***Chapter Thirteen***
Word Count: 7,113

"The hotel entrance is on the other side of the building, honey."

"I know," Claire said with a roll of her eyes. She hated when other women called her honey as if they were long lost friends or something. She was tired and she'd never gotten airsick before. She loved flying. She thought on one occasion today she was going to have to use the throw-up bag they provided at each seat because she'd gotten so nauseous. The stewardess found her some crackers and gave her those plus a can of 7Up. (She knew they weren't called stewardesses anymore, but it was an old habit that was hard to break.)

"You need to go there to check-in. I don't work for the hotel and have nothing to do with your reservation or finding your room."

She sighed. She had no idea it'd be this large. She wasn't sure what she envisioned, but an entire conference area of a hotel wasn't it. And the hotel was huge, too, and nice. She was surprised John was being put up here, but she supposed they got special rates for reserving so many rooms for their guests.

"I'm looking for John Bender."

She snorted at that. "Get in line, honey."

"I'm not your honey," Claire said. She felt like shit and had absolutely no time for this. Flying on a plane when she was still sick was probably not the wisest choice she could have made. She'd had a slight fever in the morning, too. Not real high, nothing she was going to call her doctor about, but she had made sure to check it again before getting into the limo to go to the airport.

It had been incredibly easy to lie to Sonia and her father. It had been even easier to ask her neighbor to check on Tux on Saturday to be sure he had food and water. He would be fine until then. She'd left him for a weekend before, but that was leaving on a Friday and coming back Sunday. She didn't like the idea of him running out of food or water. He'd been a little out of sorts after being somewhere different for a few days. She'd told her neighbor if she wanted to go over there any other time to spend time with him that would be great, but not necessary. She told Sonia she'd check messages, but would probably be sleeping. She told her father she'd be at her place or at John's. So, no one would be surprised if she wasn't at home if they came looking for her. Amazing how sympathetic they were when she mentioned running a bit of a fever that morning.

When did she get so good at lying? Why had she felt the need to lie? Because she'd never taken a day and a half off from work to go out of town on a whim before.

"Maybe you're not, but you'll still need to get in line."

"I know him."

"I'm sure you do."

"He asked me to come here this weekend."

"Seems to me if he did as you say and actually wanted you here he'd have left your name at the front desk so you didn't have to come looking for him. You wouldn't be the first one."

"I'm his girlfriend."

"Honey, if I had a nickel for every time I've heard that I'd be rich as Steven Spielberg."

"Really?" she asked. That surprised her. People would just claim to be someone's girlfriend. Of course, they hadn't exactly completely established she was his girlfriend, but she sort of felt as if she was.

"Especially last year and this one with the movie coming out. So, no offense, but I've heard it all."

"Huh," Claire said. "Would you mind finding him and telling him Claire is here? I really just want to get a key from him."

"I'm not a messenger. He's busy doing what we pay him to do at the moment so he can't be at your beck and call right now. Like I said, seems if he wanted you to have a key he would've arranged for you to have one instead of you having to come here and find him."

"Fine. Tell me where he is."

"You can't go in unless you pay the admission."

"Are you serious? I just need a key. How much is it?" Claire asked.

"Twenty dollars."

"Are you kidding me?" Claire asked. "It's eight o'clock at night. I'm not going to be here all day."

"Honey, that is a reduced price. The con goes until the last person leaves each night."

"Oh," Claire said. "Fine," she said, pulling out her wallet and handing her twenty dollars. Utterly and completely ridiculous. "Any idea where he is?"

"Oak Room, just follow the signs."

Claire tried not to stare as she made her way through the halls, finding her way to the Oak Room. People were in all kinds of costumes. He'd told her. She'd believed him. It wasn't the Star Trek and Star Wars costumes that astonished her. There were some that. Well, Claire wondered how the women wearing them weren't arrested for indecent exposure. She was, compared to those women, extremely overdressed, and she felt incredibly self-conscious at the moment.

She heard his voice from the hallway before she even saw him. He must have been talking into a microphone because she could hear him very clearly all the way out here.

She stood and listened for a minute. She wondered what some of their classmates, actually ninety percent of them, would pay to see John Bender doing a Q&A session at something like this. Who would have thought?

She listened as he talked. She couldn't hear the questions, but judging by how many times he mentioned Simon or the movie she guessed there were a lot of questions being asked about it.

‘I think I'd choose his ability to heal things if I could choose one.'

‘I'm not sure there's enough healing powers in the universe to help you out with that, but I bet it could be fun to try.'

"You found it," the woman from the front area said as laughter overlapped John's next comment.

"Oh yes," Claire said. "Thank you."

"You scared or something, honey? He won't bite you unless you ask him to, I suppose."

"I'm not scared, I was just listening to him."

"Oh, yeah, we had to move him to this room from the smaller Walnut Room. He's pretty popular."

"Is he?" Claire asked.

"Isn't that why you're here, honey? I don't blame you with the potential for more movies and everything. Everyone loves Simon Forge right now. May as well get on the bandwagon while it's hot. Right? I haven't seen him leave with anyone today or anything so you never know, maybe you have a chance."

God, that idea absolutely horrified her. Apparently, there was no shortage of women willing to do that and no one would think it was unusual for her to be here for that reason. Was that really what she wanted this woman to think about her?

"Is there a bathroom?" Claire asked. God, she was going to throw up. She shouldn't have come here. He invited her.

For the weekend. You came a day early. He doesn't even know the possibility exists you'll be here tonight.

"Uh sure," she said with a frown. She was dressed as something, Claire had no idea what though. She didn't want to seem stupid so she didn't bother asking. Her costume was fairly conservative. "Right over there."

"Thank you," Claire said.

"You okay, honey? You're looking a little green."

"Travel sickness. I hate flying," Claire said, another lie, making her way to the bathroom. She hadn't eaten at the airport before getting on the plane, and she was very glad of that because she was pretty sure it would have come right back up now.

God, what if he was doing that? Finding someone to leave with him? He'd assume she'd be home tonight because she wouldn't want to miss another day of work this week. She certainly shouldn't be missing another day of work this week. For some reason, though, after talking with Rachel she'd called and made a reservation. Southwest always had some great fares. She had to fly out of Midway as opposed to O'Hare, but honestly that wasn't so bad aside from the drive down there. That was easily fixed by hiring a limo.

She stepped out of the bathroom, avoiding looking in the direction of the room he was in. She was such a fucking idiot. She'd hired a limo to bring her here and she doubted she could get a room here with the convention going on, but she could go to the front desk and have them call her a cab. This was absolutely the most ridiculous idea she'd had in her life.

"Claire?" he said.

Shit.

Shit. Shit. Shit.

She turned around. He was standing at the doorway, talking to the woman who'd collected her money. Or listening to her, it seemed.

"John, you can't walk out in the middle of your conference."

"Give me a minute, Tiff, okay," he said, walking toward her.

"Where are you going?" he asked.

"To find a cab to take me somewhere."

"Okay," he said, clearly confused.

"You're such an asshole."

"I am? Why? What the fuck did I do?"

"You, here."

"Me here what?"

"You with your women."

"There's men here, too."

"I'm guessing you don't leave with them."

"Well, no."

"You sent me roses."

"Yeah," he said.

"You took Tux in."

"Yeah," he said.

"Why did you do that?"

"Claire you are absolutely not making sense. Why do you think I did that?"

"I don't know. Clearly if I knew I wouldn't be asking."

"Listen, I have to finish as much as I might like to stand here and try to figure out what you're talking about. I'm working here. They pay me money to do this. They ask me to come back because I'm good at what I do. I can't have personal shit interfering. You get that, right?"

"I do. I'll get a cab…"

"You're not getting a cab anywhere." He grabbed her suitcase from her. "Come on, follow me for a minute."

"I'm not following you anywhere."

"Jesus. I don't have any women. I mean, none that are with me."

"I heard you!"

"You heard me flirt. It's what I do. Cute girl buys a personally signed copy of Simon versus just the standard issue copy of Simon because I smiled at her and made her laugh."

"John…"

"Let me finish and we can talk about whatever the fuck you want to talk about. I'm just going to get you the key to my room so you can go on up there."

"I'm not sharing a room with you!"

"Well, we can figure that out later I guess. I don't think you're going to find a room open at any hotel in town this late. Not only is the convention going on, but the Mavericks are playing in town tomorrow night. So unless you're going to go back to the airport and catch a flight back home I think you're probably stuck here."

"John. I'm not going anywhere with you."

"Claire, Jesus fucking Christ. This is my job. Okay? My livelihood. Don't embarrass me here or make me regret fucking asking you to come down here to begin with. I'm seriously about to start. I wouldn't go to your office and cause a scene. Just let me get my fucking key, you can go up, and wait for me. You're not going to find another room. You can use the phone up there and try to find one I guess, but I'm telling you it's not going to happen."

"Fine," she said.

Everyone was staring at them when they walked into the room. She supposed more than one near the door heard their conversation. They weren't exactly whispering. Claire remained by the door and their focus was mostly on John. A few curious stares in her direction. She didn't fit in here at all, though there were more than a few people dressed just normally in jeans or whatever.

"Sorry, everyone, my girlfriend is here and she seems kind of mad at me at the moment."

Lots more glances in her direction at that statement. Great. Just what she wanted. Embarrassing didn't even begin to cover it, overshadowing any excitement she would've ordinarily gotten at the fact he'd called her his girlfriend to a room full of a couple hundred people.

"Maybe she doesn't like that you killed off Bart."

A good deal of laughter was heard to that. Claire had no idea what they were talking about. She assumed Bart was a character John drew and he'd been killed. Logical assumption.

"That could be except I don't think she reads comics."

"What is she doing here then?"

"I asked her to come down for the weekend. I thought a few sixty degree days would be a nice change of pace. And well, a guy can hope maybe she'll become interested enough to pick up some back issues. Well, and a guy has to have something to do with his downtime."

Claire was used to being stared at, scrutinized even. She was used to getting attention. She'd thrived on it in high school and, well, she hadn't shunned it in college either. She was not expecting a room full of well over one hundred people to turn and stare at her, though. Some looks were curious, some were suspect, and some were downright angry.

"Anyone have any ideas to avoid my having to sleep on the floor tonight?" he said as he grabbed a jacket and reached into a pocket for a room key.

"What's her name?" someone asked.

"Claire," he said, walking toward her.

"How'd you meet?" someone else asked.

"We went to school together."

"She lives in Chicago?"

"She does."

"She going to be there next month?"

"I guess that remains to be seen. I'm not sure she'll be my girlfriend next month if she stays mad at me."

"What did you do to make her mad?"

"I have no idea," John said. "You know how to tell that, let me know."

"You never will either," someone said and everyone in the room started laughing. "Just say you're sorry and be done with it."

"I just got done sending her roses for Valentine's Day. That doesn't cover me from any wrongdoing for the week?"

"Not in my experience."

"You'd know, too, Fred. Didn't you just divorce wife number four?" John asked.

"Number three. I haven't met number four yet."

"There's still time this weekend."

"That's what I'm hoping."

"Just not Claire, all right. She's all mine."

"What color roses did you send her?"

He chuckled at that. "Red. They match her hair. Would I get any other color?"

John handed her the key. She took it, glancing behind him at everyone.

"What?" he asked, obviously having turned the microphone off.

"She said you left with people."

"She who?"

"The woman…"

"She said that?"

"She said …" Claire thought it over. She hadn't really said that. Claire had assumed because, well, because she was being paranoid.

"She doesn't look quite as mad now, John." The guy John had called Fred said.

John chuckled softly.

"There's only one woman I want to leave with, Claire. She's right here. I can't leave right now, though."

"I know."

"You could put your suitcase away and come back. I assume you paid to get in."

"I did."

"Then come back. I'm done in about twenty minutes. We can hang out. Fred likes you."

She glanced at Fred who was, among others, watching them very closely.

"Anton would've kissed her by now," someone said.

"Who's Anton?" Claire asked.

John shook his head.

"Someone you draw?"

"Good guess. He's one of Simon's friends. He's, some might say, a not so good influence on Simon all of the time."

"Oh. He kisses girls?"

"He likes to try."

"Do you?"

"Like to try kissing girls?" He smiled a bit, shaking his head. "Just one anymore."

"Good."

"I'm going to now. Okay?"

"Sure," she whispered.

"You're not going to slap me or knee me in the nuts or anything, are you? I'm kind of fond of them not hurting."

"Uh no."

"You sure? I'm not sure I'd want you to do that in front of a couple hundred people."

"Positive."

He leaned in and kissed her then.

"Thank you. It's room one twenty, by the way," he said.

"Okay."

"You coming back," he asked.

"I might."

"Good. Then I can introduce you to Tiffani. I want to have a word with her anyway."

He turned his microphone back on as he returned to the stage area.

"Did I do as good as Anton there?"

"You did all right. She doesn't seem mad anymore."

"I didn't think there were really still women out there who blushed from a kiss," someone said.

"You really got her roses for Valentine's Day?" someone asked.

"I did. Isn't that what guys are supposed to do?" he asked.

"No guy I know does."

"Hey, now, Vicki," John said. "Trust me, there's only one woman I'd ever send roses to. If a guy hasn't sent them to you yet that just means you haven't met the right one."

"Is he the right one?" Fred asked Claire.

"Aww, Fred, don't make her mad again," John said.

"Well, I wouldn't mind living in Chicago for marriage number four."

John chuckled at that and Claire chose then to leave the room, dragging her suitcase behind her. She was incredibly glad tonight she'd invested in a set of luggage with wheels. Ordinarily for a weekend trip it wasn't such a huge deal, but God she was still incredibly weak.

She did go back down there after about thirty minutes. She called her house to check for any messages. She'd left the office before one o'clock and then left the house before three to get to the airport in time to make her flight. She forgot to check for any messages when she landed, but there weren't any from the office so she was okay.

"I'm so sorry, hon," the woman from the check-in area said.

"What?"

"I didn't know who you were. I'm so used to dealing with fans, you know, I just assumed…"

"It's okay."

"You could've told me you really were his girlfriend."

"I'm not sure what proof I could've offered you. I don't have it tattooed on me or anything. You didn't believe me. I didn't realize I had to identify myself as that when asking for him anyway."

"I guess you don't. It probably would've gotten a nicer answer out of me, though. If you had some facts to back the claim."

"Really?" Claire asked, more than surprised by that.

"Don't worry, I won't pry for any intimate details, though if you break up with him and want to share some dirt…"

"Uh, no," Claire said quickly. She'd never do that.

She chuckled softly. "He's in there still. He's finished up, but he always hangs out afterwards and talks to fans, signs things, and stuff."

"He's mentioned that."

"Did he really send you roses?"

Claire scoffed softly at the question. "He did."

"Must be nice."

"It was very nice. I'm sorry they're probably going to die while I'm here."

She walked back into the conference room he'd been speaking in. She stood by the door watching him. His back was to her so he hadn't seen her yet, but he was talking to a small group of people. She couldn't hear what he was saying, but he was so animated talking, using his hands and everything. It was kind of neat to watch.

"You look tired," he said when she finally approached him after he'd stopped talking to the group of people.

"I am."

"Why are you here then?"

She shrugged.

"Well, I figured you'll be busy here."

"Yes."

"I can work when I can, sleep when I can, and see you when you can."

"Yeah?"

"I'm here, aren't I?"

"You are."

"That's what it is."

He smiled a little at that, sliding his arms around her to tug her against him.

"Still no slapping or kneeing in parts I value?"

"No. She apologized."

"She better have apologized. She'd better do some groveling, too, while she's at it."

"John. She doesn't have to do that."

"Not to you! To me. Do you know how pissed off I'd be if you had actually left? Never mind that. Do you know how pissed off I'd be if you were, say, someone from Rene's company and she said shit like that to make me sound like the convention's cad. I mean, they pay me and I usually make out ahead on the deal coming to things like this, but that doesn't compare to the potential of more movies coming from what I draw."

"Oh," she said.

"Yeah, oh. I don't do that shit. I won't say I never have. I mean, I'm a guy, sometimes parts of me think for me when they shouldn't, but I don't make a habit of it. And I don't when I have a girlfriend."

"Have you ever had a girlfriend?"

"Before now? She says you introduced yourself as that."

"Only after she didn't believe I knew you."

"Ah," he said, chuckling softly.

"Should I not have? I thought…"

"No, it's fine. I just told a couple hundred people you were and, believe me, more than that will know by the end of the night. So, you telling Tiffani that is fine," he said. "To answer your question, though, no I haven't. I mean I've had girlfriends I suppose, but no not like what I consider you."

"What do you consider me?"

He chuckled. "Wife number one material."

"How many do you plan on having?"

"Just the one."

"Yeah?"

"Uh huh."

He leaned in and kissed her then and she sighed softly as he did.

"You were mad at me," she whispered.

"I was."

"You hung up on me!"

"I did."

"John."

"We'll talk about it. Not here. Okay? Kissing you in front of people I have no problem doing. Talking about our life together I do."

"You told them about us."

"I told them vague details. They were curious and I was saving face from walking out of a packed room due to personal drama."

"I'm sorry."

"Oh, I don't blame you. I really don't. I was mad at you last night, I could see what thoughts might have driven you to think Tiffani was telling the truth about what I might be up to today. We hadn't exactly established a commitment exists between us."

"I'm still sorry."

"Me, too," he whispered. "But we're still going to talk about it later."

"Okay."

"There are some parties by the pool area. There's a whole block of rooms reserved. You want to go hang out for a while?"

"Sure."

"I can't guarantee you will have fun. I also can't guarantee some women here won't try to push you into the pool or that you won't be asked a million questions. Some of them may make you uncomfortable. If that sounds like your idea of a good time we can do that."

"I understand."

"All right then," he said, dropping his hand to hers. He didn't wait for her to take his, she noticed. It was the first time he hadn't done that since Paris.

"Thank you," she said.

"For what?" he asked with a frown.

"For touching me."

"Okay."

"No, first. Thank you."

"Oh," he said. "I guess I didn't even think about it. You're welcome. Thank you for letting me."

"Sure."

***

"What would you have done tonight if I wasn't here?" she asked once they were back in his room.

"I probably would've been here a few hours ago sleeping by now."

"Really?"

"Yes."

"Why did you stay up?"

"I don't know. You seemed as if you were having a decent time."

"It was all right."

"I figured as long as that was the case may as well stay."

"I can't believe how many people are here."

"You haven't seen anything yet. Just wait until tomorrow night. You think I'm kidding when I said you'd be hard-pressed to find another room. Did you try?"

"No," she said.

"I'm glad to hear that."

"I overreacted."

"You did."

"I," she sighed softly, regarding him. He'd left the light on by the door to their room while he changed for bed but the room was dark otherwise.

"What?"

"I didn't mean what I said the way it sounded."

He shut off the light then and she expected him to join her on the bed. He didn't, though, and that worried her a bit. Especially when he sat at the table.

"Are we talking about this now?"

"John. I'm apologizing."

"I understand that. I didn't think you flew down here to fight with me. I appreciate it, but I think it sort of goes deeper than an apology. Don't you? So, I'm asking if you want to talk about this now or wait until morning."

"You're the one who has to get up."

"I don't have to be up until around noon. You're the one who was in the hospital days ago."

"I know."

"What you said pissed me off."

"I know."

"Do you? I'm hundreds of miles away and you say that to me. Seven or eight years ago I probably would have been at a hospital last night because I'd punched a wall or something."

"I didn't mean…"

"But you did. Somewhere in there you think I'm going to be nice to you just because we had sex. Is that why you think I've been being nice to you? You think that was my ultimate goal?"

"No!"

"You sure about that?"

"John, I know it wasn't. You could've tried things plenty of times. You didn't."

"I remember that. I was there, too, you know? And that made me wonder what the hell I'd done to make you think something like that."

"I don't know. I just wasn't expecting you to ask me to come here."

"Well, I didn't expect to ask you. I've never been with someone I wanted to ask. I got here and saw the weather forecast and thought surely sixty degree temperatures would be better for you than below freezing temperatures."

"And thank you."

"Tonight I can sort of blow off. I'm different here. You've never seen me in this type of situation and Tiffani said something that she absolutely shouldn't have said. That shit, though, Claire. That I'm doing things or saying things because we've had sex will get old very fast."

"I know. I won't. I mean, I guess I can't promise. I'm unsure of myself, you know? I mean, in October when we met at Chi Chi's you never mentioned wanting to ask me out. I worry, I guess, that you think somehow because we've had sex there's some obligation…"

"I don't do anything out of obligation, Claire. I've come too far to this point to do anything because it'll make someone else happy. Personally anyway. Obviously I do things to make Rich and others I work for happy. As far as asking you out. I sort of thought the timing was bad. ‘Yeah, I'll go away with you for a week. Oh, and by the way, I want to go out with you sometime.' I sort of figured that was a real great way for you to back out of your invitation."

"Why?"

"I don't know. It just didn't seem like the thing to do. I was going to wait until we got back. I figured we could go, I could play the good boyfriend, and maybe you'd be tempted to see if you'd like to see me actually be a good boyfriend. I wasn't joking when I said maybe you wouldn't want to break us up. I was hoping you wouldn't want to. Then you told me," he paused. "Those things and I didn't know what to do exactly."

"I know."

"I love you, you know."

"John."

"I don't mean in the ‘let's get married tomorrow' way, but in the ‘I want to find out if I want to spend the rest of my life with you' way. We had sex. That's a huge deal for you, for us, but that doesn't mean we have to again. I mean, if you told me tonight you just weren't ready that'd be okay."

"You'd be okay with that?"

"Would that be my choice? No, of course not, but I didn't go through what you've gone through. So, maybe you've had a day or two to think about it and it's too much. Maybe you thinking I'm doing something nice because you had sex with me makes you not want to again. I don't pretend to know what you might be thinking or feeling about it."

"I am a little confused."

"Well then, maybe we shouldn't, you know. Until you're not so confused."

"That's honestly not what I'm confused about."

"What then?"

"I don't know. Would you have been mad if I hadn't come down here?"

"Mad? No. Well, I don't know. After our conversation last night I probably would've been a little, yeah. I would've gotten over it, I'm sure."

"Because you travel, I get that. I can't…"

"Yeah, I know. And I know you're missing three days of work this week."

"I brought work with me."

"I know, but it's not the same. You and I both know it."

"I do."

"I don't expect you to come with me all of the time. I'd love it if you did. With more notice maybe you could work it into your plans. I admit the looks on some of their faces was worth it."

"Has Fred really been married three times?"

"Yes."

"All women he's met at things like this?"

"Two are. The first one was not. I've never met her."

"How?"

He chuckled. "Not everyone is like us, Princess. Some people just let their hearts lead them wherever they want to go."

"Why'd you say that?"

"Say what?"

"About loving me?"

"Why? What kind of question is that? I said it because I mean it. I want you to understand where I'm at. I didn't send you roses because I had to. I was going to send you flowers. Yes, the lie you've told swayed my decision on what to send you, but only the color. I probably would've gone with yellow roses."

"Oh."

"I want to go to LA with you next month and be as comfortable with each other as we can be. I want to have fun with you, you know? I mean real fun not on edge fun because we think we're lying to everyone about what we're doing. So, it's off by a few months. Who cares? When are we going to get to go to shit like that again ever?"

"I don't know."

"One thing you have to know, though. I will not cheat on you. People like Tiffani are going to say a lot of things. Women flirt with me. Men do, too, sometimes to be truthful. I've had women want me to sign body parts. I won't deny when I first started going to things like this I had some fun. It was a bit heady, you know, attention."

"You had my attention."

"I did, I didn't know what to do with it, though. The women I met at conventions like these," he shrugged. "I knew what to do with them."

"I'm sure you did."

"I stopped doing that, though, pretty early on. Not to say I haven't ever since, but I've always been pretty selective and discreet with what I do. So, if anyone tells you I've been with them or they saw me do something. They're lying or seeing if they can get under your skin. People like Tiffani are not going to believe you're my girlfriend because I don't talk about my personal life."

"I know."

"There's an author who I've seen at several of these now over the years. His wife goes everywhere with him. Some people think he's an idiot, but sitting around last night watching people – even though I was pissed off at you and wanted to drink a lot of beer – I sort of got the appeal of it. You know? Sit around and bullshit with the people who get what I do and then spend my night with the woman who gets me."

"I feel bad I don't get what you do."

"I don't expect you to know. I'm not overly clear on what you do."

"That's different. I deal with the law. You draw."

"Well, you want to learn, let me know. I do have some things you can look through."

"Some?"

"A lot," he said with a soft chuckle.

"I wouldn't say no to you letting me see them."

"Yeah?"

"Well, that's what people do for people they love, right?"

"I've heard tell, yeah."

"Then I think I want to."

"Aww, you're sweet, Princess. You going to buy me roses, too?"

She shook her head. "I don't think they make a color rose appropriate for you."

"I've seen black ones."

"They're dyed that color."

"I suppose."

"Do you believe I didn't mean what I said?"

"I believe you think you didn't, but I'm not so sure."

"Why?"

"I don't know. I don't like the idea you even think I'd do something like that. I mean, the guy you knew ten years ago, sure. Well, no, the guy you knew ten years ago I wouldn't have called you afterward. I mean, you I probably would've. You know what I mean. I didn't make a habit of calling women I just wanted sex with afterward to invite them on trips with me."

"I'm new at this."

"And I'm not?"

"You've had girlfriends."

"Yeah, sure, all right. I haven't met their parents. I haven't taken care of their cat."

"You said you did."

"Once. Like seven years ago and it was the worst experience of my life. I swore to God I'd never do it again."

"Why'd you meet mine then?"

"Because I knew if I didn't I'd blow any chance with you I had."

"I wouldn't have…"

"Maybe not, but eventually I would've had to meet them assuming we got to that point. I wanted to get to that point. I knew I did. So I did it. Other than your grandfather I thought it went all right."

"Who was she?"

"No one."

"You met her parents. She must have been someone."

"We dated for a while. She wanted me to meet her parents. I thought it was a pretty big step, but I did it."

"What happened?"

He shrugged, leaning back in his chair a bit.

"I was twenty-one. She was a stripper."

"What?"

He chuckled softly at that. "Yeah, talk about trust issues. I had them in spades and they make you thinking I invited you here because we had sex seem like child's play."

"Why?"

"Well, I do all right. I consider myself a decent looking guy. I'm not the smartest out there, but I'm not an idiot even if I don't let people see that. Even then I did all right. I wasn't rolling in money. I had barely better than a piece of shit car and a hole-in-the-wall apartment at the time. I had money coming in, though, and wasn't afraid to spend it."

"On a stripper?"

"Yeah," he shrugged. "I didn't meet her while she was working. I met her at a party. She was friends with a friend of someone who was friends with someone I was friends with. We dated for a couple of weeks before she told me what she did. I thought I was okay with it. I mean it didn't change who she was, right? Unfortunately, she was pretty good at her job so was popular. There were guys who'd shell out fifty to one hundred bucks to her a night just while she was dancing. Never mind the tips she got for doing lap dances."

She had no idea what to say to that.

"Yeah, I see you processing that. She swore she wasn't doing anything wrong during the lap dances, and I wanted to believe her. I had doubts, though. I mean, I know what kind of guy I was at a strip club so I had to assume they were all like that. I mean, even if I did believe her. I couldn't compete with guys who had hundreds of dollars a week at their disposal to spend on her."

"Did she tell you that?"

"No, of course not. That's why I met her parents. They didn't like me. I had no future. I had a crappy car. I had no background, not a good one. Ironic, right? The parents of a stripper judging me and my past?"

"Then what happened?"

"I was at her place one day. She was in the shower so we could go out. I don't think I was being nosey. I don't know. Maybe I was. I saw a statement from a clinic. I glanced at it. And, yes, I know I'm probably going to hell for looking at her mail."

"What was it?"

"A statement for tests and antibiotics."

"Okay," she said.

"The kind of tests she shouldn't have needed to get if she wasn't having sex with anyone else."

"Oh," she said. "You?"

"I'm fine. I went myself to get checked out more than once. I'd never been with her unprotected. Clearly she had been with someone without them. I don't know who or how many."

"Good," she said.

"I left her apartment and haven't talked to her since. She called a few times. Maybe I should've told her why or whatever, but I figured she'd know why without my saying so."

"I'm sorry. Did you love her?"

"No, I mean, I think at first I dug that this gorgeous woman who men fawned over wanted to be with me. Even before I knew she was a stripper I knew she got the attention of guys wherever we went. You know?"

"No," she said with a soft laugh.

"Yeah, I suppose you wouldn't get it."

"Why did she want you to meet her parents?"

"I don't know. I was gullible? Nice enough and insane enough to think she wouldn't be like every other stripper I'd ever met. They're not all like that. I mean, don't get me wrong, I'm sure there are some good ones out there. She just wasn't one of them."

"And you haven't dated anyone since?"

"Not seriously, no. I didn't want to bother."

"I don't blame you."

"Well, it's not nearly the same thing for me."

"It still hurt."

"It did."

"Probably for a while."

"I can admit that. I was scared shitless for a while at first. I mean, those things are fine. I've never had one break, but it can happen. What if one had? That's why I went more than once. I had to be sure."

"I can imagine."

He was quiet for a while, looking at his hands not at her.

"What?" she asked.

"Nothing. I'm just wondering if I'm an idiot for telling you that."

"Why?"

"You only have my word for it that I was fine."

"Some people I could believe would do that, Allen for instance. Not you."

"Did you?"

"What?"

"Uh, you know, get tests?"

"I did. The clinic in Minneapolis I went to ran them because I told them what happened. Until then I really wasn't one hundred percent sure exactly what all had happened," she shrugged.

"You couldn't tell?"

"I hurt everywhere, John! You think I was paying attention to one spot over another. I woke up with my own vomit in my hair and dried to my skin. You think I was worried about that?"

"Right. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make it sound like I was doubting you."

"I guess I held onto hope that he didn't, couldn't, do that to his sister's friend."

"I suppose I can see that."

"Thank you."

"I'm not going to treat you like shit, Claire. Are we clear on that?"

"I know."

"Are you sure? I understand you're probably scared. So am I. I haven't gone through what you did so I have no idea what you've been feeling the past few days. I think if I'd had my choice I wouldn't have had sex with you for the first time two days before I was leaving for a week."

"You didn't choose."

"I realize that. I wonder, though, if you thought it through exactly. You know? Sex for me isn't that huge of a deal. Sex with you for me is a huge deal and obviously it is for you."

"I know."

He stood from the table then and joined her on the bed.

"You're ordering room service tomorrow. I'll tell Tiffani to let me know what I owe for it. I don't want you leaving this room until tomorrow night."

"What's tomorrow night?"

"After ten o'clock. No kids are allowed on weekends."

"Oh," she said.

He chuckled softly. "It gets interesting."

"Okay."

"Did you take your medicine?"

"I did when I was up here before."

"Good. I want you as well as you can be as quickly as you can be."

"I was very glad last night you didn't let me take Sammy."

"I'm glad, too, because you're here. Why were you glad, though?

"I wouldn't have been able to walk him last night."

"A dog is a little different than a cat. Next time, though, if you want to I'd be fine with it."

"Okay," she said.

He slid an arm around her, bringing her to him.

"I'm sorry," she whispered.

"For what?"

"Needing to sleep."

He kissed her ear, sliding his mouth to her neck and kissed her there. "You can make it up to me tomorrow."

"I can, huh?"

"Uh huh."

"Tomorrow morning or tomorrow night?"

"Are you going to drink tomorrow night?"

"I might have something."

"Yeah? I think it might be fun to get interesting with you."

"In public?"

"There's plenty we could do in public that's still legal."

"I suppose," she said.

"I certainly wouldn't complain about starting my day out that way, though."

She scoffed softly at that.

"Good night, Princess."

"Night."

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