“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.
Bronwyn 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 Finding Nemo 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.