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Discovering Mr. X: Chapter 22


“Tell me, Rachel, what’s it really like being a long-haul stewardess? Is that what you call it? I bet you get some awkward passengers?” Mom asks across the table.

We’ve just finished a lunch of Mom’s specialty, salmon en croûte with salad. She and Rachel have barely stopped talking since we arrived. I smile, listening to them. I was sure they’d get on, but I couldn’t have even dreamed it would be so well—so effortless.

Rachel’s eyes catch mine mischievously, “yes, some more hard work than others.”

Mom laughs, catching on that Rachel’s talking about New York. Rachel turns her focus back to Mom before continuing. “We tend to say, cabin crew. Although every time I fly to the States, they call us flight attendants. It’s a great job. I would never have dreamed of being able to visit all the places I have with work.”

“Where’s your favorite?” Mom’s eyes light up.

Peter catches my eye and motions to the sink. I help him clear the table and take the plates over.

“Sit down, you two,” Mom calls. “I can do that later.”

“No, Mom. You made lunch; the least we can do is help tidy up.”

“It was lovely, thank you, Nell,” Rachel says as Mom beams at her.

I watch the two of them chat as I load the dishwasher with Peter. “They seem to get on well,” he says to me quietly.

I look at Peter, his eyes full of love as he looks back at Mom. He’s a good man, and he makes her happy. The image of Rachel and I doing this with our kids hits me suddenly, and I clear my throat. I shouldn’t feel surprised. If I’m honest with myself, I’ve found myself thinking of a long-term future together for a while. I just hope she can understand when I tell her what I’ve been keeping back. I can’t keep putting it off, not when she’s been so honest with me. Secrets have a way of coming out. I need to be the one who lifts the lid.

“What are you two giggling about?” Peter asks as we go back to the table and sit down. He puts his arm around the back of Mom’s chair, and she smiles back at him.

“That’s girl talk, for us to know, isn’t that right, Rachel?” She winks across the table, and Rachel grins back at her.

Looking at the two most important women in my life, getting on like a house on fire is the best thing I could have hoped for. I slide my hand underneath the table and rest it on Rachel’s knee. God, I love it when she wears skirts or dresses, and I can stroke her smooth skin.

“I used to love collecting coins from other countries when I was a boy,” Peter says, directing his attention to Rachel. “There are some very unusual ones.”

Figures, I can just imagine little Peter in his corduroys and braces poring over his coin collection. He’s steady and dependable, exactly the kind of man my mom needs.

“There are, indeed. I think I’ve got some, actually.” Rachel reaches down to her bag on the floor and pulls out her purse. She unzips it and tips the coins out into her hand. As she does, something else falls out, catching the light as it drops onto the table between her and Mom. Rachel goes to pick it up between her red nails to put it away.

“Rachel. May I see that?” Mom’s voice sounds odd. The way I remember it sounding as a child when she told me Nana had passed away. I look at her face, and it’s pale, her smile gone.

“Are you okay, Mom?” I ask, growing concerned. She doesn’t answer me, just continues to stare at the object in Rachel’s hand.

“Oh, um, sure.” Rachel smiles politely, seeming to sense something is off as she places it in Mom’s palm. She turns to glance at me, her eyes questioning. I shrug and squeeze her knee. I don’t know what’s got into Mom, either.

“It can’t be,” Mom says, turning the item over in her hand and studying it closely. I lean forward to see what’s got her acting so weird and see the heart shape. I don’t need to read the words inscribed on it to know what they say—Difficult roads lead to beautiful destinations.

“That’s lovely,” Peter says to Rachel as he leans over Mom’s shoulder and reads.

“Thank you. It belonged to my mom,” Rachel says. I watch as Mom’s eyes snap up and her other hand flies to her mouth.

“This was your mother’s?” Mom asks Rachel, her voice barely a whisper.

“Yes,” Rachel replies carefully as she places her hand over mine on her leg. I know Mom won’t make her feel uncomfortable on purpose, but judging by how little Rachel talks about her past, I’m worried she’s more affected than her calm face suggests.

“Was your mom called Helen?” Mom says gently, completely focused on Rachel.

“How do you know that?” Rachel asks suspiciously, looking over at me in confusion. I turn my hand underneath hers so that I can wrap her delicate fingers in mine. I don’t know how the hell Mom would know that. Rachel’s never even told me her mom’s name.

“This is going to sound strange,” Mom says as she places the silver heart keyring down on the table. “I think I knew your mother, Rachel. I think I knew her a long time ago.”

What the hell?

“What are you talking about?” Rachel’s voice shakes as she looks between us all.

“Mom?” I screw up my face, bewildered.

She takes a deep breath and blows it out slowly as she looks at the keyring. “Not that long after I moved back to England with Tanner, a new lady moved in next door. Her name was Helen.” Rachel’s hand tightens its grip on mine as Mom looks up at her. “She was pregnant. She didn’t have any family, and I don’t know what happened to the baby’s father, but she barely talked about him, so I learned not to ask.”

“You think this Helen was Rachel’s mom?” I ask in disbelief.

“Are you sure, love?” Peter asks gently, glancing uneasily at Rachel, who’s sat up straight, frozen in place.

Mom’s gaze doesn’t leave Rachel’s face as she talks. “It sounds crazy, I know. But we became good friends, supported each other. We both knew what it was like to be single mothers. She had her baby six months later—a girl.” Mom smiles sadly. “She called her Rachel.”

The back of my hand stings where Rachel’s nails are gripping it tightly, pressing into my skin. I swear I can hear her heart beating from here.

“I don’t understand.” Rachel clears her throat, and her voice wavers. “What makes you think that was my mom?”

“This,” Mom says, her finger gently stroking over the silver heart. “I gave this to Helen as a gift when she was about to move away. She told me she had found a new job, a good one that would give you both a better life.” Mom stares at the heart, lost in her own memory. “It’s a favorite saying of mine, isn’t it, Tan?” She smiles at me. Rachel’s eyes whip to my face questioningly. I nod at her, her haunted eyes holding mine.

“That’s why you asked about the saying on the picture Megan did for me?” she asks slowly, searching my face. She drops her voice. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

“I just thought it was a weird coincidence. I never thought…” I trail off as I look at Mom.

Mom reaches across the table and grasps Rachel’s free hand between hers. “We used to write to each other when she first moved away. She would send me photos, and then they just stopped coming. I tried to call the house phone at her address, but a new couple said they bought it from a landlord. They told me the lady who lived there before had died saving a child who had fallen in the local river. They thought a relative was caring for her baby.” Mom’s voice is loaded with emotion as she looks at Rachel, who’s sitting deathly still next to me.

“There was no relative,” Rachel says, but despite her voice being steady, her hand is hot and clammy in mine.

“I’m so sorry, love,” Mom says genuinely, her voice full of compassion. “She was a lovely woman and a brilliant mother. She loved you dearly. You could hear it in her voice when she spoke about you.”

Rachel nods mutely next to me. I want to wrap her in my arms and soak up the pain radiating from her.

“I’ve got some photos somewhere if you’d like to see?” Mom asks gently.

I look at Rachel and see her neck contract as she swallows. It seems to take her a great deal of effort. “Rach?” I ask.

“Yes, please,” she replies, her voice barely a whisper.

“I’ll be right back.” Mom smiles kindly at her. “Peter, could you help me please?” she says as she gets up and leaves the room, and he follows behind.

I move my chair right up next to Rachel’s, so my thigh is pressed up against hers. “Rach?” She doesn’t answer, just stares at the keyring on the table before reaching forward and wrapping it tightly in her fist. I take my hand from hers and wrap my arms around her. She stiffens immediately. I press a kiss to her temple. “It’s just you and me here now.” She blows out a long breath and relaxes slightly, dropping her head against my chest.

“What the actual fuck, Tanner? I’ve spent my entire life knowing hardly anything about my mom, and then I come here and find out your mom was friends with her? We lived next door!” she cries. “This can’t be happening.”

I can’t believe it either. Our moms were neighbors? Friends? The words on the keyring… this is the freakiest fucking coincidence I’ve ever heard of.

My blood runs cold—the words. The first time I heard Rachel say them at the airport—they were what made me pay attention to her conversation with her friend, who I now realize must have been Holly. Fuck me. This is crazy. Either the world has gone mad, or I have. Things like this don’t really happen, do they?

“It’s a fucking weird coincidence,” I say as Rachel looks up at me.

“There’s no way, Tan. Your mom must be wrong,” Rachel whispers, the unshed tears in her eyes betraying her attempts at calm, logical reasoning. Her eyes dart over to the door as Mom comes back in holding a patterned shoe box.

“Sorry, that took a while. I’ve left Peter putting things back together upstairs. Here they are.” She sits back down opposite Rachel and places the box in front of her. She lifts the lid off carefully, and I tighten my arm around Rachel as she leans forward and watches.

“I took this one when she brought you home from the hospital.” Mom smiles as she passes the old photograph over.

“Oh my God.” Rachel takes the photo in both hands and studies the smiling woman, who’s holding a small bundle wrapped in a blanket. There’s no mistaking the same dark hair, big, bright eyes, and red lips that I saw in the drawing at Rachel’s house.

“You look like her,” Mom says kindly.

“You’re both beautiful.” I smile, kissing her hair as she keeps staring at the picture. Mom catches my eye and gives me a worried look. I give her a small nod to continue.

She shows Rachel picture after picture of her mom with her as a baby. Her first bath, first steps, first birthday, complete with cake all over her face. The pictures stop before Rachel gets to two years old.

“There’s plenty more in here. Why don’t you take it home, Rachel?” Mom says kindly, placing the lid on and sliding the box across the table.

“Are you sure?” Rachel says.

“Yes, love. They’re yours. I’ve got stories I can tell you too when you’re ready to hear them.”

“I would love that.” Rachel runs her hands over the top of the box. Her face is strangely emotionless.

“Come over anytime. Just you and me, we can have a good chat. Your mom was a bit of a live-wire,” Mom chuckles.

“Why doesn’t that surprise me? Must be where you got it from,” I say, giving Rachel a playful squeeze.

The lack of smack to my chest or “wanker” comment tossed my way tells me her head’s really spinning trying to take all this in.

My beautiful, beautiful girl, how I wish I could make this easier for you.


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