"Why don't you work this morning?" she asked him after her alarm had gone off. The alarm was just a formality as they'd been awake for a while before its intrusion. The alarm was a reminder that she needed to get on with her day, though. Sleeping with him had been everything she'd expected, which she realized was probably a very dangerous thing.
"Randy and I actually have to work this evening."
"Oh, really?" She sat up in bed. She didn't move to the edge of the bed yet or anything, but it was a start. She regarded him. He had not sat up yet or made any effort to move. "Why?"
“His services were requested for a search. I do that a lot during the summer since the schools are out. Lots of evenings. Lots of drug busts. Not always in Shermer. Randy and I are good. I've been doing this for years so some towns will request us specifically, knowing they're getting an experienced handler.”
"Oh," she said. "I hope it's drug related and not dead body related."
"What?" he asked with a laugh.
"I suppose you couldn't tell me that, could you?"
"It's not dead body related," he said.
"Good to know."
"I swear I had to make sure Bryce understood Betsy could not go wandering around by herself after that poor little girl. He was down in Springfield when she'd disappeared, though, so I don't think he really thought about it being right here in Shermer it had happened."
"I'm sure he did."
"Oh, I'm sure he did, too, on a subconscious level. I wanted him on a cognizant level to know he couldn't let her wander around."
"Where does he live anyway?"
"He lives out in Inverness."
"I doubt there's too much of a concern out there."
"There's concern everywhere! Shermer has always been safe."
She had a point. Shermer had always been pretty safe. They'd been lucky, and it was one of the reasons he'd stayed here when the idea to become a cop had occurred to him. He may have hated his childhood, but it wasn't the town's fault entirely. His parents had sucked, some teachers had dropped the ball. He'd come to terms with that. So, he'd stayed, wanting for some inexplicable reason to ensure Shermer stayed relatively safe compared to other suburbs out there.
"Do you let her wander around here at home?"
"I let her in the yard, yes, as long as she stays in my line of vision. The fence is a deterrent, but I realize someone could still get here from the water if they really wanted to. When Bryce, Jr. was little Bryce and I talked a lot about getting a fence around the yard to prevent him from wandering down to the beach on his own. It was never really a problem, though. So, we never did it."
"You realize we caught him, right, and it wasn't a random stranger who was the guilty party."
“I know. That doesn't mean I didn't worry! Betsy has no fear. Bryce wasn't quite as bad, but at dinners and stuff we've taken them to with large groups of people I've had to hire a babysitter over the years to come with us to be sure someone was actually there and able to keep an eye on them. I had to be Bryce's wife at those things so we had to be sure.”
"Huh. What does she look like?"
"Your daughter?" He rolled his eyes a bit at the question. Shouldn't it have been obvious who he was asking about? She didn't think he was asking about a babysitter, did she?
"Oh. I don't know. What kind of question is that?"
"Well, I found school pictures of the older one."
"You'd be surprised what cops can find when we're digging up information."
"Oh, I suppose. She looks like Bryce I think," she said with a shrug.
"So, none of them got your hair?"
"No. Bryce Jr. is the closest."
"His hair is blonde, Claire. That's not very close in my book."
"The pictures are deceiving. It's sort of a strawberry blonde. When he was a baby it was quite red. Not like mine, but red just the same."
"Huh," he said. "Are you happy or upset about that?"
"I don't care. I like my hair, but I can understand how others may not want it."
He thought maybe she sold her hair pretty short. He imagined there were lots of women who'd kill to have it. He'd always liked it. It was one of the, many, things that made her stand out back then. It still did, really. He hadn't been in rooms full of people with her, but he was pretty sure even today he'd notice her before anyone else.
"I bet you're glad Kyle didn't get it."
"Very," she said. "I can admit to being a little disappointed Bryce's has gotten blonder and less red as he gets older but I don't think it'll ever be completely blond."
"So, you looked at me when your alarm went off like you were surprised I was still here."
She shrugged. They'd woken up before the alarm so it wasn't him being here when the alarm went off that had surprised her. He could admit it'd been a while since he'd had sex first thing in the morning. He hadn't forgotten how much he liked it, though.
"Don't do that. Don't act like it's not a big deal. Was I supposed to leave? You seemed okay with me staying the night."
"I was. I am. I told you, John, I'm just not used to it."
"That's why that door over there leads to his room?"
"Yes," she said.
"And your kids never found that strange?"
"Why would they?"
John shrugged. "I don't know. I'd just think they would."
"How would they know? I mean, I guess they've spent the night at Chris and Ellen's and seen that they share a room. Our parents', too, of course, but we never have."
"No! You think I'm lying?"
"I don't know. I just find it very hard to believe. I mean, never in what fourteen years? Never mind the couple of years before you were married."
"No," she said.
"Why'd it take you so long to get divorced then?"
"Because it took me that long to realize we'd made a mistake?"
She sighed and John thought maybe he'd pushed too hard, but he was curious. To say the least. He hadn't spent the night with scads of women, but if he'd been married he certainly would have slept with his wife. That was part of being married. He thought so anyway. He didn't have a hugely positive or healthy example to feed off, but that was supposed to be the upside to marriage.
"John. I was in a very different place when I met Bryce. You know?"
"How did you meet him anyway?"
"At the library."
"Yes. I was studying. He was in his second year of law school. He saw me reading a book that made him realize I had a professor that everyone loathed. He offered me tips on getting through the class."
"You needed tips on how to get through a class?" He found that very hard to believe. She wasn't Einstein smart, but he knew she was pretty much more than just okay in the intelligence department.
"No, I didn't, not really, but the professor wasn't the easiest to study for. Anyway, I don't know, he made me laugh. He asked me out. He knew me because he knew Christopher."
"Oh," John said. "They were friends?"
"Not really. I mean, they knew one another. He was a year ahead Chris and even in high school he knew what he was going to do with his life."
"What he was going to do? Or what was expected of him?"
She shrugged. "Both? Does it matter?"
"I suppose not." John had done enough digging on Bryce, Sr. to know it didn't seem like the guy had much of a choice in his life's path. His father was a senator, in D.C., which was probably why John had thought her husband was. His grandfather had been a congressman until his death.
"Bryce's grandfather died about six months after Betsy was born and that was when we started talking about it."
"Why so long then?"
"We wanted to be sure. I don't know. Our marriage was always more of a business arrangement than anything. So, we wanted to be sure it was the right thing to do."
"Why would you do that to yourself?"
"I don't know, John. Why haven't you ever gotten married?"
"I didn't let myself get close enough to anyone to find out I wasn't good enough for them either."
"Yeah, well. I was afraid, too. I don't know. I'd had a baby. I felt incredibly guilty for giving him up. You may not believe me with how matter of fact I am about it now, but at the time it wasn't easy for me. Having Chris and Ellen adopt him seemed like a good idea when I was pregnant, but after I'd had him and they were the ones caring for him. It wasn't so easy and it seemed like a very bad idea for a while there. I had to watch them do all of those things for him I should have been doing."
"We should have been doing…"
"Yeah, well, you know what I mean."
"So, Bryce came along. I'd known him, known of his family. We started hanging out. I thought I was doing something wrong because over six months went by and he didn't even try to kiss me."
"Yeah. I mean I wasn't real upset about it. My one experience led to me giving up a child for adoption so you can understand I wasn't in a huge hurry to do that again."
"Hey," he said.
"I didn't mean it like that!"
"Honestly, I didn't. I just meant I wasn't rushing to have sex again so while I thought it was strange I wasn't upset about it. I don't know. He took it as some sort of sign, I guess. Women before me expected…"
"Sex out of him?"
"Yes, and right away."
"And this was a problem for him?"
"Kind of," she said, glancing away.
"Yeah, you're not going to tell me anymore, are you?"
"Not today, no," she said. "I've got to let the dogs out and get in the shower."
"What time does your practice open?"
"Eight o'clock," she said.
He glanced at her alarm clock.
"I can let the dogs out unless you wanted help in the shower."
"Well, you know, if you wanted your back washed or something."
"Something tells me I wouldn't get to work on time if I let you do that."
"You're probably right," he said with a chuckle.
"I'll let the dogs out, take your shower. Is it all right if I scrounge around through your kitchen cabinets and refrigerator?"
"Well, I can make breakfast. That'll save you a little time."
"You don't have to make me breakfast."
"I don't have to do a lot of things, but I do them. Making you breakfast isn't a hardship or a chore I'd mind doing."
"Sure," she said. "Have at it."
"You're going to wait for me to get up before you get out of bed, aren't you?"
"Well, no, but," she said.
"Really?" he said, recognizing the tone in her voice of someone who was all of the sudden feeling modest. "You want me to look away?"
"John! I've had kids!"
"Whatever the fuck that means."
"You didn't mind my looking at you during the night and that was a lot closer than watching you go walk to the bathroom was."
"It's not the same at all."
He shook his head with a huff, but turned onto his side facing away from her.
"You are one weird woman, you know that?"
"No," she said.
"You can look now," she said a few minutes later, which was followed by the sound of a door closing.
"Great," he murmured.
He slid his boxers on and made his way downstairs to let the dogs out and find a bathroom of his own to use before starting on breakfast for her. Her kitchen was a bit bigger and more spread out than his was, but it wasn't that hard to find things he'd need to make breakfast.
He couldn't help but glance at her fridge for a minute before pulling any food out of it. Fridges, he'd come to realize over the years, were very indicative of a family's personality. Artwork by the younger Mercer were prominently on display. He saw a couple of pictures that were done by the older kid, too, but that'd clearly been a while ago. School pictures were there. Some family pictures of the kids together were there, too. A calendar was on the side. It was pretty empty for the past couple of weeks, but coming up here soon that changed.
School and activities were marked on there. Bryce, Jr. evidently played football. John imagined he'd already started football practice. It seemed to him that began a couple of weeks before school actually did because games started right away so the players had to be ready to play. He remembered, too, having a friend or two their senior year who played on the team. They always hated the part of the summer where they had to get up at the ass crack of dawn when no one else their age did. He noticed last weekend she'd had dinner with someone. A guy someone. That bothered him more than it probably should have considering he had no more claim to her today than he did nineteen years ago.
A picture of the four of them caught John's attention last. It'd obviously been taken a while ago, going by their youngest being a baby still in the picture. Judging by the dress the daughter was wearing John was going to guess it was from her baptism so probably a card or something had been made out of the photograph. It was a nice picture. It was the only picture he saw on the fridge of Claire or Bryce, together or individually.
Pictures of Chris' kids were there, too, including Kyle. The one there had to have been taken his senior year. He didn't look much different now. He pulled it off of the fridge, setting it off to the side realizing he'd spent way more time looking at this stuff than he had any business doing.
As nice as her house was there was a disadvantage to it compared to one the size of his. He couldn't hear when she was done in the shower or the blow dryer or anything that indicated she was on her way downstairs so he had to sort of wing how long it would take her to get ready based on the time her alarm had gone off and when she said she had to be at work. He let the dogs out, which lopped a few minutes off her morning routine, but not many he knew.
"It smells good," she said.
"I'm sort of surprised you found enough to make any sort of breakfast. I usually just make a bagel or have some cereal."
"You had stuff."
"I know I have stuff. I cook. I eat here with very few exceptions."
"Don't get defensive, Claire. I wasn't being sarcastic."
"Oh," she said.
"I wasn't sure how strong you like your coffee. I prefer mine on the stronger side, but I've been told most people don't so I held back a little."
"You've been told, huh?"
"I have," he said. "And help yourself I guess. Whatever you want."
"Have you checked on Randy outside?"
"No, why? Am I supposed to?"
"No, he's just never been out in my yard before."
"He's fine. I'm sure he's having the time of his life."
"I hope he is."
"Say," he said, sliding the picture of Kyle off the counter he'd set it on.
"You don't suppose you could get me one of these, do you?"
"One of what?" she asked, glancing at him. "Oh," she said. "You want one?"
John shrugged. "Does that seem weird?"
"Weird? I don't know. What's not weird about this situation?"
"I suppose very little," he said. "Yes, I'd want one if you think you could get me one."
"John," she said cautiously.
"Don't worry. I'm not going to go around showing it to people, telling them he's my son. He is, however, my son. I'd like a picture of him for my wallet."
"Yeah, I can ask Chris. I chose that one, it was my favorite of his poses. There were a couple of others, though."
"If it's your favorite then that's fine."
"I'll find out."
"Sure," she said.
He put the picture back on the fridge where he'd found it before joining her.
"So, they come back next week you said?"
"Yeah, Monday," she said.
"What do you do with them when you're working?"
"Well, Bryce, Jr. is old enough to take care of Betsy now."
"I suppose," he said.
"Are you asking me as a cop?"
He chuckled. "No, I was just wondering."
"Oh. Well, I figure with my practice right across the street if anything happened I'd be right here anyway."
"Right, makes sense. Bryce, Jr. plays football?"
"Yes, he did. He played football, basketball, and baseball."
"Was he good?"
"He was very good at baseball. He still plays in college."
"Yes. He got a scholarship actually. It was why he chose U of M versus U of I. They made him a better offer."
"Trying to picture your son being a jock?"
"No, realizing that I'm glad he had parents who could let him do that stuff."
"I am, too. I mean, I could have afforded little league and stuff, but it wouldn't have been easy. I couldn't have expected my parents to pay for that stuff."
"Right. I get it. I do," he said. There was no telling what job he would have ended up with if she'd told him about the baby. His immediate thought would have been to get a job, something to earn a paycheck. He probably would never have thought about a long-term goal.
Her giving Kyle up made a lot more sense the more he thought about things like that. Activities. School. A future. Opportunities. It still didn't mean he understood why she didn't tell him she was pregnant, but he supposed he was perhaps not meant to understand that.
"What do the dogs do during the day when you're at work?"
"They have run of the house?"
"Just curious. It's a pretty big house with lots of nice things."
"They're both good. I keep the doors closed to the rooms I absolutely don't want something to happen to or in."
"Will they be glad to have the kids back?"
"What kind of question is that?"
"I don't know. Six weeks without them was probably a kind of nice break."
"It has been, but I miss them."
"I remember that night your little girl wanted to come home. That must have been hard for you."
"It was, but I was more mad at Bryce that he'd put me in the position of being the bad parent."
"Get used to it," he said.
"Yeah, I guess. I just thought we were above that. I guess not," she said with a shrug.
"Are you busy tonight?"
"Tonight. Are you busy?"
"Would you like to be?"
"Claire, it's a date. You do know what that is, right? Man is interested in woman and takes her some place he doesn't really want to go but knows he should."
"Unlike last night, you mean?"
"Yeah, unlike last night."
Or the night Randy got shot. Or the day after.
"Listen, if you don't want to…"
"No, I didn't say that."
"If you have someone else you want to go out with or something."
"No, I mean," she shrugged. "What makes you think that?"
"Your calendar, it looks like you had plans last weekend."
"I did," she said.
"Not good plans?"
"They were all right."
"Well, I'd like to think I could do better than all right. What was wrong with him?"
"Nothing was wrong with him. He's a doctor, so has been busy. He's called a couple of times."
A doctor? He shook his head, glancing at the front yard. Maybe he was stupid for thinking she'd even want to go out with him. She'd married a politician.
"What? You're mad at me for going out on a date?"
"Mad? No," he said.
He had two options here the way he saw it. He could press the date later tonight issue or back off. There really was no other option. Backing off was probably the wisest thing to do. Backing off meant leaving her alone, though, very possibly for good while she found other guys she wanted to date. Like doctors. While his job wasn't as dangerous every day as a regular patrol officer it still came with risks. One day, he imagined, too, he'd maybe get tired of the wage and hours that came with being a K9 cop and branch out so he could earn the promotions he knew he'd have gotten already if he hadn't allowed himself to stay stagnant. K9 cop or not, those risks were things people like doctors didn't face. Certainly a doctor stood to be able to support her and kids in a way John couldn't even dream of.
Putting the cart before the horse thinking of supporting her and her kids, but he knew if he pushed for a date tonight he wasn't doing it out of any casual interest in her.
"Then what?" she asked.
"Nothing," he said. "I'm asking you out on a date for tonight. Is that too short a notice?"
"No," she said. "What did you have in mind?"
"I don't know. Dinner? You tell me."
"You're asking the wrong person."
"You just went on one last weekend."
"Yeah, my first one in over fifteen years."
"I suppose," he said. "What time are you done with work?"
"I should be done by five o'clock."
"Do you have a card so I can call you at work?"
He chuckled. "So I can tell you for sure what time I can take you to dinner. I'm supposed to go out with Randy later, remember?"
"I'd forgotten. If you can't."
"I didn't say that. I'm just not for sure what time I'm expected to be there."
"Okay. If it's something they know about in advance…"
"Well, the idea, of course, is to actually make some arrests so the man hours and pay for those man hours means something. Friday nights, pay day Friday nights at that, are good days to catch people where they're not supposed to be."
"Oh," she said.
He chuckled softly.
"Besides. Sometimes we have to wait for pesky things like warrants."
"I understand those things can be troublesome."
"They can. Going in without one is more troublesome, though."
She laughed softly at that and stood, going to the desk in the kitchen.
"Here," she said. "You can call anytime. If I'm busy leave a message and I'll call back."
"Sure," he said.
He stood then, taking his plate and hers to the sink.
"I can get that."
"I know you can. I'm fine," he said.
She joined him by the sink and took the plates from him after he'd rinsed them off, setting them in the dishwasher.
"Thanks," he said.
"Thank you. Thank you for breakfast."
"Am I still bringing you Chinese for lunch? Or is that your choice for dinner?"
"You want to bring me lunch and take me to dinner?"
"Unless you have a better offer."
"Not today I don't."
He slid his arm around her, setting the other against her cheek. "I'm not sure that's the answer I was going for."
"Well, next week after not seeing my kids for six weeks…"
"Oh, right. All right I'm not offended then."
"Were you really offended?"
He leaned down to kiss her then. He was more than a little surprised when she deepened the kiss, knowing she had to leave for work in a few minutes. There was very little excuse for someone who lived, literally, across the street to be late.
"That's how offended I was," he said, drawing away.
"Well, maybe I'm sorry you weren't real offended then."
"I'll work on it for next time."
"Do you mind letting the dogs in while I put the juice and stuff away?"
Huh, she'd changed the subject, but hadn't said there wouldn't be a next time. He expected her to say something about her not knowing when the next time was going to be or something. Nothing. He knew with her kids coming back it wouldn't be easy, but he also knew he didn't have to stay here if he came to see her.
"Sure," he said, walking to the door to do just that. "Why is my dog the only one who's coming into the house wet?"
"Because my dogs are used to the pool and don't jump into it every chance they get?"
"There should be some towels in the cabinet next to the door."
He opened the door of the cabinet she mentioned. "Any of these?" he asked. They looked like some pretty nice towels, certainly not ones he'd use to dry Randy off ordinarily.
"Yeah. They're fine."
"Okay," he said, setting about drying Randy off at least a little bit better than shaking the water off had done.
"I'll trade you," she said when he was done.
"Huh?" he asked.
"You can have this picture. I'll take the towel."
"Claire, I didn't mean I wanted yours."
"I know, but I can get another one. I don't know when that will be, but I know what he looks like so you can have this one."
"But what if he doesn't have any more of this pose?"
Claire shrugged. "None of them were bad or anything. I just liked that one. He reminded me of you a little in it," she said.
"All right," he said, taking it and handing her the towel. He regarded the picture a little more closely than he had earlier. Before breakfast he'd looked from the perspective of wanting to ask her for a copy. He'd known what Kyle looked like by then so he hadn't stared at it or anything. Now, though, he supposed he could see where she thought he reminded her of him.
"You just noticed that?"
"Yeah," he said.
"Chris begged him to cut his hair before the session. I was kind of glad he didn't do it."
"Why'd he do that?"
"It was just a phase he went through, a few months really, where he wore it longer than usual. I liked it, but I didn't say anything one way or the other. It wasn't my place to."
He pulled his wallet out of his pocket and slid the picture into one of the slots that pictures were supposed to go into. John had no pictures to go in there so he'd filled the slots with various business cards and things instead.
"So was that a yes to lunch?" he asked.
"Sure. I take lunch at noon."
"What will you do between now and then?"
"I'll probably go work on some paperwork for a while since I don't know for sure how long tonight's going to take us."
"So, I'll see you at noon then? Anything in particular you want?"
"Oh, I don't care. I always like beef with pea pods."
"I can arrange that. Egg rolls or anything?"
"Sure," she said.
He followed her to the garage then, walking to his car where he let Randy in before walking to her car on the driveway now. He leaned against the door when she put the window down.
"So, here's a question."
"Say we can have an early dinner but I have to leave for a while."
"Did one night settle your curiosity about spending one with someone or would you be open to Randy and me coming back here when we're done?"
"You'd want to?"
"If you'll have me, yeah."
"I don't know how late it'd be, so is there a cutoff?"
"When you bring me lunch I'll give you the code for the gate."
"You're a cop. What are you going to do with it? Break into my house?"
"Well, no, but you have the gate for a reason."
"I can give the code to whoever I want to."
"All right. I just don't want you to think that I was expecting that."
"I know you weren't. I'll write it down for you at lunch and I'll leave the side door unlocked if it gets to be past midnight." She pointed in the direction of the house so he guessed that's where the door she was talking about was. "It'll bring you to the laundry room off the kitchen."
"All right. I'll see you at noon then."
"I'll be there."
He leaned in to kiss her. "Thank you for the picture."
"Sure. Maybe tonight if you get here early enough I can show you other ones I have."
"If you'd like to see them I would, sure."
"I think I'd like that."
"My other niece and nephew will be in many of them."
"That's all right. I don't care. I'd just be curious to see what he was like, I guess."
"And as far as what you came over to my house for yesterday. I'm not going to go see him again."
"Thank you. For Christopher's sake. Thank you."
"You're welcome. I was just curious. The opportunity presented itself as a legitimate excuse to go to the house without it seeming obvious what I was doing."
"I get it. I do."
"Good. And tell Christopher I'm sorry if I upset him, that wasn't my intention."
"He knows, but I'll tell him."
"Thank you." He glanced at the clock on her radio and realized she had to go or she was going to be late. "Have a good morning then."
"I will I think."
He followed her out of the gate, wondering as she turned off to go to her practice and he kept going if anyone there would wonder who was leaving with her. It'd be fairly obvious where he was coming from.
Story ©Susan Falk/APCKRFAN/PhantomRoses.com