Claire watched for a second as the kids went to their rooms. Betsy and Bryce Jr. both loved their rooms here. Their dad had gone all out to be sure they had everything they could want. Claire thought it was too much, but they spent so little actual time here that she couldn't complain too much. They didn't know anyone else so the times they were down here for any length of time, like over Christmas break, they had to rely on themselves for the most part to be entertained.
What a difference a year made. Last Christmas she'd stayed here in part, yes, because it was easier and saved driving back and forth for both of them. That was her excuse, justifying what she was doing. She was afraid Bryce wouldn't be able to handle the kids by himself for a week. Since he was down here, he let her have the kids with the understanding she brought the kids over to his parents' house on Christmas Eve. That was easy enough to do. Awkward perhaps, but his parents didn't seem to dislike Claire.
After six weeks with him this summer, though, she no longer had doubts. She still worried about his drinking too much around them, but Bryce Jr. was smart enough not to let him drive them around when he'd been drinking. Would he be able to stop his dad from doing it? No, but he'd call Claire. She was confident of that because Bryce Jr. had expressed concern with his dad's drinking more than once since they'd been separated.
"They had a good Christmas?" Bryce asked.
"They did," she said. He wasn't drunk, which was a good thing. She wasn't sure if she'd have this conversation with him tonight or not. His mood was the key.
"And you took them to see my parents?"
"Yes, Bryce, we went last night before mass."
"Good. And you're not staying here?"
"No," she said.
"All right. You know it's fine. It's just one night, even if it wasn't one night. You're welcome to stay here anytime. Our not living together any longer was what you wanted not me if you recall."
"I know, but no, I can't."
"I'm seeing someone Bryce," she said, stiffening her shoulders a bit to prepare for his response. She had no idea which Bryce she was getting tonight. The Bryce she had first met she could talk to about anything, endlessly. It was why she'd agreed to marry him knowing the things about him she did. They were friends. Best friends, really. They saw movies together. They went to concerts together. They stayed up all night talking about things. He was very smart and coming from money as she was liked many of the same things she did. Somewhere along the line in the past fifteen years things had changed.
She wasn't sure where or when it happened, but eventually they stopped doing the things they'd done. Theatre. Symphony. Ballet. She found herself taking the kids instead who didn't have near as much fun. And taking a child to an opera? Forget it.
After the doing things fell to the wayside the talking went, too. Oh, they still had dinner as a family and things like that, but it'd been different for a very long time. Deep down if she wanted to be honest with herself she should never have had Betsy. She'd so badly wanted a girl, though. Not that she'd tell anyone else that.
It was sort of fitting that her last one was the girl she'd wanted. Bookends, she supposed. The child she couldn't have and then last the child she longed for all of those years of changing diapers, wiping runny noses, and kissing scraped knees.
Bryce had gotten a little power hungry. Not in a bad way, but she'd known for a long time he was going to run for the US senator seat one day soon. Everything he'd done for the past six or seven years had been with that in mind. Everything. Including Betsy. She'd never tell their daughter that and Bryce loved her as much as he loved Bryce Jr. There was no question of that.
She imagined part of it was her fault. She'd put everything she had into the kids. Running her own business allowed her to keep the hours she wanted to keep. She hadn't had a choice, though. Their kids had to be above reproach when they were seen away from their house. Time to do some of the more fun things they did in the beginning like ski or take a last minute weekend trip somewhere just for the heck of it disappeared.
"Okay. I'm surprised I guess. I mean, when do you have time exactly but I imagine you make time when you can. Surely he realizes I exist," he said.
"And he has a problem with you staying here tonight? What kind of guy are you involved with?"
"No, that's not it at all. I'm choosing not to stay here. He's actually meeting me down here. The kids don't know he's here because I needed to talk to you first before they knew I was spending a night alone with him."
"How do they not know he's here?"
"He took a bus down."
"Yes. He has a dog that he brought with him."
"That's not important and not the point. The point is. He's probably going to be moving in," she said.
"I'm sorry. What?"
"You heard me. I've asked him to move in."
"You can't challenge me on this, Bryce. I mean you can, but you know that wouldn't turn out well for you."
"Are you threatening me? Is that what we've come to? Threats? What have I done to deserve that? You got everything you asked for, before and after the divorce mind you. I never broke our agreement."
"No! I know I did. I'm not here to argue about why we got divorced. You know why. We changed. I changed. I wanted more. I have a chance at that so I'm telling you what's happening."
"You always said you'd never do that."
"I always said I'd never get divorced, too," she said with a shrug. "Things change. Ideals change. I love him, but I'm not ready to get married again. I'm honestly not sure I ever want to get married again."
"And moving in with you and our kids is the only answer?"
"That I can come up with, yes. I just said I'm not sure I ever want to get married again. I don't want to live alone for the rest of my life either. I hate when he leaves at night. I never really knew what I was missing until now. I have it, I don't want to lose it."
"Has he been staying there when they're home?"
"No, well, he did the night before Thanksgiving, but that was because he was coming with us to Mom and Dad's house."
"Oh," he said.
He'd gotten along decently with her parents, but they'd never really liked him. They'd sensed, she imagined, something was wrong all along. Her mother had tried, several times, to get Claire to postpone the wedding. Before the engagement announcement had been posted, of course. Once that happened. Well, there was no turning back for the Mercers or the Standishes.
"That's pretty fast. How did you meet him?"
"I knew him in school."
"And you're dating him now?"
"You're lucky I know you well enough to not think you've been cheating on me this entire time."
"I wouldn't do that!"
He scoffed at that. "Believe it or not, I know that."
That had been part of their deal. No infidelity, on either of their parts. She had less to worry about than he did she supposed. Her life and career wouldn't be ruined if she got caught having an affair with another man. His, on the other hand, very likely would be. His father would disown him in a heartbeat. Claire knew this as well as Bryce did. It was why he'd approached her with the deal to begin with. He'd never gotten along with a woman before her well enough to think he'd ever meet one he could actually live with.
"That still leaves me wondering how and where you met him."
"I went to school with him. We ran in to one another this summer."
"Do I know him?"
"Not U of I, Shermer High. I don't think so. His name's John Bender."
"Is he related to Eddie? I suppose Ed now."
"Who?" Claire asked with a frown.
"I went to school with an Eddie Bender. He was a year or two ahead of me, but I grew up with him. I just wondered if they were related."
"I have no idea," Claire said with a frown. Did John have a brother? Christopher had never mentioned knowing an Eddie Bender before. Then Chris and Claire didn't really sit around talking about John very frequently and when she had talked to him it was years ago. There were more important things to worry about. Bryce was also two years older than Christopher, which would put Eddie four years ahead of Christopher. They could have been in elementary school together, but she wouldn't blame Chris for not remembering someone from back then.
Well, and to say Chris hadn't been thinking of things like who he'd gone to high school with was an understatement.
"You're moving a guy in to my house, with my kids, and you don't even known if he has an older brother?"
"It's not your house! No one in your family had set foot in it until we got married and that was only because I wanted to live there. It'd still be collecting dust, on its way to becoming part of Shermer's Historical structures."
"It still is," he said. Of course it was. She knew that. She and Bryce agreed on that aspect of things at least. They took impeccable care of the house and ensured that it was as close to what it had been when first built. Modernization had to be added, of course. Things like light fixtures, outlets, and the like. Overall, though, much of it was the same as it had been when his grandparents lived there. It was why the old house still stood, no one could bring themselves to allow it to get demolished. Bryce and Claire had spent a lot of time and energy fixing it up before they could build the house she lived in now.
"And you don't find it a little strange that you're in a position to potentially be marrying your nephew's real father?"
"I'm sorry. What?"
"Oh. Jesus. You didn't think I knew?"
"You can deny it all you want. I know. I've known all along. I knew the moment Chris and Ellen adopted him. Well, maybe not the moment, but it didn't take long to figure it out. I knew you hadn't had a boyfriend your freshman year, but everyone thought you had because that's where you'd spent Thanksgiving and Christmas. I think your parents assumed it was me and we were with my parents. I, by the way, never once in all of these years corrected that misunderstanding."
He shrugged. "You're asking me why I'd understand why you wanted to hide something?"
"Well, no, I suppose not."
"You don't think that's at all weird, though? Kyle's going to figure it out."
"He already knows. And I don't know how weird it is. How weird is it the way Bryce and Betsy came to be here."
He sighed softly. "You don't need to bring that up tonight."
"I'm not trying to. You're asking me if it's weird! What's not weird about my entire life?"
"I suppose you have a point. And your parents? You don't think they'll figure it out?"
"I don't know. They're Mom and Dad. They'll see what they want to see. You know? Would they suspect John's Kyle's father? Maybe, but I doubt they'd make the leap that I am his mother."
"Rightfully so. They know you well enough to know you didn't do that."
"You mean, you've known? You never said anything."
He shrugged. "I figured you'd tell me if you wanted to. We, at the beginning there, shared everything. You never shared that with me. I don't know if Kyle looks like John, but I do know that Kyle looks like Eddie."
"That doesn't mean!"
"I remember you talking about him once," he shrugged. "You probably don't remember. We were kind of stoned and you were rambling about all sorts of stuff. I thought for sure that night you'd tell me. I knew when you mentioned him he was Kyle's dad."
"Because he's the only guy you've ever talked about."
"Oh," she said. "And you don't hate me?"
He scoffed. "For what? Making a mistake? Getting pregnant? Asking your brother to do that? What?"
"I don't know. All of it."
"Again, look who you're talking to. We may not be married anymore, but you did me a huge favor. You helped get me here. You helped me get on that Senator's ticket, too. I know that. Did I wish you told me? Sure, but I can understand why you wouldn't. That had to be pretty hard, giving him up but seeing him."
"It has been."
"I bet. And that's why I never said anything. I figured maybe one day when he was grown and gone," he shrugged. "I assumed we'd still be married."
"You're not, but that's okay. I understand. Things got different."
He stepped closer to her, setting his hands against her shoulders.
"I know I haven't said it in a very long time, but I do love you."
"I know," she whispered. "I love you, too."
"Does he love you?"
"In the way he's supposed to?"
The way he couldn't he meant. "Yes."
"Well, then, I guess that's good. I still don't like him moving in, Claire. They're my kids, too."
"I know. He's a good man, really."
"I'm going to have a background check run on him."
She scoffed at that. "He's a cop, Bryce. What kind of background check do you think you'd run that Shermer PD hasn't already run on him?"
"Oh. A cop? Really," he asked with a frown.
"Yes. You know, one of the men who protects and enforces the laws you're here to pass and uphold."
"Then he must not be related to Eddie. I didn't think there was more than one family in town with that name, though. "
"I told you, I don't know."
"Do I get to meet him?"
"Sometime, I'm sure. Not tonight. I just wanted you to know."
"When is this happening?"
"I'm not sure yet. He's figuring out what to do with his house. I wanted to tell you before he actually stayed at the house when the kids were there."
"I appreciate that. And you're sure you want a cop, Claire? You deserve…"
"To be happy. To be loved. To have someone who loves me for me. Because he actually loves me not because I help his career or standing in the community. To, God, have sex."
"Yes, well, all of those things, too. I was going to say safe from further heartache. If something happens to him…"
"I realize that."
"I swear to God, Claire. If he hurts the kids."
"Bryce! He's not going to."
"Yeah, well, if he's related to who I think he is, you watch him."
"He's not going to hurt the kids. He'd never do that."
"I'm just saying."
"I know, and I understand. I feel the same way. You realize that, right?"
"All right. I'm going to say good bye to them. You'll have them back next Saturday or Sunday?"
"Probably Sunday, but if I decide to bring them back Saturday I'll let you know."
"Sure. Be careful, Claire."
"Even with me. You were entirely too nice and too trusting. Don't get taken advantage of."
"So, he knows knows huh," John said, arm under her. She'd gotten to the hotel they were staying at after saying good night to the kids and almost immediately crawled into bed with him. Her conversation with Bryce had left her feeling kind of raw and needy. Betsy was the only one who seemed affected by the fact their mother wasn't staying there. Hopefully, only being a little over a week this time there'd be no tearful phone calls begging her to let Betsy come home.
It hadn't taken them long to end up naked after she'd crawled into bed with him. It'd been a busy week leading up to Christmas for both of them. John had the weekend off, but he paid for that by working the weeks' worth of hours Sunday through Wednesday. So while he'd been to the house every night sex between them hadn't happened since over the weekend.
She loved this. These moments after sex, naked in bed with him when they talked. She'd never had this. Ever in her life and she loved it more than she'd probably care to admit to him.
"He does," she said, running a fingertip over the area on his side where she'd stitched him up. She had to admit she did exceptional work considering he was her first human patient.
"And you told him you still love him?"
"Well, yes, he said it first. Just not in that way. I told you because I don't want him meeting you and telling you I said that or something as a way to be a jerk. I mean, we were married. I've spent years with him. I did love him. I wasn't in love with him, but I loved him. Does that make sense?"
"No," he said. "Not really."
He was quiet, maybe even a little pensive as he thought on that. Had he ever had anyone to love in any way? She wondered.
"Are you related to someone named Ed or Eddie?"
"He's my older brother. Why?"
"Bryce asked me if he was your brother."
"Oh," John said, nodding a bit at that. "I suppose Bryce knew him growing up, sure. He's seven years older than us, so was a year or two ahead of him?"
"And you never mentioned him?"
"Nope. I have another brother and a sister, too. Christopher probably knows her, whether he's ever told you that."
"Yes. I don't think they knew what birth control was."
He shrugged. "What do you want me to say? Not all of them are like my old man. Eddie's worse than my old man, though. He was a violent prick even when we were kids. He's in prison now, last I heard."
John scoffed. "What not for would be the better question. Assault, battery, drugs. I think there were some domestic violence charges in there, too. Oh, and a few DWIs."
"Don't they lose their license?"
"Sure, but that doesn't stop morons from getting being the wheel without a license."
"I suppose not. I had no idea."
"I see it all of the time."
"And the other brother? Your sister?"
"Tom was ten years older than me. I never really knew him. He left the house as soon as he turned eighteen and I don't know that I've seen him since. Kim," he shrugged. "She's six years older than us and married someone as wonderful as our old man. She's living an almost mirror image of my childhood just as the mother of the kid in question."
"You can't take them away?"
"Nothing physical so not a whole lot I can do. Plus they don't live in Shermer."
"Oh," she said.
"You volunteering to take my niece and nephew in?"
She scoffed. "I think my family would think I'm absolutely insane, but if you really thought they were in danger…"
"Nah. Besides they don't know me from Adam. I have a guy I'm sort of friends with who's on the force in their town. I've helped them out a few times, with Cooper mostly. He's kept an eye out for me."
"That's nice you're worried."
"Yeah, well, no reports of anything and I know he's asked teachers over the years."
"I'm glad you're concerned."
"If I had an inkling anything physical was going on, yeah, I'd do it."
"And that's why I love you."
"Mm, my kind heart?" He scoffed. "Yeah, that's exactly how I got your attention."
"How old is your dad?"
"Now?" John grew quiet. "I haven't thought on that in a long time. They've got to be pushing eighty by now. I think he was twenty-two when they had my older brother, she was twenty-five."
"Why didn't I know that?"
"It never came up? I dread talking about my parents."
"I'm sorry I made you think of it."
"That's all right. I didn't realize Bryce would know him, but I suppose they went to grade school together. He was always a dick, though. Eddie, I mean. Mean. Those stereotypes they tell you to look for as far as evidence someone's going to become a serial killer. He exhibited them all."
"He's killed people?"
"Not that I know of, but that doesn't mean he hasn't and just hasn't been caught. He would torture anything he could get his hands on. Mice. He found this raccoon once…"
"I don't want to hear about it," she said, tucking her head against his shoulder.
"Good, because I really don't want to think on it."
"Do you ever see them?"
"I don't, no. I try to avoid anyone with the last name of Bender as best as I can. I do have an aunt, she has a couple of kids who are two years younger and three years older than us. I see them once in a while, but not like regularly or anything."
"Well, at least you have someone."
He turned to face her then, skimming her hip with his hand. "I have someone way better than an aunt now."
"I know it."
"She's very humble, too."
Claire giggled softly, kissing him before pressing against him. "Very humble."
"You can be as humble as you want if you keep doing that."
"You like that," she said, reaching for him with her hand.
"Very much so."
"Does that mean you're going to move in now?"
"Now? Well, you've told the ex that's a start. I just need to figure out the house bit. I'm eighteen months from paying it off completely and owning it free and clear."
He groaned softly. "Are you sure you want to be talking about this now?"
"We have all night! And all morning!"
"Fair enough. Well, I was thinking, maybe I could keep it. Rent it out for a couple of years until it's paid off and then decide what to do with it. Owning it free and clear, I could keep renting it out for some extra income."
"I know you don't need extra income, Princess. I, however, am a cop earning a cop's salary. Extra income would be nice."
"So, I'm weighing my options. I do think I'm going to see about renting it out, but I'm just thinking it over before I decide."
"I can bring the important stuff over this week while the kids are gone."
"Yeah, you know, razor, toothbrush, clothes, Randy."
"I love the sound of all of those things being at my house."
"He's not a pet."
"I know, doesn't mean I don't love him."
"Glad to hear it as that'd be a deal-breaker I think."
"I know," she whispered, reaching to kiss him before moving to straddle him.
"You sure you want the kids coming home to that?"
"Yes," she said as she took him inside of her.
"It's not just your mood talking, is it?"
"All right," he said. "Shutting up now." He leaned up then, taking a breast into his mouth.
"I love your idea of shutting up."
He chuckled softly but didn't say anything else.
Story ©Susan Falk/APCKRFAN/PhantomRoses.com