Word Count: 4,873
He found the Midtown apartment easily enough. Not knowing anything about the woman he was about to pick up, he thought the apartment suited a single woman's life. It was almost smack dab in the middle of Times Square and all that that particular part of Manhattan had to offer. He admittedly debated about turning around and going back home before getting out of the car and sending the driver around the block until he came out.
The thought hadn't really occurred to him before pulling up in front of her building that people would see him with someone on his arm. Rumors would start and tabloids would put a spin on it to sell papers, neither of which was anything new. Except, this time he wasn't doing anything wrong, he was doing someone a favor. To which he evidently was to keep to himself, though Nathan hadn't specifically said so.
He realized, though, that he could take a little heat and there could be worse things in life than page six of the Times bandying about his social doings. It kept his name out there and always these days there was mention of the upcoming Nikki Heat book, so his publisher wouldn't mind. Well, maybe she would, but that was personal not business.
He rang the buzzer, adjusting the vest under his tuxedo jacket as he waited for a response. Faintly, he heard a door open somewhere within the building. He held his breath for a moment, not sure what to expect at all. Heidi, while an attractive woman was a little too uptight for Rick, so he wasn't sure that he and Nathan had the same taste when it came to women. There was a time that wasn't the case, but that was a long time ago.
And women you had flings with at seventeen and eighteen were usually quite different than the ones you took home to meet Mother and ended up marrying.
Judging by the fact the woman coming down the stairs presently wore raggedy blue jeans and a t-shirt that barely covered her abdomen, Rick was guessing this was not Claire Bennet. She looked him over, apparently liked what she saw going by the smile she bestowed upon him when her gaze returned to his face. And the fact she opened the door to let him into the foyer. He saw no recognition in those eyes, though, so evidently she didn't know who he was.
"You must be looking for Claire," she said. Her voice betrayed the fact she was a smoker. A heavy one.
"What gave it away?" he asked pleasantly.
"She asked me to zip her up. She's dolled up, you're dressed like that."
"Good deductive reasoning," he remarked.
She arched an eyebrow, trying to gauge if he was sincere or not most likely. "I do all right," she said, evidently realizing he was neither entirely sincere nor sarcastic.
"She coming downstairs then?"
"Honey," she said, sounding almost motherly. He realized then that she was older than he'd pegged her for. Initially, he'd been surprised to hear that smoker's voice come out of someone so young, but the years had been kind to her. Usually there was something that gave them away the older they got: teeth discoloring, rough-looking skin, lackluster hair. None of that applied to this woman.
"She's waiting for you to knock on her door like a lady should. She's the apartment on the left," the gruff-sounding woman said as she made to pass him.
Instead of going upstairs, though, he held the door open for her. She gave a soft laugh and a shake of her head before wagging a finger in his direction, a gesture that aged her a bit more. "A polite one, I guess I didn't need to tell you to go to her door after all. Or to behave."
"I try to be both polite and well-behaved," he said with a wink. "And thanks for zipping her up."
Her smile widened a bit. "I'm sure you'd rather have done it, but that wouldn't be right."
"Of course not," he said, wondering just how well this woman knew his date. Did she know he'd never met her neighbor let alone had any visualizations of zipping - or unzipping - whatever she was wearing?
He went up the stairs, noticed the door to the apartment on the left on the second floor slightly ajar. This had to be the place then. The woman obviously had assumed he'd paid attention to which floor she'd come from. He knocked lightly, not wanting to push the door open any more than it was in case she was still getting ready.
"I'll be right out," a female voice said. "Just need to find my purse."
"No rush," he said in response.
He knew apartments like this. Living in Midtown, she wasn't living in luxury but she wasn't hurting either. Her apartment was above a business, as most were in the area. She was fortunate that it appeared the smoker and her were the only two apartments on the floor. He'd been in buildings that had each floor divided into four or even six apartments, which gave the renter little more than an efficiency apartment barely the size of a shoebox. Her place had to be quite large, and probably pretty enviable to anyone who saw it that lived in the cramped quarters other buildings like hers offered. And for not much less in cost of rent either.
He remained out of the apartment, as he hadn't been invited in, peering around the hall and down the stairs at the glimpse of the street he caught below. The hall and stairwell was clean, no garbage or graffiti. He turned to face her door at the sound of feminine footsteps. Feminine in that men's shoes just didn't make that sound.
He took her in. Not particularly tall, blonde, pretty, and young. Quite pretty and quite young. She was dressed nicely even though the gown was off the rack. It fit her well and the color was nice on her. She had shoes that went with it and she accessorized well with a simple necklace, earrings, bracelet, and even an ankle bracelet he noticed when he took in her shoes.
"You must be Ms. Bennet," he said, offering her his hand.
"And you're Rick Castle."
"In the flesh," he retorted with his habitual quick and cocky response. He realized she wasn't a vapid fan coming onto him. Not only that, but he had to spend the evening with her.
"I couldn't believe it when Nathan told me who was picking me up for the night."
"You've read my books then?"
"Actually, I'd only barely heard of you before coming to New York. My mom doesn't read that type of book, more the bodice ripper type," she said and Rick nodded understanding perfectly. "Nathan does, though, and lent them to me. He didn't tell me until later he knew you."
"We're old friends."
"He mentioned that, too."
While the word naïve didn't seem exactly as if it would apply to her he knew she wasn't from here before she'd said so. It wasn't anything obvious, but he was an observer so he could tell. Probably wasn't even a city person.
"He didn't say much," she said, clutching her purse in front of her once she'd locked her door and pulled on it to ensure it was secure.
He only realized now how tiny she was. He wasn't an overly tall man, perhaps a little above average and yet she had to be close to a foot shorter than him. That would certainly make dancing an interesting project.
"We sort of lost touch over the years beyond seeing one another at events like tonight's."
"That's too bad. He could use more friends, I think."
"We all could most likely, Ms. Bennet."
"All right, Claire. Are you ready then?"
"I try to be."
"Nathan said to expect you on time, but I didn't believe him."
"Nathan have a tendency of running late then?"
She shrugged. "He's a busy man, I get that."
"Yeah, he is. You heard how Monty is?"
"Monty?" she asked, sounding perplexed.
"Yeah, I thought that's the reason you're stuck with me as a date for the night."
"He didn't say anything to me, just that he wouldn't be able to bring me."
"You really wanted to go then?"
"Yes! I've been begging him since I started grad school here to take me to something."
"All right, good to know he wasn't pulling my leg on that. Or that my mother hadn't put him up to this."
"Long story, but my mother probably thinks I should get out more than I do. I wouldn't put it past her to scrounge through my desk, see the invitation and put someone up to ensuring I went instead of just sending a check and forgetting about it until the next one."
"Ah," she said, not that he could expect her to understand his mother. "I thought you were already going?"
"I told Nathan I'd RSVP'd, but I really hadn't planned on going."
"No way, I'm here, dressed like this, I'm not going home only to have my daughter wonder what I did or said to offend you in less than thirty minutes time in your presence."
She laughed. "Well, we wouldn't want to worry her."
Besides, he was more curious now than he was after hanging up with Nathan. She wasn't dressed like a floozy or a kept woman. She looked - nice. Not that kept women couldn't look nice, but he just didn't get that feeling from her. She was dressed stylishly but not flashy. The gown she wore cost money even off the rack. And judging by where she lived it was probably out of her league but she could be one of those who spent as little as possible on rent so they could afford the other amenities life had to offer.
"Anyway, shall we go," he said, offering her his arm politely.
"That sounds nice."
"We wouldn't want to be late."
"Are you sure you don't want me to go with you, Nathan?"
"I'm positive, Mother," Nathan said, adjusting his bowtie. "I'm perfectly capable of doing this on my own."
He certainly didn't want to go with his mother as his date. He wasn't in the mood for her tonight. He and Peter would go and have a good time. It was nice not having anything to worry about for a change. Except his home life anyway, and he was in the process of trying to fix that. Try being the operative word. Heidi was a forgiving woman, but he wasn't sure how easy she'd be able to forget the past couple of years. He was making progress, she'd even agreed to have dinner with him next week without the boys along.
The doorbell rang, distracting her from saying anything more.
"That must be Peter. I still don't understand why Claire couldn't go with you."
"It wouldn't look right, Ma, I've tried explaining it to you."
"People don't always see what you think they do, Nathan."
"I'm a senator, people hold me under closer scrutiny than a lot of others. Especially in light of other politicians lately who've gotten caught with their hands in various cookie jars."
"She's not a cookie jar, Nathan."
"I know that, Ma, but she's…"
"Anyone looking at the two of you would know there's nothing there."
"And I've heard differently. And with things with Heidi nowhere close to being on the road to being fixed. The last thing I want is to have my picture in the newspaper with Claire nearby."
"But she knows Claire is…"
"She has no idea who Claire really is. I believe she gives me more credit than bringing a woman I'm sleeping with into our home, but I'm not sure she sees things that way right now. And I don't want to risk it."
"Fair enough. It's silly if you ask me. She's your daughter, you two seem to have bonded since she started school."
"We're getting along all right," he admitted.
He wasn't sure how his mother really felt about that, but she seemed to have grown fond of Claire the more time she spent with her as well. He liked to think it was easier for his mother, she had no expectations to live up to the way he did. He was her father for crying out loud. That carried a lot of weight, even if she didn't want to think of him that way.
"So, why shouldn't you be able to take her with you?"
"Because it wouldn't look right and we don't need any skeletons coming out of this family's closet right now. It's better this way."
"She could stay with Peter."
"It's already done, Ma, I'm not going to call Rick and tell him plans have changed as if he's a hired servant of ours or something."
"He's been married twice."
"I know who and what he is, but he'd never mistreat Claire. He'll know as soon as he sees her that she's not the easy type. And I'm banking on the fact that not only my knowing him for years but you and his mother being friends to come into play. He may have clout, but I have more."
"There is that," she said, brushing the lapels of his tux jacket off before placing a kiss on his cheek. "And what will you do if they hit it off?"
"I doubt I have to worry about that, but she is an adult."
"Did you tell her about his reputation?"
"I'm not sure I'd have to, Ma. All she'd have to do is do a search of his name on the Internet and she'd get more information than I could ever give her. Besides, it's not a date."
"I think you underestimate her, Nathan. She's not a child any longer."
"Hey, Mom, Nathan," Peter said from the doorway.
"Peter," Nathan said, glad to see his brother. And for the distraction from the conversation he and his mom were having. He wouldn't put it past Claire to be interested in Rick and probably vice versa. Rick did like blondes, but he had to hope that even if that spark of interest was there Rick would be decent to her.
"You ready to go, the car's waiting."
"Yes, sorry, Mother was lecturing me on my choice in escorts for Claire."
"Rick?" Peter said with a shrug. "He's a good guy, Mom. You can't believe everything you read. Of all people who should know that, it's you."
"I know. I just worry for Claire. She's not as big a girl as you think she is."
"You just got done telling me she's an adult! She'll be fine," Nathan said, kissing his mother's cheek. There was no winning with her. Rick wasn't good enough apparently, but she gave him the third degree on what he'd do if they hit it off tonight. As if he could control what Claire did anyway.
"You talked to the boys?" Peter asked.
"Yes, I called a little while ago and wished them a good night. Monty talked me into reading to him over the phone."
Peter smiled a little. "It's good she's letting you talk to them at least."
"Baby steps, Peter," Nathan said, placing his hand on his brother's shoulder as they started out of the room. "Progress isn't always leaps and bounds, sometimes you have to carefully tread through the quicksand to get to where you're going."
"Let's go get our party on," Peter said.
"Looking forward to it," Nathan said with a backward glance at his mother.
"So, can I ask why you didn't already have a date for the evening?" Claire asked when they were on their way. Both had been relatively quiet save for when he'd offered her a glass of champagne, which she'd refused. She accepted water, though, when she'd seen a bottled one mixed in with the various choices his car was stocked with.
"I already told you basically. I hadn't really planned on attending, so there didn't seem much point in bothering to find someone to accompany me."
"Then why RSVP?"
He shrugged, taking a sip of his own drink. "It's a worthwhile cause. Besides, I could ask you the same question. Why do you need a senator to find you a date? Pardon me, a non-date? You're attractive and seem intelligent from what I can decipher so far anyway. You mentioned grad school so I assume you have a brain. So finding a date shouldn't be a problem."
"He's just being overprotective."
"Does he have reason to be?"
"No! Not really anyway. I'm new to New York so don't really know anyone. That's all."
"Ah," he said, which still didn't really enlighten him on just who she was to Nathan. He could bide his time until someone was willing to reveal the ties binding them together. "No one from your classes you'd rather be with?"
"No, not really. I haven't really had much time to make many friends. Not like that anyway."
"Yet you have time to go to this tonight?"
"Like this type of thing comes up every night! I made an exception and will pay for it tomorrow night, believe me."
He nodded a little in appreciation of the fact that she was taking her coursework seriously. It didn't take long for them to get there. He just had time to finish his drink and her water had hardly been touched. He set it in the bucket of ice meant for champagne as the car drew to a stop.
"It'll be there for you when we leave."
"Thank you," she said, sounding sincere.
The driver opened their door and he adjusted his jacket before ducking to get out. He paused, turning to look at her after catching a glimpse of the scene they were coming into. He hadn't thought to prep her for the walk from the car. He took in her appearance a little more closely than he had earlier. He had looked at her then as a man did a woman. This time, it was as the reporters and the public they served would see her.
"You like cameras?" he asked.
"I'm sorry. Do I what?"
"Cameras," he repeated. "Do you mind them?"
"Not really, no," she said, looking puzzled. She blinked as a bulb flashed and then another somewhere outside the car. The cameras weren't trained on them yet.
"That's probably best, because you're going to get your picture taken a fair amount between here and the door and you'll be seeing a lot of it over the next few days. There will be some inside, too, but those cameras at least belong to the more respectable papers."
She smiled, and it didn't even look forced. He had to give her credit for that.
"I can make pretty for some reporters."
He didn't think that was going to be any hardship for her. She was pretty. He'd taken people out before, though, who reacted oddly - to say the least - to a camera snapping their picture.
"All right then," he said simply, assured she was sincere. He hoped she was anyway. "It's a little late to rethink our entrance anyway."
He stepped out of the car, giving a slight wave to the crowd as he buttoned his tuxedo jacket before turning to hand her out. She knew exactly what to do, placing her hand in his properly, giving the crowd a teasing glimpse of leg before she emerged from the vehicle. Could be the moves were for his benefit, too, he supposed, without any thought for the cameras because he couldn't help but notice that she had a very nice pair of legs.
He held onto her hand, bringing it to his arm once she was out of the car.
"Ready to meet the wolves," he asked. Already they'd garnered a bit of attention.
She squeezed his arm and gave him a smile. Genuine, but her eyes betrayed the fact that she was perhaps a bit nervous after all.
"Don't worry, I've got your back," he said then.
"I'm not sure it's my back I should be worried about, but thank you."
Whoever had held the reporters' attention a second ago was forgotten. Someone new was spotted about to embark on the red carpet and they were going to capture every inch of her walk down it. Some were watching, silently hoping she'd trip and fall flat on her face. All, however, would be curious as to her identity. And who she was to Rick Castle. Was she his flavor du jour or someone more special than that to warrant bringing her here?
She didn't falter. He gave her that. And she let him lead from the moment her feet were firmly planted on the ground out of the car. Bonus points because he'd been with women who wanted to try and own the moment and that wasn't what things like this were about. At least not to him.
"Here's where we stop for a second so they can get the money shot," he leaned toward her a bit to whisper, giving her a wink. A private moment it would seem to anyone looking at the picture capturing the moment. He slid an arm around her and drew her closer as cameras went off in every which direction.
He gave a wave in the direction of someone who'd called his name, smiling. There was a plethora of questions thrown at him about not just Derek Storm but also Nikki Heat. He shrugged them off. He left his arm where it was at her waist as they continued on their way.
"Now, just smile as we make our way to the doors. Don't say anything or even nod in response to what's being said. Trust me, it will get twisted and contorted into whatever that reporter wants it to say or mean."
"All right," she whispered. He thought just then she was a good sport. Nothing like being thrown into the deep-end of the pool before completing your first lesson.
The paparazzi weren't there just for him. This - like most fundraisers in the city of New York - drew crowds of glamorous people. From show business types to professional athletes to old money types to business entrepreneurs to people who scrimped and saved all year just to attend one function of this magnitude. So, cameras and reporters were just part and parcel for this type of evening out.
"Did you say something?" Thinking he'd heard her say something under her breath, he leaned into her.
"And you want to be a famous author why?" she whispered.
He raised his head again and gave a smile and a laugh while drawing her a little closer, as if what she'd just said had been much more intimate than it, in fact, was. He was good at this, giving the cameras what they wanted to see, even if it was a lie. They wanted to see Rick Castle work his magic on the flavor of the day.
"I like to write. I'm fortunate my books have sold as well as they have. One day they may not, so I enjoy it while I have it."
"I just can't imagine having to deal with this everywhere you go."
"Well, a night out."
"It's part of the package. I could be more reclusive if I want to."
"Where would the fun in that be?"
"Exactly! See, you do understand."
Someone more interesting drove up and only a few more shots were taken of Rick and Claire before they disappeared from view of the crowd on the street.
"That wasn't so bad," he said, offering to take her wrap. She walked with him to the coat check area. He could tell she was a little star-struck, but at least she wasn't staring at people as if they were an alien.
"It's like that whenever you come to something like this?"
He shrugged. "Most of the time, though it's not just me it happens to. And sometimes it's more interesting than others."
"Oh, you know, like when I have an attractive woman accompanying me. I don't do that every time and haven't in a while. So I'm sure there will be questions about who you are and what you're doing with a scoundrel like me."
She laughed. "You don't seem so bad to me."
"Oh, I don't think I am, but the public's perception of me is a little skewed. I'm not sure Nathan thought the whole thing through when he chose me," he said, sliding his hand to the small of her back. The crowd wasn't imposing but since this was her first function like this he didn't want to assume she knew where to go.
"Nathan doesn't do anything without thinking it through very carefully, Rick."
He nodded, she sounded certain, and he had to take her word for it, as she seemed to know the adult version of Nathan Petrelli better than Rick did.
He pocketed the chip that her wrap had been exchanged for and glanced at the crowd. This was the only reason he came to these things. To observe. God, he hated these things otherwise. Gina had been thrilled when he'd told her he'd be in attendance after all, which wasn't exactly a ringing endorsement, especially since he'd left out the fact that he wouldn't be coming alone. They stood out in the entryway for a moment. She seemed to need that time to collect herself.
"You don't mind being gossiped about?"
"Nah, it'll just make for more interest in the upcoming book."
"That's right, you're working with the police department or something."
"Yeah, kind of, more like a shadow, watching how they do it, riding along. Not to say I don't help out once in a while."
"And you're finding it inspiring?"
"Very much so to this point. There's a lot there. The world for a cop is very different. For instance, the woman I ride with, we had to come to a gig like this not too long ago for business. She wasn't very comfortable."
"She'd never been to one before?"
"Well, no, but it was more than that I think because you admitted yourself you haven't either. And yet you're comfortable or at least not uncomfortable with the idea of your picture being splashed all over the gossip pages. And dressing formally like this. Really, if you think about it, most people don't have many occasions to dress like this more than once in their lifetime."
She shrugged. "Why should I care? It's not like I'm here doing anything wrong."
"No, but my reputation isn't a shiny, spotless one. So, some guilt by association may come into play."
"I can handle it. They have to find me first anyway."
He didn't want to tell her how easy that was, no sense worrying her before the evening had even begun. He had no doubt if the reporters were curious enough they'd find her and be on her doorstep tomorrow morning.
"Are you ready then?" he said, pressing just a bit on her back to prompt her toward the party before offering her his arm.
"You don't have to keep doing that," she said.
"Opening doors for me, letting me have your arm."
"Sure I do. My mother would tan my hide if she thought I was treating you poorly."
"Is that how you really are, though?"
"What do you mean?"
"If there were no cameras, no mothers to judge, would you still act like that?"
He shrugged. "Sure. Why not? Not to say I don't have my callous moments, but I try to adhere to the old adage of treating others the way you wish to be treated. My mother raised me to be a gentleman and I try to keep inline with her teachings."
"That's a good way to live," she said.
"Not to say I always succeed in my attempts."
They were about to enter now. She took a deep breath, stiffened for a minute he felt being this close to her. He tried to imagine what she was feeling, imagined nervousness was in there somewhere. He'd grown up around this type of thing so it was old hat to him.
"Just have fun, Claire. That's what tonight's all about."
"It's for charity."
"Sure, but I've already paid my tab for that, so tonight's just for mingling and fun. So, enjoy it. Dance, drink, whatever you want."
"I'll try," she said.
"You'll do fine," he said.
"What makes you so sure?"
"Why, because I'll be there to catch you if you fall."
She glanced at him curiously for a moment, and he wasn't sure what he'd said that deserved such a look.
"Thank you," she said finally, easing his mind that he'd somehow said something wrong. What woman didn't enjoy hearing flowery platitudes even knowing that's what they were? Very few in his experience.
Story ©Susan Falk/APCKRFAN/PhantomRoses.com