Keeping Guard Ch. 02bysunny55235©
The rest of the day passed in a blur. After the doctors cleared me from the hospital I was given a ride home in the police escort Charles had arranged. By that time the news cameras had thinned out, but he still made sure to walk me through the front door with his arm securely around my waist just in case.
Once we were inside I slumped on the couch, trying not to let the events of the day replay in my head while Charles got me a glass of water. Before he got back his phone started ringing again, as it had all morning.
"Do you mind if I answer this time?" He asked when he handed me the glass. "It's Jerry, he's been calling all day."
I nodded, knowing his campaign manager would be breaking down the door soon if he didn't get to talk to his client about their newest strategies. Charles kissed me on the forehead before taking the call, keeping his excitement contained until he went in the next room.
I blocked out the conversation as best I could, but couldn't help noticing how many times my name came up. After ten minutes, Charles came back in the room looking triumphant.
"Jerry wants to meet with me to go over a few things, do you mind if I head over there?" He asked, already searching for his coat.
I gave a tired smile. "Sure, no problem. I'm just going to be resting anyway." Charles beamed at me as he gave me a quick hug, promised to return in an hour or two, then rushed out the front door without another word.
I spent the remainder of the day on the phone. I started with calling my parents, who had not seen the news but were glad to hear I was safe. I also made a call to my insurance agent, and a company he suggested to replace the front windows of my shop.
The final call of the day left me feeling even hollower than I already felt. As I was getting ready to take a hot bath the phone rang, and I listened to the message as the answering machine recorded.
"Good evening Ms. Noble," a gruff voice began. "I'm calling from Berle Security, and in light of today's events we believe we can no longer suit your security needs. You will receive a full refund for your remaining service period. We apologize for any inconvenience." The line went dead.
I stared at the blinking light on my answering machine, trying to comprehend how this had happened. In one morning I had managed to become a liability to an armored car company, a feat of which I never imagined myself capable. But the biggest disappointment was that the man who had stood between me and a loaded gone was now gone from my life. I didn't even know his full name.
As I sank into the hot water, I wondered when I could expect to see Charles again. Our time together had been limited ever since he was elected to office, and I shook my head in disbelief at how long it had been since we had led a normal life. His time had been even sparser since his reelection campaign began, and now I hardly saw him at all.
Charles and I had met when I was in college. I had been taking an economics class and was struggling to keep up, so I looked for a tutor to help me get through it. My professor recommended a third-year law student who was earning extra money by tutoring undergrads, so I gave it a shot. From the time I met Charles for our first study session, I was completely smitten.
What was once a hated subject became my favorite because of my new tutor, and I looked forward to our appointments every week. I used the tiny kitchen in my dorm to bake something different for each of our sessions, and Charles never objected to taking a snack break. With his help I managed a high B in the class, though I could have scored higher if I had kept my mind on the material rather than my tutor.
Once I graduated with my business degree, I was determined to buy the bakery my parents had been running for my entire life. The highest paying job I could find was as an administrator at a law firm, so I took the position until I could save enough money to buy my business.
The biggest shock came on my first day when a new prosecutor from the district attorney's office arrived for a meeting, and I found myself staring right into the eyes of my former tutor.
It took nearly a year of flirting for us to finally go on our first date, but from then on we were inseparable. He talked so passionately about his job and the satisfaction he got from the work he did. When I eventually saved up enough money to buy my bakery, he was the first in line for the grand opening and stopped by a few days a week during his lunch break.
His election to office had been a total fluke. A seat in the state senate became available when a senator resigned, and Charles was chosen to fill the empty position for the remainder of the term. He used his natural charm to sway his fellow senators in his favor, and began making national headlines with some of the work he was doing.
Charles' big break came when he exposed a multi-million dollar scandal in the opposing party, and he was immediately recognized as a serious contender for the US senate. He proposed to me on election night, joking it would have been his consolation if he had lost but was now just one more thing to celebrate.
I had been hesitant about the career path from the start, but Charles had ignored my apprehensions. He insisted our lives would only change for the better, and promised that there would be no interference with our relationship.
I eventually agreed to trust him, but right from the beginning he began breaking his promise. Now his campaign for reelection was in its final days, and his lead in the polls meant our lives were set to stay the same for years to come.
Since his introduction to politics, Charles had become increasingly distant. His late nights in the office coupled with my early mornings in the bakery meant we had little time for each other, and we had begun to drift apart. Both of our priorities had changed, and our relationship was fizzling to an end. Neither of us wanted to admit it, but we could hardly think of reasons to be together anymore.
I had even discovered that his proposal had been orchestrated. His campaign manger had reminded him that senators didn't have girlfriends, they had wives and mistresses and if he didn't want anyone getting the wrong idea he'd better get a ring on my finger.
When he didn't even call the rest of the night, my mind was made up: I'd had enough. I crawled into bed without setting an alarm, determined to sleep away the events of the day and trying desperately to keep the images of a shotgun pointed at me out of my head.
After a fitful sleep I woke with a start, the previous day still as fresh in my mind as the nightmare that woke me. I looked at the clock and sighed, wishing I could sleep past four in the morning even without my alarm. I glanced at my phone and saw that Charles had made no attempt to call me, so I punched in his number to ask him why.
"Hello?" his voice came after two rings. I had been expecting to wake him up, but it sounded like he had yet to go to bed.
"Are you ever planning on coming back here?" I asked, trying to keep my voice even.
"I don't know, it's pretty late," he replied after a pause. I could hear the faint sound of snoring in the background and knew his campaign manager was fast asleep.
I gritted my teeth before I replied. "No, it was late about five hours ago. Now it's early."
He sighed, but agreed to come back to my apartment as soon as he hung up. I got up from my bed and pulled some clothes on, trying to get my thoughts in order before he arrived. After a few minutes I heard Charles' key in the front door, and turned to see his smiling face walk in.
"Busy night?" I asked as he walked into my living room and flopped into a chair. He kicked off his shoes before resting them on my coffee table, exactly what I had asked him not to do more times than I could count.
"The results of an internet poll were just released, as of this evening I'm ahead by a very comfortable margin." The smug smile lingered on his face for a few seconds before he realized I wasn't congratulating him. "What's wrong?" he asked.
"You said you would be back in a few hours," I replied, the anger threatening to bubble to the surface.
Charles gave me a blank stare before he recovered himself. "I must have lost track of time, you know how crazy things get this time of year."
"Yes, it must have been a very difficult day for you."
He frowned at my sarcasm, and lifted his feet from the table before he responded. "Are you mad at me?"
I took a deep breath and crossed my arms. "You know what? Yes, I am mad at you."
"Because I didn't call you?" He seemed genuinely confused.
"Because you broke a promise," I told him, "and not for the first time."
He tried to brush off my comment with a wave of his hand. "I thought you'd be sleeping, I was trying to be considerate."
"That's a lie and you know it," I snapped back at him. "I'm not one of your constituents you can just say anything to and I'll roll over and believe it."
He raised his hands in mock surrender, his eyes growing big into his best look of innocence. "Look, I've been under a lot of pressure lately, and-"
"Oh I know all about your pressure. I've become good friends with your pressure. I get to spend more time with your pressure than I ever spend with you, so don't even try to lecture me about your pressure."
He stood up from his chair, the look of innocence turning to fascination. "What's gotten into you? You're being..." He hesitated.
"What? What am I being?" I asked.
Charles chose his next phrase with caution, putting careful emphasis on his response. "To be perfectly honest, you're being a little unreasonable."
"Unreasonable?" I spluttered back at him. "I'm being unreasonable? I've done everything you and that slimebag manager ever asked me to do. I've spent years playing the perfect little fiancée, and I'm the one being unreasonable?
"Would you calm down?" He looked around like he expected the neighbors to burst through the front door with a video camera any second.
"My entire life is being run by someone else, and you expect me to be calm about it?"
"Don't be ridiculous," he scoffed, "your life isn't being run by anyone."
"Really? So why can't I remember the last time you spent the night here?"
He gave a sigh like a parent explaining a simple concept to a child. "You know how inappropriate that would seem to the more conservative-"
I cut him off before he finished making my point for me. "Uh-huh, and why did you refuse to visit my parents' house last week?"
He rolled his eyes. "You saw the campaign signs in their yard. Do you really think it inspires confidence when your own family isn't supporting me?"
Charles was still infuriatingly calm while I was getting angrier by the second, so I made one last attempt at making my point. "The only reason you proposed to me was because Jerry told you to," I said, lowering my voice. "Be honest, did you ever love me or was I just a part of your plan?"
When he answered he raised his voice ever so slightly, his calm exterior threatening to crack. "Oh don't be so melodramatic, of course I loved you." I winced at the past tense, and he immediately realized his mistake. "Look, what I meant was-"
"Of course, you loved everything about me that could help your stupid campaign. The young entrepreneur who bought a small business from her salt of the earth, pillars of the community parents. Just gloss over the part where I almost ran it into the ground, and play up how I'm giving back to the community you vow to keep representing in Washington."
"No, you listen. I've put up with all this for long enough. I did everything you ever asked me to do without batting an eyelash. I've sat here by myself for every birthday, anniversary and holiday while you're off endearing yourself to strangers. You've never once made our relationship a priority, and I've had enough."
The realization that this was not a regular argument finally dawned on him, and he stared at me before he spoke. "You're breaking up with me?"
If my engagement ring had been on my finger instead of part of a crime scene, I would have pulled it off and laid it down on the coffee table. Instead I had to settle for a firm nod. I was exhausted, and involuntary tears were running down my face. Charles slumped back into the chair, defeated.
A long silence filled the room, and Charles sat rubbing his eyes as he thought everything over. "The election is in two weeks, can we just play happy couple until then?" His voice was weighed heavily by fatigue, and his ever-present confidence was slipping. "You can disappear off the face of the earth after that if you want to, I just need your help until then."
I wiped the tears from my face, but didn't meet his eye. I felt like all the anger had flowed right out of me, and I felt at peace for the first time in months. Charles stood from his chair and stepped in front of me, but I still kept my eyes down. His fingers brushed my cheek, tilting my face up to meet his gaze. "Please," he said.
For a moment I saw a glimpse of the man I had fallen in love with. In his eyes was the law student teaching me about consumption and inflation between bites of freshly-made cookies. The prosecutor who put dangerous criminals behind bars and worked hard to ensure justice was done. My heart ached for what I had once had, and what could never be mine again.
In the end I nodded to him, agreeing to play his game for just a little longer. He responded with a relieved smile, and any doubts I had about my decision disappeared as I was reminded that he was just trying to keep his campaign afloat. "What do you want me to do?" I asked, sinking onto the couch.
He thought for a moment before replying. "I'll be mostly on the road, so you won't have to make many public appearances. Just be supportive if anyone asks questions, and tell them how excited you are about my campaign."
"Fine," I said, wanting nothing more than to crawl back into bed.
"You'll need to be there on election night too, Jerry wants to plan something big." He glanced at my hand, and then added. "Keep wearing your ring too, OK?"
"Is that all?" I asked, meeting his eye.
"That's all," he replied, and without another word Charles pulled on his shoes and left my apartment. It struck me that he never tried to change my mind, never once suggested salvaging the relationship. I changed back into my pajamas, crawled into bed, and slept.
After a few days I was allowed back into my bakery. The police had finished collecting whatever evidence they needed, giving me back my ring and leaving me to clean up most of the mess. After a solid day of sweeping broken glass, throwing out spoiled food and sterilizing every flat surface in the entire store, I was ready to reopen for business.
As soon as I threw the doors open the first morning, I knew I would make up for the days I had lost. People who had never heard of my bakery read about it in the news, and the line stretched out the door as customers eagerly waited to try my food. Before noon I had sold out of nearly everything in the store, and was rushing to get more into the oven.
By early afternoon things had quieted down and by the time I was ready to close I was back into my usual routine. I took advantage of a lull in the flow of customers to retreat to the kitchen to get my preparations started for the next morning, and was so busy pulling out mixing bowls that I didn't hear the front door open.
"Megan?" a voice called. I knew it sounded familiar, but I couldn't quite place it until I came out of the kitchen and stood face to face with my security guard. Instead of his usual crisp uniform he had on a pair of jeans and a polo shirt, but the same hint of a smile still played at the corners of his lips. "I heard you reopened, I was hoping to try whatever always smells so good."
I was completely at a loss about how to react. Should I thank him? Hug him? As my eyes traced his face I noticed a small bandage on the side of his head, and I was reminded of the horrible sound the gun made as it hit him.
"I was just about to close," I finally managed to say. "Take a seat, I'll bring it out to you," As John made his way to the spindly metal table that sat at the front of my shop I pulled out a platter and put a little of everything on it. His eyes lit up as I set the platter in front of him, and he accepted a fork with a wide grin. I went back to the counter to pour him a cup of coffee, then turned the lock on the front door before making my way back to the table to sit opposite him.
John was already making impressive progress on the heap of food, and seemed to be enjoying every bite. He was halfway through the selection before he remembered I was there, and casually wiped his face on a napkin. "It's very good," he said after swallowing a mouthful of pie.
I smiled and thanked him, then tried to think of something else to say as we lapsed back into silence. "How's the head?" I asked, gesturing to the bandage.
"Oh it's fine," he said after a sip of coffee. "Just a nasty bruise. It looks a lot worse than it is, so I've been trying to keep it covered up."
I nodded, trying to get a closer look without him noticing. Eventually I gave up and went back to watching the food disappearing.
"This is only the second time I've been out here in the front. It seems so quiet without all the cameras and ambulances," John said, before adding quietly, "and politicians."
I looked away, embarrassed again by the way Charles had acted that day. John looked back at his plate before asking, "How's the fiancé?"
I let out a short sigh before answering. "Last I heard he was ahead in the polls, so I'm sure he's doing just fine." I hesitated. "And he's not really my fiancé anymore."
"Oh?" He was trying to look casual, but I couldn't help noticing the spark of interest in his eyes. I gave him a recap of the last time I saw Charles, our argument, and the arrangement we had made.
John looked puzzled. "So, you're pretending to still be engaged to the guy?"
"I know, pathetic isn't it?" I said, laying my head on the table and covering my face with my arms. "I can't even break up with him without getting talked out of it."
I half expected John to sneak out while my eyes were closed, to walk away and never come back. Now that his company had dumped me as a client he had no reason to ever visit the shop again, and I was just waiting for him to realize this fact. Instead, I felt his warm hand against my arm and heard his voice close to my ear.
"Maybe when all this is over I can take you out to dinner?" he said.
I peeked over my arms. "Really?" I asked, my voice muffled by my sleeves.
He laughed. "I should warn you though, there's no guarantee I'll have a new job by then so it might need to be somewhere cheap."
I sat straight up and stared at him. "Did you quit?"
My mouth dropped open. "But why?"
"Officially, it was for not following the very specific company protocol for an armed robbery." He sighed. "Unofficially, they're just covering their asses in case anyone decides to sue."
I let out a hollow laugh and told him about the message I had received from his former employers. "Huh," he answered after a pause. "We could start a band, call ourselves The Liabilities."
For what felt like the first time in months, I laughed. All the stress I had left in me, all the anger and hurt feelings left over from the argument, were released for good as my body shook with laughter. By the time I caught my breath I had tears in my eyes, and I realized John was staring at me from across the table.
"It wasn't that funny, was it?" He asked.
I let out another short chuckle before saying, "No, I just haven't had much to laugh about lately."