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“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 Alice?” 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.

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“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?”

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“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 you?” 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 why 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.”

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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 never 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.

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