***Chapter Eight***
Word Count: 3,787

'This is John.'

"Hi. It's Claire, um, Claire Standish."

'Why do you do that?'

"Do what?"

'Say your last name. You did that the night you called me back in the fall, too. It's not as if you don't sort of stand out to me.'

"Habit? It's how I was raised? It's not as if we talk every day."

'Fair enough. You're not calling to cancel on me, are you?'

"Well, no. I mean, no I'm not, but you may rethink it after this conversation."

'Okay,' he said, sounding cautious.

She couldn't blame him. She'd debated a couple of times calling to cancel. Going out on a real actual date with him could be all sorts of bad. It could be very good, too, which could also be all sorts of bad in its own way. She was, honestly surprised he'd shown up for lunch the other day after their trip to Paris. They'd had a nice time. A very nice time, but he'd even admitted the trip hadn't gone as he'd expected. He'd, and she couldn't blame him, assumed he'd get sex out of the trip.

"I know none of this has gone as planned. I had no idea any of this would happen. I'm sorry that this has somehow bled into your life. That wasn't my intention at all. I mean, how could I possibly have known Rene would know who you were?"

'You couldn't have. I've already said so.'

"I know, but it just. God, it seemed so simple. You know? Come with me so I wouldn't have to spend any time with Allen. Because if I'd gone alone I would have to do all sorts of things with him. Maybe they would have been with groups of people, but I still would have been the single woman and he would have been the single guy. Could you imagine me going wine tasting without you with him along?"

'No,' he said and she knew he understood. Or at least tried to understand.

"I should have been able to come home and a few months later tell people it didn't work out. I mean, we wouldn't be the first couple to give it a try after running into one another at a reunion and have it not work out. It's got to happen all of the time."

'Uh,' he said. 'We haven't tried anything yet to know if it worked out. Not really. Before you go breaking us up, Claire, remember that.'

"I do! I really wasn't expecting you to, like, want to go out with me. I've already said I didn't expect to have such a nice time with you. I really didn't. I figured you'd be nice in public when you had to be and kind of be an asshole to me when we were alone since I know it wasn't convenient for you to take a week off."

'Yeah, well, sue me. A woman I'm attracted to gives me an in, I'm going to take it regardless of the bizarre circumstances behind that in.'

"I know," she said. She liked hearing those words too much. She'd liked hearing them in Paris, too. She liked how willing he'd been to do just about anything while they were there. The only thing he'd bowed out of was visiting the Louvre a second time. That had been fine with her. He'd had hours to spend doing what he wanted to do and she had as well. It worked just fine. "But then the whole thing with Rene knowing you and, God, I thought for sure you were going to kind of freak out."

'It's a small world. It was unexpected, but not the end of that small world. He was a decent guy. Now if I'd met him on the street maybe he wouldn't have been, but you're one of April's best friends – probably her best friend if you were her maid of honor out of all those other women. I admit I'm not sure how all of that works. So, obviously, given that I'm his future wife's best friend's boyfriend he's not going to be a dick to me.'

"Right," she said. April had moved out to California about two years ago, which was when they'd stopped seeing one another regularly. She'd lived in Chicago until then. Claire still wasn't sure why she'd moved suddenly, but obviously she'd met Rene out of the deal so it had worked out. She missed her friend, though. They hadn't had much time alone while in Paris, the few minutes they'd had April told Claire she was going to call her once they were back from their honeymoon and settled so they could talk 'about everything'. Claire was dreading that conversation.

'So, it's fine. It's certainly something I can use as an ice breaker at conventions and stuff.'

"Oh, right," she said.

'I mean, you know, if I run out of stuff to say or encounter a really dull group.'

"That happens?"

'Sometimes. Sometimes they think I'm going to give them a step-by-step guide on how to do what I do. I could, but I can't give them the tools or the ability to do it. I lucked out in that Rich was pretty approachable, even if he laughed at me at first. Not everyone is.'

"Oh, right."

'So what does all of this have to do with our date tomorrow exactly? I'm not seeing where this conversation is leading to my not wanting to go anymore.'

"Well, Allen called my mother."

'I'm sorry. About my knowing Rene?'

She could hear the confusion in his voice and imagined she hadn't really said that right.

"No. Well, yes." She sighed and took a deep breath, collecting her thoughts.

'What's going on, Princess?'

"He thought, for some reason, my mother would want to know that you spent the week with me in Paris."

'Uh, why? You are an adult the last time I checked.'

"I don't know! I have no idea. I hadn't seen him in years before the wedding. I certainly haven't spoken to him since he graduated. Well, maybe he was at our graduation, I don't remember. I hardly even talk to Bonnie because I don't want him to know more about my life than he'd hear second hand from Bonnie and April talking. I think April knows I don't like him much so she keeps the information about me to a minimum. I have no idea what his problem is."

John had said at lunch the other day that he thought Allen was infatuated with her. Claire wasn't sure that made sense. How could someone do what he'd done to her and be infatuated with her? She couldn't come up with another explanation. She didn't like it one bit, though. She certainly didn't like him calling her parents.

'Seems we've talked about that before. So what? I'm supposed to stay away from you? Marry you or get slapped with some crazy lawsuit? What?'

"She wants to meet you."

'Okay,' he said, that cautious tone again.

"Saturday night," she said.

'Okay,' he said.

"At Christmas dinner."

'Oh,' he said, realization dawning on him. 'Because what daughter wouldn't invite the boyfriend she spent a week in Paris with sharing a hotel room wouldn't invite him to Christmas dinner with the 'rents.'

"Exactly."

He sighed.

"I don't blame you for wanting to never speak to me again. I'm really, really very sorry. If I could go back to October and undo all of this I would. I'd make up an excuse why you couldn't make it. I honestly couldn't imagine all of this shit would come out of my having a boyfriend."

'I don't want you going back and undoing it, though. I mean, it's a little baffling to me. The calling your mom part. The Rene thing isn't your fault. Like you said even if you had known he worked in the industry you wouldn't have known about the movie because I hadn't told you about it. I mean, I haven't thought it was that big of a deal because it's not like I drew anything for the movie. My name will be in the credits, sure, along with hundreds of other nobodies no one seeing the movie will have heard of.'

"Right. You're not a nobody."

'Thanks," he said with a soft chuckle. "What did your mother say exactly?'

"She wanted to know why I was hiding you from her."

'That's all?'

"She accused me of being ashamed or embarrassed of her. She said she couldn't believe I'd let her think that I was never going to get involved with someone when here I had been for months."

'Uh huh,' he said.

"She wants my nephew to have cousins since Christopher doesn't seem to be giving him any brothers or sisters. Obviously that falls to me since I'm his only sister."

'Does she want you to have a husband first? Or just the cousins on a whim?'

"She'd, I'm sure, prefer the husband came first though she hasn't specifically said that."

'Right. That would be the expectation.'

"And then she said she expected you to be at dinner Saturday night."

'And you see a way out of this how exactly?'

"Well…"

'Wait. You are breaking our date tomorrow, aren't you?'

"No, I'm not!"

He was quiet, so was she. She wasn't sure how to say what she was thinking exactly and clearly he was probably thinking he was absolutely insane for going along with this stupid idea to begin with.

'I see. So…You think I'm going to? Over meeting your mother? Wow you must really think I'm an asshole. Thanks. Now I do think I'm kind of mad.'

"Don't be mad at me. It's Christmas dinner. And it's not just my mother. It's my father, brother, nephew, grandparents, aunt and uncle, and cousins."

'The whole lot of the Standish clan, huh?'

"Yes."

He sighed again and she couldn't even imagine what he was thinking. In a way she was kind of hoping he'd cancel their date tomorrow and she wouldn't have to deal with it anymore. Deal with what exactly she wasn't sure. She liked him, but it scared the shit out of her that she did. She hadn't wanted their week in Paris to end. It wasn't even the sleeping with him the couple nights they did that together that was nice, though that was exceptionally nice. It was the time.

"Please don't be mad at me. I didn't mean it that way. I don't think you're an asshole. Like you said you could have tried all sorts of things that first night I slept in your bed. You didn't. John, truly, I know you're not an asshole."

'That's not exactly a ringing endorsement. I didn't accost someone who just days before told me they'd been drugged and raped for their only sexual experience.'

"That's not what I meant either. Please don't twist what I'm trying to say into something it's not. I know you're not an asshole. I don't think you're an asshole. I, however, would not blame you for thinking the payout of a date with me may not be worth all this."

'The payout? What payout do you think I'm looking for here, Claire?'

"I don't know."

'You must think I'm looking for something. I can hear it in your voice. Your 'I don't know' isn't that exactly.'

"Well, I don't know. I would assume…"

'You think I expect sex from you? When? Tomorrow night?'

"No!"

'I swear to God, Claire, you better not because I don't know what the fuck I've done in the past three months to give you that impression. And please don't throw what I was like in high school in my face. I'm not that guy anymore.'

"I know," she said.

She did know. It was the reason she was so confused right now. She really wanted to like him, but it was hard for her to balance the John she'd known then with the John she wanted to know more of today. She'd known he was a decent guy back then he just hadn't wanted anyone to know it. Actually, she wasn't sure if he still didn't want people to know it today.

He'd been so genuinely pleased she'd taken him back to the Pere Lachaise Cemetery the day before they'd left. It seemed sort of odd to both of them to wander through a cemetery, but they'd seen many, many recognizable names and they clearly weren't the only ones who did such a thing while in town.

She liked having someone to spend time with, to do things with. She'd never had that before because she'd never let herself spend enough time with someone to get that.

'What do you think I expect from you then?'

"I don't know. Dating should for most people potentially lead to more."

'Yeah.'

"Like a relationship."

'Yeah.'

"One with me wouldn't be easy. I know you don't expect sex from me tomorrow night, but I assume you would at some point."

'Well, yeah, but when you were, you know, ready for that step.'

"How many women at our age do you have to wait to be ready for that step?"

'That's irrelevant because they aren't you.'

"What if I'm never ready?"

'Then I guess we'd deal with that if that was the case. Kissing you is no hardship.'

"Thank you," she said, pleased beyond belief to hear him say that.

'Do we know what Allen told her?' he asked after a minute or two of silence between them. She wasn't sure what to say now. She didn't think he was really mad at her.

"Not specifically. She thinks you're my boyfriend and that we've been dating since the reunion. She knows what you do for a living and that there's a movie coming out based on some of your work."

'Allen told her that?' he asked, sounding suspect.

"No, I did. He told her what you did for a living, but made it sound as if you…"

'Drew cartoons and lived paycheck to paycheck so latched onto you, the lawyer, for someone to support me and my hobby.'

"Yes," she said. She felt terrible that his reputation was being called into question through no fault of his own. All from doing her a favor. "She knows you came with me to the wedding, that we were there for a whole week, and that we shared a room."

'Fantastic,' he said. That last part seemed to get more of a reaction out of him than the occupation part had.

"As you say, I'm an adult."

'Yes, but you're still her little girl who she apparently knows doesn't date so sleeping with a guy would be surprising, too.'

"Kind of," she said. More than kind of. He knew that, too, judging by the scoff she heard him give over the phone.

'So, the comic penciler is invited to Christmas dinner?'

"Yes."

'Your parents don't have any weapons at their house I need to know about, do they?'

"Weapons?" she asked with a frown.

'A shotgun. A noose. A guillotine, which would be fitting I suppose since I apparently ravished you for a week in Paris.'

"No. I mean, my dad I think might have a couple of pistols, like from the Civil War or something. They're not functional that I know of. They are, you know, collectors' items. Antiques. Valuable."

'That you know of, that's encouraging.'

"John, I'm sorry."

'And is there going to be some guy at the dinner table that's not a relative that your parents will hope you compare and contrast to me and change your mind about being involved with a bum?'

"No, I don't think they'd do that."

'Again, not so encouraging with that answer.'

"I'm not my mother! I don't know what she'd do. I don't think she'd do that, though."

'Do I have to go to mass with you?'

"Well…"

'Fuck, are you kidding me?'

"Wait? You're actually considering coming to dinner?"

'Well, what else am I supposed to do? If I don't and our date Friday turns into more like I want it to your mom is going to wonder why I didn't come. Even if our date doesn't turn into more right away she's going to wonder who you were spending your week with. I'd rather she know for a fact I'm not an asshole, a serial rapist, or something.'

"I could get you out of mass. We go to midnight mass anyway so you could just leave before then."

'Like I'd have an excuse to leave.'

"I suppose not," she said, growing quiet at that. Then a thought occurred to her. "Sammy."

'What about him?'

"He could be your excuse to leave."

He chuckled softly.

'You're pretty good. Yeah, that would be a good excuse.'

"Well, he can't be alone for hours and hours."

'No, you're right. So, what time do I need to be there? And what do I need to wear? And I think your debt to me has just gone up exponentially in the last twenty minutes.'

"I know. I'm sorry."

'And we are still going out tomorrow night, right?'

"If you still want to."

'You are not getting out of our date that easily, Princess.'

"I'm not sure this was easy."

He chuckled at that.

'You're probably right. I'm going to pick you up earlier than seven o'clock. What time can you actually be ready to go out?'

"Why?" she asked.

'Because if I have to sit through a family dinner I don't want to be ambushed with questions about things that as a guy you've been dating for six months I should know. So you're going to fill me in on Grandma and Grandpa on down.'

"Oh," she said.

'The Cliff Notes version would be ideal, just so I don't look like a clueless asshole who is, in fact, looking for someone to support me.'

"I can do that."

'Thank you.'

"I guess I don't have to worry about this with you, do I?"

'Worry about what?'

"Meeting your parents over Christmas dinner?"

'Not likely in this lifetime, no.'

"Do you go there at Christmas?"

'I usually go to a tree lot at a church near their house after Thanksgiving. The Knights of Columbus sponsors it I think. I buy them a tree and a wreath and have it sent to their house.'

"Oh," she said.

'I assume Ma knows they're from me, but no I don't go over there. We never did anything special when I lived there. I couldn't even tell you how old I was the last time I had a tree.'

"I understand."

'Are your parents going to ask me questions like that?'

"They might."

'Can I be honest?'

"Yes," she said.

'Thank you.'

"You don't have to thank me."

'Well, I don't know what you want me to say or do.'

"Just be yourself."

'Other than lying about the fact I've been dating you for six months you mean.'

"Yeah, other than that," she said softly.

'Fair enough. Where was our first date anyway?'

"I don't know. Where are you taking me tomorrow?"

'Um, you like Italian I assume?'

"Yes," she said.

'All right. How about that place in downtown Shermer? It's newer, but like a year ago it opened I think. I've heard it's actually pretty good.'

"Antonio's?"

'Yeah, that was it.'

"You've never been?"

'Nah, not much reason to go there.'

"Well then I guess that's a good place to say was our first date."

'Easy to remember that way I guess. All right.'

"I'm really sorry."

'It's all right. I'm really reconsidering not hitting Allen now, though.'

She laughed softly at that. "I bet you are."

'When I see him again…'

"I hope you won't."

'I may not be so nice.'

"I don't blame you."

'No?'

"No."

'I'll be not so nice for the both of us.'

"I wouldn't complain about that."

'You can bank on it then, Princess.'

She laughed softly at that.

'What?'

"You just sounded like Assistant Principal Vernon."

'I did?'

"Yes! He said something like that to Allison."

'Really?'

"Yes, that day."

'I guess I need to fix that, I don't need to be sounding like him.'

"No, you don't."

'Just think where we'd be today if you hadn't gone shopping that week, Princess.'

She had thought on that. More than once. That day had changed her. Not as much as the rest of them from that day had hoped the last couple months of school, but it had overall. She was less quick to judge people.

"I certainly wouldn't be sitting here talking to you right now."

He chuckled softly. 'I wish I could get mad at that comment, but I know you're right and can appreciate that you can admit that to me as well as yourself.'

"I can," she said.

'All right. I'll see you tomorrow then?'

"Yes. You're not mad at me are you?"

'About dinner on Saturday? As long as I'm not expected to buy them all presents I'm good. I'll play the dutiful boyfriend even better than I did in Paris. I thought all of your friends, except Allen it seems, liked me well enough.'

"They did. I didn't mean about dinner, though. You were mad at me earlier."

'You say things sometimes that irritate me, yes. I think that's maybe because you don't see yourself as I do. I try to get that.'

"I'm sorry."

'Don't apologize to me. I realize your past comes into play probably more than I know.'

"It does."

'And I'm very sorry about that.'

"I know."

'And I'm not sorry because I want to have sex with you.'

"John," she said.

'I mean I won't deny while we were together that week I'd wished more than once your past wasn't a factor or that I at least didn't know about it.'

"You still could've…"

'Tried? I'm not a complete asshole. If he wasn't there maybe I might have.'

"Maybe?"

'Probably I would have,' he said with a soft laugh.

"As long as you're not mad at me."

'Nah.'

"Thank you."

'So can you be ready before seven o'clock?'

"Not much before, no. I could probably do six o'clock if I can get out of the office a little early. I'll call you when I'm leaving, okay?"

'Okay. I noticed you called my office line tonight.'

"I did. I remember what you said about not answering your personal line."

'Call this one again tomorrow.'

"I will."

'Until tomorrow then, Princess, sweet dreams.'

"Thanks. You, too."

'So long as there are no guillotines in them I'm good.'

She laughed softly at that, hanging up shortly after.

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