***Chapter Two***
Word Count: 4,199

December 1994

'This is Claire Standish. May I help you?'

"I sure hope you can, Claire Standish. This is John Bender."

'John,' she said. If he was a betting man he'd wager that she was smiling now where she wasn't when she answered the phone. He liked the way she said his name entirely too much. 'How are you? Is everything all right?'

"It is. Fine. I do have a question, though."

'Okay.'

"The hotel we're staying at. Does it happen to have a fax? Or better yet, the address."

'Uh, yeah, sure.'

"Could you email me the fax number and the address when you have a chance?"

'Okay. You're sure everything's okay?'

"Yeah. I'm just finishing up on a deal and I want to give them that number to fax me anything I need to sign after we've left O'Hare just in case. I think we'll get this finished up today, but legal departments like to drag their toes sometimes."

'I'm sorry.'

"It's okay. I understand you guys have to dot your I's and cross your T's. I get it. I just don't want to have to tell them I can't sign anything for a week. You know? I'll just tell them to overnight me the stuff there, I'll sign it and send it back if a faxed signature isn't good enough until I get back next week."

'Okay, sure, I'll email it to you in a few minutes.'

"I appreciate it."

'I swear I thought you were calling to tell me you were changing your mind.'

"Oh, I won't deny I've questioned my sanity on doing this more than once over the past six weeks, but I wouldn't do that to you."

'Why not?'

"I wouldn't make you eat the plane ticket."

'Thank you.'

"I think you owe me something for wearing suits, though."

'Like?'

"I don't know. I'm thinking about it."

'You don't like suits?'

"Sweets, I work from home. I draw comics for a living. I'm lucky if I change out of my pajamas before I have my first cup of coffee whenever I've dragged myself out of bed."

'Why do you own them then?'

"I've needed them," he said. "If you want to know why, ask me during our week in Paris."

'Okay. Well, assuming it's something I can get you, consider it yours.'

"Oh, sweets, don't make promises to a guy like me you'll regret."

'I don't think you'd make me regret anything.'

He chuckled softly. He knew the name of the hotel. He could've looked online for the information himself, but he was admittedly curious where her mind was at now that they were hours away from this.

"So, have we done anything exciting in the past six weeks?"

'No,' she said.

"You sure? We're not engaged? Living together? Buying a house together?"

'No! Though April asked me about your cooking.'

"My cooking?"

'Yes.'

"Why?"

'I don't know. I guess she assumes we have dinner together.'

"And I cook for you?"

'Presumably.'

"Huh. And?"

'I said that you cook just fine. Rene does not cook I guess, so she told me I'm lucky.'

"Aw, that's very sweet of you, thank you. You know how to stroke your boyfriend's ego."

'You weren't there when we were talking, obviously.'

"Obviously. All right. Well, I'll see you bright and early tomorrow morning then. I appreciate you getting me that information. They may not even need it, but I just don't like being out of pocket for that long."

'It's no problem. I should have thought about that before. Of course my dad has it. You could, if you had to, you could leave anyone my number here as an emergency contact. My secretary could take a message for you and get it to you through me. I mean, if you're worried about people getting voice mail and being mad you don't respond or something.'

"You have a secretary?"

'I do,' she said.

"I don't think that will be necessary, but I guess go ahead and tell her the possibility may exist in case I change my mind last minute. I'll probably change my outgoing message on this line to say in the event of an emergency they can call there. No one should need it, I'm not in the middle of anything that time sensitive, but you never know."

'Well, and especially with the time difference. Okay, I will. It's the number you called, obviously. It's direct to her desk.'

"All right. Thanks."

'Sure.'

"Okay, well, tomorrow then."

'We'll be there.'

"We?"

'Me and the limo driver.'

"Oh, right. Okay. I thought for a minute we were flying with someone and we were going to be starting our little play from the get-go."

'No. Not until we get to Paris.'

"At the airport?"

'No, but not long after landing I'm sure. Rene has friends who'd pick us up, but I chose to rent a car. I don't want to be at someone's beck and call to sightsee.'

"Good to know. Okay. Have a good night."

'You, too, and thanks again, John. You're really, very nice for doing this.'

"Who can turn down the chance to see Paris?"

'Not you anyway evidently.'

He chuckled softly.

"Have a good night, Claire," he said before hanging up.

***

It'd been a long time since he'd been up before the sun came up. Well, that wasn't entirely true. Sometimes in a bout of frenzied creativity he was still awake when the sun came up. As far as waking up before it did, it'd probably been since high school honestly.

He was packed and ready to go, but he woke up early to double check he had everything he needed and hadn't forgotten important things. Like his passport. He'd packed for several trips over the years so he had some things ready to go for the most part, but he was used to packing or traveling for business. So, he wanted to double check he had everything. It also gave him time to think about what he was doing. Even when he went to conventions he spent a lot of his time working in his hotel room. He'd always been kind of a loner and working by himself didn't help alter that much. He was sure people thought he was picking up women left and right at the conventions he went to, but years ago he realized that he had a name to protect and with that name a brand. His brand. He had no one to help him, no one to gloss things over if he screwed up, and no one to blame his behavior on. So he learned very quickly that everything he did reflected on him and his reputation with potential clients. Potentially, and perhaps unfairly, more than someone who had an actual exclusive contract with one of the comic publishers. Sleeping with a random woman at a convention wasn't unheard of or unforgiveable, but doing it repeatedly may lead to doors being closed in his face that wouldn't be otherwise. Overall, though, he just wasn't a people person, which led him to wonder more than once over the past six weeks what the fuck he was doing this for. Being around people he didn't even know for a week wasn't his idea of a vacation.

He did pack some work and his equipment so if he really needed some time to himself he had an excuse. Claire made it sound as if she'd understand if he needed to do that. The equipment wasn't a hardship as he had a second set of everything all set and ready to go. He'd learned the hard way once about eight years ago when he'd left some of his things behind that having to hunt things down at three in the morning when he really needed that particular pencil wasn't fun. So, he had a spare set so that wouldn't happen again. He looked over the supply every time he got back to be sure he hadn't left anything behind. The couple times he had he'd replaced it well before needing it again.

He was about to look out his window to see if the limo she'd hired had pulled up. He liked his condo a lot. It was an end unit so he had no one next to him. The only common wall in his place ran along his kitchen, laundry room, and bathrooms so he never heard his next door neighbor. A couple lived there with a small daughter so he was admittedly glad that was the case. His balcony looked out over a forest preserve. On a day like today in the middle of December that wasn't anything to brag about, but in the fall when the leaves were changing colors it was incredible. He sat out on his balcony for hours sometimes, just staring and getting inspired.

Mother Nature had proven to be a great source of inspiration for him over the years. There was something about a perfect sunset (or sunrise) or the way a fresh layer of snow looked late at night when no one had trampled on it or dirtied it yet.

His buzzer rang before he could walk to the window to look outside. Great. She probably thought he wasn't paying attention. He buzzed her up while he got his bags together.

"Sorry, I swear I was just about to look outside."

"No, it's fine. I'm glad you weren't waiting downstairs or anything."

"You are?" he asked. That surprised the hell out of him. He knew this was basically a business deal to her so he hadn't expected her to come to his door to get him.

"Yes because I wouldn't have been able to tell you that we have company in the limo."

"Oh?"

"Yes, Bonnie and Allen were in town over the weekend and are on our flight."

"How nice. You didn't know that until now?"

"Last night! She called me asking how we were getting to the airport. Stupid me not realizing she was here told her."

"They were staying in Shermer?"

"No, they had the car pick them up at their hotel on the way to get me."

"I see."

"I didn't even know they were in town! They didn't call or tell me."

"Huh. You think they suspect?"

"I don't know. They can't possibly. I mean, good grief, who would think I'd lie about something like that?"

"Well, other than the fact you are lying you mean?"

"They don't know that, and I hope they don't find out."

"Don't worry, I'm not going to tell them your secret, sweets."

"Thank you."

"So, is your friend, Bonnie, is she not bringing a date either?"

"No, her husband is staying home with their kids."

"Ah, I see. Sure. So, she's going to be stuck dancing with her brother?"

"Oh, God, I hope so," Claire said. "I'm sure there will be some single woman there who has no clue what a jerk he is who'll dance with him."

"All right. Well, I'm ready. Best not keep them waiting, I guess. You could've called last night."

"You said you didn't answer your personal line! And I didn't want to bother you if you were working."

Valid point. "True enough, sorry."

"It's all right. Do you need help with anything?"

"No," he said. "What boyfriend would let you carry his stuff?"

"Well, I don't know."

He'd purposely not asked if there were ground rules for him as far as she was concerned. He didn't want to know what she did or didn't have in mind as being acceptable boyfriend behavior. If he was going to spend a week with her pretending to be her boyfriend in front of her friends, he was going to have a good time doing it. That meant toying with her a bit.

"Lead the way," he said, flipping off the light switch. He'd already gone through and double checked he'd turned everything off. He didn't have an iron to leave on. Well, he did, but he hadn't used it in months so his condo would have caught fire long before now if he'd left it plugged in and on.

She sat next to him in the limo at least. He put his arm around her, regarding the brother and sister sitting across from them. It was a fairly small limo, but it was still better than taking a cab or having to leave his car in the long-term parking lot at O'Hare. He'd had to do that a couple of times and he wasn't sure getting back he'd have tires left on his car.

They were regarding him with perhaps more interest. He was kind of curious what kind of guy needed to drug a woman to get her to have sex with him. He couldn't comprehend wanting that, but then he supposed that was a good thing him not comprehending such a thing.

"So, you're John," Bonnie said.

"I am," John said. "You should have let Claire know you were in town this weekend."

"Oh, I tried calling Friday night but she didn't answer."

John glanced at Claire who was finding her fingernail oddly curious at the moment.

"Well, if you'd left a message when she checked hers she would've called you back. I don't even remember what we did Friday night. Do you, sweetheart?" he asked.

"We watched the Bulls game at Christopher's," she said.

"That's right," he said.

"You forgot about watching a Bulls game?" the brother asked.

"I'm not a big basketball fan," John said with a shrug. "Besides, you know, when Claire's around I sort of forget about much of anything else."

She glanced at him then and he shrugged. He could just imagine what she was thinking.

"She has that kind of effect on me. What can I say?" he said, not taking his eyes off of her.

"Thank you," she said, settling her head against his shoulder.

"Why'd you guys come to Chicago anyway?" Claire asked.

"Well, I'd never been here so we decided to make a long weekend out of it since we were going to have to come through Chicago anyway," Allen said.

"I sure wish you guys would've called. We could have had dinner or something! I feel so bad."

If they got to Chicago on Friday and weren't getting back home he forgot to ask Claire where they were from until a week from now he wondered what they both did that they could take that much time off. Then, maybe they just happened to have two weeks of vacation and were taking it before the end of the year.

"What do you do?" he asked.

"I'm a nurse," Bonnie said.

"I own a bar," Allen said.

"Really?" John said. That didn't sound like a very good thing for someone who liked to drug women to be involved with.

"Yes, with some friends of mine."

"Cool," John said. "Who doesn't like to drink, right?"

"Exactly!" Allen said.

"I was admittedly surprised the limo had to pick Claire up at her house this morning and then come here to get you," Bonnie said.

"Why?" Claire asked. That was a very good question.

"Well, I just assumed one of you would stay at the other one's place."

"Oh, well," John said quickly so Claire wouldn't think she had to come up with an answer. "That was my fault."

"Your fault?"

"Yeah, I had some things I needed to submit before leaving and I wasn't sure how long they were going to take me. As it was I didn't get to sleep until about three hours ago."

"Really?" Claire asked, lifting her head from his shoulder to look at him.

"Uh, yeah. You know emailing people to let them know I'm not going to get back to them within an hour as I usually do, stuff like that."

"I did tell Sonia she might get calls for you."

"Good, thank you. I left your number on my voicemail and I gave it to my main contact just in case something blows up."

"I hope not."

"Me, too, Princess, me, too."

She leaned up then and kissed him, shocking the hell out of him. It wasn't a great kiss or anything, just a peck really, but it still surprised him.

"Thank you," she said.

He chuckled softly. "For?"

She shrugged. "Being you?"

"Uh, yeah, okay, sure," he said. "Glad I could do that for you."

"So what kind of nursing do you practice?" he asked. Claire settled against him once more.

"I work oncology."

"Really?" That'd be tough he imagined. Then any nurse would probably be tough except maybe nurses that help deliver babies or something, but even things with delivering babies could go wrong he guessed.

"Yes. I work at a doctor's office not a hospital."

"Ah," he said. He wasn't sure what that meant. The doctors who cared for the cancer patients? He imagined so. "Tough stuff, though."

"Most of the time. Even when the treatments are successful, it's still tough to watch people go through what they do."

"I bet. And all three of you went to school together?"

"I was three years ahead of them so graduated after their freshman year," Allen said.

"Ah, okay," John said.

"And you knew Claire in high school?" Bonnie asked.

"Well, school, but yeah I guess the first time we ever really talked was in high school."

"Did you two go out?" Allen asked.

"In high school?"

"Yes," Allen said.

"Uh, no. I don't think anyone went out with Claire in high school," he said with a soft chuckle. "She was kind of one of those unapproachable types. You know?"

"You make me sound so loveable," she said.

"Well, you know I liked you well enough," he said.

He didn't kiss just anyone, and he'd told her that at some point when they had to stop making out to breathe.

"Guys were just too chicken to ask you out. Myself included. That's why when I saw her at the reunion without a date I decided to do what I'd wanted to do ten years ago and ask her out. And here we are."

"The only thing John's not telling you is that he wasn't too chicken to do most anything."

"Well, yeah, except for asking you out. Who wants to get told no by the prom queen?"

"You were your school's prom queen?" Allen asked.

"I told you that," Bonnie said.

"I guess I don't remember. That seems like eons ago you guys were freshman."

"It does," Claire admitted.

"So does that mean your dance card is full then, Claire?" Allen asked.

"Well, I don't know," she said. "I've never had a reason to actually dance with John before and something tells me I won't again for a while, so I may just make him as much as I can get him to."

"Great," John said. "Only for you would I ever dance."

"I bet you say that to all your girlfriends," Claire teased.

"Not a one ever before, no."

"Well, I'll make it worth your while, I promise."

"Why do you think I've agreed to dance with you, sweets?"

She blushed then and he chuckled a bit at that.

They were at the airport in a pretty timely fashion. Claire had made the reservation allowing plenty of time for rush hour traffic and them having to go through customs for their flight.

"Please tell me they're not sitting next to us," John whispered in her ear once they were out of the limo.

"No, they're not."

"Thank God."

"Bonnie's not bad, not really."

"No, it's just I'm not good with small talk, you know?"

"I know. I'm sorry. I swear I didn't know they were going to be here or I wouldn't have made it known what flight we were going to be on and stuff."

"What's his deal anyway?"

"What do you mean?"

"Why's he need to drug women? He's not bad looking. He doesn't seem stupid. He's obviously got some ambition if he owns a business."

"How should I know? Why are any creeps creepy?"

"I don't know. He was watching you."

"Why do you think I put my head on your shoulder?"

"And here I thought you were cuddling with me."

She laughed softly. "You would think that."

"Did he like you or something?"

"I don't know. How should I know? I never gave him the chance to like me."

"Not even before what happened to your friend happened?"

"No! He was my friend's brother."

"That wouldn't stop most people. I mean, I wouldn't date my friend's sister, but that's a guy thing I think. I didn't think girls had a code when it came to their brothers."

"Like I'd want her or him to know everything I do."

"Ah, the gossip angle," he nodded. "I can understand that."

Claire had a membership to the airline's premium area where they could wait and have drinks, watch TV, or whatever away from everyone else. Including her friends who apparently didn't have such a thing. He had a beer while they waited while she enjoyed a bloody mary. It wasn't his drink of choice, but they were popular for a reason evidently. He'd been on a couple of international flights and he had to admit sitting in here versus at the gate was the way to go.

"Did you really give Sonia's number out?"

"I did. I left it on my voicemail and I gave it to Rich. He's the guy I do the bulk of my work for, the one I showed my stuff to years ago. He's still my main source of income because we know one another, you know."

"I get it."

"It's just, here's the thing with comics. You know, you get some inkers, the next step after I'm done, who go with what I give them and run with it. You have some people who want to play twenty questions with every scene you've penciled."

"I get it. You don't have to explain yourself. I told you it was fine, and it is. Sonia was curious who you were."

He chuckled a bit. "I bet she was. What did you tell her?"

"I told her you were my date for the wedding."

"Really?"

"What else am I supposed to say?"

He nodded a bit at that. "I suppose."

Eventually, they were on their way, seated nowhere near her friends as Claire had shelled out the expense for first class tickets.

"You know, I would have been just fine back there."

"I wouldn't have," she said, scrunching her nose a bit. "Trust me. You'll never want to fly back there again after hours up here."

They were on a double-decker plane and were on the second floor, so in a way it was almost like they had the entire plane to themselves. It was, John had to admit, very nice.

"I suppose you're probably right."

"Are you going to sleep?"

"I'd planned on it."

"Okay. If my light bothers you let me know."

"Princess. I got less than three hours of sleep. I think you could dance a hula naked and I'd sleep."

"Really? You'd sleep through that?"

"Okay, maybe not then. Any other type of dance naked, though, for sure."

"That's too bad. I do have my hula skirt in my bag."

He chuckled softly.

"I'll bet you do."

"Sleep well, John," she said. "And thank you, again. Really."

"Stop thanking me already, but you're welcome. I promise I'll be bright eyed and bushy tailed when we land, ready for the inquisition."

"There's not going to be an inquisition."

"That's right, that was Spain."

"Good night, John."

"What are you reading anyway?"

"It's a mystery. My friend gave it to me. She thought I'd like it," she said, holding up a copy of a book called ONE FOR THE MONEY.

"I brought along the latest Grisham in case I don't like it."

"All right. Well, hopefully you aren't disappointed in whodunit." He slipped the pillow behind him and draped the blanket over him. He reclined his seat a bit, but not enough to be rude about it.

"I hope not. Do you want me to wake you for food?"

"Yes," he said. "Food sounds amazing."

She chuckled softly. "All right. I'll wake you when there's food."

"We have to change planes out east, don't we?" he said, realization dawning on him that he wouldn't be able to sleep the full trip anyway.

"Yes."

"We have time at the airport before our connection to get food there?"

"We do."

"Then don't wake me. I'll buy you lunch there if you're hungry."

"Are you sure?"

"Sleep takes precedence unless you want me to make an ass of myself in front of your friends and say something stupid."

"No."

"Okay then."

"You didn't shave again," she said.

"I forgot again. Sorry."

"It's okay. It kind of looks nice on you."

"Yeah? Kind of?"

"Yes."

He nodded, opening his eyes a bit to glance at her. He couldn't tell what she was thinking or how serious she was. Evidently she liked him not clean shaven since she'd commented on it twice now.

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