Here is Chapter II of my short fiction experiment. I was waffling about whether I wanted the original piece (A Bit of Fiction) to stand alone or be the opening chapter in a longer tale, but after some encouragement from a few good friends (and after admitting to myself that I also wanted to see where the story would lead), here is the next installment. Enjoy!
A caveat before we get to the actual tale: I know the layout is non-standard, but since this is a first draft and I am still working out the details of this story-writing business, I will fix the formatting weirdness on the next round of edits. I hope the wonkiness doesn’t detract too much from the storyline.
P.S. If you need a refresher on “the story thus far,” read my blog post entitled “A Bit of Fiction” (which I would conveniently provide a link to right here if I knew how to do it in WordPress!).
What greeted her on the other side of the door was not what she expected.
The man standing in the doorway grinned, or rather leered, in a disconcertingly familiar way. He had all the right parts to be handsome – tall, muscular build, sandy blond hair, piercing blue eyes, but somehow the sum of the parts didn’t add up to anything resembling attractive, at least to her. There was something in his expression, his eyes, his body language that made her “spidey senses” tingle and put her on edge. She had the distinct feeling that she should know him, but she couldn’t place him. “Oh, um, I was expecting someone else. Can I help you?” she stammered.
“Gets ‘em every time” he smirked, as he started to push past her to enter her room. “Do you open the door for just anybody?”
She was suddenly acutely aware that the doors to the ocean liner suites were down short hallways off the main passageway. With the man standing in her doorway, she had nowhere to go but back into her room, which every fiber in her being told her was a very bad idea. “Wait,” she said, still standing in the doorway and blocking his entrance. He was now uncomfortably close, and she could feel her claustrophobia starting to rise. “Do I know you?”
“Yeah, you know me! Geoff Harrison, your oldest, biggest fan! We went to school together. I tell everybody that I knew you when,” he chortled, reaching for the doorknob to try to push past her and enter the room.
“Wait! Guy? Guy Harrison?” Could it be? The weird kid who’d moved into the neighborhood when she was in elementary school and whom she’d befriended more out of pity than out of genuine friendship? She had eventually begun to avoid him after he’d gotten a little too clingy, too possessive, too stalker-like (although she’d had had no idea of what a stalker was back then), and she’d completely forgotten about him after they’d all graduated from high school and gone their separate ways.
“Yeah, I don’t go by Guy anymore. That’s what my mother used to call me. I’m not a kid anymore,” he said uncomfortably, through partially clenched teeth. Did she imagine a tinge of regret or a thinly disguised hint of malice in his tone? Was she being paranoid?
“So, are you going to invite me in or what?” he smirked, brightening up instantly and trying to move past her into the room again, “and are you ever gonna accept my friend request on Facebook?”
She ran a few quick scenarios in her mind, trying to decide how best to redirect him to a more neutral space and feeling a growing irritation that her agent, her manager, her assistant and the crack security team she was supposed to have were nowhere to be found.
“You know, Guy … I mean Geoff …” she started, when a voice behind them said, “I hope I’m not interrupting anything.” She glanced up, startled (she’d hadn’t even heard him walk up) and saw a tall figure standing in the hallway in front of her.
He looked almost exactly as she remembered him, albeit a bit older. He was wearing what she always jokingly referred to as the Undercover Cop Uniform – khaki twill slacks, a dressy t-shirt, and the ubiquitous unbuttoned navy sports jacket (the better to carry a concealed weapon, of course). The expression on his face was slightly bemused, but with an underlying sense of assessing a potential threat.
“Garan!” she exclaimed, with more relief and desperation than she’d intended. “How great to see you!” She moved past Guy to give Garan a hug, and said, “Do you remember Guy? From high school?”
“It’s Geoff,” Guy said, gruffly and then smirked again. “Garan Lyons. Don’t you clean up nicely? Still doing the rent-a-cop thing, I see.”
Garan stepped past Brenna, obstensibly to shake hands with Guy but also to put himself between them. Years of executive protection had trained him to know when a client needed space or needed an out. “Long time, no see, Guy.” He turned back to Brenna, smiled at her and said, “Are you ready to go?”
“Go? Go where? Are we leaving?” she thought to herself, but to her credit, she played along and didn’t even miss a beat. “Of course. Just let me grab my purse and my notes.” She moved past the two men and into her room, noting that Garan had moved forward onto the thresh hold facing Guy where he could see both into her suite and down the hallway to the main passageway. She had no idea where they were going, but assuming it was away from Guy and with Garan, she was willing to go there.
Guy, seeming to take the hint, called after her “See you around, Brenna. We should grab a drink sometime. We’re all stuck on this boat together for a week.” He turned to Garan, punched his arm a little too forcefully for the playful, macho gesture it was intended to be, tossed a casual “Later, dude,” over his shoulder and strode off down the passageway just as Brenna emerged with purse, shoulder wrap and notebook in hand.
She let out her breath (she hadn’t even realized she’d been holding it!), and looked up at Garan. He was looking at her with that same slightly bemused expression on his face, the one she remembered seeing so often when they were hanging around the same social circle, so many years ago. Gods, he was handsome, even with the extra years. The upcoming week of forced proximity was going to be both wonderful and terrible. How could she still feel so nervous and unsure around him, after all this time, especially after all she’d accomplished and all she’d been through? She was almost 40, for gods’ sake. Wasn’t that a little old for schoolgirl crushes?
She became acutely aware that they were standing together in the doorway, nearly touching, and grew suddenly shy. As she often did, she decided to break the tension with a joke she hoped he’d get. “Garan Lyons. I always knew some day you’d come walking back through my door,” she paraphrased from Raiders of the Lost Ark (one of her favorite movies and one that she recalled he’d enjoyed as well).
His smile deepened in recognition and he said, “Hello, Brenna. So, we meet again.”
“It is so good to see you,” she answered as she relaxed a little more. “Maybe this won’t be so bad after all,” she thought as he gestured toward the main passageway, and she moved past him out of the doorway. He pulled the cabin door closed behind him, checked to make sure it was locked and followed her into the passageway. They fell into step with each other as they moved down the passageway toward the main deck.
“Thank you for that, by the way,” she motioned toward her cabin with her head, indicating the encounter with Guy. “What are the odds that that blast from the past would show up here? I never liked Guy much when we were in school, and now I get to avoid him for the entire trip.”
“Just doing my job,” he answered, “but I didn’t expect to see him. Has he been stalking you?”
“No, not at all. At least, not that I’ve been aware of. The fan club handles a lot of the correspondence and inquiries, though. This is the first time I’ve laid eyes on him in years. I think he’s pretty much harmless, but fairly socially clueless.” Even as she said the words, though, they seemed insincere. He had tried to force himself on her once, long ago, when they were both in the throes of prepubescence, but she’d managed to extricate herself and get away from the situation. She’d been so naive back then, but even now she remembered what his intentions were and wondered what he was capable of. But, they’d just been dumb kids, after all. Still, why did she feel the need to defend him or excuse his behavior?
She snapped back to the present again, mentally kicking herself for dwelling on the past when the present was much more enjoyable. “Where are we headed, by the way?” she asked, ready to move the conversation to a more pleasant subject.
“Lido Deck champagne bar. Bon voyage meeting and reception with your agent and your manager. Didn’t you get the appointment request?”
“I must’ve missed that,” she admitted, poignantly aware of just how much she relied on her personal assistant, who would not be making the voyage with her. It would be both wonderful and awful to not have a keeper for the next week. She’d need to remember how to be self-reliant. “What else is on my agenda for this trip? I thought I was on vacation.”
“VIP dinner with the captain Tuesday night. Invitation only. Black tie. You are the guest of honor.”
“Crap! Anything else?”
“That’s all I know of for now. You should really check your calendar,” he smiled at her again with that bemused expression and she blushed.
“Well, I’m glad you’re on top of it. I’ll bet you didn’t know that part of being my bodyguard was being my keeper.”
It all came from a fear of flying.
The prospect of a week-long transatlantic voyage on a luxury ocean liner had been so appealing (rest, relaxation, time to work without the usual distractions and interruptions, escape from the demands of the press and the public). It was a much more glamorous and civilized way to travel, and it had all been carefully arranged so that she’d arrive in plenty of time to do the rounds of appearances and promotion overseas. It would be a vacation, of sorts.
:::knock, knock, knock::: “Security.”
At first, she’d resented the intrusion, both for the loss of privacy and the illusion of safety. She’d always prided herself on being in charge, in control, capable of handling any emergency, calm and rational in the face of extreme situations. In the past, she’d never been able to rely on anyone else having her back in a fight or backing her up when she needed it, so she’d learned to be her own backup. A self-rescuing princess, like the saying on the cutesy toddler shirt she once saw online. Trust no one completely.
Now, that had changed. Being a woman of some notoriety these days, a constant security presence was a necessary evil. Such was the price of fortune and glory, it seemed. Still, she had to admit to herself, albeit reluctantly, that having a body-guard, a guardian angel, an escort did have a certain appeal. It certainly helped give her a bit of breathing room when her claustrophobia kicked in amidst the press of adoring fans and aggressive paparazzi, and as much as she hated to admit it, being considered precious enough or valuable enough to be deemed worthy of protection was a boost to her sometimes fragile self-esteem and ego.
What she hadn’t counted on was that it would be him. Well, she assumed it was him. How many men in the world could there be with that name? Gods, had it been almost 20 years since she’d seen him? They certainly weren’t getting any younger.
She’d always had a thing for him, ever since she’d first met him in school way-too-many years ago. He was genuinely, timelessly handsome with a wry, sarcastic sense of humor, and they’d both been unabashed geeks about the same music, books, movies and TV shows. He’d always been kind and thoughtful too, unlike most guys their age. When her best friend confessed her own secret crush on him, she’d worked hard to arrange for the two of them to date and later, go steady, just so she’d have an excuse to be around him. She’d never felt pretty enough or smart enough or good enough to ask him out herself, but she’d lived vicariously through not one, but two friends she’d set him up with. It was safer that way. At least she could keep him in her life as a friend.
They’d lost touch over the years, of course. She’d struggled through substance abuse, self-loathing, and a variety of failed relationships before finally finding her sanity, her voice, herself. She’d heard through mutual friends that he’d done a stint in the military, had gotten married, had started a family, but she hadn’t seen or spoken to him for the better part of two decades and the prospect of reconnecting now filled her with a curious mix of excitement and dread. Funny that he’d gone into “executive protection,” as it was called. He was a perfect fit for it.
Had he known it would be her when he agreed to take this assignment? Would it be awkward, being together constantly for the better part of a week when they hadn’t seen or spoken to each other for so long? She was relieved to have talked her handlers into letting her have the suite to herself on the ship, but they had insisted on her security detail having the room next to hers with an adjourning door. Judging by the way her heart was pounding, she obviously still had feelings for him. Would he be able to tell? Would he care? Would it affect his ability to do his job? Would it affect her ability to do hers?
:::knock, knock, knock::: “Brenna?”
She glanced in the mirror, noting her softer, rounder body, her relatively few wrinkles (for a woman her age), the sprinkling of silver-gray lightening her once dark hair. Then, she put on her best, most confident smile, took a deep breath, and opened the door.