"John," the woman at the desk said into a phone.
A secretary Claire presumed. She hadn't pictured this when she'd tried to envision what his business would look like over the weekend. She'd sort of assumed it would be a fly-by-night operation. She was mistaken. Who could blame her for thinking that way? This was John Bender: Mr. Most Likely Not To Amount To Anything. At least according to Assistant Principal Richard Vernon. Claire had never been convinced John was as bad as Mr. Vernon believed he was. She'd seen sides to him she realized probably no one else did the few times they'd hung out after that day of detention. He hadn't let her see them often, though, which was the reason they hadn't hung out more.
Claire was guessing it was an interoffice phone since he was presumably here somewhere. She wasn't sure what she was doing here. Curiosity was a part of it most definitely. He'd come to her rescue, an unlikely source for sure, so extending herself beyond bailing him out of jail to say thank you was a part of it, too. How did someone thank a person who saved their reputation? Who saved her father's corporation from being hugely embarrassed? So hugely that Claire was pretty sure if those pictures had gotten out, her or not, her father may have just delayed her position with the company for a while.
As it was, her father had let her have an earful when he saw her Tuesday after Christopher and the company lawyer had talked with him throughout the weekend. She assumed, though, that Pete and the pictures wouldn't be a problem going forward. Dad's lawyer could fix just about anything she'd discovered over the past few years.
"There's someone here to see you."
She eyed Claire curiously as she spoke into the phone. She was a little older than Claire, dressed nicely despite the fact her blouse came from someplace like TJ Maxx. Claire could tell that the woman was processing Claire's face and where she knew it from. She recognized the look in situations like this. People weren't expecting to encounter her at a grocery store or a photographer's studio so the recognition didn't click right away. Sometimes she got out of situations like these unrecognized. She'd dressed kind of down today, too, so that probably helped lessen the ease of recognizing her. People rarely saw pictures of Claire in slacks.
"Okay," she said, hanging up the phone.
"I can show you to his office," she said, standing from her chair behind the desk.
His waiting area was nice. There were a few chairs and a smaller couch to sit on with a couple of tables containing magazines. The magazines ran the gamut from Sports Illustrated to Vogue to Popular Mechanics to Ranger Rick and everything in between. The Ranger Rick made her somewhat curious, but she imagined kids came here, too. There were pictures covering the walls, his work no doubt. She couldn't help but acknowledge that he was, in fact, good at least based on the samples of his portfolio he had on display. Of course he wouldn't display less than the best work out here. There was everything, too, from weddings to graduations to newborns to family portraits and headshots.
"Thank you," Claire said, sliding her sunglasses onto her head now that she knew John was here and she was actually going to see him. She dropped her leather gloves into her latest Dooney & Bourke handbag as she fell into step beside the woman.
This was so much more than what she'd imagined when she found the address. She had no idea if he rented the space or owned it, but it didn't matter as it was an impressive space whether he owned it or not. She knew if he rented it wasn't cheap either because she was fully aware of what things cost thanks to her dad grooming her for the business. He'd almost have to be renting now that she thought about it.
"He'll be a minute or two because he's finishing up. Can I get you anything? Coffee? Water?"
"I'm fine, thanks," Claire said.
"Thanks for everything, John," a voice said from the hallway.
"Sure you bet. I'm glad I had my morning so open for you today so we could take our time. I'll call you when I have the proofs and then we can go from there. We'll find you something so you get what you're going for."
"You're the best."
"So you keep telling me, Suzanne."
"Only because it's true."
Claire rolled her eyes at the conversation and the obvious sound of a kiss that followed. How nauseatingly sweet.
"You can settle up with Ronda up front after you've gotten dressed. Okay?"
"Sure thing," he said.
Claire stood then, not wanting to be seated when he came into the office for some reason. There was nothing personal in his office she noticed. No pictures of family or a dog or anything, which was kind of strange for a man who made a living taking pictures.
"Sorry to keep you… Oh, hey."
"Hi," she said.
"You lost or something?"
"You asked me that once before if I recall."
"I did," he said, looking her over and not being very discreet about it either. "It led to a pretty fun couple of hours. I thought it was worth a shot to try the question again."
"I don't think it was the question."
He smirked then, shaking his head a bit.
"Did we have an appointment I wasn't aware of?"
"No, I was in the neighborhood."
"Well, kind of. I have a friend who lives…"
"Yeah, I'm sure you have tons of friends who live not too far from any number of places you could visit. What's up?"
"Nothing. I just thought I'd come see your studio."
"You mean to say you thought I was running a business out of a cardboard box on a street corner and had to come see for yourself that I'm actually gainfully and legitimately employed."
"No, I mean, okay a little. Can you blame me?"
"What? Is it a slow school day or something? You're not skipping your important classes to come here, are you?"
"It's Thursday, I only have one class on Tuesday and Thursday and it finishes at eleven o'clock."
"Ah," he said with a nod. "Well, if I'd known I could have had you come back instead of in here. I was just finishing up a shoot."
"I don't have anything else on the books today. I could show you around if you'd like."
"How did you get all this?"
"Is this the part where we play twenty questions, Princess? If you were just seeing if I was bullshitting you about the business you came, you saw, I'm here."
"No," she said. She wasn't sure why she was here! She just felt the need to come. Was that wrong? Bad? She didn't know. "You look better," she said.
"I should hope so. That wasn't my proudest moment."
"Does your secretary know what happened?"
"No, and I hope she never finds out."
"Ashamed of being a gentleman about something?"
"No," he scoffed. "I don't know what makes you think that. I just don't tell her what I do with my time."
"She didn't wonder why you came in here Monday beat up?"
"I'm sure she did. She's my secretary not my mom or anything so I don't have to tell her things that aren't her concern."
She closed the distance between them then, running a fingertip along the cut on his cheek.
"That still looks awful."
"Yeah, it and this one," he said, pointing at his lip. The cut there wasn't nearly as bad as the one on his cheek, but it was bad just the same. "It seems like every time I do something. Smile or squint or whatever they open up again."
"I still say you should've let me take you so you could've gotten stitches."
"Stitches are for wusses, or girls. I'm neither of those."
She rolled her eyes at that. So typical. Was that why he didn't let her help him with a bandage or take him to the hospital? Because he had to prove how tough he was?
"I've heard girls like that in a guy," he regarded her a little. "Except you, I guess."
She knew what he meant. He thought she'd stopped anything from happening between them at school that day because of what he looked like when he took his shirt off. That wasn't it at all. She just realized that anything happening between them beyond kissing, making out, was a mistake on so many levels. He was never going to bring her home to meet his parents and she certainly couldn't have done that with him and her parents. It was pointless. She'd let him think she was offended, turned off, because it was better than admitting the truth. She'd been shallow. Too afraid of their drastic differences to even entertain the idea of anything happening between them.
"John," she said.
She wasn't sure if she was willing to admit the truth now, but she didn't get the chance to say more. She hadn't been offended at all. The evidence of what his home life was like wasn't pretty, but it hadn't taken away from the fact he was a very good looking guy. She'd, in fact, never paid guys attention before that day. Not in that way. She'd never seen a bare chest except her brother's around the house. She'd not at all been prepared for her reaction to seeing John's that day.
"Hey, John," someone said from behind them. "I was thinking about those last few shots … Oh, sorry, I didn't realize you weren't alone."
"It's all right, Suzanne. What's up?" Claire moved her hand from where it was against his cheek and drew her sunglasses down. John noticed her do it; his smirk told her he knew exactly what she was doing, too. Claire stepped away from him then.
"Well, I went with the hat, but I'm wondering if I shouldn't have gone with the scarf after all."
Claire assessed the woman who was doing the same to her in return. She was pretty. Stunning actually. A model or something, no doubt. It made her wonder how good John was if someone who looked like she did was coming to him for her pictures.
"Well, when you see them if you want to do a few with the scarf we can, but I liked the hat. A scarf would cover up too much of your hair," he said. "And you have great hair, you should want to show it off."
Claire had to agree, though she had no idea what kind of pictures the woman was having John take or what she was hoping to gain from them. She had gorgeous hair that was obviously naturally curly and full. Women would kill to have her hair.
"I just think it's too much of a distraction sometimes."
"Nah, the hair is good."
"All right, well, thanks."
"Sure," he said.
"What is she trying to do?" Claire asked.
"Work," he said with a frown.
"No, I know that. I was just thinking, though, what is she trying to do."
"Why?" he asked, sounding skeptical.
"The hair. You're right, it's gorgeous. Women would kill to have that hair. However, if she's trying to, like, sell a product to women that may not work."
"Well, I could never have hair like that. I accept my limitations. Not all women can though. They may take one look at her and not want to buy what she's selling because they're jealous."
"Come on," he said.
She shrugged. "Just my two cents worth. What I know about photography or her is nothing, but I'm a woman and I travel in circles."
"Yeah, I know what kind of circles you travel in."
"I know that some of my friends wouldn't do it."
"But she'd already have the job."
"Yes, but wouldn't she lose the job if she doesn't sell what she's trying to?"
"I think we're good."
"Claire, she's not selling anything. She's trying to get chosen for a photo shoot for a men's magazine. And if she was it wouldn't be seen by many women."
"Oh," she said with a frown. "You mean?" she said, scrunching her nose.
"Yeah, I mean," he said.
"So, she is concerned about a hat versus a scarf because?"
He shrugged. "Because she's self-conscious? She wants to look her best? I don't know. Take your pick."
"I doubt she's self-conscious if she's posing naked in front of you."
"You'd be surprised, I don't know how to explain it. I'm behind a camera, I'm not looking for that reason."
"Right," she said.
"Hey, you came here. You want to insult me and what I do here you know where the door is. Use it and don't bother coming back."
"That's not what I meant."
"Of course it is. Should I remind you of the reason you're here again after years of not talking to you. I could've let those pictures go, you know? I didn't have to do a damned thing."
"I know," she sighed.
"You did call your brother when you got home, right?"
"Yes," she said.
"It's getting handled?"
"Yes, it probably already has been."
"I won't be hearing from him again."
"Good," he said.
"Yes, except I'm sure that'll get attention, too."
"What do you mean?"
"I don't usually stop seeing someone quite so soon."
John rolled his eyes.
"I'm sure you'll deal with it just fine, sweets."
"I had breakfast with one of my dad's lawyers Sunday to go over what I'd say if I'm asked."
"They ask you about your social life?"
"That's all they focus on!"
"I suppose," he said.
"I could volunteer one hundred hours a week at shelters or food banks and they'd still only focus on that."
"You've kind of done that to yourself, haven't you?"
She shrugged. She had, it was true. She hadn't thought it would get to this point, though. To the point where virtually her every move was focused on, scrutinized. She could leave her parents' house during the day just fine, usually, but in the evenings was a different story altogether.
"And you don't really care, I guess."
"My parents care." She did care. She'd never admit that to anyone because that would mean she'd have to admit that she needed to change. She wasn't ready to do that yet. Once she graduated she could figure all of that out. She just wanted to have fun until then.
"I'm sure they do. So you want the tour or have you settled your curiosity that I'm truly gainfully employed?"
"I knew you were employed."
"Yes," she said exasperated. Of course he had a job. He had a house, a car (though she hadn't seen it), and access to money from the bank. Those were all things that pointed to him having a job. She just hadn't fully believed that he was being honest about what his job entailed.
"So you want to see what I've been up to since graduation or not?"
"Sure," she said.
He didn't have to ask what she'd been up to since graduation. For the most part, her life was an open book. She was out early enough today that no one would see her come here. The people who had it in their heads that she was a newsworthy, gossip-worthy item didn't seem to find her daytime activities exciting. They probably assumed if she was leaving her house before noon during the week she was going to campus.
They weren't allowed on campus. Her father and his company contributed a lot of money with the understanding she was left alone while on campus. The police had even been called a couple of times when a reporter had tried to interview her professors.
He reached for her then and she drew back a bit. He frowned at that, plucking her sunglasses from her face. He folded them closed, handing them to her.
"You don't need the sunglasses anymore. She's gone or up front talking to Ronda. I doubt she'd recognize you anyway. She's a nice girl, but not the type to read a newspaper let alone the gossip column."
"Habit," she said.
"I bet. Ronda wouldn't tell anyone why you were here anyway. She knows better than that."
"Good to know."
"You have nice hair, too, by the way."
"Thank you for saying so, but I'd look like Bozo if I styled my hair like hers."
"That may be, but what you do with it works just fine."
She rolled her eyes at that. Was he really trying to hit on her? He probably thought that's why she'd come here. "Thanks."
"Not everyone's out to feed you a line, you know. There are some people who might just mean what they say."
"And I'm supposed to believe you're one of them?"
"I think you know me well enough to know when I'm being sarcastic."
"I don't know you that well at all."
"If that's what you want to believe. I haven't changed that much."
"You look surprised," he said when he'd gotten done showing her the studio part of things.
"I guess I am."
"Thought I was a fly-by-night business?"
"I don't know. I don't know anything about photographers other than the ones who shove cameras in my face because I'm at the grand opening of a club or something."
"Not all of us are like that. I much prefer people come to me and to stay reputable. That's all I had to start out with, my reputation. I know that probably sounds funny or ironic to you, but I was honest and fair. I had to be because I was using someone else's reputation to help me with mine. You know?"
"What do you mean?"
"Just someone who helped me out. It's a long story."
"Well, you could teach those other guys a lesson."
"You just photograph well," he said.
"I do not."
"No, you do. I mean, some of the shots they get of you are terrible, certainly. That's to be expected given the type of picture they're taking. Fast and going for surprise. In and out. There's little chance to check the flash or ensure you're focused correctly. So, the fact that some of those guys get such nice shots of you suggests to me you photograph well."
"Well, they could all disappear tomorrow and I wouldn't care."
"Why do it then?"
"Keep doing it? Going out? Putting your face? Your name out there?"
"And if I stopped? You think that'd make a difference now?"
"It wouldn't. If I suddenly stopped then they'd start going after my brother."
"There's a reason he lives his life the way he does, John, and there's a reason that my doing the things I do, living the way I live work for us."
"I'll pretend to understand."
"It just wouldn't work. They'd go after him, or they'd start going after my friends. They'd go back to high school and find people like Andy and start pumping them for information on what I was like when I was fourteen."
"So you can't ever get out?"
"I don't know! I didn't think about where I'd be or what I'd want to do four years later when it started. I mean I was having fun. The first few articles and photographs were exciting. You know? Dad didn't mind either because they were at a building he owned or was planning on buying or in an area he was hoping would become revitalized."
"I suppose it's one of those things that once you're in you can't really get out easily."
"Sorry," he said, sounding sincere. She knew he wasn't entirely. People didn't truly understand. If she had a dime for every time she heard the whole 'poor little rich girl' line from people she'd be even richer. She didn't have to like it, though.
"Thanks," she said. "And thanks for the tour. I'm impressed. You should give me some business cards."
"You're going to pass them out on your nights out?"
"No," she said with a roll of her eyes. "I do have friends who are getting married or whatever. If you don't want the business…"
"No, no, I'd appreciate that. Shoots like Suzanne are great, but I can't really do much with those pictures as far as expanding my portfolio. They make me good money, sure, but I can't build a business on them. You know, steady income."
"Then why do it?"
"Because they pay the bills? They pay very well. I have to block out the time to be sure Ronda knows no one can just walk back there. I know some may say she's posing naked so clearly doesn't care if anyone sees her, but my seeing her isn't the same as some random stranger walking back there seeing her."
"Oh," she said.
"You want to get lunch or something?" he asked, glancing at his watch.
"You're not busy?"
"Nah, I usually order in, but you drove all this way seems a shame to send you away so quickly."
"There's a pretty good Chinese restaurant around the corner, walking distance," he glanced at her then. She blushed because he was checking her out so intensely.
"What?" she asked, sounding defensive.
"Just looking at what you're wearing. Your shoes are somewhat practical so we could walk."
"Sure," she said.
"If you don't want to," he said.
"No, it's fine. I have no plans until later."
"No classes tomorrow?"
"Oh, I do. I'll go home after this and sleep most of the rest of the day."
He shook his head a little.
"I don't know how you do it."
"Like you don't go out."
"Not every night!"
"I don't either. I stayed home …" she thought for a minute. "Tuesday night. I was home Tuesday night."
"You were actually home? I find that hard to believe."
"Well, okay, I went shopping with some friends, but I was home early."
"Of course you were."
"You know you're not very nice."
"I know, it sucks, doesn't it?"
"I guess I'll rethink lunch then."
"You know I like it better when you're concerned about whether I need stitches or not."
"I like it better when you're not being a jerk."
"The truth hurts, Princess."
"There is nothing wrong with going shopping."
"I never said there was."
She sighed softly. "Why are you so exasperating?"
"This was a mistake, I shouldn't have come here. I'm not sure why I thought we might actually be able to get along now."
He grabbed her by the elbow as she started to walk past him.
"Not so fast, Princess. I can get along with you just fine, but you have to know I'm not going to let you get away with your 'poor me' routine. I understand if you've gotten in too deep and can't figure out a way to disengage from the frenzy you've created."
"I know," she sighed.
"Why do you want to get along with me anyway?"
"You did something nice for me without expecting anything in return from me or my father."
"Yeah," he said, sounding confused. "So?"
"I'm not used to that. I realized when I was out on Tuesday with my friends, actually, that not one of them would do what you did."
"They would've laughed at Pete and figured I got what I deserved for dating someone I met at a club."
"I kind of have to agree with them. Don't you screen these guys?"
"I'm not planning on marrying them. They're dates."
"Yeah, and look where that got me!"
"I didn't ask you to start a fight with him."
"Yeah, well, someone has to defend your honor because you sure do seem to enjoy suggesting to people you're not a very good girl."
"You don't know anything about me."
"I knew the minute you touched me Friday night, Claire."
He chuckled softly, leaning toward her and kissing her. She gasped softly, but kissed him back. She didn't have a choice really. Well, she did, but she didn't want to pull away.
"See, sweets," he whispered, drawing away. "I know what you kissed like that day and I know what you kiss like now. There's not that drastic of a difference for me to believe you do more than date."
"I never said I did."
"And you just made my point for me!"
Story ©Susan Falk/APCKRFAN/PhantomRoses.com