Broken Pasts
Author:C.M. Stunich

chapter 9

Rhea and I stayed home from work and school the next day. I was already having a hard enough time trying to explain Nathaniel's absence and Cedric's sudden appearance to the inquisitive nine year old. I didn't want to explain it to anyone else. Once I got her occupied on the couch with a book, Cedric and I sat at the dining table and talked. Unlike Nathaniel, all I had to do was invite him and he sat down and started to spill.

“Nate and I started this business about … ” Cedric paused to rub at his chin. “Oh, about nine years ago. I was never really into it, but I'm big and tough, so all I really have to do is stand there and the bad guys run.” He chuckled and his laugh shook the table and the vase of flowers on it. In a way, he kind of reminded me of Hagrid from the Harry Potter books. Maybe because that was the first thing Rhea had said when she'd seen him. “Besides, Gillian had just passed away and that put a fire under his ass like I'd never seen.”

“Gillian?” I asked, intrigued. This was it, I knew it. The key to understanding Nathaniel's mysterious actions was in this woman's name. Cedric looked around like he expected Nathaniel to be lurking around the corner.

“Gillian was Nathaniel's wife,” he said and then took a big breath, filling his massive chest with air. “You look quite a bit like her actually.” A frown pulled down the corners of my mouth like they were weighted. Oh. Wow. I am an idiot. Nathaniel's mystery was that I looked like his dead wife. Great. That explained the flirting and the sexual innuendo from moment one then. The sexy bodyguard didn't seem so intriguing anymore, like I had just peeled away his layers and could see right through him. But then, what about the hatred in his eyes when he looked at Gary? The way his face shut down after you asked about his job?

“How did she die?” I asked and Cedric shook his head, pushing away from the table and standing up like he'd just realized what he was doing.

“I'm sorry, Ms. McMaster,” he told me as he tried to revert back to being serious. “That isn't my information to give.” I tapped my fingers on the table and then sighed. Oh well. With my mystery all but solved, all that was left was to try and get some work done before Nathaniel came back and I headed off for family bowling night with a complete stranger.

I stood up, retrieved my laptop and joined Rhea in the living room. When I checked my e-mail, I was shocked. Hundreds of new messages cluttered my inbox with subjects like, Missing You Everyday and What I Want to Do To You. I slammed the top shut and tried to breathe. Cedric didn't react like Nathaniel, almost like he was trying too hard to stay invisible. He stayed frozen in the corner while I resisted the urge to throw my computer across the room.

“I have a ton of inappropriate e-mails from Gary,” I told Cedric and he nodded, like that was to be expected.

“Save them, print them, and document them,” he told me and I was overwhelmed with this horrible sense of helplessness. Being stalked is like being trapped in your own life. There's this person out there doing all of these horrible things to you and there is nothing you can do about it. With a sigh, I put my laptop aside and ran a hand down my face. Gary's behavior was escalating. How far would he go before enough was enough? Would he try to hurt me? Rape me? Kill me? I shivered and stood up suddenly.

“Hey,” I said to Rhea with a silly smile. “Why don't we pick out our clothes for this evening?” She shrugged her shoulders, more interested in Time Cat by Lloyd Alexander than she was in placating her mother.

“That's far away,” she said as she turned on her side and kept her eyes glued to the pages. “I don't feel like it.” I sighed and stood up, checked the lock on the front door, just to be sure, and moved down the hallway and into my bedroom. Despite Cedric's massive size and Viking-like appearance, he was actually a lot easier to ignore than Nathaniel was. Something about that man drew my eyes and my attention. I dug around my closet for a long time, trying to decide if I was going to forgo my usual bowling night outfit: a pair of baggy jeans and our 'team's' shirt. It was just a simple collared tee with a dragon across the front. The McMaster Lizards was emblazoned above it with red glitter. Rhea had picked it out a while back, when I was still with Gary. He'd never worn his though and I had the thought that it was probably still in my closet somewhere. I dug around until I found it, still in the plastic wrap it had come in.

“You asshole,” I said as I ripped a hole in the bag and stared at it for a long moment. Don't even think about it, Theresa, I told myself as I squeezed the fabric in my hand. I opened the top drawer of my dresser, cast a glance at Cedric, and stuffed the shirt away.

***

After a while, Rhea came in and joined me on the bed, kicking her toes against the comforter as she laid on her stomach and watched me try on different outfits while Cedric kept his back politely turned, eyes locked on Rhea's bedroom door at the end of the hallway.

“Why do you care so much?” she asked me as I put on a pair of jeans I hadn't worn in years. What do you know, they still fit, I thought smugly as I modeled them in front of the full length mirror next to my dresser. The dark washed jeans were practically brand new although they were several years old. The reason I didn't like to wear them was that they rubbed right along the scars that marred my lower belly. They weren't painful, not physically, but they were a reminder of hard times and horrible things. I slipped our team shirt over the lacy black bra that I'd chosen and watched it fall to the bottom of the pant pockets. It was long enough that nobody would see, not even if I raised my arms above my head.

I didn't ask myself why I was doing any of this though I should have. Was I trying to woo Nathaniel? Date him like a teenager without a horrible divorce record and a kid to take care of? The mystery was over, solved, done. I looked like his ex-wife, he felt sorry for me, end of story. Yet as much as I repeated that to myself, I couldn't shake my interest. I grabbed a black tank top, a pair of clean underwear, and motioned Rhea out of my room.

“I'm taking a shower,” I said as I threw my stuff in the bathroom. “What are you going to be doing?” She shrugged and glanced up at Cedric. It was like looking up at a skyscraper for her. Rhea's head was tilted all of the way back on her neck as she examined the big man's face.

“When is Nathaniel coming back?” she asked and I'm almost certain I saw Cedric hold back a laugh.

“At five o'clock,” I said, watching as she pouted and poked at the wall with her finger. What's wrong with you? I wondered as I stared at her. Please don't tell me you've got a crush, too. “He'll be back before you know it,” I told her as she dragged her hand along the wall and disappeared into her room with a sigh. “What the hell?” I asked as I looked at Cedric's quivering back. “You know something I don't, don't you?” He shrugged his massive shoulders.

“I don't know anything, Ms. McMaster,” he said as I glared daggers at his mountainous back.

“Sure you don't,” I said as I closed the door as far as it would go without actually pushing it into place. My daughter and I are both obsessed with the same man. Definitely strange. “Sure you don't.”

***

When Nathaniel came back, clean and polished and rested, dressed in a charcoal suit and an emerald tie that helped highlight his beautiful eyes, you'd have thought he was returning from years at war. Rhea actually cheered when Cedric opened the door, saluted Nathaniel and disappeared down the sidewalk, chuckling.

“I hope he wasn't inconsiderate or inappropriate in any way,” Nathaniel said as I turned Rhea around and forced her to go change out of her Angry Birds pajamas. I was already showered, my hair fixed, my makeup artfully applied. Nathaniel's eyes took in the dark jeans and the tight tank top appreciatively. To say that he made me feel attractive would be an understatement. I felt like a fucking supermodel in that man's gaze.

“He told me about your wife,” I blurted without thinking. I think part of me wanted to confirm what I thought I already knew, that he was just interested in me because I had olive skin and dark hair, because I looked like a woman I didn't even know. His eyes darkened for just a moment, but he gained control of himself quickly.

“He told you how she died?” he asked and I shook my head.

“He said it wasn't his information to tell.” Nathaniel nodded and reached into his coat pocket like he was going to put on his sunglasses. He paused and let his arms drop to his sides.

“And I think my daughter has a crush on you,” I said. At this, he actually laughed.

“I'm sorry, Ms. McMaster,” he told me honestly. “If PPSD hasn't been living up to the professional image that you expected, I'd be happy to issue you a full refund.” He paused, but before I could speak up, he continued to explain himself. “It's true that you remind me a lot of Gillian, although Cedric should never have told you that.”

“What happened to her?” I asked and I watched as his face dropped right out from under him, like he was being sucked down a whirlpool where there was no escape, just a watery descent into oblivion. I'd overstepped my boundaries, surely. I opened my mouth to apologize when Nathaniel hit me with an emotional brick.

“She was killed by her ex-husband,” he told me and I stopped breathing for just a moment. The lack of oxygen made my head spin wildly. I held out a hand and touched the wall to steady myself. “He was stalking her. While the police were busy scratching their heads and telling me there was nothing they could do, he was stabbing her one hundred and seven times with a screwdriver. I came home and found them both dead.” He paused. “She was pregnant with our daughter at the time. I think she would've been just about Rhea's age if she'd survived.” I stared straight at him and didn't know what to say.

“I … ”

“There's such an uncanny resemblance between our lives that I don't even know where to begin, so I'm sorry if I haven't acted appropriately. In nine years, nothing like this has ever happened to me before.” I nodded and touched my hand to my chest while I fingered the Kukui nut necklace. Nathaniel's eyes were boring into mine, cutting deep and begging me to dig through the depths until I found the person underneath the sadness and the fear.

“Here,” Rhea said as she skipped into the room with a shirt in her hand. “Mom got this out for you.” She handed Nathaniel the bowling shirt and he took it with a smile. I tried to imagine him wearing anything but a suit and found that the only thing my mind could come up with was naked.

“I did not get that out for him,” I protested but found that the words sounded weak, almost like I was lying to himself. I changed my tactic. “You don't have to wear it if you don't want to.”

“Gary never did,” Rhea said as she clasped her hands in front of her and I watched a storm of emotions travel across Nathaniel's face.

“The McMaster Lizards, huh?” he said as he pointed at the shirt. “Isn't this a dragon?” Rhea rolled her eyes and gave Nathaniel the same answer she'd given me.

“Dragons are lizards,” she stated proudly. “They're both cold blooded.”