Claire showed up at the jail out of morbid curiosity. It was the only reason really. She certainly hadn't hauled her ass downtown at this time of the night to see him. That's what she kept telling herself the entire drive here. She wasn't sure she'd convinced herself that was entirely true yet, though.
'An inmate from the Cook County Police Department is trying to contact you via a collect call, are you willing to accept those charges?'
"Uh, yeah, sure," she said. "Yes," she said again, realizing 'yeah, sure' may not be a conclusive answer to the recording or whatever it was making the call.
"Yes, who's this?"
'Claire. Yeah, hi. This is John. John Bender.'
'I'm sorry to ask this. Believe me when I say normally you'd be the last person I'd call to ask a favor like this of. I was kind of hoping you'd come bail me out, though. I can pay you back tonight, I promise, they just won't let me go to an ATM in here. You know, being arrested and all.'
"I'm sorry. You're calling me to come bail you out of jail?"
'There's a reason for you being the person I used my one phone call on tonight. So, yeah, I'm asking you to come bail me out of jail.'
"There's a reason? Besides my having access to money, you mean?"
'I swear to God, Claire. You're going to want to hear what I have to say, why I got arrested.'
"How much is your bail?"
He told her and her eyes widened.
'I'm telling you that I can pay you back tonight. Once you get here and have heard me out I will get you your money back.'
"John, it's almost three o'clock in the morning. I don't know if I can take that much out of my bank." She knew, of course. Her ATM card limit exceeded the amount he needed, but she wasn't going to let him know that.
'Yeah? You don't think I'm aware of the time, Princess? Certainly you have a credit card of Daddy's you can get a cash advance on or something. I will pay you back. Come on, do an old friend a favor.'
"That's putting it on a little thick and overselling our relationship a ton."
'An old distant friend? Listen, the cop standing next to me is giving me the evil eye. I'll be here until Monday morning if you can't come get me. One phone call, remember? Think about that. I get one call and I use it on you after all this time. Please. Will you come or not?'
"I suppose," she said. She had to admit to being astounded he still knew her telephone number after all this time. They hadn't talked in, well, almost exactly four years. "You're lucky I was home, you know."
'I do know. It's Friday night. Thank you, Princess.'
"Yeah, sure," she'd said and hung up.
So, here she was over an hour later in a part of town her father would probably kill her for setting foot in. To say it was bad was an understatement. She'd heard stories about this neighborhood. She'd gotten lost, because really what reason would she possibly have had to know where the Cook County Jail was before tonight? Leave it to John to allow her to fill in that missing piece of the puzzle that was life in Chicago.
"I'm here to post bail for John Bender," she said at the desk.
There was a statement Claire Standish never thought she'd have reason to utter in her lifetime. Bailing someone out of jail. God, it was a good thing her parents were gone for the weekend or she'd have some serious explaining to do about why she'd taken off at three o'clock in the morning. It was also a good thing she'd gone home early because being followed down here would lead to all kinds of questions and gossip. Her father was already upset with her for some pictures that had appeared in the paper this morning from her outing last night. Well, Friday morning from Thursday night, she supposed it was Saturday morning now. She hadn't gone to sleep yet so still considered it Friday night.
He was very lucky it wasn't a huge amount of money, which made her think whatever he'd been arrested for hadn't been too serious. Much more than what she'd had to withdraw from her bank's ATM and she would've been exceeding her cash limit for the day, though.
She handed the money through a slot in the bulletproof glass to the officer on the other side. She signed a document or two. One was acknowledging that if John didn't show up for all of his court dates her cash bail would be forfeited. The other was to provide her address so that her money could be sent back to her (assuming he kept all of his court dates). She didn't know his address so she put hers on the document, figuring she could just give it back to him if and when she ever got it. She had a friend who had to bail her boyfriend out for public intoxication not too long ago and she was still waiting to get her money back from that. Claire wasn't holding out much hope for tonight's process being any swifter.
She sat on a grungy old chair that was bolted to the floor and five other chairs identical to it. There were five or six rows just like it in the waiting area. Clearly, they had all seen better days. The avocado green color was a dead giveaway that this area at least hadn't been updated since her mom was Claire's age. The one she chose to sit on was relatively clean. She was going to throw her clothes in the wash as soon as she got home, but there wasn't blood or anything on it. None that she could see anyway. She couldn't say the same about most of the other chairs in the waiting area. Most were just scratched and dented, results of years of use. Some, though, were discolored and misshapen. From what she had no idea and didn't want to think on it.
She sighed softly, waiting. She clutched her purse to her, nervously working her hands through the handles. She was in a police station she shouldn't be nervous or feel unsafe, but she'd heard stories about this area of the city. God. Why was she here? She was an idiot. Why the hell had she dropped everything to come get him? He probably deserved to sit in jail until Monday morning. People didn't get arrested for no reason. He likely wasn't going to pay her back either and he sure had absolutely nothing to tell her. She hadn't spoken to him since the summer after graduation. He'd just needed someone he knew had access to money to bail him out.
She stood when the doors opened down the hall and heard footsteps coming toward her, two sets of them. It had been the only activity nearby since she arrived, so she presumed it was John. Or them telling her it was a joke, John wasn't really here.
Well, no, that wasn't entirely true. He looked as gorgeous as she remembered him, but he looked as though he'd been in a fight. Bruises and cuts on his face, one on his cheek was likely going to scar it was split open so badly. He smiled a bit, but that didn't work so well because he had a cut on his lip, too. He was checking her out more intently than she was him. Typical. She was here to bail him out of jail and he was thinking about her with her clothes off.
She shook her head as he walked toward her, escorted by an officer. She should have known the reason he needed bailing out was because he'd been fighting, somehow that wasn't too surprising.
"Long time no see, Princess," he said.
"Uh huh," she said, regarding him now that he was closer. The cuts and bruises aside he looked good. Very good, and she had no business thinking that. He'd called her for bail money not to catch up or from any desire to actually see her. He knew her phone number, obviously, because he'd used it tonight yet he hadn't called her in years.
"And thank you," he added.
"You're welcome," she said.
He looked nice. His clothes were nice and even stylish despite where it was they were seeing one another again. Being processed by the police couldn't be a fun experience. His hair was still longer, even longer than it had been in high school. Four years ago. She hadn't seen him since graduation except in passing here and there when she wasn't busy doing things and going to college. Actually, she couldn't say for sure she'd seen him since the summer they'd graduated. She was rarely around Shermer once she started college. She went to Northwestern and lived at home, but she was hardly ever at the house except to sleep. Of course, she'd be graduating in a couple of months and then she'd have to get a place to live on her own, do her own laundry, and cooking. That was another thought for another day. She still had a few more months to not have to concern herself with such things.
"You can peruse all you want later, sweets, let's get out of here before they change their minds about letting me go, yeah?"
"All right," she said, dropping her purse by her side.
The cop escorting him to her didn't say a word as they left. She unlocked his side of the car, letting him in. She hadn't noticed how cold it was when she left the house. Her car had been parked in her garage, though. It was supposed to get even colder later she thought she'd heard someone at the party she'd been at earlier mention.
"You locked your car at a police station?"
"I lock my car everywhere so people can't look through it. Besides, there are criminals at police stations and this neighborhood isn't the greatest."
"If you say so."
She went to her side where he'd already unlocked her door and got in.
"So," she said, letting her car warm up a bit since she'd been in the police station for more than just a few minutes.
"Do you want your money first or to go somewhere where you can hear me out?"
"I don't care."
"Really? I figured you'd want the money and then kick me out on my ear afterward."
"No, you said there was a reason you called me. I'd like to hear why I was woken up at three o'clock in the morning."
"Woken up? I didn't think you went to sleep before sunrise on weekends. Besides, you didn't think I was just feeding you a line of bullshit so you'd come bail me out?"
"The thought did occur to me, but as you said you were allowed one phone call and you called me. It seemed a little farfetched even for you to come up with a lie like that. So, I'd like to hear why you called me in the middle of the night."
"You're not going to like it."
She drove out of the police station parking lot and found an all-night diner not too far away. She turned the car off, but hesitated getting out. The silence between them driving there was real uncomfortable. There were a ton of things she could've said to him or asked him since they hadn't seen one another in four years, but neither seemed in the mood for small talk.
"What's the matter? Ashamed to be seen with a hooligan like me in this classy neighborhood?"
"No," she said, opening the door then, working the automatic lock switch to lock the doors once he'd opened his. "I was just trying to think if there was somewhere…better around here."
"Not at this time of the morning, not likely anyway," he said.
He held the restaurant's door open for her and she went in first. They were seated and in the light the diner offered she took him in again. His face looked much worse than her first impression had left her with.
"Are you sure you don't want me to take you to a hospital first? Don't the police have an obligation to get you medical help?"
"Only if it's life-threatening. I'm not going to die, and no I don't need a hospital."
"That's going to scar," she said, pointing to the gash on his cheek.
"I'm not worried about it."
Their waitress came, looking tired and not at all thrilled to be working at close to five o'clock in the morning. Claire recognized the tired look because she was tired herself.
"What can I get you two tonight?"
"I'll just have coffee," Claire said.
"Come on, get some breakfast or something. I'm buying."
"You said you didn't have money."
"No, I said I didn't have enough on me to pay them. I have money and plastic," he said, gesturing to his wallet which he'd set on the table.
"Fine," she said. "I'll need a minute then," she said.
"I'll take a Coke to go with her coffee to start," John said.
"Sure, I'll get your drinks and check back with you."
Fortunately, the waitress didn't seem to recognize Claire. That was good as far as she was concerned. There wasn't even a double-take as people did sometimes, recognition but because she was some place out of context with where they usually saw photos of her they didn't really know who they were seeing. The last thing she needed was someone phoning in a tip that she was here with a guy, especially since he wasn't the guy she'd been hanging around with the past couple of weeks.
"Okay. So. What's the deal?"
"So skeptical, Princess."
"It's after four o'clock in the morning, John. You woke me up. I'm tired. If you just needed bail money, fine, but you said you had something to tell me. How did you know I'd be home anyway? It's Friday night."
"I took a chance given the hour that you'd be home. Clubs close, parties end."
"You're lucky my parents are out of town for the weekend or I wouldn't have been able to leave."
He scoffed. They didn't have her under lock and key, limiting her movements and they both knew that. "I'm sure that you could've snuck out if you'd needed to."
"John. You're not telling me what's going on," she said. This was bordering on being incredibly tedious. Was he just teasing her? What could he possibly have to tell her anyway? She should have known better.
"Decide what you want to eat and then I'll tell you."
"Fine," she said. "I swear to God if it's not good you're walking back to wherever you need to go. I agreed to bail you out of jail not be your chauffeur."
She had to admit she was hungry now that she was sitting here like this. She hadn't eaten since her real early dinner last night. She'd gone to a party at her friend Dawn's house, which turned out to be a dud – probably because it was cold enough for people to stay put - so she'd ducked out earlier than she'd intended to. If she'd stayed as long as she'd thought John wouldn't have woken her because she would've just been getting in. (If she would have even been home yet at all when he called.)
The waitress brought their drinks back and they both ordered. Claire mixed some cream and sugar into her coffee while John unwrapped his straw and slid it into his glass of Coke. She remembered his hands, being fascinated by them the day they'd met during detention. He had this image of being this tough guy yet after that afternoon in the closet with him she had a hard time picturing him harming anyone with the hands he'd used so gently on her. They were nice hands, though. Scarred and rough a bit, but she imagined for men who weren't her father that wasn't an uncommon thing.
"So, I run a photography business."
"I take some pretty good pictures if I do say so myself. I get published in some pretty nice magazines and stuff."
"I've kind of been developing a reputation. Every once in a while people who don't have the contacts I've gained in the past few years will approach me with things they want to sell me. I buy the rights to their photo or photos if I think I can sell them. They get paid and I potentially get paid more. Of course, I credit the photographer, but it all gets linked back to my company name. You know John Smith Photographer, owned by EMS Photography Studios."
He chuckled softly. He was actually blushing. Really? She couldn't recall ever seeing John blush, and she'd watched him pretty intently after that day of detention until graduation. Nothing got under his skin, except Assistant Principal Vernon anyway. The man had a way of weaseling a reaction out of John so easily.
"Uh well, I started right out of high school and I had to come up with a name."
"I was a smart ass."
"Yes, I remember," she said with a roll of her eyes. He didn't have a serious bone in his body, every comment that came out of his mouth was sarcastic or a joke. Eventually, it was what made her distance herself from him. She just couldn't take it after a while, even when they were alone he couldn't shed that.
"Eat my shorts."
"Ha. Really? You named your company after one of your smart ass phrases?"
She'd heard him say it more than once after that day of detention. He wasn't afraid to mouth off to teachers. Why that surprised her the way he talked to Assistant Principal Vernon she wasn't sure.
"Yeah, well, I was eighteen and had no clue what the fuck to name a company. I was filling out paper after paper so that I wouldn't get sued and whatever else I had to do to cover my ass if someone cut themselves on a lens or a light or tripped over one of my backdrops. I was tired of red tape so I just jotted down the first thing that came to my mind."
"All right," she said. She could see that. It wasn't like anyone would know what EMS stood for unless he told them as he had her. She certainly hadn't linked the name with it. "Go on. I'm still not sure what this has to do with me or why I'm the one bailing you out of jail tonight."
"I'm getting to it."
He set a large manila envelope on the table then. She'd noticed he was carrying it when he came from wherever he'd been at the jail. A holding cell, she supposed. He wouldn't have been brought to actual jail for a couple of hours. She seemed to recall her friend's boyfriend had been holed up in a holding cell until she'd been able to get to him.
"So, like I said, occasionally I get people who think they've taken a good photo and just want their name out there. If I sell it they still get the credit for being the photographer and it's something they can put in their portfolio even though I own the rights to the picture. I'm small enough I'm willing to take chances other, larger studios aren't on no-names."
"Right." Again, that made sense.
"That's not my primary business, but it pays bills when work isn't so steady. You know? I had a friend who has a journalism badge and used it for Bears games. He wasn't able to go to a couple the year they won the Super Bowl, so he let me use it. I got some excellent pictures of some of the players and stuff. One even made it onto the cover of Sports Illustrated."
"Really?" That impressed her. Sports Illustrated was a pretty big deal, even she knew that.
"I had no idea. That's great, John, really."
"So, anyway, I get a phone call a few nights ago," he said, pausing when the waitress brought their food.
"Anything else for you two?" she asked.
"Not for me, thank you," Claire said.
"No, we're good."
"All right," she said.
"You just about done then?" he asked her.
"Sorry?" she asked.
"You look like you're about ready to go home," he said.
She laughed then. "Oh, yes, I am and none too soon as far as I'm concerned. I at least look like I had a better night than you did, though, hon," she said.
He chuckled a little at that. "I bet you do. Thanks for reminding me how bad my night has been."
"At least you got someone to take care of you, that's no small thing."
"Yeah, everyone should be so lucky," John said, glancing at her. It was his glance that stopped her from correcting the waitress that she was going to be taking care of him.
She walked away then and Claire stared at him. He was busy putting salt and pepper on his eggs, but he noticed her looking apparently because he looked at her.
"What?" he asked.
"You talked to her."
"Why?" she asked.
"What do you mean why?"
"Nothing, never mind. I'm just not used to you being chatty."
"Never hurts to be nice to people. I know to you she's just the help, but maybe my little exchange there made her smile a bit."
"No, I suppose not."
"So, as I was saying. I got a phone call a few nights ago saying they had some pictures for sale I'd be very interested in buying because they'd make me a lot of money. Like potentially take a nice vacation to Hawaii or Europe for a while type of money."
"Why didn't they sell them?"
"Because they don't have the reputation or the resources I have. It's not so easy to just sell your pictures. People want proof they're real, they're yours, that you haven't stolen someone else's work. It takes a while to get trusted, you know?"
"I get that."
"So, I met the guy tonight. He sounded young on the phone, but I had no idea he was our age. Anyway, he tells me this story about his girlfriend. She's smoking hot, right? Amazing in the sack. She's not afraid to show off her prowess either. And she's fairly well-known around town."
"God, really? I have to hear this? Can't you please just get to the point of where this involves me?"
"Yes, you have to hear this. I'm telling you this for a reason, sweets. Just sit tight."
He took a few bites of his food while she did the same.
"So, he says he has some pictures of her, pictures that he can't sell because he's her boyfriend and his name can't be associated with the sale of them."
He slid the manila envelope across the table to her.
She picked it up then, glancing at him curiously.
"Do I want to look at these?"
"Yes, you do," he said, sounding very much as if he meant it.
"Okay," she said. She opened the flap then on the envelope.
"His name's Pete, by the way."
She stopped what she was doing, her heart dropping at the mention of that name.
"And his girlfriend turns out to be one of two heirs to the Standish real estate fortune. Only she's a lot more in the public eye than her older brother who lives a more hermit lifestyle."
She slid the pictures out then, gasping softly. There were seven or eight of them. The top one was pretty innocent. They got racier as she scanned through them to the last one, which was hardly innocent at all. She slammed the pictures face down onto the tabletop.
"This isn't me," she said.
"I know it's not, Princess."
"I'm not stupid. I know."
"How do you know?"
"Because I know you, Claire, and despite what the newspapers print about you you're not a slut who's out to get pregnant tomorrow. You haven't changed that much since high school. You just like to have a good time. You go to clubs, you dance, and you maybe do some stupid things. You don't take your clothes off for your boyfriend to take your picture."
"No, I wouldn't do that."
"I know. He obviously has access to some top notch equipment, though to superimpose your face onto that body and have it be fairly convincing. I mean, I have to admit at first I thought I'd finally seen under the prom queen's dress."
"Nice," she said.
"Hey, what can I say? Even thugs like me have to have a crush, I guess."
She ignored that comment, because there was no way John had had a crush on her. She intrigued him the same way that he intrigued her, they were different. It was as simple as that. She regarded him then, finishing his story in her head. The story ending with him looking like he'd been in a fight. And ending up in jail because of it.
"You got into a fight with him?"
"Well, yeah. I asked him where the negatives were. That's usually part of my deal. I get the negatives, again proof of ownership and so he can't sell the negatives to another bidder who can then later claim I stole his work."
"Right," she said.
"He said he didn't have them. Of course he didn't, because the pictures are fakes. I told him that I was keeping these, but if I saw any one of these pictures anywhere I'd make sure he got sued. A few punches may have been thrown."
"A few? John…"
"It's nothing," he said.
"So what? Is he going to try to sell them to someone else then?"
"That's why I called you! First of all. Where the hell did you meet the guy?"
"At a club."
"Of course you did. Something wrong with the guys you go to school with?"
"Well, no, other than they're boring," she said.
"Claire. Maybe," he said, tapping on the photos still turned face down on the table top. "You should reconsider boring. This guy was out to make money off of you. At your reputation and at your expense! If he hadn't tried selling them to me. I mean, someone who didn't know you wouldn't have known they weren't you. Like I said, the editing job is pretty damned good. I don't think it'd cut the mustard to most reputable places, but rags like Star or the Enquirer."
"Oh God, my dad will freak out if these get out!"
"Yeah, well, I suggest you talk to your dad and have his lawyers scare the crap out of the punk. Those pictures get out, Princess, you'll have a lot of explaining to do."
"And people won't care if they're you or not. They'll be everywhere and no offense but your reputation isn't entirely innocent. You do that intentionally I'm pretty sure, but only people who actually know you would be suspect of you posing for pictures like those."
They were quiet for a few minutes, both eating. She was thinking about Pete. She didn't know him real well or anything, but he hadn't seemed like the type. Then what did that type seem like anyway?
"So, he thought you'd be able to sell naked pictures?"
"Sure. Porn sells don't you know anything?"
She rolled her eyes, sliding the pictures back into the envelope without looking at them again. She never wanted to see them again. Even though they weren't her she still felt violated in a way.
"You still shouldn't have gotten into a fight with him."
"It pissed me off the things he was saying about you!"
"I'm not even going to repeat them. If I believed they were true I'd repeat them, but I know he was lying."
"He claims we…"
"He claims you did a lot of things, some of which are probably bordering on illegal."
"God," she said. "My dad's going to freak."
"You said that already."
She stabbed a piece of her scrambled eggs with her fork, suddenly not so hungry. This was one aspect of being somewhat famous that she hated. People out to make a dollar off of her and her name. Of course, she could stop going out and doing things that brought attention to herself, but that would be boring!
"Thank you," she said finally, glancing at him.
"Is he going to try to sell them to someone else?"
"I don't know. Call your dad."
"They're out of town until Tuesday."
"Then call your brother and get the company lawyers on it. Your dad must have lawyers just to deal with you and the things you do and the attention you bring."
She grimaced at that, but he was right. Well, in a way. Her dad didn't have lawyers just to deal with her, but the lawyers he used scrutinized every article and photograph that got published. If she did anything that could ruin her dad's name or the reputation of the company she heard about it. So far the things she'd heard about had been few and far between, which was the reason her dad seemed to leave her alone for the most part and let her have her fun.
"Today is Saturday. I realize for people like you who party all night on weekends it's not the next day until you've slept and wake up again, but for us common folk who lead regular ol' mundane lives – it's Saturday now. For this I suspect your dad will think the overtime charge will be worth it."
She sighed softly, taking a bite of her toast. She'd kind of liked Pete. Kind of. She hadn't been over the moon about him or anything, but he was fun. He liked to dance and he never said no when she wanted to go out. She'd only been dating him for a few weeks, though, so she wasn't invested in seeing him or anything. He'd seemed nice, though. Showed what she knew evidently.
"I feel like I need a shower."
"Yeah, well, I'm sorry he did that to you."
"Me, too. I thought he was okay."
John shook his head. He was eating his food without a problem. She worked at eating the rest of hers, too. She was hungry and she knew she'd go back home and crash after dropping him off.
"Where am I taking you, anyway?"
"I didn't realize you were taking me anywhere honestly beyond a bank to get money. If you're offering, though, you can drop me at my place. I'll get someone else to take me to my car. I've taken up enough of your time already tonight."
"Okay," she said.
"And thank you. You didn't have to come, to trust me."
"That's what old friends are for, right?"
"Yeah," he said, though he didn't sound as though he liked hearing her say that.
"Do you always meet people on Friday nights?"
"I go where the money takes me, Princess."
She rolled her eyes at that, but she could understand that she supposed. Of course money wasn't a concern for her. She was going to get her degree in the spring in Finance and eventually she'd work for her father, but she was in no hurry to start doing that right away.
"If they'd been me?"
She shuddered at the idea of Pete selling those pictures to someone who would think they were actually of her. That pissed her off!
"I would have bought them, the negatives, too, but we'd still be having this conversation."
"Really. You don't deserve that. No one does, but I know you so I take it a little more personally when people try to hurt someone I know."
"Well, thank you. More people should have someone like you looking out for them."
"More people aren't you and don't live like you do."
"I know," she said.
She finished eating, pushing her plate aside. She handed the envelope back to him as she took a sip of her coffee. It was pretty good coffee, actually. She'd expected this time of night for it to be old and as thick as mud, but it was pretty fresh and good and strong. She'd need it if she was going to drive him home and then have to go home herself.
"Keep it, you'll need to give it to your dad or brother."
"Don't forget about this, Claire. You call him as soon as you get home and get the ball rolling."
"Was he in jail, too?"
"He was. They arrested both of us. Chances are the bar will drop the charges, but we'll still have to show up at the hearing."
"I didn't see him."
"I was kind of hoping he'd try to call you, too, and since you were on your way to get me you'd miss his call. Then he'd wonder where you were until four in the morning on Friday night if you weren't with him."
She laughed a little at that. Pete didn't know her friend Dawn so hadn't been invited to the party. It wasn't the type of party that you were really allowed to bring guests to. Unless those guests warranted being on the guest list themselves. Pete didn't.
"I'm not sure he'd call me to bail him out of jail. We haven't been dating that long. I would have asked questions, too. I'm not going to date someone who gets arrested every weekend."
Their waitress dropped their bill off, which John took.
"No, I'm buying," he said when he saw her reach for her purse. "You hauled your ass downtown at an ungodly hour, taking me at my word that I had a reason for calling you. Thank you. And we'll stop at an ATM on our way back to my place so I can pay you back for the bail money."
"Yeah, about that. They'll send me the money back once your case is dismissed."
"Yeah, I know. You can keep it."
"John. I'm not going to keep your money."
"Well, after tonight you'll know where I live anyway. You can bring it by if you want whenever you get it because I will show up for my court dates."
He left money on the table to cover their meals and a pretty generous tip she noticed. She paid attention to things like that. She'd never been a waitress, but she had friends at Northwestern who were working their way through school doing it. They earned next to nothing and their tips were really their main source of income. She'd actually stopped going out with someone who wasn't a good tipper. If he was too cheap to pay someone for their service he wasn't in her league.
"Wow, this is real nice," she said when they arrived at his house. It was a pretty old bungalow. It was on the small side being a single story, but it was nice and in a decent neighborhood. The ride to his house was weird to say the least. They weren't best friends four years ago. She had no idea what to say to him now so they'd both seemed to let the music WLUP was playing serve as the noise in the car on the way there.
"Thanks. I like it," he said. "And you don't have to sound so surprised."
"Surprised that you own a house not even four years after high school graduation?"
"I've been busy," he said simply with a shrug. "Come on in if you want, unless you have somewhere to be."
He got out of the car and she did the same. They'd stopped at a bank on the way here so she already had her money.
"I don't, no, just sleeping."
"No breakfast plans with Pete?"
"No," she said. "I won't see him again. Does Pete know that you know me?"
"No! I didn't say anything. He's probably wondering why I got so violent about some naked pictures. Most guys would be salivating over them."
"Well, yeah. You're you. Most guys would give their left nut for the chance to see you without your clothes on."
"You looked at them, though."
"Well, of course I did, I had to know what he was trying to sell me. If they were just pictures of you riding a horse or something," he shrugged.
"You would have sold pictures of me?"
"No, but I wouldn't have beat the shit out of him for trying to sell them to me. I would've told him I couldn't sell them and let him take them elsewhere."
"I'm not out to make money at someone I knows expense."
She followed him to his porch. There was a screen door that led onto a screened-in porch, which appeared to go around to one side of the house. He held the door open for her and then he unlocked his front door.
"How long have you lived here?"
"About six months."
"Apartment living isn't for me. I did it, but once I had enough to make a down payment I did. I have a basement so I can setup some equipment down there to develop my pictures here if I want to."
"It's nice," she said.
"You're just saying that to be nice, I can appreciate that, but thank you."
"No, it's nice, John, I'm not. It's pretty old."
"It is, yeah, from the forties."
"That porch is great."
"Yeah, that was one of the reasons I bought it actually. Most of the houses with a floor plan similar to this one don't have such a large porch. The people I bought it from, though, added on the extension going along the side of the house and screened it in."
"I bet that will be great in a couple of months. Being able to sit outside without having to worry about flies or mosquitoes."
"I am looking forward to it, for sure."
They were in his living room now and she realized she had absolutely nothing to say. Not for lack of wanting to. She wanted to ask him a bunch of questions, but she just couldn't bring herself to do it because she'd sound entirely too … interested. He hadn't been real receptive when she'd expressed interest before so she didn't want him to think she was doing that again.
He didn't know what to say either. He'd invited her in to be nice more than likely. She'd complimented his house so of course he'd invite her in to see the inside.
"Listen, I'll let you go. Thank you. I don't know if I ever specifically said thank you for what you did. I'm sure some people would have told Pete you wouldn't buy them and left it at that, figuring I got what I deserve for living the way I do."
"Don't mention it."
She reached up and touched his cheek then, running her thumb under the gash there. He winced as she expected he would. It wasn't bleeding freely anymore, but it hadn't stopped bleeding entirely yet either. It was that deep, which meant he really should've gotten stitches.
"Yeah, that's going to scar, John."
"One more won't make a difference."
"Yeah, but it's on your face."
"So?" he shrugged.
"Do you at least have something to put on it? Some ointment? Band-Aids?"
"Do you want some help?"
He scoffed. "I'll be fine. Really." He held out his hand, pointing at the back of his hand. "I had a run in with my power drill a couple of months ago."
"Oh my God," she said. She touched him then, running a fingertip along the spot. He was lucky he hadn't done more damage than he had.
"It could have been real bad."
"It looks like it was pretty bad," she said.
"It healed. So, you see. I'll be fine. Don't sweat it, but the concern for my physical appearance is appreciated."
She slid her hand up further along his forearm, pushing his sleeves up as she went.
"What are you doing, Princess?"
"Just looking," she said. She found the scar he'd shown them the day of detention. It wasn't the only one she knew first hand, it was just one of only a few that were visible.
She slid her thumb along the scar tissue there. He drew his arm away then as if she'd burned him all over again.
"Listen. Thank you. If you want a Coke for the road or something I have plenty. I don't do coffee, though, sorry."
"It's okay. I'm fine. I'm glad you called."
"If I'd called not about the pictures?"
"I'd probably still be glad you called."
"You'd still be dating Pete."
"I wasn't serious about him or anything."
He scoffed at that, as if that was a given. She supposed it was. Her love life was a common topic in the social pages of the Sun Times and Tribune. She had a reputation for changing boyfriends faster than most people changed their nail polish.
"So I could call again? Not about the pictures?"
"You could if you wanted to. You have my number obviously."
"Yeah? You want to pencil me in for another cup of coffee some day?"
"Sure," she said. "I like coffee."
"I can't stand the stuff myself, but you name the date and time, sweets, I'll be there."
"What are you going to do now?" she asked.
She eyed his living room again. It was pretty spacious, most likely it meant a room on the other side of it was smaller as a result. It wasn't huge, but he had enough room in here that he could have a few friends over and not be sitting on top of each other.
"Crash. I wasn't planning on being up until after six o'clock in the morning when I went out last night."
"Oh, I suppose."
"I know for people like you it's just another day."
She sighed softly, trying not to let his comments bother her. They did, though. He'd never understand what it was like.
"Do you need a ride to your car?" she asked.
"I can swing it later."
"Okay," she said.
She reached up and kissed him then. She kissed his cheek first, but then found his mouth. He gave a soft noise of surprise, but he didn't pull away as he'd pulled his arm away from her touch a minute ago. God she hadn't kissed him since that day, but she'd never kissed anyone like him since. She wasn't sure what that meant exactly. She didn't prolong the kiss too much or anything, drawing away before she could do anything ridiculously stupid. Or desperate seeming. She wondered briefly what he'd say if she told him she didn't want to drive home. Probably the wrong time to say something like that, considering he'd just seen potentially scandalous pictures of her. She didn't draw away completely, though, sliding her mouth to his cheek to kiss the edge of the cut there.
"What was that for?"
"Thank you," she whispered.
"Don't mention it, Princess. You drive safe."
"I will," she said.
He followed her out to the screened-in porch, watching as she walked toward her car.
"Yeah?" She stopped midway along his sidewalk and turned to face him.
"You don't have to go, you know. No one knows where you are, so they're not going to find your car parked in my neighborhood or anything."
Her heart skipped a beat at the question. How tempting it would be to say yes, to not go home and stay the night with him. She sighed softly, knowing she couldn't do it when all was said and done. She wasn't that kind of girl, regardless of what everyone in the city of Chicago and its surrounding suburbs thought, and John wasn't the kind of guy she needed to be spending the night with. She wouldn't be able to stomach being just another notch to him.
"I have to go, John," she whispered.
"It's at least kind of tempting, though?" he asked.
She smiled at that. "Yeah, it's a little tempting."
"Well, that's better than a flat out fuck you, I guess."
"Good night, John," she said, turning around again to head toward her car. If he followed her, if he asked again she wasn't sure she'd be strong enough to say no a second time. He didn't, though. He stayed on his porch, watching as she started her car and drove off.