She'd seen Astor's frown one too many times the past few days. The girl was growing up too quickly for her own good. She hadn't told Dexter how much it bothered her that Astor was the one that called the police. Rita hadn't been strong enough. She supposed it went without saying.
That was the old Rita, though. The new Rita, wherever she was coming from, was strong. She stood up for herself. The old Rita would never have kidnapped a dog! She would have tolerated the constant yapping and told her kids to deal with it.
The old Rita let her ex's friend take her vehicle. That had hurt in the bringing her to her knees in defeat way of hurting. She'd thought it was over, that she was finally able to put the past behind her and move forward. How wrong she'd been. She wondered if there would be others coming out of the woodwork to collect old debts on her new good fortune. What was the saying? You take one step forward and two steps back? She understood that now. Perfectly.
Not that she had much in the way of fortune. But for the first time that she could remember she was safe. Felt safe. Felt her kids were safe. Dexter wouldn't hurt them. Dexter loved them.
It was an emotion she had thought she felt once. That was before the hurt, the terror, the hell, and her daughter had to be brave. Before she'd let a child do a grown-up's duty. If she'd truly been able to love, love her children as a mother should, she would have left long ago. Wouldn't she have? She'd really thought she was keeping them safe.
She hadn't stopped to realize that the scars they - Astor more so than Cody - would bear from witnessing the turmoil and violence would be just as deep as any physical scar.
She could still hear the shock in Paul's voice when she'd stood up to him, told him the restraining order was still in effect. And that she'd use it. It helped that she had contacts - a contact - with the police department now. He hadn't seen the new Rita, all he knew was the old one. The weakling who took his beatings (though those were preferable to the complete violation when he raped her) and stayed put.
Dexter wouldn't let anything happen to them. He was her contact, a safe harbor. She knew no matter what Paul might have up his sleeve, she could always turn to Dexter for help.
She questioned if what she was doing was just transferring her dependence from one man to another. She didn't think so. For the first time she had a relationship that was healthy if not a little odd. She'd never been with a man who didn't want - expect - sex. That did not see it as her unspoken duty to see to his needs in every way.
Paul had never hesitated to remind her of that duty.
Dexter wasn't like that. She loved that about him. And hated it at the same time. There were times she wondered if he found her attractive. But then, they'd spent so much time together, been together for so long now, she had to believe he did. Or he would have gone elsewhere by now.
In the back of her mind, years of abuse paved way to insecurities, she wondered if he was going elsewhere. Was that why he didn't need her sexually? He was getting it from someone else without the entanglement. She couldn▓t say that she'd blame him exactly, it took her months to bear the thought of a man touching her. Ever again.
The old Rita would have wallowed in self-pity and chased him away with her fear. And she would have believed she deserved it. The new Rita didn't think that Dexter would just up and leave. He'd at least have the courtesy of telling her. He was just that way.
Rita saw the light in Astor's eyes as she brought the coconut cake out for her daughter and her friends. The mothers assured tenfold that nothing would happen today were smiling right along with Astor and the girls. Rita had made sure that Astor could do nothing but smile on this day. Her birthday.
She glanced at Dexter who was staying out of the way, helping Rita when asked but otherwise just being Dexter. It was odd she thought of him that way, as being Dexter. He was different from so many people but there wasn't anything wrong with that. She wasn't exactly up for feeling social right now either, but Astor was her daughter and this was her house. She had to play hostess. She had to smile, nod, and pretend that her heart didn't jump to her throat every time she heard the sound of a car door shutting on the street outside their house.
She wanted to run, to hide, to bury herself in the covers for being responsible for Astor's smiles coming so forced. For putting fear into her little girl's life that she wouldn't get the birthday party she wanted and deserved.
Rita remembered birthday parties as a girl. The excitement. The memories. So many of them of her parents smiling at her, taking pictures, and playing games with her friends. She vowed her daughter would never feel anything but that ever again.
Dexter walked up to her then, offering her a lighter as she fumbled for matches to light the candles on the cake.
"Thank you," she said, relieved that he was watching out for her even that little detail.
"Are you going to have some of my cake, Dexter?"
"I wouldn't miss it for the world, Astor."
"Good. Cody won't eat any because he doesn't like coconut."
"Well, then I guess I'll take his slice."
She giggled as Rita lit the candles. Healing. They were all healing. The sounds of Astor's giggles and laughter were signs of that. Rita was a little slower to heal, didn't bounce back like a child did she guessed. But as she looked at Dexter smiling at Astor conspiratorially over the cake, each deciding how they were going to cut the cake to get the biggest piece without shortchanging anyone.
Rita realized she didn't want to run anymore. She didn't want to forget. She wanted to live, to move forward, but her past was a part of her. She had to take that with her to keep herself whole, to keep herself who she was. No one could take that away from her.