“Miss Natalie, Miss Natalie, you came.” Jenny yelled, running to Natalie and throwing her arms around her legs. Natalie bent down and scooped her up, steadying her on her hip as she gave the girl a proper hug. “My Uncle Scott always makes me be an air-plane.”
“Does he?” Natalie asked.
“Yeah, it’s so fun.”
“Well in that case…” She shifted Jenny so she lay horizontal in her arms, then did quick circles around the foyer, making engine sounds as Jenny pretended to be an aeroplane, trying to make the same noises as Natalie but always interrupting herself with her own giggles.
Natalie made it all the way into the living room before Jenny’s weight became too much. The girl wasn’t a baby anymore, and it wouldn’t be long before she was too heavy to pick up. Time went by so quickly, you blink and before you know it you’re a 28 year old preschool teacher way behind on the whole marriage and baby thing, looking after everyone else’s kids instead of your own.
Boy that was a depressing thought.
“Hey.” Pete greeted, entering the living room. “Thanks again for doing this.”
“Anytime.” Natalie said.
“Scott’s out, he won’t bother you.”
“He didn’t have to leave.”
“It’s for the best.” Pete replied. Natalie plastered a fake smile on her face and turned her attention to Jenny. She hadn’t been this annoyed with Pete in years. Then again, he hadn’t been trying to control her in years. What was it about Scott that made everyone think she couldn’t handle herself?
“Come on Pete, if we don’t leave now we’ll miss our reservation.” Came Eliza’s voice. “Have Jenny in bed by seven and Bryce by eight-thirty.” She said to Natalie before throwing on her coat and heading out the room. Pete shot her an apologetic smile before following after his wife.
That was cold, even for Eliza these days. Natalie wondered what was going on there. Lately you’d look in her eyes and she just seemed, tired, dead even, like she was just going through the motions.
“Okay, where’s your brother?” Natalie asked Jenny.
“In the games room.” Jenny said. “He’s reading the mon-ply rules.”
“Oh he can read all he wants, he’s still not gonna…” Her words evaporated as Scott stepped into her line of vision. Her train of thought completely forgotten, because there he was, coming out of one of the many bathrooms, wearing nothing but a soft, white towel around his waist.
He was still wet from the shower, and droplets of water glided down his glorious chest, drawing Natalie’s eye. Her eyes trailed down, following the faint line of chest hair that lead to the parts of him hidden beneath that thin, little towel.
He seemed to sense her staring, and lifted his head to meet her eyes. A knowing smile touched his lips, and he crossed his arms across his chest, making his already beautiful muscles grow larger.
She told herself not to take another look, but she couldn’t help herself, and her eyes began to trail down even as her head screamed at her to stop. That’s when she saw it, the tattoo, her name, there across his heart. Now her pulse was beating rapidly for a completely different reason. Why had he never had that tattoo removed?
He cleared his throat, and she snapped out of her head, focusing on his face rather than his beautiful body. He was staring at her with a pleased smirk, pretty damn proud of himself that he’d caught her staring. Oh whatever, like he wouldn’t stare at her if she came out in a towel. It was nothing to be embarrassed about, they’d always been attracted to each other. It didn’t mean anything.
“Pete said you were out.” She said, she had to say something, she couldn’t keep staring like an idiot.
“I’m on my way.” He replied, that smug smirk not wavering.
He was acting like she’d never seen him naked before. And she had. She’d seen everything before.
As if acting on their own accord her eyes shot back down to the bulge hidden by that stupid towel. She instantly realised her mistake and shot her eyes back up to his face.
Get a grip. She told herself. So he had a fantastic body? So what? Come on Natalie, exhibit a bit more self control please, this is the third time you’ve checked out his package.
At the word package her eyes began to wonder, but this time she kept them firmly in place, locked on Scott’s infuriatingly smug gaze.
“Well have fun tonight.” She said, giving him a quick nod before entering the games room. Bryce sat cross-legged on the floor, the monopoly board already neatly set out for the three of them, the rule book clasped in his hands as he read through each instruction carefully.
“I want to be the cat.” Jenny said rushing over to the board.
“Natalie what do you want to be?” Bryce asked.
“Smarter.” She said, reliving the mortifying way she’d just ogled Scott’s beautiful almost naked body.
Okay, those kind of thoughts needed to stop now. Right now. She could not go the whole night re-living how magnificent those muscles had gleamed under the hallway lights.
Oh jeez. This was bad. This was very, very bad. Why did he have to waltz around in that towel? It was confusing enough having him back in town, having him almost naked was…Let’s just say she needed to take one really long, ice-cold shower. She needed about a million ice-cold showers.
“Huh?” Bryce asked.
“I’ll be the ironing board.” She said.
“Okay, roll the dice.” He commanded, handing it to Natalie. She took it from him and lowered herself onto the floor, releasing the dice. It spun across the carpet before landing on the number one. Yeah, luck definitely was not on her side tonight.
Jenny went next, rolling a four, and then Bryce, who got a five. Soon the game was underway, and Natalie played on autopilot, buying every property she landed on, trying her hardest to forget the way… No, she was not doing that again. She needed to focus on the game, on the kids, not on the many physical ways Scott had grown over the years.
“Monopoly huh?” Came a low voice that sent goosebumps down Natalie’s back. The good kind of goosebumps too, the kind that had her whole body on alert, awake and bursting with anticipation.
“I thought my dad told you to go out tonight.” Bryce said in disdain.
And just like that the spell was broken. Now Natalie had something new to focus on. Pete had told Scott not to be around tonight. First he warned Natalie away and now he’d done it to Scott. What gave Pete the right to do that? They were both adults, both perfectly capable of making their own decisions, they’d been doing it for years without any input. They didn’t need Pete butting in and giving unwanted demands.
“Pete told you not to be here tonight?” Natalie asked Scott.
“Yep, I’m supposed to ‘clear out’.” He said, making air quotes around the words, clear out.
“Unbelievable.” She muttered. “What does he think is gonna happen?”
“Maybe he thought you’d see me in a towel and get ideas.” He said with a suggestive wink that had Natalie’s cheeks growing warm.
“Gross.” Bryce shuddered.
“Yeah, what he said.” Natalie added, motioning Bryce’s horrified face.
“Huh?” Jenny asked, completely lost.
“I’m disappointed in you Natalie. I thought you didn’t lie.” Scott said.
“Are you staying or going out?” Bryce demanded, narrowing his eyes at Scott.
“Let’s ask Natalie.” He replied, his gaze not wavering from her. “Should I stay or go?”
“I’m not gonna tell you what to do.” She said with a nonchalant shrug she didn’t mean. “Do what you want.”
“Okay. Then I’ll stay.”
She was screwed. She was so screwed. Maybe they should have listened to Pete after all.
“Pay up buddy.” Natalie said to Bryce. “Rent is $1,400.”
“I don’t have enough money.” Bryce complained.
“Then you’re out of the game.” Natalie taunted.
“How do you always win?” He wanted to know.
“Because I’m awesome.” Was her reply.
Yeah, and pigs could fly, Scott thought to himself. She wasn’t great at monopoly, the girl cheated. She always cheated. If the dice said move 10 spaces she’d move nine or eleven, whatever would get her to the square she actually wanted to land on. If she played as the banker, she’d pocket an extra $100 when passing go. When the other players weren’t looking she sometimes took one of their properties. She was a little sneak, and no one ever saw it coming because she was sweet, and giggly, and she played dumb. Where everyone else resented the labels they were given, she extorted them. She was the well-behaved, conservative pre-school teacher, and well-behaved, conservative pre-school teachers never broke the rules.
“Next time I’ll beat you.” Bryce said, gathering up the cards and money.
“Sure, sure.” She said, folding up the board. “Jenny are you ready for bed?”
“Hmmm.” Jenny moaned, already half-asleep on the couch.
“I’ll take that as a yes.” Natalie said, scooping the girl up in her arms and carrying her out the room, leaving Bryce and Scott alone.
Scott regarded the kid as he continued to pack away the game. Everything had to be just right. The cards were straightened before they were put away and organised according to their colour, the houses and hotels were separated, the community chest and chance cards shuffled. Everything had a specific place, a specific way to be packed. The kid was anal, desperate for order, for perfection. He did things one way, and one way only, confident that it was the right way. Yet if you looked in his eyes you saw uncertainty.
“Why are you staring at me?” He demanded, his voice as snarky as usual.
“Because you’re so handsome.” Scott replied.
“Why are you even here?” He snapped back. “Dad asked you to stay out tonight for a reason.”
“And miss out on all the fun we’re having? As if I would.”
“My dad’s not going to be happy.”
Scott didn’t give a crap about what Pete would have to say about it. The moment he’d caught Natalie staring at him like she wanted nothing more than to close the space and explore his body he’d been done for. There was no way he was going to be walking away from that. No one would be able to walk away for that.
“Okay Bryce, what do you say to a game of Cluedo?” Natalie asked, reentering the room and shaking him from his thoughts.
“I’m down.” Scott said.
“She wasn’t talking to you.” Bryce snapped.
“Come on Bryce, it’ll be fun.” Scott said.
“Not with you.”
“Don’t fight it.” Natalie advised. “Otherwise it just goes on forever.” She offered him a smile and Scott’s heart leapt in his chest as he smiled back, the moment bitter sweet because he knew that any second now Eliza and Pete would be back and this little bubble he and Natalie were in would pop as they were both forced back into reality.
“Come on.” Natalie said. “It’ll be more fun with the three of us playing.”
Bryce, of course, set up the board, shuffled the cards and began the game. The three of them took turns asking questions, showing evidence and growing closer and closer to the answers.
Scott couldn’t help but smile at the familiar way Natalie played. She thought she was being sneaky, but he knew her strategy, remembered it from all those years ago. It helped him figure out her cards without having to ask for them, and while she was busy trying to trick him and Bryce he’d already figured it out.
“Okay.” He said once his turn was up. “I’m guessing.”
“You can only guess if you know the answer.” Bryce said.
“No shit Sherlock.”
“Hey.” Natalie chastised, slapping his arm for his use of the curse word, making his skin burn at the brief contact.
“You can’t possibly know the answer.” Bryce said.
“And yet I do.” Scott replied. “Reverend Green, with the candlestick, in the library.”
With a stern look Bryce opened the evidence envelope and pulled out the cards, if they matched what Scott had just said, he’d win. One by one Bryce placed the cards onto the board, Reverend Green, candlestick, library.
“That’s not possible.” Bryce said. “You cheated.”
“Me? If anyone was cheating it was Lady MacBeth here.” He replied, nodding to Natalie.
“Lady Macbeth?” She asked.
“Look like the innocent flower but be the serpent underneath.” He said, reciting the famous line from Macbeth. “You’re not as slick as you think you are.”
“I can’t believe you beat her.” Bryce said, still staring down at the answer cards. “Only my mom has ever beaten her, but she doesn’t play much anymore.”
“She’s really busy.” Natalie said, her voice gentle, soothing.
“I know.” Bryce replied, a faraway look in his eye. Then he sighed and the moment was over. “Anyway I think I’m gonna go to bed.”
“Want me to tuck you in?” Scott offered sarcastically.
“I would rather, soak my berries in meat juice, and dangle them in a pool filled with piranhas, than have you tuck me in.” He said before turning and leaving the room.
“That was just uncalled for.” Scott called after him while Natalie burst into laughter. It was the first real time she’d laughed since he’d been back, and he’d forgotten how beautiful the sound was. She was so uninhibited when she laughed, the sound loud, unwavering, real.
“Oh he gets that from Eliza.” She said through laughs, wiping tears from her eyes.
“What happened to her?” Scott found himself asking.
“I don’t know.” Natalie replied. “We moved to the city, broke up, and when I came back she was…different.”
“Did she do it for Pete?”
“I don’t know.” She said. “I hope not.” The two of them sat in silence for a moment, both thinking about Eliza and all the ways she’d changed from the promiscuous party girl to the uptight ball-breaker. Natalie was the one to break the silence first. “You know I’m still not used to it. I’ll be walking with her right, and some guy will wolf-whistle or something and I’ll stand there waiting for her to blow him a kiss, or flip him off, you never could tell what mood she was in. Now she just ignores it and keeps walking.”
“Are you guys still close?” He asked.
“No.” She replied. “I tried, but she’s not interested anymore. I think she doesn’t want any reminders of who she used to be.”
“Yeah, she always hated being ‘For A Good Time Call Eliza.’”
They fell into another comfortable silence and Scott watched as Natalie brought her hand to her mouth and chewed on her nails. She never bit them off, she just gnawed at them, a habit that calmed her whenever she was deep in thought.
He wanted to reach out and squeeze her hand, just like he used to, maybe even place a kiss across her knuckles. He just wanted to ease her mind, make her feel safe, reassure her she wasn’t alone, that if she wanted to talk he was there.
He didn’t do any of that though, he just watched as she continued to chew on her nails, her mind turning with thoughts she’d never share with him.
“You know what we never did?” He asked, breaking the silence.
“Had that talk.” He replied. “That talk about how our lives turned out.”
“I guess we never did.” She agreed.
“So tell me Natalie, how’s life.”
“I don’t know what you want me to say.” She said. “You know it all already. You know I’m a teacher now, I have Ryan.”
“I don’t give a crap about Ryan.”
“There’s nothing else.”
“So the only things worth mentioning are your job and boyfriend?”
“Everything else is still the same.” She said. “I still hate beauty pageants, I still love Gilmore Girls. I still get mad when there’s no kiss scene in a movie between romantic interests. I still think half of the town events we have here are unnecessary and I still try to avoid my mother as much as I can.”
“And why did you say no to Ryan’s marriage proposal?”
“How do you know about that?” She asked. He gave her a meaningful look, telling her she knew the answer. Understanding washed over her features as she put it together. “Right, the air-vent.”
“So?” He prompted.
“I wasn’t ready.” She said. “And I don’t want to talk about it. Tell me about your life.”
“There’s not much to tell.”
“I don’t believe that for a second.” She said. “You have a girlfriend?”
“Really?” He asked, he thought it was more than obvious there was definitely no significant other.
“Fine.” She conceded. “What about a job?”
“I’m between jobs right now.”
“Yeah I guess.” He said. “There’s people I go out with occasionally.”
“Are you happy?” She asked, the question surprising him. He stalled for a moment, the answer on the tip of his tongue, no, he wasn’t happy, he doubted he ever would be again. He almost said it too, her question catching him so off guard he almost blurted it all out.
At the last moment he caught himself, forced a smile and lied.
“Sure.” He said. She didn’t want the truth, not really. She didn’t want to hear about the ‘friends’ he went out with only when he wanted to party, about the ‘girls’ that only ever stayed long enough to warm his bed for the evening, about the ‘family’ he never called. Every morning he woke up with nothing to look forward to, forced to go into some mediocre job and work endless hours for minimum wage. Then he’d go home tired, irritated at the tinniest of things, and sleep or binge watch some new show to fill the hours before his next shift at whatever job he had at the time. When things got particularly pathetic he’d go out with those ‘friends’, get drunk, maybe high, get his fix and then wait until he needed it again.
He had nothing to look forward to. He wasn’t going anywhere. He wasn’t getting anything. He was alone. Most of the time he was okay with that, over the years he’d come to despise people. Other times his loneliness would hit him like the cold does when you step outside in the middle of winter, and for the briefest moment he’d wish a certain girl was still sleeping beside him, her slow even breaths calming him and reminding him someone out there cared.
“What about you?” He asked, he had to know this, it was the reason he’d let her go. “Are you happy.”
“Most of the time.” She said honestly. “But we all have bad days I guess.”
Not like he did.
“So it all worked out for you.” He stated.
“I guess so.” She said.
They fell into another silence, a comfortable one. It felt like they were old friends, able to just sit in the other’s company without having to fill each silence with talk. It had always felt like this with her. Scott had missed it. It was easy to pretend like he didn’t when he was 100 miles away from her, much, much harder when he was this close, wanting to reach out and take her hand but knowing that wasn’t his place anymore.
“So, what are we now?” He asked as if he were joking, when really he desperately needed to know the answer. “We friends?”
“Hmmm.” She said as if thinking about it. “We’re friendly.”
“Not as friendly as I’d like.” He joked, playfully nudging her shoulder. His arm burned at the contact, like an explosion had just rippled through his body, originating right where he’d touched her. She rolled her eyes at his remark, a humoured smile forming on her lips. “But seriously, when you come over should I clear out?”
“Depends how much you value your health.” She said, trying not to smile. “Ryan just might take another swing at your neck.”
He threw his head back and laughed, a real laugh for once, and it felt good. It felt damn good.
“For you I’d take another beating.” He joked. His neck didn’t even hurt, it had never really hurt. The only thing he had to remember the incident by were Natalie’s jokes about it.
“Thanks for your sacrifice. I know how much it hurt.” She joked, giving a small laugh. “Oh gosh, I shouldn’t be making fun of him.”
“He did aim for my face and got my neck.”
“I don’t know what he was thinking.”
“He was defending your honour.”
“Then I expect him to at the very least get your nose.”
He only laughed harder, the heaviness that often weighed him down easing a bit. It wasn’t completely gone, but for once he felt like he could breathe, laugh, be happy for a moment. Figured Natalie would be the one to make him feel alive again, to make him feel something other than indifference.