Broken Pasts
Author:C.M. Stunich

chapter 8

“I work as a web developer and I don't even like computers. Is that weird?” I asked Nathaniel as he held open the door to my office for me. And he always opened and closed the car doors, too. Perfect gentleman, I thought and then I tried to inject myself with a dose of reality. He's a professional bodyguard, not your boyfriend. Boyfriend. Ech. I was too old for boyfriends. I wanted a partner, a friend, a lover, a confidante. Was I asking too much?

“Not at all,” he told me, green eyes glittering with amusement. “I used to work as a Linux system administrator.” I turned around and walked backwards for a moment, so I could get a good look at his face.

“You?” I asked, surprised. “Seriously?” Nathaniel was too good looking for such an invisible job. All of that body buried behind a desk. Shame. I swallowed hard and turned back around, laying my hands across the front of my secretary's desk.

“Very briefly,” he admitted. “Just long enough to prove that college hadn't been a complete waste of my time.”

“And then you found your passion in security?” I said with a smile. His face shut down then, turned off completely. The light in Nathaniel's eyes faded, leaving him with a haunted look that I hadn't seen before.

“I guess you could say that,” he told me, but his voice was neutral, not at all playful or conversational. Another piece to the puzzle, I thought as I gave him the privacy I was pretty sure he wanted and turned my attention back to the door behind the desk. Maybe he's going to be an easier nut to crack than I'd first thought.

“Good morning, Brenda,” I said as my secretary popped out the door with a doughnut in her mouth and a completely inappropriate top draped over her massive breasts. Let's just say, it was white, her bra was black, enough said. But she was a sweet girl and she was smart and eager to learn. I had taken her on more as an apprentice than as a secretary, but since she seemed to function perfectly well at both, that's the way we ran it. As soon as she saw Nathaniel, the doughnut fell from her mouth in a blaze of glaze and landed right on the brand new, leather office chair I had just ordered. She cringed and snatched it back up in a hurry, tossing it into the garbage can under her desk.

“S-sorry,” she said as she grabbed her tablet and moved the stylus around like she was running a marathon with her fingers. As she did this, she bit her lower lip and ran her tongue across her teeth. “Is this a new client?” she asked, voice overtly incurious, nonchalant. I looked over my shoulder at Nathaniel and saw that he'd replaced his sunglasses and was standing with his hands crossed over his belly, arms stiff, shoulders back, very much the professional. Defense mechanism maybe?

“Brenda, this is my bodyguard, Nathaniel. He'll be spending the week with me.” I paused and wondered exactly how much I should tell her. Satisfied that it was now 'okay' to look at him, Brenda let her blue eyes rake Nathaniel's suited form which still looked as pressed and as polished as it had yesterday morning.

“Lovely to meet you,” she said as she batted her blonde eyelashes and passed the tablet over the top of the counter to me. I stared at Nathaniel's frozen face and decided that maybe it would be better if he wasn't 'allowed' to talk while he was here.

“He can't talk,” I said apologetically as I checked the maelstrom of shit that had occurred over my long holiday weekend. “Just pretend that he's not even there, okay?” I handed the tablet back with a smile and led Nathaniel down the hallway to my personal office.

I had a very, very long day ahead of me.

***

With the amount of work I had for the week, I was going to have to pull all-nighters to get it all done, but then, I couldn't let anyone else pick up Rhea. The risk to reward ratio was not a good one, so at three o'clock, Nathaniel and I left for Rhea's school.

While I was internally debating the benefits of going back to the office or doing some work from home, I checked my phone and found several missed calls from a restricted number. My first thought was, of course, Gary, but I checked the messages just to be certain. Sure enough, as soon as they started to play, there was his voice, light and normal, like nothing strange had happened between us.

“Hey Theresa, it's me, Gary. I just wanted to see if you and Rhea were up for bowling night on Friday. Could you call me back and let me know which alley? Okay, I love you. Bye.”

“Hey Theresa, it's me, Gary. I was calling to ask if you wanted to get together for dinner tonight. I know you're busy, but it would mean the world to me. How about that place we went for New Year's Eve? Call me back. I love you. Bye.”

“Hey Theresa, you stupid fucking bitch. You can't fucking ignore me. You cannot fucking ignore me, do you hear me? Are you just mentally fucked or do you like playing games with people's hearts? This is my heart, Theresa. Mine. And I won't let you screw it up.”

“Hey Theresa, your new boyfriend can't be there every minute, baby. When you're done sucking his dick, he'll leave and I'll be there. Or maybe I should rephrase that. I am here. That's a cute little skirt you're wearing and I like the red top, very sexy. Maybe when we're alone I'll – ”

I ended the call. Four messages from that man were four too many. If I had to hear him say in words what he'd said in the note, I might just have a nervous breakdown.

“He called me,” I told Nathaniel, trying to hold myself in check. “I got a new number yesterday and he already knows it. He – ”

“It's alright,” Nathaniel said as he finally removed the sunglasses he'd been wearing all day. The sight of his eyes, clear and confident in the rearview gave me the burst of energy I needed to take a massive breath, slow my heart rate and relax. “It happens. We'll change the number again, as many times as we need to. When you give it out, give it to as few people as you can and let them know that under no circumstances are they to share it with anyone. Try to think of it as a good thing that he called. This establishes a pattern of inappropriate behavior, gives us the evidence that we need to get him arrested. The more he does it while I'm here, the better.” I saw him purse his lips in the mirror. “What happens if he's still stalking you when the week's out?”

“I don't know,” I replied honestly. I hadn't thought that far ahead. Somewhere in my mind, I was still convinced that if I just waited Gary out, that he would go away. “I guess I'll deal with it when the time comes.” Nathaniel nodded, but he didn't look happy. I dropped my gaze from the mirror and waited in silence until we got to the school.

Rhea was a welcome burst of energy when she got in the car, like a fireworks display in pink and zebra. She handed me some paintings from art class and even had one for Nathaniel. In keeping with her current theme, it was … well, it was a penis. With a note attached for a parent-teacher conference. I decided to laugh it off rather than stress it off as I ruffled her hair and tried to keep her from taking off her seat belt.

“But I made it for him,” she whined as she tried to toss the paper into the front seat.

“Mr. Sutherland is driving,” I said as I tried to distract her with the other pieces. “What's this one? Is this a cat?” She ignored me and crossed her arms over her chest, refusing to even look at me. In a surprise move, Nathaniel pulled the car over to the curb, turned around and smiled at Rhea.

“Let me see,” he said and in his voice was genuine interest. She whipped around in less time than it took me to blink and thrust the painting of the massive green and purple phallus at him.

“This is you,” she said as she pointed at the crinkled watercolor. Nathaniel raised his dark eyebrows and then against his better judgment, he let out another nervous snort of laughter.

“True to size, too,” he said as he glanced up at me and I flushed, bright as scarlet. He blinked, too, like he'd just realized what he'd said and cleared his throat. “I apologize,” he grumbled. “That was completely inappropriate. I – ”

“Are you guys getting married?” Rhea asked as she slumped back in her seat with a sigh, completely oblivious to the fact that there was something going on between Nathaniel and I. I could barely hear her over the rush of blood that was pounding in my ears like drums. Lower parts of me clenched and tightened, begging for something. No, not something, Nathaniel. And it was different than the lust I'd felt even a few nights before with Stuart. I didn't just want to sleep with him because I was lonely or because I was turned on. I wanted to sleep with him because I was starting to like him. That was a dangerous word to me, especially with everything that had happened. The men that I'd liked had let me down in the worst ways. I turned my face away and tried to laugh off Rhea's words.

“Mommy's never walking down the aisle again,” I said and I was surprised when she kicked the back of the passenger seat in anger. “What's wrong?” I asked as Nathaniel took the paper and folded it gently in half, tucking it into the dash.

“I want a new dad,” she told me and I blinked in surprise. Her face was locked into such a deep frown that there were two lines running down the sides of her chin like a marionette. I sat there in silence for a moment while I waited for her to continue. She didn't.

“How come?” Nathaniel asked for me, still smiling softly. It looked good on that strong face, like he could crush a car but also like he could pick up a butterfly without harming it.

“Because I don't like mine,” she said as if that was obvious. “He gives Angie, Carrie, and Mina anything they want. He doesn't let me go see Grandpa B. and Grandma G., and he told me that I didn't come from his penis.” A rush of anger struck through me, fighting with my reaction to Nathaniel for supremacy. We were back to penises again which was good, in a way, but the fact that Glen had told Rhea she was adopted without my consent or knowledge, even in a roundabout way, was infuriating. I clenched my purse in my fist and tried not to scream. That could come later, when I got Glen on the phone. “Mom,” she asked tentatively, as if this was the most important thing in the world. “Am I a part of you?” I thought for a long moment about how to answer, what would constitute a lie, how important the truth was in that moment. I looked her straight in the face when I said.

“The most important part of all.”

***

“I want to apologize again,” Nathaniel said later, after we'd come home and Rhea had taken a bath and gone to bed. I'd hardly gotten any work done, too occupied was I with wanting to kill Glen and Gary. A husband is supposed to be a partner, someone to take on life with you, not throw the worst parts of it in your face. Not stand outside your house and stare like a fucking lunatic which is what Gary had done for over an hour after we'd come home to find him outside. Nathaniel had recorded the entire thing out the window while Rhea and I had hidden in her room, playing video games. Now he was finally gone and I was exhausted, emotionally and physically. “I was completely inappropriate and in front of your daughter, too. I'd like to refund some of your money.” I stared at him for a long moment, trying to process his words. True to size, too. Okay, so maybe it was a little inappropriate, but it had also been wildly sexy. Rhea hadn't understood, so where was the harm?

“No,” I said as I shook my head and opened the freezer, eyes locked on the last remaining drops of my Jägermeister. If there was ever an appropriate time to have some, it was now. I poured the rest into a glass. “You're more than doing your job. I won't accept a refund.” Nathaniel paused with his hands resting on the blue tiles of the island.

“Then let me at least give you an extra couple days of protection, no charge.” I sipped the Jäger quietly for a moment and then once again, shook my head. Nathaniel was beautiful and interesting and different. Dangerous. He was dangerous. In solving this mystery, I was going to get involved. Two days of knowing him and already, I was enraptured. I couldn't do this.

“No,” I said and nearly dropped my glass when there was a knock on the door. Nathaniel smiled at me, but it was kind of … sad. I stared into his eyes for a moment that stretched into forever. He was searching me for something though I couldn't say what.

“Cedric,” he explained and I couldn't control the slump of disappointment that surged through me. I'd just told myself that I wanted the man to leave and now that he was, I wanted him to stay. Okay, this is good. I needed to untangle myself from Nathaniel Sutherland before I ensnared myself. “He'll be here for awhile while I recharge.” I nodded and watched as he turned back towards the door.

“Wait!” I shouted and he paused, looking over his shoulder at me. “Um, will you be back in time for bowling night?” I had told Rhea the lie and although Jamie knew the truth, her family didn't. The less people that knew Gary was stalking me, the better. I did not want Glen to find out, especially when I was about to tear him to pieces; he'd be furious.

“What time?” he asked me and I could see that he would do whatever it took to fulfill my request. But why?

“Tomorrow at six,” I said, hoping that wasn't too early. I didn't know how this whole switching thing worked. Nathaniel smiled and this time, it was naughty.

“I'll be here,” he said. “And don't worry, I always come on time.” I choked on my Jäger and watched as he turned away and grasped the handle on the door. Did he really just say that? What is it with this man?

I didn't have long to speculate because when Nathaniel opened the door, I was greeted to a redhead who towered over Nathaniel's already massive form. He looked like a Viking. I glanced up at his face, surprised at how short I felt at five foot ten.

“Theresa McMaster, this is Cedric Bair.”

“Wonderful to meet you, Ms. McMaster,” Cedric boomed, stepping into the room and filling it to capacity with his hulking shoulders and a chest that was wider than I was tall. He reached out a massive hand and shook mine in a surprisingly gentle grasp.

“Again, just try to pretend he isn't here. If you have any questions, feel free to ask. I'll be back tomorrow at five,” Nathaniel said and I could see that this last part was more for Cedric than it was for me. The man's shaggy red brows rose in surprise and he rubbed at his goatee with thick fingers. This was not usual protocol, I was certain about it now. Nathaniel left, closing the door quietly behind him. Cedric immediately moved forward and locked it with a rumbling chuckle. He wasn't quite the uptight, professional I was expecting either, but I knew that there was no way in hell Gary would even think of challenging the man whose head nearly brushed my ceiling. When he turned around, he locked his gaze on the archway between the kitchen and the living room and crossed his hands in front of him without another word.

“Why did you laugh?” I asked, catching a glint of amusement in Cedric's dark eyes. They were like two pieces of polished onyx, small in his large face but full of humor. In a weird way, he reminded me of Jamie. If I was even remotely correct, then he'd be a bit of a gossip.

“I apologize, Ms. McMaster,” was all he said as he maintained his position. God, he's good.

“You can tell me,” I said, hoping I could convince him to trust me. “I'm not the typical client.”

“Oh, I can already see that,” he said gruffly, trying to keep his face neutral when all he really wanted to do was grin big. I raised my eyebrows at him and put my hand on my hip. I had put on my leopard print robe in an attempt to attract Nathaniel's attention. It had worked. But Cedric didn't even look at me.

“How long would you normally switch out for?” I asked and Cedric answered me without emotion, like he was answering a questionnaire. Underneath his pleasant neutrality, I could see that he was bursting at the seams. I would get him to talk. If I could learn about Nathaniel while he wasn't here, maybe I'd get over my interest in him. Then, once this whole stalking thing was over, I could move on and try to embrace the fact that I was not alone but independent. Independent was good; it signaled strength, a solid frame of mind. I liked that.

“Well, Nathaniel's been overworked lately, so this time, we were going to switch up our usual routine and do forty-eight hours,” Cedric replied and I smiled. I knew it. “Guess something changed his mind though.”

“Thanks,” I said and turned as if I were going to head back into the kitchen. “Can I ask you another question?” I threw over my shoulder.

“Yes, Ms. McMaster,” he replied, still and silent in his brown suit and black loafers.

“Is it normal for a security officer to talk about his penis?”