Authors: Natasha Anders
“There when I had my goddamned accident!” he snapped before launching himself out of bed and stalking around the bedroom angrily, looking for his clothing. She leaped out as well and walked around his back until she was facing him again. She was stark naked, but she no longer cared about anything except getting to the bottom of this strange accusation.
there when you had your accident!” she retorted indignantly.
“I saw you,” he forced the words out between clenched teeth.
“What?” She was completely baffled now. “Saw me where? Bryce I don’t even know
you had your accident. Please just tell me what happened!”
“It burns me to have to tell you something that you already know, Bronwyn,” he gritted. “You’re playing me for a fool and I don’t like it!” He moved to step around her but she put her hands up against his broad chest to stop him. He felt about as immovable as a block of granite.
“Please, just . . . just . . .” Her eyes begged him when words failed her.
“I went after you that night, when you raced out of here like a bat out of hell,” he said so quietly that his lips barely moved. “As you
that I would. You were going so fast that I was terrified you would get into an accident.” His lips twisted at that bit of irony. “It took me a few minutes to get my car out, so by the time I headed out in the
direction you had gone, you’d disappeared. I was frantic and wasn’t paying attention to anything around me. I was so focused on trying to spot your car that I didn’t see the couple crossing the road until it was almost too late. I swerved to avoid them and the car rolled. I was drifting in and out of consciousness, trapped in the car, when I saw you standing there amongst the crowd, staring at me with nothing but ice-cold contempt on your face . . . you heartless
!” He hissed viciously. “You turned around and walked away without so much as a backward glance.
“I wasn’t even surprised when I woke up three days later in Intensive
Care to be informed that you hadn’t even bothered to visit or call. I
couldn’t have cared
if I never saw you again but for the fact that you were having my baby. You were having my baby an
d you had simply disappeared off the face of the eart
h. Is it any wonder I hate you? Not only is my accident your fault, but you walked away from me when I was at my most vulnerable, when I needed you most, and you took my daughter along with you!”
Bronwyn’s face was ashen with shock at his story. She ached to think of the agony he must have gone through in that hospital, wondering about his baby, but she was also filled to the brim with fury and offense that he
to think she could do something so awful as walk away from him while he lay injured and bleeding. Not to mention his ridiculous statement that the accident had been her fault when he had caused the entire sorry situation.
“I concede,” she began quietly, with barely repressed sarcasm, “that maybe the accident was my fault because for some crazy reason I saw fit to flee after you drove me out of the house right when
most. But I absolutely refuse to listen to this nonsense about me standing impassively by the side of the road while you lay bleeding and trapped in a car. Or, worse, walking away while you were still
“I didn’t know that you’d been in an accident until the day you walked into my hospital room. I would never have stood there watching you suffer, and if I had known you were in the hospital, no force in heaven or hell would have kept me away from your bedside, because, even though you had treated me like something to be scraped off the bottom of your boot, I still loved you so damned much!” He started to say something but she held up her hand.
“No. You’ve had your turn; it’s only fair I get a chance to defend myself against this . . . this
! I did not think you would immediately come chasing after me—you were so irrationally angry that I knew you needed time to calm down. I headed straight for the beach house in Knysna. I stopped only for brief bathroom breaks and drove the distance in just under five and a half hours. I was confident that once you had time to calm down and think, you would change your mind about the baby.”
you,” he maintained, clearly not believing her. “Saw you with my own eyes!”
“You were sliding in and out of consciousness; you were in shock and in pain . . .” she pointed out reasonably. “You don’t think that maybe you were delirious as well? Seeing things that were not there?”
He frowned and shook his head.
“No, of course not,” she scoffed. “Not Bryce Palmer, he
“God damn you,” he growled. “I know what I saw . . . you were standing there looking impassive and completely uncaring.”
“This?” She waved her hand back and forth between their naked bodies. “This thing that just happened between us? It was a mistake that shouldn’t be repeated. I should never have let you touch me, but you got me in a moment of complete weakness. That ends now. I won’t allow a man who just hours ago said I made his skin crawl use me like this again. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need a shower,” she informed him unsteadily. There was really nothing she could say or do right now to prove that she hadn’t been there that day. She didn’t know if she’d ever be able to convince him that she hadn’t been there. He seemed so convinced.
That a man she had once thought loved her could believe something so unspeakable about her was incredibly painful. Bryce was completely wrapped up in his thoughts and did not even seem to notice when she left the room. Bronwyn escaped to the en suite bathroom and locked the door securely behind her, afraid that he would come in and bombard her with yet more reasons he did not believe her. She ran the shower as hot as she could stand it but shivered beneath the relentless spray. God, if he had spent the last two years believing something so awful about her, it was no wonder he hated her so much. It was an obstacle that could not easily be overcome because he had it firmly in his head that she had betrayed him in the worst possible way by leaving him literally broken and bleeding.
She knew how her stubborn ass of a husband’s mind worked. To his way of thinking, all of his sins were now superseded by her “unforgivable betrayal.” How very
for him. It made complete sense that he would believe something like this about her. It was easier for him to blame her and hate her rather than deal with the fact that due to his own thoughtless actions he had lost his wife, his child, and his hearing all on the same night. Unfortunately he didn’t doubt what he had seen that night, and while Bronwyn could understand why his mind had fabricated this bizarre coping mechanism, she couldn’t forgive it.
She hunched over and clasped her arms around her midriff, afraid that she would be sick. She swallowed down the nausea and leaned back against the tiles of the shower stall, sliding down against the wall until she was sitting on the floor with her knees raised to her chest. She had her face buried in her knees and her arms covering her head.
She did not know how long she sat there shivering, unable to get warm, unable to even cry as she tried to deal with the shock of knowing how very much her husband despised her. The needle-like spray suddenly stopped and Bronwyn raised her head hesitantly, a bit disorientated by the sudden cessation of water. She looked up to find Bryce standing at the entrance of the shower stall and was baffled by his unexpected appearance.
“But I locked the door,” she murmured in a small voice that he might not have caught if he’d had his hearing.
“You forgot to lock the other door,” he pointed out quietly, able to read her lips despite the steam, and she groaned, remembering that the luxurious bathroom was shared by two bedrooms. “Come on, Bron . . . you need to dry off. You’ll make yourself sick again.” She noticed, for the first time, that he had a huge, fluffy, white bath towel draped over his hands. She nodded but didn’t move, and Bryce shocked her by stepping into the wet stall, uncaring of the fact that he wore socks and was dressed in clean boxer shorts and a T-shirt. He hunkered down in front of her and draped the bath towel around her shoulders, helping her up in the process.
“You’ve been in here for nearly an hour,” he informed her grimly. She tilted her face to his, still shivering violently.
“I . . . I c-couldn’t get warm,” she stuttered, and he frowned, evidently not catching that, but probably understanding the gist of it. He wrapped his arms around her and dragged her nude, wet body to his. He held her so tightly and so closely that the trembling abated almost immediately. He led her out of the shower stall and unlocked the door, leading her back into the master bedroom. He gently steered her toward the bed and seated her on the edge, kneeling in front of her as he patted her dry with the fluffy towel.
“You’re wet,” she observed inanely, noting the dampness of his T-shirt and shorts while she tried not to stare at his muscular naked legs. He had showered as well, if his damp hair was anything to go by. He caught her words because he was looking directly at her when she said them and shrugged in response.
“I’ll dry,” he dismissed. She noticed that it was still dark outside and grimaced. She checked the time on the alarm clock on her bedside pedestal; it was just after three thirty.
“Why did you come to my room tonight?” she asked hoarsely, and even though she was looking right at him when she asked it, he did not respond. Instead he lowered his eyes and continued to pat her dry. He left her briefly to pad to the bathroom and returned moments later with a smaller towel for her hair.
“We’ll have to dry this,” he was muttering. “You’ve been so sick; I don’t think it would be wise for you to sleep with wet hair. Where is your dryer?” She pointed to her dresser and he picked her up, ignoring the jerky movement of protest she made. He deposited her on the padded seat in front of the dressing table, and Bronwyn was confronted by her own haggard reflection. She looked a sight; her face was gaunt and unnaturally pale, and her eyes looked feverishly bright and overly large. The towel was still draped around her shoulders, but it had fallen open to reveal the thin body beneath. To Bronwyn’s own eyes she looked too thin, and she wondered how Bryce had been able to bring himself to touch her when she looked like this. He switched on the machine and started drying her hair, running his fingers through it with a rough tenderness. She blinked in surprise and sluggishly raised her hands in an attempt to take the blow dryer from him.
“I can do it,” she protested. He lifted the machine out of her reach and watched her in the mirror until she dropped her arms in resignation. He grunted in satisfaction and went back to the task of drying her hair.
When it was dry enough to suit him, he ran a brush through the dark, silky mass and then tied it back with one of the hair ties lying scattered on the dressing table. He picked her up again and deposited her back onto the unmade bed, tucking her under the covers and tossing the towel aside before climbing in beside her and dragging her stiff body close to his. She lay with her head on his chest, listening to his heart beat steadily beneath her ear and wondering what this was all about. He remained silent though and eventually Bronwyn relaxed enough to drift off to sleep again.
ronwyn cautiously opened her eyes to a sunlit bedroom. There was no sign of Bryce, and instinct told her that it was way after midday. She heard Kayla’s joyful laughter outside, and she guessed the little girl was in the swimming pool, probably with her father, who was diligently teaching her how to swim. Bryce had had a childproof fence built around the pool sometime during her absence, another one of those preparations he’d made in anticipation of a child he’d had no idea if he’d ever meet.
Bronwyn sat up shakily, feeling refreshed yet strangely hollow. She felt like someone who’d had a long and desperately needed sleep after the death of a loved one, only to wake up to the discovery that even though life would go on, it would be forever marred by the tragedy of loss. She could not remember the last time she had slept so soundly, possibly that last night before leaving Bryce two years ago; she certainly had not had much peace of mind since then. She got up and made her way to the bathroom, trying not to think of the night before. She wasn’t sure what any of it had signified and definitely wasn’t sure where it left her and Bryce.
She made her way downstairs a little over half an hour later, wearing a pair of faded jeans and an old T-shirt. The clothes were from her old wardrobe and were too baggy on her. Bronwyn resolved to eat even more, still feeling incredibly unattractive because of her thinness.
When she reached the living room, she stood at the open patio doors staring out at the pair in the water for the longest time, feeling ambivalent about the obvious enjoyment they seemed to find in each other’s company. She felt a little left out and again bitter toward Bryce for allowing this to happen to them. She was about to turn away and head in search of something to eat when Bryce glanced up and caught sight of her. She could not see his expression because of the sun’s glare off the water, but he went strangely still before heading toward the side of the pool and depositing a protesting Kayla on the paving before heaving himself out alongside her.
“Daddy more swim . . .” the child was protesting, but he was watching Bronwyn and did not see her display of temper. Bronwyn watched in amazement as the little girl impatiently patted her father on his leg and made a clumsy sign that Bronwyn knew signified “daddy” or “father.” Bronwyn was familiar with it because she had been meaning to teach her daughter the word in sign language. Bryce looked down at his precocious offspring and grinned when she said “daddy” with one of her chubby hands again before making swimming gestures.
“Later, baby,” he laughingly promised, picking her up and depositing her on his wide, bronzed shoulders. “First we’ll have some lunch with your mummy.” The child looked up and noticed Bronwyn for the first time. The delight on her little face warmed Bronwyn’s heart. Bryce had pretty much monopolized the little girl’s time since their arrival eleven days ago. And while he sometimes seemed at a loss as to how to deal with Kayla, he was muddling through without asking Bronwyn for any assistance. It concerned her that he seemed so able around the child. She worried that he might start to wonder why he needed Bronwyn around at all. Now that she was feeling healthier, she vowed to spend more time with the little girl whom she had missed so much. She wouldn’t allow Bryce to usurp her so completely any longer.
Bryce made his way toward her, and she stepped onto the patio, relishing the feel of the hot, early autumn sun on her face. She picked up a bright-pink beach towel adorned with characters from Disney’s
cartoon and held it up as he deposited the happily chattering little girl into Bronwyn’s arms. She wrapped the towel around Kayla and hugged her small body close. Her daughter was bubbling on about swimming, her daddy, and various other concerns that were of great importance to any nearly nineteen-month-old little girl. Bronwyn nodded and made the appropriate noises, but she was preoccupied with Bryce, whose eyes were sweeping over her from top to bottom, making her feel naked and vulnerable.
“How do you feel?” he asked quietly, and she shrugged, managing a slight smile.
He nodded at her reply but seemed at a loss for words.
“I hope you’re hungry. You’re just in time for lunch,” he said, gesturing toward the glass-and-wrought-iron patio table situated close to the huge stone barbeque at the other end of the large patio. Celeste was just laying out what looked like a delicious lunch. The older woman, always one of few words, flashed them a smile and retreated with a nod.
“I’m famished.” She nodded and headed toward the table, depositing a still-prattling Kayla into her high chair and placing the provided plastic bowl and plastic spoon onto the surface in front of the toddler.
“She’s a messy eater,” Bryce pointed out with a wince, and Bronwyn grinned, realizing that he must have discovered that particular trait the hard way. Most of Kayla’s meals seemed to wind up all over herself and anybody else in the general vicinity, but the little girl obdurately refused to allow anybody to feed her, insisting that she could do it herself. It was a stubborn streak that she had inherited from her father, and Bronwyn wished that she had been there to witness that particular battle of wills firsthand. It must have been a novelty for Bryce to discover someone as hardheaded as himself, especially someone as tiny as Mikayla.
“I know.” Bronwyn smiled. “She rejects any attempt to help feed her. I usually give her extra portions in the hopes that she manages to get as much of it into her mouth as she does all over everything else. But sometimes I have to take the bull by the horns and feed her myself anyway, despite her fervent protests.”
“She is also inordinately fond of ice cream,” he pointed out with a grimace, seeming to recall something particularly unpleasant.
“I’m guessing you discovered one of her favorite pastimes?”
“Finger painting?” He nodded and she laughed.
“Unfortunately ice cream, especially chocolate, seems to be her favorite medium,” Bronwyn said solemnly.
“I thought Celeste would quit after Kayla demonstrated her talent on the kitchen walls, but luckily she seems to have the patience of a saint.”
“I hope that you reprimanded Kayla?” Bronwyn asked with a frown, and he shook his head.
“She seemed so proud of her painting,” he responded, and Bronwyn sighed before shaking her head.
“She’s testing you,” she informed. “She knows better than to mess on the walls, she wouldn’t dare do it at ho—” She halted, knowing that the word
would be a mistake and not wanting to destroy the fragile peace between them. “She wouldn’t have done that in our old flat. She wants to see how much she’ll be able to get away with here. You’ve got to be firm with her, Bryce. Don’t let her take advantage of you.”
“I wouldn’t know how to go about reprimanding her,” he offered quietly. “I haven’t had much practice at this fatherhood business. I want her to like me.” Judging from the pained look on his face, it grated to admit as much and she bit her lip, unsure how to respond without rekindling hostilities.
“I can guarantee,” she began reluctantly, not really wanting to help him with this but knowing that it was in Kayla’s best interests, “that she
you already, Bryce. She won’t like it if you raise your voice to her, she may even shed a few fake little tears, but she’ll get over it. You’re as much of an authority figure to her as I am now, and she has to get used to that. We’re here to teach her right from wrong. If we don’t she’ll become a spoiled brat. And while a bit of spoiling never hurt anyone, I would not want her to become intolerable.” He was paying close attention to her mouth, and Bronwyn was careful to enunciate clearly and slowly.
“It makes sense, I suppose,” he said. “I’ll try to be a little less indulgent, but it’s still such a treat for me to give her things and spoil her a bit.”
“That’s understandable.” Bronwyn nodded. “You’ll get over it soon enough, once the novelty wears off and she becomes bratty.”
“She’ll never be
bratty.” He grinned before becoming quite serious. “You did a good job with her, Bron.”
“Uh . . .” The compliment was as unexpected as it was flattering, and Bronwyn had no idea how to respond to it. “Thank you.” She could not read his mood at all and wondered if she could trust what seemed to be an armed and uneasy truce. She bent her head and focused on her food. The cook had prepared a light lunch of crispy fried filleted hake—a delicious Cape game fish—herbed baby potatoes, and steamed fresh vegetables. Her mouth fairly watered at the sight of it. She checked Kayla’s bowl and was gratified to note that the little girl’s vegetables had been mashed into manageable chunks. Kayla had already started digging in with her chubby little fingers, and Bryce groaned when she proceeded to lift her fist to her mouth and suck the food off it.
“Mummy.” She picked up a piece of fish between two grubby fingers and held it up to her mother. “Hmm nice . . . Mummy . . .”
“I already have food, Kayla. See?” she pointed out, lifting a fork with some fish speared onto the tines. Kayla dropped the fish back into her bowl and lifted her plastic spoon and attempted to imitate her mother. When the fish kept falling back into the bowl, she glared and tossed the spoon aside in frustration before resorting to using her hands again. Bronwyn put aside her own utensils and lifted the plastic spoon, firmly placing it back into her daughter’s hands.
“Use the spoon, Mikayla,” she ordered firmly, but the little girl shook her head mutinously.
“No ’poon, Mummy,” the child protested, tossing it aside again the moment her mother let her hand go.
“Kayla, I’m not going to tell you again,” Bronwyn warned, picking the spoon up and wrapping the child’s stubborn fingers around it. Bryce watched the little power play unfold in fascination. Kayla, knowing how far she could push her mother, sulkily held on to the spoon and clumsily rooted around her bowl, messing about rather than actually attempting to eat. Bronwyn ignored the recalcitrant child and quite deliberately went back to her own lunch.
Kayla was now scooping up spoonfuls of food and placing it in little mounds on the tray of the high chair in front of her. Bronwyn finished off the last of her fish and sighed before dragging a wet wipe from the container Celeste had thoughtfully left within easy reach and wiping Kayla’s face and hands clean. She ignored the way the child tried to evade her attempts and after giving her face a thorough wipe, Bron lifted the squirming toddler out of the high chair and into her own lap. She grabbed Kayla’s bowl and spoon and very determinedly began spooning food into the protesting child’s mouth.
! No!” Kayla was sobbing hysterically and working herself up into a fine little tantrum. Bronwyn could feel it in the way her small body was tensing up more and more. “Kayla no want! Kayla no like!”
eat your food!” Bronwyn managed in her sternest voice. The child’s determined squirming was rapidly tiring her mother out, and Bronwyn knew that she would have to give up the fight soon. She lifted the spoon to Kayla’s mouth, and the baby kept her mouth tightly shut, turning her head away.
” The unfamiliar sound of Bryce’s raised voice shocked both mother and child into momentary stillness. Kayla’s eyes swallowed her face when they encountered her father’s stern countenance. His voice softened on his next words. “Listen to your mummy.”
The child obediently opened her mouth to the proffered spoon, her large blue eyes never wavering from her father’s face. She took in bite after bite until she had emptied her bowl, and when she was done, she begged to be let down. Bronwyn helped her down and watched with a helpless smile of sheer adoration as Kayla toddled over to her father and crawled into his lap, curling herself up and tucking her thumb into her mouth. Bryce’s face reflected a mixture of surprise, aching vulnerability, and confusion as he wrapped his arms around the sleepy little girl. He lifted his awestruck eyes to Bronwyn’s smiling face.
“She always gets a little peevish when she’s tired,” Bronwyn informed, watching as Kayla’s eyelids drooped more and more until she was fast asleep.
“I’m hesitant about raising my voice to her,” he admitted quietly. “I find it difficult to judge exactly how loud I’m actually being. I don’t want to terrify her. Sometimes I worry that . . .”
He left the sentence hanging and dropped his eyes down to his daughter’s sleeping face. Bronwyn waited, hoping that he would finish what he had been about to say, sensing that he had been about to reveal something deeply personal. He didn’t say anything further though, and it left her wondering about the insecurity she had heard in his voice.
“Bron . . .” he said after a long silence. He kept his gaze trained on Kayla’s sleeping face. “About last night?” Bronwyn tensed, and she lowered her eyes to the ice-cold glass of mango juice in her hands.
“I just . . . I never meant . . .” He paused again, and the silence grated on her nerves until she could stand it no more. His beautiful blue eyes at last rose to meet hers.
“Look, Bryce,” she said, breaking the silence, hoping that her face reflected the resolution that she could hear in her voice. “I
how much you hate me. In fact, believing what you do about me, I can even understand
you feel the way you do. Anybody who would so cold-bloodedly desert their spouse at the scene of an accident is certainly someone who deserves no forgiveness.”
“You’re . . .”
“I’m not even going to try to defend myself anymore,” she said firmly, interrupting whatever he’d been about to say. “There’s really no point, is there? You’ve hated me for so long I don’t think I’ll ever be able to change your mind. All I ask is that you put this . . . this
you have for me aside for Kayla’s sake. Hate me if you must. I think I can almost live with it now that I know you never really loved me, but try to be less obvious about it.” His eyes narrowed as he assessed her face; there was another lengthy silence as he considered her words before shrugging.