“Come on, Kayla, time to get dressed.” She held out her hand to the toddler who happily made her way over, still chattering excitedly about “Nebo” and “fishies.”
The Two Oceans Aquarium was based at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town. It was teeming not only with marine life but with children, teens, students, and noisy families. Bryce and Bronwyn, as a young couple with an energetic toddler, blended in completely. For once the ubiquitous Cal and his team had been told to remain very much in the background. Bryce had commanded them to remain outside, despite Cal’s obvious uneasiness with the high security risk such a busy place posed. Bryce had even chosen to drive them himself—a rarity these days—while the security team had remained a discreet distance behind them.
Now Bronwyn was achingly aware of how much like a normal family they must look amidst the tide of humanity. Kayla was up on Bryce’s shoulders, and her little feet frantically paddled against his chest every time she wanted him to stop and let her down so that she could investigate something closer. She had loved the touch pool, where she got to stroke and touch all manner of tide-pool life: fish, starfish, and even a small octopus. She had squealed with every new sensation under her fingertips. Their little girl was nothing if not adventurous, and unlike a lot of the other children her age who backed off squealing and crying, she kept coming forward to touch something new. Of course, the highlight for her was the display of clownfish. The beautiful exhibit had actually been named “Nemos.” Bryce had guided her into the little bubble beneath the display, which had afforded her a 360-degree view of the tank. She had squealed and clapped in delight when she found herself surrounded by so many “Nemos.” It had been very difficult getting her back out to give other children a chance but she hadn’t had time to sulk with so much to see and do.
Bronwyn sensed that, despite his laughter, something was not quite right with Bryce. He seemed jumpy and sweat beaded his upper lip. She often caught him looking around frantically when she was farther away from him and then almost noticeably sagging in relief when he caught sight of her. At first she was confused by his uncharacteristic lack of composure, but then she caught the way he shrank away anytime someone brushed by him or got too close. With startling clarity, she recognized that her husband, who had once seemed so strong and infallible, feared the milling crowd of people around them. She even suspected that he was mildly agoraphobic. It explained why he had confined himself to the house these past couple of years, why he rarely ventured out, and why he preferred having Pierre or Rick come by to see him at home. This once social creature had been cut off from the world in more ways than she had known. It said a lot for how much her invitation must have meant to him, if he was willing to brave this for a day out with her and Kayla.
She made her way to his side and firmly slid her hand into his. His startled gaze met hers, and when he saw the understanding glimmering there, his eyes shone with gratitude.
“Do you want to go home?” she asked, and he hesitated before shaking his head.
“I’m okay . . . now.” He lifted their clasped hands gratefully.
Neither openly acknowledged the situation again, but she rarely left his side after that and he seemed less tense. He appeared to be genuinely enjoying himself by the time they reached the underwater tunnel that led them through a multitude of manta rays, barracudas, tuna, and ragged-toothed sharks. The display was so awesome that even Kayla went quiet as she took in the strange, beautiful blue world that surrounded her. Her little hands were clasped together under her father’s jaw and Bronwyn watched as she started to droop more and more until her head was resting on top of Bryce’s and she was fast asleep.
“Hold still,” she urged, digging out the digital camera and taking yet another picture of father and daughter. He grinned before taking the camera from her and stopping a passing tourist, asking the man to take their picture. He shifted Kayla so that she was cradled in his right arm, her head resting on the curve of his shoulder and her arm draped around his neck, and he hauled Bronwyn against his left side, wrapping his arm around her waist and holding her close.
“Smile, sweetheart,” he urged into her ear, and she was startled into obeying. The tourist took three pictures in quick succession before handing the camera back to Bryce.
“You have a great-looking family, mate,” he said in a thick Aussie accent before handing back the camera and heading off with a wave.
When they left the aquarium, Bryce pushed Kayla’s cart while Bronwyn tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow to maintain contact. Cal and his team were taking their brief to remain discreet so seriously that Bronwyn didn’t even see them. Bryce led the way toward one of the many restaurants dotting the waterfront, a Greek place that served fabulous food, and they sat down at a table beneath one of the umbrellas out in the early autumn sunshine. They were quiet for a while, watching the world go by, until Bryce broke the silence.
She lifted surprised eyes to his solemn face. “For?”
“Earlier.” He cleared his throat and she watched his Adam’s apple bob sexily as he swallowed. “Thank you for earlier. Crowds are . . . difficult for me. Ever since the accident I can’t stand being in large crowds. It’s so bizarre. There I am with all these people around me and I know there should be noise, voices, footsteps, and laughter, but instead there’s nothing. It’s like being in a huge void, until I’m jostled and then it feels like being ambushed because I didn’t see or hear it coming. After the accident I was so paranoid, I kept wondering who was behind me, kept imagining someone was there, and I’d turn around so quickly that I’d startle everyone around me, only there’d be no one there, but I’d immediately get the same feeling and turn again. I knew that it would only be a matter of time before it would get to the point where I’d just keep turning round and round and round until I went insane. So before that could happen I . . .”