Soundtrack to this chapter: "Lullaby" by The Dixie Chicks, "Pretty Hurts" by Beyoncé, and "Stardust" by Mika featuring Chiara.

Chapter Fourteen: Strip Away the Masquerade
by: Secretive

How long do you wanna be loved?
Is forever enough, is forever enough?
- The Dixie Chicks

Nadine's Point of View

I woke three hours early – so basically the crack of dawn – and spent most of the time agonizing over what I was about to do. I had figured out where Nicola was staying by seven in the morning, had called the front desk and left a message for her – asking her to meet me at a diner by ten. Then I spent nearly an hour getting ready...only to fall asleep in the middle of it. Late nights and early mornings don't work out for me apparently; instead they leave me passed out on my closet floor hugging my shoes.

"Ow, ow, ow, ow." I croaked, slowly sitting up from the floor and holding my neck. I glared at the boot I had fallen asleep on. "You're vile." I announced, then my eyes widened. "My daisy boots!" I exclaimed, clutching it. "Oh, I both hate you and am so excited right now!"


I turned my head quickly to look at my bedroom door, only to grimace and clutch at my neck. "Mom?"

"It's nine thirty-five, isn't there some place you wanted to be?"

"Oh God!" I screeched, scrambling to my feet. "Do I look presentable?"

She stared at me for a moment and then pulled a face. "I can see the imprint of a Converse sneaker on your face, your eyes are red and bleary, I think you maybe drooled a bit in your sleep, and the thick eye shadow you for some reason applied is smeared. My guess is that you rubbed your eyes in your sleep."

I had totally forgotten about that.

Horrified, I looked over at the mirror that hung on my closet door and let out a little whimper. "I'm meeting The Other Woman and I look like a sleepy panda!" I declared, then hurried to the bathroom to wash off the makeup.

"Honey, why are you trying so hard? Just be yourself." Mom said, following me. "Thatcher left her the first moment he could, he came back to you with his heart in his eyes. She is not someone you need to impress."

"I know." I mumbled, squinted against the sting of soap in my eyes. "I know, but..." I splashed cold water on my face, sent most of it down my top, and drenched my hair. "This is not going well." I groaned, drying off my face and turning my even redder eyes at my mom. "Can I get a ride to The Early Bird?"

She nodded her head, reaching over and tugging on a wet strand of hair. "This time when you get ready, just dress like yourself, okay? I've never seen this top before, but it's too tight."

I arched a brow, "Are you calling me fat?"

"As I have spent your and Jas' entire lifetime trying to give you a positive and healthy self-image; no, of course not. As your somewhat conservative liberal mother I am just informing you that you look like a hussy."


"Do you think I enjoy calling you that?"

I groaned again, looking down at the lavender shirt I has squeezed myself into. It and my semi-pushup bra did make me look a lot more provocative than usual. I think I could put money in my cleavage if I wanted to keep in there. It wasn't me and in my sleep-deprived state I had thought that that was a good thing. But there was seriously no way I would be able to make it through meeting Nicola if I wasn't comfortable; if I wasn't me.

"I hear ya, Ma." I muttered, grabbing the hair dryer and hooking my flat iron up. She nodded her head with a smile and left the room, leaving me to get ready. I had just finished drying my hair and was about to reach for the flat iron when I hesitated. I had been wearing my hair straight since Thatcher left, needing to look different after experiencing that pain.

I glanced up into the mirror and stared at myself. Then carefully pulled my hair back into a short French Braid. Braids made me feel comfortable, braids were a part of me in a way straight hair never was. And I was ready for that part of me to make a reappearance in my life.

After securing my hair, I rubbed some lotion onto my face, and headed to my room to change my top. I chose a simple white long-sleeved tee, pairing it was a chunky knitted lavender infinity scarf . Pulling on my pair of gray Converse sneakers and tucking my jeans behind the tongues, I made my way downstairs.

Mom took one look and me and smiled brightly. "A braid?"

I nodded, grabbing my Mrs. Spencer Reed tote bag. "It was time."

"That's my beautiful girl."

I smiled and then started chewing on my bottom lip. "I'll walk home, I'm not sure how long I'll be."

"Just remember who you are, Nadine."

I laughed, "Weird. Quirky. Strange."

"Strong. Original. Kind."

I stopped in my trek to her car and turned to look at my mother. "Do you think I should be kind?"

"I think you will be kind, whether or not you wish to be."

I sighed, knowing she was right. "Let's hit the road."


Fifty-seven minutes and thirty-eight seconds later I was still waiting for her to walk through the doors of the diner. I had arrived only three minutes early, so I'd been happy to not see anyone unfamiliar there. I had smiled at the regulars, waved at Big Harold the short-order cook, and had taken my seat at the booth my family always sat at when we came. Then I settled in to wait, ordering a hot chocolate and nursing it for thirty minutes before ordering another. A part of me wanted to be upset that she was late, but at the same time I had no idea if she'd even woken. If she'd gotten my message. If any of it was deliberate. So I gave her the benefit of the doubt, instead turning my attention to the falling leaves outside the wall of windows.

Fall was beautiful, just beautiful. I loved to capture it in my painting: the world on fire, one last burn before the end. There's a haunting beauty to winter, the hollowness and bleak days; spring comes upon us so much like a clumsy newborn calf, begging to be loved and nourished; summer demanding our attention, our appreciation of the world around us. But fall will always be my favorite season, I find something so melancholy and defiant in the season. Of the world putting on one last beautiful and bright show, even though death is following so close on its heels.

I've always wanted to be more like fall, which I know is crazy. Most people want to be like a celebrity, or a person of great importance, or like family members, or characters from books. Me? A season. But such a defiant season. I want to always give my best, always make things as beautiful and wonderful as I can, even if I know it will never work out. I don't want to reserve all my energy for sure bets: I want leaps of faith, going out of my comfort zone, of failing and getting back up.

I didn't fall in love with Thatcher because I thought it would work out.

I didn't continue to love him when he was away because I thought he would come back.

I loved him because I loved him.

No expectations. No plans. No carefully constructed defenses.

And he broke me so completely. But before that? Before that he made me so incandescently happy and I would have never been as happy if I had gone into that relationship with any expectations, any demands or an agenda.

Fall is defiance and it is forever a reminder to me to lead with my heart. To give my all. Things will work out in the end. Because though fall ends in winter and a barren landscape, it always comes back again. It takes time, but it always comes back.

"Nadine Whittaker?"

I looked away from the window at the sound of someone calling my name in the voice of Lumiere, to see a beautiful woman. She had a clear olive complexion, black silky hair that fell about her shoulders, and a much more impressive chest than I. She was also slender in a way that most find fashionable and I find a tad extreme; I immediately wanted to feed her. She wore a simple outfit of jeans, leather boots, and a long-sleeved pale pink shirt under a heather gray poncho. It was simple, but the jeans looked nearly tailored, the boots probably cost more than all my shoes together, and I think the poncho was cashmere.

I smiled brightly and motioned for her to have a seat. "Nicola Pasquale?"

"Yes." She replied, sitting and somehow making it seem elegant. She glanced around the diner and then back at me. "You wished to see me? But no Thatcher?"

I shook my head, "I wanted to meet you. You are really, very pretty. Thatcher told me you've modeled? I can certainly see why."

She looked a little surprised at that, but then smiled. "Thank you."

"Thank you for coming."

She stared at me blankly for a moment and then raised a perfectly groomed brow. "Is this not where you inform me that I must leave town? Tell me that Thatcher is yours? Threaten me with whatever silly retribution you can think of?"

A part of me wanted to get angry at her last statement (my brother is a genius and my sister has homicidal tendencies when angry – between the three of us I could come up with a brilliant retribution!), but I realized that that would be playing into exactly what she wanted. I hadn't wanted to see her to threaten her, I had only wanted to meet her. She was a part of my world with Thatcher, she was a part of why he left me – not the full reason, not the way she may think I believe, but she was very much a catalyst to the end of our relationship.

And if we ever get back together, she will be a part of our shared future.

"No. I'm not even together with Thatcher at the moment."

She looked intrigued by that. "So he left Italy, he left me, and you didn't even deign to take him back?" She shook her head condescendingly, "Mistake, my dear; we were on the way to becoming a family, but I needed to know if he could truly love me. I asked him to see to it."

I really looked at her then: looked past her beautiful face and into her smirking eyes. It was her first lie. I wondered how many more she'd tell. I wonder what role she wants me to play now. The bitter ex? The defensive girlfriend? The heartbroken hopeful? Should I cry? Should I look defeated?

"I thought he came back for his grandparents?" I ventured, taking a sip from my lukewarm hot chocolate. "Would you like something to drink or eat?" I had to quickly take another sip to hide my smile at the confused look on her face.

I won't be forced into a role.

She gathered herself quickly enough. "I doubt that this diner would have anything up to my standards." She said with a sniff.

"Water? I'm positive our coffee or hot chocolate would not be up to snuff for a person that has lived in Paris and Italy in the last two years, but we do have water. I think they even buy the bottled expensive stuff."

Again she looked unsettled. "I am fine."

I nodded and then motioned over Jeanette, one of the three waitresses on duty. She walked over smiling, "Hey Naddie, need another hot chocolate?"

I smiled brightly, "Yes, please."

"Coming right up." She said and then reached over and tugged on my braid. "Nice to see you coming back. How long until the nine hour sessions?" She asked, referring to how long it could take to get micro-braids. She was black too, her skin tone a few shades darker than mine, so she knew what she was talking about. She was also the one that usually braided my hair for me.

"When would you have time?"

"Next weekend? I have Friday and Saturday off, if we do it on Saturday you can hopefully get over the headache before school begins again."

"Sounds wonderful." I replied then frowned, "Well...okay, the future headache doesn't sound so wonderful... But thank you."

She nodded and then turned to look at Nicola, "Is there anything I can get you?"

"No." She replied, somehow managing to sound judgmental with the one, lilting word.

Jeanette shot me a look and as Nicola rolled her eyes and looked disdainfully around the room, I mouthed "Thatcher's ex". Jeanette's whole countenance changed, she looked at Nicola like she was filth and then turned and walked towards the back.

"I'll get you that warm up, my dear. Extra cinnamon."

I smiled at that: I really love small town life, you always find yourself with support when times are difficult. As long as you're a liked member of town, anyway.

"What did you wish to speak of?" She asked as soon as Jeanette had disappeared behind the swinging doors of the kitchen. She suddenly smiled, but her eyes were so cold. "Perhaps of Thatcher's time while he was away?"

I thought it over and then nodded. "Yes, did he have trouble in school? It had to be a bit of a culture shock...or perhaps not, he's been all over the world."

She was beginning to look miffed that I wasn't responding the way she wanted.

"He perhaps had trouble focusing on school, but as you can see," She gestured towards herself, "that was only to be expected."

"Why a lawyer? He's going to hate litigation."

She glared at me for a moment before catching herself. "He is a very intelligent man, why would he not choose law?"

I chewed on my bottom lip for a moment before answering. "Because...because he hates how confining the laws can be. He wants to help people, I think he has an actual need to help people, but he's going to hate having to curb his wants with what is actually legal. It's Thatcher, he'll be upstanding the moment he pledges to be, but it'll chafe." I nodded my head. "It's going to eat away at him and every battle his loses is going to cut so deeply. And if he doesn't believe in his client, he'll have trouble giving his all.

"He...he wants to protect the just and the abused, he wants nothing to do with people that abuse or are entitled in anyway." I finished, "He's going to hate the profession." She stared at me silently, her mouth slightly agape. "What am I saying? Of course you already know that." I added, smiling somewhat sheepishly. "Sorry to babble on."

"Thatcher can do whatever he wants to do." She said after a long moment, "You are being fanciful."

I wasn't, but I still murmured: "Perhaps."

"I chose not to interfere because I knew he was making choices in our best interest. He was thinking of our future, our family."

Ah, so she was going to choose to press that she was family. Okay.

"I suppose, though I still think his future happiness should take first priority."

"You think he would not be happy? He would be with me and our child."

"Yes, but Thatcher would need a career that he felt deserving."

"Do not speak of what Thatcher would need." She snapped, before calming herself. "It is too much like an onlooker trying to explain a family she is not a part of. In fact, that is precisely what it is."

Jeanette came with my hot chocolate then, setting it down in front of me and then reaching over and squeezing my shoulder. I looked up at her and she winked, before walking over to a table to take an order. I looked down at my new hot chocolate – pushing the other mug closer to the end of the table for when Jeanette had a moment – and felt touched by the excessive amount of marshmallows I saw within, as well as two cinnamon sticks.

Nicola was trying to tear me down by pushing the fact that she and Thatcher had started a family. I knew in my heart to not believe her, but it did hurt a little. They had started a family together and though I don't question his love in me, I can't deny they would make a beautiful couple. A couple with one member that absolutely hated the other, but a beautiful couple none the less.

I couldn't help but wonder when she'd start down the road of saying that they looked like the better couple, both being equally stunning. I had a feeling it wouldn't be long and though the idea had ran through my head a couple of times, looking at her, I'm not sure. I mean I'm sure that they'd looked like a model couple walking around, that people would stop and stare, envious at their attractiveness. But...

She was so poised, so stylish, so carefully put together. Her hair perfectly cascading, her makeup flawless, and her clothes expensive. Thatcher could look that way too, but he looked most comfortable in sweatpants and tee shirts. He didn't take long to dress, he didn't care how people saw him, he wasn't going to enjoy the stares and admiration of others. It would annoy him, exasperate him, and then anger him. Yes they could be an amazingly beautiful couple walking down the streets, but one member would be uncomfortable and hate every moment of it.

Does she even realize that she can't mold him into what she wants? That no matter what scenario she tries, I'm always going to realize that one member – Thatcher – of every equation was going to hate it?

"You understand me?" She asked and that satisfaction in her voice made me realize she had taken my silence at confirmation that she'd finally hit home.

I looked up from my hot chocolate, still not willing to unsheathe any claws. She was waiting for that, she knew how to deal with that, and she would possibly reveal in it. "Nicola, you really needn't try so hard, I am aware that he came back for his grandparents, not for me." Her look of satisfaction faltered. "I can only assume you had a fight?" Let her believe I bought her lies. "That you didn't want to come back with him? Thatcher has moved around a lot, but he put roots down here. I'm not sure you'll get him to leave, but perhaps you could think of staying?"

She looked so flabbergasted. I knew she wanted to ask what was wrong with me, but wasn't willing to release the careful veneer of civility. Guy fights have got to be easier than this; they can just go around punching each other. With women it is so much more refined, so much more civil...while being cutting and venomous all the same.

"I refuse to have my child here, in this illiterate and obese nation."

"I'm sure Matteo could buck the norm." I responded, not willing to take the nationalistic bait.

She smiled once more and it took my breath away, it was so dark and cruel. It seemed so at odds with her beautiful face, but most of the poisonous and toxic creatures in the animal kingdom are exquisitely beautiful – why should humans be any different? Just because we are told that beauty equals goodness and kindness?

"I am with child." Nicola announced. "It is why I released Thatcher; he wanted to make our family official but I had to know that his feelings were over with you. I had to know that your relationship had ended before I was willing to put my heart out there again. Surely you understand?"

Understand that that is the biggest lie you've told yet?

How insecure did she expect me to be?

How insecure would I have been if I hadn't asked Thatcher so many questions the night before?

You are everything that she never was and never will be...

You were never second best, you were an upgrade.

I curled the words around me and took a fortifying sip of my hot chocolate. Yum...cinnamon. Setting my mug back down, I looked at her. Her satisfaction was nearly malicious, her eyes were so cold. "Does he know?"

"Beg pardon?"

"Does Thatcher know? He never mentioned it."

Again, I had reacted wrong. I could tell by the tightening around her eyes. "I hadn't told him before he left, no. Though he shouldn't be surprised, our sex life has been..." She smiled, "Rather athletic and frequent. I had told him I was on no birth control, but why would a man that wants a family care of such a thing?"

Why would you ever think I could fall back in love with her?

...She uprooted me from my family and friends, and she took me away from you.

Thanking Past Thatcher and wonderful recall, I decided it was time to finally show some claw. "He would care because he would want to be involved with every step of the way. He would care because he missed out on everything the first time. He'd care because he would see it as yet another betrayal on your part." I heard a whispered "You go girl!" and looked towards the counter that circled the kitchen to see Jeanette and Big Harold watching me. Big Harold gave me a thumbs up before they both quickly acted nonchalant when Nicola's gaze fell on them. I wanted to tell Big Harold that short order cooks don't generally stare at their spatulas like they held the answer to the universe, but I didn't want to derail the conversation.

"A betrayal?" Nicola asked, her civility cracking just a bit.

I nodded, staring at her point blank. "From when you lied about your abortion. From when you kept secret that you brought the child to term. From when you kept a father from his son." I tilted my head to the side and frowned, "Or were you thinking I was mentioning the cheating?" This time I heard a muffled whoop from the booth behind us.

"Thatcher has forgiven me for my past."

"Has he? He's not a very forgiving person."

Actually, probably a bad thing for me, since I doubt he'll forgive me this meeting...

Her eyes narrowed, "Once again you are claiming to know something about a situation of which you are not a part."

"That's incorrect, Nicola." I said, taking another sip from my hot chocolate because it was freaking fabulous and I wasn't going to let a fight get in the way of enjoying it. "The moment Thatcher fell for me, the moment you came and took him back to Europe, I was a part of this."

"Obviously not a large part."

I stared at her and was so, so angry. "In your efforts to hurt me, don't ignore the damage you did to Thatcher." I said, my voice low. "I have seen him since he's been back, Nicola. I have seen the pain in his eyes and the hurt he carries with him. It is consuming; when I am near him it's as though it is seeping from him."

"Yet you don't comfort him?" She asked, her voice icy. "Do you push him away? Claiming how he left you for me?"

I sat back in the booth, distancing myself from her. "I have been cold." I agreed, "I have been short-sighted. I have put my needs and fears before his own." I nodded my head and then flicked my eyes up to catch hers. "I've learned that from the two of you." Another whoop.

"And you dare condescend to me?"

Ouch. That one hurt.

I leaned back to the table, towards her. "There is only one thing that has kept me back from Thatcher."

"You mean besides me and the family we are creating?"

I ignored her. "He made a choice and he still doesn't understand or realize what that choice was. Until he does, I can't trust him with all of me again."

She rolled her eyes. "He wanted a life with me and his son over you, just accept it and move forward with your life. You are not the woman that he chose."

She didn't realize that I was.

In leaving with her, I was the woman that he chose.

It took so long for me to realize what that had meant and it had shattered me. I had shared with Huey the decision that Thatcher had made, what it meant, but then made him promise that he would never tell Thatcher. That he would never bring it up again, to either of us. It was a selfish demand on my part, but I had had to let someone know. Then never think of it again.

Lessons aren't learned when someone gives you the answers.

"You offered him a life with his son or one without. He chose the one with his son, I cannot fault him for that. Much like his return had everything to do with his family, his leaving was motivated by family."

"Yes." She said firmly. "His family: his son and me."

"Which wasn't enough, was it?"

Her eyes narrowed. "Watch yourself, Nadine."

I took another long swallow of my hot chocolate, deciding to sheathe the bit of claw I'd showed. Once I set the mug back down, I was smiling warmly at her. "How far along are you?"

Unsettled once again.

"Two months."

I nodded, then motioned towards the front of the diner. "Then you must be eager to inform Thatcher."

She gave me a hard look. "Are you trying to dismiss me?"

"Of course not, I just thought you must be here for him." I replied, sounding innocent even to my own ears. "Though I do have one last question for you."

"Before I go?"

"My apologies: I have one question for you."


I toyed with the handle of my mug, "Do you think you can make him happy?"

She looked affronted. "I beg your pardon?"

"Do you think you can make him happy?" I repeated, not backing down to her tone an inch.

"What makes you think he wasn't happy with me?"

"The pain he carries." I replied simply. "That's not my question though, do you think you can make him happy? Do you think that this time you can make him happy? That you can get him to leave the country and his family for you and do so happily?"

"Of course." She said, not even letting my question sink in a bit.

Just like that, the anger was back. And just like before, it wasn't for me. "You promise to be enough? To ease his aches and pains? To comfort his troubled mind? You promise to work with him and his trust issues? You promise to prove to him you are worthy of his forgiveness? You promise to be so much to him that you can make up for the loss of the roots he has finally planted? After so many years?

"All he has wanted is to belong. To surround himself with people that love and care for him. To believe and trust in the people that are around him. All he has wanted is to live in a place longer than ever before – you tore him from that once before, do you promise that this time, this time when you tear him away that he will think it's worth it?" My voice had raised at some point, but I didn't worry about anyone asking us to leave: we had a rapt audience.

Nicola didn't respond at first, but she did look angry. "How dare you pontificate to me."

"You came here with an agenda." I responded, "I came here to defend the man I love."

"The man I love."

I shook my head, "See, I'd hoped that we could find some common ground with that: we have both loved and failed Thatcher. That was enough for me to want to meet you, understand you. But you came here to try and mark your territory." I sat back in my seat, the diner silent. "Attacking me won't get you Thatcher. Only Thatcher can decide who he will give his love and devotion. I am not with Thatcher now, because I need an answer to a question he refuses to acknowledge. I made that choice for me."

"You believe he would come crawling back to you when he has someone like me warming his bed?"

I didn't reply right away, instead I looked at her beautiful self and saw the ugliness that Thatcher must find. "You don't threaten me, Nicola."

"Excuse me?"

"I know you want to, you've spent this entire time trying to and I'm sorry, but you don't. You are beautiful, you are so beautiful, and you've experienced more life than me. I know that I should be threatened and insecure, but I'm not." Thatcher words from last night kept me from being so, but also the understanding that she was just surface level. Beauty may dictate everything about our world, but character is what matters to me. And she had a decided lack of that.

She glared at me. "Is that so? So you believe that Thatcher would desire someone like you," She gave me a slow look over and then shook her head. "To me?"

I sighed, knowing that it wouldn't matter if I answered her question; she'd already decided the only answer she'd accept. "Do you honestly believe you can make him happy?" When she opened her mouth, I held up a hand. "No, I really want to know. Because what I want, what I really want, is for Thatcher to be happy. It doesn't matter if it's with me, so long as he's happy."

She glared at me. "You must not really love him."

"It's because I do." I answered. "If I only cared for my happiness, I'd demand that he stay with me and make me happy with his love. That's not at all what I'm saying. I want him to be happy and healthy, safe and secure. He doesn't have to be with me to accomplish those things – I realize that – I just want them for him."

"And you are claiming that I am doing the latter? "

I wanted to rail at her, because the answer to that question was so obvious she had to be delusional not to see it. But I kept my silence, instead finishing my hot chocolate and moving to stand. "Nicola, please just think long and hard about the question. That is all that I ask of you."

"Because you think you have a right to question me?" She asked, her tone cold. "I am the mother of his child. I am the one he has been living with. I am the one that he chose."

I nodded my head. "Yes, you are. You are the one that broke a broken boy. Are you the one that can fix him?" She didn't respond, just glared at me. I got to my feet – inelegantly, because I don't know how she managed to make getting into a booth look like part of a choreographed dance – and motioned for my bill. Then I turned to look back at her. "It was enlightening to meet you, Nicola."

Very enlightening.

"I wish I could say the same, but you are the girl I thought you were from the very beginning." She replied and from her tone I knew that meant that I was just as lacking as she'd always presumed.

I smiled and shrugged, "Yup, that's me. What you see, you get."

You shine for those who you love and those who love you.

Yeah, I think I can be fine with being exactly who and what I am.


It took twenty minutes to get home and I'll admit that by the time I made it, I was feeling as cold and sad on the inside as the chill wind had me feeling on the outside. I really should have worn a coat. The only problem being that one coat suitable for the weather dwarfed me and I had strung a cord through the sleeves with mittens on the ends. I would have looked like a child and that wouldn't have been the right foot to start off on with Nicola.

"Ugh. Nicola." I muttered darkly, hugging myself.

She was something else. Something dark, hard, and malicious. I'm sure that there are plenty of guys out there that would sell sections of their souls just to have her on their arms. I'm sure that she could make someone very happy too...just not someone like Thatcher. He is attractive in a way that seems unapproachable, just like her (though I must admit I chalk that up to the hard stare that's usually on his face). Both of them beautiful in a way that makes the rest of us feel insecure and like we should hit a gym. Maybe visit a plastic surgeon, if we're into that type of thing. But with Nicola it's like she revels in that; she loves her beauty and how removed it makes her from the rest of us. With Thatcher it's something that he wears uncomfortably and if you can get him to talk to you for a minute, you'd realize that it was something he didn't care about.

He's not the type to work out for hours every day to make sure that his body is swimsuit ready. He's not scouring magazines to always be in fashion. He's not spending loads of money on his clothes to subtly let others know that he belongs to a social circle they only hope to aspire to. Basically, he's not a dandy. Or whatever a masculine dandy is either. He's a normal guy who is attractive and isn't going to use that to his advantage.

He looks like he belongs in Nicola's world, he actually belongs in mine. The world where families reign supreme, where being a good person and surrounding yourself with good people is more important than being fashionable, where one is weighed by character not pounds. I knew that about him already, I just hadn't realized how much he hadn't fit with his last girlfriend.

He had been a normal teenage boy, blinded by beauty. I can't fault him for that. When it came to him, at first, I was blinded by fear.

Rubbing my shoulders against the cold and kicking myself for putting maturity over comfort, I turned the corner onto my street and looked over at my home. Thatcher was sitting on the front porch. I came to a stop and just stared at him for a moment, before continuing with a bit more purpose. He sat with his head down, focusing at his hands as he fidgeted with his fingers, one leg jiggling up and down with nervous energy. As I got closer, I could see that the tips of his ears were red, making me wonder just how long he'd been sitting there.

By the time I was ten feet away, he sighed and looked up, then came to such a complete halt of movement that I came to a stop as well. He dropped his hands and stood up abruptly, his dark eyes taking me in. He looked so scared and nervous that I knew in that instant that Huey had told him.

"Have you waited long?"

He pulled his pocket watch out and checked the face. "Um...a little over ninety minutes."

My eyes widened. "You should have gone inside! Come on, I'll make you something hot to drink."

As I moved past him, he caught my wrist lightly. "Are you okay?" He looked me over once more and unzipped his coat. "You're cold."

I reached over with my free hand and stopped his actions. "We're about to go inside, I'll warm up." From the way he looked down at his hand, I knew that it hadn't been a conscious effort: he'd been about to give me his coat and hadn't even thought about it. It was that much a part of him, wanting to keep me warm. Wanting to look after me.

I let myself into the house and motioned for him to follow me into the kitchen. I could hear Dad banging away downstairs, the sound of Twister's latest game blaring, and Jasmine talking a couple rooms over on the phone. That only left Mom unaccounted for, but she was most likely in her office working. We'd be alone.

I put the kettle on for tea and turned to find him standing right behind me. "Oh!" I let out in surprise, then raised both brows and patted at his chest. "Space to move?"

He stepped back and swallowed hard. "You met Nicola."

I guess it was time to get to the heart of the matter.

"And you're angry with me."

He frowned for a split second and shook his head. "No, are you okay?"

I chewed on the inside of my cheek for a moment and then nodded my head. "Yes."

"You'd planned this. That's why you asked so many questions last night."

I met his gaze. "Yes."

"What did she have to say?"

"That you're going to be a father."

Her jerked back as though I'd slapped him. "What?" He exclaimed and then furrowed his brows. "I wonder if that's a lie or not." He mumbled to himself, "Hope her July bed buddy knows..." He trailed off and a look of panic spread over his face. "It's not mine."

I patted his shoulder, "I know." I said, turning back to the tea kettle.


I looked over my shoulder at him, "You've already made your feelings on her perfectly clear. And I know that you're loyal; if your heart was with me, your body would not be with her." Once the kettle began to whistle I pulled it off the stove top and grabbed a couple mugs. Pouring hot water into each, I added a bag of chamomile to both, and handed him his. He watched me in silence the entire time, in fact, when he finally spoke it made me jump.

"My heart was with you. Is."

My own heart constricted almost painfully, but I couldn't help but practically glow with happiness. Instead of saying anything, however, I handed him the sugar. "Would you like any milk or cream?"

"Why aren't we together?"

No, no, no, no, no! I'm not ready for blunt questions!

I walked around him and to the fridge, finding the gallon of milk easily but thankfully having to search for the cream. It gave me a reason to keep my back to him, a reason to hide my face.

"Mrs. Wi – you love me. You broke up with Skylar Willits for me. You seem to be waiting for me...why aren't we together?"

Sadly, I located the cream. Taking it in hand, I straightened and turned around. "Sorry, I don't know how you like your tea. Cream?" He wouldn't even look at the little carton, his eyes trained on me in that intense way of his. I needed to distract him. "Did Huey tell you where we were?"


I felt my stomach drop, I hadn't been expecting that. " didn't come."

"Did you want me to?" He asked and he sounded so worried about it that my heart ached for him.

"No." I shook my head and looked at him in wonder. "You trusted me?"

He opened his mouth, closed it, and then opened again – seriously, he looked like a fish for a moment. Clearing his throat, he began to speak hesitantly. "I...that is – I trust you. I trust you, it's her I've never trusted. I didn't want you to meet her, she's so manipulative and you're so trusting..."

I squinted at him for a moment and then pursed my lips. "You think me naive? A child? Out trusting strangers? Thatcher, I grew up in a small town surrounded by love. I trust the people around me because I have known them all my life, because I know what kind of people they are. I don't spend time with the people I don't trust, the people I don't care about. The way I am around here, within my world, isn't the way I am outside of it."

"But you trusted me so easily."

I laughed at that, but then immediately squeezed his upper arm when I saw how my laughter effected him. "I was scared of you for years, I was half convinced you wanted to end me. I didn't trust you easily. The moment you were real with me, the moment you chased after me in the snow with the express purpose of easing my mind, I knew that there was enough good in you to trust you. When you bandaged my hands after that party, I saw that you were kind. When you refused to approach me in the guise of instant attraction or interest – anything other than a way to get The Matchmaker off your back, I saw that you were honest. And when you waited for me after I spent a day running from you, I saw that you were honorable."

I raised my hand and lightly caressed his cheek. "I allowed you entry into my world, the world where I trust everyone. It's, I'll admit, a much larger population than your world of trust, but it's not extended to billions of people."

"I'm sorry." He whispered, his voice hoarse. "I'm sorry I ever thought so little of you."

I nodded my head, hearing his sincerity. "You trusted me with this?"

His eyes shuttered for a moment and he dropped his gaze. "I didn't want to."

And he questions why I'd trust him so easily? He can't even lie when he knows keeping silent will benefit him.

"But you did?"

"It was hard...really hard."

I crouched down a bit so I could look into his eyes, "But you did."

He met my eyes for only a moment, then nodded his head. "Yeah."

I smiled, straightening my back. "And then you came here and waited for me to return, a nervous ball of energy."

"Something like that." He muttered, then raised his head to stare me straight on once more. "She's the worst sort of liar."

"Yeah, I picked up on that." I replied with a smile and after a moment he smiled – rather hesitantly – back. "Unless you were having frequent athletic sex." Smile dropped.


I grinned, "Sorry, I couldn't help it."

He stared at me quizzically for a moment and then tilted his head slightly to the side. "You can joke about this?"

"I would never make light of what she did to you. But her as a person? She beneath her beauty. I can see what immediately attracted you to her, but I think that even if she hadn't cheated on you and lied about the abortion, that you would have come to hate her. If not hate her, then grown out of the kind of relationship she offered."

"I would have."

I nodded my head, "You want more substance then she has to offer."

"I want what you have to offer."

Oh crap.

I mean, truly a lovely and romantic thing to say, but oh crap.

"Why aren't we together?"

Hence the 'oh crap'.

"Thatcher..." I sighed, wishing I could just down my tea and make a run for it – preferably to a bathroom, I'd had so many hot drinks lately.

"I can't figure it out. I've just...taken you at your word. That you think I left to be with her, even though we both know that I didn't and don't love her. I know that I hurt you by not trusting you and I promise – I swear – that I'll work harder at trusting you." God, what a beautiful man...

"You trusted me with this, that wasn't a small thing. I know that. No little steps for you, you immediately go for the leap of faith."

"And I'll continue, I promise. It's just...hard...for me to trust people, but I'll work on it every day for you." My beautiful man...

"Thank you." I said softly, but he must have seen on my face that that wasn't the problem. Not quite.

"Just tell me."

I can't.

I told myself only weeks after he left that I would never devastate him the way he devastated me. Yeah, I dated Skylar in the interim of that and I stopped taking his calls, asked him to be a stranger, and have since then tried to take that back. But... It's not the same.

I have made an absolute muddle of this breakup, but I haven't devastated him just yet.

I chewed on my bottom lip and tried not to look directly at him. Because...because he looked so lost and I knew that was a level of trust as well. Before he left, before he got on that plane with Nicola and changed everything, he wouldn't have let me see how vulnerable our relationship made him. He certainly wouldn't have let me deal with her on my own, he would have done everything he could to keep from telling me anything about her and the two of them. I loved him so much back then, but looking back, I can see how skewed our relationship was. He was dark and mysterious, a "bad boy" with a good heart and a chip on his shoulder. I was the kind and understanding girl, weird but still lovable, the girl that tried to heal him with her love. He didn't share his pain, I didn't push for him to do so. We weren't equals in our relationship.

He saw himself as more mature – which I can understand, he's the one of us that has experienced more of the world – and me as wonderfully naive. He saw himself as a protector and me as someone that needed his protection, someone that couldn't care for herself. I showed him every vulnerability and he presented me with a stoic and calm front.

I knew that beneath that thin veneer was a boy of turbulent emotions, someone so afraid of what he felt that he distanced himself so not to drown. I knew that there was more passion to him than he was willing to display. I knew that...I knew that he didn't really see me as an equal, that he was building a pedestal to put me on. But I was so in love with him, so happy for the moments when he was there for me (emotionally as well as physically) that I ignored those problems. Pretend those cracks weren't there.

It's kind of heartbreaking to realize that we may have broken up without Nicola coming into the picture. At some point those cracks would have broken us...or, maybe we could have filled them in, made our foundation stronger. It's so hard to tell. But the reason I haven't t "deigned to take him back" is because those cracks do exist and the biggest one could destroy me all over again.

I don't feel like I can tell him what he did, I can only hope that he comes to realize it on his own.

Only problem?

He hasn't.

Not yet.

I smiled and I could practically watch the hope die in his eyes at the smile. "There is a plan, Thatcher. Steps, even. We aren't there yet."

"Right." He said, hollowly. "Not yet."

Not yet.

A/N: Another chapter down! Actually, I've slowed down on my whole updating schedule because I went through a moment of just needing to get away from my computer. I've been writing and writing and writing every spare minute for nearly three weeks and I was experiencing some exhaustion for it. In that time I've discovered the beauty of The 100 (which I started just because of Devon Bostick, then dropped after what happened in the first episode, just to pick it up again nearly a year and a half later. I love the growth of his character Jasper and the bravery that is being displayed more and more with every introduction to him. Meanwhile, I've discovered Bellamy Blake and he is amazing. I love how they didn't introduce him as a hero and haven't tried to really redeem him, just make us understand why he's made the decisions he's made. Yeah, there's character development, but it feels as though the show is also asking us to redefine what a hero/leader is. Also, his sense of responsibility as an older brother really speaks to me and my sense of responsibility as an older sister. It's a defining trait for me and I also love to discover that trait in others) and started to watch Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – strictly for Fitz and Simmons.

And I mean that in a huge way: I make it through all the other stuff (read: fast forward) just so I can watch their scenes. I'm waiting for season one to come in the mail, but from what I've seen of season two? Oh my Lord, Iain de Caestecker is brilliant! (He's also made me really want to know a Scot – the accent has quickly become my favorite after my top fave: Irish. Any Scottish readers out there? Ones that wouldn't mind a person giggling happily with every word they said? Yeah...tall order, I realize.) He's showing Fitz's frustration at his inability to get the words out (something I can relate to fully – weird fact: even though I'm a writer, I have trouble with words. Not so much writing them, but getting them out when speaking. The whole stumbling and stuttering while trying to find the words to express himself? Yeah, I really get that.) and his vulnerability for not being able to do so/feeling broken/rejected so fantastically and heart-rendering. And I may have no idea what's going on in the story or what the rest of the agents are doing in most episodes (I will sit down and watch this and not just scenes, I swear), but I am emotionally there for Fitzsimmons. Elizabeth Henstridge is portraying Simmons wonderfully too – that feeling of not knowing what to do next/to make things better/to make her best friend realize she still loves him and needs him comes out so clearly. (Also, she's adorable.) And I'm just worried about this ship for the very obvious reason: Joss Whedon.

I cannot express to you how big an Oz and Willow fan I was.

Um...when did this become a 'let's talk about what I'm watching' moment? Lord, I thought I'd try to keep the rambling strictly to my blog.

I really enjoyed writing the meeting between Nicola and Nadine because I knew Nadine wouldn't react "right". It took me awhile to broach the scene though and I'm glad that I've taken a bit of a break from SOTE while working on this story, because sometimes Rosaline shows up when I'm trying to write other characters. When it comes to fiercely protecting others, unwavering loyalty, and the ability to crush someone's ego – she's my girl. And truth be told, I wish I was more like that. Which is probably why my characters sometimes morph into her when in such moments; because I want everyone to be bad-ass. But not all my characters are like that – I'm not like that (remember the whole stuttering thing I mentioned before? Yeah, heightened emotion does not help with that) – and that's okay. She comes with a whole team of problems and weaknesses.

The thing is, I kept trying to write Nadine like that in that scene. Wow, did I need a little distance – Rosaline and Nadine, although sharing an ethnicity, are not alike. In fact, I've written a bunch of shorts about the two of them meeting and that mere fact has caused some tension. Their views of womanhood and feminism are different, their backgrounds and understanding of men are different, and the way they see the world is certainly different. (Also, in a lot of these shorts, Rosaline keeps trying to "save" Nadine from Thatcher, because from outside of the relationship, it doesn't look as good as it can be. Imagine it: a happy, cheerful, and compassionate girl constantly talking to her boyfriend, who doesn't respond, doesn't always look like he's listening, and gives off the feeling that he doesn't care – it's all in that stoic face. Rosaline's need to protect the weak would be in overdrive, kinda missing the fact that Thatcher is more of the "still waters run deep" kind of guy.)

Okay, I'm just rambling like crazy at this point.

yoitsamberfool: Hahaha – yeah, I'd have thought it a joke notification too. Thank you so much! Such a wonderful thing to say, I'm glad you love them. Thanks for reading!

Guest: I know you'll probably never see this, but thanks for reading! You gave it a go much longer than I often have on stories that aren't working for me – so for your freely given time and review: thank you!

loivissa17: Thanks for reading!

Cloudy Glass: I'M BACK! Hi! Yeah, I felt so evil when I finished QoaQR, but I knew that they needed a little time to grow and that their coming together would be a story all on its own. Though...I'm not sure how well it stands on its own, you kind of got to know the two to care about their plight. It was delightful being in Thatcher's head – I think he may be my dream guy character. Which...with how he can be very emotionally unavailable is kind of worrying... I loved writing Huey's anger and frustration – he's having to watch all this play out and he knows more than either of the key players. He's like an audience member in a play in that way. A happy ending was always in the cards for him...I'm just trying to figure out how to go about it. Thanks for reading!

artistic dreamer: Yup! Still active! Just with a horrible updating writer – I don't mean to let any of my stories die...although I'm not sure about A Lesson In Love 101... It was my silly little story that I didn't get terribly emotionally invested in, so I'm not sure what to do with it. But NSIWE, SoTE, and MUC have always been a priority of mine to finish. Thank you so much for reading!

Nordstroms: Thanks for sticking with me! It's been ages, I know. So really, thank you so much. And thank you for reading!

Moonlit Love: Thank you for reading! I feel like a relic of FictionPress, to tell the truth, but thank you!

4gnez: Thank you! And thanks so much for reading!

atalok33: Thanks for reading! And thanks – I was actually concerned about that last altercation: I wanted to stress the fact that Thatcher hates this guy not because of his sexual orientation, but because of how he's treated his best friend. That he was truly disgusted by how Skylar went about things, not about who he is. I wasn't sure if I was delicate enough – I most certainly wasn't for some – so thanks for mentioning liking it. :) And I loved writing Huey's sisters; I've wanted to write them for years, but the story lens is pretty tight on Thatcher and Nadine, so I wasn't sure where to bring them in. Thank you! What a wonderful thing to say!

All right folks, that's enough from this rambler. Thank you all for reading! The traffic graph is seriously amazing, folks. I have readers from places that I have always wanted to visit and that's Seriously, wow.

I think I'm trying to ramble again...

Thanks for reading!