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**Chapter One**
Word Count: 7,550

February 1988

Claire showed up at the jail out of morbid curiosity. It was the only reason really. She certainly hadn't hauled her ass downtown at this time of the night to see him. That's what she kept telling herself the entire drive here. She wasn't sure she'd convinced herself that was entirely true yet, though.

'An inmate from the Cook County Police Department is trying to contact you via a collect call, are you willing to accept those charges?'

"Uh, yeah, sure," she said. "Yes," she said again, realizing 'yeah, sure' may not be a conclusive answer to the recording or whatever it was making the call.

'Claire?'

"Yes, who's this?"

'Claire. Yeah, hi. This is John. John Bender.'

"Okay."

'I'm sorry to ask this. Believe me when I say normally you'd be the last person I'd call to ask a favor like this of. I was kind of hoping you'd come bail me out, though. I can pay you back tonight, I promise, they just won't let me go to an ATM in here. You know, being arrested and all.'

"I'm sorry. You're calling me to come bail you out of jail?"

'There's a reason for you being the person I used my one phone call on tonight. So, yeah, I'm asking you to come bail me out of jail.'

"There's a reason? Besides my having access to money, you mean?"

'I swear to God, Claire. You're going to want to hear what I have to say, why I got arrested.'

"How much is your bail?"

He told her and her eyes widened.

"What?"

'I'm telling you that I can pay you back tonight. Once you get here and have heard me out I will get you your money back.'

"John, it's almost three o'clock in the morning. I don't know if I can take that much out of my bank." She knew, of course. Her ATM card limit exceeded the amount he needed, but she wasn't going to let him know that.

'Yeah? You don't think I'm aware of the time, Princess? Certainly you have a credit card of Daddy's you can get a cash advance on or something. I will pay you back. Come on, do an old friend a favor.'

"That's putting it on a little thick and overselling our relationship a ton."

'An old distant friend? Listen, the cop standing next to me is giving me the evil eye. I'll be here until Monday morning if you can't come get me. One phone call, remember? Think about that. I get one call and I use it on you after all this time. Please. Will you come or not?'

"I suppose," she said. She had to admit to being astounded he still knew her telephone number after all this time. They hadn't talked in, well, almost exactly four years. "You're lucky I was home, you know."

'I do know. It's Friday night. Thank you, Princess.'

"Yeah, sure," she'd said and hung up.

So, here she was over an hour later in a part of town her father would probably kill her for setting foot in. To say it was bad was an understatement. She'd heard stories about this neighborhood. She'd gotten lost, because really what reason would she possibly have had to know where the Cook County Jail was before tonight? Leave it to John to allow her to fill in that missing piece of the puzzle that was life in Chicago.

"I'm here to post bail for John Bender," she said at the desk.

There was a statement Claire Standish never thought she'd have reason to utter in her lifetime. Bailing someone out of jail. God, it was a good thing her parents were gone for the weekend or she'd have some serious explaining to do about why she'd taken off at three o'clock in the morning. It was also a good thing she'd gone home early because being followed down here would lead to all kinds of questions and gossip. Her father was already upset with her for some pictures that had appeared in the paper this morning from her outing last night. Well, Friday morning from Thursday night, she supposed it was Saturday morning now. She hadn't gone to sleep yet so still considered it Friday night.

He was very lucky it wasn't a huge amount of money, which made her think whatever he'd been arrested for hadn't been too serious. Much more than what she'd had to withdraw from her bank's ATM and she would've been exceeding her cash limit for the day, though.

She handed the money through a slot in the bulletproof glass to the officer on the other side. She signed a document or two. One was acknowledging that if John didn't show up for all of his court dates her cash bail would be forfeited. The other was to provide her address so that her money could be sent back to her (assuming he kept all of his court dates). She didn't know his address so she put hers on the document, figuring she could just give it back to him if and when she ever got it. She had a friend who had to bail her boyfriend out for public intoxication not too long ago and she was still waiting to get her money back from that. Claire wasn't holding out much hope for tonight's process being any swifter.

She sat on a grungy old chair that was bolted to the floor and five other chairs identical to it. There were five or six rows just like it in the waiting area. Clearly, they had all seen better days. The avocado green color was a dead giveaway that this area at least hadn't been updated since her mom was Claire's age. The one she chose to sit on was relatively clean. She was going to throw her clothes in the wash as soon as she got home, but there wasn't blood or anything on it. None that she could see anyway. She couldn't say the same about most of the other chairs in the waiting area. Most were just scratched and dented, results of years of use. Some, though, were discolored and misshapen. From what she had no idea and didn't want to think on it.

She sighed softly, waiting. She clutched her purse to her, nervously working her hands through the handles. She was in a police station she shouldn't be nervous or feel unsafe, but she'd heard stories about this area of the city. God. Why was she here? She was an idiot. Why the hell had she dropped everything to come get him? He probably deserved to sit in jail until Monday morning. People didn't get arrested for no reason. He likely wasn't going to pay her back either and he sure had absolutely nothing to tell her. She hadn't spoken to him since the summer after graduation. He'd just needed someone he knew had access to money to bail him out.

She stood when the doors opened down the hall and heard footsteps coming toward her, two sets of them. It had been the only activity nearby since she arrived, so she presumed it was John. Or them telling her it was a joke, John wasn't really here.

He looked…

Like shit.

Well, no, that wasn't entirely true. He looked as gorgeous as she remembered him, but he looked as though he'd been in a fight. Bruises and cuts on his face, one on his cheek was likely going to scar it was split open so badly. He smiled a bit, but that didn't work so well because he had a cut on his lip, too. He was checking her out more intently than she was him. Typical. She was here to bail him out of jail and he was thinking about her with her clothes off.

She shook her head as he walked toward her, escorted by an officer. She should have known the reason he needed bailing out was because he'd been fighting, somehow that wasn't too surprising.

"Long time no see, Princess," he said.

"Uh huh," she said, regarding him now that he was closer. The cuts and bruises aside he looked good. Very good, and she had no business thinking that. He'd called her for bail money not to catch up or from any desire to actually see her. He knew her phone number, obviously, because he'd used it tonight yet he hadn't called her in years.

"And thank you," he added.

"You're welcome," she said.

He looked nice. His clothes were nice and even stylish despite where it was they were seeing one another again. Being processed by the police couldn't be a fun experience. His hair was still longer, even longer than it had been in high school. Four years ago. She hadn't seen him since graduation except in passing here and there when she wasn't busy doing things and going to college. Actually, she couldn't say for sure she'd seen him since the summer they'd graduated. She was rarely around Shermer once she started college. She went to Northwestern and lived at home, but she was hardly ever at the house except to sleep. Of course, she'd be graduating in a couple of months and then she'd have to get a place to live on her own, do her own laundry, and cooking. That was another thought for another day. She still had a few more months to not have to concern herself with such things.

"You can peruse all you want later, sweets, let's get out of here before they change their minds about letting me go, yeah?"

"All right," she said, dropping her purse by her side.

The cop escorting him to her didn't say a word as they left. She unlocked his side of the car, letting him in. She hadn't noticed how cold it was when she left the house. Her car had been parked in her garage, though. It was supposed to get even colder later she thought she'd heard someone at the party she'd been at earlier mention.

"You locked your car at a police station?"

"I lock my car everywhere so people can't look through it. Besides, there are criminals at police stations and this neighborhood isn't the greatest."

"If you say so."

She went to her side where he'd already unlocked her door and got in.

"So," she said, letting her car warm up a bit since she'd been in the police station for more than just a few minutes.

"Do you want your money first or to go somewhere where you can hear me out?"

"I don't care."

"Really? I figured you'd want the money and then kick me out on my ear afterward."

"No, you said there was a reason you called me. I'd like to hear why I was woken up at three o'clock in the morning."

"Woken up? I didn't think you went to sleep before sunrise on weekends. Besides, you didn't think I was just feeding you a line of bullshit so you'd come bail me out?"

"The thought did occur to me, but as you said you were allowed one phone call and you called me. It seemed a little farfetched even for you to come up with a lie like that. So, I'd like to hear why you called me in the middle of the night."

"You're not going to like it."

She drove out of the police station parking lot and found an all-night diner not too far away. She turned the car off, but hesitated getting out. The silence between them driving there was real uncomfortable. There were a ton of things she could've said to him or asked him since they hadn't seen one another in four years, but neither seemed in the mood for small talk.

"What's the matter? Ashamed to be seen with a hooligan like me in this classy neighborhood?"

"No," she said, opening the door then, working the automatic lock switch to lock the doors once he'd opened his. "I was just trying to think if there was somewhere…better around here."

"Not at this time of the morning, not likely anyway," he said.

He held the restaurant's door open for her and she went in first. They were seated and in the light the diner offered she took him in again. His face looked much worse than her first impression had left her with.

"Are you sure you don't want me to take you to a hospital first? Don't the police have an obligation to get you medical help?"

"Only if it's life-threatening. I'm not going to die, and no I don't need a hospital."

"That's going to scar," she said, pointing to the gash on his cheek.

"I'm not worried about it."

Their waitress came, looking tired and not at all thrilled to be working at close to five o'clock in the morning. Claire recognized the tired look because she was tired herself.

"What can I get you two tonight?"

"I'll just have coffee," Claire said.

"Come on, get some breakfast or something. I'm buying."

"You said you didn't have money."

"No, I said I didn't have enough on me to pay them. I have money and plastic," he said, gesturing to his wallet which he'd set on the table.

"Fine," she said. "I'll need a minute then," she said.

"I'll take a Coke to go with her coffee to start," John said.

"Sure, I'll get your drinks and check back with you."

Fortunately, the waitress didn't seem to recognize Claire. That was good as far as she was concerned. There wasn't even a double-take as people did sometimes, recognition but because she was some place out of context with where they usually saw photos of her they didn't really know who they were seeing. The last thing she needed was someone phoning in a tip that she was here with a guy, especially since he wasn't the guy she'd been hanging around with the past couple of weeks.

"Okay. So. What's the deal?"

"So skeptical, Princess."

"It's after four o'clock in the morning, John. You woke me up. I'm tired. If you just needed bail money, fine, but you said you had something to tell me. How did you know I'd be home anyway? It's Friday night."

"I took a chance given the hour that you'd be home. Clubs close, parties end."

"You're lucky my parents are out of town for the weekend or I wouldn't have been able to leave."

He scoffed. They didn't have her under lock and key, limiting her movements and they both knew that. "I'm sure that you could've snuck out if you'd needed to."

"John. You're not telling me what's going on," she said. This was bordering on being incredibly tedious. Was he just teasing her? What could he possibly have to tell her anyway? She should have known better.

"Decide what you want to eat and then I'll tell you."

"Fine," she said. "I swear to God if it's not good you're walking back to wherever you need to go. I agreed to bail you out of jail not be your chauffeur."

She had to admit she was hungry now that she was sitting here like this. She hadn't eaten since her real early dinner last night. She'd gone to a party at her friend Dawn's house, which turned out to be a dud – probably because it was cold enough for people to stay put - so she'd ducked out earlier than she'd intended to. If she'd stayed as long as she'd thought John wouldn't have woken her because she would've just been getting in. (If she would have even been home yet at all when he called.)

The waitress brought their drinks back and they both ordered. Claire mixed some cream and sugar into her coffee while John unwrapped his straw and slid it into his glass of Coke. She remembered his hands, being fascinated by them the day they'd met during detention. He had this image of being this tough guy yet after that afternoon in the closet with him she had a hard time picturing him harming anyone with the hands he'd used so gently on her. They were nice hands, though. Scarred and rough a bit, but she imagined for men who weren't her father that wasn't an uncommon thing.

"So, I run a photography business."

"Okay."

"I take some pretty good pictures if I do say so myself. I get published in some pretty nice magazines and stuff."

"Okay."

"I've kind of been developing a reputation. Every once in a while people who don't have the contacts I've gained in the past few years will approach me with things they want to sell me. I buy the rights to their photo or photos if I think I can sell them. They get paid and I potentially get paid more. Of course, I credit the photographer, but it all gets linked back to my company name. You know John Smith Photographer, owned by EMS Photography Studios."

"EMS?"

He chuckled softly. He was actually blushing. Really? She couldn't recall ever seeing John blush, and she'd watched him pretty intently after that day of detention until graduation. Nothing got under his skin, except Assistant Principal Vernon anyway. The man had a way of weaseling a reaction out of John so easily.

"Uh well, I started right out of high school and I had to come up with a name."

"Right."

"I was a smart ass."

"Yes, I remember," she said with a roll of her eyes. He didn't have a serious bone in his body, every comment that came out of his mouth was sarcastic or a joke. Eventually, it was what made her distance herself from him. She just couldn't take it after a while, even when they were alone he couldn't shed that.

"Eat my shorts."

"Ha. Really? You named your company after one of your smart ass phrases?"

She'd heard him say it more than once after that day of detention. He wasn't afraid to mouth off to teachers. Why that surprised her the way he talked to Assistant Principal Vernon she wasn't sure.

"Yeah, well, I was eighteen and had no clue what the fuck to name a company. I was filling out paper after paper so that I wouldn't get sued and whatever else I had to do to cover my ass if someone cut themselves on a lens or a light or tripped over one of my backdrops. I was tired of red tape so I just jotted down the first thing that came to my mind."

"All right," she said. She could see that. It wasn't like anyone would know what EMS stood for unless he told them as he had her. She certainly hadn't linked the name with it. "Go on. I'm still not sure what this has to do with me or why I'm the one bailing you out of jail tonight."

"I'm getting to it."

He set a large manila envelope on the table then. She'd noticed he was carrying it when he came from wherever he'd been at the jail. A holding cell, she supposed. He wouldn't have been brought to actual jail for a couple of hours. She seemed to recall her friend's boyfriend had been holed up in a holding cell until she'd been able to get to him.

"So, like I said, occasionally I get people who think they've taken a good photo and just want their name out there. If I sell it they still get the credit for being the photographer and it's something they can put in their portfolio even though I own the rights to the picture. I'm small enough I'm willing to take chances other, larger studios aren't on no-names."

"Right." Again, that made sense.

"That's not my primary business, but it pays bills when work isn't so steady. You know? I had a friend who has a journalism badge and used it for Bears games. He wasn't able to go to a couple the year they won the Super Bowl, so he let me use it. I got some excellent pictures of some of the players and stuff. One even made it onto the cover of Sports Illustrated."

"Really?" That impressed her. Sports Illustrated was a pretty big deal, even she knew that.

"Yes."

"I had no idea. That's great, John, really."

"So, anyway, I get a phone call a few nights ago," he said, pausing when the waitress brought their food.

"Anything else for you two?" she asked.

"Not for me, thank you," Claire said.

"No, we're good."

"All right," she said.

"You just about done then?" he asked her.

"Sorry?" she asked.

"You look like you're about ready to go home," he said.

She laughed then. "Oh, yes, I am and none too soon as far as I'm concerned. I at least look like I had a better night than you did, though, hon," she said.

He chuckled a little at that. "I bet you do. Thanks for reminding me how bad my night has been."

"At least you got someone to take care of you, that's no small thing."

"Yeah, everyone should be so lucky," John said, glancing at her. It was his glance that stopped her from correcting the waitress that she was going to be taking care of him.

She walked away then and Claire stared at him. He was busy putting salt and pepper on his eggs, but he noticed her looking apparently because he looked at her.

"What?" he asked.

"You talked to her."

"Yeah?"

"Why?" she asked.

"What do you mean why?"

"Nothing, never mind. I'm just not used to you being chatty."

"Never hurts to be nice to people. I know to you she's just the help, but maybe my little exchange there made her smile a bit."

"No, I suppose not."

"So, as I was saying. I got a phone call a few nights ago saying they had some pictures for sale I'd be very interested in buying because they'd make me a lot of money. Like potentially take a nice vacation to Hawaii or Europe for a while type of money."

"Why didn't they sell them?"

"Because they don't have the reputation or the resources I have. It's not so easy to just sell your pictures. People want proof they're real, they're yours, that you haven't stolen someone else's work. It takes a while to get trusted, you know?"

"I get that."

"So, I met the guy tonight. He sounded young on the phone, but I had no idea he was our age. Anyway, he tells me this story about his girlfriend. She's smoking hot, right? Amazing in the sack. She's not afraid to show off her prowess either. And she's fairly well-known around town."

"God, really? I have to hear this? Can't you please just get to the point of where this involves me?"

"Yes, you have to hear this. I'm telling you this for a reason, sweets. Just sit tight."

He took a few bites of his food while she did the same.

"So, he says he has some pictures of her, pictures that he can't sell because he's her boyfriend and his name can't be associated with the sale of them."

"Okay."

He slid the manila envelope across the table to her.

She picked it up then, glancing at him curiously.

"Do I want to look at these?"

"Yes, you do," he said, sounding very much as if he meant it.

"Okay," she said. She opened the flap then on the envelope.

"His name's Pete, by the way."

She stopped what she was doing, her heart dropping at the mention of that name.

"And his girlfriend turns out to be one of two heirs to the Standish real estate fortune. Only she's a lot more in the public eye than her older brother who lives a more hermit lifestyle."

She slid the pictures out then, gasping softly. There were seven or eight of them. The top one was pretty innocent. They got racier as she scanned through them to the last one, which was hardly innocent at all. She slammed the pictures face down onto the tabletop.

"This isn't me," she said.

"I know it's not, Princess."

"What?"

"I'm not stupid. I know."

"How do you know?"

"Because I know you, Claire, and despite what the newspapers print about you you're not a slut who's out to get pregnant tomorrow. You haven't changed that much since high school. You just like to have a good time. You go to clubs, you dance, and you maybe do some stupid things. You don't take your clothes off for your boyfriend to take your picture."

"No, I wouldn't do that."

"I know. He obviously has access to some top notch equipment, though to superimpose your face onto that body and have it be fairly convincing. I mean, I have to admit at first I thought I'd finally seen under the prom queen's dress."

"Nice," she said.

"Hey, what can I say? Even thugs like me have to have a crush, I guess."

She ignored that comment, because there was no way John had had a crush on her. She intrigued him the same way that he intrigued her, they were different. It was as simple as that. She regarded him then, finishing his story in her head. The story ending with him looking like he'd been in a fight. And ending up in jail because of it.

"You got into a fight with him?"

"Well, yeah. I asked him where the negatives were. That's usually part of my deal. I get the negatives, again proof of ownership and so he can't sell the negatives to another bidder who can then later claim I stole his work."

"Right," she said.

"He said he didn't have them. Of course he didn't, because the pictures are fakes. I told him that I was keeping these, but if I saw any one of these pictures anywhere I'd make sure he got sued. A few punches may have been thrown."

"A few? John…"

"It's nothing," he said.

"So what? Is he going to try to sell them to someone else then?"

"That's why I called you! First of all. Where the hell did you meet the guy?"

"At a club."

"Of course you did. Something wrong with the guys you go to school with?"

"Well, no, other than they're boring," she said.

"Claire. Maybe," he said, tapping on the photos still turned face down on the table top. "You should reconsider boring. This guy was out to make money off of you. At your reputation and at your expense! If he hadn't tried selling them to me. I mean, someone who didn't know you wouldn't have known they weren't you. Like I said, the editing job is pretty damned good. I don't think it'd cut the mustard to most reputable places, but rags like Star or the Enquirer."

"Oh God, my dad will freak out if these get out!"

"Yeah, well, I suggest you talk to your dad and have his lawyers scare the crap out of the punk. Those pictures get out, Princess, you'll have a lot of explaining to do."

"I know."

"And people won't care if they're you or not. They'll be everywhere and no offense but your reputation isn't entirely innocent. You do that intentionally I'm pretty sure, but only people who actually know you would be suspect of you posing for pictures like those."

"I know!"

They were quiet for a few minutes, both eating. She was thinking about Pete. She didn't know him real well or anything, but he hadn't seemed like the type. Then what did that type seem like anyway?

"So, he thought you'd be able to sell naked pictures?"

"Sure. Porn sells don't you know anything?"

She rolled her eyes, sliding the pictures back into the envelope without looking at them again. She never wanted to see them again. Even though they weren't her she still felt violated in a way.

"You still shouldn't have gotten into a fight with him."

"It pissed me off the things he was saying about you!"

"What things?"

"I'm not even going to repeat them. If I believed they were true I'd repeat them, but I know he was lying."

"He claims we…"

"He claims you did a lot of things, some of which are probably bordering on illegal."

"God," she said. "My dad's going to freak."

"You said that already."

She stabbed a piece of her scrambled eggs with her fork, suddenly not so hungry. This was one aspect of being somewhat famous that she hated. People out to make a dollar off of her and her name. Of course, she could stop going out and doing things that brought attention to herself, but that would be boring!

"Thank you," she said finally, glancing at him.

"You're welcome."

"Is he going to try to sell them to someone else?"

"I don't know. Call your dad."

"They're out of town until Tuesday."

"Then call your brother and get the company lawyers on it. Your dad must have lawyers just to deal with you and the things you do and the attention you bring."

She grimaced at that, but he was right. Well, in a way. Her dad didn't have lawyers just to deal with her, but the lawyers he used scrutinized every article and photograph that got published. If she did anything that could ruin her dad's name or the reputation of the company she heard about it. So far the things she'd heard about had been few and far between, which was the reason her dad seemed to leave her alone for the most part and let her have her fun.

"Tomorrow's Saturday."

"Today is Saturday. I realize for people like you who party all night on weekends it's not the next day until you've slept and wake up again, but for us common folk who lead regular ol' mundane lives – it's Saturday now. For this I suspect your dad will think the overtime charge will be worth it."

She sighed softly, taking a bite of her toast. She'd kind of liked Pete. Kind of. She hadn't been over the moon about him or anything, but he was fun. He liked to dance and he never said no when she wanted to go out. She'd only been dating him for a few weeks, though, so she wasn't invested in seeing him or anything. He'd seemed nice, though. Showed what she knew evidently.

"I feel like I need a shower."

"Yeah, well, I'm sorry he did that to you."

"Me, too. I thought he was okay."

John shook his head. He was eating his food without a problem. She worked at eating the rest of hers, too. She was hungry and she knew she'd go back home and crash after dropping him off.

"Where am I taking you, anyway?"

"I didn't realize you were taking me anywhere honestly beyond a bank to get money. If you're offering, though, you can drop me at my place. I'll get someone else to take me to my car. I've taken up enough of your time already tonight."

"Okay," she said.

"And thank you. You didn't have to come, to trust me."

"That's what old friends are for, right?"

"Yeah," he said, though he didn't sound as though he liked hearing her say that.

"Do you always meet people on Friday nights?"

"I go where the money takes me, Princess."

She rolled her eyes at that, but she could understand that she supposed. Of course money wasn't a concern for her. She was going to get her degree in the spring in Finance and eventually she'd work for her father, but she was in no hurry to start doing that right away.

"If they'd been me?"

She shuddered at the idea of Pete selling those pictures to someone who would think they were actually of her. That pissed her off!

"I would have bought them, the negatives, too, but we'd still be having this conversation."

"Really?"

"Really. You don't deserve that. No one does, but I know you so I take it a little more personally when people try to hurt someone I know."

"Well, thank you. More people should have someone like you looking out for them."

"More people aren't you and don't live like you do."

"I know," she said.

She finished eating, pushing her plate aside. She handed the envelope back to him as she took a sip of her coffee. It was pretty good coffee, actually. She'd expected this time of night for it to be old and as thick as mud, but it was pretty fresh and good and strong. She'd need it if she was going to drive him home and then have to go home herself.

"Keep it, you'll need to give it to your dad or brother."

"Okay."

"Don't forget about this, Claire. You call him as soon as you get home and get the ball rolling."

"Was he in jail, too?"

"He was. They arrested both of us. Chances are the bar will drop the charges, but we'll still have to show up at the hearing."

"I didn't see him."

"I was kind of hoping he'd try to call you, too, and since you were on your way to get me you'd miss his call. Then he'd wonder where you were until four in the morning on Friday night if you weren't with him."

She laughed a little at that. Pete didn't know her friend Dawn so hadn't been invited to the party. It wasn't the type of party that you were really allowed to bring guests to. Unless those guests warranted being on the guest list themselves. Pete didn't.

"I'm not sure he'd call me to bail him out of jail. We haven't been dating that long. I would have asked questions, too. I'm not going to date someone who gets arrested every weekend."

Their waitress dropped their bill off, which John took.

"No, I'm buying," he said when he saw her reach for her purse. "You hauled your ass downtown at an ungodly hour, taking me at my word that I had a reason for calling you. Thank you. And we'll stop at an ATM on our way back to my place so I can pay you back for the bail money."

"Yeah, about that. They'll send me the money back once your case is dismissed."

"Yeah, I know. You can keep it."

"John. I'm not going to keep your money."

"Well, after tonight you'll know where I live anyway. You can bring it by if you want whenever you get it because I will show up for my court dates."

He left money on the table to cover their meals and a pretty generous tip she noticed. She paid attention to things like that. She'd never been a waitress, but she had friends at Northwestern who were working their way through school doing it. They earned next to nothing and their tips were really their main source of income. She'd actually stopped going out with someone who wasn't a good tipper. If he was too cheap to pay someone for their service he wasn't in her league.

"Wow, this is real nice," she said when they arrived at his house. It was a pretty old bungalow. It was on the small side being a single story, but it was nice and in a decent neighborhood. The ride to his house was weird to say the least. They weren't best friends four years ago. She had no idea what to say to him now so they'd both seemed to let the music WLUP was playing serve as the noise in the car on the way there.

"Thanks. I like it," he said. "And you don't have to sound so surprised."

"Surprised that you own a house not even four years after high school graduation?"

"I've been busy," he said simply with a shrug. "Come on in if you want, unless you have somewhere to be."

He got out of the car and she did the same. They'd stopped at a bank on the way here so she already had her money.

"I don't, no, just sleeping."

"No breakfast plans with Pete?"

"No," she said. "I won't see him again. Does Pete know that you know me?"

"No! I didn't say anything. He's probably wondering why I got so violent about some naked pictures. Most guys would be salivating over them."

"Most guys?"

"Well, yeah. You're you. Most guys would give their left nut for the chance to see you without your clothes on."

"You looked at them, though."

"Well, of course I did, I had to know what he was trying to sell me. If they were just pictures of you riding a horse or something," he shrugged.

"You would have sold pictures of me?"

"No, but I wouldn't have beat the shit out of him for trying to sell them to me. I would've told him I couldn't sell them and let him take them elsewhere."

"Why?"

"I'm not out to make money at someone I knows expense."

She followed him to his porch. There was a screen door that led onto a screened-in porch, which appeared to go around to one side of the house. He held the door open for her and then he unlocked his front door.

"How long have you lived here?"

"About six months."

"Oh. Alone?"

"Yes. Why?"

"Just wondering."

"Apartment living isn't for me. I did it, but once I had enough to make a down payment I did. I have a basement so I can setup some equipment down there to develop my pictures here if I want to."

"It's nice," she said.

"You're just saying that to be nice, I can appreciate that, but thank you."

"No, it's nice, John, I'm not. It's pretty old."

"It is, yeah, from the forties."

"That porch is great."

"Yeah, that was one of the reasons I bought it actually. Most of the houses with a floor plan similar to this one don't have such a large porch. The people I bought it from, though, added on the extension going along the side of the house and screened it in."

"I bet that will be great in a couple of months. Being able to sit outside without having to worry about flies or mosquitoes."

"I am looking forward to it, for sure."

They were in his living room now and she realized she had absolutely nothing to say. Not for lack of wanting to. She wanted to ask him a bunch of questions, but she just couldn't bring herself to do it because she'd sound entirely too … interested. He hadn't been real receptive when she'd expressed interest before so she didn't want him to think she was doing that again.

He didn't know what to say either. He'd invited her in to be nice more than likely. She'd complimented his house so of course he'd invite her in to see the inside.

"Listen, I'll let you go. Thank you. I don't know if I ever specifically said thank you for what you did. I'm sure some people would have told Pete you wouldn't buy them and left it at that, figuring I got what I deserve for living the way I do."

"Don't mention it."

She reached up and touched his cheek then, running her thumb under the gash there. He winced as she expected he would. It wasn't bleeding freely anymore, but it hadn't stopped bleeding entirely yet either. It was that deep, which meant he really should've gotten stitches.

"Yeah, that's going to scar, John."

"One more won't make a difference."

"Yeah, but it's on your face."

"So?" he shrugged.

"Do you at least have something to put on it? Some ointment? Band-Aids?"

"I do."

"Do you want some help?"

He scoffed. "I'll be fine. Really." He held out his hand, pointing at the back of his hand. "I had a run in with my power drill a couple of months ago."

"Oh my God," she said. She touched him then, running a fingertip along the spot. He was lucky he hadn't done more damage than he had.

"It could have been real bad."

"It looks like it was pretty bad," she said.

"It healed. So, you see. I'll be fine. Don't sweat it, but the concern for my physical appearance is appreciated."

She slid her hand up further along his forearm, pushing his sleeves up as she went.

"What are you doing, Princess?"

"Just looking," she said. She found the scar he'd shown them the day of detention. It wasn't the only one she knew first hand, it was just one of only a few that were visible.

She slid her thumb along the scar tissue there. He drew his arm away then as if she'd burned him all over again.

"Listen. Thank you. If you want a Coke for the road or something I have plenty. I don't do coffee, though, sorry."

"It's okay. I'm fine. I'm glad you called."

"Yeah?"

"Yes."

"If I'd called not about the pictures?"

"I'd probably still be glad you called."

"You'd still be dating Pete."

"I wasn't serious about him or anything."

He scoffed at that, as if that was a given. She supposed it was. Her love life was a common topic in the social pages of the Sun Times and Tribune. She had a reputation for changing boyfriends faster than most people changed their nail polish.

"So I could call again? Not about the pictures?"

"You could if you wanted to. You have my number obviously."

"Yeah? You want to pencil me in for another cup of coffee some day?"

"Sure," she said. "I like coffee."

"I can't stand the stuff myself, but you name the date and time, sweets, I'll be there."

"What are you going to do now?" she asked.

She eyed his living room again. It was pretty spacious, most likely it meant a room on the other side of it was smaller as a result. It wasn't huge, but he had enough room in here that he could have a few friends over and not be sitting on top of each other.

"Crash. I wasn't planning on being up until after six o'clock in the morning when I went out last night."

"Oh, I suppose."

"I know for people like you it's just another day."

She sighed softly, trying not to let his comments bother her. They did, though. He'd never understand what it was like.

"Do you need a ride to your car?" she asked.

"I can swing it later."

"Okay," she said.

She reached up and kissed him then. She kissed his cheek first, but then found his mouth. He gave a soft noise of surprise, but he didn't pull away as he'd pulled his arm away from her touch a minute ago. God she hadn't kissed him since that day, but she'd never kissed anyone like him since. She wasn't sure what that meant exactly. She didn't prolong the kiss too much or anything, drawing away before she could do anything ridiculously stupid. Or desperate seeming. She wondered briefly what he'd say if she told him she didn't want to drive home. Probably the wrong time to say something like that, considering he'd just seen potentially scandalous pictures of her. She didn't draw away completely, though, sliding her mouth to his cheek to kiss the edge of the cut there.

"What was that for?"

"Thank you," she whispered.

"Don't mention it, Princess. You drive safe."

"I will," she said.

He followed her out to the screened-in porch, watching as she walked toward her car.

"Hey, Claire?"

"Yeah?" She stopped midway along his sidewalk and turned to face him.

"You don't have to go, you know. No one knows where you are, so they're not going to find your car parked in my neighborhood or anything."

Her heart skipped a beat at the question. How tempting it would be to say yes, to not go home and stay the night with him. She sighed softly, knowing she couldn't do it when all was said and done. She wasn't that kind of girl, regardless of what everyone in the city of Chicago and its surrounding suburbs thought, and John wasn't the kind of guy she needed to be spending the night with. She wouldn't be able to stomach being just another notch to him.

"I have to go, John," she whispered.

"It's at least kind of tempting, though?" he asked.

She smiled at that. "Yeah, it's a little tempting."

"Well, that's better than a flat out fuck you, I guess."

"Good night, John," she said, turning around again to head toward her car. If he followed her, if he asked again she wasn't sure she'd be strong enough to say no a second time. He didn't, though. He stayed on his porch, watching as she started her car and drove off.

Return to Top

**Chapter Two**
Word Count: 4,123

"John," the woman at the desk said into a phone.

A secretary Claire presumed. She hadn't pictured this when she'd tried to envision what his business would look like over the weekend. She'd sort of assumed it would be a fly-by-night operation. She was mistaken. Who could blame her for thinking that way? This was John Bender: Mr. Most Likely Not To Amount To Anything. At least according to Assistant Principal Richard Vernon. Claire had never been convinced John was as bad as Mr. Vernon believed he was. She'd seen sides to him she realized probably no one else did the few times they'd hung out after that day of detention. He hadn't let her see them often, though, which was the reason they hadn't hung out more.

Claire wasn't sure what she was doing here. Curiosity was a part of it most definitely. He'd come to her rescue, an unlikely source for sure, so extending herself beyond bailing him out of jail to say thank you was a part of it, too. How did someone thank a person who saved their reputation? Who saved her father's corporation from being hugely embarrassed? So hugely that Claire was pretty sure if those pictures had gotten out, her or not, her father may have just delayed her position with the company for a while.

As it was, her father had let her have an earful when he saw her Tuesday after Christopher and the company lawyer had talked with him throughout the weekend. She assumed, though, that Pete and the pictures wouldn't be a problem going forward. Dad's lawyer could fix just about anything she'd discovered over the past few years.

"There's someone here to see you."

She eyed Claire curiously as she spoke into the phone. She was a little older than Claire, dressed nicely despite the fact her blouse came from someplace like TJ Maxx. Claire could tell that the woman was processing Claire's face and where she knew it from. She recognized the look in situations like this. People weren't expecting to encounter her at a grocery store or a photographer's studio so the recognition didn't click right away. Sometimes she got out of situations like these unrecognized. She'd dressed kind of down today, too, so that probably helped lessen the ease of recognizing her. People rarely saw pictures of Claire in slacks.

"Okay," she said, hanging up the phone.

"I can show you to his office," she said, standing from her chair behind the desk.

His waiting area was nice. There were a few chairs and a smaller couch to sit on with a couple of tables containing magazines. The magazines ran the gamut from Sports Illustrated to Vogue to Popular Mechanics to Ranger Rick and everything in between. The Ranger Rick made her somewhat curious, but she imagined kids came here, too. There were pictures covering the walls, his work no doubt. She couldn't help but acknowledge that he was, in fact, good at least based on the samples of his portfolio he had on display. Of course he wouldn't display less than the best work out here. There was everything, too, from weddings to graduations to newborns to family portraits and headshots.

"Thank you," Claire said, sliding her sunglasses onto her head now that she knew John was here and she was actually going to see him. She dropped her leather gloves into her latest Dooney & Bourke handbag as she fell into step beside the woman.

This was so much more than what she'd imagined when she found the address. She had no idea if he rented the space or owned it, but it didn't matter as it was an impressive space whether he owned it or not. She knew if he rented it wasn't cheap either because she was fully aware of what things cost thanks to her dad grooming her for the business. He'd almost have to be renting now that she thought about it.

"He'll be a minute or two because he's finishing up. Can I get you anything? Coffee? Water?"

"I'm fine, thanks," Claire said.

"Thanks for everything, John," a voice said from the hallway.

"Sure you bet. I'm glad I had my morning so open for you today so we could take our time. I'll call you when I have the proofs and then we can go from there. We'll find you something so you get what you're going for."

"You're the best."

"So you keep telling me, Suzanne."

"Only because it's true."

Claire rolled her eyes at the conversation and the obvious sound of a kiss that followed. How nauseatingly sweet.

"You can settle up with Ronda up front after you've gotten dressed. Okay?"

"Thanks."

"Sure thing," he said.

Claire stood then, not wanting to be seated when he came into the office for some reason. There was nothing personal in his office she noticed. No pictures of family or a dog or anything, which was kind of strange for a man who made a living taking pictures.

"Sorry to keep you… Oh, hey."

"Hi," she said.

"You lost or something?"

"You asked me that once before if I recall."

"I did," he said, looking her over and not being very discreet about it either. "It led to a pretty fun couple of hours. I thought it was worth a shot to try the question again."

"I don't think it was the question."

He smirked then, shaking his head a bit.

"Did we have an appointment I wasn't aware of?"

"Did we have an appointment?"

"No, I was in the neighborhood."

"Really?"

"Well, kind of. I have a friend who lives…"

"Yeah, I'm sure you have tons of friends who live not too far from any number of places you could visit. What's up?"

"Nothing. I just thought I'd come see your studio."

"You mean to say you thought I was running a business out of a cardboard box on a street corner and had to come see for yourself that I'm actually gainfully and legitimately employed."

"No, I mean, okay a little. Can you blame me?"

"What? Is it a slow school day or something? You're not skipping your important classes to come here, are you?"

"It's Thursday, I only have one class on Tuesday and Thursday and it finishes at eleven o'clock."

"Ah," he said with a nod. "Well, if I'd known I could have had you come back instead of in here. I was just finishing up a shoot."

"It's okay."

"I don't have anything else on the books today. I could show you around if you'd like."

"How did you get all this?"

"Is this the part where we play twenty questions, Princess? If you were just seeing if I was bullshitting you about the business you came, you saw, I'm here."

"No," she said. She wasn't sure why she was here! She just felt the need to come. Was that wrong? Bad? She didn't know. "You look better," she said.

"I should hope so. That wasn't my proudest moment."

"Does your secretary know what happened?"

"No, and I hope she never finds out."

"Ashamed of being a gentleman about something?"

"No," he scoffed. "I don't know what makes you think that. I just don't tell her what I do with my time."

"She didn't wonder why you came in here Monday beat up?"

"I'm sure she did. She's my secretary not my mom or anything so I don't have to tell her things that aren't her concern."

She closed the distance between them then, running a fingertip along the cut on his cheek.

"That still looks awful."

"Yeah, it and this one," he said, pointing at his lip. The cut there wasn't nearly as bad as the one on his cheek, but it was bad just the same. "It seems like every time I do something. Smile or squint or whatever they open up again."

"I still say you should've let me take you so you could've gotten stitches."

"Stitches are for wusses, or girls. I'm neither of those."

She rolled her eyes at that. So typical. Was that why he didn't let her help him with a bandage or take him to the hospital? Because he had to prove how tough he was?

"I've heard girls like that in a guy," he regarded her a little. "Except you, I guess."

She knew what he meant. He thought she'd stopped anything from happening between them at school that day because of what he looked like when he took his shirt off. That wasn't it at all. She just realized that anything happening between them beyond kissing, making out, was a mistake on so many levels. He was never going to bring her home to meet his parents and she certainly couldn't have done that with him and her parents. It was pointless. She'd let him think she was offended, turned off, because it was better than admitting the truth. She'd been shallow. Too afraid of their drastic differences to even entertain the idea of anything happening between them.

"John," she said.

She wasn't sure if she was willing to admit the truth now, but she didn't get the chance to say more. She hadn't been offended at all. The evidence of what his home life was like wasn't pretty, but it hadn't taken away from the fact he was a very good looking guy. She'd, in fact, never paid guys attention before that day. Not in that way. She'd never seen a bare chest except her brother's around the house. She'd not at all been prepared for her reaction to seeing John's that day.

"Hey, John," someone said from behind them. "I was thinking about those last few shots … Oh, sorry, I didn't realize you weren't alone."

"It's all right, Suzanne. What's up?" Claire moved her hand from where it was against his cheek and drew her sunglasses down. John noticed her do it; his smirk told her he knew exactly what she was doing, too. Claire stepped away from him then.

"Well, I went with the hat, but I'm wondering if I shouldn't have gone with the scarf after all."

Claire assessed the woman who was doing the same to her in return. She was pretty. Stunning actually. A model or something, no doubt. It made her wonder how good John was if someone who looked like she did was coming to him for her pictures.

"Well, when you see them if you want to do a few with the scarf we can, but I liked the hat. A scarf would cover up too much of your hair," he said. "And you have great hair, you should want to show it off."

Claire had to agree, though she had no idea what kind of pictures the woman was having John take or what she was hoping to gain from them. She had gorgeous hair that was obviously naturally curly and full. Women would kill to have her hair.

"I just think it's too much of a distraction sometimes."

"Nah, the hair is good."

"All right, well, thanks."

"Sure," he said.

"What is she trying to do?" Claire asked.

"Work," he said with a frown.

"No, I know that. I was just thinking, though, what is she trying to do."

"Why?" he asked, sounding skeptical.

"The hair. You're right, it's gorgeous. Women would kill to have that hair. However, if she's trying to, like, sell a product to women that may not work."

"How so?"

"Well, I could never have hair like that. I accept my limitations. Not all women can though. They may take one look at her and not want to buy what she's selling because they're jealous."

"Come on," he said.

She shrugged. "Just my two cents worth. What I know about photography or her is nothing, but I'm a woman and I travel in circles."

"Yeah, I know what kind of circles you travel in."

"I know that some of my friends wouldn't do it."

"But she'd already have the job."

"Yes, but wouldn't she lose the job if she doesn't sell what she's trying to?"

"I think we're good."

"Okay, but…"

"Claire, she's not selling anything. She's trying to get chosen for a photo shoot for a men's magazine. And if she was it wouldn't be seen by many women."

"Oh," she said with a frown. "You mean?" she said, scrunching her nose.

"Yeah, I mean," he said.

"So, she is concerned about a hat versus a scarf because?"

He shrugged. "Because she's self-conscious? She wants to look her best? I don't know. Take your pick."

"I doubt she's self-conscious if she's posing naked in front of you."

"You'd be surprised, I don't know how to explain it. I'm behind a camera, I'm not looking for that reason."

"Right," she said.

"Hey, you came here. You want to insult me and what I do here you know where the door is. Use it and don't bother coming back."

"That's not what I meant."

"Of course it is. Should I remind you of the reason you're here again after years of not talking to you. I could've let those pictures go, you know? I didn't have to do a damned thing."

"I know," she sighed.

"You did call your brother when you got home, right?"

"Yes," she said.

"It's getting handled?"

"Yes, it probably already has been."

"And Pete?"

"I won't be hearing from him again."

"Good," he said.

"Yes, except I'm sure that'll get attention, too."

"What do you mean?"

"I don't usually stop seeing someone quite so soon."

John rolled his eyes.

"I'm sure you'll deal with it just fine, sweets."

"I had breakfast with one of my dad's lawyers Sunday to go over what I'd say if I'm asked."

"They ask you about your social life?"

"That's all they focus on!"

"I suppose," he said.

"I could volunteer one hundred hours a week at shelters or food banks and they'd still only focus on that."

"You've kind of done that to yourself, haven't you?"

She shrugged. She had, it was true. She hadn't thought it would get to this point, though. To the point where virtually her every move was focused on, scrutinized. She could leave her parents' house during the day just fine, usually, but in the evenings was a different story altogether.

"And you don't really care, I guess."

"My parents care." She did care. She'd never admit that to anyone because that would mean she'd have to admit that she needed to change. She wasn't ready to do that yet. Once she graduated she could figure all of that out. She just wanted to have fun until then.

"I'm sure they do. So you want the tour or have you settled your curiosity that I'm truly gainfully employed?"

"I knew you were employed."

"Did you?"

"Yes," she said exasperated. Of course he had a job. He had a house, a car (though she hadn't seen it), and access to money from the bank. Those were all things that pointed to him having a job. She just hadn't fully believed that he was being honest about what his job entailed.

"So you want to see what I've been up to since graduation or not?"

"Sure," she said.

He didn't have to ask what she'd been up to since graduation. For the most part, her life was an open book. She was out early enough today that no one would see her come here. The people who had it in their heads that she was a newsworthy, gossip-worthy item didn't seem to find her daytime activities exciting. They probably assumed if she was leaving her house before noon during the week she was going to campus.

They weren't allowed on campus. Her father and his company contributed a lot of money with the understanding she was left alone while on campus. The police had even been called a couple of times when a reporter had tried to interview her professors.

He reached for her then and she drew back a bit. He frowned at that, plucking her sunglasses from her face. He folded them closed, handing them to her.

"You don't need the sunglasses anymore. She's gone or up front talking to Ronda. I doubt she'd recognize you anyway. She's a nice girl, but not the type to read a newspaper let alone the gossip column."

"Habit," she said.

"I bet. Ronda wouldn't tell anyone why you were here anyway. She knows better than that."

"Good to know."

"You have nice hair, too, by the way."

"Thank you for saying so, but I'd look like Bozo if I styled my hair like hers."

"That may be, but what you do with it works just fine."

She rolled her eyes at that. Was he really trying to hit on her? He probably thought that's why she'd come here. "Thanks."

"Not everyone's out to feed you a line, you know. There are some people who might just mean what they say."

"And I'm supposed to believe you're one of them?"

"I think you know me well enough to know when I'm being sarcastic."

"I don't know you that well at all."

"If that's what you want to believe. I haven't changed that much."

"You look surprised," he said when he'd gotten done showing her the studio part of things.

"I guess I am."

"Thought I was a fly-by-night business?"

"I don't know. I don't know anything about photographers other than the ones who shove cameras in my face because I'm at the grand opening of a club or something."

"Not all of us are like that. I much prefer people come to me and to stay reputable. That's all I had to start out with, my reputation. I know that probably sounds funny or ironic to you, but I was honest and fair. I had to be because I was using someone else's reputation to help me with mine. You know?"

"What do you mean?"

"Just someone who helped me out. It's a long story."

"Well, you could teach those other guys a lesson."

"You just photograph well," he said.

"I do not."

"No, you do. I mean, some of the shots they get of you are terrible, certainly. That's to be expected given the type of picture they're taking. Fast and going for surprise. In and out. There's little chance to check the flash or ensure you're focused correctly. So, the fact that some of those guys get such nice shots of you suggests to me you photograph well."

"Well, they could all disappear tomorrow and I wouldn't care."

"Why do it then?"

"What?"

"Keep doing it? Going out? Putting your face? Your name out there?"

"And if I stopped? You think that'd make a difference now?"

He shrugged.

"It wouldn't. If I suddenly stopped then they'd start going after my brother."

"So?"

"There's a reason he lives his life the way he does, John, and there's a reason that my doing the things I do, living the way I live work for us."

"I'll pretend to understand."

"It just wouldn't work. They'd go after him, or they'd start going after my friends. They'd go back to high school and find people like Andy and start pumping them for information on what I was like when I was fourteen."

"So you can't ever get out?"

"I don't know! I didn't think about where I'd be or what I'd want to do four years later when it started. I mean I was having fun. The first few articles and photographs were exciting. You know? Dad didn't mind either because they were at a building he owned or was planning on buying or in an area he was hoping would become revitalized."

"I suppose it's one of those things that once you're in you can't really get out easily."

"Yes, exactly!"

"Sorry," he said, sounding sincere. She knew he wasn't entirely. People didn't truly understand. If she had a dime for every time she heard the whole 'poor little rich girl' line from people she'd be even richer. She didn't have to like it, though.

"Thanks," she said. "And thanks for the tour. I'm impressed. You should give me some business cards."

"You're going to pass them out on your nights out?"

"No," she said with a roll of her eyes. "I do have friends who are getting married or whatever. If you don't want the business…"

"No, no, I'd appreciate that. Shoots like Suzanne are great, but I can't really do much with those pictures as far as expanding my portfolio. They make me good money, sure, but I can't build a business on them. You know, steady income."

"Then why do it?"

"Because they pay the bills? They pay very well. I have to block out the time to be sure Ronda knows no one can just walk back there. I know some may say she's posing naked so clearly doesn't care if anyone sees her, but my seeing her isn't the same as some random stranger walking back there seeing her."

"Oh," she said.

"You want to get lunch or something?" he asked, glancing at his watch.

"You're not busy?"

"Nah, I usually order in, but you drove all this way seems a shame to send you away so quickly."

"Sure."

"There's a pretty good Chinese restaurant around the corner, walking distance," he glanced at her then. She blushed because he was checking her out so intensely.

"What?" she asked, sounding defensive.

"Just looking at what you're wearing. Your shoes are somewhat practical so we could walk."

"Sure," she said.

"If you don't want to," he said.

"No, it's fine. I have no plans until later."

"Going downtown?"

"Yes."

"No classes tomorrow?"

"Oh, I do. I'll go home after this and sleep most of the rest of the day."

He shook his head a little.

"I don't know how you do it."

"Like you don't go out."

"Not every night!"

"I don't either. I stayed home …" she thought for a minute. "Tuesday night. I was home Tuesday night."

"You were actually home? I find that hard to believe."

"Well, okay, I went shopping with some friends, but I was home early."

"Of course you were."

"You know you're not very nice."

"I know, it sucks, doesn't it?"

"I guess I'll rethink lunch then."

"You know I like it better when you're concerned about whether I need stitches or not."

"I like it better when you're not being a jerk."

"The truth hurts, Princess."

"There is nothing wrong with going shopping."

"I never said there was."

She sighed softly. "Why are you so exasperating?"

"Lucky?"

"This was a mistake, I shouldn't have come here. I'm not sure why I thought we might actually be able to get along now."

He grabbed her by the elbow as she started to walk past him.

"Not so fast, Princess. I can get along with you just fine, but you have to know I'm not going to let you get away with your 'poor me' routine. I understand if you've gotten in too deep and can't figure out a way to disengage from the frenzy you've created."

"I know," she sighed.

"Why do you want to get along with me anyway?"

She shrugged.

"Claire?"

"You did something nice for me without expecting anything in return from me or my father."

"Yeah," he said, sounding confused. "So?"

"I'm not used to that. I realized when I was out on Tuesday with my friends, actually, that not one of them would do what you did."

"Okay."

"They would've laughed at Pete and figured I got what I deserved for dating someone I met at a club."

"I kind of have to agree with them. Don't you screen these guys?"

"I'm not planning on marrying them. They're dates."

"Yeah, and look where that got me!"

"I didn't ask you to start a fight with him."

"Yeah, well, someone has to defend your honor because you sure do seem to enjoy suggesting to people you're not a very good girl."

"You don't know anything about me."

"I knew the minute you touched me Friday night, Claire."

"Knew what?"

He chuckled softly, leaning toward her and kissing her. She gasped softly, but kissed him back. She didn't have a choice really. Well, she did, but she didn't want to pull away.

"See, sweets," he whispered, drawing away. "I know what you kissed like that day and I know what you kiss like now. There's not that drastic of a difference for me to believe you do more than date."

"I never said I did."

"And you just made my point for me!"

Return to Top

***Chapter Three***
Word Count: 1,807

John parked in his garage and went around to the end of his driveway and the mailbox there after closing the door. What a weird day it had been. He'd never in a million years expected Claire to show up at his studio. It meant she'd actually had to look in the Yellow Pages to find his studio address because he certainly hadn't given it to her.

"Way to be observant," he muttered to himself at the sight of someone sitting on the steps leading to his porch. He wasn't looking for it when he pulled onto the driveway, but he'd walked right by him when he walked from his garage to the mailbox.

He assessed the guy as he stood, evidently he'd been waiting a while judging by the way he was rubbing his hands together. He had gloves on, sure, but they weren't practical gloves. They were of the thin leather, expensive variety that were more for show than to supply any real warmth. At least the guy's overcoat was appropriate for a February evening. Supposedly, tomorrow was going to be above freezing, but still winter weather.

"Can I help you?" he asked, sounding as suspicious as he was. People just weren't sitting at his house waiting for him very often. Men in expensive clothes and nice hats in particular. Sure, he could see his friend Charlie or Glen sitting on the steps waiting for him, but he didn't know this guy from Adam.

"Mr. Bender?"

"Uh maybe?"

"I'm Alistair McMillan of McMillan, Hardy, and Rowe."

"Okay," he said with a frown as he took the business card the guy offered him. "If you're looking for my dad I don't know where he is if he's not at his house. I haven't seen him in years so I can't help you. Sorry."

"You are John Bender?"

"Yeah, but so is my dad."

The man, a lawyer, frowned. "You are familiar with Claire Standish."

"Yeah, sure, who isn't?"

That was a ridiculous question. Someone would have to be living under a rock not to know who she was if they lived in the Chicago area.

"Her father sent me to speak with you."

"Okay."

He pulled an envelope out of his inner suit coat pocket and handed it to John. John opened the envelope because clearly the guy was expecting him to. His eyes widened a bit when he saw that it was a check. And a very large check at that.

"I'm sorry. What's this for?"

"Mr. Standish wanted to be sure his gratitude for intervening in a potentially embarrassing situation is relayed properly."

"Uh, okay," he said. "You think I did what I did for money?"

He frowned as he slid the check back into the envelope. He ran the back of his hand over his lip certain that between the cold and talking to this guy it was cracking again. Stupid thing was going to take forever to heal. At least the cut above his cheek didn't keep opening up like this one did. That one, though, was going to take a while to heal regardless. Claire had been right, he should've gotten stitches for it.

"Of course not."

"Obviously, her dad did if this is his way of showing gratitude. You know, a simple thank you would work just fine. I don't want Mr. Standish's money," he said, handing the envelope back to Mr. Whoever He Was. "Do you pay everyone off who does Claire favors?"

"I honestly haven't encountered it until now."

"No shit," John said, surprised. "Sorry," he added, realizing swearing in front of someone who was a pretty prominent attorney if the Standish's used his services probably wasn't wise.

"No, Mr. Bender. I can't recall it ever happening before."

"You've paid off people the other way, I imagine. To shut them up. Like the guy who tried to sell me the pictures."

"I cannot…"

"Yeah, I know, privilege or something like that. I can figure it out. I'm sure money changed hands with ol' Pete if her dad's sending you over here to give me money for simply doing the right thing."

He tried handing John the envelope again.

"I really don't want it. I'd feel like shit for taking her dad's money, they'd think that's why I did it. I may not be the nicest guy out there but I couldn't just stand back and let someone publish those pictures of her. Use it to go after the guy who was trying to sell pictures of her. Chances are if he was trying to sell them of Claire he's done it before to someone else. He obviously has access to equipment from somewhere because those pictures were fairly convincing. That suggests he's done it before and will again. Have her dad stop him from doing it again because I can assure you he won't be calling me again to try and sell the next set. Claire or not."

"You're sure," the guy said. He was clearly surprised, and maybe a little impressed. It probably wasn't every day someone walked away from a check with five zeroes in it before the decimal point.

"Pretty sure, yeah," he said. "Tell him thanks but no thanks."

"Good night then, Mr. Bender. I'm sorry to have bothered you."

"No problem," John said, going up the couple of steps that led to the screened-in porch. "You know," he said.

"What?"

"I saw her today," he said.

He should shut up. He should shut the screened door, go inside to his nice, warm house, light a fire in his fireplace, have a beer, watch some TV, and forget all about the lawyer, the check he'd just tried to give him for doing the right thing, and Claire Standish in general. His life hadn't been harmed or short changed from not having her in it the past four years. Oh, sure he'd paid attention to her comings and goings the same as probably everyone from Shermer had.

"You did?"

"Yes. She mentioned to me that she volunteers and stuff. You know, does good deeds, pay things back. Whatever you people call it."

"Yes, of course she does," the lawyer said. He sounded insulted that John might think she didn't do these things. He supposed for someone like her it was a given, part of being in the public eye. The thing was, though, none of that stuff – those good deeds – ever made the papers.

"You know, you – her dad – whoever, let those vultures take her picture getting out of her car when she's obviously sick and print that she was out all night partying and probably driving drunk. Maybe you should think about giving her some good press, too. Maybe catch her giving a little girl a balloon or something."

"Are you volunteering for the job?"

"Sorry?"

"Would that interest you? You're a photographer."

"Yeah," he said, cautiously. This wasn't exactly where he'd seen this conversation going, but he'd be crazy not to at least hear the guy out.

"You know her."

"I went to high school with her, can't really say I know her well."

"You knew her well enough to call her to bail you out of jail."

"I knew her phone number." That was skirting the issue and John knew it as well as Mr. McLawyer knew it. John obviously knew her well enough to know her phone number by heart. Of course, he'd never called a girl with any frequency in his life except her. The calls had ended almost as quickly as they'd started, but for a couple of weeks he'd tried. Tried what, he wasn't sure at the time, and that had been his downfall and his undoing.

"Would you be interested?" he asked again.

John sighed softly. He should say no. He really should go inside now, shut the door, and forget about Claire and the rest of the Standish's. On the other hand, he didn't believe she liked the image she had gotten over the years. She didn't hate it, true, but he knew it bothered her that people saw her as this generation's party-girl who had no thought or concern for anyone but herself and her next diamond clutch bag that she'd use once and forget about. There was more to her than that. It was easy for him to forget that sometimes and think of her the way the papers painted her, but she wasn't as shallow and vapid as she seemed underneath it all. Well, until it came to touching a guy like him anyway then it seemed that's where daringness stopped.

"You come up with some sort of plan, details, and I'll look it over. I make no promises. I do have a business to run."

"Which would certainly benefit from the publicity of getting pictures of her."

"Yeah," he said. The lawyer was right. Business would not be hurt by his company being behind some pictures of her. "I wouldn't work for you, or her dad. Whoever. I'm not signing or agreeing to anything like that. I'd own the pictures. If you want to see them before I put them out there, I could agree to that."

"I'm sure we can come up with something."

"Why?"

"Because I think her father would like to see something good being written about her after those pictures."

"They weren't even her," John said.

The lawyer smiled a little at that, and John realized he'd just let on to the fact he knew Claire better than he wanted to admit.

"Good night then, Mr. Bender," he said, offering John his hand.

"Yeah," he said, taking it. "Cut the Mr. Bender stuff, though, please."

"Of course. I'll be in touch."

"Is her dad going to know about this? Is she?"

"I don't think so. It'd be better that way, don't you think? More sincere. I can get her schedule and we can go from there."

"She provides you a schedule?"

"Of her daytime activities when she's not in school and has appointments, of course. I have to keep track of what she's doing."

"I suppose," he said.

He didn't understand why, but he supposed whatever worked. He wondered, too, if that was this guy's job, to keep track of Claire. The law firm had his name as part of it, though, so something told John he had more important things to deal with than just Claire.

He watched the guy leave, wondering what in the hell he'd just got himself involved with. Claire was going to freak out if he just happened to show up some place she was. He should probably tell her, but he'd wait until the guy contacted him again to do that. For all John knew he'd go back to his office with the very generous check John just said no to and forget all about him.

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***Chapter Four***
Word Count: 6,165

John gave himself plenty of time to get to campus and find where he was going. He'd never done more than driven past the campus until today. He'd never had a reason to. He still wasn't entirely sure he should be here, but it was too late to turn back now. He found the visitor's parking easily enough and knew how to get to the University Center from there based on what she'd told him.

He was kind of surprised she agreed to meet him. Their lunch together had been a little awkward. It hadn't been terrible or anything, but it was pretty clear they were in totally different places. Claire wasn't even thinking about working yet, very much living for the moment. John's days of living for the moment had ended years ago now. He was very focused on work and succeeding at it.

He'd thought about whether he should talk to her over the weekend. He called last night, figuring if he didn't get a hold of her it was a sign that he wasn't supposed to talk to her. She'd answered on the fourth ring, though. He was kind of shocked by her being home, but realized being Sunday night she probably had to go to sleep at a decent hour to make up for being out all weekend long.

'Hello,' she said.

"Hi, it's John," he said.

'This is becoming a habit.'

"What is?" he'd asked, frowning at the comment. He'd only ever called her the one time from the jail. She'd shown up at his studio, he hadn't asked her to.

'Never mind, I was making a joke. You know, hearing from you more in the past couple of weeks than I have in years.'

"Oh, I see," he said.

'Obviously it wasn't very funny.'

"I just didn't get it, sorry. How was your weekend?"

'The usual. Yours?'

"I'd say the usual, too, but usual to you and to me are vastly different."

'True.'

"I was wondering if you could meet me tomorrow. You name the place, there's just something I need to talk to you about."

'Something bad?'

"No," he said, not entirely sure that answer was honest.

He hadn't heard back from the lawyer, but only one business day had passed and certainly the guy had other things to worry about than this. He was probably thinking things through, dotting all of his I's and crossing all of his T's before involving John in anything. John had no criminal record as an adult and he'd paid an obscene amount of money to ensure his juvenile record was sealed. Of course, a lawyer could probably gain access to sealed files. It was all petty, minor stuff, but he could see that a lawyer may question the intelligence of counting on someone like what those records painted about the type of person John was. That was almost four years ago. He hadn't been in trouble of any kind since turning eighteen, outside of school anyway. Vernon had ridden his ass until he'd walked the stage to get his diploma.

'Sure,' she said. 'Um, maybe it'd be better if you meet me on campus. I have class most of the day and once I leave I'm kind of fair game. Especially after this weekend.'

"This weekend?"

She sighed. 'You haven't seen?'

"No," he said. He got the Sunday Tribune, but he hadn't done more than glance through it this morning. He didn't usually scan the pages she was generally featured on, perhaps he should start.

'It was awful. Some reporter got a picture of me holding my friend's hair while she was getting sick in an alley outside of a club.'

He shook his head. Of course she was the type to hold her friend's hair out of the way while she was puking up the night's overindulgence in whatever their drink of choice was.

'Of course, it's one of the clubs Dad owns so they're suggesting they let my friend drink more than they should have before cutting her off because she was with me.'

"Did they?"

'No! She wasn't even drunk.'

"Claire."

'She wasn't! She's pregnant.'

"Then what was she doing out clubbing with you?"

'She just found out like two weeks ago. She's pregnant not dead, but she was not drinking. She even volunteered to take a breathalyzer test, but of course the reporter didn't include that with the photo and disparaging blurb about my being a bad influence on yet someone else.'

"Why was she getting sick then?"

'How should I know? She has the flu maybe? She's pregnant? What am I a doctor?'

"Hey, I'm just asking the question, don't get mad at me."

'No, I know. My dad was irate because it's one of his clubs and he thinks it looks bad that my friends were getting so drunk they got sick.'

"Did you explain to him she wasn't drinking?"

'Yes! The picture is out there, though, and I'm in it, at his club.'

"I get it. I'm sorry. So, on-campus? I can do that, sure. Just tell me where to meet you and what time."

So, here he was. He couldn't help but observe the people walking around as he made his way to his destination. Along the way was the performing arts building he noticed, which must have included dancing because there were some pretty incredible looking, and incredibly fit, women going into and coming out of the building.

He'd never done the approach the stranger and ask them if he could take their picture routine. He knew people who did that, but he would just feel weird doing that. The last thing he needed was to get slapped with a title related to being a pervert and what he'd worked so hard at building would be gone. He could definitely see the benefit to that approach, though, as he passed more than a few women he would love to give that line to. He knew more than one guy who'd gotten dates from using that come-on. He'd need to have his camera on him in order for the line to work, though, and he didn't carry one with him usually.

He found her in the area she said she'd be. She wasn't alone. Why he expected her to be he had no idea. He approached her, though, trying to act like he didn't feel as though he didn't belong here. He'd be in debt up to his eyeballs if he enrolled at a place like this and had to take out loans, the only way he'd ever get to go to college.

"John," she said when she saw him. She stood then and gave him a kiss. "You found it."

"I did," he said, a little confused by the kiss.

"This is my friend John," she said to the few people sitting with her, settling her hand against his forearm. "And this is Tony, Jennifer, Sasha, and Evelyn."

"Hey," he said.

They said something about the same with as much enthusiasm. He noticed while she'd called him her friend she hadn't said the same about them in return. Probably he was reading too much into what she said versus didn't say, but he found it interesting just the same.

"Okay, guys, I'll see you tomorrow," she said.

She grabbed her coat, sliding it on followed by a scarf around her neck before grabbing her backpack. That surprised him, he was under the impression they were talking here based on her wanting to meet here.

He could see the surprise on the other people's faces, too, and he wondered how many times she just dismissed people or walked away from them as if they weren't important to her. These people clearly weren't used to that treatment from her.

She'd been sitting on a small couch in a pretty private area compared to the rest of the place he walked through to get to her. There was a chair to her left where one of the girls she'd introduced him to sat, another small couch, and two more chairs making a kind of cozy meeting place for a group who wanted privacy.

"So," he said once they were walking away from the area. "This is where the prom queen holds court in college then?"

"Something like that."

"They didn't look too happy about being dismissed."

"They'll get over it."

He smirked a little at that.

"So, we're leaving?"

"Yeah, I figured we could leave in your car and go wherever."

He glanced at a clock on the wall nearby. "You want to get that coffee we talked about the night I first saw you? Or if you're hungry, we could do that, too, I guess."

"Sure," she said.

"You could've just met me in the parking lot."

"I could've, but I kind of wanted to see what you'd look like on-campus."

"Why?"

She shrugged. "Curiosity? Something to amuse me?"

"I amuse you?"

"No, their reaction to you does, though."

"Why?" he squinted, regarding her. He wasn't sure if she was being insulting or condescending or not.

"Because you're not at all like they are or the people I'm seen with so I can tell they're wondering who you are to me."

"That was the reason for the kiss?"

"Kind of," she said, shrugging.

She slid a pair of gloves on, nice ones he noticed. Very nice ones. They probably cost more than his whole coat. She settled her hand against his arm again, though.

"Claire. I really don't want my picture taken. You do know that, right? I'm not a part of your game."

"There's not going to be anyone here to take your picture. They can't come on campus."

"Why?"

"Because my father and the company contribute a lot of money to ensure I'm left alone."

"I see," he said. "Must be nice."

"It's the only place I get to be completely undisturbed."

"I guess," he said.

He couldn't pretend to understand what it was like for her. Certainly, she brought a vast majority of it onto herself. She could have led a mundane, boring existence and no one would know the name Claire Standish or the very successful real estate corporation that went with the name. Then again, maybe her dad didn't mind the publicity. Bad publicity was still publicity, the name out there, and it wasn't about his buildings being roach-infested safety traps so business wouldn't take a serious hit.

"I have no idea what's around here, so you tell me where you want to go," he said once they were in his Jeep. He'd been to Evanston before, but never to actually go anywhere usually it was just driving through for various reasons.

"It doesn't suit you," she said.

"Huh?" he asked.

"The Jeep," she said.

"Oh," he said.

He forgot they'd walked to lunch the day she came to his studio so she wouldn't have realized which vehicle on the lot was his. "It's actually not my primary car. It's my company car, and I use it during the winter as long as there's snow on the ground."

"What's your primary car?"

"It's a 1985 Trans Am convertible. It's a roadster, made to order basically. There was only about two hundred fifty of them made. It's my baby and I don't drive it if there's anything remotely resembling snow on the ground."

It cost him way more than he should have spent on a car, but as he was single with no baggage it had begged to be bought. It was the most careless thing he'd plunked a chunk of money on, but he planned to have it for years yet so he didn't think it was a waste of money. It looked sweet, hauled ass, and he knew he looked very fine driving it. He'd gotten more than one date just from pulling up in front of a place driving it.

"Really?"

"Yup," he said.

He still had a ways to go toward paying it off, but he'd taken excellent care of it so it still looked new. He kept it in his garage, covering it in the winter so it was protected. Since he only drove it about five or six months out of the year the mileage wasn't bad either. Any long trips outside of going to and from work or errands around town he took the Jeep. Unless it was a trip he was taking with someone who liked riding in it then he chose the car.

"That sounds very nice, but can't be very practical for your equipment."

"I don't have to take equipment with me very often, but that's why I have the Jeep for company use if I need to. I just leave it at the studio during the summer so it's there if I need it. Obviously, for things like graduation pictures and stuff I'm not going to take someone else's kid out in my two-seater convertible."

"That makes sense."

"I mean, I guess there's no reason I couldn't, but obviously if I ever got into an accident the Jeep is a better vehicle from the standpoint of survival than that tiny thing."

"You drive them to locations?"

"Yeah, sometimes they want to drive themselves, but I don't make them. Some of them want to do three or four different outdoor locations."

He stopped at a place she said was good not far from campus. It was early enough yet the place wasn't packed. The early dinner crowd wouldn't show up for another hour or so. For now, though, they were going to have their waitress' undivided attention for the most part. They ordered their drinks and food, talking about nothing in particular in between. Claire didn't take her sunglasses off until after their food order had been given to their waitress. He wondered if the sunglasses actually worked. He supposed in the dimmer light of a restaurant they made it less obvious who she was. She told him about her classes, but as she was a senior and taking pretty advanced classes for her major she may as well have been talking Chinese for all he understood what she was talking about.

"What's going on, John? Obviously, you don't need me to bail you out again."

"No, though I think it might be you who could use some bailing out."

"What?"

He sighed softly, explaining the conversation he'd had with her dad's lawyer last Thursday. It was still unbelievable that anyone thought he would … expect compensation for doing what he'd done. Now, if he'd had to go to the hospital or something, maybe then he could see it, but he'd refused the stitches he probably should have gotten. His lip was only just now healing thanks to him applying Carmex to the damn split generously every chance he got. He used Vaseline at home, but thought walking around with a jar of Vaseline in his pocket would seem a little odd. So, he'd gone the Carmex route away from home. It was working so far, anyway. He was able to smile for more than a minute without the damned thing splitting open.

"My dad tried to give you money?"

"Yup."

"And you refused to take it?"

"Yes," he said with a shake of his head. "This surprises you?"

"Well, kind of."

That answer surprised him. He was known for being a sarcastic jerk, but he didn't think he'd ever given the impression to her that he was out to make money off of other people. He much preferred making his money the old-fashioned way, earning it by building a business that would make it. True, his little studio wasn't going to ever turn into the behemoth her dad's company was, but he was going to do his damnedest to make a go at being very successful. One person gave him something to latch onto, a glimmer of hope, and John planned on doing everything in his power not to disappoint that person's efforts.

"Do you know me at all?"

"I'm just not used to it," she said.

"Yeah, that's kind of what whatever his name said."

"So, what is he going to do?"

"I don't know. He told me he wasn't going to tell you or your dad. I could see not telling your dad, but not you. I mean you'd freak out if I just started showing up at places or events you were. You'd accuse me of stalking you or something, and I assure you I have better things to do with my time."

"Thanks a lot," she said.

"Come on," he said. "You know what I mean."

She had to know he didn't mean that in a 'not interested' way. He'd kissed her more than once in the past couple of weeks. Maybe kissing didn't mean anything to her anymore, but oddly it meant a lot to him. He didn't just kiss anyone. He never had, really. Kissing, to him, was reserved for relationships with feelings involved with them. He'd never had one of those because he'd decided a long time ago he wasn't wrong to not let his heart get involved in things. He saw what things like love did to his parents and his friends who were otherwise sane and rational people.

"I'm not entirely sure I do, but I guess I can see your point."

"Good," he said, relieved she hadn't really taken offense to what he'd said.

"So, what does that mean exactly?"

"Well, I presume it'd mean I'd be around when you did some of the good things you do. You know like your volunteering or whatever to offset the bad."

"It's too bad you can't come out with me."

"I'm sorry?"

"Well, you wouldn't take pictures like that."

"Of course I wouldn't, but I couldn't stop anyone else from taking them."

"No, but," she said and stopped.

"What?" he prompted. He was curious what she was thinking.

"I don't know. I don't always think rationally when I go out and none of my friends do either, because none of us have to."

He shook his head. She had a point, though. None of them were going to get arrested. How many pictures had he seen plastered over the local papers of her and her friends, many times they'd clearly had too much to drink or smoke? Yet, none of them were ever arrested. As far as he could tell, they were never even pulled over. Now, he supposed it helped when she went out she had a driver to take her wherever she needed to go so she wasn't the one driving. Another perk of being a Standish. It was a limo company, not a private limo, but for all the work the family and corporation gave the company, they may as well be private because there wasn't room for doing much other business when all was said and done.

"No, really, sweets? I would never have known you weren't at all concerned about your or your name's reputation."

"Stop it. That's not fair. I do care about my dad's name. A lot. I don't have sex in limos, strip down naked in the middle of the street, or anything like some people I know do."

"Well, that is very good to know," he said.

And that idea bothered him – and her admission she didn't do it relieved him – more than he cared to admit. True, her kisses didn't imply her having gained a vast amount of experience doing that in the past four years. He knew first hand, though, there was nothing saying you had to do the rest of the stuff with kissing involved. Women usually weren't like that, and he stayed far away from the women who expected it out of the deal.

"I have some class."

He wasn't sure class was the issue when it came to the type of publicity she was getting. Bad press was bad press no matter if she looked good and followed some set of rules while getting it.

"You could stop drinking so much."

"I don't drink that much. I just like to have a good time, you know?"

"Claire," he said.

He didn't believe her. He'd seen more than one picture of her over the years where she was obviously really drunk or on something. He didn't think she was into drugs, but he certainly didn't claim to know what she had gotten into the past four years.

"What's wrong with it?"

"Clearly, you seem to acknowledge there's something wrong with it or you wouldn't think you need a conscious to accompany you on your nights of clubbing."

"You should come out tonight," she said. "It'd be fun."

"Claire, I have other things to do with my nights."

"Things or people?"

"Huh?"

She shrugged. "Never mind."

He smirked again at that. "Where are you going tonight anyway?"

"I don't know, I haven't decided yet. It's February 29, though. That only happens once every four years so I have to go out. There's tons of stuff going on."

"And you don't have class until later tomorrow morning?" He thought he remembered her saying that about Tuesday and Thursday.

"Exactly."

"I wish I had your life, sweets."

"I'm inviting you to come with me. Come on. You can't have to be at work real early."

She was right. He didn't have to be there until ten o'clock. It was rare he had an appointment before then, but it happened on occasion. He only did that on very rare instances when people had legitimate reasons for not being able to schedule appointments during his regular hours. He'd, in general, rather an appointment be scheduled in the evening than earlier in the morning. He hardly ever got out of the studio as soon as the doors were locked and Ronda went home. He tried to get things ready for his first shoot of the morning before he left at the very least.

"I don't," he said. "I don't really do clubs, though."

"I don't have to go to a club," she said.

"But it's February 29."

"There are parties," she said.

"On a Monday night?"

"Sure," she said with a shrug.

"I appreciate the invitation, but no. You'll have to find someone else to act as your Jiminy Cricket tonight."

"That's not why I'm asking."

"What then?"

"Maybe I just wanted you to come out with me."

"You want me to come out with you?" He sounded as suspicious as he felt about that. "No offense, Princess, but you haven't given me a thought in close to four years. I call you to bail me out of jail because of a mess you got yourself into, and now you want me to go out with you?"

"I didn't say a date."

"I didn't say a date either. You said maybe you just wanted me to come out with you."

"Yes, you said go out. Go out implies a date."

"I see. So, dates are reserved for top-notch, stellar, club-going guys like Pete, but not guys like me?"

She frowned. "I didn't say that."

"Oh, but you don't have to say it outright. I get how it works. Don't worry about it. I don't want to go out with you either, sweets. I'd end up in jail again and probably at least once a week for doing something stupid to a photographer who got in my face all for being seen with you."

"John."

"No, forget it. I drove out here because this is where you felt safer meeting. Fine, though why I'm accommodating you when you're the one who's done the deeds to make yourself feel not safe anywhere baffles me. I've told you what I felt I should. I didn't have to. I could have let your dad's lawyer make whatever arrangements he wanted and let you freak out over the fact suddenly I'm around. I didn't want that to happen, though. I was trying to be nice. If that's not worthy of your time, I'm sorry."

"That's not what I said. You're twisting what I said to mean what you want it to."

"I am? So you do want to go out with me?"

"No!"

"Well, then, what did I say that's inaccurate."

"Nothing," she said with a sigh.

"Don't look so miserable."

"I was sincerely asking you to come out with me tonight."

"To what end? To be someone to think things through for you? To stop you from holding your friend's hair out of the way for her while she heaved all over the parking lot?"

"No. Just because. It'd be fun."

"I'm not sure our ideas of fun gel."

"You could try."

"To what end?"

"To hang out."

"Yeah, and your friends would stare at me like the ones back there on campus did."

"No, they wouldn't. They were staring because they'd never seen you. I never get visitors on campus. Well, I guess my brother's come a couple of times, but seeing me is usually an afterthought to visiting some of his professors."

"Your brother went there, too?"

"Sure. So did Dad and his brothers. Grandpa Standish did, too, and I'm pretty sure Great Grandpa Standish did as well."

"I see, no wonder your dad's money can talk around there."

"Yes."

"Did you even want to go somewhere else?"

She shrugged.

"Claire," he said.

"I didn't have a choice, so it didn't matter what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go."

"Do you have a choice about going into your dad's business?"

"Well, sure, I could walk away from it."

"But?" he prompted. Something told him there was more to that than it being as simple as that.

"He'd probably cut me off, and he won't leave the business to my brother so he'd make me feel incredibly guilty that a business that has survived generations, including the Great Depression, would end because of my frivolousness."

"Why can't your brother have the company?"

"It's not important."

"So, you do all this stuff you do for your brother. To protect him or something you said that night. You're going into your dad's business because of your brother's inability to have the business, whatever the reason."

"More or less."

"I think I understand a little better why you behave the way you do. Was your life set out for you before you were even conceived?"

"Well, no, Christopher is the oldest so obviously my dad took one look at him and assumed he'd hit the mother lode. I was just the cute daughter he indulged."

"Until something happened?"

"More or less."

"I see. You're not going to tell me?"

"Not here. Not now. Maybe some time. I swear to God, though, John. If I tell you and it gets out I will never talk to you again and you can find someone else to bail you out of jail the next time." She ran a fingertip over the back of his hand. "Maybe if you came out with me tonight."

He chuckled at her attempt at flirting with him. He imagined on most guys a touch from her was enough to get them to move mountains for her they claimed they couldn't five minutes before.

"Don't worry, I wouldn't tell anyone what whatever you're hiding is. I don't really care other than morbid curiosity why the younger daughter is in line to inherit the business over the son who does nothing in the public eye to suggest he's not worthy of being given the business. It's a good try, though, Princess. No amount of information is worth that."

"You're no fun," she said.

"I'm plenty of fun. You just don't like being told no. It doesn't happen to you very often, I suspect."

"Not really," she admitted. "Would you if I wasn't going to a club or a party?"

"Where else do you go?"

She shrugged.

"We're here. We had a decent meal the night you bailed me out of jail. We had lunch the day you came to my studio. So, clearly being in the same proximity as you isn't abhorrent to me. I just don't do clubs. And parties, no offense, are so high school to me."

"You don't go to parties?"

"Not the kind you're talking about. I go to my share of, say, Super Bowl parties. I've gone to a few Christmas parties for corporate clients who use my services."

"Oh," she said.

"I guess I got my partying out of my system four years ago. I did it enough to last me most of the rest of my life."

"I remember."

"Unless your dad's lawyer never calls me back, and I'm guessing he's going to. I'd say our paths will cross again and probably more frequently than either of us may enjoy. He seemed to like the idea, and I can't say I'd snub my nose at that opportunity."

"Why not?"

"I'll bet your dad's lawyer will pay a lot better than most of my clients getting Easter pictures taken of their kids this time of year."

"I suppose, you're kind of at a lull. Senior pictures have been done for months. Weddings don't really start to pick up until May."

"I'll get some last minute senior picture requests, but overall yes they were done months ago. I'll get a bit of a boost around prom, but those don't start until April."

"Really? You do prom pictures?"

"I do any kind of picture someone is willing to pay me for my time to take. If they want me in their house, taking pictures of their kids all dressed up before they get a room at the Hilton and take those same clothes off a few hours later. Who am I to say no?"

"So, you'd do this because of the money?"

"No, I mean certainly that's part of it. I have to eat. You do realize that, right? I run a business, so clearly my end goal is to make a profit."

"I know how it works."

"I don't see anyone else knocking on your door to do what I'm offering to do."

"Of course not, because what you're offering to do doesn't really sell."

"I'll sell it," he said.

"You sound awfully confident."

"I'm confident because I know the subject I'd be taking pictures of and I know my abilities."

"Thank you."

"You're welcome, but my point wasn't to compliment you but to say that likely our paths will cross again at some point and more than once. You have a lot of bad press to make up for."

"I know," she said wryly.

"So, you think of something that's not going to a club or a party on a Monday night just because it's leap year and I'm in."

"Really?"

"You sound surprised."

"Why would you want to?"

"Why wouldn't I?" he asked, confused.

"My life is such a mess."

"It is," he agreed. "You can clean it up if you want to. You can still go out and not do stupid shit while being places. And for God's sakes, pick better boyfriends."

"He wasn't my boyfriend. We went out a couple of times."

"Come on, that's splitting hairs, isn't it?"

"Maybe, but I wasn't serious about him. He'd never, like, been to my house or anything."

"I can't help but think for the amount of money your father was willing to pay me to do what I did with those pictures, I wonder how much Pete got to shut up and go away. He made those pictures once, he could likely do it again if he wanted to be a dick. He'd certainly know not to hit me up to sell them, but that doesn't mean he wouldn't mail them to the Tribune or Sun-Times on his own. Then again, he probably already has his sights set on his next target. I'm betting you weren't his first rodeo based on what he was able to do."

"They'd have to verify them, though, wouldn't they? I mean, you knew they weren't me. You said…"

"I know what I said, and I would imagine so, but it might be one of those things given your reputation that they print first and work on verifying later. The worst thing that could happen? They could have to print a retraction or an apology. The best thing? They got the scoop of the century."

"I hope not."

"I bet your dad's lawyer scared him sufficiently. Maybe no money changed hands, maybe he just put the fear of God into him. I thought for sure he was looking for my dad, you know? That the old man had really fucked up good this time if a guy in a suit was coming around looking for him."

"I'm sorry he made you think that."

"It's all right."

"I think his lawyer has an agreement with them."

"The papers, you mean? Like?"

"Anything truly disparaging, like those pictures…"

"They contact him first?"

"Yes."

"Have they had to contact him first?"

"No! I've never done anything like that. The idea of taking off my clothes so someone can take my picture doesn't appeal to me at all."

He regarded her for a minute. "I bet I could make it appeal to you."

"You could not."

"You want to make a bet?"

"You want to bet me that you can get me to take my clothes off?"

"I won't have to do a damned thing. All right, maybe you wouldn't take off everything, but I bet I could get you to come awfully damned close."

"Why?"

"Because I told you. I'm good, Princess, I'm very good at my job."

"Did that woman get the job she was going for?"

"Suzanne? I don't know. It doesn't work that quickly. Especially for those magazines. They have hundreds of girls wanting to be their next centerfold."

"I suppose."

"You want to take me up on my bet one day, Princess. You let me know. We'll go to my studio on a Sunday, just the two of us, so not even Ronda could walk in."

"It is tempting just to prove you wrong."

"Let me know, but be careful."

"What?"

"You may like it."

"You taking my picture."

"That, too," he said.

"Oh," she replied.

He had to admit he'd be intrigued if she ever took him up on his offer. He had no doubt she'd enjoy it. She had the personality whether she wanted to admit it or not. He knew by now who would and wouldn't be able to pose for pictures like that. If she realized that it wasn't classless debauchery but something fun if the person got into the right mood he could see her really getting into it.

"How would I know you wouldn't just turn around and do what Pete was going to do?"

He stared at her for a minute, processing what she'd just asked him. Had she really just asked him that? Did she really think he'd do that? That he was that type of guy? Forget they hadn't seen one another since graduation. He still could've revealed some pretty embarrassing, intimate, and telling, things about her from that day at school and the brief time they hung out afterward if he was out to make a buck at her expense. Not to mention, what he'd done to be sure the pictures Pete had for sale weren't seen? Jesus, did she think he enjoyed getting into a fight and arrested? Unbelievable.

He pulled his wallet out from his pocket, set enough money down on the table to cover their meal. Why he was buying her lunch and dinner all of the time he hadn't a clue. Money certainly wasn't a rare commodity for her. It was innate in him, though, to pay for a woman whether it was a date or not. It was just how he worked. He supposed that said a lot more about him than he wanted to think about today.

"That should be enough to cover it. If not, well, something tells me you've got a credit card in that purse of yours somewhere to take care of whatever's left."

"What are you doing?" she asked.

He grabbed his coat from the space next to him and slid out of the booth.

"What does it look like I'm doing? I'm leaving. Find your own way back to your car. If the lawyer ever calls I'll let him know I've rethought being involved. Have a good life, Claire. Really."

She grabbed onto his sleeve.

"John, I'm sorry."

"No, you're not. You either trust me or you don't. Obviously you don't. I've done nothing to suggest I have some sinister plot in my head regarding you. I don't need this shit. Really. I have better things to do with my time than mop up the mess of someone who can't even be nice to the person offering to clean up after her."

Return to Top

***Chapter Five***
Word Count: 3,941

March 1988

John stepped out of the shower at hearing his doorbell ring. He was just about done anyway. He was already running late. It was a good thing he was his own boss so things like being a few minutes late didn't matter as much. Ronda very rarely scheduled him a shoot right when the doors were scheduled to open for just that reason. He tried to be punctual every day, but traffic could be a bitch some days. He went to the front of the house, securing his towel around his waist. He hadn't gotten much sleep at all last night, but as pissed off as he'd been leaving Evanston yesterday afternoon he'd needed to let off steam somehow. A better way to do it he couldn't imagine even if it meant a very long day was in store for him.

"I told you guys I really do have to go to work this morning."

They weren't used to him calling them during the week for just that reason. Sleeping didn't happen when they came over. He'd call them his vice except there was really no downside or side effects to his time with them.

He suddenly felt severely underdressed when he saw it wasn't Lily and Tina at the door, but instead Claire. He didn't call them frequently. It was a once in a blue moon thing when he had a very specific itch and need to scratch. They were more into each other than they were him, but they let him watch and while his participation was generally limited to pretty basic penetration once they'd worked one another to the point of being crazy aroused they needed him inside of them. Certainly spending hours watching them was not a hardship and they weren't shy about taking a break from using their mouths on each other to use theirs on him. Together. Watching them French each other around his hard-on in between their mouths was a damn fine thing to watch. That was more than worth the lack of much else. He doubted many guys in his position would argue with him.

"Uh, hi," he said, glancing behind her.

They were gone, but they hadn't left real long ago. He'd gotten into the shower before they were both dressed he knew that. Had she seen them? He'd never felt embarrassed about his relationship with them before. They started as clients about three years ago who came to him wanting to get into one of the magazines a little more hardcore than Playboy and Penthouse doing a very explicit girl-on-girl shoot. He still wasn't sure where they'd gotten his name, they'd never said and he'd never really asked. As professional as he had tried to remain, as he did for all shoots like that, for whatever reason their shoot had affected him. They had noticed. He hadn't hired Ronda yet so the studio doors were locked and, well, they'd been more than happy to relieve him of his problem.

He'd felt like an asshole charging them for their shoot, but he'd taken rolls and rolls of film that day so he'd had to. They'd paid, and they'd come back more than once. Eventually, they stopped pretending they needed more shoots and told him flat out what they wanted. Unattached and not at all a prude he was more than in. He realized after the first couple of times and as Claire's picture in the paper started to appear more and more frequently that there was a resemblance between the three women that he couldn't ignore. He hadn't seen Claire for years before recently and he hadn't called Lily and Tina for a while, but he was reminded again now that they'd just left and she was standing here that while they weren't her on any level they did kind of look like her. Tina's hair wasn't even naturally red, but evidently for whatever reason it still worked for him.

He felt her regarding him despite the sunglasses and knew this time she was not focusing on the scars she'd been so turned off by their senior year. He couldn't blame her exactly so he hadn't held it against her or anything. Why should someone like her want to be with someone like him anyway? He didn't exactly think that way now, but he sure had four years ago. He'd still place a wager on the fact that she didn't have one scar on that body of hers anywhere. Never mind there were things that he just couldn't give her, things that probably mattered hugely to people like the Standishes even if they made people like the Benders no difference.

That thought process was getting him nowhere because thinking about his dad this morning was not a way to keep on feeling good after his night. That was why he'd called them, he'd needed it. Whatever it was he shared with them, a physical closeness from two people who didn't and never would love him but they liked him well enough. He was pretty sure he was the only guy they got together with regularly, not to say he was the only one ever but they'd mentioned more than once it wasn't really their thing. He wasn't sure why he was their thing, whatever that was, but he had been awful glad over the past three years it was the case.

"What can I do for you, sweets? You lost or something?"

"They were both here for that?"

"I'm not sure what 'that' is."

"You're naked."

"It's my house. I can dress how I want."

"Yes, but they just left here."

"Well, truthfully, if I wasn't running late they probably would've been in the shower, too, and I can assure you I wouldn't have answered my door then."

"Really?" She made a face that suggested very clearly she was not impressed or happy with his confession. He wasn't even sure why he'd said it. Certainly he'd never told anyone about them ever in the past three years. Then he hadn't been caught having just been with the two of them either.

"Yes, really. Do you need a visual aid to help you picture it? Because I didn't realize I needed to clear my private life with you now."

"Well, no, but we…"

"We what? Had lunch and you acted like a bitch to me? So you thought what? I'd come home and pine away for what may have been between us yet again? Get over yourself."

"No, that's not what I meant. I just," she sighed, clearly frustrated. "You kissed me."

"You kissed me. People kiss. It is what it is. What of it?"

He was lying, hoping that she wouldn't know that. Kissing was a very big deal to him. He certainly didn't kiss Lily or Tina. Never once had he even thought of doing that with them. They probably wouldn't have either, but that was beside the point. She was the only woman he'd ever kissed, then or now.

"Is that supposed to mean something? I kissed you so. What?" She hadn't answered him so he figured he'd better keep talking. "Your dad doesn't like think I'm going to ask for your hand in marriage because of it does he? I suppose he'd send the suit for something like that, not you."

"You know I actually came here to apologize."

"Well, that was easy enough. See. Apology accepted. Thanks. Great seeing you again. I'm really running late."

"You have hickeys all over your…"

"Yeah, they got a little carried away I guess, but they know I'm a professional and where they can and can't leave them. Like I said that day you came to my studio, you seem to be the only chick I know who doesn't dig and get this Florence Nightingale complex when they see my scars. Trust me when I tell you in a way, my old man did me a favor."

"You are so disgusting."

"And again, my house."

"And you can just go to work after that?"

"After what? Sex?" he shrugged. "Sure. Doesn't everyone? Maybe for you it's a national holiday or something, but for us regular time clock-punching folk it's just another day."

"You are such an ass."

"And you are a bitch. Now that that's settled. I take it you're not apologizing anymore then? I'm crushed, sweets, really. I'm not sure I'll be able to go open up the studio today as a result of the fact you can't apologize for being a bitch."

"You totally misunderstood what I was saying."

"Oh? I misunderstood you?"

"Yes!"

"Were you or were you not implying that I was going to take pictures of you and turn around and sell them just as Pete was trying to do?"

"I know it sounded like that."

"Save it. I know what you said. You know what you said. Whenever the lawyer calls, don't worry I'll tell him it's me, my schedule or something. I won't let him know the precious Claire Standish can't even act decent to the one guy who seems to give two shits about her image when she obviously doesn't give one shit about it herself."

"But I do!"

"You sure don't act like it. You're still the same bitch from that day, just with better clothes and a lawyer to buy your way out of jams you get in. I'm sure if your dad had had enough time back then he would have had his lawyer dream up some legal excuse for you not having to go to detention that day. Emotional trauma or something. I'm not going to freeze my ass off any longer standing here talking to you. I have to get dressed now, Claire. I told you yesterday I hope you have a great life and I mean it. I hope you get everything you want and need. I don't know what else you want me to say. Draw you a picture? Send it in a letter? Get a lawyer involved? Is that the only thing you understand? A cease and desist? What? I don't want to see you again. Can I be any clearer?"

"But, I…"

He shook his head. "I'm shutting my door now. I'm going to get dressed and get in my Jeep and go to work. I'd really, really appreciate it if you were gone by then. At least you didn't park in my driveway, so I'm not blocked in."

"Because their car was on it!"

He chuckled softly at that. The look on her face, registering that not only had they been here at the same time but they'd left together. Obviously that meant they'd gotten here together last night, too. He'd let her process that one on her own.

"I guess it was. Not often you have to park on the street, I bet."

"John," she said, sliding her sunglasses off.

"Good bye, Claire. I've already told Ronda to tell you I'm busy if you come in again. I'm done."

He saw the tears in her eyes now and for the briefest of moments as he shut the door in her face he felt bad. He almost opened it again even. Except absolutely nothing good would come out of doing that. He'd be tempted to do something incredibly stupid. Like kiss her to the point she wasn't thinking about crying anymore. Like saying fuck going to work and take her to his bed, never mind she'd probably be all kinds of insulted he'd take her there after what he'd done in it last night.

That was the last thing he needed to be thinking about with regard to her ever again as far as he was concerned. Somehow she'd sucked him back in. His own fault. He could have called someone else to bail him out of jail and gone on his merry way. The pictures would have gotten out and she and her dad's company would have a public relations nightmare on their hands, but he shouldn't care.

He settled his back against the door for a moment. It was cold this morning so the door was chilly against his bare back after standing with it open while talking to her. It felt good, though, grounding him a bit, keeping him in reality. Reality was good because a world where he could be anything Claire needed him to be was pure fantasy.

Fact was, he did care. He just didn't like her not trusting him. As if he'd done anything to indicate he wasn't deserving of her trust. Okay, maybe her coming here today and seeing Lily and Tina was in some remote way a violation of her trust. They resembled her, surely she'd see that unless she was blind. She was right, he had kissed her. More than once. The time or two she'd kissed him first he hadn't told her to stop. That first night here at his house after she'd bailed him out, he hadn't wanted her to stop. He'd even asked her to stay the night.

He'd never claimed not to be involved with anyone else, though. She'd never asked either.

Likely that was why she took her sunglasses off, knowing the tears were there trying to sucker him back in, feel sorry for her, and give her what she wanted. Well, he wasn't her daddy and that shit didn't work on him. She could find someone else to cry tears in front of. He doubted she lacked for candidates.

He stepped away from the door once he heard the screen door shut, indicating (hopefully) she'd at least left his porch. Suddenly, he wasn't feeling so great about going to work on no sleep. It was going to be a long assed day.

He got dressed, stripping his bed and throwing his sheets in the washer before putting his coat on. He didn't always wash the sheets right away after a night with them. He certainly didn't mind, but somehow it seemed a little different today knowing someone knew what he'd done. Or at least guessed what he'd done. He doubted Claire's imagination was quite as vivid as his was, but he was pretty sure she could put the respective parts on the three of them together with where they needed to go for things to work.

He got to work not super late. Fortunately, he didn't have an actual shoot scheduled until eleven o'clock. It was one of his endless Easter sittings at this time of the year. He didn't mind graduation sittings and dealing with the kids. God he hated the Easter pictures with the stupid fucking backdrops of bunnies and cute little chicks. And the kids who didn't want to be wearing their Sunday best on a day that wasn't Sunday so they wouldn't stop fidgeting or crying in the case of some of the younger ones. Fortunately, this was one of the last weeks of them because Easter was a month away. He couldn't guarantee pictures being ready much closer in time frame than that.

The shoot today was a family of three, all under the age of four. Hopefully no crying would ensue, because he wasn't sure he could handle it today. The parents were getting their pictures taken with the kids, so hopefully they'd keep their kids in check.

"You look like shit," Ronda said when he opened the door.

"And a good morning to you, too," he said, but he smiled as best as he could with the stupid cut on his lip. Damn it all if he hadn't forgotten to put Vaseline on it this morning and unless he had a spare jar here he was pretty sure he'd forgotten the Carmex at home.

He liked Ronda. She was way overqualified for the job, and he almost didn't hire her because of it. She was married, though and didn't have to work. She just wanted something to get herself out of the house eight hours a day while her husband worked. He did something for Motorola. John had no clue what but the impression he got was that Bill was pretty high up in the chain of command and Ronda was here merely for something to do not out of any necessity for a paycheck. The fact that she very rarely put in eight hour days fit right in with her schedule. She usually got there about half past nine in the morning to turn everything on and get his calendar of appointments printed off for the day. She always had all of the paperwork right there ready for the people when they came in. She was efficient, always on time, very rarely ever called in sick, and the customers loved her. She loved them, too. She was one of those genuine, bubbly people-person people.

One day she'd have kids he imagined and then he'd have to deal with that. He had spare rooms that were really supposed to be offices. He could turn one into some sort of baby's room if he needed to. He'd do that, too, if it meant she stayed put because he honestly wasn't sure what he'd do without her anymore. Right now there was nothing in there but files and stuff. He could certainly move those to his basement if he had to or streamline things a bit so they weren't so scattered. Until that happened things like that just weren't a priority to him and he wasn't going to make Ronda do it. In part, he'd want it done a certain way, his way, so if she did leave he'd know where to find shit.

"Long night?"

"It was," he said.

"Judging by the smile, not a bad one, though?"

"Nope, no complaints. The morning could have gone better, though."

"I'm sorry to hear that. Didn't she leave fast enough for you?"

That was another thing about her he liked, she didn't pass judgment on his – very – single lifestyle. She didn't judge, she didn't become a bitch and try to get him to change his mind about talking to someone he had told her to take messages from once he'd gotten to that point in the relationship that he needed to break it off. She was polite to them, too, but she never undermined him either. He listened more than once to see what she'd say. It wasn't as if she got an influx of spurned lovers calling here for him. He didn't give out his work number, but occasionally he stayed with one for long enough that where he worked eventually came out. The number wasn't difficult to find once that information was revealed.

He shrugged. "What can you do? Beggars can't be choosers, right?"

"I guess not."

"Hey, did Bill ever find takers for those Bulls game tickets?"

"No, believe it or not. Usually he can't get rid of them fast enough."

"If he truly can't find someone, I'd take them off his hands."

"I'll let him know. I think it's because it's a Monday night. Wives want their husband home on Monday nights."

"Why?"

"Heck if I know," Ronda said.

"You don't want your husband home on Monday nights?"

"I want him home every night, John, but we're married we're not joined at the hip."

"I think he doesn't deserve you."

"You know someone who does?"

"Well, clearly, I do, and I at least pay you to make me look good."

She laughed at that.

"I made coffee, by the way."

"That'd mean something if I drank the stuff, Ronda, but thanks for the offer."

He stopped in the little kitchen area he had there to grab a Coke from the fridge. He had to admit whatever kind of coffee she made did smell good, but not good enough for him to try to taste it. The stuff just tasted foul to him. Someone told him to put cream and sugar in it, but to him what was the point of drinking something you had to load up with additives to make it taste good?

"Hey, Ronda," he said, opening the can and taking a sip.

"Yes?"

"You can scratch what I told you about Claire Standish. I'll see her if she comes around."

"Do you think she will?"

"Uh no, I doubt it, but just for the record."

"She's not the one who couldn't leave fast enough this morning, is she?" she said, her tone sounding more like she was warning him that he better fix it if she was than judging him.

"No, she wasn't." Well, she was in a way, but not the way Ronda meant.

"Okay. She sure does class the place up. I couldn't believe it was her when she came in that one day."

"You really knew who she was?"

"Well, not right away, no. Then I saw that picture of her the Tribune published over the weekend. It clicked. I even told Bill she'd been in. I went over in my head what I'd been wearing and what I'd said to her the day she was in here."

He rolled his eyes at that. "The one of her holding back her friend's hair?"

"Yes! I realized then who she was."

"You haven't asked me about her."

"What's there to ask? You know her. If you wanted to share more you'd tell me."

"I went to high school with her."

"Oh," she said.

"What?" he asked at the look she was giving him.

"Nothing."

"No, what? I know you well enough to know when there's something on your mind."

She shrugged. "Nothing. I just saw the way you looked at her that day she was here. If I'd known who she was I probably would've paid closer attention."

"How'd I look at her?"

"It was a dangerous look for someone like you, John."

"Why?"

"Because the look told me you like her."

"How is that dangerous?"

She shook her head. "If you need me to explain it to you, John."

"I'm not in love with her."

"Maybe not, but you look at her as though you'd like to entertain the emotion with her."

"Yeah, well, maybe once upon a time and given the right set of circumstances I could've. Anyway, it doesn't matter. She kind of saw me in a fairly compromising position this morning so I don't think she'll be coming around anymore."

"Were you two-timing her? I'm not sure the Standishes are someone I'd want to get on the bad side of, hon."

"No! I would have to be one-timing in order to two-time someone. It's a long story."

"I think I might like to see that."

"What?"

"You one-timing, as you put it."

"Not going to happen," he said with a shake of his head. "Find someone else to get your hopes up about."

"Okay. I will disregard your orders then."

"Thank you," he said, smirking at that. He knew damned well if Ronda really wanted to let Claire in to see him she'd do it his 'orders' be damned. Chances were she was dying to know why he'd not want someone like Claire here.

He took another, longer sip of his Coke and stopped in his office to check out the details of his day. She always had it laid out right there front and center on his desk every morning. It was awesome, to say the least.

"Hey, Ronda, the next time it's time for your review, remind me of this moment."

"What moment's that?"

"That moment when I realize you're the best."

"Oh, I won't wait until it's review time to remind you of that."

"Fair enough."

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***Chapter Six***
Word Count: 7,523

June 1988

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.

"Nothing."

"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."

"Why?"

"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."

"I hoped."

"You hoped right, Princess."

"Thank you."

"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."

"Yeah, but…"

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."

"Why?"

"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."

"But now?"

"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?"

"Pretty much."

"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.

"What?"

"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?"

"Yes!"

"It's still hurting?"

"Yes," she said.

"I'll check that out in a second."

"Thank you," she said.

"For?"

"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."

"Why?"

"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?"

"Who?"

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."

"What happened?"

"Dad thought there was something abnormal about a grown man not being married or having kids."

"Abnormal?"

"Yeah, you know, he thought he was doing inappropriate things with me."

"What?"

"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."

John shrugged.

"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."

"Really?"

"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?"

"Pretty much."

"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."

"Home?"

"My parents are gone."

"When aren't they gone?" he asked.

She shrugged.

"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.

"Yeah?"

"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."

"Thank you."

"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."

"Yeah?"

"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.

"Yeah?"

"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."

"Claire…"

"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."

"Mine either."

"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.

"What?"

"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?"

"But tonight…"

"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."

"Me, 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."

"You can."

"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."

"You're tired."

"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.

"Ever?"

"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 not?"

"Why don't you?"

"I do!"

"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."

"I do."

"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."

"I'm sorry."

"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?"

"You could've."

"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.

"Do what?"

He chuckled softly. "You make me feel…"

"Feeling isn't bad, John," she said softly.

"Yes, Princess, it is."

"Why?"

"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?"

"What aren't?"

"My scars."

"I know they're not. I never said I thought they would."

"You don't have to say it."

"John."

"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."

"Yeah?"

"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."

"Those women…"

"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?"

"What?"

"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."

"Good surprised?"

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."

"What?"

"You're sure your parents are out of town?"

"Yes, why?"

"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."

"Yeah?"

"I'm just guessing they wouldn't like it."

"That wouldn't stop me."

"Has it stopped you before?"

"From sleeping with someone?"

"Yeah."

She shrugged. "I'm not going to tell you that."

"Hmm."

"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…"

"Yeah, yeah."

"You want some shorts or something?"

"Thank you."

"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."

"I do."

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?"

"Yeah?"

"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.

"Thank you."

"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.

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***Chapter Seven***
Word Count: 3,927

He didn't sleep real well, waking up more than once. He supposed that wasn't unusual since he couldn't remember the last time he'd slept with someone. Well, sleeping without sex coming beforehand anyway. It just wasn't something he did. Intentions would get cloudy, misconstrued with that added into the mix. He just tried to avoid those kinds of headaches at all costs.

So, when the sun started peeking through his curtains he should have gotten out of bed immediately. Why didn't he then?

He couldn't say.

The first time he'd woken up she hadn't moved from the spot she'd been in when he came to bed. Even her hand was next to his back. He knew that only because he felt her fingertips underneath him when he'd shifted a bit. He'd never had anyone touch him like that before ever. Usually, as sorry as women might feel for him, they just avoided doing anything to his back or torso. It was as if they thought by not touching him there they'd go away. Certainly he couldn't recall someone touching him for the express goal of doing that and nothing more.

She probably thought he was all kinds of rude or weird for turning his back on her. She wasn't here for anything beyond sleeping. He wasn't going to make a complete ass of himself and let her see that having her in his bed, something he'd thought and dreamt of more than a few times over the years, had an effect on him.

The next time he'd woken up she'd moved. She was on her side, too, facing his back pressed against him so tightly he couldn't be sure where he stopped and she began. Her arm was draped around him, hand settled against his abdomen as if it belonged there. He'd liked her there, sleeping next to him like that, so he'd fought the urge to move closer to the edge of the bed and away from her. The urge was there because having her this close was probably dangerous. He liked kissing her way too much. He could only imagine how good the rest of it would be with her.

He'd woken up a few more times after that and she hadn't moved from that spot. He drifted back to sleep rather quickly. He never slept real well when a woman spent the night, but this was different for some reason he couldn't quite put his finger on.

Now, though, he wasn't sure he'd be able to get back to sleep. The sun was out and his alarm clock told him it was going on eight o'clock. She'd moved away from him since the last time he'd woken up. She hadn't moved far but there was space between them now where there hadn't been.

He turned then so he was facing her, regarding her. He hadn't really ever been this close to her. Not like this. He was free to peruse or just stare as he wanted to. He did for a minute and then remembered why she'd come to him last night and felt kind of guilty for in a roundabout way violating her, too. Her sleeping here wasn't granting him permission to look his fill. He couldn't stop his body's natural reaction to her being in bed with him, but he hoped that would go away fairly quickly because he absolutely wasn't going to do anything about that problem this morning.

Her hand was still on the bed just inches away from him. He liked the idea somehow that she wanted to touch him, that even if she couldn't admit it to herself her body's instinct was to want to be close to him. The rest of her hadn't moved much either during the night for that matter. He probably should've woken her up a time or two, but he didn't have it in him to when she seemed to be sleeping soundly. Backwards thinking perhaps since sleeping soundly could be bad for someone who potentially had a concussion. He'd been thrown against a wall a few times in his life, hitting his head in the process and he'd survived, so he used his judgment based on his own experience that she would be okay. One of the times had resulted in stitches and no one had woken him up during the night despite the doctor's warnings.

He ran a fingertip along her left ring finger. He'd noticed the night she bailed him out of jail and the day she came to see him at his studio that she didn't wear a ring on that one. No lines either to indicate she ever did. She did on her right hand, though. He'd seen a couple of different ones on her fingers now that he'd seen her a few times this year. He found that kind of interesting because he knew women wore them on that finger regardless of their relationship status. (He'd in fact gotten very confused by one in particular a couple of years ago because the ring she'd been wearing sure looked like an engagement ring but had turned out not to be.)

"Good morning," she murmured.

"Hey," he said. He slid his hand away, feeling guilty that his touch somehow woke her. Then again if she was that light of a sleeper, getting out of bed would have woken her up he supposed. "Sorry if I woke you."

"You're fine."

"How are you feeling?"

"Okay."

"No dizziness or blurred vision? No feeling like you're going to throw up?"

"No, no, and no."

"Good," he whispered.

She yawned, stretching a little. Her fingertips touched his. He didn't move his hand away this time.

"Why are you awake so early?" she asked.

He shrugged. "I'm not sure." He had absolutely no reason to be awake before eight o'clock in the morning considering he'd been up until three o'clock tending to her.

"Do you have to work again?"

"No," he said with a chuckle. "I wouldn't have scheduled something for today. I knew it was going to be a late night. The wedding was out in Algonquin."

"Really? No wonder you got in so late."

"Sorry about that."

"It's not your fault."

"If you were really hurt, like had a concussion or something and something bad happened to you sitting here waiting for me."

She smiled a little at that, closing her eyes again. "Still wouldn't have been your fault," she murmured.

"Why aren't you with somebody?" he asked unable to censor his thoughts.

"What?"

He lifted his hand again, tapping on her ring finger. "Why aren't you with somebody?"

She shrugged. "I haven't met anyone I want to be with?"

"Why not? You have to have met hundreds of suitable candidates."

"I don't know. None of them excite me," she said. She opened her eyes and looked at him and he sensed somehow she stopped herself from saying more. "And he should excite me, shouldn't he?"

"The comments I could make to that, Princess."

She laughed softly, lacing her fingers through his. He certainly didn't mind the contact. It was strange, very foreign to him to lay in bed with someone and talk like this.

"I'm sure you could make plenty. I don't mean that kind of exciting."

"That's too bad because that's the best kind of exciting."

"You would think that."

"Of course I do."

She sighed softly, regarding him.

"I think your version of exciting and mine are probably pretty different."

"Maybe. Maybe not. You might learn to like my version of exciting, Princess."

"I'm not sure I'd be ready for that."

He chuckled softly at that. He was admittedly a little confused by her and what she'd said before. She'd stopped things from happening between them that day at school because he'd scared her not because she hadn't wanted to. That was what she'd been saying. Right? He couldn't really ask her for clarification, but that was certainly the impression he'd gotten. He'd spent the last four years assuming … well, all sorts of shit about her and why she'd stopped him from doing what he thought she'd wanted to do just as badly as he had. They'd passed the time until four o'clock very well without that.

"Do you need some more Tylenol?" A much safer topic to talk and think about than her and the type of guy that would excite her.

She closed her eyes and he wasn't sure if she was ignoring him or falling back to sleep. He didn't repeat the question, though, if she was that tired he'd just let her sleep and offer it to her again when she woke up.

"No," she said finally. "It still hurts, but it's bearable."

"That's good," he said.

"You didn't wake me up."

"I didn't. If he'd knocked you against the wall more than once maybe I would've, but you made it out here from wherever you were downtown. You sat on my porch for close to two hours. If you had a concussion I probably would've found you passed out on my porch or throwing up in my bushes or something."

"As if showing up here wouldn't have been embarrassing enough. I don't think I'd ever be able to see you again if that'd happened."

"It wouldn't have been your fault if it had happened."

"I know, still embarrassing. You would've thought I was drunk or something and laughed at me."

"Yeah, I probably would've until you'd told me what happened and then I wouldn't have been laughing anymore." If he had been home when she'd gotten here he probably would've found out what club she'd been at and gone there himself to take care of the asshole. "Whatever the guy's intentions were, to rob you or do something worse, you're very lucky."

"I know," she said.

She scooted toward him then, running a finger along his hand that had been touching hers.

"Thank you," she whispered.

"For what?" he asked with a frown.

She leaned in and kissed him then, settling her hand against his chest in the process. He slid his arm around her, drawing her closer against him and kissed her back. He wasn't at all unhappy or put out by this turn of events. Her hand at his chest moved a bit, lower so her fingertips grazed one of his nipples and he groaned a bit. Her touching him like that surprised the hell out of him. She deepened the kiss, he waited for her to do it because he didn't feel like pushing her.

She broke the kiss and he groaned in disapproval at the loss of contact with her. She found his jaw then and then his ear where she did some pretty nice – and exciting – things to him there. Her hand at his chest slid lower, fingertips sliding along his chest and abdomen to his shorts. He hissed as she reached into the waistband of them.

He slid his hand over hers, stopping her from reaching further. To this point she hadn't actually touched a part of him she wouldn't see at the beach or if he was in his yard mowing his lawn this summer.

"Princess," he whispered.

"Hmm?" she murmured, finding his shoulder with her lips.

"Claire," he said.

"Yeah?"

He knew saying her name would get her attention because he so seldom used it. Why he had no idea. He knew she wasn't that girl anymore, but the nickname still suited her in ways.

"I can't do this."

"What?"

He laced his fingers through hers, settling them against his abdomen. It probably wasn't far enough away from the area she'd been reaching for a second ago, but he absolutely could not do this with her this morning.

"You came here last night because you trust me."

"Yeah."

"I wouldn't be very trustworthy if a few hours after you were attacked I let something happen between us."

"But…"

"I can't do it. You'd leave here thinking. Well, I don't know what you'd think. You'd wonder later if I thought you made it all up or something."

"I wouldn't…"

"I'd still rather not risk it."

"You mean you…"

"Don't you dare say I don't want to. I know you can see very plainly that I want to. Wanting to is not the issue. Doing the right thing is the issue. I don't have many chances to do the right thing and I very seldom do the right thing even when I know what I should do."

"Why do you want to now then?"

He sighed softly.

"Because when we get to the point of having sex I want it to be for the right reason."

"What's the right reason?"

"Both of us being on the same page, in the same place. I don't know how hard you hit your head last night. I don't want you coming back a couple weeks from now saying you weren't thinking clearly."

"I wouldn't do that."

"It's not a chance I can take with you."

He leaned in and kissed her, tempting fate by drawing her to him. He groaned as she pressed against him, sliding a foot over his calf so she fit comfortably against him. If she had the shorts off he'd given her he'd be able to enter her so very easily right now.

Fuck.

This was such an incredibly terrible idea, having her here. Having her in bed with him. Having her this close to him.

She certainly seemed as if she knew exactly what she was doing. She'd said she wasn't dizzy or anything. She'd been the one initiating. He hadn't even suggested or indicated he wanted anything from her.

Stop it.

That was not the thought process he needed to be following right now.

He shifted them so he was on top of her. Her arms went around his neck as if she was trying to prevent him from breaking the kiss. He had no desire to do that, but he liked knowing she didn't want him to. She felt good underneath him like this. He'd imagined various reasons for having her in his bed with him over the years. This wasn't one of them. She gasped softly when he stopped kissing her for a minute, finding her jaw and her throat.

He wished he could explain it to her. Why it mattered that she didn't leave here thinking she didn't mean anything. She'd meant something since that day, maybe even before that day if he wanted to get deeply philosophical about it. For whatever reason they had a connection, an attraction that years apart hadn't done anything to stop or lessen.

His mind made up that he would only go so far it wasn't as difficult to just kiss her. Not to say it wasn't tempting to do more. He wanted her so badly he was pretty sure he'd curse himself all sorts of names later for telling her no.

Eventually they stopped and he moved beside her again. She settled next to him as he drew the top sheet back up around them. He didn't think it was going to get as hot today as it had yesterday so they'd be fine in here for a while. This room always got real hot, which he hadn't known when he bought the place. He'd have to figure that out at some point if she ever spent the night again.

"You're not mad at me?" she whispered, glancing at him over her shoulder.

He kissed her shoulder, rubbing his cheek against the spot he'd kissed. She was facing away from him with her back pressed against him. He liked her here, laying in front of him like this. She fit comfortably against him.

"No," he replied.

"I thought…"

"I'm not mad."

"You asked me to stay the night with you in February."

"I did," he said with a soft chuckle.

"What's so funny?"

"Leave it to you to throw a spur of the moment thought back at me."

"You only thought of it at the last minute?"

"Yes. I hadn't seen you in years. You drove downtown in the middle of the night to bail me out of jail, which I can understand you probably weren't overly surprised to get a phone call from me for that reason. So, thinking of asking you to spend the night with me didn't occur to me until you kissed me."

"Oh," she said.

"That was different though. We hadn't seen each other in years."

"And now?"

He shrugged. "I can't just have sex with you, Claire. I can't say I would've been able to in February honestly. I don't know, you may have agreed and we got where we are right now and I may have done the same thing I did this morning."

"Why?"

"Because you deserve better than that."

"The others don't?"

"The others aren't you."

"Those two I saw spent the night here and you said you still see them."

"We didn't sleep much."

She sighed softly.

"And it's different. Again. They're not expecting anything from me because they don't want anything from me. It works for us. I mean, they're not here every weekend or anything."

"I kissed a woman once."

He closed his eyes, not at all wanting to hear that because he had to admit it turned him on watching Tina and Lily kiss one another maybe more than it turned him on watching them do the rest of it. There was something very intimate, personal about kissing and they weren't afraid to let him see that aspect of their relationship.

"Why?" he asked finally, realizing she was obviously wanting some sort of reaction to that statement.

"I was curious, I guess."

"About other women?"

"I guess. I don't know. I thought maybe…"

"You're not a lesbian, Claire."

"I discovered that then, yes," she said softly.

"Hmm. How did the woman react?"

"She got kind of mad. I don't know. I just wondered if there was a reason I'm not attracted to anyone I go out with."

"Maybe you're just going out with the wrong guys."

"My brother's gay," she whispered.

That wasn't at all the response he was looking for to what he'd just said.

"What?" he asked. Surely he'd heard wrong.

"I guess I thought maybe if he was I was too."

"I see."

"That's why things are the way they are with the company."

"And why you try to keep the attention on you and what you're doing with your life?"

"Yeah," she whispered.

"Claire," he said. Jesus, talk about pressure. "Your dad knows?"

"We're not sure he does, but we are pretty sure he does. He's never said and certainly Christopher's never admitted it."

"And he'd bypass him for you because of that?"

"You don't know my parents very well."

"I guess not."

"I think, too, he'd probably react differently if it was me interested in women instead of Christopher interested in men."

"Why?" John asked with a frown. "What difference would it make?"

"Well, my parents only had one boy. I have male cousins who could still produce Standishes I guess, but as far as my father is concerned."

"Oh," John said. "No more males if your brother isn't married, making babies."

"Right."

"Why did your dad get the company over your uncles?"

"He was the oldest and the smartest," Claire said.

"Really? Or are you just saying that because he's your dad?"

"No, really. None of my uncles have an ounce of business sense. They all work for the company, but they couldn't handle more than the responsibilities they have."

"I see," John said.

"So, yeah, that's why I live the way I do. Well, not really. I really would like to get away from some of it. It's just not so easy. I've kind of become the face of my dad's company in a way. I mean, if I go to a club that Dad owns the property of it does better. If my friends and I go to a new restaurant the first night or two it stays busy for weeks longer than if I didn't ever go."

"I get it. And your dad will rely on you then to produce those male babies Christopher can't?"

"I imagine so," she said. "They still wouldn't be Standish's though, obviously."

"It's just a name. Isn't it the blood that counts anyway?"

"I think it's both."

"I guess, but he doesn't have a choice."

"No, he doesn't."

"You don't think Christopher would, you know, pay someone to…"

"No! Who would he find to do something like that without telling anyone else?"

"I suppose. People do wonder why he leads such a quiet existence and you don't."

"I know."

"I'll call the lawyer on Monday, but you know we don't really need him."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, what you need is some positive attention instead of constantly negative. It'll take a while for people to believe you're doing those things because you want to. You realize that, right?"

"But I've always done them!"

"You know that, I know that, but people will see what they want to see and believe what they want to believe."

"I know," she said with a sigh.

"So you tell me what you're doing and where and we'll work something out."

"But Mr. McMillan will need to draw up some sort of contract with you so you get paid."

"I don't need money, Claire."

"But you said…"

"Yeah, I know what I said. As long as the things you're doing don't interfere with my actually working I'll be fine."

"John, I feel like I'm taking advantage of you."

"Maybe I just want an excuse to take your picture, Princess."

"My clothes will remain on."

He chuckled softly at that. "You were going to take them off earlier."

"Not for you to take pictures of me!"

"I know." He kissed her shoulder again. "Get some more sleep, Claire."

"Are you?"

"I'm going to try, yeah. It's Sunday. It's a good day to sleep in."

"Sleeping in would require us getting more than five hours of sleep."

"I agree, so let's try for some more. I'll even make you breakfast later."

"Mm, that sounds great."

"And then maybe take you to your car."

"Oh God, I forgot about that. Thank you!"

"Don't mention it."

She turned her head again, glancing at him over her shoulder and leaning toward him a bit. He met her halfway and kissed her.

He closed his eyes, letting the warmth of her skin under his hand at her stomach lull him to sleep. The things she'd told him about her brother cast a new light on her situation. And the role he could play in that situation really. He shook his head slightly at that, dismissing those thoughts. He wasn't even sure she wanted him to play a role or that he'd be able to. He'd never tried being in a relationship with someone.

It'd been a while since he fell asleep thinking of his dad or the things the man he was named after had done to him growing up. He worked very hard to put things behind him, not to dwell. There was nothing he could do anyway, but every once in a while things happened or were said that brought things back. This morning was one of those times. He'd laugh if his old man could ultimately cause him to not be able to be with the one woman he ever wanted to be with.

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***Chapter Eight***
Word Count: 5,666

He'd gotten to the studio way earlier than he'd needed to this morning. He'd used the time to get some maintenance things done as well as look for some extra equipment he knew he had stashed away here. He had a couple of cameras that he didn't use anymore because while still suitable weren't as good as what he had now. They'd be great for what he needed to do with Claire, though. He had all of Mr. Fitzgerald's equipment here, too. Some of it he used, some were just boxed up. Years later he was still floored how much stuff the old man had left him. Without his help, willing him the stuff he had, he never would've been able to get started because he never would've been able to afford the stuff needed even to develop pictures.

He'd found the camera he was looking for. He'd actually been very fond of it until an upgraded model came out that he'd had to go with. He found the old camera bag he had for it, too. Really it was Mr. Fitzgerald's old camera bag and even though it was from the sixties it was still nicer than anything John had been able to find. He'd looked, too, because the bag showed its age. He put a few rolls of film in the bag so he'd have everything he'd need at his fingertips.

When he'd started this business he'd had nothing but the basic supplies Mr. Fitzgerald had left him. He'd used a room in his friend's basement as a dark room and had met people places not having an actual office or studio to bring them to. He hadn't taken personal type pictures back then. He'd done some pictures for area schools, summer Little League baseball teams, and things like that. He'd scrimped and saved everything he earned so he could buy the equipment he'd needed. He bartered a few times, too. He got business cards by giving the guy who ran the store some pictures of his kids. He got his first bit of space in exchange for engagement and wedding photographs of the guy's daughter in lieu of a deposit.

His friend lent him some of the money to get his first bit of space over three years ago now. The pictures had gone toward the deposit. He still needed to make the monthly payments while he got settled and established. He paid him back and eventually had been able to move into the space he had now. He didn't see needing to move again. There was plenty of room to add offices or whatever if he needed to. He'd seen the studios those places at malls and stuff had to work with so he knew he had more than what he needed here to take pictures. Those places didn't develop their own pictures either, sending the negatives away somewhere to do the developing. John did all that himself.

He also had enough space to store backdrops that were seasonal, like the ones for Easter and Christmas. That was the maintenance stuff he'd done today. For whatever reason he'd put off taking the Easter backdrops down. It wasn't a bad thing to have them up, but it was tedious sorting through a couple of dozen backdrops when he only needed, say, ten for year-round situations.

He heard Ronda come in. He would've started brewing the coffee for her when he got here, but he had no idea how strong she liked it. He'd tried once and she'd told him his coffee was awful. How scooping some grounds into a filter and pushing brew could result in awful coffee he wasn't sure, but he'd never tried it again. Sometimes, too, she was in the mood for different coffees so he had no idea where to even begin there.

"I was surprised to see your car here already this morning," she said from the little kitchen area they had where her coffee stuff was. There was a refrigerator, microwave, and a full-sized sink with some cupboard space. They kept some groceries here basic stuff like bread, peanut butter, jelly, instant soup, and things like that. There was a small table with chairs in the room, too. He never sat in here, but she did sometimes. He imagined it was just to get away from her desk for a while because it wasn't as if she couldn't eat out there.

"Why?" he asked. He was usually on time, early even. Occasionally he ran late, but so did everybody once in a while and he certainly couldn't control rush-hour traffic.

"It seems you had a busy weekend."

"I did?" He had? "Not really. Just that wedding up in Algonquin. You were right, that Port Edward is a nice restaurant. I'd never heard of it." Not surprising since fancier seafood restaurants were not somewhere his parents ever took him. He himself didn't venture out that way much, choosing instead to go downtown when he wanted something to do.

"I wasn't talking about Saturday."

"Okay," he said. "I still didn't have a busy weekend."

He heard her sigh and wondered what that was about. She walked to her desk and then to his office, tossing the morning paper onto his desk. He didn't get the daily paper, only the Sunday paper. He barely had time to read that one, sometimes not getting completely through it until Monday or Tuesday depending on how busy he was on the weekend.

"You said you weren't involved with her," she said.

"Her who?" he said, glancing at the newspaper.

"Oh," he said, seeing what apparently had her upset with him this morning.

It was a picture of him by her car yesterday evening. He'd made her breakfast which they'd eaten in his kitchen. Breakfast had turned into her hanging out for the day. They had some sandwiches on his screened-in porch for lunch. He had a little TV he could bring out there (he didn't leave it out there) and they'd watched the Cubs game. That was followed by dinner out before he took her to her car. He could honestly say he'd never spent an entire day with a woman. Well, Ronda, but she didn't count.

He'd gotten out of his car to walk her to hers to be sure it started and everything. He wasn't just going to drive away and leave her there. She'd kissed him and it had turned into a pretty nice good bye kiss. That was what the picture was of.

Could this be love? captioned the picture. The little blurb underneath the picture didn't say much, but it did indicate that this was the first time Claire had ever been caught engaging in a public display of affection. John had never thought much about that until reading that, but he supposed that was true. He'd seen plenty of pictures of her with guys over the past four years. He'd seen her holding a guy's hand, getting out of cars or coming out of clubs with them, but he'd never seen a picture of her hugging, kissing, or doing anything remotely loving or that might reflect being beyond a casual date with a guy.

Fuck.

He'd never entertained the notion in a million years that someone would've been camped out in the parking garage waiting for her to get back to her car twenty-four hours after parking her car there. He supposed they realized she'd have to come back there and in some ways he respected the tenacity of whoever camped out there to get that photograph.

There was a second one, a close-up of Claire revealing very clearly she wasn't wearing a woman's shirt.

"Just how slow of a news day was it yesterday?"

"Really? That's your explanation."

"I never said I wasn't involved with her."

"You said she'd seen you…"

"Yeah, I know what I said and I hadn't seen her for months until Saturday night."

"She was at the wedding?"

"What?" John asked, confused.

"How'd you see her Saturday night?"

"Oh, no, not at the wedding," he said. He told her the story, leaving out a few details like the fact her brother was gay or that she admitted to kissing another woman.

"So she spent the night and nothing happened?"

"Yes, even I have manners. She'd been attacked, trying to rape her or mug her didn't much matter to me."

"How is it they haven't found you yet?"

"Huh?"

"Come on, you were kissing her and judging by that picture it wasn't just a quick good bye kiss either. Not to mention I recognize what she's wearing in that second picture as being one of your shirts. I've seen it more than a few times."

"No," he said, glancing at the picture again. There'd been nothing quick about that kiss. He'd contemplated inviting her to come back to his place for the night again. He was very glad now that his hands had stayed put. It'd been very tempting to let them roam along the curves of her body he'd been itching to touch that morning. He'd known that wasn't safe to do, though, so he'd refrained both in the morning and at her car. "Uh, the parking garage was pretty full so I had to park on the top level and then walk with her to her car. They probably wouldn't have seen what I was driving not looking for her to show up with me."

"You're lucky because you know they'd be milling about here if they knew who you were."

"I guess."

Fuck.

That was the last thing he needed. His parents as far as he knew had no idea what he was up to and he preferred to keep it that way. True, he was still in Shermer, but it was a big enough suburb he could avoid them pretty easily. He didn't want them coming around, looking for handouts or causing problems. Then, the picture wasn't focusing on him so maybe Ronda only knew it was him because she was as familiar with him as she was these days.

Maybe.

"You going to tell me not to take her calls or let her in here now?"

"No! Nothing happened."

"And if it had happened?"

"No," he said.

"I don't know why you're bothering to fight it, either of you. Just get together and quit pussy-footing around."

"I can't!"

"Why not?"

He sighed softly. "She's going to be expected to have kids."

"So?"

"I'm pretty sure I can't give those to her."

"I'm sorry?"

"You heard me."

"You have the parts, John, and obviously know how to use them. Those women don't call here for weeks after you've clearly blown them off because you show them a bad time."

"I never said I couldn't use them. I know full well how to use them. I said I can't give her kids."

She grew quiet then, regarding him no doubt assuming it was something psychological. A fear he'd turn out like his old man or something. She saw his back once by accident. He'd been here, changing before going to a bar mitzvah. He'd been in the bathroom and she'd come back having forgotten her purse. She thought she'd left the light on so came to shut it off. She'd never said anything. It was the one topic she was oddly silent about. She'd evidently put two and two together, though, with his absolute steadfast rule that no one named Bender was to ever get a hold of him or know where he was.

The electronic doorbell went off, indicating someone had come in. She hadn't been there long enough to print off his schedule for the day, but he knew he didn't have anything this early. She left his office to see who was there, leaving the newspaper behind. No doubt intentionally. She was wearing the pants she'd worn out Saturday night, but she was wearing one of his shirts because he hadn't had anything else to offer her. He didn't have women's clothing at his house. Contrary to what Ronda probably thought he didn't have a supply of left belongings there. He wouldn't give something like that to Claire even if he did.

"There's a Mr. McMillan here to see you," she said, handing him the business card the lawyer no doubt had handed her.

John sighed.

"Send him in."

"You're sure?"

"Yup," he said. No doubt this conversation wasn't going to be a pleasant one. "When's my first appointment?"

"Not for an hour yet. It's a pregnancy announcement."

"Of course it is," he murmured. How fitting since babies were now on his mind.

"I could cancel it if you think this is going to be long."

"No, it shouldn't be. I'm sure he's come here to tell me to stay the fuck away from her. I had volunteered to help her clean up her image a bit. I doubt this will do that."

"Oh, well, I don't know," she said, glancing at the paper.

"Huh?"

"People might see that and think she's actually got a heart. You know, feelings. Until now, anyone looking at her with one of her boyfriends' knew she felt nothing for them."

"You could tell that from a photo?"

"I can because I know what someone looks like when they actually not just love the person they're with but like them, too."

"Not everyone has that."

"No, they don't. It's pretty rare, John. Still anyone with a brain and eyes could tell she didn't like any of those guys."

"And she likes me?"

She scoffed. "I told you that months ago."

"I guess you did. You think this picture says that?"

"Men," she said.

"Here," he said, handing her the newspaper. "Send him in, Ronda."

John glanced at his office from a successful lawyer's point of view. His desk was old, not antique old but bought at an estate sale old. So was pretty much everything else in here. It was decent stuff, but not top of the line or anything. He'd scrounged ads and things looking for something that people were obviously getting rid of because they'd upgraded not because it was old and decrepit. Nothing matched, but no one was coming here for his decorative ability. At least he hoped not. The one piece of furniture he doubted he'd ever get rid of was the credenza he'd found. It was great because he could store all kinds of stuff in it and hide the disorganized mess that was his paperwork if he needed to. Over time he planned on getting better things, but for now he was all right with what he had. No doubt Mr. McMillan had way more expensive stuff than John could even dream about owning.

Ronda shut the door once Mr. McMillan was in his office. He'd heard her ask him if he wanted coffee. He'd said no.

"Good morning, Mr. Bender."

"Yeah, hi," he said cautiously. The guy didn't look pissed off, but then he was probably very practiced at keeping his face from showing anything.

He set his briefcase on a chair next to the one he'd sit in if he chose to sit. To this point he hadn't. He opened the briefcase and slid some papers out of it, handing them to John.

"What's this?" John asked.

"Miss Standish called me last night, saying you'd agreed after all to what we mentioned."

"She did?"

"Yes. You're surprised? You didn't agree?"

"I, well, no, I did. I told her I didn't need a contract with you, though, or anything. I assumed you were here about the picture."

His lips tightened at that, but he said nothing.

"Have a lawyer look it over if you care to. It's pretty self-explanatory. It lists what your rate per hour will be and that, as you stated before, you would retain ownership of the negatives. As I've stated any photos will go through my office first. My secretary can approve them if I'm unavailable."

"Thanks," John said, glancing at the paper. It wasn't a real thick document. No doubt because they weren't entering into some earth-shattering conglomeration or anything.

"Miss Standish has told me she'll forward you her schedule each week herself. In the event you haven't received it by Friday afternoon for the following week, contact my office and my secretary will be sure you have it by Monday morning. The number on the page is the direct line to my offices so you'll get my secretary when you call that one."

"Okay," John said.

"I'll leave it to your discretion where you photograph her and how many pictures get out. I would suggest that less is more to start. We don't want people to suspect that we're actually trying to correct her image."

"Well, right," John said. That seemed obvious. People would be suspect if all of the sudden a hundred positive pictures appeared in the papers.

"As far as the picture this morning. I have looked at it, read it, and contemplated what to do with it. I've decided on doing nothing with it. I've never interfered with her personal life to this point and I don't believe I should start now. If the pictures were any more explicit."

"I'm sorry?"

"Don't do anything stupider than kiss her in parking lots, Mr. Bender."

"Oh, well, no. Of course not." He wouldn't do that. Not with her anyway, though he had to admit if she'd suggested climbing into the backseat of her car he may not have said no last night.

"You seem to have a good support staff here."

"Yes."

"That is good. You will need it if they find out who you are and if you're seen with her more than a couple of times they will make it their business to find out."

"None of her other dates have been bothered."

"None of her other dates have been seen kissing her either and she wasn't seen in his clothes."

"It's not what it looks like."

"She explained the situation to me. I, however, am not the public. They will see what they want to see. And that is evidence that maybe she's serious about someone."

"Wearing my shirt says that?"

"For her it does, yes."

"I see."

"Look over the papers, Mr. Bender. If there's something in there you're not agreeable to, please let me know, and I'll fix it. I'd rather deal with this when you're both agreeable than shelve it again for another six months until you two can decide to get along again."

"I'm sure it's fine. I told her I don't need money."

"She mentioned that as well. Of course we'll pay you for your time."

"What if I just want to spend time with her?"

"When that's what you're officially doing and not a hypothetical 'what if' we can revisit the contract at that time."

"I'll have it back to you this week. I just want to read through it."

"Very well. Her schedule for the week is attached. You can start as soon as you'd like. I've included an expense form as well, document your mileage, money spent on tolls or parking at the facilities, and so forth and you'll be reimbursed for all of it."

"Thanks," John said, glancing at the various things he'd mentioned that were with the contract.

"Thank you. Should you wish to sever the contract for whatever reason in the future I would appreciate notice from you. I don't care about advance notice, but some would be appreciated. Just so long as I am aware the photos will stop."

"Sure."

"Any questions?"

"Uh, no, I guess not."

"All right. I'm in a hurry, I apologize if I seem abrupt. Fortunately, you were on my way to a deposition I have to take this morning."

"Glad I could be convenient," John said.

Mr. McMillan regarded him, probably looking for any sign that John was being sarcastic. He wasn't for a change. He was glad the guy hadn't had to go way out of his way for this stuff when John had told Claire he didn't want to get paid to begin with.

"Have a good day."

"Yeah, you, too," John said.

John thumbed through the papers, finding her schedule. It blew his mind that she had a schedule that she submitted to the guy.

There were the obvious things on the list like working at food banks, a few churches that fed people who didn't have a way to eat otherwise, a shelter or two, and local hospitals. There was stuff on here he hadn't thought of. She went to elementary schools to what end he had no idea, but he was curious. Her schedule wasn't jam packed with appointments, to be expected he supposed because sooner or later she'd be working at her dad's company so wouldn't have the time any more to do all of this stuff.

"Everything all right?" Ronda asked.

"Yes," he said.

He separated the expense form and Claire's schedule from the actual contract, handing that part to her.

"Look this over for me, will you? Just tell me that they won't own my soul until I die or something and we're good."

"I'm sorry?"

He sighed.

"I'm going to take some pictures. You know, her ladling food out to someone in need at the food kitchen, her reading a story to the sick kids at the hospital, and stuff like that."

"Kissing you in public and trying to change her image."

"Jesus, quit trying to marry me off and just read the damned contract. I just want to make sure I'm not signing my life away. I told her I didn't want compensation as long as it didn't interfere with my work schedule."

"She wants you to get paid for your time anyway."

"I guess."

"Huh," she said, sounding and seeming somewhat impressed by that.

"And what we talked about earlier. That's between us, right? Somebody starts coming around here I don't need you telling them I don't want kids."

"You didn't say don't want them, John."

"I know," he said.

"You really don't know if you can?"

"I was told a very strong possibility exists I won't be able to. And please don't ask me how or why I'd know that."

"Have you told her that?"

"No! We haven't even had an actual date yet and I'm not sure we're ever going to."

"Have you asked her?"

"No, I haven't talked to her today. I was actually going to call her to tell her the lawyer came by."

"Oh, well, let me get out of your way."

"Why do you like her?"

"I don't like her. I don't know her. I do know you, though, and the way you live isn't normal or good for you long term."

"There's nothing abnormal about me."

"John, be reasonable. You've never had a girlfriend in the time I've known you. That's not normal. You're a good looking, nice, smart, business owning guy."

"Thanks. I kind of lucked into the business, though."

"That doesn't matter. What matters is you're sustaining it and succeeding. I just want you happy and whether you think so or not, you're not happy living the way you do. You have a house. You have a business. You even talked about getting a dog."

"Yeah."

"Those are all things that point to someone who wants stability, normalcy."

"I don't have to be married for that."

"If I hadn't seen the way you looked at her I'd agree with you, but now I know someone exists that makes you get soft in the eyes and probably the heart."

"I don't get soft in the eyes. What does that even mean?"

"It means you look at her and you aren't so hard. You stop thinking about work or whatever else is on your mind."

"Other women do that to me, too."

"They do not! I'm not talking about replacing thoughts of work with thoughts of how to get the next one into your bed."

"You make me sound like such a stellar guy. Why do you like me? Why do you even work for me?"

"Because you're not a bad guy. I like you, I like working for you, and you know that. It doesn't mean I have to like everything you do."

"I suppose not."

"And well, she wasn't so bad the day she was here."

"She wasn't."

"I was surprised when I realized who she was. I went over our conversation in my mind and she was a bit… snobby, but I would expect that from someone like her. She probably isn't accustomed to waiting or being told someone may not be immediately available to see her."

He chuckled softly at that. "No, she's not."

"So, she didn't do anything wrong or behave badly. She wasn't overly nice to me, but she wasn't rude or dismissive either."

"No, she wouldn't do that. She's not a bad person."

"Does this," she said, holding up the contract. "Mean she's going to come around here again?"

"I'm not sure."

"Well, a little warning might be nice."

"Why?"

"So I can actually look nice."

"You always look nice." He frowned. "I've never seen you not look nice."

"Nice to you and nice to Claire aren't the same thing."

"Ah. Yeah, well, just remember you work for me not for her."

"I don't think she could afford me."

"Probably not. She wouldn't know what to do with someone so efficient either."

She left his office then and he picked up the phone. He had no idea what she did with her days now that she wasn't in school. She didn't work yet he didn't think. Shopping? Beaches? He really had no clue.

'Hello,' she said, sounding maybe as if she'd been sleeping.

"Hmm, don't tell me you went out after I dropped you off and didn't get home until two o'clock in the morning or something."

'No, I actually came home afterward.'

"Yeah?"

'I did.'

"How did that feel?" he asked.

'It felt a little weird.'

"Bad weird?"

'Not too bad, no.'

"Have you seen the paper this morning?"

'Yes,' she said softly. Obviously she wasn't sleeping then. 'I'm sorry.'

"I'm not mad," he said quickly. "Not at all. I mean if I had my choice I guess I wouldn't be in the newspaper at all, but there are certainly worse things I could get in there for than kissing you."

'I know, I'm still sorry.'

"Don't apologize. Mr. McMillan was here this morning."

'Oh. Good.'

"You called him last night?"

'Yeah, I wanted to get it taken care of right away.'

"I told you…"

'I know what you told me, and I appreciate that. You're still going to be giving up opportunities and you'll have the expenses of driving around to those places and stuff you wouldn't otherwise. It's only fair.'

"I guess."

'I hope you're not mad at me.'

"No, I'm not. He gave me a copy of your schedule for the week."

'Exciting, isn't it?'

"It's about in line with what I'd expect. What do you do at the schools, though?"

'Oh, I help out in the library and in the cafeteria.'

"Really?"

'Yes. Trust me when I say school food has not improved since we were kids.'

He chuckled softly at that.

'I also work with some of the kindergarten classes, drawing and whatever they have going on.'

"You like that stuff?"

'It's fun. Actually, it's probably my favorite thing to do.'

"Why?"

'Well, I probably shouldn't say this but the food banks, food kitchens, shelters, and hospitals get depressing. Sometimes at the hospital I get to visit women in there who have just had a baby. That's fun. Other times though, it's delivering flowers to cancer patients or a parent whose baby isn't going home with them because it's in the NICU. Those aren't so fun.'

"I get it."

'So the schools are fun. They're kids and they're there to go to school and learn. I draw a picture with them or something. You know. I love finger painting now as much as I did when I was five.'

"Finger painting, huh?"

'Yes.'

"I have some ideas of things you could do with your hands."

'I'm not sure I could do those things around kids.'

"Probably not," he said softly.

'I was trying to do things with my hands yesterday. You stopped me.'

"Sue me for being a gentleman about something for once in my life."

'If your girlfriends had come over having that happen to them and tried that would you have stopped them?'

"They're not my girlfriends. And no I wouldn't have, but we've had sex before. I haven't with you."

'That makes a difference?'

"Yes!"

'I see,' she said.

He hoped she could. He also hoped she'd eventually stop bringing up Tina and Lily. God he felt like shit about it every time she mentioned them as if he'd been doing something wrong. Okay, maybe the last time he'd done something wrong. He'd called them because he'd been pissed off at her. They hadn't done anything besides kiss, though. There'd been nothing resembling a commitment or anything between them.

"Well, onto perhaps safer topics. I had some thoughts on how to ease into this without making it obvious you're trying to turn your image around."

'I shouldn't want to make it obvious?'

"No, because then people will think you're still doing the things you've been seen doing, you're just being more discreet about doing them."

'Oh,' she said. 'So what were your thoughts?'

"Well, I could tell you over the phone. Or we could have dinner later."

'Dinner?'

"Yes."

'Are you sure you want to do that?'

"Why wouldn't I?"

'You didn't expect to get your picture in the paper today.'

"Do I sound or seem disturbed by it?"

'Well, no,' she said.

"Now if you rethinking being seen with me that's a different story."

'No,' she said.

"I can pick you up."

'Sure.'

"About six?"

'Yeah.'

"Do you have plans tonight?"

'Well, nothing set in stone.'

"No grand openings?"

'It's a Monday,' she said.

"I suppose not too many clubs or restaurants open on a Monday. So I have no time restrictions."

'No.'

"Hmm. When was the last time you saw a movie?"

'Really?'

"No, not really." He chuckled. "What kind of question is that?"

'I don't know. I can't remember the last time I saw one.'

"Well, you obviously have the paper there. Pick one out and we'll go to one. Just call me back if you need me to pick you up earlier than six o'clock."

'Okay. You're sure?'

"Yes."

'Can I ask a question?'

"Sure."

'Dinner is talking about what your ideas are. You can't tell me your ideas at a movie.'

"Yeah, that kind of seems like a date, doesn't it?"

'You're okay with that?'

"Are you?"

'Yeah,' she said.

"So am I."

He wasn't really. The idea came to him, not wanting to have to drop her off after dinner. He liked the idea of her going home last night and staying in after spending the day with him. That meant he'd given her, provided her with something she didn't usually get. At least he thought it did. Then what did he know?

'I'll see you later then.'

"You will."

'Oh and John?'

"Yeah?"

'I had a nice time yesterday.'

"You told me that when I dropped you at your car. Seems to me you kissed me pretty nicely, too."

'I know I just thought I'd say it again. I can't remember the last day I did nothing.'

"Should I be insulted that spending the day with me is nothing?"

'That's not what I meant. I just meant, staying in one place, watching a Cubs game, relaxing.'

"Did you like it?"

'Yes.'

"Would you like to do it again?"

'With you?'

"That was the general idea, yes."

'Maybe next weekend?'

"I have a wedding again."

'Oh,' she said, sounding a bit disappointed.

"I won't be as late as I was this weekend and you could probably meet me at the reception if you wanted to after dinner is over. I stay until the end to get the actual leaving for the night photographs."

'You do?'

"Yeah. I always hate those pictures I've seen where it's obvious they were taken way before the reception started. I do take a couple so if they're not happy with the later ones they can use them, but unless someone signs up for the real bare bones package I stay until the end."

'I bet people like you for doing that.'

"Well, I'm still in business so I must be doing something right. Or I could give you a key and you can be there when I get home again."

'You just don't want me sitting on your porch.'

"You're right. What would the neighbors think, someone like you classing down the place."

She laughed softly.

'I think I'd feel more comfortable just meeting you back at your house.'

"Okay. Sometime this week I'll get you a spare key then."

'You could just call me when you're on your way and I could meet you there.'

"You don't trust yourself in my house, Princess, or what?"

'No, I do. I just could understand why you might not.'

"Yes, because I have anything that you don't already have or can't afford better in my house."

'Well, okay, right.'

"And if you're going to snoop through my drawers, well, you'd do it if I was sleeping or in the bathroom or out getting take-out anyway."

'I don't want to snoop.'

"You wouldn't find anything anyway."

'I find that hard to believe.'

"Really? What do you imagine I have in my house anyway?"

'I don't know exactly.'

He chuckled softly at that. "That's an evasive answer, but that's okay. I'll pick you up at six o'clock unless you call me back to tell me earlier."

'Okay.'

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***Chapter Nine***
Word Count: 6,294

July 1988

He was home well before one o'clock this Saturday. The reception had been held in the church's basement so there were much stricter guidelines on how long the reception could continue. Most reception halls didn't care so if the party was still going strong and whoever was paying the band or deejay was willing to shell out more money for another hour it wasn't a problem. She was not here when he got home, but he'd expected that. She was downtown somewhere since he wasn't going to be home until late anyway.

They'd had dinner on Monday and seen of all movies Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. Kind of ironic that the movie featured a hot red head that someone pretty much not deserving of her attentions lusted after. In Roger's case, Jessica had married him. John was pretty sure that wouldn't be happening between him and his redhead, but it was a nice thought while it lasted.

He was biding his time. He supposed if he was a good guy he'd bail out of this before it went anywhere too serious. He wasn't a good guy he guessed, because he didn't want to do that. He'd probably get the heart Ronda wanted him to invest in someone broken along the way, but she was worth it. He knew how it was going to go, though, so it was his own fault if it happened.

Once she actually started working for her dad the pressure would be put on her to clean-up her life. He was pretty sure that was the reason the lawyer was in favor of what John had suggested and offered to do. Sooner rather than later now clients would have to look at Claire and see a serious businesswoman, heir to the Standish's corporation and the fortune that went with it versus the party girl they likely considered her to be. With that clean-up of her life and image she'd have to look to not just her future but that of the business and her family, which essentially was the same thing.

Well, he'd have to tell her if and when they got to that point. He figured between now and whenever that happened he could enjoy the time he got with her. Lord knew he'd fucked it up with her four years ago when he'd had the chance. He couldn't believe then someone like her would be interested in him so he'd used his usual defense mechanism and treated everything like a joke. By the time he'd realized she really was into him it was too late for him to backpedal and let her see the real him.

They hadn't even had a date back then, he'd been too chicken to ask her out. Chicken because he had no car to drive her to a date in, the money he earned was not made legally, and he couldn't help but think he was just a curiosity to her. So, he'd never asked. That meant Monday night was their first one. He hadn't seen a cartoon in years and could honestly say he wouldn't have seen it if it wasn't her choice in movies. It was funny and he had to admit overall a good movie, but he wouldn't have chosen it himself. He'd been hoping for Bull Durham or the recent Rambo movie. He could see that maybe that wouldn't be the choice of most women, though.

He'd had her home on Monday at a very reasonable hour. Not that it mattered because her parents were (as usual) out of town. He wondered how her dad ever got any business done gone as often as he was gone, but obviously the business was still making money and he'd probably worked pretty hard to this point to be able to afford some time off. Maybe he was traveling a lot now knowing when Claire started working for him he wouldn't be able to as much. Hell if John knew. He just knew it seemed as though her dad put in a lot of three and four day work weeks. (As someone who very rarely had as little as a five day work week, John was a little envious truthfully.)

Taking pictures at the local elementary schools she volunteered at proved a bit more troublesome than he'd anticipated. There were forms to fill out explaining what the pictures would be used for and so on. So, that wasn't a possibility until he got approval to take pictures on district property. He'd taken school pictures a couple of years ago, but that was a different thing altogether. This was random pictures of someone's kids so he understood.

So, he'd shown up at the church she belonged to when they were having a drive for charitable donations. They'd be sold at an annual sale to raise money for various things throughout the church's year or something. John hadn't even been aware she went to church, but then he supposed most people did. It wasn't glamorous or earth shattering, but she was there all day on Tuesday sitting beside grandmas and fathers, mother and sons, a couple of nuns (John didn't realize they even still existed), and the priests. He'd thought it was a nice, casual place to start. If the big papers weren't interested in these type of pictures he could find somewhere else to print them and at least get the ball rolling that she wasn't out every day, all day partying her life and father's fortune away.

It was kind of fascinating to watch her interact with other people really. Her church served many people in Shermer, old and young, rich and poor. He'd driven past – or walked back when he was in school - it more times than he could count over the course of his lifetime. The majority were her type of people, but the church was an old one and therefore had a diverse congregation. There were children there offering up unused toys to widows offering up their deceased husband's clothes and everything in between. Some people also brought things like bedding and towels, having perhaps nothing else to contribute to the parish's cause but wanting to add something. Food items were also given, though those would be distributed now rather than wait for whenever the fundraiser was to be held.

John hadn't gone to church. He remembered vaguely being dragged somewhere as a very young boy, but perhaps his mother realized the demons inside her and her husband were too much for even God to cure them of because they'd stopped before John had ever started school. He had sketchy recollections of it, though, sitting in the pews, looking at the other children around him in their Sunday best. John and his mom had only had Sunday good, which for Shermer wasn't close to best. He still wasn't sure how his parents had ended up here because they sure didn't belong. Somehow though they managed to sustain their existence and continue living here. He remembered the stained glass windows most. He couldn't name the church his mother had taken him to or any of the people he'd seen there, but he'd remember the windows to this day if he ever saw them again.

At the end of the day she took a load of clothing and bedding with her in her car to drop off at a local cleaners. Of course everything would be cleaned before they held the sale whenever that would be. He'd driven separately since he'd had to come from work so he met her at her house afterward where they had dinner. Dinner consisted of her ordering in, but it was still something they did just the two of them so it was okay. After they'd eaten they'd watched TV for a few hours. John couldn't say what they watched because they hadn't watched more than a few minutes at any given time. She certainly loved to kiss, which made him wonder why she hadn't done it much over the past four years.

After the picture on Monday morning of the two of them he wasn't entirely sure he was ready to venture out with her publicly. He hadn't thought much about it when he'd invited her to dinner and a movie Monday night, but after he'd dropped her off Monday he'd thought some on it. What if they'd taken her car to go out? Or he'd met her somewhere and more pictures had been taken?

He doubted anyone in their right mind would be able to figure out he was the guy she was kissing in the picture. However, he had a business to run and like it or not she was not well-liked by some people because of her reputation. He wouldn't not go out with her because of it, but he certainly had to think about himself at the same time. At least until he knew what was happening between them. If he was just a casual curiosity to her for this week and the next, fine but he wasn't going to have his picture out there because of her carelessness.

Tonight was a perfect example of how different their lives were. She could've been here at his house all night, hanging out and watching TV or God forbid, reading a book. She couldn't do that, though. She had to go out. Her friend called and she'd in turn called him asking him how late he thought he'd be at the wedding. He sort of looked forward to coming home to her instead of an empty house, but he couldn't say that so he'd answered her question and let her make her plans. In the back of his mind was the thought that she could very easily blow him off and it'd be his own stupid fault.

The perils of dealing with a fairly prominent social butterfly. Not that he stayed home every weekend himself, but summers were difficult. There were weddings every damned weekend it seemed. They paid good money, but they required pretty much an all-day commitment so like today he'd left his house before nine o'clock and got home after midnight. True, he had a bit of time on his hands during the actual ceremony because most churches wouldn't allow live photographs being taken during them. Occasionally a priest or pastor would allow him to snap a photo or two of the vow exchange as they were doing it, but that was very rare. He couldn't leave the premises or anything, though.

So that meant during the summer his weekends were generally not his own. He was a slave to his job. His own fault. He could hire somebody, another photographer. He'd long ago suspected (and Ronda agreed with him) that he wouldn't use the other photographer to free up his own schedule but instead to take on more business during the busier spring and summer season.

It was, honestly, the main reason he'd never considered establishing a more stable relationship than the ones he formed. He had no time and women, in his experience and through the observation of his friends' experience – well, they demanded time and attention. He didn't have an abundance of either of those things.

He loosened his tie as he grabbed a beer from his fridge. He was pretty sure she'd said she was going to use the limo service tonight so he wasn't expecting her to show up in her car. He also wasn't sure what state she'd be in when she got here if she didn't have to worry about driving. Really, he should just get ready for bed and if she showed up great. However, going to bed when he'd just gotten in after telling her he'd be out until about one o'clock seemed as if he was implying he wanted her to come to bed with him. While certainly not a bad thought that wasn't his goal tonight.

He brought the beer out to the porch. God he loved this room probably more than he loved any part of the house otherwise. This porch was worth every damned penny he'd spent on the place. He hadn't gotten to enjoy it too much last fall when he first moved in here. He'd been so busy unpacking and with work that he'd maybe sat out here a couple handfuls of nights. This summer, though, it was barely even into July and he couldn't remember a night he hadn't sat out here for at least a few minutes. He didn't care how hot or humid it was out. He liked sitting out here, looking over his yard from his porch. His. He'd earned these things. It was just nice, peaceful, and quiet; a nice way to unwind after his day. If he shut the front door and had his windows closed he couldn't even hear his telephone ring. Some nights before going to bed he liked that.

He'd thought about getting a dog when he bought the house, but it was days and nights like this he was glad he hadn't done it. Being gone for over twelve hours wasn't fair to an animal. He could probably talk Ronda into taking any dog he might get for the day, but that still wasn't really fair. It wouldn't be so bad to have one sit out here and wait with him on a night like tonight, though. He figured he'd give her until about one thirty and then go on inside. For all he knew she forgot she even was going to come here tonight. He had given her a key when he saw her Tuesday. That was days ago, though. Who knew what her mindset was. Her phone call yesterday suggested she still planned on coming, but he was competing with a nightlife that seemed to call to her.

She showed up about when he was ready to go inside. He watched as she got out of the limo.

"Night, Claire," someone called from inside the car.

"Night guys," she said. "Oh hey, I need my purse."

He chuckled softly as she waited evidently for someone to hand it to her before shutting the door on the limo and making her way up his sidewalk. He could tell even from here in the dark that she looked nice. She always did, of course. Some nights she looked better than others. Perhaps it was seeing her up close and personal, in the flesh, versus grainy newspaper photographs.

"Sorry I'm kind of late," she said when she got to the steps leading to his porch.

"It's all right. There was no set time."

"Debbie and Lori didn't want to leave even though I told them I had to."

"You did?"

"Yes, only like over an hour ago."

"You hired the limo, didn't you?"

"Yes."

"Well, maybe you should just leave them next time."

"How would they get home?"

"I don't know, but I bet they wouldn't do it again."

She slid her shoes off almost as soon as she stepped into the porch.

"Long night?" he asked.

"I'd like to say yes, but I know you've been awake since like eight o'clock if not earlier."

"I have been."

She took a seat next to him. It was a small couch designed for porches like this. The cushions were washable, weather resistant (when it rained the screens didn't stop the rain from coming in), and stain resistant (screens also didn't stop things like pollen from coming in). It was about as big a piece of furniture as he could get out here without having it take over the entire porch. He didn't usually have company so it hadn't mattered to this point. He'd just liked having somewhere to sit out here. There was a rocking chair that went with the couch, but he rarely sat in that. He wasn't much of a rocker as it turned out, but they'd been a match set it seemed stupid to split them up.

He reached for her leg, gesturing for her to shift on the couch. She hesitated, but slid so her back was against the armrest and he was able to set her foot on his lap. He worked his thumb along the bottom of her foot and she made the most, God help him, arousing sound in the world as he touched her.

"How was your night?" he asked.

"Long, but fun."

"Yeah? Your blouse is intact so that's an improvement over last weekend I guess."

"It is."

"Good," he said.

"How was your day?"

"Long, but good. Not nearly as good as yours was but the bride and groom are enjoying their honeymoon suite I imagine as we speak."

"Where are they going?"

"Hmm," he said, sliding a thumb along her ankle. "Niagara Falls I think."

"Really? How common."

He chuckled at that. "Not everyone has had the opportunity to go to Niagara Falls, sweets."

"I know, that's not what I meant. It's just how unimaginative. Everyone goes there for their honeymoon."

"Really? Everyone?"

"Well, sure."

"Where would you want to go?"

She shrugged. "Somewhere not common? I don't know. Or less common anyway. Ireland. France. Italy. Greece. Greece would be a great place to go on a honeymoon."

"I'll take your word for it."

"Did you take good pictures?"

"I always take good pictures. That's what they pay me for. Of course sometimes the subjects aren't that great, if you know what I mean, but I still take good pictures."

"You're so mean."

"Says the person who just criticized their honeymoon spot! Maybe it's all they could afford after the wedding."

"Maybe. I still would've chosen somewhere else. Let's see. Niagara Falls is like five hundred miles from here. They could've gone to New Orleans or Memphis or somewhere out west."

"They could've. Maybe they didn't want to. I don't know. I didn't choose it for them."

"I know. It just seems like poor planning to me."

"Maybe they really wanted to go there. Maybe they wanted to live the cliché."

"Maybe," she said. She grew quiet as he stopped rubbing one foot and took the other one into his hand.

"That feels so good."

"That's the point. I don't know how you women wear the shoes you do."

"You like them."

"Well, sure, there's nothing better than a nice leg being accentuated by a nice bit of heel, too."

"I bet you say that to all the girls while you're rubbing their feet."

He chuckled softly. "You caught me. You do have nice legs, though."

"Thank you."

"Sure. It's an easy compliment to give when it's the truth."

She settled back more against the arm of the couch, closing her eyes he noticed. He wondered how much she'd had to drink.

"Were you waiting up for me?" she murmured. "You didn't even change out of your suit."

"I was sort of."

"Why?"

"I don't know it seemed sort of rude to invite you over here and then be in bed when you got here."

"I like your bed."

"You do, huh?"

"Uh huh."

"Better than yours?"

"I don't know about that," she said with a laugh.

"I bet."

"You're in it, though."

"I could be in yours, too, if you invited me."

"My parents would never allow that."

"But you can sleep anywhere else you want?"

"They can't stop me."

"I guess not."

"I don't want to think about my parents tonight."

"Bad day?"

"No, I'm just not in the mood."

"All right," he said. "Does the limo mean you were probably not followed here?"

"That's a pretty safe assumption."

"Why don't you take them all the time?"

"It depends on what we're doing. If we're going barhopping I like to, but if we're just going to one place it seems sort of pointless. It depends, too, on how much I plan on drinking."

"I suppose. You were barhopping tonight?"

"No, but I had a reason not to drive tonight."

"What reason was that?"

"Having the limo bring me here means you have to take me home tomorrow."

"I see. Trickery."

"Yes," she said, flexing her foot as he continued rubbing it. "You worried about photographers hiding in your bushes?"

"While I'm rubbing your feet? Not particularly. However," he said as he leaned toward her and tugged on her leg to bring her toward him. She came willingly and he slid his arms around her to settle her on his lap. "When I do that I'd rather not be seen."

"Hmm," she said. "I guess I can understand that."

"Yeah?"

"Does that mean you're going to kiss me again?"

"I could."

"I promise no one else will know about it."

"In that case, since you promised," he said, leaning in to kiss her. God, he loved the taste of her. The liquor was potent enough he knew she'd had a good time tonight. His beer he'd finished when she pulled up had been his first of the night.

He slid his hands along her hips, discovering as he moved them there that she wasn't wearing a dress at all but a kind of layered top over a skirt that gave the illusion of being a dress. The feel of her skin beneath his fingertips was evidence it wasn't all one piece.

She slid her hands around his neck, drawing him deeper into the kiss. She pressed herself into him, too, in the process. He slid a hand to the small of her back, fingertips sliding along her spine there and then lower. His other hand worked its way under her top and up. She was moving against him in his lap, telling him very plainly she enjoyed what they were doing at the moment. He did, too, and he was pretty sure she knew that.

She gasped into the kiss when his fingertips finally touched her. He was hesitant at first, starting with the swell of her breast and working up before he could cup her with his palm completely. In part, he was waiting for her to tell him to stop or something. Nothing resembling no or stop left her mouth. Some very arousing sounds did, though.

He broke the kiss and found her ear.

"No bra, Princess? You are very naughty."

She giggled softly. "I took it off in the limo. It's in my purse. I'm not quite that brave."

"Your friends didn't wonder why you were taking it off?"

"They were too drunk to notice what I was doing or where the driver was taking me."

"I see. I think I like the idea of you out there all night without it better."

"Why?"

He shrugged. "Because it's kind of naughty."

"Have you not read the papers?"

"Not that kind of naughty, sweetness. The good kind of naughty, a thing about you no one but I would find out."

"Oh," she said. The utterance was timed with his running a thumb along her peak so he wasn't sure if it was in response to that or what he'd said. "I've never done that."

"No?"

"Nuh uh," she murmured as he found her neck and kissed her there.

"I think I'd rather you not do it when I have a wedding until one o'clock in the morning."

"Why?"

"Because I'd like discovering how naughty you were for a couple of hours at least."

She gasped softly, reaching for the front of his pants. She worked the zipper down pretty quickly, sliding her hand inside of them. He groaned when he felt her hand slide along his length through his boxers.

"We should go inside, Princess."

"It's nice out here."

"Yeah, but I sort of promised your lawyer that we wouldn't do anything but kiss in public."

"We're at your house! There's no one here."

"Are you willing to take that risk?"

She whimpered softly, but she still wasn't letting up on touching him. He couldn't say much because he hadn't stopped touching her either. His hand fit nicely around her breast. He'd known since that day at school they would fit perfectly around her. He'd only gotten that one day, though.

He slid his mouth to her shoulder, kissing and sucking on the skin there. She moaned softly as he did it, scooting herself more on his lap.

"There are better things you could be kissing, John."

He couldn't agree more. There were places on her he wanted to kiss and lick for hours. Her shoulder wasn't his first choice, but she did seem to like it. He pushed her top up further along her torso, skimming her abdomen with his free hand as he slid it up to join the other one in touching her. She cried out as it slid over her other breast so he was touching both of them now.

"Sorry," she whispered and he chuckled softly at that.

"Nothing to be sorry for," he whispered. He had to taste her. "So help me God if this is in the paper tomorrow."

"It'll be worth it," she said as he pushed the top up with his forearms out of his way. He dropped a hand to her ass, cupping her there as he brought his mouth to a breast. He found her nipple, sucking on it almost greedily. He loved the feel of it hardening in his mouth as he sucked and licked it. He bit her gently as she slid her hand into his boxers to touch him directly.

She whimpered softly when he drew away.

"Walk or I carry you, but we're going inside now. I don't know my neighbors' habits well enough yet to know who's awake and who might be outside walking their dog. Grab onto my neck if you don't want to walk on your own." She did and he stood carefully. Her legs went around him once he was upright. Thankfully she had only unzipped his pants so he could walk with her that way just fine. He kicked the front door closed once they were inside, pressing her up against it as he found her mouth again. She slid a hand from around his neck between their bodies and into his pants again, closing it around his hard-on.

He broke the kiss, reaching for her top with a hand to slide it up and over her head, dropping it beside them without thought as he took one of her peaks into his mouth again. He released her slowly, drawing away only to allow them to move to his bedroom.

She slid his tie out from under his collar, draping it over a chair he had in there before unbuttoning his shirt front and the cuffs.

"An undershirt, really?"

He shrugged. "It's sort of expected with a suit, isn't it?"

She chuckled softly as she slid the button-up shirt off and then worked on ridding him of the undershirt, too. God, he loved her hands on him, doing the same thing to the front of him she'd done to his back last weekend. She sat on the edge of his bed and he thought she looked pretty damned good there. She touched, running her fingers along the skin there. He could tell she was curious. She'd touched him a bit that day at school years ago but not once his shirt had come off so she'd never actually looked before.

She leaned in, kissing his abdomen and he groaned softly. He slid his hands to her head, running his fingers through her hair as she lifted her mouth from his skin only long enough to settle her lips against another spot. Over and over she did that while she worked the fastening of his pants. They were still unzipped so she didn't have to do much. She slid his pants down and he stepped out of them, glad now he'd at least bothered to take his shoes off when he got home.

She slid his boxers down a bit, sliding her tongue along the head of his shaft. He cried out, he couldn't help it. He'd pictured her doing this to him too many times over the years, particularly the first few months after that day of detention, for him not to react to one of his fantasies coming true. She licked and sucked him, not taking him too far into her mouth. He'd been told more than a few times that he was a bit thicker than average. It turned him on like nothing he ever thought could to see her mouth working its way around him.

The thought crossed his mind to find out just how much she'd had to drink, but she hadn't walked from the limo to his porch as though she was inebriated or anything. Her hands at his hips worked his boxers down further and he stopped her from sliding them off altogether.

"What?" she whispered. She grazed his inner thigh with her tongue before nipping the skin there.

He didn't answer her. Well, not with words anyway. He drew her panties down and off and then knelt in front of her, sliding his arms under her knees to draw her to the edge of the bed before sliding his tongue over her nub. She cried out and he couldn't help but chuckle a bit at that, doing it again. She gave the same reaction so he did it again, dipping his tongue lower afterward sliding it over her folds. He groaned softly at the taste of her, how wet she already was for him. He slid a fingertip over her nub, grazing it lightly as he licked and sucked at her lips and opening there.

She pressed into him, prompting his tongue to slide inside of her deeper. He certainly didn't mind her showing him what she wanted or needed just then. He more than didn't mind it, he liked it a lot. He wanted to do for her exactly what she wanted and needed. He loved her reaction when she came, quivering around his tongue. He kept going, bringing her off again before drawing away. He reached into his nightstand to grab a rubber packet.

"You know, this isn't why I invited you here tonight," he said, regarding the packet. He hadn't opened it yet. She reached for him then, touching him again. He was already hard so she certainly didn't need to help him along in that department. She slid her hand to the waist of his boxers again.

"Really? You invited me to your house at one o'clock in the morning for another reason?"

He grabbed her wrist then, stilling her hand from pulling them down any further.

"Is that what you think? That by agreeing to come here that means I get sex out of the deal?"

"Well, no, but…"

"But nothing. I really just asked you here to spend the night again," he said.

"Really? That's all?"

"Yes, really."

"I thought you…"

"Oh, I do want to. That doesn't mean I have to and it certainly doesn't mean you have to. You're invited to stay here sex or not."

"I want to," she whispered. He let go of her hand then, letting her push his boxers down and out of the way. She slid her skirt off once his boxers were off. He was pretty sure there wasn't much more consent he could get out of her.

He tore the packet open, tossing the wrapper onto the floor before sliding it over his length. She shifted on the bed while he did that before he joined her. He kissed her then, groaning into the kiss at the eagerness of hers. He was never sure of the reaction to a kiss after he'd been going down on a woman. Some wouldn't let his mouth near theirs. Some were indifferent. Very few were like Claire and didn't seem to care or even maybe seemed to like it.

He slid inside of her, letting her adjust to the size of him. He thrust the head of him in and out of her slickness until she was used to him. He slid further into her, a little harder and faster, reacting to the sounds she was making while he did that. Confident she was ready for him to be all the way inside of her, he finally slid himself into her deep and hard, crying out the same time she did when he felt himself push through the barrier there.

He had absolutely not been expecting that. He stopped then. It was crazily difficult to just stop. He wanted to be inside of her as deep as he could be. He would do that, just not quite yet. He pulled back a bit.

"What are you doing?" she whispered.

"I, uh, don't want to hurt you."

"You're not!"

"Claire."

"I mean, for a second maybe, but it's fine now."

"You're sure?"

"Yes," she whispered.

"Fuck," he whispered, pressing back into her a little further. His breath caught a bit, trying not to thrust too fast so she could adjust to him.

"John," she hissed as he drew back again. "Please."

"God, Princess, you feel too good."

"Isn't it supposed to?"

He chuckled at that, kissing her deeply as he pressed into her a little deeper again.

"It is supposed to," he said. "But for both of us. Just relax."

"I am."

"No, I mean, there," he murmured, finding her neck. "You're kind of clenching, that doesn't help."

"Oh," she cried out. Whether it was because she understood what he meant or because he slid a little deeper inside of her than he meant to just then. Slowly, he worked himself in and out of her, setting a pace that she didn't seem to mind. A couple of times he slid too deep and she gave a soft hiss. She didn't tell him to stop or not to do it, but he tried to be mindful of how deeply she seemed to be able to tolerate him for now.

He took one of her peaks into his mouth, a hand sliding between their bodies to touch her there. There was no way he was going to last long. She felt too good, too incredibly tight around him, and he had to be too careful and mindful. She pressed into his hand and he followed her lead on how she seemed to want him to touch her.

He finished right after she did. He couldn't stop himself. Well, maybe he could've, but he didn't want to. Not this time. The next time or the time after he could be a little less conscientious about it. He lay on top of her, sucking at the underside of her breast. He was leaving her a hickey, which he wasn't sure she'd be bothered by or not. He couldn't stop, though. Feeling her around him, clinging to him still inside of her. God, he wanted to stay right there, but he had to get up and go to the bathroom.

"Why didn't you tell me?" he asked, returning to the bed with a washcloth for her.

"I don't know. I didn't want to?"

"Fair enough. I just may have been a little nicer about it."

"You were fine."

"Well, thank you, but I still feel bad."

"Don't, please. I'm fine. What are you doing?" she asked when he set the washcloth between her legs.

He chuckled softly. "Nothing bizarre, Princess, just you know cleaning you up a bit. It's been a while since I've been in this situation, but I think I remember being told warm water felt kind of good afterward."

"Thank you."

"Yeah sure," he said, tossing the washcloth toward his closet where his laundry was before sliding back into bed with her. He slid a hand over her abdomen, circling a nipple and the area where he'd left the hickey with a fingertip. "I have a million questions running through my mind right now. Do you realize that?"

"I'm sure you do," she whispered.

"I guess the most important question is are you okay?"

"I'm fine."

"You're sure. I didn't hurt you or anything?"

"No. What are your other questions?"

"Hmm. Where have you been all of my life?"

"You know exactly where I've been."

"True enough."

"Any others?"

"When can we again?"

She laughed softly, turning to face him. She ran a hand along his chest, watching him as she did. He tried not to react. It was just an instinct for whatever reason.

"Ask me in the morning?"

"Well, you know where to find me if you have an answer before I ask."

"I do," she whispered.

He leaned in to kiss her, sliding his tongue along her lower lip before kissing her jaw.

"This is the best sleepover ever," he whispered.

"I'm glad you think so."

"You going to be okay sleeping naked or do you want another one of my shirts?"

"If you keep giving me your shirts you won't have any left."

"That's my plan. I'll give them all to you and then I'll have to go shirtless for the rest of my life."

"That wouldn't be a bad thing, John."

"No?" he asked, surprised by her answer.

"Not at all. I'd like to see that."

"Well, you can see it any time you want."

"Any time?"

"Well, you know, my customers may object but any other time."

"I'll remember that."

"Good."

"Good night, John."

"Good night, Claire," he said.

"I like when you say my name."

"Why?"

She shrugged. "It almost sounds like a nickname coming from you instead of the other way around."

He chuckled softly. "I'll work on it."

"No, don't. I like it."

"Yeah? You like being my princess?"

"I do."

"Good," he said.

Return to Top

***Chapter Ten***
Word Count: 2,490

She woke before he did, which wasn't surprising since she knew he had to have gotten up real early yesterday morning. She had nothing to wake up for so had slept until after noon sometime. She slid her hand along his chest, wondering what it was about him that led to her being here with him like this. She had no idea why she'd wanted to have sex with him last night. She was in absolutely no hurry to lose her virginity or anything. She wasn't holding out for marriage either, though, she'd used that as an easy explanation to anyone who thought she'd be easy or go to bed with them at the drop of a hat. She'd wondered the same thing about him four years ago, too. Why did he of all the guys at her school get her attention? He hadn't just gotten it slightly either. If it was possible to fall in love with someone in less than a day she'd done it. She'd never loved anyone since either.

He murmured something as she ran a fingertip along his nipple before shifting so she was kneeling over him. She slid her mouth along his chest, kissing him as she worked her way lower. It wasn't nearly as warm as it had been last weekend when she'd been here so they'd had more than just the top sheet covering them tonight.

She found him then, sliding her tongue along his shaft before focusing on his head. He wasn't hard yet. She guessed that would probably change pretty quickly. She wasn't sure how guys worked when they were sleeping. She touched him with her hand, sliding her fingertips along the skin there, circling his head just underneath where she was licking him. It didn't take him very long to react. She'd expected that, though, so adjusted her mouth around him a bit as he started to harden and grow.

She groaned softly as she started to react, too, to the thought of how he felt inside of her when he'd been hard the last time. It had hurt more than she'd let on, but it wasn't terrible or anything. He'd obviously been concerned and tried not to hurt her so she knew it wasn't anything he was doing deliberately.

Fingers ran through her hair as she worked at taking more of him into her mouth.

"Turn around, Princess."

She stopped, letting him fall out of her mouth for a second.

"I didn't say stop," he said with a soft chuckle. "That was a very nice way to wake up. Sorry if I distracted you from your task."

"You want me to…"

"Uh, yeah, you know, so I can return the favor."

"Oh," she said, getting even more excited at that thought. She'd liked very much what he'd done with his mouth and tongue so she had no doubt she would again.

"You don't have to…"

She didn't let him finish the sentence, turning once he'd shifted down a bit on the bed. It took her a couple of minutes to remember she was supposed to be sucking on him, too, because what he was doing with his mouth felt too good. She wasn't sure she'd be able to concentrate on doing things to him this way.

They both groaned as he slid a fingertip inside of her. She pressed against it, wanting more of it inside of her. She worked her mouth over him again, licking his shaft to get it a little wetter so she could slide along him easier.

She should have been embarrassed at how easily she came and the fact that she didn't want him to stop what he was doing once she had. He didn't stop, thankfully, except for a couple of minutes when he was licking and sucking on her inner thigh. Giving her another hickey, she supposed. As long as they didn't show she didn't care where he left them. She kind of liked knowing it would be there, some place only his mouth had been. He still had his finger inside of her, sliding it in and out of her slowly. Too slowly. She must have said something along those lines because she heard him chuckle.

"Shut up," she whispered.

"Sorry," he said once he'd stopped paying attention to her inner thigh.

"I was going to tell you that you could replace your finger with something else…"

"Was?"

"Now I'm not so sure."

"I can arrange it so you have neither in you."

She closed her eyes, clenching around his finger instinctively at the thought of him stopping. He chuckled again.

"You're welcome to reach into my nightstand and hand me some protection."

She had absolutely no desire to do that. She preferred not knowing that he had dozens in there, so she slid her mouth back over him instead. Of course he would, he was a single guy who had a home and a bed to bring women to. She just didn't want to know, didn't want to think about it or see the actual evidence.

"Is that a no?" he asked, sounding confused.

"You can do it," she whispered. She leaned back a bit, pressing his finger into her a bit more as she kissed his stomach. She slid off of him then, moving beside him.

"If you don't want to."

"No, I do," she said.

"You're sure?"

"Yes, I just," she shook her head. "You can get it."

"All right," he said, leaning up to do just that. She watched as he tore the packet open, dropping it onto the floor where the other one likely still was. She didn't think he'd stopped to pick it up. He slid it over his length before moving on top of her.

He found her mouth, kissing her. She opened her mouth, finding his tongue with hers as he slid inside of her. He was slow, careful, almost too careful. She appreciated it, but God she wanted him inside of her. She slid her hands over his arms to his shoulders, settling against his back as he slid deeper and deeper into her.

She arched into him, moving her hips to take more of him, and he seemed to get the hint that she wanted more. She cried out a bit when he gave it to her.

"Okay?"

"Yes," she hissed, laughing softly at the ridiculousness of his question. Of course she was okay. He was there on top of her, inside of her, and she couldn't help but think he was supposed to be. Maybe he was supposed to have been four years ago and that was why no one she ever went out with interested or excited her. She wasn't sure. She just knew there was no one else she ever wanted to do this with.

She came too fast, hard, crying out as he hit a spot in her that made her feel fantastic.

"That was good?"

"Yes," she cried out so he did it again, replicating the thrust and the spot he'd found. She cried out again. And again as he moved against her and that spot over and over.

His murmured 'fuck' as he seemed to fight for control turned her on like crazy. She wanted him to lose control, not to think so hard, to be in her the way he wanted to be. She needed to give him that. She found his shoulder, kissing and sucking on it for a while before he lowered his mouth to a breast. His thrusts inside of her grew deeper, faster, and less controlled as he licked and sucked her there. Her hands slid to his head, encouraging him to keep sucking. God, his mouth felt wonderful there. She felt it down to the spot between her legs when he sucked on her like this.

He stilled on top of her except for his mouth still sucking and licking her. He drew away then and she knew he had to get out of bed to go to the bathroom. She hated it, though, him having to leave her even for that little while.

He got back into bed, sliding back on top of her where he kissed her.

"Good morning."

"Good morning."

"I guess that answers my question."

"I didn't want to make you wait."

"You are worth the wait, Princess."

"I bet other girls don't make you wait four years."

"They're not you and aren't worth the wait."

"Hmm," she said, sliding a fingertip along his lower lip. She was stupid to mention other girls. She shouldn't do that and should know better. At least he gave a good answer. "I like the goatee."

"You do? Really? I was wondering. You hadn't said anything about it before now," he said, sliding next to her on the bed.

"What would you have done if I'd said I didn't?"

He hadn't had the goatee when she saw him in the winter. She'd never been big on moustaches or beards, but she had to admit it looked very nice on him. He seemed to take care of it, keeping it trimmed and stuff so it wasn't a big shaggy mess. Her friend had a boyfriend who had a full beard, but he didn't take nearly as good of care of it and it looked awful in Claire's opinion. Not her boyfriend, though, so wasn't her place to judge. Then, John wasn't her boyfriend either. She wasn't sure what that said about her that she had sex for the first time with someone who, in reality, she meant next to nothing to.

"Oh, I don't know. I'd probably shave it. I just get lazy sometimes."

"Too lazy to shave all of it but still shave part of it?"

He chuckled.

"Yeah, I guess."

"Well, I like it."

"Enough that it's cool if I kept it for a while?"

"Sure," she said, rubbing her cheek against him there.

"Do you have somewhere to be?"

"Uh, no, why?"

He shrugged, drawing her against him.

"Did you want me to go?"

"What?" he asked. "Why would you think that?"

"I don't know. I'm not sure how this is supposed to work."

"This?"

"Yes."

"Hmm, well, I was going to go back to sleep and maybe see if when I wake up again you'd be interested in a shower and then something."

"Really?" She hadn't expected that at all. She figured he'd be nice about it, make her breakfast again as he had last weekend and then take her home. Why she had sex with him thinking he'd behave like that she wasn't sure.

He drew back a bit, glancing at her. "This surprises you? Truly?"

"Well, yes."

"Why?"

"I don't know. We had sex."

"Yes, we did."

"You don't…"

"Nuh uh, don't say it. I want you here. I don't want you to move from my bed for a very long time."

"Is that the only reason you want me to stay?"

"Claire, really. No. I just told you I was thinking we could do something. We could go downtown, go to a forest preserve, or go for a drive. I think it's going to be a nice day. I could put my top down and drive until we decide to stop somewhere for lunch or just to stop."

"That sounds nice."

"Does it?"

"Yes."

"Well, then we can do that then. You really thought I'd do that to you?"

"I don't know how this is supposed to work."

"Well, I'm not really sure either. Okay? I know I don't want you to leave, though. You could stay tonight if you wanted."

"You have to work tomorrow."

"Yeah. There's nothing saying I can't take you to your house today so you can get your car and come back."

"You could stay at my house tonight."

"Your parents?"

"They'll be home tomorrow, but after you'd leave."

"If you want me to I'd love to see your bed, Princess."

"It's just a bed."

He chuckled softly. "The dreams I had about your bed."

"Good dreams?"

"Define good."

She laughed softly.

"You liked them?"

"I loved them."

"Yeah? Have any lately?"

"I should probably not answer that on the grounds it may incriminate me."

"I'm not a court of law."

"No, you're not, but I'm not sure you're ready to hear my dreams, sweets."

"Did any of them come true last night or this morning?"

"A few."

"Only a few?"

"Oh, you know, uh, finishing because of you going down on me would be the ultimate."

"I was going to do that this morning! You stopped me."

"Yeah, sue me, I wanted to be inside of you again."

"I can understand that."

"Yeah?"

"Yes, I wanted you inside of me, but I knew I had to do something to get you able to do that."

He chuckled. "Yeah, sorry, goes with the territory."

"I know."

"Did you ever dream about me?"

"I did, but probably nowhere near the type of dreams you had about me."

"I like that you did, whatever they were."

"I liked you."

"Do you still?"

"Yes."

"Me, too."

"Thank you."

"Next Saturday?"

"Yes?"

"No going downtown."

"Why not? You have something scheduled you said."

"I do. I want you right here when I get home."

"Hmm. Here?"

"Yes," he said.

She slid her hand between his legs, cupping him. "You sure you don't want me here?"

"I'd love you there, but I can't do that and work. I think the kid's mom who hired me to take pictures at her bat mitzvah wouldn't be too happy with me."

She laughed softly. "Probably not."

"I can certainly look forward to coming home to that, though."

"You wouldn't stop for a beer first?"

"Now you're teasing me."

"Maybe a little."

"Is that a yes or a no?"

"I think I could do that."

"Yeah?"

"Yes."

"I'd like that," he said.

"I just want to sit on your porch for hours."

"I knew it. You're using me for my screened-in porch."

"It is a pretty nice porch."

"You have one twice as big I bet."

"Well, it's still nice."

He chuckled, kissing her.

"And I'll let you get some more sleep."

"Just don't go too far."

"I won't."

"One day you'll have to tell me what your aversion is to grabbing a rubber packet. They're not going to hurt you, you know."

"I know," she said softly. The packets themselves couldn't, no, but the fact he had them could.

"Okay. I'll show you how to put one on and everything."

"Maybe," she said. She'd do it and probably like doing it, but she wasn't going to think about that now.

"Get some more sleep, Claire."

"Okay," she said, smiling a little that he said her name again. He always sounded so serious when he said it, which was funny because he hadn't really been serious either time he'd said it last night or this morning.

Return to Top

***Chapter Eleven***
Word Count: 6,013

He hadn't heard from her all week. He saw her a couple of times when he showed up at a couple of the things on her schedule. They'd agreed at her house on Sunday night that it would be better if she didn't know where or when he was going to show up. She wouldn't know when she was going to get her picture taken that way so there was less chance something would appear staged or planned.

So when Friday came and he hadn't heard from her he wasn't sure what to think. He'd left her house Monday morning after she'd cooked him breakfast. She'd joked that she couldn't cook very well and he kind of had to agree with her. If they were ever at her house like that again he'd offer to cook. She probably didn't have much reason to cook, though, where he'd been on his own for years now. Sure, when he first moved out of his parents' place and into an apartment he did the eat fast food and TV dinners every day routine, but it took him about six months of that to not just get tired of it but realize that he had to workout extra hard after eating so much crap every day.

"You look lost," Ronda said.

She was leaving for the day. She was by his office only because her last stop of the day was always the kitchen area to be sure her coffee pot was off. He tried to remember to look, too, but as he didn't drink the stuff it wasn't forefront on his mind at the end of the day.

"I do?"

"You look like you want to pick up the phone but aren't sure you should."

"Kind of," he admitted.

"Why?"

"I haven't heard from her all week."

She laughed softly at that.

"Why is that funny?"

"Oh, nothing, just thinking about how many women around Chicago have said that about you over the years."

"Well, exactly. I'm not sure how to take it. Is she waiting for me to call?"

"If I was her I would be."

"Why?"

"Because you're you. You spent the weekend with her, okay one full day and two nights of the weekend with her. For you that's a big deal and she probably knows that."

"It's not that big of a deal."

"Really? When was the last time – the last person, anyone you spent thirty-six hours with? Your parents?"

"Not even them."

"You see?"

"Not really. I asked her if she wanted to do something during the week and she said she'd let me know. I took her not calling as her letting me know her answer was no."

"John. What you know about women is next to nothing."

"Thank you."

"I'm not saying that to be insulting, but it's what I was getting at a while ago when we were talking about her. Well, you and relationships in general. You've never had one. So you have no idea what to do."

"I can admit that."

"No self-respecting woman is going to call you first."

"Why'd she say she would then?"

"Because saying no would mean she's not interested, clearly she is."

He rolled his eyes. "Why do you have to be so confusing?"

"To keep you boys on your toes."

"Yeah, well, so I'm supposed to what? Call her? Not call her? Show up at her house? Send her flowers? What?"

"Have you ever sent a woman flowers?"

"Uh, no. Well, you," he said.

He'd sent her flowers on her last couple of birthdays.

"Besides me since I don't count."

"Why don't you?"

"Because I'm not sleeping with you."

"We're both probably very lucky that's true."

"Why don't you want to call her?"

"Because I'm not sure it means anything."

"John, honey," she sighed. "If you don't call her and think she's going to show up at your place tomorrow. She's not. You can assume she'll take you not calling as indication you don't want her there."

"I told her I wanted her there. I wouldn't have invited her to come over if I didn't. I do have a job. She doesn't. She goes out every night. When am I supposed to call her?"

"I don't know. It's not like you're booked solid eight hours a day."

"Just what I want to do, call her from here."

"You're debating doing that now anyway, aren't you? Besides, people do that, you know? Pick up the phone and call the person they're thinking about and involved with just to say hi."

"God. Are you kidding me? I'm supposed to do that, too?"

She laughed. "No, I'm just saying, people do work and manage to not just sustain but form relationships while doing it despite working different hours."

"I am so not ready for this."

"Well, then I guess you've made up your mind. I think it might be nice if you told her that to her face, though."

"Why? Because of who she is?"

"Well, because of who she is to you, but you can take that however you mean it. She's not someone's calls I want to be fending off for you because you're too chicken to actually see something through for a change."

"I'm not going to blow her off. I'm still not ready for this, though. I figured I had a few more years before I would think of someone like that."

"Well, do you want to be?"

"I don't know."

"But you're thinking about her like that."

"Well, yes. I thought about her like that four years ago. I know the saying goes third time's a charm, but I don't think I'll get a third time with someone like her."

"Probably not," she agreed.

He glanced at the clock on the wall of his office.

"I really hate this, you know that?"

"I do, but you must think she's worth it or you wouldn't bother."

"She is. I just have no example to feed off. You know? I don't even know how my parents met. I just assume it was in a drunken stupor somewhere, she got knocked up, and they decided to live miserably together for the rest of their lives because of that."

"You don't need an example to know how to treat someone. Just treat her how you'd want to be treated by someone."

"I don't know that either. I haven't ever wanted anyone to treat me like anything special."

"Can I make a suggestion?"

"You're going to anyway."

"Don't call her."

"You just said…"

"Let me finish. Go to her house."

He sighed softly. "She's probably already gone."

"She is not and you know she's not. It's not even five o'clock. You were just sitting here thinking about calling her. It won't take you that long to get there if you left now. Maybe stop and get some flowers. That florist who dropped brochures off here a couple of weeks ago is open late."

"Yeah, so morons like me can have somewhere to sleep tonight."

"Maybe so."

"Don't flowers sort of mean…"

"That you like her? I guess if that's not the message you want to send then by all means forget the flowers."

He grabbed his wallet from the top drawer in his desk, sliding it into his pocket. He'd worn jeans today. Ronda could on Friday's, too, but she never did. He'd, in fact, never seen her in anything more casual than slacks. Once outside of work he saw her in shorts, but she'd had to drop something off for him that he forgot here and he'd been all the way in Mundelein.

"I swear to God if she throws them in my face I'm sending you the bill."

"You shouldn't have waited days to call her."

"I saw her Tuesday and Wednesday!"

"And actually spoke to her?"

"Well, no," he said. He'd wanted to, but he hadn't known how to get her alone. He'd have to work on that part of things he supposed because he hated seeing her and acting as if she didn't mean anything to him.

"I saw the pictures of her at the hospital. They were nice pictures."

"Thank you," he said.

Tuesday's pictures had shown up today. He wasn't sure when or if Wednesday's would. The guy he knew who worked at The Daily Herald probably thought he was developing some sort of celebrity crush on Claire.

"Seeing her under those circumstances is not seeing her."

"Yeah, yeah. Calling works both ways. Why does it have to be me who calls?"

"Because, going by how she was evidently raised based on what you've said it's what men in her world would do. And what women like her don't do. Did she ever call you in high school?"

Well, put like that. "No," he admitted. Never once during the brief time they hung out had she called him.

He followed her out the door, locking it behind him.

"I don't have to buy roses, do I?"

"That was your first thought?"

"Well, sure, isn't that what women like?"

"That may be a little more serious of a message than you're willing to convey, John. See what they have. If you go with roses, stick with pink or yellow."

"I like…"

"She'd love red, too, but a dozen red roses implies things I'm not sure you'd understand yet."

"So every woman who gets them thinks…"

"Pretty much, yes."

God, he loathed this idea. He knew Ronda wasn't setting him up to fail, though. She wouldn't do that. For whatever reason she liked him despite his flaws, or maybe because of them. He wondered some days if she saw him as some sort of project.

He stopped at the florist Ronda had mentioned. He'd forgotten it was even there to be honest because it was such a new business. They'd dropped off business cards and brochures because he did weddings. He had no problem helping a new business out. He'd been one himself and if it hadn't been for his friend he wasn't sure where he'd be today.

He browsed for far longer than seemed necessary for flowers. They were flowers. How difficult could it be? Evidently, for him, it was immensely difficult. He'd never even thought about buying flowers for a woman before. Ever.

"Can I use your phone?" he asked the clerk. She was being very patient with him despite probably thinking he was a complete loon. He'd asked her a million questions that were all probably not even relevant to what he was going to end up buying. It was really tempting to just leave empty-handed, but he suspected the young woman wouldn't be too thrilled with him if he did that.

"Sure," she said, looking confused. He couldn't blame her. She'd answered all of his questions capably and everything.

He'd taken long enough surely she'd be home by now. He dialed her number, hoping he got her and not her husband. He liked her husband, but just wanted to talk to her quickly and be on his way.

"Do lilies convey some sort of message I shouldn't be sending yet? They're used in weddings a lot." He had no idea what they'd been called until the clerk showed them to him. He saw them a lot when he was taking pictures. They were very nice and seemed simple, kind of a classic thing like roses. Evidently, though, roses weren't as simple as he thought they were. They meant something. Showed what he knew.

'Well, no, actually, they represent beauty. I think that's an acceptable message to send.'

"Yes. That applies. Thank you."

'Be sure to tip the nice clerk, John.'

"I'm sorry?"

He was supposed to tip the woman on top of paying for the flowers?

'I have no doubt you've already asked her this question and are now calling someone who isn't a florist to double check she – or he I suppose – wasn't lying to you. Give her a tip. It's Friday night.'

"More rules."

'No, it's not a rule. It's called being human and appreciating someone who goes above and beyond. And maybe compensating them for putting up with you being difficult. You've been there for going on thirty minutes. That's a long time in a florist.'

"There's no one else here!"

'And there's nothing you could do at the studio when someone takes their time selecting backgrounds or takes fifteen minutes to change pants?'

"Yeah, okay," he said. "Thanks."

'You're welcome.'

He could have gone with a vase, but he didn't have room in his car for a vase of flowers so he elected to get them boxed instead. He was glad the woman gave him that option because he'd been dreading driving around with a vase full of water. He paid an absolutely crazy amount for the lilies, shaking his head a little as he handed the woman extra for her time and taking the care to box them nicely. She could've just thrown them in there, though he supposed she wouldn't have done that. He'd identified himself as someone whose business they left information at. Not a real good way to impress someone who could potentially recommend your business by treating them sloppily.

He had to put the box in his trunk. The biggest pitfall of the car he had was that there was no room to put anything in it. It'd never been an issue really. He usually did his grocery shopping every couple of days rather than one big haul once a week or whatever. He bought what he was in the mood for, cooked it and then a couple days later when he'd eaten what he had a taste for he shopped again for whatever appealed to him then.

As it was close to one hundred degrees when he left work he had the top down. He'd left it down all day because there was practically no chance of rain for the day. He didn't need the local weatherman to tell him that wasn't going to happen today when he drove to work this morning.

He left the box in the trunk when he went to the front door. If she wasn't home he wasn't sure what he'd do with them, but leaving them here didn't seem the wisest thing to do. It was Friday, but it was early enough that he doubted she'd left to go downtown yet. People didn't typically do that until eight or nine o'clock.

Her mom answered the door. He had a vague recollection of her from school. He'd seen Claire get rides to and from school over the years from her parents before her brother was old enough to drop her at school later on when they were in junior high.

"Hi, is Claire home?"

She didn't look impressed, John could tell. He wasn't dressed like a slob or anything, but he wasn't in a suit either. It was the perk of having his own business. Certainly if an appointment was made that required formality he dressed for the situation, but overall he could get away with pants and a Polo shirt. He always wore nice shoes, though, even with jeans. It was the only rule he'd set for himself, no gym shoes.

He saw her regard the scars on John's arms. He wasn't as self-conscious about them as he used to be, but when he was being checked out by the likes of Emily Standish he wished he'd opted for a long-sleeved shirt today. Even if he would've sweated to death in the damned thing. He had air conditioning, sure, but in the studio where there were lights and he was moving to try and get the right shot in those lights. It made it hot. The bulk of the scars were what cops or doctors would probably label as defensive wounds from when he was trying to stop his dad from harming him elsewhere. There was no other body part to throw up to block someone from swinging a belt, a fist, or a foot so his arms and hands weren't so pretty.

"May I say who's here?"

"John," he said simply. She probably knew a million and one John's, but hopefully those other million wouldn't be showing up at her house on Friday night for no reason.

"Come in."

"Thank you, ma'am," he said, stepping inside. The air conditioning in her house had no problem keeping up with a day like today and he had to admit it felt nice to stand in the foyer. He'd been in her house a couple of times now, a few times in high school and then over the last weekend. He'd never seen her parents, though, before now. The times in high school her mom had been out doing whatever her mom did and her dad had been working. Her brother was in his last year of college by then, living off-campus.

Knowing her brother's secret as he did now, John couldn't help but wonder just who Christopher had been living with off-campus. It certainly wasn't abnormal for college guys to live together. Fraternities were still a popular thing (not that John understood the reason behind them). Had he continued living with someone after college that alerted their dad to his preference? John had no clue. He hadn't asked, not wanting to pry or to make Claire think that he was trying to gain information. He'd gone through high school seeing pictures of her brother on the walls at school. He'd been quite the athlete and pretty smart to boot. John couldn't think of anyone while he and Claire were in high school who could've gotten away with not just lettering in sports (he'd done football, basketball, baseball, and track) but also been on – and excelled at - the debate team. John hadn't put much stock or been impressed by people who did those things back then, but he could appreciate now that it was impressive to be accomplished at all of those things.

Her mom showed him into the living room where he took a seat on the couch there while he waited. He and Claire hadn't ever come into this room so he looked around at the things in there. The painting on the wall was probably worth more than his house. The fireplace they had was huge. John had one, but it wasn't nearly as nice. It was a double one set between his kitchen and living room with a wood-burning stove installed in it. He imagined back in the forties it was probably the main heat source for the house. Today, though he didn't have to use it that way. A couple nights last fall when it wasn't cold enough for the furnace but there'd been a coolness in the air he'd used it to take the edge off in his house. It had been kind of neat. Supposedly the wood-burning stove helped keep it warmer longer.

***

"There's a John downstairs for you," Claire's mom said once Claire answered her bedroom door. Claire had known it was her mom because she was the only one home besides Claire. She'd just finished picking her outfit for the night out, setting it on her bed so she could change a little later. She'd showered and everything about an hour ago.

"He's here?"

"Yes."

"You let him in?"

"Yes," her mother said. "Was I not supposed to?"

"It's fine. He's in the living room?"

"He is. Who is he?"

"A friend."

"Claire," her mother said. It was a tone Claire knew well. She hadn't liked Claire's answer.

"What?"

"I don't like strange men coming to our house looking for you."

"He's not strange. I went to school with him, Mom," she said.

She almost told her his last name, but didn't. Chances were Claire's mom would at the very least know of John's parents. They were one of those families that no one liked and wished would move out of Shermer. It was probably why they never moved, just to piss people off like her parents. Claire had no idea.

"Why is he here?"

"To see me?"

"Don't be flippant, Claire. Are you seeing him?"

"Mother. That's none of your business."

"It is too my business. As long as you're living under this roof and you are dependent on your father and me. Need I remind you it wasn't that long ago that Alistair had to call us while we were out of town because of a situation you got yourself into with one of your boyfriends?"

"No, you don't need to remind me," Claire said. She hated that her mom knew anything about what had happened with Pete. "We've gone out a couple of times."

That was a huge exaggeration. She'd bailed him out of jail, they'd had breakfast. They'd had lunch the day she'd visited him at work. He'd met her on campus one day and they'd had an early dinner, which he ended early by walking out on her. They'd had dinner and a movie together. Only the last one could actually be called a date.

Last weekend, though, she'd gone to his house knowing full well there would be no date. There'd be no flowers or dinner or music or anything other than going there for the express purpose of seeing him at one o'clock in the morning. She knew why he'd been inviting her to his house and she'd gone. Her friends thought she was crazy for going to someone's house so late. She'd known, though, that despite the kind of guy she was pretty sure he was that he wouldn't force her to do anything.

She'd never had a guy spend the night at her house before. Even when her parents were traveling she was hesitant to do anything like that. It was her parents' house, but she'd liked the idea of getting an entire day with him.

Then he hadn't called all week. She saw him Tuesday and Wednesday, but they hadn't talked. She'd waved and he'd given her a look he had no business giving her in public. A look she was pretty sure made her blush and stay blushing long after he'd left. She'd seen one set of pictures he'd taken in the paper today. They'd been nice. She was holding the hand of a patient she was reading to. John had taken great care, she noticed, to be sure the face of the patient was never clear enough to identify her. If her face was in the pictures at all. She was a nice lady who had no one to visit her so when she'd delivered some flowers to her from the gift shop and the woman started talking to Claire she'd stayed put and let her talk. She knew of Claire's grandfather and had some interesting stories to tell of some of the buildings her grandfather was responsible for in the area.

"I don't like the looks of him."

"You don't have to go out with him, I do."

"Claire. What will people think?"

"Of what? There's nothing wrong with him."

"Claire Marie, I know you know better."

"Then what? Date someone who has scars? Physical proof his life wasn't as easy as mine? I should not date him because of something beyond his control."

"People will…"

"I really don't care what people think."

"Obviously that's been the case for so long now I'm not even sure you realize the damage you could do to your father."

"Oh my God, Mother. Talk about laying it on a little thick. They're scars it's not herpes or the plague." She shook her head, heading out of her room. "Oh, and by the way," she said, tossing the paper at her mother. "Those pictures of me you commented on this morning and how well you liked them. He took them. And he still had the scars then when you liked them."

She smiled a little at John's reaction to her coming into the room. He stood, but only after a moment's thought as if he realized he should - not because it was inbred in him to do it. It was, honestly, a little refreshing. She was so tired of prim and proper people everywhere she turned it was nice to be around someone who was just normal.

Then she remembered he hadn't called her all week and she didn't feel like smiling anymore as much. He certainly didn't expect her to just be available tonight because he showed up here?

"Hey," he said.

"Hi," she said.

She was completely mixed about her feelings right now. He was here. He'd shown up and yet it had taken him days to do it. That bothered her more than she wanted it to. She absolutely did not want to get her heart involved with him again. She'd managed to get out of being involved with him in high school unscathed. She wasn't sure that would be the case now because they weren't eighteen anymore and they really hadn't done anything involved back then beyond spend a few afternoons together after school.

"Can we go outside or something?" he asked.

"I guess," she said.

That couldn't be good if he didn't want to talk to her inside knowing her mom was around. She saw what her mom probably saw when she'd answered the door. She couldn't recall ever seeing him with a short sleeved shirt on before now. Ever. He did that intentionally in school. She glanced away, though, before he caught her staring.

He slid his keys into the pocket of his jeans and followed her toward the front door.

"What do you want, John?"

"To see you?" He sounded a little baffled by her question. He was heading toward his car. He wanted to leave?

"I'm not going anywhere with you."

"I didn't ask you to," he said, frowning. "Look, I'm sorry I didn't call when I guess I should've."

"Like days ago."

"You said you'd let me know when you were free."

"Like I'd do that!"

He rolled his eyes. He leaned against the trunk of his car, his keys in his hand again. He was fiddling with them, sliding the key ring over the tip of his finger. She blushed deeply remembering what he did with those fingers to her. "So I'm discovering. I don't speak female, Claire. I certainly don't speak rich female."

"Well, clearly I wasn't going to call you. You had to know that."

"How on earth would I know that?"

"You can't be serious."

"I am. I have no idea how I'd know that."

She scowled a bit. "You mean you've never had a woman not call you?"

"No!"

"So, you just decided to come over?"

"I, uh, well, I was told that maybe a phone call wouldn't be enough being that it was Friday."

"You were told right."

"Wow, really? I asked you to come over tomorrow."

"Yeah, for sex."

"I did not! I wasn't expecting that to happen between us. I certainly am not assuming it will again."

"You're not?" That surprised her immensely. She assumed, well, she assumed he'd expect it all of the time now since they had.

"No!"

"Why not?"

"Jesus. I can't win." He turned away from her then, opening his trunk and pulling out a long box. "Here. These are for you. I don't know what the fuck I'm doing. Do you get that? I've never had a girlfriend. I've never wanted a girlfriend for a very good reason. I am so totally out of my element not to mention my area of comfort. I, uh, assumed you'd have a vase somewhere in your house to put them in."

She took the box, untying the beautifully done ribbon holding it closed. Oh God, lilies. She knew it as soon as she opened the box because their scent was so distinct. And they were absolutely gorgeous. Her father had given her mother some very nice flowers over the years, but she herself had never gotten flowers like this from anybody.

"Listen. I'll go. Evidently I fucked up by not reading your mind or knowing your code. I took you for your word that when you had free time you'd let me know. I have a job you don't yet so I sort of figured you'd let me know when you had time to fit me into your week. You know?"

"John."

"I know you didn't plan on what happened occurring so I was sort of letting you tell me what was going on. I don't know. I guess that was wrong. I spent the night here Sunday, so I assumed you realized I wasn't out to just fuck you and leave."

"John,"

"And your mother I'm sure will be more than pleased to know I've successfully screwed up. I'm surprised she let me inside your house."

She settled the cover back on top of the box, though she didn't want to at all. She wanted to take them out and smell each and every one of them. He had to have spent a fortune on them. She knew an assortment of this many wasn't cheap. She wondered if he thought he had to spend that much on her. He'd probably never bought flowers for anyone before. The advantage someone could take over someone like him. She set the box on the ground next to her and leaned in to kiss him.

It took him a minute to kiss her back, surprised no doubt. She'd wanted to stay mad at him, make him suffer a bit as he sort of deserved to for not realizing she wasn't going to call him. He'd clearly realized he'd done the wrong thing, though.

"Your mom," he whispered as they took a breath.

"Let her freak out."

"You sure, Princess?"

"Yes. My mother doesn't have to live with me for the rest of my life."

He chuckled softly at that.

"No, I suppose not."

"And as much as she'd like to, she has absolutely no say in who I kiss."

"You were mad at me?"

"Not mad. Confused. Unsure."

"Why?"

"Because I know how you are, John."

"I wouldn't do that to you."

"Yeah, well, I wanted to believe that. I wasn't going to be one of those idiots though that can't take a hint."

"What if I'd thought you were giving me a hint?"

She sighed softly. "I don't know," she laughed. She drew away then, stooping down to pick up the box. "I should put these in water."

"All right," he said. "I'll…"

"You can come inside if you want. I wasn't dismissing you."

"Aren't you going out?"

"You could come with."

"Claire…"

"This time I'm asking you to go out with me."

He arched an eyebrow at that, surprised by that she could tell.

"Yeah?"

"Yes." Did he not get it? Maybe not.

"All right," he said.

"Really?"

"Do I have to go home and change?"

"No, you look fine."

"Fine?"

"Yes," she said. "Are you coming inside then?"

"Sure."

"Maybe I'll let you give me a ride in your car."

"Let me, huh?"

He chuckled.

"I think it might be a nice night for a ride with the top down," she said.

He'd used the Jeep last weekend since he worked and came straight home instead of stopping to switch vehicles on his way as he usually did during the summer. She knew that only because he'd told her while driving to her place Sunday. She kind of liked knowing that he'd gone right home instead of stopping somewhere first.

"So, they're all right," he said, gesturing to the box.

"All right? They're gorgeous and really too much."

"You wouldn't say that if I'd just bought you like two of them."

"Well, no, of course not, who wants just two?"

"So I went with more."

"You did. Thank you."

"You didn't just not call so I'd buy flowers did you?"

"A solid plan, but no I didn't."

"That makes me feel infinitely better."

"You realize coming out with me tonight…"

"Yes, I realize I'll be seen with you and my car doesn't exactly blend in either."

"Well, we don't have to take your car."

"No, it's fine."

"I wonder if I'm going to start getting even more hate mail."

"What?" he asked with a frown.

"You know, nasty letters people like to send just because they can send something like that anonymously. They'd never say the things they write in them to my face. I wonder how many more I'll get from women you've been with."

He grabbed her elbow, stopping her from going further.

"What?" she asked.

"You actually get letters like that?"

"Well, not from women you've been with, no."

"That's not what I meant and you know it. You get hate mail?"

"Well, sure. I have people sending me Bible passages and all sorts of stuff."

"Are you kidding me?"

"No," she said with a shrug. She'd dealt with it. "I don't open them anymore. Dad just takes them right to the attorney in case there's anything actually threatening in them."

"Has there ever been?"

"Once."

"And?"

"They eventually caught him."

"I see."

"Is that a problem?"

"Well, no, I mean, I just didn't realize you had to deal with that. I'm sorry."

She shrugged again. "My fault for living how I live."

"Yeah, but you've said part of the reason you do that is…"

"Yeah, I know."

"Does he know about the letters?"

"No," she said.

"Claire," he said with a shake of his head. "He wouldn't want you to put yourself in harm's way."

"Well, I'll have you with me now. I'll be fine. You'll protect me."

"I'd love to do that. You know that, but I can't be with you every second of every day."

"I know that. I'm fine. No one's ever hurt me or anything. I mean. I've found things on the hood of my car a couple of times but that's as personal as anyone's gotten."

"Threats are pretty personal."

"Are you rethinking getting involved with me?"

That really bothered her.

"No, that's not it. I just don't like the thought of people doing that to you."

"Something tells me you wouldn't like the thought of people doing that to anyone."

"Well, of course not."

"Can we go inside now?"

"Yeah, sure. Sorry. You just hadn't mentioned that part of things."

"I'm used to it."

"You don't suppose there's a chance your mom didn't see us kissing?"

"Not in hell."

"Great."

"I think she knows someone was here with me last weekend, too."

"How?"

"I don't know! She asked me if I had company. I said I had a few people over, but I could tell that wasn't what she was asking me. She's a mom, evidently there's some special power that's given to you when you've given birth that allows you to know everything your children do."

He chuckled at that.

"I suppose yours doesn't have that power?"

"No," John said. "Well, if you count knowing that everything I was doing was bad in her mind then sure she did. I wouldn't know now if she does or not."

"I suppose not."

"So, the next time you tell me you'll let me know when you're free am I supposed to call you?"

"That would probably be a good idea, yeah," she said.

"You weren't as mad as I thought you were going to be."

"I wanted to be madder! I wasn't expecting you to show up here, though, and with flowers."

"You really thought I'd just not call you again?"

"John…"

"Okay, I guess I deserve that opinion."

"Yeah, you kind of do."

"Are you trying to make an honest guy out of me, Miss Standish?"

"Is that possible?"

"I kind of hope so."

"Then I guess I'll try until we find out it's not possible."

"And if we find out it is possible?"

"Then I guess I'm in luck."

"You'd think that was lucky?"

"I would, John, yes."

"All right then."

Return to Top

***Chapter Twelve***
Word Count: 4,689

It'd been a long time since he was out until four o'clock in the morning. The last time he was he was fairly sure it wasn't at a bar, but just out with people at a party or something. Maybe he'd been to a concert, he wasn't sure. He didn't get to indulge in things like late nights out often. The only night he usually always had off was Sunday and very rarely was there anything good going on those nights. (There was the occasional Sunday wedding, but Ronda was very good about only scheduling him those if he had nothing on Monday to follow it.) It was a good thing he didn't have to be up at the ass crack of dawn tomorrow. Today. Whatever it was.

"You sure you want to do that?" she asked him as he offered her his hand when they were about to leave.

"No," he said, answering truthfully. "If I don't, though, you'll use it against me later."

"I wouldn't do that."

"You would, too. Maybe not tomorrow, but some day you'd remind me about how I wouldn't even hold your hand in public."

"You might be right," she said.

"I know I'm right, Princess. Now, if you don't want to take it, that's fine."

"I do," she said, sliding her hand into his.

He drew her to him then and kissed her. He'd been hesitant to do that earlier in the night, but at one point she'd settled herself on his lap and kissed him. He hadn't been hesitant from that point forward. Kissing her was no hardship even in public.

"Thank you for inviting me."

"I'm not sure why you're thanking me, you didn't have that good of a time."

"I had a good enough time. I don't know your friends well enough to just talk with them. I'm sure they're wondering what street corner you found me on. And I don't dance."

"I noticed."

"Hey, you're welcome to it with your friends."

"Just my friends?"

"When I'm along, yeah."

"Hmm."

"That answer surprises you?"

"A little."

"Why?" he asked cautiously.

"I don't know."

"I guess I'm just not a sharer."

"Dancing is sharing?"

"To the other guys here who don't know you're here with me? Yeah."

It had surprised him how bothered he'd gotten by that. She only did it once, but it was one too many times as far as John was concerned. Of course, he had only himself to blame but he just wasn't a dancer and he wasn't going to make an ass of himself like that even for her.

"And when you're not along?"

"Well, I guess that's up to you. I certainly can't stop you."

"It would still bother you though?"

"Well, yeah, probably more," he said, thinking on that. He'd probably hate it. "On the plus side you're not inebriated."

"You noticed that?"

"I did, and while it may have been a little fun later to toy with you in that state I'm glad you're leaving here more sober than not."

"Me, too," she said.

They left with a group. Thankfully, it seemed as if since they were not somewhere new there weren't many out there waiting for her group to come out. She'd mentioned it worked like that sometimes. And evidently the first weekend in July right after the Fourth of July holiday was not a good time to open a new club. Who knew? He never had a reason to pay attention to such things.

"You might want to go out that way," she said once they were in his car and leaving the garage. "And wait to put the top down until we've gotten out of the neighborhood."

"Why?" he asked.

"It's less direct, but chances are they won't get a glimpse of your car going this way. They won't look for me in it, you'll stay anonymous for a little while longer."

"There weren't many out there."

"No, there weren't, but someone will see I was holding your hand and it'll spiral from there."

"I've seen you holding people's hands. Why is it such a big deal? It's not like it means you're doing anything with the guy."

"Well, sure, that's true. Obviously I haven't done anything with any of the guys I've held hands with. For some reason my love life is a selling point."

He knew the neighborhood they were in, so he didn't need her to tell him how to get out of here going another way. He did follow her advice, though, stopping once they were a few blocks away to put the top down. He was glad she liked riding with it down. He'd been a little concerned she wouldn't or she'd enjoy it until they got here and then get mad her hair was mussed up or something. She hadn't.

"Nothing?" He thought on what she'd said when they were about to leave the garage. Surely he'd misheard or she'd misspoken.

"What?" she asked.

"You said obviously you hadn't done anything with any of the guys you've held hands with."

"You were in your house last weekend, right?"

"I was, yes. There are things you could have done that didn't involve actual penetration."

"Oh, no," she frowned.

"Never?"

"No! You don't believe me?"

"I am just surprised. You were quite good with your mouth."

"Is there a bad way to do that?"

He chuckled at that. "Well, no, I guess putting it like that, but trust me there are women who don't like to do that and it's evident when they do it that they'd rather be doing anything else."

"I probably wouldn't like doing it to just anybody."

"I'm very glad I'm not just anybody then," he said, running a finger along her neck since he was stopped. She shifted a little so he could slide his finger a little lower inside her shirt a bit.

"Did you mean what you said earlier?"

"What?"

"At my house."

"What did I say that has you curious, Princess?"

"You said you didn't want a girlfriend."

"Yeah," he said cautiously. He was surprised she hadn't mentioned it before now truthfully. He'd thought maybe she hadn't heard him.

"Is that what you want now?"

"I'm here with you, aren't I? I gave you flowers. I went to a club with you that believe me I have no desire to do ordinarily. I'm going to take you home with me again tonight."

"You are?"

"I thought I was? Aren't I?" He'd assumed, apparently incorrectly she was coming home with him again.

"You are," she said, laughing softly.

"I don't do that usually."

"No?"

"No."

"Those two…"

"Were an exception and I've already told you it's not like they were there every weekend or anything."

"Have you since that day?"

"With them? Uh, well," he frowned. "I can't lie to you, Princess, so yes, but not since last weekend or anything. And unless you're way more curious about other women than that kiss you told me about I imagine they won't be again."

"Hmm, more curious? You'd do that?"

"What? Watch you with another woman?" He shrugged a bit. "It would depend on the woman and how much participation I got. I wouldn't want to just watch, no."

"You just watch them?"

"For the most part. I told you, they're together."

"So what will they do if they call and you say no?"

"Find someone else? It's not like there's a shortage of men who'd willingly participate in that."

"Why you then?"

"Because emotionally I was able to give them exactly what they wanted. My dick without expectation of more or the assumption it meant something it didn't. I knew they weren't going to suddenly develop an everyday need for sex with me."

"I don't get that."

"What?" he asked.

"Not having the everyday need for sex with you."

He chuckled at that. "That would be why you're not a lesbian and they are, Claire."

"I guess so."

"I didn't realize you have the everyday need for sex with me."

"Well, I didn't see you every day for you to know that."

"You do realize you'd be welcome at my house anytime, right?"

"I wasn't going to just show up there this week."

"Why not?"

"Because! I wasn't going to be that woman who read more into what happened than what it was. Sex. I certainly didn't want to show up and find someone else there!"

"I wouldn't have done that."

"You say that, and I wanted to think that, but I'm sure I wouldn't have been the only one to think so."

"I haven't asked you if you actually want to be my girlfriend."

"John."

"Before you answer that, or voice an opinion on the subject there is something I should tell you."

He pulled off the expressway then ahead of the exit leading to his house, one that'd be closer to her parents' house and stopped in a gas station parking lot.

"What are we doing?"

"Well, you may not want to come home with me anymore."

"What?" She laughed then. "It's worse than my knowing you've been with two women?"

"A little more personal, yeah."

"What?"

"Well, the situation with you and your brother. Your reasons for doing things."

"Right."

He tilted his head back against his headrest, glancing up at the sky. It wasn't nearly as difficult telling Ronda as it was telling her. Ronda wasn't going to potentially expect kids from him, though.

"Forget it," he said, putting his hand on the gear shift so he could put the car back in gear.

"What?"

"Just forget it. I'm an idiot for thinking I should be telling you this now."

"Why?"

"Because I'm asking you to be my girlfriend, nothing else quite yet."

"But you think you might want to?"

"Things other than my girlfriend? Sure, I thought about it four years ago."

She scoffed at that.

"I didn't lose any sleep over it, I won't deny that, but I thought about it just the same. It certainly would have solved my problems."

"I guess," she said.

"Anyway. It's not that important."

"I don't believe you. You think it's something I may not want to go home with you over so it must be somewhat important."

"It's just kind of personal, you know? You decide you don't want to be my girlfriend or we break up and you go around telling people…"

"Geez. You think I'd do that? Have I ever done that to anyone I've dated?"

"I don't know!"

"Do you read about me revealing gossipy secrets about them in the papers?"

"Well, no," he admitted.

"I don't want people saying things about me either."

"I guess," he said.

He sighed softly.

"John. I'm not going to tell anyone else."

"I believe you. I just, fuck, it's a really difficult thing to say to the woman I am pretty sure I'm in love with."

She slid her hand over his on the gear shift, squeezing a bit.

"John, talk to me."

"I swear to God, you demand I take you home after this I'm going to drink myself into a stupor for days."

"I'm not! Come on, it can't be that bad."

"I may not be able to have kids," he said softly. Like a Band-Aid, he just said it, figuring it was better to just say it instead of thinking on it too hard anymore.

"I'm sorry. What?"

"You heard me."

"Why on earth would you think that?"

"Uh, well, you know just something a doctor told me once after I'd been admitted to the hospital thanks to my dad."

"And he thought you may not be able to have kids?"

"Yeah, well, I guess repeated trauma to parts that are required to produce the stuff that makes the kids can be detrimental to them producing the stuff."

"Your dad did that?"

"I'd really rather not talk about that part of it."

"Shit, John, you just told me that your dad what? Sterilized you and you don't think I'm going to ask about it?"

"Not if I don't want to talk about it, no."

"Fine," she said. He glanced at her, seeing tears in her eyes. "So, what does that mean?"

"It means I may not be able to have kids. I've never tried so I don't know. There are tests I guess to find out if I have the little guys active or whatever, but even if I do there may not be enough or something. I don't know. I've never cared."

"You care now?"

"Well, having a kid is going to be important to you it would seem since your brother can't. If I can't give that to you whether or not I want you to be my girlfriend seems sort of pointless."

"You think I wouldn't see you because of that?"

"I think you'd be served better by someone who knows they can give you that."

"I don't want to be served better by anyone else."

"Princess. Be reasonable."

"I am! So we adopt or Christopher adopts. Maybe he could use that excuse as a reason he can't have kids normally."

"And you'd be okay with that?"

"I don't care!"

"You say that, and I want to believe you, but you have generations of Northwestern alumni and whatever else that could end."

"I have cousins."

"Not the same for your dad and you know that."

"There's artificial insemination."

"Which would be great if we knew I had any."

"Even if it's not yours. If I got pregnant who on earth would question whether you were the father?"

"That could possibly make me feel worse, Princess. I don't know."

"I guess I could see that. I'm just thinking out loud really."

"I know. You're fine."

"He really hurt you that badly?"

"He did," he whispered.

"John. My father would want me happy. Ultimately."

"Yes, that's why your life has already been mapped out for you."

"My school and my job, but not who I marry or anything. I think that's why he hasn't actually asked Christopher. If he knew for sure he'd feel he had to do something more permanent."

"Because he's gay?"

"Yes," she said. "My dad isn't a bad guy, but he's a very conservative guy and that's just not something he'd tolerate."

"If your dad ever found out."

"How would he find out? I wouldn't tell him, and I don't see you walking around telling people."

"Well, no, but I don't know that I'd be able to do that, really. Talk about emasculating, another man giving you a kid I can't give you. I guess I'm a pretty typical guy when it gets down to it."

"Through no fault of your own!"

He sighed.

"Do you still want to go home with me?"

"I should be mad at you for thinking I'd leave you because of that."

"I know how it works for people like you and your family. Carrying on the family name is of the utmost importance. I have no desire to make a Third."

"I forget sometimes you're named after your dad."

"I try to forget every day," he said with a forced laugh.

"Take me home, John. It's not something we need to worry about tonight anyway."

"But it's a possibility. A very distinct one. I doubt the doctor told me that offhandedly."

"On the other hand, you use condoms."

"Well, of course I do."

"Why? If you think that's true."

"Because there's things out there besides knocking someone up. I don't want any of those things."

"You've always used one?"

"Yes, even my first time."

"How old were you?"

"God, we are so not going there tonight."

"We'll worry about it if the time comes. The doctor probably told you that because he had to tell you the possibility existed. I mean, it would take a lot I think to cause that."

"You don't think I know that? You don't think I know how much repeated damage I had done to me over the years? Jesus, Princess, I'm not a complete moron. Maybe I can, I don't know, but the possibility exists and I couldn't feel good about myself asking you to be my girlfriend knowing you didn't know about it."

"Are you still asking?"

"That is how this conversation got started, so yes."

She leaned over and kissed him. A very nice kiss he had to admit. She evidently didn't care that the gas station had customers as she parted her lips and found his tongue with hers.

"Take me home, John."

"Is that your answer?"

"It is. I wanted to be your girlfriend four years ago."

"I couldn't have handled you, Princess. I'm not sure I can now!"

"Why not?"

"I don't know. Nerves. Feelings of ultimately not being what you need."

"I've been looking for four years, no one else has come close to having what I need."

"You just can't find anyone else who will argue with you."

"True."

"Or leave you at a restaurant because you're acting like a spoiled brat."

"I was not!"

"You weren't being nice."

"That I'll admit. Why are you asking me then?"

"To be my girlfriend?"

"Yes. If you're nervous or feel that way."

"Because I wasn't ready for you the first time you walked into my life. I'm not going to let you leave my life a second time. I'm certainly more ready now than I was then."

"One thing."

"Yes?"

"If I can't dance with other guys."

"I didn't say you can't. Don't go putting words into my mouth or make me out to be some controlling asshole."

"You wouldn't like it, though."

"Well, no, but I believe you're not going to do anything but dancing so I'd deal with it." He glanced at her then, running a fingertip along her thigh. He wondered what her mom thought of her dress tonight, if she'd ever actually met anyone she went out with before to put a face with the name of who she was dressing pretty scantily for. "What was your one thing?"

"Well, I wouldn't like you being with other women."

"I wouldn't do that. I know the rules even if I've never had to follow them. I admit I'm clueless or fuzzy on some things, but monogamy isn't one of them. And believe me, Ronda would be quick to tell me I'm doing something wrong if she thought I was."

"And you're okay with that?"

"If I thought it'd be a problem I wouldn't have brought you flowers and I certainly wouldn't be here right now."

She grew quiet then, shifting a bit in the seat so he could touch her leg a little easier.

"So, we know no one followed us."

"Yeah," he said. She set her hand over his then, sliding it up a little further along her thigh.

"So, we could be on your porch for a while?"

"Sweets, if I didn't have to be awake in a few hours I'd sit on my porch with you for as long as you wanted tonight."

"I forgot."

"Yeah, sorry. We can sit out there for a while, I suppose."

"I was kind of hoping…"

"I think the porch at your house would be better for that next time your parents are gone."

"Really?"

"Theirs is at the back of the house, neighbors aren't going to walk by. I'd really rather not get arrested or be that neighbor that no one's kid can go trick or treating at my house because I had sex on my porch for anyone to walk by and see."

She laughed softly at that.

"I suppose."

"It's tough being a respectable homeowner."

"I can imagine."

"I'll make a deal with you, though. Not tonight."

"Yeah?"

"One night during the week maybe when most people are sleeping like normal people we'll figure out where we can and can't be seen out there."

"I'd like that."

"I'd like it, too, believe me."

"That means I'm going to be there sometime during the week."

"That means you're going to be there whenever you want to be. I gave you a key."

"For last Saturday night."

"Did I take it back?"

"Well, no," she said, sounding as if she hadn't thought about that.

"Use it whenever you want."

"You wouldn't care if I came here late during the week?"

"No, just understand one of us has to be up in the morning."

"I think quick with you might be kind of fun."

"I'm not sure I want the word quick ever used in conjunction with our sex life, Princess."

"If I came there knowing that, though."

"I imagine you could convince me, yes."

"I know it'd be fun to convince you of that."

"For both of us I'm sure. When do you start working anyway?"

She shrugged. "I don't know."

"You haven't asked?"

"I figure my dad will let me know."

"Has he commented on that picture this week?"

"Mom did. I haven't seen him much."

"What did she say?"

"She liked it. She didn't say much. She's Mom. She was surprised to see it, though."

"Well, that's good. We want people surprised."

"Right."

"You know, you don't have to come here late during the week."

"What?"

He turned onto his driveway, getting out and opening his garage door before pulling into it. He left the top down since he was parking it inside and opened the door for her.

"Well, it only seems fair if I have to change some of my habits maybe you could, too."

"Like?"

"You don't have to go downtown every night."

"But what would I do?"

"Oh, I could think of some things. Dates with this guy who just asked you to be his girlfriend. Or forget dates," he said, sliding a hand along her hip. He settled it against the small of her back, down to cup her ass and draw her against him. "What about eating in, crawling into bed hours before absolutely necessary and doing the opposite of quick."

"My going out is not the same as you needing a drawer full of condoms by your bed."

He scowled a little at that.

"Is that why you didn't want to get one?"

"You think I wanted to see proof that you've had more sex then I'll probably ever have?"

"I think you overestimate my experience just a bit much if you think at the age of twenty-two I've had more sex than you'll have over the next sixty or seventy years." He lowered his mouth to hers, kissing her. "If I have anything to say about it I'll be the one you're doing it with."

"For the next sixty years?"

"At least," he said.

"That's a lot of condoms."

He chuckled softly. "You can count them if you want to. Anytime. Just be sure you're keeping an accurate count of how many we use because I swear to God if you accuse me of one being missing that shouldn't be I'll shoot myself."

"I don't have to count them."

"Does that mean you'd get one when you're in the mood and I'm sleeping?"

"Maybe."

"You could put one on me."

"Now?"

"Well, I sort of meant in general, but certainly there's no time like the present."

"I'm not sure how, I only saw you twice."

"I'll show you."

"Here?"

He chuckled, kissing her neck. He slid his hand at her ass down a bit to her thigh, tugging the hem of her skirt up. It was a very short skirt as it was so he didn't need to tug too much. "My car isn't big enough for that. Unless you wanted to be on top of me we could probably work that out here."

"Not in your garage," she whispered. He groaned softly. He very much wanted to in his garage right now. No one could see it from the street because his driveway curved a bit going behind his house. He had this image of her on the hood of his car and she would look absolutely fantastic there, the contrast of her red hair to the red of his paint job.

"Yeah? Where then?"

"I don't know. Let me think on it. We could go up to my parents' lake house one night."

"Just for a night?"

"Well, you work."

"You pick a weekend and I'll be sure I have nothing scheduled."

"Really?"

"Really."

"All to have sex in your car?"

He chuckled. "If that's what you want to think, Princess, sure."

"I wouldn't think you got vacation."

"Well, I don't take any, no. If I have an appointment or something I tell Ronda about it so she schedules things around it. I've never had a vacation. I've never been anywhere further than the Dells I guess. Solo vacations aren't very fun."

"What would you do if you wanted to take a vacation?"

"Not have business for a week? People can find other photographers."

"But you'd lose money."

"Well, it'd be one wedding, maybe two if one happens to be on a Friday or Sunday. Anything else during the week could be scheduled for the week before or after. There isn't usually much that's time-sensitive."

"I guess."

"You want me to go away with you for a week, Princess?"

"Well, I was thinking we could start with a weekend."

"I told you, tell me when and I'll arrange it. I think I'm booked into August, but we could do a Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday thing since you don't have a job."

"You're going to tease me with that endlessly aren't you?"

"To be a man of leisure. I kind of envy you."

"But you wouldn't have all this stuff if you were like that."

"You're right. You can thank my old man for that, I guess, the overall desire to be absolutely nothing like him as quickly as I could be."

"I think you've succeeded."

"Well, I'm not married with a kid before I was twenty so it's definitely a step in the right direction."

"I didn't realize they were that young."

"Oh yeah. Mom was seventeen, Dad was nineteen. They could've done the logical thing and put me up for adoption, but no they had to give it the ol' college try."

"They are still married."

"If you want to call their existence a marriage, sure. I strive for better."

"Do you?"

"I'm aiming for you, that's better, isn't it?"

"I think that's a compliment aimed toward me."

"It is."

"But not to your mother."

"She made her bed."

"I guess she did."

"Speaking of mothers, yours doesn't like me so well."

"How do you know?"

"She looked at me in a way that told me very plainly. I suppose I should've gone home to change first."

"Don't be ridiculous. Your scars don't define you, John. They don't mean you're a bad guy."

"Yeah, well, people see them and think…"

"My mom will figure it out."

"Has she ever actually met anyone you've gone out with?"

"Hmm, no, I suppose she hasn't."

"No dates over for dinner to meet the parents?"

"No. I know I don't have to ask you that question."

"I avoided bringing anyone home at all costs."

"I remember."

He knew she did. It was one of the reasons things never got beyond hanging out with her. She'd wanted free access, full access to his life and he wasn't prepared to grant that to her.

"Let's go inside, sweetheart, and stop talking about this crap for a while."

"You want me to take your mind off of it?"

"I'd love for you to do that."

"Any ideas how?"

"I can maybe think of a few."

"So long as I let you get to sleep soon?"

"I think I could handle an hour or so."

"I could make you lunch before you go later."

He chuckled at that. "You plan on us fighting then or something because that's just mean."

"I figured you'd object to that."

"Something tells me I'll be the one cooking when you're around."

"That's part of my plan."

He chuckled. "I fell for it, too, didn't I?"

"You did."

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***Chapter Thirteen***
Word Count: 3,668

"Wow, that's every day this week you've left before I have," Ronda said as he flipped the light off in his office. "Actually, you've been doing it a lot lately."

"Yeah? It's not like I'm canceling on customers or anything. My day is done. What's the point in sticking around?"

She shrugged. "No point. I'm just not used to seeing it, that's all. Usually you're here for an hour or two after I leave for the day. Do you have plans tonight?"

"Going downtown. It was what we agreed on for her staying put during the week."

"Hmm. Staying put means staying at your house?"

"Yes," he said cautiously.

"All week?"

"Well, she went home and everything. You know, she got changes of clothes and stuff. She's not locked in there like a prisoner."

"I hope not, I don't think I want to bail you out of jail."

"Yeah, well, I'd just call her for that anyway."

"And she'd go?"

"Yes," John said with a chuckle. "She already has. Not like recently, but yes. That weekend I came in here Monday beat up back in February?"

"That was over her?"

"No. Well, sort of, but no, not what you're thinking. I got into a fight, I got arrested, and I called her to bail me out. Like I know anyone else with access to that kind of cash at three o'clock in the morning who'd go downtown at that time of night to do it."

"Yeah, I'm not sure I'd haul my ass downtown for you at that time of the night."

"Well, it involved her, otherwise you'd be my first choice, Ronda. Always."

"Good to know, Boss."

"What?" he asked.

"Nothing," she said with a shrug.

"Say it. I can see your mind working. Just out with it or you'll be bothered all weekend by whatever it is you want to say."

"So, you're all right then?"

"What do you mean?"

"I don't know. You've seen her this week every day and I'm guessing she hasn't gone home every night. Last week I know you saw her pretty regularly, too. That's going on three weeks in a row you've been with the same woman. That's a record for you. You're not suffering from withdrawals or anything."

"Very funny. I'm fine."

"Just be careful of her parents."

"What do you mean?"

"She starts spending every night at your place and they're likely going to take that to mean something more serious is going on then what you have in mind with her."

"I don't think her parents have any idea where she sleeps, even when she crashes at her place I'm not sure they're aware of it. Besides you don't know what I have in mind to do with her."

"You sure, John?"

"I'm positive. You were the one who told me to bring her flowers!"

"I didn't think she'd start spending the night right away."

"What did you think was going to happen?"

"I don't know. That you'd have a date. Talk things out."

"We did."

"You know ease into things like most people do."

"It's not like we just met, Ronda. I've known her for years. Not like I just started liking her overnight either."

"Well then I guess I can stop worrying."

"You really worried about me?"

"Of course I do. How you live, lived maybe for now, isn't good for anyone. I don't care who they are and how much they maintain they like living like that."

"It suited me fine."

"You say that, and I believe you mean it, but clearly by you getting this involved as quickly as you have. That has to tell you it ultimately wasn't good for you either."

She had a point he supposed. He hadn't thought much on it because there'd been no one but Claire who interested him like that in the slightest. He tried, too, but no one else did it for him. Whatever it was. He sure wished he knew. He'd spent a lot of time searching for it, too. He didn't mind being alone, but he had to admit the past three weeks he'd more than not minded. She'd been home when he got home from work every night so far. Some nights she went out after he got home and they had dinner, but she came back. The only time she'd gone home for any length of time in over two weeks now was the two Saturdays he'd had weddings. Otherwise, she'd been at his house most days, all day since the night they first went out.

Too fast? Maybe, but he didn't think so where they were concerned. They both knew they liked each other, more than liked each other. They'd known it four years ago. Liking her hadn't been the issue for him.

"You and Bill want kids?"

"Yes, of course."

"Would it matter to either of you if the other one was defective in that department?"

"John. If she loves you that wouldn't matter."

"You are in love. I'm asking you. If you found out would it bother you?"

She shrugged. "Hard to say. I'd like to say no, but Bill didn't think that chance existed when we got married. So it'd be different, you know? I mean would my life be incomplete and meaningless without a child? No, I'd like to think not."

"I told her."

"And she said it didn't matter?"

"Yes."

"Then take her word for it."

"She's twenty-two."

"I'm guessing she still knows whether it would matter to her."

"That's not too young? I mean, I doubt she's even thought of getting married let alone kids."

"I'm sure she's thought of getting married, John. Every woman has thought of getting married at some point growing up. Usually it's when they fall in love for the first time, whether that first love is reciprocated or not."

"Who was your first love?"

"Shaun Cassidy."

He chuckled at that. "You dreamt of marrying Shaun Cassidy?"

"Oh, you bet. I loved The Hardy Boys and he could sing, too."

"I'm not sure I can have you working for me anymore knowing that. Shaun Cassidy, Ronda?"

"Would it matter to you?"

"What do you mean?"

"If it was reversed and she told you she may not be able to have them."

"No, I wouldn't care, but there is no expectation on me to go forth and multiply either."

"True. We're very lucky, too, or something tells me there'd have been a lot of multiplying the past few years."

"Ha ha."

"You've told her, she knows the possibility exists. I'd say for now you've done what you need to do. If your situation gets more serious to where you're thinking of marrying her or something permanent then I'd suggest taking steps to find out if it's actually true. Like going to a doctor for tests. You said might, not definitely."

"No, you're right, I was told a chance."

"Well, when you need to know then worry about it. Until then you've been honest about it, just enjoy having a girlfriend, John."

"It's not so bad."

"You better not let her hear you say that or I'm guessing you'll spend the next week sleeping alone again."

"At least I'd get some sleep at any rate."

"Such are the sacrifices we make to make someone else happy, John. Welcome to a relationship."

"Good night, Ronda. Have a good weekend."

"You are going to show up at the wedding tomorrow, right?"

"Geez. Really? What did I do to deserve that?"

"I'm just teasing you."

"Yeah, yeah, now if you'll excuse me it's ninety degrees out and I have a beautiful woman laying out in my backyard in a bikini I'd like to get home to."

"Have fun."

He came home to find her exactly where he figured she'd be. Her backyard was by far bigger and nicer overall than his, but he loved the idea of her being in his instead of hers very much. She was exactly where he pictured her being when he drove onto his driveway. She even had the garage door open so he was able to drive right in. One of these days he'd invest in an electric opener. He got the impression the people he'd bought the house from hadn't used the garage to park their car in. He cared too much for his car to leave it outdoors.

He was surprised to see her standing by the door when he got out.

"Hi," he said. "Did I cut your tanning short?" She went to a tanning booth she'd confided to him to get a base tan before laying out. She was prone to burning otherwise, which he understood with her fair skin.

"No, I was waiting for you."

"You were?" He glanced at his watch. "Did we have plans earlier than I realized?"

"No," she said. She reached up then, grabbing the rope that hung there to pull the garage door down.

"You locking me in?"

"For a little while."

"You, too?"

"Uh huh."

"I see," he said, crazily getting a little excited at what she might have in mind that would require her to shut the garage door before doing it.

She walked up to him and he couldn't help but watch. She reached behind her to her back and a second later the strings holding her top in place back there fell to her sides. He slid his hands to the strings that went from the top around her neck and the bow keeping it in place, tugging on it.

"Hi," he said as he tossed the top into the seat of his car.

"Hi," she whispered before kissing him.

Fuck. He wasn't sure what to pay attention to. He very badly wanted to get her bikini bottoms in his car with the top, but then she was naked from the waist up and, well, that won out. She had the greatest breasts. Maybe he thought so because he just liked the idea that no one had touched her there but him. She'd liked what he'd done that day at school. He knew she hadn't lied about enjoying what he'd done with his hands that day.

She worked his shirt out of his jeans, sliding it up and off. It joined the top to her bikini and she kissed him, licking and sucking on his chest everywhere before encountering the waist of his jeans. She worked the fastening there, opening them and sliding her hand inside.

"Damn," he whispered as she gripped him very much as if her need was as urgent as his currently was. She crouched then, hands sliding to his hips for support as she took him in her mouth. Talk about a turn-on. He cursed under his breath as she worked his hard-on deeper and faster into her mouth.

And then she stood up and walked away.

"Uh, Claire," he whispered, opening his eyes. He hadn't even consciously shut them, but what she'd been doing there for the past few minutes felt very good. He watched as she walked to the front of his car, grabbing a towel from the workbench there that she'd obviously put there because he knew it wasn't there this morning.

"Why are you standing all the way over there?" she asked.

"I absolutely love what you're wanting to do here, but I don't have anything on me."

She unfolded the towel a bit and pulled out a packet and he groaned at the sight of her standing there essentially naked holding it. He didn't need her to ask him or tell him what she wanted. He was by her again quickly, grabbing the packet from her.

He slid his other hand to her head, drawing her to him for a kiss. He was aware of the fact that she slid the bottom to her bikini down and off, kicking them out of the way before breaking the kiss. She stepped away a little and he took the time to appreciate the view of her naked. He hadn't had the chance to see her during the day like this much since he was usually working days and he tried to do something that resembled dates with her on Sundays.

She turned around then, facing away from him, dropping her hands onto the towel that she'd laid over the hood of his car. Good thinking, too, because it would be warm with him just coming home. He tore the packet open, dropping the wrapper into the trash can he had there before sliding it on.

"What are you doing?" she asked, glancing at him over her shoulder.

"Looking," he said.

"Why?"

"Why? Because you're worth looking at. You look very nice against my car, Princess."

"Yeah?" He realized then that she was far more uncertain about this than she was letting on.

"Yes, I'm pretty sure I could come just looking at you right now," he whispered, stepping behind her. He dropped his hands to her hips, sliding a hand between her legs so he could use his fingers to get her ready for him. He didn't need to do too much. "Hmm, how long have you been thinking about doing this?"

"Since you left this morning," she whispered.

"Really?"

"Yes," she said.

He slid inside of her then. He wasn't very nice or gentle about it. He couldn't help it and her asking him to be behind her told him she wasn't exactly looking for it that way either. She was still for the first couple of minutes as he thrust inside of her, but she didn't stay still for very long. She started responding, pressing herself into his thrusts, pressing her ass against the hand that was touching her there.

"You could've called me and asked me to come home for lunch."

"You'd do that?"

"For you? For this? I'd be home faster than you could imagine."

"I'll keep that in mind," she whispered.

"Good," he said.

"John," she cried out.

"That's good?" he asked as he slid a finger along her nub, pressing deeply into her.

"Uh huh."

He kept doing that, knowing he wasn't going to last too long like this. Taking her from behind was just too good, turned him on too much because he'd laid odds until about ten minutes ago that she'd never let him in her like this. He was very glad his imagination was wrong.

He slid a finger from her ass lower along the crevice there, pressing at the opening there with his pinky finger. She whimpered softly and came just as soon as he entered her with his fingertip. He cried out at the feel of her clenching around him in both places, finishing almost immediately after she did.

"You honestly think I wouldn't come home for that if you called me and asked me to?"

"Well, I don't know what you do for lunch."

"Trust me, having sex with you would be the best lunch hour ever."

"Do I have to call you?"

"What do you mean?"

"What if you just wanted to and came home?"

"Oh, yeah, if you're willing, sure. I can't deny I've spent a good amount of my downtime at work this week thinking about you and the way you feel around me."

"Just there."

"Uh, no, your mouth, your hand, or just laying behind you and being between your legs."

"Me, too," she said.

"And you came up with this idea?"

"Uh huh."

"I love your imagination, Princess."

"Do you?"

"Yes."

"I was afraid you'd worry about your car."

He chuckled softly.

"I think in this instance I'd think a scuff mark or two were worth it."

"Hmm."

"Does this mean we're not going up to your parents' lake house?"

"Oh no, I still want to."

"Good, because I had Ronda make sure next Monday and Tuesday morning are clear."

"I think you should bring your Jeep there, though."

"Oh?"

"Uh huh."

"You like it in cars, huh?"

She shrugged.

"Hey, I'm not going to say no to you. Whatever you want I'm game."

"Anything?"

"Well, within reason, yes."

"What's unreasonable?"

"Anyone else with male parts."

She laughed softly at that.

"I think I have all I need with your male parts."

"That is very good to hear, sweets."

She brushed her ass against him and he groaned softly, drawing away from her to take the condom off and drop it in the trash there.

"Thank you for being completely prepared."

"I was going to have you sit in the passenger seat."

"Yeah?"

"Uh huh. And sit on top of you."

"There would have been absolutely nothing wrong with that."

"Maybe next time?"

"Any time."

"M'kay."

"You sound unsure."

"I don't know…"

"Claire. You're fine. Did I act as though I was bothered or anything but very excited?"

"No."

"I swear to you there is nothing you could do or suggest that would offend me."

He bent over to pick up the bottoms to her bikini.

"What are you doing?" she asked.

"As much as I don't mind you can't walk from my garage to my house naked."

"Oh," she said, stepping into them as he held them for her by her feet. He touched her a lot more than was necessary sliding them back up. Her legs were soft but slick from the tanning lotion she put on. He'd never had things like tanning lotion in his house until the past couple of weeks. She cried out, bracing herself against his car behind her when he started using his mouth on her. He slid a finger inside of her, groaning at the feel of her clenching around him. There was definitely something to be said to finding out all the different ways he could get her to say unladylike things.

He slid his tongue around her nub one last time after she came before standing a bit to pay attention to her breasts. The drawback of him being behind her he could only touch them with his hands. Not a bad thing, but he loved using his mouth on her here, too.

"What was that for?"

"Just because I can and love doing it. I need a reason?"

"No," she said softly as he nipped at the underside of her breast before sliding his tongue up along the side to the top there.

"I see, you're trying to get a tan over the love bite I left you last night," he said, sliding a finger over the spot.

"It's going to show with the dress I'm wearing tonight."

"Is that bad?"

She shrugged. "I guess that depends on you."

"Me?"

"You haven't been seen with me all of the time, only a few times. They may not put two and two together."

"And think someone else is giving you hickeys?"

"It could happen."

"Let them think what they want. I don't care. It's not going to be that visible, is it?"

"You haven't seen the dress I am wearing out."

"I guess I haven't. I'm looking forward to it now if you're telling me it reveals enough that this is going to show."

"It is."

"Maybe I should let you drive home tonight."

"Why?"

"So then you can pull off somewhere, get out and come sit on my lap. I, uh, don't think we'd fit in the driver's seat together."

"True."

"It'd be kind of fun."

"You'd let me drive?"

"Are you going to drink?"

"Are you going to put one in your wallet?"

"A drink?" he asked with a chuckle.

"No," she said, blushing.

"I could put one in my wallet."

"Then I won't drink."

"Really, Princess? The bartenders are going to think hell has frozen over. You haven't been out once all week and when you do go out no drinking."

"They might. They'll get over it."

"Thank you, by the way," he said, kissing her. "That was a very nice way to end my work day."

"I thought you might like it."

"I more than liked it."

"You'd really come home during the day?"

"For you? For that?" He chuckled. "Assuming I wasn't in the middle of something, yes."

"I don't think I'd call there and ask you to do that."

"Why not?" he asked with a frown.

"Ronda would know."

"I don't think Ronda cares. I think she finds my current situation amusing."

"Why?"

"She just does. I don't know. She seems to think she knew all along I wanted someone. And you could use my pager. I have it on me all the time."

"But it's for work."

"I pay for it so it's for whatever I want it to be for. The perk of being the boss. You page me I'll be here as soon as I can get here."

"I made spaghetti."

"Claire," he said cautiously.

"It's not bad and I didn't burn anything."

"Really?"

"Yes. My mother helped me."

"Your mother came here and helped you?"

"No, I called her on the phone, told her what you had at the house. She gave me a list of what else I needed and then she walked me through making it."

"Okay."

"You still think it's going to be bad!"

"No, I don't, I'm sure it's good. Let's go find out then and then we can maybe clean up before we head out."

"Together?"

"That was the idea, yes."

"I like taking showers with you."

"No more than I do, sweets, I assure you. And in case I forget, thank you for making dinner. You don't have to."

"I know, but I'm sitting here all day it seemed as if I should do something!"

"Your dad's going to freak out if you put off going to work so that you can stay at my house and learn how to cook me dinner."

"Yeah, he'd probably be a little mad about that."

He chuckled softly. Her dad would be more than a little mad if that happened. John couldn't say he minded the idea, though.

Return to Top

***Chapter Fourteen***
Word Count: 5,366

John reached for his cigarettes and lighter next to his bed as he joined her on the bed again. He had no idea knowing someone was at his house during the day could be a turn-on. Not entirely the case, but he'd certainly liked the idea he could come home for a while.

"What was that for?" she asked.

It was close to one hundred degrees so it was pretty fucking hot in the bedroom. Almost too hot for him to follow through with his idea of coming home during his free couple hours to have sex with her.

Almost.

He was finding that there was very little to stop him from following through with those ideas pertaining to her. He got those ideas a lot, too. Who knew being with the same woman could actually be enjoyable?

"What was what for?" he asked, taking a drag off the cigarette. He offered her one, which she didn't take. He'd discovered over the past couple of months that she didn't smoke regular cigarettes. Actually, she hadn't smoked anything that he knew of in the past couple of months. He didn't either often really anymore. Every once in a while, though, he was in the mood for that instead of a beer.

"Coming home like that?"

He shrugged.

"I have to have a reason to want you?"

"Well, no, of course not. It's just it's not even noon yet. You were at work for barely two hours."

"I went in at nine, remember?"

"Oh, right," she said. She'd been sound asleep when he left for work so he doubted very highly she remembered. "Someone scheduled with you early."

"Right. It was a pretty time intense shoot and wasn't one Ronda could schedule in the middle of the day in between other appointments. You know?"

She didn't answer him and, in fact, drew away from him, taking the sheet with her as she sat up.

"So you were taking pictures of a woman?"

"Yeah," he said with a slight frown.

"Naked pictures?"

"Yeah," he said cautiously. "I do that."

"So, you get horny taking those kind of pictures?"

"Well, no," he said. "I mean, they're just pictures."

"You don't come home needing that after taking baby pictures."

"Of course not."

"So you do react."

"It got me thinking I guess, so it was a reaction."

"Thinking about sex."

"With you."

"You've been doing this for years."

"Yeah."

"Who have you come home to before?"

"Claire, come on. What's your deal?"

"You!"

"Me? What did I do?"

"You get mad because I dance with a guy in public at a club, but I'm supposed to be okay with you getting like that taking pictures of women naked alone. Anything could happen and I would never know. You can bet if something happened between me and a guy I was dancing with you'd know."

"Ronda's there!"

"As if she'd walk in on you."

"Well, no, but she could. I'm not the one who's had my face plastered all over the various newspapers with a different guy every other month for the past four years either."

"No because you haven't been with the same girl for that long."

"Really Claire? I came home, here, to you! You're in my house. Are you listening to yourself? Why would I have you here, want you here if I wanted anyone else?"

"Yeah, but I can't help but think, wonder, you know, how many have you done things with when you reacted to them?"

"None!"

"John," she said.

"I'm serious. I'm not going to say I don't ever react, but I'm not looking at them that way. I certainly wouldn't hit on someone. The only time I've ever reacted and acted upon it was with Tina and Lily. And they initiated."

"That makes me feel better!"

"Well, on the other hand, I saw them more than once over the span of more than three years."

"That doesn't help!"

"Claire, I swear to God I have never done anything with a client other than those two. And, if you didn't notice, those two are redheads like someone else I know. I maintain that's what I reacted to more than them."

Silence.

"What is it you want me to do? Those shoots make me money and I'm good at my job."

"I know," she whispered. She was still sitting up, clutching the sheet around her.

"And I realize to you that may not mean much, my needing to make money because if you didn't want to you could not work and your dad would ensure you have a good life. I can't do that. I have nothing without my job. So I'm at a loss. Are you telling me to stop?"

"No," she murmured.

"Then what? Don't come home again?"

"I don't know."

"I thought of you. Do you get that? I thought of wanting to come here and see you," he ran a fingertip along her arm. "Your body."

"I get it. I just don't understand why you're jealous of me dancing."

"Because those guys don't know you've got me."

"Those women don't either!"

"Those women aren't coming to me to get laid, Claire. They're coming to me to get their pictures taken."

"Naked."

"Jesus. Yes. It's art. Maybe not the kind of art you like, but that doesn't mean other people don't. I never said you can't dance with anyone else. I said I don't like it, and I don't. I'm entitled to my opinion just as you are on this. I understand you don't like it, but I promise you I act professionally."

"I'm not going to sleep with anyone else."

"That is very good to know, Princess," he said. "I believe you. However, you did come to my house one night with your blouse ripped and a bump on your head because a guy attacked you. I mean, what would've happened if you'd been a little drunker and didn't at least try to get away at first? What if whatever distracted him hadn't happened? Do you think about that?"

"I do!"

"Me, too, every time you go out without me I think about it."

"I know."

"Do you? I don't think you realize how much that bothers me. It bothered me that night more than I thought possible considering we hadn't talked in months and we weren't involved. I don't even want to know how I'd react if that happened now. I'm pretty sure I'd hunt him down and you wouldn't be able to bail me out of jail when I got done with him."

"I just," she shrugged.

"If you wanted to the next time someone I know well enough has an appointment I could ask them if you could sit in. You'd see then that there's absolutely nothing sexual about it."

"But you came home…"

"Yes, because I knew I had you to come home to. If I hadn't I would've gone about my day like any other day. I came home here to you because I could. Do you get what a huge thing that is for me? I mean, two months is a long time for me."

"Me, too," she whispered.

"So, is this it then? I pissed you off and you've reached your allotted time with me, or what?"

"I never said that!"

"Well, I don't know. Maybe you're itching to move on. I know you like to do that."

"You should talk!"

"I'm not the one getting mad at you for coming home to me to have sex."

She slid her knees up, setting her chin on them. "You really think I'd just move on?"

"That's what you do."

"I wasn't having sex with them. I didn't like them because they weren't you."

"Do you want me to ask?"

"No," she said.

"I'd do it."

"I know you would."

"I mean, shit Claire you've basically been living here for the last month. I'm not a complete asshole. I like you here."

"I like being here."

"I more than like you being here as much as you are."

"Me, too," she whispered.

"You're even learning to cook."

She laughed softly at that.

"Why you're teaching me better than my mom ever has I don't know."

"Maybe I have more incentive to teach you than she ever did."

"What incentive?"

"It's kind of nice to come home to food I didn't cook or buy."

"I don't think I'm going to cook tonight."

"Nah, it's too hot. I'll pick up a pizza or something on the way home."

"Thank you."

"Are we okay?"

"Yes," she said, glancing at him.

"You mad at me?"

"I wasn't mad, just," she shrugged.

"I get it. Really, it was thoughts of you that put me in that mood not her."

"I don't think I even want to know what you were thinking about me."

"You don't?"

"I don't know, do I?"

He shrugged. "It was just thoughts of you. I don't know. Your willingness to do just about anything is a turn on, which gets me thinking sometimes."

"You mean in my parents bathtub wasn't adventurous enough for you?"

"Your parents' bathtub," he scoffed. "You could fit four people in that thing and still have room left over. It was pretty nice, though."

"I thought so, too."

"It was only a little weird and only because it was in your parents' room."

"My brother and I used to go in there all of the time."

"Not to have sex I hope, or that might explain some things about your brother's preferences."

She rolled her eyes, but laughed so she knew he was teasing her. "No."

They'd gone up to her parents' lake house for a couple of days two weeks ago. It was a nice place, not that he'd expect any less out of the Standishes. Her parents' bathtub was really a hot tub. Claire had been all for using it, John had been a little hesitant. It wasn't a lack of wanting to, it was more it seemed sort of…wrong to have sex with their daughter in their bedroom. She'd convinced him, though.

As if it ever took her much to convince him. She hadn't been quite as bold as the day in his garage. He wasn't sure why either. He'd certainly told her he'd liked her doing it. Maybe she just wasn't comfortable enough to yet. He had no idea. She had never called him to ask him to come home on his lunch. So, this was the first time he'd come home in the middle of the day for that purpose. He'd come home a couple of times to eat lunch with her because she'd woken up late and didn't have enough time to get ready and get to him before his next appointment.

"So, if I do this again you're not going to think it's because I took pictures like that again, are you?"

"I don't know. Are you?"

"I have no idea. I just wasn't entirely sure you'd actually want to, you know."

"I've never said no to you."

"No," he said. The only time she hadn't wanted to was a legitimate female reason and she'd more than made up for that by going down on him both times it'd been the case so far. He certainly didn't consider that saying no.

"Are you going to be home when I get home tonight?"

"Yes," he said. "My plans will not keep me out as late as you'll be out."

"I was just wondering."

"No, I haven't seen Charlie and Glen in a while so I may be later than I think, but not real late."

"I remember Glen, I'm not sure I remember Charlie."

"Yeah, well, I'd tell you to look in your yearbook, but Charlie isn't in there."

"Never? In four years?"

John chuckled. "No, he always skipped pictures and went out to the football field or something and got stoned instead."

"Is that what you did?"

"I think I was in the yearbook freshman year. I vaguely recall getting my picture taken, but overall yes that's where I was."

"You got stoned at school?"

"Sweets, I got stoned in gym class once. We were playing floor hockey and those of us not on the floor playing were sitting on this huge stack of wrestling mats."

"I remember," Claire said.

"Yeah, well, people could slide behind those."

"Oh my God."

He chuckled. "That shocks you? Really? Come on."

"No, I guess not. I just would never have."

"You did that day of detention. And Vernon could have walked in at any time."

"I know, that's different though."

"Why?"

"It was one time."

"You still did it, and I'm willing to bet you did it more times than just that once while not at school."

"Well, sure," she said. "Not as much as you."

"I have no doubt that's true. Do you realize sometimes I didn't have a choice?"

"What do you mean?"

"Sometimes I was in pain. I couldn't go to the nurse and my parents never took me to a doctor or anything."

She turned onto her side then, touching him. "I never thought about it. I'm sorry."

"I'm not going to say that's the only reason I did it, but there were times it was either that or stay home. Staying home from school wasn't an option."

"I know," she whispered.

"Now it just relaxes me, you know."

"Yes," she said.

"And I don't do anything else."

"I know, John."

"Just being honest."

"I don't think you could be as successful as you've been if you did anything else."

"Maybe. Maybe not. Some people can do it. I get fidgety when I do anything harder. That doesn't produce good product."

She laughed softly at that. "No, I suppose it doesn't."

"Plus, I don't know where to buy stuff anymore, you know? I'd hate to end up in jail over buying from a narc."

"I don't think I could afford to bail you out for those charges."

"Yeah, probably not," he said with a snort. "I need to get back to work, though," he said, glancing at his clock.

"You didn't even eat!"

"I did, too, and it was far tastier than food."

"Stop."

"Now she gets embarrassed. You didn't tell me to stop when I was doing that."

"Well, of course not, it feels good."

"To me, too."

"You don't feel anything when you do that to me."

"I do, too. I feel your skin, the changes in your clit as you get aroused and then as you come down from your orgasm. I taste you, that's a sense, too. The only thing I can't feel is the flush on your skin when you come as hard as you did that first time."

"John," she whispered.

"It's arousing, what can I say?"

"Would you just let me break up with you?"

"What?" he asked. "Where did that come from?"

"Earlier you asked me if I was planning to stop seeing you."

"Yeah."

"You'd just let me do that?"

"What would you have me do? We've been doing this for a couple of months, it's not a lifetime. Would I want you to, no, but I'm not going to make someone stay with me either who doesn't want to or expresses the desire to get out."

"Would you find another girlfriend?"

"What? What the fuck are you asking me?"

She shrugged a little. "Just wondering if now that you've had one you'd want another one."

"The one I have, sure."

"So, no desire to find another one."

"I'm just fine where I'm at. What are you asking me?"

"Do I make you happy enough you'd want to try again?"

"Well, you do, sure, but I don't know that I'd rush out to try again, no. Once is challenging enough for me."

"Because it's me. You're not the only one who has doubts you know."

"What do you mean?"

"There are women out there who aren't me. You wouldn't have to worry about being followed or having pictures taken of you."

"I deal with it. I'm surprised they haven't found my house yet."

"Me, too," she said, sounding as if she had in fact thought of that. "I guess we've been more careful than I realized."

"That's good, though, Princess. You need some place you can be where you don't have to worry about anything. I'm glad that's here."

"Me, too," she whispered.

"I'm going to clean up and then I really have to go."

"Do you want me to make you a sandwich or something? There's turkey and cheese and some stuff to make something like that."

"I like that you buy stuff to keep here."

"I keep waiting for you to accuse me of taking over your house."

"Nah. If you were redecorating or moving furniture around I might say something."

"Funny, because that couch…"

"Don't even start. I like my couch just where it is."

"Is that a yes to making you something?"

"That's a you stay right there. I'll grab something on my way back to work."

"You like me in your bed entirely too much."

"You look good there. What can I say?"

"I know the feeling. I liked you in my bed, too."

"Which one?" he asked. Her rooms at her parents' house and lake house were pretty different.

"Both."

"As long as you're not plotting replacing my sheets with anything resembling what you have we're good."

"Solid colors are so boring."

"I'm a guy, Princess! I'm not supposed to have flowers, stripes, polka dots, or those amoeba looking things anywhere in my bedroom."

"Still boring."

"You make up for any dullness I have in here."

"Thank you."

"You're welcome," he said from the bathroom. He turned the shower on to let the water warm up. He was really going to be pushing it taking a shower but as hot as it was in here he didn't really have a choice.

"You're sure you want me to come back here tonight?"

"Yes! There isn't a night I wouldn't want you here. If you want to go home I wouldn't get mad or anything, but not wanting you here isn't part of the equation."

"You haven't gone out before."

"I'm not sure what you think I'm going to do while I'm out. We sit around and bullshit. We play pool. We throw some darts. We drink beer. None of which requires my sleeping alone tonight."

"I know."

"And well, I guess I'm taking advantage of you being a woman of leisure. I imagine sometime soon your dad's going to put you to work."

"God, don't remind me."

John chuckled softly. "Welcome to the adult world, Princess. That also means you being here so much will change I imagine. So I'm enjoying it while I have it."

"As long as you're not tired of me."

That was the craziest thing he'd ever heard in his life.

"Not likely," he said before stepping into the shower.

She joined him a couple of minutes later.

"This is not helping me get back to work on time," he whispered. She was facing away from him, hands against the wall. She made a very enticing picture like that and his body thought so, too.

"Remember when I said quick with you would be fun," she said, glancing at him over her shoulder.

"Uh huh," he said. He discovered that the blush he saw on her chest when she got real excited while not as dark was at the back of her neck, too.

"Now's a time I wouldn't complain about that."

"If you insist."

"I think I kind of do."

***

He hadn't fooled Ronda one bit, but she didn't say a word when he came back. Then he really wasn't trying to. He was (barely) on time for his next appointment, so what he did with his time in between appointments was his own business. Sometimes he took the time between appointments, brought a camera with him somewhere and just took pictures. He hadn't left with a camera today, and she knew that. Chances were she was more amused than anything, but he didn't ask.

"There he is," Charlie said.

Glen and Charlie were waiting for him at their usual place when he got there. They were about the only two people he kept in touch with from high school. Charlie worked at a gas station, but he was scraping by somehow. John suspected he was supplementing his income by less than legal means. He didn't know for sure, he certainly wasn't going to ask. Glen, however, had worked his way through college first going to a local community college and then transferring to a state college. He'd just finished this spring and was applying for "real" jobs. He was gainfully employed, though, working at a local hospital in their food services area. He'd worked there during high school, too, and they'd been decent enough to let him come back to a job when he was home for summer break last summer.

He ordered a beer as soon as their waitress showed up to take his order. Glen and Charlie had both been here for a little while at least judging by the already empty beer bottles in front of them.

"I told you I'd be here," John said. "It's not my fault some of us have to work for a living."

"Hey, I work."

"I know, Charlie, I was kidding," he said, not wanting to get his friend riled up this early into the night. If he did now, he'd never stop and alcohol made it worse. Charlie reminded John a little bit of his dad in that regard. Alcohol made him mean. He wasn't abusive or anything (that John knew of anyway), but he could be more than a little bit of a jerk to waitresses and stuff.

"You just haven't shown up the past few weeks. You haven't even called me back."

"He called me," Glen said.

"Way to be nice," Charlie said.

"I had to talk to Glen about something else, Charlie, it's nothing personal. Besides, you don't have a phone."

He had no phone, no cable, and he was lucky to have a bed to sleep on. He did have a TV, but had nowhere for anyone to sit but a small couch that had seen better days. Needless to say, Charlie's place was not a popular one to hang out.

"What did you have to talk to him about anyway?"

"John has a girlfriend," Glen said.

"Fuck, Glen, really?" John said, glaring at Glen. There was a reason he'd told Glen and hadn't shown up for the past few weeks to avoid Charlie knowing. He really didn't like Charlie knowing things about his life, and he wasn't sure he wanted him to know about this part of his life yet.

"You do?" Charlie asked. "He does?"

"He does," Glen said. "And you're never going to believe who."

There was a reason John hadn't been in a particular hurry to tell Charlie. He was, as much as John liked him, one of those opportunistic people. John didn't want Charlie suddenly showing up at his house hoping to borrow money or something from Claire.

"Oh come on, you didn't really expect me not to say anything?"

"Yes, I kind of did," John said. "If I wanted the whole world to know I wouldn't have to watch what I do every time I go out with her."

"So, who is it," Charlie asked. "And since when have you even wanted a girlfriend?"

John sighed a bit, taking a sip of his beer with a shrug, glaring at Glen. "Well, go ahead and tell him then since you seem to want to."

"Claire Standish."

"Shut up," Charlie said, clearly not believing Glen.

"I'm serious," Glen said. "He's even had his picture in the paper with her a couple of times."

"I don't get the paper," Charlie said. Neither Glen nor John were surprised by this revelation. "What the hell is she doing with you?"

"And that is why I didn't want you to know, Charlie. You know how to make a guy feel real good about himself. Why wouldn't she want to be with me?"

"You're…"

"Yeah? I own my own business. I have my own house. I have a nice car. So, where's the issue?"

"She's gorgeous."

"Yeah," John said cautiously.

"They had a thing back in school," Glen said.

"We did not!" John said.

"You did so," Glen said. "I never realized you actually liked her, but I remember our senior year you seemed pretty interested in who she was going to prom with."

"Wasn't everybody?"

"Everybody like us? No," Glen said.

Us being the burnout crowd who hung out in the smoking section at school versus going to pep rallies. John could honestly say other than the detentions he'd served he hadn't set foot on school property outside of the required school hours in his life.

"I suppose maybe not," John admitted. He hadn't realized he'd been at all obvious about his infatuation with her after that day.

"Who did she go to prom with anyway?" Charlie asked.

"Scott Hansen," John said.

God, he'd hated the guy. He was everything John was not. He'd seen her in the halls talking to him for the month or so before prom and wanted to beat the crap out of him every time he saw him hold her hand or have his arm around her. It was the first, and only, time John had ever experienced jealousy in any shape or form.

"Says the guy who wasn't interested," Glen said.

"So I know his name. It doesn't mean I had a thing with her. Trust me, if we'd had a thing she wouldn't have gone to prom with someone else."

"As if you could've afforded to take her," Glen said.

"Well, no," John said. He wouldn't have been able to more than likely, but he would've given just about anything to have the chance to find out if he could've.

"So she still would've gone with Scott," Charlie offered.

"Shut up," John said.

"Why are you with her anyway?"

"Because I like her. What kind of question is that anyway, Charlie?"

"Well, no offense, but you tend to go for the easy types," he said. "Like that one over there," he said, gesturing to a woman who had been watching their table for a while now.

"Maybe she wants to hit on you, Charlie."

"I don't think so," he said. Charlie was a nice guy, but he'd gotten passed over pretty severely in the good looks department. He'd had acne pretty bad from the time he was like twelve and while it was not as bad now it wasn't completely cleared up. The glasses that he'd had since he was like fifteen didn't help either. Back in high school showering hadn't been a priority for him either. That wasn't the case now, but he still had no self-esteem to put himself out there. He was probably the only twenty-two year old he knew that was still a virgin … and male.

"You could try. Glen and I will have your back."

"Uh no, she's not looking at me."

"Well, I'm not interested. You could try telling her that."

"Really?" Charlie asked.

"Really what? That you could talk to her? What's stopping you except you?"

"No, you're not interested."

"Uh no. What part of girlfriend do you not get?"

"I just never thought I'd see the day. Is she giving you regular sex or what?"

"I'm sorry. What does that have to do with anything?"

"Why else would you not pursue that," he said, gesturing to the woman.

"Because it'd be wrong?"

"It's never stopped you before."

John sighed. Charlie was right. He'd never thought twice about hitting on someone else when he was involved. He hadn't loved anyone else before. Too soon to think that way? Maybe, but he knew how he felt and while he wouldn't say it to these guys he could admit to himself what he felt for her without freaking the hell out. Well, maybe a little bit.

"Different type of involvement," John said with a shrug.

Glen laughed a little at that. John glared at him for opening the door for this conversation to happen.

"You go talk to her, Charlie. You have the same parts I do."

Glen wasn't an option since Glen had been dating the same girl since he was fourteen. They weren't married, weren't even engaged as far as John knew, but they were still together and happy as far as anyone knew. Kelly was pretty cool. A little out there, but they worked together for whatever reason.

"No, thanks."

"I'll make a deal with you."

"Okay," Charlie said, sounding suspicious.

"You stop asking me about Claire for the night and I'll stop telling you to go talk to her. Though you should. It'd be good for you."

"She'd just say no."

"You'd know that going in, though, at least you'd get the experience of trying."

"Says the guy who never gets told no."

"Do you find her attractive, Charlie?"

"Well, yeah."

"Then go talk to her. The worst she can do is say no."

"She will."

"You think everyone will."

"You said if I stop asking you about Claire…"

"Yeah. We have a deal then?"

"I guess."

"Fair enough," John said, glancing at the woman in question. Yeah, no chance in hell she'd be interested in Charlie, but he and Glen would've had fun watching him try. And John firmly believed he had to get brave enough to try at some point. He never understood shy people, especially when Charlie wasn't shy around them.

***

He felt the bed shift next to him and turned onto his other side to gather her to him.

"Hi," she whispered.

"Hi," he said back.

"You had fun?"

"I did," he said. Overall they had a good time. Once they got past the girlfriend thing. As he'd expected the subject of his love life hadn't been completely dropped for the night, but he'd kept to his end of the deal because he hadn't been altogether surprised his friends were curious.

"Good," she said, leaning in to kiss him.

"Did you?"

She shrugged. "It was okay."

"Just okay?" It was one of her friend's birthdays. She'd been talking about it for days.

"Yeah, I don't know. It was kind of boring."

He scoffed. "Are you sick, Princess?"

"No, it just was."

"Oh?"

"Yeah, I found myself wanting to be here in bed with you hours ago."

"I wasn't home hours ago."

"I knew that!"

"That's the only reason you stayed out?"

"It is," she admitted.

"Huh. Next time page me. I could've come home."

"No, you go out so rarely I wouldn't do that."

"Glen told Charlie about you."

"Oh?"

He chuckled softly. "Yeah. I think he thinks I have no chance in hell of ever getting laid again."

"Why?" she asked with a frown.

"I don't know, Princess. Your image?"

"Oh," she said. "Well, I guess no one could claim anything to the contrary."

"I can!"

"No one would believe you. You're just one who'd claim I did."

"You don't think others would pop up and claim you did, too, if I started that."

"Probably," she whispered.

"I wouldn't do that, you know?"

"What?"

"What we do here is our business. I don't talk about it."

"I wouldn't care."

"I do."

"You always want to protect me."

"That's a guy's job, isn't it?"

"The right guy."

"Am I the right guy then, sweets?"

"I think so."

"Me, too," he whispered.

She made no effort to do more than kiss him. She didn't seem drunk or anything, but he could tell she was tired. He settled his arm around her then, keeping her close to him. He almost liked this better than sex anyway. He wasn't quite sure what that said about him, but he wasn't going to analyze it too hard tonight.

"Night," she murmured.

"Sweet dreams," he said, kissing her ear.

"Always when I'm here."

"Good to know."

Return to Top

***Chapter Fifteen***
Word Count: 3,747

September 1988

John sat on the plane, having a drink. He was totally dreading the next few days. Four nights with Claire with no job to wake up for was great. Four full days with her friends was an entirely different story. None of them knew what to make of him and he was equally as befuddled by them. He didn't speak rich woman, glamorous woman language very well. Give him a camera and he could talk them into posing like there was no tomorrow. It was the everyday conversations he sucked royally at.

Thus the drink. He planned on drinking a lot over the next five days. He had nothing on his calendar until Friday and was scheduled to fly back Thursday evening. Ronda would have to be there to make appointments and let people pick up pictures and stuff that were ready. He, however, was free and clear until Friday.

He hadn't been entirely sure about taking this trip with her. She'd invited him, seemed to think it was an excellent idea him coming along. He wasn't so sure about it.

He'd even said no at first. Going away with her. Well, he wasn't sure she was ready for what that would imply to her friends about their relationship. He had no problem with it because he wasn't walking away from her until she told him she didn't want to see him again. He hoped that wouldn't happen. He didn't plan on giving her any reason to want to stop seeing him. She hadn't slept at her parents' house in weeks and he had absolutely no issue with her not doing it ever again as far as he was concerned. He liked her at his house and in his bed.

Things were winding down for the most part as far as weddings went, though. She knew that, too. So when she'd mentioned it again he'd found it difficult to come up with a legitimate reason to say no. Did he really care if her friends thought they were serious? No, because he was as serious as he thought he could ever get about someone.

He hadn't uttered the love word to her, but that was his problem not a lack of the emotion being there. He didn't have very positive experiences with people he loved treating him well so he wasn't planning on rushing out to say it.

He'd worked more than one late night last week to be sure everything that should've been done this week was done. Soon, though, there'd be the Christmas push. Family portraits. Christmas cards. He even hired out a Santa on select days for people who wanted their kids' pictures taken with the jolly man.

She'd had this trip booked for a while so her changing it wasn't really an option. His going along was entirely voluntary on his part. She'd left yesterday morning so she'd have almost two full days with her friends without him along to do as she pleased. Not that she couldn't once he got there, but he'd never been to Vegas before so he was sure hoping to do some things with her while there that didn't involve her friends.

This upcoming week was her last bit of freedom. Next week she was going to start working. Evidently the pictures he'd been taking and selling combined with her not being seen carousing until all hours of the night every night with a different guy each time had helped convince her dad she was ready.

The stewardess was pretty attentive, offering him a replacement drink almost before his first one was empty. He took her up on her offer. They were tiny little things, and it was absolutely ridiculous to spend as much money on them as they cost. He figured he only lived once, though. She'd offered him 7Up or Coke to mix the whiskey with but he hadn't bothered watering it down with something else. If he was going to pay an obscene amount of money for liquor he wanted to get a buzz out of it at the very least.

He'd never flown before either. He'd never had a reason to. He was admittedly a little nervous about being thousands of miles off the ground and at someone else's mercy. Claire had flown to Europe and back countless times, so he had to believe it was safe. The buzz from the whiskey would certainly help to stop him from thinking about the plane crashing into the Rockies.

The older woman next to him seemed to understand his nervousness and engaged him in conversation throughout the flight. She was a nice woman on the way to see her daughter who'd moved out there recently to work at one of the casinos. She didn't sound too thrilled with her career path, which made John wonder what she did at the casino but he didn't ask. It seemed a bit too personal of a topic to engage her in on a flight. She didn't talk his ear off or anything the entire flight, so she was all right. He appreciated her efforts, but he thought the whiskey did a better job than she did at calming his nerves.

"It was nice meeting you, John," the woman said.

"You, too, ma'am. I hope you have a good time here with your daughter."

"Thank you, you, too. Is that her?" she asked.

"Yeah," John said. He was going to ask how she'd known, but he supposed it was fairly obvious since he couldn't take his eyes off of her once he spotted her. "Yeah, that's her."

"Making friends with women on airplanes even, I see," she said.

"Are you a sight for sore eyes," he said, taking her into his arms when he finally got to where she was waiting for him at the gate.

"Aww, did you have a tough flight?"

"Let's just say I'm not going to be rushing out to do it again anytime soon."

"You do realize we have to go back Thursday?"

"Uh, yeah, I think I can survive one more."

"Good. I'd drive back with you, you know."

"Not necessary. Maybe the second one won't be as bad since you'll be sitting next to me."

"I love flying."

She would. She'd been doing it, though since before she could walk. Her parents had taken her and her brother all over the world. Some places she didn't remember because she'd been too young, but she had the pictures to show for being there.

"Can I kiss you now?"

"I think you can," she said.

"No reporters lurking about?"

"I don't care," she whispered.

He didn't care either. Again that was probably the whiskey talking because while he'd had his picture taken with her more than once over the past few months he'd never kissed her unless he knew they were fairly safe from being photographed. There was never completely safe when they were out, he knew that, but the areas she got entrance into at the clubs she went to reporters weren't given access to. So he usually felt pretty safe kissing her in places like that.

"I missed you last night," he said. Words he never thought he'd say ever in his lifetime. He hadn't wanted to admit to her that he had missed her either, but the words came out before he could screen them.

He'd blame the whiskey again.

"Did you?" she whispered.

"Yes, I slept like shit."

"I've been gone before," she said.

"I know. Must have been in my head, knowing you weren't just across town at your parents' house."

"Knowing I wasn't just a phone call away, you mean?"

"I've never called you to come over for that."

"I know. Why not?"

"Because I've never had to?"

She laughed softly. "How much did you have to drink on your flight anyway?"

"I don't know. I lost count after three bottles."

"John," she said.

"What can I say? They're tiny bottles anyway. It's not like I drank two pints of Jack on the way here or something."

"That is good to know."

"Yeah, even I know not to get completely sloshed. It probably helped I had someone to talk to who was nice."

"I'm glad. Why is she here?"

"Visiting her daughter who just moved out here for a job at a casino or something," he said. "I didn't pry because she didn't seem too thrilled about it."

"I see. Well, let's get you back to our room and unpacked," she said. He loved that idea a lot.

"Do we have to go out right away?"

"We have tickets for a show."

"All right," he said. That was not the answer he was looking for at all, but he understood this was her vacation, too. Her last bit of freedom before joining the real world. As real of a world where working for her father was anyway.

"I'd feel sorrier for you if you hadn't just gotten laid yesterday morning."

"But that was hours ago. Like thirty-six of them."

"You poor thing."

"I know. It's terrible."

"Let's go get your bag so we're not late."

"Lead the way, Princess."

***

He couldn't remember drinking so much in his life. He wasn't falling down drunk or anything, but man he'd spent the last three days basically good and buzzed. It was very nice. Except this morning he woke up with a blinding headache that made him realize he'd done more than maintain being tipsy last night. Talk about weird dreams while sleeping. He'd had them last night.

"Fuck. Why are the curtains open?"

"Because it's like eleven o'clock in the morning," she said, sounding amused.

"Why are you still in bed then?"

"Am I supposed to be somewhere else?"

"Well, if it's eleven o'clock I would've expected you to be having breakfast with your friends or something. Or I suppose shopping by now."

"I wouldn't do that this morning, no," she said.

"Okay," he said. He glanced at her then, regretting opening his eyes almost immediately. "Where did you get that?" he asked.

"I bought it."

"I gathered that. Since when do you ever wear white?" he asked.

He'd never in school or while they'd been seeing each other ever seen her wear white beyond maybe socks around his house or with gym shoes.

"You liked it last night," she said with a frown.

"I'm sure I did," he said. He couldn't remember a damned thing about last night. That was a scary thought in Vegas. How much money he could have lost! "I mean, it looks great on you, don't get me wrong."

"Well, it just seemed like I should wear something white."

He frowned, mulling that over in his head. He obviously wasn't thinking clearly because she wasn't making any sense to him at all. He was still trying to piece together the night before. He couldn't even remember coming back to the room with her. Obviously he must have, they were here. Her friends had the rooms on either side of their room. Eight of them, including Claire, had come.

"Why are your friends leaving us alone so late?"

"Because they figure they'll see us when we're ready to go down and find them. I know what they have planned today."

"That didn't seem to prevent them from knocking on our door at crazy hours the other mornings."

"Well, no," she said.

He stood from the bed then to go to the bathroom. He grabbed his pants from the chair at the desk, reaching for his pack of cigarettes and lighter on the way. He frowned a little at the rose that was there. It wasn't until he came out of the bathroom and saw the bigger arrangement of flowers on the dresser that he started panicking. He'd done enough weddings in his time to know what kind of bouquet that was.

"Uh, Claire?" he said.

"Yeah?"

"We didn't get married last night did we?"

She looked panicked, probably not as panicked as he currently felt. Panicked just the same. He took her in then, processing it better this time. The white negligee thing, which was stunning on her but it was white. Her friends leaving them alone. The fact he couldn't remember doing much beyond winning a good chunk of change at the slots. She'd forced him to step away then. She could be very convincing about getting him to do what she wanted him to do when she wanted to be he'd come to realize this week.

"Oh God, you don't remember."

"I was drunk!"

"You weren't that drunk!"

"Says you."

"You've been drunk all week."

"So you thought that'd be a good time to marry me?"

"You asked!"

"I did not."

"John, it was right after you'd won the money. You said we should get married here to avoid anyone finding out we didn't want to know."

"I said that?"

"Yes."

He had to admit it sounded very much like something he'd say. Shit.

"And you agreed?"

"I love you. So what's the problem?"

"Because you deserve better than this," he said, picking up the bouquet. It was decent as far as bouquets went, but he knew for certain hers would've been ten times more elaborate if they had a wedding.

"It didn't matter to me."

"Why not?"

She shrugged. "It's a piece of paper. What does it matter if it's here in Vegas or at home in front of five hundred people I'll never see again in my life? At least here my friends that mattered were here."

"Are you serious?"

"I am," she said.

"We're married? This isn't some kind of joke you're playing on me because I've been spending more money on booze than on you?"

"You made up for that last night."

"I did?"

"Uh yeah," she said. He noticed then she had a ring on her finger. Shit.

"At least I did something right I guess," he said, stepping toward her to look at it. Now unlike the flowers the ring was very nice. He hadn't been too cheap on that anyway.

"You really want to be married to me?" he asked. "I mean, what if I can't give you kids, Claire?"

Then he had another moment of panic as he realized there wasn't a condom wrapper in the room anywhere. Nowhere. Not the floor. Not the little trash cans. Not the nightstand. Not in the bathroom.

"Fuck, please don't tell me we did that, too?"

"You said you wanted to be in me without one," she said.

"And you let me?"

"You said you never had been before. Why wouldn't I?"

"I could've lied!"

"You wouldn't lie to me about that."

"Says you."

"John."

"Why would you do that?"

"Which part? It doesn't matter. My answer is the same, I love you. I've loved you for four years. You asked, I said yes. We went and did it. I honestly didn't think you were that drunk."

"But you were sober?"

"Yes!" She shrugged. "Maybe I should lie and say I wasn't, I don't know."

"Why?"

"Because evidently this morning you don't want to be married to me. So, now I feel like a complete idiot for thinking you actually seriously wanted to marry me. Don't worry, we can get it annulled before we leave, I'm sure."

"Wait, what? You go from loving me to wanting to get an annulment? Breaking up would go with that, I suppose. I mean, I wouldn't blame you I guess, hard to stay dating someone you think doesn't want to be married to you."

"I don't want you married to me because you did it while drunk."

"Well, I did. There's no going back from that. I asked, though, I can't say the thought hadn't crossed my mind. I just assumed you'd tell me it was too soon and the kid thing," he shrugged.

"I told you that doesn't matter to me."

"You say that, and I want to believe you, but it bothers me I may not be able to do that for you. Your parents."

"I wouldn't have kids for my parents anyway."

"You know what I mean."

"I think I do."

"Just how many times did we?"

She blushed profusely then.

"That many?"

"You seemed to like it."

"I'm sure I did," he said.

"You really don't remember?"

"I'm sorry, Princess, I don't. I remember sitting at the slots and that's about where it ends."

"You were there for a while."

"I was determined to win something."

"And you did."

"Yeah, I have vague recollections of that part. Is that what I bought your ring with?"

"Yes."

He tapped another cigarette out and lit it, sitting on the bed.

"Your parents are going to kill us, you know?"

"My brother's gay, John. Do you think they're really going to snub their nose at any chance to have grandkids, whatever means they get that chance?"

"Put like that, no, but they're still going to kill us."

"We could always not tell them."

"What do you mean?" he asked.

She shrugged. "We could get married at home. Let them give me a wedding and they'd never know."

"I'm not going to lie to them. We'd get tons of gifts from people and that'd be wrong."

"Why? We'll get them anyway when they find out we got married."

"Really?"

"Yes."

"Huh. I thought that was the point of eloping. Or at least the downfall. You got out of the formalities but you also lost out on the gifts."

"You don't know my parents' friends. Trust me."

"So why are you still wearing that anyway?"

"What do you mean?"

"If we, if I, uh." It was his turn to blush he was pretty sure. "If we were that active why'd I leave it on you?"

"You'd have to tell me your reasoning behind that. I don't know. You seemed to like it on and so did I," she said blushing again.

"You did?"

"Yes," she said. "You, uh, left it down once when you rubbed me so I felt not just you touching me but the satin…"

"I see," he said. "I'm very sorry I don't remember that."

He stood to find the ashtray, stubbing out his cigarette in it.

"God I'm an asshole. I'm sorry."

"What?"

"I don't know. I just am. You deserve so much better than me not even remembering the night we got married."

"Maybe it'll come back to you if you don't drink for a while."

"Maybe," he said. He sat on the bed again, finding her ankle and touching her there.

"You're surprisingly calm about this."

"Well, I admitted I'd thought about it, but I'd sort of planned on finding out if the kid thing was an issue or not first."

"It's only been two months."

"I'm not sure that matters for us," he said. "It's not like we just met two months ago."

"No," she said.

"So you agreed to this last night. Sober. What was your plan?"

"My plan?"

"Yes. You start work on Monday. Obviously you're going to be in a position where you're going to earn way more than I could dream of making. You planning on moving?"

"Moving? I like your house."

"Yeah, but it's pretty small…"

"Well, if we're going to have ten kids maybe, but I'm not that ambitious I don't think."

"Me neither."

"For one or two, I think we'd be fine."

"So you want to live there?"

"Yes!"

"Like when we get home tomorrow?"

"That would be the point of getting married, yes." She laughed.

"What?" he asked.

"Are you going over in your head what I may find incriminating at your house while I'm putting my stuff away?"

"Something like that."

"I'm not worried about it."

"Yeah, but not even a month ago you were all bent out of shape I came home…"

"I won't deny it bothers me. It may always, I don't know, but either I trust you or I don't."

"And you do?"

"I do."

"Why?"

"Because I don't think you would've wanted to marry me, drunk or not, if you couldn't be honest and faithful."

"Guys get married all of the time…"

"They're not you."

"You decide between now and when we leave this isn't what you want we'll see about getting it annulled."

"I could say the same to you."

"I'm not an idiot, Claire. You think I'm going to let you walk away?"

"I wouldn't blame you. You only have my word for it that you asked me."

"No, no, I can buy me asking. It's Vegas. I'd just won some money. Your friends totally can't stand me."

"So that means you'd ask me to marry you?"

"Well, it's shut them up anyway. They're not here bothering us."

"They don't hate you. They don't know you."

"Yeah, well, I'm just a blue collar guy in their eyes and I'm sure not good enough for you."

"They could've stopped me last night."

"None of them tried?"

"No."

"Huh," he said. "So, they're going to leave us alone?"

"Yes," she said.

"So, was there a time limit to my being able to be inside of you without one?"

"Time limit?"

"Yeah, you know, did we agree just for last night or what?"

"Why?" she asked.

"Well, I'd like to remember once at least."

"Are you asking?"

"I am," he said.

"There was no time table, but I think until we know for sure if you can or not we should maybe not so much."

"Yeah, your dad would kill me for sure if you started working already pregnant."

"Kind of," she said.

"I can pull out," he offered.

"Kind of too late for that now."

"I suppose," he said. He sighed softly, moving next to her on the bed.

"Where are you going?"

"To lay down."

"Why?" she asked.

"Why what?"

"I thought you wanted to have sex."

"I thought you were saying no."

"No, I was just saying we should probably not get into the habit of not using them, but one more time probably won't hurt anything."

"After this," he said.

"Yeah?"

"You're going to take me to where we went last night."

"Why?" she asked.

"I'm hoping seeing it will help me remember."

"I think just being completely sober will help."

"I hope so, Princess."

"You have been drinking a lot."

"No work for days is rather freeing."

"I can't say I know the feeling."

"Just wait," he said.

Return to Top

***Chapter Sixteen***
Word Count: 4,802

It hadn't taken him going to where they'd gotten married to remember. Sex with her without a condom while sober was all it had taken. He maybe shouldn't have done that either that last time because he swore to God he never wanted to have to use one again. He would, of course. He was still pretty astounded she let him at all. She only had his word that he'd never not used one before. He wasn't sure he'd be so quick to trust someone claiming that.

He twirled his ring around on his finger. He'd evidently taken it off before going to sleep last night or he was pretty sure he would have noticed it first thing when he woke up that morning. She was next to him on the plane, head resting against his shoulder. One of her friends had to switch her seat with his so they could sit next to each other since they'd booked their tickets separately. She wasn't sleeping though he knew. He wasn't drinking this time around. He was pretty sure he wouldn't drink again for a while after this past week.

"Why'd you say yes?" he asked.

"We've already covered this," she whispered.

"No, I know, but what possessed you to want to get married that way? Really? Don't tell me it's just a piece of paper. I don't buy that."

"I love you. You asked," she shrugged.

"Were you afraid I wouldn't ask again?"

She laughed softly at that, tilting her head up to kiss his jaw.

"No, that's not why. There is no reason beyond I love you."

"I love you, too, you know." He'd never said so, not that he could remember. He sure thought it a bunch of times, but he'd been too scared to say it. Those were words he didn't want to come back to haunt him one day in the future. Now it was too late for that. He had more than saying I love you to worry about coming back to haunt him.

"I do."

"I'm sorry if I'm not real good at saying or showing it."

"It's all right."

"I'll work on it."

"You have quite a bit of time to do that."

"I guess I do. Ronda's going to freak out."

Claire laughed at that.

"I can imagine. In a good way, I hope?"

"She likes you. I mean, you know, she seems to think you're good for me."

"I think so, too. See? We agree."

"Great. Next thing I know you'll be having lunch with her instead of me."

"Well, we are married now…"

He scoffed. "I see," he said. "No more sex for John then. Is that it?"

"That would be absolutely no fun."

"I agree. You know I thought I'd dreamt it."

"What?"

"I remembered. It was there in my mind, hazy and everything all along. What happened. I just thought it was a dream."

"Why did you think it was a dream?"

"Because I never believed you'd say yes. At least not now."

"Oh. Well, I guess you caught me on a good day."

"I guess so. We still haven't decided what we're going to tell your parents."

She shrugged. "Do we have to tell them right away?"

"Uh, you're moving into my house."

"Well, I'm not going to move everything in right away."

"Why not?" he asked with a frown.

"Well, I don't know. I start work on Monday."

"Yeah, that's why doing it now would be a good thing."

"I was kind of hoping to wait until after I started working. Dad would be less apt to be mad or think I was doing something to get out of working."

"Claire."

"Come on. I can still stay at your house. The only difference is my stuff won't be there. I'd have to pack and things anyway."

He sighed softly.

"It just feels so dishonest."

"I'm hoping to talk them out of putting an announcement in the paper."

"Why?" he asked.

She giggled softly.

"What? Why do I think I'm not going to like this answer?"

She shrugged. "I'm curious how long it will take for anyone to figure it out."

"Figure it out how?"

She held her left hand out in front of her. "It's very obvious what kind of ring this is."

"Yeah," he said.

Even he in his very limited experience knew what kind of ring it was. That meant everyone else who saw it would know, too. He'd seen some wedding bands that weren't blatantly obvious that's what they were. He hadn't chosen one of those for her. There was absolutely no doubt hers was a wedding ring. He kind of liked it he had to admit. It was big and shiny without seeming as though he took a second mortgage out on his house to pay for it.

"Come on, it'll be fun. Like a game."

He sighed softly. "We're telling your parents this weekend. And you're not going out anywhere except my house and your house until we have."

"That's no hardship."

"I have to go to work. You have to stay put. I will not have your parents find out by reading about your ring in the gossip column."

"I suppose you're right."

He was quiet for a while, focusing on his ring again. It was so strange that such a little piece of metal could change so much. It was kind of scary in a way. He was committed to her. He'd never been committed to anyone before in his life. He'd never had to be. It was a kind of frightening thought. He was for the first time in his life responsible for someone else. Granted, she was an adult who could take care of herself, for the most part. She was getting better about it. Things he did, though, could affect someone else. If he lost his business or got sued by someone or something that would be embarrassing for her as well. Granted, she had a career about as secure as one could get. Her dad's business wasn't going to fold anytime soon so they wouldn't lose his house or anything. It was still weird to think about, though.

"I think we should tell them tonight. Get it done with. Then you can spend tomorrow and Saturday while I'm at work packing your stuff up. How much stuff are we talking anyway?"

"Not much. I mean, my bedroom furniture is mine, but I don't need it obviously. I mean we could move it into your spare bedroom eventually if you wanted to. It's not like I have to take it with me, Mom and Dad could use it in that room. Otherwise, it's clothes. I have some things in my hope chest. You know, dishes and stuff."

"You had one of those things?"

"Sure. My parents were pretty old-fashioned. You know. Dishes. Cloth napkins. Stuff for the kitchen like a mixer and cookbooks. I think I have a pillowcase that my grandma made for me with my initials embroidered on it. There are some mixing bowls that Grandma gave me, too. The Bible and cross I got when I went through confirmation. Stuff like that."

"Better dishes than mine I imagine?"

"There's nothing wrong with your dishes. The dishes I have were actually the china set my parents got for their wedding. And I have a plain white set, too, you know functional that will go with anything."

"Why don't they use the china?"

"Because Mom didn't like the pattern," she said softly.

"Why not?"

"I don't know. She never explained it to me. I've loved the pattern since I can remember. One day, I don't remember how old I was. Eleven or twelve maybe. She told me it was mine."

"Have you ever eaten off them?"

"No," she snorted softly. "I tried! She'd always change it out for another set."

"Weird."

"Yeah. I don't know the story behind it."

"You know I won't get to work on making room for you until Sunday."

"I know. It's fine. It's not like I can't just bring some clothes there for now."

"I hate that. It seems so temporary."

"Well, it's not."

He ran a fingertip over her ring. "Do you like it?"

"Yes," she said.

"I'm not sure it's what I pictured you wearing when I thought of you getting married, but it suits you."

"That's why I like it actually. It's gorgeous without being pretentious."

"I'm not sure I could afford pretentious in Vegas."

She laughed softly. "You did very well."

"You helped."

"You gave me choices. I chose from them."

"Well, I'm glad there was one you liked."

"You seemed to like this one best, too. That helped me choose it. Are you going to wear yours?"

"What?" he asked. "I am, aren't I?"

She shrugged. "No, I meant when we get back."

"Oh, yeah, I guess. I hadn't thought it was an option. If I'm overhauling my engine or something I might take it off. I mean, aren't I supposed to?"

"Some guys don't."

"I don't know. I guess I'll see how I feel after wearing it for a while. I've never worn anything before."

"I know."

"It'd bother you if I didn't?"

"No," she said.

"Yeah it would," he said. "I recognize that tone."

"Well, I mean, I guess I'd want people to know you're married."

"People, huh?"

"Yeah, you know, people."

"I could just tell people I'm married."

"You could," she said.

"The shock factor?"

"Kind of."

He chuckled softly. "I admit, there are a few people I'd almost pay money to see the look on their face seeing me wearing it."

"Me, too, actually."

"Don't worry, Princess, I'm not going to seek any of the people out."

"That is good to know."

"Though, you know, I've heard tell that a wedding ring can actually be a good tool to attract some types of people."

"You have huh?"

"Uh huh."

"From men you know?"

"Maybe," he said.

"I don't want to know about it if it's someone you know and I might meet them. I don't plan on giving you a reason to use it for that purpose."

"That's a pretty tall order."

"Yeah?"

"Keeping me happy could prove difficult."

She laughed softly at that. "That goes for both of us."

"So true."

***

"I'm sorry, you did what?" her dad asked.

"Got married," Claire said. Not that she had to repeat herself. Her dad heard what she'd said the first time.

"In Vegas?"

"Yes," she said.

"To someone I've never met."

"Well, Mom's met him." Okay, meeting him was a slight exaggeration, but she'd seen him. "And you know who he is."

"I am aware of who he is, yes."

"Dad," she said.

"How do you know he didn't plan this months ago?"

"Plan what? Pete making those pictures? Come on, Dad."

"It's awful convenient, don't you think? Months later he ends up married to you."

"Dad, we didn't just meet. I've known him for years."

"Yes, I know who he is. His parents, too."

"Dad."

"What do you want me to say? That I'm happy? I'm not going to lie to you. I think you've made a mistake."

"But it's my mistake to make!"

"I guess I shouldn't expect any better from you than eloping on a whim."

"Dad, come on, that's not fair."

"And you showing up here days before you start working dropping this bombshell in my lap is?"

"Well, no, but. It happened. We're not undoing it."

"He's signing a prenuptial agreement."

"We're already married."

"I don't care! I'll have Mr. McMillan draw one up."

"As long as his stuff is included in it, too."

"His stuff?"

"Yes, his business. His house. You know, his stuff. I mean, Dad, really what does he have to gain by marrying me?"

"More money."

"He's doing fine on his own!"

"Not as well as he will be now."

"I'll sign it," John said. He'd been strangely quiet through this whole conversation, as she supposed he should be since it was her dad.

"No, John, you shouldn't have to."

"I shouldn't have to do a lot of things, but I do them when they're necessary. If it'll make your dad feel better I'll sign it. Whatever I need to sign."

"Dad, come on," she said. "He has more to lose than I do."

"Claire," he said.

"He does. I own nothing. He owns a business and a house, which he could lose half of if I was going to be a scheming bitch about things. He has nothing to gain. My paycheck? I still won't own anything. Maybe one day a nicer house? Sure, but that's not what he'd want for himself anyway. That'd be because I want it. So he'd probably let me have it anyway."

She'd hit home with that comment, she could tell. She could see him backing down a little bit.

"I won't sign it, Dad. I won't. That makes it seem like we're going into this with the expectation it's going to fail. I'm not doing that."

"You are going to be at work on Monday?"

"Yes," she said. "Nothing's changed."

"And you're not going to be going out on maternity leave in the next six or seven months are you?"

"No!"

"You're sure."

"I'm positive."

"Because if you got married because of that…"

"We didn't!"

"You've been staying at his house an awful lot."

"How did you…"

"I make it my business to know things, Claire. You may not realize how much I know, but I'm aware of things like where my limo service drops you off."

"Oh," she said, not having thought of that. Of course her dad paid for the service so he'd probably have pretty detailed billing information from them. "Then you must realize, too, that I've been serious about him. I haven't been going out as much or staying out as late when I do."

"Yes, I'm aware you've been curbing some of your more outrageous behaviors. I can't say I'm not a bit relieved that you'll be sleeping there legally now."

"I wasn't doing anything illegal before," she said.

"You know what I mean," he said.

"I do," she admitted. Contrary to what the entire city of Chicago thought she didn't spend the night at men's places. John was the only guy she'd ever spent the night with. She supposed her dad was worried they'd get caught and it would reflect poorly on him somehow.

"Your mother isn't going to be pleased at all."

"I know," she said. Her mother wasn't home. Claire debated on leaving and coming back, but John had insisted telling one of them was better than neither of them. She suspected John felt better about dealing with her dad than her mom altogether.

"I can't say I understand it."

"I know that, too."

"You could've had a wedding."

"I know," she said.

They would have had a huge wedding and would have gotten John's house furnished with new everything from floor to ceiling probably twice over. It would've been the stuff of fairy tales. And neither she nor John would've had a minute of privacy from the time their engagement was announced until after they got married. It was, deep down, the reason she'd said yes when he asked. She thought he was kidding initially, but he'd asked a second time. For some bizarre reason she'd said yes, knowing she would be disappointing her parents' all the while. In the back of her mind, though, was exactly what her dad had just said. Sure, it would have been a fantastic wedding, but it wouldn't have been the wedding she'd imagined growing up. Her own fault, but there was no going back and undoing the past few years of behavior. So, she'd agreed to marry John knowing it was the only way they'd be able to do it quietly.

"It was much more peaceful this way, though," she said.

"I imagine it was," he said. "I'll smooth things over with your mother, but making some gesture like inviting us over for dinner one night in the not too distant future might go a long way toward easing her concerns."

"We will."

"She says you've called her for help with cooking."

"Yes," Claire said cautiously.

"I guess I should've known something was going on when you started showing an interest in doing anything for anyone but yourself."

"Dad!"

He shrugged and she supposed she couldn't blame him for thinking that. Saying it, though. Is that what he really thought about her?

"Well, I guess I can quit worrying about you embarrassing me anymore."

"Wow, really? I was an embarrassment?"

"That's not how I meant it, Claire."

"I know what I heard."

"I meant, at least one of my kids is married like they're supposed to be."

"Oh," she said. Christopher. She supposed that would be on her dad's mind.

"I noticed you had the car wait for you."

"Yes. We have to get to John's house somehow."

"Your car?"

"Is there. You didn't notice that it's been gone all week?"

"No, I guess I didn't pay attention."

She rolled her eyes with a shake of her head. He hadn't even paid attention to the fact her car was gone for days? Had he even noticed she hadn't been home since last week?

"You will make sure she's at work Monday morning, right?" he asked John.

"Me?" John asked.

"Yes, you. Her husband."

"Uh, well, I'm not sure I can make sure she does anything, but I have no plans on doing anything to stop her from going to work. I kind of want to see it for myself truthfully."

"I'll be at work Monday morning, Dad. I have to go upstairs and get some things, though."

"Is that why you came here? To get things? Not to actually tell us?"

"No. Well, I wanted to wait, John didn't think that was right."

"John was right."

"I wasn't going to wait months or anything!"

"John was still right. You get married you tell your parents. At least you do," he said, glancing at John. Yeah, they wouldn't be telling John's parents anytime soon and evidently her dad knew that.

"I know. I just figured you could actually meet him first maybe."

"You should have thought about that before you decided to elope."

"Can we go up to my room now?" she asked.

"What?"

"To get my things? I need clothes for next week unless you want me to show up at work like this."

"Right, sure," he said, walking up to the bar and pouring himself a drink.

"Dad, I'm sorry."

"No, you're not, Claire. You don't do anything you're really sorry for. I just hope you haven't made a mistake and won't be doing anything to embarrass me."

"Like what?"

"Like get a divorce just as suddenly."

"No!"

"We can hope," he said.

"You'll tell Mom?"

"Yes," he said. "You might want to take your phone off the hook if you don't want to get an earful tonight because she will call repeatedly until you answer I have no doubt. I'm reacting calmly. She will not."

"I know," Claire said.

She could just imagine what her mom would think and say. She was dreading that. Her dad was the calmer of the two of them. She was relieved in a way her mom wasn't home, telling just him was so much easier.

She took John upstairs with her so she could grab two armfuls of stuff. He knew the way to her room, having spent the night with her here once before. She was still sure to this day her mom knew she'd had someone spend the night. She'd never said anything, though. It was just one of those feelings Claire had for a week or so after that night, like her mom was waiting for her to tell her something. John was the first guy she even entertained the idea of bringing home with her.

He was still in his den when they came down from her room. She didn't need to take a whole lot of things with her, but not knowing how her mom was going to react she wanted at least to have clothes to get her through all of next week. That meant shoes, too. She had her makeup and everything packed and with her already because of the trip. So, it was really just clothes and shoes suitable for work.

"I'll be by tomorrow and Saturday I guess to put things I want to take with me in boxes."

"We'll be here."

"John has to work," she said. "So, it'll just be me. Maybe you can prepare Mom for that so she doesn't think he's avoiding her."

"I can tell her. I can't help what she'll think."

"I know."

Her mom would think all sorts of crazy stuff no doubt. Claire didn't get the impression her mom hadn't liked John the one or two times she'd seen him. John was just different than they were. Than she was. His scars were the obvious sign that was true, but that wasn't the only way he was different. Claire never doubted her father worked hard. She knew he did, but he'd still known growing up he'd have a job. A place in the business just like his brothers did who weren't cut out for more than what they were doing. They still had jobs, though. John hadn't had that. John had to work long hard hours for everything he had. She couldn't deny she was proud of him and a huge part of the reason she loved him.

Claire wasn't sure what else to say. She didn't like that look in her dad's eyes. She'd disappointed him. Disappointed was probably the wrong word but she didn't know what else it could be.

"You know," she said in the back of the car once they were on their way to his house.

"Yeah?"

"I never thought about the fact my dad may have wanted me to have a wedding."

John snorted at that. That meant he had thought of that?

"You find that hard to believe?"

"That he'd want you to have a wedding? No, I know he would. Come on. He's your dad. He's proud of you even if you've put a bit of tarnish on the Standish name the past couple of years. I suspect he knows your reasons for doing it even if you've never talked about it. Loyalty I imagine is important to him and you were loyal to your brother and your family. He may not have liked the extremes you took, but he still knew your reasons were solid. I'm sure he was looking forward to walking you down the aisle and dancing with you."

"I'd ask how you know about these things."

"I know about them only because of the countless weddings I've done."

"I've deprived him of that."

John shrugged.

"You also saved him a lot of money."

"Yes, but, he looked so…"

"Yeah, I noticed that, too."

She sighed softly, glancing out the window.

"You changing your mind, Princess?"

"No, I just never thought about what saying yes to you would mean to them."

"You didn't?"

"No. I just knew I wanted to."

"I'm still wrapping my head around that part, but I get it I guess. You do know I would've asked again, right?"

She glanced at him.

"I didn't want you to ask again, John."

"All right," he said.

"Now please tell me there's a dry cleaners by your house."

"Uh, yeah," he said. "Why?"

"Because I'll at least need to get all of these things pressed."

"You hadn't thought about that before tonight?"

"No!"

"Why not?"

She sighed softly. "My mom always did it."

He snorted at that.

"Welcome to the real world, Princess."

"Thanks."

"We'll get you fixed up, don't worry. I promise. Set out what you need for Monday and Tuesday and I'll take it with me tomorrow morning on my way to work."

"I need more than two days' worth of clothes."

"Let me finish. Set aside what you must have for Monday and Tuesday. Then give me the rest, too. I'll get what you need Monday and Tuesday done quickly. The rest I'll put in for Tuesday."

"Thank you."

"You're welcome."

"You have a dry cleaner?"

"I do," he said. "I have suits. You have seen me come home from work, right? I mean, you've actually paid attention to the fact I don't go to weddings and stuff in jeans and a T-shirt."

"I have, I just wasn't thinking. I'm sorry."

"It's all right. I can't say where my mind would be if I had to tell my parents what you had to tell yours tonight."

"Your cleaners is going to freak out that you're bringing in women's clothing, aren't they?"

"They'll be curious, I'm sure."

"I can do it."

"Why?"

"You don't have to bring my cleaning in."

"I know I don't have to. I'm offering to do it. It's fine. I'm perfectly capable of helping you out. You'd still give them my name and phone number so what difference does it make if it's me or you who brings them in."

"You shouldn't have to."

"I'm offering, you didn't even ask me so obviously you weren't expecting it." He slid his arm around her, drawing her to him. She went without much effort on his part. "It'll be fine, Claire. Your mom will be fine eventually."

"I hope so."

"I think nine months from now they'll feel a lot better about our situation."

"We don't know that!"

"We don't, you're right."

"You're hoping not?"

"You're right there, too."

"Because you don't want them?"

"No. I mean, no. I just don't want them right now. You know, a couple years from now maybe when I've actually had some time to process I could have one."

"You need time to process that?"

"Yes."

"Is it scary?"

"Yes."

"Me, too," she admitted.

"That's why I'm hoping not."

"I don't think I'll ever not be scared."

"Me neither I suppose. I suspect that's probably normal."

"Yet people do it."

"They do. I'm not going to start down the road of trying for a while yet," he said. "Do me a favor?"

"I can try."

"The next time I'm drunk and come up with that bright idea tell me I'm crazy."

"Which idea? Marrying me?"

"Uh no. I'm not going to come up with that idea again. The other part, later in our room."

"What if we run out?"

He chuckled a bit at that. "Then pour cold water on me or something."

"Hmm," she said.

"What?"

"I don't know you sure did like it."

"Well, of course I did. I like a lot of things, doesn't mean I'm going to do them." He kissed the top of her head.

"You should talk to your dad."

"About?"

"Well, just thinking about the dance thing. Maybe there's a way for him to still get that."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, couldn't we still have a party? Or would that imply we expect gifts? I mean, people have quiet weddings and then have big receptions. I've photographed weddings that were very intimate. You know, just a handful of people at the ceremony but the reception was huge."

"I don't know."

"It might make him realize you at least thought of him and how he feels about all of this."

"It might."

"And that way it wouldn't seem so much like we were hiding anything. We just wanted to be discreet."

She laughed softly at that.

"I'm not sure getting married in Vegas is discreet."

"Well, no, but it was certainly more private than anything we would've had here."

"True. I'll talk to him. You'd do it?"

"What?"

"Get dressed up?"

"Sure. If it'd help make them happy. I know they're never going to love me, but I'd rather they not hate me."

"And if he wanted us to do an actual wedding?"

"No. We're already married."

"No one else knows that."

John sighed.

"I guess, but I wouldn't like it. That would make it seem like you were just living with me between now and then. That would also mean we'd have to walk around without these on," he said, wiggling his finger. "You seem to not want me to take it off. And if I have to take mine off you have to, too."

"I like mine!"

"I like mine, too. I never said I didn't. I'm just not used to it."

"You think I've worn a wedding ring before?"

"Well, no, but you've worn rings."

"Never on that finger."

"I've noticed that. Why not?"

"Because I wasn't taken."

"I sure fixed that."

"You did."

Return to Top

***Chapter Seventeen***
Word Count: 5,053

"Why do you get to go to work and I can't do anything?" she asked as he was getting dressed for his day.

He had to admit it was different today getting ready for work with her here. The other days it wasn't something he thought of being an everyday thing. Now, well, there wasn't much more permanent he could get than married to her. It was just different. He'd leave for work and she had nowhere else to go. She didn't have to go home because this was her home now. Her parents weren't going to wonder where she'd spent the night last night because they knew. Well, presumably they knew.

He still wasn't sure she'd thought on that, this being her home now. It wasn't crazy small, but compared to what she'd grown up with it was a shack. It was his shack, though, and he'd done what he could to use the space he had wisely. Her stuff would make it a little more difficult he had no doubt, but it was doable. The family who lived here before him raised three kids here, surely he and his wife could live here.

(That perhaps explained why they hadn't used the garage for their vehicles, they had no extra space to put stuff but the garage.)

"Because I'm not the one anyone's going to care about having a ring on my finger all of a sudden. Until we know your mom knows and that whoever your parents feel the need to tell are told you're just going to have to lay low for a while."

"John!"

"Really? Staying home with me is a hardship?"

"You're going to be at a wedding Saturday!"

"Yeah, and you are supposed to be busy during that time packing up your things and bringing them here. I don't understand the difficulty. We're talking a weekend or two. You really want your mom even more pissed off than you know she's going to be by her friends or your grandparents reading about it in the Tribune before they can get told?"

"No," she said.

"Besides, I like you being here doing things to make it our house instead of my house."

"I do, too, but I'm kind of afraid of doing things when you're not here."

"Afraid of what?"

"What if I find…things."

He ran a finger along her arm. It bothered him that these things bothered her, but there was nothing he could do about it. It wasn't as though he could change the past couple of years. He probably wouldn't anyway even if he knew he'd be here today having this conversation.

"You're not going to find things. No one but you has left things at my house."

"That you know about!"

"I've only been living here for a year. How many things do you think people were leaving in that time?"

"Well, I know of at least two other people who have spent the night here."

He sighed heavily. She was right, but he was pretty positive they hadn't left anything behind. They didn't bring anything with them but themselves. He didn't invite people to stay the night and generally the people he brought back he'd met out somewhere so there was no forethought involved to them being here for the night. It just happened.

"If you happen to find something, which you're not going to. Do you think I'd give you the freedom to go through stuff if I was really worried? If you do, though, just throw it away."

"Just throw it away?"

"Yes! There's nothing here, Claire. I do think I'm aware of what's in my own house. I live here, remember?"

"Okay," she said.

He leaned down and kissed her. "Are you coming for lunch then?"

"I can, sure. If I don't, just assume I'm immersed in packing things. Or arguing with my parents," she said.

"You could put off going there until tonight and I could go with you. If you think that would be better."

"What would I do with my day then?"

"Work on things here. You say you have dishes and sheets and stuff. Start going through what of mine isn't needed."

"That's not fair."

"I've bought things as I needed them over the years. I'm not a decorator and I didn't worry about things matching. I haven't always bought the best of something because I couldn't afford it at the time and just haven't bothered upgrading since what I have works. There's nothing I'm overly attached to except my stereo."

"Your stereo?"

"Yes. I actually invested in a good one. If you have a better one, we could put mine in the basement, out in the garage, or something. Otherwise, pack all the shit up if you have something that's better or you'd rather use."

"I have no boxes."

"Call around to liquor stores and stuff, see if they have boxes. If you have to spend any money, let me know and I'll pay you back."

"You don't have to pay me back for boxes."

"It's my stuff."

"I'll just go to my house."

He chuckled softly. "Claire, you're not going to find anything!"

"I just don't want to go through your stuff. I wouldn't want you going through my things deciding what gets boxes up and what doesn't."

"Yeah, because you care about your stuff. I don't!"

"I have to deal with my mom sometime."

"You don't have to do it alone."

"No, but it's probably better for this if I do."

"All right. Well, whatever you want to do. It's the last day we'd get to have lunch."

"I know. Unless you come downtown when you have a couple hours."

"I'm sure we'll manage something. Ronda tells me phone calls are a thing."

"Ronda tells you that?"

"Yes, she may have mentioned that people pick up the phone and call one another when they're thinking of each other."

"I do have a job to do!"

He chuckled softly.

"I was just passing on the information Ronda blessed me with."

"How often does she call her husband?"

"I don't know. I don't pay attention."

"Really?"

"No. She does her job. She does it well. She makes me look good and efficient in the process. I could care less what she does with her time."

"I think you're too nice."

"I think I'm a one-man business who knows finding someone else like her would be difficult to do. You're not the only one who's not too fond of the types of pictures I take sometimes. Ronda doesn't care. Or if she does she's never said a word. I don't make her sit there and watch, but I do think the women feel better knowing there's a woman in the next room. You know? Ronda treats those women no different than she treats the brides who come in. As it should be, because those women pay a lot more than the brides."

"Have you ever taken those types of pictures of men?"

"No."

"Would you?"

"If someone came to me wanting me to, sure. Why not?"

"Just wondering."

"I'd draw the line at anything illegal, but otherwise I don't care."

"Good to know," she said with a smirk.

He'd never thought about it actually, because he'd never been approached to do it. Would he have a problem with it? He didn't see why he would. She could be pretty assured if he did he wouldn't come home to her for the purposes of sex afterward. Models were models, men sold things, too. And he knew men had to do something to get into Playgirl that involved taking off their clothes somewhere along the line.

"All right. I'll see you at lunch, or possibly not if you get immersed in something."

He leaned down and kissed her.

"What?" she asked.

"Nothing."

"You have a look in your eye."

"A bad look?"

"I'm not sure," she said.

"Well, I can tell you what I was thinking."

"Yeah?"

"I was thinking that you look very good in my bed."

"Good enough to keep me here?"

"Yes," he said.

"Good."

"I'd call in sick if I hadn't had the last four days off or if there was someone else to do my job for me."

"I know. I'll be here when you get home, though."

"And I like the sound of that immensely if we don't get lunch."

"Only then?"

"No," he said. "I like the sound of both, but I won't get greedy if you go to your parents' house."

"Good. Go take good pictures."

"I will do my best."

He was there before Ronda got there, which wasn't unusual especially being gone all week. So he had a little more than usual to set up. He'd never had days off before. He'd taken a day off here and there over the years, but rarely consecutively and not going out of his way to avoid scheduling appointments. If, say, on a Thursday, Ronda hadn't booked him anything for the following Monday to that point he'd tell her not to. It was how he and Claire had gotten a few days at her parents lake house last month.

"You did come back," she said from behind him.

He chuckled a bit. "You had your doubts?"

"Oh, I don't know, a few days away from here I may not have blamed you."

"Nah. It's too expensive out there and bad for my health."

"Your health?"

"Yeah, I'm not sure my gut can take that much liquor."

"So you survived days with her?"

"Uh yeah, you could say that."

"Uh oh."

"No, nothing bad, though you'll probably be amused."

"Amused."

"Yeah, we kind of got married."

"Shut up," she said.

"No really," he said. "You're probably the only person I know and care enough about to tell."

"John," she said.

"You can call her and ask her if my wearing this," he said, gesturing to his wedding ring, "isn't proof enough."

She laughed then.

"What?" he asked.

"Nothing. You're actually going to wear that?"

"Yeah, well, I'm married. I mean, it's legal and everything. Besides, I kind of promised her I'd at least give it a try before not wearing it."

"So, no wedding, no announcement."

"No. We told her dad last night. I imagine her parents will have some people to tell, but otherwise," he shrugged.

"I guess that's one way of getting around the public relations shit storm that would be her wedding."

"I wasn't thinking of that."

"What were you thinking?"

"I was drunk. I won a good chunk of change at the slots after hours of sitting there. I asked her to marry me. She said yes. We went and got married."

"Just like that?"

"Yes. It was incredibly easy to do. You said yourself I looked at her different."

"I wasn't thinking you'd run off and marry her right away."

"It's not like I just met her."

"No, I suppose. And here I was worried you were going to come back here and tell me not to take her calls again."

"I don't think that would work this time anyway, considering I left her at my house this morning."

"I can't wait to tell Bill."

"I didn't realize he was concerned about my love life."

"No, but we talk."

"I guess you would."

"When does the wife start work again?"

"Monday."

"Is she excited?"

"I think so. I think two months ago she wasn't ready, but she's calmed down a bit. You know?"

"I do. You're responsible for part of it."

"No, I'm not. That you think so is ironic considering what I was like in high school. I just gave her something else to do besides go out and party all of the time."

"So are you having a party or anything?"

"She's talking to her parents about it. I don't know what they're going to want to do. Her dad seemed kind of put out last night. He'd probably been looking forward to his father-daughter dance since the day she was born."

"I bet. I'm sure you'll figure something out."

"I hope so. I don't really want them mad at us."

"People elope, John. Parents deal with it eventually and get over it. And, it has its benefits for people like Claire."

"That's what she said! We wouldn't have had a moment's peace from the time it was announced we were engaged. I don't want my life turned upside down and I really don't want my parents to know who I marry."

"You don't think they'll find out?"

"How would they? If they do come around here…"

"I know what to do, John. I know enough to know they have no business being here."

"Thank you."

"So, has she told you to stop any aspects of your work?"

"No. I told her a while ago if she wanted to come watch me do one of those shoots I'd ask so she could see that there's nothing to it but my taking pictures same as I would anyone else's picture."

"She's a lot more understanding than some would be."

"I guess that means she loves me."

"Or trusts you, which may be more important."

"Agreed."

"Don't give her a reason to stop."

"I have no plans to. As she pointed out to her dad last night I kind of have more to lose right now than she does. Physically I mean."

"That surprises you?"

"In a way. I'd never thought about it until she told him that."

"And?"

He shrugged. "That'll change once she's been working."

"You still have a house and a business, John. That's nothing to take lightly no matter who her parents are. Even if you buy a better house it'll still be half your doing."

"I know. I'd just never had anyone say it like that. You know? I go to work, I go home, I do my thing. I just never thought about what I was doing."

"Carving a life out for yourself."

"Yeah. I was just trying to survive."

"You've done that."

"I have."

"Well, I guess I should say congratulations. Has it sunk in yet?"

"No," he admitted. He wasn't sure how soon it would. He'd really never pictured getting married, then he never imagined her being in his life again. "I mean, the ring there is a reminder. I've never worn any jewelry before so I feel it."

"Distracting?"

"A little. I caught sight of it while showering this morning and it took me a minute to stop staring at it."

"That may take a while, used to being married or not if you're not used to wearing anything."

"I guess."

"Is she coming here today?"

"Maybe. It depends on what she does at her parents' house, you know. I've told her she can't be out getting photographed until her parents have told everyone they need to tell."

"I bet that went over real well."

"Especially since I have that wedding out in Lake County Saturday night."

"Late night for you."

"Yes."

"Does this mean I need to stop scheduling you every Saturday?"

"No, but perhaps we need to start being a little more selective about Sundays. I'll have to see what other studios do. I've heard tell some charge a premium rate for Sunday weddings."

"I've heard that, too."

"I never saw the need to do that, but I guess when you only get one guaranteed day with someone I can sort of see it."

"Can she work Saturdays?"

"What?"

"I don't know. Just wondering if her dad would let her work Tuesday through Saturday or something so you could both have Monday off."

"Maybe eventually. I doubt right away, no."

"You sure this isn't some sort of real late April Fool's Day joke?"

"I wouldn't do that to you, Ronda."

"And when word does start getting out what do you want me to do?"

"Do?"

"You don't think people will figure out who you are and where you work. Reporters and stuff."

"Tell them what you want. I don't know. I don't want to talk to them. I got married I didn't agree to be fodder for their articles or columns."

"No comment then, good enough."

"You're too good to me."

It was after two o'clock when she showed up. Well, he was guessing it was about that time anyway. Ronda was there by herself when he left. He'd had a senior pictures appointment. It was very strange taking pictures of people who were younger sisters or brothers of people he and Claire had gone to school with. They didn't know who John was, of course, but he recognized the names and a lot of times there was enough of a resemblance that even if the name itself didn't jog his memory the face did.

Today had been one of those people. Claire was probably good friends with this kid's older sister.

"I'm not sure I like this at all," he said when he found them eating together. Claire had brought Chinese takeout, and clearly enough for all three of them.

"Where were you?"

"Out making money," he said. "I didn't realize people could cut school for senior pictures."

"Huh?"

"That's what I was doing. I just spent the last like ninety minutes with Kayla Loch's little sister."

"Really? Did she leave?"

"She did."

"That's too bad I haven't seen Kayla in like two years I bet. She went to," Claire frowned. "She went to Stanford or somewhere out west I think. I don't even think she's been home recently."

"So, you could do that? Skip class to do things like this?"

"If your parents called and excused it, sure."

He shook his head slightly. "Did yours?"

"No. I did mine on a Saturday, I think."

"I seem to have her whole group of friends coming up here."

"Like twenty of them in the next couple of weeks," Ronda said.

"All Krista's friends?"

"It seems so. Ronda says they all booked at around the same time."

"Well, that's good, right?"

"Sure," he said. "So, is there enough food for me, too? Or did you two eat it all?"

"There's plenty. I didn't want to be rude and show up with just food for you."

"I know because Ronda is not at all capable of getting her own lunch."

"Well, I called to find out when you'd be finished and I asked her if she liked Chinese."

"To which I answered of course I do."

He took the seat between them. The table really wasn't big enough for all three of them. They fit, but barely. He'd never had a reason to have a real table in here for more than Ronda to sit around. During the winter she sat in here and ate sometimes. He never could quite figure out why some days she ate at her desk and others she didn't. When it was nice out in the spring and summer she'd eat outside or eat at her desk quickly and go outside for a while.

"Where are you going?" he asked Ronda.

"To my desk."

"You don't have to get up on my account."

"I don't want you to think there's some conspiracy going on between us."

"Oh, I'm fairly sure there is and you'll just continue plotting it another time so you may as well sit and eat with us, too."

"You didn't tell me you didn't remember marrying her," Ronda said.

"I didn't think I was supposed to say something like that to anyone."

She patted his hand, handing him a box of rice. "See, you'll do just fine."

"Great. Did you go to your parents' house?"

"I did. I left not long after you did and was there until about an hour ago."

"Yeah? How'd that go?"

"Mom's not talking to me."

"At all?"

"Nope. She didn't even say hello to me."

"She saw you?"

"Yes."

"Was she sober?"

"I don't think so."

"Sorry."

"Dad left a note in my room telling me not to bother her and she'd come around."

"I sure hope so."

"It's going to take me forever to move stuff, though."

"Why don't you take my Jeep?"

"Are you sure?"

"Sure. It'd save you a couple of trips anyway. I have nothing else until Monday that is going to require me leaving here so you may as well."

"Don't you need something bigger than your car for a wedding?"

"I can make do."

"That's not right."

"It'll be fine. I've done it before when the Jeep wasn't working."

"That's still nice of you. You could take my car. It's not as big as the Jeep, but is certainly bigger than your Trans Am."

"Sure. That's fine. You take the Jeep with you when you leave here I'll drive your car home tonight."

"That'll leave your car outside all night, though."

"It wouldn't be the first time. I didn't always have a garage."

"Oh, right. Okay, as long as you're sure."

"I am. I want your stuff as moved in as it can be before you start working Monday because somehow I suspect you're not going to have a whole lot of time to do it until next weekend."

"And there are words I never thought I'd hear come out of your mouth in a thousand years," Ronda said.

"You and me both," John said.

"You never told me you gave her a box of lilies."

"I told you I settled on lilies."

"Not a box of them!"

"What did you think I was going to do? Get her one?"

"Well, no, but that may have been overstating your intentions a little bit."

"Well, obviously it worked so I'm not complaining."

"As long as those aren't the last ones you give her. Wives like flowers, too."

"You caught me. I married her to get out of having to give her another flower again."

"You never know," Ronda said.

"You were going to get me roses?"

"Jesus. Am I going to have to stop talking to you now, Ronda? And, yes, I assumed, incorrectly I guess based on Ronda's comments that night, that was what a guy should get a woman when they fuck up. I didn't realize there was some sort of protocol and actual meaning behind flowers."

"You do weddings for a living. How can you not know?"

"I don't ask the florists what the flowers mean. I tell the people where and how to stand and I take their pictures. I'm not there to ask them the meaning of life or why they chose roses over daffodils or carnations."

"Do you even know what daffodils are?"

"They're yellow," he said, fairly sure he was right in that. He wasn't sure, but he was pretty confident he was.

"Now you could get her roses," Ronda said.

"Thank you for that insightful bit of information. Are you sure she won't get the wrong idea now?"

"I imagine it's safe."

"Good to know. If you two are going to start ganging up on me and sharing information I'm in trouble. You realize she's the closest thing to family I have, right?"

"Not anymore, hon," Ronda said.

"That's different and not what I meant at all."

"I know. I've grown pretty fond of you, too." She stood then. "And now, I am going to go to my desk. You have someone coming in at three don't forget."

"I won't."

"I like her," Claire said.

"Me, too."

"I know you do. I wasn't sure what she'd think of me if you'd even told her."

"Of course I told her."

"I didn't know for sure."

"I don't really have anyone else to tell and she would've been mad at me if she noticed I was wearing a wedding ring and didn't tell her first."

"Well, she is your employee."

"She is, but she's been more than that and well we probably wouldn't be sitting here right now if it weren't for her."

"True."

"I mean, I don't have brothers or sisters. She's as close as I'm going to get. I've even thought of what I'd do when she and Bill have kids."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, I have rooms that are supposed to be offices I imagine that I'm not using. I've thought I could make one of them into a baby's room if she ever has them and wants to keep working."

"You'd do that?"

"If it would mean she doesn't quit? In a heartbeat."

"That's very nice of you."

"She's been loyal to me and probably has fielded some calls over the past few years she'd rather not have dealt with. That deserves to be rewarded I think."

"I agree."

"So, did you talk to your dad at all?"

"No, he was already gone. I figured I'd go back there after lunch and take my time until he gets home."

"Are you okay?"

She shrugged. "I knew Mom would be mad. I just wasn't expecting this reaction."

"She'll get over it. People elope. It doesn't mean you don't love your parents."

"I know."

He glanced at the clock on the wall.

"I really have to get ready for my next appointment."

"I know," she said. "This watching where I'm going stuff isn't very fun."

"Why?"

"I was going to go see someone, but I realized I can't really even do that."

"You don't have any friends you can trust?"

"Not really. I mean, to trust not to tell someone I got married? I don't think so."

"Princess," he said, leaning in to kiss her. "You really, really need to analyze why you're friends with some of these people."

"I know," she said. "What about you? Charlie and Glen?"

"I'll tell them eventually. I actually thought it'd be kind of fun to meet them, say nothing, and see if either one of them notice I'm wearing a ring."

"You don't think they would?"

"Glen probably would, Charlie I'm not sure."

"They won't think you're crazy?"

"Crazier than they thought I was before? Probably not."

"I was surprised you remembered Kayla."

"I remembered the name more than anything. If her sister's name hadn't started with a K too I may not have remembered."

"Yeah, they have a brother, too. His name is Keith."

"Huh. Promise me if we have kids we won't do that."

"Sure," she said.

"Not even if they're twins."

"Okay," she said, trying unsuccessfully to hide a smile.

"Glad I could offer you some amusement."

"You're just cute sometimes."

"Only sometimes?"

"Uh huh. If I say all the time that would go to your head."

"One of them anyway."

"Very funny."

"Thank you for lunch. How late do you think you'll be at your parents'?"

"I don't know. Why?"

"Well, since you slaved over lunch I'll cook dinner."

"You just don't want me to cook."

"I'm not sure I'm ready to rely on what you've learned from your mother over the phone yet. If you're home when I get home you could help me."

"Yeah?" she asked.

"Yes. I might want you in less clothing than what you're wearing now."

"Only if I get the same."

"Deal."

"Really?"

"This surprises you?"

"That you'd agree so easily."

"Seems kind of silly not to now. You wouldn't have married me if you didn't want to see me every day."

"I didn't need to be married to you to want to see you every day, John."

"Well, somehow it makes me feel a little more secure about the whole thing."

"Does Ronda…"

"She's seen my back. Once. She knows my parents aren't to ever know anything about me. She suspects."

"Good."

"Yeah?"

"Sure. I like knowing you've had someone looking out for your well-being."

"She has."

She helped him put the food away. There was some left, which he'd probably let Ronda take home for her and Bill.

"Were the lilies really a bad idea?"

"No! They were gorgeous, but positively way more expensive than necessary."

"They were just flowers."

"Exactly!"

"You were worth every penny."

"Thank you."

"What kind do you like anyway?"

"What?"

"Flowers? You know. For reference."

"Oh, well, I don't think there's any kind I don't like."

"That's very vague."

"Because I don't want you to get me flowers because I like them."

"Well, that would sure help."

"But I like them all. That's my point. If you bought them I'd know you saw that arrangement and liked it so I'd like it."

"All right. You're not real easy, you know that."

"Women aren't supposed to be easy. What's at three o'clock?"

"Umm, birth announcement."

"A newborn?"

"Yeah. I think Ronda said he's like a week old."

"Cute."

"They're kind of a challenge that little, but they're pretty cute."

"Well, good luck then. I hope he doesn't cry your ears off."

"Me, too!"

He walked with her to the waiting area and out to his Jeep.

"You do know how to drive a manual, right?"

"Yes. My grandpa taught me."

"Good man. We have kids, they're learning. I don't care if they never need to use it, they should know."

"Okay," she said, laughing softly.

"How many loads do you think you'll have in this thing?"

"A few more at least. I don't know. It's weird. I'm going through stuff so much differently than I did when I packed stuff up after high school."

"I bet."

"I'm sure a lot of stuff will stay there in the attic."

"I have an attic."

"I know. Christopher's stuff is there, too. It doesn't seem like my parents are in a huge hurry to have us take it."

"Okay." He leaned in through the window, glancing at the gas gauge making sure it was full. He hadn't looked at it when he took Kayla out earlier. "See you later then."

"Plan on it."

"Thanks for lunch."

"Sure."

He kissed her then.

"Love you," she said.

"You, too," he said.

Man, that was going to be an adjustment, too. She was going to expect him to say that with frequency. Once on the plane back here was hard enough. He'd never said those words to anyone. Maybe his mother at some point in time, but it'd been so long and the words got to be pretty hollow as time went on and she allowed the shit to go on that did.

Return to Top

***Chapter Eighteen***
Word Count: 5,191

"I'm sorry, you did what?" Christopher said with a laugh. Clearly he thought she was playing a joke on him or something. She almost preferred her dad's reaction. Then Chris probably found a lot of the things she'd done over the years funny.

"I got married."

"In Vegas?"

"Yes," she said cautiously. His reaction wasn't what she was expecting out of him honestly. He wasn't always thrilled with the things she did, the publicity she got (and therefore their dad's company got), but usually he at least got a laugh at her expense. She figured he'd find this funny, too.

Evidently not. His laugh hadn't been one of amusement at all.

"You know. I can handle Mom and Dad. I'm a grown up. I don't need to hide behind your skirts every day! I mean, there's keeping the press off my tail so I'm free to do what I do and there's being a little ridiculous."

"I'm sorry, what?" she asked. "I didn't marry him for you! Are you listening to yourself? I got married, Christopher, I didn't wear white after Labor Day."

"So, you married some guy you've been dating for a few months because you're madly in love with him? Come on, Claire, this is you we're talking about. You've never loved anyone in your life but yourself. I don't even think you really love me when it gets down to it. You just enjoy using my … handicap to let Dad allow you to get away with everything under the sun. Except probably murder. He'd probably draw the line at that."

"Christopher! I didn't just meet John. I've known him for years."

"I remember him. I remember you liked him and he didn't seem to return the feelings. So you have to ask yourself, what's changed?"

"Get over yourself. I didn't do this for you or Dad or anyone else. He asked, I said yes."

"It's going to come back and bite you in the ass, you know that? Dad'll be fine until the shit hits the fan and you file for a divorce or start calling in sick because you're having problems. I'm not that much older than you that I haven't heard about him, his parents. You start showing up to work with black eyes Dad's going to flip."

"That's not going to happen!"

"Did you even think this through, Claire? You're married. You get divorced he gets half of everything."

"You sound like Dad. I'd get half of everything, too. He has a business. A house. I have nothing. I have a car. So, he'd get half of it. He has two, why would he want half of mine?"

"Yours is nicer?"

"Than a Trans Am? His car is real nice, Chris. I'm no gear head, but I know a nice muscle car when I see one. It's only like one of three hundred even made."

"Really?" he asked. That seemed to have gotten his attention. Chris liked cars. It was the only real guy thing interest he had. (It was one of the reasons their father held onto the slim bit of hope that he was wrong about Christopher, giving himself the ability to deny the truth about his son.)

"Yes, really. I don't think his is like worth more than mine or anything, but he's pretty happy with it."

He eyed her as their waitress brought them refills on their drinks. He gave her back her wedding ring then, which he'd been looking at for the last little bit. He seemed to think it was fake, costume jewelry, or something.

"You really married him because you wanted to?"

"Yes!"

"Why Vegas?"

"We were there. He asked. I said yes. I thought about the peace and quiet we'd had for the days we'd been there. No one pushing a camera in my face. No nasty letters showing up at the house because I didn't talk to someone over the weekend. No club owner mad that I left earlier than they expected, making it seem like I didn't like their club. Just us, and my friends. I realized we'd never get that again. Not here. I know what it'd be like if I got married. I wouldn't be able to do anything for months without someone watching me. John wouldn't be able to either. He asked to marry me, not my reputation."

"Do you actually love him?"

"I do. Why is that so hard for you to believe?"

"I really didn't think you had it in you. I may not love who Mom and Dad want me to, but I'm capable of doing it."

"God. Is that really what you think of me?"

"You are very into yourself, Claire. That's not a bad thing necessarily, but not when it comes to making a marriage work."

She sighed softly, taking a sip of her wine.

"Are Mom and Dad throwing a reception for you then?"

"Yes," she said.

She loved the idea. Really. She honestly didn't mind the way they'd gotten married, but there was a part of her. The girl in her who'd been dreaming about what her wedding dress would look like, what song she'd dance with her husband to, and (more recently) just how many times her picture would be in the paper whenever she decided to settle down. She didn't miss the publicity now that she'd actually found someone she wanted to be with. She didn't want their courtship followed in the newspaper. She still wanted the dance, though. And the dress. She wouldn't be able to wear a full-on wedding dress, but she was sparing no expense on the gown she was having made. She would look fabulous.

And her dad would get his dance, too. The idea of a reception seemed to appease him, to make him realize that she was, in fact, taking this seriously. It was real. She wasn't playing a game or getting married on a whim that she'd nullify on another whim. That she was willing to give him something so that he didn't look like he had no clue what was going on with his children. A reception would still allow him to invite his friends and associates to celebrate her marriage.

"Good, I guess."

"Are you going to come?"

A logical question because Christopher didn't do a whole lot with the family these days. He was invited, of course, but it was sort of a given unless it was something necessary he'd be absent. She doubted that would change now that she was married and he was not. People would start wondering where his girlfriend was. She hadn't done him any favors by marrying John. He hadn't shown up for Christmas dinner in December because he'd been in New York. Over Thanksgiving he'd been down in the Caribbean. He always had a legitimate excuse so no one could talk about the elephant in the room that was her brother wasn't really welcome in the home he grew up in.

"I'll be there. Mom and Dad would get upset if I didn't show for that, I think. Besides I kind of have to see if it's real."

"Christopher."

"What? Sue me for being suspect."

"Are you going to bring a date?"

"Uh, no," he said quickly.

"Is there someone you would bring if you could?"

He shrugged at that. "Maybe."

"Maybe?"

"Nobody I'm even close to running off to Vegas and marrying."

"You couldn't do that anyway."

"If I could."

"I see."

"So, you haven't mentioned Mom in all of this yet," he said. He knew why, too. He knew their mother as well as she did.

"What can I say? She's not happy with me."

"She's afraid you're going to embarrass her."

"I know. I did ask her to come with me to decide on a dress."

"You're not wearing a wedding dress, are you?"

"No!"

"Did she go with?"

"Yes. It seemed to settle her down a bit, but she still hasn't talked to me much. I figured after the appointment with the dressmaker we'd go to lunch, but she just drove back to the house."

"Well, I don't know what to tell you there as you know she hasn't talked to me much in years. I doubt that's going to change now."

"I know," she said. It bothered her that her mother cared so much about what other people would say versus seeing her kids happy. Wasn't that the ultimate reflection on whether she and their dad had done a good job raising them?

"If you love him and are really doing this, she'll come around when she sees that as unconventional as what you've done may be you're really invested in it."

"I'm invested in it!"

"You say that, and I want to believe you, Claire. I do. And I'm sorry, I guess, my knee jerk reaction is a negative one. You've done a lot for me, I won't forget it."

"I don't want you to remember it or think you have to."

"Yeah, well, it's my fault in a way you got to this point anyway. So, when do I get to meet him?"

"Well, we're having Mom and Dad over for dinner Sunday night. I figured you could come if you wanted."

"Eat dinner with you, Mom, Dad, and your husband?"

"Yes."

"Are you sure you want that?"

"Yes."

He sighed softly, fiddling a bit with his coaster. "All right. If it's too uncomfortable I'll leave."

"You won't have to leave. It's our house, not Mom and Dad's."

"And you're sure he's not like his parents?"

"Chris, really. Do you really think I'd do that?"

"No, but if you actually love him…"

"I'm not going to fall in love with someone who hits me."

"I'm betting every woman who has been in that situation has said the same thing."

"He's not! He's not like his parents at all."

"I guess the fact that he's gainfully employed should be enough to tell me he's not."

"Yes, it should if my word isn't enough."

"I just. God, Claire, this is the rest of your life we're talking."

"If I hadn't liked him back in high school…"

"I remember. I remember all of the questions you asked me about guys all of the sudden your senior year. You'd never asked me anything like it before. It's probably the only reason I remember him and ever cared to find out who he was."

"You did what?"

"Oh, I didn't like walk up to him or anything, but my little sister shows interest in a guy for the first time ever. I was curious who the guy was."

"Oh," she said, mulling that over. An eighteen-year-old John probably hadn't left her brother with that great of an impression.

"You saw him at his parents' house?"

"Yes, and them."

"But you didn't say anything to him?"

"No, believe me, I was tempted after I took a look at him. I wanted to tell him to stay away from you. He was clearly not good enough for you, but it seemed he did that on his own. I was very relieved, sorry he hurt you, but relieved just the same."

"Christopher."

"You didn't need guys like him hanging around you back then. I'm still not so sure you do now."

"He's not that guy!"

"I want to believe you, I do. At least tell me he takes better care of his house than his parents' did of theirs. That place was a wreck."

"It's a nice house. Old. It's from the forties, but it's nice."

"Yeah? Nice enough for you?"

"What do you mean?"

"I don't know. Say Dad gets pissed off at you after he really has time to think on this and you don't get the business either. Say he decides, instead, to leave it to one of the cousins. A male cousin makes much more sense than you, we both know that Claire. He doesn't want to, we know that, too. Handing it down to you he can say that I'm not interested. Handing it to a cousin, though, that implies that there's something wrong with his kids. If there's something wrong with his kids that means there's something wrong with him and his marriage. Is the life he can give you what you'll be okay with? Nice things not good things?"

"If we were having ten kids, maybe I'd worry about it, but we're not doing that. The house is fine. There's a basement that is finished and could be split up into smaller rooms or something, too."

"As long as you've thought on things like this. The life he can provide for you can't be in the same league as the one you can have together if you're gainfully employed for Dad."

"I know that. I could still work somewhere. I still have my degree. I did graduate cum laude from Northwestern, you know."

"I am aware. I'm not exactly sure how you managed to do that and why no one ever seems to talk about how smart you are when they print things about you."

"Because that doesn't sell," she said with a shrug.

"No, I suppose it doesn't. He has taken some nice pictures of you the past few months around town, doing things. I've had friends comment on them."

"Really?"

"Yes. It's a good thing. You need to do more of it. Get your picture out there not associated with partying."

"I know. I'm still working on it. If you'd like to come over before Sunday you could. Or we could go out if you want. He's free Friday night. He has a wedding Saturday."

"You're all right with that? Someone who has his weekends booked?"

"It's Saturdays. We still have Friday and Sunday together. Occasionally he has something on Fridays, but very rarely. It's his job, and he's good at it."

"He takes pictures, Claire. How difficult can it be?"

"Wow. I know you know better than that. Remember that family portrait we got done when I was like nine?"

"Yeah."

"And you can't to this day look at it and think it was pretty awful?"

"It was."

"Whose fault do you think that was?"

"Claire, come on. It's still not that hard."

"Neither is investing in the right companies or the right buildings, but somehow Dad is a genius."

"That's not fair."

"You're being judgmental and rude and I'm not fair? He's done well for himself. He didn't have the ability to go to college like we did. He didn't have parents to buy him things like we did. His company wasn't given to him. His camera wasn't even given to him. He had to earn it, save for it. He didn't grow up knowing he would have something to do. He grew up thinking he'd have nothing. No one in the school system ever told him or encouraged him to think differently either. Not even me, really, and I liked him. Everything he has he earned and worked hard to get it. What's not to respect about that? Not everyone has a hugely complicated job, that doesn't mean it's not important or worthwhile. You take your car to that mechanic out in Evanston. The one you found when you were in college. It's out of your way, yet you still go there because he's good and fair. You know when he works on your car he'll do what he says he will and it'll be done right. So not all of anyone is the same."

"I guess you do love him."

"What?"

"Did you actually hear what you just said? I've never heard you defend anyone like that in your life. I don't think you'd even defend me like that."

"You were testing me?"

"I was seeing what you'd do, yeah."

"You're an asshole."

He shrugged, sitting back a bit in his chair. "I had to know, Claire."

"Why?"

"You think I'm mean. Just wait until word starts getting out and they start printing stuff about him. What I said is going to seem tame compared to those comments. You know it or you wouldn't be hiding from everyone you're married."

"That's not why. We want to make sure Mom and Dad have time to tell everyone."

"That's the only reason?"

"Yes. Like I've ever shied away from anything before. You know me better than that."

"This is different. He's not who anyone saw you ending up with. He will be scrutinized, criticized, and probably called some very negative names. Opportunist will probably be the kindest thing said about him."

"He's aware."

"Those nasty letters you get. He'll start getting some, too."

"I know."

"It's not going to be easy."

"I know that."

"It could get pretty ugly for a while."

"Yes."

"That's why I had to be sure you actually love him, that you can actually give the right answers to the tough questions."

"I can."

"Can he?"

"He will elect not to comment."

"Not a bad way of operating."

"I think he'd just rather not say something wrong and stay out of it."

"How's work going?"

"Fine," she said.

"Yeah?"

"Dad hasn't complained about me?"

Christopher chuckled softly. "Actually, no. He hasn't said much of anything, which I take to mean you're doing just fine. I'd hear about it if you weren't, I'm sure. I just haven't seen you much so wasn't sure how you thought it was going."

The only reason they were here now, having dinner after work was because he'd called her at the office. She'd been so busy the past couple of weeks that she hadn't had much of a chance to breathe let alone go out to lunch. Whoever thought working for her dad would be easy had no idea that her father planned on making her earn her way to the keys of the company. Oh, she'd get the company eventually, but she and her father both knew she had to prove her worth until then. And that meant people had to respect her, feel she earned it even if it was a given. Her dad wouldn't want people jumping ship from his company like it was sinking because of a lack of confidence in Claire's abilities. For all Claire knew their father would have a change of heart about Christopher when it came time to retire and Claire would be left with little more than she had now as far as her position in the company went. Oh, she'd have a better title and position, sure. Her dad wouldn't leave her with nothing, but she knew that there was a chance he'd reconsider giving Christopher nothing.

"I'll come to dinner on Sunday if you really want me to, but be sure you've thought about it. That may be more uncomfortableness around your dinner table than you want for one night. Maybe Mom should have a chance to get to know John before she has to deal with me being around, too."

"I want you there. You're my brother. You're his brother-in-law."

"Well, if you change your mind, you know how to get a hold of me."

"I do. I won't, though. I think John would feel better if you were there, too."

"Why? Because proof there's a worse way to disappoint your parents than eloping in Vegas on a whim would be sitting right there?"

"No. Because you'd be a third person there to know how the night went so if Mom complained or made some snide remark you'd know the truth."

"Fair."

They made their way back to the office where their cars were. Chris gave her a kiss on the cheek.

"Drive safe," he said.

"I will."

He didn't have as far to drive since he lived downtown. She'd always assumed she'd move downtown, too, once she graduated and moved out of her parents' house. It was the best place to be close to everything. He didn't have to hire Dad's car service or anything else like that to go places. He could just hail a cab and go if he didn't feel like driving.

"Good night," he said, opening her door for her.

"Good night, Christopher. We should get into the habit of having lunch once in a while."

"That'd be good. When you feel like you can actually start taking an hour once a week to do that, let me know. Otherwise, dinner works, too."

"It does."

***

"We'll give you a call when your proofs are ready, Daniel," John said as Claire walked through the door.

"Thanks, man. That was pretty painless."

"I do my best," John said. "I'm sure your mom will have some in there she's happy with and you'll have some you're happy with."

"Yeah, because our ideas of a good picture don't exactly mesh."

"They rarely do," John agreed.

"Hey, I know you," the guy, Daniel, said when he regarded Claire.

"Hi," she said.

"You were, like, prom queen and everything."

"I was," she said. How did he know that? That was years ago.

"Hottest prom queen ever," he said.

"Thank you," she said, glancing at John who was obviously not happy about an eighteen year old guy saying that about her. "That was a long time ago, though."

"I know! I'm just shocked to see you walk in here, man. Your picture used to be all over the papers, but it hasn't been so much lately."

"No, it hasn't. I have a job and everything now."

"Right. Bummer."

"Kind of," Claire said. She couldn't deny responsibility kind of sucked some days. She could deal with the job just fine, but the waking up before six o'clock every day in order to get downtown on time kind of sucked.

"Well, good night then."

"Good night," John said, following him to the door and locking it behind him. He turned to Claire then. "How was dinner?"

"It was nice."

"Yeah?"

"Yes. He says he's going to come for dinner on Sunday."

"Well, that's good, right?"

"Yes. I want him to be there."

"I know you do."

Only after Daniel had left did he kiss her. He was so very careful about things like that. It bothered her in a way that he felt he had to be. She understood it, but she hated that he felt as though he had to think about whether he could even kiss her.

"So, is you being prom queen ever not going to be a topic of conversation, Princess?" he asked.

"I don't know. He goes to Shermer, I assume?"

"You assume correctly."

"I suppose my picture is still up there somewhere in the halls and with my picture being in the paper and on TV over the years," she shrugged.

"I suppose. Why are you here?"

"What?" she asked.

"I'm sorry, that didn't come out the way I meant it. Why did you come here instead of going home?"

"Oh, you said you were working late. I thought I'd come see you. If you're hungry we could go get something."

"You just finished eating."

"That doesn't mean I can't have a glass of wine with you while you eat."

"You'd do that? Just sit there while I ate?"

"Why not?"

"I don't know. Sure, why not. Let me just finish up."

"What's the jukebox for?" she asked when she followed him into the studio.

He chuckled softly.

"What's so funny?"

"It's for something I'm doing tomorrow."

"Why is that funny?"

"Well, you wouldn't believe what I had to go through to find this thing."

"You bought a jukebox?"

"Well, yeah, I found one I could rent and I found one I could buy. It wasn't that much more to buy it, and it's mine."

"To do what with?"

"Use it as a prop. Put records in it and play music. Whatever I want to. I don't know. It's mine."

"It's a prop tomorrow?"

"Yes. This woman wants to make a calendar for her husband as his Christmas present."

"A calendar?"

"Yes, you know, like a, um, pinup calendar. Only with her as all of the months. Thus, the jukebox."

"All of that for twelve pictures?"

"Well, they won't all be of her in front of the jukebox. She and I kind of had fun brainstorming ideas for different things. The jukebox was my idea, I told her I'd see if I could find one. Her dad has an old Ford she can use, too." He slid his arms around her once he was by her again. "I thought of offering her my car, but I kind of like the idea that just you has been on the hood of my car."

"Oh God," she said.

"I don't know what you're embarrassed or shy about. That was probably one of the hottest things anyone's ever done for me."

"One of?"

"Well, I can't think of any others off the top of my head."

"There better not be others that rank higher."

"I don't know. You in a shower ranks pretty high."

"Just pretty high."

"Well, you know there's inside you without a rubber and there's the rest. For now, anyway, that tops them all."

"Really? Just that?"

"Really. Just that."

"So, she's not taking any clothes off?"

He sighed softly and she knew what he thought she was asking. She wasn't really. He told her he'd be honest and tell her in advance of any shoots like that. She believed he would.

"No, Claire. She's not. That's the point of a pinup calendar. You know? Enticement, teasing without showing anything."

She walked up to the jukebox, running a hand along it and pressing a couple of the buttons.

"There are records in here?"

"Yup, bought it as is. I have no idea what you just pushed is going to give us."

"So, you got a jukebox and records for the same price as renting one?"

"I didn't say the same price. Just not that much more, and maybe there'll be some good music on there. It's like Christmas in September."

"Uh huh," she said as Benny Goodman started playing. She knew the song only because of her grandpa. She couldn't remember the name of the song off the top of her head, but she could picture Grandpa's phonograph and the scratchiness on the record from years and years of being played. It didn't skip, though.

"Why haven't you asked me since February to take my picture?"

"I've been taking your picture for months, Princess."

"Not the kind of pictures you mentioned taking of me in the spring."

"Well, that led to an argument and our not talking for a while so I guess I figured why bother stirring that subject up ever again."

"So you wouldn't do it?"

"I'd do it, but I have to warn you."

"What?"

"In February I could've taken your picture and stayed objective. Not to say I didn't find you attractive then, I did, but there's a big difference between finding you attractive and knowing things about you no one else knows or will ever know. No way would I be able to do that now."

"No?"

"Not a chance."

"And no one but you would see them?"

"Claire. Come on, really? Are you really asking me that question?"

"No, that's not what I meant at all, John. I mean, Ronda wouldn't stumble across them or anything?"

"No, and even if she did she wouldn't care. She'd laugh and probably say good for us for having fun."

"Fun?"

"Uh, yeah. You think I would take pictures of you like that and not have lots and lots of sex with you in the process?"

"Oh," she said, blushing deeply at that thought.

"In fact, I'd love to take a picture of you just before you come."

"Why?" she asked with a frown.

"Because it's gorgeous the way you react, your whole body gets flushed. I'd love to capture that."

"John," she said cautiously.

"Hey, I'm not making you. You brought it up tonight. Not me. I haven't asked you because I didn't think you wanted me to."

"Take the pictures or ask you to?"

"Well, both, I guess. You didn't seem to like the idea and you got kind of pissed off when I came home to you that one day so I sort of chalked it up to not your thing. I sure hope you wouldn't ask someone else to take them."

She laughed softly at that.

"What? I'm serious. If and when you let me do that, they'd be for me. You. Us. I don't want anyone else seeing you like that."

"I don't want anyone else seeing me like that either."

"Well, good, because I never realized I had a jealous bone in my body until you."

"Me either."

He chuckled softly at that, offering her his hand as he pushed the buttons on the jukebox she'd pushed again. She took it and went into his arms as the song started over again.

"I didn't know you know how to dance."

"I don't."

"Well, you do a very good imitation of it," she said.

He shrugged. "I just kind of like the song."

"Funny, so did my grandpa."

"Yeah? Which one?"

"Grandpa Arnold."

"Did he dance with you?"

"He did sometimes, sure. I was his only granddaughter. I used to stand on his feet and he'd dance with me that way."

"I bet you were cute."

"He always said so."

"Want to skip going out to dinner, order in a pizza and see what other records are in this thing?"

"Are you serious?"

"Why not? I can go to the liquor store across the street and buy us some beer. Well, me some beer and you some wine."

"You've been here all day, though."

"Not with you I haven't, Princess."

"Are you sure?"

"Well, I figure I have two months to at least pretend I know how to dance. We've got a jukebox, no one's watching. No better time like the present for you to give me some lessons. It sure beats our living room."

"All right."

"Yeah? You'll sit here with me, listen to music, and get drunk?"

"I thought you weren't going to get drunk anymore after Vegas?"

"Six beers isn't going to get me drunk. Besides. We're already married. What more can we do?"

She reached up and kissed him, sliding her arms around his neck. "There's always that no protection thing."

"You're supposed to be the voice of reason as far as that goes. Remember?"

She laughed softly. "I am. I will be."

"Good. You call and order the pizza while I go across the street. Just have them charge it to my account," he said.

"You have an account with Jake's?"

"Sure. It's the only place in town to order pizza from and I told you I didn't always know how to cook. Sometimes I'm working late or I have to work through lunch so Ronda orders a pizza. Sometimes she just wants pizza for lunch and I help her eat it so I don't make her pay for it."

"I suppose."

"I'll be right back."

"Okay," she said.

Return to Top

***Chapter Nineteen***
Word Count: 4,600

October 1988

"Tell me again why one of the suits I already own isn't acceptable?"

"Because it's our wedding reception?"

"And none of my suits were good enough?" He was changing back into his regular clothes. She had to admit it probably wasn't completely necessary, but her father had offered his tailor's services so Claire figured why not. There was no way they were going to get through the night without someone taking their picture, so they may as well both look their absolute best.

"I didn't say that, but I'm getting a new gown made."

"Yeah. You enjoy that stuff. Most women go to the salon on weekends to get their nails done. You get gowns made."

"I don't think I'm that bad."

"Have you seen the closet in the guest room that holds all of your dresses? I swear we're going to have to build onto the house if we do have kids because your clothes are going to take up both spare closets."

She sighed softly. She liked clothes! She couldn't help it. He knew that, but evidently hadn't realized just how much she liked clothes and shopping for them. And shoes. Because every new dress deserved a new pair of shoes that went with it. She hadn't taken over his closet, though he'd offered her half of it. She didn't see the point when she could have a full closet in one of his spare bedrooms. Yes, she probably could put some things in the other spare bedroom's closet, but she didn't have to.

"You'll wear it again," she said. "You wear suits for your job all of the time. This will just be a nicer suit. You can wear it to Ginny's wedding in December as a matter of fact."

"Yeah, all right. I suppose. I'm still not sure how the whole working guest thing is going to work."

"Have you ever been a guest at a wedding?"

"No, never."

"Really?"

"When would I go to a wedding?"

"Well, you have friends."

"Sure, none of them are married. Glen's the closest, but they're not even engaged."

"We'll make it work."

"As long as you don't get mad at me that I don't spend as much time with you as you expect."

"I won't," she said. "It'll be kind of neat to watch you work."

"It's not that exciting," he said.

"Good night, Mr. Hogan," Claire said as they walked to the door of the tailor.

"Good night, Miss Standish, it was a pleasure seeing you again."

"You, too."

"And I apologize. Old habits die hard."

"For what?" she asked with a frown.

"Addressing you by the wrong name."

"Oh," she said.

She hadn't even really noticed. Since no one ever said her last name she wasn't used to having a different one yet. John insisted she didn't need to change her name, but she'd filled out the paperwork to do it. Somehow it seemed wrong, as if she wasn't really married to him if she didn't. She just hadn't gotten her new social security card back yet so to this point the few things she'd had to sign she still used her name. Ironically, her father just assumed she would be changing her name and introduced her to everyone with John's last name. He'd never asked, but then she supposed her mother hadn't had a choice. Thirty years ago a woman didn't have the option to keep her name.

"It's all right. I've been Miss Standish to you for over twenty years. Thank you again for seeing us on a Friday night."

"My pleasure for any friend of your father's, but particularly his son-in-law. How could I say no?"

"Well, it was still nice of you. Thank you."

"You're welcome. Enjoy your dinner," he said.

He locked the door behind them once they'd stepped outside. Claire remembered coming here with her dad when she was little, watching fascinated as her father was measured precisely each and every time to ensure each of his suits was perfect. He'd made her a dress coat once. She still had the coat in a closet somewhere. It was the first thing she'd ever had that was made specifically for her and it was probably one of the nicest thing she'd owned as a child. Her mother had it made a bit larger than necessary so she got two winters out of it. Claire hadn't liked it at the time because it wasn't very girlie, but looking back at it now she could appreciate how nice the coat was.

The limo pulled up a few minutes later. John had taken it downtown so they could drive home together later. The wedding he had tomorrow was late starting so he didn't have to be up at dawn in order to start his day. So, they were making a night of it since he had to come downtown anyway.

They'd already told the driver which restaurant they were going to for dinner after stopping at the tailor's so they settled themselves in the back and the driver pulled out right away.

"So, you've been going there for a while then, I guess?" John asked.

"Yes, sure. Dad brought Christopher with him more often than me, but he brought me down here a time or two."

"I'm not sure I know what to do with a suit that probably costs more than my best camera."

She shook her head a bit, sliding off the seat once she was sure the car was moving. She moved between his legs, working the button and zipper of his jeans.

"I told you I'd make it up to you."

"You did," he said, sounding a little curious as she slid her hand into his jeans to touch him. "Is this what you had in mind?"

"Kind of," she whispered.

"Kind of?"

She shrugged, lowering her mouth to his lap. He gave a soft groan, hands going to her hair almost immediately. He liked drawing her hair away so he could watch when she did this. Tonight that wouldn't work so well since they were in a car and it was fairly dark, but she supposed it was habit. Instinctual.

He shifted a bit on the seat, allowing her to tug his jeans a little lower on his hips so she had better access to his entire length.

"If I had known this was what I'd get for going with you to get measured for a stupid suit I wouldn't have put it off for the past couple of weeks," he whispered as she licked along his shaft.

He didn't say much after that, a few incoherent things that she doubted she was supposed to understand. She was much better at doing this than she had been initially. He'd never complained, but she could sense how much more excited he got the more comfortable she got doing this to him. As if the first time or two he thought she'd change her mind or decide she didn't like it.

There was nothing about him she didn't like.

She groaned softly as she felt him moving beneath her. They didn't have a whole lot of time so she wasn't as leisurely about doing this as she was at home when they had nowhere to go or nothing to do. She found it incredibly hard to believe sometimes that she could cause such a reaction in him. That she could turn him on as she seemed to do. She imagined part of it was the idea that she'd never done this to anyone else.

She'd never wanted to.

Maybe that was it, not that she hadn't done anything with anyone else but that she hadn't even wanted to. She'd probably never know or completely understand, but she loved his reaction just the same. How excited he got. How hard he got in her mouth. She even liked when he took control a bit and slid his length in and out of her mouth as he was doing right now. He was always mindful of how deep she could take him, but there was something extremely exciting for her to know he got so turned on from her doing this that he wanted to ensure he came.

She slid a hand to one of his at her hair, taking it and bringing it to his length. She could touch him, stroke him but short on time as she was she knew he'd do a better job of it than she could. He'd never complained, but she was still learning.

"You sure?" he muttered.

She didn't answer him. She didn't want to stop licking and sucking on him. She squeezed his hand before she drew hers away, settling it against his thigh.

"Fuck," he muttered as he took over touching himself as she worked her mouth along the tip of him. She heard his breathing get heavier, uneven. She could hear his hand sliding along his length faster, bumping against her chin more than once as he got closer to finishing.

"Claire," he gasped, his hand stilling as he started to come in her mouth. She loved when he said her name, silly maybe, but she especially loved when he said it under these circumstances. She kept sucking and licking him well after he'd stopped coming. She pushed his shirt up a bit, kissing his stomach when she finally stopped.

"Now I think it's me who owes you," he whispered.

She shrugged. "It was kind of fun," she said, sucking on his stomach a bit longer.

"Kind of? That was more than kind of in my book."

"Good to know," she said, sliding onto his lap once he'd fastened his jeans again.

"Remind me to get a suit again next week."

She laughed softly. "I'm not sure you'll need to get a suit for me to want to do that again."

"No?"

"No. I was curious I guess."

"Curious?"

"Yes, you know, friends who've done things in the back of limos."

"I could think of something that would've been mutually beneficial to both of us. I feel a little guilty that I came and you didn't," he said, kissing her.

"That you can make up to me later and we couldn't really do that."

"Why not?" he asked.

"Well," she said. "There's no bathroom in a limo or anywhere for you to go afterward to get rid of…"

"Ah, yeah, I suppose. Good point."

"I mean, I'm sure people manage, but…"

"Yeah, I don't really feel like tossing one out the window or anything especially since it's not like we have nowhere else to go to have sex. Leaving it in here would be kind of rude and since your dad uses the limo company, probably best we don't do that."

"Probably so."

"Is that why you wore such a long skirt today?"

"Well, no, but it's what gave me the idea, knowing my knees wouldn't look like I'd been kneeling on a carpet for twenty minutes."

"Hmm, I like your ideas a lot even if it means a longer skirt."

"You do huh?"

"I do. Even better I get to take you home with me later."

"That's even better?"

"It is because the possibility for more of that exists."

"I think the possibility exists for it every night."

"I'm starting to get my mind wrapped around that concept."

"Only starting to?"

"Perhaps I'm a little slow."

"Stuck in your ways."

"You know it's been surprisingly easy to change my ways."

"That's good right?"

"I tend to think so. I'm not sure you would've just done that if I'd been having difficulty changing my ways," he said.

Dinner was nice. John didn't like eating out much, probably because he ate out or took a lunch with him every Saturday he worked. He preferred cooking, and Claire was slowly getting used to that concept. She helped him sometimes, but he seemed to not just want to cook but not mind doing it at all so she let him do it unless he asked her if she wanted to help. She still wasn't sure what it said that he'd taught her more about cooking and how to cook in the past few months than her mother had been capable of doing for twenty-two years.

It was the first time they'd been out to a bar together since they'd gotten married. It had taken her parents this long to accept the fact that she'd actually gotten married. The ballroom at their club had been booked for a Saturday John had nothing scheduled yet, and the invitations for the reception had gone out earlier in the week. So, she felt comfortable going out with him tonight like this. The past month had been crazy difficult doing virtually nothing. She'd had dinner with a couple of friends (who surprisingly hadn't announced to the world she'd gotten married) and done things, but not like this.

And they were at a bar, meeting some of her friends not a club. So there was no preferred area for them to disappear to. It was a pretty popular bar, crowded as hell since it was Friday night even if it was still relatively early. There was a fairly well-known band playing in the basement of the bar tonight, though. There was no cover charge to get into the bar, but there was if you wanted to go down to hear the live music.

"You told your parents we were coming out tonight, right?" John asked. He offered her his hand once he got out of the car, which she took. She liked when he did things like that for her. She didn't need the help, but it had been raining and she was wearing heels with a longer skirt so it was nice.

"Yes, why?"

"Just making sure you're not throwing this at them, too. And wondering if I shouldn't take my ring off."

"Why?"

"Well, if they didn't know, if you hadn't checked that they've told everyone they feel should know, your ring by itself doesn't have to mean you're married. Seen with me wearing one, though, there will be little doubt."

"I think it's pretty obvious what it is."

"Oh, I do, too, but from a distance maybe not so obvious."

"Yours can stay on."

"It can, huh?"

She wouldn't make him wear it if he didn't want to. He hadn't expressed the desire not to wear it to this point. She understood some people didn't like to wear jewelry of any kind. She couldn't say she understood it, but one of her cousins was married and he got a wedding band the day of the wedding but as far as Claire knew he hadn't worn it since. She didn't quite understand the point of buying one at all.

She reached up and kissed him.

"Yes," she said.

"I guess they do know we're out tonight."

"Why?"

"You kissed me outside on the sidewalk in plain view of anyone."

"And I'm about to hold your hand, too."

"I've seen pictures of you holding hands before."

"You've never seen a picture of me holding my husband's hand."

"No, I sure haven't."

He actually danced with her tonight. She'd contented herself with the fact he was probably never going to want to do more than slow dance with her, but dancing even those with her was a vast improvement over the none she'd gotten out of him the other times they'd gone out. She realized he probably hadn't ever had a reason to dance before recently.

The first night at his studio when he'd wanted to dance with her she'd felt kind of silly. They were alone and she'd never danced with him. She wasn't sure what to expect. They'd done it more than a few times after that night, though. He was willing to at least try to learn, knowing he'd have to dance with her a couple of times at their reception. A few times he didn't keep dancing on his mind, but she was more than all right with that.

He was far more polite about how he held her tonight than he ever had been when they were alone. She understood, but she had to admit she liked when he held her while dancing as if he wanted her. She suspected he did tonight anyway after what she'd done in the car on the way to dinner, but the physical proof was nice. The reporters that were here tonight weren't the usual gossip column people, but ones who wrote reviews on bands and stuff so it was a bit of a difference compared to the last time they were out. So she doubted any of them even cared what she was doing or who she was with.

Her friends were better around him tonight, too. They'd gotten to know him a little better while they were in Vegas, at least the ones who'd gone to Vegas with them.

They took a cab back to her car, no sense making the car wait for hours just to bring them a couple of miles to her car. She handed him the keys even though she hadn't had too much to drink.

"You had a better time tonight," she said, sliding a fingertip along his jaw to brush the lipstick away she'd just left there by kissing him.

"I did," he admitted.

"Good, I'm glad."

"You didn't drink so much."

"You noticed that."

"I did. I've noticed you haven't much lately."

"I know. Well, I guess I didn't for a couple of weeks after our trip in case I was pregnant and," she shrugged. "I guess I don't need it as much when I'm with you."

"I'm glad," he said, sliding his hands to her hair as he drew her to him for a kiss. "Fuck, really? It's one o'clock in the morning?" he whispered at the sound of a camera. She'd heard it, too.

"Just ignore it. We're not doing anything wrong."

"Well, yeah, I know that, but Jesus, don't they have anything better to do than stake out your car?"

"I guess not."

"Let's go home, Princess," he said, drawing away so he could open the door for her.

She sighed a bit as he walked around to the driver's side.

"I guess I should be thankful I didn't do more than kiss you," he said.

"You were thinking about it?"

"Well, yeah. You've had my mind on you and how I could return that kindness you showed me."

"Not here!"

"Well, no, but some touching while I was kissing you could've been fun. I assumed we were alone finally."

"I'm sorry."

"Not your fault," he said, backing out of the space she'd parked in. "Do you park here every day or something?"

"I do."

"Maybe you should stop being so predictable."

"I guess I should. It's just right by work."

"I'm surprised your dad doesn't have his own parking garage."

"Well, this is his parking garage."

"Oh," he said. "I doubt I'll ever completely understand what it is you do."

"Well, Dad owns properties. Sometimes he buys land and sells portions of the land to businesses to build on it as they please. Sometimes he keeps the land and builds things on it himself or in conjunction with another company or person. Sometimes he buys actual buildings to fix them up and sell them or rent them out if he thinks it's something that will make him money."

"Like the clubs."

"Yes. As soon as they've reached the pinnacle of their popularity he tries to unload pretty quickly."

"You know, something I've been thinking of."

"What?"

"He should use you."

"I'm sorry?"

"Okay. For four years you've been an unofficial face of his company. If a club opens and you're seen frequenting there it does well. If you don't go more than once or twice it doesn't do as well."

"Yes, not always. I mean, sometimes if it's real out of my way."

"Well, right, there are exceptions, but it seems you and your friends have a lot of say as far as socially what works and doesn't."

"Okay."

"We should find some of the buildings that like your grandpa was involved with. Maybe even your great grandfather. You know? Maybe take some black and white pictures of you dressed in something kind of retro. Kind of a Standish International then and now, the past and the future."

"I can ask him."

"Why ask him? Why not just pick some addresses, pick a Sunday, pick an outfit, I'll bring the camera and film and we can do it. If he hates it, the pictures go nowhere. If he likes it, great."

"It would be kind of fun."

"And it'd be free."

"I'm sure he'd pay you for the pictures if he wanted to use them."

"I wouldn't take his money."

"He'd offer."

"I'm sure he would. If I didn't accept that check back in February, I'm not going to accept one for some pictures."

"How big of a check was it?"

He chuckled softly.

"I wouldn't have had a house payment if I'd accepted it."

"Really?"

"Really."

"Huh," she said.

"That surprises you?"

"What? That the check was for that much? Or that you wouldn't accept it?"

"Either, I guess."

"I have no idea how much my father pays people off to go away. I was a little surprised you wouldn't accept it."

"I didn't do it for money."

"I know that, but you got beat up and went to jail."

"Great thing about being my own boss, I didn't even come close to getting fired because of it."

She laughed softly at that.

"I suppose that's true."

"I wouldn't have felt right accepting it. People shouldn't get paid for doing the right thing in situations like that."

"I think that's the only reason my father didn't push the prenuptial agreement angle."

"You're probably right."

"He's going to give us money. You know that, right?"

"What?"

"As a wedding gift. I don't know how much, but my brother told me that we saved him the expense of a wedding so he plans on basically giving us what he thinks a wedding would have cost."

"Are you kidding me? Claire…"

"We can give it back, but he'd get mad, John, he really would. I'm his daughter and the only child he has that's going to get married."

"I suppose," he said.

"We can put it in the bank and forget about it if you want. Put it towards whatever."

"I don't know how much those tests are going to cost me."

"I know. I think we should worry about that after actually trying for a while doesn't work."

"What's a while?"

"A year or so? I mean, I'm not in any hurry. Geez, six months ago I could hardly take care of myself. I don't want a baby yet."

"You didn't want a husband yet either."

"Well, I love you."

"You wouldn't love a baby?"

"You know I would. I just meant. I didn't, couldn't plan on you coming into my life again. We can plan when a baby comes. Or at least trying for one."

"True. You let me know whenever you think you're ready for that."

"If the check is big enough to pay off the house, I say we do that."

"Why?"

"Well, you said you wanted to finish the basement. I mean, like put rooms and stuff down there."

"Right."

"We could start doing that stuff if we didn't have a mortgage. You know, the money we'd have spent for the mortgage payment could go toward that stuff."

"True."

"I don't know how much it's going to be, but I assume it's going to be generous."

"Enough to pay for what he envisioned your wedding was going to cost him. I suspect generous might be an understatement. We'll deal with it. As long as he knows it's going to our house not anything that's solely mine. Like my business."

"Well…"

"No. I don't want your dad's help with that, Claire. I've come this far, I'll continue to get where I'm going on my own."

"I know. I was just going to say if there was something you absolutely wanted."

"Oh, there's always something I absolutely want. I make do. Trust me. I'll continue to do that."

***

"So, what is it? Are we still in love? Or something new today?"

"Actually," she said, looking mad now that he thought about it.

"What? It couldn't be that bad. We were only kissing. I didn't even have my hands close to anywhere inappropriate!"

She slid the paper over to him and he glanced at it while grabbing himself a glass of orange juice. She had coffee brewed, but she was quickly learning he was never going to drink the stuff so she only brewed enough for a couple of cups anymore.

"Oh," he said.

Evidently, the photographer had caught sight of John's ring but not Claire's so was now accusing Claire of being a homewrecker.

"Fantastic," he said, dropping the paper on the table. "This was your idea, you know. To see who would catch on and how long it would take them."

"I know! I didn't think they'd see your ring and assume you were married to someone else!"

He shook his head.

"What do you want to do?"

"I don't know. I shouldn't have to announce to the entire city I'm married if I don't want to."

"Better talk to your dad or Mr. McMillan. Maybe he can do something."

"It's Saturday! It's not life threatening, I'm not calling him."

"Call Dad then, Princess. I've got to start getting ready." He finished his orange juice and kissed the top of her head. "It's too bad that suit wasn't done yesterday. I could wear it for tonight's wedding since it's a black tie thing."

"You're the one who kept putting it off!"

"Yeah, because I assumed incorrectly you'd change your mind about my needing a tailored suit."

"It's going to look exceptional."

"I'm sure it will, I have no doubt of that, I am still not sure it's necessary. And you and your mouth did not distract me from thinking that last night."

"We didn't?"

"You didn't."

"That's too bad. I was really trying."

"I know. You tried very well."

"Did I?"

"You always do, sweets. Call Dad, see what he has to say about that. It's Saturday, maybe it won't be such a big deal."

"I just still can't believe that they think I'd do that! God."

"We know you wouldn't. Don't worry about them. The people who are important know."

"I know."

"And like I said it was your idea. If you'd just announced it."

"I wouldn't think you'd want an announcement."

He shrugged. "My parents are or aren't going to find out, makes me no difference. The number here is unlisted. They could find me at the studio, but I'd call the cops on them before I'd talk to them. I can handle my parents."

"All right. Well, I'll see what Mom and Dad say. Maybe I'll go over there since you're going to be leaving pretty soon anyway."

"Sure. Does that mean you're going to shower with me?"

"I could."

"Well, then, get a move on. I don't have all day to wait for you to decide to join me."

"You don't, huh?"

"Nope. I've got things to do. Important things. Pictures to take."

"Wives to placate."

"Yeah, that, too."

She slid her hand into his. "Well, then best get started."

Return to Top

***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."

"Hmm."

"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."

"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."

"No?"

"No."

"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?"

"No."

"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."

"Great."

"Have you ever felt anything for anyone?"

"No."

"Never?"

"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."

"Oh?"

"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."

"Thanks."

"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."

"Oh."

"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."

"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."

"Right."

"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."

"Yes."

"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."

"What?"

"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.

"Yes."

"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."

"Yes."

"Just promise me one thing, Princess."

"What?"

"No lace curtains."

"What?"

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."

"So?"

"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."

"Really?"

"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."

"Good."

Return to Top

***Chapter Twenty-One***
Word Count: 3,820

"Hiding?"

"Jesus," John said. He hadn't at all been expecting the interruption. "How about a little warning you're back here when I'm standing on a ladder and can fall and kill myself."

"Sorry. I assumed you heard me."

"Obviously not. And no I'm not hiding. Why?"

"Aren't her grandparents coming into town today?"

"Yeah. Her parents are picking them up at the airport. We're going to their club for dinner."

"You getting used to that?"

"What? Meeting her relatives?" He'd met too many to count over the past month. He hadn't understood why he had to meet them before the reception, but evidently no one wanted to be embarrassed by the fact they'd have to admit they hadn't met him before then or something. As if he understood the way of people.

"That, too, but no. I meant dinners at her club," Ronda said.

"Uh, no."

"You're a member now, too, aren't you?"

"I guess, by way of her membership. It's not like I have time to take up golfing or anything."

"She'd probably teach you."

"Maybe she would," he said. The idea of standing on a golf course for hours hitting a little ball with a metal club didn't appeal to him at all. She'd mentioned teaching him, too. He'd probably do it, but he was almost positive he'd hate every bleeding minute of it.

"Why are you still here?"

"Uh. A customer wanted a particular backdrop for their sitting. I had to find it. It wasn't with the other Christmas ones for some reason."

"The Petrella's?"

"Yes! This is, what their third Christmas sitting?" They'd done their first one to announce she was pregnant since she was due in January. "They want the same background they used for their oldest for some pictures with the new baby." It was weird to think he had repeat customers. Loyal customers. He'd started out doing someone's engagement photographs which turned into wedding photographs, which turned into first baby pictures, and so on. It still floored him he'd accomplished that. A name. A reputation. A quality product.

"Ah. Well, there's someone here to see you."

"And you're just waiting until now to tell me that?"

"I'm not sure you want to see them."

"Why?"

"I don't know. Just a feeling I get."

"What? Is it the cops? A reporter?"

"No, nothing like that. She just doesn't look like she should be here."

"She?"

"Yes."

"It's not an ex, is it?"

"Uh, no, that's not the impression I get."

"Because I swear to God if you're setting me up for some uncomfortable thing where I have to explain to someone I'm married just so you can see me squirm a bit."

"No."

"All right," he said. "I'll be right there then, I guess. Maybe a break from searching will help me remember where I put the stupid backdrop they want."

He made his way up front. Ronda wasn't up there, but he heard her in the kitchen so he knew she was around. His eyes fell to the small waiting area he had, regarding the woman sitting there. A myriad of emotions went through him as their eyes met. He'd had a few years of not seeing her so she caught him by surprise and he knew that surprise was evident on his face. He couldn't hide it no matter how hard he tried.

She looked tired. Worn. Worse than he remembered. Then he hadn't given her much thought since he'd left.

"What do you want?" he asked.

She stood then and he noticed she had a package with her. She regarded him as intensely as he did her. He was doing it out of morbid curiosity. He remembered what she looked like. She hadn't changed that much in the few years since he'd seen her. He'd changed, though. He wasn't anything like the guy she'd last seen.

"This came to the house."

"You're opening my mail now? That's against the law, you know?"

"It was addressed to me and your father."

"Then why are you bringing it here?"

"Because clearly it's not for us."

"What are you talking about?"

She set the box on Ronda's desk. He glanced inside the box and saw the large gift wrapped box. Wedding bells on the wrapping paper and the ribbons and bows were white. Yeah, clearly a wedding gift. He looked at the flap on the box that was opened, noticing the label was addressed to Mr. and Mrs. John Bender. He supposed he could see where the post office might have delivered it to them by mistake.

"Why'd you bring it here?" he asked. His correct home address was on the box. She could've brought it there. She might have seen Claire, depending on traffic. That bothered him a lot. He wanted Claire as far away from his parents as he could keep her.

"I knew here you'd at least see me."

"Not for long. You brought me the box. Thanks. Now get the fuck out."

"Johnny," she said, reaching to touch his hand still on the flap of the box.

"Don't. Don't even go there," he said.

"You're married, Johnny. I'm your…"

"You're not. It takes more than giving birth to give someone the right to call themselves that. Cats make better mothers than you were. At least they kill the ones in the litter they don't think will survive or don't want."

"That's not fair, Johnny."

"Stop calling me that. Life isn't fair. I really don't want you here. Any other presents get sent to you by mistake, send them back. Don't bring them here or to my house."

"Don't you want to know why I'm the one bringing you the package?"

"Uh, no. Who else would bring it to me?"

"Your father's in prison."

"This is supposed to surprise me?"

It was kind of surprising. John was surprised he hadn't heard about it through someone. Charlie still knew people who would have that kind of information.

"It's just me now."

"Yeah? Maybe you should've thought about that being a possibility years ago. People who treat people like shit usually end up alone. It seems to me that's probably the way it's supposed to be."

"Is she pretty?"

"What? Who?"

"Your wife."

"I'm not even talking to you about her. Ever."

He wondered how long his dad had been gone. How long had she been alone? She hadn't worked ever. She'd tried at first to be a housewife, but hadn't succeeded too well in that endeavor. She had no skills that he knew of beyond doing drugs and drinking his old man's paychecks away. Of course, his old man helped her do that. She'd even slept with one of his friends in exchange for product a few times. She didn't know he knew that, but nothing surprised him about her. He hadn't found that bit out until after he'd moved out not that it would've made a difference in his life if he'd known while he was still living there.

"Listen. You brought the present. Thanks. I appreciate it. I'm sure it was tempting for you to open it and see if it was something valuable. I won't forget that for once in my lifetime you did something honest and right. Thanks. Now, really. Just go. I don't know what you want from me."

"I want…"

"No, you don't. You gave up the right to want anything from me a long time ago."

"John."

"You know. If you'd come here obviously not strung out on whatever you're using these days I might think you were actually sincere. You want money from me? You want me to pay you for delivering my mail to me? Is that it?"

"No!"

"Yeah, you say no, but your eyes just lit up like a Christmas tree. I'm not paying to support your habits. Go see Chris or is he too old for you now?"

"How…"

"I know lots of things you probably aren't aware I do. Now please go. Don't make me embarrass you or me by having to call the police over a present."

"You'd do that?"

"If you don't leave my building I will."

"When did you get married?"

"Not answering you. I don't want you to know anything about me or my life. I hate that you know where I work. Even that much information bothers me, but you do. You haven't come around here before today so it seems you understand I don't want to see you."

She wasn't happy with his response. He couldn't blame her, he supposed. What did she expect, though? Four years of not seeing her would make him forget? Not likely. He supposed he didn't hate her as much as the old man, but he had no fuzzy feelings toward her either. He watched as she left, surprised now that he thought about it that neither of the cars was parked out front.

"Your mom I take it?" Ronda asked from the doorway to the kitchen about five minutes later.

"If you want to call her that. She walked here?"

"Yeah, came from the direction of the bus stop. Why?"

He shrugged, running a finger along the mailing label on the box. "No reason."

"John," she said cautiously.

"Just wondering what happened to her car. They had two cars. He took care of them."

"If he's in prison…"

"Yeah, no one's there to take care of them anymore. She couldn't have driven two cars into the ground. He hasn't been in prison that long. I would have heard about it if it was years or something."

"What do you suppose he did?"

"I have no idea. I don't care."

"Has other mail been sent there?"

"I have no idea. I imagine maybe. We both have the same name."

"You don't look much like her."

"No. I've been told I'm the spitting image of him."

"He was obviously handsome then."

"If you say so."

"Good looks don't equate to good people, John."

"I know. Yet even not looking like her you know it was someone I wouldn't want to see."

"It was just a feeling I had."

"You have good feelings."

"Yeah. I'm sorry."

He shrugged. "It's all right. It was bound to happen at some point."

"She really wanted money?"

"I don't know. She wouldn't have turned it down. If she's taking the bus here who knows what's going on with her."

She walked up to him then, sliding a hand over his.

"You know while you don't owe her anything no one would think you're a bad person for being curious about her situation."

He flinched a bit at the contact and at her words.

"I have no business…"

"No, you don't, but you're human and a caring one at that. It's natural, I think to be curious."

"Yeah, well, I can't think about it now anyway. I have a few hundred people to impress this weekend."

"I know! I can't wait."

"Thank God you and Bill are going to be there. At least I won't be completely alone."

"You can't sit with us and drink the night away."

"It would sure be tempting to try."

"Are there really going to be hundreds?"

"Yes. The last guest count was over three hundred. Claire insists she doesn't know who probably half of them are."

"Marrying into rich and powerful families can have its downsides."

"I guess."

"Speaking of."

"What?"

"Your rich and powerful in-laws."

"Yeah."

"I heard rumblings that our little strip mall here is going to be sold."

"Oh?"

"Yes. I was talking to Lou down at the convenience store and she said someone had been around the past few weeks."

"Really?"

"You don't know anything about it?"

"Why would I?"

"I'm wondering if your father-in-law is going to give you a place to work."

"Give it to me? I don't want him to give me anything. I'd still pay him rent."

She patted his hand.

"I know you would because you're you. Don't be surprised if it happens and if he won't take the money, though."

"Great. I don't want his help. I've done fine without it."

"You're not his child. Claire is."

"I know."

"You have done well. I won't deny when I took the job I didn't count on it lasting this long. No overhead. John…"

"Yeah, I know," he said.

God what he could do without having to pay rent. He could hire another photographer and pay them well enough to be competitive with other agencies. That had been a huge reason he'd hesitated to do it to this point. He just couldn't be competitive. Not year round. Yes, the wedding season kept him busy every weekend, but during the winter there just weren't weddings every single weekend. So, he couldn't justify bringing someone else on, the expense of another employee. His frugalness had allowed him to buy a house so he couldn't complain while others might have seen him as being stingy or something. He wanted some things for himself before he worried about things like expanding his business to warrant more employees.

Another photographer would also mean that John could concentrate on other things, like the pictures he took and sold elsewhere. He hardly had time this past summer to do anything. Part of that was his own fault, learning to balance a consistent social life with what he wanted to do. The idea, though, of being able to focus on that instead of just taking endless family pictures was pretty awesome.

Of course, he was getting ahead of himself. Ronda didn't know anything for a fact, and even if Claire's dad had bought the building that didn't mean he was doing anything beyond ensuring John's place of business was in stable hands.

It was nice to think about. Certainly better than thinking about his mom. He realized that was probably Ronda's intention, changing the subject.

"Thank you," he said.

"You're welcome, hon. Take that gift home to your wife and see what it is."

"None of it is stuff we'll ever use."

"Never?"

"Okay, some of it. A waffle iron came earlier this week. Really?"

She chuckled softly.

"I bet Claire's mom used a waffle iron."

"She said something along those lines."

"And I bet Claire will use one, too."

"She can barely warm milk without burning it!"

"She's learning."

"Yes."

"Well, she'll learn. You'll probably eat some burnt waffles in the process, but she'll learn."

"Great."

"Or you'll learn. Maybe you'd like to use a waffle iron. Claire says you seem to like to cook."

"I guess I do."

"There's nothing wrong with that."

"What?"

"A man doing the cooking. You don't have a commute to work. She does. Who says she has to be the one to do the cooking?"

"I don't make her do any cooking. She wants to learn, I show her stuff. She asks me questions, I explain stuff to her."

"I'm just saying. Whatever works for you two is good for you two."

"I know. I don't mind cooking. Maybe a waffle iron was a wrong example. Crystal. Linen napkins. Real silverware."

"You'll use it when you have Christmas at your house one day."

"My house isn't that big!"

"China, crystal, and silverware can be used for a party of two, too."

"Really? You and Bill sit around your dining room table like that every day?"

"Not every day, no, but I won't deny sometimes we do it for something different and nice. Sometimes I like to surprise him when I know he's had a tough week."

"Huh," he said.

"What?"

"Nothing. I guess I've just never thought of you two as being like that."

"Being like what?"

"I don't know. People who have tough weeks."

"Well, my weeks are rarely that bad."

"That's good to know."

She leaned up and kissed him on the cheek. "Do me a favor?"

"What?"

"Don't fret about your mom."

"What?"

"I know you. It's going to bother you that she came here on the bus. She's made her bed. You've gotten this far without her. I don't know the whole of it, your experience, but what I saw. Well, no one would blame you for going home tonight and never giving her a thought again."

"I know."

"Did you ever find that backdrop?"

"No, I'll come in early in the morning and look for it."

"Good. You should go home. See what's in the box."

"As long as it's not another waffle iron."

"At least you haven't gotten ten toasters."

"No, we haven't gotten any toasters."

"Blenders?"

"Two. One is pretty nice, though. Claire seems to think it'll make good margaritas."

"She'd know."

He chuckled a bit at that. "Yeah, she would."

He went to his office to get his coat and things while she checked the kitchen. He waited for her, locking the doors behind them. He glanced in the direction of the bus stop. He couldn't help it. Why the hell was she taking the bus? Was there something wrong with the cars? Had she lost her license? Was she just trying to trick him into getting involved with her? He wouldn't put it past her. He wouldn't put anything past her. Or his dad.

Claire wasn't home yet when he got there, which wasn't unexpected. He checked the answering machine. Ninety percent of the messages left on it were for her versus him these days, but the last one was the one he was looking for anyway. It was her telling him what time she was leaving work. She'd gone in on Sunday, went early and stayed late on Monday and Tuesday, and gone in early today, too, knowing she was going to have Thursday and Friday off this week because of the reception and her grandparents coming into town tonight. Staying late tonight wasn't an option.

No one could accuse her of slacking or assuming she deserved days off.

He showered and changed into clothes worthy of her country club. He'd never asked her if she wanted him to learn to do things like golf. He couldn't deny the idea of using the pool their club offered wasn't abhorrent to him, but golfing and tennis just weren't his thing. Then, he'd never been exposed to them. She had mentioned him learning but hadn't asked specifically if he was interested. She wouldn't have this past summer. They got married in September and there was still golfing at her club then but they'd been kind of busy. She hadn't done a whole lot of golfing herself.

He had to admit as much as he still wasn't convinced a tailored suit was necessary, the dress shirts her father's tailor had outfitted him with were outstanding. They were well made, comfortable, and they fit him as if they were made just for him. The cufflinks were an adjustment, but he was getting kind of used to things like cufflinks and matching stickpins for his ties.

"Wow," she said when she came into their bedroom. "You look very nice."

"Well, it's your grandparents. I figured I should go all out."

"You did very well."

"Short of the suit, yeah."

"I'm glad you're waiting until Saturday for that."

"I know. How was your day?"

"Oh, you know. Busy, but I think I left everything in a good spot to be off until Monday."

"Good. No working from home tomorrow and Friday then?"

"Not if I can help it. Christopher has said he could handle things if he has to."

"That's nice of him."

"He's getting used to this, I think."

"I think we all are," he said.

"How was your day?"

"Other than seeing the other, older Mrs. Bender it was fine."

"I'm sorry. What?"

"Yeah. Did you see that present on the kitchen table?"

"I did."

"Apparently it was delivered to their house instead of ours."

"Oh," she said, biting on her lower lip as she did when she got nervous sometimes. "I'm sorry."

"It's not your fault the post office can't read. Our address was written correctly on it."

"Well, I still feel as though I'm somehow responsible."

"You? How?"

"I don't know. This reception and everything is for me. My parents."

"Yeah."

"If I'd just left it alone…"

"Claire. I told you I could deal with my parents."

"Yes, but you don't need them walking into your life again!"

"I told her to leave."

"Oh."

"I mean, I tried to be decent about it. I thanked her for bringing the gift by. She could've opened it, returned it to the store for money and we'd never have known. Whoever sent it would've wondered why we never sent them a thank you note, though."

"I suppose."

"She tried asking me about you, but I wouldn't engage. I can handle it."

"All right."

"She did tell me he's in prison."

"Your…"

"Don't say it. Yes, him."

"You didn't ask why?"

"I don't care!"

"Are you sure you want to go to dinner tonight?"

"I'm dressed and ready to go, aren't I?"

"Yes, but you just saw your mom for the first time in years, John."

"Yeah? I figured it'd happen eventually. I just figured it'd be because she wanted something from me."

"If you're sure."

"I'm sure. I'm fine. Just kick me under the table if I start to sound like my usual smart assed self."

"John."

"I'm fine. I'm not going to embarrass you or your parents in front of your mom's parents. I swear."

"Okay. I'll change and then we can go."

"All right. I'll be in the kitchen."

"You're sure you're all right?"

"Yes. Why?"

"I don't know. Usually you'd offer to help me or at least to watch me."

"We have to be there in like twenty minutes!"

"That doesn't usually stop you."

"It's your grandparents. I'm not asshole enough to accost you minutes before having dinner with Grandma and Grandpa."

"I think accosting suggests an unwillingness on my part."

"Yeah, well, I still have better manners than that. After dinner, though…"

"Thank you. That makes me feel infinitely better."

"Really?" he asked, regarding her for a minute as she slid her dress over her head and off.

"Yes."

"You suddenly worried I don't want you anymore or something?"

"Well, no, not that."

"All right. I assure you I enjoy watching you dress and undress anytime I can. I'm just trying to be sure we actually get out of here and to dinner on time."

"Thank you."

"I'm not sure why I have to be the responsible one when it's your grandparents, but you're welcome."

"Because you've been having sex for years!"

"I haven't been having sex with you for years."

"That is true."

"Trust me when I tell you there is a difference."

"You're just saying that so you'll get lucky later."

"No, I'm saying that so that I'll get lucky for the rest of my life."

"Good plan."

"I thought so."

Return to Top

***Chapter Twenty-Two***
Word Count: 2,211

"Do we have to go back in there? Can't we just leave?" he asked when they stopped kissing. It was the first good kiss he'd gotten in hours. This was also the first time he'd gotten her alone for longer than two seconds in hours. He wanted her alone for a lot longer than that, but then he suspected she knew that.

"John," she said softly, resting her head against his shoulder. He ran his fingers along her back, toying with a couple of the little buttons back there. "We can't."

"Brides and grooms do that. I see them do it all of the time!"

"If we'd gotten married today we could do that. We didn't, so we can't."

"So many rules," he whispered kissing the top of her head with a sigh.

"Are you really having that awful of a time?"

"Not awful, no, but," he said, running a finger along her spine. "I'm anxious to see how long it'll take me to work all these little buttons."

She'd gotten ready at her parents' house so he had no idea what she looked like until the car hired to pick him up first got to their house. To say she was breathtaking was an understatement. No one would ever mistake her dress for a wedding gown, but the tiny little buttons were definitely something he'd only ever seen on that type of dress before. The dress was formfitting enough to put to rest any rumors or ideas that they'd gotten married because she was pregnant. There was absolutely no room for her to hide the evidence of that.

He'd been oddly a little disappointed she hadn't been. A little. It would have eased his mind regarding that issue, but he knew deep down neither of them were ready for that yet. They were still learning how to live with one another, but in the back of his mind was the glimmer of hope that maybe she would be.

"Me, too," she said.

Her breath caught at his words. He knew the feeling. His breath caught at the idea of touching her inch by inch. He'd never before had occasion to touch the same woman this many times and he was more than a little surprised at how much he enjoyed it. He never thought he was the type.

"Yeah? See. We're in agreement on this. We could leave. I could start with this one right here by your neck," he said, running a fingertip along the button in question.

The holes for the buttons were not your run of the mill buttonholes he noticed earlier. They were little loop like things so he would actually have to pay attention to what he was doing. He had no idea how much this dress cost her, but he knew it wasn't cheap and he wasn't going to ruin it.

"We can't! My father would be furious."

"It's such hard work pleasing parents. I don't like it. I just want to worry about pleasing you."

"I know," she whispered.

He slid the back of his hand over her breast causing her to groan just as he kissed her again. He loved how she reacted to him. It didn't seem to matter where or when, even if it was just the idea of him wanting to do something with or to her she reacted. It made things very exciting, and sometimes frustrating. There was nowhere for them to disappear to here really. Not and be obvious about it, so he was contenting himself with this moment until it was time to finally leave. She seemed more than willing to give it to him, too, this little bit of a reprieve. A moment or two just the two of them so he could assure himself that she was really his.

"Oh, hey, Claire, sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt."

"Of course you didn't," John said, having no clue who the guy talking was. They were clearly out here, away from the ballroom and the guests, for a reason. "That's why you walked up on what was clearly a private moment between us."

"Hey, sorry, really," the guy said, regarding John pretty oddly. John would say he was looking at him with interest, but he had to be wrong because he'd never seen the guy before in his life. "I just came to say good bye because I have to go. You're John right?"

"Good call," John said. It was pretty obvious he was John since he'd been caught standing here kissing the bride half of the couple this reception was being thrown for.

The guy extended his hand, John took it. "I'm Phillip Taylor. I grew up with Christopher and Claire."

"Oh, okay," John said.

"It's really good to meet you," Phillip said. "Really. I tried to get your attention earlier but you had so many people congratulating you I just figured I'd wait until later."

"Uh, yeah, you, too. You know, any friend of Claire's is a friend of mine."

"Well, sure, that, too," he said. "I just, uh," he frowned a bit and John wondered what that was about. He looked like he wanted to say something, but obviously stopped himself. "Well, anyway. It was good seeing you, Claire."

"You, too, Phil. I'm sorry your parents couldn't be here."

"Yeah. They wanted to come, you know, but just couldn't swing it."

"Tell them I said hello."

"I will." He leaned in and gave Claire a kiss on the cheek. "You look great. Mom's going to ask me for sure what your dress looked like. I'll be sure to tell her it was as beautiful as she expected it to be."

"Thank you," Claire said, sounding legitimately flattered. John had to admit she looked gorgeous. The dress was perfect. Perfect for her. Perfect color. Perfectly tailored. It was almost a shame to have to take the gown off of her later.

He reached in then and gave John a hug.

"It was real good to meet you, John. Really. You take care of her now, you hear."

"Uh, yeah, sure, I'll do my best."

John glanced after him, wondering what in the hell that was about. He wasn't a hugger in general certainly not with other guys so he had no idea how to respond to another guy going out of his way to hug him.

"Who the hell is he?" John asked once he was well out of earshot.

"He grew up down the street from us. He's a year younger than Christopher I think, so three years older than us I guess. He has an older brother and sister. I spent some time at his house growing up. His parents were nice. You know. Just neighbors."

"He always that friendly?"

"No, not really. I haven't seen him in probably two years I bet. I mean, we were always friends, but he's not someone I ever really hung out with when we got older. Chris did more than I did because they were in college together. I was just the little sister."

"He drunk?"

"Maybe. I don't know. I don't think so, he didn't seem that way."

"He's one of the few people who seemed actually happy to meet me. I'm almost kind of worried he's going to think I'm an asshole for what I said to him at first. Who does that, though? Walks up to a couple clearly into themselves?"

"He was saying good bye, it's what people do who are invited. If he's drunk he won't remember anyway. He did walk in on us kissing, so I'm sure he understands."

"He did, didn't he? Want to do it some more?"

"We should go back inside."

He sighed. "I know we should. I just want to stand here with you for the rest of the night."

"The band…"

"We can dance right here."

"As nice as that sounds…"

"I know your dad didn't shell out all this money for us to dance out here."

"No, he didn't."

"All right," he said, dropping his hand into hers. "Lead the way then, Princess. I am here to do your bidding."

"My bidding, huh?"

"Yeah."

He glanced back at Phillip who had turned around before leaving to look at them again. He was a decent looking guy if one went for the Nordic blond hair and blue eyed type. He was definitely someone he could see Claire being into when she was younger, even though she claimed not to have been interested in anyone but him.

"He like you or something?" John asked. He could see that, too. Christopher's little sister or not, if she hung out at his house he would've seen her grow up from being the little sister to a teenaged girl.

"No. I never got that vibe off of him. Like I said, we were friends but not real close or anything. I couldn't tell you what his major was or what he does for a living now or anything."

"Weird," John said. "Well, I hope he has a ride home if he's drunk."

"I think he came with someone."

"Good." John couldn't remember because he honestly didn't recall seeing the guy until a few minutes ago. There were almost four hundred people here so he hoped he wasn't expected to remember faces let alone names.

She leaned up and kissed him. It wasn't nearly as nice as the kiss she'd been giving him out in the hallway before Phillip interrupted them. It was a kiss, though, and would sustain him until the next one.

"Speaking of drinking…"

"You are not getting drunk!"

"I want a drink. If I'm dancing in front of people I need a drink."

"Okay."

"Thank you," he said, heading toward the bar. "I will join you after a drink."

"Just one?"

"Maybe two. I'm sure you won't lack for companionship on the dance floor in the meantime. Chicks always dance together."

"You're right. I'm surprised you haven't used that knowledge before."

"I didn't need to know how to dance to help me pick up women. Not once."

"Yes, but it would've been a great in. No lines necessary."

"There's only one chick I'd venture out to a dance floor for, Princess."

She blushed at that.

"I didn't say it was you."

"You don't have to!"

"I suppose not."

She reached up to kiss him. "Don't make me wait too long."

"You planning on leaving without me, sweets?"

"You never know!"

"I won't be long. I swear. I'm just going to have a beer with your brother here."

"You," she said, pointing at Christopher.

"Me what?" he asked, apparently oblivious to their conversation.

"You make sure one beer doesn't turn into ten."

"Why am I doing this?"

"Yeah," John said. "Why is he doing this? Maybe he'd like to have ten beers with me. You know, you Standishes can't seem to resist me and my charming personality."

She rolled her eyes and Christopher gave him a rather amused look, which was good. He was hoping his brother-in-law wouldn't take offense to his teasing comment.

"Because he needs to come dance with me."

"I can't make him do that, sis, but I'll do my best."

"Thank you," Claire said, walking toward the dance floor.

John took the seat next to Christopher's and ordered a beer. Great thing about being the groom part of the reason for this party, he hadn't had to wait for a drink once tonight. The bartender was Johnny-on-the-spot for him.

"You better not make her wait long," her brother said.

"She'll be kept occupied," John said, taking a sip of the beer the bartender set in front of him.

"Not a dancer?"

"No."

"You're a good photographer."

"I'm not sure what that has to do with dancing."

"It doesn't. I just felt like saying so."

John regarded him for a minute. "You're not drunk enough to come onto your sister's husband, are you?"

Christopher laughed then. "No, I'm not. And don't worry, you're not my type anyway."

"Hmm," John said. So, he had a type. He wondered what type that was. "So, that Phillip guy. What's his deal?"

"Phil Taylor? Why?"

"He hugged me!"

Christopher shrugged. "I have no idea. He was asking me some questions about you earlier."

"Me?"

"Yeah. You know, what you did and stuff. I don't know. We grow up with him, I'm sure he's just curious about you."

"Like no one else here isn't?"

"Well, yes, but he just knows me well enough to ask."

"Thanks for picking up the slack for her the past couple of days."

"I didn't have to do a whole lot."

"Well, still, I know she appreciates it."

"She told me."

"I'm telling you, too."

"You didn't even want this party."

"No, but she did."

"You're not so bad."

"Thanks, I think."

"Go dance with my sister. You don't want her mad at you tonight."

"No, I don't think I do."

John finished his beer, setting it on the bar and headed in her direction. He was not looking forward to this part of the evening at all. The slow dances he could handle, anything more than that he was in totally foreign territory. She knew that, so hopefully she'd be reasonable.

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***Chapter Twenty-Three***
Word Count: 5,154

"I have nothing until that appointment at two o'clock, right?"

"That would be correct."

"I'm going to do some things then this morning and then go have lunch with Claire, her dad, and brother downtown."

"All right. We had a good time on Saturday, by the way."

"Yeah? I'm glad. I feel like I hardly saw you at all."

"That was kind of a good thing."

"You were hiding from me?"

"Not hiding, no, but you needed to meet the people she and her family thought it was important for you to meet."

"I guess. As if I'll ever see any of them again."

"Oh, I imagine you will. You know, they have kids who will get married and so on."

"Right. Great. Just what I want to do is go to more parties like that."

"It was a nice time. The food was great. I was pleasantly surprised."

"For what I'm sure her dad spent it had better have been the best thing you've had."

"It was pretty good."

"It was," John agreed.

"I was surprised her brother was alone."

"Why?" John frowned.

"I don't know. Weddings are a great place to bring dates."

"It wasn't a real wedding, it was a reception, and I get the impression he's not involved with anyone right now."

"Really?"

"Yeah. I mean, I haven't asked him, but that's the impression I get."

"He'd be quite the catch with that business set to fall to him whenever Claire's dad decides to retire."

"Her dad's barely in his fifties," John said.

"I know, but it will happen one day."

"You in the market for a new husband, Ronda?"

"No."

"You have any sisters I don't know about?"

"No."

"That's probably good anyway," he said with a soft chuckle. "Anyway," he said, grabbing his coat. "I'll be back by two o'clock."

"Doing anything good?"

"Nope," he said simply.

"John?"

"I'm doing something probably pretty stupid, but it needs to get done. I'll see you later."

"You sure?"

"Yup. I've got my pager on me if anything comes up."

"Okay."

"Don't get into any trouble while I'm gone."

"I'll try not to break anything."

"Thank you."

John pulled onto the street he swore he'd never drive on again. He hadn't either in years. He wouldn't deny he'd been curious what the house looked like, but about the occupants of the house he had no interest in. He drove past the house, spotting the cars in question on the driveway. So why had she taken the bus?

He drove around the corner and turned around, pulling up in front of Mr. Fitzgerald's old house. He had no idea who lived there now. He could still remember the smell of the chemicals the first time he'd gone into the darkroom with the man. John couldn't be sure where he'd be today without what little guidance the old man was able to give him, an interest he was able to give John.

He popped open the can of Coke he brought with him as he regarded the house. He had absolutely no fond memories of living here. Maybe as a real small kid, but he couldn't remember those and they were weighted down by so many bad ones that they were irrelevant.

He tried to remember what his parents were like back then, but he couldn't anymore. His mom had been real pretty, he remembered that much. It wasn't until he started school she started letting herself go. She was still pretty, he supposed, but the years of drinking and drug use had taken their toll on her. Looking at his parents was one of the reasons he swore off anything harder than the occasional joint. He didn't need to get much closer than real-life proof of what those bad habits did to someone.

He supposed his dad had been a good looking guy back then, too. John liked to think he was a good looking guy and he'd been told more than once he was the spitting image of his old man. So, he could understand how he'd managed to get his mom's attention. She'd been fifteen and he'd been seventeen when they met. She was sixteen and he was eighteen when she got pregnant with him. The rest, as they say, was history.

He saw the mailman deliver the mail to the houses in the area, including his parents'. Shortly after, the front door opened and he was expecting to see his mom again. He was not expecting to see a kid, a small one at that, come out the door with her. They walked to the mailbox by the street together and went back inside. His mom had no coat on, but the child did.

He rubbed his eyes, certain he was seeing things. No way in hell was it possible.

He got out of the car then, walking to the front door of one of the houses he'd parked in front of. The couple who lived here were nice people. The woman, Mrs. Henderson, never worked. She let John in her house a couple of times when he'd been locked out of his house.

Her eyes widened in surprise and shock at seeing him. He hadn't seen her really in years, long before he'd moved out. He'd outgrown his need for being let into her house and so hadn't come around much after that. He felt kind of bad for that now because he sort of got the impression she liked his visits. They didn't do anything, but she was alone all day and he was a break from the monotony of being a housewife with no kids in the house any longer.

"John!" she said.

"Hi, Mrs. Henderson. How are you?"

"I'm fine. How are you?"

"I'm doing all right."

"I know you're not locked out today."

He chuckled softly at that. "No, ma'am, I'm not, but I do have a question or two for you."

"Sure," she said. She opened her front door further, letting him enter. "Do you want some coffee?"

"No, thanks, I'm all right. I can't stay long. I'm meeting my wife and in-laws for lunch downtown in a bit."

"You're married?"

"Yes."

"You're so young."

"My parents were younger."

Her lips tightened a bit at that.

"Do I know her?"

"You might. Claire Standish."

"Oh! Of course I know of her. Who doesn't?"

"Right?" he said with a bit of a chuckle.

"How's Mr. Henderson?"

"He's well, John. We both are. Getting older, you know. Aches and pains that weren't there before, but we get by."

"Your kids come by and check on you?"

"Yes."

"Good," he said. Her kids had been a little older than John so he hadn't ever known them well.

"You didn't come here to ask after us, though, I'm sure."

"Well, no," he said. He didn't want to be rude, though. "My mom came by to see me the other day, some of my mail got delivered to their house by mistake I guess."

"I can see how that could happen, you having the same name as your father."

"Right. I figured that's what happened. It's only been recent mail would've come to me as Mr. and Mrs. John Bender. She came on the bus, though."

"Oh, yes. Neither of her cars are working. Haven't been for months."

"Both of them?"

"Yes."

"Huh," he said, glancing out the window. He could see his house from here. It was why he'd come to her house the few times he'd been locked out, he was able to see when his mom or dad came home from here.

"My dad is in prison she said?"

"Yes, terrible situation."

"What happened?"

"He killed someone."

"Oh," he said, not at all surprised by that. "Bar fight?"

"I'm really not sure. If Al was here he'd know more." Al was her husband.

"It's all right. I can find out on my own."

"I don't like to gossip."

"I know you don't," he said. It was one of the reasons he'd come to her house. He knew she wouldn't tell the neighbors. There'd been more than one instance where he'd been locked out not because his mom wasn't home but because she was passed out drunk and didn't hear him knocking on the door. So, he'd had to sit here until his dad came home from work. As far as John knew, none of his neighbors knew these things. "I just know that I haven't been around, and I know I won't get an honest answer out of her."

"No, I guess not."

"And the kid I just saw?"

"John," she said cautiously.

"You can't be serious. It's hers? Theirs?"

"Yes."

"Boy or girl?"

"His name is Billy."

"How old?"

"Three, I think."

He stood then, walking to the front door.

"John," she said again.

"It's all right, Mrs. Henderson. I appreciate your time."

"You can't…"

"I know. I won't do anything stupid. Thanks for seeing me."

He got back in his car and stared at the house some more. He had a brother. Fuck. How did that even fucking happen? Three would mean a nineteen year difference. His mom would have been thirty-five when she got knocked up again, not out of the realm of possibilities. Insane, though, especially considering his parents didn't have a string of kids after John to suggest they wanted more. He'd just always assumed they realized their mistake and one of them got fixed or something.

He glanced at the clock in his car and knew he had to leave if he was going to make it to lunch on time with Claire, her dad, and her brother. They adjusted their lunch time around his work schedule, so being late would not look good. God it was tempting to say fuck it, though, go knock on the door and see what the fuck the situation was. Was the little guy, Billy, all right? He seemed okay. She'd put a coat on him to come outside to get the mail. That was at least a good sign.

He drove out of the area, passing the house one last time. He went by slowly, glancing at the house and sorely tempted to pull onto the driveway. He didn't, though. He wasn't going to choose his mother over Claire anytime soon.

Lunch was all right. He knew Claire could tell he wasn't in the greatest of moods, but he managed to push his way through without being rude or a jackass. Her dad had suggested lunch when he'd overheard Ronda telling him he didn't have anything booked until so late Monday afternoon. John had accepted the offer of lunch because that's what people did when they wanted to get along with their fathers-in-law.

Ronda noticed his mood, too. For whatever reason she didn't push him, perhaps assuming the lunch with his in-laws hadn't gone well. Who knew?

"There's a Lieutenant Bentley here to see you," she said over the phone.

"Me?"

"Yes," she said.

"Uh, okay. Show him to my office I guess," he said. "Tell him I'll be like five minutes, just waiting for a picture."

"Okay," she said. He hung up the phone then. He hadn't always had a phone in his dark room. Before Ronda came he hadn't needed it, just relying on an answering machine to take any calls he might miss. He usually developed his pictures early or late so that wasn't much of an issue. He didn't right after he'd hired her either, but eventually he had and it'd paid off more than once.

Knowing a police officer was here to see him, though, made him regret having the phone. She would never have walked into his work area, knowing what he was doing. She probably wouldn't have lied, though, and told the guy he wasn't around. So, either way he'd be seeing the guy.

The picture developed he headed up front, glad he was on the last one of the bunch he'd been working on. He'd work on more later, though. The work distracted him from thinking about what he'd discovered earlier today and trying to figure out what, if anything, he should do about that information. Could this day get any weirder though? First he finds out he's got a little brother and now the police were here to talk to him.

"Can I help you?" he asked, surprised when Lieutenant Bentley turned out to be a woman not a man.

"Mr. Bender?"

"Yes," he said cautiously. She extended her hand, which he took presuming it meant it was a friendly visit. He wasn't wanted for anything, so he was a bit confused why she might be here.

"Sorry if I interrupted."

"It's all right. What can I do for you?"

Had his mom seen him around the house and called the cops on him? He didn't think she'd do that. As far as he knew she didn't know what his Jeep even looked like. He doubted they'd send a lieutenant out for something like that anyway.

"You're familiar with Peter Cragen?"

"I'm sorry, who? I've never heard that name before in my life. You aren't looking for my dad, are you?"

"No, Alistair McMillan said you would possibly have information for us."

"Oh," he said. That was certainly not involving his old man then. "Pete? The guy with the photographs? I guess I never knew his last name."

"We've been building a case against him."

"Over some pictures he tried to sell me? That seems a little extreme. I mean, they never showed up."

"Those weren't the only ones. Your wife said you told her yourself he must have had access to equipment."

"Well, yeah," he said. "You've talked to Claire?"

"Not yet, but we have the information Mr. McMillan passed onto us initially."

"That was like months ago."

"Cases like this don't always move swiftly. It depends on how quickly the subject moves. It seems your wife was someone he was out to make a quick score off. He and his partners usually invest more time in their subjects."

"I suppose," he said. They probably weren't high priority cases either.

"Anyway, as we move to take down the operation he has going we need to know if you're in a position to testify."

"Sure," he said with a shrug. "I can't testify about much. I mean, he tried to sell me the pictures. I told him I wouldn't buy them and we got into a bit of a scuffle, ending up in both of us being arrested. I really don't know much else. I honestly hadn't even really thought on him for a while."

"You're a photographer, though. He's never tried to sell pictures before that we've been able to find anyway. We don't know what made Claire different than the others."

"I don't know the answer to that. Unless he planned on making more of her and blackmailing her parents for money to prevent the rest from being released. I mean, only two of the half dozen pictures he gave me showed anything and they weren't hugely explicit."

"Well, we're still getting things together, but we're certainly closer now than we were six months ago."

Huh. And here he thought Claire's dad and the lawyer had paid ol' Pete off. Looks like instead they went after him and were able to find some dirt on him. Good.

"Sure. Whatever you need. If he's done this to other people then he should be stopped."

"Great," she stood then, offering John a business card, which he took. "We'll be in touch. We have some tech guys, but they may want your input on what you know about his equipment."

"Sure," he said. "Some notice might be nice. I'm just a one-man operation here. If I'm going to be turning customers away I kind of need to know that."

"We'll try not to be too disruptive, and I can't imagine your testimony would last longer than a day or two."

"All right."

He showed her out of his office and to the door, sliding her business card into his wallet.

"Everything okay?" Ronda asked.

"Yeah," he said. He headed to the back, deciding to close everything up for the night and go home. He wasn't going to get much more done today anyway.

"You're leaving?" Ronda said when she saw him leaving his office wearing his coat.

"Yup. You can, too. Just turn the machine on before you go."

"I always do."

"I know," he said.

"You sure everything's all right?"

"I'm fine," he said. "Just one of those days, you know?"

"Okay. If you needed to talk…"

"I'm fine. Really. Thanks. Have a good night," he said.

He got home and headed to the couch with a beer. What a weird day. He almost would've rather been drowning in business because at least he wouldn't have had to spend all day thinking on his mom.

"Fuck," he muttered, flipping the TV on in an effort to find something to distract him. He really didn't want the police in his life, regardless of the reason. How could he refuse, though? He was, he supposed, a witness. If he said no, they'd subpoena him or Pete's lawyer would think he had something to hide and look into his background. He supposed he should call Mr. McMillan tomorrow and talk to him about his role in all of this if he even knew. Maybe the lawyer wouldn't know either.

"Long day?" he heard Claire ask him from in front of him.

He murmured something that wasn't really an answer. He'd evidently drifted off to sleep on the couch because he hadn't heard her come in.

"Are you going to tell me what's wrong now?"

"No," he muttered.

"Okay," she said cautiously. "Did you eat?"

"Not since lunch, no."

"Do you want to?"

"Not right now."

"John…"

"I'm fine," he murmured.

"You don't look fine. You weren't fine at lunch."

"I had a bad day. Okay?"

"John."

"Jesus, Claire, just leave it alone. All right? I had a bad day. That's it. It has nothing to do with you."

"Well, then why won't you tell me what's wrong?"

"Because I don't want to talk about it yet!"

"But…"

"Claire," he said, opening his eyes finally to look at her.

"If you're mad…"

"Princess," he said, sliding a hand to her leg, touching her at her thigh. "I just said it has nothing to do with you. Cut a guy some slack, okay."

She left the living room then and he closed his eyes again. He'd apologize later. He was allowed to have a bad day once in a while. He certainly didn't get pissed off or judge her when she had her bad moments. She wasn't insanely crazy at her time of the month as he'd heard some women got, but she definitely got … moody. He just stayed out of her way. And made extra sure to put the toilet seat down when he was done using it those mornings. He only had experience with his mother to go by when it came to living with women and she was pretty crazy and out of control every day so John never had any clue about such things where she was concerned.

He heard her walk through the house, going to their room first and then stopping in the kitchen. She came back to the living room a few minutes later, covering him with a blanket before grabbing the remote control for the TV. She sat on the couch at his feet. She must have poured herself a glass of wine in the kitchen because he heard the soft sound of glass against the end table there. She didn't drink beer. Well, she did but not often and very rarely at the house. Evidently, she found what she wanted to watch on TV because she kept the channel where it was and settled her hand against his thigh.

"Thank you, Princess," he murmured a few minutes later when she made no attempt to engage him in conversation again.

"I brought you a beer, too," she whispered.

"I'm sure I'll get around to it when the game starts."

"That's fine."

He dozed on and off while she watched the news and some show that came on before the football game. She got up once, coming back with a sandwich he noticed when he opened his eyes to see what she had made for herself to eat.

"So, a police lieutenant came to see me today," he said finally, figuring he'd start with the part of his day he could at least make sense of.

"About?"

"Pete. Did you know they've been investigating him? Evidently what he did to you wasn't the first time he'd pulled something like that."

"No, I didn't know that."

"Really?"

"No. Why would I?"

"I don't know. She said that Mr. McMillan knew I'd said he'd had decent equipment and stuff."

"Oh, well, sure. I told him what you'd told me about that back in February."

"Not since then?"

"No, no one's said anything to me. I didn't know."

"I guess they didn't pay him off after all."

"That makes you feel better or worse?"

"About your dad offering me money you mean?"

"Yes."

"Better, I guess. I was kind of wondering, at the time I mean, if I got that kind of check for doing the right, decent thing what kind did Pete get for starting the whole thing."

"Right."

"I'm glad, though. I guess I never thought real hard about the fact that the quality of the pictures might mean he'd done it before you. I should've, I mean I realized he probably had done it before. I think I even said that to you at the time, but I wasn't concerned about someone I didn't know."

"Sure, why would you have? He only came to you with the pictures of me."

"They weren't you," he said, sliding his hand over hers. "He failed miserably at coming even close to knowing what you look like without your clothes on."

"Miserably?"

"I assure you, miserably."

"Thank you."

"I wasn't saying it to be flattering, not entirely. It's the truth."

"So, what did the lieutenant say to you?"

"Basically asked me if I'd be willing to testify and talk to her tech guys about the equipment he'd need to make those pictures."

"Oh. And?"

"Of course I said yes. I mean, who knows what would have happened with those pictures if he hadn't tried to sell them to me. She made it sound like you were an exception with how he normally operates, trying to release them publicly like that. I don't know. I mean, that's just wrong on so many levels. You know? Embarrassing for you, or whoever, even if the pictures aren't you."

"Right. I would've been absolutely mortified and humiliated!"

"I'm going to have to call him tomorrow."

"Who?"

"Mr. McMillan. I want to find out what he's told them exactly. I also want to ask him if he'd do a favor for me. Or knows an attorney who could if he can't. I don't know any really. Some clients, but I really don't want to involve people who know me professionally in this."

"What? Pictures of me?"

"No. The favor I need him to do for me."

"Which is?"

He sighed softly.

"First of all, I want to know what my father is in prison for. I stopped in the old neighborhood today."

"You did what?"

"I was curious, you know. I wanted to see if she even had the cars she and Dad had before."

"Did she?"

"Yes, they're still there."

"You talked to her?"

"No! I talked to a neighbor for a little bit. She says Dad killed someone, but I don't know the details and I'd like to know how long he's going to be in prison."

"Why?"

"Because it turns out Mom and Dad have another kid."

"What?"

"He's three Mrs. Henderson said. Billy."

"You have a brother?"

"It would appear so. I admit I have my doubts on whether it's my old man's."

"Why?"

"Well, if they were going to have more than me, why wait nineteen years to do it?"

"I suppose. Did she?"

"I know at least one friend of mine she was with."

"One of your friends? Like someone our age?"

"Yes," he said. "Remember, she's only thirty-nine herself."

"Yeah, but still!"

"I didn't find out about it until after I'd moved out, but if my old man found out about it."

"Are any of your friends dead?"

"No, but that doesn't mean there weren't others I don't know about."

"John," she said cautiously.

"So, I just want to know. I also would like to know what Mom's doing. It's Monday and she was home. I saw her and him getting the mail. Is she working? Why wasn't Billy with her when she came to drop that present off?"

"Well, that would've been completely uncomfortable."

"I thought of that, too. She tried to talk to me, you know, but I didn't want to have anything to do with her."

"John, you can't blame yourself for not listening to her."

"I think I'm going to go over there and look at the cars."

"If you think you have to."

"I think I should. If it was just her I don't think I'd care, but it's November. She's got a three-year-old kid to haul around. I should be able to get at least one of them running."

"Okay."

"You don't think I should?"

"I think you should be careful."

"I don't want to, but I kind of feel like I owe it to him."

"Is he okay?"

"That's the other reason I'd like to find out what Dad's in prison for. I'd like to know how long he's going to be in there. Mom by herself," he shrugged, sitting up finally and grabbing the beer she'd brought for him a while ago. It was a bit warm, but it was beer just the same. "She wasn't physical, you know. I think he'd be okay."

"Are you going to, like, talk to him?"

"I don't know! What do you say to a brother you didn't know you had? I don't know if he even knows I exist! Never mind he's three. I have no idea how to talk to a three year old."

"I don't either."

"I just want to check out the cars, and I guess make sure he has, you know, food."

"John."

"What? Wouldn't you?"

"Well, yes, but do you really want to start doing that? Fixing her car is one thing, but if you start doing things like buying groceries she's going to think you will all of the time."

"I know. I just want to see for myself. Is that so wrong?"

"No," she said. "Would you like me to come with you?"

"I don't know."

"Okay."

"I mean, I don't know. I'm not sure what I'll be walking into. You know? If she's drunk or on something she could be a handful."

"Well, I'll go with you if you want me to. If not, that's fine."

"You're pretty calm and rational about this."

"What can I say?"

"I don't know, but your parents wouldn't be too thrilled to know what I'm doing."

"You're going to fix her car not invite her to my parents' house for Thanksgiving dinner."

"True."

"I don't think they could fault you for being sure your little brother has a ride places."

"I hope not. Would you be mad if I tried to hang out with him sometimes?"

"Mad? No. I think I'd hope you knew what you were doing."

"Yeah, I'm not sure I'm going to go down that road, but then again Dad's in prison and Mom's Mom, I kind of feel like I should, you know. I'm not sure what it says that I'm the normal one."

"It says that you beat the odds."

"You helped."

"I didn't."

"You did, too. You and Mr. Fitzgerald are the only people who ever gave a shit about me. That meant something."

"Not enough to date me."

"I didn't know you really liked me! I really didn't. I wasn't sure what to do with you. You stopped us from having sex that day at school and I wasn't sure what that meant."

"You'd never been told no before?"

"No!"

She laughed softly at that. "That must have been awful for you."

"It was a bit mystifying. And then you wanted to, like, talk to me. I didn't know how to handle that at all."

"I know."

"Yeah, well, it's probably better anyway."

"Probably. I wonder if I'm going to have to testify."

"I don't see why you would."

"How about the fact that those pictures are not of me!"

"Oh, well, maybe then. I don't know. The lieutenant didn't say. Maybe they talked to me first because of the technical stuff. I don't know."

"Maybe they have to go through Mr. McMillan to get to me."

"That could be, too. Maybe he knows already and is just biding his time until it's a certainty. The guy may plea to something, you never know."

"Right."

"I'm sorry I was an ass."

"You weren't. I just wasn't sure what to do for you."

"You did it. Just you here was cool."

"I wasn't sure you wanted me to leave."

"I don't think there'll be a time I ever want you to leave."

"Ever?"

"Nope."

"You're going to go there this weekend?"

"Friday probably, yeah."

"Okay."

"You don't want me to?"

"I just want you to be very careful. I worry about you getting hurt."

"She can't…"

"Not that way."

"I don't really care about her."

"I know, but you can't see him without seeing her, which could set you up for getting hurt."

"I see your point," he said. "I'm just curious, I guess. Does he look like her or him? You know?"

"Yes, I can see that."

"How was your day?"

"Not nearly as eventful as yours."

"Good."

"Thank you for having lunch with us."

"You don't have to thank me for eating with you."

"Well, with everything that happened I can see why you maybe wouldn't have wanted to, and having lunch with Christopher and Dad isn't the same as me."

"No, but they're not bad. I take it as a sign he's adjusting to us being a matching set."

"Is that what we are?"

"Something like that anyway."

"Do you really want to watch the football game?"

"I don't know. What are my other options?"

"Want to help me take a bath?"

"With bubbles?"

"You don't like the bubbles."

"I like you in the bubbles."

"Why?"

"They get flirty with your parts so then I have to find them."

"I like when you find my parts."

"Me, too, Princess."

"Well?"

"I don't need to watch football."

"Really? My offer is more appealing?"

"Your offers are always more appealing."

Return to Top

***Chapter Twenty-Four***
Word Count: 5,141

December 1988

"You're going to be late, you know?" he murmured when he heard her shut her alarm off and do nothing.

She was definitely not an early morning person he was coming to realize, but she wasn't the type to lay there and hit snooze on her alarm endlessly either. A lot of times, especially now that it was pretty cold out most mornings, she'd hit the snooze button once and use the extra seven minutes to get as close to him as she could. Most mornings that resulted in him being inside of her in some way, shape or form. He was quickly growing very used to getting his morning hard-on issue taken care of in a far more enjoyable way than just letting it go away on its own.

"I'm not going in today," she said, pressing herself against his chest. "I already told Dad yesterday."

"Why not?"

"I'm going with you or if you want me to stay here I will do that, but I'm going to stay home in case you need something."

"I'm not sure you can help me with what I'd need."

"I can love you."

He slid his hand along her hip. He loved the feel of her skin. She wore nightshirts to bed, but he'd convinced her a while ago now to forego the panties because they ended up gone at some point during the night anyway. He drew her on top of him, though she went willingly.

"I like the sound of that idea a lot."

"That's not what I meant!"

"You said you were staying home in case I needed something. I need something. Very badly. Can't you tell?"

"John," she said, but she positioned herself over him so he knew she wasn't upset by his idea. If she wasn't going into work and he wasn't either there was absolutely no reason they couldn't start their day off this way. Even better since neither of them had a particular place to be when they were done she didn't have to get up and go to the shower right away as she did the mornings she worked.

He never thought he'd see the day when he actually looked forward to cuddling, wanting to stay in bed with someone after sex. Then he never thought he'd see the day he'd be having sex with the same woman for months either.

"Do you actually own blue jeans?" he asked later after they'd showered. An extra three hours in bed with her unexpectedly was a great way to pass his Friday morning before doing the things he had planned today.

"Yes."

"A sweatshirt?"

"Yes!"

"Functional gloves?"

"John! I know how to dress myself, hon."

"I've seen some of your versions of winter clothes. They look nice, but won't keep you warm. If you're going to come with me I want you dressed to stand outside with me for a while. Like a few hours a while. My hope, in a way, is she has a job and won't be home. I'll be able to just quietly fix one of them and she won't even know I was there."

"I understand."

"And if she is home. Well, I think I'd still rather you hang out with me. I don't trust her."

"You don't trust her to what?"

"I don't know! Shoot up in front of you? Tell you some bizarre story about some girl I brought home when I was twelve. I have no idea."

"You brought girls home when you were twelve?"

"Claire," he said. "Really? That's what concerns you today?"

She shrugged. "You wouldn't bring me home."

"Yeah, it was very different."

"Why?"

"You were years later first of all. You were very different. You think I wanted you to see how we lived?"

"You let me drop you off at your house a couple of times."

"Sure, that wasn't going inside. Come on. I'd been to your house, saw all the nice things you had. You would've taken one look at the stuff I had that wasn't at all nice not to mention the stuff I didn't have at all and would have turned right around."

"I would not have! I liked you, it wouldn't have mattered."

"Princess, you would have. You know it. Maybe not right away, but eventually you would've looked at it through realistic eyes. I mean today I don't think you would, but you weren't the way you are now. Now, if you'd offered to come home with me the day of detention…"

"Really? You would've taken me home then?"

He chuckled softly. "I wanted you bad, yeah."

"You were having sex when you were twelve?"

"Uh, well," he shrugged. "Somewhere around there."

"John!"

"What? I was a horny guy. There were girls willing to help me out. Why is that bad?"

"You were twelve!"

"Yeah."

"Do you want your little brother having sex when he's twelve?"

"Well, no, but I didn't have anyone to tell me differently. I mean, I was lucky if my parents shut their door when they were able to do that anyway. Dad had issues sometimes, you know. Too much drinking can make things not work so well."

"You know this?"

"I heard it! Jesus. Our walls weren't that thick. My room was right next to theirs. Every fight. Every squeak the bed made. I heard it all."

"God."

"Anyway, you coming with could be good."

"Why?"

"I won't be tempted to get sucked in and stick around to do anything else around there that might need doing."

"John…"

"I'm not doing it! They let the place go to hell they can deal with that. A car I can fix without investing too much time or money."

"So you think."

"Yeah, I'm not shelling out hundreds of dollars on parts for it or anything, but maybe it's something simple like new spark plugs or a new battery."

"Don't you think she'd know if it's a battery?"

"Would you know?"

"Well, I'd ask…"

"Yeah. You would have asked Christopher or your dad? Now you'd not only ask me but expect me to fix it before you went to work the next morning. Who does she have to ask if my dad's in prison?"

"Oh," she said. "I guess."

"Anyway. I'll get some tools together while you get ready."

"Doesn't your dad have stuff?"

"Yeah, but I can't trust she didn't do something with the things if she needed money."

"She'd pawn your dad's tools?"

"She'd pawn anything that's not nailed down if she needs a fix."

"Do you think she's still using?"

"Is the sky blue? Maybe it's nothing illegal or just booze. She never shied away from going to a doctor for fake ailments, her or mine, to get prescribed a pain killer if she had to. I honestly can't remember a time she wasn't on something."

"You haven't been there for years. Maybe having a baby…"

"Yeah, like having me stopped her? I mean, I guess she wasn't always so bad. I have some memories of her being decent and sober."

"But you left! Maybe she saw the error of her ways."

"I doubt it, but you can hold onto that glimmer of hope for both of us for his sake."

"Would you call anyone if she's using?"

"You mean like DCFS?" he shrugged. "I'd have to see her with him. See the house, I guess. She at least put a coat on him to get the mail the other day. I think I could have gone to school this time of year in shorts and she wouldn't have cared after a while."

"She'd never forgive you."

"I owe her nothing! I'm not even sure why I feel as though I owe him something."

"He's your brother."

"I don't know him!"

"No, but I think just like you want to do with me it's instinct for you to want to protect him. I know you don't like it. I know you didn't want to care about me, but you did, and that feeling led to," she shrugged. "Well, where we are today." She touched his cheek then, running her thumb along the scar there from the fight he'd gotten into with Pete. "Even if you don't know him you still care and want to protect him. That makes you a good person not a bad one."

"I guess. Come on out whenever you're ready."

"Okay," she said.

"You sure you want to do this?" he asked her when they pulled up in front of the house.

"I'm as sure as you are."

"I'm not sure at all."

"You're worried that she's going to take it as a sign that you want to be involved?"

"I'm worried that I'm going to want to get involved."

"Would that really be bad?"

"Claire."

"No, really, would it? Forget her. Think about him. You said yourself she never actually hurt you."

"She stood by and let it happen!"

"I know," she said softly.

"Do you? Can you imagine that? Really? Think about those scars you touch. She was home for about ninety percent of them. Home. Heard it. Saw it. Stood by and did nothing. Can you imagine letting me do that to our kids?"

"No, but I'm not her and I'm not using drugs or drunk! She was. I'm not excusing it. I'm not. What she did was just as horrible. Believe me, I think those things every time I touch you, John. That doesn't mean you should forget you have a brother. I doubt you could see him without seeing her somewhat."

"I know. I thought of that all week. Even if I like got her to agree to let me take him on a Friday night or something, I'd still have to interact with her."

"You'd do that?"

"I thought about it. I mean, I'd talk to you about it first, you know. I wouldn't just do it."

"It's your house."

"It's our house. I wouldn't invite a kid to spend the night without talking to you about it first. I have thought about it, though. Saturdays are kind of out."

"Right."

"I mean, I wouldn't do it every weekend or anything, but I thought about whether I'd want to do that."

"And?"

"I guess it depends."

"On?"

"Him? Me? He may hate me. I may not be able to handle a kid that age. Her, too, I suppose. I don't know. You."

"It'd be weird."

"No weirder than me finding out I have a brother. I mean, I honestly didn't think that was even an option."

"We're here, hon, let's go and get it done with."

"You in a hurry?"

"Well, I took a day off."

"To be with me you said."

"That doesn't mean we have to be here all day."

"Yeah? Hmm, did I do something wrong this morning?"

"Wrong?"

"Yeah, you know, we already have twice this morning and you want to again just a couple of hours later."

"I always want to again."

"Hmm. Always?"

"Yes!"

"That's certainly incentive for me to finish working on her car quickly."

"You need an incentive?"

"I'm a guy, sweets. We like to fix things. What can I say? It's innate."

She rolled her eyes at that.

"My father doesn't have the innate desire to fix things."

"I don't think your father is a guy. Not the kind of guy I'm talking about. You know, the type to get his hands dirty by changing the oil on his car or lawnmower. There's a difference."

"I suppose you may be right."

"Let's get this over with then."

"If you really wanted me to stay home…"

"It's kind of late now, isn't it? We're here. I'm not going back home to drop you off. I'm just really not too sure how I feel about her meeting you."

"Why?"

"The same as Charlie," he shrugged. "I don't know. I worry that she'll show up wanting something from you."

"I do know how to say no."

"I know you do, to someone like Charlie. This, however, is my mother, and I worry that somewhere in the back of my mind you'd think I'd get upset or something if you told her to get lost."

"I wouldn't! I'd talk to you about it, but I wouldn't!"

"You say that, but you know if your dad or mom came to me for something that I could give them I'd do it."

"Yes, but that's different. You can't give my parents money."

"You can be very brutally blunt when you want to be."

"You know what I mean!"

"I sure do," he said, getting out of the car.

"John."

"Relax, Princess, I'm aware of what I do and don't bring to the table. Money is not one of the things I'm rolling in. If your parents ever came to me it wouldn't be for that. I'm not mad at you."

He walked to the front door while she waited in the car. They both agreed it'd be better if they did it that way. He didn't want his mom focusing on her or anything. John figured even if his mom saw her standing outside or in the garage with him by the cars she wouldn't venture too close to him. Maybe he was wrong, he had no idea.

Her eyes widened in surprise when she saw him standing there.

"Johnny," she said.

"Don't get too excited," he said quickly. "I noticed you didn't drive when you came to drop off that package. I thought I'd come see if I can get one of the cars running."

"I don't know what's wrong with them."

"Yeah, I get that you probably don't. So, I need the keys unless you like taking the bus."

"Are you going to come in?"

"Nope. I'll wait right here while you get the keys."

"Okay," she said, looking kind of hurt by his rejection of her offer. She shut the door, coming back a few minutes later with the keys.

"This is…"

"Yeah, I know who he is. Mrs. Henderson told me."

"You saw her?"

"I did," he said.

He regarded Billy with far more interest than he did his mother to this point. He knew what she looked like, though he had to admit both the day at his studio and today she looked decent. Her clothes weren't great, they never would be, but they were clean and she'd brushed her hair. The other day hadn't registered because brushing it to leave the house wasn't completely out of the question for her. It wasn't even eleven o'clock in the morning, though, and she looked presentable. That was different. Then he hadn't seen her in going on four years let alone spent time with her to know what was different for her anymore.

Billy looked just like him so that left little question in John's mind who his dad was. Unless his mom slept with someone who was the spitting image of both of the John's in her life. The couple indiscretions he knew about from when he was in high school were about as far removed from him and his dad as she could get.

"Does the heater in the garage still work?"

"Yes, it's not on."

"That's fine. I remember how to turn it on. I'd say he could come outside with us, but it's pretty cold."

"He has a coat and snow pants."

"Well, that's up to you. If he knows enough to stay out of my way it's fine. The tools are still out there?"

"Of course," she said, sounding insulted he'd suggest they weren't. He didn't have close to the number of tools his dad had so it was probably good his stuff was still here. It was one of the few positive things he could say he learned from him. It would take him a while to get all of the things his dad had, but it had taken him a while to accumulate those things, too. If John worked on cars for a living he'd get the stuff sooner, for sure. His dad had things John to this day wasn't sure how to use. He knew what they were for, what they did, but he'd never used them.

"All right. I think that's all I need to know then."

"Your wife can wait…"

"No, she's not coming in here. She'll be fine with me."

"I'd like to meet her."

"I'm sure you would."

"Johnny, she's my daughter-in-law."

"In theory, sure. Daughter-in-law implies you have a son, I never saw myself as much of one in your eyes growing up. Not sure what's changed."

"That's not fair."

"Maybe not, the truth isn't always fair. Anyway, I'll let you know when I'm done."

"Do you want some coffee?"

"No," he said. "I'll let you know when I'm done."

"Why'd she come with if you don't want me to meet her?"

"To keep me company? To spend time with me? As you probably guessed, based on getting a gift and all, we just recently got married. Married people hang out together outside of bars and bedrooms sometimes, you know? At least that's what I'm discovering, I certainly never would have known that going by the example you guys set for me."

"Johnny."

"I'll stay out of your way. If he can come out that's fine, but otherwise I'd appreciate it if you stay out of mine."

He took the three steps to the sidewalk leading away from the house. He regarded the keys she'd given him. The key ring was his old man's. He remembered it vividly. God, John couldn't remember a time his dad didn't have this key ring. The Chevy logo was worn, parts of it were chipped, but it was the same one. He could remember the first time his dad had let him turn a car over. He couldn't have been much older than Billy was, maybe he was four or five, but he knew he hadn't started school yet.

"You look mad," Claire said.

"Sorry, just thinking," he said.

"About things that make you mad?"

"This whole situation makes me mad. Coming here makes me mad. Doing this for her makes me mad."

"We could go home."

"We could, but then I'd feel like shit for coming here, getting her hopes up that she may have a car running by the end of the day."

"Does that matter to you?"

"Yes," he said, not at all happy about admitting that. "Let's go put your ability to follow directions to the test, Princess."

"I can't wait."

"Somehow I sense that's sarcasm, but it's good for you to take directions from your husband. Lord knows you don't know how to cook and I end up doing your laundry the majority of the time."

"Because you wash it for me, I don't ask you to!"

"You'd let it pile up for weeks if I didn't."

"I wouldn't for weeks! I'd run out of something."

"Yeah, I thought of that, if I let it pile up you'd run out of underwear. While an appealing idea I don't like the idea of you leaving our house that way so I shelved that idea for the next vacation you have."

"You want me to run out of underwear?"

"I want you to run out of everything."

"You shouldn't say stuff like that to me in front of your mother."

"She's not here."

"But she's inside the house!"

"She won't know you're blushing, Princess, she'll just assume you're cold. Our conversation is safe. Besides, we're married. We're allowed to say stuff like that to each other."

He sent her to a parts store with a list of some things after he'd looked over both cars, writing down his mom's phone number just in case she had questions or problems getting what he was looking for. He was going to focus on the car he knew was hers, but he'd get the parts for both just in case.

He rang the doorbell again. It felt weird doing that. The last time he'd been here he'd been able to just walk in the door because he'd still been living here. He moved out and hadn't been back since other than to drive by a few times.

"I think I'll be able to get one of them going for you. I'll change the oil and everything, too, so it'll be good to go for you. She should be back in an hour or so with what I need. You're going to have to do that on your own from here on out. I don't know how long he's going to be away, but you can't count on me to come around and do this stuff."

"Johnny."

"I really wish you'd stop calling me that. I'm not your little boy. Something tells me he'll hate being called Billy just about as much."

"Did you want to come in while you're waiting for her to come back?"

"I was going to push the car into the garage so I can do the work on it in there."

"You've been outside for over an hour. It's barely thirty degrees, you can come inside and warm up for a little bit."

"I suppose in case she calls with any questions about what I need her to buy."

"Does she know about cars?"

"No, beyond how to drive one."

His mom did know about cars, a little bit anyway. Like John she hadn't had much choice in the matter where his dad was concerned. He wasn't much into allowing anyone to have interests beyond his. She hadn't gotten nearly as hands on as John had, but everything on the list he'd given Claire she'd know what to look for and probably where in the parts store she could find those things.

"Wow," he said, regarding the living room from the front entryway.

"What?"

"It's actually, like, clean in here. You expecting company or something?"

"No," she said cautiously.

There wasn't anything in the living room that wouldn't be seen in any normal, run of the mill living room. No trash. No clothes. No cans. No cigarette butts. No booze bottles. No drug paraphernalia. No ashtray even. He glanced to the corner by the TV, knowing there'd be a hole in the carpet there. It'd been there since as long as he could remember. It wasn't a huge hole. His dad had pushed his mom into the table there, knocking over the ashtray and the still lit cigarettes in it. John had been pretty little then, which was why his dad had been taking his bad day out on his mom instead of him. He couldn't remember exactly what age John had been that he'd started focusing on him instead of his mom.

At first, John had been glad the attention was off his mom. He'd seen it as protecting her or something. Eventually, though, he realized she had quickly stopped trying to defend or protect him and while she'd never hit him herself she hadn't thought twice about hurling some pretty nasty comments at him as well.

He looked at Billy again who was on the floor, playing with a toy. John recognized that, too.

"I didn't realize you kept anything from when I was little," he said. The GI Joe had seen better days, but it still functioned. John had taken pretty good care of his stuff because even when he was little he had known replacements wouldn't be easily gotten.

"Some things, sure. You know, in case we had another one."

"I guess you did."

"He was an accident."

"I hope you never tell him that. Believe me, I got told that enough for the both of us. At least one of your kids should believe he was wanted."

Billy walked up to them then, showing John his GI Joe.

"You like playing with him?" John asked.

He nodded a bit.

"Good," he said simply.

"He looks just like you."

"I can see that," John agreed. "Is that good or bad for you?"

"I don't mind."

"Does he even know he has a brother?"

"I've told him about you, sure. He has your room and toys. He's seen your picture."

"God, I hope you tell him who I am and don't let him assume I'm our dad."

"No, I wouldn't do that!"

"You say that, but I'm not so sure about you."

It bothered him more than he realized it would seeing the inside of his house again, and seeing it look as it should've looked all along. What was it about this kid that had her doing these things when she couldn't do them for him? He supposed it had taken a while before she'd stopped giving a shit. He remembered vaguely a time their house was decent. It didn't have the latest TV or anything, but it was maybe a little below average. Somewhere along the line that had changed. And while the living room today was clean, neat the paint on the walls needed to be redone. The carpet needed at the very least cleaning if not replacing as did the curtains on the windows.

And he had no business thinking of these things, wanting to help her with things like painting the walls. She had done absolutely nothing to help him. She'd left him basically to fend for himself. There were times when he'd gotten to be nine or ten he thought she forgot about him, and he was probably better off for that.

"All right. I'm going to go back outside and get the car into the garage," he said, wanting to stop thinking about these things.

"I could make you a sandwich."

"No, thanks," he said. He leaned down a bit then, looking Billy in the eye. "You have fun with GI Joe there and be good for your mom, okay?"

"I'll let you know when I'm done. If she calls just come get me, but my list was pretty simple and self-explanatory so she shouldn't have any issues."

"All right. And thank you."

"Yeah," he said. He was wondering if she'd ever say that to him. It wasn't why he was doing it, but it was nice to hear. To realize that she understood he was doing something he maybe didn't want to be here doing.

Once Claire got back with the things he needed it didn't take him long. It'd been a while since he'd done these things. It was good for him to do this stuff. It grounded him, made him remember who and what he was. Maybe he shouldn't want to remember. He wasn't sure. He'd always been good with his hands, though. His father had pushed him, too hard, but there'd been a reason. John was good. It wasn't that he forgot or anything either, but John had always felt most at ease when he had a tool or something like it in his hands. Claire didn't help much, but she talked to him. By the time she'd gotten back while not real warm, the garage was at least bearable with the heater his dad had turned on.

"I still can't believe you can just do that," she said once he'd made sure everything in the garage was put away and turned off. He'd returned the keys to his mother, too. He hadn't made a mess on the floor that required much clean-up, which impressed him because it'd been a while since he'd changed his own oil.

"Do what?" he asked.

"Just get a car running."

"It wasn't that big of a deal."

"To you!"

He shrugged, sliding his arms around her. "You need further proof I'm good with my hands, Princess? I'll be happy to demonstrate. It seemed to me you said something about a rather nice way to pass the rest of our day off."

"You know I want you to show me."

"Yeah?" he said. "Let's go then before she comes out again and I feel as if I have to talk to her again."

"Are you going to come back and fix the other one?" she asked once in his car.

"Maybe. I set the parts she needs on the front seat. Maybe some other sucker will come along and help her with that one. I did my good deed now let's go home."

"She wanted you to accept something."

"Yeah, coffee, which I don't drink!"

"She tried."

"I'm her son. I bet your mom would know you do or don't drink coffee."

"Well, yeah, but…"

"But nothing. She wants to make an effort she can make an effort with something that indicates she has an inkling about anything I like."

"You've been gone for four years."

"I haven't changed that much."

"I suppose not. I'm glad she brought Billy out for a few minutes."

"Why?"

She shrugged. "I wanted to see him."

"I guess I didn't think about it from that point of view. Sorry."

"It's okay. I understand. He looks just like you."

"I noticed that, too. Not much doubt my dad's his dad."

"No, I'd say not. That really surprises you?"

"A little. I mean, no, but you know, nineteen years is a pretty huge gap."

"Do you think they had any, like miscarriages in between you and him?"

"I," he paused, thinking on that. "I guess I don't know. Shit. I sure hope not."

"Why?"

"Because that means that they were trying for more. She admitted Billy was an accident."

"You'd think after nineteen years they'd know how to prevent those."

"Right?! That's exactly what I was thinking. Who knows?"

"They probably know."

He chuckled a bit at that. "Probably so."

"So, you went inside?"

"I did. Not for long or anything."

"And?"

"Man, I hated being in there again. I really did. On the other hand, I was glad to see he wasn't living in filth or in a pile of crap all around him."

"I'm glad to hear that."

"Me, too. You know, I didn't even see an ashtray," he said.

"Really?"

"Nope."

"Maybe she quit."

"Maybe," he said with a shrug. "You probably wish I would."

"I wouldn't argue with you if you wanted to, no."

"Thank you, Princess."

"For what?"

"For taking the day off and coming with me. For standing out in the garage when I know you'd rather have been doing anything but that."

"It wasn't so bad, hon."

"Well, thank you just the same."

"I'm glad I could do something for you."

"You do lots of things for me."

"I feel sometimes like I don't do enough."

"Yeah?"

"Sometimes."

"Well, when we get home," he said, turning to kiss her at a stop light. "You can do enough of anything you want for me."

"I can, huh?"

"Yep."

"I'll keep that in mind."

Return to Top

***Chapter Twenty-Five***
Word Count: 5,089

John stood from the couch more than surprised the food he'd ordered was getting here already. It was Monday night and there was a football game so Jake's was usually pretty busy. It wasn't just Monday Night Football either, the Bears were playing so he knew they were backlogged when he'd ordered. He hadn't had much reason to order in pizza the past few months at home. He still did to the office on occasion. He knew the delivery guys got bombarded with negative comments and insults for taking so long on busy nights. He never understood that, because they were usually pretty good when you called to place your order to tell you it'd be an hour or more for your pizza. If you didn't want to wait an hour then go to the store, buy a frozen one, and bake it in your own damned oven. People just liked to bitch, though. He was learning that through his business, too. As hard as he tried, you just couldn't please every customer every time.

He'd never been sued or anything at least. The, to this point few, issues that had arisen he'd been able to resolve pretty quickly. Ronda knew the people who were just trying to get a discount on their packages and those who had a serious gripe. As with everything she did, she handled things like a pro, fielding the scammers from the legitimate complaints so he only had to deal with those. He always bent over backwards to make it right. He didn't bend over and let them take advantage of him, but he went out of his way to be fair and decent. He didn't get referrals and repeat business by being an ass so he obviously had been doing something right over the years.

Still, though, he knew first hand dealing with the public could suck at times. There were times it was great. He met people he wouldn't otherwise know through his occupation. He had business cards that ran the gamut from lawyers to doctors to car dealers to travel agents to health insurance agents to accountants and everything under the sun from people who said they'd treat him just as fairly if he looked them up. He'd never really had need to (except the car dealer and an accountant), but he supposed the health insurance was something he should look into again now that he and Claire were married. He had when Ronda started, but she insisted she didn't need him to because she was on her husband's insurance. So he hadn't. If he was going to think about hiring a second photographer part-time for the summer months, though, it'd have to be something he had to look into. Though part-time employees certainly wouldn't expect insurance coverage.

Claire was down in the Kankakee area with her dad for some business venture thing they were trying to put the finishing touches on and wouldn't be back until tomorrow night so he'd gone the pizza route instead of dealing with cooking. Funny how easily he was getting used to cooking for two instead of just him and how he didn't want to bother cooking for just him a night like tonight when he was alone.

He grabbed his wallet before opening the door.

"Uh, hi," he said with a frown. It wasn't the pizza delivery guy at all. It was the guy from the wedding reception a couple of weeks ago. The weird one that hugged John out of nowhere like they were long lost brothers or something.

"Hi John."

"Yeah, hey," he said. He was pretty sure his confusion at seeing him on their doorstep was plain as day. "Claire's not home. She's down in Kankakee with her dad for the night on business, but I can tell her you came by."

"I actually came to see you."

"Me? Why?" he asked, sounding as suspicious as he felt. Friends of Claire's didn't just show up at his house looking to see him. Most of her friends hardly said two words to him when they were out somewhere together let alone seek him out. They'd had a fairly decent time at their reception, so he was hoping that his relationship with her friends (the ones she considered her true friends not the entourage who rode on her coattails to get into VIP sections of clubs) would continue to improve. He at least would like to feel comfortable going places with her if he had to. The wedding coming up they were going to was going to be interesting. He still wasn't one hundred percent sure Claire understood he'd be working and wouldn't be able to be with her every second.

"Well, I recently got engaged and we need someone to do our engagement pictures."

"Okay. I'm at home. You realize that, right? I don't work here. Most people, you know, come to my studio or pick up a phone and schedule an appointment."

"Right. I know. I'm sorry. It's very unconventional. I wasn't exactly sure where your studio was. I don't even know the name of your company. I just know Christopher told me you were a photographer."

"Ah," he said. That was a legitimate reason. Still odd, but, understandable perhaps. He'd obviously know Claire's whereabouts or be able to find them out easily enough through people they both knew. "Come in," he said, stepping aside to allow him to do that.

"Thanks," he said.

"I can hang your coat up if you want," John offered. Claire would be so proud of him for making the offer. It wasn't something he'd ever thought to do until being involved with her. People came to his house, they took their own coats off and threw them on his spare bed or over a chair in his dining room.

"Sure, thanks. I really am sorry to just barge in here like this."

"Nah, don't worry about it. I'm just waiting on pizza and going to watch the game."

"Oh right," he said. "The Bears are playing tonight."

"Yeah. You a fan?"

"A little. I mean, I don't follow it really beyond to know if they win every week. I liked Walter Payton."

"Sure, who didn't," John said.

"It's too bad he didn't get to score a touchdown in the Super Bowl."

"I know it, man. I still can't believe William Perry scored two and he didn't get one. I mean, it was 46-10 so not a close game at all. How hard would it have been to get him the ball once at the goal line?"

He chuckled a bit and John realized maybe he'd been more enthusiastic about the subject matter than he should've been. His old man liked football. It was a legitimate excuse for him to sit in his recliner all day on Sunday and get drunk. Some of the knowledge rubbed off on John, though. When he was little they'd only had one TV in his house. (He'd stolen the little thirteen inch black and white set he had in his room when he was about twelve.) Then he'd gotten the press passes the year the Bears went 18-1 and won the Super Bowl and gotten a picture of his on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Well, he'd become a pretty loyal fan after that, even though the Bears had nothing to do with the picture getting chosen directly.

"You want a beer or something?"

"Sure," he said.

"You know, I feel bad for admitting this," John said as he walked toward the kitchen. "I met so many people that night that I'd never seen before."

"You don't remember my name," he finished for him from the living room.

"Yeah, sorry. I'm not real good at things like that," he said, returning to the living room with a beer.

"It's fine. I'm Phil. Phil Taylor."

John remembered now because of the way he said his name, almost as if he was waiting for John to recognize him or his name somehow. He did tonight, too, as if it should mean something to him. He wasn't sure why he would. As far as he knew he'd never seen Phil before the night of their reception in his life. Maybe around Shermer High if he was three years ahead of them as Claire said. He would have been a senior when they were freshman. Otherwise, he couldn't imagine where their paths would've crossed.

"All right, Phil, good to meet you again. Uh have a seat and I'll go look in the spare bedroom for some information for you."

"Well, I'm just really looking for general stuff. I mean, give me a card I guess and I can make an actual appointment."

"You sure? I mean, you came here. I'm happy to at least give some generalities. Obviously it would depend on what you're looking for as far as the pictures. Just for the newspaper announcement or bigger than that."

"No, I'm sure."

"All right," John said, opening his wallet and drawing a business card out. He had plenty of those. He knew his rates inside and out, but this was one of Claire's friends so he would give him a good rate and he wanted him to know that going into it. He'd done that for her friend's wedding coming up here this coming weekend. He thought her friend was going to have a heart attack at the drastic difference in his price and his competitors.

He wasn't trying to undercut anybody or anything, but he always thought it was a good way to get repeat business to be fair to people. And if word got around from Claire's friends that he was not just good at his job but fair he'd get more business from their friends and their friends' friends. That wouldn't be a bad thing because her friends had money to spend.

"What's EMS?"

"Oh, nothing. I mean, it's a long story and would mean nothing to you. I just tell people they're random letters I threw together."

"But they're not?"

"Kind of, not really," he shrugged, taking a sip of his beer. "It was one of those spur of the moments ideas that came to me. If I could go back and do it again I'd probably choose something that actually means something and makes sense to anyone but me. And Claire."

"How did you start taking pictures?"

"I, well," he said. "This neighbor was a photographer. I took an interest, I guess, and he was willing to show me the ropes. He'd done combat photographer during World War II, so he was real good. You know? Obviously, the photography bug wasn't taken out of him even after the war. He lost his wife and unborn baby, I think it was all he had to keep him going. He was retired by the time I came around, but had equipment and stuff in his basement so taught me how to develop my own pictures and everything. It turns out I was pretty good at it."

"That was nice of him."

"It was. He gave me my first camera. I wouldn't have ever been able to get one otherwise other than steal it."

"I'm sorry to hear that."

"It's all right. I wouldn't have my business if it weren't for him. Hell, I probably would never have picked up a camera to know I was good at it if it weren't for him. He left me all of his stuff. I still use most of it because while old he took incredibly good care of it. I'll update as I need to and can, but I guess it's what I learned on, you know? So I stick with it."

"Makes sense. How do your parents feel about your career?"

John shrugged, standing when the doorbell rang.

"Hi," John said to the delivery guy. He was a regular so while John didn't know the kid's name he'd seen him frequently the past year or so. He was a high school kid, though, he knew that going by the letterman's jacket he wore with the numbers 90 on it.

"Hey," the kid said. "Thanks. Have a good night. Enjoy the game."

"Thanks, you too," he said.

He returned to the living room.

"My parents? What could they say? Why would they say anything?"

"You went into business for yourself right out of school, right? You're the same age as Claire."

"Oh, right. Dad pretty much thought only fags did something creative like take pictures for a living. He wouldn't have gotten it. Mom," he shrugged. "Well, I moved out as soon as I graduated high school so there wasn't a whole lot they could say to stop me or change my mind. I'm not even sure he knows."

"Would they have?"

"Said something?"

"Sure. They would've told me I'd never amount to anything and that any business I tried to get into would fail. You know the usual crap that parents' who suck feed their kids."

Phil looked kind of upset by that comment. Maybe he shouldn't have said that? John didn't believe in lying about his childhood, though. His parents had sucked. He'd gotten out and was achieving something despite the odds that said otherwise. He was kind of proud of that.

"Sorry," John said. "I realize it's foreign to you, growing up like you, Christopher, and Claire did. Not everyone had a life like It's A Wonderful Life depicted."

"Oh, I know," he said. "Anyway, I'm sorry I took up your time."

"Don't worry about it. I was just sitting here anyway. You can have some pizza if you want. I got supreme with extra veggies, which Claire won't touch."

"Still doesn't like veggies?"

"Not on her pizza anyway, no. Well, I think she'd be okay with the mushrooms, but not extra. And forget the onions and peppers, which I think are the best part."

"If you're sure I'm not intruding," he said.

"Nah, I'd just be sitting here by myself otherwise. Then I'd eat the whole thing between now and breakfast and I'd feel extra guilty about eating the entire thing myself. That would mean even longer at the gym tomorrow after work and I'd really rather not have to do that."

"Sure then."

John went to the kitchen, grabbing a couple of plates, paper towels, and beers for both of them. He was pretty sure Phil's was almost out. He knew his was.

"So when did you get engaged?" John asked, returning to the living room.

"I haven't yet, actually. I'm going to ask her over Christmas."

"Ah," John said. That was pretty typical.

"You don't sound impressed."

"Me?" He shrugged. What did his opinion matter? "Just see that a lot, Christmas proposals don't quite rival Valentine's Day ones, but they're pretty common."

"Huh," he said, grabbing a couple of slices to put on the plate John had given him.

"Does she have a name?"

"She does. It's Elizabeth. I met her at Stanford my senior year. She's Claire's age so just graduated in the spring and moved here for a job."

"To be near you?"

"Yes. Well, partly. The job was a good one."

"What does she do?"

"She's a corporate accountant."

"What do you do?" John asked, realizing he hadn't a clue.

He sighed softly. "I'm a nurse."

"Really?" John asked.

"Yeah. I sort of know how you feel about your parents not understanding. And the only gay men become nurses thing."

"I see," John said. Maybe his life hadn't been the way John pictured it being living in Claire's neighborhood after all.

"I started out with the intention of becoming a doctor, but I realized quickly I wanted the more hands-on role of nursing. I don't know. I like it."

"Then you made the right choice it would seem. You work at a doctor's office or a hospital or what?"

"At Shermer Memorial right now."

"Nice and local."

"Yeah."

"So you were giving it a few months?"

"What?"

"Sorry. With the girlfriend."

"Kind of. I didn't want her to think I was rushing her."

"Makes sense."

"How did you and Claire meet?"

"We went to school together."

"Really? You went to Shermer High?"

"And Shermer Middle, sure," John said.

"I had no idea."

"Really?" He seemed legitimately surprised by that information. John sort of thought it was assumed he was from here.

"No, I didn't know anything about you really."

"Not surprising." Why would he? He and Claire hadn't dated during school or anything for anyone who knew her to know anything about him.

"So you went to school together. She never dated growing up."

"I know," John said. John was the closest she'd gotten and he'd screwed that up. That was probably for the best, though.

"She sure made up for that the past few years."

"You can't believe everything you read, you know. She wasn't nearly as bad as the Trib and Times liked to make you think she was."

"Oh, I know, but she sure liked to have a good time. It drove her parents' crazy. At least, her mom told my mom it did."

"Yeah, I get the impression her mom freaks out over anything that might taint the Standish name."

"She does," Phil said. "They were always nice people growing up, though. I mean, I never felt like I couldn't be friends with Christopher or anything. I got the impression they didn't always get along, her parents I mean, but I guess what married couple with kids does every waking second?"

"Right," John said. "Claire mentioned you have an older brother, too," he said, remembering vaguely their brief conversation about Phil at the reception. "And a sister, too, I think?"

"I do. I have two sisters actually," Phil said.

"Oh, Claire only mentioned one," John said. "Or maybe I misunderstood."

"No, she's older than us. Mom and Dad were pretty young when they had her and waited a while afterward until they had my sister Erin. She's twenty-eight, Wayne is twenty-seven, and then there's me at twenty-five. She, my oldest sister I mean, moved out when she was pretty young and didn't come around much, so Christopher and Claire wouldn't really have known her. She'd be thirty-nine now I guess."

"I see," John said. "Is she still around here?"

"I used to think she wasn't, but I think so now, yeah."

"Oh," John said. He was sure that made sense to Phil but it didn't to him.

"She was kind of disowned so wasn't talked about much."

"Disowned?"

Phil shrugged a bit. "She got involved with a bad guy, got pregnant and my parents wanted her to let them adopt the baby since he would've only been a couple years younger than me. She wouldn't hear of it, ran away, and really didn't come around too much after that. Things were said, you know, I'm sure both sides wish they'd handled it better."

"Oh. That's too bad," John said, thinking over what Phil had just said.

"You?"

"Me what?" John asked.

"Brothers or sisters?"

"Uh no. Well, technically, yes. I just found out recently I have a younger brother."

"You didn't know?"

"No. I moved out right after high school, remember?"

"Oh, he's that young?"

"Yeah, he's three."

"You didn't know about him?"

"No, I haven't seen Mom or Dad since I moved out."

"What do they do?"

"Dad's in prison, he was a mechanic though and kind of the neighborhood handyman on weekends. You know, fixing things for neighbors that needed doing that they didn't want to pay an arm and a leg for. Mom," John shrugged. "I honestly don't know. I have no idea what she does for a living. She must work, she's maintaining the house."

"You saw her?"

"Yeah. She dropped a present off at my studio before the reception and I noticed she was taking the bus. She and Dad had two vehicles so I went over there this past Friday to get one of them running for her."

"That was nice of you."

"It was probably more than she deserved, but I guess I'm just a sucker for doing the right thing for women when it gets down to it."

"I'm sure she appreciated it. What's his name?"

"Billy," he said.

He seemed to be mulling that over a bit. John wasn't sure why his younger brother was of interest to the guy, but whatever. He seemed nice enough and the conversation was better than sitting at home alone tonight. He, oddly, found his house rather empty without Claire in it with him. Odd, only because he'd been living on his own for so long now it seemed strange that living with someone for a little more than three months could become so normal to him.

"Was it weird?"

"Yeah! I went over there a few days beforehand to scope out the situation, you know. I wasn't sure what the deal was and I saw him. I wasn't sure what I was seeing so I visited an old neighbor who still lives there and she told me about him. She's the one who told me the old man's in prison."

"That must be weird."

"A little. Not at all unexpected. He wasn't the nicest guy on his best days so I wasn't surprised to hear he'd done something to finally get in trouble with the law."

Phil glanced at the scars on John's arms and John wished he was wearing a long-sleeved shirt. He just never thought about it around the house anymore because Claire knew and touched every inch of him whether he was wearing short sleeves or not.

"I'll be right back," he said, going to answer the phone in the kitchen.

He wanted to put a phone in the living room, but Claire insisted it wasn't necessary. It was the one room in the house besides their bedroom they ever got time together and he supposed she didn't want the phone interrupting them. They'd still have to get up to answer the phone, but it was easier to ignore it if they had to do that. There were evenings they didn't have any problems ignoring it from their couch. He was so glad she wasn't an "in the bed only" type of person. As long as they weren't doing anything illegal John didn't see why they couldn't do things anywhere. And, hell, from the privacy of their own home even if it was illegal he didn't see why they couldn't. Smoking a joint once in a blue moon was as illegal as they got.

"Hello," he said into the phone.

'Hi,' she said.

"Well, hello to you."

'What are you doing?'

"Eating pizza and watching the Bears game with your friend Phil."

'Phillip Taylor?'

"Yes."

'What's he doing there?'

"Evidently he's going to propose and wanted to talk to me about picture information."

'At our house?'

"That's what I said. He didn't know the name of my company."

'Ah,' she said.

"That's also what I said. Anyway, I'd already ordered the pizza. We were talking so I invited him to stay."

'Let me guess. Supreme with extra mushrooms?'

"Yes! You're not here to be overly picky about pizza toppings."

'I know. Wow, making friends with my friends and you're not dropping dead.'

"He's not the type of friend I have an issue with and you know it. He seems like a pretty decent guy actually. He's a nurse, did you know that?"

'No, I guess I didn't. See, you get to hang out with someone and eat the pizza you prefer. It's good I'm gone for the night then.'

"Well, I don't know about that at all. I don't like the idea of the other half of my bed being empty. I'm kind of used to it being occupied every night now."

'It's just one night.'

"I know."

'I'll be home tomorrow night and it won't be empty anymore.'

"I look forward to it."

'Me, too. Over a day is entirely too long.'

"To hear you say things like that…"

'I know, shocking, right?'

"It makes me very happy, that's for sure."

'Yeah?'

"You know it does. I like that you think that it's too long."

'I like that you like it.'

"How'd your day go?"

'You know, busy. Meetings and paperwork. Dinner with clients. Drinks with clients.'

"Drinks?"

'I'm not drunk.'

"I might be tempted to drive down to Kankakee if you were."

'Only if I was drunk?'

He chuckled softly. "Not only. If you'd called before I left work I'd be on my way."

'Maybe next time.'

"Yeah?"

'Sure. I think Dad just wanted to see me on my own this time, how I'd act and stuff.'

"Right, I get it. Don't want the new husband around to embarrass you and ruin a deal."

'You wouldn't embarrass us and Dad knows that.'

"Thanks for saying so."

"Hey, John," Phil said from behind him.

"Sorry," John said, almost forgetting he was there even though he'd just been talking about him. "One second, Princess," he said.

"I'll let you go. Thanks for the beer and the pizza. I'll call you once I've asked her for an actual appointment and everything."

"No problem. Call anytime," he said. "I'll be right back," he said into the phone. "Don't hang up, okay?"

'Yeah, sure,' Claire said.

He set the phone down on the counter and walked to the front door with Phil after getting his coat for him from the coat closet. Until Claire moved in the coat closet had been virtually empty. Now there was all sorts of stuff in it from an umbrella to sneakers she could wear to and from work on snowy days to coats and hats. There were even extra hangers in there to hang up coats of guests like Phil. It was crazy. He'd never realized how sparse his living conditions were until she'd moved in. He'd never cared to hang up anyone's coat.

"It was nice to talk to you," Phil said, offering John his hand. It wasn't a hug, which was an improvement over the last time they'd said good bye. John took his offered hand and shook it.

"You, too, Phil, sorry I forgot your name."

"Don't sweat it."

"And good luck with the proposing."

"How did you do it?"

John chuckled softly. "You don't want to take tips from me, trust me. I'm no romantic."

"But she said yes."

"Well, sure, I got lucky, believe me," John said. "I'm still not entirely sure she's sane."

Phil laughed at that. "All right. Save your secrets. Have a good night," he said and then reached in and hugged him again.

"You, too," John said, shutting the door behind him and locking it. He'd think the guy was into him or something except he clearly liked women if he was on the verge of proposing and the hugs he'd given him weren't like that at all. He just had no idea what to make of it. Maybe he was just a friendly guy. Some people were like that John knew. He knew some people like that, but they knew better than to get touchy with John. Phil evidently didn't.

John returned to the kitchen and the phone there.

"Your friend hugged me again."

'Really?'

"Yes. What is his deal?"

'I have no idea, hon, I really don't.'

"It's kind of weird. And we need to invest in a cordless phone instead of this wall phone in here if you're going to be going out of town with your dad with any frequency."

'Why?'

"Because now I'm stuck in the kitchen where if I had a cordless I could walk to our bedroom and talk to you from our bed."

'I like that idea.'

"Me, too. A lot. It could be kind of fun. If you know what I mean, both of us in bed together even if it's not the same bed."

'You could call me back.'

"Yeah?"

'I'm not going anywhere.'

"All right," he said, liking the thought of that immensely. "Do I get phone sex out of the deal?"

'You'll have to call me back to find out.'

"All right," he said, writing her phone number down on the paper by the phone. "I'll call you back in a few minutes. Let me just lock up. I wasn't expecting you to call this early."

'We just got done earlier than I thought. I didn't think you'd have company or anything.'

He thought on that for a minute, wondering if that was why she called this early. He figured she'd call closer to about the time the game would be done since she knew he'd be watching it. It was the first time they'd been away from each other since getting married. He didn't think she thought he'd do something like that, but he could perhaps see why she'd wonder.

"You sure about that?"

'I did wonder if maybe you'd go out with Glen and Charlie somewhere to watch the game.'

"I didn't really want to tonight."

'Well, I know you didn't have a woman over.'

"I have all that I can handle in the one I'm married to, but I'm very glad to hear that you know that."

'Me, too,' she said.

"I'll call you back in a few minutes then."

'And John?'

"Yeah?"

'I love you.'

"Hmm, maybe it's me who should be worried about you having a man over."

'With my dad right here?'

He chuckled a bit at that.

"You never know what people do on business trips."

'I just felt like saying it. I haven't seen you all day.'

"You can say it as much as you want to. I don't think I'll ever get tired of hearing those words."

'You'll get used to hearing them one of these days.'

"Maybe so. I'll still want to hear them, though."

'I know.'

"I love you, too, you know, even if I don't say it as often as you'd like me to."

'You do fine.'

"I do?"

'You may not say it, but you show me very well.'

"I'm glad you think so."

'Go do your stuff and maybe you can show me before I fall asleep.'

"I love the sound of that."

She laughed softly. 'I know you do. I'd accuse you of being a pervert, but I kind of like the idea, too.'

"We can both be perverted together then, Princess. I'll call you back in a few minutes."

Return to Top

***Chapter Twenty-Six***
Word Count: 2,854

"I think we should tell your dad you need to go on business trips way more often."

"Why?" she asked. Was he serious? He wanted her gone overnight?

"Relax, Princess. I simply meant, you got back so late that he let you start late today. That means I actually get to shower and have breakfast with you for a change."

"Oh, yeah, but it probably also means I won't be home until like eight o'clock tonight."

"I know. I think it's a fair tradeoff though. Good morning sex can't be beat."

"Like we don't have sex in the mornings when I have to get up before six o'clock!"

"I know, but I'm not always completely awake and we don't get to be nearly as thorough as we were this morning."

"You have a point," she said. He'd been incredibly thorough from the time she got home last night on and off during the night. She'd laugh at him except she had to admit she missed him just as badly. She'd slept like shit in the hotel because she was used to having him next to her now. Weird to think she'd gotten used to it so quickly, but she had.

She'd been just as needy during the night as he'd been. She couldn't get enough of him and was so glad he'd been on the same page because she would have felt really stupid not to mention incredibly embarrassed if he'd wanted to go to sleep instead.

Their doorbell rang as he was setting her plate in front of her. Most mornings she was lucky to eat cold cereal before leaving the house. Today, though, he'd made her a real breakfast with eggs, fried potatoes, bacon, and toast.

"I'll get it," he said. "I don't have nearly as long of a drive as you do so eat while you can."

"But yours is going to get cold."

"My servings are still in the pans and will reheat just fine."

"John!"

"Sit. Eat. Listen to your husband on this. He doesn't have the schedule you do. You're going to be there late and won't want to be which means you will be tempted to work through lunch so you can leave that much earlier."

"Fine," she said. He was right. She hated the idea of getting back so late. It just made the evening so short because she'd have to get ready for bed almost as soon as she got home. She, Christopher, and her dad hadn't gotten back into town until after eight last night because everything yesterday had run long. Very frustrating, but she imagined that was the way things worked. She was just learning that.

"Are you expecting anyone?" she asked.

"No," he said. "At nine in the morning? Maybe it's your friend Phil coming to give me another hug before work."

"God. I can't believe he did that. Once was weird enough."

"Right? Maybe he and your brother…"

"He's not gay!"

"I bet no one would say your brother is either."

"John! Go answer the door."

"You're bossy when you're mad at me."

"I'm not mad at you!"

"I'm very relieved to hear that," he said, leaning down to kiss her before walking to the living room and the front door.

She had no idea who'd be coming here at this time of the morning because, well, he was usually about out the door himself. Most anyone who knew him would be aware of that fact. Very few people ever came here for her.

"Hi Johnny." Claire frowned. She'd only heard his mom talk for a few seconds, but she was the only person who not only called him Johnny but was able to get away with it.

"Ma, I fixed your car to be decent so you wouldn't have to drag Billy to bus stops with you when it's below freezing. It was not an invitation to drop by my house anytime you want."

"I know that," she said.

"Then what are you doing here?"

"Billy drew you a picture," she said.

"What?"

Claire stood then, walking to the doorway leading from the kitchen to the living room. She wasn't going to be able to eat while they were talking anyway. She knew John would be upset by her coming here. If she was using Billy as an excuse somehow, but Billy was with her Claire noticed. His mom reached into her bag then and drew out a piece of paper.

"I told him I wished I had a way to repay you for fixing the car. I can't pay you back for the parts you bought all at once or anything."

"I didn't do it to get paid back," he said.

"I know that, Johnny, I do, but you and your wife took a day off from work," she said and Claire saw when his mother saw her. John glanced at her over his shoulder, apparently not having realized she was there until now.

"So what does that have to do with why you're here exactly?"

She handed John the piece of paper. John stared at it for a little while, clenching his fist the way he did when he got mad at things that were beyond his control. He'd done it the night she came here when she'd been attacked. She'd thought at first it was because he was mad at her, but she'd come to realize now that it was because he was mad that there were things out there he couldn't control. That people he cared about got hurt and he couldn't stop it.

It was one of the things she absolutely loved about him and made her realize that he was nothing like his father.

He lifted his head a bit, glancing at the ceiling with a slight shake of his head.

He stooped down then to Billy's height.

"You drew this for me?"

He nodded.

"It's your GI Joe, isn't it?" John asked.

He nodded again.

"I told him it was yours."

"It was, sure, but he's yours now," John said. "This is real good. Those are the Army guys around him, aren't they?"

He nodded.

"Yeah. I remember playing with them, too. They were GI Joe's troops, you know? You do the same thing? So he has guys to boss around?"

He reached for him and then seemed to think better of it, grabbing onto the picture with his free hand instead.

"Thank you, Billy. This was really nice of you. I've never had anyone draw a picture for me before." He glanced at Claire then. "You remember Claire? You met her the day I was fixing your mom's car?"

He nodded.

"Let's see if she has some tape or something for this so we can hang it on the fridge. I don't have any magnets or anything, I'm afraid since I've never had a picture to hang there before."

He stood then, glancing at his mother. "You can come in while we find something to put this up with."

She stepped in then as Billy did the same thing. Claire went to the room they used as a kind of office. John used it more than she did, but she imagined as she got further and further into working she'd use it, too. She grabbed the tape dispenser he had on the desk and brought it with her to the kitchen.

"We interrupted your breakfast," his mother said.

"Yeah," John said.

"It's all right," Claire said. "I should be going anyway. Here's the tape," she said, handing it to John.

"You didn't even hardly eat!"

"I will take lunch, I promise."

"You won't, but thank you for saying you will."

"Billy, where do you think I should put your picture?"

Billy pointed to a spot in the middle of the fridge and John took some tape off to put the picture there.

"Good enough spot for me, thanks."

John stood again and glanced at his mom.

"The car's running all right I take it?"

"Yes, thank you."

"Maybe when it gets nicer out again I can come over to get the other one running. You have problems with this one, though, in the meantime, call my studio and leave a message or whatever."

Her lips tightened a bit at that and Claire wondered if she really thought John would give her the number here to their house. She knew he was never going to do that. Talking to her like this was probably as far as he was going to go.

"I have to go," Claire said.

"I know," he said.

"We're sorry we interrupted your breakfast."

"It's okay. I should've been at work hours ago anyway."

Claire knew she blushed profusely once she realized what she said probably sounded like. John chuckled softly and shook his head, as if reading her mind and stopping her from feeling the need to explain herself.

She went to the foyer then, getting her coat and stuff.

"I'm sorry, Johnny, I thought she'd be gone already. You mentioned she worked downtown."

"It's all right, Ma. I wouldn't have gotten my picture of GI Joe otherwise."

The picture wasn't bad. It wasn't great, but he was three. Claire could tell it was supposed to be GI Joe. She wasn't sure how John knew the things at his feet were Army guys, but she imagined it went without saying that GI Joe would be surrounded by Army guys. She remembered the Army figurines Christopher had when they were growing up and imagined John had similar ones.

She thought of that at times over the past few months especially, but even back in high school. What was his childhood like? Were his parents ever good to him? Did he have toys? Did he have things like a sandbox that Christopher and Claire just took for granted were normal?

He had a GI Joe and Army guys. She knew that much now. Did he have Tonka trucks? Did he have Lincoln Logs? Did he have an erector set? Christopher had loved those things. In truth, Claire thought he still did. He'd probably love hanging out with Billy so he could play with his GI Joe and Army guys.

John met her in the foyer, working a couple of buttons on her coat for her tugging her toward him a bit.

"Why don't you ever button your coat?"

"I don't know," she said.

"You're going to get sick."

"I just go from here to the car and from the car to work."

"It's still cold."

"I know," she said. "I have my scarf. I'll be better about it."

"Thank you," he said.

"You don't wear a coat."

"I do too!"

"Not like mine."

"No, I suppose. I zip mine up though. I don't care if I get sick, though. I care very much if you do."

"Well, I care if you get sick."

"Thank you," he said, leaning in to kiss her. "You have a good day. I'm sorry you didn't get to eat your breakfast."

"It's okay. I'll stop somewhere on the way and get something."

"Now I really feel bad."

"Don't! Have a good day. I'll see you later."

"Yeah. Call before you leave so I don't start worrying you're dead in a ditch somewhere."

"That'd mean something if there were ditches in Chicago."

"You know what I mean."

"I do."

"Maybe I can have dinner waiting for you."

"That sounds wonderful."

"Yeah?"

"Yes."

"All right."

He kissed her again. She drew away faster than he wanted her to she knew. She couldn't kiss him like he wanted her to in front of his mother. She just couldn't.

"Love you," she said before opening the door and heading outside.

His mom had parked on the street in front of their house he noticed. Hadn't she noticed there were still two cars on the driveway? Maybe she didn't know.

He regarded his mom who was standing about the same spot Claire was when she was watching John talk with her at the door earlier.

"You look nice," he said, unable to censor his thoughts. It slipped out. He couldn't help it. She looked put together. Again her hair looked nice. So did Billy for that matter. He even had boots on not just shoes.

"Thank you," she said, clearly as surprised as he was by the compliment.

"Sure. Are you working?" he asked.

"I work in the cafeteria at Shermer Memorial."

"Really?" he asked. How odd that he'd just been talking to Phillip who worked there, too.

"That surprises you?"

"That you have a job? Well, kind of, but no, just weird. I was just talking to someone the other night who's a nurse there. A friend of Claire's came by to get some information on my business."

"Oh," she said. "It's a big hospital."

"Sure it is," he said. "Where does he go?" he asked.

"They have a daycare there."

"Really? That's nice," he said. He'd never paid attention to businesses that did or didn't offer such things, but he supposed a hospital would want to.

"He likes it. He has friends there."

"Good. He draws pretty well. I had no problem knowing that was GI Joe."

"He does," she said, sounding proud.

"Anyway. I have to get to work."

"Sure," she said, looking disappointed. What did she expect?

"Thank you again for the picture, Billy. My first picture being from my little brother is pretty awesome."

"He worked very hard on it."

"I can tell."

They walked to the door then and he let her out.

"I'll come by in the spring to look at the other car."

"You don't…"

"Yeah, well, worse comes to worse you'll have it in case this one craps out again or something and I can't look at it again."

"I appreciate it, Johnny. Money's pretty tight."

"I bet it is," he said. Never having a job before she couldn't be earning that much. "Obviously you're doing decent. He has clothes, a coat and boots. That's more than I got sometimes."

She looked wounded then and John felt kind of bad, but he didn't want her to think he was softening or changing his opinion of her. She'd still been one of the world's shittiest mother's. There was no forgetting that, no matter how well she may be doing with Billy.

"I'll see you in the spring then."

"Johnny."

"Ma," he said. "I'm not doing this. I did you a favor, please don't make me regret it."

"But, Billy…"

"Yeah, I still haven't figured that out. When I do I'll let you know. I'm not ready to have you in my life, though. I don't know I ever will be. You know?"

"I'm sorry."

"It's years too late for apologies, don't you think? Is your sorry going to undo it all? Anyway, I have to go. Thanks for bringing Billy by, but please don't use him as an excuse again. I appreciate the picture, but you could've mailed it. You have the address, obviously."

She left then. John watched from the front door as she and Billy walked to the car. She helped him into the seat she had for him in the backseat and then got in and drove away.

Fuck.

He went to the kitchen to put the things away from the breakfast he and Claire didn't get to eat. The eggs wouldn't reheat, but the potatoes and bacon would. Maybe he'd wake up early tomorrow morning and make her breakfast again to use it up. He glanced at the picture on the refrigerator. He had friends who had kids, not many and not ones he was real close to, but he was familiar with artwork on refrigerators and what it meant. He never thought he'd have something like that on his refrigerator. It was different because he was his brother not his kid, but John couldn't help thinking that he liked seeing the picture there. It made his kitchen seem lived in, like it was part of a home, a family. Things he never realized until recently he even wanted.

Something he still wasn't sure he'd be able to give Claire. Well, the home part he could. The family part was inconclusive. He knew her not getting pregnant in September didn't mean his junk wasn't working. He didn't understand the intricacies of it, but knew the timing had to be right for the sperm to find an egg and become a baby. Claire had mentioned starting to try after the first of the year. He wasn't sure he was ready for that, but he couldn't deny not having to use rubbers ever again wasn't a horrible concept. Not that they used them every time now. He tried to remember, but sometimes she joined him in the shower or on the couch in the living room and they didn't want to stop to get one. She knew when she was safe or not so he took her at her word that she was when she said so.

He sighed a bit before finishing getting ready for the day before leaving.

Return to Top

***Chapter Twenty-Seven***
Word Count: 5,899

"Your appointment is here," Ronda said. "I take it it's someone you know since you booked it yourself."

"Yup. Great, thanks. I'll be right there," John said.

He was actually looking forward to seeing Phil in an odd sort of way. The hugging aside he wasn't a bad guy. It was too bad Claire wasn't better, closer friends with him because John could actually see himself getting along with the guy. Whether Claire would get along with his girlfriend (presumably fiancée now if they had an appointment scheduled) so the four of them could do things together was another story. John didn't think Claire was friends with many accountants.

He'd been glad Phil called one afternoon after Ronda had left when John was in his office working on some paperwork. They'd talked for a bit about things beyond scheduling the appointment. It was kind of nice. He and Glen didn't do that, call one another for no reason. Phil calling to schedule the appointment had obviously meant the girlfriend had said yes and, admittedly, John didn't mind the interruption today. Things were pretty slow with the push of Christmas photos done. There was always a huge lull immediately after Christmas as far as sitting appointments went. The cycle would start again in a few months: Easter pictures, then weddings, and then graduation pictures. It was predictable. Steady. He'd never imagined either of those words being used in conjunction with his life, but it was what it was. Throw in being a home owner and now married into the equation and his life was as far removed from where he'd pictured it being four or five years ago.

His first thought was that Elizabeth wasn't like any accountant he'd ever pictured. He pictured big, thick glasses and hair fastened in a tight bun or updo of some sort with very plain, monotone clothes. She was nothing like that. She was, in fact, pretty damned fine. If they'd met under different circumstances, both of them being single, he would've focused on her right away upon entering a bar. He guessed they didn't make accountants like he thought, or she was just a very, very gorgeous exception to the rule.

"Hey," he said, regarding Phillip. "I take it you had a good Christmas then," he said, shaking his hand.

"We did, thanks. You?"

"Yeah, it was good. You know, dinner with her family and stuff. It was nice."

"Your first together."

It was his first Christmas with anyone of any significance, aside from his parents. He'd hunted for weeks for the perfect gift for her. Ronda had gotten tired of him calling her all of the time when he'd go out during the day to shop. Ultimately, he'd settled on a pretty nice sapphire ring, one he actually remembered buying and picking out for her this time from the get go. He'd thought jewelry was entirely too cliché, but Ronda had insisted no woman thought that about nice jewelry. He'd chosen sapphire because it was the birthstone of the month they got married. He'd eyed a nice diamond ring initially, but had decided against it since she already had one of those.

She'd given him a new camera that he'd mentioned in passing being interested in over the summer. He'd teased her about being surprised that she paid attention to anything he said. It cost more than the ring did, but he supposed things like price tags on gifts weren't supposed to be entered into the equation. Besides, he wouldn't wear the camera, she'd wear the ring and while he wasn't an expert by any means he knew it was a nice looking ring.

"Uh yeah. My first with anyone really."

They'd briefly talked about their holidays while on the phone the other day. Phil had assumed John wouldn't be able to get him in for an appointment anytime soon, so when John mentioned an opening this week he'd been surprised. The week after Christmas was typically dead. People blew most of their money on gifts and pictures for Christmas cards to get more taken.

"How was it?"

"Different," he admitted, eyeing the other people with him and his fiancée.

"I bet," he said, seeming to catch that John was looking at the others with him. "Oh, sorry. These are my parents. They wanted to come with since they weren't able to make it to your reception."

"Oh, sure," he said. "Nice to meet you," he said, shaking their hands when they offered them to him.

"We felt awful that we couldn't make it to your reception, but we had an engagement we had already committed to attending on the same night," Phillip's mother said.

"It's not a problem. I know Claire and her parents would have liked if you were there, but they understood I'm sure." He hadn't even known these people existed until that night, but Claire, and Phillip too, made it sound like their families had been fairly tight throughout the years so John hoped he said the right thing there. He assumed he did. Sometimes he felt as though he needed a script or cue cards because he felt out of his element talking to the people she and her family knew. Phillip was about the only exception, which probably explained why John liked him.

"Phillip says it was a beautiful party."

"I'm glad he thought so. It was pretty nice," John said. "I admit I had very little to do with any of it. I just kind of showed up when I was told to be there, wearing what I was told to wear. I think Claire preferred it that way."

John had to admit the suit was exceptional. Never having a suit made specifically for him before he'd never understood the drastic difference in something like that versus what he'd bought to this point at a department store. He'd gotten by with buying higher-end suits at places like Carson's and Penney's versus investing in something that cost an arm and a leg from Field's or places like that. He was sure to the trained eye his suits were obvious what they were, but he wasn't expected to show up in Armani. He was just expected to show up in a suit and tie, looking presentable.

Phillip's mom laughed at that, so John took it to mean she understood the type of person Claire (and her mother) was.

"Anyway," John said. "Um, did any of you want some coffee or something? I can have some brewed for you if you did?" Ronda didn't mind doing that sort of thing only because she insisted he'd scare customers away with his version of coffee.

"No, thank you, John. Sol and I really just wanted to meet you and since Phillip mentioned his appointment with you we figured we'd take advantage of the opportunity and come see your studio as well as you."

"Oh, sure," he said. He wasn't sure why they cared, but it was nice to have people interested in what he was doing. Other than Claire he didn't really have anyone who gave a shit what he was doing with his life. Glen did, sure. Charlie might care if he could stop getting high on something for a few minutes to recognize things going on around him. "I could show you all around if you wanted to. You're my last appointment of the day so it's no trouble or anything."

In truth, Phillip was his only appointment for the day. There were weeks during the year that Ronda brought books with her to work. John didn't care as long as the phone got answered and the appointments got scheduled. This was one of those weeks. The busy months a short while from now more than made up for the lean few weeks ahead.

"We'd love to."

"You go on ahead, Mom and Dad, Liz and I are going to look through this stuff his assistant gave us."

"Sure," his mom said. "So you've done this all on your own?" she asked, taking hold of his arm as he started walking away from the waiting area. Claire's mom had done that a couple of times so he wasn't completely taken aback by the gesture, but it was still a little strange to him that people did that.

"Uh, yeah," he said. "For the most part. I had some help in the beginning. You know, people did me some favors and I bartered my way into my first bit of space."

"Really?"

"Yeah," he said.

"How so?"

"Well," he said, surprised she seemed legitimately interested in what he was saying. "When you take pictures you have something to offer people. Their son plays Little League so you offer to take pictures of the son or the whole team. Or their daughter's getting baptized you offer to take pictures. Or whatever. I got pretty creative if I had to, but at least it's a skill I could negotiate with."

"You were resourceful enough to think to do that?"

"Well, sure, I had to pay rent and eat if I could," he said. He didn't think what he did was that out of the ordinary or anything. He did what he had to do to survive. "No one else was going to help me so I had to help myself."

"Impressive," she said. John glanced at her and saw that she was sincere. He'd thought for a minute she was being sarcastic or demeaning but he didn't see that when she was looking at him. He actually saw a bit of respect there. Her husband, Sol, was oddly silent through this whole tour.

"You have a charming business here, John. You've obviously done so well for yourself."

"Thank you, ma'am," he said.

"You can call me Cecile."

"All right, Cecile," he said. "It was nice to meet you."

"Sol, say something to him so he doesn't think you're a curmudgeon."

"It is very nice. You've done well for yourself here, John."

"Thank you," he said, not missing the fact her husband had said basically the same thing she had. It was okay. They were being nice, that was cool. What could he expect out of virtual strangers who he was just meeting? No doubt the Taylors hadn't had to barter their way into or out of anything when they were starting out.

"Phillip says you have a home, too."

"Yes, Sir," he said.

"Sol, please."

Man, they were way less formal than he expected. He still wasn't sure what to call Claire's parents'. He called them by their first names, but every time he did he felt incredibly wrong about doing it. He had never met these people before today and they wanted him to do it. Odd for people like them.

"It's just a bungalow. Nothing fancy or anything, probably on the small side for Claire but she seems to like it there well enough for now."

"I'm sure she does. It's an adjustment, though, for her. A good starter home, though, before you start having a family."

"Yeah, a little of one," he said.

He really didn't foresee moving anytime soon even if they were able to have a kid. He liked his house, Claire seemed to as well. True, it was much smaller than hers and probably anything she'd dreamt of living in growing up but it was nice. He even had to admit the things she'd been doing to it since September were adding to its appeal to him. Things like wallpaper and better curtains, plants and lacy things that he had no idea what the name for them was on the end tables. Silly things, but they were making it into a home. Their home. He couldn't get mad about that.

"Perhaps one day we'll see it, too. Phillip says you have an incredible front porch."

"Oh yeah, it's pretty great. Not so much at this time of the year, but Claire and I got a lot of use out of last summer and into the fall."

They'd learned during the summer that the side area of the porch, which John had done little to furnish or anything because it faced the house next to his. Well, they could do most anything they wanted to do there without being seen from the street. More than once they'd spent the night out there in a sleeping bag he had. His next door neighbor never came to that side of his house unless he was mowing his lawn and even if he did. What was he going to do? Call the police for them sleeping on his porch together? The guy was single with no kids so John wasn't worried about a little kid stumbling upon them.

"That's nice that you can enjoy it then."

"Yeah," he said, hoping the woman had no idea what John had just been thinking about. She and her husband didn't strike him as the type to campout in sleeping bags. Claire didn't really either, but she'd been more than agreeable the few times they'd done it this summer. She seemed to like the daringness of it.

"Well, we'll leave you to Phillip and Elizabeth. We are so glad to finally meet you."

"Yeah, you, too," he said. "Thanks. You can certainly stay if you want."

"Oh, no. This is between them. We don't want to impose on that."

"Sure," he said, understanding. It was a pretty personal thing, especially if Phillip and Elizabeth were paying for things on their own or Elizabeth's parents were. He doubted Phillip's would turn down contributing to their son's wedding expenses. Then what did he know?

"So, why does your family seem to like me so well?" he asked Phillip once they'd left. They drove a nice, shiny new Mercedes he noticed.

"What do you mean? Why wouldn't they?"

"I don't know. Your parents came here seemingly just to meet me based on the fact they left before we could talk about your engagement pictures. You with the hugging."

"We're just happy for Claire. We've known her all of her life."

"I don't believe you," he said simply. He didn't. It was too weird. People like Claire's parents didn't just accept him. Claire's parents were still trying to wrap their heads around the fact he was their son-in-law. They were decent and polite to John, but he could see in their eyes they were waiting for him to prove them right that he'd married her to get his hands on her money or something.

"You've never heard my parents' names before?"

"What do you mean?"

"Sol and Cecile?"

"No," he said with a frown. "Should I have? I don't know. Don't go getting mad at Claire or her parents for not mentioning them. I'm sure it was an oversight. I told you, I met so many people at that reception and for the few weeks before that it was like being overloaded with information."

"Well, no, I don't know why Claire's would mention them particularly. I just assumed the names would be familiar to you."

"Okay," he said, though he wasn't thoroughly convinced that was the case. He couldn't pry it out of him, though. They were here for a consultation not to be questioned by him.

"Really, John, we're just happy for Claire. I don't know why you don't believe that."

"Because people like you don't hug people like me. People like you hardly like people like me most of the time."

"John, you're selling yourself short if you think that. No one dislikes you. I don't know you real well, but I can tell you're not an easy person to get to know. Your company name even. Claire's the only one who knows what it means you said."

"Yeah." There were a few others from high school who would get it if he explained it to them, but she was the only one he'd ever explained the meaning of the letters EMS to specifically.

"Maybe we just want to get to know Claire's husband."

"Uh huh," John said. "All right we'll play it your way but I still don't believe you."

Phillip looked a little perturbed by their conversation and John's last comment in particular. He may not be a genius like Brian Johnson was, but he wasn't born yesterday either. He knew when something weird was going on. He just couldn't wrap his mind around what their angle was.

"Anyway, this is Elizabeth."

"Right. The reason you're here today. Good to meet you." He had the books he used for engagement photo sittings out and ready to go so it didn't take long to get down to business and forget about their conversation.

"You, too, Phillip spoke highly of you."

"Well, hopefully I can live up to his expectations. I do my best."

Her ring was the type that was designed to get attention. It was large, bordering on being just a bit gaudy. John noticed these things more now than he did before. A part of him felt like the worst kind of asshole that Claire missed out on this stuff. Engagement rings. Shopping for photographers, florists, cakes, and everything else that went with a wedding. Oh, sure, she'd gotten to do some of the things for the reception, but it wasn't the same and he knew it. (She'd let him pick the photographer. He had one or two that he traded business with on things like their reception when they couldn't take their own pictures.) She'd been shortchanged all sorts of things even though she claimed she didn't want them. He knew better because he knew her.

"So, you looked at the package information," he said, wanting to get his mind away from those thoughts. They'd eat at him and kill him if he let them. It wasn't as if they could go back and undo it anyway. She had a pretty nice ring. It wasn't as large as Elizabeth's, but John couldn't afford one that big anyway. He was pretty sure, too, as much as Claire would love a ring like it she'd be mad at John for spending that much money on it. As it was, he'd spent a fair amount on the one she had anyway. No one could look at it and think he'd been frugal anyway.

***

"I thought you'd never get here," Claire said once she'd led John to her office. There was a security guard and reception desk area downstairs John had to pass before coming up here so she'd known he was on his way up when she'd been called to say someone was here to see her.

"I called you before I left work."

"I know," she said. "I just didn't eat lunch today so I'm starving."

"Why not?" he asked.

"Well, I meant to. I did, you know, but I started getting involved on the phone and the next thing I knew the sandwich I'd ordered was cold and when I tried to reheat it. Well, it didn't look appetizing at all."

"Sorry," he said.

"It's not your fault." In fact, he'd told her more than once she needed to keep something in her office like granola bars or even a jar of peanuts for something to eat because she skipped lunch at least one or two days during the week just by being immersed in something.

"What did you get involved in?"

"Oh, this piece of land Dad's interested in kind of near the one in Kankakee we looked at before."

"Right."

"These guys aren't quite as interested in selling as the other ones were. So it's lots of haggling, lots of back and forth, lots of low balling."

"You look like you have a headache."

"I do!"

"I have to admit those words coming from your mouth are kind of funny."

"I'm glad you think so. I almost started crying."

"What?"

"I did! I mean, I didn't cry, but I closed my office door and took about five minutes for myself."

"Why?"

"The guy was just a chauvinist pig. He kept calling me sweetheart."

"Like someone else you know."

"You are allowed to call me that and you don't call me sweetheart. And you don't say the word dripping with condescension either."

"Oh, Princess."

"I know you have at times, but you at least did it to my face and you knew me. This guy doesn't even know me. And somehow, when you call me Princess you make it sound endearing. Sweets is a different story, sometimes you say that one to be a jerk. Usually for a reason, though, and I've come to realize that. He's just being a prick."

"I was trying to be a prick."

"I liked you too much for it to work."

"The feeling was mutual."

"You had a funny way of showing it."

"I'm sorry," he said, closing the distance between them and taking her into his arms like she wanted him to do hours ago. Those five minutes she took she'd wished he was here because she knew he'd know exactly what to do to make her feel better.

She knew he wasn't saying he was sorry for not showing her he liked her before. He was sorry she had a bad day and there was nothing he could do to fix it. She realized if he could fix it he would. If she told him the guy's name who treated her like that he'd probably visit him and say a few words to him. Or slug him. He'd do it, too, she knew he would.

She absolutely loved that about him, knowing he'd do anything for her. The feeling was mutual, though she didn't think it was as obvious to him she'd do the same for him. She tried to show him, but she wasn't as good at it as he was. Ironic since he was the one who didn't want to like or love anyone. It was just so new to her to have someone to love, to have to show she felt that way. She knew sex wasn't the answer all of the time. (She doubted he was complaining about their sex life, though.)

It was utterly ridiculous that when she felt like that, crying and just stupid, she wanted John. It wasn't the first time she'd encountered people who wanted to talk to her dad or Christopher over her. She understood that they wanted to talk to someone they were familiar with. She got that completely.

It was the man's way of talking to her that upset her so much. As if she couldn't possibly be smart enough to negotiate a deal with him because she was a woman. It took every ounce of self-control she had not to hang up on him.

First she wanted to call him a few choice names, though.

Then she would've hung up.

She couldn't do that, no matter how tempting it was. Her father would probably kill her if she did something like that. She could probably tell her dad she didn't want to deal with Mr. Klein anymore and why. Her dad would let her out of it, but he wouldn't respect her. He certainly wouldn't think she was ready for more responsibilities.

Her dad had told her she had to develop thick skin. There'd been no female Standish involved with the company until now so she'd be treated differently for a while. She got that. She did. She just hadn't expected … Someone to be so demeaning. As if she was only good enough to fetch his coffee or type a letter. She hadn't graduated Northwestern Cum Laude to fetch coffee for anyone but herself.

(Yes, she had an admin who was willing to fetch Claire her coffee, but she'd never asked her to do it unless she was getting her own.)

He kissed her then and she kissed him back way more urgently than he probably expected her to. He clearly didn't mind, though, and she loved that about him, too.

"Fuck," he murmured when she worked his coat off. He'd undone the zipper already, probably as soon as he walked into the building. He didn't like it being closed any more than she liked her coat closed. His business relied on him not getting sick a lot more than hers did, though, so he did what he could to keep from getting sick.

She let the coat fall to the floor and reached under his shirt. Of course he was wearing a long-sleeved shirt that didn't button today. So she settled for finding the fastening on his jeans.

"Please," she whispered.

"Someone…"

"There's no one here!"

"No one?"

"No, I am the last one to leave because I was waiting for you."

"Well, then shut the door and stay facing it, Princess."

She did what he said and groaned softly when he brushed her hair away from the back of her neck to kiss her there.

"You're sure?" He drew her skirt up as he asked the question, though, so he evidently wasn't hugely concerned about it.

"Positive."

"I swear to God if your dad walks in here…"

"He's not! He's probably home already having dinner with Mom."

She cried out as he slid inside of her. He found her ear then, kissing her there as he moved inside of her. He wasn't being overly slow or gentle, but she wasn't looking for that right now. She just needed him and he seemed to get that. He slid his left hand over hers, lacing his fingers through hers. He did that a lot of the time when he was behind her like this. For her because she liked it. She liked seeing their hands together, their rings together like that. Stupid, and she couldn't explain it, but she did. That symbol meant a lot to her for reasons she'd probably never understand. She guessed because he wore his when she knew he'd probably rather not. It certainly wouldn't stop him from being unfaithful, but she knew that he wouldn't do that. He just wasn't built that way. Funny considering marriage was probably the furthest thing from his mind when he saw her again in February.

He chuckled against her ear at how quickly she came. He hardly had to touch her at all. She couldn't help it. This was exactly what she needed and she didn't want to wait until they got home after having dinner together.

He finished pretty soon after she did. He liked when she was like this, wanting him badly. He probably didn't realize how much she wanted him all of the time. He was like a drug only better because he wasn't bad for her.

"You better now, Princess?"

"I am. For now."

"You know. If that's the mood you're in, nothing says we have to go out for dinner. We could stop and pick up some Chinese or something."

"Are you sure? You drove all the way out here?"

"Have you not figured out yet that I don't need dinner out to be happy? Driving out here," he shrugged, sliding a hand along her hip to help smooth her skirt down. "It's just gas. You get to drive home with me."

"I do," she said. She'd taken the train in today, knowing he'd be coming down to get her tonight.

"It's up to you. Whatever you want. If that tides you over until later then I'm fine with that, too."

"Fine with it."

"Well, my preference would be you never wearing clothes outside of work hours."

"Never?"

"Never. You don't need them."

"Well…"

"You don't need them."

"I'd have to leave your house."

"For what? I do the cooking so I do the grocery shopping. What do you have to leave the house for?"

"I have things to do."

"I'd make it worth your while."

"I know you would. We haven't been out in a while."

"Agreed."

"We don't have to go anywhere after dinner."

"That's true, too. Let's go to dinner."

"Why?" She turned to face him then, eyeing him suspiciously. He so seldom wanted to eat out.

"I don't know. Going to dinner with you right now appeals to me."

"Why?" she asked again.

"You have that look in your eye."

"What look?"

"The look of someone who just had good sex."

"So you want to take me to dinner?"

"Sue me. I want other people to see that look, too."

She shook her head a bit.

"Then you can tell me about your day."

"Yeah, it was weird."

"Oh?" she asked.

"I'll tell you at dinner."

"Okay."

"So he brought his parents?" she asked later after they'd eaten and were finishing up their drinks before calling it a night. She'd told him about her day more deeply and then he'd told her about his. She'd wanted to hear about his day, but he'd insisted his day hadn't upset him so he wanted to hear about hers first.

"So it's not just me who thinks that is a little odd?"

"No, I mean, I guess it's a wedding so maybe they want to be involved, but since it was for engagement photos and they didn't even stay."

"Right?"

"I don't know."

"What do you know about them?"

"Know about them?"

"Yeah. What's their story?"

"Well, Mr. Taylor…"

"Sol."

"Right," she said with a shake of her head. "I've never been told to call him that in my life!"

"I suppose if I'd met them socially maybe it'd be different, I don't know."

"He's a judge."

"Really?"

"Yeah. He didn't used to be. I mean, I think maybe," she frowned. "I don't know, I guess I was maybe in junior high when that happened. I can't remember. Maybe our freshman year."

"Okay."

"Mrs. Taylor."

"Cecile."

"Shut up," she said with a shake of her head.

"The things you say with that mouth of yours I love so much, Princess."

"Deal with it."

"I'm trying."

"She was a housewife, raised the kids. You know much the same as my mom. As far as I know she still doesn't work. Even as a lawyer he did very well from my understanding."

"Right."

"You've met Phillip obviously. He has an older sister, Erin, and a brother, Wayne. Neither of them were at the reception, but I wasn't real close to them so wasn't surprised they didn't show up. I played with Phillip mostly when I went over there. They had an older sister, too, but I honestly don't think I ever met her. She was gone by the time I ever started going over there. I think she was a bit older than Erin even so she would've been a lot older than us. I think Erin is three years older than Phillip and Wayne is two years older. I don't know about the older sister."

"He told me she was thirty-nine I think."

"He told you about her?"

"Yeah, why?"

"They never talk about her."

"How do you know about her then?"

"I think Phillip mentioned it once or twice, I don't know. I think we saw a family portrait from when Phillip was a baby and she was in it. It wasn't anywhere prominent, like the living room or anything so I only saw it once that I can remember."

"Must have been before she got disowned."

"What?"

"You didn't know that?"

"No. Like I said, no one ever talked about her. My mom, no one. Not that I ever really pressed for information since I didn't know her. I guess I was too young until fairly recently to realize it was odd I've never even met her."

"I guess she got involved with someone bad, got pregnant, her parents wanted to adopt the baby and she didn't want that. So they cut her loose or something."

"Wow. Could you imagine being raised by your grandparents and your real mom being your sister?"

He chuckled. "No, but as I didn't really have grandparents in my life it's an entirely foreign concept to me."

"I guess. No grandparents?"

"Nope."

"Why not?"

"Dad's washed their hands of him a long time ago. Mom's," he shrugged. "I don't know. I guess I never thought about it until now. I just sort of took for granted she didn't have anyone."

"Why?"

"Well, she would've asked for help. Right? I mean, the times they couldn't pay the phone or electric bill. Or when there was no money for groceries. Or when he was hitting her and not me. God forbid when he was hitting me and not her. You'd think if she had parents or something they'd help."

"Maybe they didn't know."

"Claire," he said.

"What? It's possible."

"It's just so strange. I don't get it. And I don't believe they wanted to meet me just because I'm married to you."

"I'm not sure I do either."

"Well, if you can think of an explanation for it, please let me know."

"Maybe you could ask him when his fiancée isn't with him."

"That's a thought."

"You could invite him to go out with you for a beer or something."

"You're encouraging me to go out drinking, Princess?"

"With Phillip, sure."

He chuckled softly.

"You like him," she said.

"I do kind of. I mean, he's a little odd, but I guess aren't we all?"

"We are. So, see if he wants to. Maybe alone he'll talk to you. I mean, you were at work."

"Right. I know. I just wasn't expecting to meet his parents."

"I was surprised they weren't at the reception."

"They said they had something else they were committed to."

"I'm sure that's probably true, but as Mom said they could've made an appearance."

"Wow, really? You're pulling that card?"

"I'm not. I mean, I don't really care, but Mom did. You know? She felt slighted."

"Because two people out of a million didn't show up? They did give us a gift, though, right?"

"Yes. They gave us a very generous gift certificate to Crate and Barrel."

"Have we used it yet?"

"No, because I'm still trying to figure out what we need."

"We meaning you. I have what I need."

"Do you?"

"I have you and a bed. That's all I need."

"Well, we need some place to eat."

"We can eat in bed."

"We need something to eat with."

He eyed her very intently then and she knew that look very well.

"I'm not even going there, Princess. I think I could make do just fine without plates."

"John," she said shaking her head a bit.

"You sure liked it when we played with whipped cream."

"I did," she admitted, certain she was blushing more.

"Enough to do it again?"

"Now?"

"Well, not immediately since we're in public, but I could probably be talked into it when we got home."

"Talked into it! You're the one bringing it up, not me."

"You liked it!"

"Well, pay the check then so we can go home."

"Yeah? One thing, though," he asked.

"What?"

"Why am I always the one buying you dinner?"

"Because you wouldn't let me pay even if I wanted to."

"There is that," he admitted. "I'll just take it in trade."

"With or without whipped cream?"

"It's a pretty hefty bill," he said.

"So, lots of it?"

"Lots and lots."

Return to Top

***Chapter Twenty-Eight***
Word Count: 4,282

January 1989

Christopher opened his door, staring at her as if she was an intruder or something. She'd obviously woken him up. She felt bad for that, but she wasn't ready to go home yet.

"What's wrong?" he asked.

"Nothing."

"Mom and Dad?"

"Are fine," she said, not even thinking what a late-night visit from her might mean to him. Though why he'd think she'd be the one called if something happened to their parents versus him she wasn't sure. Unless he thought she'd been out with them or something.

"Claire. It's after eleven o'clock. Did you and John have a fight or something?"

"No!"

"You sure? It's okay if you did. People argue. It doesn't mean the end of the world is eminent or anything. Remember the house we grew up in?"

"We didn't argue!"

"Okay…"

"I was just bored."

"So you showed up here?" he asked, clearly confused. "No offense, but I think John could find ways to entertain you far better than I could."

"He's gone for the night."

"Oh. Why?"

"He had a wedding up in Rockford so is spending the night."

"Wow. He traveled to Rockford for a wedding?"

"Yes."

"Is he even making money then if he has to pay for gas and a hotel room?"

"Well, they offered to pay him for the hotel room, but he said no."

"Why did he do that?"

"Because he didn't have to spend the night, but since he had to get up before seven to be there on time he decided it'd be best."

"Right. I get it. Sort of, still doesn't seem very economical to not be compensated. That's none of my business, though. Clearly he's done fine without my input. So, no offense, but I have to ask. Why are you here exactly?"

She shrugged. "I went out for a while."

"Okay…"

That wasn't shocking news, especially to him certainly.

"I decided to leave hours before the club closed."

"Yeah?"

Clearly, she wasn't explaining herself properly if he wasn't getting it.

"I didn't want to go home!"

"Because…"

"It's Saturday night."

"So you woke me up?"

"Well," she said, put like that it sounded kind of ridiculous. More than kind of. Totally ridiculous. She nibbled on her lower lip a bit not sure how to explain it.

"I've never been there alone before."

"What?" he asked.

"I mean, I've been there by myself, you know, during the day, but never overnight."

"Oh," he said, stepping aside then to let her in.

She was glad it made sense to him because it made absolutely no sense to her. John said he'd call her later, but the reception was at a restaurant or something it sounded like. That meant there were no time restrictions beyond how late people wanted to stay. So, she had no idea what time he'd be done. He'd booked a room near the reception site she knew, and he'd called her briefly before she'd left for the night using the phone card he had for just that reason.

Her day had been pretty normal, for them anyway. He'd woken her up before getting up for his day. Saturday was the only day he ever had to do that. During the week it was her who had to wake him up. Sundays neither had to wake the other up. She had to admit, she loved the way he woke her up most Saturdays. Today was no exception. He'd actually been inside of her before she was completely awake, which probably should have bothered her but it wasn't as if she'd ever told him no to this point. He'd certainly made it worth her while to get woken up that way. She didn't join him in the shower today because it was hours before she had any intention of getting up for the day. He'd known that, though, even if he'd laughed at her for going right back to sleep afterward.

She'd woken up hours later. He was probably already working by the time she took a shower and had some breakfast. She'd spent the day as she usually did on Saturday. It was the only day she could do things like clean the bathroom and stuff. He didn't lay all of the stuff on her, but he cooked, did the grocery shopping, did her laundry ninety-nine percent of the time, and did dishes, too. She figured cleaning the bathroom, washing their sheets, and vacuuming was only fair.

He'd told her more than once that he'd do those things with her on Sunday if she waited, but it was the one day, the only day that they had all day together. She didn't want to spend it doing household chores. Cleaning her bathroom wasn't anything new. Her mom had cleaning people come in twice a week to clean the house, but things like her bathroom and bedroom she'd been responsible for every other day of the week. And her mother wouldn't allow her to leave a mess and expect the people to clean up after her.

She was lucky, she supposed, in that John wasn't a huge slob. Oh, sure he left socks on the floor sometimes or didn't get all of his shaving cream off of the sink once in a while. Overall, though, he picked up and cleaned up after himself. She didn't think he'd always been like that, but assumed at the very least when he'd moved in here he'd realized he had no one to keep a house clean but himself. She got the impression, though, from things he'd said or hinted at that his room growing up had been the one thing he had some control over so he'd taken care of not just it but his things in it.

Eventually, she'd gotten dressed and met her friends downtown for dinner before going out to a couple of clubs. Dinner had been nice. The friends she'd eaten with were people she actually did things with in everyday life like shopping or lunch with the few that worked downtown, too.

What a difference a week made. Last Saturday night John had been out with her because it'd been New Year's Eve and he had no weddings that night. She'd been surprised he would've done one if he'd been approached about doing it. He'd told her he had done a Christmas Day wedding a couple of years ago. The couple wasn't Christian so to them it was just another day. He'd been willing to work it, they'd been willing to pay him an extra fee for working a holiday that he didn't care about celebrating (not that he told them that). It was probably the unkindest thing she'd ever heard him talk about doing, and she certainly didn't think it was unkind at all. There were some days that it just went without saying were off-limits.

A couple of pictures of them had made it into the paper this past week as a result. Why she was newsworthy now that she was married she wasn't sure, but evidently people were surprised that she was still married. She had to admit she was a little surprised herself when it got down to it. She and John didn't have the best track record as far as getting along seeing each other sporadically let alone every day. She'd expected him more than once the first month or so to wake up one day and say he hadn't meant it, he didn't remember any of it, and wanted her gone. She did kind of wonder if the interest on New Year's Eve (and the resulting pictures) were because John was with her. She typically went out to the clubs on Saturday nights when he was working so he wasn't with her real often. So maybe people thought they were already on their way to a divorce so his being with her again was newsworthy. It was the only thing she could really come up with because there were certainly lots of other things going on New Year's Eve to focus on than her and John.

Christopher was right. They'd had an argument here and there, but it was usually over something stupid that they both laughed about later. It was all part of adjusting. She'd actually gone to bed mad at him one night. It was in the beginning after she'd gotten her first paycheck and she'd tried to give him money for bills. He'd refused to take it, saying he didn't want her money.

She understood pride, but she was working. She wasn't going to let him pay for all of the household bills. That was just ridiculous. He'd insisted he'd been able to do it before she moved in. Well, of course he could, she never doubted he could. True, her mom never had a job to pay her father for the bills, but she wasn't her mom. Things were different now. She couldn't just let him pay for things. He'd insisted she needed more things than he did like new clothes for work. She put mileage on her car going downtown and back every day so she'd need money to keep her car maintained. He couldn't argue gas because he drove around a lot, too, especially during the summer. True, it wasn't downtown and back every day five days a week, but still. That certainly didn't add up to being unable to pay for half of the electric, gas, mortgage, cable, and utility bills. Especially when things like the electric and utility bills increased because there were now two people in the house using those things every day instead of just him.

She hadn't been able to sleep, though, and had gone back to the living room to sit with him. He seemed to understand she didn't want to argue with him about it anymore. Evidently, he saw things from her point of view, she didn't just want to help pay for these things. She needed to. She needed to feel as if she was contributing something. She'd never had anything to be responsible or accountable to anyone for. She didn't want him years later, or even just a few months later, thinking she expected him to support her as her parents' had. Or that she was free to spend her money frivolously while he had to put all of his income toward the house. It had taken him a couple of weeks after that night, but eventually he started telling or showing her how much everything was.

"Dinner was fine," she said.

"Okay," he said, leading her to the living room.

"Then we went out afterward and I just didn't want to be there."

"There's nothing wrong with that, you know."

"No, I guess I don't know that."

"It just might mean you're growing up and outgrowing your need for that shit, Claire."

"I'm only twenty-two!"

"Yeah, well, you've had a lot of changes the past six months or so. You started working, you're married, and you have a house that you're at least partially responsible for the upkeep of."

"Yes."

"Some of your friends don't have jobs. Some of them are still very single, which is fine. Maybe you should find some new friends who have more in common with you now."

"You sound like John."

"He tells you to get new friends?"

"He's been telling me that for years it seems."

"He's not wrong."

"What am I supposed to do? Tell them I don't need them anymore?"

"No, you don't have to do anything that permanent or drastic, but you can certainly start phasing things out of your life that aren't necessary any longer. What do you need to go out clubbing for anymore anyway?"

"I like it!"

"Obviously you don't anymore if you're showing up at my house at this time of night because you were having a boring night."

"I don't even know why!"

"I saw those pictures of the two of you from last weekend during the week. I think everyone around the office saw them actually."

"Yeah?" She wasn't sure what they had to do with anything. She was aware a lot of people she worked with saw them. Some commented on them, some just looked at her a little oddly after they'd been printed. She wasn't sure why, her being out wasn't anything new or unusual.

"You looked like you were having a good time."

"I was."

"John did, too."

"He was," she admitted.

They'd taken a car downtown so they'd both been able to drink as much as they wanted to. One of the pictures that had made it into the paper was of them kissing, and it was very obviously not just a quick one either. She'd actually kind of liked the picture where John kind of hated it. She thought it showed they actually loved one another where he thought it was an intrusion. They could've published a picture before or after the kiss, but had chosen that for a specific reason.

"Maybe his not being with you is the reason you were bored."

"I don't know, I've gone out without him before."

"Sure, but tonight's different. You were out and knew you wouldn't go home to him for the first time in a long time. Even before you were married I bet."

"Well…"

"I'm not stupid, Claire, I know you spent way more nights at his place than you did at home last summer. I think that's why I was able to convince Dad not to do anything irrational or drastic."

"Like?"

"I'm really not sure what he had in mind, but I know for a while he was intent on finding a way to quietly get your marriage annulled."

"I didn't want it annulled."

"I think he was going to convince you, but I told him to let it play out. I don't think he realized how big of a deal it was you were sleeping at his house five or six nights a week."

"And you did?"

"Sure. Again, I'm not stupid. Believe it or not, I know you and I know how you are. I know you weren't sleeping around. The nights you didn't come home before John you were crashing at some friend's house not with guys."

"How did you…"

"Because I know you! I told you before I remember when you asked me questions about him. You never did again."

"So you assume that means…"

"Are you telling me I'm wrong?"

"Well, no," she said.

"I can handle Dad, you know. You don't have to keep doing the ridiculous things you did just to keep people from thinking about me."

"Yes, but…"

"I know until I convince him that I'm normal he's not leaving me the company. I can't change that, I realize this."

"You could…"

"I'm not marrying someone to pretend I'm what Mom and Dad want me to be."

"Why not?"

"Why not? Do you hear yourself? Would you want some guy to marry you who had absolutely no interest in you beyond maybe being your friend?"

"Well…"

"Really? You'd be all right with that."

"I wouldn't have known any different!"

He chuckled softly at that. "I guess you wouldn't have, but you are aware enough of how things work to know what to expect."

"Not even to have kids?"

"I don't want kids! I didn't think you did either. I can't say I'd be surprised if John wouldn't either judging by how he was raised."

"Well, I want them, sure, you know, one day. I just don't want to be like Mom and Dad were."

"And yet you're telling me to marry someone I don't even love."

"I'm not telling you to do anything, Christopher. I was asking a question."

"The company isn't worth that to me. It's not like you're going to fire me."

"No!"

"Maybe he'll surprise us and leave it both of us."

"I wouldn't mind."

"I know you wouldn't."

"I just wish I knew why I was having such an awful time tonight."

"I can't really answer you. It's your first night without him. That's got to be weird. You do know they'll still find you equally as interesting married, Claire, if you want them to. Trust me. You've gotten their attention too drastically over the past four years for them to just forget about you, but eventually they'll move onto someone else. Those pictures John takes of you. Why not use those to do things?"

"Like what?"

"I don't know. It's a little late now, but things like toy drives for Christmas at our church or something. I have a friend who's an elementary school teacher and he says he has to buy a ton of things he shouldn't really have to because some kids can't afford the stuff. You know, basic stuff like crayons. Maybe you could do some stuff like that."

"I work!"

"You're not working all of the time. You have Saturday's to yourself most of the time. You could turn that attention into something good and worthwhile if you wanted to. Mom would help you, she does stuff like that all of the time."

"Because she doesn't work!"

"That may be true, but you could still do something. Don't let working stop you. May as well while they care because they will stop if you don't go out every weekend anymore."

"See, and there's where my problem lies."

"You're not sure you want them to stop caring?"

"Kind of," she admitted. She hated the attention at times, but there were times it was incredibly … heady. It really made her feel important, even if she knew deep-down she wasn't.

"They still haven't figured out John's name."

"No," she said.

"If they do and find out what he does and that he's behind the pictures of you that have been showing up the past few months it may mean more business for him."

"Or freaks coming out of the woodwork."

"True. How is it they haven't figured out who he is yet?"

"I'm not sure. Maybe my friends, the ones who know his name that is, actually realize maybe we want privacy."

"Those friends I'd keep."

"I don't hang out with the rest of them anyway. You know? Most of them don't even have my number at the house. The ones I just see out I mean. I have that answering service they use to leave me messages."

"You mean some of them never even had your number?"

"No! I'm not completely stupid. I may have hung out with them out places, but I didn't want many of them to know where I lived or anything."

"Yet they found out anyway."

"Sure, but I never invited them over or anything."

"You just need to figure out what you want, Claire. I can't tell you, neither can John really. There's nothing wrong with going out the nights he's working. There's nothing wrong with going out the nights he's not working if that's what you want to do. You're married not chained together for the rest of your lives."

"I know."

"You don't want to go home when he's not there tonight?"

"Yes. I mean, I'm used to coming home from being out and I know he'll be home or if he's not soon after I am."

"Right."

"Tonight's different. He won't be there."

"Does he do that often?"

"Not that I know of, but I don't know. I imagine things like this come up. They were willing to pay him."

"He really needs to learn not to turn down those offers."

"Maybe he doesn't want to. You know? They live here, the couple, but she's from Rockford. That's why they're getting married there. You don't think they'll remember he didn't gouge them and come back for things like baby pictures or whatever?"

"Well, sure, I guess, but there's being fair and nice and there's being impractical."

"A one night hotel stay is not impractical. He didn't have to stay the night. It's not that far of a drive. He just decided it'd be safer this time of year."

"Valid point," he agreed. The weather was fine earlier today when he left. This was Chicago in January, though. Everyone knew that could change in the blink of an eye. There was also no telling what the weather in Rockford was going to be like. It wasn't hugely far, but far enough that they could've gotten bad weather and Chicago wouldn't have.

"He can write it off anyway."

"True," he said. "Being that it's the beginning of January that's a long time to wait for that expense to be deducted."

"He doesn't need to worry about it, Christopher."

"He hasn't asked you for money, has he?"

"What? No! I'd give it to him if he asked, though."

"I know you would. I sense he's not the kind to ask anyway."

"No. I had a hard enough time getting him to let me pay for half of the bills."

"Phil Taylor sure seems to like him."

"You've talked to Phillip?"

"A couple of times since your reception. I'd sort of forgotten how much I liked the guy."

"And you've talked about my husband?"

"No! He has! Believe it or not, I don't sit around talking about you or John, but Phil asked me about him so I answered his questions."

"What kind of questions?"

"I don't know. The usual. At the reception he asked about his job, his family, you know the usual stuff. Now it's if I'm adjusted to having a brother-in-law. If I'd use him as my photographer if I ever got married."

"Would you?"

"Well, sure. That'd be kind of rude, wouldn't it?"

"I guess."

"I mean, I don't dislike him. I admit I was, and still am, a bit cautious as to his motives but as you've said he has more to lose right now than you do."

"He thinks there's something off about Phillip's interest in him."

"Why?"

She shrugged. "I don't know," she said, explaining about Phillip's visit to their house and then the Taylor's showing up at the studio with Phillip and his fiancée.

"I could ask him."

"No, that's okay. He was going to wait until the holidays were over and see if he wanted to meet him for a beer or something."

"Oh, good idea. He does like him."

"I get the impression John likes him, too."

"And that's strange?"

"Yes, he doesn't make friends real easily."

"He doesn't trust people."

"No, he doesn't."

"Understandable considering the two people he should've been able to trust let him down pretty drastically."

"You don't know the half of it."

"No, I don't imagine I ever will."

"He has a brother."

"Okay."

"He's three. He didn't know about him until about a month ago when he went to see why his mom was taking the bus."

"Oh, that's weird."

"Yeah. A little."

"How old is his mom to be having kids again?"

"Thirty-nine or something I think he said. She was like sixteen or seventeen when she got pregnant I think."

"Huh."

"I know. So young."

"How's he handling her being in his life again?"

"Well, she's not really."

"Claire. He fixed her car. She's bringing him pictures his three-year old brother drew. Whether he wants to admit it or not, that's involvement."

"I know. I can't tell him not to do it. He feels bad I think because she never worked or anything so his dad being in prison has left her in the lurch."

"Yeah, well, she kind of left him in the lurch for years didn't she?"

"She did, but again, it's not my place."

"No, I suppose it's not. Has he asked your opinion?"

"No, the only thing he said he'd ask my opinion on is if he got to the point of wanting to have Billy over for an overnight some time."

"Would you be okay with that?"

"I don't know. It'd be weird, but am I supposed to say no? He's his brother."

"I suppose. Very bad situation all around. I feel sorry for that little kid."

"I know, me, too. I just hope that with the dad being gone…"

"Yeah, I hope so, too."

He yawned and she felt bad again about waking him up.

"I'm sorry," she said.

"No you're not, but it's all right. I'm glad you came here instead of doing something stupid."

"I don't know what I would've done."

"I don't either, but I'm sure you could have found something!"

"Thanks," she said.

"You're welcome to my guest room if you want it."

She glanced at the clock on Christopher's VCR and realized it wasn't even one o'clock yet.

"I should go home in case John calls."

"You could just tell him you were here."

"I know, but I want to talk to him."

He chuckled softly.

"That's nice to hear actually."

"Thank you."

She stood then and so did he. She slid her coat and stuff back on, grabbing her purse. She reached in to give him a kiss.

"Good night," she said.

"Night Claire. I hope you get some sleep."

"I'm sure I will eventually."

"Do you have a phone by the bed?"

"Yes, usually we keep the ringer off but I'll turn it on tonight to be sure I hear it ring."

He smiled a little at that. She was glad she could amuse him.

"You should come over for dinner some night. Mom and Dad, too, maybe."

"Sure, just tell us when. It wasn't so bad eating with them the last time."

"I'm glad."

She left then, letting her car warm up for a few minutes before heading home.

Return to Top

***Chapter Twenty-Nine***
Word Count: 3,159

"Did you wake up on the wrong side of the bed or something this morning?" her assistant, Sam, asked her.

"What?" Claire asked.

"You haven't said a word all morning."

"Oh, I'm just distracted, I guess."

"By all the work you're not doing?"

Claire scoffed softly, but she was right. She'd gotten little accomplished all morning.

"John's stuck in Rockford until he can get his Jeep fixed. I offered to go get him yesterday, but he said there was no point."

"Oh," she said.

"The funny thing is, he could fix it himself he said but he doesn't have his tools or anything so he's at the mercy of a garage who doesn't know him or what he knows."

She'd offered to bring him his tools, even go to his mom's house and get some of his dad's tools if that's was what he needed her to do to get the Jeep running.

"Well, hopefully he tells them what he knows."

"I just don't like him not being home," Claire said with a shrug.

How had that happened? How had she gotten so not just reliant on having the other half of her bed occupied by him, but comfortable with it? So comfortable that she slept like crap last night. Saturday night wasn't as bad because she assumed she'd see him in the morning. She'd looked forward to that. It hadn't happened.

"I can understand that."

"How long have you been married?" Claire asked.

"Three years, but we lived together for two before we got married."

"Really?" Claire asked.

Claire didn't know many people who lived with someone before they'd gotten married. The one or two she did know were absolutely no one she'd introduce to her parents. So she was surprised to hear Sam say that.

"Yes, neither of our parents were too happy with us doing that, but we just wanted to be in the right place before we got married."

"Makes sense," Claire said. She certainly couldn't argue with that.

"And we were engaged and everything. We had the date set. We just refused to move it up when we found a townhouse that we liked and could afford."

"Oh, well, that totally makes sense. You made it sound like…"

"Yeah, I know, but that's how our parents' saw it. You know?"

"I can imagine."

"So, you haven't heard from him this morning?"

"No, he said something about using the delay to look around and take some pictures. There's a river there or something, I guess. He did that yesterday and I imagine he'd do it some more today if he had to."

"Right," Sam said.

"He said he was going to ask the mechanic if he could just fix it himself and pay him for the use of the space and tools, but I'm sure that wouldn't work."

"Probably not."

"I know, which is too bad because he really does know his way around cars."

"Well, you could come out for drinks after work with me and some of the others."

"Really?"

"Sure. I mean, if you wanted to. I haven't asked before because you usually have things already planned."

"Oh, well, it's not as if I have anything that important going on."

"Well, we just go down the street for an hour or so before going home. Don't worry we don't spend the hour slamming you, your dad, or your brother."

"That is good to know."

"I think most here like working here. Myself included."

"I'm glad to hear that. I like having you here," Claire said. She wasn't sure what she'd do without her truthfully. Claire knew how to type, but she had so much more to do than to worry about typing out letters. "Anyway, I may just do that."

"Don't want to go home to an empty house?"

"No! Saturday night was bad enough, I knew he was going to be gone. I wasn't expecting him to be gone last night and tonight, too."

"First few nights away?"

"Huh?"

"Since you got married?"

"Oh, yeah. Well, I was in Kankakee one night, but that was different I guess. I was busy and we knew about it days before it happened."

"That can be tough, but you'll get used to it. My husband is a truck driver so he's gone days on end sometimes."

"I don't think I knew that. I'm sorry. That's pretty bad."

"It's all right. I was kind of forced on you, you didn't get to hire me yourself, and well, you've been busy. You just got married and started the job and everything. I see that."

"Thank you. I do know his name is Doug, though."

"Yes."

Claire was coming to envy and admire the relationship John had with Ronda. He'd really lucked out with her. He admitted to her he to this day wasn't sure why she applied for the job. She'd evidently never told him. He knew part of it was to get out of her house, but there had been other jobs available at the time she was qualified for. Ronda clearly liked working for him, though, because she stayed and John admitted there were other places out there, photography studios in particular, who could be way more competitive as far as a salary went. She was loyal, though, and clearly wasn't in it for the money.

Claire knew next to nothing about her assistant, Sam. She hadn't hired her as Sam pointed out. She'd been assigned to Claire by her father. It was certainly a promotion for Sam, but Claire couldn't help but wonder if she'd been given the job to spy. She'd never know and she hoped to never give her assistant the need to report anything to her father if that was her reason for working for her.

"Well, anyway, if you decide to come out with us, just let me know. If you need anything you can let me know that, too."

"Are you ordering lunch in?"

"I was thinking about it. I don't feel like going anywhere today."

"Well, when you decide let me know, I may order with you."

"Okay," she said, going back to her desk.

She came back about an hour later.

"Are you sure he hasn't done something wrong?" she asked.

"Who?" Claire asked, glancing up from what she'd been writing.

"I assume these are from him," she said, setting the vase of roses on the edge of Claire's desk.

"Well, now I may wonder," she said, but she knew he hadn't.

"They're beautiful," Sam said.

"They are," Claire admitted. She plucked the card out of the middle of the bouquet, realizing it was attached to a silk lily that looked almost identical to the ones he'd given her during the summer.

JUST SO YOU KNOW I REALLY WOULD RATHER BE HOME THAN HERE.

LOVE,
JOHN.

She wasn't expecting a romantic note or anything, so she wasn't disappointed with what it said. His reason for her not picking him up was valid. He'd have to go back there to get his Jeep anyway so there was no sense her wasting gas to go there and back twice. He also didn't want to have to deal with explaining in detail what tools she'd need and where in his garage they'd be located. He absolutely did not want her dealing with his mother without him with her. It didn't mean she wouldn't rather he be home.

She also knew the opportunity to take some pictures in an area he hadn't taken any before appealed to him. Evidently even though it was January, the bride and groom wanted some outdoor shots taken and had chosen the river area. So that was how John knew it was there and how to get there. She didn't pretend to completely understand because she didn't do anything artsy or anything like he did. So the need to do that just wasn't innate in her as it seemed to be in him.

She could tell a difference in him now that his hectic Christmas schedule was done. He liked his customers, but she knew the endless Santa, reindeer, and North Pole backgrounds got tedious for him. She sensed when he needed to just go out and take pictures. They'd done that a couple of Sundays, driven somewhere and he just shot picture after picture. Her dad loved his idea of taking some pictures of Claire in front of different Standish properties. They weren't done yet because to this point they'd only done pictures of her in front of the modern, current things. John wanted to get some black and white pictures of her at some of the older Standish properties and land, too. She was kind of excited because she knew after seeing the modern ones he'd do a fantastic job on the older ones, too.

She took the chance when Sam left her office that he'd be in his hotel room. The place he was staying at wasn't a great place by any means. When he'd made the reservation he'd anticipated being there for an overnight so he hadn't invested in something better.

She hung up, frustrated that she couldn't get through to him. Leave it to him to send her flowers and then not be around for her to call and tell him how gorgeous they were. Or that she missed him. Or simply to say thank you.

She took her scissors out and snipped the stem of the silk lily down so it would fit perfectly in the pen holder on her desk. It probably wasn't what she was supposed to do with it, but she liked it there. She loved the roses, but the lilies he'd given her had been incredibly special to her. She'd never gotten flowers before and she knew he'd never given them before. It wasn't just that, though. It was because he'd gone himself and picked them out. She realized he couldn't do the same with these today, and she certainly didn't hold that against him. It just made the lilies stand out somehow.

Maybe he knew that, too. Maybe that was why he'd included the silk one. She had no idea. He thought of and did things she didn't always understand. She was coming to realize that was just how men were, all men not just her man.

"I thought you were ordering in," Claire said when she noticed Sam putting her coat on as she set something on her desk she needed her to type.

"I, well, decided to go out."

"Oh, okay."

"I can order you something when I get back if you still want me to."

"Sure, thanks, maybe I'll see what my brother is doing."

"I think I just saw him leave."

"Oh," she said, sort of disappointed. Working through lunch wasn't a new thing for her, but she was kind of hungry today. She hadn't eaten very much this morning for whatever reason. "Well, have a good lunch."

"I will, thanks. Sorry. I just kind of decided last minute."

"No, it's fine," Claire said.

"Wow, someone must really think you're pretty incredible."

Her eyes shot up at his voice. She'd been writing a letter to Mr. Klein for Sam to type up and hadn't heard him even come into her office. His cocky smirk told her he was aware of that fact. She couldn't help it. She wanted the letter to sound perfect!

"You think so?" she asked.

"I'm pretty sure that must be the case."

"What are you doing here?"

He shrugged. "Coming to see my roses."

"Is that all?"

"Well, you know, I had to be sure you got them."

"How did you get here so fast?"

"It turns out the mechanic at the garage my Jeep was towed to was a guest at the wedding I worked Saturday night. We got to talking because I went in there first thing this morning to talk to him rather than do it over the phone. I wanted him to know I was fully aware of what the Jeep's problem was."

"Right."

"So, my idea of paying him to use his tools and facility didn't wash."

"You were surprised?"

"No, but he knew I wanted to get home so he moved the Jeep to the front of the line. So, I was out of there before eleven o'clock. I checked out of my room and," he shrugged. "Here I am."

"That's why I couldn't get a hold of you."

"You tried calling?"

"Well, yeah. I got these beautiful roses. Did you think I wouldn't?"

"I guess I didn't think about it, no."

"Thank you, by the way."

"I had to do something with my morning."

"Well, it was still nice."

"Nice enough I can get a kiss out of you?"

"I think so," she said, walking up to him then and doing just that.

"I think I like it better when I come here and you're by yourself," he said with a soft chuckle as she drew away pretty quickly.

"I know. I'm sorry."

"Don't be, but you can make it up to me later."

"How?"

"How? You need to ask me that? I haven't seen you since Saturday morning. That's a very long time, Princess."

"I know."

"That's a very long time for a lot of things where we're concerned."

"I know that, too."

"You could pick up some take-out on your way home."

"That's how I can make it up to you? You don't want to cook dinner?"

He chuckled. "I wasn't done yet."

"Oh," she said.

"That nice, satiny white number you wore the night we got married."

"I remember it."

"You do? That's good. I don't remember it too clearly because I haven't seen it again since that night."

"You haven't asked!"

"I didn't realize I had to ask. I liked you in it, didn't I?"

"Well, yes, I just," she frowned a bit.

"That's what I want."

"Why am I stopping to buy take-out then?"

He chuckled softly.

"I have to make it sound as if I plan on letting you eat."

"Even if I don't want to?"

"Well, in that case, I leave the take-out portion of the evening up to you. You want to skip it I'm okay with that. The other request. That I want. I'm not letting you skip it."

"Hmm. What if I didn't know where it was?"

"Do you?"

"Yes," she said.

"If you really didn't know where it was I would do something to fix it."

"How?"

"Stop somewhere and buy a new one, but you may not like what I buy for you if I start down that path."

"Why?"

"I have a feeling what I would enjoy seeing you in and what you'd enjoy and be comfortable my seeing you in may not be the same thing."

"I think I'd give you a chance."

"I'll keep that in mind for next month."

"Next month?"

He smirked a bit. "Hmm. Yes, that holiday I swore I'd never celebrate in my life."

"Oh," she said. She honestly hadn't even thought of Valentine's Day yet. "I guess you gave me the roses a little early."

"I felt bad. I know you weren't happy I didn't let you come get me."

"I wasn't mad or anything. I just wanted you home."

"No more than I wanted to be home, Princess, trust me."

"That's good to know. Did you get some pictures taken?"

"I did. I'm going to go back to the studio and develop some of them while I'm patiently waiting for it to be your quitting time."

"Good."

He leaned down and kissed her again, lingering a bit which he knew bothered her since she was at work. He didn't kiss her forever or anything, but it was certainly longer than the one she'd given him.

"We are still newlyweds, you know. We're allowed to kiss," he said when he drew away.

"I know, but I work here! Like for the rest of my life!"

"Well, you can come kiss me at the studio if you want to balance it out."

"You wouldn't care!"

"You're right. I wouldn't at all."

"So that wouldn't work."

"Are you really mad at me?" he asked, stepping away.

"No," she said.

"Walk me to the elevator?"

"I wish you didn't have to go."

"You have to work! I have nothing on my calendar since I had Ronda reschedule the couple things I had for today and tomorrow for later this week or next week."

"Were they mad?"

"I told her if they sounded irritated or anything to let them know I would waive the sitting fees."

"That was nice of you."

"Well, if I'd had my tools on me I would've been home yesterday. The Jeep has always been reliable, though, so I never thought to have any with me."

"About you leaving…"

"Yeah? I'm daring, Princess, but I'm not sure I'm quite daring enough when there's people around."

"That's not what I was talking about! I was going to say I haven't taken lunch. Sam was going to order in and changed her mind. Christopher was already gone and then you got here."

"Hmm. So, I could have lunch with you. Is that what you're saying?"

"I'd love to have lunch with you."

"I'd love to take you to the back of my Jeep for the next hour, but something tells me that wouldn't go over very well."

"Not today. Maybe when it's, you know, not below freezing out."

"Really?"

"Why not?"

"While you're working?"

"Like that's stopped me."

"You weren't still working that night."

"No, I suppose I wasn't, but I was here."

"You were. Well, get your coat then so I can take you to lunch. I don't want you starving especially if you're not going to pick up anything for dinner later."

"So, I get home at six o'clock and put that on…"

"I see no reason why you'll need to get out of bed again until your alarm goes off tomorrow morning."

"Now I want to go home."

He chuckled softly. "It sucks having responsibilities, doesn't it?"

"It does. It's very inconvenient. I don't like you being gone for two nights."

"I'm glad you missed me. Or at least parts of me anyway."

"I missed all of you."

"That is wonderful to hear and the feeling was very mutual."

"Where are you taking me?"

He chuckled at that. "You tell me, Princess. It's your lunch hour. Wherever you want to go."

"All right," she said, grabbing her coat. He helped her into it as he did sometimes. He didn't all of the time and she certainly didn't expect him to, but it was nice when he did it. Things like opening her car door for her he did more often than not. It made her wonder where he learned those things from. She didn't see his father doing those things for his mom, but what did she know.

Return to Top

***Chapter Thirty***
Word Count: 5,634

February 1989

"You're sure you want to do this now, hon?"

"As opposed to when?" John asked.

She really didn't seem to want him to go, and he knew it wasn't because she didn't want him to go somewhere without her. She was going out, too, with a couple of her friends.

Claire shrugged. Clearly that meant she didn't have an answer or her question was really just hypothetical. Or she knew something he didn't.

"You're the one who suggested I ask him to meet me for a beer somewhere."

"Well, yeah, around Christmas. You didn't so I just assumed you didn't really want to. I don't know."

"I didn't want to let something personal interfere with business. They've done their engagement pictures sitting so I feel more comfortable confronting him."

"Even if it means he won't use you for their wedding?"

"If that's what it means, well, I'm better off knowing that now, aren't I? I mean if my asking him what the deal is makes him rethink using me as his photographer well then that's his problem not mine."

"John," she said.

"What?" he snapped and she frowned. She looked a lot nicer for her evening out than he did. If he didn't know better he'd wonder who she was dressing for, but he knew it was just how she was. He, on the other hand, was perfectly content in his jeans and flannel shirt.

"I just worry about you, that's all. You like him."

"Yeah, so?"

"Would it really hurt just to have him as a friend and not worry about it?"

"Worry about it?"

"Well, yeah. I mean, you don't really know anything beyond a suspicion."

"Wouldn't you wonder? Want to know? Come on. What if someone's putting him up to it to get dirt on you through me? You know, buddying up to me so if we get into an argument or are on the verge of filing for a divorce he'd be one of the first to know."

"I don't think he'd do that. I really don't."

"You don't know, though. He's a nurse. He made it sound as if his parents may not be exactly thrilled with his career path. We don't know he's not cut off from them. They disowned one kid already."

"Because she got pregnant. And we don't know all of the details of that either. We only have Philip's version, which would have to be their version. We don't know her version. Maybe she chose to leave!"

He had to admit she had a point there. He'd probably never know the sister's version of things. Who knows what lies or slanted versions of the truth his parents filled their heads with over the years. It still seemed pretty harsh to disown your kid because she got knocked up, though. Wasn't that sort of ensuring she'd have a piss-poor life? Then he knew nothing about the sister's boyfriend. Maybe he was as well-off as the Taylors so it wasn't a step down for her. He hadn't gotten that impression, though, from the way Phillip spoke.

"How many people have you seen him hug?"

"Well, no one besides me, and you, I guess. I don't hang around with him or anything, though, John. He could do that to everyone for all I know."

"I don't think so and neither do you, you can't tell me otherwise. I do like him, enough to be friends with him. I don't do that easily, you of all people should know that. I guess that's why I have to do this. If I'm being setup for something or whatever I'd really like to know."

"I don't think he'd do that. I get the impression he likes you from what Christopher says."

"Really? Because your parents would've shown up to meet me randomly like his did? I mean if you'd been marrying someone else and come to me for your engagement pictures. And he really seemed surprised I didn't recognize their names."

"No!"

"And that's another thing. Where does he get off asking your brother about me? You say he was never interested in you."

"He wasn't. We hung out his senior year. It's how I became popular so fast our freshman year. I knew him. We never dated or anything, though. He never once asked me out."

He hadn't known they were friendly like that, hanging out with the same group of people. It made sense, though, why she'd risen to the top so quickly their freshman year and stayed there throughout high school. She'd had an in by knowing someone already at the top. She hadn't needed much help. He had no doubt even without Phillip in the picture she would have accomplished the same amount of popularity because most everyone in school knew her brother. He was one of those guys who was not just immensely popular but wasn't an asshole.

"Then what's the deal with that? He suddenly has an opinion and the right to decide whether I'm good enough for you?"

"I'm sure that's not why he was asking, honey. Really. He was just curious about you. I mean, everyone was because we got married so quietly and they had no idea who you were. He just knew Chris well enough to ask him."

"It's still weird. I'm a big boy, Claire. I can handle it. I was just trying to be practical. If you haven't noticed I'm not exactly swimming in business at this time of the year. I didn't want to scare off a customer. I mean, I prepare for these leaner months. I'm not broke or anything."

"I know. I know you're not broke, too, I saw how hard you worked last summer. I just don't want to see you get hurt."

"I think my days of letting people hurt me are done. They have been for a while now."

"That's different and not at all the same thing. This is a potential friend."

"Potential being the key word here, Princess. I realize I'm not swimming in them as you are."

"That's my point!"

"Wow. Thank you. So I'm not capable of making them regularly, is that what you're saying?"

"What? That's not at all what I said! How did this get turned around into something it's not?"

"I don't know. You tell me."

She was mad, beyond mad. Probably on the verge of being pretty furious at him right now, but he was mad, too. She didn't get it. He thought she would. Sure she had an abundance of friends, but very few that she could actually trust. There was a reason she'd come to him last summer after the incident at the club she'd gone to. How couldn't she understand that he wanted facts before investing more time and energy developing a friendship? A real friendship not one based on a past life of drug use and petty criminal behavior that linked him to people.

"Fine. Go. Do whatever you want. You will anyway."

"Well, yeah," he said. "I didn't realize I needed your permission to go out. You can go out, but I can't. Is that it?"

"You don't! I have never said you couldn't go out. I'm going out tonight only because you are! Forget it. Okay," she said, walking away from him. He saw tears in her eyes, though, as she turned away from him. She went to the guest bathroom, shutting the door behind her. Chances were that meant she wasn't going to come out before he left because she never went into that bathroom. She was doing it to get away from him apparently.

"Claire," he said through the door a few minutes later when he was ready to leave. She didn't answer, which didn't surprise him completely. She was mad. He wasn't exactly sure what her deal was. She was the one who suggested talking to him away from Elizabeth! She agreed with him that the entire situation seemed weird. Had she changed her mind?

"Claire," he said, knocking lightly on the door.

"Have a good time."

"Listen…"

"Don't. Okay. I know you're sorry and you didn't mean anything."

"Geez. Do I really sound like that? Come on," he said, settling his hand on the doorknob but he didn't try to open it.

"You're going to be late."

"He can wait."

"No, he can't."

"Claire."

"John, just go."

"You're mad at me."

"I'm not mad at you."

"You could've fooled me."

"Just go."

"Are you still going out?

"Yes, I'll be fine."

"All right," he said with a soft sigh. He debated about pretending to leave so she'd come out, but knew if he did that she'd get madder at him. He didn't want that tonight. He had enough on his mind since his mom had left a message for him at the studio earlier in the day and he had absolutely no desire to call her back. He would, though, because in the back of his mind was the fact that if she was calling him she needed something. He hadn't heard from her since she and Billy came to the house with the picture he'd drawn. Ronda hadn't been sure whether to pass along the message or not, but she'd done the (theoretically) right thing and let him choose whether to call her or not.

He waited for a few minutes, taking longer than necessary to put his coat on and find his keys hoping she'd come out of the bathroom before he left but she didn't. He sighed a bit as he left, pulling the door closed behind him. He hated leaving with her mad at him. They didn't argue often, which was surprising considering the circumstances behind them ending up married and living together. He supposed when he got home if she told him to sleep on the couch he'd know she was really mad at him and he shouldn't have left. He didn't speak female, so had no idea if she really wanted him to leave or not.

He met Phillip at a place of the other guy's choosing. John hated going to places by his house anymore. He couldn't go to many and not run into someone he'd been with before. A few, finding out that he was married, seemed to take that as some sort of challenge to see if they could be the one to get him to cheat. He wasn't sure where the pleasure was in that, but to each their own.

It was one of the reasons he seldom met Charlie and Glen anymore. It just wasn't fun and in his mind the point of going out for beers and burgers was to have fun.

He spotted Phillip's car and made his way inside, finding him in the seated eating portion of the place.

"Sorry I'm a little late," he said as he took his coat off and slid into the booth opposite Phillip. It was on the tip of his tongue to tell him why he'd been late, but he rethought that quickly. He didn't really think he was a plant, someone to buddy up to him in the hope of getting information on Claire, but he couldn't be too careful.

"No problem. I haven't been here long anyway."

"Good."

"Bad day?"

"Huh?" John asked.

"You look, I don't know. Irritated? Mad? I don't know you well enough to tell exactly."

He shrugged. "It's nothing that won't fix itself."

"You sure?"

"Positive," he said, not at all willing to admit to someone who knew Claire and her family that he'd left the house with her mad at him. That was all he needed. He could potentially go back to his parents or Christopher who'd tell Claire's parents who'd think. Well, they'd think a lot of things probably. He didn't think they wanted their marriage to fail exactly, but he knew they wouldn't be scarred for the rest of their lives if the two of them decided to walk away from things anytime soon. Before a baby came about anyway.

"You're not eating," Phillip asked after their waitress had taken his order but John hadn't ordered anything.

"Nah, I'll eat when I get home."

"If money's an issue…"

"No," he said quickly. "I'm just not real hungry right now."

"All right," Phillip said. "Everything all right?"

"I don't know. You tell me," he said.

"What?"

"You have to know why I called you to meet me."

"I'd kind of hoped you just wanted to get a beer with me."

"Well, yeah, sure, but I'm really hoping you'll tell me what the deal is with your family."

"There is no deal, John."

"I still don't believe you. You seemed legitimately surprised I didn't know your parents' names yet not because you'd assumed Claire or her parents had said them to me."

He sighed, taking a sip of his beer. John did the same, watching him.

"I like you, you know."

"Okay," John said cautiously.

"I just want that said. I didn't at first. You were kind of an asshole."

"I'm sorry?"

"At your reception."

"You walked in on me kissing my wife!"

"Because I was leaving. I went there to meet you and I guess I really didn't think it'd be such a problem getting that accomplished."

"Why?"

"I guess I didn't think that many people would show up for a reception for a wedding that had already happened."

"Oh," John said. "I didn't mean that, though. Why'd you come there to meet me?"

"I liked you better when you wanted to talk about the Bears and Walter Payton."

"Uh huh," he said.

"That's why I showed up at your house that night. I was hoping I'd just caught you in a bad moment, you know."

"Yeah, hundreds of people who I hadn't a clue who they were. That was a bad moment."

"You married her!"

"I didn't marry the people at the reception."

"True," he said with a soft chuckle.

"Go on," John prompted.

"I found you rather likeable that night."

"You weren't so bad yourself," John admitted.

"Thank you. I get the impression you don't say that to many people."

"Uh no," John said quickly.

"Why not?"

"It's hard to trust people when you spent the bulk of your life getting shit on by the people you were supposed to be able to trust."

"Your parents?"

"Yes."

"Have you seen your mom lately?"

"No," he said simply.

"Your brother?"

"That pretty much goes without saying the answer is the same, doesn't it? I'd have to see her in order to see him."

"I suppose."

He was quiet, obviously thinking something through as he spun his glass on the table.

"I'm your uncle, John."

"Shut up," he said.

He hadn't a clue what he'd been expecting to come out of Phillip's mouth, but those words were not in the universe of possibilities. John stared at him. It was rude to do, he knew, but he was looking for some indication the guy was making fun of him, being an asshole. He saw no sign of that, but he didn't really know the guy well enough to say for certain.

"I'm pretty sure I'd know if I had one of those."

"You have two of them, actually. I have an older brother, remember? Wayne. He didn't show up at the reception. Mom and Dad thought it'd be easier, better if just I showed up because Claire and I were friends to some extent growing up."

"Say I believe you," he wasn't sure why he should. "That means. What? Your parents?"

"Are your grandparents," he said with a frown. John supposed that should have been obvious.

"How?"

"Your mom is my sister. I don't really know her well or anything. I haven't even seen her since I was probably," he sighed and John could almost see him mentally counting back the years. "Well, three maybe. I really only know her from the pictures I've found of her over the years. Wayne and Erin remember her a little better."

John sat back in the booth then, regarding him. He was still looking for any indication the guy was shitting him. Except what did he have to gain? Then again, wouldn't John have heard something throughout the years about these people if he was telling the truth?

"I think I'd know if my mom had brothers and sisters, Phillip. Sorry, but I don't believe you."

"I understand why you'd think that. I mean, I don't, I guess. To think you're in your twenties and your mom never mentioned us. I can't say that doesn't hurt a little, but that's not really the point. Is it? That's why my parents came with me that day. They really wanted to go to the reception, to see you, but they were afraid your mom would be there, too, and they didn't want to cause a scene."

"Cause a scene? By appearing in my life after twenty something years of not being in it?"

"That was your mom's decision."

He scoffed. "Really? She was sixteen!"

"She left!"

"Your parents. My grandparents. They kicked her out from my understanding."

"Because she wanted to keep seeing your dad."

"So?"

"My parents didn't like him. They made her choose."

"Obviously you found me."

"Only because you married Claire. We thought, your dad I mean, led my parents to believe he and your mom moved out of state."

"What?"

"He changed their phone number. No forwarding information available. Mom tried to send a Christmas card, it came back undeliverable. There was no birth announcement in the newspaper to say you were even born. They had no idea when or where you were born. They weren't even sure you were born. They certainly didn't know you were a boy. They didn't know she married your dad either. Your grandparents, the other ones, were no help either I guess."

"How is that possible?"

"I have no idea. They assumed your mom didn't want to talk to them."

"Your parents know my dad's parents?"

"They know of them, sure. I don't think they've spoken since you were born, but I can't say for sure. Mom's never said."

"So they gave up?"

"Remember that story I told you, John? The night at your house. I told you about my sister. Did you listen? They wanted to adopt you."

"I remember," John said, thinking on that for a minute. "Fuck," he whispered. How different his life would've been if his mom had made the right, the smart decision.

"Your mom chose to run away pregnant. She didn't have to marry him!"

"And she was supposed to what? She was sixteen. She would've been sent away somewhere the last few months of her pregnancy anyway so even if no one knew they'd have known. I'm aware how those things worked back then. I had a friend at Shermer that happened to, in fact. The gossip about her was probably worse because she disappeared for the last few months than if she'd just stayed in school and let people see she was pregnant."

"You're defending her."

"Well, your parents kicked her out and disowned her from what you said."

"It was a long time ago. Things were different then. You know? Dad was," he sighed. "It wouldn't have looked right."

"Right. Have to protect the future judge's career."

"Well, yes, at the time. It was the sixties, John. Girls from our types of families didn't have babies without being married."

"She got married."

"Yes, to someone my parents didn't approve of. And no offense, but can you blame them? He's in prison, right? From what you said, well it was just a matter of time that happened. He probably should've been in prison a long time ago based on some things Christopher told me about the way you grew up."

"You do not need to be talking to Claire's family about me. I don't care who you are. You have no right to do that."

"I was asking about you. I wanted to find out about you, nothing more. He volunteered the information."

"Do your parents know?"

"No," he said softly. "I haven't told them what Christopher told me. They know about your dad's current living conditions, though, yes."

John was quiet, thinking over some things. Remembering conversations and arguments his parents had over the years that he'd been privy to overhearing. Sometimes they'd get so drunk or wasted on whatever their drug of choice was at that moment they'd forget he was there.

"What's your dad's name?"

"Sol," he said with a frown.

"I know that. I remember. I'm not a complete moron. I meant, Is it short for something?"

"Oh, yeah, Solomon, why?"

He shrugged. "I remember my dad talking about someone named Solomon."

"And it never occurred to you that Sol was Solomon?"

"No. Why would it? Jesus. I haven't seen my dad in four years and we didn't exactly have in depth conversations when I was living at home. He was arguing with my mom about something. I don't know what."

"When was this?"

"I don't know. God. Ages ago probably. Your mom's name never came up, but I remember the name Solomon for some reason."

"When my parents got the invitation to the reception they couldn't believe it."

"How'd they know it was me?"

"You're named after your father."

"I suppose," he said.

"They really didn't have any idea you were right here in Shermer."

"They knew my grandparents? The other ones?" he asked.

"I don't get the impression they knew them well, but yes. They went over there when Cindy got pregnant to tell them, you know."

"Oh."

"Did you know you're a Third?"

"What?" John asked.

"Yeah. That's your grandfather's name, too, my mom said. She was very surprised he named you after his dad when they didn't really get along."

"Huh," John said. "No, I never knew that."

"Doesn't your birth certificate say that? Your social security card? You had to fill out paperwork to start your business."

"I guess I never really paid attention to what they wrote."

"You file taxes, don't you?"

"Yes, but I have an accountant do them," John shrugged. "What is someone going to come arrest me for signing my checks as John Bender, Junior or something?"

"Well, no, I don't think so," Phillip said. "I really don't know. Is that how you sign your name?"

"Uh, yeah. Until about five minutes ago that was my name as far as I knew."

"Your marriage certificate?"

"Claire never mentioned it, but I guess I should look."

"You haven't?"

"No. Why should I have? I had no reason to question my name. My father never told me."

"I don't know," he said.

"So, what is it you want from me exactly, Phillip?"

"What do you mean?"

"So you guys show up twenty-two years later and what? What do you want from me? I think that's a pretty understandable question."

"I don't want anything from you."

"Your parents?"

"I think they, like me, would like to get to know you."

"A little late to the party, don't you think?"

"John. We didn't know!"

"Come on. Your dad's a lawyer. A judge. If they wanted to find us that badly…"

"On the other hand, John. We haven't heard from Cindy in close to twenty-two years. Would you have if you were my parents?"

"If I thought my daughter and grandchild might be in danger you can be damned sure nothing would stop me."

"They didn't know!"

"You said they didn't like him."

"What parent likes their teenaged daughter's boyfriend? Especially when that boyfriend gets her pregnant. Come on. Claire's parents are thrilled in her choice of husband?"

"Do they know?"

"Who?"

"Her parents? Do they know who I am to you?"

"No, not that I know of," he shrugged. "I mean, it's possible, I suppose. I don't know how often our moms really talk and, well, Cindy and John just weren't talked about so it's doubtful."

"You never answered my question. What do you want from me?"

"I did. I don't want anything. I showed up at the reception more because Mom and Dad didn't think they should. They figured if your mom was there she wouldn't recognize me since she hadn't seen me since I was basically a baby."

"They were curious. You showed up. You thought I was an asshole. So, why'd you show up at my house then?"

"Curiosity? I could tell you weren't comfortable so I thought I'd give a less formal and probably stressful setting a shot. I knew I was going to propose to Elizabeth and I knew you were a photographer. I legitimately didn't know your company name or the location so I thought it seemed like a convincing enough reason to show up on your doorstep."

"So I passed your test?"

"Well, no, I mean. Christopher talked about you as if you were a decent guy, so I figured it was just the night. Nerves or something. I don't know. You didn't know who I was obviously. I thought you might recognize my name, my last name, something."

"You know, it's funny you say that. I'm not sure I even knew my mom had a last name that wasn't Bender."

"Come on."

"No, I'm serious. I found a box once of some things of hers. I don't think there was much before she met the old man, though. She was a teenager in the few pictures that were in there."

"I think most of her stuff is still at the house."

"I just never thought to ask. I didn't care, you know?"

"I'm sure."

"No, you're not sure," he said.

"John," he said cautiously.

"Listen, it's great that you seem to think you can suddenly appear in my life and think I want you here."

"You were fine with me being your friend until about an hour ago."

"Sure, before I found out that you withheld a pretty important piece of information from me."

"Because I wanted to get to know you. I could've told you that night at your house, but I didn't. My fault, I guess."

"Okay. Well, you know me. Now you can forget me."

"John. Be reasonable."

"About what? Wanting you in my life? I've done just fine without any family in my life the past four years and now suddenly there's a whole shit load of you crawling out of the woodwork. It's bad enough I have a brother I need to figure out what the fuck to do with. I have you and your parents. I just don't even want to deal with it."

"So, that's it? You liked me fine but you're just going to tell me to get lost because of circumstances beyond either of our control? I mean, if we'd met otherwise, not at the reception this wouldn't even be an issue."

"It is an issue, though, isn't it? I mean, maybe if it was just you, but your parents show up acting all nice and impressed with what I've done."

"They were impressed! What's not to be impressed by someone who's done what you have with nothing to start out with?"

"They figured I was dead in a ditch somewhere I'm sure, unable to survive without their handouts."

"They did not. John, be reasonable. Have they offered you anything? They wouldn't insult you that way. They had three other children to raise. They were very young when they had Cindy. Mom was nineteen, but she and Dad were married. That's why they offered to adopt you, they wanted better for your mom than having a baby before she graduated high school. They gave Cindy a choice, an option, she chose to do what she wanted to do. What were they supposed to do? I mean, tell me what they were supposed to do to find you twenty years ago."

"I don't know!"

"I don't either. I won't deny maybe it could've been handled better, but I can't help that. I was just a baby myself. I'm not trying to be your uncle if that's what has you worried. I really just want to be your friend."

"Where the fuck were you when your sister was getting the shit beaten out of her? Where were you when I was? Where were you when I didn't have food to eat? Where the fuck were you when your sister was dragging her little kid around to bus stops because she had no working car? Snuggled cozily in your beds with fully bellies I bet. Sporting events and piano lessons, too."

"We didn't know!"

"You didn't want to know."

"I'm not my parents. Don't you get it? I didn't even know she had a kid until the reception invitation came. I didn't know. Erin and Wayne didn't know either."

"They know now?"

"Yes. Mom and Dad told us who you were. They weren't sure if Erin and Wayne got invitations, too, or if just I did since I was friends with both Chris and Claire. They didn't want them going. They really didn't want to cause a scene if your mom or dad were there."

"So that's supposed to make me feel better? Make me want uncles and aunts all of the sudden."

"No. I realize it's kind of late for that, but I'd hoped honestly you'd know me, us, better before you found out."

"I don't like liars."

"I wasn't lying."

"You withheld the truth."

"Fair enough."

"It's the same thing, isn't it? Lying and withholding the truth?"

"We just assumed they had some sort of falling out. You know? Bad boyfriend. We didn't know. Honestly, John."

The sad thing was, John believed him. He really did. That didn't mean he wanted to hear this shit tonight. He really didn't. He just couldn't handle it. He had no idea what the fuck his mom wanted. Claire was mad at him for coming here tonight and she was probably right he shouldn't have come. Then even if he didn't like the information he'd gotten that didn't mean he didn't want to know it.

"I hope we can continue to be friends, John. That's all I want from you. I can't speak for my parents, but I think you'll find they don't have an agenda either. They legitimately seemed completely taken aback to find out you'd been living here this whole time."

John shook his head and stood.

"I really have to go."

Fuck. He pulled his wallet out, but Phillip shook his head.

"I can buy your beer."

"No, I…"

"I'm not implying you can't pay for it. Just let me buy your beer, will you?"

He sighed softly. He really didn't want to let him, but it was a beer it wasn't a car or anything. He pocketed his wallet again and grabbed his coat.

He didn't stop him from leaving, though, and for that John was grateful. He didn't want to stand here and argue with the guy. He just wanted to go home.

He wasn't sure when he got there if he was glad or not Claire wasn't home yet. She'd ask him questions and he absolutely did not want to deal with them right now. He just wanted to go to bed and deal with it all tomorrow.

"How was your night?" she asked later. She hadn't woken him up exactly. Not on purpose anyway. It was just habit for him to wake up when he heard noises in the house. He supposed sooner or later he'd get used to noises in the house made by someone other than him and not wake up anymore. He wasn't sure, though.

He scoffed softly. "I don't want to talk about it."

"Okay," she said softly.

"Is everything okay?" she asked a few minutes later.

"Jesus, Claire. I just said I don't want to talk about it."

"I'm not asking you to talk about it. I'm asking if everything is okay."

"Everything's just great."

"You don't need to lie to me."

"Don't ask me ridiculous questions. Clearly if everything was okay I'd want to talk about it."

"Well…"

"Please, Claire, can you just leave it be for the night?"

"Yeah, sure. Sorry," she whispered.

"Nothing to be sorry for. I just really don't want to talk about it right now."

"I love you," she whispered, kissing his shoulder.

"Love you, too, Princess."

"I'm sorry I was…"

"Don't. Just. You're fine. I'm not mad at you or anything. As long as you're not still mad at me we're good. Okay?"

"I'm not mad. I was just worried."

"I'm just not used to it, you know?"

"I do."

"Thank you."

She slid an arm around him as she shifted against him. He grabbed her hand and brought it to his mouth to kiss it before settling back where it was to begin with. He just wanted her to know he really wasn't mad at her or anything.

"You had fun?" he asked after a few minutes of quiet.

"It was all right. You know, the usual."

He snorted softly at that.

"As long as I don't have to break anyone's cameras tomorrow…"

"Nope. You wouldn't do that anyway because you know you'd be mad if someone did that to your camera."

"Probably right," he whispered.

"It's not as much fun going out without you, though."

"Dinner tomorrow night?"

"Really?"

"Yes, really. Wherever you want to go."

"That's a dangerous thing to say to me."

"I'll take my chances, Princess. Wherever you want to go even if I have to put a suit on."

"Okay."

"That's a yes to the suit?"

"It is."

He sighed softly and she laughed against his back, kissing him there.

"Night, hon," she whispered.

"Night, Princess."

Return to Top

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.

'Hello.'

"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.'

"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."

'Johnny.'

"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."

"Why?"

"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?"

"Ronda."

"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.

"What?"

"Nothing."

"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."

"Okay."

"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."

"John."

"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."

"Billy."

"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…"

"Standish."

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?"

"Johnny."

"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."

"But…"

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!"

"What?"

"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."

"Yet."

"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."

"Well…"

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

"Who?"

"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."

"Me?"

"Yes. You."

"Why?"

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

"Yes."

"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.

"Jesus."

"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?"

"John…"

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

"Well…"

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

"Letting them adopt you?"

"Yes."

"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."

"But…"

"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?"

"What?"

"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?"

"What?"

"You're having sex with other people?"

"What?"

"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."

"John."

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

"Clearly."

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

"Wives."

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

"I can go."

"Where?"

"Home."

"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."

"Why?"

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."

"And?"

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

"You should? Do you want to?"

"No," he whispered.

"Why?"

"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."

"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."

"Probably."

"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."

"Okay…"

"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."

"Right?"

"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."

"Envy?"

"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?"

"Yes."

"There are others?"

"Uh huh. Lots of others."

"Like?"

"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."

"Tempting."

"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.

"Yes?"

"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."

Return to Top

***Chapter Thirty-Two***
Word Count: 4,599

"You sure have been leaving a lot this week," Ronda said as John was getting ready to leave.

"I have things to do sometimes."

"Oh, I know. I'm just saying that I can't remember seeing you leave and be gone so much in one week before."

"Well, Monday and Tuesday were because of Valentine's Day."

"You never told me how Claire liked the dinner you made."

John shrugged. "She liked it fine. She probably would have preferred we went out to eat. I don't know."

"Did she say that?"

"No," he admitted.

He'd gone out of his way to cook her a nice dinner. It had been beyond anything he'd ever tried making before, but it had been kind of fun he had to admit. He liked cooking. He wasn't sure if that made him weird or her weird for letting him do it most of the time. She helped and was willing to learn, but overall she left it to him. It seemed the most logical way to do things since she worked downtown and had a commute every day where he didn't. He'd thought of doing the dinner out thing, but he wanted to do something they didn't do. Nice dinners at home weren't typical for them.

"Did she comment on the fact she finally got to use the dishes she told you she liked?"

"Yes," he said. "I'm glad I paid attention to where she put them or I would've had to ask her to get them for me."

"Not nearly as fun to surprise someone when the surprise is partially ruined."

"No. She seemed genuinely happy I remembered she'd wanted to use them."

He'd found the set of China she'd mentioned and set the table with it. He'd even gone out and bought a tablecloth, napkins, candleholders, and candles for the table. She had real silverware and crystal, too, which he'd used. She'd mentioned having napkins he remembered, but if he was buying a tablecloth he figured he may as well buy some napkins to match it. It seemed logical anyway. These were just things he'd never thought of needing until this week. He could honestly say until this week he'd never had a romantic dinner, at home or out. Not even with Claire really. He'd avoided Valentine's Day in the past, managing somehow every year to not be involved enough with anyone for them to expect anything from him.

He supposed there was perhaps something comical about the fact that his first Valentine's Day involved with someone was with his wife and not just a girlfriend.

"Good. I'm glad."

"Anyway. I'll be back. I won't be long. I just have something to take care of."

"It's not like you're accountable to me."

"No, but I don't need you telling Claire I've been disappearing all week or anything. She asked me last night if I was having sex with someone else."

"Why?"

"We were maybe having a bit of a discussion in which I didn't express my thoughts so clear or well."

"You?"

"I know, shocking right?"

"And she thought that?"

"Well, I think I cleared up the confusion, but you telling her I'm disappearing for hours the next day may not go over well."

"You're not are you?"

"Wow. You, too?"

"Well…"

"No! I'm not. When do I have time?"

"Clearly you have time!"

"I'm going to see my mother. If you think that's code for I'm going somewhere to have sex with someone else then so be it."

"Didn't you just see her yesterday?"

"Yes."

"And fixed her furnace?"

"Yes."

"Okay…"

"You noticed yourself I wasn't in such a good mood yesterday. I may have said some things I should maybe at least pretend I'm sorry for."

"To your mother or to Claire?"

"I already made up to Claire my being in a foul mood. I'm surprised you didn't notice the bags under my eyes as a result."

"That's probably more than I need to know. So your mother then?"

"Yes."

"Are you?"

"Am I what?" he asked, confused.

"Sorry you said them."

"Oh," he said, forgetting what they'd even been talking about for a second there. As it turned out he hadn't gotten a whole lot of sleep the night before. Long after the bath water got too cold for them to put up with anymore and they drained it he'd done what he could to ensure she didn't go to work this morning thinking he was mad at her or didn't want her. "Kind of. Some of the things. I just wasn't expecting her to come talk to me while I was there. You know? I was in a bad mood. She was trying to be nice to me."

"You're her son."

"In theory that'd mean something."

"I know. Go do what you need to do. I won't lead Claire to believe you're out having a torrid affair."

"Thank you."

"Now if she calls here and I tell her you're at your mother's she may think that of her own accord."

"I don't think so, she's the one who suggested maybe I should go see her today and apologize if I still felt I should."

"And then maybe when you get back you can tell me what's going on with you."

"Not yet, Ronda. I'm still sorting things out myself. This, though, my mother I need to take care of."

"Have at it."

"Thanks."

"Oh, and hey," she said.

"Yeah," he said, hand on the door.

"I'm glad you're in a better mood today, even if you haven't resolved whatever's on your mind."

"Me, too. I just have stuff going on I never anticipated happening in my life."

"Sounds serious."

"I just have to figure out what I want to do."

"I'd say have a nice time, but I'm not sure that's the right thing given where you're going."

"It'll be fine, thank you."

He made one stop on the way at a nearby drug store before heading to her house. He grabbed the bag of stuff he bought and headed to the door. He supposed there was a chance she wasn't home, but he'd leave the stuff he'd bought for Billy anyway and come back another day if that was the case.

He was about to do just that, opening the screen door to set the plastic bag in between it and the main door when she opened the door.

"Johnny."

"Ma, really. I haven't gone by Johnny in years."

"Sorry, habit," she said.

"Can I come in?" he asked.

She hesitated a minute, he couldn't quite blame her, but she stepped aside to let him in.

"Furnace is working all right?" he asked. The house certainly felt like it should feel so he assumed so.

"It is, thank you for checking on us."

"Yeah, I'm glad I could remember what to do. It's been a while since you had problems with it."

"It has," she agreed.

"I bought these for Billy. Can I give them to him?"

"Sure," she said.

"It's just a coloring book and crayons, a pad of blank paper and colored pencils. I figured markers wouldn't be cool, but what do I know. So, you know," he shrugged. "I, uh, kind of a late Christmas present, I guess. I don't know when his birthday is."

"It's this summer."

"Oh, good," he said, not sure why that was good.

"Did you want something?"

"Me? No, really, you don't need to offer me stuff every time I come here."

"Yes, but…"

"Ma, just relax, all right?"

"I was just making some coffee."

He shook his head a little. Again with the coffee. Was she really absolutely that clueless about him? Or did she just not remember? Maybe both?

"Go, go ahead and get whatever you were getting. I'll be in there in a minute."

"He's in his room."

He found Billy in his room as she'd said, which had been John's bedroom. He obviously really liked the old GI Joe and Army guys because he was playing with them again today. He had a whole slew of Army guys set up around the room. Some were on the night stand by his bed. Some were on his dresser. Some were on his windowsill.

John couldn't help but chuckle a bit at that, because he'd done much the same thing with them when he was pretty little.

"Hey Billy," he said.

"Hi," he said without stopping what he was doing.

"How are Joe and his guys doing today?"

"Okay," he said.

"Good. I bought you a coloring book and some paper, crayons and colored pencils. I thought maybe you could draw me another picture some time. The one I have on my fridge looks kind of lonely being the only one." He sat next to him on the floor, pulling the coloring book out of the bag. "Do you like the Ninja Turtles? A woman at the store told me her boy who's a little older than you likes them so I thought maybe you might."

He nodded.

"Well, I made the right choice then. Good to know. Well, you draw me a picture and Mom can mail it to me. Okay. I put some envelopes and stamps in the bag, too, but I'm sure Mom probably has some of those. Just in case, though, because Claire and I would really like another picture."

He sat there for a minute or two, watching Billy play with GI Joe and his miniature soldiers. He didn't expect the kid to say much to him. He wasn't even sure how much three year olds could say.

"I'm going to go talk to Mom for a minute before I go. You have fun playing with Joe."

He stood then, going to the living room where his mom was now having a cup of coffee.

"There's nothing but cream in it," she said defensively.

"Fair enough."

He sat on the edge of a chair near the couch, rubbing his hands on his knees because fuck if he had any idea what to say to her.

"Listen. I just," he sighed heavily. "I said some things yesterday that maybe shouldn't have been said. I'm not going to say I'm sorry exactly. I'm not going to apologize for how I feel, but I am sorry I said them. I shouldn't have. I'd just learned about your family, which isn't really an excuse but I went from having no family to people I don't even know claiming to be that. I came here to help you out. You were cold and probably tired. I'm sure you didn't sleep well worrying about Billy the night before."

"I didn't," she admitted.

"You need something like that again, you call, but you tell Ronda what you need. My goal in my life is not to rush to the phone every time you call. I have my own house, a business, and a wife to take care of. You tell her it's something important like that, though, I'll call you back."

"You said that already."

"I also told you not to go breaking stuff. I don't want you to do that either, but I don't mind helping you. I still plan on coming here when the weather turns nicer to work on Dad's car for you."

"I don't need…"

"No, I know you don't need two cars, but that way if something happens to yours you'll have Dad's up and running to use."

"Thank you."

"Sure."

"Do you like my parents?"

"I only met them once. I like your brother, though."

"Phillip or Wayne?"

"I've never met Wayne. Are you going to talk to him?"

"I don't know…"

"I think he'd like it if you did. I don't know for sure, but thinking over some of our conversations it seems as though he's curious and concerned about you. I bet he'd talk to you. I didn't tell him you worked at Shermer Memorial, too. I figured that was up to you to contact him."

"I might. I don't even know what I'd say."

"How about 'hi, I'm your sister Cindy.'?"

"You like him?"

"He's a likeable guy," John admitted.

"Then he must be all right."

"Why?"

"You wouldn't say that about someone if it wasn't true."

"And you know that how?"

"You haven't changed that much. I was shocked you got to know someone well enough to marry them."

"Thank you," he said.

"I'm not being insulting, just stating a fact. You weren't the most social person."

"I don't think we need to touch on that subject today, Ma. There was a reason for that."

"I know," she said softly.

"Listen. I just wanted to say I was sorry for saying those things."

"You had every right to."

"Maybe so, but I still didn't need to say them."

"Thank you."

"Sure."

Now what? He'd said what he'd come to say. Should he just leave?

"I was thinking maybe some Sunday I could take Billy somewhere."

"Where?"

"I don't know. You tell me. Lunch or breakfast somewhere to start and go from there. A zoo when it's nicer out."

"Would Claire go with you?"

"Probably. I don't know. She knows I've thought about seeing him."

"People might think he's yours."

He shrugged. "I'd thought of that. I've had worse things thought about me. I can deal with it."

"Could she?"

"I don't know. I guess I'll find out."

"You'd need a seat."

"I'd thought of that," he admitted. "I figured before I invested in one I'd probably come here, take your car and leave my Jeep for you in case you needed it while we were gone."

"Okay."

"Would Billy have a problem going with me?"

"No, why would he?"

"I don't know. I don't know how he does with virtual strangers."

"He knows you're his brother."

"I doubt he understands what that really means at the age of three, Ma. He didn't know me until a few months ago."

"He'd seen pictures of you."

"You know what I mean."

"No, he'd be fine. He goes to daycare, remember?"

"Sure, and probably sees the same kids and caregivers most of the time."

"Well, yes. He'd be fine."

"All right. I'll work out a time then and let you know. I guess I should ask if you trust me with him."

"Why wouldn't I?"

"I don't know. You might not."

"Whether you think so or not, I know you Johnny. You wouldn't hurt your own brother."

"No, I wouldn't," he said. "There are some envelopes and stamps in the bag you may want to get and put away somewhere. He draws a picture you can mail it to me."

"You didn't have to…"

He shrugged. "It's kind of nice having his picture on my fridge. Another one wouldn't be bad at all."

"I hope you can have your own kids' pictures on it one day, Johnny. I really do."

"Me, too, Ma," he said. He stood then, knowing he had to go then. Her bringing that shit up was not a way to end this conversation on a good note.

"I'll call you when Claire and I figure out what we want to do with him. Pizza maybe?"

"Sure."

"All right. I'm glad the furnace is working."

"Thank you again."

"You don't have to thank me, Ma, but you're welcome."

He grabbed his coat from the back of the chair he'd set it on when he went to go find Billy and slid it on.

"The house looks good," he said as an afterthought. "I thought that the day I came here to fix the car, but assumed it was a fluke."

"I'm trying, Johnny, I really am."

"I see that," he said. It was the main reason he asked her about seeing Billy today. He hadn't really decided one way or the other if he wanted to, but he could see that she really was putting an effort into maintaining the house the way it should've been all along.

"And I am going to file for a divorce. I just need to get the money together."

"How much are you talking?"

"Well, he's in prison so custody isn't an issue, but I want to be sure if he gets out he doesn't have visitation rights."

"You think he's going to get out on a murder charge, Ma?"

"He could. You know he can be well-behaved when he needs or wants to be."

John shrugged. Yeah, his father could be an all-around good guy when he had to be. The garage he ran wouldn't have stayed open if his customers knew what an asshole he was. He had most everyone fooled. Most everyone. Not everyone. John though there were a few who saw through his façade.

"You need help with them needing to know the kind of guy he is I can do that."

"Thank you, Johnny."

"It's not going to paint you in the best of lights, though, you realize that."

"I know. I go to AA meetings. I have a sponsor. I really am trying."

"All right," he said. "I'll see you next time then, I guess."

She walked with him to the door, closing it behind him.

His next stop was a little more difficult for him oddly. He got out of the car and made his way across Shermer Memorial's parking lot. He was taking a chance he was here now. John really didn't know the hours or days he worked. He did know that he worked on the pediatrics floor so he made his way in that direction, knowing it well. He'd spent a bit of time there growing up. While the hospital had grown over the years, additions put on and so on, the pediatrics unit was essentially the same as it had been since the last time he was there.

He found the nurse's station and stopped there.

"Hi, I'm looking for Phil Taylor. Does he happen to be working today?"

"He is. He's with a patient right now, though, down at X-Ray. If you want to have a seat in the waiting area I can tell him you're here when he gets back."

"Sure," he said. "Thanks," he said, finding the waiting room easily enough. He found a very outdated copy of National Geographic magazine. It was better than the other options of Vogue, Good Housekeeping, or Ladies' Home Journal.

He almost thought the nurse forgot about him it'd been that long. He knew X-Rays could take a while though so he was patient.

"John, hey," Phillip said, sounding clearly surprised.

"Hi."

"Is everything all right?"

"Uh, yeah, you know, just kind of doing some things today."

"Okay. And coming here? Is Claire okay? Your mom?"

"They're fine. Nobody's a patient here or anything. I just took a chance you were working since I'm not exactly sure where you live."

"Oh, well, you never asked."

"Yeah, I guess I'm not too sure how to ask such questions of people."

"You just ask."

"Easy for you to say," John said.

"I suppose."

"So, I was thinking about this whole thing."

"I can imagine."

"I'm not so sure you can, really. I went from having nobody on Tuesday to having more people than I probably want or need."

"Well, no one's forcing you into anything."

"Well, that's the thing. I like you. Enough I thought, you know, if Claire and Elizabeth could get along we could take in a Hawks game or something some night."

"Do you still think that?"

"Can we put aside the uncle and nephew thing for now? I'm ready for a friend, I'm not entirely sure I'm ready for any more than that."

"I think I can handle being your friend, John. I told you I liked you and that I wasn't trying to weasel my way into your life as your uncle. I realize the time for that type of relationship has long passed. Besides, I'm only three years older than you are we probably would have been more like brothers or cousins anyway. That's probably why my parents suggested adopting you to begin with."

"I know. I just need to know though, are you going to report back to your parents? I mean, is that part of a friendship with you?"

"It doesn't have to be. I'm not going to lie to them. If they ask me what I've done I'll tell them, but I think I can keep specific details to myself until you're comfortable with the fact they may just want to get to know you."

"Do they want to get to know my brother, too?"

"I'm not sure they know if Cindy wants them to."

"That's between them. I'm not sure she knows either. She still claims she didn't have a choice."

"She probably saw it that way. And, maybe your father didn't give her a choice as time went by. You know? I don't know him, but if he hurt both of you maybe she thought he'd find you easily enough and do worse than just hurt you. No one but the two of them really know, I suppose."

John honestly hadn't thought of that. God had his mom stayed because he thought if she left his dad would hunt them down and really hurt them? Kill them? Had she really, ultimately stayed when all was said and done thinking she was protecting him as best as she could under the circumstances? He had no idea. It would have to be fairly obvious if she'd leave where she'd run off to. He doubted she had several choices back then. As far as John knew she didn't really have any friends and his dad would've known who they were, too.

"Maybe," he said with a shrug.

"My mom said you look just like him."

"So I've been told."

"Probably too many times."

"A few too many, yeah."

"Sorry to add to it."

"It's all right. It is what it is, not much I can do about it. Billy looks just like him, too."

"Is that weird for you?"

"How do you mean?"

"Well, if he looks like your dad that must mean he looks like you? Is it like looking in a mirror for you? You know, when you were that age?"

"I guess it is a little eerie since I didn't know I had a brother until a few months ago."

"I bet."

"Listen, I'll let you get back to work. I just," he shrugged. "I don't know."

"It's all right. I'm glad you came by, surprised."

"Why?"

"Oh, I figured you would eventually, call me or something. You know. I just sort of thought it would take a while before you did it."

"Well, I'm not exactly swimming in friends and even my mother pointed out to me if I like you there must be something to that."

"You talked to her about me?"

"Uh, yeah. Her furnace was out the other night and I fixed it for her."

"Really?"

"Yes."

"Huh. I guess I know who to call if mine ever goes out."

"Uh, yeah, sure," John said.

"I'm kidding, I wouldn't do that to you."

"Well, you could, you certainly wouldn't be the only one. I keep waiting for Claire's parents to start asking me to do stuff."

"I'm not sure her mom would do that."

"I don't know if she would either, but her dad might."

"Maybe."

"And yeah, you came up."

"Well, I'm glad she knows we've spoken anyway."

"She was surprised."

"I bet. You must have had a quiet Valentine's Day," he said.

"Fairly. Why?"

"Well, I was expecting to see pictures of the two of you show up this week having dinner or being somewhere out together. They seem to like to catch you guys on holidays anyway."

"Nah, we stayed in. I cooked her dinner, used her good China and all that stuff."

"I bet that was nice."

"It was."

"What did you cook?"

"Lobster."

"Ambitious."

John chuckled. "Yeah, I'd never tackled that sort of thing before. It was pretty time consuming. Well, they weren't, but I made cole slaw to go with it and that was time consuming grating the cabbage and stuff."

"Worth it, though?"

"Yeah, it was."

"Good."

"You two. What did you do?"

"Nothing as ambitious as lobster. We went out, did some dancing afterward."

"She seems nice," John said.

"She is."

"Well, I'd hope you think so since you're marrying her."

"There is that."

"Does she know?"

"About you? Yes, I told her after the day of our consultation because she agreed with you that it was strange my parents came there and then left."

"Yeah, had they not done that…"

"They just wanted to see you without being intrusive."

"Well, I can understand that, too."

"You know I'm done at six. If you and Claire wanted to meet us somewhere for a late dinner."

"Sure as far as I know she has nothing planned."

"Your weekends are usually pretty booked, right?"

"Yeah. It's the rare Saturday I get off."

"What do you do with them?"

"When I get one off? Whatever Claire wants to do. It usually ends up resulting in my picture making it into the paper somehow."

He chuckled softly at that.

"Well, it seems like the pictures of her when she's out include you most of the time. Or if she's by herself, just her and her friends, she's nowhere near the condition I used to see pictures of her in."

"You're right, yeah. She's," John shrugged. "I guess she's outgrowing her need for that lifestyle so much."

"That just means you're the right guy for her."

"I like to think so."

"You're the one doing the other ones, aren't you?"

"Uh, yeah."

"It's a good idea. I don't think people know how much stuff people like her do. They're nice pictures, too."

"Thanks."

"And I can tell I'm making you uncomfortable."

"I'm just not used to people knowing what I do, you know, complimenting it I guess."

"Well, you're good at your job."

"Sure, people pay me to do it. I don't usually get feedback I guess except when they complain something should be touched up that wasn't."

"Well, you deserve praise too. We all do."

"Sure."

"All right. I'll let it go for now. So, dinner?"

"Sure. Give me a call when you're home and I should have an idea by then if Claire's at least on her way home."

"All right. I'm glad you came by, really."

"Sorry if I interrupted something."

"Nah, it's not too busy today thankfully."

"Well, that's good, I guess. I'll see you later then."

"Sure."

John grabbed his coat then.

"Hey, John."

"Yeah?" he said. "You're not going to hug me again, are you?"

He smiled a bit at that.

"No, I think I can refrain from doing that today."

"Thank you."

"You're welcome. Just so you know, though. We were going to use you as our photographer. Whether you were talking to me or not. Whether you want to be or not you're my nephew I wouldn't want someone else to do it."

"Hmm, wouldn't you want your nephew at your wedding?"

"You will be there, though, from the beginning. You're the only nephew we have. Well, that I know yet. I guess we have two."

"Wayne and Erin don't have kids?"

"No, not yet."

"Huh," John said.

"So, be sure to pencil us in on your calendar."

He smiled a bit at that. "That might be a bit of a weird wedding to photograph, but I'll be there."

"Thanks."

Return to Top

***Chapter Thirty-Three***
Word Count: 4,517

March 1989

"Tell me again why we're doing this?" he asked as she adjusted his tie for him.

He knew how to tie his own tie. He'd been doing it for years thanks to his job. She liked doing it for some reason so he let her. He'd let her do anything she wanted to for the most part. He wasn't stupid. He knew the key to his being happy was her being happy. Ultimately. So if tying his tie for him gave her that for a few minutes he let her do it.

"Because it will make my parents happy?"

"Is Christopher going?"

"Yes," she said.

"Really?"

That surprised him because other than the couple of times Christopher had come to their house for dinner with their parents he stayed away from family functions. He hadn't shown up for Christmas dinner.

"Yes!"

He sighed.

"You were hoping I'd say no?"

"Yes!"

"John," she said, sounding incredibly exasperated and he sighed again.

"I hate when you say my name like that."

"Like what?" she asked, putting the finishing touches on the stickpin that he'd only ever worn to their reception until now.

"Like I kicked your puppy or something."

"What?"

He shrugged as she fixed his collar around the tie.

"You just sound so disappointed. I hate disappointing you."

"Well, I do understand why you don't want to spend the day with my parents."

"Thank you!"

"Will having Christopher there help?"

"Having you there will help."

"You didn't have any problems at Christmas."

"I didn't have to go to church on my one day off of the week!"

"John."

"What? I don't like churches very much."

"Well, it's only one day. Two days I guess if you count Christmas Eve."

"I know that. It's going to be in English, right?"

She laughed softly. "Yes. Christmas mass was in English. They stopped doing Latin masses a long time ago. I'm pretty sure I was still a baby when that happened."

"Well, that's good at least," he said, adjusting his cuffs a bit now that she was done. "But holy shit, Claire, it's like three hours long."

"John."

"What? You didn't tell me that part! I mentioned it to Ronda and she laughed at me."

"I'm sorry. I guess I should've. I just assumed…"

He sighed softly.

"You owe me."

"Why?"

"For sitting in church for close to three hours with your parents! At least I sort of knew what to expect from Christmas Eve mass."

"You don't for Easter mass?"

"No. I mean, He was resurrected I guess. Beyond that not much with the Sunday school education."

"Yes, I know," she said with a laugh.

"Stop laughing at me! It's not my fault I didn't do this stuff growing up."

"I know, and my parents know that you didn't."

"I'm not sure that makes me feel any better or helps."

"They understand not everyone was raised the same way Christopher and I were."

"I still say you owe me," he said, grabbing the jacket that went with the suit. He wasn't sure why it was taking him longer than her to get ready today. Procrastination he supposed.

"Like what?"

"I don't know," he said.

"How about a Friday night at Mom and Dad's lake house? You know they'd let us use it anytime we want to?"

"I'm not sure that makes up for three hours of mass, Princess. Especially since it's March and we can't swim or anything. There's not a whole lot of snow to snowmobile or anything either."

"They have a hot tub…"

"That they do. That may be worth it."

"May be?"

"It's a hot tub," he said, grabbing his wallet from his dresser. "We're talking three hours of sitting there listening to a priest talk about stuff that could probably be summed up in about twenty minutes."

"Well, figure it out and we'll negotiate."

"Who all is going to be at dinner?"

"Just us. My grandparents."

"Both sets?" he asked as she flipped out the light to their room and headed toward the living room with him.

"Yes."

"Why do your dad's parents always go to your parents' house for things?"

She shrugged.

"You'd have to ask them, I don't know."

"Don't they like your uncles?"

"Of course they do. I really don't know!"

"It's just strange. I've been with you now for all the major family holidays and your dad's parents have been at their house for all of them."

"Well, we were invited to your grandparents' house. If you wanted to go there instead…"

"No," he said, helping her into her sweater. "I told Phillip that maybe we'd stop by or something later. Like right before we go home or something later, but no I'm so not ready for that."

"But you're ready to maybe see them later?"

"Maybe. I don't know. Three hours of mass may kill me so I won't be able to ever get to know my grandparents and it'd be all your fault," he said while she checked the door was locked and the lights were off.

"Funny man. I'd feel sorry for you except you go to church all of the time."

"I do not!"

"You do, too. How many weddings have you done the past four years?"

"I can't even begin to count…"

"Well, that's church. You probably know the marriage ceremony by heart for three or four different religions."

He chuckled softly at that. "You're right."

"So if you want to be technical about it, even though you weren't actually attending as a guest or anything you've been to church probably as much, if not more than I have."

"Your parents are not paying me to be there today!"

"You're going to make me take our kids to church by myself, aren't you?"

"I didn't even realize you went to church. I mean, you've gone a couple of times with your mom I guess since we've been married. I just assumed you were being nice. You know? She asked you to go so you went along."

"I haven't gone regularly since high school, I guess."

"You went then?" He hadn't even realized, but then there was a lot about her he hadn't realized. He'd had her pegged as a type and until that day of detention never paid her much attention beyond avoiding crossing paths with her and her type.

"Yes, every week from the time I was a baby. I mean, I don't remember that far back, but yes."

"Huh."

"You never went?"

"No. A few times when I was little, like Billy's age little."

"No, I wouldn't make you go."

"I'm extremely relieved to hear you say that."

"It's not over two hours long every Sunday you know?"

"I know. It's the one day a week I get off. I don't plan on spending it in a suit that I just took of a few hours earlier."

"I see your point," she said, grabbing her purse.

He regarded the things in the living room and on the door that showed it was Easter. He'd never decorated his house, having a tree this Christmas for the first time that he could remember going back years. Claire had put some things in the window and a pastel colored wreath on the front door. She'd even made him an Easter basket, which had floored him. He had to admit, he liked jelly beans so he wasn't going to complain about the basket. He hadn't done anything for her, but she admitted she'd done it because she knew it wasn't something he'd gotten before.

"Besides, you know, things like mowing the lawn, washing the cars, and other things like that need to get done."

"I can take my car to a car wash!"

"I like washing the cars."

"Why?"

"You help me and I get to get you wet."

"And that's good?"

"When I get to watch you take your clothes off as a result, yes."

"Oh," she said.

"Yes, oh. Anything that involves you wearing less clothes is good."

"Well, I could arrange to wear less clothes when we get home tonight."

"You wear less clothes every night," he said, sliding a hand along her hip. She had clothes on so it wasn't nearly as good as touching her usually was. "It's the only reason I actually enjoy going to bed."

"As soon as we get home."

"Oh," he said.

"Does that give you something to look forward to enough that you'll pretend not to be bored to tears?"

"Yes, I think I can close my eyes and picture that if I have to."

"You can't do that in church."

"Princess. God knows what I'm thinking whether I'm here or in church. Assuming you believe in that, I guess. I'm not entirely sure I do, but that's a discussion for another day. I don't think He's going to thank me for not thinking what I think the other twenty-one hours of the day today just because I'm in church."

"I suppose you're right."

"Because if I'm going to hell for my thoughts about you. Well, He reserved a spot for me that day at school."

"Did you ever think we'd end up here?"

"Nope. Not in a million years. Then I wasn't planning on much of anything beyond getting out of my house alive and in one piece."

"I know," she said, leaning up to kiss him. "I didn't either. I hated that you made me feel that way."

"What way?"

"Something for someone and then you were gone!"

"Yeah, well, I've already told you…"

"I know, and you're right. I'm sure we wouldn't be here today."

"Probably not."

"It doesn't mean it didn't bother me."

"We did a pretty good job of living our lives between then and now so I think we both probably accomplished what we needed to."

"I have a job at any rate."

He chuckled. "Yes, because we both know there's no way in hell four years ago I could've even come close to supporting you."

"I don't think we would've been married four years ago."

"You know what I mean. I would've had to choose between you and doing something with my life. I couldn't have afforded you and starting out. I could barely afford starting out as it was without you. No offense, but I'm pretty sure the doing something with my life would've won out at that point."

"I know. I'm sorry it was so bad."

"It wasn't bad. I mean, I could've stayed at my parents' house. I chose to leave so it's my fault that I had to sleep on a rollaway bed that had springs coming out of it for six months and went to bed hungry more often than not."

"God, I really hate hearing that every time you talk about it."

"I'm here. It was worth it. If I'd stayed at home I would've had to find a way to hide what I was doing and the money I was earning."

"Really?"

"Yes," he scoffed softly. "I used to have to hide what cash I had in books. It was the only way I could be sure the old man wouldn't find it."

"What?"

"Well, my sock drawer was out. Mom would find it in there. Dad looked under my mattress for everything he thought I'd hide: money, my drugs, magazines."

"Magazines?"

"Yes, the kind I'd have gotten really embarrassed about my mom finding so I hid them under my mattress."

"Oh," she said and he chuckled softly at the blush that was currently on her cheeks.

"He wasn't much of a reader so money was safe in books. He never found it anyway, but I'd have to remember which book I put the money in."

"God."

"That's how I grew up. I learned early on at any rate."

"I'm not sure I pegged you as a reader."

"Why because I wasn't fond of Moliere?"

"You didn't know how to say his name!"

He chuckled. "It got you to talk to me in a nice way, didn't it, Princess?"

"That was intentional?"

"Oh come on. Like I could have sat through years of Mrs. Delacroix's English classes and not know who Moliere was. Did she know authors that weren't French?"

"Shut up!"

"And you never thought of that? Really? You thought I was that much of an idiot?"

"Well, no. I wouldn't have expected Andy to know how to pronounce his name either."

"And you just lumped me in with a jock. Thank you."

"No, just," she shrugged.

"That snobby side coming out, I get it. No one else at Shermer could be as well-read as you."

"I certainly never pegged you…"

"Yeah, well, I had to do something when I was holed up in my room avoiding my parents. Funny thing about libraries. They give you this card that lets you check things out for free. Needless to say I got lots of use out of that old library card."

"I suppose."

He shrugged. "So, anyway, having a job with income never mind the equipment. It was better for me to get out. I got a better couch about six months later and a bed. And before you ask it is not the same bed we had before you moved yours in here after we got married."

"I wasn't going to…"

"I could see your mind processing. I actually bought a new bed when I moved in here."

"Oh," she said.

"Yours is much better."

"I like it."

He chuckled softly. Much better was an understatement. Hers was a huge step up from the barely one-step up from as cheap as he could get bed he'd bought when moving in here. The mattress was decent, but the frame was pretty awful. They'd already replaced it, in fact, with a new one. They'd put his old bed in the basement to store it since they already had a bed in the spare bedroom and had no need for a third spare bedroom yet.

"All right," he said, opening the door for her. "Let's go get this done with. Just don't elbow me too hard if I nod off, okay?"

"John!"

"You got to go to sleep last night. I was out until after midnight."

"You woke me up when you got home."

"Because I like waking you up. Sue me. I wasn't sure being Easter Sunday and all if there was some rule about not having sex in the morning."

"We're married!"

"Yeah, but aren't you taught sex is for the purpose of babies?"

"Well, true. We're not not trying. I mean if my parents asked…"

The not not trying hadn't answered his question to this point, but it'd only been a little over a month. Even he knew with his minimal knowledge on the subject that it could take a while for people without potential issues. He almost thought he was more disappointed than she was when she didn't come up late a couple of weeks ago.

"Your parents would actually ask something like that?"

"I don't think mine would, but I know people who, yes. I mean, remember Tammy Collins?"

"Vaguely."

"She was one of nine. Her oldest sister turned thirty like eleven months after their parents celebrated their thirty-first anniversary. They teased them that they didn't wait very long and her mother said they thought for a while she couldn't get pregnant."

"You're not intending for us to have like ten kids, are you?"

"What? Where is that coming from?"

"Well, you know people who that was normal for them to have huge families."

"You know them, too!"

"Okay, but as an only child, well, I thought I was an only child until recently. Those people were very strange to me. I was friends with one when we were in junior high. Todd O'Mallory. I just couldn't wrap my head around how busy their house was all of the time. Yet everyone seemed happy and normal. I didn't stay friends with him for very long."

"Oh."

"I was just hoping there's a cutoff at how many we stop not not trying for if, you know, we have any."

"No! I mean, I don't want too many kids. Two would be nice, maybe three if we wanted to. You know, both of us."

"That relieves me to no end."

"My parents only had two so clearly they didn't think that way."

He shook his head. "See, and there's something I don't even want to think about. Your parents, my parents, doesn't matter. I just prefer to go through life assuming they had sex twice and that is that."

She smiled a little at that.

"And yes, I realize our kids will probably say the same thing about us one day. Except I hope that we manage to be a lot more affectionate than our parents obviously were when we were growing up."

"Yeah, my parents weren't really good like that."

"I remember."

"You know," she said once they were in her car. "It's not my fault you had to work last night."

"I don't think I ever said it was. I have to work, though. I mean, weddings happen on Saturdays, even the Saturday before Easter I guess."

"You could stop taking jobs that no one else will touch!"

"And you'd want me to be the guy that tells a couple getting married they can't have wedding pictures? Or they have to go with some third-rate guy who bought his camera out of a Sears catalog two days ago?"

The couple who he'd photographed last night lived way out in Huntley. The couple whose wedding he photographed in Rockford a few months back knew them and referred them to him when they couldn't find anyone locally willing to take on a wedding the night before Easter. Ronda originally hadn't wanted to give him the call, he supposed because she knew he'd take it and that Claire wouldn't be completely pleased he did.

"Well, put like that…"

"See. You have a heart, too. You'd be just like me and as long as they were willing to pay the premium I tacked on you'd do it, too."

She sighed softly.

"See," he said. He leaned in, kissing her ear. She was wearing a dress today with a neckline that covered the love bite he'd given her last night. He hadn't been thinking about the fact they'd be sitting in church this morning when he'd woken her up. "I didn't hear you complain last night about me waking you up."

"Well, of course not!"

"Well then…"

"You're not really going to fall asleep, are you?"

"I will do my best not to, Princess. I may not want your parents mad at me, but I want you mad at me even less. I don't live with them."

"You're right you don't."

"And I've slept on my couch before it's not at all comfortable."

"I'm not sure I'd make you sleep on the couch."

"I hope I never find out if you would."

He came close to dozing off in church a couple of times, but Claire was aware enough (and paranoid enough that he would in front of her parents) that anytime she thought he was getting close to doing that she slid her hand to his or set her head against his shoulder. Or just slid her ankle against his. He had not had a good time. She couldn't blame him she supposed. She'd been to the full Easter mass before so she knew what to expect. Considering it was only the second time in his life he'd ever really gone to church for the purpose of attending church. Well, she could understand it was probably a bit much.

Dinner was crazily uncomfortable. Claire didn't know that her uncles were coming to her parents' house. She knew that John hadn't been at all prepared for all of her uncles, aunts, and cousins. She suspected the amount she owed him increased drastically when a dinner for nine turned into one for close to forty. They were nice enough to him, asking him questions and trying to include him in the conversation. He just wasn't good at making small talk and she knew that. He knew how to run his business, but he thought somehow that because his business was as small as it was that it wasn't the same. That wasn't true. Certainly there were different issues and situations to deal with in a company his size versus one her dad's size. It was still a business. In fact she'd wager none of her uncles had ever had to work a Saturday in their lives. Like her dad they got their paid vacations every year and every weekend off plus the major holidays like New Year's Day, Independence Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day.

Claire vaguely remembered a time when she and Christopher were young that her dad had worked Christmas Eve. He'd work a half a day and take his staff out for a nice lunch afterward. He'd stopped doing that a while ago, usually closing the office for a couple of hours the Friday before Christmas and had lunch brought in for everyone instead. As the company grew taking everyone out just had become impractical.

Christopher tried to include John more than others, seeming to sense what John was feeling. Claire appreciated that and she knew John did, too. He was ready to go home hours before they finally got ready to leave for the night and said goodbye to her parents. She hoped one day he'd be more comfortable here on days like this. She really didn't want him to dread coming here because then she'd feel bad or as if she'd have to choose between him and her parents. It wasn't such a big deal now, but if they ever had kids she wanted to have holidays with her family. She wasn't sure John would ever get to the point with his mom he'd want to do that. She suspected seeing her as a result of seeing Billy was about all he was interested in.

She leaned in and kissed him when they were sitting in her car waiting for it to warm up for a few minutes. He was driving. He always did when they went out together. She drove downtown and back five days a week, sitting in her car for over an hour each way. She didn't mind him wanting to drive. She didn't draw away immediately, which she could tell surprised him since they were in her parents driveway.

"Thank you," she whispered.

"For?"

She shrugged. "I know that's not the way you'd prefer to spend your Sunday."

"Next Easter?"

"Yeah?"

"Let's arrange to be somewhere else."

"Like?"

"I don't care. Anywhere but this."

"John," she said cautiously.

"I'm sorry, Princess. I am, but I just. I just spent the last few hours with more people than I've probably spent time with ever in my life altogether."

"I know," she said. "I love you."

He sighed. "You say that and you know it'll make up for the pounding headache I have."

"You do?"

"Yes! Constantly being afraid I was going to say the wrong thing or use the wrong fork."

"You did fine."

"You know how?"

"How?"

"I watched you! You grabbed a fork so I grabbed it."

"There's nothing wrong with that."

"I know. I just, Christ, that's more stress than I really want in my life."

"We can't not see my parents."

"Why do we have to go there? Why can't we have them over to our house?"

"I don't know. Maybe sometime we can. I didn't know everyone was going to be there."

"I know. I believe you just didn't think about the mass being as long as it was. I don't think you intentionally withheld the fact that we were having dinner with your entire fucking family."

"What do I owe you?"

He chuckled. "I'm not sure I've decided yet."

She'd been incredibly surprised when he pulled onto the Taylor's driveway after leaving her parents' house. They didn't stay long, but Phillip seemed genuinely glad they'd stopped at all. She'd spent lots of time at the Taylor's house growing up, so them seeing her was nothing new. Seeing John, though, she could tell was obviously very new.

It wasn't completely uncomfortable, but she could tell when they left about an hour after getting there that John was very relieved.

"You didn't have to do that."

"Phillip seemed to kind of want me to. I would've felt like the worst kind of asshole if we didn't because they'd know we were at your parents' house."

"True," she said.

He shrugged, sliding a hand over her knee once they were on the street driving back to their house. He slid his hand a little higher along her thigh. He drew the hem of her skirt up a bit as he did that. It had been close to eighty today so neither of them wore coats.

"I've been waiting to be able to do that all day," he said.

"Touch me?"

"The way I wanted to, yeah."

"You can touch my knee in front of my parents."

He chuckled softly. "It's not your knee I have in mind touching, Princess, and if I started it would have been entirely too tempting to try and convince you to go up to your room."

"I wouldn't have gone up to my room with you."

"Hmm," he said chuckling a bit as she shifted on the seat so he could touch her easier. "Would you have gone somewhere with me?"

"I'm sure we could've come up with a reasonable sounding excuse to go to the basement together for a little while."

"Now you tell me!"

She laughed softly.

"I guess I don't have to ask what's on your mind for when we get home."

"Do you ever have to ask that?"

"Well, no, I guess not."

"After hours with your family especially I want out of this suit and you out of your dress."

"And neither of us work tomorrow."

"I know. Remind me to thank Ronda for that on Tuesday."

"Why?"

"That not not trying we're doing?"

"Yeah?"

"I plan on doing a lot of that tonight."

"That means we'll be sleeping during the day tomorrow then?"

"Maybe if you're lucky I'll let you for a while."

"Let me?"

"Come on. Where's the party girl who was up all night every night?"

"She got married and got a job."

"It sucks to grow up, Princess."

"I don't know, I think your version of keeping me up all night may be more fun."

"May be?"

She set her hand over his, sliding it higher along her thigh. "I think you will probably have to convince me."

"Huh," he said. "I'll do my best."

"I am counting on it."

Return to Top

***Chapter Thirty-Four***
Word Count: 6,846

May 1989

"You're oddly quiet about all this," John said as he watched her.

"Well, what do you want me to say?"

"I'm not sure. How about 'Gee, congratulations, honey, that's awesome!'?"

"Well, of course I'm happy for you," she said.

She didn't sound happy, though. She didn't look unhappy exactly so he wasn't sure what her deal was.

"Yeah, you sound real thrilled for me," he said, more than a little annoyed at her response. Didn't she get it?

"It's three weeks!"

"Yeah. It's a huge opportunity for me, Claire."

"It's one model."

He sighed. One model could lead to more, could lead to him being called back next year to work, or any number of possible opportunities.

"Yes, but it's a chance for me to work in an environment where people other than wedding guests will see me work. Not to mention my name, forget my name, my company name, will be in an international magazine."

"I know," she said.

"I like doing weddings, don't get me wrong. I'm better than doing just that for the rest of my life. I've never had an opportunity like this fall into my lap before. She's requesting me. They're paying her and she said the only way she'd go is if she could have who she wanted take her pictures. Do you get how huge that is?"

"I do!"

She didn't. Not really. Obviously not or she wouldn't be reacting like this.

"But…" he said.

"There is no but. It's great."

"Uh huh. You say that, but you're looking at me as though the last thing you want me to do is take this job."

"Well…"

"Yes?" he asked.

"Nothing. It's nothing. I'm happy for you."

"Claire. You can't lie to me."

"I'll just miss you."

"I told you maybe you could convince your dad to get a long weekend and come visit me over one of the weekends. I'd say both, but I doubt he'd go for that."

"I know…"

"Then what?"

She sighed softly. "Nothing, John. Really."

She avoided looking at him, which was a pretty good sign it wasn't nothing.

"You don't trust me," he said softly with a shake of his head.

"I do!"

"You don't. You think… What? That I'm going to go there and cheat on you because I'm away from you for three weeks?"

"Surrounded by models!"

"I have access to models right here in Chicago! I take their pictures all of the time."

"You come home to me, though."

"I'm still coming home to you when this is done. Unless you're leaving me while I'm gone."

"No, of course not! It's just different."

"How?"

"You could do…"

"Don't even say it. Just don't or I'll get even more pissed off. Have I given you any indication that I've even looked at another woman since we've been married? Forget married, since the night you showed up at my house with your blouse ripped?"

"Well, you came home that one day…"

"Oh, God, don't you dare throw that in my face now. I left to go back to work that day and you said we were fine. I offered to let you watch one of those shoots so you could see I view it as work. You said no. Now months later it's an issue suddenly because I want to go on what could be a potentially lucrative trip for me and my business."

"Surrounded by women not wearing any clothes!"

"They are, too. It's not a nudie magazine, Claire."

"I've seen some of the swimsuits those women wear. They may as well be naked."

"Do you hear yourself? So I shouldn't go to the beach anymore either? Glen asks me to go down to Oak Street Beach for a game of volleyball I'm supposed to say no because I might see a woman in a bikini?"

"No. It's different."

"So, you trust me here in Chicago, but evidently nowhere else. That's what you're saying. You trust me to keep my dick in my pants for a few hours essentially between when you leave in the mornings and get home again at night but any more than that you think I'm going to find someone else to fuck?"

"We have sex every day!"

"Yeah. We're married. We're allowed to do that!"

"And you could just stop doing that?"

"Uh yeah. I mean, I don't want to. Don't get me wrong. I'm very happy with our sex life at the level it is, but I can certainly refrain from fucking anything for three weeks."

"John…"

"What? What do you want me to say? I'm thrilled that when it gets down to it you don't trust me? Why are you even here then?"

"What?"

"Why are you even married to me if that's what you think?"

"I don't think…"

"So that's not what you're thinking? That three weeks away I'll be tempted…"

"No, I just, God they're all gorgeous and you're going to be somewhere in the Bahamas where it's gorgeous."

"Where I want you to come see me for a weekend if you can. You think I'd do that? Fuck around with other people and then tell you to come down and see me?"

"I don't know."

"You don't know," he said with a shake of his head.

He left the room then. There was no way he could stand there and have this conversation with her and not say something really, really stupid. Or mean. He was surprised she hadn't already accused him of thinking the sex they had was just fucking since he'd said the word. She was the only woman he'd been with that he didn't consider sex with just fucking.

He grabbed his keys and left through the back door. The garage was still open since he hadn't had time to lock everything up for the day after she'd gotten home. She knew how to lock the garage, but he went out and checked it again anyway so she just stopped doing it. It was just habit for him to do it every day.

He still had the top down on his car since it'd been nice the past couple of days.

"Where are you going?" she asked.

"Where does it look like I'm going? Out."

"John…"

"I'll try to refrain from picking anyone up in between now and getting back."

"That's not fair!"

"Yeah, well, neither is you not trusting me when I've done fucking absolutely nothing to deserve that."

"Until we…"

"I'm leaving now," he said, turning up the radio enough so there was no chance of hearing her anymore.

Eventually she must have sensed he was really going to leave and there was little she could do at this point to stop him. She stepped away from his car then so he could drive out without running over her feet or something.

He headed to his studio, parked and let the car idle for a while before deciding that he had no business being here now. He had some things he could do, but when he was pissed off he wouldn't do a good job. That would be bad.

He pulled out of the parking lot then and drove for a while without thinking much about where he was going. He wasn't sure he was surprised or not when he found himself in Phillip's neighborhood. He could've gone to Glen's, but while John had told him about dating Claire last summer they just didn't have a real close friendship.

John sat in his car at the curb for a few minutes before shutting the engine off and heading to the door. He didn't have to talk about anything just because he was here, though he suspected Phillip would know something was up as John had never just stopped by for no reason before now.

"John, hey," Phillip said when he answered the door.

"Uh, hi. I hope it's not a bad time."

"No, not at all. Elizabeth is at some training session or something for a couple nights."

"Oh? Isn't tax season done?"

"Yeah, well, personal taxes. I think there's always stuff to learn for corporate accountants."

"Oh," he said with a shrug.

"Did you want to come in?"

"If you're sure I'm not intruding."

"I'm pretty sure."

John laughed a bit at that. They were still kind of unsure around each other. To be expected he supposed since neither of them were exactly sure what they wanted from one another.

"Can I get you a beer or something? Did you eat?"

"A beer would be great and no I didn't eat. I cooked dinner, but that was as far as I got toward eating it."

"Everything okay?"

"I don't know," he shrugged.

"Not sure you can trust me, John?"

He laughed at the irony in that.

"I don't blame you, I guess. You don't really know me from Adam, but you came here."

"That's not why I was laughing. I mean, it was, but just the irony of you accusing me of not trusting you when that is in a roundabout way the reason I'm here tonight I guess."

He followed Phillip to his kitchen. He'd never been inside of his townhouse before. He'd seen the outside of it once before when he and Claire picked them up on their way to a Bulls game one night. It was a nice place. John himself could never do a townhouse or a condo. He'd known that when the idea of finding a place to own wouldn't go away. He didn't want an association fee or a neighbor on the other side of a wall. He also didn't mind doing things like shoveling, mowing the lawn, painting the house, and general upkeep that people like Phillip avoided by paying an association fee.

"You not trusting me?"

"No, evidently Claire not trusting me."

"Hmm. Have you given her reason not to?"

"No!"

"Why is it an issue then?"

Phillip handed him a beer, which John took and twisted the top off so he could take a sip right away. He shrugged.

"All right. If you don't want to talk about it we don't have to."

John followed him to his family room where Phillip obviously had been watching TV when John rang the bell. He had a baseball game on. John wasn't a big baseball fan. He much preferred hockey or football, basketball wasn't his top choice either but baseball usually bored him. Then on a night like tonight, watching the slower paced game he could understand its appeal to some degree. There was something about watching a pitcher throw the ball again and again that was sort of soothing in a weird sort of way.

"I'm just not sure I'm in the right here."

"There's not always a right or wrong to things," Phillip said, clearly surprised John had spoken up. John was, too, for that matter.

"I know that. I don't just take wedding and family photos."

"Okay," Phillip said.

"I have some models that come to me for headshots and whatever. Some of the whatever may include attempting to get into men's magazines."

"All right. So they take their clothes off."

"Yes."

"And that bothers Claire? I'm not sure I blame her exactly, but you didn't just start doing that, did you?"

"No, have been for years now."

"Okay. And she knew about it?"

"Yes. We did sort of have an argument about it once before a while ago, but no that's not the issue. One of the girls has gotten selected for a swimsuit magazine."

"That's good, right?"

"Yes. It's three weeks down in some Caribbean island I've never heard of. She's said the only way she'll take the job is if I'm her photographer."

"Ah," Phillip said.

"She says she's happy for me."

"You don't think she is?"

"I think she thinks I'm happy and content taking wedding pictures for the rest of my life."

"But you're not?"

"Well, no. I'm better than that. I mean, not that there's anything wrong with doing what I do. There's not, but this is a huge opportunity for me to get my company name out there to more than just brides and their friends."

"Right."

"I mean, she knows she's got a place at her dad's company. You know? She probably knew that before she could walk. I've had to work hard every day from the time I graduated to get where I am. I don't want to just stop working hard because I've achieved minimal success."

"I think you've achieved more than minimal success, John, but I get it."

"I just want more. I had a picture on the cover of Sports Illustrated once. I want that. More of it. I want that to be common not a once in a lifetime thing."

"You did?"

"Yes," he said.

"I'd like to see it sometime."

"Sure. I only have like thirty copies of the magazine."

Phillip chuckled. "I'd take one off your hands."

"Really?"

"Sure. How many opportunities am I going to get to meet someone who was on the cover of Sports Illustrated? Let alone someone I'm related to."

"I'm not on the cover."

"Your work is. That's you, you and I both know it."

"Sure, I guess," John said never having thought about it that way really.

"So, she's happy for you, but you don't believe her?"

"No. I mean, I didn't lead the life of a monk before we got together. You know? Even back in high school I wasn't a monogamous guy. She was the only one I ever thought about it with."

"But you didn't back then?"

"No, I didn't believe someone like her could like someone like me so I sort of blew her off. I mean, not entirely, but I just kind of treated it as a joke, you know casual and she grew tired of it."

"And went to prom with the kid with the red hair?"

John chuckled softly.

"Yeah, Scott Hansen. You remember that?"

"Vaguely. Just remember the hair and he had this ridiculous car. I was away at school, but I saw pictures. You know, your mom showed my mom who showed me because I knew her."

"He did," John said, thinking of the station wagon Scott had had with paint all over it. It was pretty atrocious, like someone had just splashed paint all over and then smeared it on there. The car was memorable, though. There wasn't anyone who didn't know what Scott Hansen drove.

"So she doesn't want you to go?"

"She says she does, but she seems to think I'm going to do something I wouldn't ordinarily because I'll be gone for three weeks with scantily clad models in the Caribbean."

"Well, would you?"

"No! Jesus, I haven't even looked at someone else since I've been with her. I invited her to come down. You know, thinking maybe her dad could give her a long weekend and she could come down there with me."

"Okay."

"So, does she really think I'd do that? Invite her down there and then fuck around on her when she's not there? People would meet her and know. That'd just be rude."

"Well, it would, but I'm not sure that would stop some people."

"Well, I wouldn't do it anyway. I realize some people would, but I'm not a cheater."

"You've told her this?"

"Yes! She seemed to believe me. I mean, I thought she trusted me until this came up and now it's all of a sudden can I go three weeks without having sex. I mean, months now we've been trying to get pregnant so I'm not sure why she'd want to have my kid if she can't even trust me not to keep it in my pants for three weeks. You can't for a while after a kid is born, right?"

"Uh, yes," Phillip said.

"So, what, is she going to think I'm out doing that after she has one, too?"

"I think that's a little different of a situation. You'd still be home with her."

"Maybe so," John said.

"Well, this is the first relationship for both of you."

"Yes."

"She may not know if you can really do that."

"If she came down to visit me for a long weekend I wouldn't have to!"

Phillip chuckled softly. "Point taken, but have you ever had to go three weeks before?"

"Uh," John said, taking a sip of his beer as he thought on that. "No, I guess not. She doesn't know that, though! Jesus, I'm not a moron. You think I'd tell her something like that?"

"Do you think she could guess that?"

"Well, maybe, I mean," John shrugged. "I made no attempt to hide the fact I liked women."

"When is this?"

"December. Right after Thanksgiving, I'd get back just before Christmas."

"So you have months to decide."

"Yes, but I shouldn't have to decide. I wouldn't ask her to not do something that could mean potential advancement for her career."

"That's part of being married, though, John. Negotiating and sometimes sacrificing."

"The thing is I have to decide now! I mean, I can't wait until August to decide to go. I have to ensure my schedule is clear those three weeks if I'm going to go. People book weddings more than six months in advance sometimes."

"I understand."

"So, what do I do?"

"I guess that depends on what you want."

"Fuck," John said softly. "Why should I have to sacrifice my career? She has hers mapped out for her."

"She does, but you married her knowing that."

"Yes."

"She married me knowing I did more than wedding pictures, though."

"Did she really know you wanted to do more, though?"

"Isn't it the same thing?"

"Doing more and wanting to do more? Not necessarily. You took business that came your way, that doesn't mean you told her what your goals were."

"Well, isn't everyone's goal to be successful at what they're doing?"

"Yes, but do you have to have a well-known name or brand in order to be successful?"

He sighed.

"And why do you think this will be the only opportunity to come your way?"

"What if the next one's worse? What if the next one isn't a swimsuit magazine, but the other kind?"

"I don't know."

"I did tell her if she could talk to her dad she could come for more than a weekend. It's not like I said I only wanted her there for a few days. If she could get the whole three weeks off I'd have her with me in a heartbeat. Three weeks with her in the Caribbean? No hardship on my part spending as much downtime with her in that type of environment."

"Did you tell her that?"

"Yes! I mean, not the last part, I guess, but I told her if she thought she could swing it she could come down for as long as she was able."

"Is it possible she thinks you only want her to come down there so you have an outlet for sex?"

"No! I don't know. I mean, we do more than that. Why am I in the wrong here? She doesn't trust me. I've done nothing since I've been seeing her or married to her to give her reason not to."

"Maybe it's not you she doesn't trust."

"What? She wouldn't do that…"

"No, not her. I agree. I think I could see our priest having sex before I could see her having sex with someone else."

"I, oh, okay," John said with a frown.

"Bad example maybe, but you get my point. She may trust you but what about the woman who's specifically requested you."

"What about her?"

"Maybe Claire doesn't trust her."

"But I'd still have to do something. I mean, I've had women hit on me. The ring doesn't stop them. I'm sure she has guys hit on her all of the time. I can't control that."

"No, but you're going to be far away in a tropical, romantic spot. She may imagine you having a beer or two…, the temptation of someone she views as being beautiful right there when weeks will have gone by."

"But ultimately that means she doesn't trust me, right? She wouldn't trust me to put the brakes on something like that happening."

"Not necessarily. She probably has an image of a woman who would pose for you like that."

"She won't be posing naked!"

"Has she ever?"

"Well, yeah," John said.

"With you?"

"Yes."

"And Claire knows that?"

"Yes."

"So, you're going to be far away with someone who's going out of their way to request you who you've seen naked."

"I've seen lots of women naked I'm not going to have sex with any of them either."

"John."

John sighed, setting the bottle of beer down on the table next to him.

"This isn't helping."

"I'm sorry. I don't have an answer for you. I really don't. I'm just trying to make you see her side of it, too."

"What about my side of it?"

"Well, like I said you have to decide what you want ultimately. You want a happy wife or not?"

"Fuck, I didn't want a wife at all, not really. I'm doing the best I can. I just, I really think I'll regret not doing this and ultimately get pissed off at her for not trusting me enough to act professionally. I'm there to take pictures not get drunk and act like an idiot."

"Wouldn't some people take advantage of the situation, though?"

"Sure I'm sure there are some who do. I, however, who want to get noticed for my pictures wouldn't do that. I want to get more like her to hire me. I want magazines like this one to want to hire me when they do these shoots. I don't want to be someone shoehorned into the staff only because I'm requested."

"I get it."

"Do you? I mean, Elizabeth has kids I bet you don't worry about whether you can support her so she doesn't have to go back to work if she doesn't want to."

"Well, no, but Claire wouldn't…"

"Okay, we both know Claire's not going to quit working, I realize this. What if she wanted to, though? What if she gets pregnant here now and wanted to take a few years off to be a mom? We both know her dad wouldn't give her position away to someone else. I don't want to have to work six days a week every day for the rest of my life to support her and a kid or two."

"Has Claire met the model?"

"Once," he said. "A long time ago. In passing. They were never introduced or anything."

"Well, maybe if she met her she'd feel better about the situation."

"That sounds real professional. Telling her that I have to let my wife meet her before I can get permission to go."

"If that's how you want to see it, I'm not sure she would. She'd probably understand. It would at least send her the message that you want your wife involved in your life."

"I'm married to her!"

"Yeah, well, that doesn't always mean involvement. I know guys who are married and never take their wives anywhere business related. A friend of mine is a lawyer and I don't think his wife has ever seen his office or met one of his associates at the firm."

"Okay. I'm not like that."

"I get that."

John stood then, bringing the empty bottle to the kitchen.

"You don't have to go," Phillip said.

"Nah, I've wasted enough of your time. I just," he shrugged. "I've never gotten mad at her and just left before. We've had arguments. You know, differences of opinion or whatever. When she first started working she was mad I wouldn't take money from her."

"Why not?"

"Because," he shrugged. "She shouldn't have to."

"She lives there, too."

"Yeah, but I don't know. I paid the bills without her."

"Yes, but…"

"Nope, not getting into this discussion with you. I take her money. I don't like it, but I get that it's something she feels the need to do. I don't spend a dime of it, though. Every penny she's given me since September has gone into a savings account. I asked her to marry me, I shouldn't take her money to support her."

"Does she know that's what you've been doing with her money?"

"Nope," John said. "She thinks she needs to do it. Fine. I let her do it. My dad didn't need my mom to work."

"I'm not so sure your dad…"

"Yet he managed! I know he's not a great role model, believe me but I do agree with him on that."

"Claire would never just stay home like your mom did."

"I know that. I don't want her to either. I mean if she wanted to for a while I'd be fine with that. Kids need their moms I know that."

"Have you seen your brother lately?"

"Uh, yeah, Claire and I took him to lunch a couple weeks ago. Second time."

"And?"

"He's all right. You know. He's three. I don't know what to say to him and he can't talk to me yet so we eat, color some pictures, and he plays when we bring him some place that has a play area."

"And your mom?"

John shrugged. "I don't talk much to her. I try to be civil to her, but I think I'm sort of not to a point yet of doing more than that."

"I'm sorry, you know. I really am."

"Nothing to apologize for. It's not your fault. You were a baby yourself."

"I know, but…"

"Nope, not your fault. We're fine. Your parents I may not be as fine with, but that's not you and I understand they had other kids to worry about, too."

"Okay."

"Thanks for talking to me, I guess. I don't really have a lot of places to go."

"My door's open anytime. I'd say Wayne's is, too, but…"

"Yeah, no," John said.

Nothing against Phillip's older brother, but John was just nowhere near as comfortable around his other uncle. It didn't help that he stared at him as if he was seeing a ghost every time he saw John. Wayne had been old enough to have memories of John's mom and dad, so he knew what an eighteen year old John had looked like. John didn't like people looking at him in a way that reminded him who he looked like. He thought it every time he looked in the damned mirror, which was bad enough. Wayne would have been about six when his mom got pregnant with him. It sounded to John as though maybe she'd come around a few times before she'd had him but never after. He had no idea when the last time Wayne had seen John's dad was, but had to guess it was before John was born.

"Are you going home?"

John shrugged. "I don't know. I may go into work and do some things for a while."

"You can't avoid her forever."

"No, but I can until I figure out what I want to do."

"That may take a while."

"I know," he said. "I'll figure it out."

"Okay. If it means anything. I mean, if it helps, I believe you wouldn't do that."

"No, that doesn't really help, but thanks for saying it I guess."

He sighed softly when he pulled into the parking lot of his studio once again this evening and saw her car there. Her car was hard to miss as it was, but by itself like that even more so. He almost kept going, but she'd obviously come out in an attempt to find him.

He put his top up when he got out this time not sure how long he'd be staying here and whether it would start raining or get real cold quickly. She followed him inside. He didn't bother turning the lights on. He didn't need to. He knew the place by heart.

He took a seat on one of the chairs in his waiting area. He wasn't going to have this conversation in his office sitting at his desk.

"Where did you go?" she asked.

"Oh you know. To one of my several girlfriends' houses. Arguing with you just puts me in the mood. You know?"

"Shut up."

"Well, why not? You think I'm going to be away from you for three weeks and fuck someone else. What's to stop me from doing it here? I mean, I have plenty of time some days. I could have a slew of them and you'd never know because you're downtown all day. For all you know I have her come over in the morning after you leave for work."

"You wouldn't do that."

"Uh huh. You say that and I want to believe you mean that, but evidently somewhere in your head is the idea that I'm going to be away from you for three weeks and get so hard up for companionship I'd sleep with someone else."

"No. It's not about that."

"Then what is it about?"

She sighed softly. "Maybe I just don't like the idea of you being gone for three weeks."

"Uh huh. That's not what you said, not even remotely. Nowhere in there was anything said that sounded like anything but you don't trust me. You even asked me if I could go three weeks without sex."

"I wasn't expecting it!"

"I wasn't either, but I didn't think you'd accuse me of cheating on you as a result of an opportunity like this. I mean, shit like this isn't going to fall into my lap every day, Claire."

"I hate when you say my name."

"What?"

"It means you're mad."

"Well, yeah, I'm mad. You have your entire life mapped out. Maybe Dad will change his mind as he nears retirement and leave the company to Christopher after all, but we both know you will have a spot right there near the top."

"Yes."

"I don't get that. This is it. My job. Right here. I take this assignment it could lead to so many other things. I don't take it and I'm stuck right here for the rest of my fucking life working weddings every damned weekend."

"You don't know that."

"No, you're right, but I have to start somewhere."

"Is that so bad?"

"What?"

"Working the things you do now?"

"It's not what I want. Wouldn't you like to have our weekends free once in a while? Wouldn't you like to know I don't have to check my schedule every time one of your friends wants to do something with us?"

"Well, sure."

"Wouldn't you like to know if we have a baby you can take time off worry-free?"

"I can do that anyway."

"I don't mean because your dad would help you. I mean because I wouldn't have to worry about it."

"You worry about it now?"

"I think about a third mouth to feed, sure. You've been talking about getting a puppy so that'd be four mouths to feed. Puppies and babies need stuff. I don't know about babies beyond diapers and food. Dogs need training and toys, food and grooming."

"Yes."

"I want to know that I can give you everything you want."

"You do just fine."

"Doing just fine shouldn't involve killing myself every week nine months out of the year. I mean, yes I have slow times January and April and in the fall, but do we want things like vacations dictated by my work schedule every year?"

"You could hire…"

"I don't want to hire someone else. You know that as well as I do. I'd never trust someone else to be as good with my customers as I am."

"I know."

"I like my job, don't get me wrong. It's gotten me way further ahead than I thought it would. I won't deny that. I look at friends like Glen and Charlie and they're nowhere close to having a house or anything. I just want more. You know? I'm better than this," he said. "I've been so busy with you that I haven't even really had the chance to just go out and take pictures like I do sometimes to try to sell them."

"I know. I'm sorry."

"I don't want an apology. I'm not complaining, but this is a huge deal, Claire."

"I know."

"It's a chance to get my name out there, outside of Chicago. You know?"

"I do," she said, moving to sit on his lap. He slid his arms around her instinctively.

"Is this your way at trying to distract me away from being mad?" he asked.

"Is it working?"

He shrugged, sighing softly as she leaned in to kiss him. Yeah, it was working just great. It was hard to stay mad at her when she kissed him like she did. Like he was the only person she'd ever felt was worth kissing. He knew she kissed other guys over the years, but he knew she hadn't kiss them like she kissed him.

"Fuck, Claire," he murmured when he felt her hand work the zipper on his jeans.

"I'm trying," she said.

"We still haven't…" he said, but she cut him off, kissing him. She knew that would shut him up. Of course her hand, stroking him was a good way to get him to shut up, too. He groaned in protest as she drew away from him, but it was only long enough for her to adjust her skirt so she could settle herself over him.

She still wasn't hugely comfortable being on top of him. She had yet to tell him why, but he guessed it had something to do with being self-conscious about what she looked like to him. He would never understand it because he, obviously he thought, loved looking at her naked.

"Listen, if you think your dad would let you take a week or ten days off, come down with me for as long as you can. Believe me, spending whatever amount of time with you in the Caribbean wouldn't be a bad thing," he murmured when they'd finished.

"John, that's not it."

"What then? You don't trust her? I mean, even if she or someone else did hit on me I'd have to let them. So we're back to you don't trust me."

"No," she sighed softly.

"Then what?"

"You're talking six months from now."

"Yes," he said. "Please don't tell me there's time to decide. If I'm going I need to tell Ronda so she knows not to book me during that time."

"I know," she said.

"Then what? Please. If you really think I'd do what we just did with someone else…"

"I don't. I know you wouldn't. It doesn't mean I don't think they'll all throw themselves at you."

"I don't think you have to worry about that."

"I think I have to worry about that, especially with the goatee."

"Hmm, I never realized you liked it that much."

She shrugged. "It looks sexy on you," she said, sliding a fingertip along the edge of it.

"So what then, Princess, because if I'm doing something wrong here…"

"You're not."

"It's killing me you wouldn't support me doing this."

"I would. I never said I wouldn't."

"Then what?"

"I'm late."

"Huh?"

She sighed. "I'm late, John. Like six weeks late. So six months from now…"

"Why the fuck didn't you just say that?"

"Because I haven't been to the doctor yet! I didn't want to get your hopes up, or have you be disappointed, until I knew for sure."

"So you'd rather me think you think I'm a douchebag of the worst kind? Jesus, talk about feeling like I got my heart ripped out. You thinking that about me was one of the worst things I've felt."

"No! I didn't think you'd leave like that!"

"Well, I wasn't going to stick around! My wife tells me…"

"I didn't! I mean, I know it sounded like that, but I'm going to be hugely pregnant and they're not and what if I have issues and am on bed rest or something and we can't."

"That can happen?" he asked.

"It can, yes."

"Then we can't? I'm not an asshole. I mean, I love having sex with you probably more than I should admit to. If I could stay in bed with you all day, every day and do nothing else I'd be a happy guy."

"I think I'd need a break once in a while."

"That's what your mouth would be for, Princess."

She settled her cheek against his neck and he knew she was blushing.

"Fuck," he whispered. "Are you shitting me?"

"No," she whispered.

"And you just didn't tell me?"

"I didn't want you to worry about it."

"So you've spent the last six weeks worrying about it yourself?"

"Well, there's nothing to worry about until I see a doctor."

"Well, yeah but there are tests."

"I took three."

"Where the fuck was I?"

"Doing weddings."

"Oh," he said. "All three came back positive?"

"Yes."

"I could be a shit right now."

She laughed softly. "God as my witness you're the only man I've slept with, John."

"I know, Princess," he said. "You've also spent the last six weeks making me think it hasn't worked."

"Because I didn't want to get your hopes up! Those tests can be wrong."

"Three of them?"

"I don't know."

"When's your doctor appointment?"

"A month from now."

"What?"

"There's nothing they can do until then, I guess."

"That doesn't seem right."

"Well, if I get my period between now and then we'll know they were false positives."

"That's it?"

"They told me to take some prenatal vitamins."

"Have you been?"

"Yes."

"Where?"

"At work."

"Why?"

"It's easier for me to remember. I take it after lunch."

"Huh."

He sighed softly.

"And now you're mad," she whispered.

"Not mad, I just. Fuck. Six weeks ago, you wouldn't be due until like January, right?"

"Something like that, but babies don't come when we want them to."

"I get that."

"You still want to go."

"Well, yeah. I mean," he sighed. "Certainly your brother would shovel for us while I'm gone so you wouldn't have to do that."

"Yes."

"And I'd come back early…"

"I know you would."

"You want me here, though," he said.

"Kind of. I mean, what if we don't have another one."

"Well, obviously I'm functioning."

"Obviously," she said with a soft laugh.

"What if you came down with me the whole time?"

"What?"

"Why not? You could relax for three weeks. I can find out about something better than a hotel room for three weeks that we could stay in so we can do our own cooking and everything."

"That does sound appealing."

"You know your dad would let you."

"Yes," she said.

"Think about it? Come on. The potential for weekends off."

"When do you have to decide?"

"Well, I can for now tell Ronda not to schedule anyone and if we decide not to I can tell her to go ahead. I'll also to ask her to note anyone who wanted those weekends so I can call them if I don't go."

She sighed softly, kissing his neck and he tilted his head a bit to let her do it better. He loved when she got like this and left him little love bites. They were never large, but he liked them just the same.

"I'll think about it."

"Thank you," he said, extremely relieved.

"Where did you go anyway?"

"I already told you."

"Shut up."

"I went to Phillip's."

"Oh," she said. "I'm glad you had someone to talk to."

"Where did you go?"

"I came here. I went to the pay phone down at the store and called Christopher."

He chuckled softly.

"What did Chris say?"

"To let you do your job."

"Really?"

"Yes."

"You didn't tell him about the baby, did you?"

"No," she said softly.

"I wonder if he'd give the same answer if you had."

"I think he would've."

"I knew I liked him."

She laughed softly. "Can you take me home now?"

"You drove your own car!"

"Oh, right."

"I can meet you there, though."

"Yes, please," she said.

"You're all right?"

"Yes."

"We're, uh, supposed to be doing that?"

"Yes."

"All right." He stood then, adjusting his jeans as she did the same to her skirt. "I don't care how pregnant you are, Princess. No one could compare to you as far as I'm concerned. So the idea that I'd look at someone else is utterly ridiculous. I have the best, there's no point in looking."

"Hmm, you may just get lucky again if you keep saying stuff like that."

"Well, then, let's get home so I can work on saying more of those things."

Return to Top

***Chapter Thirty-Five***
Word Count: 7,227

June 1989

"You know I'd go with you."

"Oh, I know you would, and that'd be great, but I am not ready for my mother to find out she's going to be a grandmother. I'm not even sure I want her to be a grandmother."

"I know."

"I mean you're not showing yet or anything so she wouldn't know or guess, but I'm just not ready for the two of you to interact. You know? And if she asks how you are," he shrugged.

"I understand."

"If you're not there I won't feel as though I have to say something about it. If you are there I think I'd be tempted."

"John, hon, I understand."

"Thank you. I mean, I realize I have no choice in whether she becomes a grandmother. If you're pregnant, which it seems you are, she's going to be a grandma. That doesn't mean I have to let her be a grandma to our kids."

"I know that, and I understand. Completely. I'm just used to having Sunday with you."

"I know and I'm sorry, but I promised her I'd work on Dad's car. It gives me an excuse to hang with Billy a bit, too. Show him some of Dad's things, I guess. Things he won't get to know how to use otherwise. You and Ronda keep telling me how useful all this knowledge my dad imparted on me was. Someone needs to be sure Billy has it, too, because he probably won't have any more of a chance of going to college than I had. He won't have Dad's garage to work at as a failsafe like I did either. So, we're better off this way for now. Besides, you're doing something with Ronda I thought."

"Yes!"

"That's good."

"I like her."

"I think the feeling is mutual or she would not be spending one of her days off from working for me with you."

They had lunch or dinner on Saturdays sometimes John knew accompanied by the occasional shopping excursion. As far as he knew that was as deep as their friendship ran, but he knew they liked one another.

"That's good. I haven't had a friend like her before."

"No?"

"No. I mean, it's nice. You know? I don't have to worry she's going to sell me out. I don't have to perform when I'm with her. I can just be me, hang out, talk, or God forbid, listen." Claire shrugged. "I guess maybe I did in high school, but not really. Not someone I just had lunch with or saw a movie with."

"Really?"

"Not really. There always had to be plans. You know. You couldn't just go to a movie on Friday night. Drama. And I couldn't leave my house without my makeup done perfectly."

"Right," he said, though he didn't really understand that thought process at all. He hadn't been like that. Then again he spent most of his Friday nights during junior high and high school getting stoned or something like it. He hadn't really cared who he did it with or what they did beforehand or afterward. He remembered how nice she looked, though, every day, even the day of detention when there would obviously be no one there but the five of them. And Vernon.

"Well, if you need me…"

"I'll be fine. You need money?"

"No," she said. She looked at him as if she found the question coming from him kind of strange.

"I know it's a stupid question, but I had to ask. I know you carry your plastic wherever you go but you don't always carry cash."

"I have some."

"All right," he said, leaning down to kiss her. "I'll see you later tonight then."

"I'll be here."

"Good to know," he said. "Tell Ronda if she gets you into any trouble she's fired."

"I'm not telling her that."

John chuckled softly. "I see how it works."

He had no idea what they were doing today, but when he'd mentioned heading to his mom's to work on his dad's car they'd plotted something together. He was fine with it, for the most part. He liked that Claire had someone who was decent and not out to use her to hang out with. He just wished it wasn't his employee because that could get awkward.

He drove to Phillip's house. It was a pretty nice day out, so he choose well when he decided in the middle of the week he'd work on his dad's car today. He still would have done it in the rain. It certainly wouldn't matter since he'd be able to work on it in the garage anyway.

"Hey, Elizabeth," he said when she answered the door.

He didn't get the impression Elizabeth lived here, but he didn't think she spent too many nights at her apartment either. The way Phillip described it, her parents were pretty old-fashioned so moving in together before they were married wouldn't have flown. It didn't sound as though Phillip's parents would have been too excited about it either, but he got the impression it was more for her parents than his they kept separate addresses. She spent most of her weekend nights at his place, John knew. During the week he wasn't exactly sure.

"Hi John. No Claire?"

"No, she's doing something with my assistant, Ronda."

"Right, I remember her. She was very nice."

"I hope so. I mean, you know, I pay her to be and all."

"No, she was very helpful. I had some questions and she answered them without bothering you. She knows her stuff."

"Yeah, she's good at fielding calls like that. Saves me time sometimes. You got everything worked out, though?"

"Oh, yeah. You know us brides, we have a million questions that have to get answered exactly the way we want them to be."

"Uh, yeah," he said with a soft laugh.

He'd encountered that phenomenon more than once, which was why he allowed Ronda to handle things until she knew she was outside of her comfort range. John didn't have time to answer "how many pictures will I get in this package versus that package" when it said right on the brochure. Ronda was much better at dealing with emotional women than John was.

"And you're sure you want Phillip's help working on a car?"

"He said he wanted to learn to be handier," John said.

He wasn't sure this was the wisest course of action, but to this point his mom had not made any effort to see Phillip at the hospital. Not his place to meddle perhaps, but Phillip asked about her or Billy just about every time they saw one another or talked. That led John to believe he was curious about his sister. His mom didn't have any friends, at least none that John knew of. His dad was in prison, presumably for the rest of their lives. He didn't want to care, but the idea of her doing nothing but sitting here with Billy all day and going to work didn't sit well with him. It also didn't seem to lend itself to a recovering addict and drunk staying sober. Staying sober was pretty key to Billy having a good life.

"Well, I won't complain," Elizabeth said. "All he'd be doing if he was here is watch baseball anyway."

"I'm ready," Phillip said, coming from upstairs. "Sorry. Oh, we are taking your car," he said, glancing behind John to the driveway.

"Yeah, it's going to be a decent enough day."

"Have fun," Elizabeth said, laughing a bit. She'd heard John and Phillip talk about John's car before and got bored every time. Phillip wasn't real knowledgeable about cars, but he knew what he liked. He liked John's Trans Am.

John pulled up in front of his mom's house and let Phillip follow him to the door. He knocked on the door, waiting for her to answer. He'd called her during the week to tell her he'd be by today to work on the car so she was expecting him. He figured while he was here he'd change the oil and stuff on her car so that was done. When he'd changed it before he'd put lighter oil in it for the winter. She didn't need that now that it was warmer again.

"You kind of left out who's car you were working on," Phillip said when Billy answered the door.

"Did I?" John asked.

"Intentionally?" Phillip asked.

"Yup," John said.

"He does look just like you," Phillip said.

"I'm aware," he said, wondering if his dad's genes were going to be as strong in John's kid. He wasn't sure he wanted a kid that looked like him or his old man. He realized he didn't have a choice in the matter, but if he had a preference they'd have a girl and she'd look just like Claire.

"Does she know I'm coming?"

"Nope," he said.

"Why am I here?"

"Because I don't want Claire here and I don't want to be here by myself all day."

"Uh huh," Phillip said.

"You ask about her. She's asked me about you. She's your sister. I'm not setting you up on a blind date."

"Well, Elizabeth might get a little upset about that."

John shook his head, reaching for the handle on the screen door.

"Hey, Billy, how are you doing today?"

"Fine," he said.

"Good. You going to help me work on your mom and dad's cars today?"

"Sure," he said.

"Great."

"Uh, John," Phillip said, sounding cautious.

"Don't worry. I'm not a complete moron. I realize he's three. I'll give him a screwdriver that he can hand to me once in a while." He was almost four now. His mom had said his birthday was sometime during the summer, John hadn't asked specifically when but that meant he was close to four now.

"Oh," he said.

"Then again when I was his age…"

"I'm not sure that's a good gauge."

"Probably not," John said.

Billy may not have the aptitude for things like that either. Their mother was not very mechanically inclined at all. Put a screwdriver in her hand and she wouldn't have a clue which end to put up against the screw. Some people were just like that. John didn't understand it, which was one of the reasons he'd been angry at Brian Johnson the day of detention. Until that day he'd just assumed the things he could do were … well, normal.

John opened the door then and stepped inside. Phillip did, too, but John could tell he hesitated for a second or two before doing it.

"So, this is where you grew up?" Phillip asked.

"Yeah. Not much has changed since I left either. Same carpet, same couch, same chairs, and TV. It's a little neater, though. Actually, a lot."

"Huh," Phillip said, regarding the living room. John could tell he was processing. The stuff was old, not ancient old like the stuff they'd had when they first started out. It was still pretty old, though. The couch, well, that was as old as John. He remembered when he was about ten his mom having it reupholstered and that is what was on the couch now.

"Johnny," his mom said when she came into the living room.

"Ma," he said softly.

"I'm sorry. I see you and I forget!"

"I get it," he said.

"I didn't know you were bringing someone with you," she said.

"Uh yeah, well, Claire had plans," he said, trailing off.

He didn't want to make her feel bad by telling her he didn't want to be alone with her again. Their emotional heart-to-heart when he was fixing the furnace was still a little too fresh in his mind. He didn't want a repeat of that. He had no idea what to even say to her since he didn't want her to know anything about his life. She knew where he worked and thereby what he did for a living and she knew where he lived. That was the extent of what he wanted her to know about him, though. It actually exceeded what he wanted her to know about him, but there wasn't much he could do about that, he supposed.

Phillip stepped toward her then.

"No hugs," John whispered.

He extended his hand then while John stooped to look at Billy.

"Ma, Billy, this is my friend Phillip," he said.

His mom looked at him in surprise, but that look only lasted a minute. She turned her attention to Phillip then, staring at him. He didn't seem to mind at least.

"Johnny, you should've told me," she said, but she hadn't taken her eyes off of Phillip. He supposed that was a natural reaction since the last time she'd seen him he'd been younger than Billy from what he gathered.

"Ma, you've known how to get a hold of him for months now."

"She has?" Phillip asked.

"She works at the cafeteria at Shermer Memorial. I told her where you worked, even what floor."

"Oh," Phillip said. "I didn't realize. I, of course, you look familiar."

"Yeah," she said softly, blushing.

"Geez, Mom, he's your brother. He's not a tax collector or anything. Talk to him. I'll take Billy out with me."

"Wait," Phillip said. "You don't want my help?"

"Oh, whenever you want to come out you can. If you don't, that's fine, too. I'll come find you when I'm done. Otherwise, Billy and I will make do just fine. Right Billy?"

"Yeah," he said and John chuckled softly. "Come on then."

"Mama," he said, waving at her as John took him outside with him.

"She'll be right here. We're not going anywhere. Just to the garage."

"He didn't tell me," Phillip said. "I mean, I had no idea he was bringing me here. He just said he needed help."

"Well, you should've known he was up to something. Johnny wouldn't need help with a car in this lifetime. Certainly not one of ours. He could probably fix both of them blindfolded by now."

"I suppose not," Phillip said, taking her in.

She'd aged. Not very well either. He had the sixteen year old her in his head when he envisioned her because it was the last age he'd seen any pictures of her. John didn't go into details about her habits the past twenty or so years, but he could tell she hadn't been kind to herself during those years.

It was kind of funny, John didn't like his mom much. Phillip couldn't blame him, but he'd gone out of his way to say nothing bad about her overall to Phillip. He wasn't sure why exactly either. If it were him, he was pretty sure he'd warn anyone away from her. Then he couldn't claim to understand John at all. Why he let Phillip into his life but no one else in their family to this point he had no idea. The fact they were closest in age? Maybe.

He'd been very surprised when John and Claire had showed up at his parents' house on Easter. When it had gotten pretty late in the day Phillip had just assumed he'd decided against it. He sensed, though, that he was there out of some sort of feeling of obligation versus wanting to be there. His brother and sister had sensed that, too. Of course it hadn't helped that Wayne hadn't been able to stop staring at him. Phillip had no recollection of John's dad or Cindy from back then so he had no version of his dad to compare him to. Wayne and Erin both did.

"You can come in, unless you'd rather help Johnny with the car?"

"Truthfully, I know nothing about cars. He just asked me if I wanted to come help him." Phillip hadn't understood why at the time, but he sure did now. "I thought he was trying to be nice, you know. Include me in a part of his life or something. I guess I should have known better."

He followed her to the kitchen then.

"Do you want some coffee? I just made some in case John wanted any."

"Sure," he said.

"How long have you been working at the hospital?" she asked as she got them cups.

"A couple of years."

"Right out of school then? You're twenty-five, right?" She poured them each coffee. Her hand shook a little as she poured his. He had to admit he was a little nervous himself. He had no idea what to even say to her. He'd thought about it since he'd found out about her situation, but now that he was here with her. Well, nothing he'd thought about saying seemed appropriate. Especially considering her husband was currently in prison likely for the rest of their lives.

"Yes and yes."

"And you're a doctor?"

"Uh, no, I'm a nurse."

"Really?"

"Yes. John didn't tell you that?"

"He may have, I don't remember things so well sometimes."

"It's okay. I'm sure you were surprised he knew me."

"I'll bet Mom and Dad loved that."

"Not really," he said.

"I can imagine. Are you married?" she asked, glancing at his left hand as she sat at the table.

"No, next year."

"Erin and Wayne?"

"No. Wayne has been dating someone but he doesn't seem to want to get married yet. Erin hasn't dated anyone in a while actually." Phillip hadn't thought about that really, but he hadn't heard about his sister having a boyfriend or even a date in a long time.

"What do they do?"

"Wayne's a lawyer. Erin's a professor. She teaches in the Economics department."

"She was always very smart."

"She is," Phillip agreed. "She was pretty little, though…"

"She was still smart. She knew her numbers and things way before Wayne ever learned them."

"Oh."

"Not that Wayne was slow in learning them," she added quickly. "Just she wanted to learn everything as quickly as she could. She used to drive me nuts."

"Why?"

"She was always in my room, pestering me. She wanted to know what everything was. My makeup, my hair dryer, my books, my homework. What fifteen year old wants their four year old sister around them all of the time?"

He laughed softly. He could see that. She tended to do the same thing to their father, asking him a million questions whenever he had the time to actually listen to them. Time wasn't something he had a lot of for them growing up because he was pretty busy.

Then she'd traded in a four-year-old sister for an infant son and Phillip didn't know all of the details, but he suspected John hadn't had it so good growing up. Even before he knew Phillip was his uncle he didn't talk much about himself, especially his childhood.

"I see where Dad is a judge now."

"Yes, for a while now," he said. "I think I was in high school."

"Sounds about right," she said.

"When did you start working at the hospital?" he asked. He'd seen her, but as he hadn't seen her or even a picture of her in over twenty years he had no idea who she was. She looked kind of like their mom he supposed, but he wouldn't have put two and two together.

"About a year ago, I guess," she said.

"You haven't worked before?"

"No," she said. "John's friend, Glen, told me about an opening they had. He worked there all through high school."

"That was nice of him. I didn't get the impression John talked to you until recently, though."

"No, he hadn't. I ran into Glen at Jewel one day. He helped me to my car with my groceries because Billy wasn't feeling well."

"Oh? Was he okay?"

"Just allergies," she shrugged. "He gets them pretty bad in the spring."

"Have you seen a doctor about it?"

"Not recently, no. He does okay, but he was pretty miserable that day for whatever reason."

"Nice of him, John's friend I mean."

"He was always a good boy," she said. "He didn't have a whole lot of nice friends."

"I think a lot of us were guilty of that in high school."

"True," she said.

"Listen, thanks for the coffee, but I think I'll go see if John needs any help."

"I'm sorry I wasn't prepared. I could have made lunch or something, but John never eats here so I didn't do anything."

"It's all right, Cindy, really. He surprised both of us, perhaps for the best. At least I know what you look like now."

She smiled a little at that.

"Are you going to tell Mom and Dad you saw me?"

"I don't know yet. If they ask I probably will, but I can't think of why they'd think to ask me that so maybe not. Unless you wanted me to."

"I'm not sure yet."

"Well, I can keep quiet for a bit, I guess. You know, you can come see me. If I'm at work."

"Oh, I wouldn't want to…"

"You're my sister, Cindy. You can come say hi anytime you want to."

"All right."

He leaned in then and gave her a kiss.

"It was good to meet you, Cindy. I've asked John about you, but I wasn't really figuring he'd do this."

"You've met Claire?"

"Yes, of course. I grew up with her. Why?"

"She's good to him?"

"As far as I know," Phillip said. "Maybe you should ask him that."

"I don't think he'd answer me."

"And you expect me to tell you? I told him I'm agreeable to being his friend versus his uncle. I wouldn't violate his trust that way."

"I just … worry."

"He's an adult. She's an adult. Not much you can do."

"He just worked so hard."

"He has. She can appreciate that, though."

She scoffed softly.

"Come on, Cindy. Don't judge her based on what the newspapers have printed about her over the years. She makes your son happy, isn't that what matters most? Mom and Dad loved John, right?"

"No."

"Well then?"

"I just don't want to see him make the same mistake."

"That's their mistake to make, if it is one."

"I know."

"Don't meddle, Cindy. If you want him in your life at all, just leave it alone. I don't know your situation. He hasn't confided in me or anything, but I know he doesn't talk to you much and seems to feel some sort of obligation to do these things for you like fix your furnace and your car. I've gotten that much. If you want that to change now that his dad is gone, you need to let him live his life."

"I know, it's just so hard. He's still my son. I've changed since he's been gone."

"Well, just like you did, he's grown up. He'll either see you've changed or he won't. You can't make him see it."

He brought his cup to the counter near the sink, setting it down.

"Thanks for the coffee and everything."

"You're welcome."

"Billy, by the way. He's cute. Looks just like John."

"He does."

"Both of them, I understand."

"Yeah, actually, all three of them."

"Huh?"

She smiled a little at that. "John and Billy, both of them and their father, look like John's father. John Senior."

"Oh. Does John know that?"

"No, I don't think so."

"I'm guessing not because he didn't know he was a Third until I told him."

"It never came up. John didn't want him to know when he got old enough to be told. He and his father weren't speaking anymore and he didn't want John to know he'd been named after someone he didn't like."

Phillip chuckled a bit at that, because he was named after someone no one seemed to like as it was. Well, he supposed that wasn't accurate. He knew John didn't like his dad, his parents hadn't been fond of the man. Then what mom or dad would like the guy who got their sixteen year old daughter pregnant? So, he had little to form an honest opinion on. He believed John had a reason for his dislike, though. The scars on his arms weren't just from a one-time accident, Phillip knew that from some of the children he worked with at Shermer Memorial. Today Social Services was called at the hint of anything bad occurring in a home, but he knew twenty years ago that wasn't the case as much.

"You could probably come out with us if you wanted to."

"No, we seem to argue when I do that."

"Maybe you should just try talking to him about small things. Like his day or his job or his car."

"Maybe," she said, but she didn't sound as though she was going to try today.

"All right. I'll be back in I'm sure."

"It was good to finally see you, Phil."

"You, too, Cindy. Small world us working at the same hospital."

"It is."

He went out to the garage where Billy was on the floor under the car right next to John.

"So much for him just holding a screwdriver," Phillip said.

"He came under here of his own doing. I'm not going to tell him not to if he's interested. Ma will just have to give him a bath later."

"How long are you going to be?"

"Run out of things to talk about with the sister you haven't seen since you were in diapers?"

"Without being prepared I was going to see her, yeah."

"I'd say I was sorry, but I was tired of her not saying anything to you."

"How do you know she hadn't?"

"You would've mentioned it, I'm sure."

"True," Phillip said. He had a valid point. He would've told John because she would have obviously gotten his work information from John.

He walked up to a workbench area, glancing at everything there.

"All this stuff is your dad's?"

"No, I stole it. What kind of question is that?"

"It's just so much."

"That's my dad. He never threw anything away because it might be useful somewhere down the line."

"And you know how to use all of these tools?"

"Yes," John said. "Whoop, sorry, Billy. You okay?"

"Yes," Phillip heard the boy say softly from under the car.

"You didn't have tools in your garage?"

"Uh, no."

"Really?" John asked, sounding intrigued by that notion.

"No. I mean, Dad had, you know, a hammer and basic stuff but I can honestly say I never saw him pick one up in my lifetime. I'm sure Cindy would say the same thing."

"Probably explains why neither of you can fix anything."

"Probably so," Phillip said, laughing softly.

"Okay, Billy, you need to go see my friend Phillip for a minute now," John said. Billy did just that, scooting out from under the car in a far agiler way than Phillip ever could have done even as a kid. He just didn't do things like climb under cars.

"Phillip, would you start the car for me?"

"Sure," he said. "You going to be all right if it does?"

"Yeah. I might get dirty if it's leaking, just didn't want Billy getting all dirty in case that happened."

"You sure?"

"Yes. Really. If you'd rather me get out from under here and do it myself I can, but you're in here, may as well save me the extra steps."

"All right, all right," he said, getting into the car. Billy climbed into the car first and sat on the seat next to him. He grabbed the seat belt, toying with it while Phillip turned the car on. He didn't close the door or anything,

"Good, thanks," John called out from under the car. "You can shut it off now."

"All right," he said, doing just that.

He regarded Billy for a few minutes. It was pretty eerie how much he looked like his brother. Phillip didn't have that. He didn't think any of them looked particularly like either of their parents. All four of them, even Cindy seeing her today, were kind of a blend of their parents. Wayne had their dad's eyes, but their mom's bone structure. Erin had their dad's bigger boned body frame, but that was about it.

"Why don't you ever take your mom up on her offer of coffee or anything?"

"I don't drink coffee. Can't stand the stuff and if she knew me at all, she'd know that without asking me every time I came over here."

"Fair enough. Food, though."

"I'm not here to eat. I have my own kitchen, my own food."

"I think she…"

"Don't even go there, all right. She's lucky I'm coming here to do the shit I'm doing."

"John."

"What? She is!"

"You shouldn't talk like that in front of your brother."

"Oh, sorry," he said, sounding as though he hadn't thought of that before. "Sorry, Billy," he added.

Billy clearly hadn't been paying them any attention as he was focused on the seatbelt, but Phillip still didn't think it was a good habit to be in.

"So when you fix your dad's car?"

"It's fixed. I changed her oil already. I just wasn't sure how complex his car's issue was. Hers this winter I knew was an easy fix."

"Easy for you," Phillip said.

"Yes," John said, coming out from under the car.

"How much of this stuff do you have in your own garage?"

"Some. Not nearly as much. Dad saved every screw, every nail, and every drill bit he ever encountered."

Phillip watched as he walked to a large cabinet and opened it. "See?" John asked. Phillip got out of the car then and walked to the cabinet.

"Holy shit," he said.

"Now who's swearing in front of my brother," John said with a soft laugh.

Inside the cabinet were tons, dozens if not hundreds of little plastic drawers filled with. Phillip opened a few of them. Everything from bolts to nuts to screws to nails to hinges.

"You should ask your mom if you could have some of this stuff."

"She needs it."

"For you to come fix her stuff. Your dad's not coming home anytime soon."

"You going to come run interference if he gets out on some technicality and discovers I took all of his stuff?"

"Oh," he said.

"Yeah. I thought of it. Believe me, but it's too risky."

"Does he even have a lawyer?"

"I don't know. You'd have to ask Ma that. I assume so. He had to, right? He couldn't go to trial without one, so I assume so. I didn't even know about it until this winter so I'm as clueless as you are. Probably a public defender, though."

"He wouldn't have gotten a good lawyer for a murder charge?"

"Other than the stuff in this garage, Dad spent his money on booze and drugs. This was his hobby, which was really an extension of his job. That was it. He didn't have a savings account. I'm not even sure he had a checking account. He must have, I suppose. You'd have to ask her," he said, gesturing to the house. "I doubt he had any saved for a rainy day, though. Every day was rainy to my old man. He spent his money pretty freely."

"Is that why you're holding onto Claire's money?"

John shrugged. "I don't need her money. I figure one day maybe we will and then it'll be there. She's going to be taking time off next year so at least I can give her money if she needs or wants it for things."

"Why?"

"Because she deserves to have access to money?"

"No, why is she taking time off work?"

"Oh, because she's pregnant."

"Really?"

Billy must have moved to the driver's seat because all of the sudden the horn sounded. Phillip had his back to the car, but John was facing it so he wasn't surprised where Phillip was.

John chuckled softly.

"Is that why you didn't take your eyes off of him?"

"No, I mean, yes. I remember once when I was about his age managing somehow to get the car in gear and it rolling down the driveway onto the street. I know to keep an eye on kids in cars."

"Good point. She's really pregnant?"

"Yes."

"And you didn't tell me before now because…?"

"I don't know. I haven't told anyone. I don't really have anyone to tell. You, Ronda. She hasn't seen the doctor yet or anything so it's not like official."

"She's convinced, though?"

"She's taken three tests."

"Well, that's pretty convincing."

"I'd say."

"You said you were trying."

"I wasn't entirely sure it'd work as fast as it did, though."

"You all right?"

John shrugged, closing the cabinet doors he'd opened and sliding the lock back in place. Phillip watched as he put some stuff on his hands and rubbed them together before wiping them off on a shop towel. His hands came away much cleaner than they had been a minute ago.

"I'm fine," he said. "I just figured her parents should know first, you know."

"You sure?"

"I don't really have a whole lot of choice but to be fine, do I? I assumed it'd take a little longer than this. I wasn't even sure I could have kids truthfully. Am I scared shitless? Yes, I can admit that. I don't have a very good example to feed off, you know? Do I worry that because of how I was raised and treated I'll have kids who will get away with murder? Yup, I sure do."

"That's what Claire is for," he said.

"I guess," John said.

"I mean, you know, a balance. Impartial."

"Sure, my mom did a stellar job of being impartial."

"John, that's not fair. You're not your dad."

"Funny, your entire family stares at me as if I am him so I have to wonder sometimes if the apple doesn't fall far from the tree."

"Has Billy done anything that upset you?"

"Well, sure. He spills his milk, makes a mess when we're eating, and well, just in general is very good at being a preschool aged kid I've been told."

"And?"

"And what?"

"Have you done anything about it?"

"No. I mean, I've told him to stop what he's doing if he's acting up."

"I realize it's not the same, because you're not around him every day but because it's new to you I think it's a pretty good gauge."

"Maybe," John shrugged.

"And I won't tell anyone."

"Thank you. Please don't tell her," he said, gesturing to the house. "I'm not sure I care about your parents or anything, but I don't want her knowing until I'm ready to tell her."

"John…"

"I'm not at all sure I'm ready to share with her personal details of my life. The only reason she knows I'm married is because she got a wedding gift delivered here by mistake. That's how I knew she was taking the bus. If you can't handle that, not sharing details of my life with my mother then that's fine. I'll drop you off back at your place and we can just part ways. I've done just fine the past four years without her in my life."

"No, John, that's not what I meant. I'm not trying to come in between the two of you. I just think you'll have a hard time hiding it."

"Why do you think you're here today and Claire's not? I'm not going to put them in the same proximity together anytime soon."

"What about your brother?"

"Claire doesn't have to come with me when I take him to eat. She does now because it's better than me sitting there staring at him with nothing to say while we eat."

"That's the only reason?"

"Well, he's not her brother. She comes along because I ask her to and because she's nice like that. I'm just not sure I want her to know that part of things yet. She's going to want to see it and I don't know I'd do that. My seeing her is one thing and she seems to be doing all right with Billy, but I can assure you I'd never trust my kid with her. Not in a million years."

"I understand."

"You don't, not really, but thank you for saying you do."

John draped the towel over his shoulder and closed the hood on the car.

"All right, Billy, come on out. Let me see your hands before I take you back inside to Mom," he said.

He put some of the same goopy-looking stuff on Billy's hands rubbing it in since he'd evidently touched the garage floor with them while he was under the car with his brother. He put some on his face, too, because like most kids Phillip had encountered if there was dirt anywhere in their vicinity they got it on them everywhere.

"All right," he said, wiping his hands and face off with the same towel. "Now Mom can't yell at me for bringing you in too dirty," he said.

"Did you have fun with your brother, Billy?" Phillip asked.

"Yes!"

Phillip laughed. "Good to hear."

"Go on in, Billy, I'll be right there to talk to Mom."

They both watched as he ran to the backdoor, going in and calling for his mom.

"I think I know what I'm going to get him for his birthday," John said.

"Oh," he asked.

"One of those toy tool sets. Or is that too obvious?"

"No, I don't think so. Then what do I know? Why would it be?"

"I don't know. He may already have one, guess I should ask."

"Whatever you get him, I'm sure he'd like it. Are you going to see him?"

"On his birthday? I don't know, I guess that depends on Mom. She never told me when it was exactly just that it was during the summer."

"You two…"

"Don't say it, all right. You didn't grow up with her. You can get to know her objectively. I don't have that luxury. I have eighteen years' worth of living with her to decide if I really want to set aside or not."

"Got it."

"Thank you," he said. "All right. I'm just going to go in and say good bye and tell her everything's done. If you want to take a look around and make sure I didn't miss anything, that'd be great."

"Miss anything?"

"Yeah, a puddle of oil on the floor or anything like that."

"Sure," he said.

"You do know what a puddle of oil looks like, right?"

"Yes," Phillip said. "I'm not that bad."

"Good."

He went in the backdoor.

"John, you shouldn't do that," she said as soon as he walked in.

"Ma, you've asked me about him. He's asked me about you. Now you know who each other are. He's your brother and he was obviously curious enough about you to seek me out."

"Only because you married Claire."

"Did you ask him why?"

"No," she said.

"Maybe you should, but that's for you two to discuss. Anyway, Dad's car is running," he said, handing her the keys. "I changed your oil. You're good for three thousand miles."

"Thank you."

"It's all right, Ma. When is Billy's birthday?"

"It's in August."

"August?"

"Ninth."

"All right. Just wondering, you know, so I know when to get him a present."

"He'll like that."

"I hope so. Anyway, I'm going to go now. Everything's put away. I'll make sure the door leading to the garage is locked and everything."

"Okay, Johnny, thank you."

"Sure. Is he in his room?"

"Yes."

"All right," he said, walking towards his brother's bedroom. He pushed open the door and watched as he colored in one of the coloring books John had given him a while ago. He'd given him a few since the initial Ninja Turtles one.

"Hey, Billy, I'm going home now, okay. Thanks for helping me with Dad's car."

"Okay," he said.

"I'll see you next time. I'll probably take you out for dinner sometime soon. Okay?"

"Yeah."

"Okay. You be good for Ma, eat all your vegetables and stuff."

"Okay."

John chuckled a bit. He had to admit it was the most response he'd gotten out of Billy yet. Usually he said very little.

"Tell Claire I said hello."

"Ma," he said cautiously as he returned to the kitchen. "Please don't do that to me."

"She's my…"

"Yeah, well, I'll tell her if I remember I guess. Have a good rest of your day."

"Thank you, Johnny. Do I owe you anything?"

"No. Just take care of your car, pay attention to the mileage so you know to get the oil changed again on time."

"Okay."

He went out the back door then, checking the side door leading to the garage as Phillip was standing there looking kind of lost.

"Problem?" John asked.

"No, just thinking about you as a kid in here."

"Yup. I wasn't any older than Billy when the old man started teaching me the ins and outs of vehicle maintenance. You ready to go then?"

"Sure. You all right?"

"Yes. I just really hate coming here."

"Then why do it?"

John shrugged. "It's nice out now so it's not as important, but I didn't like the idea of her having to walk to bus stops in the winter with Billy."

"That's kind of sweet."

"Shut up," John said.

"Make me," Phillip said.

"I can make you walk home."

"I bet Cindy would give me a ride."

John chuckled a bit at that. "I bet she would. You might have to explain that to Elizabeth, though."

"That's true. I'm not sure I'm ready for her to think I'm unfaithful."

"I imagine not."

"Speaking of…"

"Yeah?"

"Did you and Claire resolve that trip issue?"

"We're still working it out. I've told Ronda to mark me off. Her being pregnant sort of throws a wrench into the idea because what happens if the baby is early."

"How far along is she?"

"Uh, like eight weeks or something I think?"

"So that's like mid-January," Phillip said after a few minutes of being quiet.

"I guess."

"It'd be very rare for a baby to come that early."

"I'm trying to convince her to let her dad take her maternity leave early and just go with me."

"Oh?"

"My nights with her on a Caribbean beach?"

"Even eight plus months pregnant?"

"She'd still be the best thing on the beach to me."

"You're so whipped."

"It kind of sucks."

"I hope her dad says yes."

"Me, too. I really want to go, but I understand why she doesn't want me to be gone for three weeks either."

"Well, if she doesn't go or doesn't for the whole three weeks and you two need anything. Shoveling, or grocery shopping, or even a house call I'm willing to help."

"I'll let her know."

"And John?" he said.

"Yeah?"

"Thanks for bringing me to meet my sister."

"You're welcome. Thanks for not thinking I'm an asshole for just thrusting you two at each other."

"Oh, I think you're an asshole, just not for that."

John scoffed softly. "Thanks a lot."

Return to Top

***Chapter Thirty-Six***
Word Count: 2,600

"Now it makes much more sense," he heard Ronda say from her desk. He was in his office putting stuff away for the night. He'd already closed up in the back. Not even Ronda had a key to get back there. It wasn't that he didn't trust her. He did, probably with his life, but he just felt better – safer – knowing he was the only one who had access to the area with his equipment. Mr. Fitzgerald had done him a huge favor leaving him the stuff he had, John would never forget it or do anything to risk losing those things. He had insurance and could replace everything, but that wasn't the point. The old man had wanted John to have it, John would protect the stuff he'd been entrusted with.

"What does?" Claire asked.

"Well, he went home earlier. I assumed he was just letting Diana out, but he came back dressed in a suit and everything."

"Oh, yes, we're going out for dinner," Claire said.

"Any special occasion?"

"I," Claire said as John came out of his office. He loved when she looked at him like she was currently. Like she loved him. Like she found him more than just a little attractive. Like she wanted him. Then, they always seemed to want each other so that wasn't anything new.

"Hi," he said.

"Hi yourself. You said you were going to change, I knew you meant it, but you look very nice."

"As opposed to the other times we go out for a nice dinner and I don't?"

"No, but you hate that suit."

"I don't hate the suit. I hate that it cost more than probably all of my other suits put together cost. It's a nice suit. I'm not stupid enough to say it's not. It just seems like a waste to wear it while I'm working."

"So, what's the occasion?" Ronda asked.

He smirked a little before answering. "Our anniversary."

"You got married in September," Ronda said, sounding confused.

"Yeah, I'm aware of that. The other kind of anniversary," he said.

"There's another kind?"

"Yes, for us anyway. When our relationship started."

"Oh," Ronda said. "Whose idea was it?"

"Mine," John said, walking toward Claire. "I think I surprised her that I remembered."

"You did," Claire said.

"I pay enough attention to know things like that matter to women."

"How did you remember?" Claire asked.

"It was one hundred fucking degrees! I came home to find you sitting on my porch. It stands out pretty easily even to clueless guys like me."

"I suppose," Ronda said.

"He even sent me flowers," Claire said.

"At work?" Ronda asked.

"Yes."

"What kind?" Ronda asked.

"Roses."

"Finally you got the roses," Ronda said.

"I know. It only took him ten months."

"He's right here. I sent you some before when I was stuck in Rockford."

"I forgot, I guess."

"Really? I thought about doing it again, but was afraid you'd think I did it too often or something."

"There's no such thing as too many flowers too soon, hon," Claire said.

"Yeah, well, I had to be spontaneous with them."

"I'm not complaining. They were gorgeous."

"Good," he said.

"Red?" Ronda asked.

"Red with a couple of white ones in there, too."

"Aw, you are a romantic."

"Don't tell anyone," John said.

"Sam asked me what you'd done wrong," Claire said.

"Great."

"I told her you hadn't done anything wrong."

"Thank you," he said very relieved to hear that. The last thing he needed was her assistant walking around the office telling everyone who'd listen he was an asshole or an idiot. Or both.

He shut off the light, checking his pockets to be sure he had his keys and his wallet.

"You look very nice, too," he said before kissing her. He lingered a bit longer than maybe he should have considering his doors were still unlocked and Ronda was a few feet away. He couldn't resist.

"Thank you."

"But then you always do," he whispered, kissing her ear before drawing away. "If you left this morning not knowing that, let me know and I'll fix it later."

"Tell me that in November and I think I might fall in love with you."

"I'll keep that in mind for sure then."

"Good."

"How are you feeling?"

"All right."

"Yeah? You're sure? You're not lying to me so I won't worry anymore?"

She'd been getting sick for weeks. How he hadn't noticed before she'd told him she was late he wasn't sure. It was winter, so he supposed he just chalked it up to her being sick. Or she was just really good at hiding it. Either way, he'd been clueless. Probably because he'd sort of assumed the worst when she hadn't gotten pregnant back in September. He knew pregnant women getting sick wasn't abnormal, but she had a hard time keeping anything down. She threw up after eating lunch more often than not. She hadn't told him that part. He'd overheard her tell her doctor that last week.

"Yes, taking them at night helps a lot. I mean, I still don't feel great in the mornings when I wake up, but that tapers off and I'm not getting so sick after lunch anymore like I was. I wish they'd told me that from the beginning it would have saved me weeks of feeling awful every day."

"Good," he said. "I was beginning to think we should buy stock in Saltines and 7-Up."

"I wasn't that bad!"

"Says you. You're not the one who had to sit there and do nothing."

"You got me crackers!"

"Sure. Big help."

"It was. You went to the store at like four in the morning and did that. That was a big help."

"If you say so."

"I do."

"All right then. I don't think that was anything out of the ordinary. You wanted crackers."

"You went and got them in your pajamas."

He shrugged. He didn't really have pajamas because he never wore anything to bed, but he had sweatpants that he'd worn the night she'd wanted crackers and 7-Up so badly. He supposed he'd have to look into pajamas one of these days. So would she for that matter since they wouldn't be alone in their house in a few months. Then he supposed it'd be a while before they had to worry about privacy being an issue.

"Have you told her?" she asked. Ronda was in the kitchen now, checking her coffee maker and stuff no doubt. She'd already turned off the copy machine for the night and set the answering machine to answer right away.

"No, I was kind of waiting for you to tell your parents."

"Well, I appreciate that, but you're not going to tell your mom."

"Uh, no, but I told Phillip already. It was sort of an accident, but still…"

"You can tell whoever you want. No one you know is going to tell my parents, except I suppose Phillip if he tells his parents."

"Well, I told him not to for now. I was thinking we should wait. No?"

She shrugged. "It's up to you. You kind of have to tell her eventually if we're going to ask her and Bill to be the godparents."

"You're sure you want to do that?"

"Well, Christopher can't unless we picked just another random person to be godmother."

"Right."

"And you don't seem to want to ask Phillip and Elizabeth."

"No, that's implies a little too permanent of a relationship than I think I'm ready for. I mean, what happens if I start hating him next week?"

"I know, I understand. I do completely. I don't think that's going to happen, but I understand. Ronda is an objective outsider and she's Catholic."

"Right. Has to be Catholic."

"Yes."

"But I don't?"

"No, I mean, no. If we'd gotten married in a church you would've had to sign something promising to let me raise our kids Catholic."

"Really?"

"Yes."

"Thank God we avoided that then."

"Why?"

"I'm not sure I'd want to make that kind of promise. What would happen if you decided not to bring them? Or what if they didn't want to be Catholic?"

"Well, I think those are things we don't have to worry about with young children. Obviously, if they got older and made those decisions we'd have to listen to them. That would be a little different than you stopping me from raising them as Catholic, though."

"I'm not going to stop you, but I admit on that you're completely on your own. I mean, if you need me to do something, you'll have to tell me."

"I know, hon, I know. It's fine."

"Why are you two still here? I do have keys and I know how to lock the doors."

"Well," John said. "Claire and I had a question for you and Bill."

"Okay," she said cautiously. "You need us to take the puppy or something?"

"What?" he asked.

"Diana."

"Oh, no," he said.

That's why he'd gone home to change earlier. He knew they were going to be leaving right from here so he'd gone home one last time to let the puppy out. It was good he lived close to work so he could go home during the day to do that. She was a pretty cute yellow lab that Claire had picked out a couple of weeks ago. Why they were tackling a puppy when they'd have a baby in the house in a few months he wasn't sure, but he supposed at least by the time the baby was born the puppy would be completely housebroken.

"We were kind of hoping you and Bill would think about agreeing to be godparents."

"To who?"

"Uh, us? I mean, well, you know."

"Get out of here. Really? This is how you tell me?"

"Well, I didn't realize I was supposed to tell you yet. I mean, I didn't know I could."

"How long have you known?"

"About a month," John said. "She's known a little longer than that. We just saw the doctor last week so it's all, you know, official."

"Wow. Well, congratulations! This is good, right? I mean, well, of course it is. That's a stupid question. And I'll talk to Bill. I'm sure he'd be as honored as I would be. You're sure you want us, though?"

"Yes. We want someone we know we can count on. There's no one else I could say that about without a doubt but you."

"And we're Catholic," she said.

"And you're Catholic."

"Wow. And you," she said to Claire. "I've seen you. I've had lunch with you and you didn't say a word!"

"Three home tests weren't enough for John, he wanted to be sure."

"Understandable I guess, considering. So you heard the heartbeat and everything?"

"Yes," he said.

"And?"

He didn't know what to say to that question without sounding like a fucking softhearted idiot. It was probably the most amazing thing he'd heard in his life. Well, besides Claire telling him she loved him. That was different. A totally, completely different thing than hearing the steady beating of their baby's heartbeat. He'd gone to the doctor with her and listened to the two of them talk, thoroughly convinced she'd tell them that the pregnancy tests she'd taken had been wrong. He'd heard of those things happening. Not with three tests, but what did he know?

Her doctor had spread this blob of gel-like goop on Claire's stomach and put this wand-looking device over the goop and after a few seconds, maybe a minute she'd found the heartbeat. Her doctor probably thought he was an asshole because he'd had to leave the room after that. Claire was the only person he'd ever really been able to show emotion to. He still wasn't very good at it even with her he knew. He'd certainly never cried in front of her. He wasn't sure he ever could do that. His own issue because he knew she wouldn't mind or think less of him for doing it.

"It was cool," he said.

"How far along are you?" Ronda asked.

"Like eleven weeks."

"So, that's why you weren't sure about going on that trip," she said to John.

"Kind of," John said. "I'm trying to convince her to go on maternity leave early and come with me."

"Like I want to go down to a Caribbean island eight months pregnant!"

"I want you to come with me to a Caribbean island eight months pregnant. I'm the one looking at you, I don't care what anyone else thinks. I'd want you down there nine months pregnant."

"You say that, but…"

"No buts. I want you there. I have to pay my own way, may as well pay my own way for two. It's a perfect excuse to get your dad to let you go on leave early."

"I only get twelve weeks."

"Right. Like he's going to give your position to someone else. It's not like you couldn't go in part-time for a while or something. And," he shrugged. "We can work around your schedule with mine if we have to. If you go in in the mornings, I can schedule stuff in the afternoons and evenings. Or whatever works. You know that I'm willing to do that. It's not like my schedule is concrete. I think Ronda would clear my schedule completely if she thought it'd help."

"I would!" Ronda said. "I'd also babysit!"

"See. Come on, Princess. Three weeks of nothing but beaches and sunshine. I'd say Pina Coladas, but you can't drink those right now."

"Don't remind me."

"I'm sure we can find some tropical virgin drink for you to overindulge in. When are we going to take a vacation together just the two of us for the next eighteen years?"

Claire laughed. "I will talk to my dad about it after we've told him I'm pregnant."

"Finally! Thank you."

"Yeah, yeah," she said. "I still think you're going to regret it."

"I think you underestimate how much I am thoroughly taken by you that I haven't noticed another woman, bikini or not, in a year. And how much the idea of us on a beach appeals to me."

"Hmm."

"It's true!"

"Again, tell me that again in November."

"I'll tell you that whenever you want me to. It'll be true."

"Let's go eat," Claire said.

"All right. It was nice of your dad to give you a ride today."

"He was kind of surprised I asked, but he was fine with it."

"I'll lock up," Ronda said. "You two go on now."

"See you tomorrow, Ronda," John said, flipping the last of the lights off as they walked to the door.

"So, Diana was okay when you got home?"

"Yes. She's fine. I had time so I let her run around in the yard for a little extra while I got ready."

"Good."

He opened her door for her, but stopped her from getting in right away.

"What?" she asked.

"It was more than cool," he said.

"What?"

"Hearing the heartbeat."

"I know," she said.

"I didn't," he shrugged. "I wasn't expecting…"

She reached in and kissed him, running a fingertip along his lips. "I know, John. I do. It was pretty more than cool to me and I didn't think there was an issue with me until the moment of hearing it. I understand."

"Thank you."

"Now feed your pregnant wife."

"Yes, ma'am," he said, closing the door behind her when she slid onto his seat.

Return to Top

***Chapter Thirty-Seven***
Word Count: 4,537

August 1989

"That wasn't too bad," Phillip said.

"No, it wasn't," John agreed. "I expected worse."

Claire slid her hand into his, squeezing his before resting them against his knee. She knew he'd been dreading this day for weeks. Billy's fourth birthday party had been this afternoon. Phillip and Elizabeth had been invited, too. John hadn't wanted to go at all, but his mother had actually scheduled the party on a Sunday around John's work schedule. So, he'd felt sort of obligated. It meant seeing some people he'd known, though, and being introduced as her son to people he didn't know.

"Do your parents know where you were today?" John asked.

"I mentioned it, yes."

"Really?" he asked, sounding surprised.

"She went out of her way to invite me to my nephew's birthday party, I sort of felt they should know I talk to her."

"They weren't mad?"

"Mad?"

"That they weren't invited, too."

"Oh," he said. "No. I think they hope she'll get in touch with them, but I can't make her. I explained to them the only reason we talk is because of your interference."

"Right," John said.

"They were curious about Billy. What he's like and stuff. I haven't seen him other than that one day I went with you so I couldn't really answer their questions about him."

"I imagine they were," John said.

Their waitress came to their table to take their drink orders. She probably thought John was kidding when he told her to bring him another beer as soon as she noticed his first one was empty. Those at the table knew he wasn't joking in the least. Claire knew he wouldn't get drunk, but taking the edge off of an afternoon spent with his mother and people who knew her was on his mind.

"I was surprised she invited us, truthfully. I mean I've seen her at work a few times since June. We've eaten together a couple of times when our lunches coincided, but we don't really talk about much."

"At least you're talking."

Claire knew John sort of hoped that with Phillip and the rest of the Taylors involved maybe his mom would focus on them instead of John. She hadn't called or anything since he'd been there to fix his dad's car, but she knew John was expecting it. He picked Billy up once a month so every time he did that John was worried his mom would have something more around the house she needed him to work on.

"How did you convince him to let you go along?" Phillip asked Claire.

"I didn't. He decided on his own that it'd be rude if I didn't show up."

"Is it weird having a brother-in-law that young?"

"Yes. Weird to think our child will have an uncle only four years older than him or her."

"She didn't suspect anything, you know," Phillip said.

"I know," John said. "She's not showing yet or anything."

"And I love you for saying that."

She really did, more than he probably would ever understand. She was really trying not to be vain or overly obsessed about things getting increasingly tighter on her when she went to put them on. She knew it was temporary, but she wasn't thrilled. It wasn't just her pants and skirts either, even her tops were snugger than they had been just a couple of weeks ago.

"What? That you're not showing? You're not."

"I can't fit into my jeans anymore."

"That's too bad. That means you just can't wear them anymore. I'm okay with that."

"I have to go to work!"

"You never wore them anyway! You certainly don't wear jeans to work."

Their waitress set their drinks down and took their order. None of them were real hungry since they'd had some food at Billy's party, so they ordered a couple of appetizers to share and snack on before heading home for the night. The food at the party wasn't extravagant or anything, but Claire knew his mom was on a pretty limited income. There weren't hundreds of people there or anything and she doubted anyone expected more than the sandwiches, chips, salads, and cake with ice cream, of course.

"It's not the point."

"Princess, trust me, I know every inch of you, some of them better than others perhaps, you are not showing. I've been looking."

"Why?" Elizabeth asked.

"I'm still not totally convinced this isn't some crazy dream."

"You've heard the heartbeat with me. More than once now," Claire said.

"I know, but I wasn't expecting it to be quite so easy. You know? So, I think until I see the physical, tangible proof. Well, I don't know. I know you're not anxious for that part."

"No," she said.

"And just think, you'll be on maternity leave after Thanksgiving so you won't have to worry about not fitting into your clothes. We'll be in the Caribbean where you don't have to wear any for the three weeks we're there as far as I'm concerned."

"John," she said, knowing she was blushing.

"What? You're pregnant, Phillip's a nurse and Elizabeth is pretty smart. I suspect they know how you got that way."

"I know, but I have to wear clothes."

"Uh, no, you don't. Not if I have anything to say about it."

"She did agree to go?" Phillip asked.

"Yes! It took her a while, but she came around."

"Well, good, I'm glad," Phillip said. "That'll be good for both of you. A chance to get away and have a break together before the baby comes."

"He's going to be working."

"Yes, but it doesn't sound like his time is going to be booked all day every day from what he's told me about it."

"No. I just have to be there at Suzanne's beck and call basically. I may have days of nothing followed by a day or two of hours and hours of work. I have no idea what to expect, but at least she'll be there with me."

"Have you found a place to stay yet?" he asked.

"Yes, thanks to the travel agent Claire's company uses we found a nice timeshare right on the beach. Someone had booked it I guess and then backed out."

"Nice."

"Even better, it looks like it's pretty remote, not right in the thick of things so Claire should be able to just relax. She can read, keep her feet up, or whatever."

"Who's taking your dog?"

"Her brother and Ronda will split up the time between the two of them. I think Ronda will get her the bulk of the time since Christopher doesn't really have anywhere for her to run around in."

"Well, if I can help out let me know. I have a yard."

"I know, thanks," John said.

"And if you need anything around your house done, shoveling or whatever so it's not obvious no one's home for three weeks I can help out."

"Thank you."

"I still think he overestimates the appeal of me in a swimsuit eight months pregnant."

"I don't at all. I've seen pregnant women. I've photographed them. I know what to expect. You'll be gorgeous."

"Yes, because compared to all of the models there I'll be stunning."

"Princess, you are my own personal model. You're always stunning."

"Thank you," she said. He said things like that and she knew he was in a way being a little sarcastic but she still liked hearing them.

"How are the wedding plans coming along?" Claire asked Elizabeth.

"Good so far. I think I finally found my dress."

"Oh, really?" Claire asked.

"I recognize that tone," John said. "She's about to be in her element, Elizabeth. Be careful. And remember, Phillip's not supposed to know anything about it until the day of the wedding."

"I know that," Claire said. "I can't wait to see it, though."

"Well, that was kind of the reason Elizabeth and I both went to the party today. I mean, well, I probably would've shown up for a while but Cindy and I are still getting used to one another. Seeing each other at the hospital while on lunch breaks is a little different than being at her house surrounded by people."

"I hear ya. So why did you go?" John asked.

"We were sort of hoping you two would be in our wedding. I promise I'm not going to announce to the world who you are or anything. Claire will have had the baby and recovered by then. I'd just really like you to be and Elizabeth thought the same thing."

"You do remember you want me to be your photographer, right?"

"Well, I'd rather find another photographer if you'd be a groomsman. I mean you know other photographers you could refer us to."

"You just know I'll give you your deposit back."

"You caught us," Phillip said with a laugh.

"When are you getting married again?" John asked.

"Not until next winter."

"Wait, next year?"

"Yes!"

"Oh, for some reason I thought it was this winter."

"No. Believe it or not, we couldn't have gotten a spot in our church this year."

"I suppose," John said.

"December fourteenth," Elizabeth said.

"Well, I can't speak for Claire, but sure I'd do it."

"Me, too," Claire said. "That'd be so much fun! I can't wait!"

"Yeah, you need help shopping for dresses or anything she's your woman."

"I like shopping! That's not a crime."

"Yeah, I know. She's just saying yes because it's an excuse to get another new dress to add to our closet. And if you're getting married in December, the baby would be almost one by that time so that shouldn't be a problem. I'm sure Ronda would babysit if we can't find someone else. I think there are a couple of neighbors with older daughters who might be willing."

"I'm not going to leave him or her with a stranger for hours," Claire said.

"Well, no, I wasn't thinking we would, but certainly we could start out with an hour here and there to know we're comfortable with someone before the day of the wedding."

"Oh, right," she said.

"There's also Christopher and your parents. I somehow don't think we'll lack for volunteers."

"They'll hopefully be at the wedding, too, though," Phillip said.

"Oh, right," John said. "I sort of forget sometimes."

"Have you picked out any names?"

"He's still not entirely convinced I'm pregnant and you think he's let me talk about names?"

"Anything but John," John said simply. "You could name it George Paul Ringo Bender for all I care. I don't care as long as it's not John."

"Yes, but…" Claire said.

"I don't want a Fourth. I'm not part of a monarchy."

"Yes, but, just think how nice it would be to name someone after you instead of, you know, your dad."

"He'd still be named after my dad! He'd still have to sign his name with the 'IV' after it, meaning there are three more with the same name. You don't think he'd be curious to know who the other two are? Well, son, John Junior is in prison and we have no idea who John Senior is. Enjoy being named after that!"

"Yes, but, you'd be a good example."

"I'd be just as good an example if we named him Tom or Harry or Marty."

"So, you haven't decided on boys names. How about girls?" Elizabeth asked.

"No," Claire said. "We go round and round about the boys names. He gets frustrated and we stop talking about it altogether to even get to girls names."

"Maybe he's convinced you're going to have a boy."

Their waitress evidently had believed John because she brought another beer to him minutes after he'd finished his first one. Phillip wasn't even close to being done with his yet. Elizabeth was sipping her wine and Claire was doing the same with her Sprite.

"We have months!" John said. "Geez, I'm still getting used to the idea this is going to happen and you expect me to think logically about what we give our kid that's going to be with them for their entire life."

Phillip chuckled softly, which probably didn't help. She knew John was processing all of this, getting used to the fact that he could actually have kids. He'd been so thoroughly convinced the doctor was giving an actual diagnosis that he really didn't think they'd be here without a lot of effort.

"So who knows you're leaving for three weeks?" Elizabeth asked.

"No one. I mean, my parents and Christopher. My assistant, Sam. Ronda obviously on John's part. You guys."

"You haven't told any of your other friends?"

"No," Claire said. "Why?"

"Well, someone will need to know you're going to be gone then to plan a shower for before you leave."

"Oh," Claire said.

"Please tell me it's not going to be one of those co-ed showers," John said.

"You wouldn't go?" Elizabeth asked.

He sighed softly with a huff and Claire laughed, kissing his jaw.

"Men never like those things. I don't know why you women think we want to sit around a room with a bunch of women, talking about baby things and watching the mom unwrap different versions and colors of the same bib."

"You've been to a shower?"

Their waitress came back to the table with the appetizers they'd ordered, setting enough plates on the table for each of them along with some extra napkins.

"I've unfortunately been hired to photograph more than one of them. I can honestly say I'd rather go to the dentist than do those jobs."

"John," Claire said.

"What? I would! And every man who has been at one would say the same thing. It's absolutely ridiculous. I'm not the sit around a room and talk to your friends' type of guy. You knew this marrying me. You knew this dating me."

"Yes."

"Come on, Phillip. You're telling me you'd want to spend your Saturday or Sunday afternoon listening to a bunch of women exchanging baby war stories?"

"Well," Phillip said.

"You're a horrible example because you hear and see baby war stories every day as part of your job!"

Phillip laughed. "You have a valid point, though. I've always thought they were really for the women, including the men seems a little odd."

"Thank you."

"I have nothing to do with it. You know that, right?" Claire said.

"I know, but surely your friends wouldn't even want me there."

"Why not?"

"Because they're your friends. It's not like they're going to send an invitation to Glen or Charlie or Bill."

"Your brother?" Elizabeth asked.

"No, Ronda's husband," he said.

"Oh," she said.

"I will try and drop hints," Claire said.

"Are you going to find out what it is?" Elizabeth asked

"I don't know yet. John seems to want to know, I'm not sure I do. It sort of seems like it's ruining the surprise. As long as it's healthy I really don't care."

"Do you have a preference?" Elizabeth asked John.

"Oh, I'd love a girl who looks just like her mother."

"That's sweet. I don't hear that often. Men usually want a boy."

"Yeah, well, just like the naming him after me thing I'm not overly anxious to have a boy. The men in my family seem to produce men that look alike. Four of us walking around looking alike is enough I think."

"I don't think your father is doing much walking around," Phillip said.

"True," John said. "Still."

"Have you thought about finding his parents?"

"I've thought about it. I did after you told me I was a Third, but I decided against it. Maybe one day. For now, I have enough to handle with you guys."

"Speaking of us," Phillip said, sounding a little cautious.

"What?" John said, sounding defensive.

"So touchy," Phillip said.

"You said us, meaning a collective us, which I assume means all of you Taylors. So, yeah, I get a little defensive. So what?"

"Mom is going to invite you both to Dad's birthday party next month."

"Okay," John said.

"He's going to be sixty and for some reason Mom's making a big deal out of it."

"Sixty?"

"Yes," Phillip said.

"I didn't realize he was that young."

"Well, yeah, he was twenty when your mom was born."

"Thank you for that, I can count."

"Don't get defensive, I was just clarifying. Mom just turned fifty-nine. Cindy turns forty in October, right?"

"I don't know."

"You don't?"

"Jesus. You think we did things like celebrate birthdays at my house growing up? I can promise you today is the first birthday party I've attended at my house ever in my lifetime. So, I have no clue. I didn't even know her last name when I first met you to have a clue who you might be! I think you underestimate how much of a shit I didn't give about my parental units when I got old enough I could stop caring."

"Yes, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have sounded surprised. Anyway, it's a surprise party at the country club. It'll be pretty large I think. You're not expected to be there or anything, but I know Mom would really like it if you could."

"Is my mom going to be there?"

"I doubt it since no one but me has spoken to her yet."

"Well, that improves the chances I'd go."

"John," Phillip said cautiously.

"You can't make me want to get along with her. I understand to you she's your sister, but if you knew half the shit about her I know. Forget knowing, that I lived through, you wouldn't be so quick to want to be all lovey dovey with her either."

"I'm not! I mean, she's my sister. You know? And think about Billy. Think about what your life would've been like with my parents involved."

"I know," John said.

Claire and John had talked about that. It was the reason he hadn't gone into any detail with Phillip what life was like growing up. He wanted Billy to have the chance to know his grandparents, something John had been deprived of. Even things like being invited to his grandfather's birthday party, he wouldn't be there as a grandson. No one would know him or anything. He'd basically be just another guest to everyone there except Phillip's family. John realized Phillip could probably figure things out, but there was suspecting and there was knowing.

It tore Claire up every time John went over to his mom's house. He'd gone the times before today because she'd needed something. Well, the time he'd gone to fix his dad's car had been because he'd told her he would. She hadn't needed the second car fixed, but John was (as much as he hated anyone to think so) one of those people who was true to their word. Bad or good.

He'd been in a pretty bad mood the past few days and she'd tried not to take it personally, knowing it was Billy's upcoming birthday party that was upsetting him. She wouldn't have blamed him for claiming to be sick or something when he woke up this morning, but he hadn't done that.

He'd gone and pretended to be a happy son for the people she had there that didn't live on their street and know what life had been like at his house. He'd spent most of the afternoon talking with Mr. and Mrs. Henderson who Claire really liked because they seemed to be happy John had gotten out and done well for himself.

She saw the evidence every night and first thing every morning of what life was like for him. There were times she hated Phillip's parents for not making more of an effort to find John's mother and therefore him. She understood they had other kids to raise, small ones who took up a lot of time, as well as Mr. Taylor's career goals. It still bothered her, though. She dealt with it every day when John truly believed her doctor was going to tell her at the next visit it was a false alarm, there was no baby. He didn't say it, but she saw it when she woke up each morning. His hand was always settled possessively against her belly as if he was trying to protect the baby.

She wasn't complaining, she loved that he was protective like that about her and the baby but it was upsetting. It bothered her to see him go through all of this, but there wasn't anything she could do really except let him talk to her when he wanted to. He rarely did, that wasn't the kind of guy he was. She knew that. His confessing how deeply hearing the baby's heartbeat the first time had affected him was more than she ever expected out of him.

He wasn't great at saying he loved her. There were days, moments, she wished he was better about it, but he showed her and she was learning to be happy with the physical signs versus the words. Anyone could say they loved someone, but not everyone could demonstrate they meant the words.

"You don't have to stay long or anything."

"I'll think about it," John said.

"I was just warning you it was coming so you weren't taken by surprise."

"I appreciate it."

"You are driving home, right?" Phillip asked Claire as the server brought John his third beer.

"I am," she said.

"Good," Phillip said.

"I gave her the keys as soon as we got out of the car to come in here," John said.

***

"Thank you for coming with me today," John said when they were in their living room.

"You don't have to thank me."

He shrugged. "Still, thank you. It was much better with you there."

"I'm glad."

"Then that goes without saying because everything's better with you there."

"John," she whispered when he reached around her and worked the clasp and zipper on her skirt.

"What? You don't like my compliments, Princess?"

"You know I do," she said, gasping softly when he kissed her jaw, lower to her neck. And, "oh," she cried out when he nipped at the skin there before sucking on it exactly the way she liked.

Her skirt at her ankles now he focused on her blouse, unbuttoning it. He stopped focusing on her neck, groaning softly once he'd had her bra undone and could touch her without it in the way. Then his mouth was there and she moaned softly at the feel of his mouth and tongue around her there.

"What does it say that all afternoon I wanted to be doing this exact thing instead of being there?"

She laughed, gasping softly as his tongue slid over one of her peaks. He slid his fingers between her legs, inside her panties and inside of her.

"Well, you were dreading going there so I'm not sure…"

"Oh, God, don't say it doesn't mean anything. I hate giving up my Sunday's with you."

"I was still with you," she whispered.

"Not my idea of a good Sunday."

"I know," she whispered as he prompted her to turn around. His picking her up and being inside of her that way with her legs around him wasn't so comfortable anymore. She imagined that would get progressively worse. His being behind her like this wasn't bad at all either. He knew that, too, and exactly how to get her off this way.

There was always a difference in their sex when he'd been drinking. He hadn't had too many, but enough that he was buzzed and a little more selfish than he usually was. Selfish for him where they were concerned wasn't anything to complain about. He always made sure she came and everything, but she definitely knew the difference when his focus was more on himself than on her. She knew he'd wake up in the morning feeling bad about it and more than make it up to her before she had to get up for work.

He kissed her shoulder when he'd finished, rubbing his cheek against the spot as he slid a hand along the curve of her ass.

"I needed that."

"I guess so," she said, laughing softly.

"You have no idea how much sitting there for hours playing nice with her drove me absolutely insane."

"I know. You're a good big brother, John."

"Thank you for saying so. He's the only reason I subjected myself to that."

"I know."

He lingered against her shoulder, kissing her lightly as he slid his hand from her ass to between her legs to stroke her. He wasn't really doing it to get her off again, he was far too leisurely for that but she knew he liked touching her sometimes.

"I guess that answers your question about her being involved with the baby."

"Yeah, not going to happen. I'll have Billy here or take him to lunch with us, including the baby, like we do now but no."

"No one would blame you."

"I know, I just feel…"

"Don't! Don't you dare feel bad about it. First of all, you're protecting your child. Our child. No one can fault you for that."

She turned around then, sliding her arms around his neck and kissing him. "You wanting to be there for your brother does not open the door to your mom. He's going to get older and stop living with her."

"I know."

"If you change your mind, no one would blame you for that either. For now, though, your decision is fine, John. She won't be happy. She'll probably be mad and hurt, but that's not your fault."

"I know," he said, kissing her. He lifted her up.

"John," she said cautiously.

"Just taking you to the bed this time."

"I think I like when you've had a few beers."

"Yeah?"

"Uh huh."

He chuckled softly. "Like convincing me to have sex with you two times in a row requires beers."

"No, but you're a lot more…"

"Yes?"

"Forceful about it."

"What does that mean? If you don't want to…" he said, setting her on the bed.

"No, just, uh. Bold about showing me you want to again so soon."

"Oh," he said, kicking off his shoes so he could catch up to her on the being undressed part.

"You left me a hickey, didn't you?"

"Yes, sorry," he said.

"You are not."

"I don't do it often!"

"I know," she said softly. "Sam will tease me, but it's worth it."

"Yeah?"

"Uh huh. I tell her that every time, too."

"I'm not sure I want Sam to know these things."

"Sam, I think, thinks you're incredible in bed."

"Why?"

"Why else would I have ended up married to you versus anyone else?"

He chuckled softly.

"Well, it seems I have a reputation to live up to then."

"You live up to it very well," she whispered as he joined her on the bed.

"Well, still…" he said, sliding a hand along her belly, lower between her legs again.

"No complaints here."

"I didn't think so."

Return to Top

***Chapter Thirty-Eight***
Word Count: 3,834

September 1989

"This is the best banana split I think I've ever had," she said.

"If you say so."

"It is!"

"I think, Princess, you're a little crazy right now and you just think that's the case. There were plenty of desserts to choose from at the party. Some I'm pretty sure I couldn't even pronounce, but they looked pretty good."

"I know, I didn't want any of those! This is what I wanted," she said, pointing at the dish with her spoon.

"I suspect they would've made you a banana split if you asked for it."

"Yes, but I wanted this banana split."

"If you say so."

"Do you want some more?" she asked.

"I think I'll pass. I know better than to get between a pregnant woman and her craving. If there's any left I'll finish it."

"I wasn't craving it. I just wanted ice cream instead of cake!"

"See, proof you are a little crazy right now. That cake looked pretty damned good if I do say so myself in my layman's opinion."

"You could have had a piece of cake. He's your grandfather. I didn't make you leave to come here! I'm sure I would have had a bite."

John shrugged, taking the offered bite of her banana split. He had to admit it tasted pretty damned good and probably better than the cake.

"I was ready to leave, you know. You mentioned wanting a banana split. It just gave me the excuse I needed to get out of there."

"Did you have an okay time?" Claire asked.

"Yeah, it was okay. Not my ideal way of spending a Friday night. I was sure hoping it'd be tomorrow and I'd have an excuse not to show up."

"I think Wayne said they were leaving for Europe tomorrow or something."

"Phillip said the same thing, so that makes sense, I guess."

"Were you surprised he talked to you?"

"I was," John said.

She had to know that, though. Sol had actually stood and talked to the two of them for about ten minutes. People had to be wondering who they were to take up that much of his time because he didn't talk to many other couples their age for that long aside from his kids and their guests. He asked Claire about work, not surprising since he knew Claire. He also asked John about his work and about his upcoming trip (obviously Phillip had told them about it, which John found he didn't mind).

“Very actually,” he added. “I was even more surprised he introduced me to that guy as his grandson. I wasn’t expecting that.”

“I wasn’t that surprised. You are his grandson. They have nothing to be ashamed of there. Neither do you. They seem to legitimately be proud of you, John.”

"I know," he said. "He said he'd like to see some of my work."

"Really? Where was I that I missed that?"

"Talking to someone," John said. "Uh, a friend of Erin's I think."

"Oh! Sandy, maybe?"

"Maybe. I can't keep track of all the names."

"I know. You're fine. You're not expected to. I just saw some people I hadn't seen in years. Lord knows when I'll see some of them again because I knew them more because they knew Christopher and Phillip than me. You know? I only knew Sandy because she was a little younger than Erin. She dated Wayne in high school or something I think and after they broke up she and Erin remained friends."

"Really? I didn't know that."

"Yeah, Wayne wasn't too happy at the time that they were friends. He thought they were talking about him or that it was Sandy's way of trying to get him to go out with her again."

"It wasn't though?"

"No, I mean, obviously not, years later they're still friends. I'd say it's kind of like Ronda and me, but not quite the same. Just a friend found in an unusual way."

"Ah," he said, sort of understanding.

"Sol and Cecile do seem as though they legitimately want to get to know you."

"I know that, too. I'm getting there."

"Are you?"

"Well, yes. It was a lot for me to process you know. I mean, I went from having no one to being married with in-laws, then I found out I had a brother, uncles, an aunt, and grandparents. It was a lot to take in. It still is, I'm still processing it all. I mean, where were these people all of my life?"

"I know," she said, looking kind of pensive. Why though?

"I've made the big decision regarding my mom. I think that was the one I had to focus on first, you know because it is the one that'll affect, well, us most directly. So, once I'd decided that I had time to think about the others. Obviously, I want Billy in my life. Maybe she'll get tired of me not wanting to be involved directly with her and cut me off. I guess that's the chance I take."

"I don't think she'd do that. If for no other reason she'll hope that you'll come around to wanting to be involved with her. I think she wants you to be."

"It would seem so, yes. And I might. Maybe ten years down the road when he's going into high school I will. I don't know."

"Right. I don't think anyone would blame you."

"I think most people would think I'm a little crazy."

"Most people don't have to live with you, John. I wouldn't blame you. She's your mother. She doesn't seem like a bad person away from the drugs and your father."

"I'm still on the fence on whether she's away from either of them for good. You know? If the old man got out on some technicality tomorrow I just don't know she wouldn't let him come back home."

"We'll probably never really know. She can say she is all she wants."

"Thank you for seeing that."

"I totally understand where you're coming from, hon."

"As far as the Taylor's," he shrugged. "They, her parents, really didn't do anything wrong as much as I might like to blame them or hold them accountable. I can't really. She left. What were they supposed to do? Force her to come home? She would've turned eighteen and probably left again anyway. She clearly loved my dad at the time so they couldn't have convinced her he was no good or that I was better off."

"True," Claire said.

"And Phillip brought up a valid point once."

"What if she stayed out of fear he'd do something worse than hurt you?"

"Yeah."

"It's possible. Would it make a difference to you?"

"As far as her involvement with our children?"

"Yes."

"No. I'll be cordial to her, but that's the extent of it. For Billy's sake. If she needs help with the cars or things around the house I'll do them as I can, but only the major stuff like the furnace. Smaller things like fixing a leaky sink she'll be on her own for. That's it. I realize twenty years ago there weren't shelters like there are today, but you can't tell me if she'd asked her parents for help they couldn't have shipped her off somewhere safe from him finding them."

"Yes, but," Claire said and stopped.

"What?"

"Well, what if she was worried he'd know her parents did that and hurt them, too? I mean, she wouldn't have had any other means to get away so he'd have to know she got help. She wasn't working to hide money like you did."

He sighed softly.

"Well, clearly, with Billy, she's been presented with the necessity of fending for herself and other than the things I've done like fixing the cars and furnace she's managed. I mean, she's more than managed. The house looks good. The lawn was mowed and stuff over the summer. I mean, sure, maybe she could've spent more time weeding or whatever, but I realize with a little kid she doesn't have the time I do to spend all day on the yard. So, she's capable. I just can't buy into that, you know? As much as I'd like to think that was the reason," he shrugged.

He ran a finger along the tabletop in front of him while she worked on the banana split. He'd thought long and hard on this. He knew his mom was waiting for some sort of sign from him that he wanted more from her than the barely-there relationship they had.

"I still can't find it in me to think it's a valid enough excuse. I mean, come on, my grandfather was a judge around the time we were in junior high. Earlier maybe, I don't know. He could've done something! He probably could've had him arrested him for something. Or had the authorities take me away from them so at least I was out of there. Even if she didn't know he was a judge, which I find hard to believe, she sure knew he was an attorney. I bet a restraining order wouldn't have been too hard to get with her dad in the picture."

"True," she said. She hated talking about this stuff with him. He knew that. "You know I'll support you whatever you decide."

"I know. I may change my mind, but I highly doubt it. I don't think I'm a horrible person even though I know what your priest would probably tell me. You know, something about forgiveness being divine. Forgiveness isn't forgetting, though, and I'm not sure I could ever forget."

"Me neither and it wasn't me."

"I hate that you have to see it and I guess that's what drives my decision."

"Me? I don't want to be the reason you decide something like that, John. She's your mother and if she's really cleaned up her life…"

"No," he said, taking another bite of the banana split when she offered it to him. "Not you. I mean, yes. You say what I look like doesn't matter and you worry about what you'll look like on a beach in November. You don't think I worry about and wonder the same thing? People are pregnant every day. That's a valid excuse for what you've got going on. Mine is not nearly as pleasant. You don't think I wonder what people will think about you being with a guy like me? I mean, around here especially I think it. Last summer I was anonymous. I'm not anymore so I think about some fucking reporter catching me out mowing the lawn when it's ninety degrees or something."

"John…"

"No, I know. I mean, I know you say you don't care, but it's there in my head, you know? I guess when it gets down to it, I care. I care that people might see me and wonder what you're doing with a guy like me. You could have had your choice of any guy in Chicago, rich and well-educated ones who don't have to work six days a week. Guys who didn't have the childhoods I had who you could go to a beach with and they wouldn't get stared at."

"You choose to work six days a week. You could choose to be closed on Sunday and Monday to give yourself a weekend."

"Yes, but I've never had the need to."

"I know that, but that doesn't mean you have to work six days a week."

"If I wanted a roof over my head, a car in my garage, food on my table, and things like electricity it did."

"I suppose."

"I think about our kid, kids. Am I going to have to put a shirt on to mow the lawn? What about when they're older and have friends spend the night? You know? Do I have to make sure I put a shirt on to go to the kitchen in the middle of the night for a glass of milk? Would their friends see me and tell their parents and then not be permitted to come over anymore? Who knows how it would be described by a kid. I think about these things. Not like every second of the day, but I have time on my hands or I see kids interacting with their parents now that you're pregnant and I can't help it. She stood by and did nothing and it affects me, us, because it does you, too, whether you want to think so or not, in ways I never thought of four years ago. I mean, what if he or she is scared of me? Ashamed of me? What if he or she doesn't want friends around me?"

"I see your point. I don't care. In November, when our kids are older, when you're mowing the lawn. The fact that you worry about it, that it crosses your mind…"

"Yeah, see, that's on her."

"Our kids aren't going to care either, John, because they won't know any different."

"They'll know you! They'll see their friends' dads. They'll see Phillip or Wayne or Billy."

"I don't walk around without shirts on."

"That is a crime in itself."

She sighed softly. He was changing the subject and she didn't want him to yet. He knew that.

"I mean, it's on him, of course, but she had resources at her disposal, powerful legal ones even. She can't claim she didn't know about them or have someone to ask questions at her fingertips. That's what gets me about her marriage, too. She could ask her dad what would go into getting a divorce and certainly he'd be able to help her or at the very least give her the information she needs. She won't do it, though. Any forgiveness I might have been able to come up with pretty much flew out the window when I thought on that."

"I know," she said.

"So, I'm sorry I didn't really answer your question. It was a surprisingly good time. I didn't feel hugely out of place, just somewhat. People knew you so that helped I think not make me feel like an outsider. I'll get used to it. I realize those types of things are in store for me for the rest of my life. It's just an adjustment being a guest at something like that instead of the hired help."

"You know, a part of me thinks all of this is my fault."

"What?"

"Well, everything that's happened to you it's kind of my fault."

"Your fault? How in the world do you get that?"

"Well, I convinced you to go on that trip to Las Vegas."

"Claire. I wanted to go."

"Sure, after I practically begged you to go. You didn't want to. You told me at first you thought it was too soon. Remember?"

"Yes."

"I thought it'd be fun. I didn't see it as too soon. I saw it as a few days away from everything with you and my friends."

"I remember. I was there for our conversations and the trip."

"So, we went on the trip that was my idea. We got married. Fine. We had the party, which led to your mom getting that present of ours by mistake," she shrugged, licking her spoon of some whipped cream that she missed. He chuckled a little at her, but he was listening.

"I mean, that led to you finding out about Billy. The reception led to you meeting Phillip and your grandparents," she sighed softly. "I should've just been content with being married to you."

"That's what you get out of all of this?"

"You were happy without any family, though."

"Sure, I was happy without a wife, too, but I have one now and I want to keep her."

"You do?"

"Yup, pretty badly."

She leaned in and kissed him.

"That's sweet."

"Yeah, that's me."

"So you don't blame me?"

"Blame you? For giving me a family? I mean, Jesus, Claire we're going to have a kid in a few months. You have me excited about that idea."

"I'm glad."

"Would I rather my mom not be in this? I guess, but then I wouldn't know Billy and while we're not close now I hope that'll change as he gets older and we can do more stuff together. I'd love to do stuff with him that my dad never did with me. You know? Play catch or take him to a Cubs game. Or take him and our kids to the zoo in a couple of years."

"I know," she said.

"So, sure, you're right. If we'd just settled for eloping and not done the reception my life would be easier. Easier isn't always better, though."

"I'm glad you think so, and hope you always do."

"Oh, I'm sure there will be times I think things would be easier without all of them, but other than Phillip no one's really pushing me. They seem to understand I need time."

"They do. I was sort of surprised they invited you tonight."

"Me, too. Man, I can't believe how young they are. You know? I can't even imagine being married at nineteen. I mean, they had to get pregnant right away for Mom to be forty coming up here."

"Me neither," she said. "You know one thing I never understood."

"About?"

"The night we got married."

"Yeah?"

"Why were you playing the slots?"

"What do you mean?"

"Well, you told me you were going to try black jack or poker or something so when I started looking for you, that's where I started."

"Oh," he said with a shrug.

"So, I was surprised when I found you at the slots."

"I tried both, yeah, but I lost too much money right away. I don't know shit about cards. Black jack, I figured how hard could it be? You try to get as close to twenty-one with the dealer getting lower than you. It's not as easy as it sounds, though. Maybe if I had time to, you know, learn the ins and outs, but I had way too much to drink at the time to contemplate strategies. Poker wasn't any better. Who the fuck was I going to play poker with before that night? So, it's not like I really knew anything about the game. So, after losing more than I felt comfortable losing I figured I'd take my drink and some money and wait for you there."

"You could've…"

"I was not going to that show with you and your friends. I went to one and I didn't complain. That was more than enough for me."

She sighed softly.

"Yeah, I know. Sorry, just isn't my thing."

"You didn't like looking at the girls?"

"Uh, yeah, and you wouldn't have delegated me to the extra bed if I did?"

She laughed softly.

"Maybe I would've."

"I know you would've. I'm not stupid, Princess. So, I gave myself a certain amount of money to put into the slots."

"How much?"

"I don't remember. I'm sure if I'd been sober I wouldn't have allotted myself nearly as much. It wasn't a huge amount I know that."

"Well, you got your monies worth."

"I'd say."

She set her spoon in the dish, running her finger over his left ring finger and his wedding band.

"You still wear it."

"Yeah, I told you I would."

"I know, I expected you to…"

He shrugged. "I'm used to it now. It didn't take as long as I thought it would."

"And those people who don't mind wedding rings?"

"I have the people I want right here, Princess. Two of them, in fact, going by that heartbeat I've heard."

"See, there you go, saying sweet things again."

"It's the hormones getting to you. That wasn't sweet."

"It was, too."

"You done with your ice cream, Princess?"

"I am," she said.

"You polished it off pretty good. I'm surprised."

"It's ice cream. I'm pregnant, are you kidding me?"

He chuckled softly, drawing the dish toward him so he could finish the last few bites. It was pretty good.

"I haven't had a banana split in years," he said.

"You like them?"

"This was pretty good."

"Well, we have four more months of my being pregnant…"

"I'll come with you for a banana split anytime, Sweets, you know that."

"Thank you."

"Then, you know, if you're in the mood for whipped cream…"

"It wasn't just the whipped cream!"

"Pity."

"You might be able to convince me."

"That is very good to know."

"You know," he said.

"What?"

"I was thinking about a camera."

"You need a new camera?"

"No, but I'm going to want to have one at the house to have handy for taking pictures. One that I can teach you how to use so you can take pictures, too. I mean, I have some spares, sure, but I'd like to get you one that you'll be comfortable using without me around and, well, you know there's a reason that I don't use the cameras I don't use."

He didn't have a million of them or anything, but he had a few. One he'd bought and it just didn't take the quality pictures he expected. He tried returning it, but the store were assholes about it because he'd used it for a couple of months. He got it. He wasn't sure he'd take something back after sixty days either, but he hadn't abused it or anything.

"Oh," she said. "Sure, I'd use it. I'd like to take pictures of you two together."

"Yeah, I figured that might appeal to you."

"It would," she said.

"We'll do that then. Go shopping for one that you'll like that will be portable enough you can take it with you if you're out or whatever."

"Thank you."

"Well, it's not every day I have a kid. I want pictures."

"You can take them, too."

"I know, but as great as this trip is a great opportunity for me it's not going to turn into work immediately."

"Right."

"So that means weddings on Saturdays and you being around him or her when I can't be for hours and hours."

"I understand, hon."

"Thank you," he said.

She leaned in and kissed him. "Take me home."

"Maybe I'm not done with the ice cream."

"I promise you I'll make it worth the sacrifice."

"Will there be more whipped cream involved?"

"Even better."

"Yeah, yeah, likely story."

He set enough money on the table to cover the banana split, her coffee, and his Coke plus a tip while she slid her jacket on. It wasn't real cold, but they knew they were going to be late so she'd worn one since her dress had short sleeves.

"Thank you for taking me for ice cream."

"You don't have to thank me."

"Well, you might have wanted to stay…"

"Nah. I was good leaving when we left."

She leaned up and kissed him. "Well, still thank you."

"I just said I'd come eat ice cream with you anytime."

"I suspect I'll be taking you up on that offer."

"I imagine so."

Return to Top

***Chapter Thirty-Nine***
Word Count: 5,222

"I was beginning to think you weren't real," Sam, Claire's assistant, said.

"Why?"

"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.

"Oh?"

"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."

"Me, too."

"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."

"You?"

"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."

"About?"

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."

"Probably."

"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."

"True."

"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."

"Would you?"

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?"

"Very funny."

"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."

"God."

"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."

"Yeah?"

"I kind of want a boy."

"Why?"

"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."

"Why?"

"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."

"Thank you."

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."

"John…"

"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."

"Why?"

"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?"

"No. You?"

"That's also a check. Easily done."

"Where are you going?" she asked.

"Hmm, didn't I tell you we're staying here tonight?"

"No. Why?"

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."

"Yes."

"Well, going to Sol's birthday party did not seem like a stellar way to celebrate our first anniversary."

"Yes, but…"

"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."

"John."

"What?"

"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."

"Really?"

"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.

"That, too."

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 do."

"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."

"What?"

"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."

Return to Top

***Chapter Forty***
Word Count: 5,278

He'd been oddly quiet the entire way home from her doctor's appointment. He'd gone along because she was having her ultrasound done and she'd given in and agreed to find out what it was if they could. He wouldn't have gone ordinarily because all her doctor really did is weigh her, listen to the baby's heartbeat and ask her how things were going. She wasn't having any problems, the morning sickness aside, and everything to this point had been going fine.

He was excited. He wouldn't say that or anything. Never until the day he died would he admit to that, but she saw the look on his face when it was plainly obvious they were having a girl. He was beyond relieved. She didn't quite understand it, and probably never would. She wondered, too, if she hadn't pressed him on the issue of a name if his feelings would be different. She had no idea. She wasn't hugely attached to naming a boy after him. She knew any father and son relationship he had with a boy they might have wouldn't hinge upon a name or turn out better or worse because of the one they chose.

He'd stayed in the garage after they got home and she left him alone, knowing somehow he needed that time by himself for whatever reason. She didn't really think it was the name thing either that had him stressing about her having a boy. At least not completely. He just really didn't seem to think a boy of his would turn out all right. Clearly, he'd turned out all right so their son could, too. Sure, anyone who knew him through high school would assume he was currently dead, in prison, living on the streets, or working some dead end job to support his drug habit. That wasn't his fault, though, not completely. Claire wasn't sure what she would've been like if she hadn't had at least remotely decent parents. Even better, their son wouldn't have his father raising it. She knew there was nothing she could say to settle his fears that having a boy would turn out badly.

She grabbed an apple from the bowl on the counter because she was hungry and she wasn't sure how long he'd stay outside. She could cook dinner, but he'd had something specific planned so she didn't want him to think he couldn't still do that. This was one of those times she knew he wasn't going to let her in on how he was feeling, the relief he felt. She'd just frustrate herself if she tried to get him to talk about it right now. He would when he was ready and not a minute before. It was an adjustment for her, because it was innate in her to want to fix things for him. The tech that did the ultrasound seemed apologetic, not understanding John didn't want a boy.

He came in sooner than she expected so he must have come to grips with whatever he was feeling enough that he felt he could be around her. She listened as he took his shoes off by the back door, set his keys on the dish at the edge of the counter there, and then close the door. He'd go to the sink then and get a drink of water. He had a routine. She wasn't home every night to see it, but she knew it well enough from the weekends and her time here before she started working.

He didn't come to the living room, though, going to the spare bedroom he used as an office sometimes instead. He had given up the afternoon of work to go with her to the appointment, so she imagined maybe he had some things to do. She didn't know. He liked to do paperwork here at the house sometimes.

She watched a little cautiously as he came into the living room after a few minutes. Maybe he wasn't relieved now that it was for sure not a boy. Perhaps he was having second thoughts. Not that there was anything they could do about it. Maybe all that back and forth about a boy's name had gotten the idea into his head they'd have a boy and he was disappointed. She didn't think so, though. She knew him, his nuances, better than anyone. She knew that mystified more than one of her friends, probably his friends, too.

"Why are you giving me a check for five hundred dollars?" she asked, setting her napkin and the apple core down when he handed it to her.

"To buy stuff with."

"John?"

Was she missing something? That was a huge amount of money. She knew he did well and everything and with no mortgage payment and the basement basically done now they both had a lot more disposable income than they did even a few weeks ago. It was still a lot of money and she had no idea what it was for. To buy stuff with was so incredibly vague. Was there something she was supposed to be buying?

"What? I told you until I saw actual physical proof I wasn't sure I'd totally believe it was real. Even I can't deny what we saw today was pretty physical proof. So, I don't know, buy stuff with it."

"But that still doesn't explain why you're giving me a check."

"Maternity clothes. Baby stuff. Whatever you need. Things for our trip. We're getting to the point where I'd think you'd be buying stuff. I know you'll get lots of things at your shower, but there's also painting the bedroom that you have to pick out paint or wallpaper for. I realize I'm the one painting and wallpapering, but I need to know what you want. Now that we know what it is, it seems as good a time as any to start picking stuff out. We're going to be gone for three weeks, coming back to about two weeks before you're due so we need to do these things. Or at the very least think about it."

"This is a lot of money."

"It's not that much money, and besides it's your money anyway."

"What?"

"The money you've been giving me the past year? I've just been putting it into a savings account. I figured I'd save it for if something urgent happened like the furnace or water heater dying."

"Which you could fix."

"I can't fix everything! I'm good with my hands and tools, sweetheart, but even I have my limitations. The furnace and water heater are both pretty old and I don't know what's been done to them already. I know what's been done to the stuff at Ma's house because I lived there for eighteen years and know what my old man did as far as maintenance and rigging stuff to get by until a new one could get bought."

She nodded a bit. "Valid point."

"I figured, you know, I should help you pay for some of this stuff, too. I am responsible for you needing it."

"Responsible for it? It was my idea. I wouldn't be pregnant right now if I didn't want to try. I know that and so do you. We kind of did it together, though. Didn't we?"

"Yes, but you said after we got married you didn't think you were ready. Admit it, you didn't think it'd happen this soon either. I sure didn't. I was, honestly, pretty convinced I couldn't have them."

"I know you were. And you're right, I wasn't sure I was ready. I'm still not. I mean, God, it's scary as hell, but we were in a good position to at least start trying. We don't have money problems. We both have stable jobs. I mean, you'll probably be scared no matter how many we have so if being scared is going to stop us we wouldn't have any. I wanted to try! You didn't make me. That was my idea. You seemed fine with pulling out."

"Fine may be overstating it a bit," he said with a little laugh. "It was that or rubbers. You knew what my choice was going to be."

"And it's not like I got pregnant the day we got married."

"No, we sure did try that night, though."

She blushed at that and he chuckled softly.

"Obviously the timing was wrong."

"Right," she said. "John, I can't take this."

"I want you to have it."

"Why aren't you using the money for things?"

"I don't need things! I mean, it's not like the electric or gas bills have gone up hundreds of dollars a month because you're here now. Now, add a baby into the mix that may change a little, I realize that. I understood why you wanted, needed, to give me money. That doesn't mean I wanted to take it. I really didn't want to take it, so I figured this was a way around it. You give me money but it'll go to stuff for us or the baby. I'm good at work and everything. Your dad bought the building and land that I'm currently occupying space in and suddenly my rent dropped pretty drastically so, you know, I'm good. I wonder sometimes how he's making money on it he dropped my rent so much, but that's not my business and I have to admit I didn't complain or question it so I guess I don't mind some favors being thrown my way."

"I still feel wrong…"

"I want you to have it! Geez. You're my wife, that's my kid. I want to contribute to what you need. If I knew what you needed or wanted I'd go out and buy it, but I don't have the first clue on shit like that. So, rather than fuck up I just figured I'd let you do it. Hell, if you wanted to buy a couple more of those nice night-time things for our trip I wouldn't complain."

"God, the fact you want to see me in one of those things let alone more makes me kind of cringe."

"Fuck, Claire. I want to see you in those things anytime. All the time! Why does my wanting you make you cringe? Plus, you're going to need pajamas for after she's born."

"I have pajamas."

"Those are not pajamas. Those put ideas in my head that I won't be able to have for a while afterward."

"I still don't like that you're just doing that with the money I give you."

"Well, if nothing else she can use it for college."

"True," she said.

"And I know college being paid for probably won't be an issue, but I'm probably not going to make as much as you even if I get more jobs like the one next month. So it makes me feel like I'm doing something. You mentioned sending her to private school. We could do that with it, too. We could save it for a down payment on a bigger house. I don't care."

"What? A bigger house? I haven't said I want a bigger house. I like our house."

"Sure, now. I like it, too, obviously I bought it. One kid won't be so bad, but if we have another one neither one of us may feel that way anymore. I mean, the basement being completely done helps but I still wonder how the people before me did it with three kids."

"I understand."

"I didn't tell you before because I didn't want you mad at me. You were as equally insistent you had to give me money as I was you didn't need to give me any. I understood why you needed to, though. I don't need the money, I was surviving fine before you moved in here. Call me old-fashioned or weird, whatever you want to label it as, but if I can support the house without your help I think I should. So saving it seemed fairly logical. We put the money we saved by not having a mortgage toward getting the basement completely finished and furnished."

Part of that finishing and furnishing was a complete dark room so he had access to everything he needed here at the house in case he wanted to work from home sometimes. There were times during the winter after Christmas where he had no appointments for days. So there was nothing saying he couldn't bring things home with him to work on, spending more time with her and the baby before she had to go back to work. She couldn't believe how much some of that equipment cost. He'd brought the stuff already at his studio here and put the new stuff there, which made sense.

"I know, it just seems like I should pay for my share of things, too."

"You do! We're taking a nice vacation. Even if I'm working it's still a vacation. You think I just have that money available to me normally? I have some saved up, sure. I sure don't have enough to foot the bill for three weeks on a Caribbean island."

"I hadn't thought of that."

"So it will be used for us if we need it. If not, for her."

"You're lucky I'm too tired to argue with you."

He chuckled a bit. "Why do you think I waited until now to give it to you?"

"Very nice," she said.

"That's me," he said. "You hungry? Or did that apple fill you up?"

"I could eat."

He smirked at that. "You could eat, huh?"

"I was letting you do what you needed to do," she said.

"I appreciate that."

She was quiet as they watched the football game on TV much later after dinner. John had grilled some steaks and baked some potatoes for dinner. He liked experimenting and trying different things, but when it came down to it he was a pretty basic meat and potatoes kind of guy. Pork chops and mashed potatoes. Steak and baked potatoes. He made a delicious meatloaf, which surprised her the first time he'd made it because the meatloaf her mother made tasted about as good as eating sandpaper would taste.

"You haven't said much about it being a girl," she said. He had, in fact, said absolutely nothing about the fact it was a girl.

He shrugged.

"What can I say? I didn't really care, I just knew I would've liked a girl I think."

"Does that mean we won't try again in a couple of years for another one?"

"I look forward to trying again whenever you want to. My family's track record seems to indicate boys are the majority. Ma told me one of the times I've picked Billy up and we were talking that Dad only has brothers. So, if you have your hopes up for two daughters I wouldn't set them too high."

"I'd still try again."

"Oh, I look forward to trying again, for sure. I'm just saying," he shrugged.

"I guess we don't have to worry about whether you'd let me use John as a middle name for a while then."

He was quiet for a while, so long in fact that she thought he wasn't going to answer.

"We can name him whatever you want, Claire. When the time comes for a boy's name anyway. I don't want him named after my old man I know you understand why and whether he never meets him or I'll be a good example to offset him finding out his grandfather is serving time in prison doesn't matter to me. It's still his name."

"I do."

"Whatever makes you happy, though. If John as a middle name makes you happy then that's fine."

"It's hard to find a name that sounds good with John as a middle name."

"That's because it's so awesome of a first name it's not supposed to follow another one."

"Ha ha!"

"I know right, the truth hurts."

"Did you ever wish you were Jonathan?"

"Nope. Why would I?"

She shrugged. "I don't know."

"It never occurred to me, honestly. I guess in grade school I had teachers who didn't believe I was just John, but overall I never thought about it."

"Hmm," she said.

"You're thinking of a way around this Fourth thing, aren't you? Naming him Jonathan Frederick is really devious."

"Would you do it?"

He sighed softly.

"We have time."

"We do."

"Seems we should be focusing on other, more feminine names right now."

"We definit