"I was beginning to think you weren't real," Sam, Claire's assistant, said.
"Because I haven't actually met you until today."
"You've talked to me on the phone," John said. He'd talked to her plenty of times. Sometimes he thought he found out more about Claire's day talking to Sam than from Claire herself. He'd call, Claire would be on the phone, in a meeting, visiting a site, or something so she took a message. She was always quick to provide details, which always made John wonder what Sam thought John would think Claire was doing.
He and Claire met for lunch at least once a week, sometimes more if their schedules allowed, but most of the time he drove downtown and met her wherever she was having lunch. Sometimes her dad and/or Christopher were with her. Today, though he had a meeting with the attorney, State Attorney, and police. Mr. Standish's lawyer was pretty slick, making the police come downtown to them. John couldn't blame him for not making it easy to possibly embarrass his daughter. It meant, of course, that John had to take an entire afternoon off from work but as he'd known about the deposition for a couple of weeks it wasn't that difficult to schedule around it. So, tonight they were meeting for dinner instead. It would be an early dinner since it wasn't even five o'clock. He could have wasted time doing something else but figured he'd just come here afterward rather than make her leave before necessary. She'd ridden into work with her dad again this morning since she'd known John was picking her up tonight.
"Oh, I know," she said. She was a little older than John expected for some reason. She sounded much younger over the phone. She wasn't ancient or anything, but had to be late twenties or early thirties he was guessing.
"Are you feeling better?" he asked, remembering Claire telling him she'd been out sick one or two days last week.
"Yes! I didn't want to risk coming in here and getting Claire sick, you know?"
"I appreciate it very much. I know she does, too." The last thing she needed was to get sick. It was kind of alarming the limitations there were on what Claire would be able to take if she did come down with something. Tylenol was about the extent of it, which was great for headaches but not so much for things like the flu.
"Well, I'm glad because that was just a risk I wasn't willing to take even if it was just the flu. My throat was so sore, though, I thought for sure I had strep throat or something."
"Better to be safe, not just for Claire's sake."
"That's what she said. I still felt guilty."
"She wasn't upset."
"Good," she said, sounding sincerely relieved. John had to wonder if Sam would go with Claire as she advanced in the company. If so, did Sam realize that? She was chosen it sounded to John by her father, but surely she had to realize it was a pretty good position to be promoted to. Not much better job security than working for the boss's daughter. He wasn't sure what she'd do while Claire was on maternity leave, especially if she took a good chunk off after the baby was born. John hoped she would. He knew her dad wasn't going to get upset over something like that, but she hadn't decided yet if she was going to take more than a couple of months off afterward.
Claire seemed to like her though initially she'd been certain Sam was there to spy on her. John didn't think they'd ever be best friends or anything, but Claire had gone out with her after work a few times with some other women from work. She didn't drink right now, but she still liked spending time with people who weren't out to report on her activities. He never saw it going beyond drinks or something to eat after work, but there were all types of friends John was coming to learn.
"She's not in there," she said when John walked toward Claire's office. He'd only ever been here a couple of times before, beyond the first floor of the building anyway. He remembered where her office was, though.
"She went to the bathroom. I'm surprised you didn't pass her actually."
"Oh, well, she wasn't sure what time to expect me so I guess I'll wait then."
"I wasn't expecting you to be wearing a suit," she said.
"Why?" John asked.
"I don't know. I didn't get the impression you wore them for your job regularly."
"Oh, well, you know, I had a meeting that I thought it was sort of appropriate to dress up for."
"I see. A good meeting?"
"Not really," John said honestly. He wasn't going to reveal more than that. It wasn't Sam's business. John didn't work in an office, but Ronda had before working for John. She'd told him more than once not to reveal anything to Sam he (or Claire) wouldn't want the whole office secretarial pool to know. What John had come down here for was not something he or Claire wanted talked about or known by anyone here. "The unavoidable kind."
"Oh," she said.
He stepped into her office to wait for her. He was perhaps a little more comfortable talking to Sam than a total stranger because they'd talked over the phone and she was better than some of Claire's friends he'd met in general, but he still didn't know her. He'd come to the conclusion over the past few months dealing with her and her friends that he was just never going to be Mr. Outgoing. He wasn't built that way. He could be cordial when he needed to be, but he was never going to be the one to strike up conversations with people she knew.
He walked to the window, admiring the view she had of downtown. He hadn't noticed it the night he'd been in here because they hadn't made it to the window. He started loosening his tie, stopping himself when he realized they were having dinner and they were going somewhere that required the tie since he was wearing a suit today.
"Hi, sorry," Claire said when she came into her office.
"Nothing to apologize for. You're at work and had no idea what time I'd be here exactly."
"Well, you were downtown anyway, I was happy to wait for you."
"Yeah?" he said, stepping closer to her so he could kiss her.
"Yes. I like having dinner with you especially downtown."
"You wore the suit."
"I did," he said. "I figured it was a good idea to dress to impress or whatever the saying is."
"You can acknowledge it impresses?"
"For what I paid for this suit, Princess, it should impress the Queen of England and maybe even the Pope."
"It looks very good, though."
"Yeah, yeah, you keep saying that so I guess it's true. Let's go eat so you and the little one are not starving longer than you need to be. Don't want to deprive the two of you of nourishment."
"I think we're both fine. I did eat lunch since I knew you weren't going to be done too early if your…" she paused as if realizing the door was open and Sam was right out there. "Meeting didn't start until after two o'clock."
"Well, I'm glad you remembered to take lunch."
"I always remember!"
"Uh huh," he said.
"Okay, sometimes Sam orders something in for me because she realizes I've gotten immersed in something and lose track of time."
"I know, hard to believe."
"At least you have crackers here, right?"
"Yes, I have crackers and granola bars. Plus some yogurt and fruit in my fridge."
"Good." He knew she brought things like the yogurt and fruit with her once a week or so because he bought those things for her when he stopped at Jewel for groceries. The crackers and stuff were harder to keep track of because he had no idea how many she ate or how often she ate them.
He grabbed her coat from the coatrack she had there and helped her into it.
"You were really ready to get out the door as soon as I got here. I expected to have to wait a while or something."
"Nope. I finished up a little bit ago. I am more than ready."
"Good to know dinner with me appeals to you that much."
"Anything with you appeals to me that much."
"That is also very good to know."
"God I haven't been here in a long time," she said when they walked into the Palmer House.
"You came here often, Princess? I find that hard to believe."
"Well, we used to come down here around Christmastime as a family, spend a couple of nights and see the lights and everything downtown."
"Ah, that makes much more sense than what I was trying to figure out you needing a room here for."
She rolled her eyes.
"You're the only guy I've ever stayed in any room with for the night."
"Hmm. Only guy?"
"Only person? That's not true, though, I've spent the night with friends."
"And that might give me some nice dreams tonight."
"Not in that way!"
"Well, you did tell me once you…"
"I didn't do anything but kiss!"
He chuckled. "A guy can embellish."
"You better not embellish too much."
"Nope, no need to."
"Good to hear."
"It is, isn't it? I'll be right back. I'm going to use the restroom. Order me a whisky Coke, will you?"
"Sure," she said.
"So, how did it go?" she asked once they'd ordered. Their waiter was very prompt at coming to the table once John had come back and had a few minutes to look at his menu. Of course it was early enough they weren't hugely busy. For the prices listed on the menu John almost felt as if he should get some sexual favors out of the deal, too. There was a steak dinner on the menu for over forty bucks. What did they do? Kill the cow themselves right before cooking it?
John shrugged. "Fine. You know, a lot of legal verbiage that I don't understand. I was glad Mr. McMillan was there because I wouldn't have understood half the shit they were saying. It boils down to if I have to testify it'll just be technical stuff more than anything else. They're primarily focusing on people whose pictures actually got out there from the sounds of it. I'll still have to say how I got them, though, the ones he gave me I mean. He doesn't expect it to be bad since yours didn't get out there. And my possessing the pictures will lead to how I knew they were fake and how he would've gone about doing that. He doesn't anticipate me being on the stand long he said."
"I know. I'm so glad. I will probably have to testify, though, a little different than your testimony will be. He says I should be expecting to be asked how you knew it wasn't me in the pictures since we weren't involved yet at that point."
"I know. I'm sorry about that."
"It's not your fault. God, I could be one of those women they're focusing on. I just have to testify that it's not me in those pictures he claimed to you were me."
"So, just how much detail of that day of detention should I go into if they ask me questions, Princess?"
"I guess that's up to you."
"Don't worry I can be a gentleman when I need to be."
"I know you can be. I'm not worried you're going to embarrass me, John."
"I like Mr. McMillan."
"Yeah?" she asked with a soft laugh.
"What? He's obviously good at his job. I don't know anything about lawyers, whether I needed one for this whole thing but he's acting as if he's my lawyer, too."
"Well, he kind of is in a way since you're married to me and this ultimately involves me. You haven't done anything wrong, he just wants to make sure that nothing negatives gets said or comes out about me."
"Yes, I know. I think he knows something happened between us for me to be as certain as I was those pictures weren't of you. I won't say that, though. I'll just say that I knew you well enough to know you wouldn't pose like that."
"I am for you."
"Yeah, only because I've begged you and because I said I thought it'd be neat to have some pictures of you as your pregnancy progresses."
It took him about a month after she'd told him she was late to convince her to let him take a picture. He'd been taken one a week since then. He took pictures of her otherwise, but these were of her and only meant for him to see. He hadn't gotten her to agree to have everything off or not be covered up a little yet, but he was working on that.
"Why you want to see that I don't know."
"Because you're my wife and that's my baby in there."
"I like when you get possessive of us."
"I will always be possessive of us, however many us's we have."
"Good to hear."
"I stayed and talked to him for a few minutes after the State Attorney people left. I wasn't sure I'd be bothering him and I didn't want to call him on the phone just to ask him this stuff, so I took advantage of being there."
He sighed. "Well, I told you Ma said she'd thought of getting a divorce."
"Right, but she can't afford it or something."
"Yes. I think Billy complicates things as does Dad being in prison. If it was just me, an adult, I don't think she'd have a problem. I explained the situation to him, which I'm sure he already knew most of anyway. He did seem surprised to know who my grandfather was so while I'm sure he has a dossier or file on me going back to before I could walk it makes me wonder how in depth it is as far as my parents."
"You don't sound surprised you think he does," he said as the waiter set Claire's salad in front of her. John had gone with a bowl of soup instead of the salad. He didn't mind salads, but it was French onion which he loved. At these prices it had to be good so he figured he'd try it.
"I'm sure my dad asked him to check up on you at some point."
"I figured that was the case, too. It's a good thing I haven't gotten into any trouble since high school. I explained that my mom and her family don't talk and haven't in years. I asked him if he could recommend any lawyers who were either real affordable or would allow her to make payments. He said he thought he knew of a couple who might since there's a young child in the picture as kind of a favor to him. You know, lawyers who take on cases that they can write off as public service or whatever."
"Are you going to tell her?"
"Yeah, he told me he'd mail me the information when he got it together and I'll give it to her whenever I get it. It's not like she seems to be in a hurry and she doesn't know I'm asking, but I have to admit I'd feel better if she wasn't married to him anymore."
"That's very nice of you, John. Him, too, but you. Most would tell you it's more than your mom deserves."
"Well, I can't help but think being married to him doesn't give her a real good chance at a new life. She can go to meetings, get a job, and all that stuff but ultimately she's still his wife."
"No. You're right."
"I mean, maybe she could do something more than work in the hospital cafeteria, but having a convicted murderer for her husband probably doesn't help. You know? It may frustrate her and lead to her using again. Drugs, alcohol it doesn't matter because if she starts one she'll move onto the other."
"And as much as I love Billy, I really don't want to get into a legal battle with her over him because she's using again."
It was the first time he'd admitted to loving his little brother. It wasn't the same type of love he had for Claire. He was a kid, though. What was there not to love about him? Billy was getting more and more used to John (and vice versa) so their lunches together were better than they were in the beginning. He still didn't talk much, but he listened to John a lot better than he used to. He knew, though, there wasn't much he wouldn't do to protect the kid because when it got down to it John didn't believe there was anyone else who'd make sure he was protected. He wanted to believe his mother was capable, but he just wasn't convinced.
What if she got divorced and got involved with someone as bad as his dad? It was something John had thought of before talking to Mr. McMillan about his mom's situation. Was he giving her these tools only to set her up to repeat her mistake? He could only hope she learned from her mistake. That and that she felt enough about herself to not want to do that.
"If she was using and I saw signs he wasn't being taken care of?" he shrugged. "I don't know. Without my dad in the picture maybe I'd give her some room. I'd have to see she was holding a job and he was being taken care of, that includes things like being able to go on field trips with his classes. Obviously, you'd have a say in anything I did, too."
"Well, I couldn't leave him in a situation like that."
"I guess we'd cross that bridge when it gets here, if it gets here. I just really want her to have the tools to get the divorce if she wants to. I'm not sure she'd know where to start. I doubt she knows any lawyers well enough to ask besides her father and we know she's not asking him. I know the only reason Mr. McMillan is doing it is because I'm married to you. Though, I don't know, he seems to kind of like me. I'm not even sure she knows how to go about finding a lawyer. Dad did everything for her, you know?"
"Yes. She let that happen, though, too."
"She did. It must be innate in us Bender men, though, because I find myself wanting to do the same for you."
"Well, you're not an abusive, controlling ass. It's different when you do things for me."
"I'm glad you think so."
"I don't think, I know," she said. "There's a huge difference between the things you do for me because you want to do them and the need to control me or keep me clueless about everything down to how to change a lightbulb."
"You do know how to change a lightbulb, don't you?"
"Just making sure. I've never actually seen you change one."
"I have changed a few in my lifetime. The lamp by my bed mostly."
He chuckled softly. "I'm glad to hear that."
"Now spiders are a totally different thing. Those I'll leave for you," she said, taking a sip of her water.
"Hmm. I bet if it's crawling on the crib you won't."
"You might be right then."
"Then, I bet Diana would take care of it for you if I'm not home."
"Oh God," Claire said softly.
"Hey, it's better than a cat. They bring mice and stuff to you as gifts. I suspect that's more than you want on the kitchen floor when you wake up in the morning and start your coffee."
"Just a bit."
"And that big woodpile the Ivan's have in their backyard attracts lots of mice."
"I don't even want to know how you know this."
He chuckled softly. "More things the old man taught me, or I learned by experience working with him over the years."
"You had cats growing up?"
"Uh, no. I mean, not really. Not as pets. There were strays that hung out by Dad's garage. His work garage, I mean. I would leave food out for them so they'd keep coming around. There was a junk yard in back of his building and the cats would have a good time chasing bunnies and mice. I'm sure other things, too, but those are the things I saw them go after."
"They weren't friendly or anything. They were maybe a touch on the good side of being feral, but they were pretty damned wild. The only reason they were remotely good was because Dad fed them."
"You know, you say you want a girl."
"I kind of want a boy."
"I mean, it really doesn't matter to me, but I think it'd be fun to watch you with a boy, teach him the things you know without the bad stuff associated with it all."
"I could teach those things to a girl, too, you know. I'd be very happy if I had a daughter who could overhaul my engine with me and change her own oil."
"I just bet you would."
"What? I would. Sue me."
"You realize it's going to be difficult for me not to have a girl and dress her in dresses."
"Sure, she doesn't have to wear them all day, every day. If I can't find a pair of coveralls small enough to fit her you can bet I'd have some made so you wouldn't freak out about her clothes getting dirty."
She shook her head.
"I'd teach you, too, you know."
"Like I'll ever need to know these things."
"You never know."
"You planning on getting arrested, John?"
"Uh, no, but you know, the basics would be good if your car breaks down in the middle of nowhere or on the expressway at six in the morning. You know, so you can at least put the spare tire on."
"I think I know how."
"Thinking you know how doesn't get you home to me if you have to do it and don't really know how."
"I know. The odds…"
"Between here and the house? I know, I know you don't want to think these things can happen. You have a nice car and you take care of it, but things happen."
"See, you worry about me."
"Well, sure, especially pregnant I do."
"I couldn't change a tire right now anyway!"
"Well, that may be true…"
"I'll make a deal with you."
"Why do I think I'm not going to like this at all?"
"You reconsider the name if it's a boy and I'll learn to change a tire."
"That's not at all a fair exchange. Knowing how to change a tire will actually help you."
"I think naming a child after you may actually help you."
"Because it'd give you someone good to focus on that shares your name instead of the negative feelings and memories with your dad."
"I'll think about it, Princess. I make no promises."
"That's better than the no you were giving me before."
"Yeah, yeah. I really hope by the time he's born if it's a boy you're over this desire to do that. Why would you want a kid to go through life as a Fourth anyway?"
"Why not? You didn't know you were a Third until recently. All he'll know is he's named after you. It's not like we have to register him for school as John Frederick Bender IV."
"No, I suppose."
"I mean, clearly your dad got away with it with you for years."
"I'm not sure we should take legality lessons from my old man, Princess."
"You know what I mean."
"I do. I'll think about it."
He was glad to see her eat so well. He knew she ate lunch every day, but since he didn't make the food she ate at lunch he had no idea what she actually ate or how much of it. He didn't always make her breakfast, but she was much better about eating what she needed to eat in the mornings pregnant than she had been before. Not pregnant she'd grab a banana on her way out the door as her breakfast. Sometimes now it was only a bowl of cereal with milk and a banana with it, but it was still better. He felt better as a result. He never knew for sure what she ate for lunch, so the once a week he got to eat with her made him feel better.
"I'm glad we got dinner together, but I'm sorry you had to come down here for that. I know you had to switch at least one appointment around."
"It's not your fault, the appointment was fine with being moved to tomorrow afternoon instead of today. Quit apologizing for what some asshole did to you."
She leaned in and kissed him. "Thank you for dinner."
"Thank you for coming with me. It's always my favorite day of the week when I get a nice dinner with you."
"You're just saying that because I know you hate eating dinner out."
"I'm not. You're right, I think it's silly to spend money when we can eat just as well if not better at home for less money, but I got used to seeing you and having nice, relaxing dinners with you helping me a bit. Then you started working and our whole schedule went to hell. Now you're pregnant and you come home some days so tired that I feel guilty making you eat dinner with me when I know you'd rather take a nap or just eat on the couch."
"Well, in a couple of months…"
"Trust me, I'm counting down the days. You don't have to tell me. Access to you all hours of the day is definitely something I'm looking forward to again."
"I know, I know, you're going to be hugely pregnant and I should prepare myself for the possibility that you won't want to so much. That doesn't mean I don't want to spend time with you. Sitting on the beach with you at sunset has more appeal to me than you can possibly know."
"Because it's me and you on a beach together. What's not to love about that scenario? And if it's a private enough beach," he shrugged. "Well, maybe if you're in the mood despite being hugely pregnant."
"Only if we have a towel. I've heard horror stories from people who've done it on the beach about sand getting places…"
He chuckled a bit at that. "Towel. Check. Anything else?"
"That's also a check. Easily done."
"Where are you going?" she asked.
"Hmm, didn't I tell you we're staying here tonight?"
He shrugged. "We had that stupid party on our anniversary and because I didn't know about the party until the last minute I had that wedding on Saturday."
"Well, going to Sol's birthday party did not seem like a stellar way to celebrate our first anniversary."
"I had to come down here anyway today, so I thought I'd surprise you."
"I have to work tomorrow."
"Just think the fact that you're already downtown means you get to sleep in a little bit."
"I don't have any clothes."
"Taken care of."
"You talk about dinner out costing too much money. I know how much a night at this hotel costs."
"We only get one first anniversary."
"You got me a present."
He'd gotten her a diamond anniversary band that surprisingly matched her wedding ring pretty nicely. She had to wear it on her right hand because the wedding ring wasn't the type that allowed for multiple rings being worn together as he'd seen some people do, but it was very clear right hand or not what the ring was.
"Yeah, I know, you deserve more than that. Besides, I've already paid for the room so, you know, the money's already spent whether we sleep in it or not."
"Yes! I checked in earlier after my appointment with Mr. McMillan. After we got seated I went to the valet guy to have him park my car so we're all set. Come on, Princess, you know you want to."
"Oh, I do, but Diana!"
"Taken care of. You thought I'd forget about her? Ronda's got her for the night. Phillip offered, too, so we don't lack for volunteers where she's concerned. Something tells me we'll have more for the baby."
"I think you're probably right. Babies don't need to be walked or let out at two in the morning."
"They tend not to chew up your furniture either. So I've heard anyway," John said.
She kissed him then, really kissed him. Way better of a kiss than they usually engaged in in public, especially when they were downtown.
"Thank you," she whispered.
"Well, you know, like I said I'm not so great with the words. Saying them as often as you'd probably like."
"You do fine."
"Well, still, you know, just doing my part so you know it." He slid a thumb along her cheek, lower along her lower lip. She kissed the pad of his thumb then and he closed his eyes instinctively. He liked when she kissed things that weren't his mouth very much.
"I think if I'm not mistaken there's some chocolate dipped strawberries waiting for you up there."
"That's why you wouldn't let me get dessert."
"Guilty as charged."
"That sounds delicious."
"Well, they're there waiting for you. Let's go."
"Are you eating some with me?"
He chuckled a bit. "Actually there's something up there for me, too."
"Something for you to wear that should be wearable for the next four months, too. Because if you feel as though you have to wear something for those three weeks this is about what I have in mind."
"I'm not sure I want to know what you have in mind."
"Sure you do. It covers you, just in a very pleasing way to your husband."
"You haven't seen it on me yet."
"Trust me, I have an eye for these things where you're concerned. Let's go on up so you can put it on and I can prove to you how right I am."
"You're just trying to make me wait to eat the strawberries."
"You can eat the strawberries while wearing it. I promise I won't mind."
Story ©Susan Falk/APCKRFAN/PhantomRoses.com