This was the last time Natalie ever let her mom set her up. Why had she even agreed to this? Right, it had been one of her mom’s conditions. She could move back in, if she tried to move on from Scott.
“Natalie, it’s been three weeks, you can’t mope around forever.” Her mom had begun, bursting into the living room and interrupting yet another Gilmore Girls episode. This was why Natalie watched it in the winter. She didn’t know what it was about spring, but everyone seemed to have something going on. “You need to move on. If you’re not going back to Ryan then its time you find someone new. You’re not getting any younger. When I was your age you were 10, I’d been married and divorced already. I had my own house, I had…”
She’d kept talking but Natalie had tuned her out, angrily staring at the TV and wishing she could press play without starting her mother on a new rant about politeness and proper etiquette when someone was speaking to you. Before she knew it she had agreed to start dating again and just like that her mom had revealed she’d found the perfect guy.
So here Natalie was. At the Cinnamon Restauranteur, one of the finer restaurants in Spring Fields, right next to the Maple Lodge and the other restaurants and clubs that made up the small nightlife area in their town.
She was with a guy she’d never in a million years be interested in. Yeah sure, he was attractive, he had a steady job, seemed like a good guy but he hadn’t laughed at a single one of her jokes all night, hadn’t asked her any questions about herself and every time he tasted something, be it the food or a drink, he’d pull a face as if to say he wasn’t impressed.
Right on cue he took a bite of the dessert the waiter had just dropped in front of him, swallowed, then shook his head in disappointment.
“This creme-brûlée hasn’t even been smoked properly on the top.” He said.
“It looks fine to me.” Natalie replied.
“You should taste the ones we make in Winter Valley.” He said.
“Wait, you’re from Winter Valley?” That explained it, it explained everything. No wonder he was a giant snob, more interested in himself than anyone else. He was from prim and proper, Winter Valley, the town who always had to win, always had to be right, and always had to follow the rules. They didn’t know how to have fun, they never let anything go, and they were always trying to have Spring Fields thrown out of any four town event. At least, that’s how their town Selectman was. Natalie had always thought everyone else in the town was unwillingly taken along for the ride, but maybe they were just like their strong, winey and petty leader.
“Yeah I am.” He said. “And normally I would never consider dating a Spring Fields girl, but your mom showed me a picture of you and I was sold.”
He smiled and ran his eyes over her appreciatively. Suddenly she felt like she wanted to throw up. What the hell had her mother been thinking? This guy? Really? She should have just walked into a store, pointed at the first guy she saw and said, ‘You, come with me,’ surely that would have reaped better results than this.
“What made you come tonight?” He asked. “What did your mom tell you about me?”
“Nothing, I just wanted her to shut up.” She replied, enjoying the way his eyebrows crinkled together in annoyance.
When he finally asked for the bill Natalie could have done a cartwheel she was so happy. She was on a high the whole time he drove her home, knowing that any second now he’d pull up at her mom’s place, she’d get out and she’d never, ever have to see him again.
He pulled into the driveway and put the car into park. Taking a deep breath he turned to face her. His mouth puckered as if he were about to say something, but instead of speaking he leant forward, his lips making a beeline straight for hers.
Oh, hell no.
Her hand found the handle on the door and she clicked it open before jumping to safety. She was so quick he hadn’t even noticed her disappearance, continuing his forward motion to her lips. When he hit air rather than her mouth he reeled back, processing her seat’s sudden emptiness before smiling up at her as if to say, I get it, you can’t handle all of this.
Ew. It was disgusting. How could any one person think so much of themselves that they took it as a compliment when their date jumped out of their car to avoid kissing them? Ew. She felt like she needed a shower, maybe a million of them. Gross.
She waved goodbye, forcing a smile and hoping he realised just how fake it was before turning and rounding the corner, making her way toward the door.
“What a creep.” She said to herself. “Ew. My mother needs to have her head examined. How could she…”
The words disappeared from her mouth, completely forgotten as she looked to the door and found Scott sitting on the porch steps. A million questions floated through her mind, what are you doing here, where have you been, why are you back, why the hell did you leave? They all rushed through her mind along with a bunch of other things like, get the hell off my porch you asshole, go jump in a ditch and die, what makes you think you can come back here after the way you left.
She didn’t say any of that though. She just stared at him, blinking rapidly, half believing she was dreaming and needed to wake herself somehow, the other half of her shocked into silence. Here he was, sitting on her porch, staring up at her with his stupid beautiful blue eyes, filled with regret, sadness and a bit of hope. The first thing she felt was a wave of joy to see him. Then she remembered how he left, and her anger was back, worse this time because she wasn’t just angry with him, she was also angry at herself for being happy to see him.
“Hi.” He said getting to his feet.
“Hi.” She replied coldly, fishing her key out of her pocket. She ignored him as she stepped to the door, ignored the way he was looking at her, his eyes begging her to hear him out. She ignored the way he perfectly filled out that stupid T-shirt, and she ignored the heat that flushed through her body when she accidentally brushed past him to get to the door.
She wasn’t doing this. He’d left. She’d spent days hoping he’d come back. Then, finally, she’d realised she didn’t want him to. She didn’t want a guy who ran away every time he freaked out. She couldn’t spend her life with a guy she couldn’t rely on. She needed someone strong enough to stay when things got a little tough. She didn’t care about his reasons for leaving. Didn’t care it was because of his own insecurities, the doubts that always creeped in and told him he wasn’t good enough. She didn’t care that he’d left because he was incapable of seeing his own self-worth. And she didn’t care that her heart still desperately ached for him every day she woke up and realised he wasn’t here. None of that mattered. He’d left. She needed someone who would stay.
“Natalie.” He said following after her as she stepped into the house.
“What’s he doing here?” Her mom asked, sitting up when she saw Scott had entered behind her and not the gentleman caller she’d set up.
“He was just leaving.” Natalie said.
“I’m not going anywhere.” Scott replied.
“Fine.” Natalie snapped, turning to face him, her eyes blazing. “Then I’ll leave.” She said the same words he’d said to her, wanting them to hurt him just as much as they’d hurt her. His face hardened, and for a brief moment he looked as if he’d been slapped. Guilt twisted in her stomach and she hated that she’d hurt him, hated that she cared. She’d done nothing wrong. She didn’t have to feel guilty, she didn’t have to feel anything for him anymore.
“Natalie you’re not going anywhere.” Her mom said, outraged at the mere thought of Scott chasing her from her own house.
“No she’s not.” Scott agreed. “She was just throwing my words back in my face.”
“Scott I think you should leave.” Her mom said.
“I’m not going anywhere.” He said, looking right at Natalie. “Not until I talk to you.”
“What could you possibly have to say to me?” She asked, everything she’d felt in those last few weeks pouring out into her words. It took him by surprise, and his face softened as he registered the tone in her voice. Why was he here? Why had he come back? He’d caused her enough pain. There was nothing he could say that would change anything or make this hurt any less.
He knew it too. That’s why he hadn’t said anything yet. That’s why he was still staring at her. He knew that whatever he said would sound cheap. Of course it would. Words didn’t matter, actions did, and he’d left.
“I came to tell you why I left.” He eventually said.
That was it? Really? She knew why he’d left. She knew only too well how he’d panicked and run. She’d lived it. She didn’t need a recap.
“No.” It was her mother talking, springing up from where she’d been sitting on the couch. “She doesn’t want to listen to you.” She was already at the door before she’d finished her sentence, opening it wide and practically pushing Scott toward it.
What the heck? Natalie thought. She knew her mom didn’t like Scott, but this was strange. Why was she so desperate to get Scott out of the house? And why had she only become like this after he’d said he was here to explain why he’d left.
That’s when it hit her. Her mother had done something. She had to have done something. Now she was scared Scott was going to tell Natalie, and she was desperate to get him to leave before he did.
“What did you do?” Natalie asked her mom.
“What?” She said, pretending to look surprised. “I haven’t done anything.”
“This isn’t about her.” Scott interrupted. “This is about me. I never should have left.”
“I’m glad you finally figured that out.” Natalie replied coldly, her attention back on the man who’d broken her heart, twice now.
“I’m sorry.” He said, hearing the pain in her voice.
“Good for you.”
“I made a mistake, a huge one, but you have to let me explain.”
“No I don’t.” Her voice cracked on the words, and for the second time in front of this man she felt like a nutcase, yelling and screaming, each word drenched with the agony she was trying so hard to keep inside. “What do you want?”
“I want you.” He replied, his stoic expression breaking as the words tumbled from his mouth. He tried so hard to hide what he felt, but right now he couldn’t hold it back anymore. For once she saw everything. The desperation, the sorrow, the regret. It was all there, plain as day for her to see. All she wanted to do was run over and comfort him, tell him everything would be okay. But what about her heart? Who was going to comfort her? Who would make her feel better? She couldn’t count on him. He said he wanted her, but for how long, how long would he want her until he ran off scared again?
“You had me.” She said, wiping away her tears the moment they fell. She couldn’t cry right now. She had to be stronger. She couldn’t break. “You had me, and you walked away.”
“I know.” He said, his voice almost a whisper. “I got scared and I…”
“She doesn’t want to hear it.” Her mom piped in. “You’ve hurt her too many times.”
“Would you just shut up?” Scott snapped. “I’m not talking to you. I fucking hate talking to you.”
“Don’t swear at her like that.” Natalie yelled, surprising him, she’d never defended her mother like this.
“Natalie has made herself clear.” Her mom added. “She doesn’t want anything to do with you anymore. Nothing you say is going to change that. Not even you telling her about our little conversation.”
“I didn’t come here to tell her about that.” He replied.
What conversation? Natalie wanted to know what they were talking about, what the hell was going on. She hated not knowing things. What had her mother said to Scott? Had it really been that bad that it had driven him away. No, she couldn’t do this again, she couldn’t blame other people. Whatever her mom had said didn’t matter. He’d chosen to listen, he’d chosen to let it get to him, he’d been the one to walk away. It’s not like he’d been drugged, kidnapped and shipped off. He’d willingly walked away.
“My mom’s right.” Natalie said, looking away from his bright, blue eyes. She didn’t want to see the pain flash through them as she said what she said next. “Nothing you say is going to change anything. We’re done.”
“We can’t be done.” He said, the pain she’d thought she could avoid by looking at the floor clear in his voice. “I’m different this time.”
“You already said that.”
“This time I mean it.”
“You meant it the last time too.”
“Just go.” She said, her voice pleading. “Please just go.”
She finally met his gaze. He looked lost, conflicted. A war raged behind his eyes, fear the one thing she could see clearly. He was scared, scared that she meant it, scared that there really was nothing he could say. His mouth twitched as he tried to form words, but nothing ever came out.
He was the one who broke eye contact first, and he looked to his feet, shame taking over his features, accepting defeat. Just like that, the tiny pieces of her heart that had remained intact shattered. He’d come to fight for her, and the second she’d asked him to leave he’d folded. Why couldn’t he be stronger? Why couldn’t he be stronger for her? Why couldn’t he for once fight for what he wanted? Why did he always run?
She turned away from him, unable to watch him leave. She heard the rattle of the door swing on its hinges and she tried to keep it together a moment longer, just until he really left, again. She was pretty sure all the progress she’d made these past few weeks had just come undone. He’d just broken her heart all over again. Why did he never stay?
“I love you.” She heard him say, so softly she was sure she’d imagined it. “I love you.” He said louder this time and she turned to the sound, needing to see if he was still there, if this was real. His back was to her, his body halfway out the door. Slowly he turned to face her, and all the conflicting emotions that had plagued his eyes were gone. Everything was gone. The only thing that remained was certainty.
“I love you.” He said again. “But I don’t know why you love me.” His eyes softened and she felt like reaching for him, reassuring him, telling him all the reasons she loved him and all the things that made him so special.
“My whole life I’ve only ever been the burnout.” He continued, stopping her in her tracks. “No one ever expected me to achieve anything, and when I failed no one was surprised. When people look at me its like they feel sorry me, like they’re embarrassed for me, because I tried to become something but only screwed myself up more. Then there’s my family, my friends, and they look at me the same way, and even when I do something I’m proud of that look never changes. I always feel small.”
He became more confident with every word he spoke, more sure of himself, and it was like a huge weight was being lifted from his shoulders as he finally explained everything he felt.
“And then you look at me.” He said, taking a small step toward her. “And you look at me like I’m someone who means something, like I have worth. You look at me and you make me feel big, loved, important. I feel like I matter, like there’s nothing in the world I can do wrong. I thought I left because your mom asked me to. I thought I was protecting you, but someone helped me see I was just protecting myself. I was scared, terrified, that one day I’d do something bad enough that would make you look at me like everyone else does.”
His voice trembled, and he looked to the floor, suddenly embarrassed about everything he’d just said. He hated being vulnerable, hated admitting that everyone else got to him.
“I never want you to look at me like that. I can handle them all thinking I’m a loser, but if you ever thought that it would kill me. It would break me. So I pushed you away before that could happen.”
“Scott, I’m never going to…”
“I know.” He said, interrupting her before she could finish. He took a long breath, and more tension eased from his shoulders. “Because even now, after everything, you’re still looking at me like I matter.”
Silence fell around them, Scott and her mother both waiting to see what she’d say next. She was completely lost for words. She had no idea what to say. After all this time he was finally letting her in, all the way in. He was sharing with her, and her mother, the thing that scared him the most. He wasn’t just sharing it with them, but with himself, finally realising why he’d never been able to completely commit to her.
“Natalie.” He said, breaking the silence. “I know you don’t have any reason to believe me. I’ve told you things would be different, I’ve promised I wouldn’t leave. But this time it really is different. Before I was being selfish, I was with you because I loved you and you’re what I wanted. This time I’m actually ready to be with you.”
She met his eyes, and the expression hadn’t changed, that certainty, conviction, it was still there, and every time he spoke there was a confidence that hadn’t been there before.
“I love you Natalie. And I don’t care if you never really trust me again. I don’t care if you bring this up every time we fight. I don’t care if you randomly get angry remembering what I put you through. I want to be with you, for the rest of my life, and I’m finally ready to be what you’ve always known I could be.”
“And if I say no?” She asked. What would he do then? Would he run back to the city, waste his life just like he wasted the last eight years? Or would he do what he’s saying he’s ready to do, and be the person she knows he can be, the person who’s present, who makes things happen, who doesn’t just sit around watching his life pass him by. He needed to want more for himself. She couldn’t be the only thing keeping him together.
“I’m not gonna let you say no.” He replied, taking another step toward her, this one much bigger than any he’d taken already, sensing that she was beginning to thaw. “I’m not going anywhere. And I’m not gonna move on with someone else. I’m sticking around, I’m gonna coach, and I’ll wait for you, for as long at it takes.”
“What if it takes forever? What if I never come back to you?”
“Then I guess I’m gonna die a lonely, old, spinster.”
“A spinster refers to an unmarried old woman.”
“Yeah, but there’s not really an equivalent for guys.”
He smiled at her, and she found herself smiling back. It was easy. It was always easy with him. Easy right up until he ran away. She had no reason to believe him now when he said things would be different. His promises didn’t mean much, and there was no proof to say he’d actually stick around this time.
The only thing that was different was the conviction that still hadn’t wavered from his gaze. It was the certainty there, the confidence, that for better or worse made her believe him. It just felt different this time, he seemed different. She didn’t think for a second he’d completely healed from all the doubts, fears and insecurities that often plagued him, but there was a lightness in his eyes now, a sense of freedom and relief. He’d figured out what made him run, and now he was prepared to fight it. All she had to do was say yes and he’d be hers.
“Natalie no.” Her mom said, reading her expression.
Scott’s smile grew bigger at the exclamation, and hope flared behind his eyes as he met Natalie’s gaze, waiting for her say yes. Slowly she nodded, and in three long strides he was standing in front of her, cupping her face in his hands and titling it up right before he kissed her.
He kissed her so passionately for a moment she was sure she’d blacked out, all the misery, longing, emptiness and desolation of the past three weeks merging into the kiss. It said so many things, he’d missed her, he loved her, he was sorry he’d hurt her. She returned the gesture, the ferocity, hoping he could feel how much she’d missed him too, how much she loved him, how happy she was he’d come back. Her chest felt like it was going to explode, and her whole body hummed with a happiness she hadn’t felt until now.
Every other time they’d been together she’d been happy, but at the same time nagged with doubt. This time that wasn’t there. She had no doubts, no unwelcome feelings of dread in the pit of her stomach, no hesitation. She wasn’t waiting for the pin to drop, she wasn’t scared it would suddenly end, she wasn’t trying to be cautious. This was it. This was the start. Scott wasn’t going anywhere.
Elena had finally kicked him out. He was surprised she hadn’t done it sooner. Although maybe she’d tried and they just hadn’t heard. Hell, the moment his lips had touched Natalie’s he’d forgotten her mother was even in the room.
He breathed a sigh of relief, a long happy sigh. Natalie had said yes. All was right with the world. She loved him, and he loved her, and he’d never ever even think of leaving her again.
“I take it you got the girl.” Leo said as he approached the car.
“I got the girl.” He replied, unable to hold back the full-blown grin that shot across his lips.
“And where is she?”
“Probably fighting with her mother right now.” He commented.
“Don’t like the mother?” Leo asked.
“It’s always a mother.” He said dryly.
“Speaking of which, I need to go see mine.” Scott said, and Leo nodded before putting the car in drive and following Scott’s directions to the retirement village.
A security guard greeted them over the intercom, the same one that had always blocked Scott’s attempts to get inside.
“Not you again.” He said after recognising Scott. “Look, you’re still not on the list.”
“I know.” Scott replied. “I just came to deliver a letter, I can do that right?”
“Yeah, there’s nothing against that.” The security guard replied. “Just, uhhh, drop it in the corresponding mailbox.”
Scott did as he was told, dropping the letter into number 71, the number to his mom’s small flat. She didn’t want to see him, or speak to him, but he had to give her this letter, explain to her why he hadn’t come back for the funeral. His reason was pathetic, he just hadn’t been able to face everyone, but he felt like he at least had to tell her. He doubted it would change anything. In fact it might make it worse. But he had to tell her why he’d stayed away, how he’d just been too scared to come back.
“So what now?” Leo asked after Scott got back into the car.
“Now we’re going to my brother’s place.” Scott replied.
Within no time Leo was pulling into the driveway of the manor, growing more and more curious as they approached the large house. The closer they got the more excited Scott became. The feeling surprised him, and he realised he’d actually missed it while he’d been gone. He’d missed the house, Eliza, Jenny, Bryce.
“This is your place?” Leo asked. “Why the hell didn’t I charge you rent?”
He put the car in park, and together they walked to the door, Leo unable to keep his eyes fixed on any one thing for too long, different intricacies fighting for his attention, something new constantly piquing his interest. Scott grabbed the large brass handle and knocked it three times against the door. A second later it opened to reveal Eliza standing before them.
And just like that Leo found something to hold his attention. His eyes flittered down Eliza’s body and a low whistle escaped from his mouth. She shot him her trademark glare, warning him not to mess with her before turning her gaze to Scott, the glare turning into a smile.
“You back?” She asked.
“Yeah.” He said. “For good. This is Leo.” He nodded to his companion and Eliza nodded in acknowledgement, her stern expression not wavering.
“Eliza.” She said simply, stepping aside to let them in. They stepped inside, and she shut the door behind them, letting out a sigh as she moved to the base of the stairs. “Jenny, Bryce, Scott’s back.”
“You named your kid Bryce?” Leo asked disapprovingly, earning him even more of Scott’s respect. Eliza completely ignored him, almost convincing Scott he’d imagined Leo speaking. “Tough crowd.” He muttered.
The sound of feet thumping across tiles echoed through the house, and Scott looked up to see Jenny emerge at the top of the stairs. She was bursting with excitement, unable to stay in one spot for too long, jumping so much it was almost as if she were moving at super speed. Her eyes landed on Scott, and she let out an excited scream before barrelling down the stairs. Both Scott and Eliza jumped forward, rushing up the stairs to stop Jenny before she hurt herself. She wasn’t coordinated on a good day, let alone when she was like this, completely unable to stay still.
Scott reached her first, wrapping his arms around her and lifting her into the air. He threw her to the ceiling, and she let out a joyful scream before he caught her. She giggled with excitement, and he did it again, earning him another round of exhilarated screams. No one had ever been this happy to see him, and his chest warmed to have the love from this little girl, another person who’d only ever seen the good in him, another girl he never should have left.
“Hmmm.” Came an unimpressed clearing of a throat.
And then there was Bryce.
“Admit it, you missed me.” Scott said, turning to where the sound had come from. Bryce stood at the top of the stairs, decked in a neat pair of plaid pyjamas, his blonde hair just as tidy as it always was, not a strand out of place. Whatever happened to kids wearing spiderman pyjamas to bed? Then again, Bryce wasn’t the spiderman kind of kid.
“Look Bryce, Uncle Scott’s back.” Jenny squealed with delight.
“A good uncle never would have left.” Bryce countered.
“I missed you too kid.”
“Hmmm.” He replied trying to remain stone-faced. He didn’t quite have it perfected like his mom had, and the slightest smile broke free, telling Scott he too was glad he’d come back.
“Come here kid.” Scott said right before engulfing Bryce in a hug. His arms swung out, and he fought to get out of Scott’s embrace, wiggling and stirring as hard as he could. “Don’t fight it. Let it happen.” He ignored Scott’s request, his stirrings only becoming stronger, but nowhere near strong enough to break free. The moment he realised this he stopped, wrapped his arms around Scott and then waited to be let go. Scott squeezed him one last time before releasing him, and Bryce quickly stepped away, straightening his pyjamas before shooting Scott his trademark glare.
“You’re still as insufferable as ever.” He said before turning and heading back to his bedroom.
“With a name like Bryce I expected him to be more…cheery.” Leo commented from where he stood next to Eliza.
“Who is this guy Scott?” Eliza asked, slightly irritated.
“A friend I made.” Scott replied. “He wanted to check out the town.”
“Right.” Eliza replied. “You can organise him a room.” And then she turned on her heel and left, just like Bryce had, the resemblance between the two uncanny.
“What a woman.” Leo said, staring after her.
“A married woman.” Scott replied.
“Semantics.” Leo countered.
“So Jenny, you ready for bed?” Scott asked turning back to the girl in his arms.
“I’m too excited to sleep.” She replied.
“Let’s try. I’ll read you a story.”
“And do the voices?”
“I’m so happy you’re back.” She said, wrapping her arms tightly around his neck.
“Yeah me too.” He replied, detangling himself before she choked him to death.
Despite Jenny’s claims she was too excited to sleep she went out like a light, one second on, and in a flash she was asleep. Still, Scott continued to read, until he’d finished the storybook she’d picked out. Then he headed back downstairs, found Leo and showed him to one of the many guest rooms.
Soon he was alone, back in the room he’d grown up in, a place that had always been a sanctuary for him. He settled in, and just as he was about to fall asleep he heard it, light tapping on the glass door to the balcony.
He smiled, knowing it was Natalie. He jumped out of bed and opened it for her, sweeping her into his arms as he carried her over to the bed. He lowered her onto the mattress and covered her body with his before placing a light kiss to her lips.
It wasn’t enough, and he moved from her lips to her chin, then her neck, trailing kisses all over her body like a man possessed, one who’d been starved of the very thing he craved more than his next breath. She let out a soft, perfect moan and he lost all pretence of self control as he feverishly began to remove her clothes.
He didn’t know how he’d left this all behind. Had no idea what had possessed him to do it. He knew he’d hit a dark place, he knew he would again, but next time he’d fight it, and next time he’d win. He wanted that family in the cabin. He wanted it with Natalie. He wasn’t going anywhere until he had that, and much, much more.