Broken Pasts
Author:C.M. Stunich

chapter 14

I woke to the horrid screeching of my cell phone. Rhea had been in a dinosaur phase a few months back and had thought it would be cool if my ringtone was the sound of the screeching velociraptors from the Jurassic Park movie. At eight in the morning with a hangover and a horrible sense of vertigo, I can tell you firsthand that it was not.

“What?” I snapped at Jamie. I'd snatched the phone from the nightstand and was now lying with my head hanging over the side of the bed in case I puked. It never occurred to me to check for Nathaniel.

“You're welcome. I took Rhea to school and Joel packed her what he always packs for the boys on Mondays. A nutritious, delicious, cold slice of pizza, a can of Pepsi, and a bag of potato chips.”

“That's great, Jamie,” I said as I yawned and threw myself back into the pillows. “P.S. I hate you.”

“For what? You had a great time! Granted, you did sleep through the entire movie, but at least Mr. Hot and Bothered Bodyguard was there for you to rest your head on. Besides, you should be thanking me. In what other situation would you have had the courage to stick your tongue down his throat?”

“Huh?” I said, but I knew exactly what she was talking about. Okay, well I didn't remember the movie (for obvious reasons), but I remembered the kissing … I could never forget the kissing. I glanced sharply up at the doorway and found Nathaniel's back, clad in … a T-shirt? Oh. You freaking vomited on him, Theresa, like some sorority girl at a kegger. Nice. Real nice. “I'm late for work,” I blurted before she could say anything else. “I have to go.”

“You own your own business,” Jamie replied as I rolled my eyes and checked my clothes. I was still wearing last night's little black dress. It didn't look so hot now, all rumpled up and smelling of sweat. How attractive. “So, how was he last night? You did sleep with him, didn't you?”

“Don't you have a life outside of mine? Go prosecute someone.”

“We're waiting on a plea deal from the defense. I have time to kill.”

“I'm hanging up now.” I ended the call and set the phone on my nightstand.

“Good morning,” Nathaniel said, voice pleasant and perky. He glanced over his shoulder at me and caught my eyes with his. His gaze took my breath away, and I had to glance at the wall to remember a few words in the English language.

“Morning,” I croaked as I swung my legs out of bed and hit the wood floor with a thump. “I, um, am sorry about your suit.” Nathaniel turned around fully to face me and dropped his hands from his bodyguard position so that they hung comfortably at his sides.

“It's alright,” he told me and on his face was a genuine smile that softened up some of that perfection. Honestly, his grin was just a tad crooked, only noticeable if you looked at it just right. It was a feature that my made my blood thrum with excitement and my hands twitch. Why did you have to be such a hottie? “I was wondering,” Nathaniel began and then paused. Something about him was … off. I watched him run his hand through his thick, dark hair and tried to figure out what it was. It took me longer than I care to admit to figure out that he was nervous. Of little old me. Go figure? “Could you go into work a bit later today?” My heart started to pound and my head went all loopy.

“He's out there again, isn't he?” I asked as I scooted around the end of the bed and paused with my fingers inserted between two dusty aluminum slats on the horrible off-white blinds. I rose up on my tiptoes and peered around for Gary with his shiny eyes and disturbingly blank face. He was nowhere to be seen.

“Actually, no,” Nathaniel said as I watched the couple down the street start a rather vicious row on their front walk. He was cheating, so I didn't blame her. He even had the audacity to bring his mistress – some teenager with too-blonde hair and the world's fakest smile – over on Sunday mornings when the Mrs. went to brunch with her parents. Pig. I dropped the blinds and turned around, trying my damnedest to keep my eyes from focusing on Nathaniel's pecs. Granted, the T-shirt he was wearing was tight and he was tight and well, they just sort of stuck out at me. “Since we didn't get the chance to go shooting yesterday, I thought maybe you'd like to go today.”

“Now?” I asked as I blinked at him and mentally ran through all the things on my to-do list. My business couldn't run itself, but perhaps I could go in later and get some work done? After all, if I didn't learn to use that gun now, I was never going to. And when Nathaniel left on Wednesday, I would be on my own. If Gary tried something, anything at all, I wanted to be ready for him. “I have a client with a very specific idea in mind for her website. She's so obsessed with the specifics of it that she won't even discuss it over the phone. I have a meeting with her in … ” I glanced over at the clock. “An hour.” Even the thought of meeting with Ms. Brown was horrifying to me. It made the headache I was already nursing desperate to become a migraine.

Nathaniel's face, although carefully schooled, drooped, just a bit.

“Is that a no then?” he asked me with a gentle smile.

“That's a Let Brenda figure out,” I told him and watched as his face bloomed into a wicked grin.

“Good,” Nathaniel said as I reached up my fingers and brushed them across the Kukui nut necklace. “Because I'm taking you out to breakfast.”

***

“Isn't this a breech of the whole client-bodyguard relationship thing?” I asked Nathaniel as we handed our menus to the waiter and stared at one another from across the admittedly short expanse of tabletop.

“I'm playing the boyfriend, remember?” he asked me as he leaned back and studied my face with a bemused expression. “This is something a boyfriend would do. That is, if I'm remembering correctly.” I laughed even though I wasn't sure if it was that kind of moment and took a sip of my ice water.

“You mean you haven't been on a single date since – ” I couldn't say her name aloud. It wouldn't be right. I looked down at my hands and laced my fingers together.

“Since Gillian died?” Nathaniel filled in for me. “No. Not even one.” I looked up at him sharply and blurted the first thing that came to mind.

“Weren't you lonely?” I asked him, taking my own life experience and applying it like a road map over his. When one lover leaves, you move onto the next because life is going to happen whether you want it to or not, and it's too hard if it happens when you're all alone.

“Desperately so,” he said and we locked gazes right there in the restaurant and something passed between us. I don't know what it was, but it made me sit a little taller, push out my chest a little further, smile a little wider. This is ridiculous! You can't be interested in this man. You can't; you just can't. Remember your New Year's Resolution. I glanced away.

“Oh.” That's all I said because I was treading in unfamiliar territory here. With Nathaniel. With myself.

“I loved her too much to move on,” he said with a bitter tone. It wasn't directed at me. At least, I didn't think it was. His voice held too much old hurt, too much pain. This was probably something he'd heard before from his parents, siblings, friends. Move on. People told me to do that when I lost the baby, when I lost Glen, when I lost my chance to be happy. I'd tried. I'd gone out and I'd dated and I'd built the business and I'd found Gary. And look where that had gotten me? I was still lonely.

“She must've been great?” I asked and I noticed that Nathaniel's eyes softened, and I watched in wonder as he reached out and took one of my hands in his. It was just a light touch, gentle and soft, but there was a heat behind it that was frightening. Here we were talking about his dead wife and how he'd never dated anyone and yet, he was touching my hand. And he'd kissed me last night at the club. We hadn't talked about it, but it was in the air between us, hanging like smoke. You might be able to see through it, but you knew it was there.

“Let's talk about something else,” Nathaniel offered softly.

“Like Gary?” I asked because I was absolutely, one hundred percent convinced that this conversation was soon going to be steered back towards my case. After all, Nathaniel had turned me down more than once. The very fact that we were at breakfast together was strange enough. I kind of just assumed that he brought me out to see if Gary would show up. I mean, this wasn't really a date, was it?

“No,” Nathaniel said, leaning back and cocking his head to the side. “I think we've talked enough about Gary.” He paused and flashed me a guilty smile. “For now. I mean, I'm not going to forget about your case or anything. I just … ” He paused and sat there looking back at me from green eyes, one arm resting on the back of the booth, the other sitting on the table. The suit hid his arms from view and I was starting to think that although he looked damn good in it, that that was a shame because Nathaniel Sutherland was built to impress. He had well muscled arms, but they had a different look to them, like they weren't just vanity muscles. They were long and lean and ready to kick some ass. It was the difference between a man who lifted weights to get big and a man who just lived a lifestyle.

“You just … ” I supplied, wanting very much to hear what he had to say. I had butterflies in my stomach. I hadn't had those since seventh grade. The man was absolutely intoxicating. What can I say?

“I just like you,” Nathaniel said and I swear, I nearly melted into that chair. He leaned forward and put both hands on the tabletop. “I shouldn't be saying that. I shouldn't even be here. I should have never followed you to the club last night. It wasn't my business, Theresa. If you dismiss us, that's it. We don't get a say in your well-being unless you ask for it. You could've fired me or sued me. You still could, but I can't stop thinking about you.”

“Because I look like her?” I ventured even though I didn't think that was it. I had to hear him say it though, hear him tell me that he was interested in Theresa McMaster, not Gillian Sutherland. Nathaniel looked at my hands like he wanted to touch them again, but he didn't. He sat back carefully and shook his head.

“You do, but that isn't it. I mean, I'd be lying if I didn't say it helped.” Nathaniel smiled at me and paused while the waiter set our plates down in front of us. “But that's not the only reason. There's just something about you that attracts me.” I choked on my water and nearly spit it across the table at him.

“My life is so messed up, Nathaniel. You don't want to get involved.”

“I already am,” he said as he picked up his fork and stared down at his food. He wasn't seeing it though. Nathaniel's eyes were clouded with memories. When he looked up at me there was a fierce determination burning there that made my heart skip a couple of beats. “I care whether you live or die, Theresa, and not because you paid me to and not because of my wife. I just can't stand the thought of you getting hurt. I'm not asking you to marry me. I just want to give it a shot. What do you say?”

“What are you asking exactly?” I asked as I started stabbing at my plate with the crooked fork. “For me to be your girlfriend?” It sounded strange, even to me, like I was way beyond that point. I had a kid and a business and two ex-husbands who weren't worth their salt. “I don't know, Nathaniel,” I told him. “I like you, but I … I don't know if I can do the whole dating thing right now. You know what I mean?” He nodded, but he didn't say a word. Not one, single word.