Broken Pasts
Author:C.M. Stunich

chapter 7

Rhea showed up on my doorstep at seven a.m. the next morning. When Nathaniel opened the door, she screamed. I pushed past him and grabbed her by the shoulders as she started to turn away, pulling her into a hug. Glen was already out of his car and jogging across the dew covered grass.

“Theresa!” he shouted, reaching out for our daughter's arm as if I'd just exposed her to a brothel full of naked men, erections raised like flags for all the world to see. “What on earth is going on?” I pulled Rhea forward and put my hands on the sides of her face. I think she'd screamed more from surprise than anything else. Already, she was calm.

“Who's that?” she asked, trying to peer around me at Nathaniel. When I glanced back at him, his face was completely still, like a Greek statue, frozen into perfection. He was too stoic, too emotionless, the ideal bodyguard, like the ones you see in the movies. Either he was putting on a front for Glen or he thought this was amusing. I was betting on the latter.

Glen paused on the bottom step of the stoop and adjusted his glasses.

“You didn't tell me you were seeing someone.” I pursed my lips. Like that was any of his business.

“Hey Rhea,” I said, trying to smile through a massive yawn. I wanted to be pissy; Glen had interrupted the best dream I'd had in years. One that featured a fully naked and willing Mr. Sutherland. “Why don't you go in your room and play some video games. I'll take you to McDonald's before I drop you off, how's that sound?”

“Yay! I want pancakes!” she shouted as Nathaniel stepped out of her way and she moved past him, enraptured by the idea of a little gaming before school. Screw the new guy. I've got better things to do. God, I had an awesome kid.

“Glen,” I said, standing up and adjusting the straps of my tank top. “Why are you here? I asked you to take Rhea for the week.”

“Well, it's your week and Winnie wants to take the girls to see her parents.” I pursed my lips in anger as I stared down at my ex's severe face. Even with his brown eyes pinched and his thin mouth set in an unhappy line, he had the appearance of being a trustworthy, reliable sort of guy. It's one of the reasons that I'd fallen for him. The types of guys I'd always liked, the interesting, spicy, mysterious ones like Nathaniel, they'd always let me down. I'd thought that no matter what, that Glen would be there for me, even if it was just out of a sense of duty. I'd been wrong. He'd left me during one of the worst periods in my entire left. Left me because I couldn't give him biological children. A horrible miscarriage, a botched surgery, and a pair of cancerous ovaries later and I was left alone while Glen was off impregnating the first woman who'd give him the time of day. Winnie Freeman. You are such a bitch, I thought at him as I started off on a very familiar, very tiresome rant.

“So Rhea isn't good enough to visit Winnie's parents because, what,” I held my hands out to the side and then let them drop against my thighs. “Because she's my daughter? Or because she's … ” I dropped my voice to a whisper. “Adopted. Which is it, Glen?”

“I'm not doing this with you this morning, Theresa,” he said as he crossed his arms over his pumpkin colored shirt. It did nothing for his skin except wash him out. Winnie had probably bought it. She considered herself some kind of nouveau fashionista, but hey, there's no accounting for taste, right? “Aren't you going to introduce me to your friend.” His attitude made me want to slam the door in his face, but yet, there was so much more I could do. Except tell him that Gary was stalking me. Then he'd try to get full custody of Rhea, play that against me like a curse. I could do anything but tell him the truth. I stepped back, put my hand on Nathaniel's arm and hoped he'd play along with me.

“This is my boyfriend, Nathaniel Sutherland. Nathaniel, this is my ex-husband, Glen Gibson.” To my utter delight and complete surprise, Nathaniel wrapped one arm around my waist, digging his fingers into the my side and pulling me against him. My reaction was instant and surprising. Like a heroine in an old movie, I felt my knees go weak as my blood heated and my body begged for a taste of whatever this man had to offer. It sounds pretty in romance novels, but in reality, it's kind of horrible. I felt dizzy, like I could topple over at any moment and I suddenly had no idea what to say or do, like I was frozen in place with adrenaline and need.

“Nice to meet you, Mr. Gibson,” Nathaniel said as he held out his other hand and gripped Glen's firmly. I was happy to see that Glen's handshake was weak and floppy in comparison. His wrist looked dainty and liable to snap like a pencil under Nathaniel's strength. I smiled.

“Likewise,” Glen said as his eyes snapped over to my face. I felt hot and flustered, like I'd been in the bedroom for hours with the most exquisite foreplay. It was a look that Glen had probably never seen before. This thought surged right through me, took a terrible event from my past and flipped it right on its head. Thank god you left me, I thought as I stared at Glen's tiny nose and serious frown. Or I might've been trapped in that horrible place between 'good enough' and 'safe.'

I was having a life altering revelation, right there on that doorstep with a stranger's arm around my waist. I had to call Jamie.

“When will you be back?” I asked, suddenly wanting to get rid of him so I could go in the bathroom and call my best friend. I had discovered that using the restroom was the only excuse I could use to get out of Nathaniel's sight. He was damn good at his job.

“Tuesday,” Glen said. “I'll pick Rhea up after school.”

“Fine,” I said as Nathaniel stepped back and grabbed the knob on the front door. “See you then.” I closed it in his face without another word and turned away, letting Nathaniel lock it for me. I grabbed my phone off the dining table and went straight for the bathroom. “I'll be just a moment,” I said as Nathaniel nodded and paused in the hallway just outside the door. I closed it quickly and turned on the fan and the faucet.

“What are you doing up so early?” Jamie answered after only one ring.

A chorus of shouting exploded from behind her and I caught bits of, “Good morning, Miss McMaster.” There was some scuffling and Jamie stuck something into her mouth.

“I'm kicking your boys' asses for you, you know?” I smiled.

“Oh, so now they're my boys?”

“Marry me, Theresa, I'm in love with you!” I chuckled as Ray's voice exploded through the line for just a moment as he snatched the phone away from Jamie.

“Little brat,” she snarled playfully as she regained control. “Just wait until Rhea turns thirteen and see how you much you laugh then. What do you want?”

“I had a life altering revelation,” I said and she spit out whatever it was she had in her mouth.

“You are too much, you know that right? You're like every romantic comedy movie character I've ever seen.”

“Good,” I said as I sat on the edge of the counter and ran a hairbrush through the tangled mat of black at the back of my head. “At least they always get happy endings. Now be quiet and let me talk. You're not going to believe this, but I think I'm actually one hundred percent over Glen.” There was a faux gasp on the other end of the line.

“No!” I rolled my eyes.

“Yes, and … ” I paused. “I have a crush on the bodyguard.” Jamie chuckled and I could just see her shaking her head.

“I knew it,” she said. “I think he's into you, too, so if you play your cards right, you could be sitting pretty on that pogo stick.”

“Mom!” I heard snorts of laughter in the background.

“That's not what I'm after,” I told her. “He's interesting. I just want to see what makes him tick, you know?”

“My guess would be that it's seven inches long and just dying to break out of those stuffy black slacks.”

“Jamie!” I said and then forced myself to lower my voice. “Be serious. For the first time ever, I'm happy that Glen left me when he did. I think I'd have been trapped if he didn't, you know?”

“You mean you wouldn't have been able to screw the sexy bodyguard?” I rolled my eyes.

“I snuck into the bathroom to talk to you, you know. The least you could do is be grateful about it.” Jamie chuckled.

“You know I love you, Theresa. Don't stress so much. We'll talk all about it on bowling night. I gotta go. Joel's got a dentist appointment, so I have to drop the boys off at school before I go to work, but save that and any other life revelations for Friday, okay?”

“Alright, I love you, too. Bye.”

I ended the call and leapt down from the counter. Nathaniel was waiting outside the door with a small smile on his face while Rhea sat at his feet with her legs crossed.

“Nathaniel said he's your boyfriend,” Rhea informed me and I was grateful to see that he'd kept up the ruse. It meant a lot, whether he knew it or not. “Which means the necklace worked.” I reached down, grabbed her hand and pulled her to her feet.

“It sure did,” I said, trying to change the subject before I got too deeply involved in my own lie. “Now, why don't you help me pick out some clothes, so we can eat. I'm starving.”

“Will you be happy now?” she asked me, completely serious. Her face was twisted into an expression that was far too grown-up for a nine year old. “Now that you have love and a penis?” Nathaniel snorted, actually snorted. I'd been expecting a deep, silky chuckle, like dark chocolate or something, but his laugh wasn't like that at all. It was so … real. Human.

“Absolutely,” I answered as she glanced over her shoulder at him. “Now let's go before they run out of pancakes.”

***

Apparently, to a nine year old, being chauffeured in the back of a sleek, black car with tinted windows and leather seats is the coolest thing in the world.

“Is Nathaniel a prince?” she'd whispered to me as she'd eaten her pancakes, syrup and all, on those very same leather seats. I owe you big time, Mr. Sutherland.

“Nope,” I replied, trying to keep the conversation light. “You want a bite of my McMuffin?”

“What does he do then?” she asked, her mind still attached to the previous question. She stared at me, brown eyes wide, hair braided down her back and tied with a furry, purple hairband that she'd picked out all on her own.

“I'm a security officer,” Nathaniel replied, voice light and cheerful. He was good at playing the boyfriend character, great actually. Rhea and Gary had never really hit off like this which should've been a bright red flag to me. What was I thinking? Rhea's eyes widened.

“Do you have a gun?” she asked as she tried to take off her seat belt and stick her head between the front seats. I pushed her back gently and refastened it.

“Couple,” Nathaniel replied, looking at me through the rearview mirror as if to confirm that what he was saying was okay. I nodded. “One under my jacket and one strapped to my ankle.”

“Why?” she asked as she pushed her half eaten platter towards me.

“The better to protect your mother with, my dear,” he joked and god help me, but I thought it was kind of … cute. Good lord, woman, get a hold of yourself. You're thirty-two years old. You get to know men before you start fawning over them, remember? Cute is not a descriptor that you need to be using for judgmental purposes.

“Why?” she asked as I put my hand out and rested it on her arm.

“We're going through a 'why' phase right now,” I said as I gave her the eye. “Once is more than enough when it comes to other people's business, remember?”

“It's okay,” Nathaniel said as he pulled the vehicle up to the line of cars waiting to get into the loop where the kids were dropped off. He'd done it without a hitch, too. Surprising since I always ended up going in the wrong way and causing a traffic jam. “I protect good people from bad people. That's why I need the guns, just in case.”

“But why do you want to protect them?” she asked, sounding exasperated as she picked at her zebra patterned leggings.

“Rhea … ”

“Because I've seen what happens when someone doesn't. It doesn't just hurt the good person. It hurts their whole family. I just don't want to see anyone else get hurt like that.” Rhea opened her mouth at the same moment that I wrapped my hand around her head and gave her a big, fat kiss.

“Mom!” she yelled as she pushed away from me and grabbed her backpack. “Gross!” Rhea grabbed the door handle and started to climb out.

“Look for this car after school, okay?” I paused as her teacher, Mr. Clarke, moved over to us and checked Rhea in with a clipboard. “And don't go with anyone else, do you understand?” She ignored me and raced to catch up with a group of girls near the gated entrance.

“Is everything okay, Theresa?” he asked me, eyeing the car, and its driver, with interest.

“It's just … I'm having a personal problem and I don't want Rhea to get involved. Please, don't let her leave with anyone except for me.” Mr. Clarke watched me for a moment and I could see that his curiosity was piqued. To his credit though, he asked nothing.

“Of course.” I smiled.

“Thank you so much,” I said as the cars behind us started to honk. You'd think having kids would teach you some manners, you spoiled rotten brats. I was, of course, referring to the parents and not the children. As I waved goodbye to both Mr. Clarke and Rhea, I closed the door and made a promise that I would get him an apple or something as a gift. “Do you think she'll be okay?” I asked, thinking aloud. “I mean, the school is gated and they do have their own police officer, but I just … ”

“Stalkers are usually fairly single-minded. It's doubtful that Gary would go after Rhea. That doesn't mean you want to leave her unsupervised, but she'll be fine at school.”

“Will you stay outside her door tonight?” I asked. If something happened to me, I'd deal with it, but Rhea … I shivered to even consider it.

“Absolutely,” he told me and his voice was firm and confident, strong. I had no qualms about trusting him with my daughter's life, strange as that sounds. Something about Nathaniel was just right on target for me. I had never felt this way about anyone before, not once. It was both scary and exhilarating. And now I was even more interested. I just don't want to see anyone else get hurt like that. He'd said anyone else, meaning people other than him. Meaning he'd been hurt before.

“Thank you,” I told him. “For pretending. I appreciate that.”

“It's okay,” he replied and I could hear the slightest touch of amusement in his voice. “I've done it before though I can honestly admit that it's never been this pleasant.” I felt myself flush with pleasure at that statement, thoroughly convinced that that was also not a very professional thing to say. “I've been an uncle, a son, a cousin, an attorney,” he stressed it like a joke and pretended to shudder. “A vampire.” I laughed.

“A vampire?” I asked, amused. “Sounds like the perfect cover for a bodyguard. Much less suspicious.” Nathaniel laughed and it was that same snorting, silly laugh from before. It was the kind of laugh that made you want to join in alongside it, like he'd seen enough in his life to know what was really funny and that you could trust him on it.

“The client was this lovely, young woman who'd changed her name from Anna Yearling to Erika Van Doe. She was involved in an underground drug ring full of people who believed they were actually vampires. Some of the most horrifying moments of my life were spent in that woman's basement.” Nathaniel paused. “So much for client confidentiality,” he said as if he were disappointed in himself. “I'm sorry. I shouldn't have told you that.”

“If it makes you feel any better, I thought it was pretty funny.” He laughed then, suddenly, like he was nervous, which was strange because the thought of Nathaniel being nervous about anything seemed a near impossibility. “Just don't go telling anybody that I stay up late to watch crime dramas or I'll sue you.” His laughter this time was guilt free, feel good laughter, the kind you can sink your teeth into.

“I promise I won't,” he assured me and I believed him.

Isn't it interesting how much you can tell about someone from their laugh?





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