Word Count: 2,771
They were neither early nor late. There were people inside already and yet more coming in behind them so it appeared they were pretty much right on time. They paused for one posed shot before continuing further into the room. This shot was for the hospital. He doubted it would actually be posted anywhere as he wasn't a huge contributor, but it'd be tucked away in archives somewhere for posterity's sake.
He adjusted his cufflinks, stopping to say hello to a few people he knew or knew his mother as they made their way through the crowd. He introduced Claire as they stopped, always a hand at her back or around her waist to guide her without seeming obvious about it or seeming too hands-on.
He'd just snagged them each a glass of champagne when he heard a familiar voice calling him.
"Castle, I didn't think you were coming tonight."
"Hi Bob," Rick said, shaking hands with the mayor. "I wasn't one hundred percent."
"Let me guess, this is the reason you became one hundred percent," the mayor said with a gesture to Claire.
"You caught me," Rick said with a wink. "Forgive me. Claire Bennet this is the mayor."
"Mr. Mayor," Claire said, taking his offered hand. "It's nice to meet you."
He tilted his head a little. "You look familiar to me. Have you been to one of these with Rick before?"
"No, I haven't lived in New York long. Maybe I just have one of those faces."
"Now, darlin'," Rick said. "Don't sell yourself short, you're one in a million. Bob's probably just not used to seeing someone fresh on the circuit. He's gotten too comfortable, thinking he knows everyone in town."
"Maybe that's it," Bob agreed with a hearty laugh. "You two have fun."
"All right," Rick said with a familiar wave.
"My place tomorrow night, Castle?"
"I'll be there."
"See you then. Make sure you bring your wallet this time."
Rick grimaced a little with an accompanying laugh. He knew the mayor was ribbing him.
"I'll try not to forget it, but am not counting on having to open it other than to put my winnings in it."
The mayor waved him off with a laugh, heading in the direction of someone else he wanted to talk to.
"What was that about," Claire asked, eyes only on him for a moment.
"We play cards together once in a while. I may have inadvertently forgotten my wallet once. Once. And he never lets me live it down."
"Well, he is the mayor."
"Yeah, there is that, can't really call him out or insult him for giving me grief."
He took a sip of his champagne, she did the same before working their way around the floor, mixing and mingling with those he felt obligated to. He preferred to get them out of the way so he didn't have to seek them out later. There were a couple that got pretty sauced at these things and weren't much fun in that condition.
Finally, he spotted the man responsible for his being here tonight.
"Shall we go say hello to Nathan?"
"Sure," Claire said. She didn't sound overly excited or as if she'd been counting down the minutes until she'd be able to see him or anything.
"No, Heidi couldn't make it tonight. Something came up with her family and she had to go out of town," Rick heard Nathan say as they approached. Even more puzzling, considering not but a few hours ago she was staying home because his youngest son was ill.
"Nathan. I should have known you'd be here," Rick said once Nathan had spotted them. Rick watched carefully to see Nathan's reaction to Claire. Other than a smile that indicated he was familiar with her, his face betrayed nothing.
"You look lovely," he said softly.
"Thank you," she said sincerely, sweetly. More in the way Alexis took his compliments than the way a lover did.
"Rick, how are you?" Nathan said, finally addressing him.
"Doing well. You?"
Rick smiled a little. Nathan was doing well for himself. Rumor was he was on the fast track to the White House. He wasn't sure how true those rumors were, but Rick thought of anyone he knew who could pull it off, Nathan Petrelli was definitely one of them.
"How are your mother and daughter? Mother was asking if she'd be here tonight, I told her I didn't know."
"Fine. Mother is Mother," Rick said with a shrug.
"Rick's mother and my parents traveled in many of the same circles when we were growing up, that's how Rick and I became friends," Nathan said to Claire.
"And I was just the pathetic younger brother sent to tag along," Peter added, joining the conversation. "They hated me!"
"We didn't hate you, Peter," Rick denied.
Now that was interesting. While Claire looked at Nathan as if she liked him well enough, her eyes positively lit up when Peter joined them.
"Only when you went back and told our mothers what we'd done that deserved punishment," Nathan clarified.
Rick and Nathan both gave a laugh while Peter kind of gave a half smile with a blush.
"You look great," Peter said to Claire, giving her a quick hug. Nathan made no attempt to touch her and yet it was Nathan who had asked the favor of Rick not Peter.
"Thanks," she said.
"I've never seen you dressed up before."
"No, haven't had much opportunity to do that."
Rick shrugged, eyes scanning the room as they made small talk. He always did when he had the opportunity, observed people and they weren't saying anything really interesting. Small talk, catching up as if they hadn't seen one another in a while. He never knew where or when the next inspiration would strike him. Sometimes it was the way a woman tossed her head back. Sometimes it was a scuffmark on a man's otherwise spotless shoes.
"Where've you been keeping yourself, Peter? I used to bump into you all over the place," he said when it seemed his conversation with Claire was over with for the time being.
"I've been keeping busy," Peter shrugged. "Nathan if you have a minute, though, if you'll excuse us."
"Is everything all right?" Claire asked, sounding concerned.
"Yeah, nothing for you to worry about. Just someone looking for Nate, a contributor," Peter said with a shrug. "You know how it is."
"Okay, see you later," Claire said, turning her attention back to Rick. She looked about as prepared to initiate a conversation as he was.
"Nice party," he said dully.
"Yeah, that sums it up pretty well," she said.
"That's why I'm a writer," he quipped, causing her to laugh lightly.
There were all sorts here tonight just as he'd expected. Being that this was one of the nicer things to contribute to, many came out to be seen as someone backing the new hospital wing.
His scan of the room netted him results he would have rather not come up with just then. He was in no mood to deal with his ex. Especially when that ex also served as his publisher and he was sure she'd be quick to ask him about the progress of his new book.
"Would you like to dance then, Claire?" he asked, setting his flute down on a nearby table.
He gave a low laugh, taking her flute from her as well. "If the idea isn't too objectionable, yes, that was the idea. You are my date for the night after all."
"Oh, sure, sorry, I just wasn't expecting…"
"Me to know how to dance? To actually make an effort to show you a good time?"
"Well, I wouldn't blame you if you didn't really want to."
"Nonsense. I'm here, may as well have fun."
He offered her his arm, which she took and he led them to the dance floor. He counted about forty seconds between the time they started dancing and Gina arriving at their former spot.
"They've made a big deal about you killing off your main character," she said as they took a moment to familiarize themselves with just how they fit together like this. She was a tiny thing, so it took some doing but Rick found he didn't mind at all.
"There are other main characters," he said simply. "It was time to move on. We do it in real life, my writing is no different."
"Oh, I get that. I just wondered is all."
She wasn't a bad dancer. He could tell she didn't have a lifetime of experience doing it, wasn't born and raised with it. She did all right, though, and let him lead. Women these days had problems with that and he was a natural leader.
"So, who is she?" she asked.
"The woman you were escaping from."
He shook his head a little. "That obvious, huh?"
"Pretty much, yeah. That and she's staring at you as if she'd like to strangle you."
"'bout sums it up probably."
"Number two," he clarified. Not that it really needed it. "And my publisher."
"Hmm, sticky. And she knew you'd be here?"
"Yes," he said with a sigh, drawing her a little closer as the song now playing was a little slower in tempo than the last. "I called to tell her so she'd know there might be some Rick Castle sightings."
"It can't be that bad."
He shrugged, glancing at the others around them. "Sometimes it is, and I failed to mention I wouldn't be here alone. Anyway, a while ago I was at one of these things and my mother decided to auction off a night on the town with me in addition to the signed copy of my book I'd donated."
"Oh my God, I read about that! I can't remember who won, but she seemed so enthusiastic at first."
"Until she actually went out with me, you mean?"
She drew away a bit, scrunching her nose. "Something tells me if she had a bad time it was intentional on your part."
"Why do you say that?"
She shrugged. "Nathan obviously likes you."
"And?" he asked.
He wasn't sure what that had to do with anything. Or why she thought Nathan's opinion mattered one iota in the grand scheme of things.
"I just know he wouldn't like you, be nice to you if you weren't at least a decent person. And you're doing what you can to show me a nice time tonight and it's not costing me a dime."
"Maybe you're nicer and prettier than she was."
"Or maybe you just didn't like being boxed into a corner like that."
She looked up at him then, chin resting on his chest. She probably didn't realize how intimate of a gesture that would appear to be to some. Of course, a camera somewhere went off and he imagined he'd be seeing this one on his kitchen counter in the morning. He wondered briefly who would be the one to put it there: Alexis or his mother.
"So, are we going to stay on the dance floor all night then?"
"At least until she goes away or I figure out a way to avoid shop talk tonight."
"Will she be upset you're here with me?"
"Not really her concern, is it? I'm no longer her husband and as my publisher she doesn't have anything to say about it. Unless you were someone who was going to hurt my image maybe, but I can do that on my own just as well at times."
She gave a soft laugh.
"So, tell me about Peter and Nathan."
"I don't know anyone else here and they're watching out for me as kind of a favor to my family while I'm in graduate school."
"I see," he said, though that didn't explain why she was here with him and not one of them. "What are you getting your master's in?"
"Promise you won't laugh?"
"Why would I laugh?"
"Well, I get a lot of odd looks from people."
"Okay, what are you doing? Getting a masters degree in striptease dancing?"
She laughed. "No, Molecular Biology."
"What? Why would I laugh?"
"I don't know! People always do. I guess, tiny and blonde they just think I'm an airhead."
"Well, if this were an actual date…"
"Oh, I'd probably say something about finding it a turn on to think of you with your hair up in a frantic bun, wearing a lab coat, playing with beakers and eye droppers. Do you secretly wear glasses, too?"
"Uh, no," she said with a laugh. "A turn on, huh? You like smart women?"
"You wouldn't know it going by my history."
The song ended, turning into something he wasn't entirely comfortable dancing to. His mother had taught him more dances than he cared to admit as a child, but some he chose to sit out. This was one of them. However, Gina was still around somewhere.
And then he spotted someone he actually wouldn’t mind talking to amongst the crowd. He led Claire off the dance floor in that general direction. James spotted him as they approached and Rick noted the star-struck look that crossed Claire's face for a moment.
"Your mother reads him, I imagine?"
"Yes, yes, she does."
"Hmm," Rick said. "That darned Alex Cross. Women love him. I suppose she's seen the movies, too."
She gave a soft laugh. "Yup."
"Figures," he muttered. "James. I didn't know you were going to be here tonight."
"If I'd known you were going to be, Castle, I would have thought twice," he replied, taking Rick's offered hand.
"Nice to know you can be funny once in a while."
"I try. How's the new book coming along?"
"And who's this?" James said, offering Claire his hand.
"Was getting to that. Claire Bennet. James Patterson."
"A pleasure," he said. "How do you do it, Castle?"
"Get all the pretty ones to look past your obvious defects?"
Claire gave a soft laugh.
"I do know how to show a woman a good time."
They were joined by a few others. Claire didn't say much, Rick noticed. She mostly listened and observed, answering or speaking when someone spoke to her basically. This was a crowd he was comfortable with and the conversation - some serious and some not so much - flowed easily. And they all did their part to at least not make her feel as if she was being left out of the conversation. They were talking shop, it's what they did when they were all gathered together like this.
Eventually, they made their way onto the dance floor again. This time it was at Claire's prompting. She was obviously ready for a change of scenery. He couldn't blame her, realizing he'd probably spent entirely too much time talking to his writing friends.
"You must be incredibly bored. Should we go find Nathan and Peter?"
"No, it's fine. It's actually kind of fun listening to all of you."
"Because you genuinely like them."
"Oh well, yeah, there is that."
"Why does everyone call you Castle?"
"I don't know. They just do, I guess."
"No, but we don't really travel in the same circles. I hadn't seen him in years before tonight aside from on television."
"Why'd he call you?"
"You asked me why I needed him to find me a date."
"Now, that's not what I said."
"Not exactly, no, but it's what you implied. Come on, admit it. You were expecting someone so ugly or socially incapable that you had to be asked to take me."
"Well, the thought crossed my mind, sure. I took Nathan for his word, though, that it was a favor."
"Okay, but why'd he pick you."
"I imagine because he trusts me and knows despite what gossip rags print I'm not a lecher."
"You mean, he assumed I'd be safe with you."
"Yes," he said.
"And even knowing my face could possibly be plastered all over tomorrow's paper he still asked you."
"Well, put like that, it does seem a little odd perhaps, but there are worse things than getting your picture taken stepping out of a limo."
"Oh you're right. And it's for a good cause."
"There is that, sure."
"Well, let's see what he thinks about this," she said.
She couldn't have timed it more perfectly either. As the flash of a camera went off in their direction, she planted her lips firmly on his.
Story ©Susan Falk/APCKRFAN/PhantomRoses.com