“When we first met . . .” He broke the silence, and Bronwyn made a relieved little sound at the back of her throat. She was grateful that he had ended the interminable silence even though she hadn’t really expected him to start the conversation without some kind of prompt from her. “You were the most enchanting thing that I’d ever seen. You so obviously weren’t coping with that job, you looked harassed and you were so horrified when Pierre and I sat down at one of your tables.”
“You weren’t supposed to notice that,” she interjected dryly and then nearly kicked herself for interrupting him. He laughed softly in response to her words.
“I noticed all right,” he said with a reminiscent little smile. “Your beautiful eyes aren’t very good at hiding your emotions, sweetheart. You were so fascinating. Quite possibly the worst waitress I’ve ever had.” She bit her tongue at that one, but his grin widened at the look on her face. “See? You didn’t like that. Your eyes don’t lie. Pierre couldn’t understand my fascination, and I, in turn, couldn’t understand how he wasn’t seeing the most bewitching creature in the world. Like I said before, I just couldn’t stay away from you. I kept going back, and the more time I spent with you, the more time I wanted to spend with you. The main reason I proposed—contrary to some of the cruel things I’ve said about it—was because I couldn’t imagine my life without you by my side. You loved me. You had told me so many times and I so desperately wanted to say it back, but I couldn’t. I was so happy with you but I didn’t think that I knew how to love. I wanted you to teach me. I wanted you to make me a better person.”
“I don’t understand,” she shook her head.
“I know, I’m sorry. I’m not doing a very good job of this.” He cleared his throat. “Do you remember the conversation we had that evening after we returned from the aquarium?” She nodded and watched him swallow painfully before throwing back his shoulders like someone preparing himself for battle. He seemed unable to meet her eyes and kept his gaze fixed on the wall behind her.
“You asked me what my first memory was,” he said dully. “What I told you, about my father, when he broke my arm—what he did wasn’t an accident. It wasn’t the first time he’d hurt me, just the first time I remembered it. And I certainly remember every damned time it happened after that.”
“Oh my God . . .”
He didn’t see her words. He still wouldn’t look at her as he continued to speak in a terrifying dead voice. She had unconsciously brought both hands up to her mouth in shock. A part of her had been expecting to hear something like this, but now that he was saying the words, she couldn’t quite believe them.
“After Richard was born,” he never called his brother Richard, but for some reason the formality suited the gravity of the conversation, and Bronwyn didn’t question it. “I had to do everything in my power to deflect the old man’s temper and blows onto me. He never laid one filthy finger on my little brother. I wouldn’t let him. I tried to ensure that Rick remained unaffected by the whole sordid mess. If the mean-spirited bastard had lived longer, I may not have been able to shelter Rick as much, but I was thirteen when he died. Rick was ten and still young enough to genuinely mourn our father. Our mother was just a withdrawn shell of a woman who died a few months before my eighteenth birthday. She died mere months after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She didn’t even try to fight it. It was like she’d just given up on life. She’d checked out mentally and emotionally after my father’s accident anyway. I was the one who raised Rick, I took care of him and made sure that he was fed and properly clothed.”
“But I thought your family was rich,” she murmured dazedly, but because he still seemed unable to meet her eyes, he didn’t see her words and she waved a little to get his attention before signing them.
“Money doesn’t stop an abuser from being abusive. My mother could have obtained the means to take us and leave, but she wasn’t emotionally strong enough to make that decision. He had her completely cowed, and sometimes I hate her memory even more than I do his. She allowed him to hurt me, to hurt her, and if I hadn’t been there to prevent it, she would have allowed him to hurt Rick as well, and I can’t forgive that.” He shuddered at the thought, and his eyes drifted back to the wall. “We were his perfect family. He had beaten us into submission, and yet he always found more reasons to hit my mother and me.
“But like I said, he never got his grubby fists on my brother.” His words were fierce and shaking with outraged pride. “I was a pretty big kid, and the one time I confronted him was just before he died. He went after Rick but I stood up to him, chest to chest, and he backed off.” Bronwyn could picture it, a scared young boy protecting his little brother by bravely facing down a monstrous man, and she had to curl her hands into tight little fists to keep from crying out at the heartbreaking images that were forming in her head.
“He hit me only once more after that and then he died, in a freak yachting accident. God, I hated him and that hate festered in me. The beatings I took, the verbal abuse he heaped on me, it all stayed with me and twisted me inside. My mother was pitiful, she couldn’t love us and she was terrified of her own shadow. Rick, I was his big brother, he was duty-bound to love me. Nobody had ever just loved me . . . until you. But I didn’t have faith in your love. I believed that you wouldn’t feel the same way about me if you knew about how I’d let him hit me and learned about what an absolute coward I was. How could you possibly respect me once you understood how I had crawled to get away from him? How I had begged and pleaded with him not to hurt me, how I had pissed myself in fear and pain—more than once . . .” His voice broke on those last words, and she watched his face contort as he fought to control his emotions.