Broken Pasts
Author:C.M. Stunich

chapter 10

I had never imagined that a man could look so good in a red bowling shirt.

I tried to keep my gaze respectful as Nathaniel opened the back door for Rhea and I to climb out of the car.

“Hey there, who's – ” Jamie paused, one hand on the door of her red convertible, the other frozen in midair like she'd forgotten what she was doing. “Dear god, Mr. Sutherland. You make me ashamed to be a married woman.”

“Hey, I'm standing right here, remember?” her husband, Joel, called out from beside his blue minivan. Boys exploded out of it in a sea of raging hormones, kicking and punching one another as they scrambled for the door. I was pleased to see that Rhea joined right in with them, not at all averse to punching, kicking, or, I cringed, biting to be one of the first ones to enter the bowling alley.

“Your family's a terrible influence,” I said to Jamie as I tried to distract her from Nathaniel's jean clad, bowling shirt wearing form. If I had thought the black slacks looked good, the jeans were even better. He'd brought them in from his car and slipped them on while I'd had my back turned. The urge to glance over my shoulder and check him out had been overwhelming, but I'd resisted. Still, the information he'd shared with me about his wife had piqued my interest, not diminished it. The mystery's been solved, Theresa. But somehow, deep down, I knew it wasn't. Until Nathaniel Sutherland was open and all his soul was bared for me to see, I wouldn't be satisfied. I knew. I just knew it.

“Joel MacMillan, this is Nathaniel Sutherland,” I announced as Jamie's husband came up to stand beside us. The fiery redhead held out his hand as I glanced over at my friend. She touched her chin and shook her head gently, sending the Mardi Gras beads she'd braided into her hair flying. They were purple and green, the perfect match to her bowling shirt and her team name, The Barney Killers. I swallowed, forced a smile and continued as the two men shook hands. “My boyfriend.” Joel's brows rose quickly and he tightened his lips as if he was holding back a laugh. He had just helped set me up with his friend a few days back. Four days later and I suddenly had a boyfriend? He wasn't really buying it, but, being Jamie's husband, he knew better than to say anything about it.

“Hey, Theresa,” Joel said as we moved to head inside. “I really want to apologize about Stuart. From what I hear, he just left you at the restaurant. Did you get home okay?” I nodded, not really wanting to relive the experience. I had run back into the building, much to the surprise of the staff, and had called for a cab while sitting in the lobby. Gary had been standing outside the entire time, staring in at me.

“Just fine,” I said. “But you might want to tell Stuart that he really knows how to screw up a date.” I glanced over at Nathaniel and saw that he was taking in the scenery, furtively scanning the crowd, the employees, the people hunched over the pool tables. Even though he was no longer wearing the suit, Nathaniel was still very much in charge of the situation. “And please get him to burn that khaki suit. It was horrible.” I can't believe I almost slept with that man, I thought with a shiver. He'd been handsome, but the way he'd abandoned the situation showed me that underneath, he was as cowardly as my ex-husband, Glen. When things get tough, the weak go running.

“So, tonight's match goes like this … ” Joel began as he licked his thumb and started paging through a notepad he'd pulled out of his back pocket. Jamie's oldest son, Ray, already had his dad's wallet in hand and was digging through it in search of cash.

“Nuh-uh,” Jamie said as she reached out and plucked the black leather away with her freshly painted purple fingernails. “What are you trying to buy?”

“I want to play the slot machines!” Ray said as he pointed to the curtain in the back of the alley. His brown eyes were practically bugging out of his head, obscured only by the bit of blonde curl that was flopping into his face. “Dad promised that I could.” Jamie rolled her eyes and threw the wallet back at him.

“If you get arrested,” she called after him as he took off running, his best friend, Anthony, in tow. “Don't come crawling to me.” Jamie turned a pointed look on Joel. “If he gets arrested … ” she started again as I caught Nathaniel's eyes and smiled. He smiled back and I felt my heart contract painfully.

“Are you kidding?” Joel asked as he perused the yellow paper. “He just hit puberty. He's as big as an ox.” Jamie rolled her eyes and pulled a lollipop out of her purse. “Ray has more hair on his chest than I do. I bet he could order a beer and not get carded.”

“Six months,” Jamie said as she winked at me and I wrinkled my nose. “He was already masturbating at six months. Don't tell him I told you, though. He'll deny it.” She elbowed Nathaniel in the side. His brows rose, but he didn't say a thing. My friends were a bit quirky: Gary had hated them. Why hadn't I taken that as a sign? Oh yeah, because Glen had left me an emotional wreck. I had felt like I needed someone. Was that what I was doing with Nathaniel, too?

“So tonight, it's The Blood Suckers,” Joel pointed at his red and gold bowling shirt with the mosquito emblem. “Versus The Barney Killers for the championship.” He paused and sat his notebook down on the table next to lanes five and six. We'd used the same lanes every Friday night, barring holidays, for the past seven years. I'd had my very last date with Glen here when I was pregnant. It was full of memories, both good and bad. I had to admit, though, that as I watched Rhea and Blaine, Jamie's youngest, pick out their balls, that they were more good than bad. “The McMaster Lizards are out, unfortunately, but they can play winner.”

“You are on,” Jamie said as put her purse down and started grabbing people to head over for shoe rentals. “Maybe Nathaniel can save your team in the Ultimate Grandmaster Ruler of All Bowling Championship that starts next Friday.” I flushed and tried to jump in, convinced that she was making Nathaniel uncomfortable. But he didn't look it, not one bit. “Want to know a secret, Mr. Sutherland?” she whispered as Joel took Rhea and Blaine up the carpeted stairs behind us.

“I'd love to.”

“The only reason The McMaster Lizards are doing so poorly this season is because when it's just Rhea and Theresa, they have to take turns rolling a third ball. See,” she pointed at herself. “Ray, Anthony, and I are on a team, and Joel, Kyle, and Blaine are on a team. And well,” she paused and bit her lip as if she was revealing some juicy tidbit. “Rhea's a great player, really, one of the best in our league. But Theresa … She's never had an orgasm. It fucks up her game, just so you know.”

“Oh, god,” I said as I put my head in my hand and looked over at Nathaniel. “There's a gentle adjustment period when getting to know Jamie,” I promised as my friend walked away, winking.

“I like her already,” Nathaniel said, but his expression was all for me. He was staring at me, watching me with interest and an undisguised bit of lust. In his eyes was an intriguing glint that went beyond our casual acquaintance. Did he feel any of the same things for me as I did for him?

“Am I interesting to you?” I asked, voice quiet, almost husky. There was this bit of something in the air, like a taste of heat, of friction. I realized then that we were standing way too close for two people who knew nothing about one another. I took a step back.

“Fascinating,” he said, but that single word had so many meanings that I was having trouble decrypting them. I took a deep breath and glanced away.

“Want a beer?” I asked him and he shook his head.

“I might have crossed the line with you, but I'm still going to keep you safe. Under different circumstances … ” I nodded and put my hands on my lower back.

“Right. Got it. Maybe some other time?” I looked up suddenly and met eyes that shone under the dim lights of the bowling alley like jewels.

“Maybe next Friday?” he asked. I swallowed, hard. Were we making a date? Really? Did I want to go there? Could I help myself?

“Sure. Want to meet here?” I asked as I tried to breathe through my nose.

“I could pick you up … ” he ventured and then paused. “That is, if you think you'll no longer be needing my services at that time?” I bit my lip and tucked my fingers into my pockets. I was still working under the assumption that Gary would go away. Just leave me alone and disappear. And I couldn't ask Jamie for more money. If I wanted Nathaniel, and Cedric, around then I was going to have to dip into my house fund. Not happening. Gary was not taking that dream away from me. Still …

“I got a lot of e-mails today,” I said. I hadn't read them. And I didn't want to. “I don't know if this is part of your job or not, but would you mind helping me go through them?” Nathaniel smiled softly.

“I'd be happy to,” he said and there was that settling of melancholy in his features, like he was depressed. I don't know how he did it. If I were him, I'd have wanted to distance myself from anything that might remind me of what had happened. Nathaniel was embroiled in it. “Each one is a 'separate incident.' The more the better at this point.”

“Mom!” Rhea called from behind me as she pounded down the steps and flashed us her red and white bowling shoes. “Hurry up. We don't have all day.” I laughed, feeling the tension of the moment break and tried to smile as Nathaniel held out a hand. I paused before taking it and then saw that Rhea's eyes were on mine, observing. I grasped Nathaniel's fingers and swallowed two massive lungfuls of breath. He had this touch that was both gentle and strong, the perfect paradox.

“I hope you're ready,” I said as I tried to ignore Jamie's smug look. “Because things here get pretty competitive.”

“I think I can handle it,” Nathaniel said as he winked at Rhea.

***

We weren't more than an hour into the evening when Gary showed up.

I had just bowled a seven-ten split and was aiming for a killer shot and a very slim chance at a spare when he walked into the alley, leather jacket over his shoulders, brown hair slicked back. I nearly dropped the pearly pink ball on my foot. Nathaniel saw him the same moment I did. And so did Rhea.

“Mom, look it's Gary!” she said as she pointed and waved. Gary spotted her, waved back and started coming towards us. I grabbed my daughter's hand and turned her to face me as Nathaniel moved past Jamie and up the stairs towards the entryway.

“Hey, you want to help me with this?” I asked her, hoping to distract her attention from whatever incident was going to occur in the doorway of the bowling alley. “I think we could win the next competition, but I need your help. What's the best way to do this again?” Rhea sighed and turned around, reaching for her red ball with sure fingers.

“What the fuck is going on?” Jamie whispered from behind me. I shrugged my shoulders and watched as Nathaniel approached Gary. This time, my ex didn't run, just froze in place and tucked his hands into the pockets of his jacket. I couldn't hear what they were saying, but I hoped to hell that there was an explanation for all of this. Gary had lost it temporarily and he was here to apologize. That had to be it. Had to.

“Mom, pay attention!” Rhea said as she stepped forward and tried to explain the art of bowling to me. The kid was too smart for her own good. “Listen, you have two choices. The first is to try and get one pin to fly out of the pit and knock down the other.” Rhea paused and pointed with her free hand. “The other is to try and get the ball to bounce off the kickback plate and onto the deck.” I was nodding and murmuring under my breath, but in reality, I hadn't heard a word she had just said. Nathaniel was on his way back. He didn't look angry or upset, but yet Gary was still here and he was at the counter handing money to the clerk. Which meant he wasn't leaving. Which meant …

“What's going on?” I asked as Rhea sighed and rolled her ball in my place. Nathaniel looked straight at me with his pretty green eyes and shook his head.

“There's nothing we can do,” he said and he looked as exasperated as I felt. “He has every right to be here.”

“Yeah,” Jamie whispered fiercely, stepping between me and Nathaniel, one hand on her hip and the other pointed blatantly at Gary. She always looked so tough when she was pissed. It was a trait I envied. I should be more like her. I can take care of Gary on my own. I can learn to use my gun, talk to him myself. No problem. Still, thoughts were a long way from action and I had yet to prove myself. “But he doesn't have a right to make Theresa paranoid or upset or scared. That is seriously fucked, Nathaniel.” Nathaniel nodded his head, dark hair gleaming under the dim lights from above. After seven o'clock, the alley switched into its 'Rock 'N' Roll' mode and turned on neon signs from the eighties, classic rock music blaring in the background. Let's just say, the majority of the people there were twice my age, at least.

“No, he doesn't. What he's doing is morally and legally corrupt, but until we can prove that, he stays. We'll write it down as an incident and the more witnesses the better; we'll all sign it. How does that sound?”

“That sounds like bullshit,” Jamie snarled, stepping close to Nathaniel. Gary was setting himself up two lanes down from where we were. Every couple of seconds, I saw him look up and rake his eyes over me. It was horrible.

“Jamie, please,” I said feeling deflated. This was my one night a week to calm down, to really let go and relax. Now the silly fun was being obliterated by the man that I had once given my heart to. Was life against me or what? “Nathaniel,” I began, pushing my friend gently out of the way. “What did he say?”

“He said he was here to bowl.” I tried to look at Gary out of the corner of my eye, but I kept catching this dark stare, this look in his eyes that was akin to staring at the sun. It hurt. “I asked him to reconsider, seeing as to how we were building a case against him, but he refused. Theresa,” he began and his hands came out and wrapped around mine, warm, solid, comforting. There was this stability in Nathaniel, this certainty about what should and could be done in a given situation that I liked. That old question, If you were trapped on a desert island, what one item would you bring with you?, popped into mind. I had to admit that he was a good candidate for the position. He'd get us off the island, I was sure of it. “I don't want to upset you or freak you out, but Gary's behavior is escalating quickly. Normally, it would take weeks or even months for a stalker to be this blatant. I'm really worried about you.” I was already shaking my head. This was too real. It was as real as waking up in the hospital with a part of me gone.

“Why?” I asked as Nathaniel locked eyes with me. Jamie had turned away and was talking in low tones to Joel, probably explaining the situation to him before he greeted Gary and invited him over. Not that Gary had ever been all that nice to Joel, but he was a good man. He would never suspect something like this out of my ex-husband. Gary was forty-two years old, clean cut, a respected business professional. This whole situation was like something out of the twilight zone. It was horrible and completely unbelievable.

“It's hard to say why they do it.” Nathaniel put his hands on my shoulders and suddenly, his lips were on my forehead, burning into my skull and sending me into a spiral of emotion that ended with me folding myself against his chest.

“Is it my fault?” I asked as the sound and the company and the noise around me seemed to fade. I was wrapped in the arms of a stranger and I had never felt so good. I realized that I was going to get hell from Jamie and giggles from Rhea, but I didn't care. I stayed where I was and listened to the rise and fall of Nathaniel's chest.

“Not at all,” he told me and his breath swirled the hair on top of my head. “Many people are stalked by complete strangers. There's something wrong with them, not you.” I nodded my head, but I didn't believe him. Somehow, I thought that I had done something that had set Gary off. Maybe it was the way I'd broken off the relationship – cold turkey. Or maybe it was Rhea. Maybe he missed her? I wasn't sure, but I wasn't willing to buy that he was just crazy. Some strange part of me still wanted to see the good in people. How fucked up is that?

I pulled back from Nathaniel feeling both warm and cold at the same time. His presence was comforting, like an old blanket on a stormy night while Gary's was like being trapped in the middle of a blizzard, naked and exposed. It was not a pleasant experience. The negative canceled out the positive and left me standing there feeling completely empty in the middle of the packed bowling alley. The only thing that was keeping me from melting into the floor and giving up on the night completely was the look on Nathaniel's face, the one that said, I'll help you through this. I decided to throw my instincts (which had never served me well) to the wind and trust him. But tomorrow I was still going to learn to use that gun. I could take a class at the shooting range or …

“I've got a handgun in my bedside table. Do you think I could throw a few extra bucks your way for some lessons?”

“You could throw a whole lot of things my way,” Nathaniel said with a dirty smile. “But money isn't one of them.”





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