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***Chapter One***
Word Count: 3,954

August 1989

John let his car idle on the street for a few minutes, deciding whether to get out of the car and go through with this. He hadn't seen her in four years. She'd gone to college, he assumed he'd see her on breaks, but that hadn't worked out so well. Well, it had her freshman year. She'd gone to Yale and decided to stay out east after her freshman year. As far as he knew, she hadn't come home again until she'd graduated last spring. Well, she had to visit over Christmas and stuff, but as it was clear her plans didn't include him he hadn't seen her. He'd heard rumors about her return, but as they still didn't hang in the same crowds he didn't get much reliable information.

Her address wasn't difficult to come by, though. She evidently wasn't worried about people finding her because her number was listed in the phone book. Her name was listed as just Standish, C. but her brother lived downtown last John knew so he knew it was her number and not his when he'd looked.

He turned the car off, sliding the keys out of the ignition, and pocketing them as he slid out of his seat. She'd probably laugh at him for showing up like this, but he had no privacy at home to make a call asking her for help. So, it was stop by or continue to suffer. She may not help him. She may not be able to do anything. He'd been racking his brain for a month now on what he could and she was the only one he could think of who would probably help and John wouldn't hate her helping. So he had to at least try. If she slammed the door in his face or something well then he'd know she wasn't up to helping him.

He rang the bell on the board that had her last name on it. He wasn't sure what to expect for the neighborhood as it wasn't an area of Shermer he'd driven through much. Fact was, he avoided Shermer as best he could since moving out of his parents' house. He was sort of surprised she'd moved back here, but then he supposed she got along with her parents well enough and would want to be near them.

'Hello?' a voice over the speaker said.

"Uh, yeah, hi," he said, pausing for a second. He hadn't been expecting a guy to answer at all. "I'm looking for Claire Standish. I'm a friend of hers from high school, John Bender." Friend was probably putting too much stock in their relationship. They'd like one another, a lot, but he hadn't had much motivation her freshman year and she'd had a ton of it.

'Come on up,' the voice said. A buzzer sounded, followed by the sound of the door's lock being undone so John could pass through. He went upstairs, knowing by the board what unit she was in.

He knocked on the door, but it was opened almost immediately so he may not have needed to do that.

"Hi," the guy said.

"Yeah, hi," John said, regarding him with probably more interest than he warranted. Yeah, he could see her mom and dad loving this guy. Clean cut, nice looking, dressed nice even here at her place (their place?), and seemingly polite. If someone had shown up at his girlfriend's door he wasn't sure he'd be polite.

"I'm Robbie," he said, offering John his hand.

"John," he said.

"She'll be right out. She just got out of the shower, but I told her you were here."

"Thanks," John said.

"Come on in. Have a seat. You want something to drink? I was just going to get myself a beer."

"Sure," John said, regarding the living room. He shook his head a little at her view. She looked right out over a park. No street or garage to act as eyesores when she glanced out her living room window. Never mind the stylish and costly art on her walls.

"So you and Claire went to high school together?"

"Uh, yeah," John said. Even if they hadn't really known one another until a few months before the end of their senior year they'd grown up going to the same schools and stuff. He'd always known who she was even if she hadn't had a clue who he was until that day.

"Has she changed much?"

"I," he said. He was about to tell the guy he had no idea as he hadn't seen her in years. She walked into the living room then, though. She had changed. A lot. She'd been cute in high school, pretty even. She wasn't just cute anymore. She was pretty, bordering on stunning, now.

"Hi," she said.

"Hi," he said then. She'd caught him staring and he knew that, but he figured he was entitled after years of not seeing her. She didn't look annoyed or anything.

"Oh good, Robbie offered you something," she said as Robbie came back with the beer he'd said yes to.

"Uh yeah," he said. "Thanks."

"Are you living in Shermer then?" she asked, taking a seat on a chair near the one he'd sat on.

"No," he said. "I haven't been back in town since I moved out."

"Oh," she said.

"I actually came to ask you a sort of favor if you have time to hear me out for a second."

"What kind of favor?"

He chuckled softly, taking a sip of the beer once he opened it. "Nothing bad. Just, I need a woman…"

"John," she said. "I'm…" He didn't miss the glance she gave in Robbie's direction.

"Not for that," he said.

"Oh," she said.

"I'll leave you to talk then," Robbie said, taking his beer and heading in the direction Claire had come from.

"Did I catch you leaving?"

"No. Why?" she asked.

"I don't know, you just got out of the shower he said."

"Yeah. I didn't have anything to do today really so I put it off until the last minute."

"So you are leaving?"

"Well, nowhere in particular. We'll probably have dinner in a while or something. You're fine."

"You look good, by the way."

"Yes, with my wet hair."

He shrugged. "I saw you with your hair unwashed a couple of times."

"I know you did," she said.

"And I didn't run away screaming."

"I was sick!"

He remembered very well. She'd been out for two weeks with mono a couple of weeks after the day of detention. Her mother had blamed him for that turn of events even though her doctor insisted fatigue could be a cause. He certainly never had mono. He'd gone to see her a few of those days despite her insisting she didn't want him to. "Yeah, well, still, that's a pretty good base to compare it to. So it looks just fine wet."

"Thank you."

"You're working or going to school?"

"Working, thinking about grad school, but I haven't decided yet."

"Oh," he said. "For your dad?"

"Yes," she said. "He's doing well."

"Good," he said. He didn't ask about her mom. There was no love lost between John and Mrs. Standish. Claire had come home with a hickey one night and her mom had not allowed him in the house again after that. (Ridiculous reasoning, too, because all that meant was Claire left the house to see him leaving him plenty of opportunities to leave them. Just where her mother wouldn't see them. Not that she let him after that one time. Apparently her mother had put the fear of God into her or something.)


He shrugged. "Working," he said.

"Doing? You were still working for your dad the last time I saw you."

"I left him as soon as I could," he said.

"Really? You're still doing plumbing, though?"

He chuckled softly. "Yes. A guy I met and I went into business together."

"Oh, really?"

"Yeah. Stupid long hours since it's just the two of us for now, but it's all right."

"That's why you're here so early?"

"Yeah," he said, glancing at his watch. It was before one o'clock, but not like he stopped here at eight o'clock or anything. "Well, no, it's Saturday. I only work today if I get paged for some sort of an emergency."

"Well, I'm glad. I mean, that it worked out. That's too bad about your dad, though. You'd been working with him forever."

"Yeah. Well, Dad wasn't ever going to make me a partner or anything. The company was never going to become Bender & Son either. He also never thought I was good enough to go out on the more complicated jobs by myself. Never mind being the one to give someone estimates or anything. He questioned everything I did. I'm pretty sure Dad would've handed the business over to Tommy without question before he'd ever give it to me even though I'd been working jobs with him since before I could drive."

"I remember Tommy!"

John chuckled. "Yeah, he liked you a lot so I'm sure he remembers you, too." It had driven John crazy the couple times Claire came to see him while he was working. Occasionally she'd bring him lunch or just stop to see if he wanted to do something when he was done working. Tommy had flirted up a storm with her every time. She hadn't been interested, but it had made him wonder what kind of guy she would be interested in if they flirted with her while she was away at school. Certainly she had the opportunity to meet guys who weren't hauling plumbing gear around in their car every day.

"So, what's up?" she asked.

"Yeah, about that. I was hoping you could maybe do me a favor."


"I don't need money or anything like that."

"Well, if you did. I mean, I know you wouldn't just ask me for something unnecessarily."

"No, really, it's not money. I have a cousin," he said, taking a sip of his beer. "She moved here about a month ago from Washington."


He'd surprised her with that bit of information because he didn't talk about his family much. There wasn't much to say. All of the Bender's pretty much sucked as far as he was concerned.

"Yeah. Her husband died and she needed to start over. Bad marriage. She lived in a little town where everyone knew everyone, which meant they all knew everyone's business, too."


"Yeah. He wasn't a nice guy, Leo. Didn't treat her too well either, I guess."

"That's too bad."

"Yeah. He, her dad, and my dad…"

"Oh," she said, nodding and he was glad he didn't have to spell it out for her. Claire wasn't the only one who'd questioned why John worked for his dad, but she'd been the only one who actually asked him why he did. As if he had other options open to him? "So…" she said, clearly waiting for the part where she came into this story.

"So, yeah. She's here, right? And I have no idea what the fuck to do with her. I have some friends, but no offense to them, they're not who I want my nineteen-year-old cousin hanging out with."

"She's nineteen?"


"And a widow?"

"Yes. Her home life wasn't much better than mine. My uncle was her dad, so you know, like I said. Apples don't fall far from the tree or whatever that stupid saying is. She met him, thought he was the answer to her problems, married him, and found out she would've been better off sticking with her dad for a little longer. At least she would've been able to move out then."

"I see."

"So, my friends. They're introducing her to things I'd rather not have to deal with. I mean, you know, I still smoke the occasional joint. I'm my own boss now so I'm not going to give myself a piss test and Dad certainly wasn't going to ever do that when I was working for him. I haven't touched anything harder in a while."

"I'm glad," she said.

"She's nineteen, though, so she shouldn't even be drinking. I mean, I realize I was drinking when I was her age, but she's escaped. You know? She's out. So, I don't want her falling into bad habits."


"No one I know has any good habits. The women, well, some of them are worse than the men I know. You know? They don't think anything of picking a guy up at a bar or something… I don't want her around that, thinking that's normal. She's nineteen!"

"And you think I have good habits?"

He scoffed softly at that. She didn't have anything but good habits, the occasional joint-smoking with him aside. "I don't know many women well enough to ask something like this of, and again the ones I do know. Well, they're no one I want giving her advice or tips."


"Well, how about acting like a woman should act and not like a whore for starters? She's going to need to get a job, which means she'll need to get clothes and stuff."

"What is she looking for a job doing?"

"I have no idea! She waited tables back in Twin Peaks, so I suspect that to start."

"John, what are you asking me to do?"

He sighed, not really sure what he was asking of her. "I don't know. Come hang out with her. Take her to lunch, shopping, recommend a place for her to get her hair and nails done. I have no idea what women do."

"To what end?"

"Maybe you'll like one another and she'll have a friend I know isn't going to do things with her they shouldn't be doing."

"Oh," she said.

"I know it's a lot to ask, I just," he shrugged. "Really. I guess the company I keep hasn't improved that drastically since the last time I saw you. I don't mind them or anything, but she's my cousin. I don't want anyone taking advantage of her either. You know?"


"I mean, she just lost her husband, but some of my friends see my cute nineteen-year-old cousin and think she's a prime target for hitting on."

"You can't stop her…"

"I know I can't, but I know you won't suggest she should hop into bed with the first guy who comes along."

"John," she said.

"Sorry. I mean, I don't mean any offense by that. I just know how you were at that age."

"Yeah, you made fun of me at every turn!"

"Sure, because it was totally foreign to me!"

"Yeah. So, you want me to just call her up or what?"

"Well, I figured I could introduce you to her. You could meet us for lunch at the mall or something and I can go my own way once I'm sure you're both cool with one another."

"I should probably talk to Rob…"

"Come on. You need to ask him for permission? He offered me a beer. He doesn't seem threatened by me."

"Well, no, but that's not having lunch with you."

"Really? My showing up at your place on a Saturday afternoon unannounced isn't a possible argument-inducer?"

"Why did you do it then?"

"How was I supposed to know you're living with someone? I didn't think women like you lived with people without a ring on their finger."

"I'm not living with him."

"He's just here while you shower, huh?"

"Yes," she said. "I don't owe you any explanations."

"I'm not saying you do. I was just making the point that if he has a problem with our having lunch with my cousin. Well, that seems like a problem for you."

"Well, you didn't let me finish what I was going to say. I was going to say I should ask him what we have going on the next week or so."

"Oh," he said. "Sorry."

"What's her name?"

"Shelly," he said. "Shelly Johnson."

She shook her head a little at that.


"You had a cousin named Shelly Johnson and made fun of Brian like you did!"

"First of all, Brian deserved to be made fun of at the time. Fuck. And, hello, she was married. Her maiden name is Bender. Four years ago, she was fifteen and still Shelly Bender."

"Oh," she said, apparently not having thought on that. "Do you need an answer now?"

"Well, no. I just, she's always around when I'm home, you know, since she's not working yet. So, I can't really talk."

"Got it."

"I can leave you my numbers, though, and you can call or page me anytime. I mean, if he wants to come with," he said, gesturing his head to wherever Robbie disappeared to. "I have no problem with that. I'm not trying to cause any problems. I just, really, am hoping to get her around some decent people for a change."

"I understand that."

"She had a friend back in Twin Peaks who she got along with real well, owned the diner where she worked."

"Well, that's good, she had someone I mean."


"What about her mom?"

"About like mine," he said with a shrug. "I didn't know her well. Living in Washington, you can imagine we didn't visit often or anything."

"How did she end up here?"

"Honestly? I have no clue. She showed up on my doorstep about a month ago."

"Wow," Claire said.

"I know. Packed up, picked up, and moved here with only what fit in her car."

"That's very brave."

"Or very stupid. She didn't know I'd take her in."

"Well if your dad's are alike…"

"Yeah, I guess, still was no guarantee I'd take her in."

"You haven't changed that much, John. You wouldn't have turned her out onto the street."

"You have more faith in me than I do myself then I guess, because I wasn't sure what the fuck to do when she showed up like that. I'm just glad they didn't have any kids."

"I bet she's glad, too."

"Yeah," he said.

"Let me talk to Robbie about what we have going on. I don't think we have any plans during the week already."

"He live here?"


"Sorry, none of my business," he said with a shrug.

"Well, I guess if you're trying to introduce your cousin to someone who's a good example it's your business. Yes, he is living here." She didn't offer any more information. Not that John deserved it, but what she just said contradicted what she'd said a few minutes ago about not living with him. Maybe he wasn't officially living with her? He couldn't see her mother being too keen on that sort of development. She was an adult, certainly she could do what she wanted to do in her own place. Would he not want Shelly hanging around someone living with their boyfriend? As long as Robbie was a nice guy, which he seemed to be just that as much as John hated to admit to that.

He finished off his beer, standing then. "I'll leave you my card and get out of your hair. I'm sorry to just drop in, but like I said I don't have a whole lot of privacy right now. My apartment isn't that big and I'm sleeping on the couch at the moment."

"I'm sorry," she said.

"It's fine. I mean, she just lost her husband. Bad stuff from what she told me. She," he shrugged. "Well, I'll fill you in on more details after you've met her. I'd like you to meet her and form an opinion about her before knowing everything about her."


He shrugged. "She's a Bender, Claire. We're, I'm coming to realize, just not real good people for the most part."

"Oh," she said. He noticed she didn't argue with him about that. He should be mad, but he supposed he couldn't blame her. He'd never done anything too bad to her, not really. He just hadn't been able to give her what she wanted. A relationship. A boyfriend. All in. No cold feet. No other women.

"Anyway," he said, pulling a card from his wallet. "My pager number's on there. Call anytime. The only time I turn it off are the nights I'm not on-call once I go to sleep."

"Sure," she said.

"And thanks for even considering this. I know it's a huge favor to ask and everything, but I just want her to be better than she's been so far."

"I understand," she said. She stopped herself from saying something else, too. He had no idea what, but he could tell.

He leaned in and kissed her on the cheek. "It was good seeing you. You look good."

"So do you," she said.

He snorted at that. "Thanks," he said. He looked like what he was. A plumber. He wasn't going to get mistaken for an executive anytime soon.


"Everything okay?" Robbie asked.

"Yeah," she shrugged. "He's just an old friend."

"Honey, the way he looked at you. He's no friend."

"Shut up," she said. "You were imagining things."

"I was not. He didn't like me at all."

"He wouldn't have," Claire said with a soft snort. John hadn't liked her expecting him to keep his hands to himself with anyone except her, but he certainly had watched her pretty closely around other guys.

"So, what'd he want?"

"To meet his cousin."

"Is that heterosexual code for something because I don't get it?"

"No, he really wants me to meet his cousin."

"A guy cousin?"


"A girl cousin. Oh, this just got way more interesting."

"Not for that. Get your mind out of the gutter for once."

"I like it there."

Claire laughed softly. "He wants me to help her, be her friend," she said, filling Robbie in on the details John had told her.

"So why do you need to check with me?"

She shrugged. "Because whenever I meet him you're coming with me."

"I am? Claire, I have a life."

"I know you do, that's why I told him I had to check with you. I'm not meeting him with just him and his cousin."

"Did he do something to you?"


"You sure?"

"No. I mean, I'm positive he didn't do anything to me." Other than broke her heart, but that wasn't any of Robbie's business. "I just would feel better if you were there, too."

"Sure, honey, count me in. Now, where are we going tonight?"

"I don't know."

"You could always page him for him and his cousin to join us."

"No," she said.

"Well, he gave you his pager number for a reason!"

"Not for that."

"You're no fun."

"I'm lots of fun, just John and fun don't mix so well with my life."

"Learned that the hard way, did we?"

"We did."

"So why do it then?"


"Help his cousin?"

She shrugged. "He came to me for a reason. She's nineteen and a widow. I wouldn't want her hanging around the people he probably hangs around with either."

She found the idea of him sleeping on his couch the past month more than a little amusing. That had to be cramping his style more than just a little bit. She sure hoped he wasn't expecting Claire to invite his cousin to move in here with her or something to get her out of his hair. There was doing a favor for someone she had no business doing favors for and there was being entirely too nice. She wasn't doing that.

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***Chapter Two***
Word Count: 4,150

"Why haven't you called him yet?" Robbie asked.

"What?" she asked. He'd startled her. She'd been sitting on the couch, staring at the business card that was still on the end table from Saturday. She had no idea what to do. Nothing good could come out of letting John into her life again. She'd done just fine without him the past four years.

"You're staring at his card. You haven't thrown it away, so that means you're thinking about it. You haven't done it yet so you're having doubts."

"I don't know that I really want to do this."

"Why not?"

She shrugged. "I was doing just fine without John in my life."

"I can pretend to understand, but I don't because you won't tell me what happened between the two of you."

"Nothing happened!" That was a good part of why the events that did transpire happened the way they had. She hadn't been willing to give him her complete trust, holding back from doing things he took for granted girls would do with him. She'd been looking around every corner, waiting for him to fuck up. Sadly, he had. It had taken him longer than she expected, but she'd been very glad she hadn't given him what he wanted her to give him.

"Really? I don't believe you."

"It doesn't matter. Not really. I was just so shocked he was here on Saturday for me to really react. A part of me was kind of excited he was here. You know? Then he was here for … a favor," she shrugged. She hadn't been sure what he was here for, what to even think when Robbie told her who was at the door. Groveling? Apologizing? Needing a loan? All those things had crossed her mind.

"You didn't sound very excited about his being here when I told you he was on his way upstairs."

"Because I couldn't imagine what he was doing here! I couldn't believe he had the nerve to show up here either. I ran through the possibilities as I was getting dressed. He could've been here to apologize, but it was a little late for that. So, I couldn't figure it out. I admit I almost didn't come out of my room, but then that would be just stupid. I didn't want him to know I'd done a perfectly good job of avoiding him for years before this past weekend."


"We dated," she said.

"Okay. Back in high school, right? You came out before he could give me any details on what you were like back then, but he said he was a friend from then."

"Friend is not at all accurate!"

"You dated someone you weren't friends with?"

"Really, Robbie? You saw him. You think I would've been caught dead with someone like him back then?"

"What's wrong with him exactly? He's nice looking, seemed nice enough. He at least seemed legitimately concerned I might be upset he was here."

She shrugged. "Besides the fact he's a plumber."

"Hey, it's a legitimate job the last I checked."

"Why are you defending him?"

"I'm not defending him! You haven't told me anything to not make me take his side. He's a plumber."

"He was one then, too, working for his dad."

"So what?"

"I don't want to talk about it."

"Well, fine then. Don't call him back, I don't care one way or the other really. If you're not going to call him, though, why do you still have his card?"

"Because I think about that poor girl…"

"Yeah, he's not stupid using that to get your attention."

"He's not."


"He doesn't like me like that, Robbie. I don't think he ever did."

"I'm telling you…"

"You saw wrong! I went to school and he couldn't keep it in his pants. Someone who likes me wouldn't do that!"

"Oh," he said. "I didn't know."

She shrugged. "It's not important."

"That takes guts."

"What does?"

"Him coming here. He cheated on you and he comes here looking for help."

"I'm not sure he knows I know."


"I never told him I found out."

"Why not?"

She shrugged. "I was afraid he'd say he was sorry and I'd believe him. So, I just didn't say anything. I had a couple of friends who wanted to stay in New York for the summer after our freshman year."

"So, you just never came back?"

She shrugged. "Pretty much."

"You never told him?"


"Never broke up with him?"

"Well, not officially, no, but I sort of took him being seen with someone else as him breaking up with me."

"Hmm," he said. "I guess he must have gotten the message if this is the first you've seen or heard from him since then."

"It is! I couldn't believe he was here. I debated about drying my hair, but didn't want him to think I went out of my way for him."

"If helping his cousin is going to be a problem for you then don't do it."

"It's not a problem. I can handle John. I just wasn't expecting him to show up here."

"Call him and get it done with then so I don't make plans for a night you had in mind."

"I suppose."

"Maybe you two won't like one another and the problem will be solved before it begins."

"It's not a problem. He said he'd leave once he saw we got along."

"So, you dated a plumber in high school?"

"He was a student in high school."

"Uh huh," he said.

"I was stupid. Okay? I was attracted to him."


"What's that mean?"

"You went out with him. I'd assume you were attracted to him."

"I shouldn't have been. Like I said. I was stupid. I disregarded the warning labels."

"What warning labels?"

"Pictures of several girls in his wallet. Telling me he didn't believe in just one girl and one guy. Him being absolutely nothing like me in any way, shape, or form. You name it every warning label was there."

"Why'd you go out with him then?"

"I told you! I was stupid! I shouldn't have. I learned my lesson, though."

"On the other hand, he was honest with how he was and he got you. Maybe I'm going about the whole process wrong."

"What process?"


"No, you're not doing it wrong! He did it wrong. I thought I'd be worth him wanting to change for. I was wrong. At least it wasn't years of my life I wasted. I mean, he didn't wait until my senior year to do something stupid."

"I'm still trying to wrap my mind around him having you as a girlfriend and cheating…"

She shrugged.

"I probably wasn't the easiest girlfriend to have."

She could admit that, but all John had to do was tell her. She was in Connecticut. If that was too much for him he should've said so. It wasn't as if she was expecting him to ask her to marry him or anything. She had expected him to be faithful as long as they were involved. It still stung. She wouldn't deny that. She knew John didn't know what to do with her any better than she knew what to do with him. Having a boyfriend should've been easy. She'd seen all of her friends do it. She'd seen her brother have girlfriends.

"Well, I don't know what to tell you, but if you put off calling him much longer he's going to know that's exactly what you're doing."


"Well, I saw the way you looked at me when I told you who was here. You got pale. Paler than usual anyway."

"Ha ha."

"An exaggeration, perhaps, but that was still the case. I was surprised when you came out of your room you were as calm as you were."

"I didn't feel calm."

"You did an exceptional job at hiding it."

"Thank you."

"My point is, you want him to think seeing him didn't bother you."

"Well, right…"

"So, call him and get it over with. I'm free all week. Set it up so you can get on with the favor or find out you don't get along with the girl at any rate."

"I guess," she said.

"If you don't want to," he shrugged. "I think you should at least call him and tell him that so he knows."

"You could call him for me," Claire said.

"I don't think I'm his type, honey. Otherwise I'd do it in a heartbeat."

"I know."

"You know when you invited me to move here with you…"

"You didn't think people would be so uptight?"

"Not really. I mean, it's Chicago."

"We're in the suburbs, Robbie."

"I know."

"And you've had fun when we've gone downtown."

"Sure, but I don't want to meet someone at a bar any more than you do."

"I guess," she said.

She picked up the card John left and then the phone she had in the living room.

"Here goes nothing," she said. "You are coming with me, right?"

"I'm coming with you, yes. I'll pretend to be hopelessly devoted to you if that's the charade you want to present."

"No, I just…"

"Don't want him to think you're pining away for him."

"Exactly, which he's conceited enough to presume is the case."

She dialed the number for his pager, inputting her number and hanging up afterward.

"Maybe he won't call you back."

"I doubt that."

"It did take a lot of guts for him to just show up here like that."

"That thought occurred to me, too."

The phone rang a few minutes later and she debated about having Robbie answer it except she'd paged him so would clearly be expecting him to call back.

"Hello," she said.

'Hi. This is John Bender.'

"Hi," she said again. "It's Claire."

'I thought I recognized the number.'

"Yeah, sorry," she said.

'Nothing to apologize for. I wasn't sure where I recognized it from so figured I'd better identify myself."

"Are you done for the day?"

'Uh, yeah, actually. We finished about twenty minutes ago so you had good timing.'

"Well, good."

Silence. She had no idea what to say really. What if he'd come over to talk to her about something else entirely, seen Robbie, and assumed he was her boyfriend so made up his cousin?

'Listen, I realize my asking you to meet my cousin is way out there on the scale of things.'

"You could say that."

'If you don't want to, I completely understand.'

"I haven't said I wouldn't."

'No, but you're not exactly jumping up and down to do it.'

"Can you blame me?"


'I know it's been a while and everything. I don't know. You're the first one I thought of.'

"Well, we're pretty open the rest of this week so you tell me what works for you around your schedule."

'Uh, how about Friday? I know I'm on-call tomorrow night.'

"Not this weekend?"

'Uh no, we switch every other weekend unless he's doing something that he needs me to take his weekend, too, but I can tell him Friday night is off-limits at least until like ten o'clock or something.'

"Okay that works. We're free."

'All right. Uh. Where?'

"Well, you mentioned the mall. Did you want to meet at the one here?"

'Sure, that works. Around seven maybe?'


'Is there still a restaurant by the Sears entrance?'


'Okay, should be easy to find you that way then. And thanks again for doing this.'

"Sure. It might be kind of fun."

He scoffed softly at that. She took that to mean he still wasn't too keen on shopping. He'd gone with her a time or two because she'd made him, but he'd hated every minute of it.

'I'll see you then. If something comes up in the meantime you have my pager number.'

"I do and you have my number now."

'I do," he said. Evidently, he'd had it before since he'd said he recognized it. She supposed he would if he got her address out of the phone book.

"Good night," she said.

'Yeah, night,' he said.

"I swear to God, Robbie…"

"What? It'll be fun."

"Yeah, for you to watch me deal with him."

"I admit that thought crossed my mind before you told me you two dated."



"You should have left your hair down," Robbie said.


He shrugged. "You look prettier."

"I'm not here to look prettier."

"You look less stern," he said.

She rolled her eyes, causing Robbie to laugh. She was the queen of rolling her eyes. He'd seen her do it more than once since meeting her. It was never a good sign either. "She's nineteen not nine, I don't think she cares if I wear my hair up or down."

Robbie waggled his eyebrows a bit. "I bet her cousin does."

She sighed softly. She was too easy to tease, though, especially when it came to men. Of course, she was easy to tease when it came to them because she hardly had any.

"Just drink your beer and leave me alone," she murmured.

"You're the one who wanted me here!"

"Not to critique what I look like."

"I bet John will be doing the same thing."

"He will not!"

"I bet he will, but for a very different reason."

"Shut up!"

"You really have to tell me the whole story one of these days."

"I did! Nothing else happened!"

"Well, if that's the problem. Did you tell him you wanted him to do something?"

"That's not what I meant. It's nothing worth talking about. It was no big deal."

"You dragged me here when I could be out with some friends because you apparently don't want to be alone with him."

"I'm not your friend?"

"You are. You know you are, honey," he said. He slid a hand to the side of her face, tucking a couple stray strands that had fallen out of her updo. "I love you, you know that."

"I know," she said, sounding as though she hated admitting that right now.

He had no doubt John had heard the last little bit of their conversation. Robbie had tried for days to get her to give him the details about John but she hadn't budged on her stance of not wanting to talk about it. That didn't mean he wasn't going to try. John had cheated she'd said, but there had to be more than it to than that. The look on John's face currently wasn't of someone who'd moved past Claire without a second thought. Jealous? Maybe a little of that was there. He was definitely sizing Robbie up, which amused him to no end because Robbie did the same to him in return. Just for entirely different reasons. He and Claire had never had the same taste in men, but he could understand the appeal of John.

"Hey," John said. His cousin didn't look as though she was sure why she was here. Robbie wasn't sure why he was here either so knew how she was feeling. "Sorry if you had to wait long. My last job took a little longer than I thought it was going to."

"No, you're fine," Claire said. Of course she would, but the nearly empty glasses told John very clearly they'd been there for a while.

John offered his hand to Robbie, which he took.

"Nice to see you again," John said.

"You, too," Robbie said, taking his hand back and settling it on the back of Claire's chair. He didn't miss the look John gave him at doing that either. He could have a lot of fun with this if he wanted to. He didn't care what Claire said, Robbie knew what it looked like when a guy liked someone. He was a guy who liked guys.

"Uh, so this is my cousin Shelly. Shelly, this is my friend Claire Standish and her friend Robbie," he said.

"Hi Shelly," Claire said. "It's nice to meet you."

She was cute, Robbie had to admit. He wasn't sure what he was expecting after the little bit Claire had shared with him. Someone married and a widow before most people graduated high school. He was expecting. Well, not someone pretty at any rate.

"Hi," she said before sliding into the booth opposite them. Claire and Robbie had taken the table half of their booth/table seating because they'd be seen by John easier from the chairs.

They'd put their order in and were making general small talk. Robbie got the impression Claire was using tonight more to see if she and Shelly would get along. If they would she'd use tonight as a in to asking her to do something some other time. He didn't get the impression she was planning on taking her shopping or something tonight. It meant Robbie got a front row seat to watching Claire avoid looking at John as much as possible and John trying not to be obvious about the fact he was watching Claire and Robbie very closely.

Robbie leaned toward her midway through their dinner. The conversation hadn't been crazily uncomfortable oddly enough.

"Your brother's here," Robbie whispered.

"Really?" she asked, glancing around the restaurant until she spotted him. "I wonder what he's doing here."

"I don't know."

"Well, obviously," she said. "I should go say hi to him."

"I think he had the same idea," Robbie said when they both noticed Christopher get up from the table he'd been sitting at and walk toward their table.

"Hey, Claire. What are you doing here on a Friday night?"

"Having dinner with some friends."

"Robbie, good to see you," he said, settling his hand on Robbie's shoulder since he was closest to Christopher. Robbie chuckled to himself because the gesture sure gave the impression Claire's brother liked and approved of him.

Christopher glanced at her friends and Robbie sensed that Christopher knew John and wasn't too thrilled to see him sitting there.

"John," Christopher said evenly, extending his hand to him. "How are you doing?"

"I'm all right, Chris. You?"

"All right," he said, settling his eyes on Shelly then.

"This is my cousin, Shelly. She just moved to town from Washington."

"Washington D.C.?"

"No," she said. "State."

"Ah. Seattle? Or somewhere else?"

"Somewhere else. A little town."

"Nothing wrong with little towns," he said.

"I was glad to get out," she said.

"Ah," he said.

"Who are you here with, Christopher?" Claire asked.

"Just some friends from high school. Tom Gunderson is getting married next month and a couple of us are here planning his bachelor party."

"Tom's getting married? Really? I hadn't heard."

"Yeah, they just met like six months ago or something. Pretty fast, but you know Tom."

"Yeah," Claire said with a roll of her eyes. Robbie didn't know Tom so had no idea what that meant. He assumed it meant that Tom was somewhat flighty, getting married after only six months of knowing someone seemed pretty flighty in Robbie's opinion. Then, anyone getting married was flighty in his mind.

"Call me tomorrow, okay? We have some catching up to do," Christopher said to Claire.

"Sure," she said, looking a little pale at that. Huh. Her brother didn't seem too happy she was with John. Interesting. Robbie got the impression they weren't that serious, but if Christopher knew John well they had to have gotten to the point of meeting family.

"Hope you like Chicago, Shelly. You ever want to see a view of the city on a boat let Claire know I'll take you guys out sometime."

"Sure," she said, sounding a little shy about the response.

"John," Christopher said before leaving the table.

"Christopher has a boat now?" John asked.

"Yeah," she said with a shrug. "He's had it for a couple of years I guess."

"Huh," he said. "Still single?"

"Uh, yeah. He was dating someone for a while, but they broke up a couple of months ago I think."

"Why? She tell him she love him or something."

She scoffed at that, taking a sip of her wine. Her hand shook a little, not enough for anyone to notice really but Robbie noticed sitting right next to her like this. He settled his hand over the one she had still on the table, lacing his fingers through hers so it'd seem like an intimate gesture more than a comforting one.

"I don't know. He doesn't report to me about every girl he dates and why they break up. I'd assume they didn't get along."

"So, Shelly," Robbie said. "Have you looked at jobs yet?"

"Well, all I've ever done is wait tables, but it was at a pretty small diner not a place like this. I've applied, but haven't gotten any call-backs yet."

"Well, I work as a chef," Robbie said.

"You do?" she asked.

"I do. I can probably talk management into giving you a trial run so you can prove you can keep up with the big city waitresses."

"That'd be real nice of you, Robbie," John said. "She hasn't gotten many calls back even."

"I can imagine. How big was your town?"

"About fifty thousand, but it was in the middle of nowhere."

"Ah," he said. "Well, if you're interested let me know. I can't guarantee you'll get a job, but I can get you a chance to show you're competent."

"Thanks," Shelly said. Robbie wasn't sure if that was a thanks she wanted the name of his restaurant or thanks she wasn't interested.

"Sure," he said with a shrug. He felt bad for the girl, really. He couldn't imagine being married at her age let alone married and a widow, moving to a city where he knew no one but a cousin. Of course, he'd done essentially that moving here with Claire, but he wasn't a widower. Huge difference.

Robbie let go of Claire's hand now, sensing she wasn't angry anymore. John's question had pissed her off. Did John know that? Had he asked it deliberately? Had Claire told him she loved him and John's response was to cheat on her?

"So that wasn't so bad," Robbie said in Claire's car once they'd finished dinner and gone on their way. He and Claire had walked around the mall for a little while. They asked Shelly and John if they wanted to join them, but they'd declined. John had insisted Shelly could go with them if she wanted to, but she hadn't. He couldn't blame her really.

"Thank you," Claire said.

"For what?"

"For going with me. For being there. God, if Christopher had seen me with just John I'd never hear the end of it."

"Will you now?"

"He'll ask me if I'm seeing him again. I'll say no, since I was with you and his cousin he'll believe me."

"Doesn't like him, does he?"

"He doesn't really know him. He just knows that we broke up suddenly."

"Protective big brother. That's sweet. I wish I had that."

"You have a big brother."

"Sure, who hasn't spoken to me since I was sixteen."

"I'm sorry. I forgot."

"It's all right, sweetie. You sure you're all right?"

"I am. She seems nice. Not at all what I expected."

"Right? Me neither. She was cute. Pretty even."

"That was nice of you, offering her a job."

Robbie shrugged. "I'm a sucker for a pretty girl after all, I guess."

She laughed softly. "Maybe you've just been doing a great imitation of being gay all of these years."

"Maybe. I don't think so, though."

"I'd love it if that was the case."

"No more than I would, you know that."

"I do," Claire said. They'd talked about that once when they were having one of their late night heart-to-hearts. If they thought they'd date if Robbie was interested in women. Robbie would date Claire in a heartbeat, but he wasn't so sure after meeting John if she would do the same in return.

"Let's go home," she said.

"I'm just waiting for you. You're driving."

"I know. I was just saying it out loud, I guess."

"Oh, well, if you want me to twist your arm into going out somewhere…"

"It is only ten o'clock…"

"Sadly, I suspect while I wouldn't go home alone you will."


He sighed. "Claire…"

"I just don't do casual sex, Robbie."

She didn't do sex period from what Robbie knew, but that wasn't any of his business. Some people were like that.

"Maybe you should. Get it out of your system then you wouldn't be so uptight when you go on a date with someone new."

"I don't get uptight!"

"Says the woman who hasn't had an orgasm in months."

"I have to!"

"Given to yourself doesn't count!"

"Yeah, fine. So, Rush Street?"

"You're driving."

Return to Top

***Chapter Three***
Word Count: 5,026

Claire groaned disapprovingly at the phone next to her bed ringing. Robbie didn't have a phone by his bed so likely he was sleeping right through it.

"Hello," she mumbled into the phone.

"Did I catch you at a bad time?"

"No, just sleeping," she murmured.



"Claire. It's after noon."

"So? I was out late last night. You were, too!"

"I wasn't out that late actually. We didn't leave too long after you did."

"And you went right home?"


"Huh," she said.

"So I have to ask…"

"Yeah?" she asked. She took a peak at her alarm clock next to the phone. Sure enough it was almost one o'clock. Of course, she hadn't gotten home until almost five o'clock so that wasn't sleeping in as far as she was concerned.

"You're not back with John, are you?"


"You sure? I mean, I'd think you're pretty freaking nuts to do it, but you don't have to lie to me if you are."

"I'm not!"

"So you just have dinner with your first, and really only, ex-boyfriend on a Friday night every week or what?"

"No," she said. "I swear we're not. He wanted me to meet his cousin."


"Because she just moved here and he thought we'd get along. She doesn't know anyone, doesn't even have a job. He thought maybe I could help her. You know. Shopping and job leads."

"Oh," he said. Claire was leaving a lot of details out, she realized. It wasn't really Christopher's business, though. It wasn't her place to tell anyone else Shelly's history. She'd told Robbie, but he could've sat in the living room while John was here and heard the whole conversation anyway.

"That's all. I'm not."

"I can't say I'm not relieved. You can do so much better than him. I thought that even then."

"Christopher. There's nothing wrong with him."

"He's a plumber, Claire!"

"I know what he does for a living. The world needs plumbers."

"See, you're defending him."

"I'm not! There's nothing wrong with what he does for a living. You don't insult what Robbie does for a living."

"Robbie's a chef."


"If he was a cook at Denny's I'd probably criticize."

Claire sighed.

"Are you doing anything tomorrow?"

"No," she said with a frown. Talk about a drastic turn around in the tone of the conversation.

"Want to meet me for a boat ride?"

"Sure," she said.

"Bring Robbie."

"I think he works. I'll ask him to be sure, but I'm almost certain I remember him saying he worked tonight and tomorrow lunch because by the time he gets done and closed and then has to be back he has less than nine hours between shifts."

"And if you wanted to bring John's cousin…"

"Oh my God. So you didn't really call me to find out if I was with John?"

"Well, I did. I did offer her a ride in my boat."

"She's nineteen, Chris."

"Yeah? So?"

She sighed. John did say he wanted her to meet better people. Christopher could be a bit of a jerk at times, but he was certainly of a better caliber of person than the types of guys John hung around with. Of course she didn't know who he hung out with anymore, but his coming here asking for her help led her to believe he hadn't changed much. That meant friends.

"I can ask her," she said.

"Cool. You going out tonight?"

"I don't think so."

"All right? So, ten o'clock? If you, or she, needs later let me know."

"Wait? Are we meeting you at your house?"

"Yeah, sure, that works."

"Okay. Sure," she said.

"Thanks, Claire. I'll see you tomorrow."

"Yeah," she said, hanging up. She wasn't sure about this at all. This had 'bad idea' written all over it. And yet. It wasn't like her brother was actually going to date her. He was being nice. Sure he probably thought she was cute, even Robbie had said he thought she was. Something told her if he didn't like John even today he wasn't going to be overly impressed with Shelly's history.

She woke up then, showered, and went to the kitchen to make some coffee and something to eat. Not surprisingly, Robbie's bedroom door was open and his bed showed no signs of his having slept in it. He'd left the club with someone else last night, assuring her he'd get home just fine on his own.

She wished she could pick guys up that easily. She just didn't have it in her. Lord knew she'd tried over the years. Casual sex just wasn't her thing. The sex part hadn't been bad the couple of times she'd done it. It was the aftermath that always left her feeling like crap about the situation. And about herself. Did it mean more than she thought it did? Would he call her? What if he'd really liked her but then she'd gone and had sex with him without even a date and changed his mind about her? All things she hated thinking and feeling.

The coffee started she picked up the phone, finding John's card. He'd given her a second one last night with his home phone number written on it. She'd stared at the one he'd given her last weekend long enough to know it by heart. It still sort of blew her mind that he had his own business. Okay, it was with someone else, but he'd gotten away from his dad. That was a huge deal.


"Hi, John. It's Claire."

'Hey, I wasn't expecting to hear from you today.'

"Well, my brother called offering to take me out on his boat tomorrow. I thought I'd see if Shelly wanted to come with. It'd give her something to do for the day and get her out of your way for a while if you had something to do with your day. We'd probably do dinner out afterward, too."

'Uh, not really, but hang on let me get her. She's in my room getting dressed.'


'Yeah. I swear the sooner I get my room back I'll be happy.'

"It's nice what you're doing, John."

'Thanks. You sound tired.'

"Yeah, I didn't get home until about five this morning."

'Long night.'

"It was. It was fun, though."


"Christopher actually woke me up, otherwise I'd probably still be sleeping."

'I hate when that happens.'

"Me, too."

'So, is Robbie going with you tomorrow?'

"No, he works tonight and tomorrow afternoon."

'Oh. That sucks being scheduled like that.'

"Yeah," she said glancing at the clock on the wall in her kitchen. Robbie was cutting it very close not being home already to get ready for work tonight. Not her problem, she realized, but she knew he liked his job.

'That's why you guys went out last night then, I suppose? Not much of a weekend with him working tonight.'

"Oh, I'm going out tonight with a friend."

'Does he work every weekend?'

"Most of them. Weekends are the busiest nights for nicer restaurants, they want their best staff working."

'I suppose I hadn't thought about it like that. He's that good?'

"He is," she said.

'That was nice of him, by the way, mentioning that to Shelly. Thank him for me. She was excited to have a chance.'

"I'll tell him. You both heard the part about him not being able to guarantee her a job, right? Just the chance to show she can do the job."

'Yes. That's good and more than fair. And really more than I expected out of you least of all him. So, all right here's Shelly. Thanks again.'

"Sure," she said.


"Hi Shelly. It's Claire. My brother called this morning and asked if I wanted to go out with him on his boat tomorrow. I thought maybe you'd like to come, too. If you have nothing else to do anyway. If you do, that's fine. It's supposed to be a nice day, though, and we're getting to the time of year we may not have many more nice Sunday's."

'Sure,' she said.

"All right. I can pick you up I guess around nine. Is that too early?"

'No, it's fine.'

"Okay. Bring a swimsuit if you have one. We'll probably be out all day and there's plenty of room to lay out."

'Sure. I do have one, yeah. Do you need John's address?'

"Uh, yeah," she said. That was not on his business card.

She covered the phone so Claire couldn't hear what she said to John too clearly. She came back a minute later, though, and gave her John's address.

"All right. I'll see you tomorrow."

'Yeah, thanks, that sounds fun.'

"It will be. Chris has a real nice boat." He loved showing it off, too, so she suspected he'd make sure they had all sorts of food and things to drink for their day.

She had things to do with her afternoon so missed Robbie completely. She did see signs that he'd been home, though. His towel on the floor in his bathroom was a good indicator of that. She picked it up from the floor and hung it up for him. He wasn't usually a slob, but she was going to assume he was in a hurry and just forgot.

'Hi Claire, shoot I was really hoping to get you and not your machine. It's Ally. I totally forgot that Andy made plans with his dad for tonight so I can't make it for drinks with you. I'm so sorry. You know how absolutely overjoyed I am at the prospect of spending an entire evening with him.'

Claire did know. Mr. Clark had more than once told Allison plainly to her face that if Andy hadn't met her he'd be a star. Of course, Andy hadn't wanted to be a star, but that didn't seem to matter to his dad.

'I hope you're doing well. I know it's been a while. I'm sorry I've been so busy. I promise next week. We have lots to catch up on. Have a good night, I hope you can find something to do. Certainly it'll have to be better than spending time with Andy's dad!'

Claire couldn't help but laugh at that, even if she was a little disappointed. She sighed as she erased the message. She'd been looking forward to getting together with Allison. It'd been a while. She'd been busy most of the summer it seemed. She'd seen her around the Fourth of July she supposed.

She grabbed her purse and keys and decided to go rent a movie or two for the night since she was going to be home by herself. If Robbie had liked the guy he'd gone home with last night there was no telling he'd come home tonight after his shift. He did that sometimes, met someone and she wouldn't see him for days.

It was better than having no roommate. She didn't really need a roommate, but she'd done the living alone thing her last year of college and she'd just never been real comfortable alone in the big old house she rented a one bedroom apartment in. What was more. She liked Robbie. They drove one another crazy sometimes, sometimes worse than others. They'd never had a real fight, though. Arguments and disagreements, sure, but a downright fight as she'd had with so many of her girlfriends over the years. Never.

Movies picked up she decided to stop at Lou Malnati's to get a pizza to take home with her. Being Saturday night she'd have to wait a while, but it wasn't as if she had anything else to do with her time. She had a book in her car, so she could sit there and read it if the wait was going to be too incredibly long.

She couldn't believe how crowded the pizza place was every weekend. Some nights during the week, too. On weekends, though, forget about getting an immediate seat during dinner hours. The take-out section wasn't usually too bad because it wasn't the pizzas you were waiting for, it was the table. So, hopefully she wouldn't have to wait too long. If she'd thought about it when she left the video store she would've called from the pay phone outside of it and ordered ahead but she decided on it spur of the moment when she realized she hadn't eaten anything since the yogurt she'd had after waking up in lieu of cooking anything.


She turned in the direction of the voice, groaning inwardly at seeing John there.

"I'll catch up with you guys in a second," he said to the group he was with. A group of four other guys it looked like.

"Hi," she said, trying not to sound as if he was the last person she wanted to see her here alone on a Saturday night.


"Yeah. My plans got canceled so I stopped to pick up some movies. I decided a pizza sounded good."

"Good plan. Sorry about your plans."

"It's okay. Ally is probably not enjoying herself too well right about now."

"Allison? Really? Is she still dating Andy?"

"Yup. They're having dinner with his dad tonight or something."

"Oh," he said, nodding as if understanding. "Well, I'm sorry."

"It's okay. It happens."

"Well, that kind of sucks since Robbie's working tonight."

"I know."

"What time will he be home?"

She shrugged. "It depends on when he gets done closing up."

"I suppose," he said.

It also depended on whether he would actually come home tonight. She had no idea.

"Well," he said, glancing back at the group of guys he seemed to be with. "We're heading to The Whale if you wanted to join us you're more than welcome."

"Oh," she said. The idea did sound appealing. "I'm not dressed to go out or anything."

"Go home and change. We'll be there for a while. None of us have wives or anything to get home to, so we'll probably close the place down. It sounds like Robbie won't be home until at least bar closing."

"No," she said. "You're right."

"All right. Well, come if you want. That's where we'll be."

"All night?"

"Yeah. My partner, his brother's band is playing there tonight."

"Oh," she said, glancing at the guys he was with a little more curiously now. One of them was his partner. Interesting.

"Well, the offer's there. Come on out, have a drink, listen to some music. If you don't want to drive, I could pick you up. Just tell me a time you think you'd be ready to go."

"I really shouldn't."

"Oh come on, you were going to go out anyway. You can't tell me if you'd gone out with Ally you would've been home this early."

"Well, no," she said. They wouldn't have. Allison seemed to have it in her head that it was her purpose in life to find Claire a potential husband. So every time they went out Claire felt like she was on display. She had gotten a couple of dates that way, so she wasn't complaining. Only one of the dates had turned into a second date, though.

"You want me to follow you to your place? I could give you a lift from there."

"I'm not going to drink that much, especially going out on the boat tomorrow."

"I suppose," he said. "Well, like I said, we'll be there until closing."

"Won't they wonder who I am?"

"I don't care what they think."

She did. She didn't want his friends thinking she was one of his girlfriends. She saw when he realized what she was thinking and worried about.

"They're not going to think you're with me. Don't worry. No way would they believe I could snag someone like you in this lifetime anyway."

"I wasn't…"

"Yeah, I could see your mind going. It's been a while I realize, but I know what you look like when you're thinking something that means bad things for me. I remember it well."

"I didn't look at you like that!"

"So you think. Yet I knew just now you were doing exactly that."


"You're telling me I'm wrong?"


"Yeah, see. Come if you want. Don't if you don't want. I don't care. Fuck. It's Saturday night, your plans fell through. I'm just being nice."

"I know. I doubt I'll make it, but thanks."

While she was sort of intrigued by who John would be hanging out with tonight she wasn't that curious.

"Where's Shelly?"

"Home. She can't get into the bar and no way in hell am I getting her a fake ID."

She laughed at that. "I know. I was just wondering."

"That's nice of you, inviting her tomorrow. Thanks. You didn't have to do that."

She shrugged. She was so not telling him Christopher brought it up. "It'll be fun."

"All right. Well, I'm sorry if I for whatever reason pissed you off. I'll see you in the morning, I guess."

"Yeah," she said.

"Night, Claire."

"Night," she said.

"Hey Claire," he said, turning around in the parking lot after he'd taken a few steps.


"One of these days," he said. "You're going to have to explain to me why you just stopped calling and writing me."

"I don't owe you anything," she said simply.

"I guess you don't. Was it him?"

"Him who?"

"Robbie," he said, sounding as if that should have been obvious to her. "Did you meet him or something? I mean, I could understand if that's what happened. I probably would have broken up with me, too. I'm sure your parents love him."

Her dad wasn't too thrilled with Robbie, but yes her mother loved him for some strange reason. They both knew he wasn't a boyfriend. She'd be disowned if she had a boyfriend living with her.

"No, I didn't meet him."

"Someone else then?"

"What are you talking about?"

"I've wondered for a while, you know. I mean, I realize I wasn't the greatest boyfriend, but you knew going into it that I was learning. If I was doing something that wrong I wished you'd told me so I could fix it. Or try anyway. I thought we were good, you know. Whatever. I didn't expect to just never hear from you again."

"That's rich. Of course not because you assumed I'd remain clueless the entire time I was at school. You know damned well why I stopped calling you."

"Funny, you seem to think so, but I don't have a clue. You didn't come home after your freshman year, didn't return my calls or my letters so I took the hint. I just kind of wondered why, though."

"I'm sorry. You're standing there accusing me of cheating on you? Am I hearing you right?"

"Well, I didn't say that, no. I just wondered what happened. You guys seem pretty familiar, suggests to me you've been together a while. So I thought maybe he was why."

"No, Robbie or any other guy is not the reason. It's because you couldn't keep your dick in your pants! You really think I was going to put up with that?"

His friends were looking at them now.

"Fuck, you don't have to yell."

"Don't ask me ridiculous questions!"

"I never fucked anyone, Claire."

"Don't lie to me!"

"I'm not lying. I don't know what you think I was doing. I won't deny I looked, very hard, at women while you were at school. I even kissed a couple of them, and I felt like shit afterward the couple of times it happened. I even told you about it once and that was the last time because I felt like complete shit for it. I sure as hell didn't stick anything of mine into any part of them."

"I don't believe you!"

"Why not?" he asked.

She could not believe she was having this conversation with him in the middle of the parking lot at Lou Malnati's on a Saturday night. It was the most absurd thing she could ever possibly come up with. And she'd come up with a lot of scenarios for confronting him in her mind the first couple of months they'd broken up.

"Because Tricia Elrose called me to tell me that you went to a room with someone at one of her parties."


That surprised him, no doubt, because Tricia was one of his friends. There was no love lost between Claire and Tricia, so she'd been extremely surprised she'd gone through the effort to get Claire's number and call her.

"And you fucking believed her? She didn't like you!"

"No, she didn't, which is exactly why I believed her. Why would she go through the effort of going to my parents' house to get my phone number at school to tell me? She didn't like me. She wouldn't unless it was the truth and for once in her skanky life she decided seeing someone get shit on wasn't nice."

"She was right, I did."

She stared at him, surprised for some reason he admitted to it.

"So why are you arguing with me then?"

"I didn't fuck her!"

"You just went up to a bedroom to what? Braid her hair?"


"Then what?"

"Claire," he said.

"No, you brought this up. I answered your question. You wanted to talk about it, find out why I stopped talking to you. I'm telling you why. So what. What is it you were doing with her in a bedroom?"

He glanced back at his friends who weren't talking amongst themselves anymore. She wondered which of them his partner was. He walked up to her then, grabbing her by the arms and drawing her to him.

"I remember which party you're talking about," he said softly. "I guess I never put two and two together that that's when you stopped talking to me. I went up to the bedroom with her because she had some good coke on her and offered me some."


"Oh come on, don't look at me like that. You know pot wasn't the only thing I did back then. It wasn't something I did publicly, though. Very few people knew I did it, but those that did if they had good, pure shit on them. They'd offer me a line," he shrugged. "So, yes, she was right. I went up to a room, did a line with her. She did more than one because it was her shit. I will swear on a Bible or whatever you want me to that I never fucked anyone."


"I swear to God you tell anyone that. I've been clean of anything but pot for years now."

"I'm not going to tell anyone."

"Why didn't you tell me? Ask me? Something?"

She shrugged, glancing at her feet. "I was afraid if I did you'd deny it and I'd believe you."

"Why did that frighten you?"

"Because I loved you! I loved you so much I wanted to believe you'd never do that to me. When she called me. I still remember. I cried for over an hour after hanging up with her. I was so embarrassed and felt like such shit for trusting you, for trying with you. I was completely and utterly humiliated and embarrassed that you'd do that to me! I stopped crying and threw everything away. Every picture of you. Every movie ticket. I came home for Christmas and threw everything away in my room."


"Yes," she said.

"Your corsage?"

"Yes, that was part of everything."

"Huh," he said.

She'd loved that corsage. She'd had corsages before prom, but never from John. He'd gone to great lengths to order something special, different for her so it wasn't just another corsage. He'd even pinned it on the front of her dress for her. She'd dried it and saved it, which he knew because she told him she was going to.

"That was the only time I've ever bought flowers for anyone."

"Which might explain why you're still single," she said dryly.

"Maybe so."

"Your friends are waiting for you."

He chuckled softly at that. "I bet they are."

"Have fun."

"Yeah. I guess this little conversation ensures you won't be joining us."

"Uh, no," she said.

"Fair enough. Have a good night then, see you in the morning. I'll make sure Shelly's awake and ready to go."

"Okay, thanks," she said.

"Night, Claire," he said.

So that was it? She watched him walk toward his friends. She didn't try to say anything further. There wasn't anything more to say really. She'd just expected … Something more. It was a while ago, though, so what could she really expect?

She decided to forego the pizza, no longer in the mood now. She waited until his group had left, though, not want him to see that she left without a pizza.

"Hey Ally, it's Claire. When you get in do you want to give me a call? If it's real late, maybe Monday night after work? I'm going to be out on Chris' boat tomorrow so probably won't be back until real late. It's nothing real important and everything's okay. I'd just like to talk to you about something."

There was no telling how late they'd be out with Andy's dad. She'd call back if she could tonight. Ally knew how late was too late. She felt silly calling, but it'd be nice to talk about it to someone who knew not just John but her, too. Robbie, she just didn't want to take the time to explain to him the situation and didn't want to hear 'he'd told her so'.


"So, who was that you were talking to?" Kevin asked.

"Just someone I know," John said.

"I didn't realize you knew women like her."

"What's that mean?"

"No offense, man, but the women I usually see you hanging around with I wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole."

"No one's asking you to," John said, sounding defensive and he knew that.

"She's just not the type of woman I usually see you talking to."

"We dated."

"Shut up."

"What? We did."

"Uh huh."

"What's that mean?"

"And again, I've seen the women you hang around with. Nowhere in there is room for someone like her."

John wished he could argue with Kevin, but he really couldn't. He'd tried, but he never met anyone like Claire since. Kevin was right. His friends hadn't improved much over the years. He stopped doing shit he shouldn't do, but he hadn't stopped hanging around people who still did those things.

Of course, that was what led to him contacting Claire about Shelly to begin with. His own fault, but he'd never seen the need to seek out new friends.

Kevin was his partner. The rest of the guys here tonight were Kevin's friends. John knew them, went out with them as a group like tonight on occasion, but they weren't friends.

Kevin shrugged. "What happened that you dated?"

"What do you mean? What happened? I asked her out. She said yes. We went out. What does that even mean?"

"Dated implies past tense. So what happened?"

"I was eighteen," John shrugged.

"Ah," Kevin said, nodding knowingly. Kevin knew John then. They weren't partners yet. It wasn't until John had cut out the hard shit that Kevin had approached him about going into business together.

"Turns out she thought I had sex with someone else while she was at college."

"Did you?"

John sighed. "No!"

"Why'd she think that then?"

John told him what Claire had told him tonight.

"Is she single?"

"No," John said.

"You interested?"

"No! She's not available."

"I didn't see a ring on her finger."

"Yeah, so?"

"Did you like her?"

"Yes," John said without hesitation. He'd gone out with people since her, of course, but he'd never liked anyone the way he liked her. He hadn't cheated on her, but she was the exception.

Kevin shrugged.

"No ring," he said, taking a sip of his beer.

"She lives with the guy."

"Really?" Kevin said, sounding about as surprised at that concept as John was. Women like Claire just didn't have live-in boyfriends. At least none that John knew didn't.

"Yes," John said. "He actually seems like a decent guy."

"Oh," Kevin said. "You've met him."

"Yup," he said.

"I still say all's fair."

"What part of living together don't you get?"

"No ring, John."

"Can we talk about something else?"

"Sure, buddy."

"Why do you even care?"

"I don't, but I've never seen you get that angry at someone."

"I wasn't angry!"

"Uh huh."

All right, he'd been pretty angry to find out that she'd dumped him over a stupid misunderstanding. He still couldn't believe Tricia had called her. Tricia hadn't been able to stand Claire. The couple times Claire had come out with him to a party Tricia had been beyond rude to her. She even spilled a cup of beer on her one night, purposely.

"Whatever. Come on. Your brother's going to be on stage in a little while. Let's move onto something better."

"Sure," Kevin said.

John was always surprised Kevin's wife was so cool about Kevin coming out to watch his brother's band play as often as he did. They usually had a gig at least once a month, sometimes more during the summer.

"One last question," Kevin said.

"What?" John asked.

"Was the line worth it?"

"No," John said simply.

Of course he hadn't known until tonight that was what had been the cause of them breaking up. Hell, breaking up implied breaking up was done. She hadn't done that. She'd just blown him off. He'd just assumed she'd met some guy at college and realized she didn't want a plumber. He had no way of knowing if she ever read the few letters he sent her. Come to think of it, she must not have because he doubted she would think he'd write letters like that to her while cheating on her.

Return to Top

***Chapter Four***
Word Count: 2,707

"You're coming with us?" Shelly asked when John came out of his room with stuff that seemed to indicate he'd be out in the sun all day, too.

"Yup," John said.

"Why?" She sounded awfully suspicious and he supposed he couldn't blame her. He hadn't exactly been a hugely gracious host since she got into town. Their dinner with Claire and Robbie (what adult went by Robbie anyway?) was one of the few things they did out together. He was busy and had his own life, but that wasn't all of it. He really didn't want her hanging out with or getting to know most of his friends. The guys he was out with last night were an exception, but they were all drinking age.

"Why not? It's a boat ride. Who doesn't love boat rides?"

"You didn't get in until like four in the morning."

He hadn't, but he hadn't been stumbling drunk when the night had ended. Buzzed enough that he'd debated about going to Claire's place actually, but decided against that. He wasn't that drunk. Kevin's words had rolled around in John's mind, though.

Her words weighed heavy on his mind, too. She'd thought he'd cheated. More than he had. He'd kissed a few girls while she was gone at school, but had never done more than that. He'd been drunk when it happened every time and feeling sorry for himself that she was off at school and he was stuck here working for his dad. No excuse, and the kissing hadn't cured what ailed him at all. That's why he'd told her after the last girl he'd kissed who wasn't her. He knew if he'd told her that it was shit or get off the pot time. If he kissed someone else when she knew he'd done it then it was time to bail. He didn't want to bail.

Evidently Tricia didn't have those same plans in mind for John and Claire he had.

So, Kevin had said no ring meant all was fair. Living together sort of implied a commitment, but then who knew. Maybe the guy had gotten her to live with him, or to agree to let him live with her and decided he didn't need to do anything else.

"You look nice," he said as he eyed Shelly. She'd looked like a wreck when she'd shown up on his doorstep. No one could blame her. She'd been through a lot, Leo dying was only part of it. She was lucky to have gotten out of that relationship as intact as she was, truthfully. Another few years of that, though, there was no telling.

He had vague recollections of his mom being like Shelly. Young, pretty, full of laughter and optimism. Love for him. His dad he didn't have such memories of, but he knew he hadn't always been an asshole. Likely, Shelly's dad hadn't been either, but she'd gone from one asshole to another. John had been more fortunate.

He'd been grateful for a while after Claire blew him off that he'd found out she was a bitch before marrying her. That was sure his train of thought once he got his mind wrapped around the concept of what having a girlfriend meant. Then she'd up and given him the cold shoulder treatment. That had made him swear off women in general because if someone like Claire who knew how he'd been treated growing up would do it to him. Well, what was to stop anyone else from doing it, too? And worse the next go-around.

"Thank you," she said. She always looked nice, really, but today she looked together. Completely. Sometimes he felt more like a dad than a cousin because he had to remind her to brush her hair or put more than her pajamas on.

Hopefully, this job opportunity with Robbie would pan out and she'd have a job soon. That would have to help her out, earning money of her own. For now she was completely dependent on him.

The buzzer rang and Shelly went to answer it.

"Be right down," she said as John grabbed his keys.

"What?" he asked.

"I don't know. I'm just not sure…"

"I'm going, deal with it."

"All right," she said.

She knew their history because he'd told her after the night they had dinner. He'd been a little … tense after watching another guy have his hands all over Claire. Someone her brother seemed to like. So, she'd asked what the deal was and he'd told her.

Claire was clearly surprised by his coming down with Shelly.

"What? Your brother is going, too, so it's not girls only."

"No," Claire said cautiously.

She hadn't said he couldn't go, so he got into her car. Shelly let him have the front seat he noticed.

"You must not have been out too late then?" Claire asked.

"Me?" John said with a shrug. "I got in about four, I guess."

"Oh," she said.

"I just figured why not go, too? It's one of the last few days we'll probably get to do something like that and I'm not on-call this weekend."

"I see," she said, sounding very much like she'd wished he was on-call this weekend. He glanced out his window, closing his eyes a bit as he shook his head. He fucking shouldn't have listened to Kevin.

"Robbie work today?" he asked. May as well twist the knife while it was in there.

"Yes," she said.

"Doesn't his working weekends get old?"

Claire shrugged, but didn't answer. Well, she didn't answer him anyway.

"Shelly, Robbie told me to tell you that he's going to call you this week. He's just checking with his boss what nights work best."

"Nights?" Shelly asked.

"Yeah, they're short staffed this week I guess, so he said he figures he can get you in there for a couple of shifts and see how it goes."

"Okay," she said. John glanced at her in the backseat. She looked nervous.

"You'll do fine, Shelly."

"I know, but God, this is a restaurant in Chicago not a diner in Twin Peaks."

"You're right, but you'll still do fine, and if that doesn't work we'll find you something else. You don't have to wait tables."

"Have you thought of going to school?" Claire asked, glancing at John out of the corner of her eye as if expecting him to react to that question. Claire had wanted him to go to college and he'd been adamant he didn't need college. As it turned out he was right, but it just as easily could've gone the other way if he'd been stuck working with his old man these past few years.

"I have, but I have no idea what I even want to do."

"Oh? Were you good at anything in high school?"

"I didn't finish," she said quietly. "I'd have to get my GED."

"Oh," Claire said. John watched her closely for any judgment in her body language after that admission, but he didn't see any. Kids around Shermer didn't need GEDs. John was probably the closest when it got down to it, but there just wasn't really an option in Shermer but to at least finish high school.

Soon they were downtown where Chris kept his boat. Holy shit, it was a fucking boat that he probably could have survived weeks on. And it was absolutely gorgeous.

"Hey, Chris, we're here," Claire called as she stepped aboard. John followed her then and helped Shelly, though she seemed okay getting on without his help.

"Thanks," she whispered.

"You bet," he said.

"Is this going to be really weird for you?" Shelly asked him, tucking some hair behind her ear. Not that it did any good. It wasn't a terribly windy day, but this was Chicago and they were on the water so there was wind.

"Probably," he said, watching as Claire disappeared below deck. He assumed Chris was down there.

"Why are you here?"

John shrugged.

"John! Are you insane?"

"I didn't say anything."

"You didn't have to. I see the look in your eye. You're going to go after her."

"I thought about it."

"She's living…"

"They're not married, not even engaged, and no ring on her finger. As far as I'm concerned, until one of those three things happens I have the right."

"To get your heart broken."

"Yeah, well, it turns out she didn't just dump me like I thought she did."


John shrugged. "One of my friends saw me go up to a bedroom with someone at a party and called Claire. She assumed I went up there to have sex with the girl. I didn't. She had some good stuff on her and was willing to share."

"Oh," Shelly said.

Shelly had her own experience with drugs, not personally from using. Somehow she'd managed to stay away from the shit despite how bad things were for her. She knew he'd used, though, because he told her. She wanted to live with him, fine, but he wasn't going to let her build him up into some life-saving hero when he was barely surviving his own life. He just hadn't been able to turn her out onto the street when she'd shown up. They weren't close growing up or anything, but she was his cousin. And a woman. He couldn't turn his back on her.

"So," John said with a shrug. "I decided why not. Maybe, you know, the fact I don't work every weekend and every night…"

"She is pretty."

"She is," John agreed. He tucked some her hair behind her ears for her. "So are you, you know?"

"Thank you."

"You say that, but you don't believe me."

She shrugged. He imagined that'd take time. Leo had done a number on her, emotionally as well as physically.

"That doesn't mean I want you to rush out and find a boyfriend or anything."

Claire and Chris chose that moment to make their appearance. John and Shelly both stared, but not at the same person. Chris didn't glare daggers in John's direction for the first time ever either. His eyes were pretty completely focused on Shelly. So, this boat outing hadn't been Claire's idea at all, but Chris' and Claire had gone along with it.

She knew, too, when he'd figured it out because she looked away. He wanted to be mad, but he knew Chris wouldn't do a number on her if they even got to that point. Claire probably thought of that, too. They might talk and Chris might not be interested.

Claire had shed her clothes and was in her bathing suit, which was what John stared at. It was the least amount of clothes he'd ever seen her in because the summer before she left for school she'd worn a one-piece bathing suit for some reason.

"Glad you could make it Shelly, John," Chris said evenly. No condescension or anything in his voice. That was a vast improvement over the few times he'd run into the elder Standish sibling over the years since he and Claire had broken up. His cool attitude made a lot more sense now, though.

"Thanks for inviting us," he said, glancing at Claire who seemed very interested in her toes. Toes that were painted a shade of red he'd love to get a closer to look at.

"Don't know if you're hungry or anything, but there's plenty of everything you could want down below. Help yourself. Claire and I will get her going in a minute here."

"Sure," John said. He and Shelly went down below so they could change, too.

"Wow," she said.

"Yeah, something tells me he went all out."

"Why?" Shelly asked.

John scoffed. "I think he wants to impress you."

"That would be kind of weird, wouldn't it?"

"No weirder than my being here today knowing Robbie's in the picture."

She shrugged, grabbing a couple of grapes and eating them as she looked around.

"Have you been on here before?"

"No," John said.

Chris and Claire seemed to be having a rather intense conversation when he and Shelly went to the deck again. Chris didn't seem incredibly pissed John was here, but something was clearly eating at him.

"Do you guys need sunscreen or anything," Claire asked.

"I don't, Shelly may."

"I'm fine. I have some."

John smirked a bit at Claire's rather blatant perusal of him as she regarded him. She'd liked how well he tanned the summer before she left for school and while he didn't spend as much time outside in the sun now as he did that summer he still got out a lot. She blushed a bit, which looked nice on her especially since she obviously had gotten lots of sun this summer as well. Of course, she had a pool and golfing to do at her parents' country club so she didn't lack for activities to do outside.

It wasn't hugely awkward, but awkward enough. John didn't get much time to talk with Claire alone, but that also meant Chris and Shelly didn't either. That was okay with John. It was well past dusk when they got back to the marina and docked the boat. Chris had brought enough food for both lunch and dinner. John hadn't even stopped Shelly from having a couple of beers. Claire was driving home and after all she'd been through, well, he wasn't going to stop her.

Claire dropped them at their apartment.

"I'll be up in a minute, Shelly, okay," he said, handing her his keys.

"Thank you," John said once Shelly got out of the car and went upstairs without him.

"You're welcome. You don't have to thank me, though."

"I do. I invited myself along. You and your brother were both nicer than I expected you to be."

"Why'd you do it then?"

He shrugged, resting his head against the headrest.

"Why have I ever done anything where you're concerned, Claire?"

She scoffed at that.

"It wasn't that bad, was it?" he asked with a slight frown. He didn't remember it being bad. He honestly hadn't. He'd thought they'd had a pretty outstanding five months before she left.

"No," she said. "It just hurt so much when Tricia called me."

"I bet it did." And to think on that night he hadn't actually done anything wrong. "I swear to God, Claire after that night I told you I'd kissed someone I never…"

"John," she whispered, glancing at him.

"What? Sue me. I find out years later that a huge misunderstanding caused us to break up."

"It wasn't just that misunderstanding, John. You know that as well as I do."

"What was it then? Huh? We were good. Weren't we? I thought you were happy?"

"The drugs…"

"Yeah," he said. He knew the amount he'd used back then bothered her. "I haven't done anything hard since getting away from my old man."

"I'm glad to hear that."


"I should…"

"Yeah, I'll let you go, but thanks really. That was nice what you and Chris did for Shelly."

"I didn't!"

"I know. I figured that out almost right away."

"And you were okay with that?"

He shrugged. "She's my cousin, not my kid sister. She's an adult who's a widow. She's gone through more than I have. How can I stop her?"

"I suppose you can't. She's only like nineteen, though."

"Still an adult."

"I guess," she said.

They were both quiet for a few minutes. He wasn't sure what she was thinking about, but he was thinking about what the day would have been like if they'd been together. Not awkward or anything he wagered.

He did something incredibly stupid then. He leaned in and kissed her. It wasn't a long kiss, he didn't open his mouth to give her any tongue or anything, but it was more than just a peck he'd give Shelly.

"Good night," he said as soon as he broke the kiss, opening the door. He closed the door and got upstairs to the apartment before he realized she not only hadn't stopped kissing him but had been a seemingly willing participant until he stopped it.

Maybe Kevin wasn't such an idiot after all.

Return to Top

***Chapter Five***
Word Count: 4,923

"Why aren't you ready?" John asked Shelly when he got home from work. He only had one car, so he bowed out of work early to be sure he was home in time to get her where she needed to go. He made it clear, though, before he went to bed last night that she'd have to be ready to leave.

"I'm not going," she said.


"John," she said.

"Don't John me. How many opportunities are you going to have fall into your lap to work at a restaurant around here right out of the gate that's not Denny's or something?"

"That's just it!"

"What's it?"

"I worked at a diner, John. In Twin Peaks."


"There's no way I can do this."

"Shelly. What are you talking about?"

"I appreciate everything you're doing for me. Really. It was nice of you to introduce me to Claire, but we both know her boyfriend did it to be nice. He was put on the spot."

"He did not! He isn't going to risk his reputation for a waitress just to be nice. And trust me if he knows anything about me or the reason Claire broke up with me he's not going to go out of his way to be nice to anyone associated with me."

"What do you mean?"

"Nothing. Come on, get ready. We still have time to make it by the time you need to be there. I made sure to be done early today for this. You're going."

"I just, John, I'm so scared."

"It's a waitressing job, Shelly. Do what you've always done. Be you."

"I'm not sure who that is!"

He scowled a bit and she probably thought he was mad at her. That wasn't it. He just had no idea what to say to that. He wasn't a psychologist or anything and he certainly wasn't up on warm and fuzzy feelings.

"Listen. You showed up on my doorstep. I get that shit happened that made you want to start over. Fine, but you have to help yourself out at some point. You had a job fall into your lap. Maybe you'll go and it won't work out, but at least you'll know. You not showing up and then ending up scooping ice cream cones at Baskin Robbins or flipping burgers at Burger King isn't the way to boost your self-esteem."

"I disagree."

"Yeah, well, you're not the one paying my rent and spending the last little while sleeping on my couch."

"I offered to take your couch!"

He couldn't let her take his couch. He had no idea why he couldn't let her take the couch, just knew she was entitled to his bed. A guest? Maybe. His upbringing? More probably not, but possible. He supposed his mom taught him things like that at some point between her bitching about him being a no good bum.

"I know you did. That's not my point. You have to try! You think it was easy for me to go out on my own?"

"That's not at all…"

"Isn't it? You're right, I wasn't married to an abusive asshole, but our dads were brothers. I know what my life was like and am pretty sure I have a clue what yours was like before you married Leo."


"We got out, Shelly. We made it. We're here, living and breathing to tell about it. So, that tells me that we can fucking do anything. Certainly if I can own my own business you can wait tables at a place with linen table cloths and napkins."

"I just…"

"I know it's scary. Trust me, no one Claire knows who knows me would do me any favors just because. He was doing it to be nice, to help you out, not because of me."

"He does seem nice."

John wanted to argue with her, but he really couldn't when all was said and done. The guy did seem nice. He certainly hadn't had to make the offer. He definitely hadn't had to follow through with it.

"You still like her, though."

"We're not going to discuss this now. You get ready and we can talk about it some other time."



"All right," she said.

"But," he said.

"How did I know there was going to be a loophole in there somewhere?"

"No loophole, but if I have to talk so do you."


"Hey, if I have to drudge up shit from my past you get the fun, too."

"I don't know that I think it's fun."

"Me neither."

"But I didn't still like Leo."

"Claire is no Leo. And you and I are not our fathers."

"I know."

"Good. Now, go get ready so we can get you there on time."

She sighed, but at least she didn't look terrified any longer. God, he had no idea what to do with that look and the fact she appeared as though she was on the verge of tears. That was the last thing he needed or wanted to deal with.

They got to the restaurant in plenty of time, which was good. He'd allowed himself a little extra time for traffic, which didn't seem to be as bad today as he expected for some reason. Usually there was an accident holding things up somewhere.

"Would you be mad if I saw her brother again?"

"Mad? No, but I'd urge you to be careful for a multitude of reasons." Getting involved with his ex-girlfriend's brother didn't scream good idea to him, but he did tell Claire he wanted her to hang out with better people than the ones she'd meet hanging around him. Chris was, when all was said and done and despite their differences, certainly better people. Likely, too, Chris' major difference with John was that he probably had the skewed facts Claire did about what John had done while she was away her freshman year of college.


"He asked?"

"He mentioned…"

He cut her off because he had no desire to hear what Chris had mentioned to her. "I'm not going to get mad. Just remember as you mentioned earlier this is Chicago not Twin Peaks."

"I know," she said.

"Be careful. There are lots of our dads and Leo's out there."

"I know," she said.

"If for some reason Robbie can't give you a ride home call me."

"You'll be sleeping!"

"I'd still hear the phone ring."

"All right," she said. "Thank you."

"You're welcome."

"Hopefully I'll just see you in the morning."

"You'll do fine, Shelly. I know it."


"Because you actually want to succeed?" He shrugged.

He knew most anyone who knew him growing up would be surprised he was a partner in a business. It was no secret the way he was treated at home. Some knew more than others, but the rumors were plenty and few were actually worse than his childhood had been. Always, though, despite Vernon's accusations John wanted to be somebody. He didn't ever expect to be somebody important or make millions of dollars. He just wanted, at the end of the day and at the end of his days, to be somebody who'd had a decent life. He didn't claim to know Shelly real well and the things she had told him maybe pointed a less than flattering picture about her. He didn't think she wanted to be stuck, though. She'd come here, half way across the country not even knowing he would take her in. That spoke to him of someone wanting to do what they could to change their life.

"Why do you hang around with those people you hang around with?"

"They're my friends," he said with a shrug.

"Really? Your wallet was missing the other morning and your first thought wasn't that you'd dropped it somewhere out the day before or that I'd taken it…"

"So," he said, remembering full well the fact that he'd cussed his friend Terry out something fierce thinking he'd swiped his wallet. He'd found it in the refrigerator, having no recollection of putting it in there. His first thought wasn't that Shelly would steal from him. He was doing a favor for her, which would result in her being essentially homeless if she screwed up. Terry, on the other hand, wouldn't be out on his ear if John caught him stealing from him.


"I'm not talking about my friends with you. You had to have an idea what you were going to be coming to when you showed up on my doorstep."

"Not really… I was like five the last time I saw you," she said.

"I suppose it has been that long."

The last time he could remember seeing his uncle Tom and aunt Molly, Shelly's mom and dad, was at some relative's wedding they'd come to Chicago for. It didn't seem that long ago, but he supposed he could've been about eight or nine then. Flying to Washington wasn't ever going to happen for the Bender's and John suspected while Shelly's family could afford those things a little better than John's could they didn't come here. He wondered, not for the first time, how in the hell she even thought to come to him when she left Twin Peaks. If it'd been thirteen or fourteen years why would he even enter her mind? "Anyway, get inside and impress the hell out of them."

"Thanks," she said again, leaning over to kiss him on the cheek. "Thanks for everything, really."

"Yeah, sure," he said, not sure at all how to respond to her kissing him. Cheek or not, he wasn't used to random displays of affection or gratitude. Giving or getting. It was one of the things about dating him Claire had been irritated by. She always thought his reactions to her kissing or holding his hand publicly made it seem like it was more her idea than his. That wasn't the case at all. What guy in his right mind in John's position wouldn't want it known he was with her? He just didn't know how to do that.

Where she'd never had a boyfriend before not out of lack of wanting one he'd never had one iota of desire to be someone's boyfriend until her. So, she had this picture in her mind of how things should be, expectations from years of observing and thinking about what she'd do when she had one. They were eighteen, she was going to college, and she expected loyalty from him when he'd never had such an example set for him. His parents hadn't hidden their indiscretions from one another or him. Sure deep down he knew that wasn't how you treated someone and he really did want to learn, and he did try. Ironic that he had been pretty standup with his behavior and she dumped him anyway despite sticking with him through finding out he'd kissed other women.

He watched her go inside, pulling out of the parking lot after a minute or two in case she really did change her mind. He wouldn't hold it against her. He had a pretty decent car, one he'd just bought a couple of months ago and was only two years old. It had power everything yet looked like a piece of shit compared to most of the cars in the parking lot at the restaurant.

He drove toward his apartment with every intention of going back there to enjoy the first evening he'd have the place completely to himself in weeks. For hours. From the sounds of it Robbie wasn't going to be done until after midnight. He wondered how that sat with Claire, working weekends and evenings had to put quite a crimp in their social lives. Then if they lived together he supposed they didn't need much of a social life.

Somehow while thinking of Robbie and Claire, and their social life he supposed, he found himself driving in the direction of her condo. Logic would tell him to turn around and go home because he had absolutely no business showing up there.

And yet…

Kevin's words were fresh in his mind.

The fact that Claire had kissed him back was there, too.

He parked on the parking lot and walked to the unit's front door. He stood there for a good five minutes trying to decide whether this was a good idea. It had bad idea written all over it, but he pushed the buzzer for her unit before he could turn and walk away.


"Hey. Um, hi, it's John."


"Uh, yeah, John Bender."

'Okay,' she said, sounding puzzled.

"It seems we're both without dinner partners tonight. I don't know about you, but for me this is the first time in weeks."

He winced a bit at that because she was probably pretty used to being alone for dinner if Robbie worked nights most of the time.

'Okay,' she said again.

"Can I come up?" he asked as he was getting some fairly odd glances from some people walking on the sidewalk that led to the building next to Claire's.

No answer.

Great. She wasn't even going to let him in. Fuck.

Kevin was the biggest asshole in the world. If he hadn't kissed her she'd probably let him up because she'd have no reason to think he had anything like kissing on his mind. The buzzer rang, though, and the door unlatched.

"Thank you," he said, but of course she wouldn't hear him. Most buildings he'd seen like the intercom and buzzer were together so you couldn't talk and buzz at the same time.

She was waiting by her door when he got to it, so at least she didn't make him knock as if not knowing he was here to see her.

"Hi," he said.

"I just got home," she said.


"Yeah. Long day," she said.

"Oh, sorry," he said.

"It's all right," she said with a shrug. "So…"

"Well, I was going to see if you wanted to have dinner."


"It's dinner. Robbie's at work and I just dropped Shelly off there."

"Oh, that's right. I forgot."

"Yeah, I think she was hoping I'd forget, too."


He shrugged. "Can we go get something to eat and talk about it instead of standing here? A beer maybe? A glass of wine for you, I suppose."

"You want to have dinner and talk?"

"Yes," he said. Was that out of the realm of understanding for her? Maybe it was.

"Yeah, sure, let me change…"

"You look fine."

"That may be, but…"

"If I let you change we'll be here for another half an hour at least."

She sighed again.

"Fine," she said. "I'll grab my purse."

"Thank you," he said.

"You're not worried about being seen with me like this?"

"Like what? Dressed nicely. Why would that worry me?"

She shrugged.

Yeah, she was right it used to drive him nuts when they were dating and they'd go places and she'd be dressed like a model or something when all he could afford was looking like a bum. He didn't care anymore, other than that people would likely wonder what she was doing with a guy like him.

"You got a new car," she said when he walked to it.

"Yeah," he said. "A couple of months ago."

"You got rid of the pickup?"

"No, I still use it for work, but it's seen better days." Beyond better days. "I can work on it myself, fix it up, but it's not something I like driving anymore."

"Oh," she said.

She'd liked the pickup for some odd reason. They'd gone to a drive in once and spent the entire night making out in the bed of it under some blankets. That was one of the most frustrating nights of his life because that's all they'd done is make out, but while he'd hoped something more would happen that night he hadn't expected it so he hadn't been completely surprised.

She got in.

"What are you in the mood for?" he asked once he started the car.

"I don't care. It was your idea."

"You don't care?"

"No, I hadn't even thought of dinner yet, so your timing was impeccable."

"I'm glad I had good timing then. Do you always get home so late?"

"No," she said.

She said nothing else then, leaving him with nothing to really say.

"Okay," he said.

"Just one of our clients was being an ass and he's my client so he insists on working only with me."

"Ah," he said with a soft chuckle. Claire's dad. Well, actually her grandfather who still worked as far as John knew, owned an agency company. A well-established agency who represented the gamut from movie stars to athletes to models and everything in between.

"So, I didn't get out of there until like thirty minutes after Dad and Chris got to leave."

"Anyone I know?"

"Yes, but I'm not telling you who."

"Huh," he said. "Athlete?"

"I'm not narrowing it down for you."

"Spoil sport," he said.

"Yeah, I know."

"Why was he being an ass?"

"Because he thinks he can get away with it?"

"You left thirty minutes after closing-time. I'd say he can get away with it."

"I know."

"So, did he not get enough money to support himself or what?"

"There's a billboard campaign he's featured on, among others, and one of his billboards is next to a Planned Parenthood building."


"That's what I thought, too, but he didn't like it."

"I see," he said.

"Yeah. Something to do with the fact he's Catholic and doesn't believe in the things they stand for."

"I somehow doubt people would see the billboard and think because of its placement it means he does."

"Celebrities are weird."

"I don't envy you."

Her dad's company was one of the reasons she didn't get real close to many people. She never knew who wanted to be her friend legitimately or on the hope that one day at her house they'd run into John McEnroe or something. (Not that John had any firsthand knowledge of the tennis star being at the Standishes house or anything.) It was one of the things John had in his favor. John didn't give a shit about celebrities or meeting them and Claire knew that.

"I don't envy myself on days like this."

"I suppose not."

He doubted her dad and grandpa let her handle the John McEnroe's of their business, but the guys not John McEnroe probably so.

"It's not John McEnroe, is it?"

She laughed then. "No! Where in the world did you come up with him?"

"I don't know," he said.

"It's not John McEnroe."

"Have you met John McEnroe?"

"I have," she said. "He actually helped us get quite a few other tennis stars."

"I bet."

Claire shrugged.

He pulled into a restaurant that would be quick and relatively cheap but still offer them the beer – and wine – they wanted with their meals. She could afford better, sure, but it was his idea to come out so he was going to pick up the check.

"So, why is it you came to my house?"

He shrugged, taking a sip of his beer.

"I dropped Shelly off, realized that meant you were alone for dinner, too."

"I'm used to it."

"I guess you would be. Until she got here, it was nothing new for me either. Now all of the sudden, though. I've got a woman living with me."

"And not even getting sex out of the deal? You poor thing."

"I didn't say that!" He thought it. He never imagined living with a woman, and the few times the thought crossed his mind as far as a future and a wife being in it he certainly never saw it being his cousin.

"You didn't have to."

"What did I do to deserve that?"


"You want the name of the girl I went upstairs with that night so you can call and ask her? I'll give it to you."

"No! She'd probably say no anyway."

"Four years later? I don't think so."

"Okay, so you didn't sleep with her."

"I didn't sleep with anyone. Ever. I told you the truth about what I had done."

"And that hurt."

"I know it did."

"Then to find out…"

"I'm sorry. I really am. Had I known."


"Had I known that's why you stopped talking to me," he shrugged. "I would have made my way out east."

"Shut up. You made it perfectly clear coming to visit me was out of the question."

"Sure, I have no deep desire to visit even worse hoity toity neighborhoods than yours here. If I'd known, though, yeah, I would have shown up."


"To beg you to give me another chance? To prove to you I hadn't done that."

"Prove it how?"

"I don't know."

"Why was Shelly hoping you'd forget?"

She was changing the subject, but that was probably good anyway. So he'd let her. "She didn't want to go."

"Why not?"


"What is she afraid of?"

"Small town girl whose job experience is working at a diner probably a quarter of the size of this restaurant and she's unsure of herself."

"I guess."

"Obviously, she went."

"Did you make her?"

"Well, no. I didn't force her to go, no, but I sort of talked her into yet, yes. I mean, she needs a job."

"I can't believe she's gone this long without one."

"You didn't see her when she first got here. She was a wreck. I mean, really, Princess. She came to me! Can you imagine anyone in their right mind thinking I was someone who could help them out?"

"No," she said.

He had to admit it hurt that she'd say that even though she was just agreeing with his assessment.


"Obviously, she came to you, though."

"She did. There are other cousins, but I think I'm the only functioning one in the bunch."


"I'm not sure if you're surprised at that revelation or questioning why I consider myself functioning. I'll assume it's the former rather than the latter. I couldn't turn her away."

"I know," she said softly, running a fingertip along the edge of her wineglass.

"Her getting a job right away, though. God, I'm not sure she even realized she wasn't in Twin Peaks anymore until a couple of weeks ago. She'd wake up from nightmares." He shook his head, taking a sip of his beer. "Her late husband was a piece of work."

"You've said that."

"I guess I did, but it's true. She was involved with this other guy who doesn't seem like he was a whole lot better."

"She was involved with someone while she was married to the abusive guy?"

"I think so. That's the impression I get, yes, and I think it was to spite him. Something she thought she could do when she could do so little. I'm not sitting in judgment on her. I think she does that enough on her own without my help."


"She got married when she was sixteen, Claire. What were you doing when you were sixteen?"

"Yeah, that's what I thought. Don't judge her, or me, because of her past."

"I'm not judging."

"Yes, you are."

"Why'd you invite me then? You knew I would."

He shrugged. "I don't know. What does your brother want from her?"

"I don't know."

"You didn't ask?"

"I don't ask Chris many questions. I stay out of his business and he stays out of mine."

"Yours being living with Robbie."


"Really? Christopher is okay with that?"

"Sure," she said.

He had to admit, Chris seemed to like Robbie the night they saw Chris at dinner.

"I can't believe you're living with someone."

"Why not?"

"I don't know. It just doesn't seem like anything you'd do let alone your parents would allow."


"Yes, you know, living with someone without the church wedding and stuff."

"It's not what you think, John."

"Really? It's not. You're living with the guy, aren't you?"


"Then what is it?"

"I don't owe you anything!"

"You're right, you don't."

"Would you really have let me come with you Saturday night?"

"Sure," he said with a shrug. Was that a trick question? "Why not? Did you want to?"

"I don't know. My plans got cancelled. I was supposed to have dinner with Allison actually and then they got stuck going out with Andy's dad instead."

"Ah," he said with a knowing nod. "Pleasing the 'rents."

"Yeah. So, yeah, I guess it would've been nice."

"His brother's band is pretty good."


"My partner, Kevin. His brother, Danny, it's his band we were going to see."


"I think they're playing again this weekend if you were interested and Robbie works."

"He usually does," she said.

"Well, I can find out. It may not be somewhere local like The Whale."

"I really shouldn't."

He shrugged. She was interested, though, at least slightly. "I'll find out and give you a call with the details."

"Do you go see them every weekend?"

"I don't, no, but no reason I can't two in a row."

"Do you have to see your dad?"

"This weekend?" What the fuck kind of question was that?

"No, I mean, working. Do you ever run into him? Compete against him?"

"Very rarely, but it's happened and Kevin and I have usually gotten the business."


John shrugged. "I know what the old man quotes so we can usually quote better."

"You undercut your dad?"

"If it's a job we want badly enough, sure."

"I'd like to say that's mean."

"You don't think it is?"

"No," she said.

"I can admit to the fact I don't sleep so good the night or two after that happens, but I don't feel guilty about it or anything."

"Good," she said. "And Tommy?"

"He's still there, plugging away for the old man."


"Divorced," he said. Tommy was a little older than they were.

"Oh, that's too bad."

"Yeah," he said.

"You still talk to him?"

"Sometimes we meet for a beer and stuff."

"Stuff, huh," she said.

"Pool, darts, hanging out. That sort of stuff."

"Right," she said.

He put enough money out to cover their bill once the waitress brought them their bill.

"I can pay for myself."

"I know you can, but I invited you."

"Thank you."

"Sure. Beat eating alone."

"How do you think she'll do?"

"You know, I really don't know. I have no idea. I think a huge chunk of it will depend on how much faith she had in herself."

"I hope she does okay."

"Would Robbie tell you his honest opinion of her?"

"I think so."

"Let me know, okay?"


"I'm not asking you to betray any confidences or anything, but if he says something that will aid her in keep this job or at least getting another job let me know."

"I can try."

"All right." He stood then and so did she. He walked out behind her.

They got to her house and he walked her to the door, surprised when she let him inside to the door that led to her condo and not just the front entryway door.

"Thank you for dinner. It was better than eating alone."

"Yeah, sure," he said. "Anytime."

She smiled a little at that, but he wasn't sure it was a sincere smile or a laughing at him for saying that kind of smile.

"You look nice, by the way."

"Thanks. I'm sure my skirt looks exactly like it should after working all day."

"It looks fine."

"And I should take your word for it why?"

He chuckled, leaning in a bit. "Because I was looking pretty closely, Princess."

"John," she whispered.

He leaned closer still, grazing her jaw with his mouth.

"You still have the best set of legs I've seen."

"Shut up," she said with a scoff, but it sounded a little breathy.

"I guess I'll just have to find something else to do with my mouth then," he said before kissing her. She gasped softly against his mouth, but like the other day didn't push him away or slap him and in fact returned it pretty enthusiastically.

She shifted a bit after a couple of minutes, pulling away from him so he broke the kiss.

"I have to go," she whispered.

"Yeah, sure," he whispered back.

Her eyes fell to his lips and he chuckled a bit at that because she didn't seem as though she really wanted to go that badly. So, he kissed her again. This time he opened his mouth, groaning softly as he grazed his tongue along her lower lip. He remembered the day at school when they did this. She decided pretty quickly Frenching wasn't as gross as she thought it would be.

Just like that day her lips parted tentatively but receptively, welcoming him into her mouth and he took the invitation. There was no hesitation or tentativeness on his part. He slid his hands to her shoulders, cupping them as he drew her against him.

She found the doorknob the next time they stopped, opening the door.

"Good night, John."

"Yeah, sure," he said.

She didn't tell him to fuck off and never call again, he realized as she shut the door quickly. He made his way downstairs to his car so he could make his way home.

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***Chapter Six***
Word Count: 1,943

Shelly crawled out of bed after ten. The nights she closed up the restaurant with Robbie she didn't get back to John's apartment until after three by the time he dropped her off. Still she felt lazy on these mornings. Part of Leo's conditioning she was sure. Sleeping in hadn't been something she was allowed to do even when he was on the road. Somehow he always knew.

There was a note on the fridge in John's pretty sloppy handwriting.

Chris Standish left a message for you. It's still on the machine. Help yourself to the leftover pizza that's in the fridge.

Her stomach growled at the thought of food. She had better than pizza, though. One of their last customers had sent a steak back claiming it was too well done. They hadn't even eaten any of it, just cut into it. Robbie had let her take it home with her. She didn't have much to go with it, but she was going to be savor that piece of steak.

She played the message back from Chris, smiling a bit that he'd called her. They'd gone out Monday night and she thought for sure once he found out she was only nineteen she'd never hear from him again. Okay, it wasn't just the fact that she was nineteen, but that she was a widow on top of it. Chris didn't act surprised, which made Shelly wonder who had told him. And why.

It didn't really matter. She had nothing to hide. She wasn't here to lie about what she'd done to get here. She just wanted out of Twin Peaks where memories of Leo were everywhere.

Three weeks she'd been working and she knew it was probably about time she started at least thinking about finding a place of her own to live. Except she had no idea where she'd want to live. She would be getting some life insurance money from Leo which she could use to put down a safety deposit. John hadn't asked her about her plans to move out so she took it to mean he was okay with her being here for now.

Shelly knew John had seen Claire more than a couple of times since she started working at the restaurant. The nights he didn't have to pick her up because Robbie gave her a ride home John ended up seeing her. Shelly would love to warn him from doing anything stupid, but she was in no position to judge anyone else.

Last night, too. Well, she'd seen something that made her wonder. She'd stepped outside to have a cigarette during a brief lull and saw Robbie touching someone. None of her business really and not her place to judge. She hadn't been faithful to Leo.

It hadn't been another woman he was touching, though.

Couple that with the knowledge that Robbie and Claire didn't share a bedroom, Shelly was beginning to think there was less to their relationship than John believed. Had Claire actually told him they were involved? Or had John assumed? She wasn't sure. She could ask Claire she supposed. She'd seen her more than a few times over the past couple of weeks, too. She knew they didn't share a bedroom because Claire picked her up sometimes on her way home from work and Shelly waited for her while she changed.

She was nice.

Shelly knew why Claire was being nice to her. She wasn't an idiot. There was nothing saying she had to spend quite this much time with her, though. So, Shelly took that to mean that Claire actually liked her.

Interesting, to her anyway, was that Claire never asked her questions about John. That wasn't true in reverse. John asked a lot of questions that went beyond just what they'd done a particular day or evening.

She threw a few things away from his night last night. Funny thing, John wasn't really a slob. His friends, though, were pretty awful. He cleaned up, too, and didn't ask her to. She wasn't paying rent or anything, though, so the least she could do was throw away some beer bottles and empty some ashtrays.

She found some rice to heat up with the steak. It wasn't perfect, but it was better than steak and nothing else. She grabbed his phone while she was waiting for that and entered his phone number in to his pager.

The phone rang a few minutes later, which she was counting on.

"Hello," she said in the event it wasn't him.

'Good morning. You just waking up?'

"Kind of."

He chuckled softly. 'What's up?'

"Well, I have a question for you."


"Do you actually like Claire or is she just the one who got away so you're pissed about that?"

'I'm sorry?' he asked, sounding very confused.

"You've been seeing her the nights I work and you know Robbie's working."

'Yeah. People can be friends. You know.'

"Except you don't want to be her friend."

'Well, no,' he said.

"So answer my question."

'Why?' he asked with a sigh.

"I need to know the answer."

'Yes, I fucking like her. You think I'd haul my ass to Shermer to see someone I didn't really like?'

"I thought so."

'Your point, Shelly? I'm working, you know.'

"I think the next time you see her you should make an excuse to need to use her bathroom."

'Uh, why?'

"Because I think you might be surprised by what you see."

That's how she'd discovered Robbie had his own room. Claire was in her bedroom getting dressed so Shelly had a little extra time to look around and notice that the second spare bedroom obviously wasn't very spare.


"I work tonight. So does Robbie."

'Are you on drugs?'

She laughed softly at that. "No."

'Just making sure. You're making no sense.'

"I think it'll make sense if you actually do what I say."

'Yeah, all right. I'll think about it.'

He was confused, she could tell. He probably didn't totally believe her about the drugs either. She smoked a joint once in a while, but that was as hard as she got. She hadn't since coming here, though, not knowing if she'd need to pass a drug test. She hadn't at the current job, but there was no saying how long she'd stay there. She liked it, she made good money in tips, but she knew she was just a broken dish away from being out of a job. She wasn't working for Norma anymore. From what she'd learned it was a very good restaurant that didn't hire just anyone.

"Okay. See you tomorrow then."

'I guess so.'

He usually slept through her coming in because she tried to be as quiet as she could.

What he did with this conversation was up to him. She didn't think Claire would intentionally, flat-out lie to him about Robbie. She knew she'd been hurt by John and probably didn't go out of her way to correct him when he'd assumed she and Robbie were together. She'd observed them together more than a couple of times now and they clearly cared for each other.

After hanging up with John she made her lunch and then got ready for her day. He didn't live in a great neighborhood, but there was a small strip mall with a 7-Eleven in it that she could walk to. It got her out of the apartment for a while, so she sort of looked forward to the walk there every day. Now that she had a job and was earning tips she had money to spend, too, without feeling guilty about John giving her money as he had her first month or so here.

She was paying him back for that, too. He'd told her she didn't have to, but she hadn't come here to take advantage of him.

She was sure he was still trying to figure out why she'd come to him at all.

She wouldn't be able to answer him if he'd asked so she was glad that up until this point he hadn't really asked. Outright. He'd hinted at the question.

She hadn't really had anywhere else to go. As a girl she'd always wanted to come visit Chicago and her family here. That hadn't happened, but she supposed that was where the idea of heading this way had come from. She knew John was older than she was and she knew he wasn't married or anything. Her parents would have mentioned that to her even if they didn't talk to her much since she'd married Leo.

She'd wanted to go somewhere she'd feel at least remotely safe and useful. John wouldn't expect sex or anything like it from her. That was safe to her right now. She'd been useful since living with him. He didn't ask her to do things like clean his apartment, but she did it. Before she was working she had nothing else to do. Now she just kept up on everything. He helped, a little, but the nights he had friends over were usually pretty bad. He had them over more now that she was working, too, she noticed.

Her second or third night here one of his friends had come onto her. John hadn't seen what happened. He wasn't Leo so she hadn't been too scared to knee him between the legs when he didn't seem willing to take no for an answer.

Mousy Shelly was gone. She was never going to live like that again.

The first time Chris had taken her out she'd been as blunt and brutally honest as she could be. Maybe not the way to get a guy's attention, especially someone like him. She wasn't looking to settle down again, though, and wanted it abundantly clear where she was. She wasn't even sure she was going to stay in Chicago. She left Twin Peaks with the need to get away. It was home when it got down to it so there was no saying she wouldn't find her way back.

Chris had surprised her by calling a few days after that first date. She'd assumed when a day or two had gone by that he'd realized maybe he was biting off more than he could chew with someone like her. He was older, but she'd gone through things that he couldn't even imagine.

How did she know that?

The look on his face as she talked told her that was true.

He'd asked questions about John that night, too. Shelly hadn't answered them because it wasn't her place to. She didn't really know all of the answers either. She got the feeling that he was thinking about whether he'd misjudged her cousin. John had told her that Christopher never liked him.

She couldn't deny despite not wanting to get involved with anyone that she liked when he left messages for her. He knew she'd be working last night, but called anyway to say hi knowing she wouldn't be home and wouldn't be able to call him back for a couple of days. It was kind of sweet. She wasn't used to sweet, even with Bobby most of the time. He had his moments, but her relationship with him hadn't been any better or healthier when it got down to it. She knew that.

She also knew that the fact they'd both cheated would forever be there between them, casting doubt on things. He'd cheated on Laura, but they weren't married. So, maybe it wasn't as bad. She wasn't sure. She just knew that she didn't want to live like that.

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***Chapter Seven***
Word Count: 10,034

It wasn't every day that he and Kevin had the same block of time off during the day to have lunch together, but John had paged him after hanging up with Shelly and they'd made it work.

"So, what's it mean?" John asked after relaying Shelly's part of the conversation to his partner.

"I don't know. That she knows something that you don't?"

"I guess, but she's suggesting I snoop around her condo."

"Did she?"

"Well, no, not specifically," John said. He shrugged. She hadn't said that exactly, but telling her to use Claire's bathroom implied he was supposed to look around while doing so. He, to this point, hadn't set foot in her condo since that first day he'd approached her about meeting Shelly. Otherwise, he rang the bell and knocked on her door when she buzzed him up. He didn't go inside, though.

"I've just never gone inside except the once. I really don't want to see the life that should have been mines but some other guy was living because of a fucking misunderstanding."

"I don't know. I don't know her. I've met her like twice so I don't know if what she's telling you means anything more than what it is.."

John sighed softly, dipping a fry in ketchup before taking a bite.

"So, your cousin and the boyfriend work together and you go visit her?"

"Not every day or anything, no."

"But enough that she knows if she told you they were both working tonight you might go see her."

"I guess," John said with a shrug.

"Have you kissed her since that day you went on her brother's boat?"


"Why not?"

"I don't know. She's living with someone."

"You said she kissed you back, though."

"She did," he said. It hadn't been an hour's long kiss, but she had definitely responded.

"Afraid to find out that she's like your cousin?"

John shook his head at that. "No. I know Claire. She firmly believes in the whole one guy, one girl thing. She wouldn't do that. It was probably just instinct, kissing me back. We did get that down pretty well the few months we were together."

"I hate to say this, but that was four years ago."

"Did you hear her tone that night we saw her at Lou's? Four years later and she was still pissed at the idea I'd cheated on her. She hasn't changed that much."

"Afraid to try and find out she doesn't kiss back again?"

"Maybe," John said.

"She and Shelly have become pretty friendly?"

"Yeah, actually, way friendlier than I expected. I just wanted her to show her things outside of my apartment and the things my friends would show her. They actually do stuff together. It's kind of weird."

"Well, Shelly apparently thinks of her as a friend and I'm guessing from what you've told me she doesn't have many of those."

"No," John agreed.

"So, she's giving you information without betraying that friendship is what it sounds like to me."

"So, I'm supposed to…"

"Ask to use her bathroom it seems."

John huffed softly, taking a sip of his pop as he shook his head.

"Absolutely fucking ridiculous."

"Well, you kissed her. You must be interested."

"Yes. Finding out that we broke up over a misunderstanding sucked."

"It didn't suck before?"

John shrugged. "I didn't picture myself as long-haul guy. I was her first boyfriend. We were pretty damned different. The odds were pretty stacked against us as far as it working out beyond college. I just figured she lost interest once she got to school and met guys more like her."

"She obviously didn't want guys like her, though."

"I guess not."

"So, are you going to go over there tonight then?"

"I guess," John said.

"Can you find an excuse to use her bathroom?"

"Probably when I drop her off, yeah. You know, can I use the bathroom before I drive home because I forgot to use it wherever we end up going."

"Do you pay when you go out?"

"Sometimes. She doesn't seem to want me to, but a couple of times she's let me."

"Do you actually like her?"

"Yes! What kind of question is that?"

"I don't know. I'm just wondering, I guess, before you do that if you've thought on whether you really want her or just the idea that she ended things for a bullshit reason."

"I'm not going to go out with her and exact some revenge or anything."

"Well, no, that's not what I was thinking. I was thinking more along the lines of, you're remembering a four year old relationship. You've both changed."

"Yeah. I'm aware of that."

"As long as you've thought that through. She's not that person anymore and neither are you."

"I know."

"Then like I said that night, all's fair, Man."

"So you'd pursue a woman who was living with someone?"

"No, I don't think so. I can't say for sure, though, if I felt about someone the way you feel about her."

"I suppose."

"You like her, John."


"No, that wasn't a question. I meant, you like her. I've never seen you like anyone. In the years I've known you, you've never asked my advice on what to do with a woman."

"I haven't needed it."

"That's because they were the wrong type of women."

John scoffed at that. He could admit that.

"Was she why you did that? I always wondered why you seemed to go out with the women you clearly had no future with."

"I could've."

"Right," Kevin said with a scoff. "Name me one woman you've been with you'd contemplate not wearing a rubber with?"

"You're making fun of me because I'm safe?"

"No. I'm asking a question. Name me one woman you've been in a relationship with that if she told you that she was on the pill or something you'd stop using rubbers with."

John frowned a bit, thinking over the question.

"I wouldn't stop using rubbers unless I was, you know, serious about someone. Like marriage serious." His father had drilled it into him since before he even knew what rubbers were for really. Always suit up. No matter what. John didn't know for sure, but he'd gotten the impression his father's warnings came from first-hand experience. Like he'd heard it from his mom. He'd never asked. None of his business and he really didn't want to know for sure that his whole miserable life could have been avoided if his dad had suited up.

Of course then he wouldn't even be here.

"That's not my question."

He shrugged, thinking it over a bit.

"It shouldn't be that hard to answer, John."

"Really. And you have an answer?"

"Well, yeah, I married her."

John shook his head at that.

"She's the only one I would've considered it with, and we never got that far."

"Probably best, don't you think?"

"No! If she thought I'd…" he stopped then, because if they'd had sex and then Tricia had told Claire what she had. Well, they wouldn't be speaking right now, he was confident of that. Likely, she still would have believed Tricia because she had no real reason not to. He hadn't been an exemplary boyfriend. He hadn't failed drastically, but he knew he could've done a hell of a lot better.

"I like her."

"You've never met her!"

"I've seen her, I've seen how you react to not just her but the thought of her. I've seen her stand up to you. I've never seen a woman talk to you that way. I didn't have to hear the conversation to know she was letting you have it."

"I don't give them the chance to!"

"Or they're scared of you."

"What the fuck are you talking about?"

Kevin shrugged. "Like father, like son. You know?"

"That'd maybe be true if I was still living in Shermer."

"Like you aren't still friends with anyone from Shermer who could say something. Until your cousin moved here people had access to your apartment anytime they wanted whether you were home or not. How many of the people who hung out there do you think would really give a shit about saying something disparaging about the person letting them hang out there and do whatever they want."

He grimaced at that. "So?"

"Don't get defensive, John."

"You know me from then. You went into business with me!"

"You're right. That's very true. I was never one of your friends, though. I knew you through the work you did with your dad. I knew he wasn't a nice guy to you. I knew he was talking about making a partner out of the other guy who wasn't his son. I knew all of those things. I knew that could put you on a very dark path. I did not agree until after you got off the hard shit. And I'm not the one who'd be at your apartment getting high with the latest notch in your bedpost."

"I doubt it. No one would care."

"Except, wouldn't they?"

"What are you talking about?"

"You get yourself a real girlfriend. A serious girlfriend. You might change. You might not want your friends over all of the time. You might want privacy, time with just her. She might keep things at your apartment that she'd care if they got stolen."


"You think someone like Claire wants to go to your apartment and see bongs and drug paraphilia all over? Your bed possibly used by someone else that afternoon?"


"I'm just saying. You don't know what those people said to someone while you were at work. You don't know what those women really knew about you, but kept their mouths shut because they wanted a good time."

"Yeah," John said bitterly.

"How many of them have called you since you put the kibosh on the all access pass?"

None. None had. There were some that still stopped by, but they were the ones that he knew wouldn't do anything to Shelly. He no longer left his apartment door unlocked as he used to, though.

Kevin held his hand up before putting his wrappers and trash on their tray.

"Don't answer. I don't want to know the answer. The fact is, though, Shelly's brought some changes into your life. None bad. I was surprised you thought of the fact she could be in danger, honestly. I never realized you could care about anyone else. And then I find out you had a girlfriend. Like a real one."

John shook his head. He balled his dog wrapper. Is that how people really saw him? Not capable of giving a shit? Not capable of loving anyone else? True, he didn't love anyone. It wasn't because he didn't want to, though. Well, mostly it was because he didn't want to. He didn't want his life to be a repeat of his parents' life.

Shelly was different. He didn't really care. She was blood, though, a cousin. Someone who'd been through bad stuff, too, and like him had made it out. He'd never until recently stopped to consider why Claire's brother had loathed John so much. He'd never truly get it, not having a sister or anything that he'd grown up with. The idea, though, of someone hurting his younger cousin on his watch, when she'd come to him for a second chance. It brought something out of him he never really knew existed in him.

It was more than caring.

He wanted to do right. He wanted her to be good. Stable.

He supposed he was just a sucker for a pretty girl who said she needed him when all was said and done. Other girls had needed him, too. He'd never thought of changing a damn thing about his life or the way he operated, though. So, there was something about responsibility, a connection he didn't have with anyone else. Someone who got him without having to say a word. Someone who understood him and knew what he was yet still wanted him.

The want was different, certainly, but it was still want. She still wanted to stay with him despite finding out he was really not living the great life despite having his own business. Two years in and he was still in the same crappy apartment he had been in when he and Kevin started things. He had a better car, but that was only because the car he'd had two years ago was on its last leg so he'd had no choice. Business owners needed reliable transportation. His father hadn't had the best pickup truck in the world, but that baby hauled ass and was a mechanic's dream as far as the work his old man put into that baby to ensure she kept running like a dream.

"So," he said when they left the restaurant and were walking to their trucks. Both had parked toward the back of the parking lot. "You going to go over there?"

"I guess so, I have nothing else to do tonight."

"And you're curious."

"Yeah. Wouldn't you be?"

"I guess so, yes."

They went on with their day after that. John went home after he'd finished and showered before heading to Claire's. He never called her first, always just showing up. He figured there was less of a chance she'd say no if he was already there. He actually put some effort into what he wore and how he looked tonight. He never shaved a second time even though by four o'clock in the afternoon he looked like he could use it. Today he did.

He made his way to her condo and rang the bell to get in. Robbie's car was gone, which John was expecting. She apparently used the garage all of the time because he'd never seen her car parked outside.

She buzzed him up without preamble today. It had taken a couple of times for her to just let him up without hesitation. That was good, right? He wasn't sure. Did she stop to realize that he came over the nights he knew Robbie was working because he was the one who gave her a ride home those nights? He wasn't sure. They'd never talked about the fact their dinners coincided with that. He always figured it was best not to bring it up, make her feel guilty or something. He didn't want her feeling guilty. The kiss after their day on Christopher's boat aside, they hadn't done anything wrong.

"You can help me," she said when she opened the door to her condo.

"Uh okay," he said with a slight frown. That hadn't been the greeting he'd been expecting. "You need a plumber or something?"

She rolled her eyes a bit at that. "No. Worse."

"I'm not sure that wasn't an insult, but I'll take it as not and say I'm sorry. What's up?"

"No, that's not what I meant. Sorry," she said, stepping aside so he could go in.


"I have a film screening to go to this weekend with one of the actors and I had a gown made."

"Yeah?" That wasn't surprising.

"I think it looks awful."


"I don't know!"

He noticed then it looked as if she'd been crying. Over a dress?

"And I can help how, Claire? I'm not a dressmaker and I don't know any fairy godmothers."

"Tell me if it looks as bad as I think? Usually I'd ask Robbie, but he's not home. If I have to go shopping for an off the rack gown before the weekend I'd like to know tonight."

"Sure," he said with a shrug. As if he could offer a really valid opinion, but whatever.

She looked relieved that he agreed.

"I'll be back in a minute."

He expected she was going to bring the gown right out so when a minute turned into longer he went the way she'd disappeared to. There was only one hall so it wasn't hard to figure out.

He paused at the open door to the spare bedroom. He'd never been this far into her condo before. He had no reason to be and hadn't been invited. She hadn't really invited him today either.

The room looked lived in. Bed made but rumpled as if the comforter had just been thrown in place quickly. Clothes on the bed as if they'd been discarded quickly. Accessories on the dresser were all masculine: deodorant, cologne, a wristwatch he recognized as Robbie's from the couple of times he'd seen him and been wearing it.

Claire opening another door brought him out of his thoughts on the state of the room.

Holy shit!

Was it possible to get turned on by a dress?

He wouldn't have thought it was, but.

Holy shit!

Not anyone could pull off wearing it. He'd wager ninety-nine percent of the women in Chicago wouldn't be able to. She could and did very well.

"Um," he said. Was he supposed to say something? Offer an opinion? Be looking at something other than the generous amount of cleavage the dress offered him a view of? Her prom dress hadn't been anything like this at all. It'd been nice and all, but conservative as all get out. He supposed prom dresses were supposed to be conservative.

"See. It's awful."

"I, uh, no," he said quickly with a shake of his head.

"You're staring at me!"

"Uh yeah."

"So that means…"

"You think that means it's awful?" He scoffed at that. "No. You look amazing."

She blushed then and he was glad to know that everywhere on her still turned red when that happened.

"Yes, but," she said as he stepped toward her.

"There's only one negative thing I see about it."

"What?" she asked. She sounded panicked.

He slid a hand to her hip once he was in front of her and drew her to him. He was immensely glad he'd shaved and everything now as he leaned in to kiss her.

Her breath caught and he thought for a second that she was going to pull away or stop him. Seeing that Robbie evidently lived in the second bedroom made him a hell of a lot braver than he'd felt ten minutes ago.

The dress felt incredible to touch but he was mindful of the fact that his hands weren't exactly smooth or unblemished. He didn't want to be the cause of a snag or blemish on the material.

She moaned against his mouth as he cupped her ass, drawing her against him. Her lips parted then, welcoming him in and he was lost. Lost in her. He always got that way kissing her. For the few minutes they'd kiss he'd feel as if he could do anything, be anyone despite where he'd come from.

He'd never felt that, or even thought it, when he'd been with anyone else. Ever. No one ever made him want to be a better person because they were content with who he was. They never expected anything from him. Claire had expected, though. She hadn't expected anything she didn't deserve or that he realistically couldn't provide her. He just hadn't been sure about things.

He was pretty fucking sure now, though.

He slid a hand from her ass and she groaned softly. He chuckled at that before sliding a fingertip along her neck and throat.

"John," she whispered as he slid his finger slightly lower to trace the outline of one of her breasts that the dress did an amazing job of showing off.

"Uh huh," he murmured, sliding his fingertips inside of the dress. She bit his lower lip as he circled one of her nipples.

"That's the problem I see with the dress," he murmured, kissing her chin before finding her jaw. He slid his lips along the edge of it to her ear.


"Everyone's going to want to do this."

She scoffed, tilting her head a bit as he nipped at her earlobe. She'd liked this in high school and that evidently hadn't changed.

"I'm serious. I don't like it."

She giggled then, pressing closer against him as if she already knew he was working on a pretty impressive hard-on. Then she was pretty good at inspiring impressive hard-ons.

"I think you do."

"Well, yeah. For me," he whispered.

She stopped giggling when he slid his mouth lower along her neck and throat on the same path his fingers had taken a moment ago.

His lips closed over one of her peaks, circling it with his tongue. Her hands slid to his hair as if she thought he'd stop or something. He never thought he'd be close enough to her again to take in her scent or taste her. She was intoxicating. Always had been. He imagined she probably always would be. That was the problem. The thing Kevin didn't understand about the women he was with. It didn't matter who they were. They weren't her.

It wasn't enough, though. This.

He shifted a bit, dropping to his knees as he used the hand that had been resting against her ass to carefully tug up the hem of her dress.

Her legs parted, instinctive or not he had no idea. He just knew they did and he groaned at the idea of her inviting him in. They'd never gotten to this part of things. Above the waist was as far as she'd let him go.

"Fuck, does it ever end," he muttered at the seeming layers of fabric that made up her skirt. Considering especially the top part of the dress seemed to reveal so much. Why did her legs have to be enshrouded by the stuff?

Beat the fuck out of him.

Of course knowing she had something pretty important to wear it for he was being way more careful than he would have been with, say, her prom dress or something. (Not that she modeled the dress for him before prom. One difference between that Claire and this one. Even though her bedroom door had been closed while she changed, she never would have done that with him at her house in high school.)

He was afraid he'd ruined the moment with that utterance. That she'd come to her senses about why they shouldn't be doing this. He thought they should be doing this. Hell, he figured they had a lot of time to make up for. Stupid fucking nosy bitch Tricia Elrose.

Finally! Progress. She'd been quiet through this, but certainly hadn't told him to stop. Him on his knees had to give her a pretty good clue as to what was on his mind right now.

"Don't you think…" He almost didn't hear her she spoke so quietly.

"No," he said quickly. He didn't want her thinking.

"John," she cried out as he found her clit through her panties and brushed his mouth over the spot. He drew the lacy fabric out of the way so he could do it again without the barrier. He peeled the, green he only now just noticed, panties out of the way completely and settled in to do what he'd longed, ached to do since that day of detention.

She finished almost immediately, which he hoped had something to do with his ability in doing this in a way that made her feel good. He wasn't a pro at it, he knew that. It wasn't something he did often because he wasn't usually with anyone he liked enough to.

Her orgasm out of the way he set about learning about her. What made her moan. What made her clench. What made her press herself into his mouth further. What got her off. What made her gasp. He wanted to know these things. Always had.

It wasn't as easy to bring her off after the first time. He wasn't sure if that was him or her. He was betting on her because he was pretty fucking thorough in ensuring he licked, sucked, and kissed every possible inch of the parts of her those panties had kept covered. He even gave her a (very) small love bite where the waistband of the panties set against her hip. She did come again, but it certainly wasn't as quick as the first one.

That had to prove what he surmised about her and Robbie's relationship was true. Surely if they were involved she wouldn't let him give her a hickey, small or not.

That led to a whole slew of questions. Like how had Shelly found out? Had Claire told her, hoping she'd tell John? Things to think about later when he didn't have his tongue nestled between her lower lips, coaxing her wetness out so he could devour every ounce of it she had to offer.

He wasn't sure she was on the same wave length as he was in that regard. She didn't seem as though she wasn't enjoying what he was doing. It was always hard to tell, though, especially for someone like him who hadn't done this a lot to gauge her reaction versus others. She slid a hand between her legs, parting her labia for him, and he almost finished in his jeans from that gesture alone. Fuck. He took the unspoken hint, though, and slid his tongue further inside of her. They both groaned at the same time as he thrust it as deep as he could before pulling out of her completely. He licked along her fingertips holding herself open to him before diving right back in.

Her doing that freed up his hand (the one not holding her dress) to focus completely on her clit. In a minute. First he moved her mouth to that spot, sliding a finger inside of her. He groaned as she finished again, calling out his name as she did. He was pretty positive there was nothing more arousing than her saying his name like that. Wanton. Needy. Begging. As if he wanted to stop!

Then he wondered if she wasn't wanting, needing, and begging for something else.

More than his mouth.

Fuck. He had nothing on him to do that even if he wanted to. He hadn't come here planning on needing a rubber tonight.

He drew her fingers away from holding her open for him and she whimpered softly. He set her fingers against her nub before sliding his tongue back inside of her. He hadn't kept his eyes open to this point, but he did now. He tilted his head up a bit, glancing at her. She wasn't watching him. Her eyes were closed, her lips parted just enough that her moans came out exactly as they should have. It took her a minute or two, but she finally started moving her fingertip along her nub. He gave a muffled moan at the sight of her touching herself like that. He worked his tongue in and out of her, pulling out completely to lick her nub and the fingertip touching it now and then. Forcing his eyes open he watched as she brought herself over. He was sure his tongue helped and all, but even he knew that the best orgasms for a woman seemed to come from stimulation of the clit.

He moved his mouth then to her inner thigh, licking and sucking there. A mark a little bigger than the one at her hip this time. He wasn't sure why he let it, or the first one. He wasn't really big into hickeys, but he couldn't resist either time.

He kissed her thigh, running his free hand along it to find her panties and draw them up. He wasn't nearly as good at drawing them back up as he had been sliding them down. He didn't have much experience in putting them on. He just hadn't ever that he could recall help a woman put them back on before.


Who knew.

"So," he whispered when neither of them had said anything for a while. "Want to get something to eat?"


He frowned, moving his hands so that her skirt dropped back into place.

"That's what I came here to ask you. Yes."

"I just thought," she said.


She shrugged.

"Don't get shy on me now, Claire. That I'd just leave after that?"

"I don't know."

"I mean, I will if you want me to. I still haven't had dinner and neither have you. I'm hungry, I imagine you are, too."

"Yes, but, I didn't do… You didn't."

He shrugged. Yeah, that was a new one for him. "It'll go away. I mean, you're going to have to change and stuff so that'll give him a few minutes to get soft again."

Of course, picturing her in her bedroom naked may not make him soft.

"You really like it?"

That was a loaded question right about now. "What specifically are you asking me, Claire?"

"The gown!"

"Oh, yes. I'm probably not a hugely good judge or anything, but I think you look fantastic. Sexy. On second thought, find another one."

She snorted softly.

"I'm kidding! The person you're going with, are they male or female?"




"Good," he said simply as he stood.

"Why good?"

"That means he won't have getting you out of it on his mind all night."

"No," she said with a shake of her head.

"Why'd you wait until tonight to try on the dress?"

"There was a mixup on the order. They had next month written down. Thank God I called Monday to check on it."

"And they could just do that," he said, gesturing to her gown, "in a couple of days?"

"It was done! I just had to go try it on and make sure it fit right."

"I think they underestimated the size of your chest."

"They did not!"

"Okay. I think they underestimated how much of it people should be able to get a free peak at."

"You're complaining about my dress revealing too much?"

He paused, thinking on that a moment. It sure sounded as though he was. "I guess so."

She squinted at him then.

"What? I'm human. I'm sorry."

"Why'd you do that?"

"Do what? Apologize? I don't know you were looking at me as if you expected one."

"No," she said, gesturing then to him and then her. She blushed profusely then. Ah.

"I need a reason?"

She shrugged. "I'm just curious why you don't expect…"

"I don't have anything on me. Believe it or not I didn't come over here figuring you'd model a dress for me. Now you want to go get something to eat and stop at Walgreen's on the way home I could certainly fix the not having anything on me and we can certainly do more."

"But you didn't even want me to…"

"I do, but fuck if I want the first time you do that for me to be out of some sense of tit for tat obligation."

"Yes, but you told me once you don't…"

"I don't," he admitted. They'd talked once about reciprocity and oral sex once.

"So my question stands."

He shrugged. "I didn't realize I needed a reason beyond you were there and I wanted to. Besides that conversation wasn't really about us."

They'd just been talking about things in general. Expectations he supposed. She with absolutely no experience had been curious about things. He hadn't said he'd never go down on someone ever. He supposed there was something unfair about him having no problem with a woman going down on him for a spell before actual penetration happened.

Did that make him a pig?

He hoped not. He certainly tried to ensure a woman got off and everything.

He supposed it had something to do with what he and Kevin had been talking about at lunch. Claire being the only one he would've ever even contemplated going without a rubber with during sex. Nothing but a hand had ever been around his cock without one on. There were worse things than getting a girl pregnant, though that in itself was way down on John's list of things he wanted to have firsthand knowledge on. He wasn't going to get syphilis or anything from a hand. He wasn't so sure about anything else.

He sighed softly at that.

What the fuck did that say about him? The type of people he hung around with?

"I don't mean to sound ungrateful."

He scoffed at that with a soft laugh.

Funny thing, when he thought of her changing out of that gown…

Well, it made him think.

"You know," he said before he could censor his thoughts.


"You want me to prove that conversation wasn't about us we could forget dinner."

"But you don't have…"

He shook his head.

"Something about watching you take this off," he said, sliding the back of his hand along her side to her hip. "And then having you join me on your bed so I could do that while we're lying down so we could both actually enjoy it sounds much better than dinner."

Her eyes widened.

He'd surprised her.

He'd surprised himself.

She didn't answer, though.


She still wasn't answering.

Fuck fuck.

He shrugged then, sliding his hand away from her hip.


"You could do just that?"

He shrugged again. "Why not?" That probably wasn't the right answer. So he amended it with a simple. "Yes."

Then he shrugged again.

"No, actually. Not just yes. Fuck yes," he said.

She laughed a little at that.

"My enthusiasm is amusing?"

"No," she said. "It's just that I was thinking the same thing as your last answer."

"You were?" he asked. She was? She was!

So was he supposed to initiate? He'd made it pretty clear what his offer was. Wait for her to initiate? What? Doing this shit sober was a whole hell of a lot more complicated when it was just an afterthought because he was stoned or drunk.

She moved past him into the hallway. Leading away from her bedroom.

"Uh, Claire?"

She had said she was thinking the same thing as his last answer. Hadn't she? His last answer had been fuck yes. Right? He didn't blackout and say something else. Did he?

She came back a few minutes later with a set of keys and he frowned as she took his hand. She brought his hand to her mouth, kissing the palm of it. She'd done that more than once when they were dating and it had set a jolt of excitement right through him. Some things never changed he guessed because it still did.

"Go to Walgreen's while I change," she said, setting the keys in the palm of his hand.

"I, uh." He blinked. "Yeah, sure." She was sending him out to get rubbers. That meant there was a good chance she wanted him to have one on him. Maybe not literally. It was hard to tell with Claire. He picked up the keys with his other hand and glanced at them for a second before looking at her.

"What?" she asked.

"These actually work for your doors? You're not sending me away with keys that belong to an old apartment in New York or something, are you?"

"Where would the fun in that be?"

"I don't know, just making sure."

"I'm not saying that we will …"

"Yeah, I got you," he said with a nod. No promises. He might get back and she'd be dressed from head to toe in so many layers he wouldn't be able to unwrap her before Christmas. A woman's prerogative to change her mind or something. She was suggesting, though, that they might. His night was looking incredibly up, in more ways than one. "I'll be back then."

"Don't be too long."

"I think, Princess, you underestimate the appeal of the very thought of what you're suggesting if you think I'm going to take any longer than necessary. I will drive the speed limit, though."

"Why?" she asked, tilting her head a bit as she regarded him.

"Don't want to get a speeding ticket and take longer than I have to."

She let go of the skirt of her gown with one of her hands. "That's the key to the outside door and this one's to the door. You don't have to do the dead bolt so just need those two."

"All right." That was going to be his next question, but he would've figured it out he supposed. There were only three keys on the chain. Four, but the fourth was very obviously a car key.

He moved to leave and then thought better of it, stopping to kiss her first. A nice kiss, too. Nice enough she slid her arms around his neck and deepened it before he even thought to do that.

"I'll be right back then," he said, knowing exactly where the nearest Walgreen's was.


Claire glanced at the clock in her kitchen when John left. He wouldn't be gone long, assuming he actually knew where the nearest Walgreen's was. She imagined he did. That didn't give her long, but long enough.

She took the gown off and hung it up before going to her bathroom. She didn't have time to take a shower or anything, but she had enough time to get the two days of stubble off of her legs. She had a couple of nightgowns that could probably be considered sexy. Not really, but she'd gotten them from Victoria's Secret so they were nicer than what she usually wore to bed.

She couldn't believe she'd sent him away to go to the store and get condoms. She was inviting him back here for sex. Oh, sure, she said maybe they wouldn't. She absolutely wanted to, though. She'd never had anyone do what he'd done earlier ever. After they'd talked about it at length once or twice she'd just assumed guys didn't want to do that so she'd never pressed on whether she'd like it done to her. Of course her experiences hadn't been that vast and hadn't been long-lasting to where she would've gotten past uncomfortable sex.

So, why was she inviting him to have sex with her?

She had no idea why, but she firmly believed John wouldn't give her uncomfortable sex. Finding out Tricia Elrose hadn't known why John went up to that bedroom that night cast a whole different slant on things.

He hadn't been the greatest boyfriend, but he hadn't completely sucked either. He'd been learning, and so had she truthfully. No, she never kissed anyone else, but she had been trying to figure out how to act and treat him. She wasn't the easiest person to get along with on any given day. She could admit that. He'd tried, though. He really had. She wanted to say he'd loved her. If him showing up at her condo the past month or so meant what she thought it did. Well, she'd say he still loved her the same as she still loved him.

It was the reason she'd never really been able to find anyone else. Yes, in part she'd wondered what she'd done wrong that he'd cheat on her like that at a party. So publicly where anyone could see him humiliate her like that. He'd told her about the girls before that night he'd kissed. She'd cried both while he told her and afterward. She'd been able to get past it, though, because he'd come clean with her. He'd been honest. She thought that was a good sign, a step in the right direction. He was admitting he didn't want to kiss anyone else and she was forgiving him. That was huge for both of them. She'd known that.

Legs shaved, the sexiest thing she owned on, and her teeth brushed she got into bed. That's where he'd expect her to be, right? She hadn't been inviting him to stay and watch TV. Robbie wouldn't be home for … hours yet she realized after she glanced at her clock. That meant she had hours with John. In bed.

That was a very exciting and at the same time frightening thought.

She heard the door open in the other room and forced herself to take a deep breath to calm herself before he got to her room. She heard the sound of her keys being set on her kitchen counter and smiled a little at that. She wasn't sure why?

He walked into her bedroom and glanced at the door for a second before leaving it open. It's what she would have done, too, considering he knew as well as she did Robbie wouldn't be home until well after one o'clock in the morning.

His hands were empty, though. No Walgreen's bag. Did he rethink this? Did he not want her? He certainly hadn't acted that way earlier. She'd felt how hard he was. She had no doubt he enjoyed what he'd done to her as thoroughly as she had. Okay, maybe not as thoroughly, but he sure seemed to enjoy the hell out of himself.

He smirked a little as if knowing exactly what she was thinking. He reached behind him, pulling a box of condoms from his back pocket. She couldn't recall a time she'd been so relieved. She still wasn't one hundred percent that's where this was going to lead, but wanting to and not being able to would suck.

He set the box on her nightstand.

"You're way ahead of me," he murmured.

"I know."

She moved then, kneeling on the bed. She placed her hands against his stomach, pushing his shirt up as she reached to kiss him.

He groaned, seemingly surprised at how she was kissing him. As if she wanted him. Really wanted him. She absolutely did. She'd thought briefly on Christopher and what he would say when John got to her bedroom door. Christopher loved her when all was said and done and disliked John most because of what Claire thought had happened. Sure, he'd been a bit judgmental because of John's career, but there was absolutely nothing wrong with being a plumber. No, his hands weren't smooth like Chris', but Claire kind of liked that. They represented him. A little rough but he knew how to be gentle with them when he needed to be.

Like earlier. She knew how careful he'd been with her dress. She didn't think he'd hurt or snag her dress, but he'd thought he might and had gone out of his way to ensure he didn't.

She drew her mouth away from his long enough to draw his shirt off with his help.

"Thanks," she whispered, finding his jaw.

He chuckled softly. "Yeah, sure, anytime."

"Really?" she asked, drawing away for a second. She slid her hands along his pecs and lower along his abdomen. He wasn't Hulk or anything, but he was nicely built and defined. Did he work out? She couldn't picture him going to Bally's or anything, but she imagined there were gyms that fit him.

"And if I said I'd rather you not wear one?"

"Ever?" he asked, sounding suspicious.


"I think my customers might complain."

"I think maybe their husbands would anyway."

He chuckled again.

"I'll keep that in mind."

He reached for the hem of her nightgown, drawing it up along her thighs with one hand.

"Sorry," she murmured.

"For what?"

She shrugged. "It's not really sexy…"

"You're wearing it. That makes it pretty fucking sexy," he whispered.

"Shut up."

"No, I will not."

He shifted a bit, causing her to stop kissing him. She liked kissing him. Too much. She always had. She'd hated when he admitted to kissing other girls because, oddly, she'd always thought that was the one thing they'd shared that he hadn't really done with anyone else. Kissing. Making out. Necking for the sake of necking and not as foreplay before sex.

"I especially like feeling that you aren't wearing anything under it."

"Well, you said…"

He chuckled a bit.

"I remember."

"Me, too," she whispered. She'd been wet since he left thinking about him doing that again.

"Good," he said. He drew away then and she frowned a bit, puzzled. He made his way to the other side of the bed, though and she breathed a little sigh of relief when he joined her on it. He slid a fingertip along the bottom of her foot since she was still facing away from him at the moment. She giggled. She couldn't help it.

"I guess some things never change," he said.

He remembered! He'd done that on purpose! It had been a week before prom and they were at a party, staying to themselves for the most part since most of John's friends avoided talking to him when she was with him and vice versa. She'd been wearing sandals and he'd given her a foot rub. He'd tickled her foot, though, and sent her into a fit of laughter that didn't stop for about five minutes after he'd stopped tickling her. No one had ever tickled the bottoms of her feet before for her to know she was that ticklish there.

"I guess not," she said.

He touched her ankle then.

"I could keep doing that if you want."

"I'm not the one…"

"I'm teasing, Claire, relax."

"I just, it's not like you have to."

"Oh, I know I don't have to. Prom was about the only have to that I went along with for you."

"I know," she whispered.

He worked his hand up higher along the back of her calf to her thigh, caressing her skin gently. It felt nice and she groaned a bit at the contact.

She moved so she could turn to face him and he set his hand against her hip. She felt so strange kneeling there like she was.

"No, don't," he whispered.

He moved instead, closer to her before whispering. "Work with me here, Princess." He tugged on her a bit and she followed his wordless prompts so she was straddling him but facing away from him.

"John," she said.

He chuckled.

"While the idea of having you like that is pretty instantaneous hard-on worthy that's not what I'm doing."

"Oh," she said.

He scooted a bit on the bed, wordlessly guiding her toward him. She understood now what he was doing just before the spot between her legs met his waiting mouth.

His hands between her legs, he parted her lower lips as she had done earlier for him. He licked her and she reached down to nip at his stomach to stop herself from groaning too loudly. She groaned anyway, in protest as he drew away.

"You, uh, want to use your mouth on anything else down that way don't think I'll be offended."

He didn't wait for her to respond, but instead went right back to licking her. Earlier had been fucking amazing, but this was ten times better. She wasn't sure why. Positioning. She didn't feel as if she'd collapse because her knees gave out on her. Something. Whatever. She could get very, very used to this.

Her hands grow bold, reaching into the waist of his jeans causing his abdomen to shift a bit against her touch. She found the fastening and worked it so his fly was open. She squeezed him through his underwear, groaning softly at the feel of him. He groaned against her clit and she pressed into his mouth in response.

She didn't consider herself good at this. She could count on one hand and have four of her fingers left how many times she'd done this before. He'd been in too much of a hurry, had finished too fast, and she hadn't been prepared. She supposed it should have been common sense as far as what happened, but she'd never experienced it to know. She touched the couple of guys she'd fooled around with since that guy, but only out of obligation versus a true desire to feel.

John she wanted to feel. She had in high school, too.

She explored, probably frustrating him or making him think she was teasing him. She touched, stroked, and rubbed to her heart's content. He wasn't stopping what he was doing so she took that to mean she wasn't doing anything wrong or weird. She pushed his underwear down a bit and he shifted a bit so she could push his jeans down some, too.

And then her tongue was there, licking his tip and he nipped at one of her lips in response almost as she'd done earlier to his stomach. He tasted … Fine. So fine that she licked him again, ensuring his head was clean of all of his precum.

He slid a finger inside of her alongside his tongue and she cried out from the feeling of it. His tongue felt nice, but his finger was thicker and harder. Evidently she liked that, or at least right now she did. He evidently figured that out as he moved his mouth a bit to kiss her inner thigh as he worked his finger in and out of her.

She didn't work her mouth over him very far, but she certainly tried to be attentive and thorough in to the part she had in her mouth.

"John," she murmured.

"Um hmm," he said, drawing away from her thigh.

"As good as your finger feels…"

"I'll get back to…"


"No?" He sounded puzzled. She couldn't blame him.

"Don't want your trip to Walgreen's to be a wasted one," she murmured.

"Oh," he said. "You sure?"

"Do I seem unsure?"

He chuckled at that.

"Well, no, but I'd be remiss if I didn't ask."

"You aren't remiss."

He slid his finger out of her then and she whimpered a bit.

"Oh, you like that, huh?"

"Uh huh," she murmured.

"Nothing to be embarrassed about. Tongues aren't really a good substitute."

"I think you have a very talented tongue."

"Me, too, because it's gotten us to this point."

"It has!"

She moved next to him and he stood to shed his jeans and underwear. She watched and wasn't shy or embarrassed about doing it.

He grabbed the box he'd bought at Walgreen's, opening it and taking a packet out. He set it on the nightstand before joining her on the bed again. He worked his hands along her body, sliding the nightgown up and off as he went. He touched her a lot more than necessary, and she was just fine with that.

He settled between her legs again and she moaned loudly, no longer ashamed by her reaction, when he licked her clit.


"I want to know you finished good at least once."

"You don't think I will?"

"I think it's not always good that way all of the time," he shrugged. "Especially a first time. Especially a first time that I've been wanting to happen for over four fucking years."

"Well, make it fucking happen, John."

It didn't take her long to finish. He probably knew that, too. She watched, sort of entranced as he slid the condom over his hardness. She doubted he knew how much she'd loved watched him do just about everything. His hands weren't delicate, not even back then. They were unlike any hands she'd ever really seen before. Working-man's hands. He knew how to use them, though, and she'd loved watching him do things with them whether it had been a simple thing like rolling a joint or a more complicated thing like changing the oil on her car.

He kept his eyes open the same as she did as he slid into her. She gave a soft gasp at the feel of him stretching her. He stopped for a second, seeming to let her adjust.

"More," she whispered, kissing his shoulder as she arched into him.

He gave it to her. She cried out when he slid completely inside of her.

"God, I love the sounds you make," he murmured, finding her neck.

"That's good, because you make me make them."

"Then I really love them," he said with a soft laugh, pressing into her in a really, really enjoyable way with that statement.

"Me, too, if they make you do that," she murmured.

He did it again. And again. Until she finished with him not too far after her.

That was what sex should be like. And she hated him. Hated that it was with him she experienced it. No bumbling. No uncertainty. No embarrassment. She'd never had that before. Always there was something holding her back from letting herself go and have a completely good time.

He returned to the bed a few minutes after using her bathroom. He got in, which she was glad about, and moved next to her. She was glad he didn't grab his clothes and run. Did he want to? She wasn't sure. He wasn't easy to read right now.

"What time do you…" she let the unasked question trail off.

"No set time. Shelly has a key and everything."

"Does she?"

"Uh, yeah."

"She won't wonder where you are?"

He shrugged, sliding an arm around her to gather her to him. "I'm a big boy, Claire. She's not my mother."


"Have you ever not been home when she's gotten home?"




"Huh," she said, regarding him.

"What huh?" he asked.

The answer surprised her for some reason. Maybe not during the week so much, he had to wake up for a job the same as she did. Weekends, though. It surprised her that he didn't take advantage of his cousin being out of the house the past couple of weekends after over a month of her being there and do things.

"It just wasn't the answer I was expecting."

"Well, I guess I thought you were asking me if I haven't gone home. I mean, like that night I saw you at Lou's before going to the Whale. I've gone out."

"You would never have been caught dead there." She'd tried to get him to go to Lou's a couple of times when they were dating and he hadn't wanted to. She never knew why. Crowds of people? Maybe. Expensive pizza? Maybe. It wasn't crazy expensive, but it was sure more than the couple of neighborhood pizza joints in Shermer had been.

"I know. People change, Claire. It's where those guys wanted to go."

"Oh," she said.

He glanced at the clock by her bed.

"Want to go there now?"

"Shut up," she said with a laugh.

"I wasn't joking. I did come here to ask you to dinner."

"Why?" she asked.

"Why? What kind of a question is that?"

"I've been trying to figure out what you've wanted."

"Well, that should be fairly obvious."

"Yes, but you got it. I mean, we…"

"I didn't want sex from you. I mean, sure, you know. I'm a guy. I haven't been coming here to get dinner with you just to get you out of your panties."

"The question is still valid and on the table."

"I wanted you to get to know me. Today. This me. I wanted you to know I'm not that guy. I found out you'd broken up with me, which you didn't by the way. You just stopped calling or writing me."

"Because you cheated on me!"

"I did not!"

She shrugged. She hadn't known that then!

"Anyway," he shrugged. "I work hard. I pay my bills. I don't have a fancy house or car, but I do pretty okay. I can buy nice things when I want to. And I guess I'd rather be able to take you to dinner at a nice place than have a car with a German logo on it."


"I guess there's a part of me that's paranoid, you know. I'll wake up and one day Kevin will decide he doesn't want to be my partner anymore and I'll have to go back to working for my dad."


"I don't know. People like Vernon drilled it into me I'd amount to nothing. It's hard to shake that. I'd like a house and stuff."

"You would?" Now that surprised her more than seeing him at Lou's.



"To prove I can be better than my parents? I don't know. That's why I haven't moved out of that crappy apartment yet. I don't think spiting my parents' is a good enough reason to invest in something like a house."

"No," she said.

"And I wouldn't want a place like this. I mean, for you it's good. So don't think I'm putting it down. I'd want the yard, the hands on opportunities of a house."

"That's because you're good with your hands."

"That doesn't seem to be what you were suggesting earlier. I was using my hands and you asked me to stop."

She giggled softly, blushing deeply she was sure. "That was totally different."

"So, was that a yes or no to pizza?"

"You're serious?"

"Why not? I really did come here to take you to dinner. You haven't eaten, have you?"



"I have to get dressed."

"I sort of assumed we wouldn't go naked."

"No, I mean, I should shower," she shrugged. Maybe she didn't need to exactly, but her hair was probably mussed every which way after that.

"Well, I could help you wash your back and then we could go eat."

"I…" He was offering to shower with her. "Okay," she said before she could talk herself out of agreeing.


"You weren't serious?"

"Oh I was serious, I just wasn't expecting you to agree. Let's go then, Princess," he said.

"Why are you in a hurry?"

"Well, I figure we go eat now and then I have to come back here to drop you off. There are two left in the package I bought."

"I see."

"I mean, if you wanted to use another one. If you don't…"

"I think I'd like that."

"God, I hope so because I know I sure would."

She scoffed. "Of course you would."

She made to get out of the bed, but he grabbed her ankle.

"Why did you lie to me about Robbie?"

"I didn't lie to you about Robbie. You assumed something and I didn't feel the need to correct you. I told you that day you came here that he lived here. He does live here as my roommate. He pays me rent. He moved here when I moved back."

"Okay. Why aren't you involved with him then? Chris sure seems to like him."

"He does because he knows Robbie can't hurt me."


"He's gay," she said simply.

"Oh," he said. "And Chris knows?"

"I presume so. I've never announced it."

"And Chris likes him," John said, sounding suspicious.

Claire knew what he was getting at. Christopher could be pretty judgmental and despite his inability to settle down with one woman he was on the more conservative side of things.

"He likes that I'm not living alone."

"I can see that, I guess."

"When did you figure out that he wasn't my boyfriend?"

"Today actually."


"While you were putting the dress on, I saw his room. It's obviously very lived in and it's not shared by you."

"No," she said with a laugh.

"Does Shelly know?"

"I don't know. She's never asked me or said anything. She might. Robbie may have told her, or she could have seen Robbie going in and out of his room one of the times she was here."

"I suppose." He said, nodding as if something was clicking into place for him.

"I suppose I should also ask if you have a boyfriend who's going to come after me or something."

"No! You think I'd," she gestured to the bed. "Do this if I did."

"Well, no, the Claire I knew wouldn't do that. People change, though."

"I hope I never change that much," she said. The idea!

"I hope not, too," he said.

Return to Top

***Chapter Eight***
Word Count: 7,530

John scowled when he opened his apartment door and saw Chris Standish standing there. What the fuck was he doing here? He was pretty sure that unasked question was displayed clearly on his face.

"Hey John," Chris said.

"Yeah," he said cautiously. He'd been all right to him on the boat and everything, but John knew that was a façade.

"How are you?"

"Good," he said, even more cautiously than his yeah had been a moment ago. Chris had never asked him how he was. Ever. Not that they saw one another tons or anything, but there'd been a couple of times that Chris had been at their parents' house when he'd dated Claire in high school.


Silence. John had no idea what to say to him.

"What are you doing here?" John asked.

"I was looking for Shelly. She should be expecting me."

"Oh," he said. Why the fuck didn't he just say so?

"Sure," he said, opening the door further. "Come on in. She was in the bathroom a minute ago."

John hadn't realized she had plans for the night.

A date.

With Claire's brother.

The fact he was here and not in LA with Claire he was guessing meant big brother didn't have an invitation to the movie premier. Interesting. He had no idea what movie it was she was going to, just that it was set to open in a couple of weeks' time. She'd flown out to LA yesterday and he guessed she'd be back tomorrow, though she hadn't said. He hadn't asked either. Maybe he was supposed to.

They'd gone for pizza that night, gone back to her place, and he'd gone home about two o'clock in the morning with no condoms left from the three-pack he'd bought.

He hadn't talked to her since that night. She'd mentioned being busy getting ready for the weekend trip.

So, his cousin was going out on a Saturday night it seemed and John was stuck here at the apartment. He wasn't sure where the fairness was in that.

"You going out tonight?" Chris asked. It was as if he knew what John was just thinking. That was kind of spooky.

"No," he said. "Not that I know of anyway. Things could change."

"Yeah," Chris said.


Was he asking for Claire? Did he know what happened and was checking to see if John had a date tonight or something? Would he take Shelly out just to spy? John wasn't sure. Claire and her brother were pretty close, but John didn't think Chris would date someone for Claire's benefit.

"Is that your pickup out front?"

"I'm not sure which pickup you're talking about, but mine is out front, yes."

"Well, it's a business truck."

John nodded. "That would be mine, yes."

"Not working for your dad anymore then, I guess?"

"No, not for about three years."

"Someone else made you a better offer than your father?"

John scoffed at that. Maybe in Chris and Claire's worlds their father made them offers that no one else could come close to matching. John's not so much. He'd gone to his father after Kevin had approached him. Certainly his dad deserved the opportunity to counter Kevin's offer, make John a partner in the business he had.

Nope. He'd told John good luck and that was about it. The first time he and Kevin's company stole a customer away from his dad's company the old man had paid him a visit. John wasn't scared of him anymore. He was an adult, over eighteen, and had been clean so had nothing to hide or fear from the cops. If his father laid a hand on him he'd press charges in a heartbeat. His dad seemed to know that. He talked big, face all red from the angry yelling, but he'd left and John had seen it in his eyes at that moment.

His father knew John had bested him.

John realized the past year or so that there was a reason his dad didn't want him as a partner. John had always taken it personally, as some sort of slight that he'd preferred Tommy to John. Tommy wasn't as smart as John. Tommy probably to this day didn't know how his father operated or kept his books. Tommy got paid, but there wasn't going to be anything left for Tommy to inherit or anything one day. When John's dad kicked the bucket Bender Plumbing would kick the bucket with him and Tommy likely would be left having to pay bills he hadn't known about.

John hadn't figured that out right away after being in business with Kevin, but eventually he realized that his father was in pretty deep. Instead of cutting Tommy and the payroll that had gone with a third person that they really didn't need he'd kept paying people late on a rotation just to keep them off his back.

Likely his father was still running things that way, but John didn't know for sure. Maybe John leaving had eased things up a bit, but John taking away some of his business couldn't have eased things up too much.

And there was the simple fact that John's dad seemed to like Tommy and never could stand John.

"I made myself a better offer than my father."

"Oh," Chris said.

John smirked – on the inside – at Chris' realization that John owned the business the truck downstairs advertised.

"I didn't know."

John shrugged. "I wouldn't expect you to have any reason to know that."

"I guess not. My sister says you saw her the other night."

"Yeah," John said simply. What was he supposed to admit? He wondered again if he knew what happened.

"I'm glad you're away from your dad," he said then. Strange shift in topics, but then maybe it wasn't.

"Me, too," John said with an uncomfortable laugh. "I can guess what you're thinking," he said. "I'm going to say to you what you're biting your tongue to stop yourself from saying to me. My cousin is not from around here. She's about as small town as they come. She's been hurt every which way and back again. She's finally getting on her feet with this job Robbie helped her get. Don't add to that hurt."

"Claire says you wanted her to know people different than the ones you hang around with."

"I do."

"I fit that bill pretty well I'd say."

"You do. I'm just saying."

Chris narrowed his eyes slightly, regarding him.

"I don't think I've ever seen you give a shit about anyone or anything other than yourself."

"I'm not eighteen anymore. And I did give a shit about your sister."

"You had a funny way of showing it."

"I can admit that. Can you?"

Chris' lips thinned a bit at that. Chris wasn't exactly Mr. Wonderful with every girl he'd dated. Claire had told him stories when they were dating. Granted, that was a long time ago for Chris, too. He was, however, four years older than they were and showed no signs of settling down from what John could gather. At twenty-two John doubted anyone expected him to be thinking about settling down. At twenty-six, though, people started to wonder.

John's phone rang and he was a little glad for the interruption. He had no desire to get into anything with Chris. He went to answer the extension in the kitchen.

"Have a seat. She shouldn't be long," he said, gesturing to the couch. His furniture wasn't super nice. He didn't see the point in buying new stuff when the people who hung around here didn't give a shit about how they treated his stuff. He had a nice TV and stereo, though, and Chris noticed those things as John answered the phone.

"Hello," he said.



'This is Robbie.'

"Hey. You need Shelly?"

'No! I need you.'

John frowned a bit at the phone. Surely, he couldn't be calling…

"Okay," he said a little cautiously.

'Our water heater at work broke or something. The basement is flooded and we have no hot water.'


'We can't get a hold of anyone. It's Saturday night. No one's calling us back. We can't wash dishes!'

John sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. This was the last thing he wanted to do with a Saturday night where it seemed he might have the apartment to himself for a while for a change of pace. He'd been sort of looking forward to doing nothing without anyone to bother him.

"All right. I'll be there in," he glanced at his watch. "About thirty minutes."

'Thank you,' he said.

"Sure," he said with a sigh.

Fuck the other plumbers who weren't answering their calls. Of course he had nothing going on tonight to interrupt.

"I've got to head out," he said to Chris. "Sounds like Shelly got a good Saturday night off. That was Robbie, their water heater broke so they have no hot water."

"You're going there?"

John shrugged. "That's what I do," he said.

He knocked on his bedroom door.

"Shelly? You decent? I've got to change into something I can work in."

"Yeah," she called from his room.

He'd talked to his landlord this week about upgrading to a two bedroom apartment. There weren't any open currently, but he said around November there should be and he was going to bump John up to the top of the list since he'd been a loyal and dependable tenant the past few years. The first couple months he moved in here he hadn't been, but he quickly learned that there weren't many other places out there who only required one month's security deposit versus a security deposit and last month's rent up front. He'd even seen some that required the deposit plus first and last month's rent. So, about four months in he'd turned things around and was Johnny-on-the-spot with his rent payments. His friends hung out here, but he made sure they didn't get him in any trouble.

He shut the door, changing quickly while he told her what was going on. He felt his eyes on her as he drew picked out a shirt to wear.

"What?" he asked. It wasn't the first time he'd changed in front of her, or her him for that matter. They didn't have a whole lot of space and sometimes they both needed to at the same time like now. She'd never looked at him like this, though. She had a couple of scars herself he'd noticed. None that were visible when she had the typical clothes people wore on.

He'd wondered more than once how her boyfriend could see those scars and not do something to her husband to ensure she hadn't gotten any others. Everyone reacted to things differently, he supposed. Maybe he'd wanted to and she'd stopped him. John hadn't asked and she hadn't offered. He just knew that if he'd seen those types of scars on someone's body he was involved with he'd do something about it. It wouldn't matter to him how long ago the relationship had been.

She giggled softly.

"What?" he asked again with a scowl as he finished fastening his jeans. He'd done laundry earlier so he had clean work pants. Some jobs weren't messy ones, some jobs though like broken water heaters stood to be messy. He didn't want to wear his good jeans for this.

"You have a hickey."

"Shut up," he said, drawing his shirt on. He'd forgotten about it honestly.

"Two of them! I guess I know what you did the other night."

"And you've never had a hickey?"

She got a look on her face that he regretted putting there. Shit. Talk about being an asshole. Way to drudge the past up, John. Fuck.

"I'm sorry, Shelly. I was teasing. Really."

"No, I was trying to think of the last time I had one. I guess Leo gave me some at first, you know, before we got married."

"Sorry, really. I didn't mean to make you think about him or anything."

He grabbed his wallet from his dresser drawer he kept it in and leaned over to kiss her on the cheek. "You look nice. Chris will be happy. Maybe you'll have something for me to tease you about tomorrow."


"No?" he asked as he grabbed his truck keys from the same drawer he kept his wallet in. It was a habit he had because of some of the people that came here. He just felt safer with his keys and wallet out of the reach of anyone. If they were searching through his drawers. Well, that was a whole different thing than merely swiping his cash from his wallet that was sitting out there.

Maybe it'd do her good to get laid, get it over with. Someone after Leo and the guy she'd been seeing. Bobby his name was. He wasn't going to suggest it, and he certainly wasn't going to encourage she do it with Chris, but he did sort of wonder.

"I'm glad you listened to me."

"I didn't actually. I mean, it happened without my having to do anything sneaky. I thought you were a little crazy."

"I know you did, but I saw Robbie the night before with someone very much not Claire and…"

John chuckled softly. He could just imagine who she'd seen him with.

"You're fine. Thanks."

"You're welcome."

"Have fun."

He left the room then.

"See ya later, Chris," he said as he grabbed a jacket and his cigarettes.

"Yeah," Chris said, regarding John a little strangely. Fuck if he was going to explain why he changed clothes in front of Shelly. Maybe it was weird. He didn't know. It was either in front of her or in front of Chris. Now that would have been strange. It wasn't like he got completely naked in front of her. They didn't walk into the bathroom when one or the other was in it or anything.

He had a cover on the bed of his truck, which locked. He kept his tools back there for just this reason. If he got called out to an emergency job he didn't have to drive down to their place to get stuff. Of course, he didn't have a new water heater in the back of his truck. Hopefully, he could fix them up at least to get them through until Monday when they could get a new one without paying an insane amount of money.

Kevin would tell him to sell them the new water heater and charge them the insane amount of money. Well, maybe not. Kevin wasn't a dick, but he'd definitely want John to try to close the deal for their business instead of someone else's on Monday. He would, but he was hoping their prices and the fact he got there when no one else would or could would be the swaying factor. That was the biggest difference between John and Kevin. John, despite what most would think about him, liked to be fair. He remembered what it was like growing up when they'd needed something done and couldn't afford it. It had sucked. Dad could fix a lot of things, but even he had his limits. John was much the same way. Not everyone was handy and not everyone had money set aside for things like water heaters breaking down. Hopefully, a restaurant of this caliber would have a rainy day fund to afford such things.

Usually he parked in the garage the apartment offered him. Even though the cover locked, they were pickable. Nothing had happened yet, but this neighborhood wasn't getting any better. When he'd come home earlier he hadn't been certain he was in for the night so he'd parked outside. He was kind of glad he had. He liked Chris knowing he did all right for himself. Chris was definitely not part of the John Bender Fan Club. Understandable, except who the fuck was perfect at eighteen? Who the fuck would be perfect growing up as John had grown up? Claire had been willing to give him a chance, but few were like her.

He pulled up to the back door when he got there, figuring they wouldn't want him parking by the main entrance and backed his pickup as close to the door as he could get and still let anyone who had to walk in and out. He knocked on the door, hoping Robbie or someone would be expecting him.

Sure enough a couple of minutes later the door opened.

"Uh, hi, Robbie called me about your water heater."

"Oh yes, come in," the guy said. "It's a mess."

"That tends to happen," John said.

The guy led him down a short staircase to what was more like a crawl space than a basement. He could stand up in it. Barely. Water was everywhere.

"You'll be able to get us hot water again?"

"I will sure try."


The guy eyed him and John was trying to figure out what he was getting at. He was here to do a job not rob the place. "You know Robbie?" he asked and John had the very distinct feeling the guy was checking him out.

"I know his roommate so through her I do, yes."

"Oh, you know Claire!"

"Yeah," he said.

"She's a sweetheart."

A sweetheart? He'd fallen in love with her pretty fucking hard and thought she was pretty fucking incredible. Then and now. He wasn't sure he'd ever describe her as a sweetheart, though. She'd changed, sure, but she could be pretty bitchy when she wanted or needed to be.

"We went to high school together."

"Oh," he said, sounding relieved somehow. Buddy, you have absolutely nothing to be threated about from me. John had to admit Robbie seemed like a decent guy, hopefully he was all around. Claire sure seemed fond of him. Fond enough he'd moved to Chicago with her. He was still wrapping his mind around that one. Why? What was better about Chicago than out east? Who knew?

"Let us know if you need anything."

"Will do," he said, moving toward the water heater so he could assess the situation.

His pager went off about two hours into the job. He frowned with a slight scowl. It wasn't a number he recognized, but he wasn't the one on call so shouldn't have been getting unknown numbers popping up. It didn't work that way anyway. Their after hours' service paged them, so it was usually a recognizable number that showed up.

He was done with the water heater anyway. All that was left now was cleanup. Not an easy feat down here either because the floor didn't seem to be finished. He'd do what he could, though.

Robbie was at the head of the stairs when John made his way to them to go upstairs.

"Thank God," he said.

John chuckled. "I've heard that once or twice, yeah."

"I bet you have," he said, sounding a bit flirtatious to John.

"I have to get the vac from my truck. My pager went off, though. A number I don't recognize. You have a phone I can use?"

"Sure, I'll get you something to eat, too. Stephen will get you a menu. Anything you want, on the house."

It was on the tip of his tongue to protest, but he was pretty fucking starving because he hadn't eaten anything since like eleven o'clock this morning.

"Okay," he said, determined not to take advantage of the offer and order lobster or something. Free food wouldn't be bad, though. Especially something good and actually cooked not out of a box or a jar. Shelly cooked for him sometimes, but now that she was working not as often. Sometimes she'd cook something and leave it for him to reheat when he got home. He'd told her she didn't have to do it, but she said she liked cooking and since she wasn't paying him rent it was the least she could do. He couldn't argue that logic.

Robbie led him to a small office where there was a phone. John sat at the desk, taking out the small clipboard he had to write up invoices on as he dialed the number that had come through on his pager.

'Shermer PD. Officer Penn speaking.'

"Uh hi. I was paged from this number. My name's John Bender."

Had something happened to Shelly? She wouldn't have known how long it would take him, except she knew he was going to the restaurant here. Wouldn't she have called here rather than wait for him to respond to a random page?

'Oh yeah, one second,' Officer Penn said and put John on hold.

John was working on writing up his invoice for tonight's service when another voice came on the line.

'This is Officer Hardy.'

"Uh, yeah. I got paged from this number. John Bender."

'Bender. Right. We have a Duane and Edie Bender in lockup.'

"Okay," John said with a slight frown, pausing from what he'd been writing down. Lockup. That meant jail not the morgue. They weren't dead.

'I think they were hoping you'd come bail them out.'

"For what?"


"Both of them?"

'Possession. Open container. You name it.'

"Ah." That sounded a lot more plausible.

This was a first. He was quiet, staring at the paper he'd been writing on. His pen still as he thought on the officer's words.

'Hello?' Officer Hardy asked.

"I'm here. No," he said simply.

'It's not that…'

"No," John said with a shake of his head. If it had been him who'd gotten a DWI his old man would have left him in the slammer to rot.

'But it's your parents'.'

"I'm sure to someone that means something. Not to me." The guy sounded young, like younger than John. So was probably new, and probably not familiar with John's family situation or he wouldn't be puzzled by the response.

"Sorry they wasted their one phone call on me. I hope you have blankets for them."

'You're serious?'

"Sure am. I have other things to do tonight. I can't make it to Shermer."

'Yeah, but…'

"Officer Hardy?"


"I've given you my answer. Maybe you have parents you'd bail out of jail. Good for you. I do not have those kind of parents. I have to get back to work now."

'All right,' he said, sounding disbelieving that John was seriously going to hang up.

"Good night," John said then, hanging up with a sigh.

The guy who'd answered the door brought him a menu just then. Stephen John presumed.


"No, thank you. No one would even call us back."

"You need to find better plumbers."

"I think we have."

John chuckled at that.

"All right then. I still have some cleanup to do downstairs."

"Sure, look over the menu and just let me know what you want. When you're close to being done I can have Robbie get started."

"Sure," John said, glancing at the menu. Steak sounded delicious. There were things on the menu that would probably be pretty cool to eat at no cost, but John was a pretty basic meat and potatoes guy when it got down to it. So, that's what he'd go with.

"Sure," Stephen said. "We'll have it for you. Just let me know."

"Thanks," he said, handing the menu back to him so he could stand and head outside to get the ShopVac he carried in his truck for just such things.

He found Stephen when he was just about done. All he had left really was getting the ShopVac into his truck and setting the air movers up. He'd pick both of them up on Monday because judging by the ground he was going to guess they'd want them both running that long. They had extras at their shop so he wouldn't be without until then if he needed one.

He was expecting them to give him a doggy bag, but they gave him an actual plate of food that he ate where he'd made the phone call. He finished up his invoice then, attaching a copy of his business card with it.

The steak was perfect. Better than perfect actually. It was one of the best steaks he'd ever eaten. He could afford cuts of meat like this, but he couldn't ever justify spending the money on something he'd fry up in a pan or broil. This, though, practically melted in his mouth it was so good.

"You're Shelly's cousin?" Stephen asked when he came to take the plate away.

"I am."

"You don't look at all alike."

"I don't know what to tell you there. Our dads are brothers. I think she gets her looks from her mom where I get mine from my dad. I look like her dad." Well, he thought he did. It'd been years since he'd seen his aunt and uncle so he couldn't say for sure if he still did. His dad and her dad looked alike growing up and stuff though so John assumed that was still the case.

"Huh. She's such a nice girl."

"She is," John agreed. "I'm glad she's working out here."

"We weren't sure at first, it took her a few shifts. She's great, though."


"It's nice what you're doing for her."

"Thanks," he said simply.

"She's kind of quiet, you know, but a few of us she's opened up to. Me and Robbie. She said she wasn't sure where she'd have gone if you hadn't let her stay with you."

"She needed help."

John glanced at his pager and the phone on the desk. There was a huge difference between Shelly and his willingness to help her and his parents'. She wanted help. She wanted out. She wanted to get better. His parents didn't. He'd bail them out and they'd probably pop open a beer on their way home from jail. They'd never learn or get better.

"Just leave this here?" he asked, tearing the invoice off.

"Yeah. No overtime?"

"You fed me."

"Yeah, but it's Saturday night."

John shrugged. "I had nothing else going on anyway. I'm glad I could help out."

"Okay. I mean, the owners would understand because it is Saturday night."

"I'm not here to gouge you. You gave me a meal. Robbie's a friend or at least a friend of a friend. We're good."

"Okay," he said. Stephen clearly wasn't used to that. John shrugged, taking the last sip of the milk he'd had with his dinner.

"I told them on the invoice I'll be back on Monday to get my air movers. If it's not dry by then, or at least much improved, I can leave them for a few more days. Make sure no one turns them off, though."

"Do they need a new water heater?"

"I recommended it, but this one will last a while longer if they weren't of the mind."

"Handy with your hands, fair, and handsome."

"That's me," John said with a slight chuckle. He wasn't laughing at Stephen, he was laughing at Claire commenting about his hands the night they were together. He didn't get the impression Stephen was flirting with him either, just being flirtatious. There was a difference.

He glanced at the clock on the desk and realized if it was closing in on midnight here, it was only ten o'clock in California and Claire's night wasn't even close to being over. She'd mentioned a party or something after the premier screening. He knew now which movie it was because it had been on the news. She was fucking spending her Saturday night with Michael Douglas, Andy Garcia, and Ridley Scott. It was Garcia who she was attending with as his agent. Admittedly, John only knew who Scott was because of Blade Runner, he'd loved Blade Runner, though. Hell, everyone he knew had.

And she wasn't nervous, or at least didn't seem so. Other than the dress. She seemed just fine with hanging out with people like that because she'd grown up with that being a common thing. He knew she'd gone to a couple of premieres like this in high school. Not as someone's date as she was tonight, but as her dad's daughter she'd been included on the guest list of invitees. Tonight, though, he could see her picture in People or something since she was going with one of the movie's stars. So weird.

"Well, thank you again."

"Sure, no problem. I'm glad Robbie knew my number to call."

"Shelly will probably be glad she missed tonight. She wasn't too thrilled with having a Saturday night off."

"Really?" he asked. She hadn't said anything to him. "I'd think that would be welcome."

"We try to rotate so that the same waiters and waitresses don't work every weekend. Great tips, but they deserve to have a weekend to themselves once in a while. She doesn't want to miss the weekends."

"Oh, right, makes sense." It did. He knew she was trying to save up whatever she could. He'd told her that he'd put in for a two bedroom apartment, but she seemed to think he didn't really want that. He couldn't convince her, and maybe she just needed to know she could afford an apartment on her own. He could understand that. When he first moved out, he'd already known how much he was earning from his old man, more or less. So he knew what he could afford. He'd gotten one of the cheapest places he could find so that he had money to spend. That was more important to him. He was finding since Shelly got here, though, that wasn't so much the case anymore. "She went out with a friend so I'm sure she's just fine."


John left then and headed home. He needed a shower to warm up after mucking around in above ankle-deep water for a couple of hours. He got in to some of his friends there. He sighed softly, knowing it would be a long night. Not that he had anything to wake up for tomorrow.

"How'd you get in?" he asked Pablo, the only sober appearing one in the group.

"Shelly," he said. John was going to have to start putting his foot down about people hanging out here when he wasn't here. He just didn't like it anymore. Like tonight, he just wanted a hot shower so he could clean up and then crash in his bed until Shelly got home. The one non-cheap thing he'd invested in about a year ago was his bed. If it was possible to be in love with an inanimate object that's what he felt about that fucking bed. He slept better on it than he could ever remember sleeping. Now he was lucky to get a couple of hours in it anymore. Weekends he'd crash on it until Shelly got home. Sometimes she'd be so exhausted she'd just crawl in with him. Sometimes she woke him and kicked him out. He wasn't sure what the difference in nights was. She'd never slept on the couch, though. She shouldn't have to. That was his job.

"I'm going to shower. You guys need to be gone by the time I'm done."

"Why, man?" Pinch said. Pinch was his nickname because his last name was Pinchisky.

"I'm tired and just want to go to bed. Shelly's going to bring her date home. You guys shouldn't be here when she does that."

Chris saw them sitting at his apartment smoking up, and doing other things, in the open he likely wouldn't come around Shelly anymore. He'd likely think John hadn't changed much at all either.

"She didn't say…"

"I'm saying and it's my apartment. Find somewhere else to go on your Saturday night once in a while."

"Yeah, sure, all right, man, chill," Pinch said as he took a hit from his homemade bong. "Want some? It'll chill you right the fuck out."

"Not tonight," he said. "Just be gone by the time I get out of the shower."

He doubted his neighbors on either side of him would mind them being gone either. They weren't crazily loud, but since they didn't live here they didn't always care if the stereo or TV could be heard through the walls.

He stepped out of his work boots, wishing he could just step out of his jeans right here, too. Removing his pretty soaking wet socks was the best he could do in front of these guys.

"Lock the door on your way out," he said to Pablo.

"Sure. Sorry," he said.

John shrugged. Pablo was the only one who hadn't wanted to hit on Shelly when she got here. He checked her out, but he hadn't done more than that. John had appreciated that. He sometimes wondered why either of them were hanging around with the rest of the clowns anymore. Pablo had a pretty good job as a mechanic. He'd started out working at a chain tire place that did oil changes and other basic car maintenance services. He was working at a small dealership in the service department now. It was dirty work, like John's job, but Pablo liked it. He'd been in a gang at his high school. He was still considered a member he told John once. There really was no leaving, but he wasn't an active participant. That didn't mean he wouldn't be called upon one day to be active in something he had no desire to be involved with, but he understood he'd made his choices and would pay for them.

Maybe that was why he and John couldn't completely cut the cord from these other guys. Inability to completely put the past behind them. John hadn't realized he wanted to until recently. He'd been pretty fine with his life until Shelly showed up. Not completely fine. He knew looking at Kevin's house and the house Kevin's brother had that John could himself do infinitely better.

John noticed the light on the answering machine was blinking.

"Some girl called, dude," Rudy said, seeming to notice John's glance at the rapidly blinking red light on the machine. Rudy wasn't as far gone as Pinch was, but he was well on his way to feeling no pain.

"Oh?" John asked.

"Yeah. She sounded pretty hot."

"Thanks," he said, pushing play on the machine.

'Hi, it's Jeannie. We, um, met at Houlihan's a couple of weeks ago. I was the one drinking the Long Beach Iced Tea. Your friend hadn't believed that was a real thing. I got your number through a friend of a friend who knows one of your friends. I just thought I'd see what you were doing tonight. Call me," she said, leaving a number.

"Is she hot?"

"I don't know," John said. He vaguely remembered the night. He'd been fairly toasted by the time they got to Houlihan's as it wasn't a bar that he normally set foot in. It was a place the preppy people went. John would bet a million dollars Claire would consider Houlihan's a respectable place to stop for drinks with a girlfriend.

He pushed delete on the machine without writing the number down.

"You're not even going to call her back."

John shook his head. "Someone desperate enough to ask friends of friends for my number? No thanks. I don't need that kind of clinginess in my life."

"I suppose. She sounded smoking hot, though."

John had to agree she had a pretty nice, sultry-sounding voice. It still screamed of desperation or craziness. Both were things John tried to avoid with women. Plus, he'd kind of been hoping the message was from Claire. She was busy out in California, but he'd hoped when Rudy said it was a woman.

"Come on, guys," he said. "Start packing it in for the night."

"You were serious?" Pinch asked.

"Do I sound like I'm joking?"

"It's Saturday night!"

"Go to your apartment and hang out."

Pinch sighed. He couldn't. The cops watched his place pretty regularly because he was an idiot and flaunted things he shouldn't. He hadn't been busted in a couple of years, but they still watched on the hope that he'd fuck up again.

They were starting to get their shit together as he headed to his bedroom, sliding his shirt up and off as he crossed the threshold to his room. The shirt didn't reek, but the jeans would from wading around in water as he had been. He'd wash them tomorrow with some towels or something so he didn't waste the quarters on one pair of jeans.

He finished in the shower, making sure everyone was gone and they'd locked up before heading back to his room. He closed the door and slid into bed, groaning softly at being able to lay in it even if it was just for a little while. He doubted Shelly and Chris would be out that late.

He woke the next morning to Shelly shifting on the bed. When she slept on the bed with him, she brought the blanket in from the couch with her most times since he was already under the covers.

"What time did you get home?" he asked.

"Mm, four or so? I can't remember."

"You didn't wake me up."

"No," she said.

"Okay," he said simply.

"You're comforting."

"I am?"

"You are. Sometimes I need that. You know? Someone who's nice to me just because not for anything else."

"I don't expect anything from you, Shelly."

"I know," she said. She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. "That's my point. You can just lay here with me and it's, you know, comforting."

"You don't think it's weird?"

She shrugged. "Do you?"

"Well, yeah, a little."

"Why? What are we doing wrong?"

"Well," put like that. "Nothing. I'm just not used to it."

"Me neither," she said.

Was that weird? He wasn't sure. It's not like they were laying here fooling around or thinking about fooling around. She just seemed to need closeness. John could understand that. There was something about this type of closeness that was way different than the sexual kind of closeness. He never slept well with a woman he had sex with. He wasn't comfortable with that. This, though, was all right he supposed.

"You don't work today?" he asked.

"Not until four o'clock," she said.

He glanced at his alarm.

"I have my alarm set," she said.

"Okay," he said.

"Did you have a nice time last night?"

"Yeah," she said.


"He's nice."

"He can be," John said.

"You two don't like one another."

"We have," he paused, searching for the right word. "Preconceived notions about one another. Neither of us is entirely willing to set those notions we developed and embellished over the past four years aside yet."

"I see. He told me at dinner you've changed."

John snorted. "Thanks."

"Have you called Claire?"

"She's out of town."

"Did you call her before she left town?"


"John," Shelly said with a shake of her head.


She sighed softly. "You should have at least called her."

"She's busy!"

"No woman is that busy that they wouldn't want a call from the guy they'd just had sex with."

"I suppose you're right. I wasn't expecting that to happen, though. So, I don't know," he shrugged. Fuck, had he fucked up? Jesus.

She shifted a bit on the bed. "Call her when she gets back."

"Whenever that is."

"Ask Robbie."

"I suppose."

"I'm not in love with him or anything."

"Robbie?" John asked, perplexed at the turn in conversation.

She laughed, swatting his chest lightly. "No, Chris."


"I like him, but that's all."

"Okay. You don't owe me anything…"

"I do! You're letting me live here, rent-free. You helped me find a job. You only know my side of everything that happened, but you helped me."

"I'd like to say that's what family does, but we both know that's not how our family operates. I guess I've got some of that old-fashioned junk in me after all."

"It's not junk. Women like to be treated like that. Maybe not, you know, all the time, every date, but we like doors held for us, and knowing our guy thinks about us."

"I'll store that away."

"He just," she shrugged. "He doesn't know everything. I haven't told him the whole story. He just knows Leo's dead."

"Right, sure, you don't have to tell anyone anything you don't want to, Shelly. You're here for a fresh start. I'm not going to tell anyone."

"I know, but that's how I know I don't love him."

"How?" he asked.

"If I loved him I'd want him to know because I'd want him to see all of my warts and decide on a complete picture."

"You don't have warts, Shelly. You made some bad decisions. Who hasn't?"

"My decisions…"

"Did you beat your kid?"


"Well, then, come talk to me when you've done that and we'll talk about your decisions. You didn't hurt anyone."

"Yes, but Laura was my friend."

"I don't know the whole of it, but from what you said she wasn't capable of loving anyone either. God, you guys were still in high school. Your parents allowing you to marry Leo like that blows my mind."

"They were glad to get me out of their hair."

John could understand that, sure, but Jesus. She'd been like sixteen and from what he knew they hadn't followed up any on the wellbeing of their daughter. Then, maybe they didn't care or wouldn't have thought Leo beating her would have been bad. He doubted his parents' would have cared. Of course he was a guy. If he was the one getting beaten his father would smack him upside the head for allowing a woman to do that to him.

"So because you don't want him to know that means you don't love him?"

"Yeah. I can't wait and tell him six months from now. He'll think I lied to him."

He nodded a little at that. Valid point.

"So, what are you doing then?"

"Enjoying someone treating me like a person and not a slave or someone who's just a fuck?"

He exhaled sharply at that.

"I get it," he said. "Just be careful."

"You don't want Claire mad at you because of me."

"No. I can handle things. I'm a big boy, so's she. Well, a big girl. I just don't want to see you get hurt. It could be potentially very easy to get sucked into that world, you know? Boats and nice houses, nice restaurants, dates that kiss you good night and don't expect anything else."

"I know," she said. "Leo I got that sort of in the beginning. It was different, though. He was manipulating me."

"And look where that got you. I say again, just be careful."

"I am."


"I could say the same to you, you know."


"Where I'm not in love with Chris, you are in love with Claire."

John shrugged.

"Don't shrug it off. You are. You had sex with her without any real conversation about anything. You didn't even ask her about Robbie you said until afterward."

"She wouldn't have fooled around with me if she was with Robbie."

"That's not the point, and you know it."

"What's she going to do?"

"I don't know, but it just seems like you should have talked."

"I put my mouth to a much better use."

"Very funny."

"She can't hurt me."

"No, but you can find out she doesn't love you back."

"I could, but it wouldn't be the end of the world."



"How many women have you had sex with that you loved, John?"

"One," he said, almost saying none but that was no longer true. "And she probably wouldn't be too happy that you know we had sex."

"You didn't get home until after I did that night."

"That doesn't mean I was having sex with Claire."

"You have hickeys!"

"Still doesn't mean I was having sex with Claire."

"Not true."

"What makes you say that?"

"You were going to go over there. You wouldn't go over there to see her with hickeys from someone else."

He nodded a bit at that. "Valid reasoning."


"Still doesn't mean I was having sex with Claire."

"I'm glad you did," she whispered.

"You just got done telling me…"

"I know. She's nice."

"She is," John agreed.

"She loves to shop."

John laughed at that. "She does."

"It is kind of addicting."

"Why do you think I want to get a two bedroom apartment? You keep hanging around with her there won't be any room left in my closet."

"Very funny."

"I'll move to the couch."

"You're fine, John," she whispered.

"Okay," he murmured in response. He wasn't going to argue with her, but he really was looking forward to sleeping a little longer. Doing it in his bed was like a bonus these days.

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Chapter Nine
Word Count: 2,637

He woke to knocking at his front door. The door to the bedroom was open or he probably wouldn't have heard it. Whoever it was they weren't pounding on the door with any sense of urgency. Shelly didn't stir. If she hadn't gotten in until four or five and it was, shit after one o'clock in the afternoon now. Well, that was eight hours but she didn't usually sleep so soundly John knew. He never commented or asked, it wasn't any of his business why. He just knew her eight hours weren't sound ones.

He got out of bed, careful not to disturb her knowing how much she probably needed good sleep and padded to the door.

He was figuring it was one of his friends looking to hang out on Sunday but given his mood last night they were hesitant. He wasn't expecting Claire.

"Hey," he said, not hiding the fact he took the chance to check her out. He'd liked looking at her before, always did. Now, though. Well, he liked looking at her knowing what she looked like underneath the clothes she wore.

"Hi," she said. "I woke you." She must have been checking him out, too. He was too busy looking at parts that weren't her face to notice he guessed.

"Yeah. Sort of."

She glanced past him into the apartment and frowned a bit. She knew he spent the night on the couch. The couch blanket was currently in his bedroom covering Shelly.

"With Shelly?"

"Uh yeah," he said with a shrug. "It's a one-bedroom apartment. She was out with your brother until like four in the morning and told me I didn't have to move to the couch. I wasn't going to argue with her."

Her face scrunched a bit as if she was processing, thinking over what he was saying.

"I swear to you, Claire, we were sleeping. I sleep on the couch just about every night, I wasn't going to argue with her when she told me not to move to it. I suppose there are some people that wouldn't stop given she's nice to look at and all, but I wouldn't fuck my cousin."

"I was just thinking she's lucky."

"Yeah?" That wasn't what he was expecting. "Really?"

"Yes," she said.

"Lucky how?" he asked, not sure he knew what she was getting at.

"You wouldn't sleep with me…"

"I never said that! We both had to be at work the next morning and I hadn't gone to your place expecting to stay the night."

"Yes, but you wouldn't visit me in college."

"Because you were living in a dorm room! I was eighteen, you weren't willing to do much of anything with me. I wasn't going to haul my ass to New York, spend the night in your dorm room with your roommate, and risk embarrassing myself."

"Embarrass yourself?"

He shrugged. "Do something when I was sleeping or not fully awake."

"Oh," she said.

"Come on, it was like three months in when you stopped talking to me. I was trying to get money together to get out of my parents' house. Flights to New York weren't in my budget. I know you offered to pay, but I would've felt like shit doing that."

"That's all?"

"Yes! That's all! If you'd talked to me about what Tricia had told you and I'd gotten my shit together financially I probably would have."

"I would have liked that."

"Yeah? I think I would've too. I hadn't ever slept with anyone so I wasn't sure what inviting me to visit you meant exactly."

"I bet you didn't," she said wryly.

"I still never really have," he admitted, running his fingers through his hair.

"Why not?"

He shrugged. "No one I wanted to sleep with?"

"Other than your cousin."

"Yeah, I guess so." He chuckled at that. "She I know won't get the wrong idea."

She frowned a bit then.

"I'm sorry I woke you. I assumed you'd be up."

"It's all right. I got called out to Robbie's restaurant to fix their water heater so some manual labor when I wasn't expecting it. Not sleeping real well before she got in expecting her to kick me out of bed when she did get in."

"She does that?"

"Well, I don't make her sleep on the couch."

"That's very nice of you."

He shrugged. "Just doesn't seem right. She's a woman and a guest."

"Anyway," she said and turned to leave.

"Wait," he said, sounding too anxious for his own good. She'd come here, though, without an invitation or plans. And judging by the time she must have come right from the airport or something.


"What did you want?"

"Nothing," she said.

"Come on, Claire. You had to have just gotten in."

"I know."

"Okay," he said.

"You're still sleeping."

"I don't have to be. I just had nothing to wake up for. If you'd told me…"

"That wouldn't have been a surprise then."

"I guess not. You were trying to surprise me?"

It was her turn to shrug.

Shelly chose then to come out of his room and Claire watched her for a second.

"Doubting if it was really Shelly I was still in bed with?"

"I," she shook her head then. "It's none of my business really."

"Why not?"

She shrugged, blushing deeply and he frowned a bit.

"We had sex. I know that…"

"Jesus. You think I've been going over to your place despite thinking you and Robbie were a thing for the past few weeks because I just wanted sex from you?"

"I don't know. You just said you don't sleep with people because they'd get the wrong idea."

"That's not why I didn't sleep with you. I just don't sleep real well when I'm in that situation. Whether it's someone I'm not used to in my bed or I'm in a bed I'm not familiar with. I guess I worry, you know, if I'm there the next day they'll think …"

"I get it."

"Hey, let me finish. You're the only person I've entertained wanting you to think that. You're the only person I'd care to try to sleep with. I just wasn't expecting it to be that night."

"I am?"

"Yes. Jesus. I like to think if it wasn't for Tricia we'd already be doing that together every night by now. I wasn't going to move out east, but when you came back. Yeah." He shrugged.

"You're such a romantic, John," Shelly said from the kitchen.

Claire giggled softly.

"Shut up, both of you. You think this is easy for me? Fuck. So, I'm going to ask again. What did you come here for?"

She shrugged. "To see if you wanted to do something."



"What kind of something?"

"John," Shelly said.

"Well, if a change of clothes for tomorrow morning is in order I'd like to know that ahead of time."

"I think that would be a safe assumption."

"Okay then. Give me ten minutes to shower and we can do whatever somethings you had in mind."

"I was actually thinking Shelly might be at work."

"Shelly works at four, sorry," Shelly said as she walked to the couch.

"You came right from the airport for that?" he asked, regarding her.

"Well, not just for that. And, hey, why did you come to my place the past few weeks?"

"Kevin told me all was fair in love and war until you had a ring on your finger. So, I was going to pursue the fuck out of you until you realized I was the better choice and kicked him out."

Claire laughed then.

"My parents would never let me live with a boyfriend, John. They'd disown me."

"I wondered about that, but maybe they got less uptight after me or something."

"No," she said.

"That's too bad."


He shrugged. "Well, I can't very well spend the night with you if your parents…"

"You're spending the night not moving in."

"That's where it starts. One night turns into forever."

She glanced at him as a knock came to his door. He supposed it would probably be perceived as rude that he and Claire hadn't gotten away from the door yet.

"That's a pretty tall order."

He took hold of her left hand, sliding his thumb along her ring finger there devoid of a ring. She had one on her right hand he noticed. "I don't plan on giving anyone else the idea they can pursue you, Princess. I'd like to one day put something very shiny and permanent here."


"Well, not like a tattoo or anything, no. But, you know, something you never take off again."


"That's the idea, yeah."

"Oh," she said.

"I mean, that's where I was heading then and I had nothing to offer you."

"I know," she said.

A knock at the door came again. He reached then to open it to see a man standing there he'd never seen before in his life. He was wearing jeans and a leather jacket. He looked a little scruffy in a way John could identify with. His dark hair was worn just a little longer than what was usually expected. John was reminded of the call he'd gotten about his parents last night. He groaned inwardly at the idea of Shermer PD sending a narc or plainclothes officer to his apartment to get him to bail them out. He was John's height, a bit younger maybe.

"Can I help you?"

The man frowned a bit. "I'm looking for Shelly Johnson. Is she here?"

John glanced back at Shelly who was standing from the couch and walking to the door. She hadn't mentioned meeting any guys recently.

"Bobby," she said.

"You know him?" John asked with a frown.

The man assessed John with close scrutiny. John wasn't sure what he saw or what he was even looking for.

"You are here," he said to Shelly.

"I am. How did you find me?"

"Who's this guy?" he asked, pointing at John. John was wondering the same thing about the man.

"My cousin."

He turned those assessing eyes back to John, taking him in a little differently this time. No suspicion or anything just curiosity.

"I'd heard you'd moved to Chicago and wondered why you'd move so far away. No one mentioned family."

"No one really knows," she said with a shrug.

"Who is this guy, Shelly," John asked.

"I came to see if I could talk you into coming back," the guy said. "I don't know what I did, what happened that made you leave like you did. I've been worried about you, Shelly."

"You came all the way to Chicago on the chance I was here?"

"Well, yeah. I've been worried. Norma wouldn't tell me anything."

"That was very sweet of you."

"Well, now, Shelly, I don't know about that. I just want you to come back."

Shelly looked as though she wasn't sure how to answer that, and John was piecing things together in his mind. Bobby. The boyfriend.

John glanced at Claire.

"What did you have in mind for today exactly?"

"Um, I don't know."

"Can I grab some clothes for today and tomorrow, meet you at your place, and shower there before we go out?"


"John," Shelly said.

"It's all right," he said. He gestured to Shelly. "Come with me a minute."

"Okay. I'll be right back."

"Okay," Bobby said, stepping forward and kissing her on the cheek.

John closed the bedroom door, pressing his back against it and staring at her for a minute. "You going to leave with him?"

"I didn't know he was going to show up here."


"He's not here for any reason but to see me. See if I'm failing."

"All right. You sure he doesn't really like you?"

Shelly shrugged a bit.

"He's nice when he wants to be."

"Uh huh," John said. "Maybe it's not Christopher I need to tell you to be careful with."

"He'll be leaving soon anyway."

"I guess he will."

John wondered if Shelly would be leaving soon, too, as a result of this visit as he collected some clothes. He went to the bathroom to get his razor and a few other odds and ends he'd need.

"I'll see you tomorrow then."

"Have fun."

"You, too." He shook his head a bit. "I'm not sure I want you to have the same kind of fun I expect to be having today."

Shelly smiled a little at that, blushing though she didn't answer him. John was reminded that neither one of them had a stellar past when it came to being faithful. Not that she had any reason to be faithful to Christopher. John hadn't ever slept with anyone else but Claire spent four years thinking he had.

"Uh huh. Not in my bed!"

Shelly blushed more deeply at that. "You have Claire's number if you need anything, right?"

"I do. I'll be fine. Have fun. I'm glad she came here."

"Me, too," John said.

He grabbed his keys and wallet from his dresser before heading back to the living room.

"Ready?" he asked Claire.


"It was nice to meet you," John said, offering Bobby his hand. He wasn't sure how long the guy was going to stay or if he was even going to be staying here. He figured the least he could do was be nice, though, so he didn't think Shelly's cousin was an asshole or something.

"You, too," Bobby said with a smirk that John had the urge to wipe off his face. He was far too sure of himself. "I'll take good care of her today."

"Be sure to do that," John said. "Let's go," he said to Claire.

"Who's that?" Claire asked on their way out of the building.

"I think it's her boyfriend from back home."

"Oh," she said, scrunching her nose a bit with a slight frown.

"I don't know," he said with a shrug. "I think she said his name was Bobby. She told me so much when she first got here, naming people I'd never met and likely never will. I couldn't keep track."

Claire laughed a bit at that.

He walked her to her car.

"Hey," he said, setting his hands on the door along either side of her head.

"Yeah," she said. God he loved her lips. Always had, today was no different.

"Thanks for coming by. I'm sorry we couldn't do what you had in mind."

She shrugged, blushing and he leaned in to kiss her.

"And thank you for not getting mad that I was in bed with Shelly."

"It was tempting."

"I bet it was," he said.

He gave her a kiss before he stepped back from her car, letting her open the door and get in. He was glad to see she remembered to lock her doors.

"And, John," she said, licking her lower lip.

"What?" Did she think she didn't have his undivided attention at this moment?

"I would have much rather have been with you last night."

"Yeah?" He found that incredibly hard to believe, but it was very flattering to hear her say so.


"Well, I wouldn't have had to share my pillows with Shelly that's for sure."

"No, you wouldn't have."

"Next Saturday," he said, though it was really more of a question.

"I'd like that."

Him, too. Immensely. "It's a date."

She smiled a little at that and he shut her door for her.

He was going over there today with the intent to spend the night, but it was different knowing they'd both have to go to work in the morning versus next Saturday when they could wake up Sunday morning and do whatever they wanted for the day.

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