Natalie hated the Inter-Town Carnival. She knew it was good for the town, 80 percent of the town’s revenue being made over the course of the three day event, but that didn’t make her hate them any less.
And this year’s carnival was shaping up to be worse than any year before it. Why? Because she was the one responsible for watching over all the preschoolers, not just her preschoolers, but those from the neighbouring towns too. Sure, she had a bunch of other chaperones to help out, but if anything went wrong it was on her, not them. It didn’t help to have Tattletale Tiffany skulking in the shadows. Okay, so she wasn’t literally in the shadows, she was off to the side helping her daughter braid her hair, but still, if Natalie did one thing wrong everyone would hear about it.
She also had to keep an eye on Ryan, who hadn’t been too happy when she’d broken the news about Scott helping out today, and just to add insult to injury, she’d had no choice but to ask her mom to chaperone too. Wasn’t trying to control four year olds enough? This was the first year they were competing in the carnival, and they were all bursting with excitement to represent their school in the egg and spoon race, three legged race and fancy dress competition. Did she really need all this other crap?
“Miss Natalie, Roger ripped my wing.” One of her students, Rachel complained, her eyes welling with tears as she shoved her fairy wing at Natalie to inspect. She studied the mesh, straining to find the supposed ‘rip’. After about a minute she gave up, if she couldn’t find it, then it wasn’t that bad or it was non-existent.
“I’m gonna need to borrow your wand.” She said to Rachel. The little girl nodded and handed over the plastic, bedazzled fairy wand. “Okay, now I’m going to fix it, but I need your help.”
“I need you to close your eyes and concentrate really, really hard. Imagine the rip disappearing, can you do that?”
“Yeah, I’m doing it.”
“Now keep concentrating, and one, two, three.” Natalie tapped on the wings three times. “Fairy magic, we call to you, fix Rachel’s wings and make them new.”
“Did it work?” Rachel asked, her eyes still tightly shut.
“It sure did.” Natalie said. “Look.”
Slowly the girl opened her eyes and peered closely at her wings. Natalie waited, her stomach in her throat, hoping this would work. A smile emerged on Rachel’s lips, and a giggle escaped right before she wrapped her arms around Natalie’s neck and squeezed.
“They’re even better than before. Thank you Miss Natalie.”
“I couldn’t have done it without you.” She said, detangling herself from Rachel. She thanked her one last time before skipping back to her friends and animately telling them about how Natalie used fairy magic to fix her wing.
Natalie let out a sigh of relief as she rose to her feet, quickly scanning the children to see if any other emergencies were taking place. One parent, Mark, sat between two boys wearing the same Spiderman costume, talking them through why this was awesome rather than the end of the world. One of the moms had set up a face painting station and quietly worked through a line of children who wanted to add more pizzazz to their costumes. Ryan awkwardly interacted with a group of boys playing with Pokemon cards, Eliza sternly scolded anyone being too loud, Pete retold stories of his glory, her mom strutted around giving fashion advice, and Scott, he stood toward the edge of everything, watching rather than interacting with anyone.
As if sensing her he met her gaze and smiled, his eyes quickly travelling down her body. She crackled with awareness as she offered him a quick smile in return, her heart skipping a few beats as his eyes glazed over her one last time before he turned back to watching the kids. She told herself it didn’t mean anything. It was just an attraction. Nothing more. Just a stupid attraction.
Someone tugged at the hem of her dress and she looked down to see Parker standing by her feet. He wore neat, tailored dress pants, a crisp polo shirt and carried a briefcase. She tried to figure out what he was supposed to be dressed as, but he didn’t look like anything, he just looked like he was dressing for a country club.
“What are you?” She asked.
“I’m a 28 year old.” He replied. “You said if I was 28 we would be together. Now I’m 28.”
“And you’re quite the dashing 28 year old.” She said, bending down and giving him a quick kiss on the cheek. A huge smile lit up his face and she swore she’d never seen him so happy. If only all her relationships were this simple.
“I probably won’t win the costume competition.” He said. “But I don’t care about that. I just want to win you.”
“Well, as long as you’re a 28 year old you have me.” She replied. “Now why don’t you go find Blaine? The egg and spoon race is about to begin.”
“But I don’t want to leave you.”
“Don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere. I’ll see you after the race.”
“Okay.” He said before taking off.
He was gone not three seconds before her mom found her and ambled over. Natalie contemplated making a run for it, throwing herself into the middle of the four year old crowd, chances were she wouldn’t have to wait long for some emergency to present itself. Anything to get away from her mother, because the look on her face told Natalie that whatever her mom had to say, she was not going to like it.
“Hi, sweetie.” Her mom greeted. “You’ve been quite busy today.”
“Yeah.” Natalie agreed. “And speaking of which, I think I need to…”
“Is that Scott I see over there?” Her mom asked, nodding in his direction. Natalie cringed, and plastered a fake smile across her face. He was the last thing she wanted to talk about right now, especially with her mother, the president of the Scott Garrison Hate Club.
“Yes it is.” Natalie said.
“How long has he been back?”
“A few weeks now.”
“And you didn’t say anything?”
“There was nothing to say.” Natalie said. Since he’d been back all Natalie had heard were different variations of, ‘stay away from him, he’s bad for you.’ Her mom was the queen of that sentiment and Natalie just didn’t need to hear it right now. If she heard it again she might just rip her ears off.
“It doesn’t look like nothing.” Her mom countered. “He keeps looking at you like he’s seen you naked.”
“Well technically he has.” Why the hell had she just said that? The last thing she needed to do was goad her mother.
“Of course not.” She objected. “See this is why I didn’t tell you he was back, you turn tiny little things, like Scott smiling at me, into this huge affair.”
“Is he why you and Ryan are fighting?”
“Ryan and I are not fighting.”
“Natalie you can’t let Scott back into your life. Look at what happened the last time.”
Natalie desperately scanned the crowd, looking for anyone in distress, for any kind of problem. She needed to get out of this conversation, she needed to get out of it about a minute ago. Come on, she thought, give me something.
She scanned the group one more time and for some reason her eyes found Scott’s. He glanced between her and her mother and a knowing smile touched his lips. She couldn’t be sure but she swore she saw him laugh, that bastard. She narrowed her eyes at him, sending silent pleas for help his way, hoping he’d somehow be able to read her mind. Ever so slightly he nodded his head, understanding bright in his eyes. Then they both looked away, Natalie reluctantly turning back to her mother.
“Is Scott the reason you spent the night at my place last week?” Her mom asked.
“No.” Natalie said.
“Why don’t I believe you?”
Because you don’t listen. Because you get one thing in your mind and you don’t budge away from it. Because you see what you want to see, never what’s actually there.
Natalie didn’t say any of that though. She just forced a smile and nodded, pretending to listen, biding time while she waited for Scott to save her.
“Don’t let Scott ruin the life you’ve made for yourself here. Things don’t have to change just because he’s back. You don’t need to have anything to do with him anymore.”
“Excuse me, sorry to interrupt.” It was Ryan, not Scott like Natalie had expected. Disappointment punched her in the gut, but she continued to smile, ignoring it as well as she could.
“No, no, interrupt away.” Natalie’s mom replied. “We were practically finished anyway.”
That was a lie, if Ryan hadn’t shown up that lecture would have lasted all day. But Ryan was here now, the guy who could do no wrong where Elena was concerned.
She reached out and pulled Ryan into a hug, her smile only growing bigger, too big, she looked like an alien or something it was distorting her face so much. That or Natalie was just being mean, bitter that her mother loved this boyfriend so much rather than the one who mattered.
Wait, what? Where the heck had that thought just come from? Ryan mattered. Of course he mattered. Natalie was getting too much sun, and the preschoolers were doing her head in, and she wasn’t getting enough sleep. Yep, that was it, her brain was breaking. It was the only reason.
You’re an idiot Natalie, she thought to herself.
“It was nice seeing you again Ryan.” Her mom said. “We should catch up properly soon, have dinner at my place.”
“I would love that.” Ryan replied. The urge to roll her eyes was strong, but Natalie was stronger, she could fight it.
Her mom’s gaze fell back onto Natalie, and that stupid big grin immediately dropped back to its normal, pinched size, her eyes holding a silent warning before she turned away from the pair and went back to supervising the kids.
“Thank you.” She said, turning to face Ryan.
“For what?” He asked, completely oblivious. He’d never understood her slight contempt for her mother. That’s because her mom had been nothing but sweet to him, treating him as if he were this god sent down from the heavens to take care of her one and only daughter. “Scott said you were looking for me.”
Scott? Scott had sent him? The thought warmed her insides and a real smile took over the fake one. He’d sent Ryan because he knew all hell would break loose if he’d come himself. That was sweet.
She looked over her shoulder to where he’d been standing before and their eyes met. She couldn’t stop her smile from growing bigger, and she knew that now she must look like the alien. He smiled back and she mouthed a quick thank you before turning back to Ryan.
“What was that all about?” He asked, looking between Natalie and Scott.
“Just thanking him for sending you my way.” She replied. “Come on.”
She grabbed his hand and led him over to the area they’d set aside for the kids to gather when their events were going to start. It was almost time for the egg and spoon race, an event that was crazy enough, made even crazier by the elaborate costumes all the kids were wearing.
“I’m going to start grouping kids for the egg and spoon race.” She explained. “I just need you to make sure they stay in their groups.”
“Easy.” He said with a nod. She remembered what it was like to be that naive, but he’d soon learn just how ‘easy’ it was to control excited four year olds.
Oh it was going to be a long day. She took a deep breath, mentally preparing herself for it. She liked being a teacher, she did, but she did not like this.
Scott was supposed to be watching the children, but really he was watching Natalie. There were countless parents and teachers watching the students and yet she still tried to watch everyone, determined to keep them all happy and safe.
She looked damn good too, dressed in a tight sundress that hugged her beautiful curves and left little to the imagination where her chest was concerned. He’d forgotten how good she looked in sundresses, even better than she’d looked in those old, faded jeans from the other day.
How was he supposed to concentrate with her looking like that? How any male concentrated with her around was beyond him. No wonder Ryan had gone crazy and punched him.
“I don’t believe my eyes.” Came a vaguely familiar voice. “Scott Garrison, back in our small uneventful town.” Scott turned to the voice and for a moment couldn’t place the old man extending his arms for him. “Although I guess with you back it’ll be plenty eventful.”
The voice sounded familiar, but the wrinkles covering the man’s face distorted his features, his balding head gave nothing away and the cane he walked with only confused Scott more. He studied the man carefully, trying to find anything that stuck. Then he met his eyes, a colourful hazel, the most colour Scott had ever seen in a pair of eyes, and then he knew.
“Coach Biscuit?” He asked, stepping into the man’s embrace.
“Ah, so you do recognise me.” Coach replied with a smile, releasing Scott. “Yeah I’m not what I used to be. Was in an accident a few years ago. Aged me, and not well.”
“Grandpa, I think the egg and spoon race is about to start.” A young, scrawny kid dressed as Chewbacca said, tugging on Coach’s sleeve.
“Grandpa?” Scott asked with a raised eyebrow.
“Yeah, there’s three of them. Nathan here’s the eldest.”
Scott nodded, studying the man who used to be his football coach. He was right, he hadn’t aged well at all. He’d be what? In his late 50s now? But he looked like he belonged in his 80s.
“Nathan do you know who this is?” Coach asked the young boy.
“Jenny’s uncle?” Nathan replied. “That’s what she keeps telling everyone.”
“This is the best damn football player this county has ever seen. Led us to four state championships this one.”
“We all played our part.”
“You were always too modest. Give yourself some credit every once in a while.” Coach said. “Anyway, what are you up to these days?”
“Not much.” He replied. “You? Still coaching?”
“I am, but I’m gonna be stepping down soon, currently looking for someone to take my place.”
“Okay.” Natalie’s voice boomed over a megaphone, interrupting the conversation. “Everyone, look at your wristbands, if its blue, please come to me.”
“Grandpa that’s me.” Nathan said, tugging on Coach’s sleeve.
“Well it was nice seeing you again.” Coach said. “You should come by tomorrow, it’s the Inter-Town football tournament, maybe show the team a thing or two.”
“Yeah, I know what maybe means with you. Just come by.” He smiled goodbye to Scott before taking Nathan’s hand and leading him toward the line where all the kids with blue wristbands were forming.
He contemplated Coach’s offer for a moment, then quickly dismissed it. There was nothing a washed up former football prodigy could teach those new players. He himself hadn’t played in years, they’d probably all know a lot more than he did right now. The thought made him oddly sad. He’d always thought that after his career was over he might just turn to coaching, now he never could. He’d missed his chance. He could add it to the list with everything else he’d let pass him by.
He shook himself from his thoughts and scanned the crowd for Natalie, needing a distraction. He immediately regretted it when he saw her with Ryan, giving him a quick kiss before turning back to a group of children and motioning them to form two lines. Ryan stayed glued to her side, constantly touching her, caressing her affectionately whenever he got the chance.
“I hate that guy.” Someone grumbled and Scott looked down to see Parker, wearing trousers and a polo shirt rather than a costume, glowering at Ryan.
“Yeah you and me both kid.” Scott said to him. He was liking this kid more and more every time he spoke to him.