***Chapter Twenty***
Word Count: 3,102

"What are you doing here?" John asked Ronda when Claire dropped him at the studio. The limo had picked him up here last night so he hadn't had a chance to drop the Jeep at home first.

"I figured maybe you could use an assistant today."

"You figured that, huh?" he asked, regarding her. She'd worked with him more than a couple of times over the years when he needed an extra hand. She never took the pictures, but for hugely large functions she was an extra pair of hands to direct people. Tonight's wedding while black tie formal wasn't large. In fact, it was fairly small so not one he'd need help with generally.

"I saw the paper today."

"Oh," he said with a grimace.

"You're still coming to terms with the fact you've married someone who basically has her own PR person, aren't you?"

"I kissed her! I'm allowed to do that!"

"Where's she going?"

"To her parents' house to talk to them. I imagine some sort of statement or announcement will be made."

"You ready for that?"

"She's actually going to see if they can do it without dropping my name."


"She's trying to be considerate of my parents."

"Oh, I get that, but I'm not sure how that's going to fly. 'We assure you the husband in the picture is hers,' without a name may not be too convincing."

"I get that. I do. I told her I don't care. I can handle my parents if they come around. I'm actually more worried about you than me."


"My father isn't nice to anyone, gender and age doesn't matter."

"I'd like to see him try to mess with me."

"Just as long as you know how to dial 911 if it gets to that point."

"I do."

"You sure Bill's okay with you spending the day with a philanderer like me?"

She chuckled softly. "I think he feels immensely better about it now than he did five months ago."

"He had a problem with me?"

"No, not really. He trusts me. I can't say he wasn't suspicious of your intentions hiring me to begin with."

"Actually, hiring someone married was probably the smartest thing I did."

"Since it was me you hired I can't argue with your assessment."

"Very funny."

"I'm not sure I was trying to be funny."

"So, he never thought I was trying to hit on you?"

"Oh, I don't know if he never thought that, but he knows me well enough to know I wouldn't take you up on it."

"Hmm. I'm not sure I'd want Claire working with someone I thought was going to hit on her."



"Why not?"

"I don't know. It'd bother me that someone looked at her that way."

"Not because you're worried she'd take him up on it?"


"I don't think I ever pegged you as the jealous type."

"Me neither."

"It's good for you, though."

"Being jealous? How?"

"Because it means you feel something. Feeling something is good, John. I think you felt nothing for so long that maybe you're just not sure what to do with feeling something for anyone. Getting married like you did probably doesn't help you ease into things."


"Have you ever felt anything for anyone?"



"Nope. Just her."

"Did you then?"

"Yes, but I didn't get it. I didn't want to get it."

"Sounds like she didn't either. Things happen for a reason, John. I firmly believe that. Like the guy who called you about those pictures of her. Why you? Of all the sleazy photographers in Chicago he could've called, he chose you."

"I've wondered that, too, because I've never sold or had anything like that associated with my name or this company."

"No, you hadn't. Like I said, things happen for reasons."

"Are you really coming with me today?"

"Sure. It's been a long time since I've been to a black-tie affair. I got dressed and everything."

"You do look nice."

"Why thank you. Are you just noticing that?"

"Yeah, kind of. Sorry."

"It's okay," she said, taking the keys to his Jeep from him so she could open the hatch and then start it while he went in and got what he needed for the night.

He didn't need the help, but dealing with somewhat uptight people it was nice to have the assistance. He kept waiting for his pager to go off or something, but evidently Claire and her parents were prepared to deal with the situation without bothering him at work.

Nighttime weddings were a different breed. There were things like flashes to worry about he didn't have to worry about normally with outdoor pictures. So, he was glad he hadn't had any more distractions than his own thoughts provided him.

"So, what were you doing downtown anyway?" she asked on their way back.

"Getting fitted for a new suit."


"Yes, I have no idea why a new suit was necessary, but she thought it was."

"We got our invitation the other day."

"Are you going to come?"

"I wouldn't miss it for the world."


"Anyone else on your side coming?"

"I'm sure Glen and his girlfriend will. I think my friend Charlie's invitation maybe got lost in the mail."

"You're bad."

"I don't want him there. He still gets stoned every ten minutes."


"Yes, I used to be like that."

"I believe you, but it's hard for me to imagine you like that."

"Yeah. You met me about a year after high school. I was in a much different place."

"You still did it, though."

"Once in a while. When I wasn't working. Sure. It relaxes me. Sometimes I get up at six or seven in the morning and don't get home until one in the morning and I'm exhausted physically but my mind is going a hundred miles a minute. You know? Did I get every shot they wanted me to? Or whatever."

"I'm not judging you."

"I know, but I get seen with people like him others would judge me."

"Probably so. So, just Glen and me?"

"Pretty much. There are a couple of others I could've invited but I didn't see the need."


"Yeah, it's for her parents and her, not me."

"Is the suit going to be a nice one?"

"It better be for what I'm spending on it. Her dad's been going to the guy for years so I'm guessing he knows what he's doing."

"I should hope so."

"Me, too."

"Did I help keep you focused tonight?"

"Yeah," he said. "Thank you."

"You're welcome."

"How did you know anyway?"

"That you'd need a bit of help keeping you focused? Well, she'd be more upset about that blurb than you would be given you know you're not married to someone else and all. I just figured your mind wouldn't be all here if you didn't have a little help and Bill agreed."

"Well, tell him thank you, too. I have no idea what I'm doing. You know? I mean, it's bad enough I have to learn how to be a good guy to someone but to deal with cameras everywhere is a little nuts. I mean, it was Friday night. I figured it was safe to kiss her."

"I'm not sure for a while there will be safety anywhere. It'll go away eventually. She's working now so she's not going out every night. I suspect she won't be going out many Friday nights without you."

"No," he agreed.

"So that leaves Saturday night. People can't fault a twenty-two year old woman going out once a week."

"Normal people can't, but I'm sure they'd find a way to fault her if they could."

"You'll manage just fine."

"I hope so. I just worry about her thinking it's too much. I think she thought it was a game. You know? Who would or wouldn't figure out she'd gotten married. I don't think she thought there could be anything negative to come out of it."

"I'm sure her parents and that lawyer will come up with something smooth in no time flat. Just watch. It'll be fine."

"I hope so for her sake. She was pretty bothered at the idea people thought she'd be seeing someone who was married."

"Well, that's good. You'll need to tell me what the two of you want for a wedding gift anyway."

"I don't want gifts. I thought that was the drawback of eloping, you miss out on gifts."

"We'd still like to get you something."

"Ask her then. I have no clue what she has in mind to do with anything."

"You're giving her full control of your house?"

"As long as I don't have lace curtains in every window of the house I'm all right."

"And if she wants lace curtains in every window?"

"Don't even tease me with that. I don't think she's that cruel."

She laughed softly.

"You might want to be sure you get some input then."

"Great," he said.

"You think lace curtains are bad. Just wait until you have to decide whether to paint the spare bedroom pink or blue."

"I assure you that we will not be having to do that anytime soon."

"I'm just saying. I don't think she's the type to do anything halfway."

"Uh no, neither are her parents."


"I suppose getting tests done and lying about the results isn't an option."

"Uh no."

"I didn't think so. I suspect we'll have some time between now and then for me to get used to it."

"I hope you're right."

"God, me, too."


It was still a very strange feeling to get home to someone being there. It didn't matter that she'd been there more nights than not before their trip to Vegas. It was permanent now. She wasn't going to go home tomorrow or the next day. This was her home. He'd tried to look at it more than once from her vantage point.

He'd bought it from a couple whose kids were older than John and Claire's age from what he gathered. So they were grown and gone, not much chance of them moving back home. The parents were ready for something less structured than owning a home. They'd raised three kids here, even if two of them had to share a bedroom. The basement had been finished to give the kids room to play and do stuff in away from their parents, but it was basically one big room that John and Claire could do whatever they wanted to with. Like close off a section or two to make bedrooms if they had to.

They had a long way to go before thinking about needing more than two extra bedrooms. Her parents and brother lived in town so it wasn't as if they needed a spare bedroom for company. Anyone who was going to be visiting her would be visiting her parents or brother most likely as well so could stay with them. He supposed there were friends from college who might visit her.

He slid his tie out from around his neck as he unlocked the back door. She was already home so he didn't need to go to the front of the house and check the mail as he usually did after being gone most of the day on Saturday.

He slid his coat off, grateful the days of heat and humidity were done for a few months at least. He didn't mind summer. He loved it in fact, but working in it sucked most days. He glanced at the stove, chuckling a bit at the pan of macaroni and cheese she'd made. She had vastly improved as far as cooking, but if he wasn't going to be home to eat things she stuck with things that were easy. He didn't mind left over macaroni and cheese so it worked out well for him, too.

He flipped the light off over the stove before heading through the hall to the living room to hang his coat up for the night. The TV was on and she had fallen asleep on the couch. He slid out of his suit coat, draping it and his tie over the back of the couch.

He slid his arms under her and lifted her up. He knew she'd wake up, but he couldn't stand the idea of leaving her on the couch. Weird maybe, but it just seemed like a bad habit to get into.

"Hi," she murmured, sliding her arms around his neck.

"Hey. Long day?" he asked, grazing the side of her head with a kiss.

"I think the bottle of wine I drank helped."

"Claire," he said.

"After I got back here," she said.

"Well, that's better than at your parents' house, but still…"

"Oh, God, John."

"It'll be all right, Princess. At least you ate something so you didn't drink all that on an empty stomach."

"Nope," she said, sighing softly against his neck.

"Good to know," he said.

He settled her on their bed, sliding her shoes off and dropping them onto the floor before he got undressed and ready for bed himself.

"Dad was mad," she whispered.

"He'll get over it."

"I know, but I'm so tired of disappointing him."

"You weren't kissing a married man. Well, you were. Your married man. He knows this. We can't help it that someone assumed you were kissing someone else's husband."

"I know. I just keep thinking one day he's going to get so tired of it and just be done with me."

"He's not going to do that. Come on. You've been doing well at work. You've been showing up early if not at least on time every day. I know you've stayed late."


"You're fine. We'll fix this. If it's an announcement that needs to be done that's what we'll do. My parents are not worth this sort of aggravation."

"I know. I just hate that they could find out over something so stupid."

"Kissing you is not stupid."

"I'm glad you think so."

"I don't think I know."

He sat on the edge of the bed, removing his watch to set it by what was quickly becoming his side of the bed.

"So what did he come up with anyway?"

"Well, we're going to try to keep your name out of it if we can. Mr. McMillan is going to put a press release together saying something about the husband in question being mine. That we were married in a private ceremony, away from the prying eyes of the public for a reason, and that our wishes for privacy should be respected."

"Like that'll stop them."

"Oh, I know it won't, but if you're name is kept out of it and there's no marriage license in Illinois, maybe it'll take them a while to find out who you are."

"I don't care."

"I care! Being here is so nice. I don't have to worry about anything! I don't want you or Ronda having to deal with them either if I can avoid it. It shouldn't be her mess."

"No, but she'll deal with it if she has to. She came to work with me today."


"She came to the wedding with me. She was being a friend. You know, distracting me from worrying about what was going on with you and your parents so I could focus on my job. The thing the couple paid me hundreds of dollars over other photographers to do."

"Oh, right. That was nice of her."

"She is very nice."

"I'm glad you have her."

"Me, too."

"I'm glad I have you."

"Yeah?" he asked.


"She said she's going to buy us a gift."

"I told you people will give us gifts."

He grunted, sliding an arm around her as she slid closer to him. "That registration thing you were telling me about that I refused to do because it seemed as though we were asking people to buy us things."


"Just promise me one thing, Princess."


"No lace curtains."


He chuckled softly. "Just promise me you're not going to turn our house into this century's version of the perfect Victorian home."

She laughed softly.

"I will try not to do anything too embarrassing."

"Thank you!"

"Tomorrow's Sunday you know."

"I do know."

"That means we have to clean and get things ready."

"I know this, too. I'm not the one that left a pan of macaroni and cheese on the stove to get hard as rock."

"I fell asleep!"

"Because you drank a bottle of wine."

"I was depressed."

"Princess. There's nothing to be depressed about."

"You say that, but you and my dad."

"We love you for who you are, Claire."

"I love you, too."

"Good to know. I am cooking, right?"

"Yes! I'll help, but it's up to you."

"Thank God."

"That's not funny."

"You're not quite bring home to Mom and Dad material, you know? Can't cook. You can barely do your own laundry."

"I do too know how to do my laundry."

"I've seen you. You throw everything in the washer together regardless of colors."


"That's how those white socks of yours got to be pink."

"I didn't know!"

"It's a good thing I like pink socks on you, Princess."

"It's a good thing they're not your socks you mean."

"That, too. I'm very glad I know how to do my own laundry."

"You're so mean!"

"You'll learn. I was doing my own laundry before you probably even knew what a washing machine was."

"I know. Did you take good pictures?"

"I took incredible pictures. There's something about a formal wedding like that that just lends itself to great photographs."

"What did the bridesmaids' wear?"

"Black and white."


"Yes. It was kind of unusual, but it was nice."

"My mother would have had a fit."

"Yeah, I know there are rules about things, but the bride and groom didn't seem to care."

"It's their wedding they shouldn't have to."

"What color is your dress?"

"I'm not telling!"

"You know what my suit is going to look like."

"Not really. I know who's making it."

"Fine," he said, leaning in to kiss her. "I'll wait. Are there tiny buttons or a zipper?"

"Um, buttons."

"Really? You realize that may take me a while to get you out of."

"That's kind of the idea."

"You want it to take a while?"

"To watch as you undress me? Yes."

"I can see that."


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