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“So then it’s me?” he stated matter-of-factly.

“Is it ever anyone else?” she muttered snidely beneath her breath, but he couldn’t read her lips because she ducked her head as she said it. She tried to wriggle her arm and glared up at him when he wouldn’t release her.

“You’re hurting me!” she stated as clearly as she could, and he let her go abruptly.

“I’m sorry.” His immediate release and apology took her by surprise, and she felt a little guilty when she saw a flare of genuine remorse in his eyes. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

“You didn’t,” she admitted. “But I’m tired and I have nothing more to say to you tonight.”

“You think you can dismiss me and expect me to obey like a whipped dog?” he sneered, taking hold of her elbow again and giving her a gentle shake to emphasize his point.

“No, I expect you to respect my wishes,” she told him tiredly, all of the fight leaving her. Her arm hung limply in his grip. He sighed and took hold of her other elbow before running his hands caressingly up her arms.

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“Tell me why you’re angry with me,” he coaxed, and his large hands moved up to cup her narrow face gently. His thumbs traced the outline of her trembling lips, and he leaned toward her, his lips almost touching hers.

“I want to be with you again tonight,” he whispered hoarsely, and she flinched.

“No.” She shook her head firmly. He frowned and stepped back, releasing her abruptly.

“Why not?” he asked coldly.

“How can you even ask me that? I told you, last night was a mistake. And do you really think I want to get back into bed with the man who said I made his skin crawl?” she asked.

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“Look, I was an ass when I said that, okay?” he admitted, throwing up his hands in surrender. “I’m sorry. It was a blatant lie expressly designed to hurt you as much as possible. It was that or admit that you were right about me wanting you the other day.” She continued to stare stonily up at him, knowing that he was repudiating his words now because he wanted her back in his bed.

“I won’t beg,” he warned.

“I wasn’t expecting you to,” she muttered, and he frowned uncertainly.

“What?” When she refused to repeat the words he hadn’t caught, he swore angrily and turned away from her. “I hate this! I want to know your every word. I want to hear my daughter’s laughter. I want so many things.” She softened a little at the helpless frustration in his voice and took a step toward him. She rested a tentative hand on his rigid shoulder and stepped around to face him. He shrugged off her hand and glared at her.

“Don’t,” he warned dangerously, and her brow lowered in confusion.

“Don’t what?”

“Don’t you dare pity me.” His voice was as hard as granite, belying the vulnerability she had heard just seconds before. “I don’t want or need your pity!”

“Trust me, the last thing I feel for you is pity,” she told him, but he must have missed the words because his confused frown deepened before he swore in irritation.

“Just go to bed, Bron,” he muttered tiredly as he brushed by her. Bronwyn watched his broad back as he retreated. He turned a corner and she heard a door slamming in the distance as he shut himself into his study.

Bronwyn stood there for the longest time, valiantly fighting back her tears of frustration. She did not know this bruised, battered, and embittered man as the Bryce she had adored and married within weeks of meeting him, but there was still something so compelling about him. He reminded her of a badly wounded lion, confused and exhausted but unable to stop fighting.

She swallowed down the incredible pain of realization, recognition, and resignation. God help her, she still loved Bryce. She had always loved Bryce. She loved him, hated him, and resented him all at the same time. Yet the only other certainty she had in life besides Kayla’s love was the knowledge that Bryce hated her more than she had ever thought possible, and she did not know how she was going to shield her vulnerable heart from the agony that he was so very capable of inflicting on her.

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“Where are you going?” Bryce did nothing to hide the deep suspicion in his eyes late the following morning as he took in Bronwyn’s attire. They were in the living room, where Bryce had been glaring down at his laptop screen before she’d distracted him with her presence. She was wearing a pair of designer black slacks, one of the pieces that she had left behind, combined with a pretty silk turquoise top. Despite the fact that the clothes were still a little baggy on her, Bronwyn thought the combination looked charming. Especially with her dark hair falling in lustrous waves to her narrow shoulders and her lips tinted with shell-pink lipstick. She had even taken on a healthy, light-golden sheen after spending some time out in the sun the day before. For the first time in a long while she was relatively happy with the way she looked.

“Out to lunch, with Alice,” she informed casually, taking a seat opposite his. “Will you be okay with Kayla? She’s in the kitchen with Celeste at the moment. They’re baking a cake.”

“Of course I’ll be okay with Kayla,” he dismissed before continuing. “When was this lunch thing decided?” he asked highhandedly, and she laughed at the autocratic question.

“Not that it’s any of your business, but this was decided after dinner last night.”

He frowned, missing her sarcasm.

“I don’t remember you making this arrangement,” he said, clearly trying to recall the evening before.

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