"What is that?" Billy asked.
"What do you mean?" John asked.
"I mean, I know what it is. It's a laptop. What is it doing with your stuff?"
"I bought one before we left," he said with a shrug.
"Get out of here."
Everyone except Sean and Claude were in on that statement. Neither of them seemed surprised. Claude would probably know the reason behind the laptop. Sean wasn't surprised because John had taken him along to buy it. He knew nothing about computers and had no real desire to change that, but being in Australia for a month email was certainly a better option to communicate with people who were twelve or so hours behind him.
"All right, wise asses. The world isn't ending or anything."
"I think this might be one of the signs. What happened to if anyone needs to get in touch with you they'll leave a message?"
"Fuck. You guys are acting as if I murdered someone. I bought a laptop."
"Yes, but you don't even check your email unless we practically force you to at gunpoint."
"So, I'm starting to check it. We're going to be gone for over a month I figured it was about time."
"Okay," Noel said.
"If you say so," Jazmin said.
"Can we go up to our rooms now? Is that okay? You want me to turn it on and prove it's real or something?"
"No, no," Noel said.
John wasn't surprised to answer the door and see Claude standing there. He stepped aside, letting him in. They had the night to themselves and would be playing tomorrow night.
"So, laptops huh?"
"No, I'm not giving you shit. That's cool. Is it for Melissa?"
"Shut up," John said.
"I'll take that as a yes."
"They might be coming to see me after Christmas."
"They, huh? Interesting. And the laptop is for?"
"Being able to communicate. I don't want to be inaccessible for a month if either of them has questions and find out those questions led to them not coming."
"What's the mom going to think of your house?"
"I don't know."
"You haven't told her about it?"
"Nope," he said. He shrugged. "What am I supposed to do? Describe it to her?"
"Well, no, but she might be expecting a house."
"Not my problem," John said.
"So no effort to impress her with your success?"
"No, that's not what I want to impress her with."
"But you do want to impress her?"
"I'd like to try. Another reason I bought the laptop is I am waiting on some information from a lawyer our lawyer referred me to."
"Making sure there's nothing eighteen years later her parents can go after me for."
"She sought you out."
"I realize that, but she didn't ask me to go to their house or invite them to come spend New Year's with me."
"You two got along when you were there?"
"Yeah, well enough."
"Melissa's not getting a brother or sister in the near future, is she?"
"No! Not that well."
Claude laughed at that.
"Not from lack of trying?" he asked.
"No, my goal was not to get her into my bed with our daughter in the same house."
"I'm kind of proud of you."
John snorted. "Not to say we didn't get reacquainted with kissing."
"Kissing is a lost art. Maybe it's good, the distance."
"You two will actually have to, like, communicate."
"That would be why I got the laptop, so the ability is there."
"So, she responded to my offer," Claude said.
"She didn't tell you?"
"No," John said. "I told her it was between you two."
"I told her I'd really like to record it with her. She's got a nice sound, fresh. I think if we pay her and let someone mainstream record it that it will lose that."
"She wants to be credited with your name," he added.
"I'm sorry, what?"
"She didn't tell you that?"
"I think she's worried about being connected to her mother. Her life there. Her friends finding out."
"I think using my name will ensure that happens. Don't you? I mean, if she performs it her friends will see her and wonder why she's using a different name."
"But there is no Melissa Bender, right?"
"No," John said. "And as far as I know my name is not on her birth certificate. You'd have to confirm that with Claire."
"Claire, huh. I guess I didn't know her name."
"You did, too, you just haven't paid attention. Claire. Claire Standish."
"I know. I'm giving you shit. She told me her mom's name and I did some research when she said she'd like to keep the Standish name out of it."
"Yeah, her grandfather's a pretty big lawyer. They want her to become a lawyer so I'm sure she doesn't want them to know she's doing this."
"No, not her grandfather. I mean, sure I found plenty on him. I understand what you're saying about them. I don't get the impression she cares because her mother doesn't care. You've got a computer now, use it. Google her mother."
"Why would I do that?"
Claude chuckled a bit, patting John on the back.
"Because that's what you do when you want to find out information without asking directly."
"Why am I doing that on Claire?"
"Because you might learn some things."
"I don't know. Find out what she's been up to the past eighteen years."
"I'm not spying on her."
"It's not spying if it's out there for anyone to find."
"I think she believes she'll be able to stay anonymous if she does that."
"Tell her to make up a name then."
"You don't want her to use your name?"
"I didn't say that, Claude, just that it seems using my name would lead to piquing people's interest. If she's trying to be discreet and not garner attention I'd think using anything but one of our last names would be best."
"And if she just wants to use your name?"
"I'd clear it with her mother first. I'm not making that decision. It was a good song?"
"It was," Claude said.
"She was worried."
"I admit I listened to it a little quicker than I would have if it was something just randomly sent to me."
"I know. I appreciate it."
"She said you two wrote a song together while you were there."
"You have it on you?"
"I do," he said.
"Anything we can use?"
"Not really. Not really our style."
"Would you record it with her?"
John shrugged. "I don't know. She hasn't asked. If she did, sure."
"Her grandparents would love that."
"I know, right? It probably won't happen anyway."
"It was just for fun, something to do while we were playing. You know how that goes. Not everything you write is usable."
"Sure. Well, I'll let you go, I guess. You going to email her and let her know where we are."
Claude smirked then. "That's kind of sweet."
"Hey," John said.
He took the laptop out of the case and handed it to him. "Help me set it up to use?"
Claude laughed then. "Yeah, sure. It's not that hard."
He left once he'd set it up so John could use the laptop to his heart's content. He hated computers. It wasn't technology he wasn't fond of. Clearly, technology allowed him to have a successful career. It was the immediacy. The need for people to have access to anyone right there and then. He didn't like it. It really wasn't just because he was a loner either. He just didn't like people thinking he was at their beck and call.
He went to the refrigerator and grabbed a Coke, setting the pick down he'd been carrying with him that day. He sighed softly. Would it be taken the wrong way if he sent her an email this soon after checking in? He wasn't sure. He'd never done this before.
"Fuck it," he said, taking a sip of the Coke.
He logged into his email. No surprise he only had like five unread messages. Other than the people in his band he could probably name off a dozen people who knew how to reach him this way. One of them was his neighbor in New York. They were friendly, but John also liked knowing someone was looking out for his place while he was away.
One email was from Ricky, in fact, letting him know that they'd shown his place twice yesterday. He was glad to know the realtor he'd gone with was really trying to get the place sold. He'd been afraid being gone like he was the realtor would focus on someone who was actually there, worrying about their place being sold.
So, we made it. That was my first flight across an ocean without something in my system to relax me. No fear that we were going to plunge into the ocean along the way, so either I'm just used to it by now or I never needed the aid to begin with. I guess I'll never know. You're probably used to flights across large bodies of water, but we don't do it frequently enough really for me to be used to it.
I don't know if you want to know that Claude liked Melissa's stuff she sent him and plans to work something out with her. He said something about her wanting to use my last name. I don't have a problem with that exactly, but I don't know. Maybe you want to talk to her about the ramifications of that? She was worried that her friends would know who I was and gossip about her. If she uses my name I think that may lead to more gossip than she's ready to deal with, and not just by her friends. I feel sort of caught in the middle. I can understand why she'd maybe like to be anonymous, but I just can't help but think a name that isn't associated with either of us might be better.
My neighbor in New York emailed me that the realtor had shown my place there a couple of times already. That's good. The couple of days I spent there before heading to Tampa I couldn't wait to get out of there. I think I'm just tired of being on top of other people. Does that sound ridiculous? I don't know. Maybe I'm just getting old.
Anyway, I just figured I'd say hi and stuff. I can give you the number, but we'll only be here for a few days until we're onto the next city. Feel free to use it, though. I wouldn't complain or anything. I'll email Melissa, too, so you don't need to tell her I sent this to you. You probably figured that out already.
Oh, hey, one thing I should tell you is that if you guys do come down after Christmas for New Year's you both will probably want to bring something formal. One of my neighbors usually puts on a party and I go. It's a pretty good time. I assume formal attire for the two of you isn't a problem. If you do come down and we decide not to go, no sweat but I'd rather you be prepared. I think you'd both enjoy it.
That was an understatement. Melissa would love it because of some of the people she'd see. She'd certainly have a story to go back to school and tell if she wanted to.
All right. I'm going to see about dinner. Claude wants to see the song Melissa and I wrote together. He asked me if I'd record it with her without the band when I told him it wasn't really our thing. I said no, but I suppose that'd be a possibility. I certainly have the equipment to do it and the connections to get it heard if she wanted to. Maybe if she wanted to we could pencil in doing that in December.
I hope you have a good day.
He hit send without reading through it a second time. If he did that he'd probably edit or delete the whole thing and send nothing.
He went on to email Melissa, saying not nearly as much.
He reached into the stupid case that gave what it was away and drew out the song they'd written. He'd brought it along to look it over, sure. He was pretty impressed with her abilities, though. He didn't begin to think that talent came from him. Her mom was clearly talented. Her family was full of smart people. Smarts didn't equate to talent, he realized that. Achieving success, though, whether it was as a lawyer spoke to some talent, too. Even John could admit that.
He brought up a search engine and shook his head as he entered Claire's name. He'd never searched information on a person before. Well, not like this. Sure he'd looked up information on people, but not someone he knew for purely personal gain.
She hadn't been kidding about the offers on her company. The actual figure involved wasn't revealed, but her not having to work made a hell of a lot more sense after reading the rumored offers. She'd carved out a very profitable business for herself. He had no doubt it wasn't easy, and she'd likely gotten some help from her parents in the beginning. If he had parents with money he would've taken their help, too, to get started. One thing was for sure he doubted he'd have to worry about her or Melissa embarrassing him on New Year's Eve by showing up underdressed or not knowing how to act.
He closed the laptop then, not sure how to even process what he'd learned about her. It was nothing earth shattering, but certainly informative. Nothing about the late husband, though, beyond his name and some pictures. He was an agent of some sort, but John had no interest in finding out more about the man. He wouldn't say he was jealous, but he hadn't liked his reaction to the pictures the past few years of them together he'd run across.
He finished his Coke before going to see what everyone was doing for dinner.
"You want to go, don't you?" Ally asked.
"Kind of," Claire admitted.
Melissa was spending the night at her friend Trisha's house after the football game. Andy wouldn't get home until late because he was traveling with his team for their meet. So, she and Ally decided to take advantage of a Friday night alone.
"Well then go."
"Ally, you're entirely too nonchalant about this."
"I'm not. You want to go, go. He's not that guy. You're not that girl. The attraction is still there, though, clearly. I can't tell you the last time Andy and I spent hours just kissing on a bed without it leading to more."
"Not the point, and you know it. I mean. We kiss and stuff, but when we're in a bedroom it doesn't just stay innocent."
"If I'd known what time Melissa was going to be home it may not have."
"But it did. And that's okay. It's probably good that didn't happen."
"Thank God Melissa didn't see the hickey! I don't think I could have explained it."
"You know we'd take Scotty."
"And you've heard from him since he's been in Australia?"
"Yes. He's emailed a few times. Not obsessively, which I'm not sure I'd know what to do with. I've called him once when I guessed he'd be in his room."
"She hasn't said, and I haven't asked. He tells me when he emails me that he's going to email her, too. So I don't imagine he's emailing her more frequently than he is me."
"And the name thing?"
"I haven't asked her about it yet. I figure we have time yet. I understand what she's getting at by not using her name. My name."
"Maybe she wants to come out."
"Maybe she does, but that's up to them. I think John's being cautious. Sean and Claude both know not to say anything yet."
"Speaking of Sean."
"Oh, God, don't even get me started. He does email her with regularity."
"She tells you?"
"I ask, she admits it."
"Has John said anything else about him?"
"No. I don't think there's a whole lot he can say. He can't do anything to her from Australia. He has told me that he's not the type to bring girls to his room. I'm not sure he'd actually tell me if he did do that, though."
"I think Sean would be pretty stupid to do that."
"I think so, too, but men aren't logical especially at that age."
"And the dress?"
"Oh, God, it's been so long since I've had to wear something formal that part is almost a reason for me to go."
"You know, if you wanted to not go with Melissa she could stay with us, too. Erik and Ashley would love it."
"No, I couldn't do that. She'd never forgive me."
"You're probably right."
"Tampa in December does sound nice."
"Okay, that may be more of an incentive than the dress," Claire admitted.
"You want me to tell you you're crazy?"
"A little. It'd make me feel better."
"All right. You're crazy. Except why not?"
"That's not helping."
"The attraction is still there. He's including your child. Your child together. He's not asking you to bail on her."
"He suggested she bring a friend!"
"Do you really think he was serious?"
"No," she said. "I'm sure he wouldn't mind."
"Except I bet he wants to spend time with you two not a third person who'd make it even more uncomfortable."
"Do your parents know?"
"No! Are you kidding me? That's the other reason I'm hesitant."
"They can't do anything eighteen years later, Claire."
She hadn't meant to tell her parents as soon as she did about being pregnant. She'd confessed her suspicions to Christopher, thinking he'd help her. He'd helped her all right. He'd made her feel like such shit and then immediately got their parents involved as if she was two instead of eighteen. (No, she hadn't been eighteen on that day, but she was by the time she realized what the problem may be.) He hadn't given her the option of talking to John first. He'd never let her forget it either. Ever. In eighteen years. Somehow it even came up when Stu had been diagnosed that her transgression was coming back to haunt her and poisoning anyone's life who got close to her.
It was one of the reasons she hadn't dated. She had no babysitters at the time except her family. They would never have understood her desire to go on a date so she just hadn't. Or she'd lied about it and felt terrible about it afterward, so one date never turned into two.
Instead of her love life she'd put her blood, sweat, and tears into her business. It was the one thing Christopher couldn't pass judgment on her about because he knew nothing about being a business owner. She wondered sometimes what he'd think if he ever found out how much she got for that "hobby" of hers he'd tried to convince her to give up in favor of law school.
"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have brought it up," Ally said.
"No, I'm sorry. This is supposed to be a fun night, not thinking about stuff better left in the past. You've done amazing, Claire. I know your family don't tell you that, but anyone else with eyes can see it. Melissa is so good. She's never lacked for anything, never felt out of place despite you being her only parent for years. And look at her, writing songs that a famous band is thinking of recording."
"Don't sell her short. Yes, knowing John helped, but John didn't write the songs or anything."
Their night went about like that for the rest of it. Allison left about one o'clock. Her kids had gone with Andy to the meet so it had been a nice evening. Claire liked her kids and everything, but it was nice just to be them for a while.
She took her glass of wine with her up to her room, turning the light on in the extra closet she used for clothes she didn't wear often or that were seasonal.
How formal was he talking? Black tie? Something not quite that formal?
God, she couldn't believe she was considering this.
She glanced at the clock, adding the time for where he was and realized it might be a decent time to catch him.
She had his number by her bed because that's where she'd written it down.
'Hello,' he said.
"Hi, it's Claire."
'Oh, hey, what's up? Everything okay?'
"Yes. I have a question."
'Okay,' he said, sounding cautious.
"How formal are you talking?"
'Uh, what do you mean?'
"Well, you're in Tampa. So is it beach formal? Cocktail attire formal? Semi-formal? Black tie optional? Black tie required? White tie?"
'Oh, well, honestly, it's pretty much anything goes. I've seen it all, just formal. No shorts or anything like that.'
"What do you wear?"
"You're not saying much."
'Well, it sounds like you're considering coming. I guess I'm afraid if I do that you'll change your mind about coming.'
She laughed then.
"Can I send you pictures?"
"Yes, of options."
'No! You design clothes for a living, Claire. I think you can pick something out for a formal New Year's Eve party where I'll be wearing a tux and black tie.'
"Long or short?"
'Oh,' he said, sounding as if he was thinking that over. 'How short we talking here, Princess? Because that could be kind of fun.'
"Get your mind out of the gutter."
'Honestly. If I had a choice. I'd say long.'
'I don't know. I don't get dressed up very often, you know, so when I do it I like to do it right. A long dress fits the picture better.'
"Is my dress going to be compared to many others?"
'I suspect your dress will be one in a million and everyone there will want to know the name of the designer.'
'I know what you meant. Yes, I've gone with people in the past. They were plus ones, nothing else.'
'They weren't the mother of my child, that's for sure.'
She sighed softly at that.
God had he heard her?
"No," she said quickly. Ridiculously, she liked hearing him say that, which clearly meant she needed to have her head examined.
'All right. If you absolutely want an opinion, fine, but please not twenty different dresses. If it's between one or two or something, fine. Otherwise, I trust you. Or if it's between one or two, bring them both and you can model them for me in person. Much better way to choose.'
"You'd like that."
'You're right. I have no doubt that I'd thoroughly enjoy it.'
"How has your trip been?"
'Long,' he said. 'I mean, fine, but I hate trips like this and the one we took to Canada. We spend so much time going from one town to the next, though, I just feel like I've got another stamp in my passport and nothing to show for it.'
"Oh," she said, understanding that.
'Anyway. It's fine. We're playing well and everything. Jazmin has met an Australian woman that may be coming back with us.'
"Really?" Claire asked.
'Uh huh. They've been inseparable since we first got here, and that's not like her at all.'
'Sean has been a good boy.'
"That's very good to hear."
'I'm surprised you asked, honestly.'
"Me, too. Anyway, I'll let you go. If I make flight arrangements, I assume we're flying into Tampa?"
'Yup. Email me the details and I'll be sure I'm there to pick you guys up. If Orlando is cheaper, you can do that, too. It's not that far of a drive. I wouldn't fly into anywhere else though.'
"Okay. I'll let you know."
'Suddenly I'm looking forward to New Year's Eve.'
'Going to my first big party sober? No.'
"Ah. I understand."
'Good. Thanks for calling.'
'And have a good Christmas.'
"You don't think we'll talk then?"
'I wasn't sure. I assume you'll be with the family and I don't want to interfere.'
"Not all day."
'Well, call me before you leave or something. Why are you up so late anyway?'
"Ally was here for the evening."
"Spending the night at a friend's after the game. Ally and Andy's kids went to his out of town meet with him."
'Ah, no further explanation needed. Did you have a nice time?'
"Yeah, it was."
'Good. She's not setting you up on any blind dates between now and Christmas, is she?'
"Not that she's said."
"I'll talk to you soon," she said. She hung up then and sat on the edge of the bed. She reached into her nightstand and took out the guitar pick that he'd left on his pillow from when he'd stayed here. Such a stupid thing to keep or even be effected by. Guitar picks were a dime a dozen. She should know. She had no idea how many she'd bought for Melissa over the years. No two were the same, and no one was good enough for acoustic versus electric. It was a world Claire knew nothing about. Neither Melissa nor Allison knew about the pick, and Claire knew why she hadn't told Ally. If he'd just wanted sex he wouldn't have left something like that behind for her.
She had no doubt that plane tickets to Tampa would cost a fortune this time of year on such short notice, but it wasn't as if she couldn't afford it. She'd worry about that tomorrow. First, though, she had to pick out a dress. She had no idea who his plus ones had been in the past or how well they'd impressed anyone, but she absolutely wanted to be sure she looked her best. She had a number of gowns that she could wear and achieve that. Long versus shorter narrowed it down a bit. Tampa in December versus Chicago in December ruled out a couple of others.
Except… Who said she couldn't wear velvet in Tampa? It wasn't going to be one hundred degrees there. Was it? She'd have to check that, she supposed before deciding for sure. Tomorrow. She'd figure it out tomorrow and ask Melissa for help while she was at it.
Story ©Susan Falk/APCKRFAN/PhantomRoses.com