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Discovering Mr. X: Chapter 23

RACHEL

“Are you sure you don’t want me to stay?” Tan’s eyes gaze into mine as he leans his forearms on the side of the bathtub.

I sink a little lower into the deep bubbles and let out a sigh. He insisted on running the bath for me and practically stripped me and put me in it himself.

“I’m fine, Tan, honestly. I just need some time alone. It’s been a headfuck of a day.” I tip my head back against the cool side of the bath and close my eyes, letting the steam and hot water ease the pounding in my head.

Strong fingers stroke my neck, easing out the tension in my muscles. “You know I’ll stay, Rach. I’ll even crash on the sofa with hairy-beast-Nigel, if you like? I just don’t like you being alone to deal with this.”

I moan as his fingers continue their caress, moving down to my shoulders. “I’m not alone. Megan’s home.”

“You know what I mean.”

I open my eyes and look straight into his. Vibrant amber flecks shine back at me, and I’m hit with the urge to pull him into the bath with me—clothes and all—and kiss him until I can’t think straight. Kiss him until my mind is filled with nothing but chasing physical pleasure together.

“Fine.” He blows out a breath when I say nothing. “But I want you to call me before you go to sleep, okay? And again in the morning. I need to know you’re alright.”

“I’m not made of glass, Tan,” I snap. Immediately regretting the harshness in my tone.

He doesn’t flinch, just gives me a small smile. “I know. You’re made of diamond. The strongest thing on earth.”

I tip my head, and the corners of my mouth twitch as I look at him. “Hmm, you’re learning.”

He lets out a low chuckle. “With you, Rach. Every day is a fucking school day.”

“Teacher’s pet.” I eye him sideways, and he drops his head to his chest, his shoulders shaking.

“Do I get extra credit?” He laughs.

“You’ll get detention if you don’t do as you’re told and piss off,” I say, smiling at him.

“Ooh, sexy. Will you—?”

“Goodbye, Tanner,” I say as I arch an eyebrow at him.

He brushes a thumb over my lips. “I’m just at the end of the phone, Rach. Call me. I can be back here in no time at all.”

“Do you want me to drown you in this bath?”

He smiles, and his eyes soften. “Okay, I’m going. Deal with this how you need to in your own way. But just so you know; that way can include me if you want it to.”

“I’ll suffocate you with the soap first.”

He laughs as I smile at him, then gets to his feet and heads to the door. I swallow down the lump in my throat as he opens it. I need to be alone to figure this all out. I know I do. It’s how I work. It’s how I’ve always done things.

Alone.

Yet, seeing him about to leave has a strange voice screaming inside me to tell him to stop. To ask him to stay. A strange voice that sounds a lot like my own.

He turns back and leans his shoulder against the doorframe. “Call me before—”

“Yes!” I roll my eyes. “I’ll call you before I go to bed to tell you the same as I’m telling you now. I’m fine.

“Okay, make sure you—”

I throw a wet washcloth at him, and it hits the door as he closes it just in time to avoid being soaked.

“Bye, Tanner!” I call toward the closed door.

“Bye, Rach,” he replies, the amusement in his voice almost hiding the underlying concern that I know is there.

I listen to muffled voices as he talks to Megan. No doubt giving her strict instructions to keep an eye on me and call him if I look like I’m about to stick my head in the oven or something similarly tragic. I blow out a breath and look up at the ceiling. Today has been a crazy as fuck day. But I will get through it. I know I will. I get through everything that’s thrown at me. What choice do I have?

I look back over at the closed bathroom door as I hear the front door open and close.

Tanner is gone.

I sink a little lower into the water. I should feel relieved. He’s left me alone, like I asked. But instead, all I feel is… numb.

Numb and alone.

And wishing more than ever that my mom was here right now. That I knew her. Really knew her. Not just from a handful of photographs and stories from other people.

“What. A. Day,” I groan, allowing myself to soak in the water.

I lay back and think until the water goes cold and goosebumps appear on my arms.

Only then do I finally move again.


“Call me in the morning, okay?” Tanner says.

“Uh-huh,” I mutter, cradling my phone between my ear and shoulder.

“Rach?”

“Yes! Okay? I will call you in the morning.”

“Okay, good.” His voice is warm, and I can imagine the self-satisfied smile on his face at getting me to agree to something he’s asked.

We say goodbye, and I throw the phone down on my bed next to me. He sounded happy to hear from me, and I almost asked him to come back.

Almost.

But I know I need to do this alone. Once that lid comes off, I don’t know how I’m going to feel or react. What emotions it might stir up. What weaknesses it might unveil. I can’t allow anyone to bear witness to it. I have to do it by myself.

I pull the duvet up to my chin and stare at the box Nell gave me. I put it on top of my drawers and haven’t been able to look inside it again yet. I’m scared to look. What if once I let those emotions in, I can’t handle it? Seeing those photos of my mom just brought so much anger and hurt back to the surface. Emotions I thought I had dealt with years ago but now feel heart-wrenchingly raw once again. I feel cheated, fucking cheated out of the happy childhood I could have had with a mom who loved me. Everyone thinks I’m this strong, takes-no-shit girl, but I’m not. I didn’t lose my mom and grow up without a proper home because I was strong and could handle it. I handled it because I had no choice. I don’t know who I am right now, apart from a girl who’s afraid to face her grief all over again.

Nigel shifts on top of the duvet to move closer to me. “Hey boy,” I coo, reaching an arm out from under the covers and stroking him. He rarely comes upstairs, but it’s like he sensed something was wrong when I arrived home. He sat at the bottom of the stairs until I carried him up. He’s been keeping me company on my bed ever since I got out of the bath after Tanner left. “You should have been a therapy pet,” I say softly, watching his eyes close as I run my fingers over his head. He’s the only company I can handle right now. I know Tanner, Megan, Matt, Holly—they’re all there for me. But this is something I need to work through on my own tonight, at least until it sinks in.

“Be brave with me, Nigel,” I whisper as I slide out of bed, fetching the box and bringing it back with me. This box holds more of my mom in it than I’ve ever seen before. I had given up hoping there were any more pictures of her. Knowing that this has been in Nell’s house for almost thirty years is simply crazy. It defies logic. That she would have kept them, that I would meet her, by dating her son? I mean, what the hell? It’s overwhelming. I feel like I’m in a dream or a parallel universe. This can’t be real.

Taking a deep breath, I slide the lid off the box. Nigel sits up, his nose twitching as he sniffs at it. “Sorry, Nigel. No treats. Do you want to see my mom?” I ask, my voice shaking as I hold up the photo of her with me as a newborn so he can see. He looks at me expectantly. “I look like her, don’t I?” I sniff. The thought makes me feel better. I may not remember her, but it’s a small connection.

I look at the other photos Nell showed me at her house before pulling one out I haven’t seen yet. It’s of a toddler girl—me, I assume—and a boy, a couple of years older. I’m sitting in the bath grinning, and he’s standing up, completely naked, except for a superman cape, looking proud as punch. There’s only one person it can be.

Tanner.

I don’t know why that’s the photo that finally bursts the dam, but it is. My eyes sting, and my breath catches as my chest erupts into heaving sobs, tears streaming down my face.

I cuddle Nigel closer and let myself cry.


I’m flying in the air, the force of the wind lifting me up under my arms. Below me, the coastline stretches as far as I can see. I get the impression it’s early morning in the summer because my skin feels warm under the sun’s rays, and there’s no one on the beach. A tinkling sound makes me turn my head. Next to me is Mom. A bright light radiates around her as she laughs, and the sound of tiny bells fills my ears again. I beam back at her as calmness washes over me.

A buzzing breaks through the air.

No, not yet. I’m not ready to say goodbye, not yet. I need more time—please!

I jerk awake, my eyes falling onto my bedroom door, which is ajar. Nigel is gone. Megan must have come in to get him so she could feed him. I pick up my phone and see Tanner’s name on the new text.

Tan: Hey Sleeping Beauty. I came to see you but figured you needed the lie-in. I’ve got some meetings at work this morning but will come by later. I want to see you before your flight tonight. Call me when you wake up.

That’s right, I’ve got a flight to Johannesburg tonight. Ugh, it’s the last thing I feel like doing today. But saying that, it could be a good distraction. My head feels all over the place. It took me ages to get to sleep last night, and when I did… God, that dream. I can still see her face so clearly. Smiling at me, like she was telling me it will be okay.

It will all be okay.

“I must be losing my mind,” I groan, throwing the covers back and sitting up to text Tanner back.

Me: Thank you. I appreciate you giving me some space last night. See you later.

My phone rings almost immediately.

I answer it and hold it to my ear. Tanner’s smooth voice is already speaking.

“Whatever you need, Rach, just say it. Anything at all, it’s yours.”

I smile at his words. He’s a good guy. I thought he was such a materialistic wanker when we first met. But he’s proving time and time again what a good heart he has. What I did to deserve such treatment, I’ve no idea.

“A ticket out of the twilight zone?” I smirk.

“Do they sell those on Amazon? If so, consider it done.”

“Idiot,” I snort.

I hear him chuckle, then blow out a breath. “How did you sleep?”

“Next question.”

“That good, huh?”

“Something like that.” I stretch my arms above my head and swing my legs out of bed. “Listen, I was just calling to tell you I haven’t gone nuts or anything, so you don’t need to keep calling me.”

“Point taken. I shall leave you in peace. See you later, yeah?”

A sudden image of him in a superman cape as a child pops into my head, and I squeeze my eyes shut. “Yeah,” I answer. “See you later.”

I head downstairs and can hear muffled voices coming from the dining room. I head in through the lounge and see Matt and Megan sitting at the dining table, where a small feast of luxurious-looking pastries, granola, yogurts, and juices is set out.

“Tanner,” Matt says by explanation as he rises to wrap an arm around my shoulders, guiding me into a chair.

“He brought it all around while you were still asleep,” Megan says, reaching her hand over the table to give mine a squeeze.

I look at all the food; there’s enough to last both Megan and me a week here.

“Sounds like you had a shock yesterday. Megan and Tanner called me,” Matt says kindly, getting straight to the point. “I’ve already texted Holly. She’s going to call later, before your flight. If you’re still going, that is?”

“Of course, I am. Why wouldn’t I?” I mutter, picking up a croissant and tearing a strip off.

He glances at Megan, who chooses her words carefully as she speaks. “Well, it’s perfectly understandable. What you’ve just found out, you need time to process it.”

“It’s not going to change anything, though, is it?” I sigh, rubbing at my puffy eyes. “I mean, it was a complete shock to find out that Tanner’s mom knew her.”

“Totally, it’s like a soap opera,” Matt says, shutting his mouth quickly as I look up. “Sorry, I didn’t mean it like that, Rach.”

“No, Matt, you’re right. It’s like some weird, messed-up fictional story. I mean, what are the chances?”

“Maybe it means something?” Megan says. We both look at her. “I mean, maybe it’s a sign? You met Tanner, and he’s made you open to the possibility of having a conventional relationship. Now you find out his mom knew yours. That you and he knew each other as babies?”

“It’s just a fucking weird coincidence, Meg,” I say, reaching for another croissant, even though I haven’t eaten the one I’ve torn apart.

“I’m just saying. If you’d never met him, if things had never got serious enough for him to take you to meet his mom?” She looks from me to Matt.

“Maybe we should phone one of those psychic phone lines!” Matt says. “Get them to read the cards or something.”

I laugh a humorless laugh. “You couldn’t make this shit up.”

“What are you going to do?” Megan asks.

I lean back in my chair. What can I do? Do I need to do anything? It’s not like it changes much. My mom is still gone. Those years we never had together will always be lost.

“I guess just get on with things. I’m going to visit Tan’s mom, Nell, when I get back from my flight. She said I could go and talk to her. She’s got stories about Mom she said she would tell me.”

“That sounds lovely,” Matt says.

“It does,” Megan agrees, nodding her head.

We sit and eat breakfast together as the conversation turns to Megan’s commission for Tan’s company and Matt’s upcoming time off in a couple of months. He’s going to Hawaii with Stefan. I do a good job of nodding and making the odd comment, but really my mind is miles away.

It’s upstairs in my bedroom, at the bottom of a shoe box.


Tanner came to see me as he promised before my flight, the worry in his eyes clear. I assured him I’m fine; I just need some time for it to sink in. He begrudgingly left at the same time I had to leave for Heathrow Airport to check-in for my flight. Before he went, he kissed me with so much tenderness that I almost called in sick so that I could stay with him. The temptation shocked me; I really am a whole different person recently.

Me: Hey. I’m at your mom’s. I’ll give you a call later when I’m leaving.

I tap my fingers against my bottom lip as I wait for him to reply. I know he will. He always texts me straight back. Truthfully, he’s been incredible. He’s been there whenever I’ve needed him. And given me space whenever I’ve asked for it. I haven’t even always had to ask. He just seems to know. Sometimes I think he knows me better than I know myself. Finding out all of this stuff about Mom. It’s felt so surreal and overwhelming at times. It would have been a million times harder if Tanner weren’t around.

It’s been two weeks since Nell gave me the shoebox of my mom’s photographs, and I wish I could say it’s gotten easier. But I would be lying. The shock may have worn off, but I still feel… I don’t know.

Numb.

Tan: I bet she’ll have made a cake again. I swear if she has, then it’s official… she likes you more than me!

I smile as I picture what his face must have looked like as he typed out that message. I’ve been to see Nell a few times over the last two weeks. All without Tanner. Another prime example of when he’s sensed to give me space. The first time was strange. I didn’t take my jacket off for the first half an hour. I sat on the edge of my seat, feeling like my legs would work of their own accord, and I would bolt for the door—find it all too much and escape.

But Nell soon made me feel at ease. Maybe it’s a Mom thing. Or maybe it’s just a Nell thing. But I’ve found myself relaxing more and more in her company each time I visit. Now I look forward to our time together. We don’t even talk about my mom the entire time. She asks about places I’ve flown to and tells me about the holiday to Australia she and Peter are planning.

She’s made me feel safe in her home.

Safe enough to explore years of hidden memories.

Safe enough to wonder. Wonder about my future.

Because the more I learn about Mom and my past, the more I can’t help feeling like it means something. Like it’s telling me that it’s okay to dream about a different future for once.

One where I don’t have to do it all alone.

I take a deep breath and slide my phone into my pocket as I head to the front door and ring the bell. It really feels like I’ve spent more time here in the last two weeks than at my own house.

“Rachel!” Nell beams as though this is the greatest surprise, even though she knew I was coming.

“Hi, Nell.” I smile, stepping into her welcoming hug. She smells of cocoa butter and vanilla—sweet and comforting.

“You’re looking well, love. Did you sleep better last night?” she asks, studying my face.

I’ll admit, I have been sleeping better now that the shock of her revelation has sunk in. Either that or the new eye cream Holly sent me from LA is working wonders, and I look more awake. Nell fusses around me as we head inside, handing me some treats she’s picked up for Nigel, and then putting on the kettle and grabbing two mugs.

She doesn’t even ask what I want anymore; she just knows.

“How was Saint Lucia?” she asks over her shoulder as she cuts two large slices of cake and puts them onto plates. “You remembered to cream your back, didn’t you?”

I smile. “Yes, Nell, I remembered.”

“Good, good. These things are important.” She hands me the plates to take to the table. “It’s coffee and walnut, one of Tanner’s favorites. I’ve got half wrapped up for you to take.”

“Thank you.” I smile as I sit down, warmth spreading in my chest as I think about his text and cake comment.

I can take it to his house later. I’m spending the night there tonight as it’s the hotel re-opening night, and I want to go to support Megan. She showed me her artwork this morning. It’s amazing. The hotel is in a prime position for business travelers, so it has been re-designed with a vintage travel theme. Megan’s picture is an incredible collection of men and women in both modern and vintage uniforms, all merged into a large circular canvas, made to look like an aircraft engine. It’s going to look incredible in the foyer as the central piece. I’m going to get ready with her at home so we can share a taxi there. Tanner said he would pick us up, but I know he will be tight on time after work, and besides, I wanted it to be just Megan and me as I know she will be nervous. Maybe I can get a whisky into her before we leave. That will help her nerves.

Tanner and I have fallen into a routine these last two weeks of spending every night together—except when I was in Johannesburg and Saint Lucia with work. We alternate between his house and mine. I’ve noticed he’s even started leaving things at my house. First a toothbrush, then a razor. Then this morning, I saw that he left a pair of sweatpants. I swear he thinks he’s a genius, and I haven’t noticed yet. But I knew the second the toothbrush arrived. I just didn’t tell him. Seeing it there in the bathroom bothered me a lot less than I expected. But I’m more than happy to let him continue thinking he’s gotten away with it. He’s probably feeling smug as shit, knowing him. Marveling at his perceived stealth-like abilities and powers of deception.

“You, and his cake. He’ll think it’s his birthday.” Nell laughs, pulling my attention back to her as she sits down opposite me and hands me a steaming mug of caramel latte. I wrap my hands around it and smile at her. She catches my eye, hers twinkling. “You’re incredibly special to him, Rachel. You’re the only girlfriend he’s ever brought for lunch,” she says, taking a sip of her tea. I must look surprised as she laughs again. “You didn’t know?”

“No, I never thought about it, I guess.”

Thinking about it now, I know Tanner’s had lots of women in his life before, but the only girlfriend I’ve ever really heard about by name is Mandy. From what he’s said, all his relationships have been short-lived. But then, we haven’t been seeing each other that long, and he still brought me to meet his mom.

“Maybe that’s a good job, after how our first meeting went,” I joke.

Nell reaches across the table and pats my hand. “You’ve had a lot to take in. I think you’re doing a grand job,” she says kindly.

“I think it’s sunk in now. Seeing all the photos has been incredible. I’m so grateful you hung on to them. I feel like I at least know a bit more about her now.”

Nell looks thoughtful for a moment. “Did I tell you about the time Helen and I caught Tanner drawing on you with my lipstick?”

“What? No!” I laugh.

She leans back in her chair, her eyes bright. “You were barely old enough to sit up, but he was always trying to include you in his games. He was obsessed with Superman.” She rolls her eyes, chuckling. “Wore this little cape everywhere.”

I smile as the bath photograph comes to mind.

“Anyway, we had only left you together in the living room while we got lunch ready. We could hear you giggling away and just thought he was amusing you as he always did.”

Really? Tanner always made baby me laugh?

“Then, we go back in the room and can see he’s drawn all over your face with red lipstick. Said it was your superhero disguise.” Nell’s face creases up with laughter. “It took your mom fifteen minutes to wash it all off. Probably wouldn’t have been so long if she weren’t laughing so hard. You looked like a tomato!” Nell sighs, wiping her eyes with a tissue as she tries to control her giggles.

“Really? Tanner did that?” I’m still mulling over the idea of him knowing me as a baby. We were both too young to remember, yet we had this whole little friendship going on by the sounds of it.

“Yes. He always included you in his games. He loved you back then, too,” she says before her eyes widen and she tries to backtrack. “You know what I mean. You were sweet together,” she says before biting into her cake.

I look at her as a thought forms in my head. Just what has Tanner said to her? He’s told me they’re close. Does he tell her everything? Is he in love with me? I swallow down the lump in my throat, unsure what to make of the idea, as Nell glances up at me.

“Do you want to hear about the time your mom gave the postman an earful?”

I smile back at her. “Yes, yes, I do.”

Just like that, hours pass in Nell’s company again, talking about my mom and me and Tanner as a baby and toddler. With each story she tells me, I feel a stronger connection to who my mom was and how my life started. With each hour I spend in her company, I feel like something shifts inside me. I imagine this is what the connection feels like when you have a sense of belonging somewhere.

A feeling which has been so alien to me.

Until now.


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