“Did I say something wrong?” Stacey looked at Natasha’s retreating figure bewildered.
Nathan stood, momentarily stunned before he called out Natasha’s name as she walked away from them. When she ran, he passed the box to the waiter standing next to Stacey and followed her. He gained on her easily and caught her arm, stopping her dead in her tracks. She spun around to face him and almost crashed into his chest but he caught her by her shoulders, steadying her. The look of fear in her eyes as she looked up at him made him let go of her instantly.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to grab you like that,” he apologized hastily, chastising himself for being so careless when he knew her history of abuse. Natasha wrapped her arms around herself and took a step back from him not saying anything.
“I would never hurt you Natasha,” he tried to reassure her but it only seemed to make matters worse as she looked fearfully up at him and bit her trembling lip in an attempt to steady it.
“Please don’t arrest me,” she pleaded desperately.
“What?” Nathan looked confused.
Realization dawned on Nathan and he looked at her sympathetically. “Breathe Natasha. I don’t even have handcuffs on me.” He raised his arms slightly in a gesture of surrender, showing that he had nothing to hide.
Natasha’s eyes wandered to his tight fitting grey t-shirt and faded blue jeans and decided that he must have been telling the truth. There was no way he could fit a gun or handcuffs anywhere in that tight clothing.
“Why would you even think that?” he asked, bringing her attention back to his face.
“Really? What else was I supposed to think after you walked out on me yesterday?” she said, sounding a bit angry.
Before Nathan could reply, four men walked by, each carrying a stack of white plastic chairs and talking loudly. More people walked past them and some even stopped to talk to Nathan. He only spoke to Natasha again when they were relatively alone.
“We need to talk about yesterday, just not here.” He looked around trying to think of somewhere private they could go. “Do you mind if we talk in your car?”
Natasha eyed him hesitantly but finally gave him a small nod.
“Just give me a minute. I need to tell Stacey where I’m going.” Nathan turned and walked back to where they had left Stacey. Natasha looked on at the two of them, watching their interaction closely.
Stacey wiggled her eyebrows at Nathan as he approached her, hardly concealing her smile.
“I take it you two know each other then,” she said once he was next to her.
Nathan looked back at Natasha who immediately looked away and pretended to be very interested in the lawn.
“It’s complicated,” he said turning back to face Stacey. “We’re going to talk for a while then I’ll come back and help out with all this madness.” He waved a hand at the flurry of activity all around them.
Stacey smacked him playfully. “We’ll see if you still think it’s madness tomorrow. Please tell Natasha that mum really wants to see her before she goes.”
Nathan nodded and walked back to Natasha and she led the way to her car and settled in her seat, unlocking the passenger door for him.
“I’m sorry about yesterday,” Nathan began, the minute he had settled down. “I shouldn’t have left like that but…” He trailed off and imitated Natasha who was staring ahead through the windshield.
“But?” Natasha prompted when Nathan didn’t say anything else.
“It was a lot to take in,” Nathan finally said. He frowned then turned to face her. Natasha felt his gaze burn into her and she turned and looked at him. She couldn’t help but acknowledge how much younger he looked in casual clothes. The more ruffled than usual appearance of his brown hair made him look even less intimidating too.
“If I was going to arrest you I would have done it right then,” Nathan stated, making Natasha scoff.
“Well that’s comforting,” she said tartly.
“I meant what I said when I gave you my badge,” he said exasperatedly. “In fact…” He dug through the pockets of his faded blue jeans and brought his badge out, handing it to her. Natasha eyed it warily before returning her gaze to Nathan, eyebrow raised.
“It’s a show of faith Natasha, but it works both ways. If you don’t take that then I’ll presume nothing you tell me is true,” Nathan said firmly.
“I’ve only ever told you the truth.”
“No. That first night at the station you lied about everything we asked you,” Nathan countered.
“You arrested me for murder! I panicked,” Natasha practically shouted.
“I’m not trying to pick a fight here. Just asking for a little insurance that you won’t lie to me.” He spoke in a quiet voice and Natasha calmed down slightly. She huffed, but nonetheless took the badge from him and put it on her dashboard.
“I needed time to figure out how to help you. That’s another reason why I walked away. To think about this as objectively as I could,” Nathan explained.
“You could have told me that. Or at least let me in on the strategy process. Now I wasted a perfectly good night trying to bucket list my fears away,” Natasha complained.
Natasha shook her head. “Never mind. So did you figure something out?”
Nathan looked hesitant which made Natasha nervous. “Show of faith remember? I took the badge, you have to be honest with me too.”
He made a face at her for using his word against him. “I have a plan but there’s something you need to see first. What are you doing tomorrow morning?”
“Ahh, well I thought I’d be in jail by then but looks like my morning just cleared up,” Natasha said wryly. She’d managed to relax now that he’d assured her that he wouldn’t arrest her.
“We’ll meet tomorrow at 10,” Nathan said. “I have to be back here to help Stacey at 12 or she’ll have my head.”
“Oh,” Natasha said, smoothing out non-existent creases in the pale pink dress she wore. “Cool.”
“How do you know Stacey?” Nathan asked, curious about their connection.
“She used to babysit me when I was about 10,” Natasha shrugged. She came close to asking him the same but refrained at the last moment, covering it up with a cough.
“I should probably be on my way,” she said instead.
“There’s something else you should know.” Nathan paused and Natasha eyed him questioningly. “Max is out. I had to let him go.”
Natasha wasn’t really surprised at this but her pulse quickened all the same and she sighed wearily leaning against the seat.
“He won’t come near you,” Nathan assured her.
“How do you know that?”
“I’ll explain everything tomorrow.”
Natasha still looked doubtful so Nathan fished in his pockets again and took out his wallet. He pulled out a business card and handed it to her.
“If he shows up, call me. Any time of the day or night and I’ll be there.”
Natasha ran her finger over the police department logo on the card as she studied it. Nathan was really kind. Maybe too kind. He had to be working some sort of angle because it seemed too good to be true that even after everything she’d told him, he was still willing to help her.
“Why are you helping me?” she asked him straight up.
Nathan briefly mulled over his answer before he spoke. “I owe you that much after arresting you for a crime you didn’t commit.”
Natasha looked him in the eye, searching for a tell that he was lying but she found nothing obvious so she accepted his reason and went back to staring at the card.
He broke the silence a little while later. “I should head back. Martha said she would really like to see you before you go.”
Natasha nodded and left the car with him. They walked in silence until they reached the hive of activity.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Nathan said as Natasha continued on to the house to see Mrs Wilson.
Stacey was in his face the second he turned around. “Tell me everything!”
Nathan rolled his eyes at her excitement as he stepped around her, heading back to the archway he was working on. Stacey followed him un-deterred, looping her arm through his.
“You are under legal obligation to tell me what’s going on between you and Tasha,” she said, making Nathan laugh.
“Because I’m your best friend. I need to know these things so I can help you not mess it up because goodness knows if we leave it to you, I’ll never get to plan your wedding.”
“Nothing’s going on between me and her.”
“Is that so? Because I’ve never seen you chase after a girl figuratively or literally,” she said pointedly.
“I need to get back to work unless you want your parents to renew their vows on a pile of wood.” Nathan gestured to the unfinished archway before them.
“Fine,” Stacey said tugging on his arm so he could turn and face her. “I’m just glad you’re finally stepping out of your shell and talking to people outside your circle. I didn’t think you ever would after what happened.”
Nathan looked at her solemnly, not saying a word. Something behind Stacey caught his eye and she turned back to see what he was looking at. Natasha was walking to her car with Mrs Wilson, who apparently had said something funny because Natasha was laughing so hard she was clutching her stomach.
“It’s funny. Tasha kind of reminds me of Carey. I think it’s the hair,” Stacey said thoughtfully. Nathan stiffened then slowly pulled his hand away from hers.
“I need to get back to work,” he mumbled picking up a hammer then he proceeded to pound some nails into the structure he was building.
Stacey watched him sadly, regretting what she had said. Knowing that she wouldn’t get anything out of him when he was in that state, she left him and went back to overseeing everything else.
Natasha woke up late the next morning. She’d slept late again, thanks to Kelsey who had insisted that they celebrate her non-arrest. So after dropping Keisha off at home, they had met up with some friends and had a late braai down by the beach followed by a drive in movie. The day’s events had worn Natasha out and that combined with the very few hours of asleep from the night before had her out like a light the minute she laid down on her bed.
She woke up in a panic at 9.50 and took a quick shower before racing down to the kitchen and starting on the bakery order. The doorbell rang at 10 o’clock sharp and she flew to the door and yanked it open.
“Hi.” Nathan raised an inquiring eyebrow at her disheveled appearance. Natasha beckoned him in and headed back to the kitchen leaving him to shut the door and find his way to her. When he entered the kitchen, she tossed him an apron and grabbed an extra bowl from the cupboard.
Nathan looked dumbfounded at the apron and then back to her as she poured one ingredient after the other into two bowls. “What’s this?”
“An apron, you wear it to keep your clothes from getting dirty while you’re cooking. Do you need me to show you how to put it on?” Natasha said as she poured flour into the bowls with the creamed butter.
“I know what it is. Why did you give it to me?”
“If you have any hope of getting me to leave this house within the hour you’ll have to help me with these.”
“I don’t know anything about baking,” Nathan protested. Natasha walked over to him and took the apron from his hands then slipped it deftly on him from behind, tying it in place. She set one of the bowls in front of him and started mixing the ingredients in the other bowl.
“Get to work detective,” she teased him as he looked apprehensively at the dough.
He held the wooden spoon and mixed awkwardly, succeeding only in landing some flour on the kitchen counter. Natasha went to him again, trying to keep from laughing as she guided his hands with hers, showing him how to hold the bowl and mix the dough.
For the first few seconds of her mixing tutorial, Nathan barely paid attention to what she was doing, only watching her small, delicate hands which were covering his.
“See, it’s that easy,” Natasha said cutting into his thoughts as she let go of his hands. She urged him to try again and once she was satisfied that the dough wouldn’t all end up on the floor, she went back to her bowl.
A while later, the cupcakes were ready and packed and Nathan carried them to his SUV. He drove to the bakery and they both went in, Natasha leading the way. Mrs Marks had just walked in from the kitchen in the back with a tray of freshly baked bread.
“Natasha! I thought you weren’t coming in today,” she said as she set the tray down and took off her oven mitts.
“I’m so sorry I’m late. I overslept,” Natasha apologized sheepishly.
“It’s okay,” Mrs Marks smiled kindly at her. Nathan stepped forward and put down the box of cupcakes. “I see you’ve met your biggest customer.”
Natasha looked back at Nathan confused. “I buy a couple of cupcakes here every day. I didn’t know you were the one who made them,” he shrugged.
Natasha, surprised by the revelation turned back to Mrs Marks. “Where’s Benny?”
“Getting some ingredients. He should be back any second now.”
“Pity I missed him then,” Natasha said.
“Yes I’m sure he’ll be quite upset about that.” Mrs Marks laughed. “Do you want anything Nate?”
“The usual please. Thank you,” Nathan said passing some money to her over the counter. Natasha stared wide-eyed as Mrs Marks picked 36 cupcakes from the box they had brought in and packed them for Nathan. That was three quarters of what they had brought in. She packed 30 in one big box and the last 6 in a smaller one.
Nathan placed them carefully on the backseat of his car before getting in on the driver’s side.
“Since we didn’t get a chance to talk about the case I’ll have to brief you on the way,” Nathan said retrieving a file from the glove compartment. He handed it to Natasha as he drove off.
“On the way to where?” Natasha asked.
“Baseball practice. I have an hour long session today,” Nathan explained. “Open the file.”
Natasha did as she was told despite her trepidation. Several handwritten pages fell onto her lap but the one that caught her attention was a page with the heading “Ballistics report.”
Nathan glanced over and noticed the page she was reading. “According to ballistics the gun that was used on Henry Bandieer was an S & W Governor. It’s similar to the Taurus Judge that you said you had but has a different barrel length and different ammunition among other things.”
Natasha flipped through the other pages as Nathan continued to fill her in.
“When you told me your gun was missing I went to check the Ballistics report and at first I was relieved that it wasn’t your gun model but then the fact that it is similar to yours bugged me. So I looked at everything else. I think someone is setting you up,” he said gravely.
She thought about it as she watched the passing scenery. “But who and why?”
“My first guess would be Max. He led us to you from the optogram. He’s the only one who knew about your gun and where you hid it. He knew the model so he could easily have got the one similar to it that was used on his father and he…”
“Wait,” Natasha sat bolt upright. “Are you saying Max had his father killed and hired someone who looks like me to do it?”
“It’s possible. But if he’s the one who stole your gun as we suspect, why not use that one and leave it at the crime scene. It had your fingerprints on it and the case would have been signed and sealed right then with you in jail,” Nathan replied. They had reached the Pinehive Sports Stadium now.
“And why kill his dad anyway?”
“Exactly,” Nathan replied as he parked the car. Nathan carried the bigger box of cupcakes out with him while Natasha held on to the file as they made their way in. There were several people milling around so they didn’t say anything else about the case until they reached the field. 9 girls, all around 10 years old ran up to them. Nathan high-fived each of them and they all greeted him enthusiastically. He introduced them to Natasha and though she tried, she only grasped a couple of names.
Natasha sat on a row high up on the bleachers and watched as Nathan gave the girls instructions. He joined her a few minutes later and handed her a cupcake from the box.
“You weren’t kidding about coaching baseball.”
“I wasn’t kidding about anything I said that day,” he said pointedly. “Speaking of, I forgot my badge in your car yesterday.”
“Sorry about that. Did you get into trouble at work?” Natasha licked away at the frosting on the cupcake without taking a bite.
“No. I took a couple of days off to help Stacey with the party.”
Natasha paused momentarily then went back to her licking. Nathan, who had finished his already, looked strangely at her.
“What?” Natasha asked noticing him staring.
He shook his head. “Nothing. Just…Why are you eating the frosting alone?”
Natasha shrugged. “The cake part interferes with the sweetness.” She ate up the rest of it and picked the file up again. “So where were we?”
“You have frosting on your face,” Nathan pointed out quietly. Natasha frowned at his sudden melancholy mood as she wiped at her face. She missed a little bit of the frosting and Nathan took the tissue she was using from her hand and gently wiped it off for her.
“No more frost face?” she asked when he was done. Nathan flinched and looked away.
“No,” he mumbled barely audible.
“Thanks,” Natasha said uncertainly. Nathan watched the girls play, avoiding her eyes until Natasha cleared her throat.
Nathan leaned back, still not looking at her. “If we’re going to prove that Max had his father killed and tried to frame you for it, we need to find a motive. Do you know any reason why Max may have hated his father?”
“To the point of wanting him dead? No.” Natasha shook her head. “I have more reason to want Henry dead than he does to be honest.”
He frowned at her words. “You shouldn’t say stuff like that. To other’s who don’t know the whole story you’re still a suspect.”
“Sorry,” Natasha said, put off by his stern tone.
Nathan looked thoughtful as they sat in silence. “What do you know about his brother?”
“Mac? Not much but from my few encounters with him he’s the only good Bandieer man.”
“When I called him about his brother yesterday he was more than happy to let Max spend the night in a cell. Then I explained to him that we weren’t charging him but we were issuing a restraining order for Max to stay away from you and I needed him as a witness.”
“You what?” Natasha exclaimed almost falling off the bench.
“We gave Max a restraining order,” Nathan explained finally looking her in the eye.
“Why did you do that? Now my mum is going to find out about all this!” she cried.
“Don’t worry about that. I called in a favour from the junior magistrate and she agreed to keep it a secret. I figured you would probably want to tell your mother about Max in your own time.”
“But isn’t that magistrate the same one who issued the search warrant on Max’s orders?”
“No, that was her senior.”
Natasha started breathing again and settled back, finally taking in the news.
“Anyway Macmillan was clearly upset about the restraining order and he said something to Max about breaking his promise to stay away from you. He has a good heart, I think he could be our best way in.”
“You really think he’ll say something against his own brother?” Natasha asked doubtfully.
“It’s a long shot. I won’t ask him directly and it’ll be like it’s part of the ongoing investigation of his father’s murder, which it is, only in a different direction,” Nathan said. He paused then looked at her again.
“You need to come forward about the gun,” he said.
Natasha’s eyes widened in disbelief.
“Just hear me out. If you keep this a secret, next time your gun could be the one used in a crime and it has your fingerprints on it so you will definitely go to jail. But if you confess now, it’s your first offense. You’ll be charged for possession of a firearm without a license and they’ll give you a $500 dollar fine. It will be on the record that a gun of that make and model is missing so no one can hold it over your head as a threat.” Natasha was shaking her head in protest but Nathan still went on.
“You might have to come clean about the reason you got the gun too. I don’t want to rush you but the longer you keep this a secret, the more opportunity Max or whoever has your gun, has to blackmail you with it or even frame you for a crime they’ll most likely commit.”
“I can’t. I’m sorry. I can’t,” Natasha shook her head vigorously.
Nathan sighed. “Think about it. Just remember, that secret is a ticking time bomb and the longer you leave it, the more likely it is to detonate.”
So some TUS readers have suggested a Twitter party for the #noregrets inspired by Kelsey in Chapter 10 of TUS. I’m still considering it, let me know what you think.