Broken Pasts
Author:C.M. Stunich

chapter 13

The day came and went as it's wont to do, and soon I found myself peeping out the blinds in my bedroom, just to see if I could grab a sneak peek of Nathaniel pulling into the driveway. I was already dressed in my best “girls' night out” look which consisted of the very classic little black dress with a scooped neckline, a pair of emerald pumps, and Rhea's Kukui nut necklace. My eyes were smoky and mysterious (at least when I squinted), and I had a slash of “Slut Red” lipstick on my mouth (courtesy of Jamie), so I was feeling pretty good.

Until Nathaniel called and said he couldn't make it.

“What?” I asked, feeling sorely disappointed. “Why?”

“Well,” Cedric began as his brow crinkled and he lifted the phone away from his ear. “Something came up at the office. One of our employees killed a man during a job.” I clamped a hand over my mouth and didn't know what to say. Cedric smiled weakly. “It happens more often than you'd think. Still, Nathaniel needs to be there to make sure that justice is served so to speak. Self-defense is a hard one to prove in court.”

“I … ” I had no idea how to respond to that.

“Do you mind if I make a personal call? I need to call my date and cancel.”

“Your date?” I said. It had never occurred to me that Cedric might have a special someone. Why, I don't know, but I blinked at him in surprise. “Oh, you can't cancel your date,” I said as a minivan pulled into the driveway. Joel was here to pick up Rhea. I started down the hallway with Cedric at my heels and tried to figure out a way to help the poor guy. He was obviously disappointed, whether he was showing it or not. “I refuse to let you tag along with me when you've got a lady friend waiting,” I said as I peeped my head into Rhea's bedroom and found her engulfed in a Pokemon game of some sort. “Grab your things. Joel's here.”

“Are you going to have sex on a beach?” Rhea asked me, and I had to pause and stare at her for a moment before it sunk in.

“You mean the drink?” I said, tugging at my emerald earrings and wondering if they clashed too much with the necklace. “You mean, am I going to drink a Sex on the Beach?” Rhea nodded emphatically as she stuffed some books into her backpack and hopped off the bed. “Maybe. Why? Where did you hear that from?” She shrugged and moved past me, grabbing a notepad filled with penis drawings on her way past. Am I a terrible mother?

“Perhaps,” Cedric said, trying desperately to grab my attention as I moved back down the hall and followed Rhea into the kitchen. His face was red and he was actually sputtering. “Perhaps I could call someone else in. Normally, I wouldn't do this, but I … ”

“Have a super hot date?” I joked as I reached for the door and paused when Cedric put out a big meaty hand and stopped me in the nick of time.

“Am going to propose,” he blurted, and I had to pause and stare at him with my mouth agape.

“Mom,” Rhea said as she elbowed me in the side. “Say, Congrats. That's polite.”

“Congratulations,” I blurted as Cedric checked the peephole, swept Rhea and I to the side with a gentle sweep of his arm and opened the door to Joel. He stared at the Viking-like man with wide eyes, and I leapt in to explain.

“This is Nathaniel's … brother, Cedric.” The big man boomed with laughter as he reached out and grabbed Joel's hand for a shake.

“What she means is, I'm his business partner. Not a lick of shared blood between us!”

“Cedric's getting married,” Rhea said proudly, as if she'd known all along. Joel blinked and tried to smile. Apparently Jamie hadn't briefed him on the situation. I slid between them and grabbed Rhea's bag from her hands, transferring it to Joel's.

“I'll pick you up in the morning, okay?” I said, pressing a kiss to her cheek. Rhea stuck out her tongue.

“Because you'll be drunk?” she asked, and I had to ignore her. What the hell was I supposed to say to that? Yes. Mommy is going to get plastered with some women she doesn't know and get her mind off all of the shit that's going on in her life. It's a grown-up thing.

“Thank you again, Joel,” I said, but he shrugged off his own good nature with a wink.

“No problem,” he told me with a smile. “I owe you one to make up for Stuart anyhow.” He grabbed my hand and kissed it before putting an arm around Rhea and guiding her to the car. “Come on, kid. Let's see if you can kick those boys' butts at air hockey.”

I smiled as I closed the door and turned to Cedric who was thumbing through his phone with purpose. Thing is, I didn't want a new bodyguard to drag around on my girls' night. I reached out and put a hand over his Cedric's screen. He glanced up at me.

“You know what,” I said, hoping this would go over smoothly. “I don't need a bodyguard tonight.” Cedric's mouth was open and his booming voice was raising in protest when I continued, hoping to make my case before he talked me out of it. “I'll be out with the girls, in clubs, restaurants, wherever. There'll be people around, lots of them. Afterward, I'll go home with Jamie, sleep on her couch.” Cedric was not convinced. “She has three pit bulls,” I added. Cedric shook his head. “Mean ones.”

“I don't think it's safe, Ms. McMaster, I really don't. If you don't want a new bodyguard, I'll stay.”

“Cedric,” I said, using my best mom voice. “You are not skipping your proposal dinner for little old me. Look, why don't you send Nathaniel over to pick me up in the morning? I'll give you Jamie's address.” My heart fluttered a bit at the thought of the dark haired man with the emerald eyes and the world's most well pressed suit. I have got it bad. I need this night.

“Nathaniel would kill me if – ” I narrowed my eyes on Cedric's. He was desperate to get out of here, I could see that. I didn't blame him one bit. I mean, how much more important can a date be?

“When Jamie picks me up, you can sweep the house and lock up, and I'll see Nathaniel in the morning. It works out for everyone.” Cedric was caving. I was so close … And then his phone rang and whatever it was that he saw on the screen sealed the deal. “Take it,” I said with a smile and watched as his need for professionalism warred with his desperation to speak to his girlfriend. Love won out and he answered the call. The future Mrs. Bair was one lucky girl.

***

“I'm going to fire their asses,” Jamie said, already half-drunk. I had no way of knowing how much she'd drank. The woman downed shots in mere seconds, punctuated them with neon colored drinks, and drowned it all with dark beers and honey colored ales. I couldn't keep up. “You are unprotected,” she slurred. “You are an unprotected woman.”

“You think Gary's going to sneak up on me in here?” I asked as I tried my best to shout over the pulsing thump of the music. I adjusted my skirt and tried to pretend that I was not way overdressed. And ten years too old. “Besides, they don't control what I do. I'm the client, Jamie. I make the decisions.”

“Seriously,” she said as she watched the group of friends we'd come with bump and grind with men half their ages. “I am pissed. I am going to call that Nathaniel Sutherland tomorrow and file a formal complaint.”

“You'll do no such thing,” I said as I slid her drink away from her and looked down at it. It was flaming. Wow. Since when did drinks flame? I was so out of my element. I looked around for an escape route and landed on the women's bathroom. Would it be any better in there? I doubted it. Probably just a bunch of drunk college girls puking their guts out. Gross. “Let's talk about something else, shall we?” I asked as I tried to loosen up my shoulders and figure out how to drink the damned thing. Jamie leaned over and blew it out, pushing the drink closer to my elbow with her brows raised defiantly.

“Can't we go out to dinner at an Italian restaurant or something?” I asked with a sigh. “Somewhere more appropriate for women our age?”

“Our age?” Jamie gasped as she sat back and hiccuped. She winked at the shirtless bartender and licked her lips. “Speak for yourself there, darling. Grow-down a little.”

“Grow-down?” I asked.

“Yeah, grow-down. You know how people are always telling everyone around them to grow-up? Well, fuck them. Grow-down a little. Have some fun. You've been through way too much shit in your life, Theresa. Drink the drink, dance with me, and don't care that anybody's looking. You owe yourself that.” I stared at her and picked up the shot glass, lifted it to my lips and drank.

***

Sometime later (I don't know how long because I was slightly intoxicated), the girls and I stumbled out of the club in a giggling, sweaty heap, melding into the throng of twenty-somethings like we belonged there. We made our way down the street, heels clutched in our hands and the world at our fingertips. It felt good.

“This is fun,” I told the blonde woman in the neon green dress. She was at least ten years older than me and her outfit had half as much fabric. For a brief moment, I was envious. She was actually managing to pull it off.

“I told you,” Jamie said as we crossed the street without looking. Didn't matter anyway. There was a throng of people around us, enjoying the night and the street signs that glimmered like some kind of dystopian skyline, winking color from every window, every awning. “You need to get out more.”

“Let's go see a movie,” one of the other women said. “The new one with that skinny bitch in the leather, the one that fights fairies.”

“The Creature Killer?” I asked with a laugh and a hiccup.

“Yeah,” she said as I blinked at her and struggled to remember her name. Mina? Mira? Mya? “That chick is totally hot.”

“Oh my god,” Jamie drawled as we stumbled towards the movie theater. “You like girls?”

“God yes,” Mina-Mira-Mya said. “Don't you?” The group burst into spontaneous laughter that I found myself surprised to be a part of. I was one part ecstatic and one part ashamed. I'm stumbling down the street drunk. With no shoes. I'm thirty-two years old. What the hell is wrong with me?

I didn't care.

“Pit stop,” one of the women called out. “Pit stop! Just before the theater! I need another drink if I'm going to stay buzzed for the movie.”

“How about this one?” Mina-Mira-Mya asked as she pointed at a massive line beside the brown building next to us. The people in line looked like Gods, beautiful, chiseled, perfect. No way we were getting in anytime soon. Still, I was in no shape to argue. I stumbled after my friends and paused at the velvet ropes feeling like an extra in a movie. Only difference was that the bodyguard was a woman with a face full of piercings instead of a big, bulky man who could probably take on the Hulk.

“Hey there,” Jamie said and without another word, she leaned over and kissed the chick on the lips. I gasped, but the bouncer smiled. Even more so when Jamie pulled down her dress and flashed her … breasts.

“Oh my god!” I exclaimed which got everyone giggling again. “What about Joel?” Nobody was listening to me. The velvet ropes were already being lifted and we were being ushered into a throbbing throng of young people that swept us up and knocked us around with their thrusting hips. At first, I was horrified, but then I found my way over to the bar and downed some kind of blue colored drink that tasted like kiwi. That was it for me. After that, I might as well have been floating in space for all that it mattered. I was grinding and shaking my thing with a boy that I was ashamed to say that I found attractive. At least he had a stamp on his hand telling me he was no younger than twenty-one. It was just enough of a relief that I managed to relax, put my hands on his hips and close my eyes, moving to the music in a way I hadn't thought possible. What about Gary? my mind asked me while I sweated and breathed and lived. It was exhilarating, really, although I had a feeling that this was going to be my last girls' night for a good long while. It was as exhausting as it was exciting, and I already feel myself tiring, dreaming of goose down pillows and fluffy comforters.

And Nathaniel Sutherland.

Oh god.

Those emerald eyes, that chocolate hair, that perfect suit, that wicked smile.

I groaned. Out loud. In the middle of a throng of people. Luckily (or not?) I wasn't alone. People were shouting and moaning all around me, signing song lyrics I didn't know, making out with partners they didn't know. I pushed away from my boy toy and stepped back, right into a girl with a sequined dress and then turned and made a beeline for the bathroom. When I got there, I skipped right past the line and stumbled over to a sink, splashed cold water on my face and tried to breathe. My head was spinning like crazy and I was having a hard time keeping my thoughts straight. Not that that was a bad thing. Sometimes my thoughts were my own worst enemy. Still, I had to keep some wits about me before I started having wet dreams on the dance floor and ended up bumping into Gary.

I looked up into the mirror and found that my carefully coiffed do had come undone. Dark tendrils were dripping down the sides of my face, teasing my shoulders and kissing the line of cleavage above my dark dress. My lipstick was smeared just a bit on my chin and my eyeshadow had bleed down my cheeks just enough that I looked like a burglar instead of a girl on the town. I cleaned up as best I could and stumbled back out of the bathroom and over to the bar.

“Water, please,” I said as I watched the bartender's brows raise. Apparently that was an odd request this side of town.

“What are you doing?” Jamie asked as she found me a few minutes later, nursing some sparkling water, no ice, no straw, no umbrella. I glared at the bartender's back. “You're missing out! There's an informal dance competition going on near the entrance.”

“No thanks,” I told her as I cupped my glass with shaking hands and closed my eyes against the dull beat of the bass. “I think I need to take a time out.”

“Why?” Jamie asked as if she thought I was crazy. “Aren't you having fun?”

“I am, I just … ” Nathaniel's handsome face flashed in my mind for a moment. His sexy lips were turned down at the corners, and his eyes were sad. “I just can't lose myself, not completely. Remember, I've got a stalker on my tail and I told my bodyguards to take a night off. Besides, I'm drunk enough as it is. What more do you want from me?” Jamie shook her head and held out her hand for mine.

“I want Theresa McMaster to be happy.”

“But – ” I wanted to protest, to tell her that I was fine, but was I? My heart thumped in my chest as I stared into my friend's eyes and found that the music was falling away around me, leaving room for my thoughts and a niggling, little voice that told me I was most certainly not. But why? What was holding me back? Me? I kind of knew in the back of my mind that I was three shots and two mixed drinks away from blacking out, that now wasn't really the moment to analyze my life, but that's not how revelations work. They come when you least expect them, when you don't want them, when you're doing anything and everything in your power to get away from them. “Me, too,” I said simply. Jamie smiled and pulled me off the stool and into the mass of people, into the pulsing heartbeat of the club where hopes and dreams were out on everyone's sleeves, bared for the world to see. Or maybe that was the alcohol talking. Either way, I let myself melt into them once again. I danced and I smiled and I laughed and then, I felt a hand on my shoulder.

I whirled around, convinced that the iron grip of the hand belonged to Gary Harper. I had this vague and rather creepy thought about him putting a knife through my ribs before I realized that the hand did not belong to Mr. Harper but rather to Mr. Sutherland.

“Oh?” I said, drunk as hell and confused as all get out. I mean, Nathaniel Sutherland was standing in the club in his dark suit with a sad smile on his face and a look that asked me if I was a crazy person.

“I just got Cedric's message,” he said, and he didn't have to shout to get his voice over the music. Nathaniel just had this strong, assertive tone that cut through everything and pierced me right to the heart. He might as well have said, I am going to kick Cedric's ass tomorrow. That's what it sounded like anyway.

“What are you doing here?” I asked as Jamie stepped up beside me and gawped. Apparently she was as surprised to see him as I was. Nathaniel took off his sunglasses and stuck them in his front pocket. He looked … odd … I couldn't tell if it was because he was the only person within a ten mile radius that was wearing an Armani suit or because he had a space bubble around him that nobody else in the club had managed to obtain. Something about Nathaniel was dangerous and sharp. People sensed that, no matter how intoxicated they were, and they stayed back. Just in case.

“I couldn't, in good conscious, leave a client unprotected,” he said, but those were just words. There was something else in his voice. Fear, I think it was. He was afraid that something was going to happen to me.

“I'm not Gillian,” I said and regretted the words as soon as they were out of my mouth. I hadn't meant them to be rude. I was drunk, so sue me. It was just a fact. I wasn't his wife; I was a client. If I wanted to go out on the town without him or Cedric or whoever else, I had every right to. “Sorry.” Nathaniel smiled and crossed his hands in front of him with a sigh.

“No,” he told me. “You're not.” And then he looked up and stared at me as if he was seeing me for the first time. “And I'm sorry. Still,” he continued as I stood there and tried not to trace the firm line of his shoulders, fantasize about taking off his coat, running my fingers down that crisp white shirt, tearing off those fucking buttons … I swallowed hard. “You paid for a week of protection, and I'm going to give it to you.” I blinked at him. Talk about sexual innuendo!

“Oh my god!” Jamie squealed and then she was shoving me forward and into Nathaniel's arms. He caught me easily, dragged me into the private, little space bubble around his person and held me there, nice and tight. His hands held my lower back and his firm midsection was pressed against mine. I felt the hard bump of his gun under his jacket and tried to adjust myself so I wasn't so close. It didn't work. Nathaniel was holding onto me like he was grasping for a life line. I looked up into his dark eyes and I was trapped. My inhibitions were down and my body was on fire from the heat and the sweat and the dancing. Before I knew what was happening, I was kissing him.

At first, it was just me, just this tentative little brush of lips against lips. I almost pulled away, almost turned around and laughed it off, but Nathaniel's fingers tightened, digging into my flesh with a painful pleasure that was twice as intoxicating as the Mai Tai I'd had earlier. Before I knew it, he was kissing me back.

Oh. My. God.

If I thought I'd been kissed before, I was wrong. Whatever I'd done before had been a weak, watery prelude to this heat that Nathaniel Sutherland was delivering. He didn't just kiss with his mouth or his tongue. Nathaniel took my body against his, wrapped his arm around my back and grabbed my hip while his other hand found my throat, slid across my skin and buried itself in my hair. He kissed me like a drowning man gasping for air, like he was tasting me, taking me into him. He made my knees weak and my heart strong. I moaned into his mouth, slid my hands up his chest and put my arms around his shoulders. I think, maybe, if I hadn't been drunk that something might've happened between us, something special, a start to something permanent. Unfortunately, Nathaniel Sutherland was the world's biggest gentleman.

“Theresa,” he said as he pulled his face away. I noticed that he didn't take his hands off of me, not yet. “I'm sorry, but we have to stop.”

“Under different circumstances?” I asked, and I hated the way my breath smelt like Vodka. Ech. Nathaniel smiled and brushed some of the hair away from my forehead.

“Unfortunately,” he said and I noticed that Jamie was actually standing with her ear about an inch away from our faces. She'd never been very good at eavesdropping. She was even worse when she was drunk. “Maybe we can discuss this later?” he asked, and I nodded, smiled my best girly-girl smile at him and promptly threw up.