***Chapter Fourteen***
Word Count: 4,724

November 2003

"I can't believe you're dating him, Claire," Brian said. John hadn't come up until Brian had commented on Claire having cold beer in her fridge. She and Bryce weren't beer drinkers. She kept some at the house, but never kept more than a can or two cold until John started spending time there. Brian knew her habits well enough to know that it was unusual.

"I didn't plan on it happening!"

"I know, but it's just so ironic, isn't it?"

"I guess," she shrugged, taking a sip of her wine. She wasn't sure ironic was how she'd describe the fact that John was her boyfriend. She hated that term, didn't really call him that to his face or describe him as that when she spoke of him. Facts were facts, though. He was her boyfriend. She just felt incredibly too old for things like boyfriends.

John had to work tonight so she'd taken the opportunity to invite Brian and his family over for dinner. Brian and Connie were cooking tomorrow where Claire was not, so she didn't mind cooking tonight and knew it was the last thing they wanted to do. Jenny was playing with her kids and Connie had been an active participant in their adult conversation until the topic of John was brought up. Connie didn't know John, only what she'd heard from Brian and Claire over the years. To say she wasn't a member of the John Bender Fan Club was an understatement.

"Does Bryce know?" Connie asked.

"He knows I'm seeing someone, yes."

"Has he said anything," she asked.

"What can he say? He knows it, too. I think Betsy likes John well enough that anything negative Bryce Jr. says comes off as exactly what it is. A teenaged boy who doesn't want his mom and dad to be divorced. Bryce can't really say anything because my dating John won't hurt my career."

"Right," Connie said.

Claire had scarily taken to being a relationship so quickly a lot better than she thought she would. She'd tried to avoid it, even going so far as wanting to use Bryce Jr. as an excuse. Yet, John wouldn't give up. She tried, too, after their weekend downtown. It just seemed so fast, weekends away and him at her house just about every night. The only nights he didn't come over were the ones like tonight where he had to work. He was going to come over later since tomorrow was a holiday, but she had no idea what time that was going to be. She left the side door open for him again as she'd done in the past.

Big difference, though. She'd never done it when the kids were home. She wanted to feel guilty. She wanted to feel bad, but she just couldn't find it in her anymore to feel that way. They'd been seeing one another for months now. If she was having a different guy over every night or something then she'd feel bad, but she'd been very careful to this point. He was spending the day with them tomorrow so it just didn't make sense for him to do anything but come here.


"I am nervous about tomorrow," she admitted.

"Is he?" Brian asked.

"He hasn't said, but he kind of has to be, too."

"Well, he's still in the picture so he must not be too scared."

"I guess we'll see if he shows up tonight after all."

They were having dinner at her parents' house tomorrow with pretty much her entire family. An aunt and uncle weren't able to make it, but everyone else was going to be there. John hadn't complained once about it, though she knew he'd rather it just be her and her kids.

Bryce would pick the kids up at her parents' house at around seven o'clock and have them for the weekend. He'd be heading down to Springfield the week after next, so their every other weekends would draw to a halt. That would be an adjustment for John, he'd gotten used to spending those weekends here at her house. (She'd gotten kind of used to it, too.)

Brian wasn't a wine drinker, but Connie liked it so between the two of them a couple of bottles were done away with before they left. Claire probably drank the bulk of it, but she didn't have to drive home. She'd forgotten what it was like to sit around with her friends and have some wine like this. As Bryce's drinking got worse and worse she found herself trying to make up for it and be normal for their kids by drinking less and less.

He showed up about an hour after she'd gotten ready for bed. She wasn't cooking, but she told her mom she'd bring a couple of pies so she'd gotten them ready so all she had to do was bake them in the morning. She had to worry about Betsy eating them unbaked, but Bryce Jr. would keep an eye on her if she wasn't in the kitchen.

"I swear your dogs are starting to count on me to let them out one last time for the night."

"Because you do it."

"Well, yeah," he said, standing near her bed. She'd started reading, but hadn't lasted too long because she'd been asleep when he came into the room.

"Where are they now?"

"Rosencrantz is in Betsy's room. Guildenstern is in Bryce's room."

"Thank you," she whispered.

"Sure," he said.

"How was your night?"

"Well, to be honest, it pretty well sucked, but it was a night. I'm here so I guess I can't complain."

"What happened?"

"Not worth talking about," he said, drawing his shirt off. She noticed he hesitated only because he was never slow about taking his clothes off when they were in a bedroom anymore.


"It's nothing. I'm going to use your shower real quick, though. Okay?"

"John! You're hurt!"

"It's fine. I think it's stopped bleeding by now. I just don't want to get your bedding stained."

She eyed the wound on his side and didn't think it appeared as though it'd stopped bleeding.

"Why didn't you go to a doctor?"

"Don't need one. It'll be fine."

"John," she said. "That is not fine. If nothing else you need some antibiotics so it doesn't get infected."

"I'll get them if it looks like that's happening."

She stood from the bed then, following him into the bathroom.

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

"You are not! It's still bleeding!"

"Well, I was going to have you put a bandage on it after I showered so it's clean."

"You need stitches! It's pretty deep. Were you stabbed?"

"Yeah," he said, not sounding happy about admitting that.

"How did they get that close to you?"

"I didn't realize he had a weapon. He had it tucked away in his hair."

"His hair?"

"Yeah, it was like a thing holding his hair back."

"John, I really think you should let me take you to the hospital and get stitches."

"You can do it."


"You've got the equipment. You stitched Randy up just fine."

"He's a dog!"


"He was unconscious."

"Yeah, I won't let you do that to me, but go get your stuff and do it if you're so adamant about me getting them."

"John! I'm not a doctor."

"You're a vet. That's a doctor, you can't tell me there's a whole lot of difference between giving me stitches and a dog. I've seen Randy's leg. I've examined it very closely, it looks great."

"That was from a bullet."

"Claire, that's your option. Either get your stuff or let me get in the shower and get a bandage. I'm not going to a hospital."

"You are so stubborn!"

"That's me."

"I don't get it, especially if you can admit it needs stitches."

"If I go to the ER they'll want to give me something to numb the pain."


"I can't do that, Claire. Years I've been clean. You know? Haven't touched anything since I decided to become a cop."


He shrugged. "I don't do pain killers. I've worked too hard to go to the hospital now. Can we just leave it at that?"

"Just tell them!"

"They don't know! I've never told anyone I had a problem back then. Get it? I don't want to admit that."

"Years later?"

"Yeah, years later, when I participate in drug busts. Sure."

"Oh," she said.

"Yeah, I see you thinking that one through. You're realizing they'd wonder why I never told them and any missing product the past fifteen years would come back to haunt me."

"Get in the shower. I'll be back."

He chuckled softly and she shook her head. She couldn't believe she was even thinking of doing this, but it was deep enough that she didn't think she had a choice if he wasn't going to get the help he needed.

"What's the matter, Princess? You squeamish all of the sudden?"

"I've never done this!"

"Well, I'm not going to sue you or anything. Just do it."

"Ow," he said suddenly.


"No, I was expecting the needle. I wasn't expecting it to burn me."

"I had to sterilize it."

"Are you fucking kidding me? You think I'm worried about a sterilized needle in your house?"

"Shut up," she said. He chuckled a bit at that, watching her as she worked. That surprised her he could tell. He was far from squeamish so looking didn't bother him.

"You can't go any faster?"

"I'm trying to make the sutures as small as I can."

"Just fucking do it and get it done with. I'm not competing in the next Mr. GQ contest so I'm not concerned about a big scar versus a smaller scar."

She huffed, but set about closing it faster than she had been.

"Thank you," she said when she was done and cleaning up the sink area.

"You're thanking me?"

She shrugged. "It needed stitches. I understand why you don't want to go in. You should've told me that from the beginning."

He sighed, stepping toward her and cupping her cheek with his hand. "I don't like admitting that stuff to you. Don't you get that?"

"Why not?"

He shrugged. "You married a guy you found out at some point was not into women. I don't want you to look at me and see something like that as a handicap."

"John! That is not at all the same thing!"

"It's still a weakness," he said.

"It is not!"

He leaned closer to her. "I'm very lucky you're not an illegal substance."

"Why?" she asked breathlessly and he chuckled softly before kissing her.

"Because I'd be in a heap of trouble and off the wagon for good if you were," he whispered before finding her neck.

"Yeah?" she asked.

"Uh huh," he muttered, grazing her collarbone with his lips before lifting her top off. "You don't need this." He dropped it to the floor before reaching for the waistband of her bottoms. No full-blown pants tonight, just shorts. Her room felt a little warmer tonight than usual so maybe she had the heat turned up higher than usual. Then he'd never been here at one o'clock in the morning having just been stabbed and getting out of the shower before when she'd had the heat on. Maybe this warm was normal for her at night. She did have kids to worry about getting sick.

Or she'd worn them with him in mind, which was a far more appealing – and satisfying – thought as he let them fall to the floor, too and found her hips to tug her flush against him so he could kiss her better. He cupped her ass, groaning softly as he slid a fingertip between her cheeks and lower between her legs.

"I did not stitch you up to have you rip them out by holding on to me like you'd have to right now," she whispered as he leaned down to capture a breast in his mouth. He loved her breasts. They'd been nice in high school, and he had no idea if it was the kids she'd had or what but he thought they were pretty fucking fantastic now.

"That's why you're going to turn around," he whispered. "In a minute," he added as he dropped to his knees. He slid his hands behind her, cupping her ass as he darted his tongue along her nub and lower lips before finding her opening. She was trying very hard to be quiet right now. The kids' rooms weren't right next door to this one or anything, the house wasn't designed that way. Still, though, he knew she worried and probably especially being up here.

He'd been surprised as hell when she'd invited him to stay the night tonight. He figured he'd meet her at her parents' house, or come here in the morning before heading over there. He hadn't argued or questioned it when she offered, saying yes immediately. Any night here with her was a step-up as far as he was concerned.

"Now," he whispered as he drew away after placing one kiss over her belly button.

She did as he asked, turning away from him so he could guide himself into her without much exertion on his part. He wasn't as attentive to her breasts as he normally liked being, but he felt it tug when he tried to do that so he'd settled instead for using his fingers over her nub to aid her in finishing.

He rubbed his cheek against her shoulder when they'd both finished.

"I, uh, left you a mark. Sorry," he said, realizing there'd be more than a light hickey there tomorrow.

"Is it going to show?"

"Uh, well, I guess that depends on what you're wearing tomorrow. It's right here," he said, kissing the mark.

"Then it'll be fine."


"It's okay."

"Yeah, well," he murmured. "It's Thanksgiving and all."

"John. If you'd left me one the size of Texas in the middle of my neck I'd be mad. If it was summer and I was wearing a bathing suit I'd be irritated maybe."

He chuckled softly. "Maybe?"

She shrugged. "I'm not sure if I want Bryce, either of them, to see me with a hickey right now."

"I understand."

She turned then, kissing him and running a hand along his side until she met with the bandage. "It didn't seep through."

"I know," he said. "I was very careful."

"You were not!"

"I was, too! You have no idea how much restraint I had to show."

"I sort of do. I know what you usually feel like behind me."

He chuckled a bit at that. "Not just that way! Even touching you."

"Well, come to bed and fix it."

"Yeah? You were just worried I was going to undo your handiwork."

"Well, obviously I stitch up humans better than I thought if they didn't come out already."


She stooped to pick up the towel on the floor that had been around his waist until a few minutes ago.

"I can do that."

"I know you can," she said. "Get in bed. I'll be right there."

"Yes, ma'am," he said. "I am sleeping in here tonight, right?"

"Yes, why?"

"I don't know. I wondered if you weren't going to delegate me to that room," he said, gesturing to Bryce's bedroom.

"No, not tonight. Unless you wanted to…"

"No, never would I want to do that."

"You're sure?"

"I hope you're teasing me."

"I am," she said, but he wasn't altogether sure it was said totally teasing.


Thanksgiving wasn't bad except for the fact that Kyle was strangely absent. Evidently, he went to his girlfriend's house for dinner and they would come to Claire's parents' house whenever they finished there. John had sort of been looking forward to seeing him more than he would admit even to Claire.

It was around seven o'clock when they arrived. He didn't say much to any of the adults, even his parents before going down to the basement where his cousins were. He hadn't seemed surprised to see John was there with Claire, but he hadn't seemed thrilled about it either. It was around ten when they went downstairs to collect Claire's kids. Bryce had called before dinner saying he'd pick them up around ten o'clock. Claire said it was so they'd have extra time with their grandparents, but John wondered if there wasn't another reason for the delay.

John had to work in the morning and try to deny it as he might his side was pretty fucking sore. He'd taken some ibuprofen earlier that Claire had offered him, but he knew it didn't have anywhere near the same effect the good stuff would have at numbing him.

Kyle was watching them both pretty intently as Claire got Betsy ready, ensuring she had everything with her that she'd come with. Or leaving with things that didn't belong to her. Evidently she'd gone home with a toy of DeeAnna's before. She claimed it was an accident, but Claire hadn't thought it was.

Kyle was just in a T-shirt now where when he'd first gotten here he had a dress shirt on. The suit jacket and dress shirt he'd been wearing were draped over a chair by the bar John noticed. He also noticed that Claire wasn't the only one with a hickey, only Kyle's was actually visible. He wondered what his parents' thought of that.

Then he tried to imagine how he'd react if he was the parent who had the right to have a thought about such a thing. He had no idea what he'd think or do if his son showed up on Thanksgiving at his grandparents with a hickey. It wasn't huge and it hadn't been visible with his button-up shirt on.

"You know he's seeing someone else, right?" Kyle said, bringing John out of his thoughts. Probably good, too, because he really had no idea what he'd think or do. He had a hard time picturing what his life would be like if Kyle had been in it all along. Different was the only conclusion he'd come to and probably not so good.

"Kyle," Bryce said. "Shut up."

"No, I'm not going to shut up. You don't like him anyway. I told you about her before I left for school, assuming you'd tell your mom."

"Kyle, what are you talking about," Claire asked. John was sort of curious, too.

"I heard him making plans for a weekend with someone else while he was seeing you before I went back to school."

"Kyle, that was someone taking Randy for a weekend," John clarified.

"Someone who I saw you holding her hand, too."

"John?" Claire asked.

"I have no idea what he's talking about. I've never held her hand in my life. I certainly wouldn't have been stupid enough to do it at work."

"It sure looked like it to me, until you saw me and then you moved your hand right away."

John shook his head, he remembered now. "Yeah, all right, I sort of remember that. She was talking to me about Randy and she touched me. I drew my hand away right away because I was seeing your aunt and realized sooner or later you'd know that."

Kyle scoffed at that.

"You were seeing someone you worked with?" Claire asked him.

"No! I never went out with her! Ever. You want her phone number to call her and ask? Though if she finds out I'm seeing you and you're the reason she dog sat for Randy she probably won't do it again."

"Why not?"

"Because she's into me."


"What?" he asked. "I didn't say I returned the feelings, but she loves Randy so she was the first person I thought of when you agreed to go downtown with me that weekend."

"A woman who likes you?"

"Yes," he said.

"Who doesn't know you're seeing someone?"

"No. I don't broadcast my personal life at work, Claire. Your techs know me only because I bring you lunch once in a while."

"What if I wanted to come have lunch with you?"

"Well, then I guess we'd cross that bridge when we got to it. You've never asked and it's not exactly on your way."

"I know," she said.

"How did this get turned into me being to blame somehow?"

"Kyle," she said.

"Don't," he said softly. "Just don't even 'Kyle' me as if you don't know that I know."

"Know what?"

"Claire," John said cautiously. He'd never told her about his last conversation with Kyle. He hadn't thought there was a reason to. He thought, apparently incorrectly, they were okay. He hadn't outright admitted anything, but he thought they both knew where they stood as far as what the truth was and where they fit into it.


"Come on, let's just get the kids upstairs. Their dad's due here any minute. We can talk about this later."

"Kyle," Anne Marie said. "Come on. Don't be a jerk tonight. It's Thanksgiving."

"I know, Babe, I'm sorry," he said. "It's just so messed up."

Bryce Jr. didn't appear to have any idea what Kyle was upset about, so that was good. That, to John anyway, meant he hadn't divulged things to his cousin he had no business revealing, upset at Claire and him or not.

"Am I really in trouble for leaving Randy with Toni?"

"I don't know, I guess it would've been nice to know. What if I had to call you at work or something?"

"Uh, I have a cell phone and if you had to call me at work, I'm not sure what that has to do with anything."

"I don't know. She likes you."

"Oh my God. Are you kidding me? Should we compare notes on other parties interested? You were slipped a phone number at the grocery store last week."

"I told you about it!"

"And the guy with the rabbit who brings him in more frequently than necessary?"

"I've never gone out with him!"

"You think that makes me feel better about it? He still knows you're single."

"Well, why not?"

He shook his head and walked to the other side of the room.

"Come on, guys, go with your mom," he said. "You, too, Bryce. It's almost ten o'clock and you don't want to keep your dad waiting." He on the other hand had no desire to be upstairs when Bryce came to pick up the kids. He hadn't met him yet and had no plans on changing that anytime soon. Certainly not on Thanksgiving at Claire's parents' house.

"Come on, Dee," Anne Marie said, offering her hand to Kyle's younger sister. "You can show me where the pumpkin pie is your grandma told me about so I can get a piece for Kyle and me."

"It's yummy!" DeeAnna said and John couldn't help but chuckle. It was pretty good pie. It didn't taste that different than other pumpkin pie he had over the years, but he hadn't had much to really offer a true comparison.

"Do you think your parents would be happy with the way you just talked to Claire?"

"You don't get to lecture me."

"I realize that completely. However, I'm standing here talking to you because I heard it, they didn't. Which is why I asked if you thought your parents would like that, because I'm pretty sure they wouldn't. I'm not a parent, so I'm no expert. What you said just hurt her. Is that what you want? She deserves better than that, no matter what you may think you know or want to believe about her, me, or anything. Don't make me regret answering your questions."

"Answering them! You didn't answer them. You lied to me!"

"I did no such thing. I may have stretched or exaggerated the truth a bit, but I absolutely did not say anything untrue."

"You said you weren't…"

"No, I didn't actually say that at all. I was very careful, I knew I was seeing your aunt and you were obviously curious enough to come talk to me. I didn't think that was the only time I was going to run into you. So I was sure to answer the questions the way they should have been answered without lying."

"You don't think it's just a bit bizarre."

"Yup, I do, but I meant what I told you the last time I saw you. I was pretty sure I loved Claire nineteen years ago. I wasn't in a position to do anything about it then."

"Because you…"

"Don't. Don't even finish the sentence. You don't know what you think you know. Anything you say right now is going to be because you're mad, and I get it. I do. Claire may not. She didn't do anything to hurt you."

"Lying to me for eighteen years isn't hurtful?"

He shrugged. "You don't think it's hurt her? Really? Honestly? You don't think so? I mean, if you really think that way then you don't know her. I hadn't seen her since high school until this summer, but even I know she wouldn't hurt anyone if she could help it."

"So, I'm just supposed to pretend I don't know?"

"I guess that's up to you, but I think talking to her at some point when you're not mad and not starting off the conversation with accusations against me might be a better way of going about things. And probably when it's just you two. Don't be a dick in front of her kids."

"The ones she wanted you mean?"

"Did it ever occur to you that maybe she wanted them so badly because she couldn't have you?"

He shrugged.

"I haven't told her so she has no idea."

"Why not?"

John shrugged and took a seat next to him on the couch. "Don't know. Figured if you wanted to talk to her you would or maybe that settled your curiosity enough."


"I'm going to go on upstairs now, but I'm not seeing anyone else. I wouldn't do that to her."

More silence.


"What are you going to tell her?"

"I guess I'll tell her the truth."

He stood then. "Don't forget to put your other shirt back on."

"Huh?" he asked.

John chuckled softly, and pointed at the spot on his own neck that mirrored the one on Kyle's where the hickey was. "I doubt your parents would like seeing that."

"Oh, no," he said.

"Things okay there then?"

"Uh yeah," he shrugged.

DeeAnna came down the stairs then with two forks, Anne Marie followed with two plates of pie.

"It was nice to meet you, Anne Marie."

"You, too," she said, and sounded almost as if she meant it.

"Night, DeeAnna."

"Night, John. I missed Randy."

"Yeah, me, too. Maybe your brother can bring you by to see him tomorrow or Saturday. I work both days."

"Would you Kyle?"

"Maybe," he said.

He walked up the stairs then, figuring it was probably a good idea to leave after a 'maybe'.

Claire and the kids were just about ready to go by the time he got upstairs. Claire looked at him strangely and he shrugged. Chris didn't seem to realize he'd been in the basement with Kyle alone for a while. Probably good, too, that he didn't.

"Bryce, you want to come start the car for me while your mom finishes getting Betsy ready?"

"Sure," he said.

"John," Claire said.

"I'm just going to let him turn it over. I'm not going to let him drive it."


"Be careful. I know. I get it. You do remember I'm a cop, right? Not breaking the law is sort of part of my job description."

She laughed then. "No, I didn't forget."

He leaned in, kissing her.

"What was that for?"

"Just because I can and wanted to."

"Oh, well, thank you."

"Thank you."

"We'll have the car warmed when you are ready and Bryce gets here."

"Thank you."

"Sure," he said. She had to know he didn't want to be in a position to have to meet Bryce. She let him get away with it, though, and for that he was grateful.

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