Broken Pasts
Author:C.M. Stunich

chapter 19

There are some days when you get out of bed and you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that it is in your best interest to climb right back in, pull the covers over your head and sleep away one of those kind of days. As soon as I opened my eyes, I knew I was having one.

My first clue was the sound of screaming from down the street (it was the cheating ass and his teenage mistress, even better). The second was that my alarm hadn't gone off and I was now a half an hour behind schedule. The third was that Nathaniel was wearing his sunglasses. If I'd had any other choice, I never would've gotten up. Unfortunately for me, I had a daughter who was already in trouble for her artistic representations of the human body and who did not need to be missing any class, a business that I had neglected in order to better focus on my psychotic ex-husband, and a bodyguard that I had shared my very first mutual masturbation session with the night before. God. Fucking. Damn it.

With a sigh, I climbed out of bed and paused as Nathaniel turned around to look at me.

“Something wrong?” I asked him, but he just smiled back at me and slid them off his face. When he did, his expression was strained and a think just a tad nervous. Great. Please don't make me talk about last night, I prayed as I examined the tight set of his lips and read secrets there. Lots of them. He was holding them back for now, but sooner or later, I was going to hear them. Not that I wasn't interested, I was. I lived for mysteries. It was just that I was afraid to hear what they were, to have my image of the man changed or tainted in any way, shape or form, and since it was one of those kind of days, I was certain that that is exactly what those secrets were going to do.

“No, I just … ” He paused. “The sun was bothering my eyes.” Sure, I thought back at him, but I didn't press the point. We all have security mechanisms and the shades were his. Keep those secrets back just a little longer, Nathaniel, and then you can bare your soul to me, I promise. “Theresa … ”

“Don't,” I said as I slid past him and moved down the hallway towards Rhea's bedroom. Nathaniel followed along behind me. “I have to get to work. It's going to be a madhouse when I get there, I just know it.”

“I need to talk to you,” he said as chills ran down my spine. Told you. When a man says he needs to talk, it always signals disaster, at least in my experience. I sighed and nodded, hoping beyond any reasonable doubt that it had to do with Gary's case and not Nathaniel's deep, dark secrets. I opened Rhea's door. “Time to get up,” I told her.

“I don't want to,” she said as she rolled over and buried her face in her pillow. I scooted into the room and gently shook her shoulder.

“We all have to do things we don't want to do. Mommy has to write up some custom scripts this morning.”

“Can I stay home with Nathaniel?” Rhea asked, looking back at me and flashing her best, sweetheart smile.

“Nope. He's coming with me. You can see him after school.”

“Mom!” she whined, metaphorically digging her feet in and refusing to budge. “But I don't feel good.”

“You feel fine, Rhea. You do this at least once a week. Come on, what do you take me for?” She cast the full force of her glare on me and in all of her nine year old glory, she said, “I hate you, you bitch.”

Let's just say the rest of the day did not go over much better.

The ride to Rhea's school was unpleasant, at best. She was mad at me for being mad at her, and I was mad at her for calling me a bitch. Nathaniel knew better than to get involved.

“Your dad's going to pick you up after school today,” I told her as she got out of the car. “Don't go home with – ” Rhea slammed the door in my face, and I opened it after her. “You are in so much trouble, you have no idea.”

“Screw you,” she said as Mr. Clarke shot me an evil glare, and I had no choice but to retreat back into the Chrysler. When I get home, I'm going to go straight into her room and grab every single Pokemon game that I can find. They are mine.

“Sorry,” I told Nathaniel as I leaned up between the seats. He was already pulling out of the traffic circle a hundred times more skillfully than I'd ever managed to do. We only got honked at by two minivans. Now there's a record. “Sometimes, she just – ” My phone was ringing. I groaned. “Now what?” It was Brenda. Apparently Ms. Brown was waiting for me in my office, threatening to pull her project with us because one of the developers had spelled her first name wrong on the website. Vagina Brown was listed as the chief executive officer of Brown Cosmetics. It was supposed to be Virginia. “Okay, just, I don't know, just distract her until I get there, okay?” I said and then mimed tossing my phone out the window. Apparently Nathaniel saw me and laughed.

“One of those days?” he said.

“How did you know?” I asked as I slumped into my seat and tried to catch a glimpse of emerald in the rearview. I wanted nothing more than to take Nathaniel home, tear off his clothes, and explore the urges I'd been denied last night, but that was not going to happen. I had a twelve hour workday ahead of me, at least.

“It's okay,” he told me. “It happens to us all.”

“She's nine and she called me a bitch. Is that normal?” Nathaniel laughed again, and the sound of his voice was like a balm to the rough day I was having. I sighed and rested my head against the seat, hoping beyond hope that the day was on an upward spiral, that things would only get better. “Hey Nathaniel,” I said and watched as his eyes flicked up to the mirror and caught mine. “Rhea's at her Dad's tonight, so maybe we could have that talk over dinner?” I watched his gaze darken briefly before he nodded. Whatever it was that he had to tell me was bad. I didn't say another word and neither did he.

When we got to the office, Nathaniel went into bodyguard mode almost instantly, sliding on his shades and plastering a professional frown across his perfect face. That was fine by me considering Brenda was wearing a pink blouse with way too much cleavage, a skirt that threatened to flash me at every turn and a pair of thigh highs with a very visible garter belt. I'd rather Nathaniel blended into the wall instead of getting caught on her radar. If I had to hear the baby talk voice she often used on men, I was going to puke.

“He can't speak,” I told my crew as I wove my way through a sea of questions and pointing fingers. “He's a statue for all that you're concerned.” I flung open the door to my office and prepared to face Satan. Contrary to popular belief, Satan is a she.

***

“No, thank you, Ms. Brown,” I said as I escorted the world's prickliest client out of my office and closed the door with an audible sigh of relief. “Demon bitch,” I said and noticed that Nathaniel was smiling at me. If the back wall of my office hadn't been made entirely of windows, I might have cleared off my desk and had a repeat session of yesterday's fun. Or at least I could entertain that thought. Truth was, I was a bit of a coward. Nathaniel was probably going to have to make the next move if we wanted to scoot this thing along.

“I should've become a mortician,” I told him as I moved around my desk and plopped down in the oversized leather swivel chair that I'd just had to have. In all honesty, it was about as comfortable as a cactus.

“Why's that?” Nathaniel asked with a smile, slipping his glasses down just enough that I could catch a glimpse of his green eyes.

“Then I wouldn't have had to listen to my clients bitch.” Nathaniel opened his mouth as if to speak when my assistant/apprentice/resident hooker opened the door.

“Good news,” Brenda said coming in without knocking. I'd only told her a hundred times, silly me. She flashed a manila envelope at me, and I couldn't help but notice that her breasts went along for the ride, bulging out of her top like muffins. I glanced over at Nathaniel, but he was in bodyguard perfect position and wasn't looking. Or at least I hoped he wasn't.

“What is it?” I asked as I looked at the four digit number next to my inbox and died a little inside. It's going to take all day just to get through these.

“It's from Gary,” she chirped and tossed the file dangerously close to my now cold cup of coffee. The liquid jiggled and danced, but didn't manage to go over the edge. Lucky her. “Divorce papers maybe?” she asked with a wiggle of her eyebrows. It took me a whole minute to process.

“Divorce papers?” I whispered as Nathaniel came striding across the room, a perfect column of darkness in his suit. He put his fingers on the envelope and looked at me as if to ask permission. I glanced around him and noticed that Brenda was checking out his ass. I cleared my throat, but that didn't work. Instead she just asked me if I needed any water, all the while scoping out Nathaniel with an unabashed sense of glee. “Thank you, Brenda,” I said finally, using my best boss voice. She blinked several times, like she was coming out of a coma or something, and finally disappeared out the door, closing it loudly behind her.

“May I?” Nathaniel asked as he removed his glasses and stuffed them in the front pocket of his suit. I held out my hand as if to say, Go right ahead. I still had that other creepy package on my mind, the one with the stuffed animals, video games, and books of porn. If Nathaniel wanted to check this first, all the better for me. If there were naked pictures of Gary or weird letters or whatever the hell else, he could take them for evidence and I wouldn't have to look at them.

I closed my eyes and tried to practice some deep breathing techniques while Nathaniel slid his thumb under the top of the envelope and tore it open.

Several moments of silence passed before he spoke.

“Theresa,” he said as my eyes snapped open and I looked up at him. His voice told me that I didn't want to know, that Gary had somehow crossed another line. Nathaniel's eyes were on fire, like two round pits of hate, burning like hot oil, shimmering with rage. I had a feeling that had Gary been in the immediate vicinity that he might've been dead. “I need you to look at these, but I want you to remain calm. I'm here now, and he can't hurt you.”

“Nathaniel … ”

“I need you to understand that I will not let him hurt you,” he repeated as he dropped the packet of files to the desk and reached out, taking my face in his hands. Nathaniel locked eyes with me and would not let me go. “Do you understand?”

“I … ” I think he was trying to prepare me, so I wouldn't panic. Instead, his behavior was having the opposite effect, convincing me that the worst was about to happen. My mind started spinning completely unbelievable and utterly ridiculous stories. He got custody of Rhea somehow or He killed my mother and photographed it or He's summoned demons from hell to come and take me away. That's how bad it was. “Let me see,” I whispered as Nathaniel released me with a massive sigh and pushed the papers across the desk. No, wait, not papers, photographs. Nice, big, glossy 8 x 10's. Dozens of them. Of me and Rhea. Sleeping.

I stood up suddenly and sent my chair flying against the glass, wheels spinning as it toppled over in my frenzy.

“No,” I said because I didn't know what else to say. “No, those are staged. They're not real.”

Nathaniel watched me tensely, and I could tell he was trying to decide between bodyguard and … that 'b' word, if he even was one. We still hadn't figured that out. At that point in time, I couldn't have cared less. Bodyguard won out.

“Theresa, they very well could be. I need you to calm down and take a look at them with me. Maybe they're from before, when you were married?”

“No,” I whispered as tears of rage sprung to my eyes and I felt adrenaline coursing through my blood like fire. If Gary had been within range in that moment, I would've strangled him to death. “They're not. The blankets … when I moved out, I didn't take them with me. I bought new comforter sets.” I pointed at the photos. “Those are them.” I swallowed hard and forced myself to take one of the photos between my fingers. I couldn't bear to look at the ones of Rhea, so I stared at my sleeping face. There I was at my most vulnerable and he was lording over me, taking photos like he didn't have a care in the world. He could've hurt me, raped me, killed me. And Rhea … I closed my eyes and held back a howl of rage. It wouldn't do me any good, not yet.

Nathaniel checked the envelope and then thumbed through the pictures again. That's all there was, no note, just the disgusting photographs in all of their horrendous glory.

“This was postmarked on Thursday,” he said as he examined the stamps. “So he sent them the day after I showed up, but he must've taken them sooner.”

“Why?” I asked as I picked up the pictures and shook them. Honestly, I wanted to tear them apart, turn them into confetti, but I couldn't, I had to keep them if only to nail the fucker. “Why take them and just keep them? Why send them now? I don't understand.” Nathaniel examined the pictures with a practiced eye. The most fucked up part about all of this was that he didn't seem entirely surprised by it, like he'd seen this kind of thing before. I didn't ask, didn't want to know. It was hard enough trying to deal with my own problems.

“Stalkers crave power. That's what this is about. He's showing you that he can come and go as he pleases, that he could hurt you if he wanted. My guess is that he feels threatened by me. A lot of stalkers have a hard time watching their exes move on to someone else. It's often a trigger for escalated behavior.”

“Nathaniel,” I said, eyes wide, hands shaking. I didn't know what else to say, what else to do. “Help me.” In an instant, the flip was switched and he was there, sweeping me into his arms, holding me against his chest and pressing his lips to the forehead.

“Theresa McMaster, you have nothing to worry about. I won't leave you, not until this is over, not unless you want me to.”

“But how,” I said, trying to keep my voice from sounding frantic. “You said the law's a joke. Don't we just add this crap to the pile and move on, let him get away with it?”

“Not this time,” Nathaniel told me with a slight smile in his voice. “These pictures are proof of breaking and entering, a crime that's a bit more black and white than stalking. If we take these down to the police station with our report, they'll be able to get you an order of protection and hopefully a search warrant for Gary's house.”

“Thank god,” I whispered, thinking that the horrors of Gary Harper had just hit their peak, that this was the tip of the iceberg and it was all downhill from here.

It was a nice thought anyway.