Chapter Sixteen
Word Count: 8,820

He woke to her touching him. Not in a sexual way exactly, which was kind of a weird thing to think. He couldn't recall ever being woken up before by someone's hands being on him and not thinking they wanted sex of some sort out of the deal. Her fingertips against his skin felt good. It made him think of what those fingers felt like against certain parts of him, which led to him thinking she was touching him in a sexual way.

"Can't sleep?" he asked, glancing at his alarm clock. It was still pretty early.

"Don't we have to get up early in order to get there at a decent time?"

"I'm not sure this early was called for. I figured we'd leave around seven or maybe half past."

"Oh," she said.

"I mean, if it takes you," he glanced at the clock again. "Over two hours to get ready. Fuck, we could really leave at eight even and still be fine."

"It'll probably be busy today."

"Everything will be busy all week," he said.

"Melissa likes the animals."

"I can see that," he said. "It's not like we have a little kid in tow where walking a bit will hurt us."

"No, I know," she whispered.

He glanced at her then, settling a hand over hers. "It doesn't take you two and a half hours to get ready to go to Sea World, does it?"

She laughed softly. "No."

"Thank God."

"Now Tuesday night."

"Tuesday night I will let you two have all day if that's what you need."

"Thank you. Did you get the numbers for salons for us?"

"I'm sure Dominick will have them for you at breakfast. He can make the appointments for you two if you want him to. Just tell him what you want. He's more than capable."

"No, that's not necessary."

"That's what I pay him to do!"

"For you," she whispered.

He shrugged. "He's here a lot without me so it's fine."

"Okay," she said.

"He already brought the dresses in for you, so clearly he doesn't mind."

"I hadn't thought about it."

"So, did you mean to wake me up?"

"Not really."

"Oh," he said, not sure how he felt about that. He was kind of hoping she'd been trying to wake him up. Like she wanted to do what happened earlier again.

She shifted her head on the pillow next to him, leaning in to kiss him.

"Since I did, though," she whispered.


She slid her hand at his chest lower inside of his shorts and cupped him. She giggled softly into his kiss.

"Why are you laughing at me? That's not very nice."

"I'm not laughing at you. I guess you like the idea of me waking you up on purpose."

"Oh, well, yeah, very much so."

"Do you…"

"Do I?"

"Have something?"

Fuck was he ever glad he did at the moment.

"Yes," he whispered. Was he mishearing her? Misreading her question to mean what he thought it meant.

"Show me."

"Well, not in my hands right now, no. I have to get one…"

She laughed softly, kissing his jaw. "No, silly. I meant show me how much you like the idea of me waking you up on purpose."

Jesus. Was he dreaming? This was almost entirely too easy. Not that he thought she was easy or even had having sex with her in mind when he invited her down here. But, he certainly hadn't expected her to just tell him she wanted him to do that with her.

He leaned over her a bit, kissing her before nipping at her lower lip a bit harder than he usually would.

"Ow! What was that for?"

"Just making sure we're both awake and stuff."

"We are. At least I am. Now if you're not…"

"No, I'm more than awake now. Trust me," he said, sitting up a bit so he could grab what she'd been asking him if he had. He pushed the covers down a bit as he returned to her side. He put the packet in her hand.

"What are you doing?"

"Proof it's in there and you're going to hold it for a little bit."


He didn't answer her. Well, not directly. He settled between her legs once again.

"Oh," she whispered as he slid his tongue over her nub the way she'd liked earlier before sliding a finger inside of her and then another one. Fuck, he wasn't the only one ready and that turned him on more.

He kissed her stomach and her breasts for a while before taking the packet out of her hand.

"Can I ask a favor?" she asked softly. Almost too softly for him to actually hear her.

"I think you're in a position to ask me for whatever the fuck you want, Princess."

She laughed softly, gasping a bit as he circled a peak with his tongue.

"Ask," he whispered.

"Anything but you on top of me," she whispered.

"Uh, well," he said with a slight frown. What did that mean? She didn't want him on top of her. What kind of favor was that? "I mean, sure. Whatever you want. You tell me."

She was oddly quiet after that. Maybe not so oddly consider the request. He moved beside her onto his back to slide the condom on.

"You need to clue me in to what you want here, Claire. You want on top, climb on. You want something else, you're going to have tell me."

She didn't move for a minute or two and he wondered what could possibly be going through her mind. He knew what was going through his. Curiosity and then some. Until she moved onto her hands and knees. An odd choice for their first time in eighteen years maybe, but considering what their first time had been like maybe not so odd.

He didn't make her wait long as far as whether he was going to give into her favor. He moved behind her, trailing his fingertips along her back and ass before setting them on either hip. It seemed sort of wrong on a few levels taking her like this. Women, in his experience, weren't overly keen on this position. Something about not being personal enough and it being too much like fucking just for fucking's sake. He wasn't going to argue with her, though. Afraid she'd tell him to forget it? Maybe, a little.

He took a sharp breath as he slid inside of her. He wouldn't deny he'd dreamt about being inside of her again after that day quite a few times. He hadn't lied to Claude when he said she was the only one he'd ever forgotten about a condom with. She made a sound or two as he pressed his length as deeply as he could and held it there for a minute. It took a couple of thrusts by him before she responded, but she did more than a little enthusiastically. She wasn't shy about letting him know when he'd hit a good spot either. He loved that about her because as good as he tried to be it wasn't easy to be that when there was no communication of some sort. Verbal or not didn't matter, some guidance or acknowledgement went a long way.

He loved the way she gripped him when he drew out of her as if trying to stop him from pulling out. Pulling completely out wasn't on his mind until he had to. He reached under her to stroke her nub and she finished almost immediately. He continued touching her like that, bringing her over once more before he finished. He leaned down a bit, kissing her shoulder blade and the back of her neck. She groaned softly at that, pressing against him. Evidently she liked that, so he stored that away hoping he'd have occasion to use that knowledge again very soon.

She had the covers around her when he got back from the bathroom. She was on her side so he slid behind her, setting an arm around her. She'd put her top back on, but not her bottoms.

"Are you going back to sleep?" he asked.

"For a little while," she whispered.

"Do I get to wake up like that again?"

"In an hour? Again? Really?" She sounded … surprised by that. Why?

"You have no bottoms on, Claire. Trust me, laying here with you like this I'll be ready again pretty quickly."

"Should I put them back on?"

"That's not what I said," he said, kissing her shoulder.

"You didn't put yours back on either," she murmured.

"Nope," he said, kissing the spot on the back of her neck she seemed to like earlier. She groaned softly when he did so he guessed she really did like it. "You didn't need to put your top back on."

"I know, I just," she shrugged.

"Whatever makes you comfortable, Claire," he whispered.

"I'm not sure comfortable is the right word," she whispered.

"Been a while, huh?"

"Yes," she whispered.


She shrugged against him.

"Nothing to apologize for. It's not your fault."

"No, I know. That had to be hard, though."

"You sort of learn to not think about things like that. I had more important things on my mind most days."

"I can imagine, but that is pretty important, too. Not that you had a choice, I understand. Doesn't mean you didn't still have needs that weren't met."

"Thanks," she whispered.

"Sure," he said,


Sea World, Gatorland, and a further drive to Daytona so that Melissa could get the experience of driving on a beach were all done in one day. He was glad they weren't the type that felt that need to stay at Sea World for hours and hours. The next day they went to Busch Gardens.

He'd never really had occasion to do this type of stuff before. He'd come down here to relax and get away, not be around throngs of people at parks that cost crazy amounts of money to get into. They were having fun, though, and he knew he could opt out of anything they were doing. He didn't want to.

It was the most time he'd spent with anyone in years socially. Sure he was with the band, but that was different. He'd never really had company in the true sense of the word before now to where he had nothing else to do while they were here. He'd had women here with him before, but they never really did things. No one until now expressed any interest in taking a drive along the coast as they'd done today before their salon appointments.

Claire spent each night with him. Also different for him. He was used to clinginess after sex entered the picture and she was as opposite of clingy as she could get. He wanted to believe that was because of Melissa, but there was a part of him that wondered. When they weren't alone there were no looks on her part that made him think she wanted him. She didn't try to touch him or anything like that either. She didn't even seem phased or upset when they were waiting to be seated for dinner last night; she and Melissa had come back from the bathroom to a woman obviously hitting on him. And that was something he wasn't used to at all especially since the woman wasn't being at all subtle.

They'd left a while ago for their appointments. He had no idea how long they'd be. He hadn't been overly surprised when his phone had rung or by the fact it was Claude. Claude knew they were coming down here and would know very well John wasn't used to company in the true sense of the word. The band would come down here and they'd do their own thing when they weren't recording.

'So you're getting along?' Claude said.

"Yeah," John said. "Fine."

'Yeah? Should I ask how well?'

"No," John said.

'You sure?'


'Where are they anyway?'

"Hell if I know. Dominick set them up with appointments at some salon."

'At your request?'

"Well, yeah," John said with a roll of his eyes at the question. Wasn't that obvious?

'Who's buying?'

"I am," John said.

Claude chuckled then.

"Why is that funny?"

'No reason.'

"I don't believe you."

'I'd say it again, but you'll just deny it again.'


'You like her.'

"Because I paid for her salon appointment?"

'I think she can afford a couple of salon appointments.'

"Sure, but these today are because of me."

'If you say so.'

"Tell me again why you called?"

'Oh, I was just wondering when they were leaving so I knew when I could come down.'


'And making sure you're surviving all right.'

"It's not like I haven't had guests before."

'Not your daughter and her mom, though.'


'So it stands to reason it's different.'

"Things are fine. We did some touristy things and today we just drove around a bit."

'Has Melissa figured out you like her mother?'

"Fuck off, Claude."

'Just be careful if she starts to think you really did this to spend time with her mom and not her. She may not like that so well.'

"I didn't do it to spend time with her mom."

'Because at seventeen she couldn't have flown down by herself?'

"I thought about that. The invitation came out without my really thinking about it, but I also figured there was no way her mother was going to just let her come spend a week with me without seeing where I live and everything herself."

'Valid point. She's a widow, right?'

"Yes," John said cautiously.

'I dated a widow once.'

"Why doesn't that surprise me?"

'I actually liked her.'

"Yeah? So what happened?"

'Not really sure. We never saw much outside of her or my bedroom and then she just stopped calling. I sort of figured maybe I gave her what she needed at the time and when she was ready for a long haul thing she decided I wasn't the one.'

"Oh," John said. "Did I meet her?"

'Maybe. She was at a couple of our shows in New York. She wasn't at all like your run of the mill woman we meet ordinarily. Never wanted to come backstage or anything.'

"Huh. How'd you meet her then?"

'Out one night. We started talking. It was after Lois died. I don't know,' he trailed off.

"Ah," John said. "And you never called her again?"

'Nah, I got the hint and took it. Figured maybe she felt guilty for needing that and she knew I couldn't judge her or rat her out. Who was I going to tell? And it's not like I'm going to run into her with long-haul guy and say anything about our time together. She was a lot of fun, you know what I mean? I don't think the word no was uttered once by her, so maybe she needed to let loose a bit and have fun.'

"Why are you so chatty today?" John asked, realizing they'd been on the phone for a while. He and Claude got along and talked, but lengthy phone conversations was not common for them.

'I don't know,' he said.

And then John remembered. It was his oldest's birthday today. He only knew that because of it being so close to Melissa's. Otherwise he had no clue when his other three kids' birthdays were.

"You going out tonight?" John asked.

'Probably,' he said.

"Be safe."

'I'm clean, remember?'

"I do, but I don't worry about you. There are nut jobs out there who don't know how to handle their alcohol and think New Year's Eve is a great time to drink and drive."

'I'll be careful. You have a good time. And compliment her, John.'

"I'm sorry. What?"

'Don't just tell her she looks nice. Be specific.'

"What are you talking about?"

'You know what I'm talking about.'


Be specific? How much more specific did he need to be other than telling her she looked nice? He expected no less from her simply because of who she was.

'Your first New Year's Eve sober. You nervous?'

"A little," he admitted.

It was going to be his first public appearance sober in an environment where he never said no to something being offered.

'Is that one of the reasons you invited her?'

"I hadn't thought about it that way, but maybe. I know she won't let me…"

'And that's how I know you like her.'

"Come again?"

'If you didn't you wouldn't care if she'd let you or not. You'd find a way. Trust me.'

"If you weren't sober I'd wonder if you'd been drinking. Go back to bed, Claude."

He laughed softly.

'Enjoy your midnight kiss.'

"I plan to," John said without thinking and Claude laughed harder "Fuck off!"

'Is she as good as you remember?'

"Don't be an asshole."

'I'm not trying to be.'

"I wouldn't know," he said quickly.

"Uh huh, okay. Have fun."

'You, too,' he said before disconnecting.

He had quite a bit of time yet before he had to get ready. Chances were he had quite a bit of time before they'd get back if he knew women at all. Not that he claimed to know women like them. John tried to picture any woman he'd encountered at more than one of their concerts who could have been with Claude. He couldn't, but that didn't mean much. He wasn't the most attentive and if they were concerts John had a girlfriend or someone paying attention to him those nights he wouldn't have noticed.

"They'll be back in plenty of time," Dominick said, as if trying to assure John.

"I know," he said. "I'm heading to the studio until it's time for me to start getting ready."

"I'll let them know when they get back."

"I'm sure they'll have other things on their mind, but thanks."

Dominick would drive them and pick them up later. It was only a short drive, and John always felt stupid having his car parked when he could theoretically walk. So, the past couple of years when he'd lived in the area Dominick drove. It had allowed him to drink as much as he wanted also, which wouldn't be a concern tonight.

He took his dad's guitar out of the cabinet he kept it in with his other ones. He had a couple he didn't play because they were collector's items. A guitar he'd bought at an estate auction for Waylon Jennings was the one he took the most pride in because it was just cool.

He did something he hadn't done in a long, long time. He just didn't need to do it anymore. Tonight, though, he turned a classic rock station on and played with the radio.

"Who did you want to play like?" Melissa asked.

"Holy fuck. How long have you been standing there?"

"About two songs," she said with a shrug. She looked a little embarrassed maybe that he truly hadn't realized she was there but not really.

"Oh, sorry. I didn't hear you," he regarded her closely then. "I like it," he said with a nod.


"Yeah, your hair. It looks nice. It makes you look a lot older than seventeen, which I'm not sure I'm ready for."

"Thank you," she whispered.

"Where's your mom?"

"Upstairs checking our dresses."

"She think they got ruined between the cleaners and here?"

"She's a perfectionist," she said with a shrug.

"I guess she has room to be that."

"Can I?" she asked, gesturing to one of the guitars in the cabinet.

He set his guitar down on the stand and walked to the cabinet with her.

"You might chip a nail or something," he said, taking hold of one of her hands to look at it.

"I suppose."

"Your mom would have a fit if you did that I imagine."

"She would," she said.

"When we get home if you want to I'm game."


"Yeah. I don't know why that surprises you. I've played with you anytime you've wanted to except in July."

"I know. I just. It's going to be late and it's New Year's Eve."

"I'm not sure what that has to do with anything."

"I don't know. There's probably stuff you'd rather do."

He scowled a bit and moved his hand a bit so he could lace his fingers through hers.

"I can't think of anything I'd rather be doing than exactly what I'm doing tonight, Melissa. If I didn't want you here I wouldn't have asked."

"Yes, but…"

"No buts. I wouldn't have asked."

"People could find out."

"I doubt people are going to put one and one together tonight and jump to two. However, if that happens so be it. I'm more worried about you guys if that happens than me. Your lives would change pretty drastically. Your grandparents," he shrugged. "I'm not good at this stuff. I'm not. I know I'm your dad but I don't see myself as a dad. I'm learning and I know I'll never be the dad you should've had growing up."

"I know."

He leaned in, kissing her forehead.

"I'm afraid I'll ruin anything if I kiss you anywhere else. I'm not rushing out to tell people, for you not for me."

"I believe you."

"All right, good. Should we go find your mom?"

"Yeah, I suppose."

He chuckled.

"This isn't the first of her dresses you've worn is it?"

"No! I don't think I've ever owned a dress for something formal or special from a store."


"No," she said with a shrug.

"I never realized your mom did that."

"You didn't really know her, though, did you?"

"No," he shrugged. "No more than she knew me I mean. I had her pegged as a type same as she did me. I didn't have the chance to find out she did things like sew."

"But she had the chance to find out you played guitar?"

He chuckled. "I was a clueless dolt back then and didn't know I should've been asking about her." He shrugged. "She knew she was supposed to ask about me."

It'd come up when they were talking about stuff in the library that he played. He'd never thought to ask if she did anything that would lead to a career for her. He would never have thought sewing would result in a career for her knowing her dad was a lawyer.

"Honestly, I had no clue how to talk to someone like your mom."

"I get that sometimes, too," Melissa said. "I guess that's why I like Sean. He doesn't see my name or my mom."

"He sees your dad now," John said with a chuckle.

"I know, but he didn't know you were my dad."


"And then Stu told me about you and I had no one to tell. I had this huge secret that I couldn't tell."

"No one to talk to about it?"

She shrugged a bit. "No one I didn't think would go blabbing it to everyone who you were."

"I'll say the same thing to you I told your mom back then. Get new friends. Everyone needs someone they can trust."

"Who do you have?"

"Claude," John said without hesitation. "That's about it. I've known him since before you were even a possibility."

"What about Billy?"

"I trust him, but not with something like this, no. Just not that kind of friend."

"I see," she said.

He glanced at the clock on the wall. Sometimes if he or the band were down here and were being creative or under the gun with a deadline the clock would get covered so they couldn't see the time. Tonight though that wasn't the case.

"We should think about getting ready."

"Are the people nice?"

"They're not going to stick you with hot pokers or anything. You've been to parties like this I'm sure with your mom for her or for your grandparents."


"No different. Just different types of people."

"Okay," she said.

"And you look beautiful."

"You haven't even seen my dress yet."

"I think you look beautiful just like that."

"Thanks." She frowned a little as she looked at him.

"What?" Was that the wrong thing to say? He was allowed to compliment her, wasn't he? Telling her he thought she was beautiful wasn't weird, was it? He certainly hadn't grown up in a household full of compliments and he was incredibly new at this, but he'd seen enough parents with their kids over the years to know that complimenting them was usually a good thing. He hadn't seen her dress yet, true, but he had no doubt she'd be even more beautiful wearing that. He'd never seen her with her hair done up and everything like she was now.

"You are going to shave, right?"

He chuckled softly. Obviously he was thinking too deeply into that look she was giving him. He couldn't deny he wasn't upset about the subject change. He'd observed how normal parents treated their children (and vice versa) over the years, sure, but that didn't mean he was completely comfortable with all of it.

"Yes, I plan on doing that."


"You and your mother keep telling me to shave. I guess neither of you like scruffy guys."


She found him in the bathroom when he was shaving. He eyed her briefly as she leaned against the doorjamb and watched him shave. She was wearing a pretty nice robe and he couldn't help but let his eyes roam a bit.

"I'm not showing you," she said with a slight smile.

"Showing me what?" he asked. "I didn't say anything."

"You wondered what I am wearing under my robe."

He chuckled. "I'm only human, sweetheart."

"I know that," she said.

"So, if not to entice me with what you have under that robe…"

She shrugged. "I was just watching."

"Making sure I actually shave? Your daughter told me I should, too."

"Did she?" Claire asked with a soft laugh.

"She did."

"She's our daughter."

"Technically, yes. It took both of us to make her, but her being who she is today is all you. I had absolutely nothing to do with it. I can admit that freely."

"Thank you."

"Thank you," he said.

"Don't let me stop you."

"Something on your mind?" he asked. He'd never had someone stand and watch him while he shaved. It was a little unnerving and kind of exciting in a weird sort of way.

"Why did you ask us to come with you tonight?"

He shrugged, rinsing his razor under the water for a second.

"What kind of question is that?"

"You could have invited us down here for the week but not the party."

"That would have been pretty rude, wouldn't it have been? I thought you'd have fun. I thought Melissa would have fun."

"That's all?"

He wiped his face with his towel and she walked toward him, sliding the towel out from around his neck.

"You missed a spot," she whispered.

"Thanks," he said, tugging lightly on the belt holding her robe closed. "Nice," he murmured as he settled his hands against her hips.

"Thank you."

He slid his hands to her ass, tugging her to him.

"And yes, that's all. I mean maybe I like the idea of going with someone who's not going to be coked up out of her mind and tempt me to do that."

"And if I drink?"

"It might be kind of fun to be the sober one in my bed for a change."

"You have been all week."

"I know."

She bit her lower lip lightly and he leaned in to kiss her.

"What?" he asked.

"Have you not…"


"Are you wishing you were drunk?"

"Jesus fucking Christ, no. Where the hell did you get that from what I just said?"

"I don't know. It's what you're used to. Maybe it's not as good for you."

"Princess, my only complaint is me wondering what's wrong with me that you only want me behind you."

He hadn't asked why up to this point she only wanted him behind her. Who the fuck was he to complain about such a thing?

"It's not you."


She sighed softly, running her fingers along his cheeks and he closed his eyes at the contact. She leaned in to kiss him then.

"Reach into my pocket," she whispered against his mouth.

"Is that code, Princess?"

She laughed softly, kissing his lower lip. "No."

"Damn," he whispered, but did as she asked.

"Here?" he asked when he drew the packet out of her pocket.

"Uh huh," she whispered.

"Where'd you get it?"

"From your room while you were showering," she said.

"Oh," he said. "Thank you."

"You're thanking me?"

He shrugged, sliding his hand along her leg to push the hem of the slip she had on under her robe up.

"I like that you took the initiative when that was your mood."

"I've been in the mood since Saturday it seems."

"Funny, me, too," he said.

He helped her onto the counter once he was sure she was ready for him.

"Stop staring at me," he whispered when he was rolling the condom on.


"You're going to make me nervous and I'll rip it or something."

"I like watching," she said with a shrug.

He shook his head a bit. "No longer nervous." Fuck did that turn him on immensely.

Hands at her hips he tugged her toward and onto him. She wrapped her legs around him and settled a hand behind her against the counter. Fuck, he could get used to this entirely too easily. He broke their kiss only to focus on her breasts. Until now he hadn't been able to pay them the attention they deserved when he was inside of her.

"You planning on being somewhere else tonight that we wouldn't do that later?" he asked when they'd finished.

"Just in case I do have too much to drink."

He chuckled. "Do I have permission to go down on you if you have?"

"You do."


He stepped away, discarding the condom in the toilet before returning to her.

"Do I have permission to do that again?"

"You do," she said with a soft laugh.


"Only because I know you'll make it worth my while."

"I will do my best."

"I do need help with my dress."


"I could ask Melissa to do it if you don't want to see it before we leave."

"Do what?"

"The zipper."

"Oh, yeah, I can do that. There's no bad luck thing to see you before a party, is there?"

"I'm surprised you know there is such a rule."

"I've been to a wedding or two. Claude's!"

She laughed softly, kissing his chest.

"I bet you have."

"I didn't even muss up your hair or anything. I'm pretty fucking good."

He helped her off the counter.

"You don't have more than one in there, do you?"

"No, I only took one."

"Just making sure because I am going to go get dressed now."

"And that would stop you?"

"If you had a second one in your other pocket? Maybe."

"Only maybe?"

"Well, you know, it would depend on how convincing you were."

"Having a second one wouldn't be convincing?"

"It would be pretty convincing, yes."

"I'll remember that for next time."

He snorted softly. "Do you need the closet?"

"Not yet, and I'm not sure it really matters at this point does it? You just saw me pretty naked."

"Not completely naked. Trust me, I plan on fixing that later."


"Yes, if you've had too much to drink I'm going to leave the lights on so I can look as well as touch you to my heart's content. Even if you haven't had too much to drink I might still do that."

She blushed then and he leaned in to kiss her.

"Let me know when you need me to zip you up."


"And hey, I'll make a deal with you on the zipper?"

"A deal? I have to zip my dress!"

"That wasn't the deal I had in mind, but if it's negotiable, let me know."


He laughed with a shake of his head. "Help me with my stupid tie?"

"Yeah, sure."

"I figured you'd know how to do those bow ties in your sleep."

"Not quite, but I've tied a few."

"I'll bet. Thanks."


He took a deep breath after she'd fixed his tie. He knew how to tie it himself, but he wasn't fast or neat about it. He usually asked Dominick, but figured this was better.

"Why do you sound nervous?" she asked.

"Oh, I don't know," he said with a sigh. "I haven't seen Melissa's dress yet, but you look…" He tried to remember what Claude had said to him about a compliment. Specific. How specific was he supposed to be? He couldn't for the life of him and he never thought there was something wrong with telling a woman he liked her dress. "Fucking amazing."

She bowed her head a bit.

"What? You do. I mean, I know you do that for a living, but never in my wildest dreams did I envision you looking this nice." He paused. "And I don't mean that I thought you wouldn't look nice."

Her dress was, much like her preferred nail polish, not a color he would describe as purely pink. It wasn't strapless but from her chest to her neck and shoulders it was some sheer lace-like material. That went around her neck and down to about half of her almost totally exposed back. The zipper she'd said she needed help with? Wasn't a very long zipper at all. There were very thin straps where her arm met her shoulder, but they blended in so well with the lace-like material that he almost missed them. The lace-like stuff was almost like a halter-type wrap or something. And the skirt part? It clung to her hips and legs with a pretty long hem that made him wonder how she'd get through the night without tripping.

"Thank you," she said.

"No, thank you, really. I mean, I know you didn't make it for tonight or anything, but you could've picked out anything and I'd never have known the difference."

"I like getting dressed up, and I haven't had a reason to for a while."

"I suppose," he said, lips getting tight at that. Had she been able to go out last New Year's Eve? It sounded like her husband had wanted to get as much in as he could, so maybe. He honestly didn't want to know, though. So, he refrained from asking.

"I'm going to go check on Melissa."

"Please tell me more of her is covered."

She laughed softly. "Worried?"

"I know Sean and got pissed off when I thought he'd done something to her. There's going to be a lot of people there tonight, not all of whom I know or know personally if I do know them."

"I know," she said. "She'll be fully dressed and we'll be ready whenever you are."

"All right. I'll come find you in a few minutes. I just need to get my shoes on and stuff."

He was very glad that Melissa's dress was far more conservative than her mom's was. He supposed to this point the occasions she'd needed formal dresses for had been school dances, maybe a wedding or something like it. If Claire made her dresses, which it sounded like she did (and who could blame her for doing that), he doubted Claire would send her out in something too revealing. Funny, he'd never thought there was such a thing before tonight.

Her dress was a pretty nice shade of green.

"Shoes to match, huh?" he asked, regarding her feet when she walked toward him.


"Yours match, too?" he asked. He couldn't see Claire's feet when she walked. That's how long her dress was.

"Yes," she said, tugging her skirt up a bit so he could see that they were indeed matching.

"Nice. All right."

This was such a strange concept for him. His life before Shooterz was really nothing more than a band in Claude and Xander's garage who played for fifty bucks a piece at dives meeting up with his life today. John had no one from his past. His parents weren't in the picture and he had no siblings or other relatives who came to concerts or anything. No friends either other than Claude and Billy anymore. People asked sometimes, but John was pretty evasive about why he had nothing from his past to speak of.

One thing he knew about both of them as Dominick let them off in front of the house they weren't going to stand there and gawk at anything or anyone. While a little different league than Claire's parents' house, he knew both of them were still pretty used to not just nice things but coming face to face with well-known people. He'd brought someone to a party like this years ago who wanted to get an actor's autograph. John had to explain to her why that wasn't possible. He was pretty sure she never understood why it was impolite to do that. Oh, sure the guy probably would have given her the autograph, but John would've looked like a fucking idiot. (The only way he'd gotten her to give up was to assure her he'd get it for her, which he did. The autographed picture was better than a cocktail napkin or something she would've gotten from a party.)

He wasn't the only one who thought they looked nice either. Neither of them lacked for a dance partner if the desire to do that struck them. The desire struck them quite a bit. John was, unfortunately, not a dancer.

He did manage to cut in on a slow dance with Melissa before the dance actually started. The guy wasn't too happy about it, but Melissa seemed to prefer John to the guy so he didn't feel bad about it or anything.

"You having fun?" he asked. He didn't stay by their side every second or anything. The first hour or so he stayed pretty close to them, but as it was clear they were both comfortable talking and mingling he'd sort of wandered around. He didn't stray far or for long. He wasn't a completely rude asshole, but he knew they were capable of handling a conversation on their own and had one another if needed.

"I am," she said. "I can't believe how many people are here."

"This is the party of the year. Pretty much anyone who's anyone shows up."

"I see that."

"Should I be worried that you're not going to think I'm important anymore?"

"What? No," she said.

"Relax, I'm teasing. Sorry."

"Oh, good. I was going to say, here I'm worried I'm going to embarrass you or someone's going to find out and you're going to get mad. If you were worried about that I'd feel bad."

"You're not going to embarrass me, you would have already if that was going to happen." He leaned closer, pressing his mouth against her ear. "People are going to find out, eventually. I have no doubt that's going to happen. If it's tonight or next year or ten years from now, I don't care. I'm not ashamed of anything other than perhaps my inability to be ready eighteen years ago."

"Thank you. I worry, I guess, and especially being here."

"I don't think anyone's going to make that leap. Your mother and I talked about this, too."


"Speaking of your mother."

"Yes," Melissa said.

"Who's she dancing with?"

He tried to make it a casual sounding question. She'd danced with the same guy more than once now. He had absolutely no business asking the question, or caring what the answer was. She was certainly entitled to dance with people. He did, though.

"Mm," she said with a slight frown. "Anthony somebody. He's from New York he said."

"Yeah, he is," John said, recognizing the guy now. He was a professional hockey player. He didn't follow the sport, but living in New York it was hard to avoid the press coverage of one of the city's favorite players.

"You know him?"

"Of him," John said.

"He seems pretty nice. He knew who Mom was."

"He did?"

"Yeah, I guess," she said.

"Oh," he said.

Did she design men's clothes? He had no idea. He supposed she would. Why not? He wasn't a suit or dress clothes connoisseur by any means. He owned this tuxedo because over the years they'd had to go to awards shows and formal release parties. He had suits and stuff, of course. Generally, though ninety-nine percent of the time he was still a jeans and flannel shirt with a T-shirt worn under the flannel shirt kind of guy. He supposed hockey players traveled to away games in suits and stuff all of the time.

"You don't like him?" Melissa asked, sounding worried.

"What? No, I don't know him, just of him."

"Okay. I mean, she's only dated that man her friend Allison set her up with since Stu died."


"I like seeing her have fun. She never does at home."

"Why not?"

She shrugged. "She's a widow. Her mom and dad…"

"I can just imagine what her mom and dad say. She should still be wearing black, I suppose."

"Something like that."

Would they flip a lid knowing she'd had sex several times now, and with John to boot.

"You haven't had any champagne," she said after a little silence between them. He'd never had the chance to dance with Claire until tonight, but he imagined how Melissa fit against him was pretty much how it would have been had they had the chance in high school.

"No," he said.


He sighed softly. "Haven't touched it since October."


"Yeah," he said.

"I didn't even notice."

He snorted softly. "Well, it's not like you're around me all the time to notice."

"No, but at our house and here now these last few days."

Christ. Is that how she thought of him? As the guy who wasn't ever without a drink in his hand? She thought he'd show up at their house and bring stuff with him?

He shook his head.

"No," he said.

She reached up and kissed his cheek.

"Good," she said as the song ended. He was going to go with her and weasel his way into the conversation with Claire and athlete Tony, but he was grabbed.

"John, man, good to see you. I didn't know you'd be here."

"Uh yeah," he said. It was one of their record label guys so he sort of had to talk to him. Melissa slipped away. She was good at doing that, almost as if she didn't want people to associate them being together as a thing.

Why the fuck did that bother him?

Why the fuck did he give a fucking rat's ass who Claire talked to and danced with?

"I hear you guys are going to start recording in the next couple of weeks."

"Oh, yeah," he said. "Everyone will be coming down here, but, yup, we hope to have something to you by March."

"Good, good. You having a good time?"

"Yeah," he said.

"You're empty. Need something?"

"No," John said quickly.

"You sure?"

"Yeah, positive. I'm set," he said.

"All right. Let me know if you change your mind. I've got some pretty good stuff."

John was certain he wasn't lying. He never disappointed where that was concerned.

"I'm good, really, thanks."

"Sure, sure. Have a good time. Where'd that pretty woman you were dancing with disappear to? I hope I didn't interrupt."

"Uh, no. You're fine." He supposed dressed as she was she didn't look like a teenager, but it'd been a while since John showed up to something like this with someone as young as Melissa.

"Good, good."

Larry went about his business and John glanced around for a sign of Melissa or Claire, but didn't spot them immediately. They had a little while to go until midnight yet and everything.

He walked in the direction he last saw Claire. Why was it when he didn't want to socialize he was stopped every ten steps or so? By everybody who'd heard a song of his ten years ago and thought they were his biggest fan.

He found them outside the ballroom near the gardens.

"Maybe the next time we play the Blackhawks you could come to the game, show me the city. I think we get there again this season yet. I bet you two know all of the best places to eat pizza that cab drivers either don't know about or won't drive you to."

John rolled his eyes slightly at that. Of course the guy would have an in like traveling to Chicago.

"Well, it would depend on when."

"Right, of course."

"And you have the night off?"

"Well, we are playing tonight, but I'm down here for my friend's wedding tomorrow. I'm his best man. He and his fiancé are inside somewhere. So, I was scratched from the lineup tonight."

"I see. How fun to have a wedding on New Year's Day. And down here! I guess they'll never forget their anniversary."

"That's one way of looking at it."

John approached them then, regarding hockey guy Tony as he did. He wondered if he had any real teeth left, and if Claire had even thought on that. Did she know about hockey? He had no idea.

He tried not to feel like a slouch compared to the guy. He wasn't. Just because he didn't wear suits to get on an airplane didn't mean he wasn't successful. He could wear suits if he wanted to.

"There you guys are," he said.

"John," Claire said. He couldn't read her to know if she was glad he had found her or not.

"Am I interrupting?" he asked.

"No, we were just talking. It's so nice out we came out here for a while. This is Anthony."

"You're John Bender," Anthony said.

"I am."

"I've been listening to you since college."

"Thanks for being a fan. Maybe Anthony should find someone to take out to the garden right before midnight who isn't already here with someone."

"John," Claire said.

"She said she and her daughter were here with a friend."

"Maybe you should have asked if the friend was male or female. They're with me."

"John," Claire said again, setting her hand against the forearm of his jacket. He glanced at her hand, noticing for the first time her nails were a different color than they usually were when he saw her. Way to be observant. Was that the type of specific Claude had been talking about earlier? He'd never know.

"It's fine. I'm sure Anthony understands what I'm saying."

"We were just talking."

"Find someone other than my date and her daughter to talk to."

"John, don't be rude," Claire said, but Anthony was already walking away.

"I wasn't being rude."

"He was talking to me."

"He was hitting on you."

"John," Claire said.

John glanced at Melissa. "Was he or was he not hitting on her?"

"He was," she agreed.

"Thank you."

"He," Claire said.

"He wanted you to take him out for pizza the next time he was in Chicago. That's hitting on you."

"You were listening?"

"I was looking for you. I listened for a minute, yeah."


He shrugged. There was the rub. Why indeed? Why the fuck did he care what she did the next time hockey player guy was in Chicago? Why the fuck did it bother him to think of someone else kissing her at midnight?

"I don't know," he said simply.

"He's going to tell people I'm your date."

"So," he said.

"John! That's absurd."

"Why is it absurd?"

"I'm not your date!"

"You aren't? Did you not come here with me?"


"Are you not staying at my house?"

"Yes, but you invited us!"

"Do you really think I'm going to let someone else kiss you at midnight?"

"He wasn't going to!"

"He was working on it."

"You can't possibly know that."

"I know that because I have eyes and if I was a single guy and you were here with a friend I'd try like hell to be your choice in kissing partners. Since I am the friend you're here with I luck out."

"You're crazy! It wasn't like that."

"Think that all you want."

"But John, people are going to think we're together."

"So? I don't care. Let them think that."


"Yeah? I don't care. How much clearer can I be about that? Neither of us are doing anything wrong to where if someone thinks that we'd have something to feel guilty about."

She sighed and shook her head.

"What did I say?" he asked Melissa. Then an idea occurred to him.

Maybe she didn't want people to think that.

What the fuck did that mean?

What did them having sex mean if that was the case?

Melissa excused herself and went further into the garden on her own. She probably didn't want to listen to the conversation any more than John wanted to be having it.

"What?" he asked. "Am I supposed to go find him and tell him you're not with me?"

"No, it's fine."

"Great. Thanks."

He sighed then.

"Maybe I was kind of rude," he murmured.

Claire scoffed softly.

"Sue me! I overhear this guy asking you out for some unspecified date I didn't like it."

"Well, it's certainly not going to happen now."

"You could take me for pizza."


He shrugged. "I can do better than the next time I play in Chicago."

"I know," she said.

"You already have my phone number."

"I know," she said.

"I already know your secrets," he whispered.

"The biggest one anyway. And it wasn't really my secret."

"Okay. You know my biggest secret."

"He was just being nice."

"He was hitting on you. Perhaps it's been too long since that's happened if you don't understand it."

"It has been a while."

"That is a crime."

"Shut up," she said, crossing her arms in front of her.


She shrugged, tucking a few strands of hair that had come out of her hairdo behind her ear.

"We can go back inside."

"You're not going to, like, start a fight or anything."

"You planning on kissing someone else?"

"No! I wasn't going to kiss him."

"He was working on that, too."

"I think you give him too much…"

"I do not. I know exactly what he sees."

"What's that?"

"One of the most gorgeous women at this party seemingly without a date and no ring on her finger."

"Stop," she said.

"I'm not going to stop. That's what I saw that day when I walked into the library and that's what I still see tonight. Eighteen years older but I'd still do whatever I could to impress you if we were just meeting tonight for the first time over anyone else here."

"Thank you," she whispered.

He stepped toward her then. He took hold of her arms, sliding them to his neck while he put his arms around her.

"I'm going to kiss you now."

"It's not midnight."

"Fuck midnight," he whispered, slanting his mouth over hers.

They both broke the kiss at the same time at the sound of a gasp.

"Please tell me that's not…"

"I can't tell you that because I'd be lying."

"She didn't look mad or anything," he whispered.


"No, a little confused maybe but not mad."

"Well, that's good at least. Wait. You said didn't?"

"Yeah, she turned and walked right back where she'd come from."

"I should go talk to her."

"In a minute," he said, not letting go of her yet.

"John! She's liable to think…"

"That her parents are kissing. She probably surmises we've done at least that before."

"That's not funny!"

"It's a little funny," he whispered. "You can go to her. But first," he said, settling a fingertip over her mouth when she started to talk again.

Her eyes opened a bit. Clearly she hadn't realized how close to midnight it was when he found her with hockey player Anthony.

"Happy New Year, Princess," he whispered, moving his finger away to kiss her again.

"You, too," she said when they stopped.

"You let me know when you want that pizza, by the way."

"I'll work on it."

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