Broken Pasts
Author:C.M. Stunich

chapter 21

I am definitely messed up, I thought as I stared at Nathaniel. My man of mystery was exactly what I had thought he'd be – trouble. Still, I knew the circumstances, so I was willing to hear him out.

“Gillian's ex?” I asked, hoping that this wasn't going to be some horrible climax where Nathaniel admitted that he was actually the one that had killed his wife and went all psycho on me. I stared into his eyes and wondered how stupid I could possibly be to even think that. He nodded and closed his eyes like he was remembering something he'd rather forget.

“As long as we're telling secrets here,” he said. “I have to do this.” He opened his eyes and looked me straight in the face. “Besides Cedric, you're the only person in the world I'm going to tell this to.” Nathaniel grabbed my hand and put it to his lips, pressing his hot mouth to my skin. “If you feel the need to kick me out or turn me in, follow your conscious, Theresa.”

“Nope,” I said, kissing him fierce and hard. “The only thing I'm following now is my heart. Say what you need to say and then let's bury our pasts together.” Nathaniel brushed my hair away from my face and tried to smile, but it wouldn't take, not yet, not while he was still holding this all back from me.

“I didn't come home to find Gillian dead,” Nathaniel admitted as if he was ashamed at himself for lying. “I came home to find her dying. I saw Tom plunge the screwdriver into her chest for the last time. I saw her seeing me and saying goodbye as she collapsed to the floor. And then I was standing over him and the screwdriver was in my hands… ” Nathaniel stopped speaking and sat up. I could feel his stress like we were connected, feel it flowing from his skin and into mine. “I'm not a violent man, Theresa, but I will defend the ones I love,” he said. “Or at the very least, I'd die trying. Instead I ended up in a pool of blood with Gillian's body on one side and Tom's on the other. I killed him and I don't even remember it, not a single moment. One second he was standing and the next he was falling.” I leaned my head on Nathaniel's chest for moral support and tried to relax as he put his arms around me. He needed me just as much as I needed him. Our broken pasts were rising to the surface, but they weren't going to stay there for long. “I called Cedric and he helped me stage the crime scene. Fortunately,” he said, and I could see that he was choking on that word, like he was disgusted with himself for even saying it. “For me, it was an open and shut case, but you have to know because one day, they could reopen it and come for me. There's always that possibility.”

“And one day you could realize how much trouble I am. There's always that possibility.” Nathaniel laughed, not his chocolate laugh, it wasn't the right moment for that, but his real one, the one that was so human. It was nice to see that I could break the tension. I tried to be surprised or disgusted or angry with him, but I couldn't drum up any of those emotions. All I felt was sad. I wanted to scoop Nathaniel up and take him away from that pain, and if I was reading his face right, he wanted to do that very same thing with me.

Unfortunately for us, Gary had other plans.

When Nathaniel's phone rang, he didn't ignore it much as I wanted him to. After all, he was a bodyguard first and foremost. His instincts paid off as he dug around in his discarded pants. When he found the phone, he looked up at me with a frown.

“It's my friend from the police station,” he said and answered it with a somber hello. As he listened on the other line, I stood up and grabbed my robe, wrapping it tightly around myself to ward off the chill that was creeping up through the wood floor and winding its way through my body. Nathaniel was putting his pants back on. Not a good sign. “Okay,” he said. “And thank you.” When he hung up, his face was grim.

“What?” I asked, feeling like I might burst if he didn't tell me right then and there. “Did they find Gary?”

“They searched his house, but he wasn't there,” Nathaniel said and then paused as if he wasn't sure he should share his next bit of information with me.

“Nathaniel,” I began and yes, I was using my 'mom' tone, so sue me. This was serious. “We just spilled our deepest, darkest secrets. Don't back out on me now.” He nodded and picked up his jacket, removing the pistol from the holster, a move that scared the crap out of me.

“Gary had … pictures of you. Hundreds of them stapled to the wall, in drawers, spread out across his bed. He had a … shrine, I guess you'd call it, in his closet. There was a lock of your hair, a pair of your shoes, even … ” Nathaniel stopped talking like he was ashamed with himself, as if this was somehow his fault. “Your empty gun case.” I didn't waste time arguing or questioning him, I just threw myself to the floor and reached up inside my box spring. He was right; the case was gone. “I'm sorry,” Nathaniel told me as I rose to my feet and looked at him with an expression of desperation plastered across my features. “I should've been more careful. I – ” I put my hands on his upper arms and squeezed gently.

“You were too busy wooing me? I know, but it doesn't matter. Let's just get the fuck out of here before he shows up.” He nodded and reached down for his coat, tossing it over my shoulders as I dug out some clothes, stuffed them in a duffel bag and slipped a pair of flats on my feet.

I followed Nathaniel into the hallway, watching as he flicked the lights on as we went, moving with our backs to the wall and our hearts pounding in our throats. At least, mine was. Nathaniel looked like a freaking God with his muscular chest bare, his pistol clenched between his sure fingers, so maybe his heart was still, waiting, listening for any sound that might alert him to Gary's presence.

“Stay behind me,” Nathaniel instructed as we moved around the corner and into the dining room. The house was peaceful and each light illuminated another bit of darkness, another shadowy corner proving that wherever Gary was, he wasn't here.

Still, I didn't breathe until we were outside, until Nathaniel had checked the car and told me it was safe to climb in.

“Where are we going now?” I asked him as I adjusted the heating vents so that they pointed straight at me. January nights could be unbearably cold, even more so when your heart was iced over with fear. Nathaniel smiled over at me, but the expression was tight. He was tense, that much was obvious, and I didn't blame him, but it did scare the shit out of me.

“To my place,” he said, and despite the potential severity of the situation, I got goose bumps. It had been awhile since a guy had taken me to his place. There was just something so attractive about that, so personal. I kept my smile to myself and tried to use the quiet drive to break my thoughts up, make them a bit more manageable. Nathaniel had killed a man. Okay. I could get used to that. Or maybe I didn't need to. Maybe it didn't bother me as much as it should, but knowing what had happened to his wife, knowing how painful it was to go through something like this, I couldn't blame him. If I'd been in his position, I'd have probably done the same thing.

I unhooked my seat belt and scooted over to the center seat, so I could put my hand on Nathaniel's thigh. As I looked up at his strong face, lit by the lights from the odometer, I wondered if the guilt ever ate away at him, if it made things harder, or if he even felt any at all.

Too bad I was about to find out the hard way.

***

Nathaniel drove us down a series of side streets that I'd never been on, winding us through suburban neighborhoods and down small side streets, all the while keeping his gaze locked on the rearview mirror.

“Are we being followed?” I asked him, and at first he didn't answer. After awhile though, he shook his head and gave me a guilty smile.

“No, but I wanted to be sure, just in case,” he told me as he steered us back towards the highway and took the first exit off towards a neighborhood I had never been in before called Shrouded Hills. There was a long, narrow road that led straight up a hill. All along it were beautiful houses, built into unusual shapes to accommodate the slope. There was some impressive architecture up there, and I could only imagine how beautiful it would be in the daylight, when all of the little details were visible. “Maybe we could take a walk in the morning?” he asked me with a wicked smile. “That is, if we can bother to drag ourselves out of bed.”

“You're back to flirting already?” I asked my bare chested bodyguard. “That didn't take long. I guess we're safe up here then?” Nathaniel shook his head.

“You're not safe until Gary is behind bars,” he said, letting his sentence stretch out with this imaginary or … or until he's dead. I didn't respond, waiting tensely as we pulled into Nathaniel's driveway.

The house at the end of it made me sorry for ever wanting the one across the street from my rental. It was massive, too big for one person, and towered over us with brown siding, cheerful, frosted porch lamps, and a surprise package on the doorstep. Nathaniel didn't see it until it was too late, not because he wasn't looking but because he didn't have time to look. No sooner had he opened his door and come around for mine, than I heard the shot.

With my pistol in hand, Gary shot Nathaniel Sutherland in the chest.

Blood bloomed out from Nathaniel's wound as he stumbled back and hit the hood of the car at the same moment a scream burst from my mouth, filled the night air and shattered the perfect gentle silence of suburbia. Gary didn't stop, didn't even slow down. He just kept walking towards me with his brown hair slicked back and his eyes glossy. He didn't speak, not one single word, but I heard a whole chorus of demons howling in my head when I met his gaze, when I caught my first glimpse at what a broken man really looks like. Is this what Nathaniel saw when he found Tom with Gillian? Is this how he felt inside? There was a helpless rage deep within me, bubbling up from the darkest depths, born from the best of intentions.

I crouched down, scooted forward, hoping with every beat of my heart that I'd have enough time to reach Nathaniel, to take the gun from his fingers and defend myself. I didn't know if he was dead, but he wasn't moving and there was blood everywhere, so much blood. I had to crawl through it to get to him, kneel in it while I pulled the pistol from Nathaniel's fingers, sit in it while I looked up at the man who used to be known as Gary Harper.

“Stop,” I told him, as I swallowed my fears and my uncertainties and went to this calm, quiet place that only those on their last breath can find within themselves. Trust me, it isn't a place you want to visit. “Don't move, Gary,” I told him as I watched his face, his arms, his hands. If he tensed, I would pull the trigger, I would shoot him and I wouldn't care if he lived or died.

“Why?” he asked as he lowered the barrel from my head to my heart. “So you can fuck with me again? I don't think so, Theresa. You broke my heart, so I'm going to break yours. It's only fair.”

Gary moved; I moved.

Time ceased to exist and everything stilled.

I closed my eyes, pulled the trigger and felt an impact. At first I thought I'd been shot, but when a thump sounded before me, I opened my eyes and found that it was just the recoil from the pistol.

Gary Harper was dead. I had hit him right between the eyes, killed him instantly, which was a more merciful, painless death than Nathaniel was going to get. I didn't waste time crying over my ex-husband, contemplating the intricacies that separated self-defense from murder, wondering about the fine line between life and death. All I heard was Nathaniel's wet breathing, so I dropped the gun, and moved over so that I could put my hands on either side of his face.

“Nathaniel?” I whispered, knowing that I should call 911, but unable to leave his side. Someone in the neighborhood would call it in. They'd have heard the gunshots, and I just couldn't bring myself to leave Nathaniel's side in case he didn't make it. If he slipped away from me while I was on the phone, I would never forgive myself. His head moved, turned to face me, found my lips with his bloody ones and kissed me. All the while he kept his eyes closed and his hand over the wound on his chest.

“Theresa,” he whispered to me as tears rolled down my cheeks and landed on his chest, his perfect, beautiful, bloody chest. “Can I tell you another secret?”

“Yes,” I whispered back, trying to keep the tremble out of my voice. Nathaniel's face was pale, too pale, and he was shaking violently, like he was cold. I brushed my hands down his face and ran my fingers through his hair while I waited for what could very well be his last words.

“Don't make fun of me, but I … ” He paused to catch his breath. “I believe in love at first sight.”

“Do you now?” I asked with the world's fakest laugh.

“I do,” he whispered as he leaned forward just enough so that he could whisper in my ear. “I fell in love with you the first moment I laid eyes on you.” In the distance, I could hear the sound of sirens, but Nathaniel couldn't. His chest was still moving, but his head was drooping to the side, and his eyelids were fluttering like runaway butterflies. I folded myself against his side and waited for the ambulance, knowing that if he died, my last chance at happiness would die along with him.