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Raquel felt rather sad after her mother and Paula left on Monday. It had been so nice to have them there, and she wished they could have stayed longer – but she reminded herself of the fact that there were only three weeks left of the shoot, and she would see them again soon. She hated that she’d had to send Paula back to Alberto, though – who knew what he’d be telling the child? He’d stopped calling or messaging Raquel, since she wasn’t answering anyway, and it left her with an uneasy feeling. She didn’t believe for a moment that he’d given up, and she wondered with a sick sense of dread in her stomach what his next move was going to be. She still remembered the message he’d sent her last week: I could fly out there to talk in person. It had probably just been a way to get her to call him, but she knew that he was really capable of doing it. When they’d been married, he’d shown up unannounced on set several times.

She tried to put the thought from her mind and focus on her work and her life on set, but that wasn’t much better. Things were weird between her and Sergio – they’d agreed on being friends, but Raquel wasn’t sure what that entailed, and it was clear that Sergio didn’t, either. They talked when they saw each other on set, but neither of them really knew how to behave. Raquel was afraid that she’d push him too far again, or that she’d give him the impression that she still wanted more, so she kept her distance and was careful about what she said or did around him. He kept a careful distance in return, clearly afraid that he’d send the wrong signals and give her hope again. All in all, things were awkward, and they didn’t move beyond some superficial conversation. It made Raquel so sad, after what they’d once been to each other. She felt so clearly that this wasn’t real friendship, and that it wouldn’t last beyond the shooting of the movie. Three more weeks, and then she’d lose him all over again.

A few days after Mariví and Paula had flown back to Madrid, Raquel came back to her suite of rooms after one of her dinners with Elena. She wasn’t very tired yet, and as she slipped her key card into the slot on her door, she was vaguely thinking that she should use the rest of the evening to study lines.

The moment she opened her door and stepped into her room, however, she froze. The lights were on. Had she left them on? But no – it had still been light out when she’d left the room to go have dinner with Elena, and she was sure that the lights hadn’t been on then. Her heart was beating fast as she looked around the room – was anything different? Yes – yes – her laptop wasn’t where she’d left it, and it looked like some of the furniture had been moved. There was only one explanation: someone had been in her room.

Or someone still was in her room.

There was only one thought in her mind: Alberto. He’d flown out here and now he was waiting for her here, maybe in the bedroom. She suddenly couldn’t breathe. No. No. If he was here, that could only mean one thing…

She was pressed against the wall, her arms raised to ward off another blow.

She was hiding behind the locked door of the bathroom, wondering if he’d break it down. He did.

She was on the floor, crying, cradling her broken wrist.

Fear – horror – despair. Pain. Over and over again. Pain.

And worst of all: knowing she deserved it.

She couldn’t move – she couldn’t breathe – the memories kept her nailed to the floor – but then the fear fully took hold of her, and she panicked. She turned sharply and ran out of the room, pulling the door shut behind her with a loud ‘bang!’. Out in the hallway, she retreated against the opposite wall, paralyzed by fear – what should she do? What should she do? If he was there, he must have heard the door – was he going to come after her? Oh god, oh god! Panic overwhelmed her, and she started running towards the stairway without thinking about it – she just knew that she had to get out of there.

As she passed the elevators, however, one of the doors opened, and Sergio stepped out. She ran straight into him, and he only just caught her before she fell.

“Whoa!” he said, flustered. “Careful!”

Then he saw her face, and his expression changed to concern.

“What’s wrong?”

She was shaking, her breathing fast and uneven.

“There’s… there’s someone in my room.”

“What?” he frowned, glancing down the hallway. “Are you sure?”

“Yes,” she said. She was getting dizzy, and she realized vaguely that she was hyperventilating. “Oh god. Oh god.”

“It’s okay,” he said, his hand still on her arm. “It’s okay, Raquel.”

“I…” she whispered, looking back at the door of her room. “I think…” Nobody had come out, but that didn’t mean… “Alberto.”

“Oh,” Sergio said. “Did you… did you invite him?”

She shook her head, and Sergio’s frown deepened.

“Do you want to me to go check…?”

“No!” she said, putting a hand on his arm. “No, don’t!”

“Alright…” he said slowly. He looked at her, taking in her wide eyes and scared expression. “Raquel, I’m going to call down to the front desk for security, okay?”

She nodded, her mouth dry, her eyes still fixed on the door down the hall. The first wave of panic was passing now, but she was still shaking. There were two armchairs and a little table in front of the elevators, and Sergio carefully steered her by the elbow to one of the chairs. She sat down and tried to take deep, calming breaths while Sergio called down to the front desk.

“Yes, room 502,” she heard him say. “Yes. Thank you.”

A moment later, he kneeled down in front of her chair.

“Security is on its way,” he said steadily. “They’ll check the room. Everything will be okay.”

She gave him a grateful look. His calm tone and steady presence were calming her down – and as she did, she started to realize that she’d overreacted rather dramatically. She swallowed, and managed to pull herself together.

“Maybe… maybe that’s not necessary,” she said. “I was just… surprised. If it’s Alberto, I’ll… I’ll go talk to him.”

Sergio was shaking his head.

“No,” he said. “Let’s wait for security. If there’s someone in your room, you can’t go back in there.”

“It’s probably just Alberto,” Raquel said, trying to keep her voice steady. “I’ll… I’ll tell him to leave.”

“Raquel,” Sergio said quietly. “Please wait for security.”

She took a deep breath, then nodded.

“Alright.”

It only took another minute before the elevator doors opened, and a man in a black suit stepped out.

“Security,” he said. “What’s the problem, ma’am?”

“Well,” Raquel hesitated. “The lights are on in my room, and… and my things have been moved…”

The man frowned.

“That could be a burglar,” he said. “I’ll go check.”

“Thank you,” Sergio said.

The man walked down the hall, and Raquel and Sergio followed him. Raquel’s heart was starting to beat faster again – if it was Alberto, and she’d called security on him, then things would only be worse for her afterwards – but it was too late now.

Sergio was looking at her closely.

“Are you okay?”

She made an effort to keep herself together and nodded.

“Yes,” she said. “I’m… I’m sure I’m making a big deal out of nothing. Alberto said he might fly out here, he’s been wanting to talk to me. Maybe… maybe he got a key from the front desk.”

“Let’s check anyway,” Sergio said.

The man in the black suit went into the room while Raquel and Sergio waited just outside. Raquel was nauseous – what if it was Alberto? She couldn’t have the security guard take him outside – what would people think? She’d just have to deal with him…

The security guard came back out.

“There’s nobody in there, ma’am.”

She felt faint with relief.

“Really?”

“I’m positive,” the man nodded. “I looked around thoroughly.”

“Someone was still in there, though,” Raquel said. “My things were moved.”

“Well,” the guard said, “I see that your laptop and your jewelry are still there, so I doubt that it was a burglary. Perhaps it was just housekeeping?”

“They always come in the morning,” Raquel said. “My things were moved after I’d been in the room in the early evening.”

Sergio took out his phone again.

“I’ll call Elena,” he said. “She’ll know what to do.”

Elena assured them that she’d get to the bottom of this, and it only took her five minutes before she showed up with someone from hotel management in tow.

“Nothing to worry about,” she said. “Just a misunderstanding.”

“I’m sorry, Ms. Murillo,” the manager said, and he did look very apologetic. “This morning, the housekeeper spilled something on the big rug in your living room. We came in later today to change it, and that’s why your things were moved.”

He stepped into the room, and came out with a small card, which he handed to Raquel.

“I explained it all on this card, and put it on your table.”

“Oh,” Raquel said, suddenly feeling very stupid. “I… I didn’t see it.”

She felt herself go red as she looked at the people gathered around her.

“I’m… I’m so sorry. I really overreacted.”

“Nonsense,” Elena said crisply. “I’d have been worried too in your place, and it’s always better to be safe than sorry.”

Sergio was nodding, and so were the men of the hotel.

“Still…” Raquel said, her cheeks burning. “I’m so sorry to bother you all.”

“No bother at all, Ms. Murillo,” the manager said. “This was entirely our fault. My apologies again.”

He left, together with the security guard. Raquel looked at the open door to her room. It was silly of her – she knew everything was alright – but she still didn’t want to go in there. She was feeling really shaken, and she didn’t want to be alone.

Elena noticed.

“You need a drink,” she said firmly, putting a hand on Raquel’s arm. “Come on, let’s go to the bar.”

Raquel glanced at Sergio, who gave her a slight smile.

“I’m glad you’re okay,” he said. “If you need anything… I’m right next door.”

“Thank you,” Raquel said quietly.

He nodded, gave her one last look, then went into his room.

“Come on,” Elena said, patting her arm. “Let’s invite Nairobi too and have a girl’s night.”

“Yes,” Raquel said, taking a deep breath and putting on a smile. “I’d like that.”

The bar was full enough to create a lively atmosphere, but not so full that it felt crowded, and Raquel, Elena and Nairobi had a table to themselves. They talked about the movie they were shooting, about other projects they had worked on or would work on in the future, and about the challenges of being a woman in this business – as an actress, director and producer respectively. Raquel was so glad for the distraction, and she had a great time. Elena and Nairobi both had a cutting brand of humor, and they played off each other really well as they reminisced about all the awful people they’d worked with through the years. Raquel laughed until there were tears on her cheeks – she couldn’t remember when she’d last laughed like this.

They kept the drinks coming, but after a while, Raquel switched to water.

“Water?” Nairobi said, on her fifth beer herself. “Why?”

“I don’t like to get drunk in public,” Raquel said.  

“Why not?” Nairobi asked, but Elena was nodding thoughtfully.

“I get that,” she said. “When you’re such a public figure.”

“Ohh,” Nairobi said, looking around. “You’re afraid that someone would take your picture?”

“Yes,” Raquel said. “A picture, or a video. Now that everyone has a camera on their phone, everyone’s a journalist. No public space is safe if people recognize you.”

“Got you,” Nairobi nodded. “You don’t want to get drunk and do something embarrassing in front of a bunch of people who know who you are.”

“A picture like that could get them a nice sum with the gossip magazines, I suppose?” Elena asked, and Raquel nodded.

“Exactly.”

“God,” Nairobi sighed. “I’m so glad I’m only behind the camera. It must be so exhausting to have to be perfect all the time. People should be allowed to make mistakes.”

“It’s not so bad here,” Raquel said. “We’re in such a secluded spot here that there’s no press, and that’s such a relief. Filming in Madrid, there’s always paparazzi buzzing around. It’s been nice to have a break from that.”

“I can imagine,” Nairobi said, throwing back the rest of her beer and signaling the waitress for another one.

Elena was nodding too, but then she said:

“You know, Alicia Sierra was complaining about that the other day.”

“About what?” Raquel asked.

Nairobi snorted.

“What was she not complaining about?”

“The lack of publicity,” Elena explained to Raquel. “She doesn’t like that there’s no press hanging around the set, or following the actors around. Less press means less free publicity for the movie.”

“God, that woman is awful,” Nairobi said drily. “We were talking about horrible people we’ve worked with earlier – well, she’s one of the worst.”

At that point, a man came over to their table – about forty, in a suit, with his hair combed back.

“Excuse me,” he said to Elena. “I couldn’t help but notice you… Can I buy you a drink?”

Elena looked him up and down, then shook her head.

“No, thank you,” she said. “I’m having an evening with my friends.”

“Alright,” the man shrugged. “Can’t blame a guy for trying.”

Nairobi watched him walk away, then turned to Elena.

“Come on!” she said. “He’s cute! Why not?”

“He’s not my type,” Elena shrugged.

“I’d go for him if I wasn’t married,” Nairobi said. “And you’re single! Go for it!” She grinned. “When was the last time you had a little fun, Elena?”

Elena gave her a dignified look.

“That’s none of your business.”

Nairobi’s grin widened.

“A long time ago, then.” She nudged Raquel and started scanning the bar. “Come on, let’s find Elena someone to hook up with tonight.”

Raquel laughed and agreed, and the two of them spent some time rating the men in the bar while Elena looked on with an amused expression, giving her veto every time Nairobi proposed someone.

Then, suddenly, her expression darkened, and Raquel turned around to see Andrés walk into the room with one of the younger actresses on his arm.

“Oh,” she said, turning back to Elena. “Wasn’t he with a different girl just last week?”

“Of course he was,” Elena said, with an expression of utmost disdain. “He goes through women like other men go through clean shirts.”

“I’ve had three interns quit because of him!” Nairobi said. “Three! Guy should learn to keep it in his pants.” But then her eyes started sparkling. “Or maybe he can put that talent to good use tonight.”

She threw Elena a meaningful glance, and Elena’s eyebrows shot up.

Excuse me?”

“Why not?” Nairobi exclaimed. “He’s handsome, he’s charming, and there’s all this chemistry between you!”

Elena looked highly offended.

“That’s not chemistry,” she said. “That’s me wanting to strangle him.”

“A little kinky,” Nairobi grinned, “but maybe he’s into that.”

“Over my dead body,” Elena said, leaning back and crossing her arms. “He’s the most arrogant, narcissistic asshole I’ve ever had the displeasure to work with.”

“And I bet he’s terrible in bed,” Raquel mumbled into her drink.

That made the other two women laugh.

“Yes!” Elena said. “I bet he doesn’t even try!”

“Then maybe he needs someone to teach him a thing or two,” Nairobi grinned.

“Nairobi,” Elena said threateningly, “I’m very fond of you, but if you keep going like that, you’re going to end up with a drink thrown in your face.”

“Sounds like you really need to get laid,” Nairobi grinned, then jumped up, laughing, as Elena picked up her glass. “Fine, fine, I’ll shut up!”

Andrés settled down with his date at a nearby table, and the three women had some fun guessing what kind of terrible pick-up lines he was using on her. Elena and Nairobi kept ordering drinks, and they were both quite tipsy when Andrés’ date got up and left right after midnight.

“Oooh,” Nairobi said, “he struck out!”

“Good for her,” Elena said with considerable satisfaction.

Andrés had spotted them, however, and came walking over to them, his usual rakish grin in place.

“Evening, ladies.”

“Oh no,” Elena said. “Just because your date ditched you, doesn’t mean you should come bothering us.

Andrés ignored her and sat down in an empty chair.

“Can I buy you all a drink?”

“For once in your life,” Elena said, “could you just go away when you’re not welcome?”

Andrés turned to her with a grin, and they started their usual bickering. Nairobi shot Raquel a meaningful look and got up.

“I think I’ll go to bed,” she said lightly. “You coming too, Raquel? Early start tomorrow.”

“Yes,” Raquel said, pushing back her chair. “You’re right, I should go to bed too.”

They said their goodnights, and left Andrés and Elena arguing at the table as they made their way into the hotel lobby.

“Those two,” Nairobi said, grinning. “They should just get a room.”

Raquel threw her an amused look.

“Be glad that Elena didn’t hear you say that,” she said.

“Oh please,” Nairobi grinned. “It’s all sexual tension. Be good for both of them – and for the rest of us, I might add – if they’d just do it already.”

Raquel laughed as they stepped into an elevator together.

“You’re mad, Nairobi.”

“Either way,” Nairobi said, turning to Raquel with a smile. “We should do this again.”

“Definitely,” Raquel smiled back.

Nairobi hugged her and kissed her on the cheek, then stepped out of the elevator as it reached her floor. Raquel continued up a few floors more, all the way to the top floor of the hotel.

As she stepped out of the elevator into the empty hallway, she felt her good mood evaporate. She walked up to the door of her room, then stopped. Even though she knew that Alberto wasn’t there, the room still had an icky feeling to her now, and she still didn’t want to go in there and be alone. The scare she’d had earlier had brought up bad memories, and she could still feel them lurking in the darker corners of her mind, waiting to pounce again.

Then, suddenly, the door next to hers opened, and Sergio peeked out.

“I thought I heard you,” he said softly, coming out into the hallway. “Are you… are you okay?”

“Yes,” Raquel said, not entirely truthfully. “I’m okay.”

“Did you have a good evening?”

“Yes,” she smiled, “until your brother came along and started fighting with Elena.”

“Ah,” he said, smiling slightly too. “The usual.”

“Quite,” she said, then gave him a curious look. “You’re up late.”

He hesitated as he looked at her, and she felt a warm rush of feeling as she understood. He’d been waiting for her to come back.

“Thank you,” she said softly.

“I… I just wanted to make sure you were okay,” he said, giving her a careful look. “You seemed really shaken, earlier.”

“Yes,” she said, feeling her spirits sink again as she turned back to face her door. “I was.”

They stood in silence for a moment as Raquel tried to find the courage to open the door. Finally, Sergio spoke again.

“Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Yes,” she said, giving herself a shake. “I’m just being stupid.”

“What do you mean?”

“I… I don’t want to go back in,” she admitted. “Even though I know nothing happened. Stupid.”

He gave her a long look. Then he suddenly said:

“Do you want to go for a walk?”

She turned to him in surprise.

“What?”

“A walk,” he repeated, gesturing vaguely in the direction of the beach. “So you… so you don’t have to go back in right away.”

“But… it’s the middle of the night,” she said.

He shrugged.

“It’s nearly a full moon. We should be able to see just fine.”

She looked at him.

“Sergio,” she said quietly. “You don’t have to do this.”

He looked up at her, and his gaze was steady.

“You’re my friend,” he said. “I’d like to help… if I can.”

She only hesitated for a moment. She would take any excuse not to have to face her empty room just yet. And… she would also take any excuse to be near him.

“Yes,” she said. “A walk would be nice.”

He nodded and pulled his door closed, then they walked towards the elevators together.

They were silent as they rode the elevator down and walked across the hotel lobby. Once they stepped outside, Raquel took a deep breath of the cool sea air. She could already feel that this was a good idea.

“By the beach?” she suggested, and he nodded.

“Whatever you’d like.”

They crossed the hotel garden and started walking along the beach. The moon was indeed almost full, and it was shining brightly in a cloudless sky, illuminating their way. There was nobody else on the beach, and the only sounds were the wind and the gently-lapping waves.

“Thank you,” Raquel finally said, quietly. “For suggesting this. And for staying calm earlier, and… and calling security and such.”

“No problem,” he said steadily.

“I’m sorry I overreacted so dramatically,” she said, feeling herself go red again at the memory.

He glanced at her.

“I’m not sure you were overreacting at all,” he said quietly.

She felt herself go even redder. What kinds of conclusions had he drawn? She shouldn’t have mentioned Alberto at all – she should just have said she thought there might be a burglar in her room.

“I did overreact,” she said, trying to deflect. “Nothing happened.”

He gave her a long look as they walked along, and she could feel what was coming.

“Raquel,” he finally said. “Please tell me if this is none of my business, but… your ex-husband… is he… is he bothering you?”

She sighed and felt her stomach sink.

“He… he just wants to get back together,” she said.

“Oh,” he said, and she could sense that he was making an effort to keep his voice carefully neutral. “And are you… are you considering it?”

“No,” she said, tense. “Never.”

Steep cliffs were rising up before them now, and they had a choice to stay on the beach, or take a path that led up the cliffside. They chose the path, then were silent for a bit as they climbed.

Once the ground leveled out again, they started walking along the side of the cliff. She felt that Sergio was hesitating to speak.

“You can say it,” she said.

He sighed and shook his head.

“I tried to stay away from stories about you in the press,” he admitted. “But your divorce…”

“I know,” Raquel said soberly. “It was everywhere.”

“I can’t… I can’t believe he cheated on you,” he said, and she could hear emotion in his voice – anger, indignation, disgust. “And with your sister.

She realized what he must be thinking – this is the man you left me for? This is the man you chose? He was kind enough not to say it, however, and she was grateful.

“I know,” she repeated. “It was… a difficult time. Laura and I were never close, but it… it still hurt.”

He was quiet for a moment, and when he spoke again, his voice was careful.

“Well…” he said slowly. “I suppose we can’t help who we fall in love with.”

She gave a mirthless laugh.

“Oh, Alberto wasn’t in love with Laura,” she said. “Maybe she was in love with him, but not the other way around. He just wanted to hurt me – embarrass me in front of the entire world.”

He looked at her.

“Why?” he asked quietly.

She swallowed hard.

“Because I hurt him,” she said with some effort. “Because, nine years ago, I returned home to him and… and things were never the same.”

“Oh,” he said softly, and when she glanced at him, she couldn’t read his expression. “I see.”

“I don’t mean to drag things up here, Sergio,” she said quickly. “We don’t have to talk about this.”

He squared his shoulders and took a deep breath.

“No,” he said. “It’s okay. Maybe… maybe we should talk about it.”

She suddenly realized that she agreed – yes, it was time. They’d been dancing around the topic for far too long, and it towered between them like a mountain. They needed to address it. Now. She took a deep breath.

“You have to know,” she said quietly. “When I made that decision, nine years ago… I made it with my head.” Her throat was tight. “My… my heart was never in it. I didn’t want to be with Alberto anymore. And… and of course he could feel that, and it made him… so mad. For years, he held on to that grudge, and… and the more successful I became, the more he resented me. The thing with Laura… it was just a way to get back at me once and for all. The ultimate humiliation.”

He shook his head.

“I’m sorry that happened to you,” he said quietly.

She shook her head, her lips a tight line.

“It was my own fault,” she said bitterly. “It wasn’t fair, what I did to him. He didn’t deserve that. He didn’t deserve to be my… my second choice.”

“Still,” Sergio said, and his voice was soft but firm. “That doesn’t mean that he should have cheated on you like that. That… that wasn’t right.”

“Thank you,” she whispered, but she couldn’t believe him.

They arrived at a certain spot, and she recognized it immediately: this was the spot where they’d sat, all those years ago, on the day they first met. They’d gone for a walk then too, and they’d sat down on the edge of the cliff and talked. Right here.

At the same time, they stopped, and, without a word, they sat down together, their legs dangling over the edge of the cliff. They were quiet for a while, looking out over the moonlit sea. The sky was speckled with stars.

Then, suddenly…

“I thought about calling you,” he said.

His voice was so soft, but she’d still heard it clearly, and she looked up at him in surprise.

“You did?”

“Of course I did,” he said, looking straight ahead at the waves. “Every day, for years. But… but I saw pictures of you and him… on TV, and in the newspapers. You… you looked so happy.”

She felt tears burn.

“We weren’t,” she whispered. “We weren’t happy at all. It was just a show.”

He gave her a long look, and she could sense that he’d felt the weight behind her words.

“Raquel,” he finally said, quietly. “What did he do to you?”

She hadn’t told anyone – not a single soul. It had been too difficult to talk about – too painful – too humiliating. But his soft question broke something inside of her. Everything that had happened had been building and building inside of her for years, and now there was this pressure inside her chest, and the events of earlier that evening had shaken her. Sergio’s presence beside her was soft and steady and comforting. He made her feel like he’d understand. He made her feel like he cared. He made her feel safe.

And suddenly, she found herself talking.

“When I went back home nine years ago,” she said. “I was a mess.”

She threw him an apologetic glance.

“I mean… I know it must have been a million times harder for you…”

He shook his head.

“This isn’t about me,” he said calmly.

She gave him a grateful look, then took a deep breath and continued.

“I… I didn’t want to be there at all,” she said. “I didn’t want Alberto, and I didn’t want the baby – all I wanted was you.”

She didn’t look at him. It would be too painful.

“Alberto noticed,” she said. “Of course he did. How could he not? He’d already gotten suspicious the first few weeks of the shoot, when I couldn’t stop talking about you on the phone. So when I came home like that… well… it didn’t take him long to connect the dots.”

“Connect the dots how?” he asked carefully.

She sighed.

“He asked if I’d slept with you. That seemed to be all he cared about. I said no, but he didn’t believe me. Things were never the same after that. We stayed together, but it was never the same.”

“I’m sorry,” he said quietly, and she felt such a stab in her chest.

“No,” she said, her voice wavering. “No, please don’t say that. I made my choice, and I had to live with it. My… my reasons for making that choice hadn’t changed – I still wanted a good, stable life for Paula. So I stayed. I thought things would get better again – and they did, for a bit. After Paula was born, there were times when things were… almost okay.”

She swallowed hard, and she needed a moment before she could continue. Sergio stayed silent, giving her time to gather her thoughts.

“But he never let it go,” she whispered. “Not completely. Things were fine as long as I didn’t take on any acting jobs – but when I did… he… he didn’t handle it well. I had to tell him about everyone I talked to, everything I did. I wasn’t allowed to stay for drinks after filming. I wasn’t allowed to stay in touch with anyone after the shoot. I understood. Of course he was jealous – of course. I… I tried to accommodate him, but it was never enough.”

Sergio was listening carefully, but he didn’t interrupt her, and she was grateful for that. She took a deep breath.

“And then, after a few years, I finally went on a location shoot again.” Her voice was quiet now. “When I got back…” She had to swallow several times before she could go on. Her hands were shaking. “When I got back, he… he accused me of sleeping with the other actors. He got mad. He yelled at me. And then…” A whisper. “He hurt me.”

She didn’t dare look at him. This is the man you left me for? This is the man you chose?

“It took weeks before I could take on work again,” she said, her voice so quiet. “That’s when the bruises faded.”

She glanced at him, and she noticed that his lips were a tight line. She quickly looked away again – she didn’t want to lose the courage to keep talking.

“It… it was like that every time I returned from a location shoot – and as my career took off, there were more and more of those. You… you may wonder why I kept doing them, but… but I loved the work. And every time it happened, he apologized afterwards. Every time, he said it would never happen again. And every time, like an idiot, I believed him. And so… so I ended up in the emergency room… again… and again… and again.”

She was struggling to keep talking; this was so hard for her, when she hadn’t told anybody before. But she wanted him to know – she didn’t want this secret standing between them anymore. So she bared herself to him in the most intimate way she could think of.

She pulled up her sleeve – hesitated – then showed him a thin white line on her wrist.

“That’s from when they had to operate, after he broke my wrist,” she whispered.

She opened her hand, palm up, and showed him a crisscrossing of little lines that weren’t a part of the natural map of her hand.

“That’s from when he pushed me down, and I fell on broken glass.”

She wasn’t just showing him the lines on her skin – she was showing him her scars in every way – the most bruised, most vulnerable parts of herself. And he was listening. He cared. She didn’t deserve it, but he still cared. She had to hold back tears.

She pushed aside her hair with shaking hands, and showed him a small mark behind her ear.

“From… from when he knocked me against the wall.”

This was who she was now. These things were a part of her. She wanted him to know.

She lifted her right pant leg, to show a white nick just below her knee.

“From when I tried to get away from him, and I caught my shin on the corner of the coffee table.”

She dropped her pant leg, and looked down.

“There’s… there’s more, but they’re harder to show.”

She fell silent. When she finally found the courage to glance up at him, he was looking at her, and his eyes were full of pain and shock.

“God, Raquel,” he whispered. “God. That’s… I… I had no idea.”

“Nobody did,” she said, looking down again. “I didn’t tell anyone. I couldn’t. It was too awful, and too embarrassing, especially… especially since it was my own fault.”

“How could you say that?” he said, quiet horror in his voice. “No! No, none of that was your fault!”

“But it was,” she said, and two tears started trickling down her cheeks. “I stayed with him even though I didn’t love him anymore – just because I wanted that security. I used him. Of course he was angry. Of course he resented me, and my acting, and my success. Of course.”

“That doesn’t…” he said, struggling to find the words, and she could hear so much frustration in his voice. “That didn’t give him the right… Nothing would have given him the right to…!”

He suddenly stopped, and sat up straighter, and she could see a terrible suspicion dawn in his eyes.

“Raquel…” he said quietly. “Why did you stay with him? All those years… Why?”

The tears were streaming down now.

“Because I chose him,” she said with a sob. “I chose him over you! If I left him afterwards then it.. it all would have been for nothing! I would have hurt you like that, for nothing!

He froze, his face a picture of absolute horror.

“Oh god,” he whispered. “No… Raquel…”

He turned towards her, pulling up his legs so he could sit beside her on his knees.

Raquel,” he said, and she could hear an edge of desperation in his voice. “You didn’t… you didn’t owe me anything!”

“I hurt you so much,” she sobbed. “I hurt both of us, so much. It… it had to be for something, it had to have a reason!”

He pressed his hands to his face.

God, Raquel…” His voice was shaking. “You stayed with him… all those years… even though he hurt you… even though… your wrist… and your hand… and, and everything else… you had to go to the hospital!”

He lifted a hand, but he didn’t touch her.

“That’s never what I wanted,” he whispered. “Please, please know that. I never wanted you to hurt. I… I hoped you were happy, I really did.”

That only made her cry harder. He was such a good person. How had she not seen that nine years ago? How, how had she made such a mistake?

He looked like he was close to crying too.

“I’m so sorry,” he whispered. “I’m sorry for everything you’ve been through. I’m sorry that you thought that… that you had to stay; that you couldn’t leave him. I’m sorry, Raquel. I’m so sorry.”

She reached for him, and the next moment, his arms were around her. Neither of them hesitated – it was the only thing that felt right. He pulled her close and held her, just held her, as she cried against his chest – tears streaming down her face – nine years of pent-up grief pouring out of her at once. She cried for herself, and for him, too. She cried for everything they’d lost, and everything they could have had – for the life she threw away, and the life she got in return – for the pain, and the sadness, and the endless, bottomless regret of it all. For years, it had torn her apart, and now she was letting it out for the first time – safe in his arms. Where she always should have stayed.

He was stroking her hair, gently, letting her cry. The way he held her was so careful, so protective – she hadn’t been held like that in years. She held on tight to him in return, and she felt that he needed this as much as she did – that he was shaken, and hurting, and needed to hold her. They stayed like that for a long time – the other’s nearness an inexpressible comfort. With his arms around her, she gradually felt how the hurt lessened, just a little – how the pressure inside her was relieved – how things felt… less awful. Less painful.

Sergio… He made things better. He just did. Always.

It took a while, but in the end, her tears dried up. She felt tired, but so relieved. For years, her secret had eaten away at her, and now it was finally out. She was so grateful. She knew she couldn’t have told anyone but him.

She gently disengaged from him, and sat up to wipe her face.

“Thank you,” she whispered. “Thank you.” Then, automatically, because it was so ingrained by now: “I… I’m not sure I deserved this.”

Gently, so gently, he took her hand in his.

“Raquel…” he said softly. “I don’t know what he told you over the years. I don’t know what he made you believe. But you deserve love, and understanding, and… and someone who cares.”

Tears were sliding down her cheeks again. His hand was so warm around hers, and his eyes were so earnest.

“And you did not deserve what he did to you. Even if you made a… a choice at some point. Even if that choice hurt people. Even if it’s hard to believe. You did not deserve any of it.

Her throat was so tight.

“Does that mean… that you forgive me?” she whispered. “For… for what I did to you?”

“Raquel,” he said quietly. “There’s nothing to forgive. There never was. You made a choice that you thought was right, for yourself and for your child. It… it hurt, yes. I won’t pretend that it didn’t. But I don’t blame you for that. You had every right to make that choice. I don’t need to forgive you for that.” He gave her a soft look. “But… but I think… I think that you need to forgive yourself.”

She was crying hard again, and he wrapped his arm around her shoulders and pulled her close again. She shifted against him, fitting her body against his so they were sitting close together, side by side, and she could lean against him, her arms around his chest. There’s nothing to forgive. There never was. She felt something shift inside her – some hurting, tortured part of her soul come to peace. His arms were protectively around her, and she felt that he really, truly meant what he said. She didn’t deserve him – but he was here anyway, and he was showing her the same kindness he’d always shown her. In spite of the pain and the misery of the past nine years – he wasn’t bitter. He wasn’t resentful. He was still, and always, kind. That took… strength. And an extraordinary heart.

Slowly, gradually, her tears stopped again. Her breathing slowed, and she closed her eyes and breathed him in – the familiar smell of him, and the warmth of his body next to hers, were more soothing than anything else could have been. She leaned against him, and felt a stillness where there had only been turmoil for the longest time.

Things were different now. The mountain between them was smaller. They’d finally moved closer together.

They’d taken a first step towards working through the pain and misery of the past nine years. She felt that they still had a long way to go – but they’d finally started.

I think you need to forgive yourself.

“Do you think you can do that?” he murmured.

Maybe. Maybe, finally.

She leaned her head against his shoulder, and took a deep, shaking breath. He was next to her. When she spoke, her voice was a whisper – but she said it anyway.

“I’ll try.”