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CHAPTER SEVEN

The house was in chaos when Bronwyn returned home half an hour later. Kayla was screaming her head off in the den while Bryce held her writhing little body in his arms as he frantically tried to soothe her. Celeste stood to the side, wringing her hands nervously, a concerned look on her plain face.

“Oh my God! What’s going on here?” Kayla’s crying worsened when she heard her mother’s voice. She managed to pull herself out of her father’s arms and launched herself toward her mother, her unsteady gait nearly sending her off balance.

“Mummy! Kayla ouch! Kayla ouch, Mummy!” Bronwyn sank to her knees, and her heart dropped like a stone when she registered the genuine fear and pain on her little girl’s face. As the child crept into her mother’s open arms and snuggled against her chest, Bronwyn allowed her furious eyes to meet Bryce’s. His face had closed up like a shutter, a remote look in his eyes as he stood watching them, his hands thrust into his trouser pockets.

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“What did you do to her?” she hissed, her maternal instincts on full alert. “I trusted you to look after her and I come back to this?” Kayla had stopped her hysterical sobbing and was hiccupping into Bronwyn’s chest, her tense little body relaxing as she clung to the familiar comfort her mother represented. Bryce’s shadowed eyes revealed absolutely no emotion; his clenched jaw the only visible sign of his tension. She got up, Kayla in her arms, and advanced toward him, a stalking lioness intent on protecting her cub.

“What happened here?”

His eyes remained level but he refused to say a word.

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“Bryce, answer me! She never cries like this unless she’s hurt. How did she get hurt?”

His eyes flickered a little, as he cast an involuntary look down at the little girl who was staring up at him with huge, tear-drenched blue eyes. Her thumb was propped in her mouth and her breath still hitched. Bronwyn glanced over her daughter’s little body, doing a damage assessment. Her eyes detected no visible signs of injury until she reached one plump little bare foot. Her big toe was bleeding and looked somewhat swollen. Bronwyn made a soft sound of dismay and lifted the foot to inspect it more closely. Fortunately the damage seemed minimal, and judging from Kayla’s ever-lessening sniffles, the immediate shock of pain had worn off already. As the haze of panic dissipated, Bronwyn began to recognize that the damage she had done by storming blindly into the fray may have been a lot worse than the injury to Kayla’s toe. She had shown an appalling lack of trust by assuming Bryce had been responsible for the toddler’s injury, and she was beginning to feel like an overprotective fool.

“Bryce,” she began hesitantly, taking a step toward where he stood. He was as still and remote as a statue. He ignored her and swung on his heel to leave the room abruptly. Bronwyn made a dismayed little sound, and Kayla, her pain mostly forgotten already, dragged her thumb from her mouth to add her own opinion.

“Daddy go bye-bye,” she observed solemnly before resting her head on Bronwyn’s shoulder and sticking her thumb back into her mouth.

“Yes,” Bronwyn whispered, burying her face in her daughter’s silky curls. “Daddy’s gone away.” But that wasn’t entirely true; he hadn’t left the house, she had heard his study door slam and knew that he was probably brooding in there. She knew that she would have to get to the bottom of things sooner rather than later and also had the sinking feeling that she was the one who would have to make serious amends. She glanced over at the appalled Celeste and nodded down at the drowsy little girl in her arms.

“I’ll take care of her toe,” she said hoarsely, and Celeste mumbled that she’d be in the kitchen. Bronwyn fussed over Kayla for a while, her mind on Bryce while she kissed the toe of her now-giggling baby all better and placed a cute Finding Nemo Band-Aid on the tiny cut. Kayla’s eyelids started to droop after half an hour of cuddling and playing with her mother—it was way past time for her afternoon nap. Bronwyn carried her to the housekeeper in the kitchen.

“Celeste, would you mind . . .” She left the question unfinished, and Celeste nodded immediately and bustled forward to take an unprotesting Kayla into her arms. Bronwyn dropped an affectionate kiss on the sleepy child’s forehead before hurrying out of the room toward Bryce’s study. With each heavy step she took, she felt more and more like Daniel preparing to beard the lion’s den. When she reached the ominously shut study door, she paused to listen but couldn’t hear a sound coming from behind the door. She cautiously knocked on the solid wood before berating herself for her thoughtless action. Now she faced an unfamiliar dilemma: did she just enter? Or did she wait until he eventually came out on his own? She regarded the suddenly insurmountable obstacle of the door cautiously before deciding to take the bull by the horns and open the door.

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Bryce sat behind his huge desk, with his elbows resting on the gleaming wooden surface and his face buried in his hands. His large shoulders were shaking slightly. He looked terribly vulnerable, and in that moment Bronwyn felt like a voyeur of the worst kind. She cleared her throat to alert him of her presence and then swore softly beneath her breath when she realized that the gesture was as futile as her knock had been.

“Bryce . . .” Again she swore, feeling like a complete idiot, and hesitantly took a few steps toward him, lifting her hand to his shoulder in the process. He leaped out of the chair like a scalded cat and swore furiously. He glared at her, looking a bit a shaken and a lot furious.

“Don’t sneak up on me,” he berated hoarsely.

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