friendships with her. If she could befriend Pierre’s wife, it would go a long way toward staving off the crushing loneliness she was starting to feel in this house.
“I’d like that.” She lowered her eyes to her plate, lifting her knife and fork in an attempt to pretend that nothing was amiss, but the violent trembling in her hands made a liar of her, and she had no choice but to put the utensils back down. She really should not be this devastated by the knowledge that everything she had initially believed about her marriage was a lie. Like her belief that Bryce had married her because he loved her when he had
loved her. His revelations should hold no surprise, not after the way he’d treated her two years ago. Still his words had hurt so much more than they should have; it felt like she had been punched in the stomach, and the pain was unrelenting.
“I’ll invite them to dinner tomorrow night. Pierre and I have business to discuss anyway,” he said softly, and she nodded, lowering her head even more, petrified that he would see her tears. She stared blurrily down at her plate but was barely able to see its contents. To her absolute horror she felt the scalding tears overflowing and watched as they dripped into her plate. With an agonized sound, she hurriedly got to her feet, scrubbing at her face in the process.
“I . . . excuse . . .” She caught a brief look at his grim face, and unable to stand it anymore, she fled, hearing his muffled curse on her way out. There was a horrible silence, followed by an equally horrible crash as Bryce apparently flung something against a wall. The sound of breaking glass spurred her on and she was up the stairs and into her room like a shot. Thankfully the violent noise had not awoken Kayla, and Bronwyn curled up into a small ball in the center of her bed, leaving the lights off, needing the dark to lick her gaping wounds in private.