The Garrison Manor was the last place Natalie wanted to be right now. It wasn’t because Scott would be here tonight, it wasn’t because she was still avoiding him, it wasn’t because she was nervous about how Ryan would react to him after ‘the punch’. It was because she’d already planned her evening out. Thai takeout from the best Thai restaurant she’d ever known, and then Gilmore Girls. She usually spent her winter re-watching the series but for some reason she’d started in spring this year. She was already through season one and Jess was about to arrive, beautiful, beautiful Jess. Sure, he was kind of an idiot when he was a kid, but he’d grown up into such a mature and together adult. Natalie honestly didn’t see how Rory could ever be torn. If she had a Jess in her life she’d be all over that in a second.
Her Gilmore Girls binge had to wait though. At the last minute Ryan had invited himself to Eliza and Pete’s, saying he’d just spent his day out in the blazing sun and wanted to make use of their friend’s massive pool. Pete and Eliza had agreed, and Natalie had no choice but to go.
So here she was, walking up to the Garrison Manor with her hand in Ryan’s, about to spend her night cringing at the awkwardness that was sure to emerge when Ryan stepped into the same room as Scott.
Reluctantly she grabbed the massive brass door knocker and tapped it three times against the door, the sound echoing through the house as the two of them waited. When it swung open Scott stood before them, a mischievous smile playing at the corners of his mouth. Natalie knew that look, it was the one he got whenever he was in the mood to cause some trouble.
Fantastic. Every other time she gets the normal Scott, the one who doesn’t say too much, kind of keeps to himself and just observes. Tonight she was getting the troublesome one, the one who was slightly bored and ready to make everyone else squirm for his own amusement.
“Everyone else is in the pool.” He said in greeting. “I was sent to fetch you.”
“Look Scott I’ve been meaning to talk to you.” Ryan said, and before Natalie could stop herself she was rolling her eyes. She couldn’t help it. Ryan was only apologising because he thought it would make her happy, not because he meant it. She hated that. She hated when people did things because they thought it would make her feel a certain way, they’d been doing it for years and it bugged her every single time.
Scott caught her mid-eye-roll, and his mouth curved into that half-smirk he did whenever he was suppressing a real smile.
“And what did you want to talk about Ryan?” He asked, turning his attention back to her boyfriend, his words dripping with condescension.
“I wanted to apologise about the other night.” Ryan said. “I shouldn’t have hit you. I’m sorry.”
“Forget it.” Scott replied. “It didn’t even bruise, I’m fine.”
Ryan’s back tensed, his eyebrows creasing into an angry frown while he jaw locked into place. Natalie tried not to react, tried to hold it together, but her lips had other ideas, forcefully trying to push her cheeks into a smile. Yes, she was a terrible person. She shouldn’t have wanted to laugh, especially since it would only encourage Scott, but she couldn’t help it. Ryan looked like he’d just eaten something sour. He looked ridiculous. How was she not supposed to laugh?
“Right.” Ryan said through gritted teeth. “I’m glad we can put this behind us.”
“Mmm-hmm.” Scott mumbled, his lips also twitching as he tried not to laugh. “After you.” He nodded toward the backyard and Ryan nodded back, his jaw still clenched and his hand balling in and out of a fist.
“Really?” She whispered to Scott as she brushed past him.
“Couldn’t help myself.” He whispered back, his lips at her ear, sending a warm tingle down her body.
She ignored the sensation as she followed Ryan into the backyard. Pete, Eliza and Jenny were already in the pool. Eliza sat on one of the steps, leaning against the brick platform as she watched Pete and Jenny splashing around in front of her. Bryce stood near Eliza, dipping his toe into the water to see if the temperature was manageable. He looked up and smiled at Natalie and that was when she caught sight of his left eye, covered in a dark shade of purple.
“What happened to you?” She asked.
“I got punched.” Came Bryce’s simple reply, his tone implying she was an idiot for asking when the answer was clearly obvious.
“A moron.” Bryce replied.
“Now that’s how you throw a punch.” Scott said, grinning from ear to ear. “Maybe he can give Ryan a few pointers.”
Ryan clenched his fist again, and Natalie noticed he’d started taking deep, long, purposeful breaths, probably trying to calm himself. What he didn’t realise was that Scott was getting the exact reaction he wanted. Maybe Ryan wasn’t outwardly saying anything, but his body language was saying it all for him.
“Step one, hit the eye.” Scott continued, giving a small laugh.
“Are you done?” Pete asked.
“Oh don’t worry Pete, Ryan and I have put it behind us. This is just some harmless rousing. Isn’t it Ryan?”
“Yeah.” Ryan all but hissed his teeth were clenched so hard together.
“See now he’s pretending to be annoyed.” Scott said, that cheeky smile growing bigger. “Classic.”
Ryan nodded, his deep breaths becoming louder as he tried to control himself. Natalie wanted to roll her eyes, but this time she refrained. Ryan was being dramatic. Scott was being an asshole. She could have been watching Gilmore Girls right now.
“Ignore him.” Natalie whispered to Ryan. “He’s doing it to annoy you.”
“Is he?” Ryan asked. “Or is he trying to make me look inadequate in front of you.”
“Trust me, this has nothing to do with me and everything to do with him just wanting to stir up some trouble.”
“Natalie, you like to see the best in people, but sometimes it makes you naive.”
She narrowed her eyes at him, hating that he’d just spoken down to her as if she were a five year old about to get into a car with someone who’d offered her candy. He didn’t notice the glare, his attention meanwhile still focused on Scott, on trying to stare him into submission.
Scott couldn’t have cared less if he’d tried. He just waltzed around the border of the pool like he owned the place, his presence commanding attention. He reached for the hem of his shirt, and as if in slow motion pulled it over his head, revealing that glorious chest she wished she could erase from her mind, and the Natalie tattoo that tugged at her heart every time she saw it.
She felt Ryan tense beside her. At this point she would have thought he was all tensed out, but as it turns out, he could actually make his back even more rigid than it already was.
“Ryan.” Scott began. “You don’t look well, are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” Ryan said through gritted teeth.
“You look like you’re…” Scott trailed off, looked down at his chest dramatically and then gave one exaggerated sigh. “It’s my Natalie tattoo isn’t it? Sorry dude, haven’t had a chance to get it removed yet.”
“You have a Natalie tattoo?” Jenny exclaimed, trying to swim over to him while her dad held her back. “Cool.”
“I always thought it was cool.” Scott continued. “Natalie what do you think of it?”
He flexed the muscle, making his pecs dance up and down as he showed off the tattoo.
“Oh no. You can leave me out of whatever this is.” Natalie said, motioning between the two guys. He shot her a wicked smile before running to the pool, jumping into the air and bringing his legs to his chest in a cannon ball. He hit the water with a loud crash, and the formally peaceful pool crackled with ripples. His head emerged from beneath the surface and he flicked the hair out of his eyes, that cheeky smile still plastered across his face.
“You’re gonna need to get involved sooner or later Natalie. You’re the one who needs to choose between us.” He winked at her, making the gesture 100 times bigger than it needed to be.
“Why would she need to choose between us?” Ryan demanded, stupidly taking the bait.
“Ryan he’s just trying to wind you up.” Natalie whispered to him.
“And Bryce owes me $10.” Scott called from his spot in the pool. “I bet Bryce here that I could get Ryan to snap.”
“No you didn’t.” Bryce said, looking at Scott as if he were nothing more than a wart on his foot.
“And here I thought we bonded today.” Scott replied.
“Do you want to get punched again?” Ryan demanded.
“I’m gonna punch him.” Bryce commented.
Once again Natalie was hit with the realisation that she could have been watching Gilmore Girls right now. She could be watching Luke push Jess into the lake after his arrival caused him nothing but a headache. Instead she was here, dealing with this crap. Well no, she was not participating.
She threw her bag onto a pool chair and made her way over to Eliza. Ryan and Scott completely ignored her, more focused on their little pissing contest rather than the girl they were ‘apparently’ fighting over. It just proved her point here. Scott wasn’t trying to make Ryan look like a fool, well he was, but it wasn’t for Natalie’s benefit. Scott knew that nothing he could do would change her opinion of Ryan, she’d never been influenced by what other people thought. She also knew exactly what it looked like when Scott was trying to win her over, and this wasn’t it. If Scott wanted her he’d come for her, he wouldn’t be irritating her boyfriend. This was just Scott trying to entertain himself. He couldn’t piss off Eliza or Pete because they’d kick him out, he couldn’t mess with Natalie because she wouldn’t rise to the occasion, and it would just be cruel to do it to Jenny or Bryce. That left Ryan, poor, unsuspecting, naive Ryan.
No wait, she was the naive one, she thought to herself bitterly. She shook her head and reached for the hem of her sundress, determined to ignore Ryan and Scott and just relax beside Eliza.
“Woo-woo, take it off.” Scott called out from across the pool.
“Don’t you dare look at her.” Ryan yelled back. “Natalie don’t take off your dress.”
“Oh my god.” Eliza muttered.
“Scott stop being such an ass.” Pete scolded. “One more comment from you and I’ll ask you to leave.”
“Yes Sir.” Scott replied, giving a little salute before tumbling under the water. With his eyes no longer on her, Natalie slipped out of her dress and quickly stepped into the ice-cold water, submerging herself next to Eliza before either guy could make another comment.
“They should just whip their dicks out.” Eliza said to her. “We can see which one is bigger and get this over with.”
“I bet Uncle Scott’s is bigger.” Jenny said causing Natalie and Eliza to stare at her wide-eyed.
“What?” Eliza asked.
“Scott’s bigger than Ryan.” Jenny said innocently, the true meaning of Eliza’s words lost on her.
“Hmmm.” Scott rumbled, emerging from under the water. “Natalie you look just good enough to eat.”
“This was a bad idea.” Ryan said, glowering at Scott. “We should go.”
“No, Scott can go.” Pete interjected also staring Scott down. “You were warned.” He said to his brother.
Scott laughed wickedly as he pulled himself out of the pool, his arms flexing as he used them as support. For a moment Natalie lost herself, staring at the way his muscles contracted, the way the droplets of water still clung to his body, the way his swim trunks slightly fell down his hips.
“Men.” Eliza muttered, breaking Natalie from the trance. “They think they’re helping, but they only make things worse.”
“Mmm-hmm.” Natalie agreed. “I’m gonna go get some drinks.”
“That’s the best idea I’ve heard all day.” Eliza replied.
Natalie chuckled as she slipped out of the pool and headed toward the bar, grabbing her towel and wrapping it around her body.
“No Natalie, you can’t follow me.” Scott exclaimed dramatically as he stepped, dripping wet, back into the house. “You need to be more subtle when we’re sneaking off together.”
“Scott, leave.” Pete barked.
“We’ll have to meet up later.” Scott said to Natalie, giving another exaggerated wink before heading inside. She just ignored him as she opened the bar, searching for glasses to pour the drinks into.
“Where are the glasses?” She asked upon finding the cupboards empty.
“We replaced them all.” Eliza replied. “We just haven’t put the new ones out here, they’re in the butler’s pantry, still in their box.”
“Okay.” Natalie said, quickly patting herself dry before heading toward the house. “I guess I’ll be secretly hooking up with Scott after all.”
Eliza chuckled at her joke, while Pete and Ryan shot her dirty looks, both horrified she’d said something so outrageous.
“Come on, it was a joke.” She said, unable to hold in her own laughter.
“It wasn’t funny.” Ryan replied.
“Yeah it was.” Eliza interjected. “You all need to lighten up.”
“Eliza.” Pete exclaimed, personally offended by her finding the whole situation amusing. “If Bryce were carrying on like this you wouldn’t stand for it.”
“Bryce would never behave like this.” She replied.
“Give me more credit Dad.” Bryce said, now looking at his dad as if he were the wart on his foot.
The two of them continued to argue as Natalie stepped into the house, heading for the butler’s pantry. She found Scott in the main kitchen, scoffing down some Pringles, still gloriously shirtless. Why did he have to be shirtless? She couldn’t think straight with him like that. She couldn’t think at all actually. All she did was stare, transfixed, at the way his back rippled every time he reached into the Pringles cylinder and grabbed a new handful of the chips.
No, focus Natalie, she told herself. She had to remember her mission, get the glasses and leave. Get the glasses and leave. Simple, easy, something she could do without checking out the Adonis sitting at the counter crunching on chips.
“Did you enjoy yourself?” She asked Scott as she brushed past him.
“I am now.” He said, his eyes flicking down her body. Disappointment furrowed his brows as his eyes rose to meet hers. “I’d enjoy myself more if you’d left the towel outside.”
“Okay you can stop.” She said. “Ryan’s not here to get annoyed.”
“I don’t give a crap about Ryan.”
“Then what was that outside?” She asked.
“What? My flirting with you?” He replied, over dramatically, like he still found the whole thing hilarious.
“That wasn’t flirting.” She said, turning away from him and heading inside the butler’s pantry. A butler’s pantry, now there was a colossal waste of a room. What point did it serve, really? Who needed a hidden kitchen so the main one wouldn’t get messy? It just seemed like a waste, and something uppity rich snobs did just to flaunt their wealth.
“Why do you say that wasn’t flirting?” He asked, leaning in the doorway, his arms folded across his chest, making the tattoo stand out. She wondered why he’d got it, when he’d got it, why after all these years he’d never had it removed. She pushed the thoughts away, wondering why she cared in the first place.
Why was she here right now? Right…glasses for the bar, glasses for the bar.
“I know exactly what your flirting looks like.” She explained, rummaging through drawers. “That, outside, wasn’t it. You weren’t flirting with me, you were messing with Ryan. There’s a big difference between the two.”
“And what exactly does my flirting look like?”
“I don’t know.” She said slamming one of the cupboards shut. “You would stand too close for one, find stupid reasons to touch me, like that time I got my arm stuck in the tree, and you kept touching my face even though it was my arm you should have been touching. You lower your voice down to this sexy rumble, and stare at me like you want…” She swallowed, hard, cutting herself off. “You just give me this look okay.”
There was no way she could finish the sentence she’d been about to finish, you stare at me like you want nothing more then to throw me onto a bed, rip off my clothes and explore every inch of my naked, needy body.
“I stand too close huh?” He asked, stepping toward her, closing the space between them so that all that remained were a couple inches that would disappear if she so much as nudged herself forward. “Like this?”
“I guess so yeah.” She replied while in her mind she continued to tell herself why she was there. Get the bar glasses and leave. Get the bar glasses and leave.
“And I’d find some reason to touch you?” He asked. “Like this.” He reached for her, his fingers lightly brushing her cheek as he wiped stray pieces of hair away from her face.
“Exactly like that.” Bar glasses, bar glasses, bar glasses.
“And I lowered my voice.” He said, dropping it down to that low rumble she’d never been able to forget. A rumble filled with desire, so beautiful it sent a thrill through her body that even his touch hadn’t done. “Like this?”
“And how did I look at you?” He asked, titling his head as if he were confused for moment. “Right, like this.”
His eyes locked with hers, and the bright clear blue clouded over with unbridled desire. She could practically see what he was visualising as he stared down at her, feel his hands in all the places he wanted to touch. Her breath hitched, briefly closing the small space between them as her chest brushed against his. She felt her nipples harden against her swimsuit, and her body felt as if it was on fire, Scott’s eyes setting everything ablaze.
This isn’t real, she told herself, it’s just a game, a game you started by bringing up the whole flirting thing. She could not react. He could not know the effect he was having on her, it wouldn’t be good for either of them.
“Yep.” She said trying to sound unfazed. “Exactly like that.”
“Does it still work?” He asked, the corner of his mouth curving into that cheeky half-smile.
“No.” She lied.
“Then why haven’t you moved away?”
“Why should I? You’re the one who invaded my personal space.”
“I’m not gonna move.” He said.
“Neither am I.”
“So what? We’re just gonna stand around like idiots?”
“I guess so.”
“Hmmm.” He murmured as if contemplating something. “I think you’ll move.”
“You have something I don’t.” He said.
“And what’s that?”
“Ryan.” He took a deep breath, his chest expanding to let air into his lungs, brushing against her pebbled chest. A wicked gleam twinkled in his eyes, doubling the intensity of his gaze as they rested on her lips. “I don’t have a Ryan to stop me.” His fingers brushed her chin, and gently he titled her head back. “I’m gonna kiss you.”
“No you won’t.” She said.
He moved forward, closing the tiny space between them, his head slowly moving toward her before his lips gently pressed against hers. It was barely a kiss, just a tickle against her lips, but warmth radiated through her entire body.
Carefully he applied more pressure, and her heart pounded against her chest. Her hands came up, acting on their own accord, wrapping themselves around his firm biceps as she gripped onto him to steady herself. His hands snaked around her back, and he pulled her to him, pressing their bodies together so they touched from their shoulders all the way down to their hips.
A moan escaped from his lips and suddenly Natalie remembered where she was, who she was with, and those stupid glasses she was supposed to be getting from the bar. She dug her nails into his arms and pushed him away. Far enough so they were no longer kissing, but not as far as she should have pushed him. His hands were still wrapped around her waist, and even though she knew she had to let go she still clung onto him.
“I told you you’d move.” He said, his voice still at that low, husky rumble, filled with need, and desire, and wanting.
“I didn’t think you’d actually kiss me.” She replied, finally dropping her hands from his arms and stepping out of his embrace.
“I told you I would.” Came his simple reply.
“Yeah but I didn’t think you meant it.” Her voice sounded strange even to her own ears. She knew that the words were coming from her mouth but she didn’t feel like they belonged to her.
She put more distance between them, opening the one cupboard she hadn’t checked. There, at the bottom she found a box, and when she looked inside there were a range of whiskey, wine, soda and shot glasses. If only she’d found this sooner, she could have avoided that whole scene with Scott right now.
She smiled awkwardly at him as she clutched the box of glasses in her arms, and when she moved past him she made sure not to touch him. Her body still buzzed from everywhere they’d touched before, she wasn’t sure she’d survive it if even their pinkies brushed.
“What took so long?” Eliza asked as Natalie stepped back out into the backyard.
“They were hard to find okay.” Natalie lied, surprised at how natural it sounded. If she didn’t know any better she’d think nothing had happened at all. But something had happened, something she wouldn’t be able to forget any time soon.