***Chapter One***
Word Count: 4,907

October 1994

Hi John. This is Claire. Um, Claire Standish I guess in case you know multiple Claire's. I got your number from the reunion directory thing from the class reunion packet. I was wondering if we could meet for a drink sometime this week. If you can't or don't want to would you give me a call back so at least I know. If you don't want to, just call during the day and leave a message. I'm usually gone until around six o'clock. I won't bother you again, I promise. I'd really appreciate it if you could, though. So, I hope to see you sometime this week if you can. Hope you're still doing well. Bye. Oh my number that would help: 708-555-4799. Thanks again!

And that message went down as the most unexpected phone call he'd ever received John thought as he took a sip of his beer. Okay ever was probably a severe overstatement, but he was pretty sure she was the last person he ever expected to hear a message from on his machine. He pressed the button on his machine to play the message back a second time.

Multiple Claire's.

Yeah right. There'd only ever been one Claire, even if he knew anyone else with the same name that'd still be true.

He wrote her number down on the small pad of paper he kept by the phone. The number he'd put in the directory was the number for his personal line. He never answered the damned thing. He kind of wished he had answered her call. He'd been in his office with the door closed, though, so hadn't even heard the phone ring. Anyone who absolutely had to get a hold of him knew to call his office number. She obviously wasn't one of the people who had that number.

Not surprisingly, she was one of only a handful of people who'd even called him after the reunion. He'd gone on a dare more or less. Someone had bet him whether anyone would even know who he was. The person thought no one would even remember him. John had known Claire would remember him and was sure to be there so he'd accepted the bet and gone.

They hadn't talked real long. Then he hadn't stayed real long either. He'd gone. He collected his hundred bucks from his friend and he'd sort of put it out of his mind. He had the directory she mentioned in her message in a box of stuff he'd intended on going through one of these days. It would most likely get tossed in the trash because there was no one he had any desire to look up ten years later.

He glanced at the clock on the wall in his kitchen. She'd called about forty-five minutes ago. He debated about blowing her off. What could she possibly have up her sleeve? Wanting to meet for a drink, my ass. He was curious, though, because she had to want something. She wouldn't just randomly call him. She wasn't that type of woman. She hadn't been ten years ago and he was pretty sure that hadn't changed about her.

No time like the present.

He picked up the phone then, dialing the number he'd written down.

'Hello,' she said.

"Hey. I mean hello, it's John Bender."

'Oh, John, I'm so glad you called me back. Thank you.'

"Sure. What's up?"

'Well, like I said, I was hoping we could meet for a drink sometime this week. You name the place and time I can juggle some things if I have to.'

"Well, how about tonight?"

'Tonight?'

"Yeah. May as well get it over with, right?"

'Well, put like that…'

"No offense, clearly you need to talk to me about something. So why put it off? You haven't called me in ten years so I'm sure you're not wanting to just catch up or whatever. So, I'm free."

'Okay, sure. Um. Chi Chi's? I could go for one of their margaritas.'

"Sure." He wasn't a margarita person, but he didn't mind Mexican so he had no problem with her choice.

'Okay. I'll be there in about forty-five minutes if that's all right.'

"All right. See you then," he said.

He hung up and went to his room to shower and change. A downfall of working out of his condo was that he could work in his pajamas if he wanted to. He tried not to do that, at the very least putting regular clothes on even if he didn't get presentable for the world and the day until later. Sometimes he never got fully presentable if he didn't have to actually leave. He just found he worked better when he looked like a real person, though.

The restaurant was pretty crowded when he got there. He didn't see her after a quick check of the bar to be sure she hadn't gone in there, so he put his name in with the hostess. Her number had the 708 area code so she obviously lived in the suburbs. He wasn't sure if she was still in Shermer or not, but then she hadn't suggested a different Chi Chi's location so he guessed she probably was in town somewhere.

He stood when he saw her walk through the doors. He'd known her for years, even before that day of detention he'd known of her. She'd been cute back then. Today, though, she was better than cute. She was absolutely gorgeous. Her hair was longer than it was then, had been at the reunion, too. He hadn't told her how much he'd liked it long like she was wearing it these days because it really wasn't his place to tell her such things.

"Hi, I'm so sorry it took me a little longer."

"It's all right. They should be about to call my name so we would've just been sitting out here anyway."

"Right. I really appreciate you making time for me tonight."

"I didn't have anything else going on really."

"No?"

"Nah."

"No publisher deadlines."

"Not tonight, no," he said.

"Good. I was kind of surprised you called back today."

He laughed softly at that. "I almost didn't. I mean, I would've eventually. Knowing that, I figured why not get it done with before I forgot or something."

"Well, I appreciate it. Very much. You look nice."

"Yeah?" Those words warmed him in a way they shouldn't have. He liked her noticing how he looked.

"Are you growing a beard?"

"What?"

She gestured to his face and he ran the back of his hand along his jaw. Shit, he'd forgotten to shave.

"No, just lazy today, I guess."

"Oh."

Hmm, interesting. She seemed kind of disappointed by that comment.

"You like the scraggily look, sweets?"

"No, I just wondered."

"That would be us," he said as his name was called. "Good timing then."

"I guess so. I wasn't thinking they'd be so busy."

"It's Wednesday night, people seem to do that middle of the week date, don't want to cook tonight, meet friends, or whatever thing."

"I guess."

They followed the hostess to a booth, which was what he was hoping they'd get. He hated sitting at tables for some reason.

"Thank you," Claire said as their menus were set in front of them and they were told the name of their server.

"Getting to over seventy degrees probably didn't hurt either," John said.

"No! It was too nice outside. I didn't want to do anything at all. If I could have had my desk brought outside I would have done that. My dad would've known I wasn't really sick if I'd called in, though."

"Yeah, it can be distracting."

"Well, but you can go outside if you want to, can't you?"

"I can, but if I have work to do not so much."

"I suppose. Does it get hard?"

"Days like today when I know there won't be many of them again until May, yeah. Or in the middle of July when I have a window open and hear all the kids off from school out by the pool having a good time."

"Do you ever join them?"

He chuckled. "A time or two." He frowned a bit. "Does that make me weird?"

"I assume you have rights to use the pool."

"Yes, I pay my association fee like everyone else does."

"Then, no, it doesn't make you weird."

She ordered a strawberry margarita and he ordered a beer when their waitress got to their table. She set some chips and salsa down. As crowded as they were it would probably take them a while to get their food.

"So, what's up?" he asked. Probably not the most subtle or polite thing to say, but he was curious.

"Oh God, can't we talk for a while first?"

He laughed softly. "Is it that bad?"

"Kind of," she said. It must have been, too, because she was tapping a finger on the table top.

"Decide what you want to eat and then explain first. Then we can talk all you want."

"Fine," she said.

They both took a few minutes to look at the menu and decide what they wanted.

"So," she said, shifting her tableware around on the table. Nerves. It was kind of amusing watching her, and made him even more curious what in the hell she'd called him for. The Claire he knew was never nervous. Well, she may have been nervous kissing him, but she hadn't let that stop her from doing it. "I have this friend who's getting married in Paris the week after Thanksgiving."

"Okay," he said with a slight frown.

What the fuck? What did her friend getting married have to do with anything? And why would she think he'd care?

"I'm a bridesmaid."

"Sure," he said. Because why else would someone travel all the way fuck over to Paris for a wedding unless they were in it?

"She was my roommate freshman year of college. I totally lucked out, you know. We hit it off almost immediately. We pledged together at our sorority. We requested each other our sophomore years and then junior and senior years got an apartment together off-campus with a couple other girls in our sorority. We've stayed in real close touch since graduating. I used to wish I had a sister instead of a brother growing up, you know? She was totally my long-lost sister."

"Okay," he said.

"The invitation includes a guest despite having to travel."

"Right," he said.

That sounded logical. He'd gone to an out of state wedding up in Wisconsin for one of his friends about a year ago. Even though he had to pay to get there, his hotel, and food or whatever he was still allowed to bring a guest. Most weddings seemed to include a guest, not that he was an expert at wedding guest etiquette or anything.

"I had no intention of bringing a guest. I mean, it's in Paris and I'm not dating anyone so who would I possibly bring that wouldn't get the wrong idea about me asking them to spend a week with me there?"

"All right."

"And then one of her other bridesmaids who I also know started talking about how great it would be that I was there by myself because her brother, who happens to be friends with April's fiancé, Rene."

"She's marrying someone named Rene?"

"Yes. He's French," she said. Ah, that explained the Paris wedding apparently. "So, the brother is also in the wedding and isn't bringing anyone."

"Okay."

"He's not someone I want to dance with. Ever. Let alone all night. Or to be given the idea that because I'm single I want to spend all week with him. She seems to think because we're both there alone it's like fate or something."

"What's wrong with him?"

"Other than he drugged one of my friends at a party? He's just not someone I find at all attractive."

"Oh," he said. Yeah, he could understand why she wouldn't want to be close to him if he did things like that. "Years ago, I assume?"

"He's still a creep, and he basically raped her."

"Oh, they…"

"Yes, they did. She still to this day doesn't remember a damned thing that happened that night."

He shook his head a bit. He'd had sex with some drunk or stoned women, but none he'd done anything like that to. And none that were out of their minds to the point they didn't know what they were doing. Well, that he knew of. He supposed anything was possible when you threw drugs into the mix.

"Okay, so, you don't want to dance with the guy. What's the problem? Say no. Surely you haven't forgotten how to be assertive."

"Well, see, this is where it gets complicated. I sort of told Bonnie that I have a boyfriend."

"Uh huh," he said. Their waitress brought their drinks and they both took the time to order since they'd managed to decide.

"Someone I knew in high school, saw him at my class reunion a couple of months ago, and we started dating."

"Wait. Me? You came up with me as your cop out?"

"Well, I didn't know what else to do! I didn't want to be rude, Bonnie doesn't know what he did to my friend."

"Why not?"

"No one told her, I guess," she shrugged. "She's his sister. We didn't know if she'd side with, believe him. I don't know."

"So, you have a boyfriend. Me, which interesting to hear about it, thanks for telling me. What's the problem?"

"She asked me what you did. So I told her."

"She's not a fan, is she?" He'd been doing this long enough that he ran across people once in a while who knew his work. It was flattering to have his name recognized by someone who wasn't a comic reader. Claire didn't strike him as the comic type, and he assumed that went for her friends as well.

"No, she has no idea who you are, but she seems to think because you're a freelance penciler that there's no reason you can't come with me."

"To Paris?"

"Yes."

"Why didn't you just make someone up?"

"Because I didn't want to lie!"

"Sweets. I'm not your boyfriend. I hate to tell you this. You lied."

"Well, right, but at least I know you so I had some truth to give her as far as your job and stuff."

He laughed softly. "She probably thinks you're making me up because no one makes a living drawing comics."

"Maybe," she said. She looked like she was thinking that out, like if she'd chosen a different career for him maybe she wouldn't be here tonight. He still wasn't sure why he was here. "I just sort of figured that would get Allen off my back. You know. A new relationship so no one would blame me for still going to the wedding alone. A few months from now I could say it didn't work out or whatever and life would go on."

"You have a lot of relationships that don't work out after a few months?"

"Well, you know. Who has time to date really?"

"I hear ya," he said. He couldn't agree more not that he had a whole lot of interest in dating.

"So, here's the deal."

"I can't wait. You're not marrying us off, are you?"

"No! But Bonnie and April seem to think since we knew one another in high school and basically for years before that."

"Yeah."

"That it shouldn't be a problem for you to come with me. It's not like I just met you a couple of months ago."

He chuckled. "You screwed yourself."

"I did," she said with a sigh. "I didn't think they'd want to meet you!"

"Do you know women at all? I mean, you weren't abducted by aliens and missing for the past few years, right? You didn't fall and bump your head? Wouldn't you want to meet your boyfriend if you were them?"

"Well, yeah, but I wouldn't expect him to come to Paris!"

"It's the self-employment angle."

"Yes!"

"And the we knew each other before thing."

"Yes! I can't believe I didn't think of that. I'm so stupid, I realize this. I just panicked when I thought of dancing with Allen, you know? Of being alone with him. Of him giving me a glass of champagne!"

He nodded a bit. He could understand that.

"So, I'll pay for your ticket. I'll pay for the hotel room. I'll pay for any clothes you need. A suit, you'll need at least one suit, possibly two. Food, of course, unless you choose to eat somewhere on your own and buy it. If you need a passport I'll pay for that, too."

"You want to pay me to go to Paris with you?"

"Well, I want to pay you to go to Paris with me and be my boyfriend."

"The hotel room? 'The' suggests one."

"Yes. Do you think if we were really dating we'd get separate rooms? I mean, even if we weren't having sex, the expense!"

"Valid point."

"I mean, you can bring your work with you if you have to. I promise there's enough in Paris for me to keep myself busy so I'd leave you alone and everything."

"So, I'm going to Paris for a week with you, but other than the wedding I'm not doing anything with you?"

"Well, you could. I mean, certainly that would be a boyfriend thing to do, but I could always explain away your being absent with a deadline or something. I mean, you have to have those."

"Sure, all of the time."

"So, if you wanted to help me convince them I didn't make you up and then have to basically hire you to come with me, that'd be great."

"When is this?"

"December tenth is the wedding. I was planning on flying over there on Tuesday, December sixth and coming back the following Monday or Tuesday."

"You haven't bought your tickets yet?"

"No, I put it off."

"Why?"

"Well, I've never met Rene, and I wasn't entirely sure they would stay together."

"How come?"

"April can be a little…flighty."

"Oh?"

"Yes, this isn't the first time she's been engaged."

"I see."

"It's the third."

"She's twenty-eight. What does she do to be engaged so many times?"

"Well, she was engaged our freshman year to someone from high school and that didn't work and then one other time."

"She did the breaking up both times?"

"Yes," she said.

"So, we could be hauling our asses to Paris for nothing is what you're saying?"

"No, she's never gotten this far before. I mean, I got my invitation over the weekend. That's what got this whole thing going about meeting you. We all got our invitations."

"You realize you're kind of insane, right?" he asked.

"I am not! I honestly didn't think it would occur to them that I should bring you. I'm sorry!"

"No, I mean, a normal person would come up with another lie as to why I can't make it. Plans with my family or maybe I have something already scheduled that weekend, a convention or something."

"Well, I thought of that, I did, but she'd still want me to dance with Allen."

"Are you walking down the aisle with him?"

"No, thank God."

"So, you're not expected to dance with him at all?"

"No, but Bonnie sure seemed to think we'd have lots of fun dancing all night."

He sighed, leaning back a bit, taking a sip of his beer. Their waitress brought their food, which was surprisingly faster than he thought it was going to be.

"Why me?" he asked once the waitress had asked if they needed anything else and left them alone again.

"What?"

"Of all the guys at the reunion you could have picked. I mean, Brian, look at him. He's nothing to sneeze at. Why me?"

"Because you were the only one I ever kissed. Besides, Brian and Andy are both married."

He nodded a little at that, figuring it had something to do with that day and their time in the closet Vernon had locked him up in. He hadn't known Brian was married.

"Do I get sex out of the deal?"

"What? No! Why would you ask me that? In our room we are not boyfriend and girlfriend. I will get us a room with two beds."

He chuckled a bit, setting his beer down. "Relax, sweets, I'm only joking. I just wanted to see your reaction."

She rolled her eyes. "Unbelievable."

"Hey, you're the one seeking me out for a favor. You know I'm a smart ass."

"I do."

"No one's going to think it's weird we have two beds?"

"I hope not. I mean, I don't plan on having crowds of people in the room anyway."

"Good to know. I can't even take a leak with someone watching me let alone, you know, perform."

She shook her head. "I can't believe you just said that. There will be no performing!"

"Oh but there will. I get to be your boyfriend for a week. I admit, I contemplated what it would take to be your boyfriend after that day."

"Did you?"

"I did."

"You didn't like the answer?"

"I couldn't have afforded you."

"Afforded me?"

"Yeah, you know, prom and stuff. No way could I have come up with the money for that stuff."

"That's why you never asked me out?"

He shrugged a bit. There were other reasons, but basically. "Yeah, pretty much."

"You're such an ass."

"So you like to remind me, sweets. I love it when you whisper those kind of sweet nothings in my ear, too. It really makes me feel great about myself, puts me in the mood, you know?"

She didn't respond to that one, taking a bite of her food instead.

"Do I get spending money, too? Like an allowance?"

"No!"

"Well, in that case," he said, taking a bite of his food.

"John, really, you're going to leave me to dance with an asshole?"

"You didn't let me finish. I'll do it."

"Without the allowance?"

He scoffed. Did she really think he was serious? "Without the allowance."

"Thank you," she said, sounding so relieved and he had to wonder just what was up with this Allen guy that she didn't want to even dance with him. The drugging of her friend thing, he could understand, but it still made him wonder if there wasn't more to it than that. If she was worried about him drugging her, too, all she had to do was not drink something he gave her. Then if she set her drink down anywhere or got up from the table to talk to someone, leaving her drink unattended there was always the possibility he could've done something to it. It only took a second, and if he'd done it before he knew how.

"Sure," he slid his wallet out of his back pocket. "Here's my card. It has my email address on there. If you don't mind sending me the dates. I maybe can swing not having too much on my plate so I don't look like an asshole and make you look like an idiot for being with me for that week."

"You don't have to do that," she said, taking the card.

"Nah, I've never been to Paris. May as well see the town while I'm there."

"Are you sure?"

"Positive."

"Okay."

"And the number on that card is the number you'll want to call me on if you actually want to talk to me."

"Why?"

"I don't ever answer my personal line."

"Oh," she said. "Okay. Thanks. I'll call my travel agent tomorrow to finalize the details for the reservations and email you everything."

"You already called them?"

"Yes, I told them I wasn't sure if there'd be one or two for the plane."

"Fair enough."

"I really appreciate this. If there's ever anything I can do for you."

"I'll keep that in mind, but I doubt I can even come close to topping this favor."

"I know."

"You might want to email some details about yourself."

"What do you mean?"

"Oh, you know, if we've been dating for a couple of months I should know things about you. Like where you live? Do you have a dog? Do you have any scars I should know about? What kind of car do you drive? Where do you work? Where do you go for lunch? What do you do with your spare time? You know, things a boyfriend would know."

"Where I go to lunch?"

"Well, I have free time so I would think, if I was your boyfriend I mean, that I'd meet you for lunch once in a while."

"I see. That'd be very nice of my boyfriend to do that."

"It would, wouldn't it? Be careful, sweets, you might beg me not to break up with you in a couple of months."

"I can do all that if I get the same thing in return."

"Sure. I do have a dog."

"You do?"

"I'm home all day, I need someone to keep me from going insane."

"What will you do with him for a week?"

"I have a neighbor who will take him in."

"Oh nice."

"Yeah, she's done it for me before when I've had to take trips."

"Good. I have a cat."

"And what will you do with him for a week?"

"My brother or parents will take him in. Christopher usually does it for me when I travel."

"I see. You travel a lot?"

"You know. I always like to go places."

"What do you do anyway?"

"I thought you wanted me to email you."

"We're here."

She laughed softly. "We are. You know I'm a lawyer, right?"

"Yes."

"I practice corporate law."

"For your dad's firm, though, right?"

"Yes. Christopher and Dad do the defending. I didn't have the stomach for it so Dad decided to add that to the firm's areas of expertise."

"No?"

"No. I thought, briefly, of working for the state's attorney's office."

"You were going to become a prosecutor? That would've pissed your dad off."

"I know, but I just don't have the stomach for that type of law. I mean, there's always a chance you're prosecuting an innocent person. Then to have to defend someone like Jeffrey Dahmer."

"His lawyer knew he wasn't going to get him off, though. His job was basically just to make sure he didn't get railroaded, right? That he got a fair trial as he's entitled?"

"Well, right, but you still have to defend them. I mean, okay, he's a bad example. But just say you manage to come up with a logical theory that creates reasonable doubt and someone like him goes free."

"I get it. I do."

"And this helps my dad, what I do I mean, bring in more business. Criminal cases can tie him and Christopher up where corporate law is usually pretty quick so I can usually churn cases out. That means more billing, of course, and more money coming in."

"So, is the firm named Standish, Standish, and Standish yet?"

She giggled softly. "No. I doubt it ever will be. Standish Law Firm covers it quite nicely."

"I suppose so. I guess I don't have to ask if you're a partner."

"I am."

"So, a cat, corporate lawyer."

"I have no scars."

"None?"

"No," she said.

"Must be nice."

"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have…"

"Don't worry about it. I asked the question. I was kind of kidding, but you know if I'm asked…"

"I get it. How did you get started doing what you do?"

"I met a guy at a convention. I'd liked and followed his work, liked the books he was working on. I went there specifically to meet him. I asked if I could come back with my portfolio. I didn't want to be pretentious and bring it with me. He laughed at me, but told me I could. I did. He liked my work, and he put me to work penciling for some of his comics. The rest is history."

"And you can maintain a lifestyle doing it?"

"I do well so far. I also do some freelance stuff for newspapers and magazines."

"Like what?"

"Cartoons. You know, like The New Yorker does political cartoons."

"Oh, right, I know what you mean."

"When you email me I can email you back some of my work so you have an idea when you're asked what I've done and stuff."

"Sure," she said. "I'd love to see it."

"All right," he said. "So, Andy's married, I knew that. I still can't believe they got married."

"I know, right?"

"Kids?"

"Yes, Three. He's coaching at the college level."

"And Brian? I guess I didn't know he was married."

"Yes. They just got married like a year ago. No kids, but he mentioned his wife thought she might be pregnant at the reunion so possibly soon."

"Huh."

"You didn't talk to him?"

"No, not really. I didn't have a whole lot to say to him ten years ago. Nothing's changed."

"I know you two didn't really see things the same way."

"Yeah, I tend to take offense when people think manual labor jobs are beneath them or mean nothing." He may not love or like his old man. He hadn't spoken to him since high school either. John could still appreciate the work his father did, the hours he put in, and how hard what he did was.

"I know," she said.

"He doesn't."

"He's not that guy anymore, John."

"Maybe so, I still had no need to find out."

"Well, that's fine, but people do change."

"I know," he said with a sigh.

"You didn't stay long."

"At the reunion? Nah. It's not really my thing."

"I was surprised you showed up. I was really surprised you filled out the stuff to be included in the directory."

"I figured why not? I have nothing to be ashamed of."

"No, you don't. I'd say you have stuff to be proud of."

"I do my best."

"I'll buy," she said when the waitress set their check on the table.

"No, I got it."

"Yes, but I invited you to dinner."

"Boyfriends buy their girlfriends dinner, sweets. I got it. Really. It was amusing watching you explain yourself."

"I'm glad I could make you laugh."

"So, this is it until December, right? You're in the wedding, but I'm not so I don't need a tuxedo or anything."

"No, just a couple of suits."

"I have those."

"You do?"

"Yes. I do."

"Okay. Passport?"

"I have that, too."

"You've been out of the country?"

"Yeah for some conventions."

"Very cool. So, in that case, no I guess not. I'll email you this week with the details. If you have any questions, let me know. Otherwise. I'll arrange for a limo to take us to the airport."

"All right," he said. "Give me that card back."

"Why?"

"Don't worry, I'm not changing my mind," he said. He took the card back and turned it over, writing his address on the back. "There, now you know where to tell the limo to pick me up."

"Oh, thank you."

"Sure. Just call me if you need anything else in the meantime."

"Okay. And thank you, really. I can't tell you how much I appreciate this."

"I'd like to say I'm doing it because it'll be fun, but it'll be interesting anyway."

"I'll try to make sure you have fun."

"As long as I get to see Jim Morrison's grave, we're good."

"Oh, yeah, we can do that for sure."

"Good."

He paid for their meal and walked with her outside.

"What are you doing?" she asked when he stayed beside her.

"Walking you to your car."

"Oh, you don't have to do that."

"I'm here, may as well see what corporate lawyers drive these days."

"Ah, okay," she said, pressing the button on her keys to deactivate the alarm on a very nice Mercedes.

"I guess corporate law pays well."

"For me it does."

"All right, drive safe, and if you change your mind or anything."

"I don't think that's going to happen."

"Well, maybe your friends will lay off."

"Yeah, except I have to book the tickets now!"

"Good point. All right. Well, I look forward to being at your beck and call for a week, sweets."

"Thanks, I think."

"You bet."

"Take care, John."

"I always do, sweets, always do."

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