Claire stirred at the sound of a car pulling onto the driveway. Finally. She'd been here for what seemed like hours. She thought he'd never come home. Of course she had no idea what he did on Saturday nights to know he'd even come home at all. Then she got a real sickening feeling in her stomach at the thought of him not coming home alone to find her sitting here. God that would be all kinds of embarrassing, especially if the same two women she'd seen leaving his house a few months ago were with him.
She was so stupid to even come here. She knew that when she got out of the cab on his driveway. When it got down to it there was no one else she trusted, though, not completely. She wasn't sure what that said, about her or the people in her life. Maybe another time she'd think on that. For now she was just worried he'd tell her to leave and not at least let her use his phone to call another cab in order to be able to do it.
She'd never had anyone talk to her the way he did. Ever. Never mind someone shut the door in her face when she was trying to apologize. She'd waited for a few minutes that day, too, knowing he'd seen the tears in her eyes. He hadn't bitten, though. She'd never had that happen either. Her tears usually got her exactly what she wanted.
She listened as he shut off his car, obviously not his TransAm judging by the sound. She'd dated a guy last year who could talk about nothing but sports cars for the few weeks she saw him. She knew the difference in sound between a Jeep and a TransAm thanks to him. She heard the sound of him closing the garage door. He didn't have an automatic garage door it seemed. She heard him tug on the handle, checking to be sure it was locked she imagined. She had vague recollections of her grandparents' garage, her mom's parents not her dad's, when she was little not being automatic and having a lock on it. That was her only experience with such things.
She heard these things because the night was incredibly still and quiet tonight. Granted, it was very late, but his neighborhood was nice. She grew up accustomed to not being able to hear her neighbors, but she knew not everyone had that luxury. Other than the distant hum of air conditioners running in neighboring homes (not in his she noticed) there were no sounds.
She stood then, clutching her shirt front to her as she made her way out of his porch and onto the steps. She'd taken a seat inside the screened-in porch when it was obvious he wasn't going to be home in a few minutes. A few minutes had turned into a couple of hours. She was hotter than hell. It had gotten over one hundred degrees today, but she wasn't going to complain about the heat after her night. It was the least of her worries really, and somehow she doubted John even cared what she looked like.
He must have heard the screen door because he didn't seem surprised to see someone on his steps. He did seem surprised to see her there, though. She thought for a moment he might have looked happy to see her or at least not mad she was here, but the look was fleeting if it was even there at all. It was dark and his light on by the sidewalk wasn't real bright.
"What are you doing here?" he asked.
"I had nowhere else to go."
He scoffed. "Did the world suddenly fall into a huge vacuum and you and I are the only two people left?"
"No," she said, biting back the smart retort she wanted to say. Arguing with him wouldn't get her anywhere. She deserved what he said to her. She'd been … rude and condescending and, he'd been right, she'd accused him of not being trustworthy. She knew he was, but she really hadn't meant it like that. He didn't understand what it was like, someone always having an ulterior motive. She wanted to explain, that's why she'd come here the next morning. He hadn't let her. She'd never in her entire life had someone shut a door in her face. Ever. She vowed never to speak to him again, too, as a result. No loss, really, it wasn't as if they were best friends or anything.
"What are you doing here, Claire? It's almost two in the morning. I've had a long, very hot day, and I'm tired."
"Where were you?" she asked, noticing how nice he looked. "I mean," she added, not wanting him to think she was asking him to be accountable for where he'd been. She wasn't, though she was curious where he'd gone dressed in a suit. "You look nice."
"Yeah?" he asked.
"Yes," she said.
He squinted, regarding her but probably couldn't see her any better than she could see him. She really only saw that he was wearing a suit.
"I had a wedding."
"Really? In this heat? That poor bride."
"Yeah, she was ready to shuck her dress about the time the ceremony started."
"I can imagine."
"What's up, Claire?" he asked, joining her on the steps and then she knew he saw.
"Jesus. What happened to you?" he asked. He reached for her, drew his hand away without doing it. He made a fist with his hand, though, she noticed.
"Don't nothing me, Claire. You almost look as bad as I did the night I first saw you. Actually, other than the split lip maybe worse."
"I haven't looked at myself yet. You don't have a mirror on your porch."
He looked away from her, shaking his head as he glanced to the street. She could almost see him thinking, processing, and deciding what to do. She wasn't sure which John she was going to get tonight. She only hoped the one that liked her at all, even just a little bit, would win.
"Where is your car?"
"Downtown in one of Dad's parking garages."
"I took a cab from the club I was at to the police station. I didn't want to leave and be followed to my car. They would've of course followed me to the police station."
"Why'd you go to the police station?"
"Because someone attacked me!" Was that not obvious? Did he think she did this to herself? Then, he probably thought she was capable of just about anything.
"Why are you here then?" he asked, sounding confused. She supposed she couldn't blame him for being that way.
"Because they wouldn't believe me. Well, they sort of believed me but I could tell the officer I was trying to file a report with maybe thought I got what I deserved."
"Did you call your dad?"
"No, I really don't want to involve him. I just wanted to clean up and go home."
He sighed heavily, shaking his head. He muttered something but she couldn't hear him, which was probably intentional on his part. He didn't look happy, at all, but whatever he was feeling didn't seem to be directed at her. For the moment anyway. She knew with them that could change quickly.
He stepped past her on the stairs, his arm brushing against hers inadvertently. He reached for the screen door and opened it, holding it open.
"You coming in or not?" he asked.
"You didn't invite me."
"Like I'd tell you to leave looking like that," he said.
"I really am sorry," she said. "To just show up and all. I mean, if you have someone coming over."
"I don't. I was working not on a date. And you had to know I wouldn't do that."
"You hoped right, Princess."
"How long have you been here anyway?"
He must have noticed her purse on the small table next to the chair she'd been sitting on. It was a comfortable chair. Actually, all of the furniture out here looked very nice. From what she could see of it in the dark anyway. When she'd been here last it'd been empty. It was strange to see John have something so homey looking. He didn't strike her as the type and she wondered who might have picked the stuff out with or for him.
"Since before twelve, I think."
"You could have paged me."
"I didn't have any way to do that!"
He'd given her his beeper number the day she'd visited him at his studio. She'd never used it, though she'd been sorely tempted to the past few months. Call it, put in a number he wouldn't recognize as being her, and trying to apologize again for the things she'd said that day. She'd never done it, though.
"I suppose not," he said.
"You wouldn't have answered me anyway."
He nodded a little at that as he unlocked his door, pushing it open and letting her pass through. He flipped a light switch on next to the door and set his suit coat over the back of a chair close to the door.
He set a hand against her cheek and she winced with a hiss. His touch was gentle, but it still ached.
"Why'd you come here?"
"Because I knew you wouldn't tell anyone about this."
"Claire, someone attacked you…"
"I just want to get cleaned up. Okay? Please. I just want to get cleaned up and go home."
"Yeah, sure," he said, seeming to understand.
He probably did in a way now that she thought about it. The times he'd had to go to school hurt or whatever were probably endless. He'd probably wanted those times the same thing she did right now. To just curl up in bed and sleep the pain, anger, and humiliation away. "I have stuff in my bathroom. Come on back."
"Bathroom's through there. Have a seat on the tub or whatever I'll be right in."
"Okay," she said.
She went in, finding the light switch. He had one of those huge antique tubs that could fit a couple of people. She blushed at that, wondering if he took baths with his girlfriends. She had faces to put with two of them. She shook her head, dismissing those thoughts. God, that had bothered her more than she ever knew something could bother her. Coming face to face with the fact that while he kissed her he was doing things with other women. She didn't think they were involved or anything, but she thought he'd felt something for her.
She sighed, running a fingertip along the edge of the tub while she waited for him.
What she knew about men and relationships was so little. She acted as if she knew a ton, but really she didn't have the first clue. It was the reason she didn't date anyone for real long. She didn't know what to do with them. Not really. She was too young to get married anyway, so what was the point of getting serious with someone.
"Here," he said. He came into the bathroom, handing her a shirt.
"What's this for?" She frowned, glancing at it.
"Well, it's either put one of mine on or sit there and clutch yours in front of you for dear life like you think I'm going to repeat what whoever did that to you did. I've seen a bra or two before in my lifetime, including yours once. I get why right now you may not be in the mood for me to see you like that, though, so I figured maybe a shirt that covered you up was in order."
He sighed, taking his hand and the offered shirt away. "Don't worry about it. If you don't want to wear it, that's fine."
"No, I'm sorry. I just wasn't expecting," she said, standing from the tub. She wasn't expecting him to be so nice. Not really. She didn't think he'd turn her away, but she figured he'd be nasty about it while doing the right thing.
Why was it so hard to talk to him? Why was it so hard for them to be nice to one another? She liked him, more than just a little. She thought he did, too. Once upon a time she'd been sure he did, but she was so different then than she was today. He wouldn't think so, she knew.
"Thank you," she said, taking the shirt from him.
"Yeah," he said.
She couldn't help but smile a bit at how quickly he left the bathroom when he saw she started to take her shirt off. It buttoned, but most of the buttons were gone now and it was ripped so badly in a place or two it wouldn't have mattered if they were still in place.
She worked the buttons on his shirt with shaky fingertips, running her fingers along the cuffs. She rolled them up so they weren't covering so much of her arms. This wasn't a dress shirt like he was wearing tonight with his suit. It was like the shirts her brother wore to work around the house. Too hot really for her to wear a long sleeved shirt, but she admitted it was better than being exposed so she wasn't going to complain.
He came in a few minutes later, having changed himself.
"I guess it's my turn to ask you if I need to take you to the hospital."
"No, just do whatever you need to do to clean them up."
"No, not your face. Did he? Uh," he cleared his throat.
He glanced at the floor, there was that fist again. Was he really so mad at her that he wanted to hit her? Maybe he thought she'd asked for it, too. She knew that was what the police officer was thinking even if he didn't say it outright. Maybe she shouldn't have come here, but his house was the first place she'd thought of when she got into the cab and the driver had asked her where he was taking her. "Are you hurt anywhere else? You know, that I, uh, can't see or touch?"
"Oh, no. He stopped before doing anything like that."
"I don't know! Someone scared him I think. I really don't know."
"Did you see him?"
"Not really. It was crowded. I remember passing a couple of people before he grabbed me, but it happened so fast. I couldn't tell you anything about them, though. The policeman asked me that, which I'm sure was part of the reason he wouldn't believe me."
"The policeman was an asshole who didn't want to believe you because that would've meant actually working on a Saturday night."
"I felt so stupid. I didn't really have time to think. I froze. Completely. I had no idea what to even do. I mean, it was like my brain just stopped working, wouldn't even process that I should try to hit him or something. On the cab ride here I realized I could've hit his face with the back of my head or kicked him with my heel, but a lot of good thinking about doing that would've done me an hour later if he had done more."
"I get it, Claire, more than you probably realize."
She regarded him for a minute. Times like this he was so sincere and she could see the pain in his eyes. Not because of what happened to her tonight, though that was probably there, too, sure. His pain was her talking about how she felt and he could relate to it. In his case, though, he'd known who was doing those things to him. He had a face and a name to go with the pain caused to him. His hadn't been just one time either. Had he wanted to fight back? He was a big guy, so why hadn't he? Fear? Or something else? She had a friend who was in a bad relationship. No one understood why she stayed. One black eye was explainable, but there were too many things that just didn't add up. Something made her stay, though. In John's case it was different, he was dependent on his parents' at the time. What else was he going to do? Where was he going to go?
"You must have been scared," he said.
"I was petrified. I mean, I had no idea what to do."
He walked to a cabinet in the corner on the other side of the tub. She watched as he grabbed a cloth. He was nice to watch. He was muscular without being too bulky, but there was no difficulty seeing his muscles flex when he did things like reach for stuff. He ran it under some water and came back to her.
"You should take some self-defense classes. I mean, I can't believe you haven't already. If I was your dad…"
"You'd make me take them?"
"Well, yeah. You go out all over the city, stay out all kinds of crazy hours, and are in clubs where who knows who all goes there."
"I never thought I'd need it."
"No? Really? Never until tonight?"
"No! I mean, guys have gotten touchy, sure. No one's gotten offended when I've said no, though."
She'd probably led a pretty charmed life to this point. She wasn't hurt real bad or anything, she knew. Some cuts and scrapes, a bruise or two. Her cheek was throbbing, though, because she'd been pushed face first into the wall after he'd spun her around so she was facing away from him. She'd knocked her head pretty good against the wall when he'd initially grabbed her. So hard, thinking about it in the ride here, she'd almost wondered if he'd been trying to knock her out. It hurt pretty badly actually now that she was sitting here thinking about it. It had been throbbing in the cab on the way here. It didn't feel a whole lot better now.
"You're lucky," he said.
"Yeah," she said. "Usually, I'm some place where they know me."
"Or your dad," he said.
"Him, too, so they kind of look out for me and my friends."
"Tonight you weren't?"
"No. My friend Alyssa wanted to try this place she's never been before. I'd been there a couple of years ago and it wasn't that bad."
"It's pretty bad."
"Where's your friend now?"
"I left! She and the rest of them are probably still there."
"They don't even know you left?"
"No! I couldn't button my blouse. I knew I looked a mess. I wasn't going to hunt for my friends in a crowded place looking like that. I left, hailed a cab, and went to the police station."
"Where the cop wouldn't believe you?"
"He thought you ripped your blouse yourself?"
"I don't know what he thought. He probably thought I did something to make the guy think…"
"Yeah, I know cops like that," John said. "I'm sorry you came up against one. There are some that aren't so bad."
He went to the sink again, opening the medicine cabinet there. She liked watching him do these simple things. It was his house, so of course he knew his way around and everything. He was just so comfortable here. In his house. He seemed happy here, and she was glad. The John from four years ago she never imagined seeming happy.
He came back with some ointment, applying it to a couple of the scrapes and small cuts on her cheek and forehead.
"He came at you from behind?"
"Yes," she said. "Well, no." She closed her eyes, picturing it. "He grabbed my arm and slammed me up against the wall. I hit my head so hard that I thought I broke a tooth or something I bit down so hard. Then he," she shook her head, trying to remember. "I don't remember. It happened so fast. He was just behind me. He tried to unbutton my blouse and got mad I guess that he couldn't work the buttons. His hands, his fingers were too big I think," she sighed softly. That was the impression she had but she couldn't really remember.
He cussed softly. So softly she couldn't hear exactly what he'd said, but she knew it was something bad.
"You're pretty lucky you're wearing pants tonight. You know that?"
"What?" she asked. What did pants have to do with anything?
He shook his head, clearly realizing she didn't know what he meant.
"You're not wearing a skirt. I assume you haven't changed habits that much so you don't wear nylons when you wear a skirt. It wouldn't have taken him much to do something pretty bad. I'm saying you're lucky you were wearing pants tonight so he didn't have easy access to under your skirt."
She smiled a little at that. Not the last part but the fact he remembered she wasn't fond of wearing nylons. She hated the damned things, especially when it was as hot as it was tonight so she wouldn't have worn them if she'd worn a skirt or dress tonight. "I almost wore a skirt. At the last minute I changed my mind, I have no idea why."
"You're very lucky. He would've known you didn't see his face either."
"Yeah," she said, her eyes falling closed as he smoothed the ointment along her cheek. He was so gentle about it. "I wondered on the way here if he was trying to knock me out or something."
"He hit your head against the wall that hard?"
"It's still hurting?"
"Yes," she said.
"I'll check that out in a second."
"Thank you," she said.
"For this. For letting me in. For listening to me."
"You're welcome, Princess."
"How did you become a photographer?"
"I was wondering when you were going to ask me that."
"I don't know. I wondered when it would dawn on you that I went from loser of the century to someone with a small yet fairly reputable and profitable business."
"You weren't a loser."
"You remember old man Fitzgerald?"
He shook his head.
"You probably wouldn't remember him. He took some class pictures back in grade school. Kindergarten and first grade, I think and then they switched to some bigger-named studio. He lived in my neighborhood. Nice old guy. He was a widower, lost his wife and unborn baby after World War II. For whatever reason he was nice to me. He was a photographer. He collected cameras, too. He gave me one when I was maybe eight or nine. One of those Instamatic things. Remember them?"
"I do," she whispered.
"I was so excited. I had to hide it from Mom and Dad because they would've pawned it if they saw it. I took pictures of everything. Rocks. Dandelions. My dad's pickup. A bird in the yard. Whatever. He showed me how to develop the pictures and everything. I was hooked. Eventually, he gave me access to better cameras. Until my dad caught on."
"Dad thought there was something abnormal about a grown man not being married or having kids."
"Yeah, you know, he thought he was doing inappropriate things with me."
"Dad was ready to call the police on him and everything."
"Why didn't he?"
"I promised never to set foot in his house again," he shrugged. "I stayed true to my word. Had to because you can guess what would've happened if I wasn't. It didn't stop me from meeting him other places, though. I just had to give him my film to develop the pictures. He helped me get started selling some of my pictures. He's the one who made me realize I could make a living doing that. While you were worrying about prom dresses and stuff I was trying to get as good as I could get. It's how I've sold the stuff I've sold, have the contacts I have. Through him and his experience. I've tried to remember that when I've dealt with people, you know? I mean that he vouched for me. Without his contacts I wouldn't have sold shit over the years, I know that because it's not easy. I thought after selling a couple handfuls of things I'd be in everywhere, but it just doesn't work that way."
"I'm sorry about your dad. That he did that. That he tried to take something away from you that you obviously not just liked but were good at."
"He died after our senior year. You were in school already I guess, I think it was the fall. I can't remember. He left all of his supplies and equipment to me."
"Yes. He had a sister who had everything moved to a storage unit for me. She let me go through his house and take a couple of things. He was a nice old guy and if it wasn't for him. Well, I don't know where I'd be today. It turns out I'm pretty good actually. I don't know if he saw that in me or what."
She was quiet for a minute or two after that, processing what he'd just told her.
"I do trust you, John."
"You have a funny way of showing it."
"I do," she said. "It's instinctive, you know? I don't mean to do it. I really don't, but in my experience."
"Everyone has an objective?"
"No objective here," he whispered. "I have nothing to gain."
He drew away then, sliding the cap back on the tube of ointment. He washed his hands at the sink and came back to where she was sitting on the edge of his tub. He slid his hands to the back of her head then and she winced, hissing softly at the contact when he found the worst spot. All around where he was focusing on right now was sore, but that part was the worst.
"You, uh, were alone tonight," she said, trying to distract herself.
"Yeah. I told you I was working. I don't bring dates to work things." He drew back a bit, but didn't stop touching the back of her head. "Would you have left if I wasn't?"
"I really had nowhere else to go."
"My parents are gone."
"When aren't they gone?" he asked.
"Your brother's not an option."
"I told you. I don't involve him in things."
"Just asking. Can I ask you something without you getting mad at me?"
"I think so."
"What does it say to you that you're surrounded by all of these people all of the time and when you get hurt or something like this happens to you, you come here?"
She shrugged. "I've never claimed I make the greatest choices in friends, John."
"Do you plan on changing that?"
"I don't know," she said softly.
She'd been thinking a lot since she'd last seen him. She'd even been trying to tone her activities down a bit. She'd graduated so was officially an adult. The friends he'd met the day he'd come to campus were full of questions about him. Of course because they weren't talking anymore after that day she had nothing to tell them. She'd assume, wrongly, that she'd have a reason to invite him back to campus again.
"It's so hard to stop."
"You could just stop."
"And what? Rely on you for everything?"
"Well, not for everything, no, but I did offer to help you."
"About that," she said, biting her lip a little.
"I want to do it," she said.
"Ah, sweets, I've been waiting for you to say those words to me for four years."
She laughed, shaking her head a little. "I bet you have."
If only he knew how many times she'd dreamt of saying those words to him. More times than she could count, even after graduation and she'd gone onto college. New school, new guys, but none of them had been John. None of them were ever John. None of them ever interested her the way John did.
"Can I have Mr. McMillan call you next week?"
"I suppose, Princess."
"You've got a pretty big knot back there, but I don't feel a cut or anything. Your hair's not sticky or matted with blood. I have some Tylenol if you want some for a headache, which if you don't have now you will get."
"Sure," she said.
"It occurs to me," he said, walking to his sink again. He grabbed a bottle of Tylenol from the cabinet and a cup that was there. He handed it to her. "I swear to you, no one but me uses it."
"Yeah?" She didn't care who shared his cup right now. If taking the little pills would stop her head from throbbing she just didn't care. She took the cup and the pills, swallowing them.
"You said you took a cab here."
"It's kind of late. I really am tired. I started working that wedding before ten o'clock this morning."
"Wow. That's a long day."
"Yeah, I started out with pictures at her house, then did some pictures at his house, then stopped at a park for some pictures with her and her bridesmaids before the wedding."
"That sounds nice."
"It was. It was a gorgeous day even if it was a little warm. So, I'll take the couch. Okay? I have a guest bed, but I don't have it made up or anything."
"I can do it, if you give me sheets or whatever."
"That's kind of rude, isn't it?"
"Yes, my mom would certainly never do it, but you're not my mom and I'm telling you it's okay. You know there is another option," she said before she could censor her thoughts.
"I could sleep with you."
"Princess," he said, sliding a hand through his hair. "I think that would be very dangerous, especially after what almost happened to you tonight."
"I think because of what happened to me tonight I'm not sure I want to be alone."
"I just want to feel safe for a while."
He sighed softly. "I really don't think…"
"Aren't you supposed to, like wake me up and stuff?"
"What?" he asked with a frown, clearly confused by her question.
"Because I hit my head so hard."
"I could do that just as well from the other room."
"You could, but you'd have to, like get out of bed every time."
"You're just trying to get into my bed, Princess."
She laughed softly.
"This wouldn't have been my choice in how to go about it."
"If you can't. I mean, if you shouldn't…"
"Oh, I shouldn't for an abundance of reasons, however, what you're coyly asking me is not one of them. I have no one to make me feel guilty about sleeping with you."
"I really am sorry, John. For everything I said."
"Yeah, well, I may have gotten madder than I needed to."
"What's with the fists?" she asked.
"You just admitted you got mad at me. Very mad at me. You never tried to hurt me."
"Of course not! What kind of guy do you think I am?"
"Seeing you hurt bothers me," he said with a shrug. "The things Pete said about you bothered me more than the actual pictures. I knew the pictures were fake. The things he said. I wasn't altogether sure. You know? So it bothered me. Knowing that you were out there tonight and something real bad could've happened to you. That bothers me a lot, too."
"That's so you."
"No! I meant, seeing you hurt bothered me, too."
He snorted. "Funny, that was a result of me being bothered by someone trying to hurt you, too."
"You can't beat up everyone who tries to hurt me."
"No, but I can sure hope that you stop putting yourself in the position to get hurt."
"Do you want some ice for your head?"
"I think it's a little late now."
"It might still help make it hurt a little less."
"I am, but I can get you some ice."
She followed him to his kitchen then.
"Did you know when you met me that day that you were going to see them that night?"
"No," he said simply. "Why?"
She shrugged. She couldn't explain it, but she felt immensely better – and worse – knowing that. That mean he hadn't met her with those kind of plans later on already. Worse because that meant he'd done that, called them, because of her.
"They don't come here often or anything."
"They always come together?"
"Yes," he said.
"They don't mind?"
He scoffed. "No. They're together."
"Oh," she said. "Then why?"
"You'd have to ask them. I have no idea. Obviously they have enough interest in what I can offer them that they can't offer each other. I can't tell you."
"You, uh, like that?"
He shrugged, handing her a towel with some ice in it. "What's not to like?"
"But what if…"
"If I had someone I was seeing I wouldn't have, no."
She slid the towel to the back of her head, sighing softly at the cold.
"No. If I was taught one thing growing up it's how not to treat people you're supposed to love."
"You love everyone you date?"
He scoffed. "No. I don't really date."
"Why don't you?"
"You do not. You go through the motions, but anyone who knows you could tell you're not really into it."
She shrugged. "It's better than sitting at home alone every night."
He nodded a little at that.
"I guess you're right. For you."
"No one really knows me anyway."
"Yeah, you do, you're about the only one. My brother, I suppose."
"I was just saying hypothetically. You know things like cheating and beating on someone you're supposed to love and protect aren't real great things to do."
"Your dad cheated?"
"I really don't want to talk about him anymore tonight. Ever."
"It's all right. If there was anyone I'd ever talk to about him it'd probably be you."
"Why are you being nice to me?"
"Because you came to me, Princess. What was I supposed to do? Turn you away looking the way you do?"
"I could've, but I wouldn't do that."
"Are you really going to let me sleep with you?"
"Do you really want me to?"
"You're not going to sleep naked, are you?"
He chuckled softly. "Uh no. I think I'd reserve that for a night you didn't come here after another guy attacked you."
"But you would?"
"Is this a trick question, sweets? If I say no, you'll think I don't want you. If I say yes, you'll think I'm a pig who can only thing about getting you naked. Either way I lose, so there is no answer to that question."
She took her hand away from the back of her head, letting it fall to her side before reaching in to kiss him. She'd surprised him, which was probably good since she'd surprised herself. She absolutely had no intention of kissing him tonight. Of making a fool of herself to him again.
He kissed her back, though. He had before. He'd even kissed her first a couple of times the day she'd visited him at his studio and they'd gone to lunch. He was so confusing. How could someone kiss her like this and act so indifferent towards her at times? She didn't get it.
"Why do you do this to me?" he murmured when they stopped kissing to breathe.
They hadn't kissed like that since that day in high school. Her heart was pounding furiously and her head was hammering from an entirely different reason than the knot on the back of it. Sometime in the past few minutes she'd dropped the towel she'd been holding and slid her arms around his neck.
He chuckled softly. "You make me feel…"
"Feeling isn't bad, John," she said softly.
"Yes, Princess, it is."
"Because I don't want to!"
She sighed. She stepped back then, letting her arms fall to her sides.
"If you want me to go…"
He scoffed, drawing her to him again.
She whimpered softly when he broke the kiss again except he didn't pull away or talk to her this time. He found her ear and she groaned, digging her nails into the nape of his neck at the sensation his doing that was causing in her. She liked it, but it was very foreign and scary to her because he was the only person who ever made her feel anything from kissing.
He slid his lips lower to the side of her neck and throat and she murmured something that may have been 'please', she wasn't sure because she had no idea what exactly she was asking him to do. He knew, though, evidently. She pressed closer against him, lowering a hand from his neck to his hip and around to the small of his back. She reached under his shirt and he shifted a little at the contact.
She pulled her hand away, assuming he didn't want her to touch him like that. He drew away again.
"They're not going to rub off on you or hurt you, you know?"
"I know they're not. I never said I thought they would."
"You don't have to say it."
"It's all right," he whispered. He shook his head, stepping away. "I get it."
She frowned, confused. "You get what?"
"You've spent all of your life surrounded by people like you."
"So, I get why they bother you."
"I never said they bother me."
"You don't have to say it. You didn't have to that day at school and you don't have to now."
"I thought you didn't want me to touch you."
"Why would you think that?"
"I don't know. You moved."
"Sure. You touched me, I wasn't expecting it. It's instinctive, I guess."
"You think I'd hurt you?" she frowned.
"No, of course not. It's just," he shrugged. "I don't know how to explain it. Instinct, I guess. I'm not used to people touching me."
"Not that way, no," he said. "Not just to touch me."
"But you said," she searched her mind for what he'd said. She was so mad at him for talking to her the way he had that day she couldn't quite remember. "You made it sound like women did all the time."
"No, I think what I said was they see them and get this instinct to want to fix it even though they obviously can't."
"You think I didn't?"
"I know you didn't, sweets. Like I said, I get it. I'm not normal for you. That's fine. It is what it is."
She set her hand against his hip again then, sliding it under his shirt. She hadn't seen his back that day. His chest was bad enough. She hadn't wanted to see the rest because he'd said his back had borne the brunt of his dad's abuse over the years.
"Did it ever occur to you that you scared the shit out of me?"
"I'd never felt anything for anyone else until that day. Not really. I never thought about what anyone else's life was like beside my own. I wanted to fix it. I wanted to go back to first or second grade, whenever it was I first saw you and take you home with me. I'd never felt that … compassion I guess you'd call it ever before in my life."
"That would've made kissing you when we got older very awkward."
She laughed softly at that.
"Yeah, I guess it would've."
He stepped away then and bent down to pick up the towel she'd dropped.
"You don't want this anymore?"
"You kind of distracted me."
"I did? You kissed me."
"Yeah, because you're you."
He laughed softly at that.
"I understand that feeling very well, Princess."
He tossed the towel into the sink nearby and offered her his hand.
"What?" she asked.
"Come to bed with me, Princess."
"You do know I'm not…"
"I wouldn't do that tonight anyway. I'm not a complete moron. Some guy attacks you and you think I'm going to think you'd want to do anything? I was surprised you kissed me honestly."
She settled her hand against his then, reminded once more of how big his hands were. How different they were than her dad's or anyone else she'd ever held hands with. Strong. They weren't rough exactly, but she could certainly tell he wasn't afraid to use them. She was pretty sure he did things with them her father never dreamed of like changing the oil on his car.
"Yeah, as surprises go, it was pretty good. One thing, though."
"You're sure your parents are out of town?"
"Because if I bring you home tomorrow I don't want the third degree from your parents or something about spending the night with you."
"They wouldn't care."
"I bet they would care. I know your mom knows who my mom is."
"I'm just guessing they wouldn't like it."
"That wouldn't stop me."
"Has it stopped you before?"
"From sleeping with someone?"
She shrugged. "I'm not going to tell you that."
"Besides, my dad did say he'd like to meet you after what you did for me during the winter."
"Oh, sure, just how I'd want to meet him, too. 'Hi, Mr. Standish, I'm the guy who saw those pictures of the woman who wasn't your daughter. Oh, and by the way, she spent the night with me last night.'"
"I wouldn't tell him. I have people who I could say I was with."
He led her to back to his room then. She watched as he opened the window near his bed, setting a big box fan in there.
"No air," he said with a shrug. "It was the only downside to the house."
"I think I can handle it."
"You sure? I'd be happy to revisit that sleeping naked thing you mentioned."
"I didn't mention sleeping naked with you!"
"Are you sure? In my head, I'm pretty sure I heard you…"
"You want some shorts or something?"
"Sure," he said, going to his dresser. He handed her a pair and she went into his bathroom to change out of her pants.
She slid into the bed, staring at the ceiling. She'd never done this before. Contrary to what the entire city of Chicago probably thought about her she didn't sleep around. She didn't sleep with guys period. She wasn't waiting for marriage or anything. She was just waiting for something. What she wasn't sure.
He joined her a few minutes later.
"You're sure you're okay with this? I'm happy to take the couch."
"I really think I'll like knowing you're there."
"All right, as long as that's what you want."
He turned onto his side then, facing away from her. She turned to face his back. It was dark and she couldn't see anything, but she settled her hand against his back anyway. Fingertips running along the skin there. She took in a sharp breath at the feel of the scars, various lengths and depths. One seemed to go on forever. She felt tears stinging her eyes, but made no effort to brush them away. He didn't flinch this time, he didn't stop her but he didn't say anything either. What she expected him to say she wasn't exactly sure.
"Thank you, John," she whispered.
"Sure," he whispered back.
"No, I mean it. I wouldn't have blamed you for not letting me in."
"You want to know a secret, Princess?"
"Sure?" She wasn't sure she did, not really. He probably had all kinds of secrets.
"That morning I went into work after you were here?"
"I told Ronda I'd see you if you came around again."
She was quiet for a minute or two then. She couldn't stop the smile his words caused, though. That reaction was immediate.
"Yeah, thanks for being a sucker for a pretty face, you mean?"
"For being you."
He scoffed at that, but he didn't say anything else. Eventually, she stopped touching him not for lack of wanting to anymore. He was a curiosity, a fascination to her, and she probably could have laid there touching him all night. She was tired, though, exhausted really and her head was probably going to hurt worse tomorrow. No sleep would not help that.
Story ©Susan Falk/APCKRFAN/PhantomRoses.com