Nathaniel helped Amy out of the bathtub, wrapping her up in a fluffy pink towel. She was squealing with delight at the bubbles in the water, sloshing around till most of the water had spilled over and her hair had gotten wet.
Zara was going to be mad at him if she saw the condition of the bathroom right then.
Amy still squirmed in his arms, trying to get back in the tub, claiming that he was making her upset by not letting her have what she wanted. All Nathaniel knew was that she was going to be pretty sassy once she grew up.
When she realised that he wasnt budging, she stopped struggling and resorted to other means, such as sniffling and pouting and calling out to “Uncle Matt” to “come save her from the dragon”.
At any other time, Nathaniel would have gladly let her spend another leisurely hour in the tub but the girls would be home any minute now and he didn’t want to be soaking wet when he saw Zara.
“Come on, Amy, don’t be mad at me. I’ll get you your favourite ice cream.”
Amy had let him take her till the egde of the bed and then she’d suddenly jumped away, stomping on the sheets till she was at the other end. Then she had turned her back to him, still wrapped in the towel and folded her hands across her tummy- a sign that she was truly pissed.
When he offered the bribe of the ice cream, she turned to him briefly and rolled her eyes along with her head. Nathaniel had a tough time keeping a straight face when she lost her balance and almost toppled backwards.
Setting herself right she huffed, “Zara is already getting me my favourite ice cream.”
“Well, then how about I let you play in the bubble bath for an entire hour tomorrow.”
She paused as though considering it seriously. Then she huffed again and got to her feet.
“Fine. But only if you promise me. Promise me. Cross your heart.”
And he did just that.
He was in the middle of brushing Amy’s hair when the girls arrived.
Nathaniel heard them in the hall and so did Amy, which made her jump on the bed with impatience.
“Hurry!“, she almost screamed, making him lose his grip on her. That was all it took. In the next second, she had jumped off the bed, skirted around him and had run off into the hall.
Too late, he realised that his tshirt was wet. Reaching behind his neck, he pulled at it, getting it off him. He went into the bathroom and straightened it out, putting everything in its place like it had been before Amy had happened.
When he stepped out, he looked around for one of Matt’s spare tshirts. Finding one that had been newly laundered, he pulled it over his head.
He didn’t hear her come in.
Nathaniel turned around and saw Zara two feet away from him, slightly damp from the rain outside.
But it was her expression that made him tense. She looked pale, unnaturally so.
Was she trembling?
“Hey. What’s going-”
She surprised him by rushing straight to him and hugging him fiercely. He froze for a second, his mind working a mile at a minute, wondering what could possibly make her look like that.
She had tucked her head under his chin and her breath was warm on his skin. Without questioning it, he wrapped his arms around her frame, noting that she was, in fact, trembling.
He tilted his head and kissed the top of hers, rubbing his palms over her arms, noting with slight alarm the goosebumps that had risen on them.
“Zara, baby, what’s wrong?”
She shook her head slowly, but her hold on him tightened and she pressed in further, molding herself to his body, leaving no space between.
“I’m sorry, Nate.”
The whispered words caught him off guard. She’d never called him that spontaneously.
“There’s nothing to apologize for.“, he soothed her, holding her just as tightly, glad that Susan and Matt had Amy with them and no one had walked in.
It was a while before he felt her breathing even out and the goosebumps disappear. All through it, he didn’t let her go, needing to hold her as much as she needed him.
He kissed her hair repeatedly, caressing her cheek with the pad of his thumb till he felt her slump against him.
Then without letting her go, he walked them over to the bed,sitting down before seating Zara on his lap, her head still on his shoulder, his fingers entwined with hers. He didn’t say a word, letting her breathe, letting his own heart slow down from the terror that had gripped him for that brief moment.
“Hey.“, he said softly, his palm cupping the back of her head, slowly moving down to massage her neck muscles.
“Could you tell me what happened?”
She went still for a second before she lifted her head and looked at him, the paleness still visible in her cheeks.
Then she dropped her gaze and looked away. “It’s silly. You probably don’t want to hear it.” Her voice was soft, unsure.
Placing a finger below her chin, he turned her head back to him.
“Zara, when it comes to you, nothing is silly. Do you get that?”
She stared at him, her grey eyes searching his as though she could see through him. Then she nodded. Briefly, but firmly.
“Before we headed back home, we were at the ice cream parlor. And.. there was this guy in like.. a black van kind of vehicle.”
She paused and her gaze darted away from him before coming back. And she shifted closer to him, almost unconsciously, as though seeking comfort.
Nathaniel could feel the terror he had experienced just a few moments ago, return full force.
“He was staring at me.”
His heart plummeted.
"What?” It came out harsher than he intended it to.
Zara shook her head, “I don’t know why, it just gave me the creeps. I thought I was just imagining it, you know. But now, I’m sure I wasn’t. He was staring at me.”
Nathaniel pulled her to him, his arms wrapping her in his embrace.
She went on. “And he looked so angry. Almost.. like he hated me.”
“Have you seen this guy before?“, Nathaniel asked her quickly, his brain refusing to believe that there could be a threat.
She shook her head. “No, never.”
“Do you have any bitter ex boyfriends or anything like that?“, he held his breath waiting for her answer.
To his surprise, she pulled away slightly and looked at him.
“You believe me.“, she said softly, her eyes wide, as though in wonder.
“Of course I believe you. Why would you think otherwise?”
“I don’t have any.”
“Bitter exes. I don’t have any.”
The knot in his stomach eased just a little.
“Bitter exes or exes?“, he hoped he didn’t sound as nervous as he felt.
He knew he was caught when the corner of her mouth turned up in a smile.
So much for being smooth.
“I haven’t dated, Nathaniel. At all. Excluding Finn, of course.”
The knot in his stomach disappeared and he grinned.
“Doesn’t that scare you?“, Zara asked, her gaze on his lips.
“The fact that you haven’t dated?”
He laughed and grabbed her face between his palms. Then he leaned in and kissed her lips slowly, learning the taste and the feel of her once again, an addiction he never wanted to get rid of.
“It fucking thrills me.“, he whispered against her lips. “You’re all mine. Every single part of you.” He kissed her again before sliding his tongue inside her mouth.
She melted against him, her tongue meeting his, stroke for stroke. Her teeth nibbled on his lower lip while her hands found their way inside his tshirt, her nails raking up his stomach, leaving behind the most exquisite of feelings.
He kissed her till she was out of breath and when she turned away, he kissed her still, tracing her jawline with the softest of kisses till she turned to him back again and kissed him hard. Urgently, as though he hadn’t kissed her just seconds before.
The words were on the tip of his tongue.
I love you.
He couldn’t say it. Not yet. So he showed her.
With his tongue and teeth. With his hands and his lips. He picked her up and put her on the bed, coming over her, kissing her mouth like he couldn’t get enough.
She was beginning to moan. But he stifled the sounds, aware that they weren’t alone and yet powerless to keep his hands off her.
Zara pulled him down on her, her back arching up, her breasts rubbing against his chest, hardening him more than he always was in her presence.
He curved his palm around her waist and then moved lower, sinking his fingers into the flesh of her denim clad bottom, wishing that they were alone, that she was naked and that he could spill out the words that were eating him alive from inside the longer he kept them repressed.
A sharp peal of laughter from the living room made them freeze.
Nathaniel groaned when Zara pulled away, her eyes darting to the door in surprise.
When she turned back to him, he felt pure satisfaction on seeing her swollen lips, evidence that she was his, his mark on her.
Rising up on his elbows, he brought her head down and kissed her again. This time letting her moan go unchecked.
She let out a soft cry when he pulled her down once again, underneath him.
Letting her move away only slightly, he kissed her forehead and then both her eyelids.
“I swear I won’t let anything or anyone hurt you, Zara. I promise.”
He watched as her grey eyes shone with gratitude and he felt like he had been punched in the gut.
Then she suddenly rose up and threw herself on him, hugging his neck so tight, he couldn’t breathe for a second.
Then he pulled her body into his and let her bury her face in his shoulder. Only then did he felt the slight wetness on his skin.
His brave girl had cried.