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“You were the most entrancing thing I’d ever seen,” he said, his voice gruff, and she shook her head dismissively.

“Hardly.”

“You still are, Bronwyn.” He brushed aside her automatic protest. “You’re not some boring, conventional beauty, true. And yeah, you tend to be a little clumsy at times. But you’re unusual, interesting, and to me you’re just so indescribably gorgeous. I never thought that I deserved you. You were too good for the likes of me.”

She didn’t understand that sentiment at all. He was heartbreakingly handsome and she was painfully plain. He came from a background of wealth and privilege while her family had been as poor as church mice. He had been Oxford educated with a master’s degree in business while she had barely made it through high school. It had been a classic Cinderella tale, and Bronwyn had been the one to feel inadequate when compared to him.

“I should have left you alone,” he was saying, his low voice alive with misery and his eyes filled with such profound sadness that Bronwyn felt her eyes tearing up in response. “I tried to leave you alone after that day, but I just couldn’t stay away from you. I had to see you again. You were so sweet and gentle and every time I was with you . . . I felt . . .” His voice had gone so quiet that she could barely hear him, and the last word was almost silent, but she could have sworn he said cleansed. He’d felt cleansed when he was with her? It was such an odd choice of words that she knew she must have been mistaken, but what else could it have been?

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His voice had faded away completely now and he wasn’t speaking anymore, merely staring down at the place setting in front of him. His large hands were curled into fists on the tabletop, and Bronwyn reached over to cover them with her own hands. The gesture brought his eyes back up to hers and she was startled see moisture sparkling in them.

“I should have stayed away from you,” he repeated. “But I couldn’t. I can’t. You’re my light, Bronwyn. You’re my love. I’m so lost without you. I’ve always been so lost without you.”

“Bryce.”

He shook himself and glanced over at their perceptive daughter, who had stopped playing and was watching them with wide and worried eyes. She looked on the verge of tears.

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“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have started this conversation with Kayla around.” He forced a smile for the little girl’s sake and dragged his hands out from under hers. She watched as he brusquely wiped at his eyes and put on a cheerful front for their daughter.

She kept stealing glances at him, wondering at the unfamiliar man that he’d allowed her to catch a glimpse of today. That was what she had wanted—demanded—from him. Honesty. And he had just given her a huge chunk of honesty. But whatever his truth was, she now knew that it was devastating, and she was certain that whatever it was had been responsible for his painful reaction to her pregnancy. Some truly awful thoughts were starting to form in the back of her mind, but her suspicions were so ugly that she forced them back down and dismissed them as impossible.

She watched as he gently teased and played with their daughter and forced herself to remember the day that she’d told him about her pregnancy. He had reacted in a near-violent explosion of emotions, accusations, and . . . fear. She recalled the look in his eyes and now understood that he had been absolutely terrified by her news. She was completely staggered by this unexpected new insight into the confusing events of that night.

“Protect us from what?” she asked, but he was playing with Kayla and didn’t see her question. She waved her hand to get his attention, and he blinked up at her, his too-long hair flopping over one eye in the process. That errant lock of hair made him look so boyish and vulnerable that she felt a lump forming in her throat. She unthinkingly reached over and brushed the hair out of his eyes with gentle fingers. He leaned into her touch, but she withdrew her hand almost immediately.

“A couple of weeks ago you said that you wanted to protect us from something.” She went back to what was foremost on her mind, absently rubbing her fingers—still tingling from the brief contact with his skin—on her denim-clad thigh. “Protect us from what?”

He sighed harshly.

“Let’s talk about this when we get home. I was stupid to think this could be the place for that discussion,” he deflected cryptically, and her brow furrowed in frustration. She was sick of the diversions and delays. The conversations that started but never seemed to finish. She picked at her food after it arrived and made sure that Kayla ate hers with as little mess as possible. The little glances she sent Bryce’s way revealed that he was merely toying with his food as well.

“Do you remember our first date?” he asked her, and she smiled at the memory.

“How could I forget?” she said, recalling. “You showed up here at the end of my shift, asked me out, and spent the rest of the evening lecturing me about crime and safety.”

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He snorted.

“We also talked for hours about our favorite movies, music, and books,” he reminded.

“Yes. And all the time you kept staring at my mouth.” She hadn’t meant to say that, and when his gaze—which had already been fixed on her mouth—went blistering hot at her words, her breath quickened and the residual tingling in her fingertips spread like wildfire through her body before gathering in the sensitized tips of her breasts. Her bra felt uncomfortably tight, and she could feel the blood slowly inching into her cheeks.

“You wouldn’t believe the fantasies I was weaving around that mouth,” he said absently, licking his lips as if he could taste said mouth on his tongue. “And those mile-high legs of yours. God, I could picture them wrapped around my waist or thrown over my shoulders . . .” Both scenarios had come to fruition the first time he’d gotten her into bed.

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