***Chapter Thirty-One***
Word Count: 7,498

He slept straight through until his alarm went off. It was the first time since she'd been living with him, even before they got married, that she hadn't woken him up in the morning. He wasn't sure if letting him sleep was for his benefit or hers. If it was his he wasn't sure how he felt about her thinking he didn't want to have sex with her. If it was hers well he supposed he'd hear about her being mad at him for last night later.

He was early getting to work, ensuring the door was locked behind him and stopping in the kitchen for a second before heading to his office. Ronda had a key so she'd let herself in when she got there. He popped the top on the Coke he grabbed from the kitchen before picking up the phone.

Fuck he wished he still had the bottle of whisky here to add a shot or two to the Coke with. He'd emptied the bottle a while ago and hadn't gotten a new one. He didn't drink here often, but once in a while – like today – he would really enjoy having the edge taken off. He'd used it a lot more before getting involved with Claire. In fact, he was pretty sure they'd emptied it together one of their nights here before the reception when they'd been working on dancing. Seeing her drink whisky straight from the bottle was something he didn't think he'd ever forget because it seemed so … beneath her. She hadn't balked at it, though, when he'd offered her the bottle.

Drinking before ten o'clock in the morning was a dangerous path to start down, so he was kind of glad he didn't have the bottle. He absolutely did not want to turn into his parents. He'd worked very hard to this point of his adult life to be nothing like them. No pregnant girlfriends. No marriages of convenience. Okay, an elopement, but it certainly wasn't out of convenience. He was pretty sure her parents were breathing sighs of relief as they were approaching six months of being married and she showed no visible signs of being pregnant.


"It's John. You, uh, called yesterday so I'm calling back."

'Oh, I'm so glad you called back. How are you?'

"All right. I'm not calling to have a conversation with you, Ma. What do you need?"

'The furnace stopped working yesterday.'


'Yes, that's why I called you.'

"Versus a repairman?"

'Johnny, I'm still getting on my feet after Christmas.'

He tried not to experience any amount of envy at the fact that Billy evidently got Christmas gifts. Then he supposed he had, too, when he was three. Maybe, he couldn't remember. He certainly couldn't recall anything like a tree or decorations at his house ever in his life.

"Okay. We'll play it your way, however, it's below freezing and I didn't call you back. What did you do for heat last night?"

'Billy slept with me. I have heavy blankets and a space heater. You know, that heavy duty one your father had at the shop. It's here at the house.'

"Ma," he said with a shake of his head.

'You didn't call me back and your secretary was rude.'

"Yeah, funny that. She's rude to one of the two people I told her I don't ever want to talk to."


"You could've told her why you were calling."

'She was rude!'

"Well, I certainly would've called back before this morning had you told her what was going on. You not telling her it was an actual emergency I may not have called you back, you know? I could've come over last night."

That probably would've been good for him, too, after his dinner with Phillip. A little manual labor, working on machines. He wasn't positive he'd be able to get it working, but he'd give it his best shot. It'd been a long assed time since he'd had to work on the furnace there.

'Can you today?'

He sighed heavily. "I'll be there as soon as I can. Is Billy okay?"

'Yes. He's on the couch covered up.'

If she'd said no he wasn't sure what he would've done, offered to let her come here for the day maybe. That was way more than he wanted to do, but letting a little kid freeze to death wasn't something he wanted on his conscious either.

"All right. I have a couple of things this morning and I'll get there after that. But, Ma, you leave an actual message when it's something like this. I don't care what Ronda says to you. She's doing her job, what I've asked her to do where you're concerned. You thinking she'd rude is irrelevant, Billy dying because you were too stubborn to tell someone else what the issue was wouldn't be cool."

'All right, Son, thank you.'

"Yeah," he said. "I'll see you guys later then I guess."

"Bad day already?" Ronda asked.

"Just calling the Mrs. Bender I'm not nearly so fond of."

"Oh," she said. "I take it she actually needed something?"

"Yeah, the furnace is out."

"And she waited for you to call her back?"

"Right? I told her she needs to tell you when it's something like that no matter how rude you are to her."

"I wasn't rude!"

"I know you weren't. I'm sure the fact you don't like her much was evident, though, Ronda. You do wear your emotions on your sleeve."

"Well, yeah, I…"

"It's all right. I'll head over there after my sittings this morning. It'll be good for me to do that anyway."


"I need some time to think. Working on things helps me do that."

"It does?"

"Yeah," he shrugged. "I don't know how to explain it. Part of my old man in me, I guess. He was always at home with a tool in his hand. I'm the same way when all's said and done it seems."

"Cameras are tools, too."

"I know, it's not the same."

"So, what is it you need to think about?"

"It's a long story and if I told you first Claire would get upset with me."

"Oh. Is everything all right?"

"With her? Yes. With me? I don't know yet I'm still trying to figure that out."

"You didn't get bad news from the doctor, did you?"

"What?" He hadn't seen the doctor recently, having no reason to.

"Well, you know, you'd talked about seeing a doctor about whether you could have kids."

"No, I don't really care either way beyond knowing her parents would probably care. She wants to try for a while before we go that route anyway."

"Are you actively trying?"


"It's just a question."

"You do realize we just got married like six months ago, right? And we weren't planning on doing that?"

"I do, that doesn't mean you wouldn't try for a baby."

"I think I'd like to get used to being a husband before I do anything else."

"Does she?"

"She wants to try."

"Oh. Is that causing problems?"

"No! There are no problems with us. She seems to understand why I'm not ready to try for kids. She just started a job, too."

"Hmm," she said.



"I don't believe you."

"It's nothing. I think it'd be fun to see you as a dad."

"Uh why?"

"I suspect it'd be a pretty lucky child."


"That's why you're going to fix the furnace, isn't it?"

"Huh?" Where did that come from? "What does her furnace have to do with me having kids?"

"Your little brother."

"Oh, well, sure. I'm not going to let him freeze to death."

"You'd let her, though?"

John shrugged. "I don't know. I'd like to say yes, but probably not."

"Because your dad's in prison?"

"Partly," he said. "She's pretty helpless. As much of an asshole as he was to me growing up he was a handy guy. She didn't have to worry about things breaking down because he could fix everything."

"And you can, too?"

"Sure. Most things anyway. I didn't have a choice but to learn."

"At least he did something decent."

"What?" he asked. What was decent about anything his father had done?

"Well, I mean, he couldn't know you'd be able to start a business. He knew college was presumably out."

"Well, I could've gotten loans."

"Right, but you wouldn't have done that. I know that and I didn't live with you for eighteen years. I also get the impression your high school transcript wasn't going to open many doors to you."

"Yes," John admitted.

"So, he ensured you could make a living."

"Sure. Great. Thanks, Dad. I guess that erases everything bad he's done? Should I start writing him letters in prison? Send him a nail file or two?"

"John. I don't know why you're so mad this morning. I know you don't think I believe that. We've never talked about it. Your childhood. I respect there are boundaries between us even if we talk about pretty much everything else. I figure you want to talk about it, you'll talk about it. It's a skill, though, John. He clearly wanted to ensure you could do something."

"I guess."

"You know I love Bill. I do, but there are times I wish I could just ask him to fix the washing machine or the stove or whatever instead of having to pay someone to do it every time something breaks. I mean, I realize it doesn't mean much, but do you realize how much money you save being able to do that stuff?"

"Great. Thanks."

"Okay. I give up."

"What do you want me to say? He wasn't one hundred percent asshole? Only ninety-nine percent of one? So I can save myself boatloads of money over the years. Stellar endorsement."


"Just forget it. Thank you. All right. I have some things to do."

"Whatever your issue is, don't take it out on the nice people coming in to have you take their picture."

"Now you're questioning my work ethic? Have I ever acted unprofessionally? Been rude to someone?"

"No, but I've never seen you like this before either."

"Maybe life sucks sometimes, you know? Maybe shit's happening that I hadn't planned for or on and I'm not sure how to deal with it. It won't affect my job, Ronda."

Planned for was an understatement. He hadn't planned on getting married. The house was kind of a whim, the realization that he made enough to afford something that he'd be paying on every month but to the end of him owning it versus lining a landlord's pockets. It was actually Ronda's husband who'd planted the idea in his head. He'd stopped in here one day to pick her up when her car was in the shop and mentioned to John he knew a realtor who'd treat him fairly if he was ever in the market for a house. Ronda hadn't been pleased with him butting in, but about two or maybe three months after that John had asked her to get the agent's number from Bill.

It was after noon when he got to his mom's house. He dreaded being there. He really did. It was times like this no matter what Ronda said he hated that his father taught him these things. Then his mom wouldn't be able to pay someone more than likely and who knew where she'd be. That shouldn't bother or concern him.

"I need the keys to the garage," he said when she answered the door.

He stepped inside while she grabbed them. It was barely warmer in the house than it was outside. Billy was bundled up on the couch under a pile of blankets.

"Hey Billy," he said. "I'll get you warmed up again here soon, okay?"

"Uh huh," he said.

"Are your pipes okay, Ma?" he asked when she came back with the keys.

"The pipes?"

He sighed softly. "Did you leave the water dripping a bit on the sinks so the pipes wouldn't freeze up since it's as cold in here as it is outside?"

"Oh, no, I didn't think…"

"Ma. You know these things."

"I'm trying, Johnny! I just don't remember so well, you know?"

"I know," he said with a sigh. "If you didn't stay on whatever you're on you'd remember better."

"Johnny," she said softly.

"I'll be back in a minute," he shook his head. In front of Billy was not the place to have that conversation.

He headed to the garage. He had to admit if he'd known about her dilemma last night he'd have come here last night to fix it and he probably would've asked her for some of whatever she was on. It'd been a very, very long time since he'd done anything harder than smoke a joint but fuck to clear his head of any thoughts it might have been worth it.

He knew that was a bad way of thinking, just like the whisky this morning. He was very careful about how much he drank. Not that he hadn't done his fair share of drinking too much over the years, but he was mindful of where and who he came from.

He made his way to the basement where the furnace was, surprised she came down there with him.

"What?" he asked.

"I don't do that stuff anymore, Johnny."

"Right. Since when? Last week?"

"I haven't since I was pregnant with Billy."

"Shut up," he said, eyeing her. "That day you showed up at my studio…"

"I was cold!"

"Yeah, well, liquor is cheap and legal."

"I haven't done that either. You shouldn't either."

"Wow. You're giving me advice now?"

"I am still your mother."

"Maybe, but you gave up the right to give me advice or give a shit about anything I do a long time ago."


"I'm curious, speaking of Billy. Why is he worth you stopping that stuff and I wasn't?"

"Oh God, Johnny, it was so bad."

"You could've left him."

"And do what? I had nothing. You think we were bad off here. At least we had a roof over our heads."

"Your parents would've helped I bet."

"No, they wouldn't have."

"I don't believe you. I think that's what you wanted to tell yourself for all of these years. It sure is what you told me all of these years. How bad they were and how they wanted to have nothing to do with us. I think, though, if you'd gone to them they'd have helped you. At the very least they would've taken me in so I would've been safe until you could've gotten on your feet and supported me yourself. They offered to adopt me, didn't they?"

"How do you know that?"

"Do you know who my wife is?"

"Claire?" she asked, confused.

"Yeah, do you know her last name?"

"I guess I didn't…"


His mom's face paled then. He knew Phillip hadn't been lying then and she knew that John knew the truth. Or as close to the truth as he could get not having been in the room with them over twenty years ago. Until that moment, John thought Phillip had been exaggerating, throwing in the adoption thing to make it sound not so bad. He'd grown up assuming, thinking, and being led to believe her parents were shits who didn't give a shit about either of them.

"Yeah. I have aunts and uncles. Grandparents. None of which I knew a fucking thing about until this week. You kept me here, knowing they would've taken me in…"

"They weren't so great."

"Yeah?" He dropped the wrench he'd been holding then and stood, sliding his flannel shirt off and then doing the same with his undershirt.

"Really? And this was great, Ma?"


"No. Look. You don't get to fucking look at the ground like you weren't a party to it. Maybe you didn't ever actually hit me, but you egged him on. You got him pissed off. You told him the trouble I got into knowing what the result would be."

"He was your father! He had the right to know what you were getting into."

"And I was your son! You were supposed to protect me. I've heard tell that's innate in mothers, all except you it would seem. Should we go upstairs and show Billy what my childhood was like? You think Claire gets turned on seeing and touching this shit?" He grabbed her hand, setting it against one of the worst of the scars on his chest.

"You shouldn't talk like that," she said, taking her hand away quickly. He could've forced her to keep it there, but he knew he'd made his point so he'd let her reject him yet again. She always had for some reason he never understood.

"I'll talk however I please. I'm here doing you a favor. You came down here knowing damned well I have nothing to say to you. You're sober I guess. Hallelujah. You want a medal? You want me to say it makes up for all the shit I went through? Well, it doesn't. Look at me and tell me anything you could do now would make it better."

"I know."

"Do you remember the first time he hit me?"

"Johnny, I really don't…"

"No, you came down here to talk to me. So fine. We'll talk. You accuse my employee of being rude to you. You aren't in the same league to complain about her. She's protecting me, which you should have been doing all of my life. So, do you? Do you remember that first time? I sure do. I was eight. He was going after you. I stepped in because you were my mother and I knew that was wrong. How I knew that I haven't a clue because I grew up watching him hit you, but I knew hitting a woman was wrong. I stopped him. I took that shit and then I got older, started doing shit to forget about how fucked up things were at home and you told him! You, the person I was trying to defend. Do you know how shitty that felt?"

"I was so stoned, Johnny."

"No excuse."

"All of the time."

"I'm aware. I lived here. Who do you think I learned how to roll a blunt from? So you're telling me you think my life at your parents' house would've been worse than this? You think I ever want Billy let alone my own kid to ever see me without a shirt on? Assuming I can have them. Jury's still out on that."

"You're trying?"

"You don't get to ask me shit like that. Ever. I ever have a kid I can assure you you and the old man will be the last people I ever tell. I'd be dead before I ever let you know that information."


He slid his T-shirt back on before grabbing his flannel shirt from where he'd dropped it on the floor.

"Your brother, by the way, works at the same hospital you do."

"What?" she asked, sounding confused.

"Remember when I told you I had a friend who was a nurse there?"

"Yes," she said cautiously.

"It's your brother as it turns out. Phillip."

"Really?" she asked.

"No, I'm lying. Yes, really."

"I didn't know…"

"Yeah, I guess your parents sent him to me assuming you wouldn't recognize him not knowing our situation wasn't ideal."

"God I haven't seen him since he was still in diapers I bet."

"He said it'd been a while, yeah."

"I was so confused, Johnny."

"No, you weren't, Ma. You made choices. The wrong choices but they're on you. I'm glad to see you seem to be making the right ones where Billy's concerned. Though, I have to wonder if Dad didn't get himself in trouble if you wouldn't be doing the same shit all over again with that boy upstairs. This shit, though, expecting me to fix your stuff has to stop. I'm not your personal handyman."

"You're my son."

"Fuck you. Throwing that shit in my face. I didn't ask to be that. You and Dad made that decision when you forgot the rubber or whatever the fuck you did."

"I didn't know!"


"I'd never had sex before, Johnny. Never until that night. I didn't know. You think they told us stuff like that back then? You've met my parents. You think they told me about condoms or anything else? I thought I loved him."

"You've done a fine act of standing by him for the past twenty or so years, Ma. Have you even filed for divorce since he's in prison? I doubt he could do much contesting with murder charges under his belt."

"I had nowhere else to go."

"We've already established that's bullshit. You did, you just chose not to. You want to feel sorry for yourself, fine, but don't you dare tell me you had no choices. You did."

She sighed then and left the room, which was probably good for both of them. He got to work fixing the furnace and had it going within a couple of hours. It was an old unit to go with the old house.

"When you get money," he said when he was upstairs and had put all of his old man's tools back in the garage. "You really need to think about replacing that."

"Thank you, Johnny. Do you want something to eat?"

"No, I'm out of here. Don't start breaking shit to get me to come over here either."

"I wouldn't do that!"

"Just saying. I'm not here to be at your beck and call. I came today because of him," he said, gesturing to Billy.

"You wouldn't have otherwise?"

"Nope. I wouldn't have fixed your car either. I never wanted to see you again, not sure why you're having a difficult time grasping that concept. You certainly had no problem cutting your parents out of your life. I imagine I'd get a call when they found you frozen to death in your bed or the kitchen or whatever, but I really don't care."

"Johnny! That's…"

"Bye, Billy. You stay under those blankets for a while longer. It'll take a few hours for the house to get warm again."

"Okay," he said.

He left then and went home. He grabbed himself a beer, opened it, but didn't drink it. He was still holding onto it as he sat on the couch when Claire got home.

"Hi," she said.

"You're home early."

"Well, you mentioned dinner so I left on time for a change."

"I see that."

"You don't look like you really want to have dinner."

"Not really."

"Okay. We don't…"

"No, I'll change. We'll go."

"John. If you don't want to."

"I didn't want to fix my mother's furnace either, but I did that. May as well put a suit on and complete the day."

"Wow. Dinner with me is on the same level as seeing your mother?"

"That's not…"

"What you meant. Yeah, it sure sounded like it, though. If you don't want to go out we don't have to. I didn't make you suggest it last night."

"You were mad at me! You know I'll say what you want me to when you're mad at me."

"I wasn't mad when I got home."

"No, but you had been earlier. I'm not stupid. I know I need to keep the wife happy and not regret marrying me."

"I don't regret marrying you."


"What is with you, John?"

"Nothing's with me, Princess. I'm just not sure what to do anymore."

"With what?"

"Life. Me. Living. Anything."

"What does that mean?"

"You know until this past year my life was pretty okay. I got that phone call from fucking Pete and everything got thrown out of whack."

"It's not now? Okay I mean?" She looked genuinely hurt by that.

"Well, you know. I have all this shit going on. I have family."

"Yes. That's what happens, John, when you get married."

"I have your family who I know is waiting for me to fuck up so you'll wake up and leave me."

"They're not…"

"I have my mom who doesn't seem to understand that I don't want to see her."

"I'm sure she…"

"I have a little brother who I'd like to get to know, hang with, watch some cartoons with, or just be able to do some little kid stuff with that I wasn't ever able to do. I can't do that, though, because being involved with him means involvement with her."


"And then I have her family not wanting anything from me yet here they are."


"Oh, yeah, that's the best part! Your neighbors. The Taylor's. They're my grandparents. Ol' Phillip's my uncle, I guess."

"Shut up."

"That's pretty much what I said. He also told me I'm a Third, never knew that. Twenty-two years I just assumed I was named after one prick, but I guess it's two."

She had nothing to say to that apparently because she was strangely quiet. He probably shouldn't have said what he just said about his grandfather. He didn't know the man. For all he knew the reason his dad didn't talk to his parents was because he was the asshole and they knew it.

"So I went from a pretty basic, simply, mundane life to having family crawling out of the woodwork and I don't know what the fuck to do with any of you."


"Yes. You."


"You want kids. You want to try for kids."


"I'm not ready for that."

"I said okay."

"Yeah, you said okay, but you're not okay with it. I can tell. I saw Billy piled under those blankets today in that freezing cold house and I realized I'm not as far removed from that shit as I thought I was. My dad was handy, so the furnace would never have been off overnight."

"It was out all night?"

"Yes," he said.


"Right? Ronda tries to tell me that Dad did me a favor teaching me these things, but I can't help but think if I didn't know how to fix shit the mother unit would leave me the fuck alone."

"You wouldn't know about Billy, though."

"Yeah. Am I really better off knowing about him? He's one more family member I have to figure out what the fuck to do with. If I invite him into my life that's inviting her into it, isn't it?"

"Well, yes, I guess, but on your terms."

"And I don't know what the fuck to do with Phillip or the rest of them."

"What do you want to do?"

"I don't know! Didn't I just say that?"


"Don't John me. Don't make me repeat myself. I don't know. I really don't."


"I can't help but think how different my life would've been, you know. If she'd stayed."

"Letting them adopt you?"


"That'd be weird."

"Yeah. Well, at least I'd know I could give you kids."

"I don't care!"

"You do, too. You can't tell me you don't because if you didn't care you wouldn't have wanted to start trying for them after Christmas."

"I thought it'd be…"

"Fun? Yeah, sure, you know the process of sex without a rubber is very fun. I'm just not sure I'm ready for the rest of it."


"Do you know this morning I got to work and wished I had whisky to mix with my Coke? Nine o'clock in the fucking morning and I wanted a drink. I got home from seeing her and the first thing I did was grab for a beer."

"You didn't drink it…"

"Nope. I just sat there staring at it, wondering if that's how it started for her and the old man. You know? They were pissed off. Had a shitty day, woke up feeling shitty, I pissed on the carpet, or whatever and added a drop to this or that."

"It is absolutely not your fault. Even if you did do something you were a kid. It's on them not you and you are not them, John."

"Do you know that? Really? You don't know them. You saw my mom once and of course she was on her best behavior because she didn't want me to leave. You've never even met the old man. He'd love you, though. I'm sure he'd be full of all sorts of warm fuzzy words of encouragement for me on how to keep you happy."

"I don't need to meet him."

"Would you trust me with a kid?"


"You're making me repeat myself again. But okay. I'll ask again. Would you trust me with a kid? Do I need to say it clearer for you?"

"Stop being an ass."

"Stop making me repeat myself!"

"Of course I would."

"No doubts? No you going out with your friends and stopping to call me to make sure everything's okay?"

"Well, I'd probably do that not because I wouldn't trust you but because I know you'd be uncertain."

He scoffed.

"That's a polite way of putting it."

"We don't have to try."

"See, but I have this thing, right? Don't ask me why because I certainly didn't learn it from my parents, but I want you happy."

"I am happy!"

"But you'd be happier with a kid on the way."

"No, I'd be happier when you're happy, John. We want the same thing for each other. I want you happy. If that means no kids, then that's fine."

"But it's not! I don't want you sacrificing what you want, what your parents want to please me."

"Isn't that what I'm supposed to do?"

"No, you should be married to a guy who there is no question as to whether he can give you kids. You should be married to an accountant or a lawyer or something. Someone who doesn't work every fucking weekend. Someone who can take days off."

"We'll take vacations when we can. I already know that. I love our Sunday's together. I look forward to them more than just about anything because I know for an entire day I have you."

He liked their Sundays, too. He'd come to count on them more than he wanted to admit.

"I noticed you didn't wake me up this morning before you left for work."

"I knew you'd had a bad night, John. You didn't have to tell me about it for me to know you were in a bad mood."

"What if having sex with you would've made me feel better?"

"I want me to help you feel better, not sex."

"It's the same thing, isn't it? Sex with anyone else doesn't make me happy."

"I'm sorry?"


"You're having sex with other people?"


"You just said…"

"I meant in general not literally now currently. No, I wouldn't do that. Again, I don't know where I get it from but I'm not built that way. Ironic I know because I sure did a hell of an impression of being the worst kind of cad for years."


"I don't know what I'm feeling right now."


"It was just so much easier when it was just me I had to worry about. No uncles, aunts, parents, brothers, grandparents."


He shrugged. He couldn't deny it was true to a degree.

"I can go."



"This is your home."

"My parents' house then."

"Is that what you want?"

"No, it's not what I want, but if you don't want me here I'm not going to stay here either. I don't want to turn into my parents any more than you do, John."

"I don't want you to leave, Princess."

"You have a funny way of showing it right now."

"I didn't ask for this!"

"You asked me to marry you."

"Yes, that I can take responsibility for. I did not ask for the rest of it."

"I know."

"I yelled at her today."

"Probably well deserved."

"A little late, but yeah. I feel bad, though."


He shrugged. "She's my mother. My dad beat her down and I just basically did the same thing. Fuck, she pissed me off, though."


"I feel like I should go apologize to her."

"You should? Do you want to?"

"No," he whispered.


"Because I just can't find it in myself to love her or feel anything for her."

"You must somewhere or you wouldn't feel the need."

"Maybe. I don't know. I've spent so long loathing her that I don't know what other feelings might be there."

"That's understandable, I'm sure she feels the same way if she takes the time to think about it."


"Maybe tomorrow you could do it."

"I don't think I'm going to feel any different tomorrow."

"No, probably not, but if you don't you'll feel guilty."


"I don't want you to go tonight."

"Why not?" he asked.

She stepped toward him then. It was her first time touching him since she'd gotten home he realized.

"I want to take a bath."


"With you."

"Oh," he said. "You're going to make me smell like a girl, aren't you?"

She laughed softly, leaning in to kiss him.

"I have just one thing to say about this family business," she whispered.

"Okay," he said cautiously.

"We are a family. You and me. Kids or not, a year from now or ten years from now. That's your family. Right here, in this house. The rest of them: my parents, your parents, the Taylor's. They don't matter. You know? You don't have to worry so much about making everyone happy. You deserve to be happy with me. They don't live with you. I live with you. I want you happy and it hurts me seeing you this upset over something that you can't do anything about tonight anyway."

"I'm not trying to hurt you."

"I know you're not, but that's what happens when you love someone. You'd feel the same way if this was my situation."

"I would," he admitted.

"Like it bothering you when Pete tried to sell you those pictures."

"Yes," he admitted.

"I love you."

"I love you, too."

"That's all that matters. None of the rest of it matters. I don't care. I don't care about the Taylor's or my parents. As long as I do my job Dad's not going to cut me out of his will or anything."

"Would that bother you?"

"Six months ago it would have immensely."

"And now?"

"Well, after dealing with some of the assholes I've dealt with at work I've come to realize that Dad's company or not I graduated Cum Laude from a very good school."

"You did."

"I could get a job anywhere."

"You could."

"Maybe it wouldn't be the income level I'm used to."

He snorted at that.

"I do think you should be involved with Billy, though."

"Why?" he asked, surprised by that.

"Because I think if something happened to him you'd feel guilty."

"She says she's not using or even drinking anymore."

"Well, that's good."

"It is," he admitted.

"That makes you feel bad, though, doesn't it?"

"Yup," he said.

"I don't blame you and I can't even imagine what that must feel like to know she quit for him."


"You know what, though, John? It got you here. It got us here."

"It did."

"And I'm not saying you have to love her or even talk to her, but I think you'd like to get to know him. Maybe show him some of those things your dad showed you. He clearly can't do it if he's in prison."

"What is it with you and Ronda thinking my dad did me this huge favor…"

"He did! I can barely change a light bulb, John. I watch you do the stuff you can do and it astounds me."

"It's nothing special."

"Says the guy who can do it. Name one thing in our house, your mom's house, and probably even my parents' house that you wouldn't be able to fix."

"Your pool equipment."

"I said in the houses."

He frowned. "Well, I'd need to see the stuff to know, but I can't think of anything off the top of my head, no."

"Our cars?"

"Your car, your parents' cars are iffy. I've never worked on Nazi cars."

She rolled her eyes but laughed softly so she knew he was teasing her.

"My dad couldn't do any of it. Not in our house or the cars. Something breaks down, Mom calls whoever can fix it."

"I know."

"Christopher couldn't."

"He could do some of it."

"Maybe some of it. I guarantee you he couldn't have fixed his furnace. I assure you he wouldn't even contemplate putting the garage door opener in himself that you're talking about getting and doing this summer."

"I only know how because Dad showed me how!"

"Sure. How old were you?"

He shrugged. "I don't know nine or ten, I suppose." Shit. He couldn't remember a time his dad didn't put tools in his hands and show him how to do things. Most kids had plastic tools, not John he'd had the real deal since he could remember. "It was about the only time I ever liked spending time with him," he said. "He'd take me to the garage or to the houses he was doing repairs for and I did more than just hand him the tools."

"Do you hear yourself? Do you know what Christopher was doing when he was nine or ten?"

"Sure. He was doing what normal boys did growing up. Sports and stuff."

"Yes, but John. What your dad and Mr. Fitzgerald did are way more valuable than the sports Christopher played are."

"I guess."

"I know you don't see it that way and I guess Ronda and I don't understand why because it wasn't our life. We just see these things you can do that you take for granted."

"I don't! I mean, I know I could be a mechanic or work construction or whatever. I didn't want to do that."

"Yes, but the only reason you had a viable option was because someone else showed you something else you were good at."

"I know," he said. "Pretty pathetic."

"It's not. Don't say that. Why would you think that?"

"Why? Gee. 'So what does your husband do, Claire?' 'Oh he takes pictures for a living.' Real impression-maker there when you're out on business dinners or whatever you do with your dad and clients."

"First of all, most everyone who knows me already knows what you do. Second, there's nothing at all wrong or embarrassing about what you do."

"If you say so."

"I do. If you're embarrassed that comes from somewhere inside of you and has nothing to do with me or what I've said about you. I have done nothing but express pride and envy at what you've done since high school."


"Sure. Look at what you've accomplished. I bet there are photographers who've been taking pictures for forty years who haven't made it onto the cover of Sports Illustrated."

"It was just one time."

"It's still one more time than many others can claim."

"I guess."

"And you don't just take pictures. You own a business, you may consider it small but you pay the bills and have established a good reputation. You know you would have the possibility to expand if you wanted to take on another photographer, but you haven't yet. That's fine and it's fine if you never want to add someone else. Even if you did just take pictures. There's nothing wrong with it as a profession. People are photographers."

She leaned up and kissed him then. "Now come take a bath with me and worry about your mother tomorrow."

"You just want me inside of you without protection."

"Bring one with."

"That would be a good idea if you hadn't been spoiling me the past couple of months telling me I didn't need one."

"You don't need one, but if it makes you feel better. If not trying for a while is what you want then we don't have to."

"God. That's a terrible choice to make. You know that? I hate those fucking things now."

"Then don't use one."

"I really, really don't want to find out for sure I can't, though. You know?"

"We don't know that yet. You've pulled out when I've told you to."

"I know."

"I've told you to because while I know you like it I know you're not entirely ready yet."

"I know that, too."

"We're married, we're both gainfully employed, I have good insurance through my job and I had insurance before I started working so it wouldn't be a pre-existing condition or anything, we have a house, and we're not broke or anything so if it did happen…"

"I know. I get where you're at, Princess."

"Then come wash your wife's back."

"You know, I swear to God you tell another living soul I take baths with you…"

"Don't worry, that's just one of the many secrets I'll keep about you."

"Many, huh?"


"There are others?"

"Uh huh. Lots of others."


"How good of a guy you are."

"I'm not sure that one should stay a secret."

"I like being one of the few who knows."

"You and Ronda are about the only ones."

"I'd be jealous if she was anyone else."

He chuckled. "I don't think Ronda would touch me with a ten foot pole even if she was single and able."

"Oh, I know she wouldn't, that's why I'm not jealous of her and the fact she sees you during the week more than I do."

"Hmm. You could give up your job and come work for me."


"Not tempting enough, though, eh?"

"Uh, no."

"Say," he said as he watched her shed her clothes in the bathroom as the tub filled up.


"This bath idea was just a way to remind me how incredible I have it, wasn't it?"

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, Jesus, I look at you. I watch you and, fuck, in my wildest dreams, Claire, I couldn't have dreamt up someone like you if I'd tried."

"Selfish, snobby, and pretentious you mean?"

"Well, I wouldn't say that."

"That's because you want to get laid."

"You are right."

"You have a lot to make up for already."

"I do?"

"Yes, with your 'not knowing what to do with me' comment."

"I don't! I have no clue. I'm totally out of my element. I'm winging it, totally guessing, and am hugely afraid I'm going to fuck up one of these days. You at least had a remotely positive influence. I didn't have that."

He got into the tub, hating to admit the stupid fucking things relaxed him. He'd never before she'd moved in used his tub and couldn't say he'd had a bath since he was a kid either. She got in after him, sliding him inside of her almost immediately. Funny, watching her walk around the bathroom naked got him excited especially when she had to lean over the edge of the tub to put the stopper in. She knew that, too. Tonight if he didn't know better she prolonged it, wanting him to watch her.

"Big tip. Don't lump me in with people you don't want."

"I'm sorry. I really didn't mean to, but I'm still not entirely sure on what I'm supposed to do with you. Clearly, not wanting you isn't a problem."

"Clearly," she said, taking him as deep as he could go. He closed his eyes, groaning softly at the feel of her around him. In the tub like this it seemed like every inch of their bodies touched.

"You asked me to wash your back," he murmured, opening his eyes enough to regard her.

"I did."

He ran a fingertip along one of her breasts, grazing a nipple before leaning down to kiss and suck on it.

"This is not your back," he whispered.

"I wondered when you'd notice that."

"I noticed right away."

She shifted then, turning around so she was facing away from him then taking him inside of her again.

"Let me know when you need me to…"

"Not tonight, Princess," he said running his fingertip along the length of her spine causing her to shiver a bit despite the water being pretty good and warm.

"John," she said cautiously.

"I make no promises I'm going to again tomorrow or anything, but we can start with once and go from there."

"You're sure?"

"I want you right where you are until we're both done for the night."

"I can live with that."

"Me, too."

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