Word Count: 2,107
"Rick Castle," he said, answering the phone almost immediately when he saw whom it was calling.
"Hey, Rick, it's Nathan Petrelli. How are you?"
"Doing well, Nathan. You?" Of course, they both knew how one another were doing. Their lives were splashed on the pages of the Times and other, less savory, papers for the world to see. For very different reasons, of course. Rick wouldn't want Nathan's job or his ambition and he thought Nathan Petrelli probably thought the same about Rick's chosen life.
"Good, keeping busy."
"Yeah, I've kept up with the news a bit, seems like you've had your hands full."
"I have, but hopefully things will settle down. Listen, I'm sorry to call out of the blue and do this, but I have a favor to ask."
"Okay," Rick said cautiously.
He'd known the Petrelli brothers for years. While Nathan was a couple years older and Peter younger, his mother and the Petrelli's had traveled in many of the same circles. So, their paths had crossed more than once from childhood on into adulthood.
As boys, they'd gotten into a good bit of mischief together. Usually it was Nathan and Rick getting into the mischief with a younger Peter tagging along because their mothers had insisted he come along.
As teens, they'd snuck drinks when they could, stole cigarettes from purses, and spent their summers cruising the country club's pool and tennis courts for dates. They usually didn't have to search for long.
As young men, they'd chased a skirt or two and had a few drinks too many when they probably should have been doing other, more productive things. Certainly, their parents thought so. Eventually, they'd settled into stable lives. He and Nathan had married, had children. Nathan was still married, Rick was not, and as far as Rick knew Peter had never been. It seemed to him the last time he'd seen either brother had been after his first marriage. Being a single father took up a lot of his time.
He recalled that their father had died and while Rick was sure his mother had contacted Mrs. Petrelli, he had not had occasion to see any of the Petrelli's to offer his condolences. For that, he'd probably grant whatever favor it was Nathan needed, however, Nathan was a politician first and foremost these days, so Rick knew to be wary.
"You're going to the gala to raise funds for the new pediatrics wing tonight?"
"I think I have an invite here somewhere."
"I have a friend who needs an escort. Heidi's going to stay home with the boys, Monty's running a fever."
"Nothing serious, I hope?"
"I don't think so, but she wants to be sure and doesn't trust a sitter to know when a run of the mill fever turns more serious."
"Understandable," Rick said. He'd fretted over that himself on more than one occasion. There was a breaking point when being ill no longer meant Tylenol and a comforting kiss was the solution.
"Anyway, if Heidi was attending I'd bring her myself, but it wouldn't look right…"
"Oh, right," Rick said, understanding now. He was, as Rick had just thought moments ago, a politician with loftier goals than his present position. And pictures of him showing up at a fundraising gala for a new pediatrics wing with someone other than his wife on his arm would not be received well. They might not end his career, but they'd certainly be scrutinized when his endeavors later took him to offices with more national attention.
That was an understatement. They'd eat him alive, even if their relationship was innocent and easily explained. No one would listen and if they did, his career would still be ruined.
"I promise she won't be any trouble or anything."
"She know you're setting her up?"
"It's not a setup," Nathan said harshly. "That's why I chose you. I know I can trust you."
"You can," Rick said, now more confused than ever. He wanted the woman to have a date but it wasn't a setup.
"Anyway, she wants to go so I told her I'd see what I could come up with."
"Can't she go alone?"
"Out of the question."
"All right. I admit, I'd RSVP'd and really hadn't made up my mind one hundred percent on going, but why not?"
Nathan had made him curious if nothing else, and the writer in him wanted to solve the mystery of who the woman was and why Nathan was worrying about whether she'd attend a gala.
"I'll send a car to pick you up."
"Not necessary, I can arrange it on my own. Just tell me where to pick her up."
Nathan gave him an address. It wasn't a shabby neighborhood in the least. Nothing extravagant, but decent enough.
"All right. I'll pick her up about eight o'clock then. Unless you're expecting me to take her to dinner first?"
"No, she'll have eaten. She just needs to get there and home."
"I can handle that."
"I think I can handle that, too, Nathan. You did call me, remember?"
"Yes, I remember. And thank you, I owe you one."
"That's what friends are for, but perhaps one day you can enlighten me as to what the situation is."
"Maybe one day," he said, sounding almost as if he wished he could right here and now. Whatever it was on Nathan's mind, it seemed to be weighing rather heavily. Rick wondered if it was the pressures of his job, ambitions of wanting to do more than he was, or what.
"Will you be there?"
"Yes, I will be. Peter will be, too."
"Great, we'll see you later then. Oh, hey, just one thing you do need to tell me in advance."
"Her name might be nice, so I know who I'm picking up."
Nathan gave a light laugh. "I guess that would be helpful. Her name is Claire, Claire Bennet."
"All right," Rick said, writing the name on the pad of paper by his desk just above the address. "She have a phone number in case I run into problems finding her place?"
He jotted the number Nathan gave him down with the rest of the information.
"I think that's everything I need then," he said, wondering exactly what he was getting himself into. And just what it would mean to have Nathan Petrelli indebted to him.
"Greet your mother and daughter for me," he said in closing.
"Likewise," Rick said, hanging up.
"What's wrong?" Alexis asked from the doorway. She had an uncanny way of appearing when he needed her most. The need varied. Sometimes it was just the desire to see her, to know she was okay. And sometimes it was conversation. That he could converse with his sixteen-year-old daughter baffled him at times, but he wasn't looking that gift horse in the mouth. He knew other people with children the same age as Alexis and they wanted nothing to do with their parents. He imagined his day would come eventually.
"An old friend just called and asked me to do him a favor."
"Did he make you an offer you couldn't refuse?"
Rick smiled a little. She was his daughter all right.
"No, nothing like that. There's a fundraiser tonight, he has someone he asked me to take."
"You have old friends randomly setting you up on blind dates now?"
"No, pumpkin, it's just a favor. Sounds like she was maybe supposed to go with him and his wife but the wife is staying home with a sick kid and it wouldn't look right for them to go alone."
"So, enter Rick Castle."
"Who's the friend?"
"I don't think you've ever met him, or if you did you were very young. Nathan Petrelli."
"The one and only."
"I shouldn’t be surprised, I mean you're friends with the mayor and all kinds of people, but a senator."
"I've known him since we were kids, Alexis, it's no big deal."
"This is so cool."
"No gossiping to your friends about how hard-up your dad must be for affection that his politically tied friends are setting him up on blind dates."
She laughed as he stood, realizing if he was going to make it to pick Ms. Claire Bennet up by eight o'clock he needed to get a move on it.
"You'll never know."
"I always know," he said, tapping her nose with his fingertip. "And don't you ever forget that."
"It's mom's that always know."
"Seems to me it's the one most connected to the child that would do the knowing. That would be me in this situation."
"Yeah, yeah. Do you want help with your tie?"
"Always," he said.
"'kay, I'll be up in a minute."
"I'll be waiting."
He knew how to adjust his own bowtie, but it was one of those father-daughter things they'd been doing for years. Initially, she simply wanted to know how he tied it. Eventually, it led to her doing it for him. He liked that she wanted to do that for him.
Dressed and ready with the exception of his tie, which was draped around his neck in preparation for Alexis' able hands to do their magic, he pondered how his plans for the evening had taken fruit. He really had no desire to go to the fundraiser. He'd RSVPd with a generous check, because it was for a good cause. He wasn't one of those people that lived on the circuit as he called it. Going from gala to gala, fundraiser to fundraiser. He wasn’t sure what the point was, other than to flaunt your success and while he lived comfortably with many creature comforts others couldn’t afford he really wasn't one to flaunt his success for the world to see.
He was a writer and he'd gotten lucky in a pool full of circling sharks that his writing not only sold but made his publisher money. There were certainly writers out there who could probably pen better novels than Rick did, but that wasn't his concern. He wasn't afraid of a little competition.
"So, what do you know about this woman?" Alexis asked as she started on the tie.
"Nothing besides her name and address, but it seemed pretty important to Nathan."
"Do you think she's his…"
"Mistress?" he asked, knowing it was on the verge of being wildly inappropriate to talk about such things with his daughter.
"I don't know. I can't imagine she would be, because he said if Heidi was going she would have gone with them. I don't think he'd be stupid enough to do that, but men do stupid things when thinking with things other than their brains."
"I'd ask what things, but that would just make you stammer and blush."
"I do not!"
"Yes, you do. It's cute."
"The last thing I need is for my daughter to tell me I'm cute."
"Well, you are. I mean it's not like I haven't had sex education and health class."
Her agile fingers put the finishing touches on his bowtie, making it look perfect. He expected no less from her. One day she'd be tying someone else's bowtie. A husband or lover, he preferred to think of it as her husband. Then again, he preferred not to think of her with a man in any fashion.
He stood then, turning slowly in a circle so she could examine him.
"Do I pass the Alexis Castle test?"
"Good to know. I wouldn't want to shock anyone by looking as good as I actually can."
She scrunched her nose, eyes twinkling with amusement. "Go knock 'em dead, Dad."
"Why, thank you, honey. Finish your homework," he said, kissing the top of her head as they left his room together. "And try not to get in Grandma's way."
"Me in her way? Ugh, Dad…"
He winked, stopping her tirade before she ever got going. He knew how things really were. He lived with his mother after all.
"Night then. Don't stay up too late."
"Don't wait for you in other words? Are you planning on not coming home alone?"
"What?" he asked surprised. He never brought women home when Alexis was in the house. It was just one of those things he didn't do. "No, no plans to be accompanied by anyone."
"Well, have fun."
"I'll try," he said, not sure what the chances of him enjoying himself were. Curiosity is what was driving him, hopefully by the end of the night that would be satisfied and he could go on his merry way.
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.
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.
Word Count: 2,739
The kiss was brief, teasing he'd say. Not to say it wasn't pleasant. Or effective in capturing not just his attention but others as well. She'd known the camera was there and decided to have some fun with it. She drew away almost before he could react. Almost. He did get the opportunity to kiss her back just enough she'd have to know he didn't mind her doing that in the least. He ignored the camera and drew her a little closer as dancing allowed.
"Well now, I'm not so sure I care what he thinks about that," he said as quietly as he could. The difference in height made it difficult for him to whisper in her ear.
"Not in the slightest."
"He might get mad." There was a pout there, but he sensed it was fake by the glimmer in her eyes.
"I think I'm more concerned with why you'd do that."
"Can't I just want to?"
"Well, sure, but now you're going to cement yourself as a focus for the gossip rags. For a little while at least."
"I'll deal. Besides, won't it help you?"
"Sure. The whole 'who's that girl?' thing. It'll help your books sell."
He chuckled a little. "I guess you're right. You go around kissing men to further their careers often?"
"Mm, no, never had the opportunity to before tonight."
"Well then, I guess that means I'm special."
She let her head rest against his chest then and he took his queue from her, letting the rest of the song play out without further conversation. He did take the opportunity to glance around the room. If Nathan or Peter had seen the kiss neither were waiting at the edge of the dance floor to do anything about it.
"Have I mentioned that I think you're one of the prettiest women here?" he asked once the song had ended.
"No, I think I'd remember that being said."
"Well, I've been sorely neglectful then. I apologize."
"Come on, Castle, there are plenty of women here that are prettier than me."
"I'm sure you're right, but those women have been practicing the art of putting their faces on for years. You're just who you are."
"Is that a compliment?"
"Yes! I get the feeling that if I saw you tomorrow you'd look much the same way you do right now. Just not in the fancy gown. Which, by the way, looks good on you."
"I've always wanted something like it. And I believe you."
"Phew. I wasn't sure how that'd come out sounding."
"A little corny."
"Yes! Of all the women here… I mean, your ex-wife."
"I stand by my observation."
"Well, thank you," she said, looking every bit as if she was flattered by his words. "Where are you going?"
"I was going to get us something to drink," he said, pointing in the direction of the bar.
She shook her head and crooked her finger at him.
"I'm not done dancing just yet."
"I can't dance to this," he said. "At least not and look like an idiot doing it."
She grabbed his hands, lifting them up as she moved her hips to the beat of the music.
"You won't look like an idiot. I promise," she said.
She was a better dancer than he'd given her credit for. He responded to her easily enough and that made him forget that anyone was watching. She clearly liked the song judging by the way that she was moving. And her enthusiasm wore off on him, paving way to him leading her into a dip. He knew he wouldn't be able to name the steps or moves he'd done later, they'd done a mish-mash of things. And yet it worked, leaving him not caring if anyone thought he looked like an idiot. The smile on her face and laughter that bubbled from her at the end of the song was worth any amount of looking foolish.
"That was fun," he said when the song ended.
"I'm glad," she said, sounding out of breath. "People are starting to leave."
"Yes, the night's drawing to a close."
"Well, since I don't know when I'll get the opportunity again…"
"Oh, right, so you can look back and lay claim to having danced the night away."
"Well, you certainly do it well enough."
"So do you. You've had lessons?"
"Oh God yes. More than I can count. My mother is an actress and she took me to all sorts of things."
"Well, it definitely paid off."
"You think so?"
"Thank you," he said, taking her into his arms again as the next song got underway.
"Probably won't be as many cameras going as there were coming but there might still be a few."
"All right," he said.
He was stopped from saying more by the doors to the ballroom opening, a mass of police officers blocked the exits. There was a flurry of commotion in the ballroom as most everyone there wondered what had brought New York's finest here tonight.
"NYPD," someone Claire couldn't see said. "Everyone in the room will need to leave their name, address and phone number on your way out. You won't be able to leave through the outer doors without the stub showing you've given us this information."
"Wonder what's going on," Rick said, taking her hand and starting toward the doors.
"No idea," she said, stating the obvious. She let him lead her through the crowd, though. Some had already started going through the doors by the time they got toward them. Only, Rick didn't head toward the doors.
"Detective Esposito," Rick said.
"What are you dressed like that for, Castle?"
"Believe it or not, Esposito, I have a life when I'm not with you."
"Oh really," the detective quipped. "Could have fooled me."
Rick knew when Claire had been spotted by Detective Ryan's low whistle accompanied by an appreciative glance. Glance was putting it nicely. Not that Rick hadn't noticed Claire's attributes, he was just more discreet about looking. Holding her close as they'd danced had not been a hardship in the least.
"Man, and what a life it is," Ryan said, joining in on the conversation. "Tell me again how rough you have it, Castle."
"I know, right," Castle said with a wink. "Claire Bennet," he added. "Detectives Esposito and Ryan."
"Hi," Claire said simply.
"Nice to meet you, though what you're doing out with this clown is beyond me," Esposito said.
Claire laughed. "He is kind of funny, but I don't know that I'd call him a clown."
"You obviously don't know him very well," Ryan said.
"Thank you," Castle said. "Maybe you should look in a mirror before you start accusing other people of acting like clowns. And stop belittling me in front of my date."
"You worried she might have a headache later, Castle? I'll tell you what the cure is for that problem," Esposito said.
"Castle," Detective Beckett said, cutting Esposito off. She was apparently just now noticing him. She gave him a once over, not returning his smile. "I take it you were already here."
"Do you really need me to answer that?"
"That explains why your phone went straight to voicemail."
"Ah, yes," he said, pulling out the cell phone in question. "Sorry," he said, turning it on now that the event was over. Some kept theirs on, but Castle didn't like doing that unless he was expecting a call. And he hadn't been expecting a call from Beckett tonight.
She eyed him and then Claire. In a crowd this size it normally wouldn't have been so obvious she was with him. Except, as soon as the police came onto the scene people sort of scattered. Castle and Claire were the only two to approach the detectives so far. He noticed when it dawned on her that Claire was with him.
"So, what's going on?" he asked, not able to hide his curiosity at the situation.
"Someone's been murdered."
"I sort of assumed that by you being here and all. That doesn't really fill me in on the details, though."
"Well, come on."
"This side of the scene."
"I can't do that, Detective. I have to get Miss Bennet home."
"I'm sure you have a car lined up that can take your date home safely, Castle."
"Absolutely not," Rick said simply.
Not that he didn't trust his car service, but there were some things that just weren't done. He wasn't a police officer and as curious as he was, it wasn't part of his job description to bail on his date. Who was attractive and seemed somewhat attracted to him. Not that he was going to try anything, but it didn't mean he wouldn't be interested in seeing her again.
"Ah," she said, lips tightening in the frown-thing she did with her mouth often when around him.
"First date then?"
"I'm not sure what that has to do with anything," Castle said. "I'm responsible for getting her home, and if there's been a murder on the premises you'll excuse me for being concerned for her well-being."
Beckett just shook her head, though he knew his reasoning couldn't be faulted. She knew it, too. She eyed Claire curiously before looking at him again. She gave a soft sigh as she regarded the rest of the crowd.
"All right. It's not as if we can't do this without you, I just thought you'd want in on the action. Stay put, though. We're not done with you. I might need your help talking to some of these people."
"Don't worry. We're not going anywhere. If all you're doing is collecting names, though, that shouldn't be a problem."
"You'd think not, but most of these people don't like having to be accountable for their comings and goings," she said before walking away. Esposito and Ryan went with her, leaving Claire and Rick alone for the moment.
"She's not too happy."
"Well, I'm not sure she actually looks forward to getting this type of call."
"That's not what I meant. Are you two involved or something?"
"What? No. She's good people. She just doesn't like that I'm present at a crime scene, that's all."
"Do you think she'll keep us here long?"
"No telling. We didn't see anything, so it's not like we have any answers to give. I'm sure she'll cut us loose as soon as she can."
"You in a hurry to get home? I didn't think I was showing you that bad of a time."
"Don't be silly." She slid her arm through his and smiled at him. "That's not it at all."
She rested her free hand against his shoulder, leaning toward him so she could talk against his ear. "I was really looking forward to getting into the limo and being able to take my hair down."
He chuckled, drawing her a little closer instinctively at her touching him. He was not sure whether she was pulling his leg.
"Really," she said, blushing a bit.
"Well, go ahead."
"People will see."
He shrugged. "Who cares?"
She worried on her lower lip as if considering his suggestion. "I'll see how long they keep us."
"So, now I know you're not used to wearing your hair up."
"At least not styled like this, no," she admitted. "Dotty put so many hairpins in it and I would be surprised if she didn't use a whole can of hairspray."
"Well, it was well worth the effort. I guess I never gave thought to a hairstyle being uncomfortable."
"You try it one day."
"I'll take your word for it. Somehow I don't think it would be nearly as becoming on me as on you."
He reached for her head, finding and drawing one of the hairpins in question out from the updo.
"What are you doing?"
"Just seeing what will happen if I take one out. Is it like a house of cards, I wonder? You remove one and the foundation weakens?"
She laughed a little. "Kind of, yes."
"Hmm, so if I took out another one," he said, reaching for a second one as he spoke.
"People are going to look."
He shrugged. "I don't care." He met her gaze. "You worried Nathan might see?"
"I don't think he's here anymore."
"So, no one around to get jealous."
"He wouldn't get jealous."
"You sure about that?"
"Positive," she said as he slid another hairpin out. "It could have waited until we got to the car."
"We could be here for an hour yet. Longer, depending on what's going on. And it's just your hair."
"I know I just don't see anyone else taking down their hair."
"I'm not with anyone else. Besides, it gives me something to do to pass the time."
"Oh well, in that case," she said.
Wordlessly, he removed the rest of the hairpins. He'd never really taken the time to think of doing such a thing as intimate. He'd brushed Alexis' hair before and it never garnered a reaction out of him. Of course, this wasn't his daughter. She wasn't even a friend he tried to remind himself.
There were, indeed, a good number of the offending pieces of metal in her hair. He hadn't realized it was so long. Whoever had done her hair - Dotty she'd mentioned - had done it very well. He remembered his mother complaining over the years about her hair coming out of its style before a show was over. That hadn't happened here.
"Better?" He dropped the last of the hairpins into his jacket pocket, taking her in like this.
"You liked it better up," she said, running her fingers through her hair. Whether to be sure he'd gotten all the pins or something else he wasn't sure.
"No, it's just different. You look younger this way."
"I get that a lot."
"Castle," Detective Beckett said as she approached them a good while later. She apparently had no comment about Claire's hair now being down. He had no issue with it, didn't see what the big deal was about taking it down. It wasn't as if they were in the company of the president or something.
"Who's your friend?"
"Claire Bennet," he replied.
"And how old are you, Miss Bennet?"
"What does that have to do with anything?" Castle asked.
"Just wondering. She looks awful young."
"I assure you, she's legal. Now you have my contact information, Detective. Can we go?"
"In a hurry?"
"Not particularly, no, but we didn't see anything. I don't even know what's going on. I'd just like to get Claire some dinner before everything is closed for the night."
"All right, let me get Miss Bennet's information then you can go."
"You can get a hold of her through me just as easily."
"No, Castle, that doesn't work tonight."
"It's no problem, Rick," Claire said and starting relaying her information to Beckett.
Castle took the opportunity to pull out his cell phone and call the driver, letting him know they were about ready. Detective Ryan hit him on the shoulder as Rick hung up the phone. Claire was still answering Beckett's questions, but Rick didn't think they'd be much longer.
"What's that for?" Castle asked, grabbing his arm as if Ryan had caused a great deal of pain with the light tap.
"Looks like you're going to score tonight with that one. You've already got her hair down and everything."
"She's not a one, Ryan. You ought to get out more, Detective."
"I get out plenty."
"Perhaps not to the right places."
"Can't afford them."
"There's a remedy for that."
"And give up this glorious job?"
Claire and Beckett returned their attention to the two of them. Esposito and Beckett headed toward the doors.
"Well, you two have fun," Ryan said. "Let us know if we should contact you at her place in the morning instead of yours."
"Detective Ryan," Rick said softly. "Have some manners. Don't you have a crime scene to look at anyway?"
"Yes, sir," he said, heading off toward Esposito.
"Good luck, Detective," Castle said to Beckett as they passed through the doors finally. They weren't the last to leave but pretty close to it.
"Good night, Castle."
Word Count: 2,896
"Are you really hungry?" she asked once they were a couple of blocks away.
"Not necessarily, though I wouldn't be opposed to the idea. If you were, I mean. Hungry, that is."
"Well, there are certainly enough places to eat by my apartment."
"Yes, that is true. Did you want to then?"
"If it's getting late…"
"Not at all. I have nothing to wake up for in the morning. Unless you need to call it a night."
"No, I have the day off tomorrow."
"Perfect timing then."
"Yes, I think that was why Nathan tried so hard tonight."
"Well, what are you in the mood for?"
"I don't care."
He went over what he knew of in the vicinity of her apartment. There were probably close to a hundred restaurants only a short walk from her front door.
"Anything you don't like?"
"You're not making this easy."
"Any places around here you like?"
"Any of them! I don't eat out too often."
"Yeah, I guess that wasn't the wisest question to ask if I wanted to narrow down the choices."
"All right. Well then," he said, making a quick decision.
He told the driver where to go. It was a nicer neighborhood type restaurant he'd been to a time or two over the years. Good food. The dining area wasn't exactly conducive to intimate dinners, but that wasn't his goal tonight anyway. There was also a bar, which he'd watched a game or two in.
It was late enough the dining room was pretty empty. A few parties probably stopping for a bite to eat before heading home from their evening's excursion much as they were doing. They were seated immediately by a polite hostess he vaguely remembered seeing the last time he was there.
It was one thing he liked about the neighborhood places over the chain restaurants most people who came to Times Square frequented. People tended to stay put. You went somewhere like Chili's and you'd be hard-pressed to find the same person waiting on you after a month let alone a year or more as it had been since Rick's last visit to this place.
Once seated, they both agreed to not being particularly hungry. So, they shared a couple of appetizers and a bottle of wine, with Rick drinking most of the wine. He found out a little more about her, but not much really. And was no closer to finding out who or what she was to Nathan, other than her saying her family was friends with the Petrelli's.
"So, you can't even go out to eat late at night without being spotted."
"I guess not," he said after one of the other customers recognized him. He'd signed a cocktail napkin for him without question. He didn't mind the intrusion too much.
"You don't mind, though, do you?"
"Nah, like I said, my time may be up sooner rather than later so I enjoy it while I can."
"Do you think you'll run out of ideas?"
"I don't think that's the issue, but authors whose works span decades. It just doesn't happen very often. And all it takes is one review dragging Nikki Heat through the mud and it could be over."
"What do you do?"
"Well, I go to school."
"I mean with your spare time. Do you have hobbies? Do you write? Draw?"
"I draw, can't say I'm very good. I read."
"Just not my books."
"Well, I do now."
"Glad to know Nathan is looking out for me."
She laughed lightly. "Yes, well, someone has to, right?"
"So my mother keeps saying."
The restaurant closing pushed them out the door faster than he would have liked. It wasn't cold, but her wrap wasn't very heavy so he knew she'd be chilled just walking back to the car. So, he offered her his tuxedo jacket. She took it, draping it around her shoulders as she would have looked like a kid playing dressup if she tried putting it on the right way.
"So, do I get to learn about Rick Castle?" she said, taking his hand as they started toward her place.
He glanced at her hand in his then at her, reading nothing on her face as to why she did it.
"Mm, not much to say really. I write, which allows me the luxury of being home with my daughter most of the time. Mom lives with us, so if I have to be gone she's home with Alexis. I'm sure one of these days Alexis is going to tell me she no longer needs one of us home, but for now she's content with the arrangement."
"Where's your dad?"
"Never met him."
"Nah, nothing to be sorry for. Mom was a little eccentric. Still is. Add to that she was an actress. Well, let's just say monogamy and not believing wholeheartedly in free love at the time wasn't her thing."
"Have you ever been curious?"
"Not really. I mean, so I have someone else's genes. Mom raised me. Whoever he is, he's had no input in my life beyond hereditary things," he said as he opened the car door for her.
"What about illnesses and stuff?"
He shrugged, sliding into the spot next to hers. She didn't seem to mind and he admittedly wasn't too put out by her touch. "We're all going to die of something. I guess if you know parent X has cancer or something you might be more cautious, but that doesn't mean you won't get something else entirely. Or weren't going to get it to begin with."
"True," she said.
"Anyway. We do all right. Perhaps I'm a little eccentric as well. I don't know, but I do enjoy having a good time and sometimes my idea of a good time is more in line with something Alexis likes than anyone else."
"Should I not have said that?"
She laughed, squeezing his hand a little. "No, I was just thinking."
"I think Alexis is lucky."
"My dad is so ultra serious. I mean, I love him, don't get me wrong. But he rarely has fun."
"Well, you can come over and join us for paintball whenever you want."
"Sure," he shrugged. "Or if that's not your thing we've got other gadgets and fun things."
"I'll just bet."
"Boys and their toys."
"So I've heard."
Neither was in any hurry to get back to her place, but even if your car drives at a snail's pace you still eventually get to where you're going.
"Did you want to go somewhere else for a while? Or are you ready to call it a night?"
"It's up to you. I know you have people at home waiting for you."
"Nah, they both know better than to stay up waiting for me after something like tonight's doings."
She grazed the top of his hand with a fingertip lazily.
"We could go back to my place."
"I don't think that would be too wise."
"Why not?" she asked.
"You're tied to Nathan and he's no one I want as an enemy."
She cocked her head a little as she laced her fingers through his once more. "As if I tell him everything I do."
"I'd know. He's a friend. There's an unspoken code between friends."
"What kind of code?"
"You don't infringe on another man's territory," he said.
"Well, in a manner of speaking, yes."
"You think I'm Nathan's territory?"
"You're something special enough he called me for tonight. He told me Monty's sick, you knew nothing about that, and at the fundraiser, I overheard him telling someone Heidi was out of town. So, something's not adding up."
"It's not what you're thinking."
"If it's not Nathan, it's Peter."
"No, I just happened to meet Peter first. I told you, the Petrelli's are friends with my family. That's all."
"Yes, I promise," she said softly and leaned in a bit to kiss him.
It wasn't much different than the kiss on the dance floor. Something to let him know she was interested but not too pushy as kisses went. He closed his eyes a moment after hers fluttered shut, a delicate hand sliding to the lapel of his tuxedo jacket.
She didn't initiate taking the kiss further than this and he took his cue from her. He couldn't remember the last time he was with someone who just wanted this from him. Usually there was the expectation of more. A shared kissed suggested so much more than a mere touching of lips.
He drew away, taking her in for a moment. She was young. How young he wasn't sure, but he sensed that a kiss for her was not an automatic segue into different, baser things.
He drew her hand from his jacket and kissed the back of it, grazing the backs of her fingers with a kiss as well.
"Still. I was asked to take you as a favor," he said, lowering the divider in the car to tell the driver to take them back to her place.
"Well, you did your favor, no one can say differently. And I'll even have my picture in tomorrow's paper."
He grimaced a little. "You say that now," he said, grazing a thumb along the back of her hand. "You realize that some of those papers are not so reputable and don't hold back."
"Meaning snapshots of that kiss are going to be sold and bought and you're going to be talked about as my flavor of the week," he clarified, bringing their joined hands to his thigh.
"And you don't care?"
"It's not like we engaged in dirty dancing or sex in the coat closet."
"No, I'm pretty sure the murder there would have curbed any desire to do that we may have had."
She laughed a little, letting her head fall back to the seat.
"Speaking of which," he said.
"What? Sex in coat closets or the murder?"
"The murder. If they call you for anything and you don't feel comfortable talking to them by yourself, let me know."
"You're welcome. We didn't see anything, but Esposito and Ryan may give you a hard time in fun because you were with me."
"I understand. They seem to like you, though."
He shrugged. "They're good cops. The whole department is."
"Well, I'd hope so or you wouldn't work with them. Would you?"
"No, though having insight into a dysfunctional squad could prove beneficial to my writing as well. But that's not what Nikki Heat is about."
The car pulled up in front of her building. This time Nathan waited for the driver to come around to let them out. Nathan helped her out just as he'd done at the event. He walked her to her door, mindful that her neighbor probably had a keen ear tuned to the hallway, listening for Claire's return. He followed Claire into her apartment, no intention of staying for very long.
He took in the room he could see. It was a combined kitchen and eating area. Not huge, but big enough for a two-seater table. He wondered briefly if she had occasion to have people over for dinner or if the table was just a decoration. There were things on it. Mail, papers, a laptop, textbooks, and a glass with something in it.
"Why molecular biology?"
"Well, I've found not only in my experience but when doing research for my books. People who go into lines of work like yours tend to have a reason. Researchers for cancer cures had a loved one who died of it. That sort of thing. Not always, I realize, but it's a pretty intense thing for someone to just wake up one day and think they want to get into it."
"You could say I have an interest in it, yeah."
He noticed another book on the table and picked it up.
"You've read this?"
"Yeah," she said, looking momentarily panicked as he opened the copy of Activating Evolution.
"For a course?"
"Not really," she replied. "You know it?"
"Yeah, sure, read it a while back when I was trying to think of a new character. Everywhere you look in bookstores these days there's paranormal this and vampire that. Someone recommended this book, thought it might get me brainstorming about a way a new character could have an ability without being a wolf or witch or anything else otherworldly."
"What did you think?"
"A little farfetched, as far as I can tell he has nothing really to back his theory, but it was interesting reading. Not to say I didn't get some ideas from reading it."
"Nothing specific, just jotted some notes down as I was reading."
"So, you don't believe it?"
He shrugged. "Not sure what to believe, really," he said, setting the book down. "Just surprised to see it here on your table."
"I'm not completely finished with it yet."
"I read it once before, back in high school."
"Why'd you go and read this back then instead of going out shopping with your friends or to parties?"
"Who says I didn't do those things, too?"
"Well, I guess I just picture someone reading this type of nonsense in high school may not have had much else to do."
"I had plenty to do. I was a cheerleader, you know."
"Were you now?"
"Yes," she said, folding her arms in front of her chest. "And it's not nonsense."
"You may be right. It's too bad he died before he could prove his theories had any substance. I doubt anyone will carry on his work, so I'm afraid most people will consider it to be just that. A work of fiction."
"You may be right," she said with a shrug, though he could tell she was lying to him. That she believed it, in the book. "Who knows, right?"
"Well, right, I guess my mom never believed they'd land a man on the moon."
"And yet, if you met someone, knew someone who could do things."
"Then I guess I'd have to reconsider."
She looked somewhat relieved at that and he was glad, for whatever reason, he'd said the right thing.
"I had a nice time, really. I admit I usually detest those things, but it was refreshing to be with someone who wasn't there just to be seen," he said, figuring a change of subject to close the night on a higher note was in order. He hadn't meant to come down on something that she liked or believed in. If she'd read the book in high school, maybe it was part of the reason she was taking the scholastic path she was.
"You don't have to go," she said as she stepped out of her shoes. She reached down to grab then, setting them on a mat just the other side of the door. There was another pair there, much more casual. Sneakers she wore much of the time he imagined judging by their lived-in appearance.
"I do," he said with a slight nod. "Not that whatever you're offering isn't tempting, but I do."
"I didn't say what I was offering."
"Oh, I know, that's why I said whatever. I just really should go."
"All right," she said, walking toward him then. Without the shoes on she didn't even hit his shoulders.
"You are a tiny thing, aren't you?"
"You're just noticing that now?"
"You had heels on all night, so the difference wasn't quite so vast until now."
She stretched up a bit, her arms going around his neck. He took the hint and gave her a kiss. Ending it perhaps too soon, but he had to leave. It really had nothing to do with Nathan and more to do with her. She didn't really know what can of worms she might have opened with that public kiss on the dance floor. Nathan didn't get his picture plastered over the Times and Post for kissing Heidi (unless it was a staged photo to further his image and therefore his career).
He wouldn't do that to her. She was young, new to the city, she didn't need that kind of reputation dragging her down.
"Good night, Claire," he said, hands at her hips as he drew away from the kiss and her.
He could tell she had something on her mind. The question of whether she'd see him again? He couldn't answer that. It really depended on her and how she felt over the next few days as her friends commented on whatever photos were out there. More about that book? He probably shouldn't have been so outspoken as to his opinion of Chandra Suresh's work. The book had been interesting, he had to admit, but as no one seemed to take him seriously Nathan found it difficult to do so either.
"Night," she said, following him to the door. He heard the sound of the lock from the hallway. That wasn't the only lock he heard tumbling into place. He chuckled as he glanced in the direction of the other door on the floor, knowing the older woman had indeed been waiting for Claire's return.
Story ©Susan Falk/APCKRFAN/PhantomRoses.com